Anyone who’s participated in the higher education system knows that it’s lacking passion: students don’t care about learning and professors view teaching as an unpleasant burden.
This is harmful on so many levels. It leads to pathetically inept college graduates and disenfranchises our most creative minds. Day by day, this inadequacy is crippling our nation’s ability to innovate. Here are a few ideas to address these issues:
1. Make Self Directed Learning Mandatory
Most schools offer Independent Study programs in one form or another. Sadly, they are taken by the vast minority of students, and usually only by those in dire need of credits and unable to get into required courses. Schools should make aggressive use of self directed learning programs to foster independent thinking and engagement amongst students. We’d all be amazed by the passion and creativity that result from students choosing a topic relevant to their major and pursuing knowledge unencumbered. There would be complaints that these programs make it difficult to assign grades and that it’s too hard for students to pick a topic, but these are symptoms of our main problems: professorial laziness and the stifling of independent thought.
2. Pay Top Teachers Like the Rockstars They Are
It’s easy to understand why most professors dislike teaching: it doesn’t pay. Why invest the time and energy it takes to teach effectively when the real financial rewards come from research and corporate consulting? To encourage better teaching the proper incentives must be put in place. Top notch educators should be compensated accordingly for the massive value they create. Actually bringing this about is a difficult proposition, as the value of a mind inspired is not easily translated to dollar and cents. Our best hope is advocating the value created by top notch teachers until university management finally gets it. How much more valuable is a well taught student to the university over the long term? I would bet they go on to greater success and are much more active and generous alumni. We need to recognize the marketing and monetary benefits of outstanding teaching.
3. De-Emphasize Grades
The vast majority of student concerns involve grades: How will this affect my grade? Is this going to be on the test? etc. Who can blame them? The academic system is structured to assign a number to every student and rank them accordingly. This makes grades the primary goal of education, with pursuit of knowledge and development of character taking a distant back seat. Our society needs to evolve towards a more enlightened view of education. This will take years to accomplish, but we need to create non-grade based incentives that encourage every student, not just those at the high end up the curve. We need to recognize creativity and personal growth with personalized methods of evaluation. We need to start treating students like individuals.
4. Give Students the Flexibility to Forge Their Own Path
Countless times I’ve seen students wishing to pursue an area of study outside their major broken by the academic system. Without exception they have been remarkable individuals and it pained me greatly to see their disappointment. Rather than fostering their intellectual ambition, the system has told them to stop trying. We need to build flexibility into the system to allow these students to discover themselves. Choosing a major is not a lifetime commitment. During the college years, students are in the process of discovering their place in the world. Instead of forcing them into a rigid system, we need to encourage exploration. The most common reason for denying students entrance to courses is limited openings. We need to fix this by using technology to make courses more scalable.
5. Reward Independent Thinking
During my student days, I came to the depressing realization that most professors actively discourage independent thought. Any open questioning of the curriculum is met with resentment and often punished with bad grades. Mediocre professors hate being questioned because it challenges their authority and (most dreadfully) could require them to rework their lectures and homework assignments. When did the purpose of education stop being the pursuit of truth? Intellectual curiosity and healthy skepticism are the foundations of learning. As long as independent thought is discouraged, we will continue to push our brightest minds away from the academic system.
6. Use Cutting Edge Technology
Given that the internet is a product of the academic community, it’s remarkable how slow we’ve been to harness it’s power for education. I guess this makes sense on some level. The university system is hesitant to adopt a technology that will make it largely irrelevant. Why pay tens of thousands of dollars for information that is freely available? Fighting this truth won’t do academia any more good than it’s done for newspapers or record labels. The most successful schools of the future will be the first to leverage technology to create the best student experience. Using new technology will also excite and motivate students, by making education a creative field, rather than a stodgy way point in between childhood and the real world.
7. Connect Education to the Real World
A common refrain amongst students is that “such and such doesn’t matter because it has no bearing on reality”. In most cases they are absolutely right. In it’s quest to maintain prestige, academia has taken a perverse pride in being useless. This is a great disservice to students, who graduate completely unprepared to apply their skills to the real world. Every program, no matter how obscure, should take pains to highlight it’s usefulness. English majors should spend less time learning about obscure literary works and more time understanding how their language skills can be used to improve every day communications. The same is true for all disciplines. The more students see how the skills they are taught can have a meaningful impact on the outside world, the more encouraged they will be to develop them.