Legacy Education Model | Viewpoint

Voodoo Education: Why Are We Still in Its Spell?


The legacy education model, seen from the vantage point of the current open education/open knowledge era, seems to be voodoo education--to paraphrase George H. W. Bush. In this legacy learning voodoo, students gather in a room with a disciplinary expert, the door is shut, some magic occurs, and 15 weeks later students are smarter. Even though we now know how to make the learning process visible, explicit, and authentic, a vast majority of educational settings in higher education will sustain this belief in the voodoo education model.

Voodoo aspects of legacy teaching and learning include: talking to students while they passively listen and assuming, through some magic, that the students can interpret, analyze, remember, and apply what the lecturer has said; framing the entire process as engaging with finished knowledge (“What I am telling you is the truth and you have no role in changing or adding to this truth.”); assuming students will engage in regurgitating what is already known and finished; expecting students not to see this voodoo process as a game; using testing procedures that have little or no predictive value for gauging a student’s ability to apply the knowledge of the course in a real-life situation.

It is not insignificant that higher education in the U.S. was very strongly embedded in various religious denominations up through the 19th century, nor is it insignificant that traditional classrooms have a similar layout to churches. In the voodoo model, we find a strong hint of the notion of sacred knowledge. To better understand the strong pull of voodoo education, visit the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh or just ponder that name, invented in the 1920s.

The pulpit model of teaching, or the voodoo teaching and learning model I’m describing, could be passed off as, “Well, we don’t have much choice and it’s what we’ve been doing for centuries.” Except now we do have many more options for how teachers and students can interact that are not voodoo but viable, visible, and authentic.

The Example of Teaching Writing

The voodoo teaching of writing, if examined, provides a good example of the changes needed to help our students succeed in a world where simply having a degree is no longer a guarantee of success. Writing teachers have traditionally talked about writing in class, presumably helping students understand ideas so the students can write about those ideas. Writing is thinking, teachers have said--and this is true--so we should help students understand complexity and nuance better so their writing becomes better.

The result? A vast majority of employers think that college graduates can’t write.

We’re beginning to see employer dissatisfaction formalized in current studies: “Fully 63 percent of employers believe that too many recent college graduates do not have the skills they need to succeed in the global economy.” And “In none of the twelve skills and areas of knowledge tested--from writing to global knowledge to ethical judgment--do a majority of employers rate recent graduates as “very well prepared.” [“College Learning for the New Global Century,” executive summary published by AAC&U in 2008, p. 10.]

Segue to studies, decades ago, of expert and novice writers to understand why talking to students about writing is voodoo education. Expert writers, it turned out, spend more time thinking about writing before they actually write than they do in generating text. Pre-writing--brainstorming, planning, looking for ideas, doing rough drafts--is the most important part of writing. Novice writers, instead, jump right into the final draft with no pre-writing efforts at all.

So, what should writing teachers be helping their students with? Pre-writing, of course. How can teachers help students extend the time they spend on pre-writing efforts? One way is through a writing studio approach. Instead of talking in class, everyone writes, including the teacher. No, not on paper, but on computers, using chat or other real-time collaborative tools to develop ideas in groups, scaffolding--in writing--their ideas by seeing how others phrase those ideas; writing socially (a much easier cognitive task than writing autonomously); seeing teacher guidance in the group chat; and finally doing a “one-minute paper,” or just the very first paragraph draft of the next writing assignment, shared in chat, and commented on by peers and teacher alike. This is just one way to develop, practically and authentically, pre-writing skills.

This technique has been around since 1986. But there have not been enough computer labs for writing teachers, a fact that keeps this approach from becoming widely used. In this technique, student writing is visible. The process of developing pre-writing skills is not voodoo but a replicable approach. In other words, in the field of composition and rhetoric, we have the theory and method(s) to move from voodoo to viable and visible, but most teachers stay with voodoo. It’s much easier to do voodoo than visible. And since most people practice voodoo, there’s good cover for staying with it.

A Structure Ready for Change; A Culture that’s Not

Meanwhile, I see that early admissions in this Fall of 2010 are up by double-digit percentages at institutions of higher learning that reported results in early fall. The college experience, the social experience, sports, being around smart people, the non-curricular and co-curricular high-impact learning experiences, the life-long contacts, the prestige of the college or university name, the high-speed Internet connections and beautiful new dorms, high-quality food, beautiful campus environment, the mixture of all ages--all of this together makes the U.S. higher education experience highly attractive and valuable. It’s a growth industry, the pride of the world. But, ironically, the weakest element in all of this at most institutions is the curriculum, which has evolved hardly at all while the rest of institutional life has evolved radically.

The curriculum seems to be stuck in the puritan past while the rest of the college experience is being shaped pragmatically and culturally in tune with the reality of the time.

No one objects to internships, service learning, field experience, semesters abroad, and other experiential or authentic learning experiences, but the classroom model is still held hostage to deep-seated beliefs about what teaching is. No television commercial evoking a teaching situation shows students working in groups, or out in the field, or in other experiential learning situations, but always shows one person standing, often in front of a white board, talking to people sitting in ranks of desks.

Parents paying for their children to go to college expect their children to be taught this way; their children expect it; the forms used for students evaluating their teachers anticipates it; many department chairs expect it; it is part of the assumed background of all discussion about teaching and learning and assessment. It is in this one arena that evidence from the scholarship of teaching and learning, and evidence from all alternative approaches to teaching and learning, is ignored. It is the one arena in higher education where a research approach is disallowed: Research is never required to prove the efficacy of voodoo education, but advocates for alternative practices must always prove their efficacy.

The classroom is the one arena where students and faculty unwittingly co-conspire to pretend to teach and pretend to learn and follow the time-honored habits of the 19th century without challenge. How can higher education be so enlightened in so many ways but so benighted in its approach to undergraduate education?

Web 2.0 is many things, but primarily and most importantly it is the 2004 cultural tipping point when the Web became the primary and nearly exclusive information and knowledge technology for the connected world. The essence of Web 2.0 is collaborative, open, integrative, multi-voiced, affiliative, and is ever changing--and in this milieu, the 19th century classroom and all its apparatus and rationalizations is an anachronism.

Institutions seem to want to change, but the cultural icon of the teacher pontificating to passive students is so embedded in our consciousness that the baggage is just too mountainous to budge.

How Could this Finally Change? Will Faculty Make a Move?

Many faculty members and academic leaders are painfully aware of this problem, perhaps even most faculty members and academic leaders are painfully aware, but how to get that mountain to move?

It is vital that faculty have the support and opportunity to make changes. We cannot keep putting faculty members at risk in their careers for trying to make changes: We must reward innovation as much as orderliness.

A core cultural belief does not evolve quickly. Commitment to change in this century must acknowledge that the terms of the change need to be framed in decades, not five-year blocks. We are not tweaking; we are starting at the sub-structure.

[Photo by Trent Batson]

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