So the most honest and penetrating book I’ve read about American higher education in a long time is HIGHER EDUCATION: HOW COLLEGES ARE WASTING OUR MONEY AND FAILING OUR KIDS–AND WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT IT by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. They’re not even conservatives!
There’s a lot to say. But let me begin with the first two of “three simple suggestions” they give in one place to improve teaching:
1. MONITOR LAPTOPS. Why? “In almost all the classes we atttended, at least half the screens displayed games of solitaire, reruns of sporting events, messages to friends.” [Here it’s easy to add playing with Facebook and other “social networks.”] What those screens do is “keep the professor from being the center of attention.” And they even stifle the bored student’s imagination; surely it’s more fun and better for the student just to “daydream.”
I would add: Laptops actually stifle real note taking–a indispensable skill for really paying attention and so often for avoiding boredom. And they make questions and so forth less likely, because the student becomes more likely to be absorbed in his or her crutch the computer.
I don’t actually do this, but there’s a strong argument for banning laptops from the classroom. At Berry College, thank God, most students don’t bring their computers to class. (I could write a separate analysis on “texting” in class. I’m reluctant to do so only because I’m so guilty myself of texting during boring academic meeting [a virtual redundancy], surely at the expense of my daydreaming skills.) IN GENERAL–AND THIS IS THE TRUTH, THE LESS TECHNOLOGY IN THE CLASSROOM THE BETTER.
So it’s not surprising that the second sensible suggestion is:
2. STOP POWERPOINTING. “If PowerPoint continues, students will spend their entire college careers in darkened rooms where their instructors cannot even see their expressions. Files of slides etch the day’s outline in stone; new ideas can’t be added, as they can on the chalkboard. If graphs or pictures are needed, they should be photocopied beforehand and handed out as the class starts.”
Isn’t that said well? I occasionally tell students that there are two beautiful things in this room–the great or at least most instructive text we are studying (the book which is never a textbook) and ME. So why would I have you looking at a screen? Again, of course, the platitudes that find their way onto PowerPoint slides take the place of real note taking and provide multiple disincentives for really paying attention. That includes, of course, the instuctor paying attention to the students. The compressed PowerPoint message almost always reduce something complicated to something simple, something to be memorized. (PowerPoint probably does have a role in teaching stuff like biology and accounting, but that’s not for me to say.)
It’s true that I’ve taken to giving outlines of the reading for the day–handed out, as recommended, as the class starts. There’s both a cost and a benefit in doing that, and perhaps it’s my concession to the spirit of the PowerPoint Age.
The third suggestion requires a separate post. So stay tuned.