Is traditional instruction that boring?

I have been puzzling over the op-ed “Plato’s War on Play” by Mark C. Carnes, professor of history at Barnard College and author of Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College. (The op-ed is behind a paywall in The Chronicle of Higher Education.) Carnes argues that philosophers and educators from Plato onward have distinguished between the “good play” that is appropriate for the classroom and “bad play” that must be kept outside its bounds. In doing so, they have denied themselves a powerful classroom motivator; harnessing “bad play” for academic purposes can do wonders, as the role-playing game Reacting to the Past suggests.

Role-play may indeed motivate students. But why assume that “traditional” instruction cannot do the same? Why assume, moreover, that slower and quieter kinds of engagement lack value?

Carnes writes:

But during the past decade, some faculty members and administrators have discovered that the motivational power of “bad play” can be harnessed to academic purposes. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of the phenomenon is the spread of Reacting to the Past, a pedagogical system I helped start, in which students play monthlong games, set in the past, with roles informed by classic texts. For the game set in Athens in 403 BC, for example, students become democrats or oligarchs, and compete by debating the respective merits of Pericles and Plato; for the game set in the Holy Office in Rome in 1632, students pretend to be mathematicians, natural philosophers, and conservative cardinals, and debate whether Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems proves that the Earth moves. During the past decade, Reacting—the epitome of Platonic bad play—has spread to more than 350 campuses.

All well and good–but underlying this movement is an assumption that lectures, discussions, seminars, presentations, etc., are not interesting for students. In a reply to my comment (on a different matter pertaining to the piece), the author writes:

I didn’t mean to suggest that Plato was the originator of the concept of “bad play”. I argue that he was an influential proponent of the idea that competitive role-playing is bad form of play, seductive and dangerously powerful, which must be suppressed. And so it is that the chief proponents of educational play–from Plato to Piaget, and from Rousseau to Dewey–have denounced role-playing games. Which explains why professors embrace “good play”–a lively seminar discussion, a witty lecturer. The problem is that often our “playful” seminars and lectures aren’t all that much fun–for students or for us.

Two questions: Is it true that seminars and lectures–playful or not–aren’t all that much fun? Must they always be fun?

I hear the frequent mantra that the “old” methods no longer engage students and that new ones are needed. I find this strange. I attended my first lectures–about the Moon–at age eleven, and found them captivating; since then, I have almost always enjoyed lectures and seminars for the substance and exchange. In fact, I appreciate classes that give me room to think, where I don’t have to jump in immediately and do or make something. There’s fun in this–but it’s fun that doesn’t always have to be fun. Am I an outlier? Is the world at large clamoring for more “bad” fun? If so, should educators meet the demand, or should they push back a bit?

I am not against role-play as one of many instructional formats. I have used it at times. But month after month of it could get dreary. Even actors could find role-play limiting, since it both is and isn’t acting. I question the widespread assumption that traditional education (with all its variety and permeability) has failed us so deeply and badly that we must embrace something new.

Videos instead of transcripts?

Goucher College is piloting a new admissions policy that allows students to submit two pieces of work and a two-minute video instead of a high school transcript. The decision has already drawn criticism–for instance, from Brian C. Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, who wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, ““This move sends an awful message to high school students and to a broader public that is already fed a steady diet of nonsense about the nature and value of education.” On the whole, thought, criticism has been fairly guarded, according to The New York Times. Proponents and critics alike seem to be taking a “wait and see” attitude.

Dr. José Antonio Bowen, who became Goucher’s eleventh president this summer, believes that the new policy will be more equitable than the old.

“People have learning differences, they mature at different speeds; a lot of great people might have blemishes on the transcript, and think they can’t get in,” he said. “We get mail from teachers thanking us for this, because they have students who want to hang themselves because they got a C in algebra.”

There are at least two distinct issues here. There are students who are not academically prepared for college—or whose preparation is highly inconsistent. Then there are others who are well prepared but who, for one reason or another, don’t have stellar grades.

Will the video option help the first group of students? It may do no more than mask their lack of preparation. The only exception is if they are applying for a trade school, art school, or other program that does not rely primarily on academic work. Even there, a video may or may not represent their abilities or accomplishments.

In the second case–of students with superb academic qualifications but imperfect grades—why not simply make allowances for them? Allow them to supplement their transcript, but don’t replace it. Stop expecting students to be all-star students and athletes and leaders, and instead allow for intellect (which is rarely evenly spread) and character. What does a video accomplish here, unless it supplements the overall picture?

A video could allow a student to demonstrate specific abilities and accomplishments, such as acting, language proficiency, rhetorical skills, or musical performance. It could allow a student to comment on a course or project. It is not a viable replacement for Algebra 2 or American Literature.

