Thursday, February 25, 2021

Slow Learning

If we have learned anything from cooking shows like Chopped or Iron Chef, it is that it takes time to develop flavors. It’s easy to throw together a meal, but to develop rich, complex flavors requires skill, care, and time. This is the hallmark of the slow food movement, which has risen up in stark contrast to the zapping of ready-made, industrial “cuisine.”


The same can be said of learning. Facts and fundamental techniques can be delivered quickly and en masse, but deep understanding requires time and nurturing.


Last month, at the President’s meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges, Robert Zemsky, one of our best experts on higher-education leadership provided a thoughtful and stimulating presentation on the contemporary challenges confronting the traditional business model of higher education.


During the talk he shared two ideas that I found to be in conflict with each other. They were fundamentally 1) a need to graduate students faster to get them into the workplace, and 2) the need to develop intellectual capacity over time. I think this cognitive dissonance is one of the great conundra facing our collective relationship with higher education today.


In his talk, Zemsky shared that years ago he had floated the idea of shifting to a three-year bachelor’s degree, including a commensurate reduction in credit hours, which would allow students to save a year of tuition and enter the workforce sooner. He noted that at our current inflection point, that idea was beginning to attract attention.


For so many of our students, they and their families are making remarkable sacrifices to change the student’s life trajectory. More and more, that trajectory is being defined by earnings, and far too often the focus favors starting salaries over lifetime earnings.


Another comment Zemsky made was that if he were an English professor, he wouldn’t teach Shakespeare until the senior year, because students need to amass a foundation of knowledge and broad understanding to adequately grapple with the complexities of the human experience that are at the heart of the Bard’s plays.


When a student tells me, “My degree will make it possible for me to move my mom and sisters to a better neighborhood,” I want to do everything I can to help make that happen as soon as possible. At the same time, I signed on to my role at Susquehanna to zealously advocate for our mission to educate students for productive, creative, and reflective lives of achievement, leadership, and service in a diverse, dynamic, and interdependent world.


I want to help that student change the lives of her mother and siblings, but I also want to empower her to become a change maker so that her immediate goals can become the lived reality of the entire next generation. That takes wisdom and courage, which require scaffolding and cultivation.


In 2012, universities in Hong Kong moved from a three-year baccalaureate to a four-year model, and they used the additional course time to enrich their curricula with “liberal-arts” content.


Scott Jaschik wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “While many observers in the United States are calling for American higher education to become more vocational in orientation, the changes here are motivated by a sense that students need more general education if they are truly to become leaders in Hong Kong and China.”


I had the privilege of attending a conference of higher-education leaders from around the world in Hong Kong during the summer of 2012, and the administrators of the local universities told me that their graduates had been well-prepared for their first jobs, but ill-suited to adapt in the evermore rapidly changing world of work. They recognized that the nimbleness and soft skills they were lacking could be found in abundance among graduates of American liberal-arts colleges.


We have an obligation to prepare students to be lifelong learners. We need to be sure that they not only know how to do things, but understand why they should or shouldn’t do them. Developing the wisdom to discern the why comes from learning in community, and it requires time.


Life expectancies have grown considerably, and people are retiring later. This means our graduates are about to enter careers that will last longer than those of previous generations. We must be sure we prepare them to make that time a rewarding path of self-discovery and meaning, not a life sentence.


As we plan for the next iteration of higher education, we need to keep in mind both the immediate needs of our students and their families to transform their lives for the better, and we need to be careful that they and we don’t settle for that alone. Our goal must remain preparing students for lives well lived. Our strategies need to include making it possible for slow learning to retain its invaluable place on our campuses.


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