Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Holistic First-Year College Course - A Non-Solution

Elementary education features students having a single teacher, somebody who puts the students through spelling, reading, handwriting, arithmetic, painting, and a variety of other subjects, while learning about the personalities of the individual students and showing them a modicum of affection in the process.  Most of the teaching and learning takes place within a single classroom.  The approach offers an all-in-one solution and is what I mean by a holistic course in my title.

The alternative approach is to have specialized instruction - teachers concentrate on specific subjects and students get matched to specific courses.  In our current way of doing things, the holistic approach dominates the early years of school.  Then the specialized approach follows in two distinct steps.  Middle school features students in lockstep, so they are with their classmates in most of their classes (foreign language and art/music may separate the students some).  High school then completes the transition to specialized instruction.  The students are no longer in lockstep, each has an individualized program of classes.

For reasons I don't understand, though I suspect this had little to do with student intellectual development, the switch points from holistic to specialized instruction were pushed up when I was going through the process.  (I did do a Google search on the question and found this piece, which gives some interesting history on the issue, though I think it pretty weak on causality behind the reforms.)  Perhaps for this reason, while I've read numerous pieces about education reform, the thought of moving to holistic courses in the later years of school has never come up in what I've read, even as a remote possibility.

So why bring it up here?  I've experienced a holistic learning environment in an adult education setting, both as a participant (I was part of the 2003 cohort in the Frye Leadership Institute) and as one among a team of instructors (for the Learning Technology Leadership Program 2007-09).  The experiences were very intense and created a strong bond among those in attendance.  Whether they also created durable value, it is harder for me to say.  I believe they did for me, which is one reason why I'm disposed to think about this sort of environment.

But my interest here is undergraduate education for residential college students, not adult education for mid-career professionals.  Does the suggestion make any sense in that context?

* * * * *

Let me describe the issues that I see in teaching my one Econ course each fall, a course which is targeted at juniors and seniors.  The big issues are with student commitment and student preparedness. Yet describing the issues in an abstract way doesn't really get at what such a holistic first-year course might look like, nor does it get at why the holistic course might do better for the students than the current arrangement. So I'd like to give my conception as if I were teaching such a class.  I hope that this depiction conveys the idea better.  Among the larger goals would be to create a sense of intensity in the learning without conveying that the subject matter is hopelessly over the heads of the students.

Structure-wise I envision the class to be in a seminar format with no more than 20 students.  We'd meet Monday through Friday from 8:30 AM till noon.  That way the live class session sets up the rest of the day.  Each day we'd cover only one or two topics, so that we can get into a topic with some depth.  And I imagine that the same topic will be covered for at least a couple of days and maybe several days, so we can sustain with it rather than jump from one subject to the next.  Once we got going, at least one of the topics for that day would be something that was a holdover from the prior session.

The first week would be critical for setting the tone during the rest of the semester, so I want to describe it in some detail.  I maintain a reading list for a (until now hypothetical) course on learning and leadership.  It is idiosyncratic to me and reflects pieces I've read over the years and thought highly of.   I would make extensive use of materials on that list, especially early on in the course.

Monday morning would begin with introductions.  I would replicate the practice that happens at meetings I used to attend, where everyone gets a name tent that they hand write out - first names only.  Preferably we'd use those names in our discussion and with repeated use we'd get to know one another well enough to immediately recognize the person and do that fairly quickly.  We'd use introductions for some assessment of student aspirations and expectations.  This is meant to be their first college course.  What do they want to get out of it?  What hidden fears might be articulated in such a conversation, assuming the students can relax enough to open up in the discussion?

Following this there would be some discussion of the game plan, mainly for the first week, where specifics would be described, while for the remainder of the semester a more vague structure would be mentioned but not hammered out.

