From Foxes to Hedgehogs

Academics should get behind the push for assessment of student learning, says W. Robert Connor -- for their own sake and for students.
March 31, 2006

My old friend Archilochus, the Greek lyric poet who has been resting comfortably since the Seventh Century B.C., has been getting a lot of rousing attention lately. And that’s a good thing considering what’s been happening recently in Washington, D.C.

A new federal commission formed by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has been pushing the idea of holding colleges more accountable for the outcomes of their undergraduate education, which has prompted talk of a federally mandated assessment. I don’t know anything that would make it harder to improve student learning than a national or federal assessment. And that’s where Archilochus can help.

Years ago Sir Isaiah Berlin picked up the Greek poet’s famous aphorism, "The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one thing,” and used it as the title of his famous essay, and now Philip Tetlock, in his new book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is it? (Princeton University Press, 2005) has classified pundits into two categories: Hedgehogs, who have a single big idea or explanation, and Foxes, who look for a lot of intersecting causes. (He found that, by and large, the Foxes do better at predicting what’s to come, except once in a while when the prickly Hedgehogs see something really important, and don’t get distracted, no matter what.)

Most of us in academe are foxes, but I want to suggest that we think like hedgehogs for a while, and concentrate on one thing and one thing only -- student learning. Although we can’t ignore the political context, we shouldn’t do this in reaction to the perceived pressure from the federal commission. We should do it, instead, because it’s the one thing on which the flourishing of liberal education most depends right now. We need to do it for our students and for ourselves as educators.

When I became president of the Teagle Foundation two and a half years ago, I worried a lot about the alleged decline and fall of liberal education. The figures I studied showed a decreasing percentage of undergraduates majoring in the traditional disciplines of the liberal arts; some colleges that I visited, or whose leaders I met, seemed to be turning their backs on liberal education; short term marketing strategies seemed to be eclipsing long term educational values. 

Recently, however, I’ve experienced another eclipse, one in which three tendencies I have been observing block out my old worries. The three trends are:

  • A shift in goals from content to cognition
  • The demand for accountability
  • A new knowledge base for teaching

None of these is an unambiguous Good Thing, and there are enough tricks and traps in each of these trends to challenge both foxes and hedgehogs. But in my view  -- on balance -- the collision of these trends present the opportunity to take liberal education to a new level.

It is now possible, in ways that were out of our reach just a few years ago, to teach better and greatly to invigorate student engagement and learning. We can do that, I am convinced, while recommitting ourselves and our institutions to the core educational values of liberal education.

This all comes with a big “IF.”   We can reach that higher level only if we focus, focus, focus on student learning -- all of us, faculty, deans, presidents, foundation officers.  We all have to become hedgehogs.

Let me explain why I feel so confident that if we focus in this way, liberal education can reach that  new level of excellence. In my explanation I will say a few words about each of the three tendencies to which I just alluded, and then try to imagine what liberal education could be like if they are brought together in an integrated system.

1. First, “from content to cognition,” that is, a shift in the stated goals of liberal education from certain subject matter that every educated person should know to certain cognitive capacities that ought to be developed in all students. Over the past few decades, many colleges and universities have come to define their goals as the development of cognitive capacities such as analytical reasoning, critical thinking, clarity of written and oral expression, and moral reasoning. Over the same period the idea that all students should become acquainted with certain texts, topics, and aspects of human experience has pretty much disappeared from curricular thinking.

Curmudgeonly old classicist that I am, I find it hard to imagine a liberal education in which students do not meet Socrates and confront his insistence that the unexamined life is not worth living. Nor can I convince myself that these cognitive goals can be attained in total abstraction, without the specificity and challenge contributed by disciplinary knowledge. Content still matters.

But the shift from content to cognition does have one great benefit: It compels us to think hard about what we want students to have gained once they complete a course or a curriculum. It should make us be explicit about how each course, maybe each assignment, contributes to one cognitive goal or another. In educational jargon, it makes us more “intentional” and thereby much more likely to succeed.

2. Accountability. We are also witnessing a widening demand in many sectors of American society for greater accountability. We owe it all to our friends at Enron, and all the other wonderful playgrounds of corporate greed and corruption. But education is not going to escape the demand for accountability, nor will assessment be restricted to K-12 education. As my friend Steve Wheatley, of the American Council of Learned Societies, put it, “The train is a-comin’ and its name is assessment.” 

More systematic assessment of the results of higher education is, as you well know, being demanded by accrediting agencies, governing boards, state legislators, and increasingly the general public.  Now, with a federal commission on board the roar of the engine is getting louder and closer.

You and your colleagues may not like to see that train bearing down on your tranquil campus. And you may well share my anger if Congress tells engineers from the Department of Education to run the train. They tried that in K-12 education and I’m not sure whether the results are a disaster or a joke. The best defense is clearly to get out ahead and do assessment right, and do it now.

This top down pressure for assessment  naturally provokes skepticism and resistance, especially from faculty members. What happens if we can reverse the direction and look at assessment from the ground up? Let me tell you a story. When the Teagle Foundation  began to ask whether it should undertake some initiative in the assessment area, we convened one of our “Listenings,” bringing together for a few days faculty, administrators and experts in assessment to advise us. There was plenty of skepticism and some hostility. I began to think maybe this was not such a good idea. 

But late in the gathering, two people stood up to speak from the floor. One said in effect, “As scholars we value knowledge. How as teachers can we reject something that might let us know more about our students’ learning?” Another speaker said, “Maybe we can teach better  if we know more. It’s worth a try.” For me, and for others at that session, that turned the day. Now the Teagle Foundation has made faculty-led, ground-up assessment one of its top priorities. Nothing, I believe, has greater potential for invigorating student learning in the liberal arts.