Unpacking epiphany

What “big ideas” do people discuss at ideas festivals? At this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival (which runs through tomorrow), some people are discussing how to measure imagination and creativity. According to Scott Barry Kaufman, director of the Imagination Institute, we are  failing to identify creative students; some get labeled as learning disabled.

Before continuing, I must admit to two things: serious doubt that “big ideas” ultimately carry the day (I generally favor medium-sized ideas, though I consider the quality of an idea more important than its size), and occasional fascination with some of them. Overall, I favor pursuing these ideas but not jumping to conclusions about their applications and implications.

For instance, this passage (from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education) struck me as interesting, though not revelatory, since it meshes with my own experience:

Meanwhile, Mark Beeman wants to unpack epiphany. One thing Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has found is that, before a sudden insight, people show increased activity in several parts of the brain including an area known as the anterior cingulate cortex. Also, before an insight, people tend to be focused on something other than the problem they’re trying to solve, like playing with their kids or taking a shower.

But I would be wary of a pedagogical approach that involved steering students onto another topic in order to produce an insight about the topic left behind. “Ok, everyone, stop what you’re doing and draw a tree!”

Identifying creative students is a worthy goal, but creativity comes in many forms, and I doubt one test, or even a “battery” of tests, could detect them all. The Chronicle article notes the limitations of current creativity tests:

The tools that we now have to measure creativity are fairly crude. A researcher might ask someone to list alternate uses for a bowl and then count the number of ideas he or she comes up with. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t get at the deep creativity necessary to become a brilliant physicist or a mind-blowing sculptor. Something else is going on there, and it’s worth figuring out what it is.

Amen. Too often I have seen creativity equated with brainstorming, and they are not the same.

One possibility–not mentioned in the article–is that “deep creativity” has something to do with deep involvement in a particular subject or medium. That is, you aren’t “creative” in a vacuum; it’s your relation to the subject that draws your creativity out. Also, there’s a doggedness that goes with creativity. It isn’t a static trait.

Thus, even if we had better creativity tests, there’s still a good chance that people would get mislabeled. It’s one thing to show some traits that are generally associated with creativity; it’s another to do something with them.

There’s much more to say on this subject–but since I’m traveling today, I’ll leave it at that.

The Riley Firing Controversy

If you’re not aware about the little kerfluffle that erupted and then quickly went away regarding the Chronicle Of Higher Education’s firing of blogger Naomi Schaeffer Riley, go read this.  Then come back.

I’m not writing this post to take substantive sides in the controversy.  I want to respond to a very particular sort of argument that has been leveled against Riley — that of “picking on students.”  Ann Althouse is the best example of this line of argument:

This reminds me of the big Sandra Fluke controversy, which got traction because an established media professional took aim at a student. Riley made fun of dissertation titles and breezily threw out the opinion that the entire field of Black Studies was left-wing crap. Maybe it is. I don’t know. I’m not reading the dissertations. It’s tempting to riff on intuition and to speak provocatively, and that’s what bloggers do. If the Chronicle wants bloggers — readable bloggers, bloggers who spark conversation and debate — they need to get that.

But combining that blogging style with an attack on named, individual students, where you are speaking from a high platform in the established media… that’s the problem, and I don’t see Riley stepping up and acknowledging it.

Liam Goldrick at EducationOptimists says something similar:

That’s right. This dust-up isn’t much about ideas at all, or freedom of speech, as some have contended. The dispute is fundamentally about journalistic standards in the realm of social media and about the specific personal attacks lobbed by NSR through the Brainstorm blog.

But I don’t think they’re right about this, for two reasons.

First, the Chronicle of Higher Education started it.  (Subscription required.)  The Chronicle featured these dissertations as part of a feature on Black Studies.  Riley didn’t call these students names — she insulted their work, work that had been brought into the light of public view by the Chronicle itself in an attempt to say nice things about their work.

Second, and far more importantly, these “private citizens”, these “individual students”, aren’t faceless undergrads writing papers for grades.  They are graduate students who are working on their dissertations.  That is, they are preparing what is likely their first official forays into the public exchange of ideas.    That’s what scholarship is.

Just because their scholarly work is arcane, esoteric, and inconsequential — just because it is only going to be read by 15 or 20 people — does not make it any less scholarship.  And scholarship is a public act.  And when you attack someone’s scholarship — you’re not attacking them in their capacity as a private citizen, and you’re not picking on some poor, individual student.

Of course, it might help to read the stuff first.  I will be the first to admit that titles can be pretty laughable, sometimes.  And a lot of scholarship is crap, and deserves to be called crap.  The problem is that you can’t tell from the titles.

