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Conversations: What's wrong with students today?

Teresa Mathew/Daily
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By Haley Goldberg, Magazine Editor
Published February 12, 2013

LSA Prof. Bruce Conforth and Engineering Prof. Elliot Soloway met at The Michigan Daily newsroom to discuss this question. This is the first in a series of bi-weekly features titled "Conversations," bringing together two, unique individuals — often occupying different campus spheres — to engage in dialogue. Below are excerpts from their 30-minute conversation.

Prof. Bruce Conforth: I completely reject the question, on at least two grounds. First of all, it’s starting with the assumption that there’s something wrong with students. And secondly, it’s based on a comparison. What’s wrong with students compared to what? So I think it’s a faulty question.

Prof. Elliot Soloway: I’ve seen kids ten years ago. You’ve been here for a while, right?

BC: Eleven years.

ES: Eleven years, I’ve been here twenty. And some of the kids ten years ago, I think were more risk-taking, at least in the Engineering context. So I agree that it’s a weird question. But I just feel that the kids today aren’t taking the risks that they did ten years ago. And I don’t know why, but I had the good fortune of having Larry Page (Google co-founder) as a student and Tony Fadell. He did the iPod; he invented the iPod — not Steve Jobs. And these kids and their peers, they were pretty much risk-takers in terms of building things, trying things and I don’t see that anymore.

BC: But is that the student’s fault? And that’s why I raised my objection to the question at the beginning, because I could say I see the same thing … but we have to ask, if students today are less risk-takers, why are they less risk-takers? Is it something inherent in the students, or has something changed in culture that has contributed to them becoming less risk-takers?

ES: I think maybe it’s the culture, as in these kids today are the result of “No Child Left Behind.” These are the kids that went through that kind of education that, in my mind, is very drilled and memorized, and it’s very memorized and “keep the content” as opposed to “invent.” Maybe our K-12 schools have not inculcated the kids with this risk taking kind of culture.

ES: But we gotta do something. I feel like I owe it to them. This is the University of Michigan and for better or worse, it is an elite place. This is one of the special places … so if we’re not going to produce the kids that are going to be the next risk-takers, the next Larry Pages, then who is? And I don’t know how to make them do it.

BC: Well, I don’t know if you can make anyone do anything, but I totally agree with you. And that is our responsibility. I think teaching is a sacred undertaking, and if you’re not going to walk into the classroom and try and make that happen with your students, then you probably shouldn’t be teaching in the first place.

ES: That’s an amazing statement. It’s a sacred undertaking?

BC: I think so. How far into the future will your influence go? How much of a change in the world can you make? If you just reach one of your students in the entire history of your teaching and my teaching, we could reach one student that literally changes the world … Yes, this is a research institution, there’s no question about that. And research is valued highly. But it’s an educational institution, first and foremost. We’re suppose to be educating our students and if we do not educate our students to stay amazed, to be wondering at the world, to be hungry for knowledge, then of course why are they going to bother to take risks? So I really believe it is our sacred undertaking to go into the classroom and try and instill those kinds of ideas and glorious wonderment at the world.

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ES: This online stuff, right? This is just an anathema. Could an online course engender that kind of amazement?

BC: I don’t believe so. I worry about that … All of the technological advances that we’re using and creating are really a proxy for face-to-face interaction.

ES: They are? Yes, they are, because face-to-face is too expensive.

BC: It may be, but there’s something about that face-to-face that that proxy can — at best — only be a proxy. It can never replace the face-to-face interaction. Just like what you and I are doing here right now, we could not do this via e-mail, via a chatroom.

ES: No, it’s about rubbing shoulders. Of all this, we’re so smart and we’ve got all this technology and it’s still about rubbing shoulders.

BC: Yeah, because I’m getting excited just by your body language, and your tone of voice and I can sense the vibration — I know this sounds really, almost metaphysical in kind of a silly way — but there’s something to be said for that excitement that can only take place through direct interaction.

ES: The in-word now is teachers don’t scale. And that’s a code word … that means, teachers don’t scale, so get rid of them. Because there’s not enough of them to handle the millions. That’s frightening. We’re on the record: I believe in five years Eastern Michigan University, Northern Michigan University, Central Michigan University, Western Michigan University — are gone. Five years. They’re gone. The economics are going to dictate it. There might be some programs that they’re keeping, but I think in general those institutions are gone. Because of the costs, the simple costs. But there’s a loss, there’s going to be a loss.

BC: Horrendous. I mean, if that’s true, that’s a horrendous loss, an incalculable loss.

ES: It’s going to happen. I think it’s absolutely inevitable.

BC: What a cheery note.

ES: But we gotta do something though. Because the kids are going to get their education online and they’re going to pay $3,000 instead of $30,000 — because that’s what’s going to happen — but then what we’re talking about and the rubbing of the shoulders, how are we going to get the rubbing of the shoulders?

BC: I don’t see how it could be done because what you’re talking about is the difference between teaching somebody how to make a living as opposed to how to live … learning the facts is easy, but learning how to change as those facts change … literally learning how to live, that can’t ever be taught (online). It’s a difference in two literal types of learning: learning how to make a living and learning how to live.

BC: I think that you can teach any subject in a way that it relates directly to the student … If you’re not making your classes about the students — regardless of what you’re teaching — then you’re failing as a teacher.

ES: It’s all about them. It is about them. It’s right … I mean, the stuff is the stuff.

BC: That’s the perfect way of putting it. The stuff is the stuff, but the class is ultimately about them, what are they going to do with this, how are they going to understand it, breath, live it, eat it, sleep it, understand what it does and why it does what it needs to do.

ES: But we’re more comfortable, I think most of us (teachers), with the stuff.

BC: Because the other part is taking a risk. And there you go back to the original statement. You said the students aren’t risk-takers, maybe we, as teachers, need to be more risk-takers.

ES: That’s good. That’s good. We’re playing it safe, that’s really right. We’re teaching stuff and we’re not teaching about them. It’s a risk, you’re putting yourself out in a funny way. And you don’t want to do that, it’s too much of a risk. You’re right, we’re not modeling risk-taking. In the research world, I feel like I’m modeling it more, because I’ll fail. But in the classroom maybe we’re not taking risks … You have to fail, or else you’re not taking enough of a risk. You can’t be successful all the time. Nobody’s successful all the time.