1. When designing a course, decide whether or not you want to treat students as scholars within your field or as users of your knowledge and skills outside of the field. In most cases, you can’t do both.
2. Clearly Distinguish between Stuff Goals and Skill Goals
3. Always start with the concrete; never start with the abstract
4. Use a two-fold grading system
5. Use undergraduate teaching assistants to:
6. Promote student participation by:
All of these are tips I have successfully implemented in my classroom. Please don’t hesitate to contact me about any of the above principles; I would be honored to discuss these and others.
I have written before about the importance of Excel and how it is neglected in many of our high schools and even colleges as a necessary part of the curriculum. My recent experience in front of 800 parents and newly admitted students in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University suggests that things are getting worse. I asked the students to raise their hands if they could use Excel. Less than 20 percent of the students who were good enough to be admitted to the University raised their hands as their parents watched in horror.
The failure of our schools to prepare students for the real world, where business, government and non-profits rely on spreadsheets, does not seem to be a top reform priority of our politicians and school administrators. But it should be. Students with good Excel skills will get better internships and part-time jobs more quickly, and we all know how important internship and job experience is.
Where does the blame lie? From reliance on standardized testing, to a curriculum still tied to the Middle Ages, there is plenty of blame to go around. They will eventually learn that “Excel is Life,” but at what cost?
Just about everyone laments over the vast majority of high school and college graduates who know very little about American government. Students do not know such facts as the number of Senators in the U.S. Senate, and they have little understanding of the broader organization of federal, state and local governments. Many also whine over the apathy that leads to low voter turnout and the selfish behavior of citizens at all levels and ranges of education, social statuses and political parties.
Plenty of blame exists in and outside the educational community, but let’s just focus on the academy. As is true in mathematics and English, professors of history, political science and other social sciences are more interested in making mini-experts out of their students rather than functional, active citizens. The fractured college curriculum has wrecked the high school curriculum because courses in psychology, sociology and anthropology have become alternatives to courses in government, economics or civics.
The community service and “do-good crowd,” to which I belong, frequently minimize the importance of governmental institutions. The left-wingers want to teach how government does bad things, and the right-wingers want students to recite the constitution. Neither care to help students understand what their rights and responsibilities are and how they can shape government policy in the public interest.
The students do not help in this very much. Most think government is boring, in part because it’s complex and confusing and in part because, well, it is pretty boring to worry about jurisdictions and legal details.
Filling the citizenship vacuum requires providing students with the basic skills necessary to understand how government affects them and how they can participate in government. For students to see the need for government, the ways in which government can solve or at least ameliorate societal problems and how policy is made, they need a host of skills that are in short supply among our high school and college graduates. Among these skills are attention to detail, information gathering and evaluation skills, a problem-solving approach and the ability to work with and influence people. With these skills, students will be ready to interpret the constitution, case studies on governmental decisions and current policy debates.
If you really want to understand the grass root cause of our current overdose on debt, just sit in my office as I talk with juniors and seniors. Several of them are able to graduate a semester early or go part-time in their last semester. Such a move could save them as much as $15,000.
When I suggest this approach, some students are excited to save the money. But almost as many say, “but I like college.” I am not sure whether they mean they like studying and going to classes, or they like getting drunk on a Tuesday night.
I usually ask, “Will you be graduating with debt and will the extra semester raise your debt?” I figured that they might be willing to pleasure themselves with another semester of college at the expense of their parents.
Shockingly, they almost always say that they have debt and spending an extra semester would add another $5,000+ to their debt. Even more surprising, many of these students have worked 30 hours a week while carrying a full load and have paid for a lot of their college education. They also cannot tell me how much the extra $5,000 will add to their monthly payments over a ten-year period.
When I meet with juniors and seniors for career and academic advising (I always do both), I am astounded that none of them can answer the question “how much debt will you be leaving college with,” never mind how much will that cost a month. We are training the next generation to embrace debt so they can have a good time in college.
