“I proved, empirically, that students learn absolutely nothing in three months in one of my classes at Columbia.”—David Helfand

David Helfand: President, Quest University Canada / Squamish BC

“i proved, empirically, that students learn absolutely nothing in three months in one of my classes at columbia.”—david helfand

I was presented with this unusual opportunity, to start with a completely blank sheet of paper, and think about what education should be in the 21st century. This is an opportunity that most educators never have. We founded Quest University Canada, a small, private not-for-profit school in BC in 2007. And I must say, it has been a real privilege to teach at a school that actually works.

Quest University Canada

courtesy of quest university canada

Now, when I say we started with a blank piece of paper, I mean we started with an empty field, where we could build the entire school from scratch: the physical and organizational infrastructure, the faculty, and the curriculum—everything without having to conform to old traditions. The only thing that we had to borrow from the past were the faculty, who have all been through the same 19th century educational system. In this process, that was the only real problem. Or shall I say, that was a challenge. Or maybe even a feature.

We advertise very broadly for faculty. We will post that we want a physical scientist instead of wanting a nuclear physicist or an astrophysicist or an organic chemist, because we want people who can teach any of our Foundation courses in the physical sciences. Faculty can also teach more specialized courses in their fields, but because we are a tiny liberal arts school, we will never cover all of the subfields, so the fields that we do cover are sort of arbitrary, right? It doesn’t really matter what the advanced courses are. Our goal is to broadly educate students. However, all of our faculty come from very traditional education systems. There’s not much we can do about that.

The most important symbolic thing is the academic building—there are no edges—it’s a circle. The top floor contains faculty offices and below that are the classrooms. The classrooms are all arranged with 21 chairs around a table. There’s actually a beautiful documentary about this called 21 Chairs Around a Table by Karin Wells of the CBC. We never have more than 20 students in a class, and the average class size is 15. Most classrooms are set up with the tables configured in this oval-shape, where everybody sits around, but in two minutes, you can quickly and easily break apart and reconfigure the room. Then across from every classroom, in the center part of the circular building, are breakout rooms, which include four chairs, a table, and a whiteboard. These are intentionally tiny rooms. For instance, I could spend the first 20 minutes setting up a question, or a problem, or a passage from literature, then count off students into groups of four, and have them work for 45 minutes on framing their side of a debate, or interpreting this piece of literature, or workshopping their papers. Students are free to group in the classroom or in breakout rooms as they are easily accessible for people to go in and out of during class. When originally designing Quest, the faculty spent a week arguing about the tables: the shape, size, whether they had wheels, whether they folded, etc. It was worth it because the classrooms are highly flexible, and this is exactly what we needed. Every classroom is used twice a day, either from 9–12 or 1–4, and every class needs a different configuration.

Students in a Quest Classroom

courtesy of quest university canada

Offices are located on the outside of the circle, on the second floor. We assign offices to faculty by lottery, so we end up with a musician next to a mathematician next to an economist next to a poet next to a philosopher next to a physicist. This is radically different from most universities. I was at Columbia for 36 years before I found out where the Economics Department was. I might’ve met those people on committees, but we never casually ran into each other. So this idea of promoting forced connections was important to us, because it confronts the notion that all academics with PhDs go through the process of learning more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing, and then stashing all of the people who know everything about the same nothing in the same corridor in the building behind a secret locked door. Whereas at Quest, faculty actually remember why they wanted to become academics in the first place, which is because they like to learn new things. Faculty can actually learn new things by talking to the person in the office next to them. This has led to things like our innumerate music professor and our tone-deaf mathematician having offices adjacent to each other, and then winding up teaching a course together on the mathematics of music. This models collaborative learning for students in the classroom, because faculty are actually learning from each other in front of the students. Another instance was when one of our biologists sent out an email that she was reading a great book called Right Hand, Left Hand about asymmetry in nature. It included everything from neutrinos (which are all left-handed), to molecules in chemistry, to brain lateralization, to Neanderthal burial practices where they buried all the men facing to the left, and women facing to the right. And so she thought we should teach a course on asymmetry. She brought seven faculty together from philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, astrophysics, poetry, and neuroscience. We all taught the course together, obviously learning from each other in the process, and had a great time doing so. All to say, the physical, circular structure of the building is highly important to what we do.

