Adapting to higher education: The identity struggle

Reading Time: 6 minutes

From Cogswell Polytechnical College in San Jose, California, Dr. Deborah Snyder and John Duhring, authors of a new higher education series in advance of their upcoming book, tentatively titled “Old School, New School, No School,” provide a new perspective on what higher education means and how it can be more effectively experienced across the globe. This column also appears in “View from the US.”

This segment focuses on the range of students that arrive at college, many of which may fail and drop out without discovering the true meaning of higher education.

By Deborah Snyder, PhD and John Duhring, Cogswell Polytechnical College, San Jose, California

Library

 

The interplay between students and how they adapt with each other within their physical environment forms the basis for higher education. Think of it as a cultural petri dish where all manner of things are being tried, new perceptions are being explored with colleagues and new endeavors are being put into play. What survives and flourishes, what takes off, brings with it growth. New life forms are generated, of only temporarily. Learning is a byproduct. Students become adapt at playing new roles, working with new colleagues and new tools to affect some outcome together. As entrepreneurship programs take hold around the world, one experienced teacher even describes the accelerated startup as the new business school. 

Peers And Playing With Identity

Long gone are the days of farm children growing up in one room school houses, which were the norm in the late 1800s. Taken in context of industrialization, rural families sought to prepare their children for life beyond the farm, which in those days meant “behind a desk”. The best students would become managers, processing forms and directives. The less academically inclined students would work with their hands.

In the days of the one room school, all ages and skill levels sat together behind desks in rows designed to simulate the working environments they could now aspire to. They were taught manners, how to behave for the new world that was taking shape. They were introduced to books that conveyed information and inspired bright minds.

In those days, there was plenty of free time to play, to pursue interests outside of lessons. Students could associate with each other as they saw fit. They gained their identity within the school, along with their peers. Their goal was not to go to college. The purpose of their education was to be equipped to pursue their careers and interests outside of the school environment.

The one-room school example illustrates a primary pre-requisite for higher education to take place: seeing the world directly. As with Plato’s allegory of the cave and John Seely Brown’s metaphor of white water kayaking, on an individual level, adaptation requires direct observation and a point of view.

Unfortunately, this aspect of education has faded in most school systems. What was once called “show and tell”, in which students are encouraged to speak to their classmates of their experiences, takes so much time away from other activities, the practice hardly exists. Without such direct and public feedback from peers at school, students increasingly measure themselves by the tests, grades and other merit badges that are given out by authority figures. The resulting loss of personal identity is one unintended consequence of so much authoritative oversight without the free play needed to support natural adaptation.

And, this lack of perspective in not limited to the US. As more international students fill class rosters, colleges find many countries rely even more heavily on testing in their school systems. With fewer extra-curricular opportunities to develop real-world observational skills and feedback, students approach higher education without a strong foundation built on years of experience.

Hidden Lives, Hidden Paths

man-person-school-headFor illustration purposes only, let’s develop the character of two vastly different kinds of students who have graduated from high school and are entering college. These personas are intended only to simulate actual behaviors and their consequences when it comes to higher education. There are many others types of students, but the overall message is that students in the lower grades adopt a wide variety of facades in school that can hinder their progress in the future.

On the one hand are the “stars” who can point to their merit badges of test scores, grades and extra-curricular activities. The elite colleges, of course, select mostly star students.  For this persona, let’s call him “Sal”, confidence and spirit make him seem college-ready.

Sal is like the old ideal of a college-bound student, the “well rounded student”. Recently, this kind of student has been replaced by a new ideal for admissions offices: a well-rounded student body. If the college band needs a great piccolo player, the band leader will recruit for that position.  The same goes for the physics department, the football team, etc. The result: star students are sought after to star at the same thing in college that they did in high school.

The Invincibility Cloak

Sal and others like him often cloak their own true personalities with a cloak of invincibility. They can’t show weakness. Students like Sal are the example that have been pointed out to their peers throughout their lives.

