Thursday, December 18, 2008

What is Common, What is Custom?

My title at Westminster is Associate Provost for Integrative Learning. My job is to find ways to connect several educational initiatives (learning communities, civic engagement, environment, campus theme, faculty and staff development, the library, etc.) with each other, and with the academic programs of the College. In addition, my colleagues and I are finding ways to help students make sense out of the broad range of their educational experiences--in and out of the classroom.

This job has forced me to think about how to think about the educational enterprise whole. I see at least two conceptual trends in American higher education. The first is towards customized education. You see this trend in lots of places--in recruiting efforts which talk to students as if they are consumers; in online education which promises that students will learn when and where they want to; and in the programming of lots of colleges and universities, which offer ever more majors, minors, programs, and opportunities. There are many virtues to this approach, not the least of which is that they acknowledge that students, faculty, and stff have particular needs and interests.

The second is towards commonality in higher education. This, too, is everywhere. Many state systems are working to ensure that every student develops a common set of skills, or achieves a common set of goals, or takes a common curriculum. Private colleges and universities are moving this direction as well, trumpeting their missions, learning goals, core curriculum, etc. The common, too, is virtuous. At its most noble it is inspired by a democratic vision--that all students who enroll in higher education emerge with the skills necessary to work and participate in a democracy.

The problem with both of these trends, though, is that they can ignore what we know about learning. Customization forgets that learning is a social enterprise, one that happens best when learners interact regularly and understand the impact of their actions on other people. It also forgets that higher education has a civic role, one not filled by graduating hundreds of thousands of isolated learners. Commonality ignores the powerful role that self-efficacy plays in learning. As soon as students feel like their learning is out of their hands, they withdraw, become passive, and shunt responsibility for their learning (and upon graduation, their behavior) onto others.

So the conceptual question shouldn't be "The common or the custom?" Instead, we need to think and act in ways that the common leads to the custom, and the custom to the common. Here are a couple of practical ways to come at the challenge of integrating the common and the custom:
  1. Favor common experiences that lead to custom outcomes. Campuses should mandate that all students have certain experiences--study abroad, internships, leadership, service-learning--that give them a common language but radically personal outcomes. These personal outcomes then become a source of diverse ideas and experiences in the classroom, a place where they are sorely needed. Ask an individual student about her study abroad experience and you'll hear how it changed her. Ask a group of students about their study abroad experiences and you immediately get educational conversations that every faculty member would love to have in her classroom.
  2. Favor common practices that lead to custom relationships. Empirical research and personal reflections remind us that the relationships that develop during college are key to learning, well-being, and future success. Higher education should make sure that all students develop this sort of relationship. Doing so requires, at the least, a serious commitment to mentoring, so that every student is known by a full-time educator. Note that this isn't a call for small class sizes. In fact, colleges might be better off with larger classes if that means that someone is spending more time with individual students. Note also that building these relationships is particularly important for new students, the students who in the current system get the least meaningful, personal mentoring.
  3. Favor custom curricula that take on meaning through a common metaphor. A student's course of study is essentially a narrative. The ability to tell one's own story is a sign of personal well-being. But individual stories add up to something more powerful when they fit into the stories of others. So let students craft their own courses of study (which, if they have good mentors, will be wise courses of study as well.) But make sure that the institution as a whole has its own narrative that students' narratives fit into. Consider Naropa University, the Buddhist-inspired school in Boulder, CO. Not only do they have a clear focus--contemplative education--that infuses their classes, but they also have a metaphor--the breath--that gives meaning to the individual narratives of students. By building their curricula around the in-breath and out-breath, students develop a sense of common purpose even while they pursue quite different courses of study.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Gary,
I think what we know about learning is up in the air. We have data that says we need to meet individual needs. We have data that says social learning is best. We have data that says students prefer to progress at their own rate. So what we "know" about learning can fit these 2 platforms, and others.
My 2 cents