Recently, I mentioned to a friend that I had been appointed Director of my university’s undergraduate core curriculum. “The WHOLE THING?” she asked. Yup. The whole enchilada. Little ol’ me. Am I scared shitless? Fo sho. Am I energized? Yeah, some of that too. I want to share some partially formed thoughts here about my goals for the program. What I’d really like, though, is YOUR thoughts. What are you doing at your universities? What do you think about what we’re up to at Willy P? Read about our program, and share your questions, suggestions and/or critiques. Let’s collaborate to make some quality undergraduate programs, people!
So, we used to have a rather old fashioned, distribution requirements kind of General Education program. The kind that students wanted to “get out of the way” so that they could take the classes they really wanted. Then, there was a big revolution about four years ago. The new program, the University Core Curriculum, is genuinely innovative and has the potential for inspiring some truly well-educated citizens of a functioning democracy (should Congress ever decide to live up to our expectations, that is). Here’s a link to the home page so you can check it out. In brief, there are six thematic threads:
- Personal Well-Being (which can include physical education classes as well as topics like Ethical Well Being and Financial Well Being)
- Ways of Knowing (which is subdivided into Philosophical Perspectives, Historical Perspectives, Social and Behavioral Sciences, Scientific Perspectives, and Quantitative Thinking)
- Diversity and Justice
- Community and Civic Engagement
- Global Awareness.
Faculty can propose all sorts of unique course offerings in each of the areas, and courses can use content that’s integrated into both majors and minors in the Departments. Truthfully, it’s a bottom-up, faculty-driven program that has some pretty incredible potential.
As I’m gearing up to be the Tsar of this thing, I’ve been revisiting a whole variety of readings, training, experiences, and imaginings in the pedagogical arena. Unlike most art historians, I have a Masters Degree in Education in addition to my PhD. The strategies and techniques that I learned doing that second degree were designed for children in elementary school, but I’m continually amazed at how well they serve me when I teach undergraduates.
In particular, there’s an incredible method called the Reggio Emilia approach. It’s similar to Montessori in that the curriculum is largely student-driven, but Reggio Emilia also emphasizes creativity and beauty in amazing ways. In both types of classrooms, students learn about things that engage them, they have a fair amount of freedom within limits, and they have a chance to PLAY. Although this is most definitely NOT what I experienced teaching elementary school in the South Bronx, it provides a lofty goal for teachers who genuinely want to develop deep learning and critical thinking at an early age.
What’s on my mind lately is the parallel between that moment of childhood education and the period when most students attend college. In the first, children transition from infancy/toddlerhood to childhood, while in the second, most traditional students transition from adolescence into something resembling adulthood. Even non-traditional students, who might be initiating an undergraduate degree at a more advanced age or taking longer to complete it, will most likely experience a shift in maturity and understanding about themselves and their role in the world. At least that’s the goal of a liberal arts education, no?
Last week, I attended an amazing lecture at a WPU conference called Whose University? The keynote speaker, Andrew Delbanco has recently written a book called College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. Delbanco spoke about the importance of developing critical thinking through things like peer-to-peer learning. As a literary type, he frequently referred to Herman Melville, who apparently described the four years that he spent on a whaling ship as akin to a college education. For Melville, that period allowed him to develop his literacy, acquire new skills, experience a genuine encounter with diversity, and spend a substantial amount of time in contemplation. For Delbanco—and for me—those are some of the functions of college that still remain relevant. My favorite quotation from the lecture: “The college classroom is a rehearsal space for democracy.”
Not only was Delbanco’s talk inspirational, but it also reminded me of another amazing lecture on our campus a few years back. That time, it was Doug Thomas, whose book (co-authored by John Seely Brown) is called A New Culture of Learning. In their short, very readable volume, Thomas and Brown provide some great insights into ways that we can reinvigorate our undergraduate classrooms. They discuss the value of a shared experience, the need for creativity and student-driven curricula, and (surprise!) room for PLAY.
As Thomas and Brown say, “The new culture of learning is based on three principles: (1) The old ways of learning are unable to keep up with our rapidly changing world, (2) New media forms are making peer-to-peer learning easier and more natural, (3) Peer-to-peer learning is amplified by emerging technologies that shape the collective nature of participation with those new media.” (authors’ emphases, Thomas & Brown, p. 50)
They expand on those three principles to arrive at the following suggestions for tweaking our pedagogy to meet twenty-first century students’ needs:
- Encourage peer-to-peer learning: In the contemporary world, vast stores of information are available over the Internet, and whether we like it or not, that reality has changed the way authority and the transfer of knowledge function in our classrooms. As faculty, our job is becoming less focused on delivering information and more focused on teaching students to sort through the morass of data and opinions that they encounter daily. As Thomas and Brown write, “In the new culture of learning, people learn through their interaction and participation with one another in fluid relationships that are the result of shared interests and opportunity.” (Thomas&Brown, p. 50)
- Embrace the new reality of learning within the Collective: With the advent of digital media, we are increasingly able to contribute to global conversations in immediate and meaningful ways (e.g this blog). What is most important about the collective, for Thomas and Brown, is its participatory nature. As they write, “A collective is very different from an ordinary community. Where communities can be passive (though not all of them are by any means), collectives cannot. In communities, people learn in order to belong. In a collective, people belong in order to learn. (emphasis mine) Communities derive their strength from creating a sense of belonging, while collectives derive theirs from participation.” (Thomas & Brown, p.52)
- Play: Thomas and Brown cite that old familiar medievalist, Johan Huizinga, whose argument in Homo Ludens they paraphrase as “… play is not merely central to the human experience, it is part of all that is meaningful to human culture.” They continue, saying, “Much of what makes play powerful as a tool for learning is our ability to engage in experimentation.” (Thomas/Brown, p. 97)
In other words, both early childhood and higher education specialists are considering the inestimable value of social learning, creativity, space for thought, and play. For readers who are also following the activities of the BABEL Working Group, you’ll recognize some of these topics as central to their core beliefs. In fact, play is one of the major threads in the upcoming conference in Santa Barbara. Submit an abstract, and come play at the beach with us next fall!
These are also some of the things that I want to encourage the faculty at WPU to consider when proposing new courses for our core curriculum. If we really take these ideas seriously, I think we might actually have a shot at developing some critical thinkers who can be educated citizens. And, dare I say it? Maybe we could find some childlike enthusiasm for learning in their somewhere. Along with Thomas, Brown, and Delbanco, I believe that a fusion of experimentation and shared information is what generates true learning, in an open, collaborative, and playful classroom. What do you think?