Students would have two sorts of readings.  On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 11 AM, the students would be given an essay or short story to read in class.   If an hour is not sufficient to finish the reading, my hope is that they could finish it before they go to lunch.  In any event, they should do that reading under my watch.  That afternoon, outside of class, they are to write 600 words minimum about what they read.  Half of that should be a summary of the piece.  I mean for this to apply the understand level in Bloom's taxonomy.  Given the length of this piece they will be instructed to describe their key takeaways from reading the essay.  They will be told to get at the gist of the essay.  They will also be told to ask the Why? question.  Why is the essence of this piece important or indeed is it important?  The second part of the essay is meant to be more speculative and give the student freedom to find how the essay ties either into their prior high school experience or into their aspirations for college.  The particular readings I have in mind are:

Monday - What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? by Paul Tough
Tuesday - Solitude and Leadership by William Deresiewicz
Wednesday - Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Students would be told that their essays are due at 5 PM, no exceptions for late submissions.  This is so I can read them and comment on them all.  We'd discuss the pieces and what the students wrote in the next class session. I actually do something similar in my Economics of Organizations class, though I haven't used these readings and the time from giving the prompt to having them write a post on it to my reading and commenting on it to our then discussing it in class is one week.  So here I'd be compressing that time from one week into one day.  That is intentional to contribute to the sense of intensity.

These first readings you might say are about character and the shaping of character.  The other reading would be chapters from Ellen Langer's book, The Power of Mindful Learning.   This is a short book which the class would read in its entirety, but do so outside of class, in the afternoon or evening.  Students would be encouraged to write up their thoughts on what they read, either during the reading or afterward, but none of what they wrote would be collected by me.  This reading is meant to get the students to consider in some depth what learning is actually about, to get them to reflect on whether they really were learning or not in high school, and especially if the answer to that is not really whether they want to start being mindful in college.  I am not neutral on this point.  They should opt for mindfulness, no doubt.  But they may not be very good at it, for lack of practice, and they may very well fear failure.  This should tie the character part to the learning part quite well, or so is my hope.

On Thursday the students would write a different sort of essay - a critique of their experience from the first few days.  They should discuss the workload and how their efforts compared to the workload in high school. They should discuss the difficulty level of what they've read and what we discussed in class.  They should talk about their likes and dislikes in this.  They might also offer up any suggestions they have for modifying our approach.  In advance, they will be told that Friday will be a time for review and recalibration of the course and that during that session we will write the syllabus for the rest of the class, based in part on their input.

I don't know ahead of time how that will turn out but let me discuss various potential contingencies.  On the essays the students produce, particularly the first three of these, part of my objective is to learn whether students can make good meaning from what they were to read.  It has been my contention for some time, for example this is expressed most recently in my post Defining the fundamental learning issue for average students, that many of the students I see are not good readers of generalist writing, because they haven't spent much time doing that in the past.  If the bulk of the class seem to be in this situation, then some type of adjustment will be necessary regarding the difficulty level in the reading assigned as well as in the volume of what is to be read.  If only a few seem to be in this category, then the adjustment might mean individual coaching for those students who are struggling with the reading, while keeping to the pace and difficulty level in these first few selections.

On the work level, which I expect most students to say is substantially more than what they were used to from high school, there is the added issue that if such a class were done as a small experiment within the first year experience (we typically have upwards of 7,000 first-year students on campus) then the members of the class would very likely be in a dorm or other campus sanctioned living arrangement occupied mainly by students who are taking classes as they are offered now.  Their social life is important to them, no doubt, perhaps more important than their classes.  If the outside of class work in the holistic course is seen as creating a conflict with their social life, that might then be perceived as a big negative by the students.  They might then consider dropping the holistic course in favor of a more normal class schedule.

This issue can be anticipated.  It therefore should enter into how the class is marketed before students enroll in it and then will likely appeal to certain types of students - introverts more than extroverts, kids who don't want to drink or smoke dope, students who would have preferred to go to a small liberal arts college but who couldn't afford to pay tuition at such a place, and possibly other relevant dimensions that don't occur to me now.  Even with that, the class may seem a jolt and the reaction may be - I want out.  Therefore, students need to agree ahead of time, preferably in writing, that they will stick it out. 

One of the particular questions I'd want to get at in our discussion on Friday is how the reading of the pieces done in class compared to the reading of Langer's book done outside of class.  Was the effort level the same or not?  If the effort level was different, why was that the case?  I'd then want the students to envision that it was their parents taking this course rather than them.  Let the students speculate as to how their parents would answer these questions.

