BY AARON BARLOW
Yesterday, for April Fools Day, I posted Gig University, an only slightly satiric look at where some people would like higher education to head. It presents a reductivist vision of humanity and human possibilities. We—or, at least, the masses of us—become nothing more than material to be processed or cogs to fit into extant machinery. This is true, in such a vision, for students, faculty and workers—for everyone, in fact, outside of a small elite. Only a minimum is needed so only a minimum should be expected—or even allowed.
That this vision leads to a sterile, stagnant society should be clear to everyone. Unfortunately, it is not: Many people actually believe that education exists only to fill existing needs, a vision of the future constrained by what is, not what could be. Knowledge that students gain is only knowledge by prior definition—not by possibility.
Education by Student Learning Outcomes is what we are being reduced to. These SLOs are designed by committee, of course, and are extremely bland and often quite meaningless. To offset that, we develop new tools of quantitative assessment—so that we can count student progress, making it real, specific and, some would have us believe, meaningful. Unfortunately, the meaning lies only in the difference in number, not in student lives, lasting knowledge or future application.
And that’s at its best. Reliance on quantification also opens the door for fraud of all sorts, as we see when things like test scores, graduation percentages and teacher ratings become the bases for evaluation.
Real evaluation of education takes a lifetime. But we are in too much of a hurry for that.
In addition to SLOs, we also are prescribing pathways to education, often in perverted extensions of what should be the base concept of a ‘general education’ that covers all sorts of topics and possibilities. When I was an undergraduate, requirements were kept to a minimum so that students could explore—but it was a guided exploration. We didn’t set off blindly but worked with faculty to create entranceways into our own particular unknowns. Today, this has been reduced to listings like those on a prix-fixe menu: One chooses an appetizer, a beverage, a main course and a dessert—but there needn’t be any sort of connection between. Students, quite naturally, are likely to choose those they are most familiar with or have liked before—especially in a high-stakes milieu where each grade confines (or enhances) one’s possibilities.
In all of education, we have stopped trusting the judgment of individuals, wanting assurance that everyone is going to get the same thing with no deviation caused by personality. We hover over our teachers, making sure they adhere to established lesson plans or, in higher education, to discipline-specific ‘information.’ We’re not willing to see either student or teacher as able to contribute to the planning of an individual educational program but, rather than setting generalized goals and trusting that the teacher and student will together work toward them, feel we (as the overseers of education) have to be involved in every single decision—even though that “we” has very little experience in education. Yes, there are bad teachers, but the way to counteract that is to keep teachers working together and to make sure that students are exposed to a variety of teachers.
That variety is important in other ways. Individual students learn in individual ways. Some respond well to one methodology and not to another. Some find inspiration in one teacher while another leaves them cold. No methodology and no teacher is universally successful with all students. Both learning and teaching are arts; the paint-by-numbers approach of SLOs and universal student pathways is only a pallid recreation of the artwork of the past. It has no vibrancy, no life of its own. It ain’t art. Often, it’s not even learning. Usually, it removes teaching from the equation altogether.
In schools for the elite, be they k-12 or higher ed, students receive personal attention from their instructors and, if the established pattern is not working for them, alternatives are crafted. Furthermore, the so-called ‘master teachers’ at these schools are working with students from solid foundations at home. That is, the parents have been involved with the learning of their children since infancy. Frankly, the teachers don’t have to work very hard with most of these students. They simply need to point them in possibly fruitful directions and help them adjust their plans from time to time—which is why, of course, it was such a hoot when MOOCs were such a hot topic a few years ago. The idea was that, if all students could be exposed to the ‘master teachers’ of Harvard and Stanford, all students would succeed. Few such teachers know what the real work of teaching is at all.
Real teaching is something else again. It takes time, patience and attention to the individual needs and possibilities of the student, especially when the student enters the classroom with minimal preparation. It takes consideration of the particular student’s strengths and weaknesses and to cultural circumstances that can constrain possibilities—or even open them up.
At a real college—and this is more to the point of my earlier post—the faculty are the center of the institution because they are the ones who can provide the real teaching. Students, because they come and go, are not quite as important individually from an institutional standpoint (though, from a teaching standpoint, they most certainly are). A faculty that can provide each student with a viable path to meeting degree requirements makes the institution itself viable. The role of the administration should be to support the faculty and to facilitate its activities—not to dictate to it and not to reduce it to cogs in a factory model of education.
What we will have, if the model I described yesterday comes to fruition, is a cynical parody of institutions of higher education, a GIGO model of garbage in, garbage out. The enthusiasts for it see students simply as raw material to be processed and not as individual learners. What they don’t understand is that the process they advocate does nothing to change the student. It simply allows them to graduate in the same state they were in before, simply dressed up a bit for false comparison. These controllers of education see most students as garbage anyway, necessary garbage, sure, but only in need of processing, not improvement. So they don’t care to do more.
Real educators, of course, never see students that way. Nor do real institutions of higher education.