Thoughts on Education – 2/18/2012 – Who can achieve academic success?

Back to your normally scheduled educational blogging.  I’m feeling better finally, and I’m going to take a bit of time to blog here before starting on my main job for today, which is going to be grading.

‘Academically Adrift’: The News Gets Worse and Worse

The beginning has to be the continuing discussion of the assessment of how much students learn in their college education.  The latest information that has been released shows a further problem with our higher education system:  “While press coverage of Academically Adrift focused mostly on learning among typical students, the data actually show two distinct populations of undergraduates. Some students, disproportionately from privileged backgrounds, matriculate well prepared for college. They are given challenging work to do and respond by learning a substantial amount in four years.  Other students graduate from mediocre or bad high schools and enroll in less-selective colleges that don’t challenge them academically. They learn little. Some graduate anyway, if they’re able to manage the bureaucratic necessities of earning a degree.”  With teaching at a community college, I do, unfortunately, see mostly those from the second half.  And, as I know from experience, when people think of college students, they don’t think of the students I have.  Instead, as has been noted, the people who talk about educational policy mostly come from that first group and the people who create educational policy come from that first group.  Students like mine are generally ignored in the debate about what to do about academics, which is why I often find the advice and discussion about education to be somewhat irrelevant to who I teach.  In fact, even the failures of my students (and there are many) are generally seen as a failure on the part of the student.  We blame the students for failing, even when they come into a system not designed for them and where their needs and abilities are not dealt with in a constructive manner.  I don’t mean to say that the community college system or my community college is failing, it is just that when I have an expectation that 30-50% of my students will either withdraw, fail, or get a D out of my course, then we have to be working at a different standard.  You don’t see that at elite or even normal 4-year colleges, yet most of what you see out there that involves higher education deals with those students.  There are some community college specific resources, but they don’t drive the national conversation about education.

As this report shows, that bottom level of college students are more likely to come out of school with few skills and few prospects, where the likelihood is that they “are more likely to be living at home with their parents, burdened by credit-card debt, unmarried, and unemployed.”  And, that makes it more difficult to justify an education to the students and to justify the cost of that education to those who pay for it.  Of course, as I have noted so many times, articles like this love to point out the problems, but they never say much of anything about solutions.  In fact, the implication of the end of the article is that maybe this research isn’t really correct and that we need to do our own research to find out the real truth.  But I see the failures every day.  We know that a certain number of students will simply never make it through, no matter what we do.  It is sad, but it is true.  But are we giving value to the rest of the students is the real question.  I hope that we are, and I know that our current assessment craze is trying to prove that.  I guess I don’t have anything more profound than that to say about it.  It is definitely one of those things that makes teaching hard and makes justifying the money and time spent on teaching hard.  But the question to ask always is, would we prefer a system where we never give any but the top people a chance at an education?

I came across two other related articles on teaching that I thought I would talk about for the rest of this blog post:

Colleges looking beyond the lecture

I picked this one because it is one of the things that pisses me off over and over in reading articles about changes in teaching.  Here’s the reason:  “Science, math and engineering departments at many universities are abandoning or retooling the lecture as a style of teaching, worried that it’s driving students away.”  Where are the humanities and social sciences in this?  Why is it only STEM that is trying to make changes.  Yes, I can find a few history sites out there, but overwhelmingly if you’re talking about changing up education or the use of technology, it comes back over and over to STEM as the place where changes come from.  So, wonderful, colleges are looking beyond the lecture in these areas because students aren’t succeeding with the lecture.  Does that mean the lecture is working elsewhere?  Or is it because the lecture is such an expected part of other areas of education that we don’t even question its utility.

So, the article goes on to talk about the challenges of the lecture system — low student learning, the ability of students to get the same information elsewhere, and low retention.  What is interesting is the last part of the article that talks about the solutions, which is mostly to stop lecturing.  While they don’t use the term “flipping” the classroom in this article, that is what is discussed over and over.  So, nothing really new over things I have discussed in the past.  What is interesting is that most of the solutions talk about “experimental” classes that are tiny in comparison to the large lecture classes.  But, is that an acceptable solution?  Obviously, we have large classes because that’s what makes the most monetary sense, and we are not going to switch to a situation where there are no more big classes.  So, I found the solutions here to be unrealistic.


At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard

This article is certainly related to the last, and I include it here, as this is the direction that everyone looking at education reform is looking at, based simply on how many articles there are out there.  It is, of course, also what I am considering, which is why I pull every article like this out to look at more closely.  But then, what do I see?  “The physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning.”  Back to STEM.  Back to ending the large classes.  Sigh.

Of course, if we had the money and resources, I would certainly jump at trying this:  “At M.I.T., two introductory courses are still required — classical mechanics and electromagnetism — but today they meet in high-tech classrooms, where about 80 students sit at 13 round tables equipped with networked computers.  Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups.  Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.”  But, we don’t have that type of classroom, those types of rooms to work with, teaching assistants, or anything like that.  Plus, as the first article made the distinction, is this something that only works with the top level of college students or could it work for the bottom as well?  A big question that I do not know the answer to.  But since this is where the current push to change the system is going, I am trying to find out all that I can.

That’s why I started with the first article, as I think that we do design and think about the top level of students first, but that often leaves the bottom level out.  And, I teach a good portion of students who are at that bottom level.  I am trying to change their opportunities, but so often it does seem like the solutions I’m looking at require more money, time, and resources than are available to me.  And yet, we’re also facing continuous budget cuts because even at the level we are now, we seen as being too expensive.  I don’t know what this means, but it does make the job more difficult.  Being innovative, creative, and improving student success on the cheap is very difficult.


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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of three, student of life, owner of a parrot, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all around guy.

One response to “Thoughts on Education – 2/18/2012 – Who can achieve academic success?”

  1. Joye Klemisch says :

    Hey. you have a excellent site! thanks for all the info!

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