The NYTimes online has an article this morning that talks about government plans to cut the level of funding for programs that provide technical training at the high school and community college level. The article begins with a sketch of a young man, Matthew Kelly, whose who performing poorly in traditional high school courses. When a guidance counselor suggested a new strategy: take technical training courses.
Then his guidance counselor suggested he take some courses at a nearby vocational academy for his junior year. For the first time, the sloe-eyed teenager excelled, earning A’s and B’s in subjects like auto repair, electronics and metals technology. “When it comes to practicality, I can do stuff really well,” said Mr. Kelly, now 19.
The structure of American higher education reflects its origin in the industrial age. Students are often regarded as widgets traveling down a conveyor, and teachers assemble the students into learned citizen through lectures and exams. But our deeply held expectations that there’s a uniformity in student ability and interests creates problems when we encounter students who do not conform. Instead of adaptING learning experiences to OUR students, we put them in weed-out courses. Weeding our Epicurean garden lets us focus on the SURVIVING students.
But the weeding paradigm is failing America. If we want to be economically competitive with the rest of the world, we need more college graduates. Weeding is not compatible with this goal because it sustains an elitist definition of what it means to be educated. We need a system that can adapt its delivery of learning to student ability and interest.
If you continue reading the NYTimes article, you’ll see that Mr. Kelly’s experience with technical courses may have accomplished something profound. By revealing to Mr.Kelly his passion for learning, and by building his confidence, it is putting him on course for a community college education or even a college degree in engineering. Talk about a transformation.
But such transformations are relatively common. I’ve seen in with my college students who struggle in courses that require ‘book smarts’ but excel in undergraduate research experiences what require them to be intellectually creative and exercise technical skills like building or synthesizing. Let’s stay open to these other ways of teaching and learning. Let’s shed out elitism about ‘academic’ education and embrace other routes to returning America to greatness.