As we turn to a new semester it is good for us to reflect on the opportunities and challenges that we face in higher education-and how it is that we might each contribute to advancing the capacities and impacts of our remarkable institutions. Because discipline-based education research (DBER) is some of the foundational R&D underpinning higher education, I ask that we consider the why and how of education itself.
I share some of my thoughts on the goals and definitions of education. These are of course not universal nor necessarily the best - I welcome others to join in, share your perspectives or approaches to such framing.
On goals of education I would posit that there are roughly three overlapping categories of purpose of institutions of higher education:
Notably, these are in listed in priority order for me; others may well differ. In fact, the popular narrative around higher education does invert these, focusing on workforce development. I contend that if we create educational systems directed at the supporting the welfare of individuals and our collective society, the needs and interests of a competent workforce will come along as by-product of the other leading goals. However, as all too well demonstrated currently, it is possible to have a thriving economic system and neither support individuals nor society. While workforce as a motivator for education reigns, it often (though not always) draws from and contributes to an impoverished definition of education.
So what is education?
The most ubiquitous, though often unstated, definition of education – one that undergirds many discussions, practices and policies– is that of delivery of some content (knowledge of physics circuits) to an individual (a student or learner). While access to information is a necessary criterion of education, it is hardly sufficient. Rather, I consider education as the enculturation or socialization of a person into a cultural system. Supporting learners in the tools practices and norms of a community – so that not only can students apply equations of motion, but they know what they mean, as well as when, how and why to use them. That is, students learn to walk and squawk and talk as a physicist (or biologist, mathematician, chemist, engineer, historian, artist … ).
It is perhaps not surprising that how we organize our classrooms and institutions reflect these varying goals and definitions. If we are to lead with a workforce argument, learners and society may not be central. People then serve more as the mechanisms to fulfill the needs of existing and future companies. Educating someone for a job currently aligns with the acquisition of particular skills and competencies – our first definition of education. The burden of knowing or not knowing is placed on the individual and the individual is responsible for the exchange of resources (time and money) to acquire requisite stuff (understanding of circuits). Such perspective aligns strongly with an individualist and neoliberal mindset. Notably this can be an oversimplification of a workforce argument. There are instances where educating students with an eye to a particular skillset could be in the interests of the student, empowering them to obtain a job that then turns into a career, with continued education and advancement.
Leading with the goals of supporting individuals and society, education becomes more participatory. It aligns with the notion of building cultural systems, focusing on bringing new members into a community -- and the process is the responsibility of both the learner and the existing members of a community together. This notion of enculturation also notes that our communities and cultures change (and indeed benefit) as new members are brought in to the system. Physics evolves as a field with the more who participate. Such a perspective aligns more with an inclusive and collectively-defined society
Our community has been replete with efforts to improve undergraduate education. Which models of education do they promote / draw from? Which goals do they ultimately serve?
An early but influential posting in this space by Dr. Shirley Malcom provides a perspective … Malcom points out that we will benefit from moving from the programmatic to systematic, from opportunities to fix students to opportunities to fix the systems and include students. Early work, even effective, well-intentioned intervention efforts, often embodied a model of fixing the individuals, providing them with requisite skills to participate in existing structures. Malcom's early call resonates as strongly today as ever … can we build on the assets and strengths of individuals? can we adapt our systems and structures --- to argue for a definition of excellence that centralizes equity and inclusion?
These are my perspectives and only serve as an example for you to consider and externalize yours.
How we enact our professional responsibilities – teaching, research and service will depend upon our perspectives and underpinning definitions and goals of education. They will also help us navigate the challenges and opportunities that face us.
In particular, in DBER we ought to consider some of the grand challenges that face us as a research community as we seek to broaden participation and build a more inclusive, equitable, diverse and just society. These grand challenges we might consider in a future thread.