An educational “clean sweep?”

Two weeks ago, I started cleaning my basement.  For most people, cleaning a basement would involve simply running a vacuum cleaner or maybe a mop.  In my house, the task of cleaning the basement will ultimately conclude with a huge dumpster being removed from my driveway.  I’m actually not someone who typically saves things.  The basement just got away from me.  When my wife and I moved into the house fifteen years ago, we set out to remodel each room of the house.  As we ripped out cabinets, removed walls and disconnected light fixtures, we worried whether we might need the stuff in the future.  Maybe we would need that ceiling fan.  Or the old cabinet drawer.  Or the chunks of paneling.  Rather than throwing all of it away, we decided we would store the remnants in the basement “just in case.”

Now, after fifteen years of remodeling the rest of the house, I’ve decided it was time for a change.  While the stuff in my basement had value at one point, it was now a nuisance and an eyesore.  While I initially wanted to just throw everything away, I decided to employ “Clean Sweep” tactics.  For those unfamiliar with the reality show on TLC, Clean Sweep tackles some of the hardest house cleaning projects and films the process.  In each episode, the hosts help the homeowners clean out their house by making three piles of their belongings.  One pile is for the items the homeowners want to keep, another pile is for the items they want to donate and the last pile is for the items they plan to throw away.  As I made my piles, I realized that I really didn’t want to keep the majority of the things I had once saved.  Faced with the decision of keeping, donating or discarding, most of the items are being thrown away or donated to charity.

As I tackled my basement project, I thought about change in education.  I hear many educational experts talking about how schools need to change, evolve, transform or innovate, but who is recommending any wholesale “clean sweep” akin to my basement project?  While the term “change” implies the adaptation and modification of structures already in place, a “clean sweep” would involve thoughtfully examining all aspects of what we do and deciding what needs to be kept and what needs to be discarded.  Individual instructors, departments or whole institutions could employ this “clean sweep” approach.  For instance, I’m planning to “clean sweep” my syllabi before the fall semester.  Usually before the start of a semester, I’ll tweak an assignment or two, change calendar dates or make subtle variations to readings or projects.  Before the fall semester, however, I plan to do a more comprehensive “clean sweep” and completely redesign my courses.  A few years ago, a colleague took an even more radical approach by throwing away all of his lecture notes, exams and syllabi and starting completely fresh.  That’s a total clean sweep!

Looking broader, a “clean sweep” could also be employed institutionally.  This process would involve examining all of an institution’s structures, organizations and procedures and identifying which need to be discarded, repurposed or retained.  I realize this would be a challenging endeavor but I think most people involved in education would agree that it is needed to some degree at their institution.  By undergoing a “clean sweep,” institutions can begin to identify those elements that still have value in the current educational environment and those that have outlived their usefulness.  To be clear, I’m not advocating reducing positions or discarding low-enrolled majors.  Instead, we need to identify the boxes of structural debris that have accumulated over the years and to begin cleaning out our institutional basements.


4 thoughts on “An educational “clean sweep?”

  1. i actually did that about 5 years ago. I went through all my file folders and pitched a lot and some I kept one copy of something that I thought could be a springboard for something innovative in the future. I look at those files every now and again for something inspiring and especially for some great critical thinking questions, but that year I started everything fresh. It was great. I still tweak since then and completely overhaul a unit each year.

  2. Larry Spence, the former director of the Schreyer Institute for Teaching & Learning at Penn State, admitted that one of his regrets during his tenure as director was that he advocated incremental change. What is needed, according to Spence, is wholesale revision, the type of house cleaning recommended by Ollie. At the course level an instructor can incrementally change assignments, exams, and activities to become more learner-centered but once a certain threshold of competency has been reached wholesale change is the next logical step. This also works at the institution level: offer a few blended and online courses then make a drastic change to the curriculum with deliberate planning.

  3. Yes yes yes! I have been a renter for the past six years. Having to move from apartment to apartment has not allowed me to accumulate things. How does tenure inhibit our ability to do an educational “clean sweep” (not just at our home institutions, but within higher ed)? In my mind I am drawing a correlation between buying a house/tenure and renting/employment of a more “transitory” nature… interesting.

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