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How to teach creatively in a content heavy world

Cathy Davidson critiques modern teaching with recent stop at UW in support of ‘The New Education’

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What would you change about the University of Washington?

For most universities, the single most effective way to improve the quality of the education they offer is to rethink teaching methods, according to education reform advocate and City University of New York professor Cathy Davidson.

Davidson, who has worked for decades to modernize higher education to adapt to students’ current demands and needs, was invited by the UW College of Arts & Sciences to hold a keynote conversation on the subject Monday, Nov. 14, as part of their Rethinking the Academy initiative. She was first introduced by UW President Ana Mari Cauce before being interviewed by dean of arts and sciences Dianne Harris.

The event and a workshop were held as the culmination of the college’s quarter-long book club, which solely focused on Davidson’s book, “The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.”

Although the event was primarily geared toward faculty, the afternoon was equally relevant for students who want to understand how and why our academic structures came to be, as well as how to update them to better serve students in modern times. 

Davidson is a firm advocate for active participation by students. She believes that rather than “being graded into passivity” and simply regurgitating standardized answers, students should work in groups, and learn “to manage a project from an idea through implementation … [to] get it out there in the world where it can have an impact, a palpable impact.” 

In the same spirit, Davidson’s keynote address included required audience participation. She implemented a “think, pair, share” strategy, and asked attendees to write down on a notecard one change they would make to the university and discuss it with those nearby. Almost immediately, the room erupted into animated discussion; even after a few minutes, it took several tries for Davidson and Harris to get the room’s attention back. 

“I think you’ve won if you have to fight [for the attention of] your students who are talking about ideas,” Davidson said after the activity.

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In the book, Davidson’s critique of the current educational system — though at times scathing — is nuanced; she investigates facets of the issue from several points of view. While some either prioritize or reject technology as the solution to education reform, Davidson argues that strategically implemented technology can be a powerful tool, but is not a simple cure-all for the problems facing higher education. 

One of Davidson’s priorities is improving the actual teaching in higher education, and she advocates for systems that reward faculty on their educating ability and commitment to improving institutions as opposed to research contributions alone. She also delved into the history of issues like the defunding of higher education and problems of inaccessibility. In response, she provided strategies to mitigate these problems (other than restoring government funding), such as increased collaboration between elite universities, large research institutions, and community colleges.

When asked if she believed universities were capable of the kind of structural changes she believed to be necessary, Davidson brought up the example of COVID-19. 

“18 million students were online in a week,” Davidson said. “That is astonishing.”

Now, Davidson wants that transformative potential to be utilized differently by moving higher education away from teaching “content” that is often quickly forgotten, and focusing instead on “methodologies, rigor, creative thinking, communication — skills that are life changing.”

“The New Education” and Davidson’s latest book, “The New College Classroom,” can be purchased online or checked out at the UW library.

Reach contributing writer Chaitna Deshmukh at Twitter: @Chaitna_d

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