A recipe for educational mediocrity

Published by Lori Pickert on March 14, 2011 at 09:21 PM

As someone who has spent the past fifteen years teaching writing to college freshmen and sophomores, I picked up this book expecting to disagree with it. I like my students. I’ve taught my share of dullards, but as a group, the young people in my classes are smart, hard-working, and willing to learn. But I came away from Academically Adrift with the unpleasant sense that its authors had put their fingers on an ugly truth: that we are not asking near enough of college students these days. This isn’t because the youth of today is any lazier or more debauched than their forebears or because my fellow profs are bunch of careerist bums, or even because the administrators are craven capitalists. The problem on the contemporary American college campus has little to do with bad people or bad faith and everything to do with a complex system of skewed incentives.

At the heart of all university funding is an economic disconnect: the people footing the bill, primarily parents and the federal government, have a strong interest in seeing students get the best education they can, but they’re not the ones picking the college the student will attend. For the most part, the students themselves make that call, and while some are burning for knowledge and will go to any length to get it, many more want the degree and are aware that some studying might be involved, but mostly they just want to spend four years creating memories that will last a lifetime. Add to this the fact that modern universities have become factories for all manner of societal goods, from cutting-edge scientific research to star wide receivers, that have nothing to do with teaching kids to think, and you have a recipe for educational mediocrity.

Why Isn’t Our Children Learning?

 

15 comments

Comment by Zane on March 15, 2011 at 01:55 AM

"Add to this the fact that modern universities have become factories for all manner of societal goods, from cutting-edge scientific research to star wide receivers, that have nothing to do with teaching kids to think, and you have a recipe for educational mediocrity."

Yikes. Is this a problem plaguing just larger universities or smaller colleges as well? What about the classic liberal arts college: does it still exist? If so, will it exist in 10-15 years when my children are college age?

This subject is on my mind today. After sorting through an enormous box of work from my college years, I found myself wondering how higher education will shift over the next two decades. I went to a small liberal arts college in souther Illinois (Principia College), where writing was at the heart of the curriculum. Looking back through my work, I am astounded by the sheer amount of writing I did. I wrote about every subject I studied. And my professors were very much concerned with "teaching us to think." I wonder how unusual that kind of education was 8 years ago and if colleges with similar values will continue to survive in the era of "factory education"?

Comment by Barbara in NC on March 15, 2011 at 02:19 PM

Hi Lori,

It seems to me that this "college problem" begins way before college, in the way kids are taught what school and learning are all about.

Another great story that crossed my path today:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/opinion/15engel.html?_r=2&hp

Glad you're back!!

Comment by Barbara in NC on March 15, 2011 at 02:19 PM

Hi Lori,

It seems to me that this "college problem" begins way before college, in the way kids are taught what school and learning are all about.

Another great story that crossed my path today:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/opinion/15engel.html?_r=2&hp

Glad you're back!!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 15, 2011 at 06:06 PM

zane, omgosh, principia college -- what a gorgeous campus. i grew up not far from there!

i think the type of education you're describing was hard to find 20 years ago let alone 8 .. you were lucky.

i could take a few different stands on this, but mostly i think that students need to be in charge of their own learning -- at 8 and at 18. they should be pursuing the education they want, and they should be actively involved in that education. the article makes the point that most kids just want the paper .. and to have some fun. i think that's a fair statement.

b, absolutely -- that's what i was just saying to zane. ;^)

i suppose my interest is in all these articles coming out over the last few months saying "whoa, look now, we're not getting the results we wanted" .. in elementary, high school, *or* college.

If we stop looking at education as this thing that happens to students and start creating students who *demand* what they want and need from schools, then i think we'd be a long way toward solving the problem.

how nicely that meshes with the title of the link you sent!! :) "Let Kids Rule the School"

designing their own curriculum, making choices, evaluating their own work, setting their own goals .. that's is project learning.

and a quote:

"The students in the Independent Project are remarkable but not because they are exceptionally motivated or unusually talented. They are remarkable because they demonstrate the kinds of learning and personal growth that are possible when teenagers feel ownership of their high school experience, when they learn things that matter to them..."

yep.

excellent link, barbara -- thank you!

Comment by akari on March 15, 2011 at 06:25 PM

Dear Lori,
Thank you very much for the post.
I had not been in hearing range of how under challenged students in American universities had become. From where I sit though I have been very concerned about the state of young people in Japan in a very similar way. Japanese companies have been concerned for some time that the graduates are less and seemingly less capable, more arrogant and difficult to work with. Here I think they are called Millennials.

It is such a tragic transition though to see kids get blamed directly while they are still at an age where in my opinion, the adult are the ones so much more responsible. Those kids have been put through the mediocrity of the current education system, tv overexposure and training for them to be good consumer slaves.

