#41 An Archaic System? Evaluating Assumptions About Education

Some random thoughts on the education scene.

Earlier this week a colleague shared an article that appeared in The Chronicle for Higher Education titled “Actually going to class for a specific course? How 20th-Century.”  The gist of the article: With so
many resources available for “just-in time” learning, why even have a traditional college course any longer? The author posits,

                             In an era when students can easily grab material online, including lectures
by gifted speakers in every field, a learning environment that avoids courses
completely—or seriously reshapes them—might produce a very effective new
form of college.

What followed were thoughts about reforming the current higher-ed model. One alternative offered was called the “UnCollege.”  More below.

Having been a classroom teacher (7th grade, high school, and college) since 1982, I have seen the challenges, the bureaucracy, the high-stakes tests, and various reform ideas. And I have seen what works: hard work, creative lessons, teachers with freedom, students who care, management that listens, a family that supports, and a neighborhood that promotes educational values.

Yes, there is always a need to evaluate what we do and make sure we are appropriately preparing our students for the post-industrial age.  But what will that look like? Will it require a workforce adept at taking standardized tests? Will it require creativity?

In a 2006 TED Talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY), Sir Ken Robinson mentioned that children who were entering school in that year would retire in 2065. Think about it, he suggests. We have difficulty gazing into our crystal ball 20 years down the road. Yet we are expected to prepare students for a future which we have no clear idea how it will look.

At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, we might want to keep a few things in mind before we decide to throw away the “traditional classroom and structure.”  It seems to have become almost fashionable to say “if it used to be then it shouldn’t be.”

Sure the information age does allow students to “easily grab material online.” But what sometimes is missing in this picture is that so MANY students have NO idea how to “easily grab material online”—especially quality material. We all know that they may be adept at surfing the web—but that does not mean they are information literate. The vast numbers of students I have encountered in the classroom still need (and mostly desire) the personal guidance.

The Chronicle article also questioned the wisdom of the 16-week model of college semesters. Is it too long? Maybe–maybe not.  More and more we hear about “speed to market.”  That is, get students into and out of college as soon as possible.  But to quote Keith Jackson, “Whoa, Nelly!”

One of my concerns is exactly this “speed to market.” There are some maturation processes that cannot be sped up.  Quick example. When I taught Advanced Placement United States History (a yearlong course in the high school), many of my students took into the 3rd grading period (18 to 27 weeks) to develop mature essay writing skills that would score a 3, 4 or 5 on the national exam.  If those students were “sped to market” and had to complete the course in half the time, I wonder how many would have “passed” the national exam. And even if they were able to score well, what would they have missed in more tantalizing conversations and debate and exploration that a longer tenure in the classroom fostered?

The UnCollege idea was described by The Chronicle article in part as:

                 …Everything will be self-directed—unstudents will decide what “assignments”
they should complete and then evaluate how well they think they’ve done.
Participants are encouraged to post their projects and self-evaluations online
to form their “experience transcript.

Really?  When I go to the hospital, I hope my doctor did not get his degree from an institution that allowed him to choose what he wanted to learn—and evaluate what he did himself—and then develop his own “experience transcript.” Same with the pilot flying my plane; mechanic fixing my car; and the electrician running new wire in my house. Nowadays, it seems that anything that smacks of real experience and expertise (unless it belongs to the students) is considered old-fashioned and outdated. That is a shame.

There is a great cell phone commercial with just a one word script: “Really?”  I think we should keep that one word question in mind when we hear some of these reform ideas–and question the assumptions.                                       

© Steve Piscitelli and Steve Piscitelli’s Blog, 2011.

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3 Responses to #41 An Archaic System? Evaluating Assumptions About Education

  1. Christian Thomson says:

    I am currently doing an argument essay on education for my English 1101 class, and my thesis is that education must be made more important in our nation. I argue that the mainstream media, modern day technology, and a natural desire and fascination all play a key role in someone achieving the best education they can.

    My feeling is that through our politicians and celebrities in the media, education is being down played as something one does not really need to achieve greatness. We live in a society where the word “elite” is given a negative connotation to describe a candidate running for President. This just confuses me. Why would we not want our President to be the best choice? Educated individuals get looked down upon more often than not, and I believe that needs to change.

    I agree that education should remain, in part, in the classroom, taught by educated professionals. Education is about more than just memorizing a few things and simply getting by. Passion is a key element to success in learning. Sometimes, it takes more than the individual themselves to discover that. That is why I feel it is unjust to dismiss our teachers and our learning environments. The modern day technology is impressive and resourceful. However, it takes the effort of the actual individual to discover their passion, and without the guidance of those who have come before us, we end up lost.


  2. Pingback: A Blogger’s Retrospective: 2011 in Review « Steve Piscitelli's Blog

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