October 22, 2010

“Since the way we run universities now is such a train wreck, what’s a better way?”

Recently over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Perry provided us with a gem; “What If We Ran Universities Like Wikipedia?”

One of the commenters, “drjeff” posited the title of Marc’s post should have been “Since the way we run universities now is such a train wreck, what’s a better way?”

Bless you ‘drjeff’.

And not just for using the term ‘train wreck’.

Saturday, October 23, 2010, for me at least, was a special day. I had the fortune of delivering a TED Talks at an event titled Fast Forward Education. (download my slides here)

Although I have great respect for teachers, professors and learning professionals, I too think the education continuum is rather flawed. Dated. Antiquated. Even harmful.

The fact of the matter is that the education continuum, between elementary grades, through high school, across higher education, as well as into corporate learning and adult/life-long learning, is stuck in the industrial revolution, and it doesn’t know how to right the ship.

The candle evolved into the fluorescent light bulb. We even figured out how to make a better light bulb with CFL technology, but the entire education spectrum remains mired in walled classroom mentality.

That’s literally speaking as well as figuratively.

Where is the critical thinking? Where is multidisciplinary subject matter learning? Where is real-world problem solving skills? Where is collaboration, sharing, and learning to work together to execute on initiatives? As Cameron Herold points out, where are the entrepreneurial skills required for the 21st century in our kids?

We are stuck in the cartel of individual subject teaching, a New York publishers dream state. We can’t seem to separate the fact that we need both theory and application, particularly in the high school and higher education foci.

Publishers are part of the cartel. Higher education is part of the cartel. High schools, ministries of education, school boards are all part of the cartel. Add teacher unions and higher education unions as well.

We need a change.

We need to change for the sake of our economy, our country, and our children.

Thank you “drjeff”. Here’s an answer to your question to mull over:

The 50-50 DNA Model

  • Decommission the learning model; 50-50 going forward
  • New 50-50 admissions guidelines for higher ed & a 50-50 B.Ed program from now on
  • Actualize 50-50 higher ed final transcripts

Let’s look at each of these separately.


I believe the education teaching process at high school and higher education levels need to radically shift. In both environments, I recommend teaching the theory of various subjects for half the day, and the other half is spent working on the amalgamation of subject-matter through application. That’s right – half the time in theory and half the time applying said theory in real world, critical thinking, cross-collaborative, multi-discipline ways that allow the student to actually practice ‘learning by doing’ concepts whilst learning the theory.

Call it the yin-yang model if you have to.

In both arenas, teachers/professors would continue teaching the theory, and using new technologies and the like when necessary to do so. But only for half the time they normally do today.

The other half of the time, teachers/professors are uniting in teams of two, three maybe even four to offer projects, case studies, real-world scenarios that allow the students to apply what they’ve learned in past years, and during the aforementioned subject matter theory. Projects, community involvement, other opportunities, whatever.

This takes into consideration the subject-matter that they’ve learned in previous years, as well as what they’re currently learning in the theory portion of the school. Students are then graded two fold; one for their theory and two for their application of said theory. The former may be quantitative whereas the latter will have to be qualitative. That’s ok though in my books.

This model of 50-50 needs to be applied both in high school and in higher education. The corporate world needs not only subject matter drones who are skilled at rote memorization and solid depths of theory; it requires thoughtful, collaborative, critical thinkers with entrepreneurial skills backed by the normal depth of subject-matter expertise and theory.


In high school, what ostensibly occurs as you move up the ladder of grades towards graduation year is the fixation on marks, by each of the subjects a student may be cramming for.


Because higher education stipulates that student marks must be submitted in order to be admitted into their prestigious institution. Yes, those marks are by subjects only. (aside from some good but anomalous higher education examples across North America who also ask for community involvement, personal essays, etc.)

Here we see the cartel in full force. High schools, school boards and ministries of education succumb to higher education, and, somewhat dutifully, arrange their school year around subjects backed by textbooks from New York publishers.

If, however, higher education were to ask for two sets of marks, life would be so much better.

If higher education asked for both the theory component of the new 50-50 model and the qualitative assessment of the student from their real-world application of said theory, we’re now in business.

