July 24, 2009

Slow Education

Perhaps because I am an Aquarius born in the Year of the Dragon I tend to take on too much and am thus intrigued by the burgeoning "slow" movements as a way to make the social and cultural changes needed to implement a more sustainable society. Last night I read a "Slow Business Manifesto" proposing a set of principles for business to slow down, consider the needs of its employees, and work for something greater than profit. Perhaps view is naive, but as the manifest eloquently stated: "The only reason businesses that don't create their own products or provide their services with love survive, is by being cheaper".

Perhaps some of the tenets of the various slow movements could apply to how we educate our students. Perhaps the greatest authority on "Slowness" (other than the post office and my university's bureaucracy) is the World Institute of Slowness and their related site, Slow Planet. These organization have already published some thoughts on Slow Education; as the Aelius Donatus is reported to have said “pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt”- a plague on those who have proclaimed our bright ideas before us. The site links to a short video that provides a wonderful anecdote about Slow Education:

So what would Slow Education look like, what are principles one could use to frame a discussion of slowing down how we educate future engineers? Here is a start on a manifesto:
  • The teacher matters. Teaching does, and should, express your beliefs. For students to learn they need to learn both the material and also the values and attitudes of the teacher. Share yourself and develop relationships with your students. Be human.
  • Teaching changes you, for better or for worse. I see many colleagues that are bored with what they teach because they focus on covering content rather than making teaching a creative expression. If you are bored with your teaching you will become boring.
  • Teach what you love. Research has shown that the instructors attitude has a disproportionate effect on learning.
  • Content doesn't matter that much. Learning is about experience, not information. Since it is impossible to fully prepare even the best student for the range of careers available don't try to. Create meaningful experiences rather than grind through a list of required topics.
  • Acknowledge the full meaning of "life long learning", a phrase that is bandied about far too casually by people who should know better. Life-long learning means that people are expected to continue to learn throughout their lives and that this learning will occur at a pace and a direction that varies as much as individuals. If we accept that people really are life-long learners, we need to re-examine our educational system.

Slow Education is also defined by what it is not:
  • It is not a return to "the fundamentals". Knowledge, particularly technical knowledge is constantly changing and education needs to follow change closely.
  • It is not abandoning standards, rather re-examining standards and considering the human dimension or learning. Slow Education measures distance traveled, not how quickly one arrives at an arbitrary destination.
  • It is not a call for a cadre of professional engineering educators. Rather we need to recognize the time, cost, and challenge of educating new generations of engineers and reward those who choose to follow this calling.
  • It is not a refuge for poor teachers, demagogues, crack-pots, or curmudgeons. There are standards by which learning can be measured and methods that are more or less effective for achieving given learning goals. Slow Education simply recognizes that achieving goals is a reflective and iterative process.
Anyone have any other ideas on what a movement for Slow Education in engineering might look like?