Friday, March 22, 2013

On Intentionality: An argument against hoping good things will happen

"Unless the students' experience of classes is connected, it is trivialized. Any course that isn't part of a larger journey is a dead end."

This comes from one of the best books on higher education that I have read in the last decade, The Learning Paradigm College, by John Tagg. It represents what I believe to be the biggest failing of higher education, which is our consistent inability to provide a cohesive, holistic experience that, taken together, actually means something for students. If you haven't read Tagg's book, you should.  And, if you think you don't have time or that the $9.69 it will cost you to buy it used on Amazon is too steep a price, at least read the seminal article upon which the book is based.

Given my frustrations with the problem of fragmentation that pervades higher education, I was ecstatic to hear about my own institutions efforts to provide our students with an alternative approach to their general education.  As I listened to our Associate Dean for General Education describe this new "mosaic" approach to general education, I had to pinch myself a few times. What she was describing seemed nearly identical to what I had dreamed about for some time. General education courses would be grouped thematically. Students would be invited to select a mosaic that provided a series of linked courses, all exploring a larger theme or issue. There were options that aligned with particular courses of study, as well as more general mosaics that could complement nearly any degree program. And, most importantly, it seemed aimed at providing students with an integrated experience that could connect with their interests and future goals. But, the longer I listened, the more I started hearing what became a very troubling phrase: "We hope. . . ."

Let me be clear, there are lots of things for which I hope. I hope my March Madness bracket doesn't get any worse than it did last night. I hope it will stop snowing outside my office so I can walk across campus to the Education in Zion Gallery. I hope my daughters will fall asleep early tonight, so I can spend quiet time with my wife. And, I hope that both of those daughters will become more and more excited about learning as they grow and eventually want a college education.  Hope is great.  But, only if it moves someone to action and becomes an incentive for making intentional decisions that increase the likelihood that the hope will be fulfilled. Without intentionality and action, hope is empty.  What's more, empty hope inevitably leads to the discouragement and frustration that come with unfulfilled hopes. And, as I sat listening to the presentation on BYU's new general education mosaics, I saw us headed down that path.

Theoretically, the notion of mosaics seems sound. After all, if the problem is that students aren't connecting their learning across courses, the solution is to connect the courses for them, right? If we map out those connections and then tell students to take, for example, "Environmental Biology," "Introduction to Human Geography," "Theories of Human Freedom," and "Current Social Problems," they will have completed the "Human Dignity" mosaic and have had a connected experience. Right?  Well, what I found out during part two of the meeting was that we hope this happens. While the mosaic initiative sounded great on the surface, it turns out the proposal is to do nothing more than provide students with a webpage that shows how various courses are connected around loose themes. No culminating or integrative academic experience. No collaboration among faculty members. No invitations to students to demonstrate that they have had the type of integrative experience we hope for.  The moment in the meeting that was, simultaneously, laughable and unbearingly frustrating was when the presenter was asked how many students she thought might take advantage of this opportunity (My guess is next to none because central administration has, in an incredibly curious move, barred the sending of any formal communication to students about this new initiative. Instead, the hope is that students will find their way to the obscure website I linked to above, be fortunate enough to take the initiative to meet with an academic advisor who happens to be aware of and endorse the mosaics, or be told about mosaics by one of the 13 students who meet the previous two criteria).  The response to the question: "We're really not sure how many students will take this route.  But, we hope that even for those who don't, just thinking about the possibility of making these connections will make GE more meaningful for them." Cue unicorns, money descending from the sky, and raucous laughter at our foolishness.

This assumption that grouping courses thematically and attaching a hip name to these categories will fundamentally change the experience of students flows from what Tagg has described as the Instruction Paradigm.  From this perspective, the business of colleges is to offer instruction and "learning" is then operationally defined as teaching classes. You see this at the core of my campus's mosaics: "If we offer the right courses (hopefully the same courses, so it doesn't disrupt things too much) and then point out that they are "connected," students will the make the connections and have an integrative experience.  Lots of empty hope, without any intentionality or strategic thought about the process of learning.

In contrast, Tagg's Learning Paradigm defines a "curriculum" as being about what students learn, not what teachers teach or what courses are offered:
The curriculum should be the institution's systematic plan for what and how students learn (emphasis added). The guiding principle in restructuring curriculum should be that the whole is more important than the parts. Individual courses are of trivial importance. What matters in terms of the students' whole experience is how courses--or other learning experiences--fit together. Colleges should seek to create a curriculum that leads somewhere rather than spinning in an infinite variety of nonintersecting circles. A curriculum should not be a list of classes; it should be a description of learning outcomes. (The Learning Paradigm College, Tagg, p. 326).
The problem with BYU's mosaics is that they are still built around individual courses.  We're still operating from the Instructional Paradigm. Until there is a fundamental change in perspective away from trying to recycle worn out tiles (i.e. courses) to cobble together a poorly looking mosaic (general education), we'll still be providing a fragmented experience for students. Instead, what BYU (and a lot of other institutions) needs is to stop thinking about courses and start thinking about learning. There are at least two fatal flaws in BYU's current mosaic program. First, there has been no attempt to show students where we want them to end up, which is to say that we haven't developed any clear and understandable descriptions of the outcomes for the mosaics (rubrics, video recorded interviews with students who have achieved these aims, and other multi-media descriptions of this type of learning would be a great start). Second, we haven't designed any learning experiences or environmental features that encourage integration across the courses that make up a mosaic (e.g. capstone experiences, assignments or projects that span across courses, faculty collaborations, reflective or integrative writing assignments).

To hope is not enough. Institutions have a responsibility to design and structure both experiences and environments that move beyond hope and into the realm of intentionality and action.

No comments: