By Dr. Yvonne Fournier, Scripps Howard Columnist
Dear Dr. Fournier:
I just read where Oxford and Cambridge, perhaps two of the most prestigious universities in the world, have succumbed to asking admissions questions of prospective students that are quite frankly, stupid. As an educator, I’m sure you will agree that we are seeing a decline in the intelligence levels in leadership, even at the world’s greatest universities. Are there no smart people left in the world?
Recently, it was reported on CNN that Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the United Kingdom have begun asking prospective students some rather unusual questions during the interview process, including, “Would you rather be a novel or a poem?” and, “What would you do if you were a magpie?”
Because of the prestige of these universities, many expect them to ask questions like, “Explain Keynesian economics,” or “Compare and contrast poets Byron, Shelley and Keats.”
Supposedly, interview questions are used to ascertain the knowledge level of a prospective candidate. Answers are thought to indicate a prospect’s ability to achieve and be a successful student.
Unfortunately, spitting out information on such questions as “What is the theory of relativity?” or “Name two ways to prove the Pythagorean theorem,” is useless in most cases because the answers have been memorized, or worse, the prospective student is simply reciting a teacher’s opinion, position or preference or truth. This reveals absolutely nothing about the student’s most important knowledge capacity — to think of the unthinkable to create new knowledge, let go of the obsolete and be fearless and relentless attacking new territory with originality. Equally important is the ability to think on your feet.
Yes, I know thinking on one’s own is a dying art. This is evidenced in the herd mentality of most students coming out of our high schools and colleges.
This country, and much of the so-called first world countries, including the United Kingdom, seems determined to continue educating children as it has for the last four decades based on an outdated education paradigm.
WHAT TO DO:
Reassess your criticism that Oxford’s and Cambridge’s leadership is declining in intellect because they are now asking questions of this nature. These are questions that will demonstrate whether a student has really learned and can apply past instruction to create new knowledge and/or handle even the most out-of-the-box question that intuitively may lead to discoveries, such as leaders did when they challenged scientists to put a man on the moon or to map the Human Genome Project.
It is time our leaders pull their intellectual heads out of the sand and realize that teaching to tests and accepting the narrowest of answers is producing what amounts to a lobotomized individual. This is a student who cannot apply what he or she has learned and cannot do a thing without being specifically instructed on what is expected. While teaching to the tests may put out straight A students, what good is this if students cannot think on their own, be responsible, continually learn on the job, and be so innovative as to become indispensable?
While I agree we are seeing a decline in the level of ability (not intelligence) of our best and brightest children, I do not agree with your assessment that there are no smart people in the world … only those that are the product of an old, outdated teaching model forced into the box by the “power of the doorknob” where teachers grade our children based on the answer they want to see or the one the book says is right.
I applaud Oxford and Cambridge for asking questions that demonstrate how well prospective students can think, not just how much they have memorized from teachers. This shows brilliant leadership at these universities.
Maybe this will shake up a few of the so-called education leaders in this country holding on to the old paradigm. Arne Duncan, the new education secretary, would do well to take note of this, make a bold move, and call for a new education model. He would do well to dump No Child Left Behind, which only produces a lobotomized individual who cannot see the forest for the trees but sure can find the right bubble to fill in on worthless tests.
Write to Dr. Yvonne Fournier with your questions or comments at [email protected]