Much as they might think otherwise, while Sal might have a clue what he wants out of college, many like him don’t. These students have met the expectations of others, which is admirable. Meeting their own expectations, however, is something new. Students like Sal attack college like they have done at high school, but even with extra-curricular activities and AP courses taught in high schools, higher education doesn’t doesn’t really start until students take a hard look at themselves in the world beyond school.

Sometimes students like Sal make it through college and even find a job without lifting their invincibility cloak. Without a true understanding of what higher education entails, their potential for success is lower simply because they haven’t taken responsibility for their own identity, much like in the famous “Peaked in High School” videos:

The Invisibility Cloak

On the other hand, there is “Mel”. Students like Mel (or their parents) are disappointed by their achievements, or lack thereof. In many cases, the disappointment is not warranted by lack of talent or desire. For Mel, the practical side of doing what is needed to attain something has not been practiced outside of a very constrained set of high school activities. Mel is painfully aware that he seems unable to express himself in a genuine way. Regardless of the compositions he has been submitting for grades over the years, Mel feels hidden, unseen. He sits in the back of the room. He doesn’t volunteer. Something is missing. Students like Mel have donned an invisibility cloak.

Mel knows how to not draw attention to himself. He is skilled at getting “good enough” grades without standing out. Mel is something of a mystery to even friends and family. Yet, he can make it to college with the hopes that his life might improve, or at least his parents may be happy with him if he earns a degree.

Higher Education As A Process, Not A Place

It’s something of a shock to many that overall graduation rates in the US hover around 55%. This means almost half of all students drop out within 6 years. Sal and Mel are both at risk.

Parents and counselors encourage students to “find the right fit” when it comes to choosing where to pursue their college career. The right place might make all the difference. In reality, if a student is recruited for a specific project or joins a team, this might become the lifeline that propels them forward. Peers and play form the basis of identity and change, not mere instruction. The best counselors encourage students to go where their curiosity awakens and they can feel change happening.

Increasingly, colleges are looking more deeply at high rates of attrition. In particular, well over half of first year students drop out. With an average student lifetime of just over two years in many colleges, the efforts to keep the Sals and the Mels in college warrants major efforts in school spirit, housing and food services, along with tutoring, mentoring and counseling assistance. Unfortunately, such enticements do not represent higher education. They do not educe. Treating students as consumers and knowledge as a product has run its course.

Students want to do things, make things and be known for things. To illustrate this clearly, consider that many smaller colleges now field dozens of athletic teams knowing they can attract students who want to play their sport in college but would not make the team at an elite school. The process of dropping the cloak and stepping into the future ends up being what higher education is all about, whether in college or throughout life.

Playing On A Big Stage

nature-person-red-womanThe adaptation required by the college experience, and repeated throughout life, is rooted in each participant’s desire to change, to make a difference and to learn along the way. When the goal is to improve, to perform as a pro, outcomes become tangible. They can be measured. They have consequences. Students who might have developed intricate cloaking techniques must develop new approaches to put themselves in the game. Gaining alignment is no small task for students who have never stepped outside of their self-constructed shell. It’s not enough to talk about it. The famous Nike slogan, “Just Do It”, resonates because it applies to what is often neglected in what we now think of as higher education.

In most colleges today, the “doing” often happens outside the classroom and the academic curriculum. The student has been relegated to “consumer” status. Knowledge is passed along and tested, but not put into play in any meaningful way so as to get real-world feedback.

To activate higher education across a broad population, students must discover things they want to do together. They must play with new identities and find new roles in which they contribute to something that is larger than themselves. What they make of these things, how they bring their knowledge and skills to play on what is in front of them as teams, sets the stage for their adaptation and their success as individuals as well.

