The Sins of Our Current Education System

I’ve discovered a fascinating new blog through Psychology Today called, Freedom To Learn, and it looks like learning from the perspective of a developmental psychologist, Dr. David Gray. Recently, the post was on what he perceives as “The Seven Sins of Our Forced Education.” Two of the seven sins really spoke to me, sin five: Linking of Learning with Fear, Loathing, and Drudgery, and sin six, Inhibition of Critical Thinking.


This is a story I always tell my students when teaching literature or even writing. When I was in Grade 10, I was in my school’s enriched English class. The entire class had been together in the enriched stream since entering high school; we were the best and the brightest, and we knew it. We got high grades and we won praise. But this class was the worst. Our teacher had us read a book that we had been warned about: you will learn to hate Grandfather Connor. One day, we were told to write an in-class essay describing how the Brick House was symbolic of Grandfather Connor. Being 15, full of ourselves, and our brilliance, we thought this assignment was CRAP. We didn’t see how a house could be symbolic of anything, nor did we care.

One by one, we would bring our essays up to the teacher where she would proceed to tear our ideas apart. Garbage, she would say, stop wasting my time. We were, in fact, wasting her time, as we were just guessing (or at least I knew I was and most of my circle of friends were, too). But by some miracle, someone would come up with a way that the house and the grandfather were similar. And we would all frantically copy the idea, no, the whole sentence that had gained the teacher’s grudging approval. But the end of the class, we all had written an identical one-page essay. And we were no closer to understanding symbolism or how the house was a symbol for the grandfather.

I tell this story because it illustrates the two sins very well. First, we were humiliated in front of the class when we would come up and present whatever nonsense we had come up with. We left the class devastated. This was not learning; this was torture. It’s a miracle that I ended up studying literature in university and grad school seeing as how English class was my least favorite class all through high school. I loved reading, but English class was “work,” and not the good kind. The good might be hard, but did the teachers have to go so far out of their way to make the experience as freaking miserable as possible?

Dr. Gray describes how education as it is currently practiced limits critical thinking:

But despite all the lip service that educators devote to that goal, most students–including most “honors students”–learn to avoid thinking critically about their schoolwork. They learn that their job in school is to get high marks on tests and that critical thinking only wastes time and interferes. To get a good grade, you need to figure out what the teacher wants you to say and then say it.”

Sound familiar? We didn’t learn anything about critical thinking; we learned how to write a paper that was acceptable to our professor. I’m not saying that the house WASN’T symbolic of the grandfather (it is), but we certainly didn’t learn how to see symbolism or understand it. This was the challenge we faced and were particularly adept at as “gifted” students: figuring out teachers out and giving them what they wanted. Thinking critically, it was not.

The reason I use this story when I teach is to try and overcome these two sins that often happen in education. I use it as a gate to talking about their fear, anxieties, and pet peeves when it comes to learning about literature and writing. I remember how I would have wanted to be taught about symbolism and use that method (and others) to get students to see the connections between what an author writes and what (else) they can be saying. Reading can be a really fun puzzle to “solve,” or it can be a chore to endure. I always remember how to make it a joy. I don’t want anyone to feel the way we did that day in English class in Grade 10.

Why Even Bother? I’ll Tell You Why!

I was searching on the NY Times website for the article I mentioned in my previous post and I was presented with two (paid) links that advertised assistance in writing your papers (actually, it was the word assignment that flagged it; note to self, ignore advice to stop tweaking your site and add something about assignments). Being curious about my competition and how they sell themselves, I clicked on both their sites. They are actually sites that write a student’s paper, essay, thesis, dissertation, MBA project, etc FOR THEM. That’s right. For a price, you could have your dissertation written for you.

At first, I was really, really depressed. Why should they pay me, when for less, they can have someone else write their papers for them? But then I found a few good reasons right on their sites.

Reason one: It’s not a good idea to buy services from a company that has ethical reasoning like this:

“All our papers are provided for research purposes, therefore you are not cheating. Once we write the paper for you it becomes you possession. We guarantee you 100% confidentiality and 100% plagiarism free papers. In no way it can be considered a cheating.”

Really? Apparently the definition of cheating is different in the U.K. It’s not, but really, it’s a bit of moral and ethical acrobatics in order to make you feel better for slacking off and, yes, cheating.

Reason two, “The Hassle of University Papers,” according to one paper mill’s website:

“Putting in time and effort to get a good university level essay, thesis, dissertation or Term Paper done is a difficult especially when the assignment is difficult. A sound university essay, thesis, dissertation or Term Paper needs effort, devotion and an idea as well as meticulous knowledge of the subject.

