Changing the way we teach at higher education. Is it too late?

Long story short, I think it’s never too late.

Now, long story long, it’s probably not the best time to start changing it.

The past week I’ve been reading Creative Schools by Sir Ken Robinson, and has inspired me to reflect about higher education (where I’ve been working for the past two years). I have an Engineering degree on Computer Science and I love being part of the university I graduated from as a professor now.

For the past decade the education revolution has been a repetitive topic here in my country (Uruguay), but things have not improved as drastically as we need them to, despite the fact that everyone is talking about it. Specially at primary school and high-school level.

Now I like to consider myself an educator, and I work at a University. So the question I ask myself is: is it too late for me to change anything in the place I am right now?


Last semester (Aug-Nov ’15) I worked on a pilot experience called MEH at the University with senior students from CS Engineering. We did team teaching, and a project-based course, in which we wanted to help students develop the now called “4Cs” skills (communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking). It was a very successful and pleasant experience for both the students and the professors.

In that course, the students really noticed that it was different from the others. The concept of the class was being a company. We worked and made decisions as a team. The latter was particularly interesting. At the beginning some of them felt guilty of making some decision, despite being what they wanted. But they got used to it after some weeks. The class was definitely not normal for them. It was an exception.

An this is what I want to emphasize.

It was unusual that a group of professors played games on class.

It was unusual to do things they wanted to do.

It was not normal to say “we’ll leave now and continue at home”, and being OK.

Or having a bottle of tea and glasses for everyone to drink at class.

We played some games just for the fun of knowing each other a little more. And some of them discovered things about each other that they didn’t know about, despite being senior students.

Why is this class the exception? Shouldn’t it be the normal one?

Education and companies

According to Ken Robinson, the goal of education is to help students understand the world around them, and acknowledge their natural talents with the purpose of self-realization and become active and compassionate citizens. I agree with that.

And I believe that higher education is one step further regarding self-realization. In Uruguay, when we graduate from high-school, we have the opportunity to decide whether we want to continue studying, and in case we do, we can choose any career we want (some limitations may apply depending on which branch you choose back in high-school, but we have no exam that dictaminates which careers are available for us. It’s sad the way other countries put limits on whether a person can access certain degree based on an exam. So this is the first time after 12 years of school and high-school that we can actually decide what we think is best for us. This is good. But late.

Moreover, as university professionals, we are meant to help our communities through our work, as responsible and honest human beings committed to our it. In this way, we should be part of organizations that are aligned to this philosophy, and question the ones that are not, trying to change the way they work.

But is it possible for students to question the way companies behave?

It’s a fact that the longer you practice something, the better you become at it. This is valid for sports, dance, acting, playing instruments, and skills in general. Also, the longer you do something with discipline, the more attached to you it becomes, and it’s part of you. Questioning practices and pursuing the WHY is an attitude that can and must be developed. It’s the only way of pushing the society forward, by changing the way we do things and adapting.

Now, back to the title of this post, is it too late to build this attitude when we are at the university, being 18+ years old?

I’m afraid it may be for some of our students. Nevertheless, for others it may be a life-changing learning. And probably for most of them, it won’t be as strong as it needs to be.

Companies have long traditions of doing things. Organizational cultures are strong and hard to change, specially in big and old companies. Some new companies have very out-of-the-ordinary way of doing things, like Buffer and their Buffer culture, or check out this incredible TED talk about a Brazilian company doing things differently for 20 years now.

The only way to change the way existing companies do things and behave is having a strong set of values, thinking critically, knowing how to find and present valid arguments, and having the necessary leadership skills to promote the change at every level. This are things that cannot be taught in one day. It’s vital to be submerged in an environment where this things are put into practice all the time. Since we’re kids.

My conclusion

So, to sum up, I believe we can do many things at the university to recover some of the time already lost to develop the necessary skills to be fine professionals, and we do. But it’s definitely not the time to start. As a university professor now, I’ve learned I need to start working on this from day one, and help in making the ordinary class, the exception.

Also published on Medium.