Crisis? What crisis?
|Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More, by Derek Bok
In his book, Our Underachieving Colleges, Derek Bok, past-president of Harvard University, challenges postsecondary institutions to live up to their educational mandate. His is not the first book written with this purpose; however, his stature in American higher education adds credibility and weight to his challenge. Also, the book is well researched and well argued. As such, it has the potential to motivate change in ways that previous attempts have not.
The context Dr. Bok provides is American, and not all of this applies well to Canada. The research generalizes quite well, though, as do the numerous suggestions he makes for improving university teaching and learning. It is these suggestions that set his book apart.
He starts by charting the history of American college and university development, from the early days when character building was the primary goal, to the modern day when what he calls vocational training for the masses has become a prominent purpose. From there, his analysis and recommendations can be placed into a discrete number of important themes.
The first theme can be captured by the question, "Is there a crisis in university teaching?" Dr. Bok concludes that we are not failing miserably; rather we are squandering a marvelous opportunity by complacent acceptance of mediocrity. In the early 1990s, Stuart Smith was commissioned by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada to assess Canadian universities. He concluded that things were good, for the most part, though teaching was "seriously undervalued." Thus, a consistent answer to the crisis question has emerged over the years: universities are underachieving in terms of their teaching, but the situation isn't bad enough to warrant crisis intervention. This has allowed for a tolerance of mediocrity from people capable of much better. When highly skilled faculty work with talented students, we can reasonably expect better outcomes than are currently the norm.
The notion of "outcomes" is addressed by a second theme in the book; specifically, we don't actually have clear, operational statements of what our outcomes should be, nor do we have good measures of the outcomes we have managed to articulate. If we did, we would have clear evidence that we are underachieving - not the sort of evidence that most institutions are motivated to seek.
Dr. Bok is certainly not alone in this view. In Canada, the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education has made the development of institution-level indicators a central focus of its advocacy work, offering workshops and conference sessions on the topic. Similarly, Human Resources and Social Development Canada has hosted a national meeting on "the crisis question," and the Canadian Policy Research Network hosted a national event focusing on Ross Finnie and Alex Usher's excellent paper, "Measuring the Quality of Post-Secondary Education."
A third major theme focuses on what we are teaching. Specifically, Dr. Bok is a strong proponent of liberal education in the arts and sciences. For example, students should learn a second language, develop their values, and appreciate other cultures. However, students can't learn a language by taking a course or two.
Dr. Bok is also critical of the long-standing tradition of subject majors because they make it difficult to acquire a breadth of knowledge. How can this breadth be achieved? He advocates for a curriculum with ample opportunities to learn meta-skills. For example, rather than teaching a series of facts about a given culture, it is much better to help students develop the skills required to learn about a culture, especially by being immersed in it.
The next theme addresses the how question. It is not easy to infuse an entire institution's curriculum with opportunities to develop meta-skills, not that there haven't been heroic efforts to do so. The author spends some time speculating on where students might learn some of these things, besides in our classrooms. His examples of the "extracurriculum," however, fall short of an acknowledgement that wireless campuses, collaborative learning strategies and forward-thinking campus designs yield more opportunities for students to learn outside the classroom than are afforded by more traditional campus activities he highlights, such as life in residence and student clubs.
The more general methods Dr. Bok suggests to improve teaching and learning are not so much novel as they are sensible. They include such things as hiring skilled writing teachers and valuing them as faculty, using teaching portfolios effectively, and expecting boards of trustees to strongly endorse an institution's teaching and learning mission. These ideas are certainly not new; however, what matters in this book is who is making the suggestions.
Dr. Bok's stature is of considerable significance in Our Underachieving Colleges. While many people have made the point that university teaching is embarrassingly short on evidence-based practice, it becomes a more powerful observation coming from the former president of Harvard. He observes: "The most striking aspect of the treatment of cognitive skills is the gap between the behavior of instructors, on the one hand, and the findings of educational researchers, on the other." If faculty do not accept the applicability of this research to their own setting, then they should welcome having it conducted there. This is, of course, the essence of the scholarship of teaching and learning movement. Dr. Bok does not use the term, nor does he discuss Ernest Boyer's Scholarship Reconsidered (1990), a work containing many ideas that should appear in this book.
People who work in educational development offices across Canada would applaud Dr. Bok's observation about faculty members who, though trained in research, "continue to ignore the accumulated body of experimental work suggesting that forms of teaching that engage students actively in the learning process do significantly better than conventional methods in achieving goals, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, that faculties everywhere hold dear." It was also encouraging to read his well-researched advocacy for making students' learning a priority of postsecondary education.
Still, there were a few other things I had hoped he would explore. His discussion of gender in higher education focuses far too much on social and sexual issues of modern campus life and far too little on such educational challenges as participation rates for women in science. Also, very little is made of e-learning as a way to address challenges in higher education.
Finally, and perhaps most problematic, I was not as convinced as I wanted to be that Dr. Bok's solutions were entirely feasible. He lays out some extremely ambitious goals within each of his identified meta-skills, making it difficult to imagine how some could be achieved in one undergraduate career. However, to dismiss Our Underachieving Colleges because the ideas forwarded are ambitious is to sell postsecondary institutions short. To rise above underachievement and realize the true potential of our universities and colleges as fertile learning environments, we must aim high. Derek Bok challenges us to do just that.
I have said that it matters who is forwarding these ideas. It is even more important to consider who is reading them. If you are a senior administrator or board member, please read this book. If you are not, consider making a gift of it to someone who is.
Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More, by Derek Bok, Princeton University Press, 2006, cloth, 424 pages, $29.95 US.
Gary Poole is director of the Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth at the University of British Columbia.