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Education is not content delivery

For some reason, educators have bought into the concept of education as content delivery. This is odd, since there is such a backlash against the lecture style of teaching (AKA the sage on the stage). Those who are opposed to lecturing in the classroom simultaneously conceive of education largely as content delivery – think UPS or FedEx, but with knowledge. Thus, online education makes sense, as you are delivering knowledge that can be delivered in multiple streams (discussion board, video, assignments, and so on).

There has been a classic war for many decades between stressing content and stressing skills. Early American education was pretty much all content-oriented, and students memorized endlessly; Catholics could recite the Baltimore catechism. In response, there was a shift towards skills and not content. Since knowledge has proliferated endlessly, why not gain skills instead of content? You can always google the answer, so instead we should learn how to handle the answer. Common core is oriented towards skills, so that students come out with critical thinking and communication abilities but no definitive body of knowledge.

The stress on skills while omitting knowledge is winsome in many ways, but as Stephen Prothero argues in Religious Literacy, it has led to a frightful lack of basic knowledge. After 9/11 we thought Sikhs were Muslims, and most Americans think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Without a working knowledge of history, religion, and literature, we are ignorant of ourselves, regardless of our skills; we still need content so that we understand and know the First Amendment, the Sermon on the Mount, Shakespeare, and the dates of the Civil War. There is a place for content, especially as content forms skills. Without a basic knowledge of the Bible, one cannot gain the skills to interpret a passage from the Bible (the same applies to Shakespeare, history, or Plato).

Lectures are still the best way to gain content and a basic understanding of skills (as you see the instructor handle the material skillfully). We would have to drastically rethink our curriculum if we oriented it all towards discussion and problem solving. Flipping classrooms means depending on students to do their homework, which they have, more often than not, failed to do. Without some form of lecturing, a class such as Religion in America would have to leave a lot of material out. For introductory classes within a discipline, I think some form of regular lecturing is essential. Upper level classes that presume the introductory, 101 courses can move more to discussion and assignments; in an introductory class, though, the students simply don’t have enough familiarity with the material to have a decent discussion with it. Rather than removing the lecture, we need to make them better; a lecture that is dynamic and interesting always has its place.

These issues coalesce around the larger question of the affordability of college. Why go to college at all, if it is expensive and one can gain these skills elsewhere? What is the benefit of college, beyond bragging rights?

I think what we have neglected here in education is the concept of educational experience. I want my students to gain some knowledge and skills, but I also want them to have encountered and experienced the material on a deep level. Experiences stay with us, those random nuggets that get lodged in our minds. Students will forget most of what they learn in the coming years, but they are hopefully left with a sensibility for it. They remember that religion is complex and interesting. They have a sense for why people get very emotionally invested in issues of abortion and Biblical authority. They may remember, for example, that the Civil War was devastating to our nation, bloody and dragged out in ways unanticipated. College is also time for other experiences: meeting diverse people from other places, staying up late talking to dorm-mates, learning to do laundry, getting involved in campus groups, exploring big ideas about life and its meaning. (I know that’s a rosy portrait of American undergraduates, but I’m creating a best case scenario.) Among those memories and experiences are educational ones of grappling with interesting questions, problems, ideas, and people.

If college is about the unique experience of being at college, then it’s not something that can be replicated online. You can learn some skills online, such as the rudiments of a language or programming, but the more refined skills require the experience of being with a knowledgeable, highly trained teacher. I wouldn’t have the memories and senses for the Romantic Poets if I had not studied with the passionate and knowledgable Ed Wilson (or Becky Brown and Danny Lawrence, my high school teachers). I took the class as an elective and thoroughly enjoyed it. I haven't read the Romantic Poets much since then, but I still remember the classroom itself and where I sat, and the bits about vampire goblins in Rossetti and Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, and Wordsworth walking and composing poetry. Without college I wouldn’t have spend time with dear friends, or become a leader in Campus Ministry.

The best thing college instructors can do is to respect and lionize the college experience, which includes the classroom experience. Live, personal encounters with students in the classroom are vital, and it’s something that a virtual classroom can’t deliver as well. It is the old model of the tutor and the student that dates back to the ancient Greeks and remains alive in Oxford and Cambridge (not that we can replicate that model today, but we can reflect that model in our educational relationships of student and teacher, even within a class of students).

When students encounter a teacher who deeply cares about the material, they learn something wonderful. They see what it is like to serve something greater than yourself, and they leave with a respect for the material after having encountered. The web of education is based in relationships that encourage knowledge, skills, and experiences, and not content delivery. I'm not placing something on their doorstep; I'm encouraging an encounter with something that will hopefully shape them in a useful way.

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