Friday, April 30, 2010

Learning on the margin: playing jazz, jazz as learning

Last week I sat in a rehearsal room while my 14-year old daughter and four other junior high jazz students held a sectional. (They all play in the Little Big Band, an audition band that is part of the Crescent Jazz Institute. CJI puts together some very high level groups--its Super Band has twice been voted best high school jazz band in the US by Downbeat Magazine.)

I was the only adult in the room. Their director simply asked them to get better at several pieces before they record them next week. He did appoint a section leader, but the leader had no real power, or at least none not granted by the rest of the rhythm section.

The kids took a long time to get set up, playing with cords, rearranging the drum kit, horsing around. Finally someone asked which piece they would rehearse first. They picked one, the drummer counted them off, and they started playing.

The piece ended, followed by a bit more horsing around, then another piece, which they stopped once for tempo problems. Then they played through their other two pieces. When they finished they still had 45 minutes left. So they dug out a few copies of The Real Book a compilation of hundreds of jazz standards. Someone named a piece they liked. Many in the group had never played it before, so they messed a bit with the changes, and then played it, most of the group sight reading.

They repeated the process four more times, each time playing something that several of the section members didn't know. No perfect performances here, but a lot of good music, including some outstanding improvisation. Then the rehearsal time was over, they packed up and left.

I have long been interested in "learning at the margin"--those places that are school-like (community bands, karate studios, religious retreat centers) in that they focus on learning some discipline, but where the behavior and the learning are un-school-like.

This jazz band, and the sectional rehearsal exemplify what I see as the characteristics of learning on the margin.
  • There is an adult leader, someone recognized as having advanced skills and high standards.
  • That leader expects learning, but the students become responsible for the learning--often driving themselves to very high levels of work without much direction at all.
  • Quality comes from the expectation of public performance
  • The learning has a transcendent character--that is, everyone is in it for something beyond technical skill
In some ways jazz is a key metaphor for this sort of learning--it has a technical language, a strong tradition, and within those things freedom to improvise. (For a fascinating effort to apply the metaphor of jazz to the American experience, take a look at the great African-American essayist Albert Murray's The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement)

Jazz and learning at the margins also raise some serious questions about education. Margin learning is driven by student passion and commitment. These kids play jazz because they love it; they are good because they drive themselves to be good. Schools cannot count on this sort of passion, at least in their core curricula. There, two students may be passionate, 18 compliant, and five downright unhappy to be there.

Learning at the margins is also, well, marginal. Students do it evenings and weekends; adult leaders live makeshift lives scratching together several jobs to make a living; parents commit plenty of resources to making it happen. Schooling is central--everyone participates, it happens during the day, it is a job for adults and students as well.

I'm not interested in favoring the margins over the center. Nor am I interested in favoring the center over the margins. But I do wonder about the relationship. What at the margins is linked to the center? Are margin learners also better center learners? How do students negotiate their lives in the two parts of learning? What should the whole system--center and margin together--look like for communities to be healthy? For people to feel like they can shape their lives in common? To feel like life itself is meaningful?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Students lead civic engagement, old people follow

From very early on in the history of civic engagement in higher education, one narrative has ruled. It goes like this: young people should become civically engaged because they are less engaged than old people. And we can know if they are engaged if they behave like old people.

That narrative runs through Bowling Alone, and it is certainly at the heart of The Greatest Generation, the two most widely known books on civic engagement in the United States.

The narrative is also implicit in a lot of the service-learning and civic engagement activities in higher ed, which have tried over time to engage students in politics, help them connect service and policy, advocate public service.  The reasoning is clear--if that is how people used to behave, it is a good way for people today to behave.

I have used that narrative a hundred times in one way or another. But I've stopped now. It turns out that since September 11 students are more civically engaged than before by many traditional measures--voter turnout, for example, or expressing a commitment to service through their lives, or pursuing a career in public service. (Check out CIRCLE's website for the best assemblage of research on the civic behavior of young people anywhere on the web.) This is not to say that we have a new "greatest generation," just that there is movement in some areas.

