Monday, June 26, 2017

What should we be teaching? What can we be teaching?

David Brooks had a column on Friday, Mis-Educating the Young, that contributes to a growing collection of pieces by various authors which argue that something is rotten in the state of educating children.  Hanna Rosin's The Overprotected Kid is one of the better pieces in this group, as it helps to define the problem, explains why the problem has come about, and offers some tentative conclusions about how to make things better.  The hypothesis is that kids learn important life lessons from play and adult supervision, aimed at the seemingly justifiable goal of keeping the kids safe, ends up blocking the learning - the cure is worse than the disease.

I want to note some other dimensions of the same general issue.  Kids tend to be over programmed, with many of the activity choices outside of school initially set by a parent.  Kids today have much less discretionary time than we had when we were kids.  Kids then "learn" that discretionary time is for vegging out or providing some hedonistic reward.  For most kids, reading is not the form that guilty pleasure takes.  So they don't learn to direct their own interests and to use that direction to drive their own learning.  I wrote about this several years ago in a post called PLAs Please.  Another consideration is that the nature of play changes as kids grow older.  It is possible that kids can engage in intellectual play, which I think is a natural outgrowth of child play expanding after some lessons from inside and outside of school have been learned well.  Indeed, the benefit from college for residential students, research that I was exposed to at the Frye Leadership Institute back in 2003 (I don't have a reference now but I'm sure my friend Lisa could provide it) says that what students learn from other students is far more important that what they get from their classes.  But nowadays there may be much less of this if what students do with other students is purely hedonistic (mainly drinking).

Brooks also notes that the nature of work is changing, rather dramatically, and school should be preparation for this brave new world, but hardly seems to be now.   To this one should add two further limitations regarding teachers.  Many, like me, had very little work outside of higher education and even among those of us in higher ed who did have administrative careers, there is the question whether that experience generalizes much, if at all, to the experiences of executives in the business world.  The other regards the age of the professoriate and that an instructor's sense of how and what to teach depends largely on what can be recalled from the instructor's experience as a student.   This seems to paint us into a corner.  One of my goals in this piece is to attempt to reconcile this particular issue.

Further, there is the issue of the patterns of school as a self-enforcing equilibrium, where those patterns are sub-optimal but end up blocking movement to something better.  Brooks' experience is from his teaching at Yale.   I don't know how long he's been doing that nor how many students he has taught, but I suspect his experience is different from mine, teaching econ majors at Illinois.  I described the issue as I see it at some length in a post, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study for exams?  Here I will give a brief synopsis of the argument.

Many students conceive of the process of school as: (a) take notes during lecture (or get the notes from a classmate), (b) memorize the notes, and (c) regurgitate the notes on the exam.  This conception is based on prior experience.  Students have had many classes in this style.  Students develop coping skills that become well honed for classes taught in this manner.  They come to prefer that other classes they take also be taught in this way, because they know they can meet the challenge of those classes.  Instructors who teach in some other manner run the risk that students will be dissatisfied with the instruction, especially when student feel under prepared for the exams in the alternative approach.  Students care a great deal about their grades and tend to measure class effectiveness by whether it allows them to meet their grade expectations. Adjuncts, instructors not on the tenure track, need to get decent teaching evaluations from students to maintain their jobs.  So these instructors, in particular, are under a lot of pressure to teach in a manner that affirms the student conception of school.

There is an inner logic by which the process makes sense to the participants.  But to an outsider one would have to ask, what's the point to all of this?  Over the years, I've written quite a bit on potential process reforms that make sense to me and are designed to fundamentally change the system in a way that would improve things.  The first year of this blog I wrote a bunch of posts (7 in total) on what I called Inward Looking Service Learning, where the thought was to make the study group the centerpiece of a class, formalize it so students are assigned to study groups, and then have these groups led by other students who had already taken the course and who concurrently get taught by the instructor in how to make the most out of the study group.  Continuing in this direction, I argued to do this with sufficient intensity that all students go through the experience as study group leaders.  More recently, I wrote a series of posts called Everybody Teaches, that reconsidered the inward looking service learning approach but also took up the faculty development question and how to do that seriously when in such a reform environment.

It is tempting to consider yet other possible process reforms.  Here, however, I will content myself with some big picture goals regarding "meta-skills" that the instruction should aim at developing.

