A boring education

A recent story about college students in the San Diego Union Tribune was pretty interesting. Here’s an example:

Students want schools to adjust to their needs, interests and lifestyles, and to do so quickly.

“I’m always having to adapt to education rather than having education adapt to me,” said Ella Chen, a sophomore at UC San Diego.

The restlessness is widespread. Nearly 40 percent of the freshmen surveyed by the university in 2016 said they were frequently bored in class.

The article goes on to say that students want “more hands-on, experiential learning”. (I have this for history: my students interpret primary source documents like historians do. But I think what they mean here would require a TARDIS.)

One of the main purposes of education, especially the education of young people, is to acculturate the student into the broader society. You can change the processes of formal education, but the motive for these systems is the same. In the case of university, there is an additional set of purposes having to do with the development of the intellect, particularly in connecting fields of knowledge (à la Cardinal Newman).

I was bored in a number of my classes, at all levels of my education. The solution was to extract from the class what I could, and supplement its content on my own. That’s a life skill. I was also in a number of classes where I wasn’t bored, but other students were. An old saying goes, “this isn’t boring — you are bored”.

While I spend a whole lot of energy making history exciting for students, but the fact is, some are bored. I share my passion for the subject, but that isn’t enough for some to get engaged. Once could understand this through research on student character traits (persistence, resilience, grit), and respond appropriately. But it is so much easier to blame teachers, and the system. I recently saw this dissertation online: Understanding Disinterest: How Online Undergraduate Students Perceive And Respond To Disengaged Faculty Members. Setting aside the improper use of the word “disinterest” (it means lack of bias), here is another low-sample study (N=8) claiming a larger significance. It assumes a gap in research on how students perceive online teachers (a gap I believe is filled by faculty evaluations). The study uses transactional distance theory, or rather the parts of it that fit the argument, to conflate teaching skill with enthusiasm. It shows low student success for professors who don’t demonstrate the kind of actions that will motivate students.

It is obvious that the problems of the customer-service model of education continue to expand. The larger question is how it has become accepted wisdom that students require motivation in the form of entertaining behaviors on the part of instructors, that not to do so means being boring, and that boring is not OK and needs to be fixed. Regardless of what a student may need in terms of acculturation, self-direction, and scholarship, it has become more important that they be entertained into learning, then get a degree as quickly as possible to avoid wasting public monies.

Education should not adapt to such support goals, nor adapt to fit what students say they want.

Many years ago I was in a group of “stakeholders” choosing among Course Management Systems for the college. We had a student contingent, and they were most insistent that they wanted just one thing. They wanted all their professors to input all the deadlines for all assignments into one central calendar system, so they could stay on task. At the time, this would have been daunting for faculty, and would have massively increased their workload. Nowadays, the adoption of the college-wide (state-wide if you’re a community college) LMS insists that this be done, and professors do it. And yet, despite answering what students said they needed to be successful, so many are not successful that we need massive state-wide student success initiatives.

While I have no problem adjusting to student needs (cogent information, skill-building assignments, fair grading, access to help) I do have a problem adjusting to their wants. Diagnosing their desires as a social problem that needs to be solved degrades the purpose of college.




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