Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How to Get a Real Education at College

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) writes The Saturday Essay in the Wall Street Journal on 9th April last about How to Get a Real Education at College. What about this for an opening paragraph?

Cartoon by Scott Adams and
linked to from (not stolen!)
"I understand why the top students in America study physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature. The kids in this brainy group are the future professors, scientists, thinkers and engineers who will propel civilization forward. But why do we make B students sit through these same classes? That's like trying to train your cat to do your taxes—a waste of time and money. Wouldn't it make more sense to teach B students something useful, like entrepreneurship?"

It makes perfect sense! We march students into classes and try to teach them all the same subject - regardless of ability or even their application to their studies. We assess them, and then grade them according to a grading rubric. Only a fraction of most classes will get a Grade A/First/Distinction, some will score respectable mid-grades, while some may barely pass or even fail. Yet they all get the same lecture, notes, resources, labs, tutorials, continuous assessment, and exams. Is there any point in teaching students who don't get a top grade in " physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature"?

Cartoon by Scott Adams and
linked to from  (not stolen!).
Adams' article goes on to talk about entrepreneurship - but that is not the subject of my post here. The answer to my own question is an emphatic "Yes - we should teach all grades in our classes". Classes would be very small indeed if only the top students could attend. I know that some day I will be lying in a hospital and hoping that the surgeon who is about to operate on me had straight A's all the way through School and College. But would a B or C grade surgeon be any better/worse?

But we should also consider if we are teaching the right things and if students are suited to the class they are attending. It would be impractical to teach each student in a class different things, yet we do not consider it impractical that a student learns different things in a class. For example, I need to remind myself that not all the students (100+) in my Project Management class will end up as Project Managers - so it is important that those who choose something different as a career still get something from my class.

Adams signs off his article with the following: "Remember, children are our future, and the majority of them are B students. If that doesn't scare you, it probably should". Makes you think!

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