Before that, however, let me put forward my view that much of undergraduate education for the traditional-aged student (18 - 22 years old), as it impacts how the student will do subsequently in the world of work, should focus on the mid-career professional ten to twenty years after graduation.  The students themselves tend to be very myopic, focusing instead on the entry-level job.  Their emphasis on grades reflects that myopic focus, as grades are an important qualification for the first job.  But grades cease to matter at all once the person has some real job experience. In certain fields, where the undergraduate degree is itself a professional degree, there is critical skill development that matters, of course.  I don't mean to preclude that skill development.  But my focus here will be on "general education," which in my view should occur not just before the student starts in on the major but be a significant part of the major as well, in ways that I will explain below.

Here are some reasons for taking this longer view about how education should benefit work.  First, it requires that the education be durable.  Second, it points to a set of skills for mid-career professionals that are needed regardless of the employer or the nature of the work. It thereby provides a way to get us out of being painted into the corner that I described above.  Third, it recognizes that even after having graduated the student is still immature and far from complete.  Further development is necessary and will happen while working.  Thus, the education must prepare the student to continue to develop and much of the undergraduate experience should be about teaching learning-to-learn skills.  Fourth, it makes the education task do-able, if challenging.  In contrast, Brooks made it seem impossible in his essay.  Last, at present much of school doesn't make sense to students.  It seems like a bunch of hurdles to get over, nothing more.  This is a way to get students to understand why general education matters and how it prepares them for their careers.

I want to reference two works that paint a picture of what I have in mind.  One is The Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schon.  Undergraduate education should be readying students for a work life that embraces reflective practice.  I read Schon's book twenty years ago.  I think much of what he argues survives intact, even now.  There may have to be some modification to what he says based on how the nature of work has changed since.  I will speculate on that some as well.

The other piece is The Seasoned Executive Decision-Making Style by Brousseau, Driver, Hourihan, and Larsson.  Among the points made in this essay is that many middle managers have a very difficult time when breaking into upper level management.  Their way of thinking as a middle manager no longer applies and they don't have an effective alternative to replace it.  I like to frame the issue as managing down versus managing out.  Managing down is primarily about supervision.  Managing out is about setting direction and ensuring the organization's goals and activities are in reasonably good alignment.  What I'm arguing here is that well before the person has the responsibility to manage out the person should put in considerable thinking about what is required to do just that.  Seeing the big picture requires practice.   If we expect people at mid career to have the right skills and perspective, they need a path the readies them for this.

Now to the list of goals.  Each goal is coupled with a brief explanation to justify why it is there.

Learning to build a credible narrative, one that matches the situation under consideration to the available technique that the person brings to analysis of the situation.  Reflective practice is situated story telling.  What makes for a good story?  The received wisdom of the situation must be incorporated as well as the particulars of the circumstance.  If the theory is perfect, all the particulars can be explained by it and the story demonstrates how that happens.  No theory is perfect in this way, however, so the story must consider what can be explained by the theory as well as to discuss the variation that must be due to factors outside the model.  There may be multiple possible theories for what is going on.  In some cases it will be right to borrow a little from each of those explanations, to get a better fit of the situation.  In other cases one explanation prevails and the other candidate explanations have to be discarded.  The story telling justifies which of these is chosen.  Further, the story must be able to be told to others who are skeptical but willing to listen.  A good story addresses the criticism that such a skeptic brings.  It also welcomes such criticism, because in addressing the critique the story will be made more robust.

I want to note here that memorization doesn't help with development of this story telling skill.  For the right type of skill development the learner must translate what has been taught in the classroom to novel situations where it is not obvious whether the classroom lesson is applicable or not.  In the book How People Learn, this skill is referred to as transfer. Much of our undergraduate education should be about getting students to practice transfer. It is not easy for the novice to do this and students might not want to try something when they are not good at it immediately.  There is no doubt, however, that this is what a good chunk of undergraduate education should be doing.

