When two prominent New Mexico education administrators get together to discuss education, it is quickly apparent there are more questions than answers on this important topic. Shawn Berman, acting dean with the Anderson School of Management (ASM) at the University of New Mexico (UNM), and the Head of School at Bosque School, William (Billy) Handmaker, recently spoke to Urban Land Institute (ULI) members regarding the current state of education in New Mexico.   

The talk began with a simple question: What is happening in education today? This began a societal trek exploring the many spheres in which education comes into contact: politics, economics, business, technology, physical spaces, and the evolution of humankind. The complexities are immense and the “known unknowns” allowed for deep reflection.

During the Common School Movement in the 19th century, public schools for American children were scattered regionally so every child in America could learn to read and write as a means to progress the stability of the new nation. The American university was historically a place where anyone could come to tear down intellectual walls. They were built on the frontier, an open space, and a symbol of freedom of thought and exploration.

So, when the question was posed about why education can be a controversial topic, funding and perceptions were the main points discussed by Berman and Handmaker. There’s a perception that what’s being taught in schools is not applicable for the young people of today. Berman said that funding for higher education in New Mexico has had a 32 percent decrease in real inflation adjusted dollars since 2008.  This means that our educational infrastructure is not well funded. 

Handmaker offered an explanation. “There’s a level of presumed knowledge [about education] because we’ve all gone to school. There is currently a massive restructuring of our society, and we should be having this argument: How do we prepare the next generation for a world they’re going to be in when we don’t even know what the world is going to be like?  At times, I believe, this argument is not contentious enough.”

Berman said, “We know the way the economy is changing, so how do you prepare students for jobs when half of the jobs they will get don’t even exist yet? That’s a real challenge; especially at a business school.  Preparing students for a career and a life that’s meaningful; that’s one of the big challenges in higher education.” 

Both educators agreed that one of their key missions is to help young people become well-informed citizens who understand how to look at a problem and get to the root of it in order to solve those problems.  Berman said that educators need to “discuss those issues to further the goal of creating informed citizens to make the world a better place.”

Handmaker described this technique as teaching students to “learn how to learn,” and one example of this is through the use experiential learning.  ASM students typically work with local business to help develop strategic plans, or work with them to solve a business problem. This allows the students to experience the real-world of business while applying the tools they’ve learned in the classroom. Senior Bosque School students are required to do a research paper geared toward solving a problem.Instead of being told to research a topic, they are asked “What is a problem, and how would you solve it?” Their 25-50 page senior thesis is based on this framework, and students become well-versed in the subject matter.

“If you want students to be agents of change or feel empowered, they need to understand the issues that are causing the need for change,” Handmaker explained.

There’s no doubt that education, pedagogies, student expectations, and the spaces in which teachers educate are changing. Technology has been a big catalyst in this change, and is forcing educators to reevaluate traditional teaching methods. In this day and age, students are consumers and producers of information, and have unlimited access to information via the internet. Berman explained that this instant access to information has really aided in “organic discussion” in the classroom because any kind of information can be found at a moment’s notice using search engines and websites. 

Handmaker said, “No matter how wonderful technology is, nothing can replace the experience of a student, a group of students, and teachers, sharing a text.  We should never lose the human and the humane aspects of traditional education.”

Students and teaching techniques are changing, so the spaces where learning occurs is changing as well. Handmaker explained that educators need more spaces that are less formally designed and suggested that the traditional classroom is really resistant to change. Technology allows students to work in groups like never before, connecting them while away from the classroom. Modern UNM classrooms are being designed with this in mind. Planning, Design, and Construction (PDC), the department responsible for campus planning and design, creates new spaces to get people up and moving, where they can collaborate with one another and be inventive in how they spend their time, whether at work or in the classroom.

Amy Coburn, UNM’s university architect and chair of ULI, said. “Shawn and Billy have exciting leadership perspectives. Hearing the discussion is a reminder to be mindful of the types of supportive learning environments as we invest in growth and renewal of our University campus. 

Aristotle – Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.