On the nonlinear way my mind works

I always get a thrill on those occasions where, for a while, many things I read or hear or see seem to be on the same topic. Or maybe it’s just my mind seeing connections. This is a longish post, so bear with me—there is a punch line.

Earlier this semester, around mid-term, I was in New York with several students—each year I take students to present their original research at a professional conference. The undergraduate sessions, which I help organize, are sponsored by Issues in Political Economy, an undergraduate journal of economic research (broadly defined). Anyway, when I saw and read Gardner Campbell’s post Conceptual Frameworks: Some Thoughts, I knew I had to share it with my senior seminar.

{Gardner’s post was a contribution to #OpenLearning17, an open online course that is running this Spring as part of the AAC&U’s Faculty Collaboratives Initiative, which I’ll explain in more detail below.}

This year’s senior seminar follows a model that I’ve used before. I identify an interesting question to which I don’t know the answer.  I organize the class as a research team and we spend the semester exploring the question and figuring out an answer, which we publish online. The process is loosely based on backwards-design: We start from the research question and ask “What do we need to figure out to be able to answer the question?” We divide up responsibility for those things, and the students research them. We report out in class and make note of what we’ve learned. Then we repeat the process in greater granularity. Finally, we draft a report of what we’ve learned (which process we’re doing right now). In lieu of a final exam, I ask students to reflect on two questions: What have you learned, and what have you contributed to the class’ learning? I ask them to provide evidence from their own work (e.g. blog posts, written reports, presentations to the class, contributions to the final report) to support their claims.

This year’s group has great chemistry and I’ve been very pleased with our work so far. After reading Gardner’s post, I emailed the class, told them we would move what we had planned for Monday to Wednesday, and instead I asked them to read Gardner’s post and be prepared to discuss it on Monday.  In class on Monday, I posed three questions to the group:

  1. What is a conceptual framework?
  2. Why should a course have a conceptual framework?
  3. What is the conceptual framework for this seminar?

I have to admit that I didn’t know if the discussion would take, if it would last five minutes or the entire class period, I just felt it had potential. The discussion turned out to be extraordinary. Every student had something to say. Four students had already blogged about Gardner’s post before class without any prompting. I want to highlight the contributions of two students in particular:

B. is the only student in my seminar who is not an economics major. But she keeps taking my courses. She spoke up saying that she was the kind of student who liked to know exactly what was expected so that she could exactly meet the instructor’s standard. She said my classes make her uncomfortable because while they may provide a broad framework, they don’t specify exactly what is expected. But for some reason she has been willing to take these courses that make her uncomfortable, because she has learned that she will get something important out of them.

A. is the only student in my seminar who has not taken a course with me before. In her comments, she quite simply went off on what’s wrong with education today, or as I describe it, the game of school, which she asserted encourages good grades and test scores to the detriment of real learning. She went on to say that the courses where she has learned the most were those that set broad guidelines and then expected students to figure out what to do with them.  We might call those courses examples of “real school.”

Why am I bringing up this seminar? Because by not seeking to convey a specific body of content, and by not knowing the outcomes in advance, the seminar employs a fairly open pedagogy. More on this point later.

A few days after my seminar discussion while meeting with students in my online intro class, many of whom are adult students who need my class for their degree programs, I witnessed a different perspective. These students have jobs and families. They don’t have a lot of free time. Many of these students have a very specific goal in mind, and it’s not education, the way I think of it. They are taking my course to meet specific degree requirements. They are pursuing their degree program because they see it as instrumental in reaching a career goal. In some cases, they merely need a college degree. These students want to have a rubric. They want to be told exactly what they need to know to get the grade: A, or B or C. They don’t want an open learning experience.

They seem to be asking:

Can we just skip the process and go right to the learning that’s going to be on the test?

To be fair, they are not asking for the answers; they just don’t want to spend scarce time on things that aren’t important, which they take to mean things that won’t be on the exam. But what if there are no exams in a course?  Does that mean there’s nothing worth learning?

It’s hard for me to fault these students. They are doing what they’ve been socialized to do. They are trying to win the game of school. They are paying good money to get a job, career advancement, etc., and in many cases they have a clearer idea of what they want out of college than my traditional-age students.  Some of these students are really good, A students. They have great potential to be educated, but that doesn’t appear to be their goal, at least not in the way I mean it.

What about the many students who start college without a clear idea of what they’re here for, what their mission is, what they want to accomplish at school. Some of them find their way and flourish.  Most of them graduate.  Some of them don’t. What responsibility do faculty have here?

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare introductory with advanced courses, but I am left wondering what faculty should do.  University students are adults, after all.  Should we respect their choice and go on with our work?  Or should we assume that students don’t know a different model of school, and then offer them one?

That brings us to general education, and the AAC&U Faculty Collaboratives initiative, of which #OpenLearning17 was a part. Over the last decade, the AAC&U has done terrific work at defining what college graduates need to know and be able to do to become contributing members of society, both in terms of undergraduate major programs and especially general education. This work is largely based on research in the learning sciences, something that few university faculty learned in our graduate programs. The work includes the so-called High Impact Practices, which have been found to correlate with student success.  The AAC&U has also developed guidelines and rubrics for assessment of these goals. So the purpose of the Faculty Collaboratives project is to introduce faculty to these practices, demonstrate how they enhance student learning and success, and encourage faculty to try them out.

In my view, general education courses traditionally haven’t been a good entry point to real school. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t some courses that do the trick. But consider all the general education courses that are primarily designed as introductions to a major. Or the introductory courses which are designed to be gatekeeper courses. These are not courses designed to pique students’ curiosity to think deeply about how disciplines help learners make sense of real world issues and problems. They tend to be about covering content, lots of content. The end result seems to be that students see general education courses mainly as hurdles to be gotten over, impediments to their getting to their real curricula. (It’s not just students with this problem. Think about the language that faculty advisors sometimes use.)

General education courses are not merely courses we are obligated to teach for the institution so that we can teach the upper level courses we want to teach and so we can do our scholarly activity. They are, or should be, important entry points for real school. Students shouldn’t have to wait until senior seminars to get a glimpse of what real school can be.

We can learn how to more effectively teach Gen Eds by incorporating what the Faculty Collaboratives initiatives have publicized and promoted.  Liberal arts and sciences institutions should have a particular advantage here over larger universities with large lecture courses. Compare a research university where only the best undergraduates have the opportunity to conduct research with a faculty member, with a small liberal arts college where all graduates are expected to have done so.

But we can take this a step further if we combine general education with open educational practices. Open education, which has been the subject of #OpenLearning17, is a pedagogical approach that offers extraordinary promise for those willing to try it.  By addressing real world problems that students care about, by giving students agency, by showing students that what they are doing matters, by connecting students to outside audiences, experts and novices who are genuinely interested in what the students have to say, open education and its practitioners can show the power that real education provides to change the world.

That’s my take away from the Virginia Faculty Collaboratives project.


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