Higher education now has admitted a student who is used to the 50-50 model, and higher education can continue that same model over the course of the credential said student is trying to achieve.

What else is new?

The antiquated B.Ed program needs a hammer taken to it. If we continue to ‘train’ future K-12 teachers in the methods of sage on the stage, we are doomed to fail.

I recommend that the entire B.Ed program be overhauled such that teachers are prepared for the 50-50 model. Further to that, I also recommend that any existing educator be ‘sent away’ for 6 months of unschooling and to begin their transformation to the 50-50 model. It only works if we right the ship, and all passengers, at the same time, give or take a few years.


Once a student graduates from higher education, they are not only better prepared for what the corporate world is asking for, they are armed (again) with two sets of marks.

One set of marks are for the theory components of the credential and another set is for the real-world application of the theory.

Thus, when a student graduates from higher education, the corporate world has a better assessment of what the student can bring to the table, both in terms of theory, and in terms of creativity, entrepreneurship, collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, etc.

It also (and obviously) creates a more well-rounded and holistic graduate ready to take on a world that desperately requires more innovators, more entrepreneurs, and more ways in which to ensure a sound, thriving economy.

In Summary

I’d be interested in your feedback on the 50-50 DNA model I’ve proposed. I haven’t yet articulated all of the various steps that need to be taken in order to get there, but at least you can see ‘the dream’.

And what I really want to end with is that I have the utmost respect for every educator out there (wherever you are, and whatever level you are teaching at) that a) want to change the systemic nature in which education is currently offered and b) who are making changes that they can INSIDE of the classroom today. These folks are in fact trying to utilize technology, to create collaborative environments for their students, to provide real-world problem solving examples, linking critical thinking to innovation to entrepreneurship.

You leaders are the leaders of tomorrow. You can help us affect this change as a united force.

But, sadly, change cannot solely come from the classroom walls; we need the entire continuum turned on its head.

Let’s get there together.

I’m in. I’m game. Put me in coach!

7 Replies to ““Since the way we run universities now is such a train wreck, what’s a better way?””

  1. Thanks Dan, excellent post. I would like to point out that there is a small group of us in higher ed following the 50-50 theory/application model already (but we’re not there yet on your recommendations for admissions and transcripts). Polytechnic institutes in Canada (BCIT, Humber, SAIT, NAIT, and the like) are modeled on a balance of theory and applied, hands-on learning, work experience, real-world projects in business, computing, engineering and other fields beyond trades/vocational training… stuff I know you’re personally familiar with, given your past connection with BCIT. And, not surprisingly, at least in BCIT’s case, we have the highest grad employment rates (in jobs related to grads’ credentials) than any other post-secondary in BC. As the market becomes more and more competitive (domestic target market population declining), universities are beginning to recognize this, and move toward marketing this applied education. But do we really want all of higher education following the 50-50 model? Should prospective students not have choice in learning styles? Has the traditional model of academia really become obsolete? It’s certainly an interesting evolution to be a part of.

  2. Hi Dan;
    I think your suggestions are great! I would suggest 1 addition and 1 view.
    Addition – Include a network perspective. I believe Networks will be a major platform for learning going forward, especially as they near graduation. (I’m follow the lead here from Hagel, Brown and Davison’s Power of Pull and Johnson’s Where Do Ideas Come From)
    View – Consider maturation over vocation for K-16 ed and rely on lifelong network learning platforms for vocational needs.

  3. Hi Dan,

    I’m currently involved in a consultative process in N. Van w/ the Community Learning Program Committee. Our task is to pull together best practices from other alternative learning programs to bring back to the N. Van School Board as the alternative ed program is under complete revision.

    Lots of opportunity here for bringing forward new ideas as well as best practices.

    I’ll be sharing your blog posts w/ the group, and will share w/ you what I learn about what’s really working w/in the existing system. There are some pretty cool programs already happening, unfortunately they continue to exist somewhat on the fringe, and students attending these schools are all too often stigmatized and marginalized outside of the school itself, in the broader community.

  4. Hey Dan,

    I’ve read your article and got myself to think about it. I study business management in the São Paulo Business School(FGV) in Brazil. I guess the way to look at the question is separating it in 3 institutions.

