The Purpose of Education (or, where the hell is my sushi?)

I think we’d all agree that schools are educational institutions. Teachers instruct, and students learn. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen, right? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Remember the old saying, “What gets measured, gets done”? There are plenty of examples of this in education. For instance, teachers may not focus on writing out their lesson plans if principals don’t require them to be submitted for review each week. It happens in the “real” world, as well. What the supervisor monitors is what the employees pay attention to.

A recent article by Bent Meier Sorenson, Professor in Philosophy and Business at Copenhagen Business School, makes a bold statement about the current state of affairs in today’s institutions of higher learning:

Why did he come to this conclusion? Because, he says, universities measure student satisfaction – through student satisfaction surveys – while ignoring typical student learning indicators. Sorenson explains that there are plenty of ways to measure learning, but when we do, the results aren’t pretty.

For example, one long-term, comprehensive study found that 45% of students demonstrated no significant growth in skill (to include critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing) during their first two years of college (Arum & Roksa, 2010). Given these abysmal results, our universities would, naturally, prefer to pay attention to other measures of success.

You’ve no doubt followed the recent news reports – college students make unreasonable demands and administrators cave. Cafeteria doesn’t serve sushi? Protest! Instructor holds an exam on protest day? Fire the bum! University President backs the teacher? He must resign! Ok, ok…maybe I’m being a little facetious, but it certainly seems as though student learning often takes a back seat to student comfort.

We create “safe spaces,” where students are protected from hearing anything that runs counter to their own point of view, rather than encourage thoughtful debate. How can students develop a value system of their own if they don’t understand (or even have a chance to hear) from all sides? As I mentioned in last week’s blog – diversity is a good thing! We must appreciate all points of view in order to solidify our own stance.

More and more frequently, the evaluations – and pay – of college professors (those hired to teach) are dependent on student satisfaction surveys – not learning! Here’s the rub – learning is difficult, uncomfortable, and sometimes even painful! So, when colleges focus on the key drivers of learning (painful stimuli), student satisfaction tends to decline. Imagine that!

Human beings are wired to avoid pain. I get it! Unfortunately, growth requires some level of pain. Pain avoidance simply sets us up for future failure.

Yet, we continue to shield our students, our children, from the pain of living and growing, preventing them from reaching adulthood with the skills necessary to survive and succeed! In my opinion, we do our students a severe disservice when we obsess over their happiness and comfort level. As Sorenson candidly describes,

“Hospitals measure morbidity and mortality. Corporations measure revenue and profit. Governments measure unemployment and gross domestic product. But universities don’t measure learning. As long as universities continue to measure satisfaction but not learning, the downward spiral of lower expectations, less hard work and less learning will continue.”

If we truly care about our students’ well-being, we must not prevent their growing pains. For it is in these early trials and tribulations that they develop the internal fortitude to withstand the slings and arrows of life.