Even more important than changes in the behavior of students is the changing behavior of old people. Rather than leading, old people (I am one--I am 44, and if you believe this stuff, was born in the first year of Gen X) are following young people. We should follow more.

Take the recent Pew Survey which shows more distrust in government today than at any time in recent memory. That widespread lack of trust in government, and in big institutions as a whole, is long-standing, particularly among engaged students. The New Student Politics:The Wingspread Statement on Student Civic Engagement described student distrust of politics and government in 2001, and noted that such distrust had deep roots. Or consider the Tea Party Movement, which is demographically similar to the nation as a whole (that is, only 16 percent of Tea party supporters are under the age of 30), but which uses organizing tactics pioneered by young people.  In many ways, then, adults have come along to the point where youth were a decade ago. 

This is a good thing. Why? Because if adults are really going to follow young people, then we will pick up a couple of civic traits that engaged young people have already developed.

First, however much we trust or distrust government, we will learn to trust strangers all over the world. The remarkable thing about trust among engaged young people is that it flourishes on the internet, even in situations where people do not know each other or where they might be expected to distrust each other. Put another way, the internet has taught young people that it is reputation, not position or personality, that merits trust. Politicians and pundits continue to imagine that it is the other way around.

Second, we will learn that we are responsible for trying to solve problems ourselves. Yes, policy and politics are important. But old people of right and left have put them at the very heart of public life. They don't belong there, because there is no heart of public life. Instead there are systems of public life, and we control pieces of them. Angry about education? Sure complain, but also start your own school.

Third, we will learn that organizational boundaries do not matter. A few days ago I got to listen to 7 Westminster students talk with activists from around the developing world about civic engagement (thanks Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy for sponsoring the event). As they described their desires for the future, it was clear that young people (and activists in the developing world regardless of their ages) were committed to doing whatever worked. Sometimes that might mean starting a business, sometimes feeding the hungry, sometimes standing for election, sometimes protesting against the elected, sometimes using data, sometimes passion. The traditional ways of talking about engagement by focusing on institutions--government, businesses, schools, churches, non-profits--is too narrow. It limits activism to particular cubby holes, at least in the eyes of activist students.

The ways students talked about organizing--find a problem, start towards a solution, make things up as you go, always be organizing but never be tied to an organization--has some problems. But in a world where institutions are hollow, and leaders insular, it seems a good way to be. One we old people can learn from.

Emigration, not Immigration

As a rule of thumb, when public discussion of an issue is as vexed as the immigration debate is, it is a signal that debaters are asking the wrong question.

So let me propose an alternative question to "what should we do about illegal immigration?" The question is this: What is the United States' emigration policy?

There are all sorts of reasons why the US ought to be focused right now on getting its citizens to emigrate. If the nation wants to have its economic reach expand around the world, then more Americans need to live abroad, as residents not tourists. If the US wants to improve the quality of life in the developing world, then more Americans need to live abroad, not merely provide aid. if we want to improve understanding among different nations, races, and peoples, then Americans need to live abroad. In short, most of our global challenges cannot be resolved by government policy alone. They demand people on the ground, living abroad, not just visiting.

There is all sorts of evidence that having citizens move abroad is a good thing. It has certainly been the case for economically weak nations, whether in the 19th century when Europeans emigrated to the United States, or in the 21st Century, when the economies of many developing nations thrive on remittances from citizens abroad. It has been the case for China, which as this article in The Atlantic makes clear, is flourishing in Africa because Chinese have moved to Africa to set up businesses, not aid projects.

This isn't primarily an educational issue, but it has educational implications. Students regularly identify study abroad as one of their most powerful learning experiences. And colleges are leaders in promoting global awareness, language education, and international academic exchanges. So we could do our part to encourage emigration by preparing more students whose goals are not just to spend a semester abroad, but to set up shop outside the United States, put down roots, and be Americans abroad.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Opportunity Curriculum

I had lunch today with a group of Westminster students who had been finalists for or had received prestigious fellowships in the past year.