  • Lisa Delpit has a piece called The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people’s children.
  • Lisa Mazzei has a piece called Desiring Silence: Gender, Race and Pedagogy in Education

One of these two pieces is profoundly better than the other (at least in my opinion).  But you’d not be able to tell from the titles, because both the titles are sort of laughably bad.

But — and this is really my point — they’re both pieces of scholarship.  They’re fair game for public comment, whether you want to say nice things or not-so-nice things.

Open learning online

Not every American can go to college, but what if college comes to them? (Note: Sentence recast to please Stephen Downes.) The Chronicle of Higher Education looks at the potential for “open” classes offered  online.  The Obama administration has proposed a $500-million online-education plan as part of its community-college aid.

The government would pay to develop these “open” classes, taking up the mantle of a movement that has unlocked lecture halls at universities nationwide in recent years — a great course giveaway popularized by the OpenCourseWare project’s free publication of 1,900 courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Millions worldwide have used these online materials. But the publication cost — at MIT, about $10,000 a course — has impeded progress at the community-college level, says Stephen E. Carson, external-relations director for MIT OpenCourseWare.

The Chronicle interviews Mike Smith, back in the Education Department as an advisor, who wants to create “a 21st-century library” of Web-based open courses for high-school and college students.

The courses created would reach students through multiple devices, such as computers, handheld devices, and e-book readers like Kindles. They would be modular, and therefore easily updated. Both nonprofit and for-profit entities could compete for the money to build them.

Federal aid would ensure the courses are available to anyone,  Smith said.

Here’s one possibility Mr. Smith describes: Macomb Community College, in Michigan, takes an open statistics course and puts it into its catalog. The students don’t meet face to face, but there’s a webinar every week or an open discussion online among the professor and students. Macomb gets the course free, adds value to it in the form of interaction with its professor, and charges for it.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative is a model.  While students can use the online courses for independent study, “researchers have found the material can be even more powerful when combined with live instruction.”

Carnegie’s materials have already changed how Logan Stark’s professor at California Polytechnic State University approaches her widely feared biochemistry-for-nonmajors class. Anya L. Goodman used to work from a prepared lecture, starting with the basics so she didn’t lose anyone. Now she puts the burden on students to learn the basics online. She focuses class time on clearing up misconceptions, applying the materials to real life, and working in small groups.

“They’re more attentive,” she says. Especially when she comes in and tells her students, “Here’s what you guys already don’t know.”

High-quality courseware would make it much easier for people who are working and raising kids to take college courses cheaply and conveniently.  It would make it easier for high school students to try advanced or specialized classes. It would lower costs, something higher education never seems able to do.

College bubble

The higher education bubble is bursting, writes David Frum of the American Enterprise Institute. “Between 2000 and 2005, the average wages of college graduates declined after adjusting for inflation,” he writes. College graduates have flooded the market. There may be jobs for the CalTech math major with a 4.0 grade point average, but not for the graduate with “a 2.8 communications degree from San Francisco State University.”

Not only are students not getting the economic payoff they expect, Frum writes, many aren’t getting a good education.

It’s often at the costliest universities that students are able to graduate with a degree in English without ever having read Shakespeare, a degree in history despite ignorance of the Civil War, or one in art history without ever having encountered the Renaissance.

In their own ways, universities indulge in some of the worst faults of the corporate sector, overcharging their customers in order to allow managers and staff to engage in wasteful or destructive activities that could never be justified on their own.

Universities need to rethink their practices, Frum writes.

Why does it take four years to complete a BA degree? Maybe liberal arts studies make more sense later in life?

For that matter, “maybe tough high school exit exams would serve the needs of employers who currently insist on a BA not for its own sake but as proof that a student was not too lazy or aimless to get one.”

Frum is responding to a Chronicle of Higher Education column arguing that four-year colleges need to become much more efficient to compete with online institutions and community colleges.

Do vouchers matter?

School vouchers don’t matter in the larger policy debate, writes Kevin Carey of Education Sector in Chronicle of Higher Education. Washington, D.C.’s program didn’t “create new competition and provide incentives for innovators and entrepreneurs to bring energy and resources to the enterprise of educating students.”

No new schools have been built as a result, no groundbreaking programs created, competition spurred, or innovators attracted. It’s basically just an exercise in seeing what happens when you take a couple thousand students out of pretty bad schools and put them in a range of other schools that are, collectively, somewhat better. Answer: some of the students may be doing somewhat better! I think we already knew this.

Remarkably, the D.C. voucher program is being taken seriously even as, right here in the same city, charter schools are actually creating the whole range of market responses that vouchers are not.

A better education for 1,700 low-income students is nothing to sneer at, counters Jay P. Greene.

While Carey doubts 17,000 vouchers would have motivated Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Day to “up and build annexes in Anacostia,”  Greene responds that most voucher students attend non-elite private schools that might expand “if you offered them 10 times as many spots and long-term security of funding.” And D.C. charter schools wouldn’t be offering much competition if they’d been limited to 1,700 students and one third the district’s per-student funding.