Another key thing is that we have no faculty ranks. All faculty have the same title. Furthermore, we are not called professors, even though 100% of us have PhDs. We are called tutors, because we teach, we don’t profess. In the first two years, students have faculty advisors, and in the second two years, when they are working one-on-one on their Questions, they have faculty mentors. That is a critical part of our model. The fact that there is no hierarchy, there are no ranks, no tenure, no six years of hell with breakdowns happening in the seventh year—that changes the atmosphere and the faculty’s priorities quite significantly. Since the whole ethos here is to create new educational experiences for everyone, faculty included, I believe that rather than telling all five math faculty that they need to teach Calculus the same “departmental” way, and to create a common final exam so that students and faculty can all stay on the same evaluative page, Quest benefits in prioritizing teaching and learning in radically different, nonhierarchical ways.

The best way to sum up the difference in our philosophy: Quest presents a process-based curriculum, not an answer-based curriculum. In other words, we don’t care that students don’t know simplistic answers to formulaic questions, because the answer to almost everything like that is two clicks away on a cell phone. But, what we do want students to understand is the process by which they can search for information, and how to then personally validate that information, using intellectual tools from a variety of disciplines; they need to be skeptical of the sea of misinformation that is on the web and learn how to find and combine valid information in new and creative ways so as to produce something of benefit to themselves or to society.

It’s critical to note that we teach on the block system, which means that students take one course at a time, for a month. Most of our courses are disciplinary. However, the first course all students take as first-years is called the Cornerstone Course. That course is deliberately highly multidisciplinary, in order to get students used to the idea that they can’t just think one way. Students can’t learn to memorize math problems, or poetry, or whatever they are interested in. The first six years that course was delivered, it addressed the relationship between humans and nature. We did everything from Genesis and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to river geomorphology with students out in the nearby stream with flowmeters to determine the discharge rate of the stream and whether or not it could power the electrical needs of the campus. The next day, they’d be reading a novel. We integrated these things. Faculty also team teach the Cornerstone course. For example, we pair up one humanist with one scientist. But we also try to pair up one experienced faculty member with one new hire, so that the new faculty member can get used to the rhythm of the block, the kind of students that we have, and discussion-based teaching. This works really well for integrating new faculty into Quest. There are 11 sections of this introductory course, so 22 faculty in total. We executed it this way for six years, but we don’t want anything that we do to get stale, so in 2013, we decided that we should blow it up and start over; now the theme is, “What is knowledge?” It’s executed from the point of view of ancient and modern philosophy, mathematics, a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, and scientific field experiments in which we give students tools and tell them to go out in the field for five days and come up with scientific hypotheses and data to test this hypothesis, which they then present. We read Clifford Geertz’s thick description of anthropology along with exercises on that. This past August, all of the faculty gathered together, because none of us had read or done most of these things. We met every morning so that our anthropologists would take us through Geertz’s paper, our Spanish professor would take us through the Marquez novel, and then we would discuss it, come up with activities, assignments, and things like that. The following month we repeated this, but with students involved this time. I was a little nervous because we had spent a year and a half making the first version of this course and spent a month making the second version. But it worked out beautifully because everyone was excited to be teaching something new and it went over well with the students. So that’s an example of how faculty collaborate on designing a course, prepare materials for a course, and team-teach a course. Students then combine this in unique ways. By having deeply studied philosophy, mathematics, physics, biochemistry, and economics, they understand that the problems with the world’s freshwater supply, globalization, and climate change are not going to be solved by people who are narrowly trained in one discipline. They are going to be solved by people who can move across disciplines.

In all of our classes, collaboration is emphasized over competition. For instance, in this Cornerstone class, we don’t just do academic things; we take them out into the woods for a few days, and do leadership training, collaborative skills training, and things like that. Collaboration is a key part of education at Quest, because all of these kids are coming from high school, or transferring from another university, and the ubiquitous model is competition. I love Ken Robinson’s description: Consider when a few people get together, work really hard on a difficult problem, and come up with a really creative solution. In a university, we call it cheating. In life, we call it collaboration. Collaboration is highly valued by a lot of organizations. At Quest, we don’t consider collaboration as cheating. In fact, the majority of assignments in every class either pairs students up, or puts them in groups of three or four. Whether it’s tackling a set of problems, workshopping a research paper, or preparing presentations, students are working together.

