Credit Hour, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Uncategorized

A Smart New Deal

Last week I attended two events focused on education.  The first was hosted by Inside Higher Ed entitled “Higher Education and the New Congress.” This event consisted of a day long series of presentations about proposed updates to the Higher Education Act.  The second was a workshop in my local K-8 school district, where I am a member of the Board of Education. This day focused on re-designing physical spaces to support new pedagogies.  Heidi Hayes Jacobs (Bold Moves for Schools) spent the day discussing the ways in which the layout of classrooms (and schedules) reflect and shape the learning.

All of these conversations got me thinking about how we approach the design of educational experiences in higher education.  Despite years of research about pedagogy and outcomes, we have a tendency to avoid consulting the literature.  We make our decisions based on the past (how we learned, how we’ve taught so far), not on research.  Some of us run small experiments with a new technique, but the experiment is generally not followed up on with the entire university.  We operate on beliefs and intuition, not on systematic analysis.

Don’t get me wrong, lots of good learning experiences do occur on college campuses, and on mine in particular. Faculty earnestly design and redesign their courses based on the outcomes of the semester before.  That first hand experience and effort should not be discounted.  Faculty want their students to succeed and they tweak assignments, try new readings, and occasionally experiment with new technologies. But these efforts never become a university strategy for teaching excellence.  They are done one by one, only occasionally consulting the literature on teaching, and with little impact on the university overall.

To be fair, faculty are constrained by the environments we have created.  The physical spaces tell a story. Are the chairs moveable? If yes, we can collaborate. If no, we are set up for individual learning. Are the rooms large or small? The answer will determine the range of activities available to the professor.  The physical spaces constrain the pedagogies available.  Faculty are also constrained by semesters, time, and credit hour definitions, leaving little room to imagine curriculum in different chunks than those standardized units. Most faculty would be surprised to be asked to even think about those constraints. We have come to see them as a natural precondition for curriculum planning.

They aren’t natural, nor are the written in stone tablets.  The space and the time structures of education are made by us and they can be revised.  However, to do so will require careful planning across academic areas and they must draw from well structured research. We don’t want to undo our good traditions in favor of the new, without any justification and evidence that the new will improve things.

Here’s what I mean about time structures.  We may find some compelling research about how much time we should spend working on quantitative reasoning each week if we want to improve our students’ engagement with this essential analytic skill.  If that time is different from what we have allotted in our traditional course structures, we may wish to make an adjustment, but that change could impact student and faculty schedules in complex ways.  The evidence from the scholarship may be compelling, but we may not move forward because of the complexity of how we’ve organized time.

Let’s be clear, not all things are best learned in long blocks of time.  Some things are better done in short bursts of discussion followed by quick applications and then a break.  Other topics (or students) need intensive engagement for long periods.  These differences do not necessarily fit into our current structures.  We are fitting square pegs in round holes.

I say all this for two reasons.  First, in the meeting with Heidi Hayes Jacobs, she started with two simple questions: “How can we prepare our learners for their futures?” and “What pedagogy best serves engagement?”  These questions drove our conversation as we looked at building design.  It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss some of the research on the connections between pedagogies, spaces, time, and learning.  We rarely get to think this way about space and time, when we approach building design.  We moved into discussions of places where some pretty radical changes have taken place (Finland for instance) and how much more fluid those environments were. Faculty and students were able to change course and adjust time and space throughout the year to improve the experience. They weren’t trapped in a structure beyond their control. This kind of conversation has to take place in all levels of education. Instead of relying on projected enrollments and few pet projects (a lab, perhaps), we should be looking at the holistic and the research on learning.

The second reason is that much of the higher education environment is encoded in the Higher Education Act, and it too, is based more on tradition than science. The shape of that document reflects assumptions about teaching and learning that can be traced back at least 150 years (or to antiquity).  While the heart of a good liberal arts education may still share some assumptions with Socrates, the ways in which we can achieve that education have broadened and shifted with increased access to both information and college. Indeed, this access was spurred on by the HEA.  The result is a need for more research (and more funding).

The discussions I heard in DC last week nibbled around the edges of the HEA.  Some of the proposals were scary, some were interesting, all seemed to have been shaped by political considerations rather than educational ones.  Convenient statistics were quoted, but bodies of scholarship on pedagogy were not.  Like our building structures and our schedule structures, our elected officials are viewing this document as if it arose from nature or was presented on a stone tablet.  It needs a much bigger overhaul.

