Saturday, June 4, 2011

It's official: Blocks do work

I've been running a campaign against the evil dark heart of the American higher education system now for several years.

I want to kill the fifty minute class. Dead.

The fifty minute class wastes billions of dollars of tuition money and college professor salaries each year. It must die.

Or at least, and more rationally, it should only get used for those subjects where it actually works, which in my humble yet experienced opinion are very few.

The reason is, if you really want to learn something important and useful in this life, like how to balance a basic energy equation, how to write a decent, passable sentence in English, how to use a computer spreadsheet, how to diagnose a faulty system using trail-and-error logic, or how to outline a piece of technical writing, you simply need to concentrate.

Students do not have time to begin to concentrate in fifty minute college classes. Ergo, they are wasting their money, as well as my time as a college professor, and the overhead costs required to keep the classroom, and classroom building, and every other facet of the college economy, running.

But our college system, barring a few exceptions here and there, uses the fifty minute class as the basic building block of the schedule.

This awesome power to decide how long students must concentrate on the topics they are paying to learn is wielded not by any loathsome Committee of Registrars and Faculty Against Higher Learning, but is in fact not wielded at all, not by anyone.

The fifty minute schedule happens purely by default. Just because, for no good reason whatsoever. And yet it's imposed with an mailed fist.

No-one thinks about it at all. It's taken for granted. But if College Comp and Algebra must be taught in fifty minutes, then most everything else must be too, to make the system work at all. The minute you go build a schedule with all those little fifty minute and one-hour fifteen minute (Tuesday-Thursday) rectangles, that's it. Suggestive logic takes over, and of course, all those rectangles have to be filled.

Except the system isn't working.

Johnny still can't read. Or write, or think critically.

And he certainly can't even begin to construct a decent quantitative analysis.

That academics all across the country continue to take fifty minute classes for granted is the largest single failure of critical thinking in American academia.

All these academics, all these students, all these administrators that think that they can't possibly do anything else!

I wouldn't be so mad about this if I hadn't spent years in a different system, where community learning and block scheduling and experiential engagement were the norm. Back in the day I was a graduate student assistant and part-time program staffer in the University of Montana's famous Wilderness and Civilization program, and I was in fact in charge of all the field trips and all the weekend retreats and much of the block scheduling we did in that program. Later, I helped run a community learning program at the University of Maryland. Even earlier, I spent several years as a troubled youth counselor, learning all about why Johnny really couldn't read.

In each case, the remedy was to put Johnny in the company of purposeful adults for long enough to get him to leave his distractions behind and get him concentrating on doing something useful, and then while doing something useful, provide the intellectual or theoretical background to whatever useful thing we were doing. Eventually, classroom instruction begins to have meaning, and eventually it begins to work.

It takes hours, but it works when nothing else does.

Students did what they were supposed to do. They learned. Go figure.

You can't put today's 18 year-old in a fifty minute classroom and expect them to learn.

And I've never forgotten the lesson and the experience has made me a thorough pain in the derierre as far as my faculty and administrative colleagues are concerned. There are a couple other third rails I regularly touch too. For instance, I actually want to teach in summer. It's the best time of year for practical projects and for building green energy demonstrators. Of course I want to teach in summer. But this is purely horrifying to many colleagues. I'm regularly warned off.

So this article here gave me heart.

One day, the monster will die.


Jesse said...

hear, hear

Mick said...

Hah. Jesse joins the revolution!

I'll have to teach you the secret handshake.