This would serve as my introduction to microeconomics, which the students would learn is fundamentally about incentives.  The readings in class were monitored, both directly by watching the students in the classroom, then through the essays they wrote, and finally through class discussion the following day.  The reading done outside of class was also monitored, but much less.  Only the class discussion piece counted in that case.  Does the difference in monitoring intensity matter for the effort level students put in?

The reason for doing the hypothetical about their parents is to get at the issue of maturity and whether that matters in different incentive regimes or not.  These students, after all, are making decisions for themselves without direct parental intervention, perhaps for the first time in their lives.  They understand that much.   The question about their parents is aimed at getting to the students' then current perception of how adults who are experienced make decisions.  Are they fundamentally opportunistic or fundamentally responsible human beings or somewhere in between?

None of this discussion about microeconomics would be foreshadowed, partly to not induce bias in the experiment that the students are performing, and partly because the surprise that I hope the students will experience when they reflect on what they've been through earlier in the week should  make for richer learning in this Friday session.

I will then switch gears and bring the focus onto me.  Even if they very much like the approach we've been taking, I will let them know that in some ways we need to lighten up because my time commitment to the class has been too great and is not sustainable at this level for the entire semester.  (I don't really know this ahead of time but I surmise it is true.  I'm basing this judgment on how much time I put into my current class, which meets twice a week for 80 minutes per session. )  I will discuss this in the context of creating a bond among members in the class.  Early intensive efforts are necessary for that.  My hope in sketching this first week is that it would produce a reasonably good bond among the class by that Friday.

The part of the syllabus I would want the class as a whole to produce would be the nature of the work going forward - how much of it should be done and how it would be assessed - and how student performance should translate into course grades.  Again, I don't want to presume how this might turn out, but I do have my own biases here so I want to articulate them.  My first year experience was at MIT and there were no letter grades then, only a written evaluation, one given mid semester and another at the end of semester.  This was to take the pressure off students, too many of whom had ended up going over the deep end before my cohort arrived.  Would such an approach make sense for the holistic course as a way to encourage the students to learn to fail but persist in their efforts?

I would ask the class, can there be sustained intensity of their effort without letter grades and without intensive monitoring on my part?  From there my hope is that we'd first discuss the underlying issues and then go to something that is workable.

I also have in mind telling them that we'd start meeting ensemble at 9 AM and use the 8:30-9:00 slot for one-on-one meetings with students or perhaps with small groups of them.  I am guessing this would be agreed upon without exception and thereby would enable me to have 'required office hours' either for all students in the class or targeted specifically at those students who really seem to be struggling.   There is some research I'm aware of that argues school should start later.  Whether that is because adolescents are fundamentally nocturnal or if it is because their social lives happen at night I can't say.  As I mentioned previously, the selection into this class might mitigate the adverse consequences from students staying up to the wee hours of the morning and getting very little sleep during the week.  A shared living arrangement among class members would further help in this regard, but it is beyond what I think necessary to pull off such an experiment.  Pushing the class starting time a half hour later seems a reasonable first step at compromise along this dimension.

* * * * *

When I originally started to think about teaching this first year course I envisioned something that speaks to my disciplinary strengths, mainly microeconomics and calculus in combination.  That many of my students don't learn the math they are taught has bothered me and I thought I might make some headway on the math by teaching it situated in the economics.  Truthfully, many of the students I see don't have a good command of analytic geometry and  algebra, which they presumably get taught in high school.  So I'd want to reteach that, but eschew trigonometry, which is not relevant for the economics.

I like to dual track the economics.  One track is more formal and is steeped in math modeling.  It is how I first learned economics.  In this way it is conceived as a purely abstract subject.  The other track is story telling about economic issues in actual situations.  It is this second track which suggests using writing as a tool to learn the subject matter.  So my early thinking was to include the first writing course as part and parcel of the economics and math and that would be the package.