It’s time for all of us to change course.  Let’s consult the research, compare approaches to teaching with other countries, imagine funding strategies that support student success,  and create a comprehensive plan for research and development in education.  Let’s not leave this to the good graces of our entrepreneurs (thanks Bill & Melinda Gates) or for-profit publishing and technology corporations. We need public investment in this public good.  Let’s shift the paradigm from education by intuition, tradition, and hope (and politics) to education by strategy, experimentation, and design. And let’s drive that experimentation and design with those two questions asked by Heidi Hayes Jacobs.  “How can we prepare our learners for the future? and “What pedagogy best serves engagement?”

Those two questions can take us a long way.  With funding attached, they could a Smart New Deal.

 

 

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion, Innovative Pedagogies

Cognitive Dissonance and Equity

It’s been a tough couple of years for higher education, and I’m not talking about funding or enrollment. Whether we point to the pulling down of Confederate statues, to heated discussions about racism in our academic organizations, to photoshopped recruiting materials that exaggerate campus diversity, it is clear that things are not going as we had hoped. We have reached a point of cognitive dissonance, with our sense of ourselves as fair and equitable routinely contradicted in academic and main stream media. And that cognitive dissonance is making us very uncomfortable.

Good. We should be uncomfortable.  We should be questioning our ability to support inclusive educational experiences that grapple with hard questions and take honest looks at discriminatory narratives and inequitable social structures.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about diversity (or the lack thereof) in our curricula.  I argued that we should get started with looking at our syllabi, course offerings, and majors with eyes toward greater inclusivity.  The importance of this task cannot be overstated.  Regular exposure to that diversity has the potential to weaken pervasive stereotypes or what Banaji and Greenwald call “mindbugs.” (Their book, Blind Spot (2013), by the way, would be an excellent text for a psychology course addressing our biased social constructs around race, gender, and age.) When we are not intentional about creating curricula that draw on excellence from all groups, we are supporting discriminatory narratives and inequitable social structures.  There is no time to waste on this project.  It is time-consuming, but it is the easiest of all the tasks associated with creating an inclusive learning environment because it is entirely within our control.

But there is more to do. Our next step is to work harder at supporting dialogues that address systemic inequity.  This is much harder than updating our curriculum. Let’s face it, leading those conversations is fraught with risks. There is a chance we may get the words wrong and inadvertently offend someone.  There is a chance that our students will not wish to participate.  There is fear that administrators like me will not understand the complexity of the situation when a conflict does emerge in a class.  These are all valid concerns, but we do no good avoiding difficult subjects. So, what do we do?

I have one suggestion to get us started.  Let’s see how far we can get by adopting a debate across the curriculum model.  We can identify classes in every major that will include structured debate.  It is important that we don’t default to debate in general education and ignore all of the other areas where these arguments should take place.  Students need to see the value of this investigative strategy in all disciplines. It would be great to lay foundations in general education and then follow up in majors so that the form of inquiry supported by this pedagogy becomes a habit. I’ve selected courses from nearly every discipline at WCSU where I’d love to see debate included:

  • ED 206 Introduction to Education
  • NUR 301 Nursing Leadership in Health Care Organizations
  • HPX 200 Introduction to Community Health and Organizations
  • SW 210 Social Welfare as an Institution
  • ACC 340 Business Law I
  • FIN 370 Financial Institutions
  • JLA 100 Introduction to Criminal Justice I
  • MGT 251 Human Resources Management
  • MIS 307 Social Media in Business
  • MKT 200 Principles of Marketing
  • AS The American Dream: Visions & Revisions
  • ANT/SOC 204 Culture and Personality
  • AST/ENV 134 Extraterrestrial Environments and Intelligence
  • BIO 200 Ecology
  • CHE 102 Everyday Chemistry I
  • COM 190 Introduction to Mass Communication
  • CS 110 Website Production
  • DIMA 200 Storytelling for Digital and Interactive Media
  • ECO 211 Principles of Macroeconomics
  • ENG 108 Introduction to Literature
  • HIS 148 American History: To 1877
  • HUM 110 Moral Issues in Modern Society
  • MAT 110 Great Ideas in Mathematics
  • MTR 240 Climatology
  • PHI 100 Introduction Philosophy
  • NWC/HIS 115 Latin American and Caribbean Civilization
  • PSY 202 Abnormal Psychology
  • SS 201 Researching Social Issues
  • SOC 100 Introduction to Sociology
  • WS 200 Introduction to Women’s Studies
  • WRT 171W Craft of Writing I: Conversations with Predecessors
  • ART 101 History and Appreciation of Western Art: Renaissance to the Present
  • MUS 100 History & Appreciation of Music
  • THR 180 Introduction to Theater Arts
  • All introductory language courses

