Let’s start with a story. I’m in one of my third year labs, teaching by walking around. One of the better students in the class, a first class honours student, in fact, approaches me and we begin to chat about some data that she can’t explain. This worries her; it doesn’t interest her or enthuse her. She’s fishing, fishing for the ‘correct’ explanation for the data. And in her world, ‘correct’ is whatever I think. I try to draw her out, to extract some original thinking from her, but it’s clear she’s reluctant to express any opinion at all. After five to ten minutes I finally succumb and offer her my best guess as to what is happening in her experiment. “Will I put that in the report?”, she says. Exasperated, I tell her that I don’t really care what she puts in the report as long as it is the result of logical reasoning by her.
That story, for me, encapsulates so much about what has gone wrong with education. In her mind, her ‘job’ as a student is to repeat back to me what I think. That way she believes she’ll get the highest possible mark. This is a mindset that sets in during the Leaving Cert years and never quite goes away, at least for the majority of students.
So how as it comes to this? How, when the entire conversation around third level education is littered with terms like ‘critical and creative thinking’, ‘problem-solving’, and “21st century skills”, do we have students who are so dependent and so lacking in the confidence to think for themselves. Part of the reason, I think, is that many students simply do not acquire the very basic knowledge and the very basic tools required for third level and are stymied in their learning throughout their studies. How, for example, can third level students ever become engineering problem-solvers when they cannot do basic algebra?
The other cause of this reluctance by students to think for themselves is the fact that while many educationalists like to talk of students “driving their own learning”, or “constructing their own knowledge”, the reality is that students have been made to be dependent by us. In our efforts to improve the quality of third level education, we have taken it upon ourselves to do more and more for students and to make life as easy as possible for them. Think of the amount of time and effort that goes into trying to ‘engage’ students and the sense of guilt that one is expected to feel if your students are not ‘engaged’ by your teaching. But that’s part of a wider cultural trend.
Another reason for the slide into dependency is that modern third level education has become increasingly utilitarian. So much of the language surrounding education, especially the constant use of the word “skills”, suggests that the sole purpose of an education is to prepare a person for the workplace. Of course, this is an extremely important aspect of education (notably for the mental health of graduates) but it is not the only one and the paradox is that by constantly focusing on a narrow range of outcomes as a preparation for work, we actually end up making students less ready for work.
The utilitarian nature of third level education is illustrated by a couple of ideas that permeate the entire system. These are the ideas of ‘graduate attributes’ and ‘learning outcomes’. Now, I know that many people are heavily invested in these ideas and it is not my intention to be unnecessarily disparaging. Graduate Attributes are essentially those attributes or characteristics that all graduates of a given institution are expected to have on completion of their studies. Learning Outcomes are those skills, that knowledge and that understanding that each and every student should have acquired by the end of every module and every programme. The learning outcomes idea makes sense for many programmes, especially those that are subject to professional accreditation. Indeed professional organisations typically demand that education be outcomes-based. But are learning outcomes really appropriate for all courses?
Taking graduate attributes and learning outcomes together, it is hard not to see modern education as a place where graduates are ‘produced’ rather than places where students learn. And if your educational philosophy is that third level institutions exist to produce graduates with a certain set of attributes and skills, doesn’t it make sense to package, manage, monitor and control their education so that the ‘product’ coming out the other end is precisely what you claim it is. But in doing all of this, something important is lost.
The final cause of the dependency culture is that we now take the evaluation of teaching at third level very seriously. No one can argue with the need to put in place systems and procedures that will ensure the quality of what we do. But we know from our knowledge of the CAO system and, for example, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK, that the very act of evaluating something can often distort it horribly. How do we evaluate teaching quality? Well, one way is to use student surveys of teaching and the best way to score well in a student evaluation is to make students happy. And you make students happy by making life as convenient as possible for them; by organising their learning and by not challenging them and requiring them to think, at least not too hard, especially in an exam. As any cognitive scientist will tell you, thinking is difficult; remembering is easy.
What other way do we evaluate the quality of an academic’s teaching as part of say a promotion process? Well, we could access their online course notes, assuming they have such a thing. What will we look for in those notes? Probably a high degree of organisation, good production values, maybe the use of different media, some evidence of innovation, and general all round student-centeredness. So the academic whose online notes are little more than ‘signposts’ for students to forge their own individual path through a subject, now has a hard job convincing others that he/she is a good ‘teacher’.
I’ve no obvious solution to this but every now and then I stop and observe the modern third level experience and I’m glad I’m not a student. Third level education seems too controlling, suffocating even, and there is always another assessment around the corner.
There is a middle ground to be found here, a space where we have high expectations of students, where we are there to support them when needed, but where we have the courage to do what all those educationalists claim we’re doing in this 21st century, and that is to let students free to follow their own path and genuinely control their own learning.