Educating Tools

By Patrick J. Deneen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

A steady drumbeat is building into a deafening din: education has one aim, and one aim only: prepare students for jobs in our global economy.

This mandate comes from the top-down: it is President Obama’s one insistent refrain when speaking about education, and why he thus insists we must invest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

One characteristic expression of this view was found in an op-ed in last week’s New York Times by arch-“rationalist” Susan Jacoby, who insisted that local control of education was an antiquated legacy of our agrarian past and that a “national classroom” must effectively be established so that students can compete in a global market: “what made sense for a sparsely settled continent at the dawn of the Republic is ill suited to the needs of a 21st-century nation competing in a global economy.”

Then there is this nugget from today’s “Inside Higher Education,” which uses all of the buzzwords that I hear everyday by the leadership on my own campus:

“Colleges can reduce costs without compromising quality, but not without substantial changes in the way they provide instruction, writes Michael Bassis”:

But we know there is another way to think about quality. Beginning with Sandy Astin in the 1980’s and extending to Jamie Merisotis today, some of the best thinkers in higher education have urged us to define the quality in terms of student outcomes.

The notion of defining quality in terms of outputs rather than inputs, by the achievements of our graduates rather than the achievements of our entering class, had been a key element in the strategic plan my institution began developing in 2002. During the planning process, dissatisfaction with traditional models of education came to the surface. Faculty said they wanted to move away from giving lectures and then having students parrot the information back to them on tests. They said they were tired of complaining that students couldn’t write well or think critically, but not having the time to address those problems because there was so much material to cover. And they were concerned when they read that employers had reported in national surveys that, while graduates knew a lot about the subjects they studied, they didn’t know how to apply what they had learned to practical problems or work in teams or with people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Based on those concerns, and informed by the literature on the “teaching to learning” paradigm shift, we began to change our focus from what we were teaching to what and how our students were learning. In the process, we broadened our conception of what students should learn by including more than subject-specific information. We established what we call college-wide learning goals that focus on “essential” skills and attributes that are critical for success in our increasingly complex world. These include critical and analytical thinking, creativity, writing and other communication skills, leadership, collaboration and teamwork, and global consciousness, social responsibility and ethical awareness.

Shifting our paradigm from teaching to learning enabled us to approach the question of cost in an entirely new way. Instead of assuming we needed all of the expensive accouterments of quality, we could focus our attention on those things known to have the most impact on student learning. And it doesn’t take long to discover that, despite claims to the contrary, many of the factors that drive up costs add little value. Research conducted by Dennis Jones and Jane Wellman found that “there is no consistent relationship between spending and performance whether that is measured by spending against degree production, measures of student engagement, evidence of high impact practices, students’ satisfaction with their education, or future earnings.” Indeed, they concluded that “the absolute level of resources is less important than the way those resources are used.”

So we started searching the literature for instructional designs that require fewer resources and result in high levels of student learning. The ones we found shared certain characteristics. They were driven by clear learning goals and involved extensive assessment and feedback to students. They stressed active learning and took maximum advantage of technology. In each design, faculty spent less time lecturing and more time coaching, proactively asking and answering questions with groups of students. And faculty were assisted in their coaching role by teaching assistants or peer mentors. Finally, economies of scale helped to produce significant cost savings.

With these principles in mind, and with support and encouragement from my board, I decided to commission a demonstration project. I pulled together a team from our school of business and told them that the goal was to develop an undergraduate degree completion program in business that produced more and better learning at half the cost of our traditional program. After more than a year, the group had developed what we now describe as a low-residency, project- and competency-based program. Here students don’t take courses or earn grades. The requirements for the degree are for students to complete a series of projects, captured in an electronic portfolio, that mirror core activities in the business world. To complete each project, students must acquire and apply specific competencies – competencies identified as necessary to function effectively in a modern business.

Unless we develop true forms of “critical thinking” that allow us to “think critically” about acquiescence to demands of “global competition” – which is another way of describing a frenzied belief that we are creatures determined to engage in a race to the bottom in the exploitation of human labor and the world’s resources through an active cultivation of temporal narrowness, generational disjunction, placelessness and deracination – then we will surely cease to understand what the words “liberal education” mean, much less attain the capacity to enjoy the “liberty” that it was conceived to furnish and support.

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