I was struck by two recent proposals for improving higher education—both were impassioned and well reasoned, but they started from opposite premises. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ann Kirschner explores what real innovation in higher education might look like if we could manage to learn a thing or two from how businesses innovate. Kirschner takes as a given that public funding for higher ed isn’t likely to increase any time soon. Coming from the opposite angle, Michael Hiltzik argued in the Los Angeles Times that California needs to bite the budgetary bullet and restore the University of California system to its former glory, by contributing enough funding to make in-state tuition almost free again. Hiltzik asks for some faith in the less easily measurable benefits of the college experience, the kinds of things that happen just by being on campus.
How can we learn from successful innovations? Jon Gertner’s history of Bell Labs, The Idea Factory, describes how, under ethical leadership and government pressure, a monopoly can foster truly new innovations and share them for all to benefit. In The New Yorker a few months ago, Jonah Lehrer published a brief history of brainstorming that explored the creative sweet spot achieved by Bell Labs, but also by Building 20 at MIT and the cast and staff of hit Broadway shows. As Lehrer puts it, the magic formula is “enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways”— an environment that features intellectual challenge and creative freedom, where there is constructive criticism rather than cutthroat competition.
On the one hand, college students are having an amazing and serendipitous experience, whose most important effects might not become visible for years to come. On the other, they’re paying a lot of money for education that’s supposed to prepare them for employment. How do we strike the appropriate balance between those things?
Hilary Pennington draws on her experience working with the Gates Foundation to suggest three major steps that will help higher education move away from unproductive debate toward salutary action: work on what you have the power to fix instead of complaining about external factors; give students more clearly defined paths to the degree; stop thinking about job training as completely divorced from liberal arts education. Colleges could also start collaborating more with each other—in the case of the liberal arts college, collaboration may a particularly crucial innovation. Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. Hersh, in an excerpt from their book We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education, argue that we need to change the culture, on campuses and across the nation as a whole, to reposition learning as everyone’s top priority. Rather than paying lip service to learning, they argue, we need to reconstitute “institutional culture by rigorously identifying, evaluating and challenging the many damaging accommodations that colleges and universities, individually and collectively, have made (and continue to make) to consumer and competitive pressures over the last several decades.”
As the nation moves toward a desire for more data and more accurate assessment of how much students learn while in college, many are working to create reliable and comparable ways to measure skills like critical thinking. But it’s a tall order—it’s very easy for schools to be fooled by the appearance of measuring, and use the assessment tools in ways that result in very little truly significant data.
And if you’re not running the school? You could incorporate more peer-driven learning—new evidence suggests that it really does improve students’ deep understanding.