Jeesh. Do these college guys ever stop to ask themselves whether what they are doing is good enough? Why not blame both kids and high schools for everything – in public!

I am referring to this absurd Commentary in Education Week this week in which a college professor not only tells bored students to like it or lump it but chastises those of us trying to make HS work more engaging:

In adjusting curriculum and pedagogy to student interest, educators may raise certain secondary school results but, ironically, stunt students in preparation for the next level of their education. In telling them, “You think the material is pointless and musty, but we’ll find ways to stimulate you,” high school educators fail to teach them the essential skill of exerting oneself even when bored, even when the material has no direct bearing upon one’s future.

Perhaps they believe that if revised curricula can engage high school juniors, they will build enough momentum to reach college with the pluck to keep focused in spite of their ennui. I presume the opposite. Students will have learned a different lesson when they go to college: If they’re not interested in a course, there’s something wrong with it, and they needn’t bother.

If educators wish to keep students in high school and in college, they must plant a better attitude in the former, while recognizing the intransigence of the curriculum in the latter. Boredom is not always something to be avoided. It is to be accepted and worked through.

I dare this Professor to sit in on college courses all day and consider if the boredom is tolerable, especially if one has to get up and do it all over the next day. Not once does this author muse over whether college teaching might sometimes be atrocious or that some kinds of boredom are inevitable but other kinds solely a function of bad teaching.

Indeed, the teacher ironically damns himself and other colleagues when he complains –

I teach freshman comp, so trust me, it’s hard to find any academic material students are eager to write about…Often, too, they face a U.S. history and civics requirement covering events and texts 200 years old and thoroughly alien to their job ambitions and leisure activities. And these aren’t the only tedious courses. In addition, most of them take lecture classes, in which the teacher is often talking from a stage to 300 students—their least-favored format. Sadly, all too often, students respond to these conditions in college just as they did in high school—drifting away and submitting shabby work.

There is of course no excuse for such prattle. The situation was so dire at MIT – a 50% absence rate in some lecture courses – that they revamped the curriculum. On the other hand, watch one of the greatest teachers ever, from MIT – and listen to what he says about bad teachers at the end. (I wonder what our cranky prof would respond to this?)

Most of the better college teachers make a concerted effort to make their classes interesting. I had the privilege of being a TA for Michael Sandel, the justly-famous Harvard Government Professor, in his  course Justice where he keeps 700 kids spell-bound in Sanders Theater by not only posing endlessly fascinating case studies but demanding that – even in a crowd of 700 – that kids form small groups to hash out the ethics and political philosophy of the cases. And Eric Mazur, of course, has for over a decade been doing ‘peer instruction‘ with learning response ‘clickers‘ to both rave reviews and better results than his colleagues in conventionally-taught classes.

And, though the complaining professor refers to the College Study of Engagement, he neglects to mention a key finding:  “Courses that emphasize applying material, making judgments about value of information and arguments, and synthesizing material into more complex interpretations and relationships are highly related to educational and personal gains.”

In fact in discussing his exhaustive study of what the best college teachers do, Ken Bain noted this about the best teachers:

You must have great insight into what it means to learn in your field, and you must have an equally deep insight into how people learn and all the personal and social forces that can both interfere with and support that learning…. Another major factor is the development of the ability to ask important and intriguing questions that will engage our students. We spend too much time pinning our hopes on our machines, hoping that computers or iPads or something magical will help engage our students. They won’t. Students will become engaged only when they see the questions and problems as important, intriguing, or just beautiful. We can learn to use the arts—from poetry to film to music—to help raise the question, but we have to understand those questions and their connection with the questions that may already be on the minds of our students.

I trust he is not representative of teachers at Emory. I would love to see the student feedback from this cranky guy’s course – even if he dismisses it out of hand as coming from philistines…


PS: some great student feedback: