If you read a lot about education there are times when your head goes into a spin: so many philosophies, so many ‘best practices’, so many innovations. It’s at these times that I think about what John Giles might say on an RTE post-match panel. Gilesie’s recurring view is that football is a simple game: when you don’t have the ball, you work hard to get it back; when you have the ball, you control it and pass it to one of your own players, trying to create a scoring opportunity in the process. Complicated systems are not his thing.
Education, at least third level education, is, like football, a simple process. The lecturer guides the students by organising existing knowledge (in the broadest sense of the word) for them, by explaining that knowledge, and by encouraging, facilitating and incentivising the student to – as Giles would say – do the right things. And the right things to do in education are to acquire the basics of your discipline through hard study and to build on those basics through practice and reflection, acquiring higher-order abilities (like problem-solving and creativity) in the process.
The real problem in education is in encouraging and enabling students to do the right things. But, like the football manager, there is only so much we can do once the ‘game’ has started. Students are not blank slates. In football, setting out with a 4-2-3-1 formation is fine but it’s useless if the players ignore it and wander out of position with abandon. Likewise, no method of teaching, whether it be traditional lectures, flipped classrooms or new modes of active and problem-based learning will be effective unless the student buys in to the process by supplementing formal learning with his or her own independent study and practice. (Of course students need to be taught how to study and practice effectively.)
For me, this has always been the crux of education and rather than obsessing about the advantages and disadvantages of any particular mode of teaching, we should be focusing more on the student mindset. Why do some students aim for 40% when others aim for 80%? Why do so many students not have any ‘plan’, not understanding, for example, that poor results in one year can have all sorts of knock-on effects like missing out on work placements or on opportunities to do postgraduate work?
While you can put all of this down to the natural variations in humanity itself, it strikes me that given the investment made – by all parties – in third level education, there is scope to have some sort of formal ‘life coaching’ or mentoring (peer-based, perhaps) for undergraduates. Many seem to suffer badly from short-termism and it would useful for them to take some time out every now and then and really ask themselves where they are going and what they would like to achieve in life. Yes, they are young, with their whole lives ahead, but isn’t that the point? They do need to be encouraged to ask themselves the hard ‘where-do-I-want-to-be-in-five-years’-time’ sort of questions. Sadly, many tend to drift and stumble, often painfully, through what could be a high point of their lives, only to emerge with a mediocre qualification in a subject in which they have little interest.
Now, it’s quite easy to simply dismiss this argument with the well-worn “I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do when I was in college and look at me now” sort of argument but I’m not sure that is good enough anymore. The world has moved on, third level participation rates are vastly increased and a degree is no longer a guarantee of anything. Expectations are much greater in all walks of life.
We need to spend a lot more time getting into the heads of our students and less time theorising about teaching methodology. We need to encourage them to figure out what they actually want out of their education and we need to do our best to ensure that the education system and the student work effectively in partnership towards well-defined goals.