I just got done listening to the podcast of Freakonomics Goes to College on WNYC. In the second part of the show, Steven Levitt, American economist, William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at The University of Chicago, and co-founder of the Freakonomics blog, makes a profound statement with which I think every current and former college student could easily identify. He says, “It is kinda hard to watch it (what goes on inside a college classroom) to figure out where it is that the value is added.” Now this candid admission simultaneously amuses and disturbs me. On the one hand, I could not help but chuckle, because just two nights ago my mom and I were having a discussion about standardized tests and whether they constitute real learning. Eventually the conversation shifted to the subject of what constitutes real learning inside the classroom. I said to her, “Mom, if you came to my school and sat through one of my classes for an hour and fifteen minutes you would leave wondering the exact same thing I do every waking second I spend in certain Felician college classrooms ‘why the hell does our society put so much value on that damn piece of paper called a college degree, because there’s definitely nothing of value and certainly no meaningful learning going on here. On the other hand, I could not help but let out a deep sigh of frustration, not least because Steven Levitt debases the value of what goes on inside the college classroom and he is a college professor and a distinguished one at that!!!!! But mostly because it really got me thinking about how I view my own college experience.
If I could sum up my entire college experience in a single idiom, it would have to be “few and far between”. What do I mean by that? People say that college is supposed to be a transformative learning experience. Supposedly, these “Institutions of higher learning” will alter the way you perceive yourself and the world around you. You will learn to be a critical thinker, a thoughtful challenger of the status quo, and an innovator of new techonologies and ideas….or at least that’s what conspiracy theorist conservatives fear you will learn. But is any of this lofty rhetoric actually true? Do these worthwhile and idealistic goals actually play themselves out in the college classroom…in the interactions between teacher and students? My answer would have to be they are “few and far between” and for most students those objectives are never realized. We are treated no differently and with no more respect than high school students. Rather than encourage us students to actively participate in the learning process, most professors force us into the typical role as passive receptacles to be filled with information i.e (Lecture on Five Chapters, Approximately 120 Pages From the Textbook….And Then Take A 50 Question Multiple Choice Test On All That Information…..Which, in the end, will be curved because the ratio of Information I Needed to Study to Information On This Test is Ridiculously High…). We are supposed to be obedient and submissive to the absolute whims of the professor, the curriculum, and the administration. Oh and, in the end, the answer to the question that really matters, “What did I really learn,” is “Absolutely nothing”. Does this sound like your hellish college experience, at least inside the classroom????!!!!
Perhaps I should ask Mr. Steven Levitt, distinguished economics professor at the University of Chicago to confirm my sentiments,
Obviously I teach my students. I teach them very specific things, but I know that when I talk to them years later they don’t remember anything that I taught them. I mean I can ask the most simple questions about the material that we covered, and they have no recollection whatsoever, the typical student.
Well, I would assume that no one whether you are teacher, student, or parent could possibly be surprised at this fact. Everyone who has ever attended school can attest to not remembering most of things they were taught. Why? Because it is scientifically proven that the way our minds function and learn does not conform to the practice of shoving facts and information down our throats and expecting us to spit them back up at a moment’s notice or even a week in advance notice. That’s not me talking, folks. That’s good ole science.
The bigger question at play here is why does our educational system at all levels, in its quest to create positive learning environments, continue to conform to this wrongheaded notion of how humans learn. For example, take Mr. Steven Levitt and his former students. A basic understanding of how the human mind learns and constructs knowledge easily dictates that Professor Levitt’s students will remember little, if anything, of what he taught them, yet that “instant recall” is the primary method he uses to gauge whether his students learned anything from his “Economics of Crime” class. Multiple choice tests conform to the exact same road to assessment. Its the way professors “give” us knowledge, and its the means by which our knowledge is assessed. It is incredibly flawed. It sucks all the responsibility out of teaching. It sucks all the joy out of learning. It is what Paulo Freire dubbed the “banking system” of education,
Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other. (Chapter 2, Pedagogy of The Oppressed)
Freire dubs the opposite of the “banking” system, “problem-posing education”. I have only ever experienced “problem posing education” twice in my school career; a “Philosophy of Education” class and a “Peace, Justice, and Contemporary Social Issues” class, both taken in college. How did these classrooms differ from the “banking” classrooms? There was meaningful dialogue between the teacher and the students. Not only did the students learn from the teacher, but the teacher also learned from the students. There was no single recognizable authority. Rather, teacher and students engaged each other at the same level both literally and figuratively. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I cried once that “Philosophy of Education” class, which is the primary inspiration for this blog, came to its inevitable conclusion. I cried for so many reasons. I cried because I was lost before this class. I was lost in the sense that I was a bio major on the misguided path to medical school. Of course, when I was a high school senior, all I though about was “Hey I’m good at science and I want to help people=Bio Major and Medical School and Eventually Doctor.” My passion lay dormant, repressed by an oppressive and dictatorial school environment. I had no perspective or sense of self. High school does not afford you those privileges. It should, but it doesn’t. Instead, it leaves you on an uncertain path to nowhere. I cried because I was angry. I was angry at an educational system that continues to leave millions of kids out to dry. I was angry at an educational system that continues to put standards and test scores above the learning needs of its students. I was angry at an educational system that continues to show a blatant disregard for cognitive science. I cried, because I was immensely grateful for this one professor and this one group of students who helped me see the light in my own life. Finally, I cried because I knew that for me and for every student mired in the American educational system, that this sort of classroom experience remains one of those “few and far between”.
Describe some of your learning or “anti-learning” experiences in your school career?
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