Value of Higher Education - Glen Loppnow
By Glen Loppnow on Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Re: Is our students learning? by Margaret Wente (referencing the U.S. book “Academically Adrift”), published in the Globe and Mail on June 16, 2011:
"He who troubles his own house will inherit the wind." - Proverbs 11:29
First off, I haven't read the book, only articles written about it, so my opinions are colored by that.
Having said that, I still have a problem with people who blame the faculty or students for the perceived state of higher education. It is fruitless to rail against the students, or the faculty, just as it is fruitless for me, a chemist, to rail against atoms and molecules for not behaving the way I think they should. As teachers, this is the challenge we are given and there is no point in complaining about the nature of the students or the faculty. It is just mental masturbation to do this; lots of effort, but no real progress.
Yes, there are some students who are "drifting dreamers". Is there anything wrong with that? Maybe the world would be better with more dreamers who can envision a better world and then work to realize that dream. Deep down, I think it is our job to help students find their voice so that they can realize their vision. Until we get past the idea that university is a place to fill students with content, to the realization that university should be teaching our students to dream big and realize those dreams, we will never engage students.
Imagine a university where students are graded on the quality of their contribution to society in 4 years, rather than on how much content they have managed to temporarily memorize in that same time period. Imagine a world in which the paradigm of education has changed to one of serving society as they serve themselves, guided by experienced mentors rather than simply receiving information from sages on the stage. Imagine a world in which students at all levels and in all countries are mobilized to solve the global issues that confront us. Isn't that a better problem to focus on than this "blame game"?
Students have many competing priorities and they probably always have. Are students nowadays any different than they were when I was a student? Are children any different, fundamentally, than they were when I was a child? Definitely not. Curiosity is a fundamental human characteristic and will always be. Find the right hook and all students engage at full tilt. It is only the hook that changes with time; that is our fundamental challenge as teachers.
As far as research goes, maybe that is the hook on which we need to focus. Maybe we need to see research as a part of the teaching continuum and engage students earlier in doing and discovery, rather than in sitting and listening. Maybe we need to have students build their answers from spare parts and a very brief manual, rather than have them slavishly follow a recipe that has them deliver the same, expected answer as everyone else since the beginning of time.
I feel privileged to be able to teach university students. Maybe, in the end, all we need to do is the job that we were hired to do.
Glen Loppnow, Department of Chemistry, University of Alberta, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.
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