“University essay, thesis, dissertation or Term Paper is an area of expertise and this website modestly helps students globally with their university essay, thesis, dissertation or Term Papers. There are many websites out there that can provide you with the best written university essay, thesis, dissertation or Term Paper that would totally comply with your specifications and help you advance. Students who cannot take out time or carry out researchers will be delighted to use our services that provide only the best university essay, thesis, dissertation or Term Papers for them at an affordable price.”

It’s probably NOT a good idea to buy a paper from a business who writes blog posts like this. But isn’t that part of the problem today with higher education, or education in general? University is HARD. I don’t like to work HARD. I want to have FUN. Right. Chat online live right now with someone who will write poorly and yet still convince you to use their service. All credit cards accepted.

This ties into reason three: Why are you even here? Seriously, the entire point of higher education is education. Learning. The good is hard. If your education is worth it to you, then you will be willing to work hard and do what is necessary for the greater good of your career or educational goals. No, it’s not easy, but you can take the easy way out or you can use your resources to find a way to do the best that you can, not the best that some stranger can do for you in two hours (or less!). Give someone a fish; teach them to fish. Do you want to learn to fish? Or do you just want to eat?

I’ll help you fish. I know that there are students out there who want to learn. I have to believe that.

Higher Expectations?

Both the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed featured articles discussing the findings of the the latest Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE). The study focuses exclusively on the experience of first-time community college students after three weeks. This is apparently a magical number in community college student retention. All of the recommendations (there are six in all) make a lot of sense: fostering “college readiness” programs for high-school students, connecting early with students, encouraging faculty and staff members to have high expectations for students, providing a clear academic path, engaging students in the learning process, and maintaining an academic and social-support network. I don’t so much have a problem with the recommendations themselves, but why we even need some of these recommendations.


Many students going to community college come from an environment where they is not a lot of external support for education. There isn’t a lot of positive reinforcement coming from those around them, encouraging them and pushing them to be as successful as possible at school. Once they get to community college, they need the tools to be able to navigate this entirely new and foreign world. The two recommendations that trouble me the most have to do with “college readiness” programs in high schools and encouraging faculty members to have high expectation for students.

Let’s start with the latter. The study makes the recommendation based on the results: a quarter of students reported “that they did not turn in an assignment at least once” and another a third of students said they “turned in an assignment late at least once.” I have witnesses this phenomenon first-hand at the university level; students assume that all work, save for the final, is optional, even though my expectations were clearly outlined on the syllabus. Towards the end of the semester, students began to panic and ask, is there anything we can do for bonus marks?

Bonus marks? How about all the work you were supposed to do during the semester, but didn’t? A colleague of mine pointed out that in high school, these same students were able to pass without attending class or handing anything in by simply doing a make-up or bonus assignment at the end of the year (see a NY Times article on the phenomenon here). They carried this attitude into university. A product of the pressure to increase graduation rates? Probably, but this is still leaving the students unprepared for the demands of community college and university.

The fact that this responsibility now falls onto community college or even university educators is ridiculous to me. When I was in high school (wait, I have to get out my cane so I can shake it at you while I write this) we were told by our high school teachers that our college professors would not longer treat us like children (nagging, hovering, not to be trusted, etc) and that the expectation was that we were now adults (independent, capable, responsible, etc). That is what having higher expectations of your students involves. Not trying to find a way to ensure that they a) show up to class and b) turn in their work.

I’m all for high expectations. I expect well-written papers by the end of the semester. I expect that students read what I assign to them, regardless of how challenging it is. I expect students take responsibility for their own performance in my class. I also have high expectations for myself. I will do whatever I can do to help students achieve their goals and meet my expectations. If, and only if, they are willing to do their part.

Let me I go back to the high schools. This is my market, making up for high schools’ shortcomings, but I still have to ask, why are students coming out of high school unprepared for university or community college? Why do community colleges or universities even need to get involved in the high schools to ensure college readiness? Isn’t it the university’s fault to begin with? We trained these same teachers who don’t produce college ready students. This is a post for another day, but I’ll let you think about it.

Do we need students to be adequately prepared for community college and university? Yes. Can a high school completely overcome the shortcomings in a student’s environment? No, but then how do we expect a community college to do the same. The seeds need to be planted sooner, but until they are, the rest of us are ready to try and make up for it.

I’m an Edupreneur! Wait, what does that mean?

Or, an Edupunk? Can I be both?


In the space of a week, I’ve found/been lead to two different articles that describe my new title in the world of education. A new book is coming out, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, that chronicles the many different movements in higher education, empowering both students and those educators who have been left behind (visit her website, http://diyubook.com/). In another, related, article, EduPunks say, School Yourself!, the authors outline how students are increasingly taking ownership of their educations and not just allowing institutions of higher education dictate their learning path.

