Monday, May 19, 2014

An Equitable Investment

Why do students attend college? It's worth posing this question to both students and colleges. Colleges and students might answer similarly: to learn more about what the student is interested in so he/she can use that knowledge to get a better job. Rephrase the question - what do you expect to gain from this education? - and there may be a difference. 

And where does this fit in the midst of what seems to be an unending debate about if college is worth the rising price of tuition, how to handle growing student debt when graduates are still struggling to find jobs, and what to do about low completion rate and the job skills gap? 

This is a worthwhile discussion to have since we instructors are now, more than ever, obligated to hold up our end of the deal. If college is now spoken of and treated as an economic investment in which the skills we're teaching are expected to have a market value, then faculty are responsible for redefining what "learning" means in a college classroom. 

But it's important to clarify what is expected from both sides. The Faculty Focus article Education and Consumerism: Using Students’ Assumptions to Challenge Their Thinking provides a great example for helping students figure out their role in the equation. This is particularly the case in this step: 
Next, I ask them to consider pricing. In one sense, students are acquiring intellectual and social goods that they will later sell or trade to someone else who wants them. So I ask, “What should this valuable knowledge or skill cost you to acquire? Can it be purchased or does it have to be earned?” Then I ask them to consider why a future employer would be willing to pay for this good, and what price that employer would consider reasonable. The point of this discussion is to challenge students’ assumptions that they are the consumers in this equation. A more useful application of the consumer model acknowledges that the “product” universities are generating is the student’s mind and professional readiness. If students can see that they occupy a different space in the equation, then they can begin to think differently about what is at stake for them as a participant in the educational exchange. [Emphasis mine]
This is a fabulously interesting perspective. When a student fails or struggles, teachers are often quickly blamed without consideration for the student's role. "I failed this test because you didn't teach me." What happens if we change the focus from a grade on a test to skills? Vital components of a student's success like student accountability, locus of control, resiliency, and reflection naturally find a way in to the classroom. It's much more difficult to point fingers in the context of pure, raw skill. 

What should the instructor's obligations be? Many college faculty are at the front of the classroom because of their passion for the content, their interest in the field, and they use a teaching role as a sort of outlet for that passion. They love it so much that they can't keep it to themselves; this is an invaluable piece of teaching that often fades in K-12 under the stressors of standardized testing, long hours, and too many cooks in the kitchen. But are we using it properly? Are we expecting that passion to do more than it really does?

Tim Shanahan writes in this blog post that the focus should always be on the learning, not the activity. In fact, he denounces many trendy K-12 literacy interventions for this reason: the activity distracts from the learning. College faculty may actually be on the other side of the spectrum. How many college faculty have a toolbox of instructional strategies to access? Do we get so passionate and yearn so deeply to share this fantastic knowledge that we get distracted from the actual learning? 

Many faculty members maintain a "you get out of it what you put into it" attitude when it comes to college, especially private schools with higher tuition. But that means that faculty need to be able to offer something worth investing in.

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