The “Game” of School

The “game” of school played by faculty and students claims to be about learning, but in truth it’s about grades, credits and filtering.  The students fully understand this; that’s why they behave as they do in our courses.  (Sannier made this point early in the ELI Conference, but it’s not unique to him.)  School works well as a screening device to identify individuals with the intelligence or other abilities necessary to be successful in the working world.  Or at least it used to, before widespread grade inflation and No Child Left Behind, but those issues deserve a separate post.

If school is about learning, what is it exactly that your students are learning?  Where’s the proof that learning is even occurring?

Do faculty believe that every (or nearly every) student is capable of mastery of the subjects they teach?  What grade corresponds to mastery of a subject?  Is that a C?  If so, do faculty in your department think of C as a good grade, a grade indicating quality (mastery implies quality doesn’t it?)?  Does mastery imply a grade of A?  What would your department chair or dean say if everyone got an A?  What if nearly everyone did?   If nearly every student is achieving mastery, does that mean that we’ve set the bar too low?

Is a student who earns a teaching certificate at Longwood University (what many at my institution, UMW, would consider a “lesser quality school”) a weaker teacher than a student who earns a teaching certificate from UMW?

Is a student who earns an economics degree at Longwood a weaker economist?  I want to say yes, but the truth to both these questions is I do not know.  I don’t know their curriculum.  I don’t know their program objectives or how well they achieve them.  I don’t know much about the faculty, certainly nothing about their teaching effectiveness.  I don’t know how successful their alumni become.

What makes a better quality school better?

  • Is it that it admits students with better academic backgrounds: advanced courses, grades, SATs?
  • Is it that students learn more when working with other bright students?
  • Is it that it has better faculty (i.e. faculty with better records of scholarship)?
  • Is it that it has more resources?

What about undergraduates at Research 1 universities, which tend to have many of the above qualities, but who often are taught, at least at the lower levels, by graduate students?  Is their learning experience better than that provided by tenured faculty at UMW?

Better scholarship doesn’t imply better teaching, especially in an R1 where scholarship is king and teaching largely doesn’t matter.  A close friend who teaches at a prestigious R1 once told me “I wouldn’t let my kids come to school here because they’d get a much better education at a liberal arts school like yours.”

If a “better” school, admits “better” students, and produces “better” graduates, where’s the surprise in that.  More importantly, where’s the evidence of learning?  Food for thought.

Returning to my original point, education as a sieve makes sense in a world where students don’t really want to learn what faculty have to offer.  But if students do want to learn, a mastery approach should work better than the current system.  How would students’ expectations be different if they believed school were really about learning, if students thought that teachers believed they all could learn to a mastery level.

How can we make higher education not a sieve, but rather a learning machine that can equip all students with what they need to succeed in life (both in terms of vocation and more broadly)?  I think the first step would be to radically rethink how we teach. We have a lot of work to do.  Do we have the leadership to guide us in that direction?

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