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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The most forward-thinking, future-proof college in America teaches every student the exact same stuff

College is supposed to help young people prepare for the future. But as headlines warn that automation and technology may change—or end—work as we know it, parents, students, and universities are grappling with a new question: How do you educate a new generation for a world we can’t even imagine?


Photo: Peter Marber
As David Brooks of the New York Times recently wrote, the college has the “courage to be distinct.” notes Peter Marber, teaches at Harvard and Johns Hopkins

Great books. 
Photo: Unsplash/Roman Kraft

A recent Pew Research Center survey of 1,408 technology and education professionals suggested that the most valuable skills in the future will be those that machines can’t yet easily replicate, like creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, adaptability and collaboration. In short, people need to learn how to learn, because the only hedge against a fast-changing world is the ability to think, adapt and collaborate well.

Academically Adrift:
Limited Learning on College Campuses
But many American college students may not be learning them at all. In the 2011 book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Jarip Roksa chronicled how few American students really improved cognitively–and learned to learn–during their undergraduate education. Few bachelor’s programs require sufficient amounts of the reading, writing, and discourse needed to develop critical thinking skills. In fact, forty percent of American undergraduates now major in business and management-related subjects, reading mainly textbooks and short articles, and rarely writing a paper longer than three pages. Further, the social bonds and skills formed in college today often center on extracurriculars that have little connection to cognitive development and collaborative problem-solving.

But perhaps instead of reinventing higher education, we can give students what they need for the future by returning to the roots of liberal arts. Consider St. John’s College, America’s third-oldest institution of higher education, founded in 1696. With fewer than 700 students between two campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe, St. John’s is a bit under the radar. But it’s emerged as one of the most distinctive colleges in the country by maintaining a strict focus on the classics of the Western canon...
  
The Program’s philosophy and practice 
You will not find 100-person lectures, teaching assistants or multiple-choice tests at St. John’s. Instead classes are led by “Tutors” who guide students through Socratic inquiry (and yes, students do read about the Socratic practice during freshman year in Plato’s Theaetetus). Despite its reputation as a sadistic exercise in student humiliation, the Socratic method is actually an interactive form of intellectual sandpapering that smooths out hypotheses and eliminates weak ideas through group discourse. Tutors lead St. John’s discussions but rarely dominate; they are more like conversation facilitators, believing that everyone in class is a teacher, everyone a learner. And you won’t find Johnnies texting or surfing social media while in class; there is no place to hide in classrooms that range from small (seminars, 20 students led by two tutors) to smaller (tutorials, 10 to 15 students, one tutor) to smallest (preceptorials, 3 to 8 students, one tutor).

There is a formality in a St. John’s classroom—an un-ironic seriousness—that feels out of another era. Students and Tutors address each other by “Mr.” or “Ms.” (or the gender-inclusive honorific of choice). Classrooms have a retro feel, with rectangular seminar tables and blackboards on surrounding walls, and science labs filled with analog instruments, wood and glass cabinets, old school beakers and test tubes.

You have to observe a few St. John’s classes to get a sense of what’s happening between and among the students and Tutors. Discussions are often free-flowing, with students thinking out loud and talking to the ceiling; you can almost hear the gears turning in their brains. There are many “a-ha” moments in a St. John’s classroom, sometimes coaxed out by Tutors in Socratic fashion. But often they are triggered by students theorizing and responding among themselves.

In one class I attended, students were covering Ptolemy, the second century mathematician. Ptolemy believed the all the celestial bodies and sun revolved around the earth in a circle, and based all his mathematical calculations on this perspective. Students were buzzing at the blackboard, working with a geometry sphere around the table, talking about diameters, meridians and equators, tilts, and horizons. Keep in mind this is all prep for what will be studied in a few months, when these Johnnies will learn that it would be another 1400 years before Copernicus proved Ptolemy’s calculations correct but his conclusion wrong: the earth and planets actually revolve around the sun. These same students will eventually feel the excitement learning of Kepler’s conclusion 150 years later, that Copernicus was also right and wrong: yes, the earth and planets revolved around the sun—but in an elliptical, not circular, orbit. This curricular layering is central to the St. John’s Program. Later texts respond to and build upon previous texts. In essence, students intellectually follow modern thought as it has been built over the last 2000+ years instead of just memorizing the end results.

The cognitive rigor, immersion, and passion so present at St. John’s are rare on American campuses these days. Johnnies read roughly 100-150 books during their four years and write 25 to 30 papers that are more than 10 pages long. Seniors choose a writer or single text and do a deep dive thesis that typically runs 40-50 pages. Here are a few of the senior capstone topics for the class of 2017: 19th century English scientist Michael Faraday’s heuristic description of electromagnetic phenomena; 17th-century mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s treatment of curvature in what’s called the “chain line” problem; the use of Aristotelian terminology by 20th century physicist Werner Heisenberg in describing quantum mechanics; and the possible revision of “space” from Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason into a plurality of “spaces.” Few college-educated outsiders may have a clue what any of these papers are about, but they are not atypical of what’s being studied, discussed, and written about at St. John’s.
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Source: Quartz


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