Friday, January 23, 2009

Defending the classroom

I've just returned from the Association of American Colleges and Universities annual conference in Seattle. As usual it was a good conference, filled with people making earnest efforts to improve American higher education. I was struck, though, at how many of the presentations (including mine) were about ways of improving education that have very little to do with what goes on in the classroom.

It isn't an earth-shattering realization to note that lots of the big reforms in higher ed are targeted somewhere beyond the classroom. Learning communities focus on structure, service-learning on outside-of-class activities, undergraduate research on work in labs and libraries. All of these things have implications for the classroom, but they make those implications indirectly, sort of like tending your garden by making sure your nursery carries better seeds.

Why is this? I'm not one to say that the classroom is simply an artifact of industrial-style education that ought to be pitched out. But at the same time many of the justifications of the classroom that jump immediately to mind are really about efficiency--in delivering content, encouraging conversations, even establishing spatial relations between people. As such, they are defenses of a vision of education that no longer persuades me. (Se John Tagg's The Learning Paradigm College for a strong critique of the industrial model.)

Certainly the classroom will continue far into the future, given the thousands of schools that have it as their central design feature. So it seems worth the effort to craft a defense of the classroom, especially one that goes beyond ease of content delivery. What is it about the classroom that ought to be defended? And how can that defense be used to improve learning?

One place to start is with the physical space itself. Nearly every major religion sets aside certain spaces for ritual activities. In many ways the classroom plays that role for education--it is (or at least could be) a place for communion between people seeking learning. A professor at Naropa University told me how at the beginning of each semester she sweeps her classroom, carefully arranges its chairs in a circle, leaves a gift for each student on his/her seat, and then invites the students to enter the room and begin the class. The idea is to define the classroom as a place set aside for learning, much like a chapel is a place set aside for worship. Not a bad idea, especially if one of your goals is to make the classroom seem like something other than an education factory...

Friday, January 16, 2009


I just finished another book that (mostly) isn't about education but which has important implications for higher ed. The book is Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

Sunstein and Thaler start by drawing a distinction between Econs--the ideal human being who appears only in economic theory--and Humans--real people. Humans tend to make a lot of decisions that aren't in their best interests because they don't fully understand the implications, or they used outmoded heuristics, or because the decision systems available to them don't help.

S and T propose a regime of "libertarian paternalism" to help these people while not diminshing their freedom (much). Libertarian paternalism relies on "nudges" to encourage people to make good decisions without forcing them to do so. And one of the most important nudges is to set up the default option in any complex decision process so that it does good for the decider.

For example, a surprisingly high proportion of people fail to sign up for retirement plans at work, even though the employer contributes the bulk of the money to it. S and T suggest that to get past this problem, the default ought to be to sign all employees up for a plan that invests retirement funds into a balanced portfolio. People are absolutely free to opt out, but if they don't they will--lo and behold--be saving money for retirement.

Colleges and universities, by and large, are places where both libertarianism and paternalism exist in a quiet but consequential state of war (in part because they assume that students are simultaneously Econs and Infants.) The libertarian part of a campus might tell students that they are welcome to sign up for whatever classes they wish (after all, we don't want to act like their parents, do we?). But after a period of libertarianism, the students run up against paternalism--the requirement, for example, that students must have an exact mix of courses from the right disciplines and with the right number of credit hours in order to graduate. The result is that college students take far longer than necessary to graduate, costing them thousands of dollars in excess tuition not to mention the opportunity cost of being in school instead of the workforce.

A libertarian paternalist approach to this problem would ensure that students are automatically enrolled in courses that will get them to their desired goal (a degree in history, for example) in an educationally sound and efficient manner. If they wish to diverge from that path, they are welcome to without penalty. All they have to do is meet with an advisor and make the change.

The result would be both a smoother, more integrated educational experience and more frequent contact between students and advisors--both good outcomes.

(S and T, by the way, have asked people to compile their favorite nudges. To do so just go to

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Big Questions in Higher Education

Peter Ingle posted another great comment, this one on the "common and custom" post from a couple of weeks ago. Here it is:

Gary, I think what we know about learning is up in the air. We have data that says we need to meet individual needs. We have data that says social learning is best. We have data that says students prefer to progress at their own rate. So what we "know" about learning can fit these 2 platforms, and others. My 2 cents...

Peter is right of course. Too often I and others in higher ed talk like we know how to bring about learning. The challenge is implementation, but the end is clear, well-defined, and easily explained, we imply. (Of course this is a bugaboo for K-12 folks also, where set curricula and standardized exams subsume the question of what learning is into a debate about which test is best.) But Peter instead asks us to consider what learning actually is.

He has made me wonder what the other big questions are in higher ed--the ones that we ought always to think about because they are too important to assume that we already know the answer. So, here are a few "big questions", at least in my mind:
  • What is learning?
  • What does attending school add to learning? What does it take away from learning?
  • How does an educator think about the needs/desires/interests of individuals versus the needs/desires/interests of groups, especially those groups larger than the class?

What are the other big questions?