For our species to survive the effects of climate change, and the increasing catastrophes like the one currently going on in Japan, the society needs to change from within and I really do think that raising even one more child who can think for themselves, who can come up with wacky creative solutions with confidence all the better.

It is still so frustrating that I just haven't figured a way to make my home economy work to the point where I can spend the most time with my kids and show them at least what I have learned about learning, building community and what I think matters.... I know it will come to me, I just need to be patient with myself. For the time being I can share with my kids that i am organizing fundraisers and ways to connect our U.S. community to Japan through my work...

Also, fund raising event at the University of Illinois
http://illinois.edu/calendar/detail/3020?key=20110315201103151609975&skinId=972
akari

Comment by Lisa on March 15, 2011 at 06:53 PM

RANT 1
In real life I'm a librarian in an "adult" "non-traditional" "degree completion" college setting--accelerated program with work-friendly scheduling etc. 100% of our students, regardless of age, abilities, etc, want a degree. They have NO interest in a liberal arts education. They want a degree to earn more money. They can't see why they have to do research, don't understand, or care, why they have to use M.L.A. or A.P.A. [depending on degree] or why they can't use a source like wikipedia. They don't care that they write sentence fragments or have grammaitical errors. We should hand them the degree because they are so busy. They want the DEGREE. Minimal time comittment, minimal effort, maximum return on investment. The do not turn their phones off unless forced and if they bring a laptop they will not be paying any attention whatsoever to what is being taught. These are adults 22--?? years old and they are "busy" --we [the University] should just accept that and cut them slack!

I get resentful when I think back to going to college [in the 80s] without the convenience of online ANYTHING, of NOT being taught, but being expected to KNOW, how to use Chicago style [Turabian], how to use the library and how to meet deadlines. The best paper I've read on my job in the last 5 years would not have gotten a passing grade according the the grading standards of my undergraduate university.

RANT 2
Why do we keep repeating the same stuff?? The earliest grade introduce the topic in picture book terms, the middle grades re-introduce it in chapter book words, the middle school expands this by "modeling" in the form of fill-in-the-blan "note taking" sheets and "study guides" and high school repeats this, perhaps with "bigger" SAT words. No wonder no one cares by the time they get to college!! How many times should you have to study the American Revolution or the the orbit of the Earth or reducing fractions? When is it LEARNED and you can move on to something you are serious about studying?? Today that seems to be only in your Ph.d. program!!!

And, we keep making all this take even longer--"academic preschool" thru MANDATORY ATTENDANCE till AGE even if the kid could have an MA by then if allowed to!

End of Rants. I will be quiet now!!! lol....

Comment by Anne T. on March 16, 2011 at 04:52 PM

A friend of mine who homeschools his son was describing challenges hecwas having and he said: "He's like all kids-he's lazy". Hmmmm, only if they have no ownership of their learning and/or are taught that the only reason to go to school is to get a piece of paper. I don't know why people are so surprised when kids enjoy learning things. My son, 3.5, likes soaking up things so fast I can't keep up. My primary reason for homeschooling is so that doesn't get trained out of him. But looking way down the line, it appears that there won't be a college for him either. How disheartening.

Comment by Cristina on March 16, 2011 at 09:21 PM

"creating memories that will last a lifetime"...I knew there was something I forgot to do while I was in college! I was one of those nerdy college students that enjoyed college. :-)

I think you get out of the experience what you put in, and observing my daughter's experience, she is getting a lot out of it. Of course, she notices that other students aren't as diligent as she is. Some don't seem to even read the schedule so they know when assignments are due. Did you know they created a brand new label for this? Look up Executive Dysfunction. Because no one is lazy anymore, their habits are simply out of their control!

Peace and Laughter,
Cristina

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 16, 2011 at 09:59 PM

akari, agree, agree -- they are blaming the kids for being passive learners and wanting to just rush through the process, but they've trained the kids to be submissive in the classroom and to just do what they have to do to get the credit!

lisa, ha! same exact thing that i said to akari -- we train the kids to be like this (your rant #2) and then complain when they react by not caring about their education and just wanting to do the minimum (rant #1). agree, agree...

we hand ownership over to them in college (except not really, since as you point out, college is an automatic-pass now, unlike when we were in school) and then stand stupefied when they don't care and wouldn't know what to do with it even if they did.

anne, "he's like all kids - he's lazy". o u c h. i feel sorry for that dad, and i feel sorry for all adults, parents or teachers, who think this -- and boy do i feel sorry for the kids.

uninterested in doing the activity i painstakingly chose and planned for you? you're so lazy!

don't want to do the dull, mind-numbing homework after sitting at a desk all day? you're so lazy!

argh.

