Unhappy in many ways with the current status of education, particularly here in the US, I’ve been thinking a lot about what would make sense. What’s the role of K12, and then what’s the role of a university? Some thoughts recently coalesced that I thought I’d put out and see what reaction I get.
The issue, to me, covers several things. Now, I talked some time ago about my ongoing search for wisdom, and the notion of a wise curriculum coupled with a wise pedagogy very much permeate my thinking. However, I’m probably going to be a bit more mundane here. I just want to think what we might want to cover, and how.
Let me start with the premise that what needs to be learned to be a productive member of society needs to be learned before university, as not everyone goes further. If we truly believe (and we should) that 21st Century skills of learning, research, communication, leadership, etc, are skills everyone needs, then those are K12 goals. Naturally, of course, we also include literacy of many sorts (not just reading and writing), and ideally, thinking like a mathematician and scientist (not science and math).
However, if those are accomplished in K12 (when I’ve previously argued learning how to think might be the role of the university, and now think it’s got to be before then), then what is the role of university? Given that the half-life of knowledge is less than four years, focusing on preparing for a lifetime of performance is out of the question. Similarly, pursuing one fixed course of study won’t make sense anymore, as the fields are beginning to change, and the arbitrary categorizations won’t make sense. So what then?
I’m thinking of going back to the original Oxbridge model. In the old days, you were assigned a tutor (and advisor), and you met with that person regularly. They’d have a discussion with you, recommend some activities (read X, solve Y), and send you on your way. It was a customized solution. Since then, for a variety of reasons (scale, mostly), the model’s turned into a mass-production model. However, we now have the power of technology.
What if we moved to a system where individuals could spend some time exploring particular areas (like the first two years or so of college), and then put together a proposal of what they wanted to do, and how they’d pursue it, and the proposal would be vetted. Once approved, there’d be regular updates. Sure, there’d likely be some templates around for learning, but it’d be more self-directed, customizable, and put the appropriate responsibility on the learner.
I may be biased, as I designed my own major (UCSD’s Muir campus had a mechanism to design your own degree, and as they didn’t have a learning technology program…) as an undergraduate, and again you propose your research as a PhD candidate, but I think there’s a lot to recommend a learner taking responsibility for what they’re going to study and why. Granted, universities don’t do a good enough job of articulating why a program sequence has particular courses in it, but I think it’s even better if a learner at least has to review and defend it, if not choose it themselves.
Naturally, some domain-specific learning skills would emerge, but this would provide a more flexible system to match how specializations are changing so dynamically, serve as a model for life, and put the responsibility of faculty members more to mentorship and less to lecture. It would necessitate a change in pedagogy as well.
I think, in the long term, this sort of model has to be adopted. In the short term, it will wreak havoc with things like accreditation, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, given the flaws we’re beginning to see in the existing system, both non- and for-profit. I reckon the for-profits might be able to move quicker, but there will be battles. And, of course, changing faculty minds reminds me of the old joke: “How many academics does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Change?” (And I *was* one!)
Naturally, this has implications for K12 too, as many have articulately argued that the pedagogy needs to change there as well, following the learners’ interests. Likewise the notion of educational publishing (where is that iPad replacement for my kid’s texts?). Those are topics for another day.
So, does this make sense? What am I missing?