Higher Education

Snow Days: Time to Breathe

It’s March 4th and we have a delayed opening today.  We had a proper snow storm last night, that is,  it was actually snow.  We’ve been plagued with snow/ice storms this year, so nice mushy, good for snow ball fights snow is kind of fun.  I put on my snow boots and shoveled my numerous steps (30 if you want to know), enjoying the feel of the snow and the wonderful silence that comes with it.

I’m old fashioned about snow.  I like that is slows us down a little.  I use a regular shovel because the snow blower is too noisy. It ruins the way that snow dampens sound, helping us hear things that are often drowned out by the bustle of the world around us.  Not the least of this is the bustle of tasks that can’t be done because roads are not yet passable.  For me it is delay to be grateful for… a pause that makes room for thinking.

We need more room for that pause… in our lives and in our classrooms.  In a world that seems to run on overdrive, education is one of the few places where we should make time to think and explore.  As I shoveled, I started thinking about the structure of what we do in higher education.  We’ve organized undergraduate education into 4 years, with 8 semesters and an average of 15 weeks in each.  It seems like a nice amount of time to explore ideas, build some beginning expertise in a major, and develop the habits of mind that will help us continue learning for the rest of our lives. Yet somehow it isn’t.

We’ve over-filled this experience.  So afraid of missing something important, we have bulked up the major requirements so there is less room for exploration of minors and electives. We’ve hidden requirements in the general education curriculum as a way to add more to the majors.  We’ve created new courses for every outcome required by the various accrediting bodies. In some majors, every single course a student takes as an undergraduate is a requirement. There’s no room for thinking and there’s no room for mistakes.

Now consider the fact that students are generally taking five courses in a semester, each with sufficient reading, writing, and application of concepts to merit a true college course, we might be less surprised that our students are having difficulty doing more than skimming their work.  In an effort to cover it all, we’ve encouraged them to be acquainted with concepts instead of trying to really know them. Oh, and they have jobs, and would like to participate in campus life, and maybe do an internship or study abroad!  Whew!

In the last decade, many of us have done curriculum mapping.  We’ve tried to figure out reasonable pathways through majors to achieve the learning we think is essential.  These were good thoughts, a start to an important transition from lists of courses to take, to a vision for what our majors and alumni should take with them as they go.  This curriculum mapping came to us as a series accountability demands that we were not happy about, but in the end a lot of learning came out if it. We started to notice things we hoped for as outcomes, that were not being adequately addressed in our courses.  We closed loops and had retreats and tried to imagine the best for our students.

Well it’s time to revisit those degree outcomes on a larger scale. Instead of just thinking about the major, we need to think about the total undergraduate experience.  We need to ask questions about the kinds of opportunities we want our students to have, not in isolation, but as a whole.  How will their courses influence and inform each other? How will they integrate their work in the classroom with their work and co-curricular experiences?  When will we encourage independence and decision making?  How will we make room for the learning to sink in?

This is the educational mapping I’d like us to consider.  Let’s pull a representative sample of student course schedules, and examine the course requirements.  Is there really enough time to complete the work well, when they are combined?  Is there room for reflection? Is there room for mistakes, confusion, and recovery?  Now, add to those requirements some hours for a part-time job and some hours for clubs or sports or just hanging out.  If what we see is something we can’t imagine completing each week, we will know it is time to design a more holistic curriculum map.

The undergraduate experience has a lot of responsibility for preparing students for life-long learning.  Our graduates are entering a world where they will change jobs numerous times.  Technologies change weekly and their ability to adapt as needed will depend on deeply ingrained skills and habits of mind.  We can’t be distracted by the sheer volume of human knowledge, accelerating at an ever-increasing pace.  It is ever-expanding and easily accessed. Instead, we should be making room for reflection, deep engagement with ideas, and opportunities for some unexpected discoveries.  We need to do less and think more.

The snow storm has passed. The shoveling is done.  The sun shines on the white blanket that mother nature spread last night.  I’m moving back into the bustle of things.  But I’m grateful for the pause and the deep breath it inspires. I’m hoping we can find some ways to build those deep breaths into all that we do at the university.


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