Sunday, September 8, 2013

Courage in education

I just read an interesting article on about supporting and encouraging women at Harvard Business School through a series of somewhat radical changes. These changes included what some of the naysayers called "social engineering" in order to create an environment more friendly to women (these mostly sounded good things to me). In the article, they profiled a woman who ended up giving the class's graduation speech. The theme of the speech was courage, and how much courage it takes to change things that are wrong. She particularly mentioned the courage of the one administrator, Ms. Frei, who took on the culture at Harvard Business School and decided to change it. Having read the article and considering the history and powerful interests I'm sure are at play at a place like Harvard Business School, I think that calling that move courageous is pretty accurate, and I think Ms. Frei's example is pretty inspiring. Another thing I took from the article is that real change usually involves pissing some people off. I'm wondering if maybe the trick is to know how to not to piss off just enough people that your ideas actually make it to reality.

Which led me to wonder where are areas in my job where I could be more courageous? I feel like in research, being courageous is sort of par for the course, since the whole point of any research project is to learn something that hopefully changes the way people think. (I think there are some places where a little courage could change how we communicate science... maybe in another post...) What about education, though? I think this is an area that is ripe for people being more courageous. I think that many people realize that the way we teach probably needs a fundamental overhaul–bottom line is that most students just aren't learning as much as they can or should. Doesn't it seem odd to you that we teach largely in the same way we have for the last several hundred years? Do we do anything the same way we did hundreds of years ago?

But change of the scale that at least I think we should engender will definitely piss off a lot of people, and will require someone courageous at the upper levels of university administration to implement/force down people's throats. You could imagine these sorts of things growing from the bottom up–i.e., from the faculty–but that has two problems: 1. even faculty who believe in this (like me) have so many demands on their time that we tend to largely revert to the default way of teaching; and 2. given that education is an endeavor that now typically occurs across departments, some sort of higher level coordination is needed.

Then again, maybe we don't have to wait that long. In research, especially in biology, I feel like changes in technology can force changes even upon those unwilling to accept them. Online education is perhaps just such a disruptive force. It's early, but I think it could be a chance to fundamentally reshape higher education. And it definitely pisses a lot of people off, which is a good sign... :)

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