For the past three years, in addition to my role as Provost at WCSU, I have served on the Board of Education for my town. This experience has been enlightening. The district is small (under 300), with students entering in either pre-school or Kindergarten and attending through 8th grade. After 8th grade students choose to attend one of several local high schools because we are just too small to sustain one of our own. Like many parts of Connecticut and the Northeastern US, we have seen a drop in students (enrollments 10 years ago were around 520), and we’ve had to make adjustments in staffing and planning in the face of that new reality. These adjustments are informative for my work in higher education.
First, let’s state the obvious, staffing in my district is smaller than it used to be. We simply don’t have enough students for multiple sections of classes. But drops in staffing are not a simple thing. We can’t simply eliminate a teacher every time we have a drop in enrollment, because we would lose variation in approaches, expertise, and ideas. This would not serve our students well. So, some clever re-groupings and innovative practices are taking place. One such change is that we now have a faculty member in the lower grades focused on STEM. This was not something we did before we had to re-imagine education with a smaller population. We did used to just think about classes and numbers of students, not content. As the curriculum for the STEM position grows and changes, it has the potential to bring unique and exciting experiences to our students.
So, what is the connection to higher education? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about the decline in students enrolled in humanities majors. While it might be ok for some reduction in staffing, we don’t want to lose the expertise and diversity of perspectives brought by a robust humanities faculty. I wonder of the elementary school STEM innovation can serve as inspiration, asking us to think beyond course offerings and recombine expertise? The important piece about that STEM idea was that the teacher in the role started in a humanities discipline, but at the elementary school level this means a lot of generalist skills too, so he was able to bring in his math and science training and grow his expertise. The STEM experience is being enhanced by experiential approaches (labs) and real world questions, with ideas of discovery that are as humanities based as they are scientific. Can we do something that re-connects students to humanities disciplines by connecting disciplines?
For example, literature has always been an important mirror for our culture. In some cases, literature is arranged around topics like immigration or gender or cultural groups, rather the eras or genres. Can we take it one step further and connect immigrant focused literature to immigration policy? If we could connect a topics course to a series of policies that directly effect people’s lives, might we end up with a few more students in the literature major? Unlike K-12, the expertise is deeper and we would need to develop a linked course structure (literature and sociology in this case), with faculty co-planning and occasionally bringing the two classes together, but think of how exciting that could be. Instead of shrinking indiscriminately, we reimagine what we are teaching, particularly in the foundational courses, and potentially grow after all.
Another lesson I’ve learned from K-12 is that math is just always a problem. No matter what school district you’re in, math education is under constant review and scrutiny because we never seem to meet our targets. This is as true in my district as it is in large urban districts and as it is in higher education, where too much of my budget is spent on getting students to college level math. I recently had an “aha” moment around math as we discussed the curriculum at the Board of Ed. The problem, as I see it, is that math is a course, not a habitual practice. Math is quite legitimately compared to a second language. We know that to truly master that second language, you need to practice all the time. We’re going to need to put math in all sorts of places, not just math class, to improve our outcomes.
In higher ed we like to blame K-12 for not sending the students to us prepared for college math, but it isn’t that they aren’t working hard on this, it is the structure that has to change. And so does ours. We, too, communicate the message that math is an isolated thing that you have to get through, rather than use. Only STEM, and to a degree business majors, get any real message about the importance of achieving a level of mathematical fluency.
In K-12, I suggest weaving in math problems in all sorts of classes, so they are encountered nearly every class period, just like reading. This is a little scary for those teachers who opted for non-math disciplines, but it doesn’t have to be high level math, just a little arithmetic in the early years, and more applied math around social issues in the middle years. It will take some curriculum design, but I suspect it would be worth the effort.
And what about higher ed? We need to do the same thing. There needs to be a lot more engagement with all kinds of numerical data in non-STEM classes. Instead of just algebra or statistics classes, we need to routinely weave in the kind of analytic thinking that these courses support, so that students don’t forget this critical language. Sometimes, this could occur through partnerships like the one proposed between sociology and literature, or perhaps in wonderful collaborations between art and science (3-D printing comes to mind). Other times faculty can develop some evidence requirements in their assignments that include some quantitative reasoning to reinforce the usefulness of the language of math. These would be at a basic and integrated level, leaving the advanced work for those who’ve specialized in quantitative reasoning more in-depth. I know many of my colleagues won’t believe this, but our students actually want this. They don’t like they way they feel about numerical information.
In both of these examples, the critical shift was moving from single disciplinary perspectives to an integrated curriculum. Weaving our planning together might help us see how to weather the storm of demographic shifts in ways that could make us more effective and more exciting. That reinvention might also help us articulate our value, once again. But we’ll have to leave our departments to do so. Imagine that.