The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet. — Aristotle
The problem with education today is that praxis, the hands-on, the actual practice, is often ignored in the classroom, especially in higher education. Instead, we embrace theories in the classroom, and not much more, over praxis. If institutions of higher learning want to remain relevant, they will need to bring praxis back into the fold.
I am reminded of a recent conversation with someone close to me who has experienced the decline of higher education in the United States. He mentioned a coworker, who had several IT certificates from a reputable college, was unable to fashion and/or troubleshoot basic Ethernet cables. The person I talked with works in wireless networking, particularly wireless Internet service. This is one of many examples where our educational systems are failing those who are going out into the larger world outside of academia. Although I agree that theory is important, as it gives structure to praxis, praxis shouldn’t be ignored like it is in our classrooms.
Another example of this comes from my own experiences at a local community college, where group work, hands-on work, and so on, have been largely ignored by my colleagues. I don’t blame them. Projects are a pain in the ass. Projects, especially semester-long ones, require serious coordination, drive, and time. Nevertheless, in my ENGL 1120 courses, I have integrated group work to try to get students to work together and to have hands-on experiences, applying what they’ve learned in theory in the real material world.
The problem with theory-based education is that it lacks the application of said knowledge in the material world. Students spin their wheels. They learn things they only forget, which they believe to be useless. In other words, we are facing a serious problem in our education system here in the United States. We need to integrate praxis, in order to ensure that students are constantly applying what they’ve learned, so they don’t lose knowledge. It’s all right if they reject theory, but they need to know why they are rejecting theory they’ve learned. For example, I reject a good deal of pedagogical theory due to its inability to account for larger classrooms, fewer resources, and lackadaisical support for teachers in their classrooms. I arrived at this rejection not through learning and consuming more theory, but, rather, through praxis, through teaching itself.
How do we overcome the praxis deficit?
That is a good deal more complicated, but I believe I have one of many (many) answers to the problem ahead of higher education, or any educational institution for that matter.
Higher education needs to espouse what I am calling a hackercation. This comes to me from my experiences with hackerspaces, maker labs, discovery labs, innovation labs, and discovery sandboxes. In other words, I am arguing that colleges, universities, and even public schools like high schools need to develop spaces where students can learn through discovery, networking, and collective goals.
For example, a college might encourage students to pursue robotics by bringing teams together with varied experiences: programmers, mechanical engineers, welders, scientists, etc. These groups would then be given a task to tackle: e.g., building a battlebot. This battlebot would be built in stages, allowing students to learn about programming/coding, manufacturing, robotics, and product design and testing. Students, through hackercation, would develop something they could use as evidence of their experiences, their knowledge, and their passions. At the end of the year or semester, students then face off in an epic battle of battlebots, with trophies and other prizes awaiting those who perform well.
Some Fundamentals of a Hackercation:
- Facilitators or instructors are co-learners, helping hands, and advice-givers, nothing more.
- Students lead in these educational environments.
- Students tackle theory and praxis in a learning environment that is open and with few restrictions.
- Safety and ethical behavior are established at the beginning, much like traditional laboratories.
- Students must have access to all facets of the hackercation space. In other words, it cannot be limited to X number of students.
- A goal must be kept in mind. These goals offer special incentives for those who accomplish them. Moreover, those who win the contests at the end of the semester or academic year are given prizes, trophies, and well-earned publicity.
- The learning space is a safe place for learning, growing, and networking.
- Learning is self-paced.