Thoughts on Education – 3/11/2012 – What is broken in higher education?

I’ve taken some time off as we begin Spring Break here to get some of my own stuff done.  We are doing a big clean out around the apartment, as we are probably going to move out of out apartment when our lease is up, and it would be nice to move a lot less stuff.  I also sat down to start our taxes this weekend.  Other than that, I’ve been trying to do “other” things, such as catching up on magazine/free reading, going through paperwork, and such things like that.

On my plate also is catching up on some of the articles I’ve been saving up.  I’m trying to group them into themes, and today’s theme is articles that talk about what’s wrong with higher education today.  I’m going to hold off on my own opinion here to open this post, as that will come out as we move along here.

The first article I came across is this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  At its center is a YouTube video that talks about why students think that the lecture is a failing model for education.  Three big points that come out of it, I think:

  1. First, they talk about lectures being boring, especially those where the professor simply reads off of the PowerPoint.  This is undeniably true, and not just for students.  I have been to enough conferences and presentations where this same thing was done to have experienced it myself many times.  Solution?  Well, we certainly could use some training for how to teach/lecture.  Also, professors just need to care more.  If that’s what they are doing, then it’s hard to call that really teaching.  I imagine, however, that a lot of this is exaggeration on the part of students as well, as I know there are many students who would be dissatisfied/bored with anything that they were told they had to do, which would include listen to a lecture.
  2. Second, a comment that resonates with me is the one about attention spans and the 90-minute class.  While we don’t have 90-minute classes at my community college, we certainly have mostly 75-minute classes.  When the average human attention span is 20-25 minutes at the outside, we are asking even the best and most dedicated students to do something unreasonable if we expect them to sit and pay attention to a lecture for 75 minutes at a time.  Yet, I do that very thing every day I’m in class.
  3. Third, and really the comment that stood out to me the most, one students said that they are told over and over to think outside the box, yet the ones who never seem to innovate are their own professors in their teaching styles.  Yup.  Can’t say anything more than that is spot on.

A second interesting article also addresses these concerns.  In “Why School Should be Funnier,” Mark Phillips discusses the uses of humor in the classroom.  I think that we do too often take the view that classes and college are serious, important things.  As he says in the article, he’s not talking about throwing in a few jokes but about really seeing the absurdity of the situation we are put in.  I address this regularly with my class, as I am very open about the failures of the lecture model and how the fact that they are expected to sit here and pay attention for all this time through the semester is, to a certain extent, absurd.  My students (I hope!) appreciate it when I give the sly asides, the knowing winks, the “real reason you need to know this,” and all of the other things that I try to do to keep them engaged and going in a format that encourages torpor and boredom.

A third article focuses on the problems of who is driving educational reform.  In this case, the experts are pulling us forward to the future.  Educational reformers rely on educational experts to tell them what they should do to fix things.  Usually, these experts are located outside of schools, connected with specific political ideas, and intent on fixing one part of the system at a time.  In each of these cases, we end up with a failure of reform.  I have not been asked much about what I think works or not, that’s for sure.  In fact, the one group that usually does ask me what works or not are the textbook publishers.  I hear from multiple publishers all the time who want me to tell them what is working and what doesn’t.  Yet, as you move up the chain of administration or outside of my college completely, I have yet to have any input on the reforms coming down to me.  It does always blow my mind every time I see the next thing coming through, and I have to wonder who thought that up.  Perhaps we need a revolution from below to fix things.

To close today (yeah, I know, not a long one today, but I am on vacation . . .) is an article about the path of college from The Huffington Post.  In it, the author brings together multiple different studies to talk about something very important when considering what is broken in higher education.  At the heart of it, we still have an assumption that college works as a straight line, where you graduate from high school, pick a college, go to it, and graduate in four years.  Even at a community college, we look at that same thing as the norm, with just the detour of a community college first.  I must admit, that is exactly what I assume still as well, despite the evidence in front of my face every day.  The reality is that students start, stop, transfer around, switch degrees, leave for 15 years, have kids, hold multiple jobs, get sick, take care of sick family members, join the military, drop out, etc.  To shove everyone into that little box of four-year completers is just stupid, when you get right down to it.  And, our funding at the college level is dependent on that completely.  We fail a student if we can’t get them out in 2 years for community college and 4 years for college.  Yet, how many people really do that?  How many want to do that?  Our funding levels depend on a myth of college completion.  Our assumptions about how to teach and advise students works on this myth.  Our assumptions on who a student is and what he or she should do in our classes rests on this myth.  What is broken is the way we do things.  What needs to be fixed is the way we do things.  While it is easy to blame the students for that whole list of things that I said up there, the reality is that the students are going to be that no matter what.  We have to figure out how to adapt to it.  And the people who give us the money to be able to do this had better get it in their heads that just because we can’t say that 100% of our students graduated from our community college in 2 years, that does not mean that we are failing.

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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.

2 responses to “Thoughts on Education – 3/11/2012 – What is broken in higher education?”

  1. Dana says :

    I am glad that my content makes it almost impossible for me to teach a lecture-based course, especially in the 75-minute block. In the end, comp classes become almost project-based with the “projects” being bits and pieces of the essays that students have to submit.

    Honestly, I am starting to think that it’s time we all start accepting that we cannot fight the push towards online and hybrid education, if for no other reason than it lowers operating costs, I just think that it is going to be the model for education in the near future. If we (teachers) are involved in making the decisions about online and hybrid, then we can ensure that academic rigor is maintained. Otherwise, it is our own faults for not being willing to at least participate in the conversation.

    • Scott Williams says :

      The more I think about it, the more that I get depressed about the 75-minute lecture. However, at the same time, I thoroughly enjoy lecturing on history for 75 minutes. So, I am definitely conflicted by this. I have been told by a lot of different students over the years that my lectures are some of the most enjoyable ones that they have. So, I approach all of this with some trepidation and hesitation, as it is asking me to go against what I probably do best in teaching and to try something completely untried for me. We shall see how it goes.

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