A minority of classes do have exams, and those are individually taken, of course. However, I’ll give you an example of how even exams are sometimes collaborative. When I give an exam—because I’m too old to change some of my ways, and also because I’m a scientist and it’s mostly the scientists who give exams—I’ll schedule the exam to be two hours long in the three-hour class window. After two hours, I send the students for coffee while I go through the exams. I find the four people who don’t get question four right, the four people who don’t get question five right, etc. When the students come back from coffee, they get into groups, and try to figure out their incorrect answers together. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t, but if they succeed, that then gets added into their scores.

The class activities are highly collaborative as well. The best example of this is with the class I taught in December, How to Build a Habitable Planet. The premise is: How do we go from the Big Bang to creating a planet with an atmosphere, water, and life? It’s essentially a course in astrophysics, physics, and chemistry. When I do this course at Columbia University, or a similar version of the course, we naturally talk about planets. If you want to talk about planets, you have to understand how planets move. They move according to Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion, which he discovered in 1610. After a decade of work, Kepler arrived at these completely empirically; the concept of gravity was still 50 years in the future. Kepler landed on the three laws by observing data, looking for patterns, and deducing a set of rules that the planets obey. At Columbia University, I lecture at the class. This entails me standing up in front of students and drawing an ellipse on the blackboard. I say, “Here is the sun and the planets go around.” Then, I write down Kepler’s three laws and draw lines from the equation to the ellipses, so that people understand what they stand for. I write all of this out, and then I ask, “How long does it take for the Earth to revolve the around the sun?” Embarrassingly, a lot of the students don’t know, but a few of them answer, “One year.” So then I respond, “Okay. Let’s see if that works.” And I put in the masses and distances and miraculously it comes out to be a year. I say something like, “Oh look—so Kepler’s three laws seem to work,” and all of the students dutifully copy this down in their notes, which of course is all in the book anyway, and if they didn’t purchase the book, it’s all on their iPhone anyway. Then I would give them similar problems to solve, like, “How long does it take Mars to go around the sun?” Some of them work on figuring that out, and they think that’s all really swell. They get their A, which they paid for, and then they go on their merry way and I never see them again.

So I decided to do an experiment. I taught this class at Columbia from September to December, but I was able to get the entire class to come back a year later. I gave them a concept test, meaning it had no details, no equations, nothing to memorize. It was just basic concepts that we had gone through. I also gave the same concept test to my new class, which had not received a single lecture yet. Unsurprisingly, the results were statistically indistinguishable. In other words, I proved, empirically, that students learn absolutely nothing in three months in one of my classes at Columbia.

At Quest, I come into the classroom with these wonderful oval tables, grouped in six sections on wheels. I use four sections and place four students around each section. They all have their laptops open, and I give them this very sophisticated online simulation, demonstrating planets revolving around other stars. If there is a planet going around a star, every time it comes into your line of sight, it eclipses a fraction of the light from the star. The simulation is incredibly beautiful and complex. It quantifies the angle of the orbit to your line of sight, the masses, the distances, the temperatures, and even the size of the telescope, which affects how noisy your data is, because the bigger a telescope is, the more light it collects. Then, I give them a sheet with a dozen suggestions, like, “Try varying this parameter while holding this other one fixed and see what happens.” Or, “Change both parameters and see what happens.” Then I let them work together. I stand in the middle of the classroom, where anyone can ask me questions. One student didn’t understand how the inclination of an orbit would affect the eclipse, and so their whole entire group went off and did a kinetic sculpture using their bodies. You know, one of the students was the sun and the other student would run around, and they would have to bend over and get down low to see how the line of sight changed. The students learned how they needed to learn, which was not all through the digital simulation. This went on for about three hours and twenty-five minutes. The class is only three hours, but nonetheless, at the end of three hours, no one left for lunch, and twenty-five minutes later they completely arrived, mathematically correctly, at Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion. Now, a year from now, I’m pretty sure those students won’t remember Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion any better than my Columbia students, but who cares? They are two clicks away from an answer on their cell phones. What they will remember, is that you can observe nature, look for patterns in it, cast those patterns in mathematical form, and predict the behavior of some other aspect of nature. That’s the point of the class. And that’s how Quest uses a process-based curriculum versus an answer-based curriculum. The types of collaborations vary from class to class, but students are constantly talking; they are never working alone in a class. Often, a group of students will close their laptops and all work through one laptop together.

