Thursday, July 7, 2011


Garry Trudeau, who writes the comic strip “Doonesbury,” must have some interesting opinions about college education. In this blog, I have written previously about the picture of college education that he paints occasionally (see “Dealing With The Truth” posted on January 23, 2011).

Well, once again, Trudeau has written a strip that I felt went right to the heart of some of the problems we face as educators. In his cartoon for Sunday, June 26, 2011, two students are sitting at what looks like a coffee shop. One student asks: “When is Guy Fawkes Day?” and the other looks at a computer screen and responds with the correct answer in 0.08 seconds. The next question is what is “the seventh most abundant element in the earth’s crust”? This time the correct answer is provided in 0.14 seconds. The final question is what are “the three main branches of moral philosophy”? Discovery of the correct answer takes a mere 0.09 seconds.

The instant availability of an infinite amount of information leads these two students to ask questions that we educators should be asking all the time:
--Student One: “Which raises profound questions about what it means to be a student.”
--Student Two: “Yeah, like why go to college?”

Okay, this is the point where we should all provide our own personal answers. A college education normally takes four years of a person’s life and can cost up to $250,000. In 2011, have colleges become obsolete as a result of the efficiency of Google, Bing, and similar search engines.

In the cartoon, the students provide their answer. Why go to college? Student One has the perfect answer: “Well, to party. That hasn’t changed.”

And, my guess is that a lot of college teachers are not surprised one bit by this response. Many students seem to believe that parties are the primary reason for going to college.

Is that their fault? Or, is that our fault?

In this blog, I have often argued that too many college classes are built on a “conveyance of information model.” After World War II, when suddenly a lot more people were seeking a college education, a conveyance of information model probably made sense. At that time, other than an encyclopedia, individuals had very little way to get information. In 1951, determining the seventh most abundant element in the earth’s crust might literally have taken hours if not days.

Therefore, a wise individual would stand in front of a packed room of college students. This expert would rattle on for 50-75 minutes while the students copied it all down.

That probably made sense in 1951. However, this is 2011 and not 1951.

I think the biggest problem that colleges face today is switching from a conveyance of information model to a critical thinking model. And, truthfully, it is much easier to convey information than it is to help a young person develop critical thinking skills.

You have a new school year coming up. What if your new year’s resolution is to develop more critical thinking skills in your students? How would you go about doing that? Where do you even start?

I am going to give a few recommendations that seem to work occasionally in my classes. Perhaps a few of these will help you as you think about the question “why go to college?”

--Give students a reasonable amount of work to do prior to EVERY class and (a) make sure that this work relates to what you actually do in class and (b) hold the students accountable for doing that work. Don’t give your students a free ride—this is their education. They need to do their share of the work but that work has to be helpful to them.
--Ask questions, ask questions, ask questions – the more questions you can ask in a class, the better. I shoot for one per minute on the average.
--Don’t get upset by wrong answers. This is a learning process. If you get many correct answers, you are not asking the right questions. And, make sure the students know that they shouldn’t get upset by a wrong answer as long as they have made a serious effort. If you can get the effort, the rest will follow.
--Ask students what they think of other student answers. If I call on Susan, I don’t want Bill to fall asleep. If Bill knows that I might turn to him and ask “what do you really think of the answer, she just gave?” then Bill is going to pay close attention. I want every student paying attention every minute.
--Don’t ask students questions that you know they know. What good does that do? Your job as a teacher is to help stretch the mental capabilities of your students. If you do that, the students themselves should pay you a bonus. In my classes, I draw a circle and then put an X about 2 inches outside of the circle with a line connecting the circle and the X. “The circle is all the information you already know. The X is what I’m trying to get you to understand. The line is the connection between the two. If you will think about what you know, I honestly believe you can figure out the answer to X without my telling you. It is that ‘figuring out’ that I’m shooting for. It is that ‘figuring out’ that will make you better.”
--When you get to the tests, do the same thing. Ask them questions that they have to figure out. If you are just going to be testing memorization, forget the first five steps in this list because the students will ignore them.

I seriously believe that colleges are going to come under increasing fire over the next few years unless we do a better job of answering the question: why go to college? Personally, I think that answer comes from switching from a conveyance of information model to a development of critical thinking model.

And, to tell you the truth, helping students to develop critical thinking skills is a whole lot more fun (for you and them both) than simply conveying information.

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