Friday, August 12, 2016

"Can't you make it fun for them?"

Educators at all levels have heard this question. It is difficult not to take it as an insult. It's like saying to the parent of a crying infant, "Can't you keep that baby quiet?" To the extent that it is possible to make the educational experience enjoyable for students, while still fulfilling educational objectives, of course educators try to do that.

Thoughtless though the question may be, it hints at a much better question, one that deserves a thoughtful reply: Why is it so difficult to make education fun for students? (A quick disclaimer: I can only speak to higher education. I have only a vague idea of how elementary- and secondary-school teachers do what they do.)

First off, if the goal is to make class time fun, it's easy, even if you want to maintain a pretense of educational value. Play TED talks or other videos, let students debate some controversy like gun control, invite chatty guest speakers, take field trips (but don't call them that). Making class time fun (or at least engaging) and effective at the same time is much more difficult. Teaching well is challenging in the best of circumstances, and it approaches the impossible if the students are not amenable to the educational process.

Education is supposed to be a transformative experience. In learning new ways of thinking, students' existing ways of thinking come under attack. Not only that, but if students are to learn anything, they cannot bear this assault passively: they must participate willingly in the violence being done to them by engaging with educational activities, whatever they may be. Some people enjoy being confronted with something that forces them to think about the world in a new way; but going through the process is difficult for anyone and objectionable to many students. Plenty of students are overtly hostile toward the educational process. I've never heard a student claim that it should be easy, or that undergraduate education should be some gentle continuation of secondary school, but many students act as if they are making such presumptions. Some students want to learn, some students would be perfectly happy to punch the clock for four years and then take their degree and leave.

In a previous post, I referred to research indicating that a significant portion of students are not getting what we think they should from their undergraduate curriculum--critical thinking skills, etc.--and many students don't even perceive these objectives to be of value. They want the degree but not the education; they want to get through their undergraduate program with minimal effort in order to get a job. Consider the possible combinations of two conditions:
  1. Students want the education and are getting it.
  2. Students want the education but aren't getting it.
  3. Students don't want the education but are getting it.
  4. Students don't want the education and aren't getting it.
When it comes to students, there's all sorts; we may find representatives from each of the four groups together in the very same classroom. When (1) applies, everyone is happy and we have nothing to discuss. If (2) holds, we need to think about our educational methods and whether and how we can improve them. In the case of (3), i.e. if we are able to foist education upon unwilling students, it's not really a problem, or it's only a small one. The process is accomplishing what it is supposed to, but perhaps we could make it more enjoyable for students. This would be worth doing if it is possible to do so without defeating the educational goals. I'm not sure there's even anyone in category (3), or if so I think it's a very small minority. My instinct and experience lead me to believe that a student must at least value the end result and be amenable to the process in order to garner the benefits of a liberal arts education. But I think that a significant portion of today's undergraduates are in category (4), and that one is the real killer.

The underlying challenge with the latter subset of students is to get them to want to be educated. I'm not sure it's even possible to instill intellectual curiosity in an undergraduate who doesn't already have it, and I certainly don’t know how to do it. I am, however, open to the possibility: if someone can figure out a way to get students to be ready to experience a serious liberal arts education, then let's do that. If not, I think that students should have an alternative path to the kinds of careers that currently demand an undergraduate degree, about which I have posted previously.

Consider an analogy. Windsurfing isn't easy. It might be relatively easy to pick up for someone already skilled in both surfing and sailing, but the average person has to put considerable time and energy into learning how to do it. (I couldn't say how much. I gave up after one afternoon.) The process is difficult and likely to be unpleasant at least part of the time, but you have to go through it to be able to windsurf. Then you can windsurf, which is fun in itself (I imagine), and on top of that you get the sense of accomplishment. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, one might hate learning to windsurf but love having learned to windsurf.

In the same way, learning is hard and sometimes unpleasant, but having learned is supposed to be pleasurable, among other things. In the analogue of students wanting the degree but not the education, it's not only that they want learning to windsurf to be easy and fun. They reject the idea that there is any value in learning it. The value resides in the idea of windsurfing or the windsurfing subculture rather than participation in the activity. Students want to associate with windsurfing without actually windsurfing: by wearing the gear, hanging out with windsurfers, etc. And the real travesty is that students think that they really are windsurfers, that they are getting all that there is to get out of it. They utterly miss the point of windsurfing, losing an opportunity to broaden their horizons and incurring the disdain of windsurfers. They should either do the windsurfing or get off the beach and do something else.

When people talk about problems with higher education, they often seem to be assuming that we are in case (2) above. I would argue that that is quite a heroic assumption and that it draws attention away from the real problem. (Another disclaimer: I'm speaking from the mainstream of higher education. I'm not sure how things are at elite colleges and universities nowadays.) Nationwide, undergraduate curricula have been undergoing revision. I worry that the focus on developing better educational methods coupled with the pressure we face to satisfy students will lead to doing more of what is fun and easy for students and less of educational substance. I would not accuse anyone of doing this consciously, but even the most well-intentioned educators feel tremendous pressure to keep students happy (or at least not hostile) even if that means abandoning standards. Curricular innovations like "experiential learning" can have real value, but they can also be used as an excuse to dumb down the curriculum (think field trips). More educational time and energy is spent on helping students to navigate the details of the modern world and less on the fundamentals of thought and expression. And so forth. Thus the undergraduate experience becomes more of a signal and less an actual education: even if a student doesn't learn anything, obtaining an undergraduate degree demonstrates to the world that the student is reasonably responsible and intelligent.

If that isn't bad enough, here are two more problems with this scenario. It is becoming untenably expensive to maintain this pretense of education, if that's really what we’re doing; and at the same time, we are depriving the students who would benefit the most from a real education. I'm not talking about the smartest students, but rather the ones that are interested in learning. I have had some delightful B and even C students whose abilities were modest but who gained a great deal from their education. I feel especially bad about those students who could benefit from a rigorous education but don't have the ability, or perhaps the presence of mind, to seek it out actively. Anyone can get a great education anywhere, but they might have to take a lot of initiative to do it--to do more than the minimum their degree program demands. But it's hard for me to lead those students who need to be led when they're in the same room with those who don't want me to lead them anywhere.

If the evidence is correct, we’re failing. We can only change that if we recognize what the problem really is.

No comments:

Post a Comment