The beauty of the block system is that when faculty have students, they’ve got them 24-7, for the entire month. So if faculty want to take students on a field trip, it’s okay because they won’t miss any other classes. Faculty are able to take these kinds of liberties to the extreme. For example, we have a class on Developing Economies, and the students come to class on the first day with their suitcases packed and fly to Belize. The entire class is conducted in Belize, doing community service projects all day, and staging classes at night. They fly back on the last day of class.

Quest is designed around the notion that everything is collaborative. We do not have lectures. So there’s an enormous social pressure on students to come to class prepared, because there is a real, deeply held sense amongst students that their education is dependent upon their fellow students, and not just on the old person with a beard standing in front of the room. Our students’ attendance is over 98%. Hardly anyone misses class. In fact, we usually have to throw students out when they’re really sick and risk contaminating everyone else. They still come to class, even under those circumstances. And by and large, every single student comes to class prepared to discuss readings or whatever was due. This makes class time an active, participatory, student-centered, problem-based experience, which is unheard of elsewhere, and incredibly exciting.

What’s the best ratio of competition and collaboration amongst peers?
That’s interesting. There are two aspects of competition. There are the internal competitions. So say you set up four groups, and everyone in a group relies on each other. The dynamic becomes one group against the other three groups, or us against them, because every group wants their group to be the best.

The other kind of competition is for grades, and Quest does as much as it can to discourage that. It still exists, unfortunately, because a large fraction of the rest of the world still works that way, and pre-law students or pre-medical students need grades to apply for certain programs at other schools. When we started Quest, we really didn’t want to give grades or focus anything around grades. But we determined that, because we had no faculty ranks, tenure, departments, or majors, that we really had to do something to make the world take us seriously. We couldn’t come off as a completely flakey school. But we made a stupid mistake by not thinking about how a large portion of our students depended on scholarships. We had said, “In order to maintain a scholarship, students have to maintain a certain grade point average.” Immediately, we had students coming to us saying, “David, if you had given me a B instead of the B-, then I wouldn’t have lost my scholarship.” One of our students suggested a very clever alternative, and it’s something that we follow now: Students don’t have to maintain any GPA to keep scholarships. But, underneath every student’s grade each month, there’s a check box for faculty that says, “This student is gaining from and contributing to the intellectual environment in my classroom.” Yes or No. Students need to get at least 6 out of 8 yeses each year, in order to stay at the University. We had a kid last year who had a 3.6 GPA, but had 2 out of 8 yeses. So we threw him out. He was totally hostile to the idea of collaboration and totally answer-focused. I’m not sure why he even came to Quest. I’m sure he’s doing fine at some normal university, because he was a very smart kid, but absolutely rejected all of our values.

I don’t think competition is completely bad. We have athletics teams, music competitions, and students in groups who want to compete with other groups, and that’s all fine. When competition is in the pursuit of raising a student’s curiosity and performance, I think that’s healthy.

I once spoke to a bunch of fourth-graders at a school in New York; they were incredibly enthusiastic and had questions for hour after hour. But when I got back to my Columbia College students, ready to discuss a similarly amazing neuroscience paper, they were disengaged. It was a seminar, so we were sitting around the table, and I asked, “Why aren’t you all more like fourth-graders?” It was a rhetorical question, but being first-year Columbia students and not recognizing the rhetorical question, five of them raised their hands and told me why they were not more like fourth-graders. One kid actually said, “Professor Helfand, you have to understand that this is a seminar.” I responded, “Yeah, I know. The University spends a lot of money making these tiny little classes so you can actually talk to each other.” And the student said, “But since the point of Columbia is to come out on top, and destroy everybody else, and asking questions is a sign of weakness, you never ask questions in seminars. You only make statements.” You see, in a lecture, you can raise your hand and ask a question because the professor has no idea who you are. But in a seminar, professors supposedly know students’ names, and students don’t want to appear weak in front of their colleagues. The point of Columbia is to beat everybody else. At Quest, that is exactly the kind of competition we are trying to eliminate. That kind of competition is not productive.

How does Quest handle collaboration in the arts?
We have an artist-in-residence program, for which we bring in working artists. That’s another great virtue of the block system: people who actually have real jobs and professions can often afford to take 3.5 weeks out of their schedules, whereas they might not have 3.5 months to devote to teaching.