All this is built around one essential point: We can teach better and students can learn better if their learning is systematically and appropriately assessed.

3. The third trend is the one that makes me confident that we have nothing to fear from properly crafted assessment. Today we know far more about how students learn and what works in teaching that we did just a few years ago. We know what works -- first year seminars, inclusion of undergraduates in research projects, problem-based learning, collaborative projects, coordination of service learning, internships and overseas study with courses and curricula, lots of writing and speaking opportunities with prompt and thorough faculty feedback, capstone experiences in the senior year and so on. (See Section Six of Liberal Education Outcomes, a 2005 publication from the Association of American Colleges and Universities).

These are not just bright ideas from educational theorists. They have been tested and usually rigorously evaluated. And although graduate schools keep it a well hidden secret, the cat is now out of the bag.  This new knowledge has been drawn together, concisely summarized, and made easily accessible in Derek Bok’s brand new book, Our Underachieving Colleges (Princeton Press 2006). Every professor should read this book: Its greatest merit is that Bok demolishes the excuses we academics have used to avoid change.

Let me give one example. My friend David Porter, former president of Skidmore College and now a classics professor at Williams College, defines a liberal education as “what you have learned once you have forgotten the facts.” How long would you guess it takes to forget those facts?   

Bok has the answer: “… [T]the average student will be unable to recall most of the factual content of a typical lecture within fifteen minutes after the end of class.  In contrast, interests, values and cognitive skills are all likely to last longer, as are concepts and knowledge that students have acquired  …  through their own mental efforts.”

Fifteen minutes! You might say, “We’ve known that, more or less,  for a long time.” Then why is lecturing still the dominant mode of instruction in so many settings? Bok offers several answers, the most damaging of which is complacency. He points out, for example, that one poll of faculty members found that 90 percent thought they were “above average” teachers. Welcome to Lake Wobegon.

Can these three trends -- cognitive capacities replacing content, accountability, the new knowledge base for college teaching -- come  together and reinforce one another? The key question is whether academic leaders will focus on this and make it happen. 

Imagine what such convergence can do for an institution that sets clear, assessable goals for itself in the development of its students’ cognitive capacities. It doesn’t matter whether the institution is multibillionaire Harvard or a struggling college far from the River Charles: There’s no group of college students whose frontal lobes won’t benefit from some additional exercise.

The institution that I am imagining does some testing to establish a base line and then looks at every aspect of student learning to see how each part can contribute to those goals. It finds out what its students need and what the Big Questions of value and meaning are that can invigorate their engagement with liberal education. It uses the new knowledge base to change some of its practices and try out new ideas. It searches appropriate means of assessment; if  NSSE, the National Survey of Student Engagement, or CLA, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, don’t seem quite right for its setting, there are others or, if need be, the institution develops its own. 

But whatever means of assessment it chooses, it doesn’t let the results sit in the office of Institutional Research; it uses them in an iterative process, steadily ratcheting up its effectiveness. The students see this; they understand better why they are studying what might otherwise seem remote or irrelevant material. Their enthusiasm increases; they tell their friends and younger siblings. The director of admissions smiles somewhat more often. So do the fund raisers. The alumni and friends of the institution see what is happening; their pride makes them more generous to alma mater. Maybe eventually even U.S. News sees that something is happening, and it is not prestige, pecking order, or wealth. It’s called “student learning.”

This systematic, iterative process of change will do a lot for an institution, for its students and for its faculty. I bet it will make hedgehogs out of them -- focused on, excited by, renewed through their concern for student learning. Most of us went into college teaching  for complex reasons, but one of them, I believe, was that we knew it would be a joy to help young people develop their mental capacities. It’s easy to forget that as we get older, to wander away, to end up forgetting that we  have something to profess. But the satisfaction is waiting there where we suspected it was when we started -- in helping those students learn and grow. 

Now, thanks to this convergence of changes, we can rediscover that satisfaction. We can teach better and students can learn better. That should make hedgehog very happy indeed.

I hear someone muttering: “Not on my campus; my faculty will never buy into that kind of change.”  Don’t be so sure. In my old job at the National Humanities Center, when we were developing programs to let new knowledge in the humanistic disciplines invigorate K-12 and college teaching, Richard Schramm, the talented designer of those programs, told me that he could not recall ever being turned down by an NHC fellow or former fellow when he asked them to help with this work. (For one such program see )  That matches what we are finding at the Teagle Foundation in developing our new College Community Connections program.

Scholars of great distinction have been willing to roll up their sleeves, and pitch in working with kids on disadvantaged neighborhoods in New York, where public schools are often part of the problem rather than part of the solution. These busy, much sought after academics were, I concluded, looking for something fresh, well designed, and capable of renewing their satisfaction in helping students learn.  You may find that some of your colleagues are hungry and thirsty for renewal of this sort and that they are ready to try out new ways of invigorating student learning.

Every environment is different, but here’s a suggestion about how one might build momentum and consensus. Try this on your campus. Get your dean to call Princeton Press and order copies of Derek Bok’s book Underachieving Colleges for every departmental chair. Ask them to read it and discuss it with their colleagues and then to meet with you and let you know what the response is. If 413 pages or $29.95 is too much for already strained attention spans or budgets, print out a copy of this article and ask your faculty colleagues whether they agree or disagree. Let them rip it apart. Let them be as prickly as … as prickly as hedgehogs. They may well have a better idea than any of these. The important thing is to focus on that one crucial idea: We can teach better and students can learn better. The only question is How?, and the only way to answer is by being hedgehogs focused on that one crucial thing, improving student learning.


W. Robert Connor is president of the Teagle Foundation. This essay was adapted from a speech given to the American Conference of Academic Deans in January.


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