10/13/2014 02:18 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

Malala Yousafzai & Classroom Attendance

"We don't learn the importance of anything until it is snatched from our hands."
Malala Yousafzai, "The Daily Show," October 8, 2013

Malala Yousafzai, the courageous and tireless champion for the rights of women and girls throughout the world to access quality education, has never swerved from her message even after the Taliban in her Pakistani town hijacked her school bus and pummeled bullets into her skull critically wounding her at the young age of 14.

The "it" to which this remarkable young woman refers in her quote above denotes not her life per se, as one might expect, but rather, represents "education" in the formal as well as the informal sense. Today Malala's resolve shines ever brighter as she knows full well the consequences of fighting brutal patriarchal oppression. More importantly, though, she recognizes that women's equality and their very lives depend upon and demand educational access and equity. Malala quite deservedly was chosen as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize of 2014.

Malala's remarkable story ruminates in my mind as I contemplate the process with students in my undergraduate Educational Psychology course. I tried as best I could - given the enormous size of this course of over 300 students, sitting in fixed-seated arranged rows, who were to take on-line and in-class "objective" quizzes and examinations, and where 10% of the course grade was allotted to mere classroom attendance - to connect my educational philosophy with the realities and limitations arising from the organization of the course. The most I could possibly hope for amounted to mere reform as opposed to true transformational change.

My reform efforts included suspending taking attendance, previously recorded by students' use of an in-class electronic clicker (iClicker) system; encouraging students to form and work in out-of-class study groups for a deeper and fuller understanding and appreciation of the course material; granting students the option of joining with one other class member in working within cooperative partnerships to take all in-class examinations; and the suspension of classroom monitors who had in semesters past circulated throughout the room during examinations to inhibit cheating behaviors. I actually gave students the option of taking examinations outside the classroom in a quieter place anywhere they chose.

The primary change I made was in the pedagogic underpinnings of the course. Previously, students were to read basically a chapter per week in the course textbook. Past instructors created a PowerPoint from a rudimentary template of each chapter provided by the textbook publisher, and they stood in front of the students reading from these PowerPoints. Since instructors chose not to upload these presentations onto the course on-line Moodle system, often students sat rather rigidly at their fixed desks taking notes.

For me to maintain any semblance of personal and professional integrity, I simply could not, no, would not abide by this "banking system" of education. I, therefore, informed students they were to take more responsibility in their learning, possibly somewhat more than in any of their other courses. I prepared PowerPoints, actually much more extensive, deeper, and broader than some past instructors' presentations, and I uploaded these onto our online system for students to view and use. I suggested to students that during their reading of the chapters and the PowerPoints, they were to write down all questions and bring these to my attention for class discussion.

I then organized our in-class sessions as if they were small seminar-like critical discussions. I selected some of the most important concepts from the individual chapters, explained them in some detail, supplemented these with examples and situations that connected to and amplified them, and facilitated in-class conversations.

Soon after I implemented this procedure, I received emailed compliments from a number of students. Some representative examples include:

"I just wanted to let you know how I have enjoyed your lectures that are not the mundane traditional Powerpoint-based lectures"; "I feel like I have incentive to come to your class in the hopes of learning something new as I find you to be a very compelling teacher"; "I want to tell you that I think you are a great professor, and you have made me think A LOT about my education this semester. Thank you for that"; "I wanted to thank you for having such an interesting class today!"; "Thank you so much for treating us like adults!"

So Why Relatively Small Attendance Rates?

As soon as I ceased taking roll, most students no longer attended class sessions. I sent out an email message asking students why many do not come to class. Their responses include:

"Since you are not going to go over your PowerPoints in depth in class, and because you post them online, there's no reason for me to come to class"; "I learn better on my own, and I only come to classes when it is required"; "The tests usually only cover the textbook and the PowerPoints, so I don't need to attend the classes."

Recently, a student came to class to turn in an extra credit assignment: a large poster graphic of an educational psychology concept. When I asked the student to bring it back at the next class session because I would not be going to my office following class, and the poster might get damaged if I took it to another university where I was invited that evening as a guest speaker. At this point, the student smiled and said, "Sure, no problem," and then immediately turned around and walked quickly out the door. I simply could not grasp why a student would came to class only to give me an extra credit assignment, and then leave just as class was to begin.

"No Child Left Behind" or "No Child Left Untested"

While there have always been familial and social pressures to perform academically, and while some people have always attempted to get or attain something with the least energy expenditure, I would ask what effects has our age of "No Child Left Behind," an age of standardization, corporatization, globalization, privatization, and deregulation of the business, banking, and corporate sectors have on learning?

Policy makers initially instituted standardized curriculum and testing to gauge students' progress, but this policy, unfortunately, has metastasized into benchmarks for student advancement through the levels of education, for teacher accountability, as well as criteria for school funding from the government.

According to the so-called "Allocation Theory" of education, schooling has turned into a status competition, which confers success on some and failure on others. Our schools have morphed into assembly-line factories transforming students into workers, and then sorting these workers into jobs commanded by industry and business. In so doing, educational institutions legitimize and maintain the social order (read as the status quo). Schools drive individuals to fill certain roles or positions in society, which are not always based on the individuals' talents or interests.

Of course, having the skills to obtain a good job is extremely important. I do not debate that. I must ask, however, where has the love of learning for the sake of learning gone in some of our students? Oh, we see a brilliant flame of inquisitiveness in young children, but typically by the age of seven, or eight, or nine, it seems to wane. By middle and then senior high, the flame often flickers. Often when students enter university, for some, time has since past for us to assist them in rekindling any remaining embers. For some, though, the fire remains, and for others, I believe it is never too late to reignite that spark that can ultimately shine brightly once again.

Will students as individuals and we as a country have to be threatened with our education being taken from us to understand the value of learning for the sake of learning, and learning for the sake of knowing ourselves and our world at a deeper level, rather than simply finding a well-paying job?

We would do well to learn the remarkable lessons taught to us by my teacher and my hero: Malala Yousafzai.