False Choices

Moving past oversimplified conflicts in higher education.


January 19, 2016

False choices too often pervade discussions of higher education. Either college is an investment or a series of life changing experiences. Either we can have equity or excellence. Either we emphasize accountability or instructor autonomy and academic freedom. Either we stress content or skills, or coverage or depth.

These are only a few of the false choices, either-or propositions, or crude dichotomies that are often advanced.

Many of these oppositions are false or grossly exaggerated. Take the supposed conflict between liberal education and pre-professional training. These are often pitted against one another – as if ethics, history, narrative, and critical or contextual thinking, close reading, and sophisticated communication skills have nothing to do with medicine, law, engineering, or business.

Or take the supposed conflict between the teacher as sage on the stage or guide on the side. Framing the discussion this way omits other possibilities: The instructor as interrogator or discussion leader, or more ambitiously, as instructional designer who creates learning experiences and inquiries and problems to be solved, or as mentor whose role is to diagnose, scaffold, and tailor feedback to student needs.

Let’s look systematically at a series of dualisms that dominate discussions of teaching, beginning with the discourse surrounding learning. Too often, conversations about learning involve straw men. We learn best, we are told, by doing or by direct instruction and repetition—through lectures, lessons, and drills—or through role modeling or positive and negative reinforcement. Or learning is best when it is situated or when it involves deep conceptual understanding. Or learning is a cognitive process that is not readily measurable or else it is a series of outcomes that can be rigorously assessed and evaluated.

The correct answer is, of course, all of the above. Learning involves knowing and doing. It involves understanding – through the development of a mental or conceptual map – and habits of mind. To be useful, knowledge must be contextualized and transferable and accompanied by self-reflection and critical self-awareness.

Let’s turn next to the factors that contribute to student success. In recent years, we have been told that non-academic skills such as grit, executive functioning, and mental discipline are a key to student success. These are important, but they are certainly not the only key. Also essential are motivation, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, student mindsets (whether they have a growth orientation or assume that ability is fixed or innate), metacognitive abilities (that is, the ability to monitor what one does and does not know), and sustained engagement and attentional capacity – all of which can be fostered or enhanced. 

What about assessment? Should the purpose of assessment be descriptive – to determine what students know or don’t know or can or can’t do; evaluative --- to rank students either against one another or against a rubric; or analytic – to identify ways to improve student learning and instructors’ teaching? Again, each element is important. Assessment isn’t a zero sum game.

Finally, let’s look at the purported conflict between investments in technology and investments in faculty. In my view, too much technology-assisted learning, like PowerPoint, reinforces an instructor-centered, transmission-oriented approach to teaching, or, like clickers and chatrooms, only provides the illusion of interactivity. A shift toward more project-, case-, or team-based pedagogical approach or toward the classroom as solver community and maker space will require investment in both technologies and instructors, as we devise advanced simulations, design virtual and physical collaborative spaces, and create rich immersive or multimedia cases that can promote genuine engagement. 

Higher education is at a rare point of inflection, when it is possible to envision and execute fresh approaches to education that truly treat students as creators of knowledge and as genuine partners and producers.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood.


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