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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

“What’s new here?”: how academic research has ruined our education system

I gave a speech in Barcelona last week. (Actually I gave a lot of speeches in Barcelona last week.) In one that was meant for the general public, at least I thought that that was who was in the audience, I was asked a question about what was new in what I had said. I was speaking about the new experiential MBA program we are developing for La Salle University, in Barcelona, which will be soon available as on an on line web mentored degree program. And, I was talking about the 16 cognitive processes that need to be mastered in order to think and how they are used in our new MBA. A member of the audience, who identified himself as a professor at a local university, asked “what is new here?” The question took me aback. Last I heard, the world was offering classrooms, lectures, tests, and courses as a way of teaching people, not degree programs that were entirely on line project-based learning in a story centered curriculum. I had no idea how to respond. The question was beyond absurd. My colleague, Sebastian Barajas, who had presented before me and speaks the local language, jumped in and answered the question. I was relying upon simultaneous translation and got most of what was said but not all. Whatever he responded however, was not sufficient to quiet this man and he came back again with more or less the same question. I responded without mercy. Needless to say, impolite behavior is not well loved in Europe. No one who knows me has ever thought of me as being especially polite, but my response was over the top, even for me.

A flurry of twitters and blog chatter (in Spanish) later erupted about this, for example see:

The summary for those who don’t want to subject themselves to the awfulness of “Google translate” is that some people like me and some don’t -- no surprise. But, what I learned from this blog is that the audience was made up of academics, not the general public, as I had thought.

I had wondered about my own overreaction. I attributed it the fact that I was quite ill at the time having eaten something bad the day before. But after reading the blog I realized what the real issue was and felt the need to write this rather long column.

This is what infuriated me. The question he asked is exactly the question that has killed off our schools. Now it is a long road to my point here, so please bear with me.

Jonathan Cole, the former provost of Columbia University, and a man whom I like and admire, has recently written a book about the research universities in the U.S. that was reviewed in the New York Times on Sunday:

I haven’t read the book, just the review, but I am hardly surprised by, nor do I disagree with, the idea that the research universities in the U.S. are a great treasure and we should endeavor to take care of them. But, that having been said, it is the fault of the research universities that our education system is so awful. And, it is the question “what’s new here” that is the essence of the problem.

Here is what occurs in research universities. Students write PhD theses that are supposed to be original research in their field of choice. I have supervised over 50 PhD theses myself and have read and advised on many more. I am familiar with the process and understand what is wrong with it. This is it:

Think about how many PhD theses are produced each year around the world. Thousands? Tens of thousands? How many of these can really be original (much less be important)? Original is defined as something no one ever wrote before in an area of research. So there are many PhD theses, particularly in Europe, that are simply examinations of what other people have said over the years together with a point of view. Even in the best science universities, PhD theses are often about minutiae so incomprehensible that no one, not even the graduate student who wrote them, will ever look at them again. There are interesting PhD theses of course, but they are few and far between. The old joke
is that a PhD thesis is a paper written by the supervising professor under very difficult conditions.

Why do I mention this? Because it turns out, that the man who had asked this question has just written a PhD thesis in which he had examined various education theories and his conclusion was that since my work is derivative of Plato and Socrates and Dewey, something I am quite proud of by the way, then it wasn’t presenting any new theory, and therefore was not worthy of serious consideration. This is kind of like asking, in a disdainful way, at an unveiling of the new 787, “what is new in theory of flight” here? Only a newly minted PhD would even think such a thing. Real world applications and innovative changes matter a lot.

But in the academic world, the questions are always about theories, and applications are looked down upon, which is odd because no one asks Google what is new here (the answer is not much since the 1950s) but it sure has changed our lives.

Research universities produce PhD students who do original work. This would be just fine and dandy if there were just a few research universities and teaching was not affected by this process. But, while there are maybe 25 serious research universities in the U.S., there are hundreds that think they are research universities and because of that there is pressure for the faculty to do research and publish research. That pressure and that focus is the cause of the awful education system we have in place today around the world. Let me explain.

I will tell about a friend of mine, named Bill Purves. I met Bill Purves when he came to work as a post-doc at my Artificial Intelligence Lab at Yale. (He was a professor of Biology at the time. He has since retired.) People apply to work in prestigious labs all the time, but it is odd to find a biologist who wants to study AI. I was intrigued so I agreed to host him. He had a PhD from Yale and I thought he might just be feeling nostalgic for his old haunts. He had been a professor at what you might call secondary research universities. There are 3000 colleges in the U.S. and the top few hundred at least are trying very hard to act as if they are Harvard and Yale. They hire professors with PhDs from Harvard and Yale who then teach their students what they learned at those places. To put this another way, while the students who go to a state university expect to learn job skills they are being taught research skills and theories which is all that their research university trained professors actually know.

Bill’s research area had to do with some arcane feature of cucumbers. He had been doing work on cucumbers for over 30 years at that point. He wasn’t coming to visit me to learn more about cucumbers.

Bill had recently moved to a more teaching oriented college and had begun to worry about how people learn. We worked on learning at our lab so he came to learn what we knew. But it was pretty unusual to encounter a professor who did research who was so worried about teaching. Professors at research universities are more typically concerned with teaching their PhD students (via the apprenticeship method) than they are with lecturing to undergraduates. They pay their dues by teaching so that they can do their real job - which is research. This is a very common attitude at the research universities.

I am not criticizing here. That was how I felt as well. My job entailed some teaching but was not really teaching. Professors at research universities think about their real work and teach about their real work. This is fine as long as they are training future researchers. They can criticize their students and each other about whether new research being presented is good work and they can compete for getting their papers published and their presentations at conferences taken seriously. But really, do you think that Bill's students in his biology classes cared about cucumbers?

