Last week I attended two events focused on education. The first was hosted by Inside Higher Ed entitled “Higher Education and the New Congress.” This event consisted of a day long series of presentations about proposed updates to the Higher Education Act. The second was a workshop in my local K-8 school district, where I am a member of the Board of Education. This day focused on re-designing physical spaces to support new pedagogies. Heidi Hayes Jacobs (Bold Moves for Schools) spent the day discussing the ways in which the layout of classrooms (and schedules) reflect and shape the learning.
All of these conversations got me thinking about how we approach the design of educational experiences in higher education. Despite years of research about pedagogy and outcomes, we have a tendency to avoid consulting the literature. We make our decisions based on the past (how we learned, how we’ve taught so far), not on research. Some of us run small experiments with a new technique, but the experiment is generally not followed up on with the entire university. We operate on beliefs and intuition, not on systematic analysis.
Don’t get me wrong, lots of good learning experiences do occur on college campuses, and on mine in particular. Faculty earnestly design and redesign their courses based on the outcomes of the semester before. That first hand experience and effort should not be discounted. Faculty want their students to succeed and they tweak assignments, try new readings, and occasionally experiment with new technologies. But these efforts never become a university strategy for teaching excellence. They are done one by one, only occasionally consulting the literature on teaching, and with little impact on the university overall.
To be fair, faculty are constrained by the environments we have created. The physical spaces tell a story. Are the chairs moveable? If yes, we can collaborate. If no, we are set up for individual learning. Are the rooms large or small? The answer will determine the range of activities available to the professor. The physical spaces constrain the pedagogies available. Faculty are also constrained by semesters, time, and credit hour definitions, leaving little room to imagine curriculum in different chunks than those standardized units. Most faculty would be surprised to be asked to even think about those constraints. We have come to see them as a natural precondition for curriculum planning.
They aren’t natural, nor are the written in stone tablets. The space and the time structures of education are made by us and they can be revised. However, to do so will require careful planning across academic areas and they must draw from well structured research. We don’t want to undo our good traditions in favor of the new, without any justification and evidence that the new will improve things.
Here’s what I mean about time structures. We may find some compelling research about how much time we should spend working on quantitative reasoning each week if we want to improve our students’ engagement with this essential analytic skill. If that time is different from what we have allotted in our traditional course structures, we may wish to make an adjustment, but that change could impact student and faculty schedules in complex ways. The evidence from the scholarship may be compelling, but we may not move forward because of the complexity of how we’ve organized time.
Let’s be clear, not all things are best learned in long blocks of time. Some things are better done in short bursts of discussion followed by quick applications and then a break. Other topics (or students) need intensive engagement for long periods. These differences do not necessarily fit into our current structures. We are fitting square pegs in round holes.
I say all this for two reasons. First, in the meeting with Heidi Hayes Jacobs, she started with two simple questions: “How can we prepare our learners for their futures?” and “What pedagogy best serves engagement?” These questions drove our conversation as we looked at building design. It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss some of the research on the connections between pedagogies, spaces, time, and learning. We rarely get to think this way about space and time, when we approach building design. We moved into discussions of places where some pretty radical changes have taken place (Finland for instance) and how much more fluid those environments were. Faculty and students were able to change course and adjust time and space throughout the year to improve the experience. They weren’t trapped in a structure beyond their control. This kind of conversation has to take place in all levels of education. Instead of relying on projected enrollments and few pet projects (a lab, perhaps), we should be looking at the holistic and the research on learning.
The second reason is that much of the higher education environment is encoded in the Higher Education Act, and it too, is based more on tradition than science. The shape of that document reflects assumptions about teaching and learning that can be traced back at least 150 years (or to antiquity). While the heart of a good liberal arts education may still share some assumptions with Socrates, the ways in which we can achieve that education have broadened and shifted with increased access to both information and college. Indeed, this access was spurred on by the HEA. The result is a need for more research (and more funding).
The discussions I heard in DC last week nibbled around the edges of the HEA. Some of the proposals were scary, some were interesting, all seemed to have been shaped by political considerations rather than educational ones. Convenient statistics were quoted, but bodies of scholarship on pedagogy were not. Like our building structures and our schedule structures, our elected officials are viewing this document as if it arose from nature or was presented on a stone tablet. It needs a much bigger overhaul.
It’s time for all of us to change course. Let’s consult the research, compare approaches to teaching with other countries, imagine funding strategies that support student success, and create a comprehensive plan for research and development in education. Let’s not leave this to the good graces of our entrepreneurs (thanks Bill & Melinda Gates) or for-profit publishing and technology corporations. We need public investment in this public good. Let’s shift the paradigm from education by intuition, tradition, and hope (and politics) to education by strategy, experimentation, and design. And let’s drive that experimentation and design with those two questions asked by Heidi Hayes Jacobs. “How can we prepare our learners for the future? and “What pedagogy best serves engagement?”
Those two questions can take us a long way. With funding attached, they could a Smart New Deal.