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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Not the assignment

“That's not the assignment,” a student told me recently when I questioned her about an observation she made in her paper. And that is, in large part, what is wrong with the education system today; students are not challenged to think outside of the box, or to think at all in many cases.

These days I am looking at the education issue from many points of view simultaneously; as a teacher, a student and a parent. None of these perspectives makes me feel we are winning on the education battlefield. Occasionally I have students that challenge the status quo, have original ideas and make me want to spend more than my allotted 30 minutes with them. Unfortunately I don't see enough of that type of student.

What I do see more often than not are students that have summarized information. Questions about what all this information means are usually met with blank stares. I can handle that. I wish I had more time to lead these students down a path to greater understanding but that is not my job—which is also part of the problem.

Sometimes I feel like an emergency medic-- patch them up to get them through this crisis-- this deadline, that thesis statement. I am not there for the major surgery, the recovery, the revelation.

I have accepted my role and as I said I sometimes get wonderful shinning students in my office and sometimes I get ones that tell me, “That is not the assignment.”

In the case mentioned above, the student had made an observation that I found anthropologically significant; in her work experience at an nursing home there were only white faces in the resident population. I asked her what she thought that meant and received the terse reply noted above.

I am very curious about what her observation says about our population, our culture. There are many African Nova Scotian communities near this nursing home as well as one Native community; why were they not represented in the nursing home population? Is it due to the cost of care or the connectedness of those communities where elders are taken care of at home for as long as possible? I don't know the answer to the question but it intrigues me and it should have intrigued my student. And therein lies the problem-- it didn't.

This student did not want to think outside the boundary of her assignment and when I asked her to do so she became confrontational. What does it say about university when students expect not to be asked to use their minds beyond the scope of a stated problem?

Universities were initially a place for people who desired higher learning. That is sadly no longer the case at most post-secondary institutions. Universities are now akin to financial institutions who trade in credentials. Said credentials, once paid for in both money and time by the consumer, will presumably translate into higher income brackets for the newly certified. That has become the goal of university students, not knowledge.

I would like the focus of academe to shift to knowledge over commerce but with rising tuitions and unrealistic consumer expectations—that is unlikely. In the meantime I will relish the students who come to me and show they are the wolves in the flock of status quo sheep.

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