Reason TV has video of the D.C. school voucher rally, which pushed President Obama to announce that currently enrolled students will continue to receive vouchers through high school. No new students will be allowed to enter the program.

‘Holistic’ decisions are unreliable

“Holistic” assessment is unreliable, said Scott Highhouse at Wake Forest University’s “Rethinking Admissions” conference. Highhouse, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Bowling Green State University, warned that research shows personal interviews don’t predict who’ll succeed on the job and who’ll flop. The audience was not happy to hear that, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

One social psychologist in the audience asked Mr. Highhouse about the importance of personality traits, such as conscientiousness, that seem to correlate highly with student success.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Mr. Highhouse said. “How to measure conscientiousness in a way that is standardized.”

He’d titled his talk, “Don’t Shoot the Messenger.”

I worry that an emphasis on interviews, essays and “community service” claims will reward bullshit artists rather than performers. Take Susan Boyle.  She doesn’t know how to package or present herself.  But she can perform.

Recession education

In the recession, does advanced education really pay off? Slate’s Emily Bazelon asks 20somethings how they’re planning their futures.

“College and graduate school are generally a good bet,” she starts. “But it doesn’t tell you that every single degree pays off financially at every single point in time.”

As Jonathan, a college graduate in North Carolina who had been working at a used-book store, puts it, “I have a B.S. in sociology, and its value bears a strong similarity to its initials.”

She cites a Chronicle of Higher Education story, which advises would-be graduate students in the humanities: Just Don’t Go. Hide out in grad school to avoid the recession and you’ll emerge in your 30s with no experience and no money, Thomas Benton advises.

Even those with practical degrees are hurting in the short term, writes Bazelon.

Gordon, who is 29, has an undergraduate degree in computer engineering from Boston University, three years in IT, and an MBA and a master’s in information systems. How much more sturdy and practical can you get? But after a year and a half, he lost the job he got after graduation. He has $60,000 in student loans even though he had full scholarships for both undergrad and grad school (living expenses). That comes out to $500 a month for the next 10 years.

He fears that his degree is “underwater.” Experts say the educated will do fine once the economy recovers, but when’s that going to be? And will an MBA bounce back to its previous value?

My daughter’s earning a law degree from the University of Chicago in a few months.  She thought her class was the last to get seats on the gravy train, but the train has derailed. The law firm that offered her a very well-paid job, starting in the fall, has now offered her six months’ pay to defer her start for a year. She plans to do Legal Aid work without pay to gain experience. (The non-profits that used to pay a minimal wage to new lawyers have realized they don’t have to.) If the law firm job has vanished by then, well, she’ll cope. She doesn’t expect a return to the cushy days of yore.

Change vs. classics

Teaching civic engagement and appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity is a high priority for college professors, concludes a new UCLA report, The American College Teacher.

While 57.8 percent of  professors want to encourage students to be “agents of social change,” only 34.7 percent said teaching the classics is very important,  notes Chronicle of Higher Education:

Sylvia Hurtado, a professor of education at UCLA who directs the research institute, said the gap between those who value teaching Western civilization and those who value teaching students to be social activists reflects a shift in emphasis from the abstract to the practical. “The notion of a liberal education as a set of essential intellectual skills is in transition,” she says. “It’s also about social and personal responsibility, thinking about one’s role in society, and creating change.”

In transition? Or just going to hell?  I suspect the agents of change in the world will be people who’ve developed their intellectual skills.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says he believes faculty members should teach the classics. “I teach American literature all the time, that’s what I do,” says Mr. Nelson, who is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But he says that to many professors, teaching the classics has become part of a “conservative agenda” that they don’t want to be part of. Conservative critics of academe, he says, “have poisoned the well for these subjects because they’ve gotten politicized and become symbols of a reaction against the progressive academy.”

Change vs. the classics is a false dichotomy, points out Erin O’Connor at Critical Mass.

The classics are works about social change, in one way or another. That’s true of Greek tragedy, of Chaucer, of Shakespeare, of Milton, of Defoe, of enlightenment philosophers, of romantic poets, of Victorian novelists, of modernist writers. Some register upheaval in their form, some in their content, some do both. Some try to provoke change, some try to register and reflect on it, some try to resist it. But great literature is always hooked into the great tensions of its time — even as it is also hooked into a longer tradition.

Intellectuals should decide what to teach based on reason, not emotion, O’Connor argues.

In other words: If professors can’t teach Antigone (loyalty to family and religion vs. patriotism) for fear of making a conservative smile, that’s just stupid. And stupid is not supposed to be the strong suit of academia.