Improving Education

Exploring Pathways to Cultivate Human Development

img.alt
The natural world — beyond the classroom — offers countless surprising and enlivening moments of discovery and learning.

I’m a counselor by temperament and by training. It’s my primary career, the practice to which I am most devoted and for which I have the longest, deepest experience. Counseling will always be my primary vocation. But I am also an educator. I’ve taught counseling, of course, but also creative writing, psychology, education — a wide range of subjects in the Humanities and Social Sciences. I’ve also taught at quite a few different institutions, both traditional and nontraditional, and in several countries. So, I feel that I have a broad perspective on education and its challenges.

I focus on those challenges in my educational writing and consulting. I am, it’s fair to say, deeply and persistently critical of mainstream post-secondary education (a system I work in every day). Traditional education has, in my view, fundamentally failed to live up to its ethical responsibility for the cultivation of young people. That sounds harsh, but it’s a view that someone like me — a counselor, focused on person-centered wellbeing and human development — cannot escape. It is a perspective arrived at naturally in the course of doing something that counselors do: talk to the people you work with. In education, this means talking to students; and when you talk to students, the avalanche of disappointment, alienation, disaffection, and cynicism come tumbling out. The sense of betrayal by educators, the indifference of the educational system, the paternalism and forced compliance — all these and more are fragments of a vast picture that learners describe when you get authentically curious about how they feel.

And that picture is both sad and troubling. At the moment of their lives in which true mentorship is most essential, at the juncture where purpose and meaning are most crucial, at the crossroads where an adult human life takes flight, young learners need a great deal of dedicated, personal help. And often they do not receive it. Instead they are subject to an educational landscape that is structured primarily for the educators, not the learners. Traditional educators are experts in their fields, they often have research initiatives underway, and they are positioned within a group of like-minded peers at other like-minded institutions. In such a scenario, the primary focus is the academic discipline and its keepers. Most of the kinds of educators I’m describing don’t think about the wellbeing of students much (at least, that’s how it seems to most students). Traditionalists often view themselves as gatekeepers to a privileged world of knowledge. Students must earn their place in that world by way of the rites and trials established by the ancestors — this all sounds very medieval and mythological, and it largely is. In this model of education, the core role of students is to carry on the existing tradition — either by flowing through its ranks or becoming one of the initiated keepers.

But there are those who feel the conflict between what exists and what might be healthier. In my work I come across many dedicated educators who do focus on students, who do think about wellbeing, who are committed to person-centered learning environments. But most of them are also still committed to the medieval machinery of rote lectures (a practice now corroded even further by the mindlessness of Powerpoint slides), traditional exams, and grades. The leap to what might work better, the heresy of questioning the hallowed practices, is a step too far. And so, even forward-thinking educators are caught in fossilized traditions, trying to forge their way but hidebound by a system that offers no real growth or change — indeed, that repudiates it.

Perhaps this portrait of traditional education sounds excessively critical. Post-secondary educators in particular tend to bristle at the idea that they enshrine outdated and ineffective methods. They point to improvements in technology and communications; they extol online learning and similar modern innovations. From their point of view, they are doing a fantastic job — of teaching. But does this teaching bear any necessary resemblance to what students are learning? Students say not. They say that much of what they do in post-secondary education is pointless or purely instrumental. Not meaningful, not purposeful, not deeply engaging. And, to a large extent, I empathize with the students, because (almost) every time I walk down the halls of a post-secondary institution I see precisely the same thing: instructors at the front, with Powerpoint slides; students at desks, silent. One person talking the whole time. No authentic engagement, no real interaction, no attentiveness to the group dynamic.

This is a counselor’s point of view — my point of view, as a counselor who specializes in group therapy — and it is entirely at odds with how mainstream educators think about their work. They tend to be enthusiastic about assessment, learning outcomes, ‘covering the curriculum,’ and similar themes that are entirely about what they do. Their models and practices almost always arise from educators talking to one another and deciding, on their own, what would be best for students. Students are not consulted on the question of whether those learning outcomes are appropriate to their individual development as learners, or whether the curriculum is sufficiently enlivening to spark deep connections and meaning for students. Certainly students have no role — and should have no role, according to the mainstream educator — in the development of curriculum, in the creation of classroom experiences, in the process of assessment. And yet, of course, the only person in this dynamic who can truly decide what they have (or have not) learned is the student, who has essentially no voice in this machinery of education.

So, for me, mainstream education feels a bit like a family therapy process in which the parents are determined to make all the decisions for the kids. Sure, the parents feel that they are best equipped to make the decisions. But the voices of the kids matter, and bad things happen if you don’t listen to them. When I see the number of undergraduates who are struggling with their mental health, who are overwhelmed and overburdened, who feel that a university education is good preparation for university but not for life — when I see all these things, I start to feel that bad things are happening. Is this the best we can do?

But how might we make things better? It’s not a simple matter to train content experts in group facilitation. Asking traditional educators to pivot their approaches to include mentorship, address wellbeing, and cultivate emotional intelligence would be a disaster — would, in fact, make things much worse than they are now. The facilitation of human development requires a vast skill set that few people possess. But some educators have begun to make the shift: the rebels who have ventured out on their own odysseys beyond classrooms, grades, exams, and the machinery of the old world. I have met many of them in the context of my own educational projects. And what I hear, from the rebels, is that they are tired, overwhelmed, and isolated. They’ve begun to question whether they can sustain the drive to continue defying the juggernaut. They are inspiring, creative, wonderful people — and they are struggling. I feel great empathy for the rebels — after all, I’ve become one of them without explicitly trying to — and I support and encourage them when I can. But it’s a herculean task, changing education. Perhaps it’s quixotic.

As I said, I talk to students. They are the best guides in helping to shape the possible forms of education. It’s strange to reflect that in any other field focused on people — health care, business, social services — the obvious first and best step is to talk to the constituents, the stakeholders, the people — but in education, this simply does not happen in any meaningful way. If it did, the traditional system would be dismantled overnight. But until it can be dismantled and rebuilt, students point the way to what can be accomplished right now: small changes, wrought by individual groups of educators and learners.

I have participated in a number of small experiments to change post-secondary education. The resources here are gathered from my own classroom and from the contributions of many students who are courageous enough to take significant educational risks. They have kept going, even when I have felt like giving up, and together we’ve managed to cultivate meaningful learning projects. A few of these projects are gathered here (see the links below), as educational resources for those who seek to try something new.

hiker-distance.jpeg
Ross Laird

Ross Laird, PhD RCC

Clinical Consultant, Author, Educator

My work focuses on the interconnected themes of mental health, trauma, addictions, and creativity. I provide clinical consulting, professional development services, and community education for a wide range of institutions and organizations.