Why do we go to university? A new insight from Howard Gardner

If your kid wants to go to a highly selective university, the chances are it’s not to embrace learning.

Prof Gardner stands in front of some sums

When students choose what universities to go to, two key trends can be seen in Howard Gardner’s latest research, revealed at the International Conference on Thinking. Some go for transactional purposes — to get a good degree and pack their CV full of things so that they can head into ‘real life’ in the best possible way. Others go for transformational reasons — they see university as a chance to evolve from being a high schooler into something new, to reinvent themselves.

63% of adults on university campuses embrace the transformational potential of university, the others seeing it as a transactional place.

However, the evidence shows that in the most selective universities, the number who end up undertaking their studies for transactional reasons increases greatly, while in less selective universities there is a greater chance that students learn for the transformational potential it offers.

So, when the best schools aspire to send their students to the most selective universities, does that dictate that those students’ experience at high school might be just as transactional as their university career is likely to be?

There’s a problem if it does. It’s maybe no surprise that in a further survey Gardner has undertaken, the number one challenge that confronts students is mental health, followed by alcohol and drug abuse and peer relationships. Poor academic performance is the problem they are least confronted with.

Students say they go to university to gain different perspectives above all else according to Gardner’s research, but at the same time they exhibit behaviour that shows it becoming an increasingly transactional affair over time: university is there to get a job. They might say ‘nice things’ when asked leading questions by Gardner’s researchers, but their reality is totally different.

Teachers are no strangers to this conundrum. We want students to do the ‘best’ they can do, and that equates, still, to grades. Pretty much all the other stuff of life can fall by the wayside and be forgiven, provided the grades are high enough to get into a good university. A student who has mediocre grades but enjoys the transformational experience of school or university doesn’t stand particularly high in the eyes of his or her peers, or the system.

And the same is true of adult learners. At an academic conference like the International Conference on Thinking, the academics pull crowds of other academics in a way that more pragmatic, and potentially more useful, workshops might not manage. Geriatric professors and doctorates risk life and replaced limb to get into each other’s lectures, but sup watered down coffee in the gaps where practitioners called Mr, Mrs and Miss share their work from the classroom floor or attempt to get the adults in the room using the thinking skills they read about (but don’t use themselves). And they complain, regularly, that they’ve been “doing this thinking thing” for years (before I was born), and yet there’s so much work to do. They’re right. David Perkins referred to the knowledge-doing shift in his opening keynote. It’s not a shift. It’s a gap.

What do we do, then, to help disrupt these needless dichotomies? Whatever it is, let’s do it. In the meantime, I’m sure there’s a lecture somewhere with the (academic) answer…


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