In some cases, the debate should be, “why is this a category?” (Non-Western Cultures and  Women’s Studies come to mind).  In all cases, the debate topic should include some question of equity and students should be required to find evidence for their arguments from a body of literature that represents a diverse group of contributors.  This will require us to consider evidence from marginalized voices and people who do not have access to the traditional scholarly outlets associated with higher education, but I think we can do that.

The value of this approach is that it allows us to guide challenging conversations without taking a position on the topic.  This is important because our positions frequently leave our students feeling like they can’t disagree. Instead, we can focus on teaching about asking good questions, finding follow-up lines of inquiry, discovering contradictions, and evaluating evidence. Our students will take the lead in the debates, learning about the contributors to their position and anticipating the arguments of those who disagree. It’s a great approach for developing knowledge of a discipline and the structure of argument. It also helps us all become better listeners.

As students and faculty dive into this curriculum, we will be cultivating a habit of listening. We will be hearing points of view we have never considered.  We will be considering diverse bodies of evidence that we may not have encountered before.  And we will be discussing questions of equity as a regular practice, not as an add-on to our courses.

Learning with our students, about all of things we forgot to consider as we shaped our understandings of our disciplines and of education more generally, seems to me to be the best path to reconciling the gap between who we thought we were and who we want to be.  This step toward resolving our cognitive dissonance will be imperfect and require further review, but it is does offer a way forward and I’m ready for the first step.

Banaji, M. and Greenwald, A. (2013). Blind Spot. U.S.: Delacorte Press.

Critical Thinking, Higher Education

The Optimistic Critical Thinker

And we’re off.  The spring semester has begun at WCSU and most other universities in the US.  Faculty have passed out their syllabi and done their best to set expectations and inspire their students to embrace the learning ahead. Students are purchasing course materials (or finding free alternatives, if they’re lucky) and preparing for their best semester ever.  It is how we all want to begin, with optimism and a desire to get the most out of our learning experiences.

As we start the semester, I’ve been reflecting on the notion of “critical thinking.” We’ve had a lot of conversation on our campus about the meaning of those words. When we transitioned to our new general education curriculum a few years ago, we included a critical thinking competency in our requirements.  We then launched into debates about what courses do and do not teach critical thinking.  The problem seemed to be not one of inclusion, but rather a lack of ability to exclude courses from this category.

As I see it, the heart of the problem lay in the distinction between teaching students foundational tools for evaluating arguments of all kinds vs. the overall outcomes of a liberal arts degree.  In a nutshell, a general education course with a critical thinking designation should spend some time on the components of an argument, the concept of paradox or logical contradiction, and the evaluation of evidence.  This is distinct from the many (all) classes that rely on critical thinking skills to properly engage course material.  The ability to use critical thinking skills is indeed an important outcome of an undergraduate degree, but I argue that using the skills and introducing them are not the same thing.

There was more to this argument, of course.  After all, we are the academy.  We live to dig into the fine points, find the contradictions or lack of specificity, and identify next questions.  We are professional critical thinkers and we are never done. This is fine for faculty and administration, but when it comes to students, I think we need to be a little gentler.

Let me be clear, I think all students should be exposed to good, healthy skepticism and debate. Higher education has an obligation to demonstrate this, both to support good habits of mind and to serve as a counter-weight to a media environment that promotes both cynicism and gullibility. In a world where our social media routinely move us into echo chambers, instead of diverse opinions and ideas, this obligation has reached a level of urgency like never before.

