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Traditional undergrad education model flawed, says QuestU president

July 23rd, 2013 Posted in Education

Watering the roots of knowledge through collaborative learning.

Education has lost its roots—its Latin roots, that is. Educate derives from educatus, past participle of educare, which means “to bring up” or “to rear” and which is related to educere,”to bring out, lead forth” (from ex-, meaning “out,” and ducere,meaning “to lead,” as in the origin of a duke). Superficially, all may appear to be in order, but in fact this etymological origin is largely antithetical to the prevailing model of higher education.

There is very little “leading forth” going on. Rather, the system models students as empty vessels that must be filled by pouring in knowledge from the (full) professor.

Indeed, the modern university classroom too often consists of a Ph.D.—a survivor of a process in which one learns more and more about less and less until one knows nearly everything about almost nothing—standing in the front of an amphitheater with a remote control flipping through PowerPoint slides. The notion is that the hard-earned knowledge of the professor will thus be transferred to his or her students, making them all a little more professorlike.


There are a few minor difficulties with this model. First, some of the students are not present; given that the PowerPoint slides can be downloaded from the course Web site and are not needed until the day before the exam anyway, this student choice cannot be criticized as irrational. Second, of the students who are there, most are probably multitasking (checking Facebook, texting a friend, watching a movie, etc.)—reams of research have shown that only a tiny minority of students can concentrate on a lecture for more than roughly 10 or 15 minutes. Third, the vast majority of the students present have no desire to become professorlike.

These problematic aspects of the model are symptoms of its first major fault, a violation of the wisdom of Confucius: “Tell me, and I will forget; show me, and I will remember; involve me, and I will understand.” I have demonstrated this fault directly. One fall at Columbia University, I had the usual 80-student class of bright, ambitious undergraduates fulfilling their science requirement by taking my lecture course on the solar system. Most attended the lectures, and, mostly, they paid attention (I do not use PowerPoint). They worked through long quantitative problem sets, took biweekly quizzes, and performed well on the midterm and final exams. They then went home for Christmas and on to the spring semester.

The following September, I gathered most of them again and administered a test on some of the material we had covered. I gave the same test to my new class before my first lecture. The results were statistically indistinguishable. So much for pouring knowledge from the full container to the empty ones—it leaks out.

The second major fault of the current educational model is that learning is an isolated activity. Yes, we bring a number of students together to form a “class,” but then we do everything possible to isolate students from each other: “No talking in class”; “Please leave two seats between each person for this exam”; “Do all your own work.” We desocialize learning, separating it from the periods of normal human interaction we call dorm-room bull sessions.

The third misplaced pillar of educational practice is competition and its accompanying correlate, quantitative measurement. Standardized tests proliferate; grade-point averages are calculated to four significant figures. We pretend that these numbers measure learning and use them to award scholarships, sort professional-school applicants, and, sadly, evaluate self-worth. And we are surprised that cheating—the goal of which is to get a higher score—is widespread. If a group of students works together effectively and efficiently to solve a hard problem, in school this is called cheating. In life, as the British educator Sir Ken Robinson notes, it’s called collaboration, a valued asset in most real-world settings.

The brains of today’s undergraduates—a product of a million years of hominid evolution—are instinctively collaborative, innately cooperative, and structurally wired for small-group interaction mediated by language and an awareness of the intentionality of others. What might happen if we structured our educational system to take advantage of these natural attributes?

Quest University Canada, which opened its doors in 2007, was founded by an act of the British Columbia Legislative Assembly as Canada’s first independent, secular, nonprofit university. Its founders had a rare opportunity—we began with a blank slate and asked the following question: How would one design an undergraduate education that is (1) embedded in a globalized world facing daunting problems that require cross-disciplinary solutions and (2) aimed at a population of digital natives raised in a culture that celebrates multitasking? The result is an institution that does what the best universities have always done—partly mirror the society in which it is founded and partly challenge that society’s basic assumptions.

We began by rejecting the 19th-century German model on which most universities are built and choosing to have no departments. This decision is reflected in the architecture of the Academic Building, which is circular; offices are assigned by lottery, and there are no boundaries between disciplines. A music professor may sit next to a mathematician who, on the other side, has a neuroscientist and a political theorist as neighbors.

The next task was to set priorities, and we chose one: to deliver the most engaging and effective liberal-arts and sciences education possible to undergraduates from around the world. That means that the primary role of faculty members is to teach, and we changed their designation from professors to tutors, abjuring faculty ranks. We also built this into the concrete by having no lecture halls: All classrooms are seminar rooms with large oval tables.

The next choice concerned the curriculum delivery model. This is one of the instances in which we challenged societal assumptions: In education at least, multitasking is a disaster. The prefrontal cortex is a serial processor—that is why driving, talking, and texting simultaneously can be fatal. We chose the Block Plan pioneered by Colorado College in 1970. Students take four courses per term but take them serially rather than in parallel. For 24 days, both the class and the faculty member do nothing but focus on the one subject at hand.

The intensity of student engagement and the depths a class can plumb in this model are stunning. Students are in class a minimum of three hours a day, five days a week, and are expected to do five hours of work per day outside of class. And they do, often more. The flexibility the system provides is unparalleled. If an all-day (or 10-day) field trip is beneficial, it happens; no one has a chemistry lab that afternoon or an English paper due the next day—it is one class, all day, all the time.

This model encourages constant verbal exchange, promotes empathy toward the intentionality of others, and requires—in research projects, presentations, problem-solving exercises, and so on—collaboration. It involves each student in personal learning and engages the entire class, tutor and students alike, in advancing the group’s achievement of greater knowledge and understanding.

One example from our experience will illustrate what can be accomplished. All students take a math course in their first year. The options are somewhat nontraditional, and one is “Spherical Trigonometry.” The students get Lucite spheres, which they carry around like pets. Class starts at 10 a.m.; the students are typically still in the classroom when I go home at 7 p.m.

In December 2011, a class of 18 first-year students, none expecting to concentrate in mathematics, was at the end of the second week of the block. The faculty member presented a theorem first published in 1807 and repeated in textbooks ever since. By the end of the day, the students had identified a logical flaw in the theorem’s proof that had escaped mathematicians for two centuries. The tutor had to correct the page proofs from his monograph about to be published by Princeton University Press (and add his class to the acknowledgments).

General education is often thought of as a means to expose students to a broad range of “essential” knowledge and to provide a historical context for the culture in which they live. These are valid, but insufficient, goals. The purpose of general education should be to produce graduates who are skilled in communication, imbued with quantitative reasoning skills, instinctively collaborative, inherently transdisciplinary in their approach to problems, and engaged in their local and global communities—broadly educated individuals with an informed perspective on the problems of the 21st century and the integrative abilities to solve them.

David J. Helfand is president and vice chancellor of Quest University Canada and president of the American Astronomical Society. This essay was originally published in the Journal of General Education: A Curricular Commons of the Humanities and Sciences, published by the Pennsylvania State University Press.

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