Tim Dolan, who works with those students (together with running our Undergraduate Research and Problem-Based Learning initiatives), and President Michael Bassis asked the students to describe how they had come to conceive of the projects that won them accolades. In each instance the students described how they had access to a curriculum of opportunity--a series of classes, a student community, faculty members who encouraged, mentored, and critiqued their work.

I have been intrigued with this curriculum lately, in part because my daughter is about to go to Switzerland to serve an internship with a green hedge fund, due to the opportunity curriculum at her college.

At Westminster the curriculum looks like this:
1. get accepted into the Honors program where you take a modified liberal education curriculum, comprised of interdisciplinary courses team-taught by the college's most active researchers (who also happen to be among its best teachers),

2. major in a hard science, economics, or philosophy, where either because of small class sizes or intense lab work you get to know faculty as colleagues and critics,

3. get involved in some sort of major project or club--the ethics bowl team, for example,

4. get an international experience in your first or second year, especially one that involves service and/or public policy,

5. apply for a fellowship early--preferably as a sophomore, certainly as a junior. Take advantage of the college's resources to get your application scrutinized

6. apply again as a senior, with a more refined proposal and with an eye to graduate school.

I call this a curriculum for a couple of reasons: first, it does rely in part on course work. Second, faculty are central to it. Third, it follows a map that points in a particular direction. And fourth, this curriculum, like all of them, is chosen by some students and unavailable (by choice or design) to most.

Given that the components of the opportunity curriculum are the things that lead to student success, learning, and completion, I would hope that access would be widely available. I am sure it is no surprise that instead access is quite limited.

I am not sure how to broaden access. But at the very least we ought to design student experiences so the opportunity curriculum is visible, recognizable, and available.

Getting a Start in Open Learning

The NY Times ran an excellent piece yesterday on the state and future of open learning. It got me thinking about how institutions like Westminster who have done very little in this area might get a start.

It describes four models of open learning:
1. The MIT OpenCourseWare model (also used by Yale) where videos of classes, along with (sometimes) syllabi and other course documents are posted online. Anyone can view them, but students cannot get a grade, communicate with faculty, or demonstrate their learning in any significant way.

2. The Carnegie-Mellon approach, which has put full courses online--including simulations, tests, etc. and then marketed them to students and to community colleges. The Carnegie-Mellon approach has so far developed 10 courses at $250K each with plans for four more. These courses are at least focused on learning (as opposed to teaching) and students can get credit for completing them.

3. The hybrid course model, where students complete some of their work online, thus freeing up classroom space for more students.

4. The Peer to Peer Model where new institutions like Peer to Peer University offer courses that can eventually add up to the learning equivalent to a degree, but which do not offer degrees (due to accreditation and other obstacles.) P2PU bundles open source materials with a moderator who helps engage students with learning and provides evaluations of student work. P2PU aims to have its students demonstrate their competence through portfolios, etc. rather than through a formal credential.

So for an institution who hasn't gone far in any of these directions, and who focuses on student learning, which is the best path to follow? It seems to me that only the third and fourth have any promise, and that the fourth is particularly interesting. Here is why: The first two models take a huge influx of resources, and they rely largely on a teaching model--faculty delivering learning to students. Big and wealthy schools will always have the advantage here.

Hybrid courses, and programs built around them, are interesting too, but they require a major redesign of the course to be successful. Such redesigns take time and money.

The fourth model seems to be the opening because it is built on a collaborative model. Imagine a partnership where a tech company, content experts, and a college got together. The tech folks provide the infrastructure, based in social networking. The content people, experts in their fields, either develop content or more productively scour the web for the best stuff out there. And the college's faculty link in to coach students and evaluate the learning. Faculty thus continue in their favored roles without having to take on a ton of new tasks. The college doesn't have to create its own technological infrastructure. The organizations share the risk and they split the rewards.

Of course cost is the question--what can a partnership like this charge students and still make money? But still it seems that partnership building rather than starting from zero is the best bet. And it draws on the best-developed skills of faculty--not in using technology or re-working courses to have a web-based bent, but in supporting student learning.

