My friend and colleague Marc (who really needs a blog) alerted me to this story regarding a recent legal ruling in the matter of the University of Ottawa and the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (UPUO). The case arose when the U of O charged that Professor Denis Rancourt “had misrepresented his course in a detailed web posting, in such a way as to have described a dramatically different course not compatible with the official course description.” The 65-page ruling the case supported Dr. Rancourt’s actions as within the purview of academic freedom.
But here is the stuff I really like! See these pieces of the ruling that help to describe how Dr. Rancourt led this controversial course.
The ruling establishes that pedagogical innovation and implementation are fully protected under the academic freedom enjoyed by a professor, including the choice of grading system – considered an integral part of the pedagogical method.
In the specific case, the protected pedagogical innovations included:
(a) A large fraction of the class time used to present societal and political material – in a physics course intended to deliver fundamental physics concepts as the only required physics course in an environmental studies program – as a way to motivate student learning and to position the science in the broad societal context. This was achieved using invited scientist and non-scientist speakers that included activists, politicians, community workers, etc. The ruling clarifies that no “exception [was] taken to the use of activism and social and political issues as catalysts to learning.”
(b) Parallel student workgroups with evolving themes and freely changing student memberships and town-hall-style whole-class discussions instead of traditional lectures delivered by the professor.
(c) An open invitation to all community members to freely and fully participate in the class, without necessarily officially registering and paying tuition, as a way to bring in the community to enrich class discussions and strengthen relevance and community connections. This brought in a variety of perspectives and expertises that would otherwise not have been available.
(d) Large latitude in individual student decision making regarding: order in which to learn things (e.g., workgroup membership and topic), depth of treatment, method of study, method of reporting progress, degree of cooperative work, etc. (Sharing was not considered cheating.)
(e) A satisfactory/non-satisfactory (S/NS) grading system rather than the traditional letter grade system (used in all other science courses given that term).
I have been very lucky that my Faculty and University has been supportive of my work in pursuing several similar approaches in my teaching. I am pleased to see the results of this case so positive for Dr. Rancourt as it has the potential to help other professors take risks toward passionate and creative forms of teaching and learning.
Learn more about this story here.
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Interesting stuff Alec. I wonder if it will continue to help shift the traditional thinking patterns of universities and pedagogical methods? In K-12, we probably have a little more flex and pedagogies change a little more, especially in K-9. Although 10-12 has changed somewhat, we still have a ways to go.
This is amazing stuff, particularly because it highlights one of the crucial failings of the typical classroom, a wide range of expertise, experience, and investment in the course. I was speaking recently with a professor here at UMW, and she noted that all the talk about diversity amongst academics could be seen as hypocritical –why? Because how diverse is an institution run and delivered almost entirely by Ph.D.s? :)She is EDUPUNK! And, she has an excellent point, the framework Dr. Rancourt sets up frames his classroom as a truly exemplary model for the diversity of experience, academic expertise, and local investment that breaks down the paradigm of expert vs. novice, while at th same time preserving those roles within a broader spectrum of discourse. Very cool.
Alec, Although I feel like I shouldn’t be, I am still amazed that it can take a judicial decision to declare that “sharing is not cheating.” It is fascinating how this ruling reads like a top ten list of what we should all be doing in the classroom; hopefully publicizing such cases will help the creative and dynamic nature of this course model trickle upward into the administrative structures that challenged its departure from the “official” in the first place.
@Dave – At the Faculty, we are certainly finding the greatest resistance in changing the highschool culture, and much of that is due certainly to the impending university culture. We’re working at it, and of course, we need to work together.
@Jim – Great point re: diversity and Ph.D’s, and certainly this is something we need to get our head around. Ivory Tower culture is alive and well, but we need to do our best to change this practice and perception. Cases like this can go a long way to expose the needed changes, and highlight alternatives to the status quo.
@Pavel – Isn’t that something? I read it that way as well. There is so much that I take for granted in my own practice that I forget that cases like this remain outside of the norm.
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