BUT - don't think you should worry about college. i know i don't worry about my boys and college. they will be active, demanding consumers. ;) college isn't the problem -- it's the students. if students showed up with big ideas and demanded to get the knowledge they needed to do the things they wanted to do, there would be no problem.

and frankly, even if my boys wanted to just float and take the paper, i think that would be their active choice -- not their passive default. it wouldn't have any reflection on them as learners. i imagine a few of those kids who don't care about going to class and just want their degree are starting business in their dorm rooms or writing novels or working at nonprofits. the problem isn't that college *makes* kids lazy and unmotivated or even that it allows them to be lazy and unmotivated; the problem is that 18yos aren't on fire to learn and do and create and build and take over the world.

cristina, hahaha. i made a lot of memories -- they were mostly of working. ;)

agree with you totally (see my comments above). i noticed when i was in school that i cared (initially) (ha) about getting an education and my classmates cared about getting a degree. lol executive dysfunction. college isn't the same anymore -- kids can get away with not doing the work, with turning work in late, even with cheating. it's an exchange of money for degree. everyone's a winner. cough.

Comment by Dawn Suzette on March 18, 2011 at 01:18 PM

Ha... Reminds me of a college class my husband too a few years back. After the first test, which he passed with an "A", he decided to drop the class because the prof was so unprofessional. He figured he would pick the class up at another time. He did the paperwork to drop but something slipped through the cracks. At the end of term he got his grades... a "D" in the class. How is it possible to get a "passing" grade in a class you only sat in for a few weeks and tested once? Crazy.

Comment by Naomi on March 19, 2011 at 07:09 PM

I think it's pretty sad that young people are pressured into attending college. Especially those who know they aren't interested in further education and would rather start a family or join the workforce. Instead, society tells them they won't get anywhere unless they go to college, and many of them come away with a mountain of debt and either can't find a job to fit their skills, lose interest in the degree that obtained, or find something else they think is more worthwhile. I think college is WONDERFUL for those who could benefit from it, but I think it is marketed as the solve-all solution, and that is probably a huge part of the reason why college kids are not doing better than they could. Those who aren't there because they WANT to be there, are there because they feel like they HAVE to be there!

Comment by Fanny Harville on April 11, 2011 at 04:05 AM

As a college professor who homeschools, I want to defend college a bit here. It is simply not true at many many colleges today that "kids can get away with not doing the work, with turning work in late, even with cheating" as Lori commented above. And this is especially true in the humanities. Somewhat buried in the press coverage of the Academically Adrift book is the authors' finding that that humanities require the most reading and writing and consequently see the highest rates of learning.

That being said, it is absolutely true that "if students showed up with big ideas and demanded to get the knowledge they needed to do the things they wanted to do, there would be no problem." Would that I saw such students. The biggest challenge I face as a teacher is to get my students half as excited to pursue their own interests through my classes as my six-year-old is to pursue his interests in his home education. A system of testing and calculated self-presentation designed to get themselves into college makes students less capable of getting much out of it...

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 3, 2011 at 10:49 PM

to respond to fanny, i have friends who teach college and it's their anecdotes that inform my opinion about rampant cheating, turning work in late, and not doing the work at all -- and my friends the professors are told by their bosses that they can do nothing about it. they can't be kicked out or even flunked. perhaps things are different at other schools .. but somehow i doubt it.

when i was in college a hundred years ago, there were kids who got away with cheating, turning work in late, not turning work in at all, not showing up to class .. they went in and wheedled their way into some kind of compromise. from what i hear from friends, it's worse now because the kids don't wheedle so much as demand. yes, this is anecdotal evidence at best, but i believe it.

"Would that I saw such students." that, fanny, is exactly what my friends say! :)

"A system of testing and calculated self-presentation designed to get themselves into college makes students less capable of getting much out of it."

that "calculated self-presentation" seems tied to the entitlement .. i have a relative who teaches college and he says that there are students who are convinced they are well educated and well informed and top students and they're not .. but they won't listen to anyone, they are so convinced they are at the top. what do you do with that?

thank you for your great comment! sorry my response was so tardy!

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 5, 2011 at 09:31 PM

dawn, i love your story — this explains why so many kids i went to college with could pass (and then graduate) even though they only came to the first and last class. :^P

naomi, i think it's interesting how many people argue that college is necessary for *education* .. when obviously you can educate yourself without going to college. (and i don't mean learning only through auto-didactism -- you can take classes, travel, read, join learning groups, becoming an apprentice, learn by doing...)

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 6, 2011 at 05:54 PM

another note re: my & fanny’s discussion — refer back to the quotes by professors at the beginning of this open thread:

http://www.whiteoakschool.com/camp-creek-blog/2009/2/20/open-thread.html#comment3000871

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