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Why You Need a Ped.D

Mention “teacher training” to the typical college professor and his eyebrow will raise like the wing of a raptor. Talons may follow.

College professors are experts in various disciplines—political science, mathematics, the biology of anthropology, the history of technology, and other disciplines from arcane to pedestrian. Teaching ability is universally presumed to accompany expertise in a discipline. Call it pedagogy by osmosis.

In my prior role as a college provost, I interviewed dozens of eager experts, newly-minted doctorates in tow, looking for a first gig as a college professor. Because the college that I helped found is best known as a world leader in serving students with learning differences, every single candidate advanced the same query when I finally stopped peppering questions to breathe: “How will I learn how to work with your students?”

Great question. A Landmark College (Vt.) classroom is like no other setting on the planet—a unique environment that is without question the most neurodiverse cognitive ecosystem anywhere in the university world. While a Landmark faculty member is an expert in a field of study, she is also extraordinarily well-versed in the science of teaching and learning.

Our faculty present information in accessible ways, ensuring that multiple modalities are activated in most every learning interchange, provide alternate pathways for students to demonstrate conceptual mastery, and often seamlessly integrate assistive technology—such as Dragon or Kurzweil—into the learning environment.

This “Universal Design” approach to instruction is intended to ensure that the broadest possible spectrum of learning profiles will find the learning environment accessible and geared to those needs, even though the students may be presenting the most heterogeneous learning challenges you’ll find on this or any other continent. It is an amazing pedagogical tour de force, one that educators travel thousands of miles to witness. And it most certainly doesn’t happen through osmosis.

When Landmark College opened in the mid-1980s, our new faculty orientation program disoriented dozens of educators. After two solid weeks of ten-hour days in pedagogical techniques and strategies, we were sent reeling into the classroom or tutorial office with heads full of terms like metacognition and chunking, or phrases such as executive function, teaching from point zero, and locus of control. Our supervisors, highly experienced faculty, would then watch us like bugs under a magnifier for months.

The orientation program is now accelerated and shorter, but it is then followed by years of collaborative inquiry, peer mentoring, and informal faculty study groups, investigating new diagnostic profiles, technology solutions, teaching best practices, and the like. You might say our faculty all have honorary Doctor of Pedagogy degrees (Ped.D).

Because our faculty know how to teach, our associate’s degree-holders get into more selective colleges, attain higher GPAs at their destination universities, and persist to graduation at higher rates and in shorter time periods than students with learning disabilities nationally. It should not be earth-shattering news, but expertise in pedagogy is a vital element in overall teaching success. This does not apply solely to students with learning differences. Students with traditional learning styles also benefit from Universal Design Instruction and multiple learning modalities.

Thankfully, universities recognize this and many have established centers for teaching and learning—resources that provide necessary support (often peer tutoring and coursework support) for students who are struggling with the learning process and need additional scaffolding and strategies to succeed. The best of these centers also provide professional development opportunities for faculty, and integrate remedial programming for students, going beyond coursework support to skills development. The very best further offer adaptive and assistive technologies for students with diagnosed disabilities: resources such as a digital library of course textbooks that can be accessed by text readers. While this “pull-out” approach to learning support can be extremely helpful, I consider it an aid rather than an organic, systemic solution.

If you are an expert in your discipline, and you have mastered universal design principles and best practices in contemporary pedagogy, your students will fare better in your classrooms. They will learn. They will persist to graduation. They will mention you by name in their commencement speech and send you holiday cards tracing their lives down the decades. They will inherit the planet and heal it. If the stars align, they will become a teacher. And they will pay it forward.