Does this sound like the people who bought bigger houses than they needed because they could get the loan? Does it sound like those who run up credit card debt for the purpose of immediate gratification? Who says colleges don’t teach students anything? Learning to live with and expand debt may be the most widespread lesson of a college education.
In his latest book, Real Education, Charles Murray writes, “too many people are going to college.” Murray, whose earlier books Losing Ground and The Bell Curve made him a darling of the right and an enemy of the left, is not afraid to say what others do not. Whether it is political correctness or the fear of losing their jobs, faculty and administrators in higher education cannot bring themselves to utter such blasphemy, at least in public.
His focus is on the 35% students completing liberal arts degrees. He argues that about 10% of the students should be going to liberal arts programs because only about that number are interested and capable of getting a “real” liberal arts education. By admitting so many incapable and uninterested students into traditional four-year programs, he argues that we are dumbing down the educational experience. On the one hand, we fail to prepare the elite to run the country and, on the other hand, we deprive those who don’t belong there of an education that will pay off.
The 10% sounds about right to me if we define the B.A. as Murray does, the old fashion academic study of what was offered (not really studied) a hundred years ago. From my experience, most students cannot master even the fundamentals of what professional scholars do in their disciplines. This is not a recent phenomenon. When I did my Bachelors at Johns Hopkins in the late 1950’s, the majority of those students couldn’t even handle the Federalist Papers. In fact, if you read histories of higher education since antiquity, the vast majority of students in college were never in engaged in the life of the mind.
Murray maintains there is a place for almost all students in some kind of post-secondary education. He favors technical programs of shorter duration, but I would suggest long-term programs that give students time to grow up and to develop the skills and character employers want. These programs would place students in internships and off-campus experiences for as much as 50% the cost of a four-year program. It would not require of them 120 credits of traditional, and often unnecessary, academic coursework.
If we accept Murray’s analysis that too many people are in traditional college programs, we would have to face a more shocking and destructive idea--- there are way too many liberal arts faculty in higher education today.
I have been an advocate of Teach for America since the early 90’s when I learned of the ideas of its founder, Wendy Kopp, and more importantly, that she made the idea happen against all odds. More than 50 students I have advised have become TFA members over the last decade.
TFA is no organization that claims “excellence” and then lets anyone and everyone in. Nor are accepted TFA teachers just tossed into struggling schools to “wing it.” Teacher training is intense and the standards are high. TFA takes its business seriously, and the results show.
TFA’s accomplishments are well known. 35,000 applicants applied for 4,100 available positions in 2009 alone. Principals report in surveys that first year TFA teachers are better than first year teachers from traditional B.A. and M.A. programs. Math and English achievement student test scores year-in and year-out demonstrate that TFA teachers improve student performance. Most TFA teachers manage to push their students to achieve multiple years reading level growth in a matter of a few months. Even after their two-year commitment to TFA expires, alumni go on to do remarkable deeds, including establishing new and successful schools and advocating for educational reform.
As a student of high school and college education, however, I have learned not to trust statistics, survey results and reported success stories alone without direct backup. I need more hard evidence because the truth is in the details.
I have found such details in one of my 2009 graduates, Katelyn Hancock’s blog that provides an insider’s take: http://katelyntoday.wordpress.com/.
Here is what I learned so far from her descriptions of what she calls “boot camp:”
1. The five-week training session is intense both with respect to time on task (80 hour workweek) and focused training with approximately 50 hours of direct instruction in the form of talks form TFA staff members, practice teaching and different kinds of exercises).
2. The message to the new corps member is clear; raise the academic achievement of students.
3. Each corps member continuously updates a monster spreadsheet as the key management tool which insures delivering the coaching that is necessary for new teachers. Read Katelyn’s blog to get the full picture from a shrewd new college graduate who knows how to detect BS.
If TFA is for real, why does the majority of faculty in Schools of Education and their academic apologists attack TFA? That is a topic for another post.