Teaching Is Easy, Learning Is Hard

06/12/2015 12:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

If I was going to summarize the fundamental problem in higher education in one phrase, I'd say that teaching is easy, but learning is hard.

We by now can very effectively transfer information to students. In fact, the entire history of education and educational reform can be thought of as attempts to make that transfer process more efficient and effective. Lecturing. Textbooks. Correspondence courses. The filmstrip. Educational videos. Computers. MOOCs. Each and every one was seen as a breakthrough that would transform education and how students would learn. All they really did, though, was transform how teachers would teach.

Paulo Freire called this "banking education," where "education thus becomes an act of depositing" information into students just like we deposit cash into our bank accounts. The problem is that if this is all that education is, then we as educators might as well just give up.

And in fact that is more or less what is happening as higher education implodes. For if education is simply the transfer of information to students, then there are lots and lots of fairly cheap ways to do this and colleges and universities are finding creative and seemingly legitimate ways to do so. This is called the "unbundling" of faculty work whereby someone creates the curriculum, someone else delivers it, and someone else grades the students' work. While this may be efficient and perhaps even effective, it assumes that the teaching and learning process is simple and direct. One might think about this as the subprime mortgage crisis of higher education. It all sounds legit until everything crashes.

And trust me, it will crash. For sooner or later we will come to our senses and remember that teaching is easy, yet learning is hard. That education is actually the transformation of knowledge rather than the transfer of information. We know this intuitively as we think about a quality education, and in fact educational research has demonstrated again and again that our current model of "stand and deliver" education is broken.

The problem is that redesigning our educational models to actually support student learning and growth is hard. It requires rethinking how we teach courses, how we motivate students, and how we think of the role of the university. Don't get me wrong. We know most of the answers to this. We talk about this as high impact practices, a cognitive apprenticeship, backwards design, the flipped classroom, authentic learning, student engagement, etc. etc. etc.

This is thus a question of implementation. Which is a question about budgets; about political will; about strategy; about priorities. I would argue that we would never want our colleges and universities to become training grounds for an apprenticeship into Wikipedia; we want them to embody an apprenticeship into democracy.

Yet this is much easier said than done. But we must at least say it. For if we don't, we will go down the seemingly easy road. And that check will bounce; for we will find our bank accounts empty.