Saturday, April 2, 2011

Academically On Course

            The authors of Academically Adrift  paint a dismal picture of higher education. The essential image is sadly predictable: too few students engaged regularly in the sort of complex reasoning and critical analysis that will help prepare them for democratic citizenship and economic productivity, let alone a meaningful life of the mind. Mounds of data from various studies reveal college students scarcely improve their higher-order thinking skills, although they begin woefully low in these areas.
            Enough blame exists for just about everyone to swallow a few mouthfuls. The authors do not let educational institutions off the hook. They cite many problems, including the lack of priority on instruction; the decreasing number of full-time professors; their focus on tenure and research; the massively increased number of administrators; and an economic drive to admit as many students as possible, whether prepared or not.
            Tied to that final point, more students see college simply as a necessary investment for a return, usually in the form of employment. A greater percentage of high school students assume they will attend college, although they do not tie it to any particular ambition or plan. The authors point out:

Many students come to college not only poorly prepared by prior schooling for highly demanding academic tasks that ideally lie in front of them, but—more troubling still—they enter college with attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with academic commitment. (Kindle edition, loc 141)

Over the years, the number of hours that students they spend studying has been cut in half. Graduation rates also have plummeted; and of those who do graduate, many are now taking 5-6 years.
            I don’t question either general argument. As for the people involved in higher education, shame on them, for they should know better. As for the students, I feel sorry for them. In many ways, they have been victimized by a backwards system.
            The overwhelming majority of students in America have proceeded through an educational assembly line with various checks along the way in the form of standardized tests. Before they can leave the plant, quality control comes in the form of one final test—the exit exam. Of course, along the way they have spent countless hours on practice problems, pre-tests, test review, tests in other classes that will be just like the big test. Ultimately, I’m not sure this really proves anything other than how well a student has learned to take a very limited form of assessment—a type of test with little resemblance to anything he or she will ever encounter in real life.
            Here are the real questions we need to ask a student about to graduate. What can you do with what you’ve learned? How can you show me that you’ve synthesized and internalized all the key elements of your education?
            For that reason, I’m very excited about our eighth graders’ service learning projects. They are a wonderful capstone experience. Working in small groups, students have researched various societal issues, brainstormed solutions, presented their cases, and chosen an area on which to focus. They spend most of the final trimester engaged in actual service based on their plans. Some have joined the Falling Whistles project for peace in Congo. Some are working to encourage literacy. Some are working with senior citizens. Some are combating child obesity. At the end of the project, students will present again for their peers, teachers, and families, along with preparing a final report. By showing how both their minds and spirits have flourished, the students will embody the rich and truly holistic education they have gained throughout their time at St. John’s. To invoke a Quaker ideal, they are letting their lives speak.
            It also means that St. John’s students are anything but academically adrift. Indeed, they graduate ready to navigate high school and life with confidence and purpose.

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