Last week I focused on the notion of slow education as a counter to the high-speed culture that surrounds us. I suggested that we shift away from the impulse to cover lots of material and toward a more reflective exploration of ideas. There is nothing new about my proposal. It neatly describes a old fashioned seminar approach to learning. Before we had access to every book ever written, we had to make do with a little less. This, perhaps, inspired more selectivity in the assignments and more time for discussion. Sounds like slow education to me.
However, those old-fashioned seminars were generally populated by the lucky few who had experienced a robust K-12 education, raised with the assumption that they were “college material.” Those students had been preparing for seminars their entire lives. Much to the betterment of society, we are inviting many more students to college these days. Not all have had this preparation for slower thinking. Even those who did have access to great schools and college-preparatory programs did not grow up in a reflective culture. The students in front of us were raised for bytes and speed. We need to teach our students how to do slow education.
So, I’ve been thinking about how to assist students in the transition from quick summaries, multiple choice exams, and “passing classes” to the slow, reflective learners we want them to be. I am not so far removed from the habits of young (and not so young) adults that I don’t know that this is a big shift. We can’t expect our students to jump into slow education. They need help learning to learn differently. This leads me to an idea I have been trying to figure out for a few years now. I call it Project 100.
Project 100 is the idea that we should design our 100 level courses to intentionally transition students from passive to active learners. Instead of putting students in survey courses that go over the high points of anthropology or psychology or history, let’s design 100 level classes focused on doing anthropology or psychology or history. Most universities already have “doing” courses, but they tend to be reserved for the major, and only after the introductory surveys. I think we have it all wrong. Putting students in survey courses in their first year of college just asks them to receive information, no matter how hard we try to engage them. These courses give a clear message to be passive. So, let’s ditch the survey course (or rather, save it for the 200 level and revise the goals) and ask our first year students to dive in to doing.
We can do this in any discipline–biology, business, art, or sociology–it really does not matter. We just have to help our students experience the joys and frustrations of developing a research question and then attempting to answer it. Instead of relying on surveys of a field, let’s organize the first year of college in such a way that our students become amateur scholars (detectives?) empowered to drive the curriculum themselves, by virtue of collaborating with peers and faculty in the development of research questions.
We could then re-map the first year so that students complete a balance of these 100 level doing courses in STEM, Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts. We’ll save a little room in the schedule for some of the disciplinary foundations students will need (theory for our musicians, anatomy and physiology for our nurses, etc.), but the rest of the first year will simply focus on this kind of question driven learning that puts education in the hands of the students. Toss in an FY orientation class and students should be fully transitioned from passive to active learners by the end of the first year.
Now, I bet you are wondering… is this still slow education? Sure. To do this kind of active, question driven class, we are going to have to abandon lists in favor of discovery. We will take the time to develop a research question with our students, first intuitively, then by exploring some scholarship related to the topic. Then we will be focused on figuring out how to answer that question (introductory methods only). We will be unburdened by the notion that we need to cover the history of a discipline and free to dig into just one idea. There will be lots of work, to be sure, but the work will be limited to introductory tools and methods. This will leave lots of time to discuss ideas and tools, test them, and even toss them out when we fail to see their value. All we have to focus on is helping our students discover ways to answer the questions they have devised with us. If we are really lucky, we will all leave with next questions in mind.
If we do it right, our students will leave their first year of college confident in their ability to lead discussions, collaborate with others, wrestle with new ideas, and capable of forming questions. They will not know a lot of detail about any particular discipline, but they will have foundational tools for learning that can support them as they begin to grapple with theory and history. Those foundational tools are exactly what our students need to bring to those nice, slow seminars, don’t you think?