I’m of two minds about all this. First off, it’s nice to know that I belong to larger community of frustrated educators and learners who are looking to do things differently. Where experience counts more than what courses you’ve officially taken (that’s the Punk side). And where if you think you can do it better, than do it (the entrepreneur part). But really, what does all this mean? If students can really just go online and learn whatever they want or need, why would they pay for me to either tutor them or teach them a college readiness course?

From “Edupunks”: [Former college instructor David] Hall imagines a system where the student is an active participant in their own education. In order for this system to work, though, students need to be engaged in their own education. He says students don’t realize how important education is when they’re going through it.” It’s important to note that this is coming from another former non-tenure-track instructor, who seem to be making a huge contribution to the DIY world of education. The truth is that students really don’t know how to learn, I mean really learn. My idea isn’t just that the class is about learning how to write a paper, but how to actually benefit from college, how to come out of college, not just with a piece of paper, but a real sense of having learned something.

Getting right down to it, I want to empower students to make the most of their experience at college or university. Yes, it’s about reading, writing, and critical thinking. But what are you going to read, write and think critically about? I can help you get there. When I asked colleagues and friends who are also university instructors and professors, what is it you wish your students knew or had, they all answered (in one form or another), a will and a passion to learn. The apathy or disinterest they note in their students is more disheartening than any lack of basic writing skills.

How do you teach that? You don’t. You inspire students to take control of their own educations and show them the power they have to shape their future. You show them how to read the map, how to maneuver the vast array of choices the university presents to them. Teach the basics, give them the tools, and just point them in the right direction. That’s what I try to do.

Learning about the Web

It really is never too late to learn. Writing for the web has proven to be a real eye-opening experience. Short (no, I’m an academic!), moderately repetitive (must draw search engines) and zingy (must sell myself!). Which is one of the reasons I started a this blog; I need an outlet for my “real” writing.


Creating a web-presence is exhausting: facebook pages, tweets, this blog, commenting on articles related to my website, tweaking my site endlessly for optimized search success, modifying my online ad campaigns, using any and all contacts I have in order to get my first few customers. There is always something else I could be doing. And, it is terrifying. I’m putting myself out there, as myself. There is no hiding behind a handle or a username; I am who I am, and what I write is how I am presenting myself to the world. This is Lee Skallerup, PhD, and here is what I think. Please visit my website.

In my academic life, I had to be careful. No postings that might make me seem unprofessional. Or politically incorrect. Or critical of academia. Talk about your research and little else. And now, well, guess what? I’m poking a (very tiny) finger in academia’s (giant) eye. Probably won’t be noticed. But, then again, it might. Nothing about my research, just talking about teaching. Offering services outside of the university. Not accepting low pay anymore. I am teacher, hear me roar!

Ahem.

The most frustrating thing about all of this? We have been lead to believe in the immediacy of the Internet; information (and money!) at your fingertips. Do you know what I found out today? It takes 6-8 weeks for a search engine to find and index your site, even if you submit it to them. Really? There’s a kick in the gut. So for all my web presence optimizing, I am going to have to buckle down, print up some posters and just go nuts in a very low-tech way. At least I was able to do the poster in my word processing program; for my first experience in self-employment, I distributed hand-drawn fliers around my neighborhood advertising my services as a babysitter. It paid off, though. I had one family who used me consistently throughout my high school years. Let’s hope this second round of fliers works just as well!

Let’s go, low-tech!

If Not the University, Where? Pt. II

The New York Times recently reported here that despite all of the effort, reading scores have stayed stagnant. In other words, we’re not better readers at any level, K-12. It shouldn’t be that surprising, as the teachers we are graduating from our universities don’t actually know how to teach those children how to read.


I don’t claim to know how to teach young children how to read. I wish I knew, because reading the above mentioned article makes me scared for my own young kids. I know I was lucky; because I was going to be going to French immersion school (and thus not see English until the third grade), my parents sent me and my brother to a pre-school whose sole purpose was to teach four-year-olds (yes, that’s right) how to read. And learn to read we did. I wish I could find her, because I would sit with her and just ask her, how? How can I teach my kids to read?

The one thing I do know how to do is teach my kids how to love reading. Heck, I can teach anyone how to love reading. How do I do that? I make sure that a student, no matter what the age, can access the text and understand the “good” that is there. Is it about beautiful language? Great setting? Interesting and engaging story? Whatever it is, once students start enjoying what the are reading, they can then be drawn into analyzing the text. Why is it so engaging? How has the author used language? Why is the setting so important? Etc, etc, etc.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I love reading. Unfortunately, much of my graduate education was taught by professors who didn’t. Or at least taught the books we were reading like they didn’t. Here is everything that is wrong with the book in question. Racist. Sexist. Classist. Imperialist. Etc, etc, etc. These same professors are teaching the future English teachers. If I, a student who was already invested and passionate about books, was screaming inside, why are we learning about these books if they’re so bad?, what is a middle-school student going to think?