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

From Cogswell Polytechnical College in San Jose, California, Dr. Deborah Snyder and John Duhring, authors of a new higher education series in advance of their upcoming book, tentatively titled “Old School, New School, No School,” provide a new perspective on what higher education means and how it can be more effectively experienced across the globe. This column also appears in “View from the US.”

Reading Time: 6 minutes

From Cogswell Polytechnical College in San Jose, California, Dr. Deborah Snyder and John Duhring, authors of a new higher education series in advance of their upcoming book, tentatively titled “Old School, New School, No School,” provide a new perspective on what higher education means and how it can be more effectively experienced across the globe. This column also appears in “View from the US.”

This segment focuses on the range of students that arrive at college, many of which may fail and drop out without discovering the true meaning of higher education.

By Deborah Snyder, PhD and John Duhring, Cogswell Polytechnical College, San Jose, California

Library

 

The interplay between students and how they adapt with each other within their physical environment forms the basis for higher education. Think of it as a cultural petri dish where all manner of things are being tried, new perceptions are being explored with colleagues and new endeavors are being put into play. What survives and flourishes, what takes off, brings with it growth. New life forms are generated, of only temporarily. Learning is a byproduct. Students become adapt at playing new roles, working with new colleagues and new tools to affect some outcome together. As entrepreneurship programs take hold around the world, one experienced teacher even describes the accelerated startup as the new business school. 

Peers And Playing With Identity

Long gone are the days of farm children growing up in one room school houses, which were the norm in the late 1800s. Taken in context of industrialization, rural families sought to prepare their children for life beyond the farm, which in those days meant “behind a desk”. The best students would become managers, processing forms and directives. The less academically inclined students would work with their hands.

In the days of the one room school, all ages and skill levels sat together behind desks in rows designed to simulate the working environments they could now aspire to. They were taught manners, how to behave for the new world that was taking shape. They were introduced to books that conveyed information and inspired bright minds.

In those days, there was plenty of free time to play, to pursue interests outside of lessons. Students could associate with each other as they saw fit. They gained their identity within the school, along with their peers. Their goal was not to go to college. The purpose of their education was to be equipped to pursue their careers and interests outside of the school environment.

The one-room school example illustrates a primary pre-requisite for higher education to take place: seeing the world directly. As with Plato’s allegory of the cave and John Seely Brown’s metaphor of white water kayaking, on an individual level, adaptation requires direct observation and a point of view.

Unfortunately, this aspect of education has faded in most school systems. What was once called “show and tell”, in which students are encouraged to speak to their classmates of their experiences, takes so much time away from other activities, the practice hardly exists. Without such direct and public feedback from peers at school, students increasingly measure themselves by the tests, grades and other merit badges that are given out by authority figures. The resulting loss of personal identity is one unintended consequence of so much authoritative oversight without the free play needed to support natural adaptation.

And, this lack of perspective in not limited to the US. As more international students fill class rosters, colleges find many countries rely even more heavily on testing in their school systems. With fewer extra-curricular opportunities to develop real-world observational skills and feedback, students approach higher education without a strong foundation built on years of experience.

Hidden Lives, Hidden Paths

man-person-school-headFor illustration purposes only, let’s develop the character of two vastly different kinds of students who have graduated from high school and are entering college. These personas are intended only to simulate actual behaviors and their consequences when it comes to higher education. There are many others types of students, but the overall message is that students in the lower grades adopt a wide variety of facades in school that can hinder their progress in the future.

On the one hand are the “stars” who can point to their merit badges of test scores, grades and extra-curricular activities. The elite colleges, of course, select mostly star students.  For this persona, let’s call him “Sal”, confidence and spirit make him seem college-ready.

Sal is like the old ideal of a college-bound student, the “well rounded student”. Recently, this kind of student has been replaced by a new ideal for admissions offices: a well-rounded student body. If the college band needs a great piccolo player, the band leader will recruit for that position.  The same goes for the physics department, the football team, etc. The result: star students are sought after to star at the same thing in college that they did in high school.

