Take assessment, for example. Students find exams stressful, so we are told to reduce the number of exams. Neither do students like to read, so we are told to assign easier and shorter readings. Students find it hard to concentrate, so we are told to break down lectures into small chunks and intersperse activities in between. Students enjoy media content and are happy to engage with YouTube and social media, so we are told to incorporate more videos and make course material and assessments more creative and interactive. Some students don’t like to speak in class, so we are told to make sure there are myriad ways students can participate without having to actually speak.
Such well-meaning educational initiatives — alongside grade inflation, flexible deadlines, warm language in feedback — deny students access to the type of educational experience that universities were designed for. They short-change students by appealing to their immediate wants and feelings rather than their potential for greatness, their capacity for reason, and their fundamental need to leave university better than when they arrived. The student-centered mindset has led to a dumbing-down of curricula and a constant pressure on educators to motivate students, rather than a pressure on students to take ownership of their own success and failure. This is because it appears mostly to have been adopted without a principled questioning of what a university education is for.
The result is that student-centered education leaves undergraduates in a state of constant busyness but also constant worry about the value of these low-stakes endeavors. Students complete more and more simple and straightforward tasks — worksheets, projects, quizzes and so on — without the opportunity to think about what they are doing or learning. It is no wonder they lack motivation: they are denied the life-affirming pride that derives from achieving something genuinely meaningful and built on hard work. And without critical feedback on the work they do undertake, students are not given the necessary guidance they need to improve. In this sense, meeting students where they are keeps them where they are.
A transformative educational experience is supposed to be the point of a university education. Students deserve opportunities for challenge so that they develop the necessary strength of mind and character to meet the myriad challenges they will inevitably face in the higher-stakes contexts of post-university life. Such strengths will also equip them potentially to rise above their personal and social circumstances and pursue the life they want.Rebekah Wanic and Nina Powell, “The Problem with Student-Centered Education“
I think Wanic and Powell are spot on.
I try to be as reasonable as possible, as clear as possible, as kind as possible, as helpful as possible, as understanding as possible, and as challenging as possible. I am a co-learner in kingdom living, but I’m also experienced and knowledgeable to the degree and in the domains I have been equipped as a disciple of Jesus. I do have authority, but it is rooted in Christ’s authority, to whom all authority belongs.
I also keep in mind that as an instructor in a seminary, I am accountable to Christ, I am not alone in the classroom, Jesus is my Teacher, the Spirit is my advocate and helper, students are my neighbors, brothers, sisters, co-laborers, and partners in the gospel, and that outcomes ultimately belong to God.
I’m still learning how to do my job with excellence. Teaching isn’t easy. Higher education is facing a number of challenges, and having a sound philosophy is but one. Wanic and Powell are right to assert that universities should provide transformational educational experiences. That is my goal as a Christian educator. And I think I can help to create an environment where such experiences can be had up to a point. Threaded throughout, however, there is divine mystery and divine action. Christian education, formation, and the results are ultimately in God’s hands. That’s why teaching, I believe, is an exercise in faith.