Higher Education Teaching

composition, general education, and the flipped classroom

I've been reading Seth Godin's manifesto for revolutionizing education. Here's a taste:

43. How not to teach someone to be a baseball fan

Teach the history of baseball, beginning with Abner Doubleday and the impact of cricket and imperialism. Have a test.

Starting with the Negro leagues and the early barnstorming teams, assign students to memorize facts and figures about each player. Have a test.

Rank the class on who did well on the first two tests, and allow these students to memorize even more statistics about baseball players. Make sure to give equal time to players in Japan and the Dominican Republic.

Send the students who didn’t do as well to spend time with a lesser teacher, but assign them similar work, just over a longer time frame. Have a test.

Sometime in the future, do a field trip and go to a baseball game. Make sure no one has a good time. 

If there’s time, let kids throw a baseball around during recess.

Obviously, there are plenty of kids (and adults) who know far more about baseball than anyone could imagine knowing. And none of them learned it this way.

The industrialized, scalable, testable solution is almost never the best way to generate exceptional learning.

Everyone knows that the general problem with general education, including composition, is that students don't want to be there (and often instructors don't want to be there). We typically take on general education courses as an obligation. Perhaps it is a problem much like the baseball example. After all there are many people who passionate about writing, history, biology, and so on, but they probably didn't get there in a general education class. 

From what I see, Godin's manifesto raises many familiar points:

  • the factory model of education: testing, centralized authority, mass education
  • education focuses on compliance and obedience
  • what teachers and students need are opportunities to take risks and find passions
  • the post-industrial economy requires "creative" thinkers and schools actually work against creativity
  • the internet dramatically changes what we can do with learning

I think that every faculty member I've ever met would agree with the first three. They would probably agree with the fourth to some degree, though they would reject the idea that schooling is primarily about preparing a workforce (instead they might say citizens) and they might question how many so-called "creative" workers our economy will actually bear. The fifth item would be the one that would raise the most suspicion. In a way this is understable since it is easy to see how the internet feeds into the dumbed-down culture that Godin otherwise laments. But at the same time, what Godin and others see is how the internet has the capacity to be a powerful tool for learning (also a familiar story).

So what happens then? We hear stories about master teachers and inspring students, just as we hear stories about awful teachers and dull students. Is this simply a matter of personality? Maybe, but only if we also recognize that our attitudes and behaviors are structured by our environment. Faculty, I believe, often feel locked in by general education curriculum. They respond negatively to the mandates of committee-driven standard outcomes (at SUNY Gen Ed outcomes are established at the statewide level). Students similarly respond to college requirements as an extension of their K12 compulsory education. This potentially creates a negative feedback loop where student passivity leads to increasingly teacher-centric pedagogy driven by centralized requirements that everyone experiences as an imposition (even if the instructor might essentially agree with the principles of general education).

I don't agree with the principles of general education. In fact, I believe they are fatally flawed. 

Think fast. What's the point of gen ed? To ensure that all students have a common baseline knowledge across the disciplines (humanities, arts, and sciences) and certain basic skills (the 3 R's). In more recent years we've added global/multicultural content and information literacy. 

Why is this important? …. Because knowledge is an essential good? Because a college education is supposed to mean something besides "job training"? Because if we are going to allow the barbarians inside the gate then we can at least try to make sure they aren't barbarians when they leave? Because we should pass along to the next generation the education we received? Because a certain common knowledge is needed for a modern democracy? All of the above? Let's go with the last one and assume these are valid reasons. American college students have all experienced the K12 compulsory general education. So what is one more year (which is what Gen Ed bascially amounts to) going to do? General education programs began in the 1920s when K12 education was far more haphazard than it is today. Perhaps there was a need to make sure students had a common baseline. Today, we have the opposite problem: too much standardization. And if we can see anything, we ought to be able to see that standardization doesn't produce desirable results. 

General education needs to have the opposite effect. This what I see in composition, where the last thing students need are more rules, guidelines, or models regarding how to write. Godin gives us the example of how LEGOS have changed from the 70s as an example of this. Back then (when I was a kid), LEGOS basically came in general sets of pieces, with no instructions as to how they should be assembled. Today LEGO sets are mostly snap-together models, typically of some movie franchise. Students have learned to view writing as a snap together model and assume that "academic writing" is just a new model to learn. Instead of giving them this, we need students to take risks with writing and build something they have envisioned for themselves. I would contend the same basic principle would apply to all the gen ed areas.

So here's my suggestion. Gen Eds typically take up 30-40 credits. Basically one full-time year of college. Instead of having students spend one additional year in a K12 style compulsory education classroom, what would happen if we did the following. Admit students to a university and say that before the could begin taking classes in their major, they needed to complete the gen ed program, which would be roughly equivalent to one year of full-time study, but would be structured in a radically different way, with a minimal amount of the conventional classroom experience.

  1. You take all the conventional lecture and textbook material and make it available online. We'll likely need to modify this as we move forward, but we can start with what we have.
  2. Rather than asking faculty to teach gen ed courses, we are going to ask them to devote a certain amount of time to this program. I typically think of a 3-credit course as equivalent to 100 hours of work. The students are taking 10-12 courses, so they're doing 1000+ hours of work over the course of a year.
  3. Part of the work could be community based: service learning, business incubators, field research in the sciences or social sciences, historical preservation, community reporting, etc. etc.
  4. The rest of the work would take place on-campus but it would be collaborative and project-based, resulting in a portfolio that satisfied the requirements of general education. 

If we do in fact believe that general education makes for good citizens, then students should be able to demonstrate their contributions as citizens through learning. The point is to get students out of the classroom as much as possible, out of their established roles as students sitting at desks, and offer them a different orientation toward learning. I know that I could create a composition program that would operate in this environment with some online instructional materials; digital tools to support writing research and collaboration; student affinity groups based around writing interests facilitated by instructors/tutors who meet as necessary; a writing center that offers support and a centralized location for writing activities including technology, tutors, workshops, and so on. I won't be so bold as to suggest how other areas of gen ed could be transformed, but I am confident they could be. 

In the end, there would have to be some kind of evaluation and perhaps some badge-like accomplishments along the way. In some ways we'd have to change our gen ed expectations. At the very least we would be rethinking a lot of what passes for proof of knowledge (i.e. test results). Afterward, we could return students to a more conventional classroom curriculum (I guess), if we think that's what's best. But as faculty and students we would have had experience with a different kind of learning experience. 


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