Rebuilding the Ivory Towers

The educational landscape is evolving, and what's emerging is a new paradigm for everyone from kindergarten to college

Those paying close attention to what is happening in many of our classrooms might have noticed the emergence of a new educational paradigm. It’s less a seismic shift and more of an evolutionary response to the information explosion ushered in by the Internet. With unlimited knowledge at our fingertips, it has become less critical to keep vast details front-of-mind. The challenge of storing material has been replaced by the challenge of sifting and sorting it to determine what is relevant, useful and accurate.

As students move through education systems, they need to learn how to identify what they really need to know—and then what to do with that knowledge. It’s a process that begins in elementary school, in the computer lab, and it’s a process that never really ends. 

As a result, education has a new purpose that is less about teaching students “what to know” and more about teaching them how to learn. While this new emphasis on learning hasn’t reached all classrooms, it is fast becoming standard teaching practice in educational settings from kindergartens to online executive education programs.

Mary Campbell, education director at Wingra School, says the administration and staff at her school have long recognized that education had to do more than merely teach content. Now, she notes, the ever-growing body of subject matter exacerbates the pressure to squeeze a predetermined package of content into a too-small timeframe.

“There’s so much pressure on institutions right now to race through a set of content and skills. The focus is primarily on remembering, and that’s really not a skill that’s valued in real life,” she says.

It ultimately boils down to the difference between knowing and learning. While knowing content is not unimportant, Campbell says the ability to learn throughout life is vastly more beneficial to people than carrying around facts and figures from a second-grade science class.

What’s most interesting, even exciting, about this shift is that students are really better suited to the new way than they are to the old style of memorizing content, says Paul Brahce, head of school at Wingra. He says that embracing a focus on process will better serve students over the long run, which is why nurturing an ability to learn is one goal of elementary education at his school.

“We are a part of the progressive school tradition, and we see human beings as natural learners,” Brahce says. “The kids who come to us at five years old and enter our program are in love with learning … and I think an important part of our job is to keep that natural love of learning alive.”

William Cario agrees that a passion for learning can serve students throughout their lives. As a senior vice president of academics at Concordia University Wisconsin, Cario says he believes that educational institutions at all levels need to recognize that degrees—even advanced degrees—never mark the end of the learning process.

“The average person’s work life consists not just of job changes, but of two or three career changes,” he says. “So preparing someone for a specific profession that might last them five to ten years before they switch to a different profession completely is rather short-sighted considering the investment that parents and students put into higher education.”

Cario says this does not mean that content is irrelevant. Nurses and pharmacists still need to master certain skills, concepts and facts before they enter the workforce. Yet those skills and concepts are fast becoming the baseline and not the finish line of learning. As a result, says Cario, educational institutions have an obligation to teach students how to communicate and think creatively and critically. Schools have to prepare students to draw from what they know in one field and apply it with confidence to different and new ones.

“We prepare people not just for that first job,” Cario says, “but also for that second or third career that they will often have.”

Change is just part of the new workplace reality, says Herzing University President Renée Herzing. Career trajectories rarely follow a straight path these days, but the onus to prepare for that is not entirely on the educational institutions, she says. Students also need to alter their expectations. “People are going to have a lot of careers … and you’re going to have to keep learning,” she says. “Our job is to give you the confidence so that you know how to learn, to instill that lifelong love of learning and discipline, so you can make it through the changes. Because there are going to be changes, and they’re going to come faster all the time. We need to set people up so that they can adapt well.”

The notion that education is a lifelong pursuit is hardly new to Steve King. The head of executive education for the University of Wisconsin School of Business knows well that working professionals must continually retool their skill sets and add new competencies to stay effective in their jobs or to position themselves for increased responsibility.

King also points out another key facet of the information explosion. “Right now you can go online and pretty much get any content about anything you want, pretty much for free,” he says.

That has diminished the value of the content itself and is part of the reason that educational institutions need to do more than deliver information. King says the information age challenges schools to develop new value propositions to justify the cost that students pay.

“It challenges universities to consider how an individual effectively uses that information, analyzes and synthesizes that information, becomes creative with that information, or is a good citizen with that information,” he says.

The result, King adds, is a more holistic approach toward education. Again, it’s one that focuses as much on process as content, and one in which the ultimate goals include preparing students to seek out learning and growth opportunities well beyond graduation. “People in the workplace are being asked to bring a different type of game than they used to be asked to bring,” King says, “and I think that’s a great opportunity.”

Michael Lovell, chancellor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, agrees. “We need to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet,” he says.

Yet meeting such a challenge would seem impossible. After all, with no identifiable body of scholarship, and no defined skill set to impart, how can universities ready students for careers that have yet to emerge?

The answer, Lovell says, is simple and has been around since the dawn of higher education: the liberal arts.

That’s a bold statement in a very career-focused era in education, when job-specific programs increasingly carry |more appeal than degrees in humanities and social sciences. It seems even bolder coming from an administrator who, himself, studied engineering as an undergrad. Yet Lovell says the most challenging course he ever took was not calculus or anything in the sciences; it was philosophy. He also says that the perspective and communication skills he gained from liberal arts courses are now more useful to him than the calculus he once knew.

“You can’t fill out a spreadsheet and see a direct link to my job out of school,” he says, “but learning how to think critically or differently is so very important, and critical thinking skills are at the heart of higher education.”

He continues, saying that a deep foundation in liberal arts is what distinguishes American higher education from that of the rest of the world. It is also what gives students the versatility and ability to navigate changing landscapes over the course of their working lives. “That is the value of liberal arts, and we still need to focus on that,” he says. “No matter what field you go into, no matter how it changes, you will find ways to be successful.”

Whatever is driving the changes in education, Wingra School’s Brahce is excited about the realignment happening all the way up the ladder. He is proud that students can begin positioning themselves for success as soon as they walk through Wingra’s doors. “I had a parent stop in after morning drop-off,” he says. “She said that the skills that business and industry are looking for … are exactly the kinds of things that kids are doing in our classrooms.”

Cario also embraces the changes coming to the ivory tower. “We do not have a lack of information in our world today. The question is how do we make sense of it all,” he says. “Higher education is in a period of pretty significant flux. We at Concordia are trying to get out in front of a number of these changes and opportunities so that we can prepare our students for this new world that’s coming.”

-Jennifer Garrett

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