The Invincibility Cloak

Sal and others like him often cloak their own true personalities with a cloak of invincibility. They can’t show weakness. Students like Sal are the example that have been pointed out to their peers throughout their lives.

Much as they might think otherwise, while Sal might have a clue what he wants out of college, many like him don’t. These students have met the expectations of others, which is admirable. Meeting their own expectations, however, is something new. Students like Sal attack college like they have done at high school, but even with extra-curricular activities and AP courses taught in high schools, higher education doesn’t doesn’t really start until students take a hard look at themselves in the world beyond school.

Sometimes students like Sal make it through college and even find a job without lifting their invincibility cloak. Without a true understanding of what higher education entails, their potential for success is lower simply because they haven’t taken responsibility for their own identity, much like in the famous “Peaked in High School” videos:

The Invisibility Cloak

On the other hand, there is “Mel”. Students like Mel (or their parents) are disappointed by their achievements, or lack thereof. In many cases, the disappointment is not warranted by lack of talent or desire. For Mel, the practical side of doing what is needed to attain something has not been practiced outside of a very constrained set of high school activities. Mel is painfully aware that he seems unable to express himself in a genuine way. Regardless of the compositions he has been submitting for grades over the years, Mel feels hidden, unseen. He sits in the back of the room. He doesn’t volunteer. Something is missing. Students like Mel have donned an invisibility cloak.

Mel knows how to not draw attention to himself. He is skilled at getting “good enough” grades without standing out. Mel is something of a mystery to even friends and family. Yet, he can make it to college with the hopes that his life might improve, or at least his parents may be happy with him if he earns a degree.

Higher Education As A Process, Not A Place

It’s something of a shock to many that overall graduation rates in the US hover around 55%. This means almost half of all students drop out within 6 years. Sal and Mel are both at risk.

Parents and counselors encourage students to “find the right fit” when it comes to choosing where to pursue their college career. The right place might make all the difference. In reality, if a student is recruited for a specific project or joins a team, this might become the lifeline that propels them forward. Peers and play form the basis of identity and change, not mere instruction. The best counselors encourage students to go where their curiosity awakens and they can feel change happening.

Increasingly, colleges are looking more deeply at high rates of attrition. In particular, well over half of first year students drop out. With an average student lifetime of just over two years in many colleges, the efforts to keep the Sals and the Mels in college warrants major efforts in school spirit, housing and food services, along with tutoring, mentoring and counseling assistance. Unfortunately, such enticements do not represent higher education. They do not educe. Treating students as consumers and knowledge as a product has run its course.

Students want to do things, make things and be known for things. To illustrate this clearly, consider that many smaller colleges now field dozens of athletic teams knowing they can attract students who want to play their sport in college but would not make the team at an elite school. The process of dropping the cloak and stepping into the future ends up being what higher education is all about, whether in college or throughout life.

Playing On A Big Stage

nature-person-red-womanThe adaptation required by the college experience, and repeated throughout life, is rooted in each participant’s desire to change, to make a difference and to learn along the way. When the goal is to improve, to perform as a pro, outcomes become tangible. They can be measured. They have consequences. Students who might have developed intricate cloaking techniques must develop new approaches to put themselves in the game. Gaining alignment is no small task for students who have never stepped outside of their self-constructed shell. It’s not enough to talk about it. The famous Nike slogan, “Just Do It”, resonates because it applies to what is often neglected in what we now think of as higher education.

In most colleges today, the “doing” often happens outside the classroom and the academic curriculum. The student has been relegated to “consumer” status. Knowledge is passed along and tested, but not put into play in any meaningful way so as to get real-world feedback.

To activate higher education across a broad population, students must discover things they want to do together. They must play with new identities and find new roles in which they contribute to something that is larger than themselves. What they make of these things, how they bring their knowledge and skills to play on what is in front of them as teams, sets the stage for their adaptation and their success as individuals as well.

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