Thoughts on Education

I have been having some phenomenal conversations over the past several days about the way we teach and how we can do better, specifically at the university level. These conversations have been slowly introducing a new idea to me: that education is an act of democratization. If we teach well, we empower our students to do anything they want with their careers and their lives. If we teach poorly, our students are subtly pushed out of areas they were once interested in, or denied entry to challenging fields.

Of course this sounds obvious, and I know much smarter people have said this before (I just read Michelle Obama’s beautiful memoir and this was a huge theme in her book) but somehow it had never quite clicked for me before. Until recently, I saw bad lectures and poor teaching as an inconvenience - something that meant that I was going to have to work harder, but never something that was going to prevent me from continuing on in my chosen field. I never saw them as insurmountable obstacles that make it impossible for many students to pursue a degree in higher education. But that’s exactly what poor teaching is - it blocks your progress in life. For too long, in higher education especially, we have blamed students for struggling to master concepts. We’ve framed their difficulties as a sign that their earlier education was poor. Often students feel as though they’re the only ones in a class who cannot master concepts, because everyone else looks confident (but they are probably just stoically hiding their confusion). Students lose faith in themselves - they switch majors to something easier but less interesting to them, or they drop out altogether. I think it is a more recent development to look at the other side of the university classroom, and ask why the professor isn’t doing more to ensure that students master the material.

We should be meeting students where they are. The first semester in college should be spent making sure all students have the same fundamental understanding of the material, filling holes in their knowledge and getting them adjusted to studying at university. And in higher level classes, I’m becoming more certain all the time that lectures are ineffective at teaching the material. I only have anecdotal evidence from my own experiences and those of my friends, but that evidence suggests that lecture is only good for introducing concepts in a broad sense. The real learning happens in recitation, in lab, and on the homework. If that’s the case, why do we insist on making lecture the central component of a class? Why aren’t we all rushing to implement active learning at the university level?

I understand that changing to active learning is a huge shift. It requires completely changing the way a standard course is taught. It probably also requires cutting the amount of material that a course will cover, because active learning is slower than flying through topics in a lecture format. Moreover, professors who have been teaching the same course for years are unlikely to restructure their courses, and not because they are bad people, but because the university is unlikely to reward them for taking massive amounts of time to rebuild a course that they have already established, especially when it takes time away from research and grant writing. Active learning is slower, and could mean that a class won’t cover all the topics required by an external accreditation board. But I wonder what the point is of teaching students so many topics if it’s unlikely that they will master all of them? Wouldn’t it be better to teach a smaller number of fundamental concepts that the students can master and use effectively for the rest of their careers?

Written on November 22, 2019