Arts classes are not so different from the rest of the classes at Quest. We had a class last summer in the Himalayas, led by an anthropologist who also happens to be one of the leading photographers for National Geographic over the past 30 years. He conducted a class called Visual Anthropology and took these kids to this really remote region of the Indian Himalayas. Their goal was to see anthropology through a lens. The photographs they produced were quite spectacular. Plus it was a very collaborative enterprise, working in really primitive conditions.

Because of their multidisciplinary academic background, are students taking unusual sorts of jobs?
We refer to the first two years at Quest as the Foundation Program. That’s 16 courses equally divided among the humanities, arts, social sciences, life sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics, plus a couple of interdisciplinary courses. Everyone takes all of those courses, with the goal being serious, holistic exposure. The end of Foundation roughly happens in March of a student’s second year, at which point students are given an entire block, one month, with 15 other students and a faculty member, to come up with a Question. Questions align with students’ interests, and the Question is typically interdisciplinary. Students pair with a faculty member to work one-on-one for the next two and a half years. We call this their Keystone Project. It also involves coming up with six or so books and leading papers on that subject, so they get the background. It involves coming up with courses that they want to take, and a one to four month experiential-learning internship, where they have to go off campus and into the real world. Keystone Projects are presented to the entire University on the last three days of the final term that they are here. That process allows students to test working in a field that they think they are interested in.

One-third of our students go directly to graduate school. About one-third of them go to graduate school one or two years after graduating (we have a pretty intense program and sometimes they need a break). These students might go back to the NGO that they worked for during their experiential learning blocks, go teach English in Beijing, or join the Peace Corps, before going back to graduate school. And about one-third go directly into jobs. We have people working on cyber encryption in Seattle, engineering in Portland, art education in Vancouver, and national parks management in Alberta. Our students end up doing a very wide variety of things.

The structure of the program is designed to help students test out something that they want to do in the workforce. They don’t form a Question that has an answer; moreover, the Questions are ideas like, “What is the best way to educate a child?” In other words, it’s very broad. That student spent a month in a Montessori classroom and read Maria Montessori, spent one month in a Waldorf classroom and read Rudolf Steiner, and spent one month in a public school in a second grade classroom and read John Dewey. She then compared philosophy to practice, as well as across practices, and across philosophies. When she applied for her Masters in Childhood Education, she was able to say that she had 460 hours of classroom experience, and an 80 page paper, which most undergraduates don’t have.

Do students collaborate with other students to help build perspectives on their Keystone Projects?
Yes. What’s interesting is, in all of the third- and fourth-year courses, somebody will be interested in international trade, somebody will be interested in development in Africa, somebody will be interested in education, etc. So a class in, say, macroeconomics would have the tutor presenting macroeconomic course material, but each student’s contributions to the class would incorporate this material through the lens of their individual Questions.

In addition, faculty mentors often have their own students meet as a group once a week to talk about what everyone is doing. It helps push them. But it’s also somewhat of an efficiency move on part of the faculty because certain practical things are easier to share as a group.

Do any of the Keystone Projects end up being collaborative?
No. That’s interesting. Students have to do their projects individually. They do often involve other students in the process, however. For instance, one student did her project on logging, and how close logging can be conducted next to a stream while preserving its ecology. She was comparing logged and unlogged streams to see if the biodiversity in the plant life was the same and whether the statutory ten-meter barrier was insufficient to maintain biodiversity. She spent hundreds of hours collecting samples and would enlist half a dozen students to go with her to help collect samples. So they weren’t sharing her project, but it was still a collaborative activity.

Field Day

courtesy of quest university canada

Quest Students in the Field for an Ecology Class

courtesy of quest university canada

Are the Keystone Projects interdisciplinary as a result of their holistic foundations background?
There is a wide range of projects. One woman’s project was, “How do local cultural norms affect the delivery of public health service in developing countries?” So some of them are quite specific. She had a plan, went through her plan, and now she’s getting a PhD in Social Epidemiology. Another student in that inaugural class investigated the question, “Is democracy a viable form of government for solving problems in the 21st century?” If you live in the US, the answer is clearly, “No.” But she was Canadian, so there was still some hope. She didn’t answer the question, but in the process of pursuing it, she became fascinated with different voting systems. She went to graduate school in New Brunswick and her master’s thesis was designing a multimillion dollar public referendum process to decide whether or not New Brunswick should change their legislative assembly to proportional representation. And it looks like it may get implemented. So her project started with a very broad question that couldn’t possibly be answered, but she narrowed it down to a project that she then carried forward for another couple of years, and then implemented it in the real world.

