Tony Gurr

Why can’t our universities (still) get it right?

In Our Universities on 16/02/2011 at 2:34 pm

Senge told us (over 20 years ago) us that “Learning Organisations” are:

…organisations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together. (1990: p. 3)

The problem – there are many organisations who still view learning as a “confession of ignorance” and many of these are our traditional universities – as Eric Hoffer notes:

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.

Sadly, most of our universities still prefer to stay “learned” – rather than become “learners”. This is true from Harvard to Oxford – from Kyoto to McGill – from Cape Town to King Saud

What are some of the practices that show this preference to stay “learned”:

  • Many top universities still conceive of “effective teaching” as being grounded on their ability to “cream off” the best students before they enter higher education. They often fail to see that it is the “added-value” students take away from an education that is important.
  • A common practice among university level teachers is still to group students into categories; “good” students and “bad”, “scholarship genius” or “nouveau riche lazy-bones” – and see the characteristics of these students as set in stone. They often fail to see their job as a “talent development specialist” for all students.
  • Most higher education institutions still operate on the underlying assumption that instructors are the central actors in the educational process. Their instructors work with the assumption that the teaching and learning process is about absorbing knowledge, covering the material and frequently use grades as their core motivational tool.
  • Many university teachers and faculty still teach in the same way that they were taught. As a result, most universities are still lecture-driven – despite what we now know about learning and retention levels in one-way or transition-based teaching models.
  • Many less effective university teachers still focus on what they do rather than on what the students are supposed to be doing and learning – teaching is still viewed as something teachers do to students, usually involving delivery of discipline-specific information or the latest conventional wisdom from a given body of knowledge.
  • Much university level teaching is still based on a “just-in-case” model – rather than teaching at times when students need to and are highly motivated to learn (a “just-in-time” model).
  • The vast majority of universities still offer very limited rewards for effective teaching, preferring to recognise publications and research as their measures of success and the benchmark for professional advancement in the university.

Today, higher education institutions around the globe find themselves in the “brave new world” of the knowledge economy – and knowledge is recreated on a daily basis.

We know that the world of the university is a “status industry” (Pope, 2006). The problem is that if universities fail to see that many of their problems stem from “yesterday’s learnedness”, how long will they survive on “yesterday’s status”?

Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think about Colleges by Loren Pope

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  1. Alas, the answer is simple: as a friend told me last night. The academic world is divided into publishers and teachers. Publishers object to doing any teaching; and when they have to, they actively shun rather than court interpersonal engagement. It’s permissable for them to work with their peers, but not with learners. Until such time as this distinction is questioned, or better still removed altogether, then the university will seldom change. However experience in the US tells me that this moment might come sooner rather than later, with an increase in the ‘so what?’ factor. Publishers might publish, but ‘so what?’

  2. once the distinction between ‘publishers’ and ‘teachers’ is removed in universities, then learning will actively take place.

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