And so we have a generation (or more) of teachers who are not preparing students for university. Other, bigger, online tutoring sites are partnering with school boards (pdf) to ensure that students are college-ready. Students have been coming up to me and complaining about how much they are expected to read once they get to university. Reading has rarely (if ever) been a joy for them, only a chore. This, of course, is not just the fault of the teachers; curriculum design plays a huge role in what teachers can teach. But from the bottom up, kids are obviously not prepared for college. And it is all at once depressing and terrifying to me. But it’s also presenting itself as an opportunity. Obviously, there is a need for the services I am providing. I just need for them to find me. (www.collegereadywriting.com)

If not the University, Where?

There has been a depressing (and informative) series of articles posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Website, The Academic Bait-and-Switch. Don’t read them if you want to maintain the belief that the people teaching at universities are, well, great teachers. Today’s, Part 7, deals with the author reflecting on the question as to if he even belonged in a PhD program, or if he belongs in academia. The answer: yes, as he did get the tenure-track job and so is a success. But his vision of those in the PhD program with him, and those who often do go on to be successful is disheartening.


I fell into grad school naively; I did my MA at the same institution as my BA. I wasn’t ready for the real world, I loved where I was, I loved literature and I wanted to be challenged. I was at the point that many students go through: I knew there was something more going on, but I was frustrated by my inability to find and understand it. I had bits and pieces, more like feelings or impressions than solid ideas, and I wanted those solid ideas. So I continued. The world opened up to me in one way, and closed off in another. I had a choice once I was done: pursue the job(s) I was trained for (and I was trained in Professional Writing) or go on to do a PhD.

The world of literature and teaching was exhilarating and exciting (yes, I am a dork). I loved every minute of it. Yes, I thought, this is what I want to do. Did I have to deal with annoying and/or toxic grad students? Yes. With inept administrators? You bet. Was it all rosy? Nope, but the day I walked into my classroom to teach my first class the first semester of my PhD, I thought, this is a dream come true. And it was.

But now, because I also dreamed of a family, I find myself on the outside looking in. Boo-hoo. But if I don’t belong in higher ed, if I didn’t belong in a PhD program, I can’t imagine where I did or do belong. High school? When I was deciding what to do, I did consider it, but I was told (no joke) that I was too smart to go and teach high school. Now, I’m overqualified. Go back to professional writing? A bizarre mix of being both over- and under-qualified.

I go over and over the choices I have made leading up to this point in my professional career. I could have torn my family in two, choosing to stay in my tenure-track position in one place while my husband lived somewhere else, away from me and our two kids. I had always been willing to live anywhere, do anything in order to be on the tenure-track. Anything but keep my family apart. And now, I’m living in the middle of nowhere, family in tact, without the one other thing that makes my heart sing: teaching reading and writing.

We all face choices. And now, I’m choosing to try and go at it independently. I know we can’t have it all, but I can damn well try.

Welcome

Welcome to College Ready Writing. This is the more informal side of my new business venture, a tutoring, editing and College Readiness Course, all offered online. Visit the business website, www.collegereadywriting.com! You can also follow me on Twitter (@readywriting) or become a fan on facebook (College Ready Writing).


But I digress.

I have lived in the university since I was 19 (or 17, depending on how you want to view CEGEP, or pre-college, in Quebec). I have been a teacher since I was 15 when started coaching swimming. My dream was to be a college/university English professor on the tenure-track. I also dreamed of having a family. I managed to get both (the job and the family), but live forced me to choose between the two. I chose family.

Fate has a strange way of taking you where you need to go: I chose to follow my husband for his PhD, and ended up with my first real job adjuncting at Cal State, San Bernardino. I was able to teach writing and literature in a supportive environment to non-traditional students. If it weren’t for that job, I would not have received my tenure-track position at FAMU. I have to believe that following my husband (and now with two kids under the age of three) a second time will lead to something equally rewarding. If I hadn’t followed him, I wouldn’t currently find myself not teaching this semester which has given me the time to start this business.

This is such a new venture and the feedback I have received from friends and colleagues has been so positive. I think there is a need out there for a course that prepares students, especially minority and under-privileged students, in a way that doesn’t cost a lot or displaces them from their lives. I just need to get the word out.

This space will also be where I will be discussing current issues in higher education, the teaching of reading and writing, and the (admittedly difficult, yet liberating) process of leaving higher ed to start my own business. Enjoy the ride.