Developing Faculty as Educators and Innovators

Caren M. Stalburg MD, MA, Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Learning Health Sciences

“I love teaching at Michigan,” declares my coffee mug, serving as a daily reminder that nobody’s got it better than us. (HT: Coach Harbaugh).

Caren Stalburg
Caren M. Stalburg MD, MA, Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Learning Health Sciences

Years ago, as a junior faculty member in the School of Medicine at the University of Michigan, I had the opportunity to join a multitude of committees, you know, the ones that senior faculty are more than happy to donate to others? Luckily, I was gifted with one in particular that put me in the same room with PhD educators from across campus. Through our discussions about curricular design, it became clear to me that I had missed out on fundamental principles within the ‘science of education’ and had jumped right into the practical aspects of teaching, relying solely on the “if you know how to do it, you can teach it” theory of education. Our teaching in higher education takes so many forms, serving an array of functions for a wide-variety of people. But who teaches the teachers to teach? And what, exactly, do they need to know?

The development of faculty as educators is not a “one-size-fits-all” endeavor. Much like our learners have varying intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for learning and engaging in their own education, faculty have ranging levels of commitment and interest for teaching as well. This variance complicates development efforts directed at faculty and may actually leave opportunities for some faculty unexplored. For instance, the gap in my foundational knowledge as an educator led me to Michigan’s School of Education and a Master of Arts degree. But not everyone can nor wants to get another degree. A deep-dive into educational theory, organizational structures, educational philosophies, and curriculum design is not everyone’s cup of tea (or um, coffee? see above).

I have come to understand and describe the array of faculty educators in a Taxonomy of Teachers schema, with four general categories: 

  1. Innocent Bystanders: Faculty whose primary work is not focused on teaching per se, but is a requirement of their faculty position. They want to teach, and are happy to do a good job, but in general they have another role and/or focus. Really, they just need to understand what is expected, know how to do a good job, and maybe even gather a few new tips or tricks along the way.
  2. Engaged Educators: These faculty are the “teacher’s teacher,” the individuals who are first to volunteer, take on additional teaching roles, and are interested in learning for learning’s sake. They are enthusiastic, looking for new opportunities, and always ready to step in and try new things.
  3. Innovative Leaders: Faculty members who are creative in their teaching efforts, and make connections between seemingly disparate people and ideas. They employ new tools, techniques, or borrow from other intellectual spaces to expand their educational efforts. Basically they develop and apply new ways of teaching and learning to their particular area of interest–and try to get others to join the fun.
  4. Champions for Change: Usually these faculty are the most senior and in leadership positions and can establish the structural changes that allow innovations to appear, develop, and thrive. They pave the way for everyone else to innovate, engage, and participate. And keep the conditions ripe for additional development and change.

Each group within the Taxonomy of Teachers requires differing types of support, training, opportunity, and most importantly, expectations for success. That is where my involvement with the Center for Academic Innovation and Coursera began. In 2014, in an effort to reach educators in health professions education, I created an online course called “

Instructional Methods in Health Professions Education” to provide a broad overview of educational theory and pedagogical strategies as applied to health professions education. The goal was to engage faculty around the world, expanding their skill sets, creating community and providing capacity development for schools and countries. To date, more than 8,000 learners have engaged in this course. 

Jean Lave and Etienne Wegner in their sentinel work on Situated Learning (1991) described the learning that occurs when groups of people are focused on a similar task or training. Learners engage in the activities of the profession or specific field which, in turn, serves as their curriculum–in essence, learning by doing and being socialized into the community of shared work. Wegner in 1998 then expanded this idea to the now familiar idea of “communities of practice.” These communities of practice emerge when individuals come together, focused on a specific domain or interest, and work together to create new meanings, solutions, or products.

This concept of communities of practice becomes important as the work of the Center for Academic Innovation expands and evolves. Faculty will undoubtedly come together from a variety of disciplines, sharing their individual and collective expertise to design and develop new technologies and techniques for teaching. These innovations will then be activated and employed by Engaged Educators and our trusty Innocent Bystanders. How we continue to see the solutions, do the creative work, support and sustain faculty as educators, and teach our learners in this new environment is yet another reason why I just love teaching at Michigan.

Read more about Academic Innovation at Michigan (AIM) Communities in this recent blog post from Ryan Henyard, Faculty Experience Designer.

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