Friday, April 16, 2010

What can businesses do to provide education with better-prepared students?

Earlier this week I attended a meeting co-sponsored by AACU and the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. Its purpose was three-fold: to inspire K-16 educators to do a better job preparing graduates to have the skills that employers need in their employees; to inspire the business community to give more public support to public education; and to launch a state-wide movement to that end.

The meeting was useful in all sorts of ways--the governor spoke, K-12 and Higher Ed systems talked more about integrating their work, and prominent business leaders spoke on behalf of the importance of education. The Commissioner of Higher Education, the past Commissioner, and the current State Superintendent of Schools spoke candidly and passionately about the needs for better support for education.

The language of partnership was everywhere--many pledged to "work together," "support each other" etc. But much of the conversation about partnership with business was uni-directional. That is, schools pledged to help train better employees. Schools serve businesses.

In the world of civic engagement we always talk about reciprocal relationships. So I started to wonder what a reciprocal educational relationship with business would be like. Not just one where businesses state publicly that schools need more support, but one that had direct bearing on learning. Here is my thinking:

1. We know that the outside-of-schools context (family, community, socio-economic status) plays a huge role in shaping the ability of students to learn,

2. And we know that most high school/college/university students work while they are in school.

So given 1 and 2, instead of only asking what education can do to serve business, a true partnership would have to ask this:

"What can businesses do to provide education with better-prepared students?"

Until we take that question seriously, the notion of partnerships between education and the business world will always be too-attuned to meeting the needs of employers and too negligent of the needs of learners.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What could administrators contribute to the intellectual life of a college?

Last Saturday the Alpha Chi Honor Society was kind enough to invite me to give the keynote speech at their induction ceremony at Westminster. My talk focused on lessons from Jane Addams' essay "The Subtle Problems of Charity" for students who wish to make a major contribution to the social good upon graduation.

I enjoyed the chance to speak, in large part because I felt like I was contributing to the intellectual life of the college in a small, but real way. I do teach courses at Westminster (about 1 a semester) but most of my work is administrative, and as such concerned with policies, process, planning, and programs of the college. I believe all of these things are essential if a college is to flourish. Without them, the core activities of the institution--the intellectual life of the college and the community life of the college--wouldn't happen as well or as predictably as they do.

But it is also true that administrators tend not to be in a position to contribute much to the college's intellectual or community life, except by helping to facilitate it. Many of us wish we could do more, and do it more directly. As I suggested in my last post, most administrators were once experts before they took on the experience of administration, and most administrators wish that their expertise, however developed, could contribute more to the academic discussions and culture--the stuff that shapes the college's mind, if you will.

So I've been wondering what administrators could do to contribute more. This is in some ways a simple question--keep administrators teaching, ensure that they develop their academic expertise as well as their administrative experiences, welcome them to the department and faculty meetings, encourage them to sponsor clubs and mentor students, require that they read in their fields.

The more interesting (and complex) question is related: What do administrators, as administrators, know and do that can contribute directly to the college's intellectual life? My colleague Mary Jane Chase, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, once suggested that historians (she is one, so am I) make particularly good administrators because their discipline is committed to outlining the grey areas between the black and white worlds recognized by theory.

There is a lot of truth in this statement, which broadened seems to suggest that administration cultivates certain habits of mind--seeing and being comfortable in working in grey areas, valuing compromise, attending to process, respecting particularity, speaking for pragmatism over dogmatism--that should be represented in the intellectual life of the college.

Are there other intellectual habits of administrators that are valuable to an institution? Dangerous to it?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Can you develop expertise through experience?

Last week I chaired a search committee to fill a program chair position on campus. Our final candidate was a perfect match for the position--he had done the same sort of work on another campus, drafted the proposal to institute such a program on our campus, shepherded it through the approval process, and then served as the interim chair for a few months while we completed this search. So the committee's decision to recommend him to the Provost was an easy one.

