October 2007 Archives

Education Monoculture

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I recently finished the Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which is just a brilliant and scary book about how we eat and how these choices impact our world. Not surprisingly this got me thinking about education. I have two points here:

First, a lot of the book is about corn as a very successful monoculture. Humans cultivate it in huge swaths of our country to the exclusion of almost anything else. Corn, with human help, wipes out everything else. As a result we have a tremendously unstable ecological situation where corn is (almost) the only organism and the corn is totally dependent on humans to reproduce. The only goal is yield per acre, and whatever has to be done to the corn or the environment to improve yield is being done.

This is an exact analogy for our educational system. We have an educational monoculture founded on the same principles - yeild - the most output possible per unit input. What does this mean in education? It means higher test scores per dollar. If your school is not producing an adequate yield (AYP in NCLB terms), then it is time for you to shut down. The emphasis on yield is forcing schools to create a monoculture of students. Students should all be the same and maximize yield.

Macronutrients as the be all and end all.

Again with the talking

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Alright, I admit that I am a sucker and got myself into this, but I have to return to a favorite topic of mine - education / professional development via talking at people. Today I signed up for a workshop here on campus intended to help me prepare grant proposals. What it was, it turns out, was two hours of me sitting and listening to people tell me things that could have much more expeditiously been read from a web page or brochure. Interestingly, they gave me just such a brochure and website in a packet as part of my materials for the "workshop".

I want to be clear, that this is not a criticism of a particular instance, but more a question about the model. People in almost every context seem to think that talking at people in a room = learning. Why is it that ideas like faculty development are so trapped in a model that is clearly ineffective? How is it that everyone in that room with me (I would bet) had a very similar reaction (e.g. the guy next to me was reading his printed out emails and grading papers), and yet the feedback the organizers will get about this workshop will unlikely be quite good (otherwise they would stop having them).

Where are the models for faculty engagement that work? Why is nobody thinking about this in a serious way? We had a room full of very smart people and yet the result was a uni-directional firehose of trivia. I am sure that some of those bits stuck with folks, but overall it was not a good use of time for either the presenters or the audience. Is this really where we are at a world class university? I have to say I have been hanging out a lot with technology people lately, and one in particular seems to have cracked the engagement thing to some degree. Cole Camplese has a vision for an infrastructure for supporting innovative teaching and learning using technology. I think we need to consider what the human infrastructure is for supporting innovation in scholarship. Maybe there are similarities, maybe not, but with this many smart people wasting this much time, it deserves more consideration than it is getting.

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