Education needs to evolve

When it comes to education I’m instinctively conservative. I believe in the power of knowledge and the need for distinct disciplines. I believe that hard work, delayed gratification and perseverance are at the heart of education. I believe that “engagement” is a poor marker for real learning and I don’t believe that we can teach skills like problem-solving or creativity in a context-independent way.

But I’m not so conservative that I think everything is fine with how we educate third level students. For example, I think the idea of going into a lecture with a laptop and ploughing through 20-30 Powerpoint slides and then posting those slides on Moodle or Blackboard or whatever, is an incredibly ineffective and inefficient way of teaching. I think that the way we assess students is archaic and actively discourages critical thinking. When I (being nosy) look at exam papers in the exam hall, I’m struck by how many questions are likely to promote the “brain dump” approach from students. I’m talking about questions that begin with “discuss” or “describe”, words that do little more than trigger a sort Pavlovian response by students, a response in which they simply dump everything they can remember about the topic in question.

We need to change. I’m not talking about a revolution; it’s more a case of evolution. We need to think a lot harder about assessment – because assessment drives learning – and we need to think about alternatives to the lecture. I’m not suggesting that we abandon lectures altogether because lectures can be inspiring. The two best educators I have encountered, Frank MacLoughlin in UCD and Ben Widom in Cornell, did nothing particularly innovative, but their lectures were fantastic.

There are lots of things we can do – like adopting a much more interactive approach – when our classes are small, 40 students or less, but when class sizes are in the hundreds, it gets a little more problematic. But we have to find a solution.

While employers are generally happy with our graduates, we need to set the bar higher. A graduate should reach a standard beyond what their first employer requires. Being a graduate should mean that your instinct is to think and not just accept, and that you have had an education experience that went far beyond learning-off content to pass an end-of semester exam.

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