Retired professor Paul Piehler


Atlantis Project proposes tutorials as answer to student alienation

BRONWYN CHESTER | Unbeknownst to many on campus, there is a small and persistent movement afoot hoping to implement a not entirely new method of learning and teaching, one which, its advocates say, will reduce drop-out rates, cut costs and improve the scholarship of both students and faculty.

The McGill Atlantis Group, headed by retired English professor Paul Piehler, is encouraging McGill faculty to participate in pilot projects using the tutorial system of education which, Piehler notes, has worked well for Oxford and Cambridge universities for the past five centuries.

Piehler began the project upon his retirement in 1993, which he took early due to the deteriorating teaching and learning conditions at the University caused by reduced budgets and increased class sizes. The name Atlantis refers to Sir Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis, written in 1627 to advocate an outward-looking philosophy for universities, as opposed to the inward-looking ways of the rhetoricians who ruled the day. It also acknowledges the fact that the project's ideas come from both sides of the Atlantic.

Piehler's experience of tutorial education comes from his studies at Oxford and his teaching experiments at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s, and at "MECCA" (McGill Experimental College for Creative Action) in 1969. He acknowledges that trying to conceive of such a system for McGill takes a leap of faith, for the underlying principle of the Atlantis Project is that of treating students as if they were "junior faculty members."

In an attempt to adapt the Oxbridge system to North America, Piehler has developed a model he believes could be pertinent to McGill. Students would have a 48-week study year, half of which would be spent reading, the other half in weekly, 90-minute tutorials, which they would each take a turn in giving under the tutor's guidance. Students would be evaluated at the end of three years on a final portfolio composed of essays written and reworked during their studies, as well as a final exam on the portfolio -- a sort of defence of their work.

Tutors, on the other hand, would teach a maximum of seven hours per week with the assistance of third-year students, and have no more than 24 students (divided into six tutorial groups of four students), thereby having sufficient time for research. (The current McGill teacher-to-student ratio is approximately 1:18.)

All of this, of course, assumes à la Oxbridge that students specialize in one particular subject or a "sun and planets" cluster of subjects -- for example, history, science and culture in the Middle Ages -- and attend only one tutorial per week as compared to McGill's five-course-per-week norm.

Piehler believes such a decentralized structure for scholarship would save the University money due to increased efficiency of instruction (an Oxbridge three-year BA, says Piehler, is almost the equivalent of a North American PhD); reduced numbers of drop-outs (four percent of Oxbridge students drop out while at McGill, the rate is about 25%); reduced administrative costs (grades and transcripts, for instance, would be handled on an individual rather than mass basis); and reduced instruction costs, since fewer instructors would be necessary.

In practice, what has happened at McGill in terms of tutorials is a little different. A few years ago, another Atlantis Project member, culture and values in education professor David Smith, undertook an experiment in teaching by offering the course "Human and Religious Values in the Elementary School" in a tutorial style, using a $1,000 Royal Bank of Canada Teaching Innovation award.

The result, Smith found, was a "significantly" higher-than-normal quality of essays, good relationships between students and between tutor and students and a virtually unanimous recommendation to continue the course in a tutorial style. The recommendation, however, could not be fulfilled because of the long hours of teaching involved -- 10 1/2 hours as compared to the usual three which, added to Smith's other teaching and administrative responsibilities, created an unworkable 22 1/2 hours -- and, in part, because students found the demands of the course somewhat overwhelming in view of the fact that they had four other courses to carry.

The class of 26 was divided into six groups. Each group had one 90-minute tutorial per week during which one student would present a paper, while another student critiqued it. There was an additional 90 minutes for the entire class, for exchange and subjects not covered in tutorials. Students were expected to write essays which fellow tutorial members would scrutinize and assess.

Readiness to prepare for tutorials and responsibility to fellow tutorial members were two variables that Smith evaluated in his students. Regarding the former, he found that it took time before the more reserved students were confident enough to express and receive criticism. Smith found that the students generally responded well to having the responsibility for teaching a tutorial and criticizing others' work.

Despite the overall positive experience, Smith said he wouldn't repeat it unless "the structures around here changed," giving him and the students less of a course load. Furthermore, he says, education, ironically enough, is not the ideal faculty in which to offer a tutorial program because, given that it is a professional faculty, the Ministry of Education has specific requirements regarding the number of credits of this and that subject and tutorials don't fall neatly into such credit measurements.

Religious studies professor Ian Henderson's education involved both the tutorial and lecture system. Henderson, a former Oxford tutor, says that he and a number of his colleagues do their best to incorporate the values of the tutorial system into their approach to teaching, just as he imagines hundreds of McGill professors do. While he deplores the risk of passivity and potential lack of forum for dialogue associated with the lecture system, he also believes lectures "are good because you get to see lots of experts stand up and give their expertise, which Oxford undergraduates may not see." His ideal would be some sort of hybrid where the emphasis would be on "teaching students, not courses."

What are the prospects at McGill for the Atlantis Project to take hold? It's hard to say. Aside from Piehler, Smith, geography professor Warwick Armstrong and a number of students who have been advocates over the years, there does not seem to be a strong core group advancing a pilot project involving, perhaps, a complete degree.

Still, the Atlantis Project hasn't gone unnoticed and some professors are mulling the idea over. Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Deborah Buszard, for instance, is toying with the idea of an Atlantis-style liberal arts college on the Macdonald Campus. "It would bring much needed academic diversity to the campus," she says.

Others have expressed interest in the project and have no difficulty in seeing the merits of the tutorial system, but breaking out of the gridlock of lectures, papers, exams, grades, next subject -- which Henderson feels "tends to make students into consumers" -- is no easy matter.

The University itself has supported Piehler's effort by providing him with an office, phone and computer, and Vice-Principal (Academic) Bill Chan says that he is "open-minded" about trying tutorial-style teaching and would welcome more experimentation. But Chan believes it is up to faculties to propose pilot projects.

As for the price of the Atlantis approach, Chan says that cost-efficiency wouldn't be the only factor in deciding to adopt a tutorial system on a larger scale. "First, let's see if it's effective and if there's significant interest among students and faculty."