The academic sausage factory grinding out dull students

Professor Rane Willerslev thinks the educational system needs to find a way to reward creativity and risk-taking. The alternative is a generation of students who know how to get good grades, but not much else

Students aren’t encouraged to be creative because of a grading system that lacks nuance and rewards them for playing it safe.

It’s a concern that politicians, experts and business professionals have all expressed in the last few months, including Professor Rane Willerslev of the Department of Anthropology in Aarhus.

“We have become so focused on solving tasks correctly that correctness itself becomes the main focal point,” says Willerslev, blaming the increased influence of the civil service over the development of the educational system.

“We’ve created this square society that is ideal for accountants – and not many others,” he says, adding that teachers and professors, who are the actual professionals in the field, have become alienated from the educational system as a result of initiatives such as the Study Progress Reform.

“To me, the most daunting thing is the fact that taxpayers’ money goes to developing these bureaucratic reforms instead of being invested in the teachers and the people who are actually in touch with reality in the educational institutions.”

The Study Progress Reform was introduced in 2013 to shorten the time it takes students to complete higher education. The goal was to reduce the average time to complete of a five-year education by 4.3 months by reducing the length of time that a student can claim SU – the Danish Students’ Grants and Loans Scheme.

But instead of speeding up studies, Willerslev argues, the reform eliminated many aspects of the educational system that help to develop interesting, enlightened individuals.

“That wanderlust, which a lot of young people have after finishing high school – those journeys that they embark on to foreign cultures – are no longer possible, because now they have to hurry up and start studying again.”

READ MORE: Universities axe language education

Administrative logic
The Ministry of Education and its economists have a hard time recognising value in anything that lies outside of a traditional education, in Willerslev’s opinion, which results in a very uniform student body.

In a recent TV debate with MP Jakob Engell-Schmidt, higher education spokesperson for the Liberal Party (Venstre), Willerslev argued that innovative and risk-taking entrepreneurs, which the government claims are the future of Danish economy, are in danger of drowning in the system.

“Administrative logic has taken over – and the worst thing someone working in administration can do is make a mistake.”

Concerns that too many students are achieving the top grade, 12, has led a number of opposition parties – including the Socialist People’s Party (SF), the Alternative (Alternativet), the Social Liberal Party (Radikale) and the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) – to call for new methods of assessing students. This vision is shared by the Confederation of Danish Industry (DI), a lobbying group.

“If students gets a 12 for a mediocre performance, then the incentive to make an effort disappears and we are left with weak candidates,” wrote DI’s Assistant Director, Charlotte Rønhof, in a comment to Information earlier this year.

Willerslev agrees, arguing that assessing students primarily on their correctness means that they end up choosing conformity over creativity.

“The students become lazy, and the result is one indistinguishable sausage factory – the same flavour of student gets produced.”

READ MORE: Cutting to the bone

No space for failure
With students focused on meeting formal requirements rather than experimenting and learning through trial-and-error, there is little room for innovation or failure at university. In Willerslev’s opinion, this is not only a failed pedagogical approach, but a deeply flawed worldview.

“Some of the most interesting people have failed over and over again in life – even successful business people. We need to live in a society where failing is acceptable.”

Central to his critique of the assessment system is the 7-point scale (ranging from -3 for an F, to 12 for an A) that replaced the 13-point scale in 2014. While the 7-point scale was introduced to enable an easier conversion from Danish grades to international ones, it lacked the nuance of its predecessor – the top grade, 13, was given only in exceptional circumstances.

The current top mark, 12, is becoming increasingly common, and in the academic year ending in 2015, as many as one in seven students got a 12 on one of their final exams, according to a recent survey.

These figures are of concern to the Danish Evaluations Institute (EVA), an independent state institution that explores and develops the quality of schools and educational programs.

“My assessment is that we are witnessing a creeping inflation of grades,” EVA’s Head of Division, Jakob Rathlev, told Berlingske in March. “This could cause problems later on, because suddenly everyone will be getting a 12, and there will be no differentiation of the very best students.”

The answer is not necessarily to return to the old 13-point scale, says Willerslev. The issue is the emphasis on graded assessments in determining student achievement. This suggests that the answer could lie in the English system, where there is a larger emphasis on written statements and letters of recommendation from professors.

“I’ve studied in England, and there I learned that statements were much more valuable than here in Denmark. I don’t believe in prizes or accolades, which some politicians have suggested – but I do think that we need to put more effort into recommendations.”

When asked how he goes about rewarding creativity in his own teaching, Willerslev explains that it is a matter of allowing the unpredictable to happen, and making the idiosyncratic acceptable.

“There isn’t really a system for ensuring a creative environment, but it is important to acknowledge that mistakes are part of the learning process – they’re what education is all about.” M

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By Hana Hasanbegović

Originally from the Balkans, Hana has a Master's degree in English, with a focus on literature and linguistics. @hanahasanbegovic

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