College education has numerous critics these days. I believe the recent fascination with MOOCs comes – at least in part – from dissatisfaction with the perceived quality of the current educational experience. We promise development of critical thinking skills in our students but often appear to deliver little more than well-rehearsed memorization. The argument then follows that we don’t need small classes and individual attention simply to teach memorization. Massive online courses can achieve that goal with much less cost.
In my spare time, I often ponder how modern college education can become better. For example, is the education that a college student gets today really superior in any way to the norm 40 years ago? Cars get more miles per gallon of gas than they did back then. Computers run thousands of times faster. But, has college education gotten better during that same period? We are certainly able to teach more students but has the average education actually improved in any significant way?
About 20 years ago, I read an article that I remember well to this day. The article argued that society’s best teacher was the drill sergeant in charge of new Marine recruits during their stay in basic training. This officer gets paid a relatively small amount but will work 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, for weeks on end to make sure the new recruits are properly trained. The drill sergeant will push, cajole, and drive each person toward success. At the end of that time, the recruit will be basically a new person – gone are laziness and bad habits. The person is now a well-trained soldier.
Why does the drill sergeant work so hard without much real compensation? According to the article, the sergeant is training each new recruit on how to stay alive during combat and other dangerous situations. For the drill sergeant, the very life of the recruit is on the line. A properly trained soldier stays alive whereas a poorly trained one might not. Failure to teach the young soldier well can possibly lead to an avoidable death. It is the urgency of the education that pushes the drill sergeant to go all out, night and day, to train the recruit. The recruit might actually hate the sergeant but also might owe his life to that teacher.
I was reminded of this article recently. My wife and our daughters occasionally watch a television show called “The Biggest Loser.” I have never seen a complete episode but I will sometimes watch a few minutes as I pass through the room. As you might know, a group of very heavy contestants are chosen. These folks typically weigh between 280 to 500 pounds and their lives are in jeopardy simply because of their extreme heaviness.
Over a period of weeks, these contestants eat less and exercise so much that they often lose hundreds of pounds. They become new people ready to resume more active rolls in society.
My favorite characters on this show are the trainers who work with each of the contestants. I know that one of them is named Jillian. Jillian will get in the contestant’s faces and push them unmercifully to do their exercises. She will beg them; she will yell at them; she will use whatever trick it takes to get them to work harder and harder so that the excess weight is lost. From what I have seen, no one does more than Jillian to get the results she wants. I often wonder what college would be like if we had a few people like Jillian on our faculty.
By the end of the television season, these folks have had their lives completely turned around. They might have weighed 390 pounds at the start of the competition but be down to 180 by the end.
Clearly, they do not like the amount of pushing that Jillian does. The work can be incredibly hard. They are used to being lazy; she wants them to do real work. They have always made excuses; she won’t let them make any excuses. I am always expecting one of the contestants to pick Jillian up one day and throw her out the window. However, at the last week of each show, almost every contestant will hug Jillian and tell her thanks. Thanks for not giving up on them. Thanks for continuing to push them to get better and stronger. Thanks for guiding them to lose so much weight. She is not their best buddy and doesn't want to be but she has helped them to change their lives for the better.
Why does Jillian push these people so hard? Well, like the drill sergeant, there is a real urgency present. Improvement is needed and improvement is needed immediately. These people are so heavy that they will likely die before their time if they don’t make a change right now. Today. Each contestant is hundreds of pounds overweight and could have a heart attack at any moment.
This is what I call “educational urgency.” The teacher imparts an urgency that requires serious work and lots of it and all of it right now. No procrastination. No laziness. No excuses. There is work to be done and it needs to be done now.
How many teachers have you ever had that seemed to indicate that there was any urgency at all in the learning of class material? I have had dozens of teachers and I don't remember ever having any urgency. I meandered forward at my own leisure.
Students are human beings (believe it or not). Ask yourself this question: How much real work will they do without a sense of urgency?
Most teachers want their students to learn and most do become annoyed if the students don’t learn. But, is there ever any real urgency? And, if there is not, why would in teacher expect a college student to do the work or even care about the class?
I believe that one of the reasons college teaching is under attack is that our classes often don’t ring with any urgency at all. If the student learns the material, that is great but, if not, it is really no big deal. In the end, it really doesn’t make much difference. That's an attitude that can lead to general dissatisfaction.
Whether you teach Shakespeare or philosophy or political science or, even, accounting, is there any urgency at all to the learning process? If there is no urgency, why should your students really do anything for you? Of course, there are always a few great students who love the material and do the work because of that interest. Trust me, they are not the problem. It is the other students we need to reach and spur on to better habits and deeper thinking.
In my classes, I give out questions every day for the next class. At that subsequent class, I call on every student to explain these questions and provide potential solutions. I argue with them if I don’t like their answers. I do worse if I don’t feel they are prepared. I am trying to create a sense of urgency because I want them to do well and do well every day. I am not trying to scare them. I just want them to view every day as essential. I want my students to feel a need to prepare so that they can be ready to be engaged in our class discussion.
Does it work? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. No system is perfect. But, if you are not satisfied with what your students are learning, it may well be that they feel no urgency to do any better.
Add a little urgency to the mixture.