Innovation in Education
April 2, 2023
THE CURRENT STATE OF EDUCATION:
The current predominant system of higher education in the United States emerged during America’s Industrial Age of the late 1800s. Often referred to as the Humboldtian model of education, it is a highly specialized, research-oriented model that originated in Germany and was first introduced in the United States at the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University. The core idea of this model is to prioritize research and specialization, with the underlying belief, borrowed from the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age, being that “progress” and “industrialization” could bring about a utopian state and worldwide prosperity.
In this model, the universities' job became providing a) enough skilled laborers to keep America’s booming industrial economy running and b) the resources and training necessary for professors and specialists to keep making advancements for the sake of society. The majority of universities became the equivalent of factories - just human ones, and most of today’s universities are a product of this system.
Simply put, today’s student goes to college to get a job and find their place in the economy.
You might be thinking, “Wait. What’s wrong with that”?
Nothing, inherently, except that people aren’t jobs; they are people—human beings, not just human doings. A job is an integral part of one’s life, but it is not one’s life. When it chose to focus on job training and specialization, the newly introduced model of education neglected some of the very things that make us human: goodness, truth, beauty, and virtue.
If you don’t believe this, you must reckon with the fact that, in most of today’s university contexts, the liberal arts (which were taught in the pursuit of goodness, truth, beauty, and virtue) have been watered down to “general education” classes to be breezed through or tested out of on the way to a major (skills training).
The universities of old emphasized the liberal arts because they knew that they were essential to forming one’s character. They emphasized molding the leaders of tomorrow, and they did that by aiming to produce wise, virtuous people - not just workers.
Darrow Miller, writer and co-founder of Disciple Nations, writes: ‘The modern world asks the pragmatic questions, “Will it work''? instead of “Is it true?”; “Is it valuable?” instead of “Is it good?”; and “Is it functional?” instead of “Is it beautiful?”. In the midst of material wealth, the West today is morally, spiritually and aesthetically bankrupt because we have abandoned God and the beauty of his holiness.”’ The result? The promised utopian state, which was to be brought about by progress and industrialization, has not arrived. How could it have without goodness, truth, and beauty? How could it when men became skilled, but not virtuous?
After a long and bloody 20th century, it's become clear that technological advancements and booming economics alone aren’t enough to produce flourishing - in individuals or society.
We must add to these facts another: the world is changing. We are no longer in the industrial age, but the information age.
Many modern industries are beginning to recognize that traditional four-year degree programs may not even be the most effective way to prepare students for success in the marketplace. Almost all of the trades are best learned by direct, hands-on experience. In the tech industry, large, multinational companies such as Google and Apple, recognizing that college classrooms cannot keep up with the pace of change, have begun facilitating low-cost, online learning that will prepare students for entry into the industry - and they hire based on competency. They aren’t the only ones to see it - almost all the technology giants now hire based on experience and proven skill over a four-year degree.
The federal government, which, at a headcount of over 2.1 million, is the nation’s largest employer, has also recognized the fact that skills and relevant experience are better indicators of success in the workplace than where you got your degree. In 2020, President Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to prioritize skills and experience over degrees when it comes to hiring.
Not only is the marketplace better at skill training than the traditional classroom, but it would also prefer for its employees to enter the workforce without college debt. The student loan debt for the average college graduate hovers around $37,000, forcing recent graduates, without much experience under their belt, to expect higher wages to help cover their monthly debt payments, a frustrating notion for many employers.
Industry after industry and company after company has evolved and innovated to meet the demands of a new age, and those that have not have been disrupted or become extinct altogether. Ironically, though, higher education remains the same. Large classrooms, lectures, standardized tests, tenured professors, and Humboldtian methodologies still populate the hallways of the traditional university. Accreditation agencies, designed to protect consumers and standardize education, have stifled innovation for most higher education institutions instead of advancing the pursuit of excellence and new, more effective methodologies.
So, what is to be done? Is the concept of college to be thrown out as the proverbial baby with the bathwater? We don’t believe so, as the need for young people to go on the critical journey into adulthood that includes character formation, maturation, and skills training will not go away.
But maybe it’s time to rethink the concept.
IT’S TIME FOR INNOVATION
The COVID-19 pandemic brought many of these issues to the surface for the world to see, causing many to reconsider our commitment to the current system. The world is experiencing an unprecedented openness to innovation in educational theory, methods, and practices and now is the time for higher education to undergo the same kind of innovation most other modern industries have gone through.