But, we have to be careful.  Identifying evidence as untrustworthy can easily spiral into conversations about not being able to trust any evidence. Showing our students that long-held theories have been proven false, can lead to a feeling that no theories should be trusted.  Finding logical paradoxes can lead to a sense that nothing is resolvable.  In other words, the important habits of mind that we aim to cultivate, the habits that empower our students to make reasoned arguments and informed decisions, can also lead to a sense of hopelessness and cynicism.

So, how to move forward?  As we teach our students the histories of the ideas that we no longer find productive or true, we must also teach them the arguments that led to their failure and the paths forward.   We must teach them to ask why it might have been reasonable to think the idea was good or true?  What new evidence or thinking or event helped to undermine that idea or theory? What progress, if any, resulted from the change?  We have to help our students see the progress in the falling of old truths. It is that sense of progress that helps us protect ourselves from cynicism.

Then we have to ask our students the next question: where are the seeds of doubt in the new theory, idea, or fact? We have to help them start to explore that new question, at least in small ways, so that they have a sense that they can search for answers.  This is where the true value of an undergraduate degree lies.  We are not charged with the distribution of facts, those are available everywhere, we are charged with cultivating the understanding of how to challenge facts in ways that produce new answers and possibilities.

This is where I see the heart of teaching critical thinking. We must develop in our students the confidence and skills necessary to challenge facts and evidence and the desire to pursue the next set of answers. The belief that there are answers to be pursued and that those answers might be within our grasp is about as optimistic as any rational person can be.

So here’s to an optimistic semester, filled with questions, contradictions, and the desire for more understanding.

 

 

 

Higher Education

New Beginnings

One of the best things about the way we’ve organized education is the distinct starts and stops that allow us to begin anew.  In the K-12 world, there is that excitement that focuses on those first days after summer.  Back packs are filled with pens, paper, and expectation.  In higher education, we do this at least twice a year, organizing around semesters, with new texts, challenges, and new chances to get things right.

As a student, I recall the many times I committed to being better at taking notes. Each new semester, I dreamed of perfect, efficient records of my classes.  I never succeeded. Entropy or confusion would set in and eventually the neat outlines became less orderly and more grasping for the point.  My notes were a record of the class of course, and it was more accurate, I think, than the dreamed for perfect outlines. It showed my struggles to understand, my doodles of disconnection, and an occasional “aha”! I had learned something and that was enough.

So here we are on the eve of 2019, and I am pondering the joy of some fresh blank pages.  What will they be filled with this time?

Cleaning

I know there will be some of the usual tasks.  As provost, I spend a good deal of time trying to make order out of processes so that faculty, staff, and students can easily understand how things work.  Each of the rules and guidelines by which we operate was created to support reasonable academic standards and paths to success (graduation, tenure, etc.).  Yet, when combined, that list of rules and policies is sometimes confusing and contradictory.  I try to see it as a whole and work to reduce confusion and contradiction.  This is the ongoing and usual project I set for myself.  My efforts generally start out nice and orderly, like my course outlines, and as they wind their way through various reconciliations, tend to become less so.  Still, the effort toward clarity seems worth it, so I persist in the task.

Growing

Then there are the opportunities for new initiatives.  As an academic leader I am bombarded with pitches for new technologies, data on student success initiatives, and demands for better outcomes.  I wade through these ideas and efforts, dismissing most as just too much clutter without enough benefit. But, there is room for improvement in any organization, so I am likely to find one or two ideas that could help WCSU.  These potential initiatives must be evaluated and pursued in ways that do not overwhelm everyone involved.

Improving

Finally, there are those areas in which I feel I need to improve.  I reflect on what I have and haven’t accomplished in the last year.  Did older initiatives pay off? Should I stop doing some of them? Should I change a strategy?  Have I gathered enough information, listened closely enough to my colleagues and students, to make my efforts productive?

This process of reflection an renewal feels right to me.  It gives me the opportunity to re-imagine my efforts and my role on a regular basis.  Like my life as as student, I know I’ll face entropy and confusion and some inertia as I dive into the next semester, but that is as it should be. It is the process of renewal and goal setting, part of the very DNA of higher education, that is so valuable.

So here’s to new notebooks, laptops, and ideas.  May all your resolutions be useful.

Happy New Year.

