Introduction

In general, there needs to be more alternative and experimental learning communities. Such programs provide two important benefits (possibly among others).

First, such programs help explore the space of learning strategies and learning environments. Westmont serves most of its students by providing an excellent education. However, we have little reason to believe that this is because the particular approach is ideal; given the lack of exploration of alternatives, a more likely explanation is that for the most part we get very good students who are already well suited to the traditional teaching framework. Even if the traditional approach is superior to alternatives, it would be reassuring to have evidence in the form of evaluations from trials with alternatives.

Second, a small fraction of the students who come to Westmont would be more suited to an alternative or experimental approach. Such students would directly benefit from an alternative learning environment that provided more freedom and responsibility.

Problems

The traditional approach to education carries with it a number of problems. Note, these problems do not preclude an excellent and thorough education; they simply represent challenges that suggest that an alternative might prove to be more effective at developing students into the type of people we hope them to become.

  1. Emphasis on teaching instead of on learning. Enough said? (Based on a previous discussion, apparently not. Note, I am not talking about student-centered teaching where the student takes on the role of customer. I'm talking about learning-centered living where learning takes priority.)
  2. Life-long learning gets short shrift. Even when learning does manage to take place in the midst of teaching, self-motivated and self-directed learning -- the type of learning that is necessary to support life-long learning -- is not explicitly developed. If a student does acquire these qualities, it appears to be happening accidentally or at random.
  3. Lecture as questionable content delivery mechanism. If the lecture ever was the ideal means for conveying knowledge or skill to learners, it seems doubtful that it is so today. Even where it does work, it acts against the development of self-motivation and discovery.
  4. Grades confuse matters. The single final grade for a course is too coarse. If a course has more than one goal, then a final grade doesn't carry the information we would want it to. In addition to the limited capacity, grades tend to be inflated and thus even less informative than we would like to think. Even with grade inflation, the grading model tends to discourage a willingness to take risks together with the likely occasions of failure (from which we may learn the most). And finally, students have a tendency to place excessive value on the grades, to the exclusion of the learning itself.
  5. Departmental silos discourage interdisciplinary thinking/learning. The traditional departmental organization serves bureaucratic needs but not necessarily the needs of the student. Encapsulation and information hiding (at work in departmental structures) are general and powerful design principles found at multiple layers in nature and social systems. However, if we want to adopt a learning-centric perspective, then the student, and not the discipline, should receive more focus in educational design decisions.
  6. Disconnection from ‘real life’. Many charge academia with being too far removed from real life. While such criticism can mask a multitude of questionable assumptions and motives, we need to be honest and face the charge head-on. The learning that we hope takes place -- in support of life-long learning -- will occur within the context of real world problems. Thus, we should create learning opportunities that encounter such problems.

Principles

The following assumptions shape my thinking about what education should be like:

  1. thinking is done best in community
  2. learning should be internally motivated
  3. learning should be individually shaped and paced
  4. learners need to share whatever they are learning
  5. learners learn to think by observing others thinking and then by actually thinking for themselves

What We Might Do

Can we conceive a modest response to the above problems that would be consistent with the above principles? Most simply, a group of faculty and students could gather regularly to think. Not to teach. Not explicitly to learn (although we would certainly hope and expect learning to take place). Simply to think and to try to think better by talking.

This could take on multiple forms. I could imagine any or all of the following as serving these purposes:

Open questions include but are not limited to: How to select students and faculty to participate? What form of reward (if any) should be provided to students and faculty, respectively? What form of penalty (if any) should be applied if students or faculty fail to live up to expectations?

Outcomes

What is it that we want for ourselves and our students? Westmont has a set of broad-based outcomes desired for its graduates. The success of an alternative learning group would be established if, for one or more of those outcomes, students demonstrate superior abilities (relative to students following the traditional program). In particular, I expect that an alternative program along the lines of what I'm imagining would tend to develop people (students) who are life-long learners and who demonstrate an enhanced ability to articulate what they are learning and why. Such people might also be better prepared to face the real-world problems they will encounter throughout the rest of their lives. But as an experimental alternative to learning, we may be satisfied if the approach does not deliver superior levels of performance but ‘merely’ serves students who otherwise fall through the cracks of the traditional system.

Next Steps

I don't know -- I need your help. If we want to do anything more than a super-read-and-feed, we need a physical space to serve as a center of gravity and perhaps some administrative support in the form of course release.

In order for an ethos of self-directed and self-motivated learning to take root and flourish, there needs to be a physical space that can become ‘home’ for faculty and student participants. In principle, our desired outcomes can come about without a dedicated physical space but in practice, they probably will not.

The other need -- support from the institution -- might not be as critical but will certainly be helpful. We might find several faculty willing to dedicate the time needed to advise students purely for the fun of it. However, the stability of the effort will be put at risk when the participating faculty become over-subscribed at random points of the semester.

Resources