Thursday, March 8, 2018

The End of Average - or how to tailor higher education to the individual student

In "The End of Average", Todd Rose explores how "averagerianism" has impacted our society. In this book, he discusses how companies do better when they look at the individual worker instead of the average worker, and he gives ideas for tailoring higher education to the individual student rather than to the average student. You can find interviews with Rose on this topic here and here. This post describes an example of personalized higher education for an accountant. You can find a good summary of the ideas on higher education here.

I've been wrestling with the idea of how to accommodate different learning styles in the classroom in the past. When I was a student, there were courses that I preferred to study on my own - I did not attend the lectures, but sat with the material, and then just showed up for the exam. In the traditional view of higher education, that would be considered as "bad" behavior - but I prefer to sit down in silence and sketch and figure out things on my own for certain subjects. As a professor, I feel it would be strange to demand class attendance from my students when I did not always attend class myself. But I'm completely at a loss on how to fit different learning styles into my teaching and into a typical semester. A solution to this, as suggested by Rose, would be to throw away the notion of "slow" and "fast" learners, and to evaluate students when they have completed the course material. To make this possible, however, we would need to break down the semester system, and the traditional lectures.

Another topic that Rose brings up is the idea of "credentials" - certifications of certain skills that are directly applicable to job seekers. To get to a certain profile for a job you want, you can stack credentials and develop a portofolio of specific skills. I'm not so sure that this may be a good idea, for three reasons. Rose argues that traditional higher education fits into Taylorism, and the idea of laborers as average workers that can be easily replaced. However, by changing higher education so that it solely suits the needs of the industry, we may not be honoring students as individuals in the end. The second problem that I see here is that some people like myself, who love studying for the sake of studying, would never leave university. If there is no final degree, then when do you know you are "done" and can move onto the next level (MSc. or Ph.D level)? A final issue with credentials is the loss of general topics in college related to communicating and critical thinking. Unless every student is required to get a basic credential in these topics, the very heart of the university as a place for debate, lingering on thoughts, and interchange, seems to get lost.

With these aforementioned elements that I like and dislike about "The End of Average" in mind, I do would like to continue the discussion about how we can fit higher education better to the needs, learning styles, and interests of every single student instead of to the average student. What should we evaluate? How should we evaluate students? How should we teach them? In short, what can we do better?

In short - if you want to read a thought-provoking book about how to change higher education, I recommend you pick up a copy of "The End of Average".

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