But the thing that got me thinking was not his experience leading academic programs, but his academic expertise. Ours is a teaching faculty--many of us publish or present infrequently. But this faculty member has an active research agenda, one that has led to the publication of three books, dozens of articles, and scads of book reviews, conference presentations, and associated academic work. In short, he is an expert in his field, someone who knows the nooks and crannies of his subject (the intersections of transcendentalism and romanticism) and of the field that surrounds it.

His resume is not unlike those of many administrators, who have academic expertise in a particular field, and substantial experience in running portions of a college or university. (My own CV has a similar though less-focused look--an odd mixture of publications in history, civic engagement, and higher ed administration.)

I can't speak for others, but I feel a certain exasperation with this gap between expertise and experience, for three reasons:
1. I miss the days when I could justify spending a substantial amount of time doing research (learning) about something--that is, in developing expertise.

2. Experience-based learning in higher ed administration tends to a flattening out of knowledge. After a time (a decade of full-time administrative work, in my case) you develop a set of skills that make it possible for you to do your work well. But I am not certain that those skills translate into expertise, at least of the sort that you develop through focused research and publication.

3. The expertise/experience gap has political implications--many faculty I have known, at Westminster and elsewhere, feel that administrative work is a lower sort of work, and administrators are suspect, in part because their abilities are based in experience rather than expertise. That is, experience-based learning is suspect.

Does it matter that administrators learn through experience more than research? Does it matter that faculty learn more through research than experience? Is it possible to set up an administrative system that helps experience become expertise? We believe we can do this with students--coupling reflection with service-learning for example, or an internship with a research paper. Is it possible for faculty and administrators?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Can colleges teach happiness? Can students learn it?

My college-age daughter visited Utah a couple of weeks ago. Her women's lacrosse team played Westminster's in a tournament. She had some challenging times in her first semester. She seemed much better. I said to her, "you seem much happier." She said, "Of course. I have friends now."

Happiness is a burgeoning field of research (my favorite book in the genre (of which I have read very few) is Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness) that is providing some counter-intuitive results about the roles of money, education, prosperity, and consumption in promoting or limiting happiness. The gist of many findings, at least as summarized in this recent New Yorker book review is that while much of our public policy is at least publicly committed to building happiness by limiting poverty, providing access to services, spreading justice equally through society, etc. many of those things are unlikely to bring about happiness.

Happiness studies are trickling into the curriculum (at Westminster mostly through an increased emphasis on positive psychology in intro psych courses) and much of our work in student support and retention is devoted in part to helping students feel happy.

I wonder whether it is possible to teach happiness. I suppose at one level it is simple--just offer a class on happiness in the way you would on history or child development or accounting. Students would learn a lot of interesting stuff about happiness; some may become happier.

Plenty of faculty would be opposed to such I course, I would guess, because the subject smacks of the sort of stuff served up on Dr. Phil and checkout counter magazines. Full-time jobs in higher ed (especially for faculty) have many of the trappings of happiness--good pay, good benefits, low stress (at least when compared to law enforcement, business, or customer service) and significant autonomy. But campuses can be home to a lot of unhappiness--dissatisfaction with work, poor relations with colleagues, grudges borne far too long.

And in the same way that teaching ethics courses doesn't necessarily improve the ethical behavior of students, should we expect that a course on happiness would make students happier? My daughter's experience brings me up short, as do the reports of increasing unwellness among college students. She is at school on a Christian campus with all of the trappings of student support, prosperity, and support systems favored in higher ed. But none of that, in her telling at this point, helped make her happy. Having friends did it.

A small center affiliated with Stanford University, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education is taking a different approach, by teaching not happiness but compassion and the skills (especially meditation) that in theory bring it about. Their work is based on Buddhist views of the sources of compassion; they are now developing a curriculum on altruism. One of their hopes is that learning altruism will lead both to compassionate acts and to happier people.

So maybe the pathway to happiness in higher ed is to come at it sideways--don't teach a course on happiness, but do focus on altruism, and compassion, and satisfaction as goals. And find ways to understand and highlight the benefits of these things, many located in the co-curriculum, for the overall well-being of students, staff, and faculty.

Should we be doing this? Is it our responsibility to teach happiness? To help students learn it?