But then additional issues crept into my mind.  One of those is that somehow students need to read a newspaper or some other periodicals to stay informed and do so on content that is not polemic but instead is balanced, well argued, and considers the available evidence.  This is partly a question about what sources fit these requirements and partly a question about whether students have the wherewithal to do this sort of thing.  Focusing on the latter, to the extent that the students are lacking, part of the solution is to motivate the students to remedy this situation for themselves.

It's this line of thinking that encouraged me to think of the students' own learning as itself an object of study and to make good meaning out of generalist writing and to enjoy good reads of this sort as the focus of that study.  To further tie that to the rest, one needs to observe that learning requires some discipline (like economics) to situate in, so it is natural to couple the investigation into the student's own learning with an investigation of some specific subject matter, in this case the area where I do have disciplinary expertise and why I'd be the one teaching the course.  Conceivably, if the approach otherwise made sense, it could be replicated with the same sort of goals but with a different discipline as anchor and then taught by an instructor with expertise in that area.

How the course would be structured after the first week I have not fully thought through and it might very well depend on how that first week turned out.  Consider, for example, whether school should be an object of study, as a way of getting at the economics and related social science issues.  School, now I mean high school, might be the single institution of which every member of the class will have intimate experiential knowledge.  A question that would seem to follow from our first week experience is whether school encourages or discourages mindful learning.  If a good chunk of the class concluded that school was mainly a discouraging influence, it would really help in the students developing a healthy skepticism as they learned the economics.

A big message of that first microeconomics class is that markets work.  (There is Adam Smith's Invisible Hand, which the students are apt to be familiar with ahead of time, and something called the First Fundamental Welfare Theorem, which probably would be new to them.)  If the first real institution that students get to know is school and if school seems to retard real learning, how can they trust what the economics is teaching them, more broadly considered?  This, it seems to me, is a good and appropriate way to learn specific subject matter.  Uncover its precepts, but also beware of its limitations.  When one immerses in a subject matter it is easy to be co-opted.  A more critical view is helpful, and should further differentiate college from high school in the way students go about their learning.

Beyond that I won't speculate much.  Some time ago I wrote a post, Excise the Textbook, which suggests that I'd prefer a much more open ended approach, though for the calculus and math modeling of the economics parts that needs to be more structured.  Other than that, the one thought that occurs to me is from occasional coaching of students who are struggling with the math in my class.  They have memorized their way through their prior match classes.  I would insist on thinking it through in my class.  It would be a slug, no doubt.   Failure would be very likely indeed.  What could be better for building the student's character?

* * * * *

In this concluding section, I want to talk about why this is a non-solution and about whether any alternatives that might be solutions could possibly deliver on the goals I've articulated above.

The last time I taught a course for the Campus Honors Program, a version of it was also made available to satisfy the Advanced Composition General Education requirement, which I learned was a necessary step to get some CHP students to take the class.  The two prior times I taught it was Econ 101, also for CHP students.  That course satisfied part of the Gen Ed requirement for Social Sciences. 

So one should ask what Gen Ed requirements this holistic course would satisfy and also ask how many credit hours it would grant students.  If the answer on the Gen Ed requirements is none, so as to be least burdensome regarding how the holistic course is structured, then I'm afraid there would be no student demand for taking the class, because doing so would lengthen students' time to degree. Alternatively, if the course satisfied several Gen Ed requirements, then the departments who normally 'own' those courses that fulfill the requirements would have to give permission that the holistic course provided a satisfactory alternative.  Why would they give such permission?

If they perceived it as a potential enrollment threat down the road, they clearly wouldn't.  Gen Ed enrollments translate into dollars in the department's budget.  With every department hungering for additional revenue, none will tolerate such a budget threat.  Since in this case the various departments likely to be involved all are within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, some headway might be made if there were a champion for the holistic course within the Dean's office in LAS.  Such a champion could run interference in the same way that the Director of CHP obtained permissions to count my 2009 offering as satisfying the Advanced Composition requirement. Absent that sort of leadership, the idea would never see the light of day.