Following are some suggestions from our methodologies here at Excel College and they are expounded upon below.
Excel College operates according to at least five central pedagogical convictions: (1) Education should focus on forming the whole person. (2) Education should unify beliefs and practices. (3) Education should encourage skill development through hands-on experience. (4) Education should be adaptable and integrative. (5) Education should be done debt free.
Education Should Focus on Forming the Whole Person
Education should do more than attain cognitive knowledge or merely accumulate information, data, and facts. Instead, it should seek to develop the whole person and produce adults capable of flourishing intellectually, spiritually, practically, professionally and missionally. Adults who are wise, mature, and productive - not just productive. In short, education should be holistic. In order for that to happen, faculty should model this and should work as a team in and out of the classroom. They should be both disciplers and liberal artists, providing students with opportunities to gain context, grasp meaning, and generate habits of integrous living that align belief with action. Instead of having to know the ins and outs of specific specialties, teachers at Excel College are generalists, able to lead students to discovery in every meaningful area of life and point them to the appropriate contexts for learning. They know that the liberal arts are best navigated in the classroom, skills are best developed in the marketplace, and maturity and responsibility are best cultivated in the home. So, at Excel, students live in homes, not dorms. They cook, clean, and maintain a home. They work actual jobs in the local marketplace to help them develop work ethic and skills while paying for school, and they journey together through a unified version of the liberal arts that leads them to discover the nature of God’s reality.
Education Should Unify Beliefs and Practice
Thus, for the Christian schools, as Calvin University philosophy professor James K. A. Smith puts it, “being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines, and beliefs into your head to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly—who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.” This requires a pedagogy “that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and 'aim' our love toward the kingdom of God.” This unification of right beliefs (orthodoxy) with right practice (orthopraxis) is balanced appropriately through the right passion (orthopathy) for God and all within His created world.
Education Should Encourage Skill Development Through Hands-On Experience
In many cases, the modern classroom is the least efficient and most expensive way to learn a skill, especially considering the ease with which people have access to almost any information at their fingertips. As a result, students are beginning to recognize the value of acquiring practical expertise as an apprentice under the oversight of an experienced practitioner. This is not a new concept and was, in fact, the primary method of skill development up until the Industrial revolution. An institution of higher education should enable students to secure market-ready skills, market-relevant experience, and a market-rate wage through quality apprenticeship programs as an intrinsic component of their educational career. Such an apprenticeship program allows students to get training from experts actually working in the field while building a resume and developing a network that will serve them long after graduation. While at Excel College, students get hands-on experience in the field of their choice through apprenticeships, internships, or independent research study.
Education Should be Adaptable and Integrative
Each student is unique, so a new model of education must be adaptable, integrative, and play nice with others. For example, written training and standardized methodologies may not be the best for training a mechanic or a graphic designer, but in fields such as medicine and engineering, standardized ways of training and measuring competency are paramount! At Excel, we help students take advantage of other educational systems and methodologies that are the best fit for them. Excel students can fully customize their Practicum and gain the skills needed to succeed in the marketplace through relevant apprenticeships, internal faculty, and programming, or external courses and certificates such as online training (see Google’s Coursera tracks for an example); and, where “traditional pathways” are the best way for a student to achieve their goals (i.e., in fields such as medicine, engineering, law, etc.) Excel partners with other institutions so that, while they finish their Excel bachelor’s degree, they can simultaneously graduate through dual enrollment with a degree issued independently by partner institutions
Education Should Be Done Debt Free
Student loan debt, which impacts the average American more than both auto loans and credit card debt, has grown to over $1.6 trillion in recent years and is second only to mortgages as far as debt burden on the consumer. That should not be! If college is to fulfill its mandate of preparing students for a wise, mature, and productive life in society and the marketplace, it must graduate them debt free. A good education doesn’t have to be cheap, but it must be attainable. History shows that whenever debt is introduced into an industry, prices only rise. We must develop models that send students into the world without financial baggage weighing them down from the very beginning. At Excel College, we’ve adopted an “it takes a village” concept, where students, parents, and the college all partner to ensure that the student graduates debt free.
It’s time for innovation in the industry of higher education. The old model, built during the industrial age, served its purpose, but America is ready for something new: an institution that will teach students to build a life - not just make a living.
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