“The New Education” by Cathy Davidson

51dYKk9sOsLFirst of all, this isn’t a commissioned review – I bought The New Education by Cathy Davidson myself and am (sort of) reviewing it because I found it extremely thought-provoking. In fact, on a recent trip to the States with a few colleagues, I nattered on about it almost non-stop so I feel that I should probably share a few insights from the book. It is worth noting that the book is very USA-focused and so not everything is going to be applicable for everybody. However, there are more than enough shared issues among higher education institutions that the book resonated with me in a lot of different ways. Below, I pick out a few of the sections that I found particularly interesting, and share some of the ways in which they might affect the way that I try to influence teaching at my university:

1. Davidson talks at the beginning about “Taylorism” – the belief that rather than becoming holistically-educated individuals who are capable of perceiving big pictures, people were better trained to act as cogs in much larger machines. The result is that training (including in universities) tends to focus on disciplines, while inter-, multi-, or transdisciplinarity has been sidelined. The result is that “systems thinking” and the solving of complex problems is not at the core of university education. For me, broadening student horizons through the incorporation of real world problems and other disciplines is central to their education.

2. “In the deficit model, poor scores are a problem of the learner, not of the instructor or the institution.” – Davidson spends a lot of time contrasting community colleges (which she characterises as places where teachers help students to learn) with universities (characterised as places where students pass or fail). This idea of a deficit model posits that all students can achieve, if only they apply themselves. Universities need to acknowledge that students are not the finished article when they arrive, and need to be nurtured from a point where they know nothing.

3. The following quote emphasises a major issue with university education: lecturers and professors simply are not trained to teach:

…unlike most professors at four-year colleges and research universities, community college teachers actually train and prepare for teaching. They don’t just teach the way they were taught by their graduate school professors— the apprenticeship model of learning where you imitate your mentor. They actually study effective methods for teaching students at any level. Like K–12 teachers, community college professors take pedagogy seriously.

4. Davidson also has some interesting perspectives on technology and blended learning. This is part of her wider argument against didactic lectures and in favour of active learning. I particularly liked the quote “Every class should be an opportunity to do that which no screen can do” – a solid statement of where higher education teaching should be heading in an age of recorded lectures and YouTube. She also has some perspectives on technology in the classroom:

It is common, in the history of technology, for adults to be sure that the latest device—the one that wasn’t around when they were growing up—will somehow do irreparable damage to the younger generation. For teachers, a common technophobic response is to ban from the classroom devices that are becoming ubiquitous everywhere else… It’s odd and even irresponsible that formal education is the one place where we’re not using the devices on which we do our learning all the rest of the time.

5. In terms of assessment, Davidson has some views with which I agree wholeheartedly:

…students do not do particularly well in writing papers just for the sake of writing papers. Rather, students value writing that “makes something happen in the world.”

Students learn to write essays that only they and their professor will be reading, in a form and format that are rarely used beyond the classroom.

Writing a term paper for the sake of writing a term paper, one that will be read only by the instructor, seems pointless, even ludicrous.

6. Davidson also has some frank words about MOOCs (with which I have come to agree). The interesting aspect for me is that I have been asked to put on a MOOC in my department over the next few months. I’ll share more about that later. Davidson specifically critiques the early MOOC styles, which were largely recorded lectures:

Videos of famous professors from elite universities packaged by other famous professors who formerly taught at elite universities will not “transform” higher education except perhaps in an unfortunate way, reinforcing and spreading the nineteenth-century passive, hierarchical models of teaching and learning.

Is the MOOC really a revolution in learning or, like another era’s horseless carriage, a mechanized version of what already exists?

They joked that we were leading a Meaningful, Ornery, and Outrageous Course.

If you believe technology is the answer to everything that plagues higher education, you probably don’t understand technology or higher education…

However, as an enthusiastic science communicator (when I can find the time), this comment also resonated with me:

As one commentator notes, “Online education isn’t succeeding because it’s better than Oberlin [College – the physical institution to which a MOOC is being compared], it’s succeeding because it’s better than nothing, and nothing is what’s currently on offer for millions of people.”

Finally, Davidson concludes with a summary of problems that is perhaps more a call to arms than anything else, a much-needed list of key challenges that face higher education and for which there are solutions (demonstrated by exemplars elsewhere) if only institutions had the initiative and drive to implement them. I have broken them up here into a numbered list for clarity:

  1. The lecture is broken, and so we must think of better ways to incorporate active learning into the classroom.
  2. High-stakes end-of-semester summative, standardized testing is broken, and so we must design challenges that help students to build on what they know and learn from what they don’t, growing stronger from each test instead of feeling defeated by an exam score that cannot capture growth or change.
  3. Cost is prohibitive, and so we must adopt new models of credit, such as the Australian graduated repayment model, and far better models of support, including renewed public faith in the importance of supporting higher education for the sake of all our futures—including, for the skeptics, on purely economic grounds.
  4. The traditional professorial and apprentice models don’t teach students how to be experts, and so we must look to peer learning and peer mentoring, rich cocurricular experiences, and research to put the student, not the professor or the institution, at the center.
  5. The major in a traditional discipline no longer maps to the complex ways students encounter the world or the jobs and careers of the present and the future, and so we must champion relevant interdisciplinary projects, missions, programs, and goals, across departments and silos of knowledge and expertise.
  6. The exclusivity of more and more of our universities increasingly buffers them from the world beyond, and so we must encourage more partnerships and resource sharing across elite and non-elite institutions, including community and regional colleges, HBCUs, and other minority-serving institutions.
  7. Increasing numbers of students now attend community college, and so we must find better ways to support faculty and advisers there. We must improve systems of credit transfer and course alignment to ensure that students with associate’s degrees can go on easily and smoothly to earn bachelor’s degrees at four-year institutions.
  8. The situation of adjunct and contingent labor threatens the future of the university, and so we must insist that full-time positions be replaced with full-time faculty.

With the exception of 6 and 7, which are more specific to the USA system, these are the core problems that I have seen in higher education, summarised succinctly. For me, to read them as a solid paragraph (as in the book) is to experience the coalescence of all the little gripes and major strategic initiatives that I have been aware of or considered into a single paragraph of text. Not all are within our control (e.g. financing in point 3), but the majority are and it is the responsibility of staff and (in particular) management to solve them.

In summary, I found the book to be a succinct (it isn’t long), interesting (particularly the historical perspectives on problems that plague us today), practical (so many references and case studies of success!) guide to the big problems in universities. The book is also written in a funny and light-hearted way, despite the gravity of some of the issues that are discussed. I’d strongly recommend it to all HE colleagues, and especially to staff in managerial positions. We’re the ones who need to make the change.

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