    – Students
    – Professors
    – Schools and Government agencies focused on education

    I agree with your model but I see there’s something missing and I can’t tell where. I guess in the links between those 3.

    Here in Brazil, my school is one of the leaders in innovation in terms of learning. At least I think it is, or they propose themselfs to it.

    Last year, they’ve recreated the whole undergrad course and added two straightforward practical subjects. One called Local Organization Project and the other National Organization Project. In those, the students should choose a company and basically make a consultancy for it. In theory it looks good, satisfies the practical side you said above.

    The problem was that no student was motivated by it, because the valuation method was exactly like regular subjects(which was required by school and the minister of education to have formal tests). The companies themselves were also not very motivated by our work. They wouldn’t share the info we needed and we had to deliver formal reports on that.

    I think it is too much to write here but to summarize:
    The idea was good but it was currupted by the old system and it had no ways of fighting it.

    getting back to that triad I mentioned above, i insist that the problem is linking the 3 elements.

    A month ago I’ve created a collaborative enviroment for all my collegues to contribute with reports, texts and useful material for our classes. It’s my blog. As I started it, the Students’ Union supported it, every student said it was a great idead but no one contributed. And it didn’t take long for the school to contact me and ask me to remove all the reports I had, because of ethical affairs.

    My big point is: the link between Students, Professors and Schools is broken. The School wants to take all the merit for everyting the students do, but they are lightyears behind. The professors are enslaved to the school’s method and even trying to innovate, they can’t for not only the school but the ministry of education demands them to be formal. And the students are not that good in the picture either. They don’t fight for change. They just absorv what professors tell them to do.

    I’m sorry if I sound a bit confused but it is so many things to put on that I need to squeeze it to put it as a comment here.

  5. Remix, rethink, create and hack the current system. I”m still struck by Paul Cubbon’s comment as a marketer that the students are our customers. So as a 20 year marketer, the natural extension is to create the product and service that solves their problem (success in the real world) and makes them change or maintain the way they feel (depending their state prior.) These are the two reasons people buy (Paco Rabanne).

    Adapt to thy customer not the other way around. We can start by really understanding who students at all levels are, how they communicate, create, analyze etc. Then make the short-term adjustments indicated. Finally the heavy lifting of new program development with a strategy clearly thought through.

    Teaching kids to memorize? Ok, some cognitive skills and synapses firing there is good. However, teaching them to find. Now that’s a 21st century skill!

    Start a Learning Revolution.

  6. The revolution has started at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Under Roger Martin’s leadership, Rotman is redesigning business education for the 21st century with a curriculum based on Integrative Thinking – which addresses some of your queries above such as where is real-world problem solving skills? where is multidisciplinary subject matter learning? In addition, we are piloting Integrative Thinking into K-12 curriculum in Toronto. So yes, some of us are in fast forward mode with open hands and minds – but as with life ….. not many can leap before they walk.

  7. @Leslie: I say yes to yer question. Whether College, Institute or University, I truly believe the educational experience should be part theory and part application, coupled with the cross-subject osmosis that should be occurring for those application pieces. (and yes – I pine for those BCIT days)

    @Howard: great point. I’m a strong believer in networks (somewhat obviously) and in the multi-discliplinary route of ‘application’ I contest that building up networks within the application of theory can and should occur with those students and teachers/profs amongst the school and between schools.

    @Laura: looking forward to hearing your results. Happy to speak to them as well if schedules align.

    @Fabio: the easier bridges to build are the student to student, student to teacher, teacher to teacher, faculty to faculty, and school to school ones. The harder ones are the systemic arches of school board or senate to school/prof/teacher/student. That needs some real work. You’re right though – we need to do a much better job of linking all three.

    @Bret: any smart continuum between K-12-Higher Ed-Corp would have an army of real customers (re: students, grads, etc.) helping to sort out the panacea model. I believe it could start first in a province or state … rather than an entire country.

    @Nina: Roger is a pioneer and it’s great to see/read what he’s doing. Hopefully Rotman is also looking at ways to tap into other faculties to fully integrate the experience in a collaborative manner. Would love to see the Integrative Thinking pilot in K-12 if it’s possible.

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