Do you agree that education has become really narrow and specialized because that is how most jobs are? Is there a need for generalists anymore?
Last month, I was in a meeting with The Conference Board of Canada, which is a think tank funded by big corporations. They are doing this huge, multi-year study called, Skills and Post-Secondary Education. But really it’s more like, What’s wrong with post-secondary education in Canada? And I could tell them what’s wrong, but anyway, they had this forum last month in Calgary, Alberta, where they invited a panel including university provosts, presidents, academic deans, and people like that. And then they had this panel of people who were employing university graduates. So we were talking to people from IBM, the person who hires for the city of Calgary, someone from a pipeline company, someone from a non-profit NGO, and a bunch of other disparate people. It was remarkable, because I don’t think they talked beforehand, and yet their wish lists were very similar.

These companies didn’t want graduates who could write more lines of code per hour, or who knew how to better manipulate Excel spreadsheets—which is what the standard government expectation of universities is here, and why universities are failing our students. They said they wanted people who could write and speak effectively and persuasively. They said they wanted people who could collaborate with each other across gaps in age, background, and department and get problems solved. There have been many national studies about this with CEOs in the US and Canada all saying the same thing. One study in Canada recently asked, How important is someone’s major? 3% said it is important. How important is the University students go to? 5% said that it is important. How important is it that people can collaborate with other people in the company? 86% said that is important.

There is a myth that the world is waiting for highly specialized people to do their jobs, and obviously there are a few highly specialized jobs, where people get trained for that specific thing, but training is different from education.

The final important factor to companies, which surprised me, was emotional maturity. They are not finding this among graduates. By emotional maturity, they mean people who are respectful when collaborating with other people from very different backgrounds, ethnicities, socio-economic classes, language groups, but also, with resiliency. People who see failure as an opportunity to learn, rather than as a disaster. We emphasize that a lot at Quest. In fact, we have one faculty member who makes her students keep a failure log. If they don’t have enough failures by Friday, she takes points off their final grade.

Is there pushback from other schools or industry professionals with what Quest is doing?
Yes, but only in Canada. For instance, Stanford, Yale, and St. Andrews have no problem accepting our students. But Canadian universities are hopeless. I recently had a meeting with the dean of the medical school and provost of the University of British Columbia. All education in Canada is provincial, meaning, there is zero federal involvement. So a PhD is completely controlled by a provincial ministry. And each one is different. They don’t have to accept each other’s accreditation, courses, transfer students, credentials, etc. If you’re an architect in BC, you can’t practice in Alberta. If you’re a superintendent of schools in Alberta, you can’t teach high school in BC. It’s completely insane. So anyway, I talked to the medical school dean and provost, as we had students who wanted to go to medical school there, and he said, “I’m afraid we can’t possibly accept students from Quest because your applicants don’t have a course called English 1___.” Our students, of course, all take at least four humanities courses, but that doesn’t matter because none of them have the right course number. I sat there flabbergasted, and made him repeat what he said three times, thinking he would hear how absurd his reasoning was, but he didn’t. I had beaten every one of these silly barriers to date, and this was the first time that I had lost.

First-graders are unbelievably curious. Fourth-graders are even tremendously curious. 12th-graders have zero curiosity. So it’s clear that intellectual curiosity is beaten out of them. It’s very sad. By the time they get to universities, it’s rather hopeless. University faculty, despite their reputation for being “flaming commie liberals,” are the most conservative people in the local universe. And being an astronomer, I can extend my analysis to the whole local universe. There is no one more conservative than a university professor.

And the reason for this was beautifully illustrated when I gave a talk at the University of Regina. I gave my canned speech that trashes standard university education. When I finished, one faculty member stood up and said, “Well, that was a nice polemic, but surely you don’t believe any of it.” When I assured him I really did believe all of it, he said, “I just don’t understand because…” And he went on with his story about how he did really well in high school, how he went to a good university, where he learned how to take notes for 70 minutes, and how writing down what somebody says for 70 minutes is a critically important skill, which prepared him for graduate school, and how he got his PhD, and finally became this outstanding, revered professor. He argued that, clearly the educational system is perfect, because it produced him. I looked at him and I said, “You know, you’re right. The system is probably well-tuned to produce professors for 19th-century universities. But 99% of your students are not going to be professors, and you should probably worry about them as well.”