As to credit hours, I've scratched my head a little about whether the holistic course would have to be mapped back into component regular courses already on the books and if the holistic course would then be assigned credits equal to the sum of the component credits.  This is a very all or nothing approach and might really not align very well with what the holistic course is about.  Instead it might take bits and pieces from several courses and it might also do things that are not in any current courses.  There is an independent study number, LAS 199, that when attached to a rubric can qualify for credit if an instructor is willing to support a student in doing so and then if the department grants its approval.  This enables special topics as a stand alone.  Since LAS 199 can have anywhere from 1 to 5 credits, it seemingly provides a lot of wiggle room.  But its description doesn't contemplate the offering as a piece of a holistic course.

An alternative that would seem safe is to simply assert 15 credit hours - from the 9 till noon meeting times during the work week.   But the seat time model really doesn't do justice to what is at issue here regarding the intensity of the way the course should work.  One or two additional credit hours would seem appropriate to signify that.  I don't know who would give the say so on this.  I do sense, however, that there could be quite a bit of administrative blockage to be able to deliver the right sort of message on this score to the students.

Let me turn to the next reason why this approach can't work.  It is far too labor intensive from the instructor's viewpoint.  In essence, it makes a full time job out of teaching a single seminar class.  Regular instructors can't do this, as they have other obligations that occupy them.  Retired faculty, like me, might have the requisite time available.  But would it be worth their while?  I would be willing to try it once, if I got paid at the same rate that I currently get paid for teaching my current course, The Economics of Organizations.  But in this case my willingness would stem mainly from my curiosity about how such a course would play out for the students enrolled in it.  And if that matter seemed settled a few weeks into the semester, it is possible I'd burn out from having 'volunteered' in excess of my capacity to do so comfortably.  (In general, instructor burnout in the midst of teaching a holistic course is a possible different source of failure.)  At a higher rate of pay, which might better rationalize the instructor effort, one needs to ask why the department (or departments) paying the salary would be willing to do so.  What are they getting out of the bargain?

For these reasons, I started to think about possible alternative approaches that would replicate the holistic approach in some respects but be more do-able.  It occurred to me that a middle school like approach might be feasible, where students took classes in lock step that are taught by different instructors who do coordinate their lesson plans and talk with one another on occasion about the students.  The component classes of this lock step offering would have to be taught as an overload, in addition to regular teaching responsibilities.  That is feasible, although it clearly will limit the time and intensity each instructor can bring to the endeavor.  Nevertheless, if the instructors are sufficiently like minded regarding goals and if it were possible to have a 'hell week' to produce some of the bonding that needs to happen to make the holistic course work,  perhaps a similar consequence might be achieved.

Let me close with this bit, from a post I wrote called Facsimiles, composed immediately after returning from the first Learning Technology Leadership Institute where I was a faculty member, back in 2007.  In that post I referred to myself as a dodo-head, faculty in a former life who have moved on to becoming learning technology administrators.  At the time there were many early adopter faculty types who had become campus leaders, but the field was growing rapidly and with that the administrative positions were becoming professionalized.  My career path was dying out, ergo my colorful label.  This is the last paragraph of the piece.

I believe the institute’s main impact was cathartic rather than intellectual. It was intense while it lasted. For the institute to have a lasting impact the attendees must now spread their wings and fly from the nest and not have big birds on the brain, extinct or otherwise.

What if the first semester on campus created a catharsis for newly entering students?   Would they then spread their wings and fly?  Even if it's not possible to deliver a holistic course, I have the itch to ask about what it would take to achieve such catharsis.


Christie said...

I think schools need to make some drastic changes. A lot of the methods are outdated and not helpful to students anymore. There also needs to be mandatory classes that teach young people life skills like learning how to balance a checkbook, have a budget, etc. Things that everyone has to do in life.

Lanny Arvan said...

For the sake of argument, Christie, do you think that some skill development should happen outside of school? I don't think I had a class on how to balance a checkbook or keep to a budget, but somehow I learned these things. Also, might these skills be harder to teach students in low income households that are chronically short of cash? I grew up in a middle class household and had an allowance as a kid. That was a gentle way to begin to learn these skills.