A goal for higher ed: “There is magic in our program. Our program changes lives.”

June 24, 2015 at 7:20 am 7 comments

My daughter is enrolled in Georgia’s “Governor’s Honor Program” which started this week.  The program is highly competitive — my daughter filled out multiple applications, wrote essays, and went through two rounds of interviews.  Over 700 high school students from across Georgia attend for four weeks of residential classes on a university campus for free.

At the parent’s orientation, we heard from two former GHP students, the Dean of Student Life, the Dean of Residence Halls, the GHP Program Manager, and the Dean of Instruction.  It’s that last one who really got me.

“You heard from these students, and many other students.  GHP changes lives.  There is magic in our program.

The program sounds remarkable.  No grades, no tests.  The Dean of Instruction said she told the teachers to “give these students learning opportunities beyond what’s in any high school classroom.” Students are only there to learn for learning’s sake.

I was thrilled for my daughter, that she was going to have this experience. I was also thrilled as a teacher.

I want to teach in a program whose leadership says, “There is magic in our program. Our program changes lives.”  Last week, I took my daughter to tour three universities.  Our daughter is the youngest of three, so I’ve attended other prospective student tours at other universities.  I’ve never heard anybody at any of these universities make that kind of claim.

I don’t mean to critique my leadership at Georgia Tech in particular.  When I was the Undergraduate Program Director, I never said anything like that to my teachers or to prospective parents.  I am critical of higher education more broadly. Higher education in America sets goals like preparing students for careers, giving them experiences abroad and in research, giving them options so that they can tailor their program to meet their particular desires, and surrounding them with great fellow students — I’ve heard all of those claims many times on many tours.  I’ve never heard anyone say, “We change lives.”

Rich DeMillo argued in his book Apple to Abelard that higher education institutions need to differentiate from one another.  Offering the same thing in the same way makes it hard to compete with the on-line and for-profit options.  At Georgia Tech, the faculty are frequently told, “We get amazingly smart students.”  We’re told to think about how to tune our education for these super-smart students.  I’ve never been told, “Give these students experiences beyond what they will get in any other program. Create magic. Change their lives.”

What I gained at GHP is a new definition for what higher education should be about. We need to step up our game.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alfredtwo  |  June 24, 2015 at 7:57 am

    How do we get that “magic in our programs” that changes lives?

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  June 24, 2015 at 8:09 am

      I don’t think there’s a single recipe. The critical part is having that as the goal.

  • 3. carpetbomberz  |  June 24, 2015 at 10:18 am

    Agreed, start with the goal. Leave it that open ended and then let the local customizations occur. I think too often the model is copy what you see on campus visits to Ivy League schools. If Harvard has a video wall, we need a video wall, etc.

  • 4. Gary Stager, Ph.D. (@garystager)  |  June 24, 2015 at 11:33 am

    There ARE schools like that and each of us can do our parts to teach without coercion, tests, ranking, and sorting.

    It is quite unfortunate that the only kids who get to enjoy learning for its own sake are the ones privileged enough to crush the competition.

  • 5. Dennis  |  June 24, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL) is a book (the 2012 edition named 40 colleges) and a website (www.ctcl.org) that names 44 US colleges as a place that “changes lives” of their students. (Agnes Scott College (Decatur) is the only one in Georgia.)

    One could argue about the standard for determining if an institution actually changes lives, but it is clear that dozens of institutions have adopted this as a goal. I think it is fair to say that these schools do not attempt to copy the Ivy Leagues.

  • 6. nickfalkner  |  June 24, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Mark, although I would add my normal dash of reckless enthusiasm to encourage us all to strap ourselves to leaky and dangerous rockets of all kinds in our quest for the stars.

    The goal is admirable and, I believe, completely achievable but we have to embrace (a) the requirement for great change in many areas and (b) the necessity to be grand in our vision. A tiny increment on an existing system is not a vision. Being prepared to throw everything in the trash and start again? That’s bold and visionary and it can be both sane and scientific if we use what we already know to define what has to go and what could replace it.

    I’m bold but evidence-based. Glorious visions that stand on clouds alone are far too likely to fail everyone. We have limited resources and we do not want to consume people in our experiments. The educational system already eats people as sacrificial parts, teachers and students alike, to a better system takes stress from people and puts it elsewhere, like any good machine.

    I’ve seen too many programs fall apart under the need to ‘fit in’ or to not be ‘too ambitious’. Worse still is the pull of the familiar – people demanding what they remember as being the educational system they remember, when they dimly remember how they were taught rather than how they learned, forgetting their inspirations and insightful moments in the morass of ribbons, grades and awards for academic compliance.

    If I may, we’ve tried that for many years and the results are… ok… but they’re not magical. “Magic in our program”? Those are words I can fight for.

  • 7. Mike Zamansky (@zamansky)  |  June 24, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    To hearken back to a previous post – we need more babble


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