What Common Core has that higher ed needs

A random return to blogging, but here goes....

When two educators are married, discussions of pedagogy are inevitable. Tonight's discussion at my house: Common Core (CC) and its eventual impact on higher education. For those unaware, CC is the newly-implemented system that's meant to standardize K-12 education in America. In its infancy, it is a controversial system, mostly because of its revolutionary approach to teaching and assessment (testing), especially for math. CC has its basis in experiential learning and assessment of understanding through written justification. Additionally, students are encouraged to take charge of their learning, while the teacher serves as a guide on the journey. Despite the controversy surrounding CC, it's commendable that CC was structured using the most cutting-edge information about how students learn best. Under CC, lectures, worksheets, and scantrons are a thing of the past. And yet, that's exactly what students will face when they enroll as university freshman. Ironic, no? In the coming years, we will condition children for one classroom format and then expect them to excel as young adults in another one. Seems bogus to me.

Higher ed is notorious for clinging to outdated classroom formats, mostly out of tradition and convenience. I've been training for seven years (ugh) to become a university-level educator. Yet, everything I know about classroom management, curriculum development, curriculum implementation, and student assessment is example-based. Monkey see, monkey do. Thankfully, my role models have been excellent, and many of them take it upon themselves regularly to read up on and use current teaching techniques. However, how messed up is it that, in all my years, I've never been required to take an education course? Even preschool teachers (no offense to preschool teachers) are required to take many pedagogical courses before they're certified. What about the folks who teach future physicians? Nope.

After 7 years of training to be a professor, nobody's ever asked me to take an education class. They did make me swear on a foot that I was qualified, though. 

To clarify, I'm not saying that professors are inept teachers. I'm saying that teaching is a skill--one that is under-appreciated in higher ed. It's often ranked as low priority by tenure review boards. "Anybody can teach," they say. "What else can you do for us?" Yet, how is one to be an excellent teacher AND an excellent researcher without training and sustained support for both?

The dirty little secret is that, during grad school, many teaching assistants are tossed into the deep end of the teaching pool without any prior training or practice. Their ability to teach swimmingly is based on their previous role models and their own personality and adaptability. Yet, even when teaching assistants succeed at good teaching, they do so only through cobbled attempts of trial-and-error and not through deliberate experimentation with evidence-based techniques.

The bigger issue, in my mind, is where higher ed is headed. The goals of business-minded administrators rarely match those of the faculty (though, keeping the gates open and the power on are probably mutual interests). As administrations at brick-and-mortar universities and colleges work to compete with online options, they attempt to woo students with shiny, new buildings and "best value" educations. Enrollments are at record highs--set high in order to pay for deficits both old and new. Education resource budgets are slashed. Therefore, as admission requirements loosen and as less emphasis is placed on high-quality educational experiences for students, we are left with academic institutions that are nothing more than glorified summer camps (citation needed...anyone remember where that phrase came from?) that house, feed, and entertain slack-jawed idiots.

However, in our post-economic-downturn era, it is now common to hear discussions about whether or not college is a good investment and whether or not it provides students with skills that set them apart from other peers in the job market. For some, college is no longer a necessary step to entering the middle class. This makes total sense. In my opinion, college is not for everyone (however, it should be available to anyone who wants to go). If college happens to be necessary based on the student's chosen career path, the next choice is to decide where to attend. The obvious dichotomy would be go cheap (online degree) or go quality (brick-and-mortar).

Unfortunately, instead of focusing on quality by emphasizing classroom funding, teacher training, and career support for good educators, universities are focusing on aesthetics while dumping more and more teaching responsibilities on non-tenured and part-time faculty, many of whom are inexperienced or under-qualified educators. In the end, and especially as the cost of higher ed continues to rise (thanks, federal loans), it is conceivable that families will turn away in droves from institutions that provide sub-standard training. And rightly so.

For all of its faults, CC is likely a step in the right direction. It aims to anticipate the needs of students and take into consideration their more modern experience. Instead of asking students to memorize everything, it accepts that the internet exists, and it attempts to foster abilities like teamwork, problem-solving, information prioritization, demonstration of mastery, cognitive reasoning, and independent learning. How awesome is that? I mean, talk about preparing someone for the real world. Or at least grad school.

The saddest part is that, even as students experience the ups and downs of early CC, and as CC is refined through the years, university faculty will STILL be droning on from our podiums and complaining that students are texting in class. We'll still be whispering to our grad students about those lazy, pathetic undergrads as we simultaneously force outdated, ineffective techniques on them that hardly inspire enthusiasm for learning. In our ignorance, we'll balk at accommodations for different learning styles and IEPs*. We'll fail our students. We'll dig our own grave, and the university will happily build yet another rec center over it.

The sooner we all realize the following, the better:
-Teaching is not easy.
-Teaching requires training, support, and tools.
-Teaching methods are not stagnant.
-Good teaching is the heart of a university.

 Let's try to keep it beating, shall we?

*Gorramit, if you don't know what an IEP is yet, for goodness' sake go look it up now!


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