Faculty are comfortable where they are. Quest is talking radical change: A collaborative-minded education, which necessitates that the professors be involved in learning processes—crazy talk, right? It’s hard. But listen to what is embedded in our language: There are teaching loads and research opportunities; you never hear about teaching opportunities and research loads. Administrators and faculty want to minimize their loads and maximize their opportunities. Indeed, there are five ranks of faculty at Columbia: assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, chaired professor, and then eight of the 5,000 faculty can be named university professors, and do you know what that means? They never teach again. That is the ultimate faculty reward. That exemplifies the value system of universities. So the notion that a standard university will switch that model around and make learning “student-centered” in undergraduate education is hopeless.

What are your thoughts on MOOCs?
We certainly don’t offer MOOCs at Quest because they rely on lectures and we don’t lecture. Lectures are a demonstrably ineffective form of communication. I think MOOCs are ridiculous. They are a fad. I think they are not un-useful as a concept. But like I said, there is a distinction between training and education. MOOCs can be excellent for training. And they are highly democratizing, which I am all in favor of. There was this New York Times article about this kid in Mongolia who is now going to MIT because he took all of these MOOCs from MIT online. That’s great. I’m sure that’s terrific. But if you have ever looked into MOOCs, the completion rate is between 3% and 4%. All they do is replicate, on a massive scale, the hopelessly ineffective form of communication in a lecture. They don’t have to be that bad. I could easily make a class out of the simulation of Kepler’s laws: I could videotape myself drawing the ellipse, and then other people would know how to do this, and it could very well be a good experience, but what’s missing is, I wouldn’t physically be there, able to answer five questions a minute and guide people. And that’s what’s required for education.

My analogy is this: imagine this hunter-gatherer band from about 10,000 years ago, on the verge of the Neolithic Revolution. Say there’s 50 people in this group, and five of them get to be around eleven or twelve, so they have to start participating. Elders have to teach them which are the poisonous berries and which are the good berries, which are the medicinal roots and which just taste bad, how to set snares to catch small animals, how to hunt together to catch a zebra, how to slaughter it, and then how to roast it. And so obviously what you do is you sit these pre-teens on stumps and lecturer at them for 13.5 weeks, right? The point is, the brain has been evolving for 5 million years—it hasn’t changed that much over the last 10,000, so if experiential learning has worked for the past 5 million years, then why are we expecting this ridiculous method of staring at a screen, and being lectured at, to work all of a sudden? The Confucian philosopher Xunzi said 2,500 years ago in the Teachings of the Ru, “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I might remember. Involve me, and I will understand.” That’s all you need to know about education.

I just got an email from Stanford, taking the perspective of 2100, and looking back a few decades into this century, where they decided that Stanford would eliminate majors, and instead have missions. The funny thing is, it’s basically describing Quest’s program that we’ve been doing. Stanford is hoping to reach us in 2040.

Graduation Day at Quest University Canada

courtesy of quest university canada

We have the most engaged set of students in the universe. It’s really amazing how effective this is. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which was developed by Indiana University’s School of Education in late ’90s, doesn’t ask students opinion-questions like, “Do you like your professors?” or, “Do you like your classes?” or, “Do you like the food in the cafeteria?” Instead, it asks questions like, “How many hours per week do you spend outside of class discussing academic work with your peers?” And, “How many times a semester do you meet with your professors?” The possible answers to that one are “0 times, 1 time, 2 times, and more than 2 times.” Our students scratch their heads and ask, “Per day or per semester?” The NSSE takes these hundred questions and weights to derive five measures of excellence in education: 1) Active and collaborative learning, 2) Level of academic challenge, 3) Enriching educational experiences inside and outside of the classroom, 4) Intensity of student/faculty interaction, and 5) The degree to which the campus environment supports the intellectual mission of the institution—so not just the social life of the students. The survey is given to the first-year students at the end of their first year, and fourth-year students at the end of their fourth year. We’ve done it for four years now, and anywhere between 600 and 900 universities across Canada and the US do it every year. For both first and fourth years, in all five categories, we have ranked number one in North America for four years in a row. That’s because the students actually think learning here is fun, regardless of how hard the work is.