Around 1200 A.D., guilds of students and guilds of masters coalesced into the first colleges and universities in Europe, institutions to which we trace our own origins today. Over the next five or six centuries the guilds had a long, slow fade, until the industrial revolution passed them by altogether.
By then it seemed quaint, even harmful, to let local associations of craftsmen set the terms of their trade. They had become a fetter to open markets and innovation. And their local focus was embarrassing and provincial, making the guilds a kind of capitulation to the very isolation we were conquering with technology.
So, as I was taught in my history classes: bad guilds, good riddance. But lately I’ve wondered whether they’re due for a comeback.
I’m not talking about their battles on wages and prices, waged these days by unions and lawyers. I mean their role as curators, stewards of secret professional knowledge.
Their return could address a couple of challenges we face in higher education, while tapping into something that feels essentially quirky and human.
Challenge #1. Last year Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey published Adapting by Design as part of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success. In it they observe:
Over the last 40 years, the traditional model of the academic profession—full-time tenure-track professorships that focus on the triadic responsibilities of teaching, research, and service—has been eroded by a rising trend toward greater contingency. This trend has broken those responsibilities apart, with faculty members increasingly finding themselves focusing primarily on either teaching or research and having tenuous connections to the academic community on their own campuses and to other scholars in their disciplines more broadly.
In other words faculty jobs are fracturing, and going freelance. As a result, those of us charged with organizing the enterprise have a harder time filling committee assignments, making long-term plans, or appealing to institutional commitment. We’re building culture with the same number of bricks, but a lot less mortar.
Challenge #2. A growing body of evidence suggests that what we know works educationally is impossible to scale administratively. Not just tricky, but literally, by definition, impossible.
Think for a second about your own experience with a powerful episode of learning, whether you were the student, teacher, or bystander. Almost certainly what made it work was the investment of attention, study, and struggle on the part of the student, with a proportional outlay of expertise and personal commitment from the teacher. Both sides had to share some ground rules and expectations, as well as trust and permission to take risks, often deeply personal ones that drew on, and maybe challenged, each party’s sense of identity.
As administrators we know a handful of contexts that make such episodes likelier: service learning, undergraduate research, a well-crafted classroom presentation, peer mentoring, seminar classrooms. But simply knowing that, and creating class schedules and funding models that replicate them, doesn’t assure that good education will happen.
What does assure that is known, but only intuitively, ineffably – making it in effect a secret knowledge, available to those who work on it every day, the insiders to the profession.
We at the college level aren’t the only ones struggling with this. I’d argue that the last two decades of testing mania in K-12 is a symptom of the frustration policymakers feel when they try to pin down what exactly makes learning happen.
And outside of education altogether, a 2014 New Yorker Atul Gawande article called “Slow Ideas” describes a similar problem in health care. In fact, it’s so uncannily similar to this challenge in my work that three different sets of colleagues have passed it along to me, even though they don’t know each other, and the article never mentions higher education.
Among the senders were Charles Blaich and Kathy Wise of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College. For years they have watched as my CSU friends and I struggle to define and assess the high-impact practices that we believe make a difference. We would like very much to know what works and for whom, so we can support it and replicate it. You might charitably call this “early work.”
The Wabash team’s recommendation of this article was part of a longer lament we were sharing over the NSF’s infatuation with the randomized control trial. Even after recent cuts, this powerful, wealthy government agency continues to exercise stunning influence over how universities practice science, and science education, and the science of education. In turn, other federal funders perceive the NSF evidentiary criteria as the gold standard.
But there’s a deep, troubling flaw in this reasoning, a misguided belief that significant difference in educational outcomes arises from a variable that can be isolated. Instead, with interpersonal activity like learning or healthcare or a decent home life, it’s often the subtle contexts that matter, the interaction effects among hundreds or thousands of variables.
Which brings us to Gawande’s article, and the idea of slow change. He dismisses the usual brute-force policy levers, and the isolated practices that lend themselves to easy duplication and enforcement from a distance. Instead he calls for a sophisticated approach to culture change.
Taking the example of preventing neonatal hypothermia by swaddling the infant next to the mother, he writes:
Neither penalties nor incentives achieve what we’re really after: a system and a culture where X is what people do, day in and day out, even when no one is watching. “You must” rewards mere compliance. Getting to “X is what we do” means establishing X as the norm. And that’s what we want: for skin-to-skin warming, hand washing, and all the other lifesaving practices of childbirth to be, quite simply, the norm.
Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, [Everett] Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.
He goes on to cite a rule of thumb from pharmaceutical sales, that it takes “seven touches” before an idea or product has been sufficiently internalized to close the deal. And each touch is person-to-person, making social change slow, pricey, and labor-intensive. It can be scaled, but only by growing the army of implementers, counselors, and practitioners.
So think about that rule of seven touches, and what it could do for propagating the “secret knowledge” of great educational practice.
Our HIPs and pedagogical victories may be facilitated by policy, but the assurance of quality that effects deep learning can’t be won from a distance. Instead it needs to flourish in the medium of some kind of culture, some environment in which everyone knows what they mean by X, and X becomes what we do.
But now think about that article from Kezar and Maxey, and the increasingly contingent faculty. Seven touches? Get real. These days, most of us can’t even get one – not with the people who actually teach. Unless it’s their turn in the classroom, our adjuncts aren’t on campus.
Which brings me, finally, to guilds – and that essentially human idiosyncrasy that may bail us out. Stay tuned.