The Impending Death of Traditional Education: When Push Comes to Pull

Formal education is past it's "best before" date. It's time is over- it's an anachronism. So let's acknowledge the problems of past practice so that we can move forward and reinvent the learning process to reflect 21st Century realities.

This is first of a multi-part post dealing with the 21st Century transformation of animation education. Social networking, information technologies and distributed global production have dramatically altered and shaped the way we connect and the way we work. They are also changing the way we learn.

Sad to say, today’s colleges, universities and many private institutions are dramatically outdated when it comes to providing contemporary learning experiences and environments that adequately prepare graduates for the realities they will face in the future. In short – formal instruction is badly broken.  Too many schools are deeply routed in19th and 20th Century practices based on antiquated and outmoded industrial models.  Transformative learning is routinely hampered by pedagogical traditions, administrative intransigence, academic politics, poor organization and a serious failure to evolve.  Their training methods are frequently out of date, over-regulated and lacking in any form of consistently applied core competency standards.  Many actually often stifle creative experimentation and reject new learning methods, playing it “safe” so that the past is perpetuated rather than regularly replaced and updated with superior approaches and improved learning techniques..

Now, I’ve worked in some of the “best” universities and colleges and I’ve experienced some of the worst. I’ve been a lecturer, professor, coordinator, department head, chair, administrator, program founder, researcher and consultant in numerous private and public sector institutions around the world over the past four decades.  Yet even in the best I fail to see serious reflection and thought-provoking debate about current academic structures and practices. Seldom do I hear about serious efforts and new initiatives to reinvent and transform the learning process by designing and implementing new paradigms for educational excellence. 

As for the current dilemma in universities, collages, schools and institutions, I can point to a wide variety of problems that damage effective learning, suppress change and stifle progress.  Drawn from my own experiences (work experiences, conversations with teachers and students, public and private blogs, conferences and numerous site visits around the globe) here are some of my most disturbing recollections and observations.  I respectfully suggest they are applicable in some form to the majority of today’s post-secondary educational communities.

All to often, academic regulations stifle creativity and innovation because they appear too risky and might lead to the perception of failure. Replication of past practice and success is perceived as safer than risking disappointment and transitional disorder by trying something new and untested. I have bitter news – the world is changing and tweeking the old is not the answer.

Historically, antiquated academic structures hamper the introduction of new methods of teaching and learning.   They frequently impose illogical restrictions on program and curriculum design and organization, introducing irrelevant compulsory subjects, semester constraints and outdated practices that do nothing to engage students in contemporary experience or mirror professional practices.  It’s not a matter of saying “Ah! But we’re SO successful!” but rather of saying “Now, how can we improve?”

Class timetables often hinder the intrinsic rhythms of learning as if teaching a particular topic at a specific time and place is a natural and acceptable learning methodology all the while ignoring the fact that students learn in a multitude of different styles and with varied dynamics.

The structure of weekly assignments in several subjects is inconsistent with intense production practices that demand daily review, assessment and critique.  Students don’t have the chance to iterate and perfect exercises before moving on to the next one.   I have frequently discovered that failure to provide considered and useful feedback is all too common. Think digital dailies.  Learners must be able to demonstrate mastery of a concept before moving on to the next one yet the lockstep chronology of weekly classes often precludes it.

Programs are often designed with a framework that emphasizes semester-by -semester progression through the program with limited options for personal direction and/or specialization.   Unfortunately, and all too often, there is little coordination across the curriculum leading to unnecessary duplication, out of sequence topics, unhealthy competition among courses for student attention and uneven workloads that lead to conflicting demands on student’s time and effort.

All this could be avoided with good coordination and solid collaboration. 

In addition, I have seen the deleterious result of variations in faculty experience and teaching methods around the world and even within institutions. Faculty fail to turn up to class, are inadequately prepared and use poor teaching practices: well-qualified and industrially experienced faculty who are unable or unwilling to teach effectively: highly experienced and excellent instructors who cannot do their best work within the academically restrictive and often illogical confines of arbitrary, restrictive and uncreative academic policies and procedures.

I’ve seen programs housed in substandard facilities with no technical support, outdated equipment and lackluster administration. I’ve seen barren lecture halls, cold classrooms and labs so crowded there’s hardly room to breathe.  I’ve seen universities with advanced equipment and high-end facilities but little or no expertise in their use.  I’ve seen national university policies that force recruitment of students on the basis of their date of manufacture and standardized tests rather than any innate skill, aptitude or talent for an artistic career.  I could tell you many horror stories but there isn’t space.

Failure to develop and sustain a combination of excellent program design, well trained and expert personnel, and a safe and creative psychological and physical environment can often be placed as the doorstep of those at the top. Sometimes, programs are controlled by administrators with little or no domain experience; no empathy for those who work in creative activities nor the capacity to trust their faculty. Some fail to recognize the critical importance of their employee’s need for continued professional practice and personal development. Some administrators are more concerned with their own careers, personal profile and institutional politics. Some even create a toxic environment.

It would be a serious mistake to think we can correct these problems simply by introducing new equipment, updating software and adding a few social network technologies without fundamentally restructuring the learning process. In an age of constant disruptive innovation, we need to educate students for jobs that don’t exist yet, as well as for the escalating change that demands of them solid communication skills, global and enterprise-wide collaboration and creative problem solving in addition to their specific domain expertise. Self-perpetuating retrograde academic practices and a traditional academic mindset are not the answer.

The word educate comes from the latin root “educare” meaning “to lead forth”.   Unless formal education “leads forth” and changes dramatically, it’s time is over – it’s past. I think it’s well past its “best before” date. The overwhelming demand for revolution will come from the clients – learners of all types who want high quality, relevant, personalized, professional education where and when it’s convenient for them.  Whether in school or in production nobody want to wait for urgent knowledge, relevant techniques and useful advise to solve problems and move ahead with the task in hand.  Academic certification does not guarantee success.

It’s time to move on, to be brave. It’s time to let go: retain the best of traditional learning methods but create new learning paradigms that respect and respond to the immediate and evolving needs of each and every learner. So let's acknowledge the problems of past practice so that we can move forward and reinvent the learning process to reflect 21st Century realities. That’s what creative transformation is all about.

Hopefully this will stir up some controversy – I welcome your comments!

P.S. I’m amazed to see students survive all of this. With the best teachers and supportive mentors, and largely through their own intestinal fortitude and collaborative peer-to-peer mentoring, a few manage to rise to the top of the profession and many go on to lead incredibly creative lives and careers. 

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