Learning that a story is built up over time from an iterative process.  It does not emerge from one big gestalt on the situation.  So learners must come to understand that they need to get past their first impression of a situation and do a full exploration of what is going on. There is a mysterious belief among students that experts "get it" immediately and that getting it means getting all of it right from the start.  In contrast, non-experts are thought not to get it at all.  Under these beliefs, there is no room for anything in the middle nor any sense of a process by which a fuzzy picture might be brought into sharper contrast.  A more realistic view is that experts also learn in any particular situation.  The expert brings a mature process to facilitate this learning, while the non-expert doesn't have the tools to make progress in understanding the situation.  My friend Chip introduced me to the notion of an Inquiry Cycle, which follows from the work of John Dewey. Getting a good picture of what is going on requires several cycles.  There is no set number of these.  As long as there is a fundamental question that remains unanswered in order to understand the situation, the process must continue.  The inquiry cycle approach helps the person develop basic humility, by recognizing there will be things unknown, for the time being and perhaps beyond that.  One might make tentative conjectures about what is not known, but then subsequently those might be shown to be wrong by further inquiry. 

Learning that failure is part of the process.  Failure is often intermediate product.  This brings to mind the Edison quote:  "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Thus, patience and persistence become a virtue and that must be learned.  One way that undergraduate education itself fails now is by allowing cramming to be a strategy many students embrace because it produces good results grade-wise.  Cramming almost certainly happens near a deadline.  So it precludes failure as a possibility.  Learning to fail means understanding that success takes as long as it takes and can't be shoehorned into a narrow time slot.  Yet practical reality does impose some deadlines on us and we have to learn to live with the deadlines.  A practical accommodation requires learning to initiate earlier rather than to procrastinate.

Learning to be cooperative without being subservient.  There is a duality between understanding what is good for the work group, on the one hand, and maintaining one's own world view, on the other.  The former often requires skills of reading between the lines to understand group needs or to be able to reframe questions in a way where group goals can be addressed in a meaningful way.  Sometimes this is done by the individual then acting on the answers in a way that benefits the group.  Other times this is done by discussing those answers with others in the group to empower them into action.  In other words, being cooperative is more than merely doing as assigned, though that is certainly necessary on occasion.  If one is actively trying to understand what is good for the group without having the ultimate authority to set group direction, then one must admit the possibility that there will be instances where the articulated direction set by somebody else is perceived as problematic by the individual.  Bringing those issues out into the open doesn't have to be a painful process, especially if the leader (the one with the responsibility for setting the group direction) is known to welcome criticism from group members.  But it can cause conflict when the leader is defensive and wants the articulated prior view to prevail, at all costs.  Of course, one should aim for tact when expressing a contrary view.  But one should not repress opinions on important matters for the sake of group cohesion, as this will ultimately cause the group to perform poorly.  This is a very hard to learn.  How important must the issue be to bring the contrary view out into the open?   Conversely, how does one find the line where discretion demands not making a fuss about something because the issue isn't that important?

This last one I don't believe is in Schon's book The Reflective Practitioner, but it is implicit in Argyris and Schon's work on single loop (Model 1) and double loop (Model 2) learning.  How should the employee act when the employee has a Model 1 boss, who wants to win arguments and never wants to be shown up by his staff?  This question does not have an easy answer.  The integrity of the employee requires struggling through to an answer on a case by case basis rather than apply a ready made formula.  For this last goal I've described above, it is clear the employee will prefer to have a Model 2 boss, but the employee needs to learn to cope when that is not the case.

* * * * *

The goals I've listed are meant to address the first question in my title.  What of the second question?  I don't want to give a full analysis of that here.  I want to make a simple point and then close.  This regards the relationship between student learning in school and student learning outside of school.  It should be clear that the more of the latter there is, the more effective the former will be and the more targeted the former can be. In contrast, if students are not getting the right sort of life lessons outside of school, then school must provide a substitute for those otherwise unlearned life lessons.  But, of necessity, if school is doing this it will dilute the school mission and make it less effective in delivering on that mission.

There is now quite a lot of pressure on institutions of higher learning to produce success as measured by throughput - how many students graduate.  The degree itself is the prize, regardless of what the degree signifies.  Yet we should acknowledge that the degree has been depreciating for a while now, ergo the documentary Declining by Degrees, the book Academically Adrift, and a host of other exposés of this sort.

The path to something better for undergraduate education will be long and difficult to follow.  But it should begin with some understanding of the current situation and what we should want via terms of improvement.  I've written this piece not as an answer but I do hope it sheds some light on the situation and what our goals should be.

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