This is a real problem, Students are taught about what interests the professor but what interests the professor bears little relationship to what students came to college to learn. They might want to be psychological counselors but they will be taught about experimental research methods. They may want to become writers but they will be taught about literary theory. They may want to become doctors but they will have to learn about cucumbers, at least they will if a cucumber specialist is teaching the biology course.

Now Bill was not like this at all. In fact he came to Northwestern when I moved there for a another post-doc year to learn more about what we were doing in building courses on the computer. Eventually he became the lead designer in our high school on line health sciences course. You can see him introducing biology here:

But Bill is a rare bird. He fundamentally cares about students. Now I am not saying that professors don’t care about students. I am simply saying they care about their research more. If students attend a research university they should know the truth. But Yale and Harvard don’t really explain the research orientation in a way that would help incoming undergraduates to grasp its significance.

I am not concerned about Ivy league students, however. They get a good education any way you look at it. But if every professor in every major university is playing the same game, then students at, for example, the University of Illinois, ought to know that every one of their professors cares more about research than they do about teaching. Students are not told anything like that. This matters because it means that the “what’s new here?” standard of assessing work will emphasize theory over practice every time. Since colleges hire professors trained by research instructions, every university is dominated by an issue that distracts from good teaching. Students want job skills and professors teach rearach skills.

This is why I was furious at this question. 2000 years ago Petronius asked why Roman schools taught so little of what would be useful in everyday life. Nothing has changed precisely because it is intellectuals and not practitioners who dominate the teaching landscape. Students are forced to learn things they have no interest in, in order to get college degrees.

In then end that is why we built a new MBA program. Even MBA programs emphasize theory over practice! This may sound hard to believe but professors in a business school also tend to have PhDs from Harvard and Yale and may never have actually run a business themselves. This is why I was asked to design a new learn by doing MBA program by La Salle. It is a program designed to upset the status quo. No courses, no theories, simply learning how to do what business people do.

What is new there? If this had already been done we wouldn’t have done it. It is new in the same way as the 787 is new. It is useful and important because it changes the way education works, not because it presents a new theory.

We must fight against the university professors who wish to dominate the discussion of what education should be like. Research professors should be encouraged to do research but do there really need to be so many of them? 25 research universities is a fine number for the U.S. Spain should have maybe one. But if every professor feels obliged to publish more about his work on cucumbers the world loses its best teachers. Bill Purves understands that and he devoted the end of his career to teaching -- not to cucumbers.


David Goldenberg said...

When I got my BA from Johns Hopkins University 38 years ago, I was taught by some of the highest regarded research authorities in their fields--and the worst teachers. Now I see why. They lectured and, often, boasted, how much they had added to the knowledge of their given subject. One archaeology/ancient history lecturer had discovered the translation code for "Linear B," an ancient Cunieform writing that all us students bragged about to other students.

Another Poly Sci genius informed us during a lecture that he had just attended the meeting in Washington in which the revelation that the Gulf of Tonkin Incident of US gunboats being fired upon by the North Vietnamese, a reason for the Senate to OK funding for the Vietnam War, was fabricated. I don't remember anything else that guy ever said, except that he was a good speaker.

I think the quality of Mr. Schank's courtesy is of less importance than the obtrusive grandstanding of members of an audience to which he is speaking. But then, unlike the audience member, I've done my homework.

juan said...

Welcome to the dictatoship of the "civil servants" in Europe.
Do you think the top teacher of structures to civil engineering students can be people who never worked in a real structure (brige, building, tunnel, tube, etc)?

Here is the usual thing except for medicine (professors are required to be real doctors in a hospital in their teaching speciality).

In Spain, everyone wants to become civil servant. When you finish your studies you do not see people eager to fly and discovery new thing working in their interest areas, combining with abroad assignments. NO...people prefer to be slaves of professors while preparing their PhD Thesis, to become professors in the future and have their own slaves writing articles for them.

It's the decandence itself.

And just only a remark...PhD students are not researching something new while real world needs people doing executing real tasks to be done...the PhD students and most of universities are draining public funds for R+D to do software in JAVA. The scenario then, is worst as you describe.

Luis Mendo Tomás said...

Dear Dr. Shank,

I basically agree with your comments, and I have found your column interesting and enlightening.

This said, there are some minor points I feel obliged to comment on:

- When you refer to the language spoken by the members of the audience as "the local language", it sounds a little dismissing, at least to me. It might well be that I am not understanding correctly (English is not my native language), but it gives the impression that you don't care enough about that "local language" to even refer to it by its name, be it Spanish or Catalan.

- In the same vein, when you say "for those who don’t want to subject themselves to the awfulness of Google translate...", you are assuming that readers of your column cannot read in Spanish. However, that "local language" is spoken by more than 300 million people, and ranks 2 or 3 among the most spoken languages.

Apart from this, thanks for sharing your ideas on education, and trying to stimulate some change.

Roger Schank said...

No Luis, its not pejorative to say "local language." I just did that to avoid explaining what Catalan is a mostly U.S. audience many of whom would not have heard of it.

It is also safe to assume that an American audience cannot read Spanish. However the demographics of my web site has changed since I wrote that. Now most of my audience is actually from Spanish speaking countries.

DonnaG said...

I stumbled across this as I was researching uuugh researchers. LOL I'm finally finishing my MA and of course have to go through the motion of the long dreadful research. I've been thinking and voicing my comments continually, "How does this make me a master of my field." It is time for change! Thank you for you wonderful insight! Maybe just maybe we can enact change. Someday maybe we will be seen as pioneers to a "new trend" in education.