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university education

Every new school year brings new questions about the value of an educational system that favours research over teaching. Teaching-focused professors help universities save money while meeting the public outcry that universities do more to prepare young people for the future.

These teaching-centered positions are just the latest development in the continuing efforts of universities to demonstrate their commitment to teaching and learning. My own university has both a Student Success Office and a Centre for Teaching Excellence. I bristle at the names, but I endorse their goals: improving student ability to navigate university life, and equipping instructors with better teaching skills.

The student success model is a recent trend, but teaching centres have been the norm at most Canadian universities for a while now. They hold workshops on "interactive teaching activities" and "flipping the classroom." They advise instructors to create more engaging assignments. They foster a culture of teaching to counter the predominant culture of research. Useful initiatives that help experts at research become competent teachers.

But this emphasis on teaching comes at a cost. And that cost is to the very education we should be providing university students. To put it another way: The more we as a society emphasize teaching at universities, the less we emphasize education.

That sounds counterintuitive, so let me explain.

Teaching is about short-term goals: communicating an idea, explaining a concept, practising a technique. It is a skill that has as a clear if narrow goal: getting the course content across in such a way that students can learn it. Combine that with student success, sometimes defined as simply getting good grades and completing the degree with few or no hiccups, and we turn university study into goal-oriented mediocrity.

Teaching is also about the instructor and the subject. When I'm asked "What do you do?" I reply: "I teach German studies." I don't say: "I educate university students." We profs have convinced ourselves and others that the highest goal of a university degree should be knowledge of our subjects.

This emphasis on teaching can actually limit what students learn. It allows universities to mollify their critics by producing graduates satisfied with finding something good enough to afford them an adequate standard of living. But shouldn't universities do more for our society?

An educating professor doesn't teach the subject; she educates the student. This requires understanding the student not as a consumer of subject matter, but as the product of an educational process.

The teaching professor asks: How can I best transmit my knowledge of the discipline? The educating professor asks: What role could this student play in society's future? And how can my knowledge of the discipline help prepare the student for that role?

In this scenario, professors remain central to the professor-student dynamic, but they focus less on the how and more on the why in order to broaden the students' educational horizons. They should, of course master some skills and techniques that improve the transmission and comprehension of the material, but always with a view to preparing students to take on responsibility for their society.

Students who have been well taught but not well educated won't have the capacity to meet future challenges; having been taught about the discipline, they haven't been given the means to incorporate their knowledge into a bigger picture. Educating, as opposed to teaching, takes a longer view. And that's why universities need to emphasize educating our students for the long term, not teaching them for the short term.

Students (and parents) long accustomed to measuring success in terms of grades as opposed to real intellectual growth will resist this approach, but it is simply what we must do.

If we want to re-establish the true worth of our universities, we don't need teaching professors, we need educating professors – scholars who are dedicated to educating a generation able and willing to transform our society for the better.

James M. Skidmore is an associate professor of German Studies at the University of Waterloo.