March 14, 2009

"...we cannot remain who we are"

The title of this post is taken from a short editorial in the Christian Science Monitor (linked in the title) from the president of Ohio State University, Gordon Gee. In the editorial he speaks about the need to use these days of financial uncertainty to fundamentally reform higher education. He posits that in a very global world the structure of higher education is too restrictive to really let us prepare graduates for the very (strange and wonderful) | (dangerous and terrifying) world in which we find ourselves.

While not deep in the sense of referencing research or statistics on education, the editorial did home in on something I personally have come to believe over the last few years- the university's problems are more structural than pedagogical. In the way the editorial was phrased, President Gee sees that a narrow focus on disciplinary knowledge can't prepare students for working in the world. Students collaborate naturally; course structures which inhibit sharing knowledge and experience no longer mimic life. In this he is right but I don't think he goes far enough...

Our focus at universities has historically been to address the need for students to master some part of the shared knowledge of the human race. Knowledge must be personal to be useful, so we see our goal as transmitting through the mouths of faculty what is known about a discipline to our students, who we hopefully develop enough of a relationship with to make learning somewhat personal. There is really nothing wrong with this approach, a lot of research supports the fact that experts have a lot of relevant knowledge in their heads where it can be accessed easily and quickly when they are confronted with a problem. And passing this on to non-experts is a good thing. The problem comes from how we transmit this knowledge and, perhaps more subtly, the need for us to grade. To assign "meaningful" grades we believe we need to give rigorous tests and homework assignments. However the very rigor of the grading schemes we use are, I think, their downfall. The knowledge I personally have found most useful in my career is the knowing of ways of doing things. Such knowing is general, flexible, adaptable, and very very hard to teach. Such tacit knowledge is difficult to measure using an exam; I still can't do this well despite years of tinkering with exams.

And this is the message I took from President Gee's article. At universities we trade effort for grades with the hope that learning occurs somehow in the effort. But the efforts needed to develop effective and learned citizens for today's society don't mesh well with what schools have historically done. We can't remain who we are if we are to claim that the education we offer is worth the price we now charge.

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