Stove-Piping Education

Let’s begin with a definition: stove-piping refers to the creation or development of ideas in isolated environment, with no contact or input from other groups, agencies, or departments.

Governments are notorious for stove-piping. Agencies develop databases for their own use, databases that may not be connected to other databases, may not be designed to hold the same information, or has the information maintained in different ways. Agencies may not share information. Law enforcement agencies are famous for not sharing (Blog: Travels With Shiloh; Homeland Security Affairs One would think that of all the agencies those involved in law enforcement would be the first to share. Part of me is thankful for their lack of mutual cooperation.

Education is also guilty of stove-piping. My years in education as both student, staff, and faculty has exposed me to many of these stove-piped environments. Financial Aid has one database. Admissions has a database. Recruitment and Alumni Affairs has yet another database. Each college or school within a university contains a number of offices, agencies, or departments. Sometimes, these entities don’t talk to each other and they develop programs without finding out who else is doing similar work. Students get frustrated when one office does not have the information another office has access to. Same can happen with faculty and staff. ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) is working to resolve some of the problems among university offices. Web pages should look very similar among offices and departments to provide a uniform look and feel. When offices are left to their own devices, the uniform look and feel can lead to an inconsistency look and feel across a university web site. That can give the impression of disorganization and lack of management direction.

Education can further create stove-piped environments in the classroom. Historians can create a stove-piped environment when relationships between the past and present are not clearly explained or explored. Furthermore, historians that fail to introduce some math, geography, economics within history in addition to failing to explore connections between the past and present are guilty of stove-piping education. Economists can create a stove-piped environment when they do not present material in present, historical, and future context.

One of the current concerns I have with students I meet involves how they have processed information acquired in 3-4-5 years of coursework. I notice how stove-piped their knowledge seems to be. Sometimes, alumni remember some topic from economics yet don’t seem to be able to apply that knowledge to Europe, or use that knowledge to examine global supply-chains. Sort of like being shown how all the tools in the toolbox work, yet no understanding of how any of those tools work in concert to perform any task.

Some of the stove-piping I blame on educators. We simply do not do a very good job of showing the relevance of our discipline across other disciplines. Geography is easy; my discipline involves all other disciplines either implicitly or explicitly. Many other disciplines also have natural affinities across disciplines yet professors and lecturers seem reticent to jump that gap. I’m not sure the reasons for that reticence. Could be lack of knowledge, being uncomfortable with subject matter outside their comfort zone, or simply being unwilling to expand beyond their own teaching material. A shame, really.

Students need to take some responsibility. Once or twice a semester, I get a student in one of my classes that tells me, “hey, we talked about this in my economics class,” or “hey, we talked about this in my history class,” or “hey, we talked about this in my political science class.” These comments make for a good environment to reinforce learning. I return those comments by asking, “so, what was the nature of that discussion?” Or, “how was that information presented?” Or, “can you provide us some details about the similarities and differences between our content and the content in your other class?” And, finally, “what can you offer to help add to our discussion?” Help encourage those that have learned something in other courses to put that knowledge to use in your class. I tell my students to tell me, to challenge me, if they hear me comment on something that differs from what they have read or what they have learned in other courses. Those comments can foster good discussion.

Finally, when we read books, listen to the radio, watch television, we also need to be aware of the danger of stove-piping our own knowledge, and, even worse, using our own biases to fortify that stove-piping. Recently, I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Afterwards, I read commentary and reader reviews of the biography. Some people were upset that Steve Jobs was not written about in a favorable light. Steve was “rude,” and a “bully,” and “mean” to the people around him, also “indifferent” and “uncaring” about his own children. Isaacson also wrote a biography about Albert Einstein. Several of the reader reviews stated that Einstein was portrayed in an unkind light, a genius brought low by showing the cruder side of his life. My own personal belief is placing people on pedestals is simply unjustified in all cases. People are human and often have unsavory aspects to their lives. People love Abraham Lincoln. People might not like the discovery that Ol’ Abe might have harbored homosexual tendencies.

To combat our own stove-piping we have to be open and receptive to other points of view. We should strive to have good fundamentals in our own discipline. Additionally, we have to educate ourselves in other related disciplines and actively work to incorporate new knowledge content and context. Our natural world hardly works as a stove-piped environment. Yes, sometimes we find very environmentally-sensitive niches, yet even those are ecosystems within ecosystems, and a change in one can manifest in another.

Stove-piping is lazy. Also, stove-piping is dangerous, wasteful, and hinders true learning, interrupting the communication of true knowledge. Stove-piping is contrary to education. Educators needs to spend more time bringing disciplines together, not in nuanced ways, but in in-your-face ways. Team-teaching is one solution. Using guest speakers who can discuss how other disciplines are used in the course of their own work can help. Reading and looking for examples of your own discipline in other fields or disciplines can help. Being an educator is not for the slothful.

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