Dialogue, Higher Education, Inclusion

From Tolerance to Understanding

It’s Christmas Eve and all is quiet on the WCSU campus.  Grades have been entered for the fall semester, students and faculty have departed to celebrate and relax with family and friends. A few of us remain to address any last-minute questions, problems, or queries, but we will join our families later today.  Whatever we celebrate, we have reached an ending and a pause. It is a blessing to have our lives organized around these moments of closure.  It makes way for reflection and reinvention.

As I think about some of the themes emerging in this blog, I realize that I have been wrestling with education’s role in supporting a diverse society.  I am struggling to find ways to support the conversations that can help develop our understandings of diverse perspectives.  I am reaching for opportunities to build foundations that will support collaborative responses to the problems our graduates will face in the years to come.  At this intersection of religious and cultural holidays from all corners of the world, I am pausing to wonder, are we doing enough to foster dialogue about faith?

This is probably a surprising question coming from a person who was raised without religion and who champions the first amendment argument for government to just stay out of it.  Working at a public university, I am committed to secular education, leaving faith to the personal lives or all who work and study here.  That is a position I have always embraced.  But I think it is a position that may be leaving important gaps in a well-rounded education that prepares students for a diverse society.

When I was growing up, the language used to urge openness to different cultural, religious, and political values was “tolerance.”  In its moment, that word was progressive.  It was urging us not to dismiss the views of others, but to try to co-exist in peaceful ways. In the path from ethnocentricity to an understanding that not everyone sees or experiences the world in the same way, it was a good start.

But here we are in a post-911 world that has shaken our commitement to tolerance.  There is a pronounced fear of “others,” a fear that sometimes progresses to hatred and violence.  This fear and hostility is easily tapped into via the stereotypes in the mainstream media and the open bigotry that is so often promoted online. The tactics that have undermined tolerance are easily mapped to the strategies of persuasion described by the “father of public relations,” Edward Bernays, and even more hauntingly, the propaganda techniques outlined by Jacques Ellul. Our tolerance is no match for fear mongering.

So what does this reveal? Tolerance is not enough.  Tolerance allows us to stay in our separate corners without truly probing underlying beliefs.  We “accept” that others organize their cultures differently from us, but tolerance doesn’t urge us to develop an understanding of those differences. Indeed, it inadvertently gives us permission to disengage and adopt a live and let live attitude.  But disengagement leaves all kinds of room for us to slide back into hard categories of “other” that are the breeding ground for racism and intolerance.

At a secular public university, we might have a few conversations about history and cultural traditions, but we mostly avoid faith traditions.  There are comparative religion courses in our philosophy departments, but we don’t generally require students to take them.  We don’t want to be seen as promoting any particular religious view, so we avoid all of them.  Yet, so many of our cultural traditions and distinctions arise from our connections to religion.  The avoidance of the topic leaves a gaping hole in our narratives.

So, today I am reflecting on this gap in our expectations for public higher education.  At WCSU, our general education curriculum includes something we are calling “intercultural competency.” Courses that count for this competency are those that address learning a language other than English, history courses that do not focus on European and American histories, and a couple of applied courses in nursing and social work.  These are good options, but if we are to truly consider our graduates capable of seeing the world through multiple cultural lenses, I think we need to do more.  Instead of avoiding the religion question, perhaps we need to face it directly, and include it in the intercultural repertoire as a requirement.

Maybe it is at the secular university that we have the greatest opportunity to look directly at the different understandings of our purposes and obligations as human beings. Without the need to serve a particular religion, we might be well-equipped to truly compare and discuss the differences in the many faith traditions on our campuses. Perhaps we can start in the classroom and then move to the student organizations. Instead of separating into Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Atheist groups, we might create a place for real interfaith dialogue.

It’s complicated, to be sure, mostly because it is hard for any one person to represent the perspective of multiple faiths fairly.  But, I think we are failing our students by not engaging the conversation.  We have to go beyond simple symbols and festivals, and explore the deeply held convictions about what is true.  We need to deal with the complexity of our faith traditions.  Only then will we have the tools to develop understanding, instead of mere tolerance. Only then will we be preparing our graduates for the possibilities that a diverse society might bring.  And only then will we have any chance of preparing them to resist the appeals of the insensitive and often hateful stereotypes that keep us from seeing each other as connected human beings.

Peace to you all.