• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you’re going to be asked to leave.


Can We Make School Less Boring?

My students are bored by school. How do we change their minds?

November 12, 2013

So I’ve been reading about the “Mountaintop Project” at Lehigh University and thinking about how maybe we should turn the college curriculum upside down.

The Mountaintop Project is the brainchild of Lehigh alum Scott Belair, who has amassed enough wealth through the founding of Urban Outfitters to give $20 million to his alma mater to create a dedicated place of learning inside of two abandoned steel mills near the Lehigh campus. Belair sees it as a “24 hour campus with hundreds of students” where the goal is to spend an entire semester, “solving the world’s problems.”

It’s big and bold and maybe a little bit utopian, but it’s also exciting and energizing and encourages students to reach beyond their grasps.

In a video about the project, a Lehigh student says, "When I first heard of it I was really nervous, because I wasn't sure about the expectations. But at the same time it was exciting because the options are limitless. You are the master of your own fate. You make the rules."

That last bit is the part that gets me. “You are the master of your own fate. You make the rules.” This is the attitude I wish upon my first-year writing students because it is an attitude that I firmly believe is consistent with achieving happiness and success.

I try my best to make my course a space where this attitude is encouraged and rewarded, but there’s a lot of things working against me, not the least of which is that first-year writing is a required general education course with common assignments and expected (and verifiable) educational outcomes.

I actually agree with these outcomes, and embrace the assignments. I think the skills are vital. It’s why I enjoy the work. But I also spend a lot of time talking to first-year college students about school. When I ask my first-year students about high school, the most common answers are “it was easy,” and “it was boring.”

Three-quarters of the way through first semester, I fear they’re starting to see college in the same way, just not quite as easy.

I think most of the blame for this lies in the fact that our students arrive thoroughly toasted, and in a lot of cases, we’re working with embers, rather than fresh fuel ready to be lit afire for learning.

In contrast, a lot of my upperclassman students report genuine interest and excitement in their classes, especially capstone projects in their majors where the options are, if not limitless, much less limited.

My concern is that general education courses, as a kind of high school-extended, aren’t doing the job of introducing beginning undergraduates to the amazing possibilities that await them (should they seize the opportunity) during their college careers. I think the first thing college must seek to do is re-excite (or maybe excite for the first time) students about learning stuff.

My students arrive with the reach of alligator arms, never mind grasping at the stars, having been conditioned that the only person on the mountaintop is me, and my job is to call down the knowledge for them to receive at the bottom. They have been conditioned to embrace this process. It is boring, but comforting. Classroom flipping and gamification may provide some different experiences for the students, but to me, it's still nibbling at the edges, silk pursing a sow's ear.

I’m wondering what would happen if programs like the Mountaintop Project weren’t reserved for upperclassmen, or a reward for a select group of students, but were instead the first thing greeting students upon their arrival at college. What if the first thing we asked them to do was to design their own capstone projects to be completed in four-years time?

We’ll call it Project Mountain.

We could ask the students about what interests them, what they’re good at, what they wish they’re better at, how they like to spend their time, what question they’d like to answer more than any other. They will provide us with an inventory of their preoccupations and their dreams and for the first semester, we will encourage and support them in their exploration of those things. We will recommend reading and courses of study. We will talk with them and refer them to experts within the college who can consult and send them further along the trail. In consultation with faculty, by the end of the first semester they will design a project that they will be tasked to complete before they graduate.

At the end of that semester, they will have a target and a plan to learn what they’ll need to know in order to hit that target. Their personal curriculum will be designed around giving them the knowledge and skills necessary to execute that goal for themselves. All of their courses will be part of a larger context of their own design.

No more will they ask why they have to take a physical science or math course or language or even first-year writing. They will have chosen these things because they now know why they need them, to fulfill their very specific dreams.

Believe me, I realize how silly and impossible and naïve all of the above sounds. It would be crushingly expensive, impossible to scale, and probably wouldn’t even work. I have no idea what the accreditors would make of it. The academic landscape would be littered with failed projects, students who couldn’t manage to fulfill their first-year dreams.

But at least they would’ve had dreams. They would’ve known what it’s like to pursue something maybe – but then again, maybe not – beyond their grasps, and how pleasurable that can be. And I bet some of those failures would be pretty interesting.

I think of the brilliant novel I have in my head, a world-changer that I’m not (yet) talented or skilled enough to write, but which lingers there as a goal, always urging me to get better at my work so I can fulfill this destiny. I’ll write other novels for their own sakes, but also as practice for this dream novel.

Deep down, I know the dream novel will never be written, or if it is, it will be a pale simulacrum of the marvel that’s in my head, but knowing its there is, strangely, a great and lasting comfort, a reason to keep moving forward in my work. It’s the mountain I’m trying to climb.

I feel like it’s time to cue the symphony so I can sing a chorus of “The Impossible Dream.” It’s okay, I don’t mind playing the fool. I will continue to solider as best I can within the system we can support, tilting at the windmills in my way. The Man of la Mancha is both tragic and comic.

I can think of worse things to be…bored for one.


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