TRANSFORMATIVE ENGAGED LEARNING: A MANIFESTO
[Note: This is still a rough draft, but putting it out there for feedback and additions...]
WHY WE NEED NEW MODELS OF HIGHER EDUCATION:
1. The ultimate goal of higher education should be to help prepare every student we serve to fulfill their mission in life – their own way of creating value and changing the world. We believe that each student has a mission which lies at the intersection of their particular gifts and the world’s needs, and we believe that higher education is uniquely positioned to help equip each student fulfill that mission (which includes, but is not limited to success in a career). Mission is more important than major.
2. Preparation for a student to flourish in his or her mission in life requires more than a diploma, and more than knowledge acquisition or development of a narrow set of workplace competencies. If want to prepare students to be more than consumers of the world as it is, but rather position them as creators, this will require a transformative education process that nurtures deep learning, wisdom forged in reflective-action, and new patterns of thinking and behavior. We believe that every student is designed to be more than a passive “thinker” or unreflective “doer.” We are all designed to be active and relational beings in deep community and serving others through our creative callings.
3. Higher education as we know it is fundamentally broken and failing to live up to its potential. We do not discount the fact that there is value to our degrees and that students are being transformed through their experiences in our institutions. However, we do contend that we are largely failing in our mission to nurture critical outcomes for student learning and to adequately prepare students for the challenges of life and the workforce. In addition, the debt we are requiring students to take on for our existing model of education ends up being a significant factor limiting students’ freedom to carry out their creative callings.
4. Technology offers valuable tools, but it is not the silver bullet that will solve what is ultimately a crisis in learning and human formation. Online and adaptive learning, open education resources, and MOOCs show promise as valuable tools for lowering the cost of knowledge acquisition and providing open access to valuable workplace skills. These tech-centric strategies, however, are not the most effective models for producing the holistic, deep, transformative, community-based learning that is required for students to flourish in their callings.
5. Breakthroughs in education and neuroscience research in the past decade have radically transformed our understanding of how students learn and we actually know what kind of learning produces transformative outcomes.[iii] The bottom line is that students learn best when we get back to the same models of learning that Plato and Jesus used with their disciples – through small learning communities actively engaged in dialogue, reflection, and real-world action.
6. Based on this emerging research, educators are increasingly experimenting with pedagogies that support transformative engaged learning. Problem-based learning, service-learning, team-based learning, experiential learning, contemplative learning, design-thinking, and inquiry-based learning are just a few examples. For example, the American Association of Colleges and Universities has been actively promoting “high-impact practices” which include first-year seminars and experiences, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, global learning, service- or community-based learning, internships, capstone courses and projects.[iv]
7. Here’s the kicker, though… The reality is that these transformative pedagogies exist only at the margins of higher education in short-term programs, in the co-curricular, or in spaces outside of the traditional university. There are very few examples of entire university programs that are centered around high-impact, transformative pedagogies.[v]
8. The reason these pedagogies have not been adopted is that the near-universal structure of the modern university is built around campus, classroom, and easily traded “courses,” instead of being built around best practices in learning and development. This campus and course-centric structure makes it difficult to implement strategies that are active, inter-connective, and engaged with the real world outside the campus.
9. One significant way we can fix higher education is to fundamentally re-structure our universities so that, rather than being centered on campus, classroom, and the consumption of courses, our education is centered on those processes that result in deep, transformative learning. This restructuring will, of necessity, upend a model built on the prestige of large campus buildings, sports franchises, and student amenities. It will look vastly different than either a campus-centric model or a course-based online model. This will be something new, and we are beginning to see in examples emerge in experiments currently happening outside formal higher education.[vi]
10. We call this learning-centered model of higher education “transformative engaged learning” – a term designed to encompass a wide variety of learning-centered values and best-practices, described below in “pedagogy of engagement.”
[Engaged learning definition will go here once it is more clearly defined...]
A RADICALLY DIFFERENT DESIGN - TRANSFORMATIVE ENGAGED LEARNING VALUES:
1. Created Purpose. For the authors, this transformative model of education is rooted in a deep commitment to the value of humanity as created beings. This does not mean that an education project needs to be explicitly faith-based to be transformative, but does suggest that our worldview will inform the approach we take to human transformation, and must in our opinion be a worldview that values humans as creators more than mere consumers.
2. Creativity. We reject the narrative of student as “consumer” and the values of a consumer-driven worldview. Rather, we embrace the idea that every student is called be a creator – to create value for the world in some way. Every student has creative potential, and no one should be restricted from a creative calling due to economic factors.
3. Community. The university is essentially a community of learners, including not only students, but also faculty, staff, and the local community. We believe that the desire for deep community is a fundamental human need, and the majority of learning experiences should happen in circles, not rows.
4. City as Campus. We believe that the current “ivory tower” model of higher education has created an unnecessary separation between learning and the “real world.” We instead wish to see models like the city-engaged micro-campus which blur the boundaries between city and campus. We need models that allow students to make connections between theory and the real world, so they can solve complex real-world problems while paying attention to who they are, what they believe, and what they value.
5. Scholar-Entrepreneurs (Scholar-Practitioners). The narrative of higher education has created a false dichotomy between the liberal arts and vocational training. As humans we are designed not to be mere “thinkers” or “doers” but to be relational “co-creators”…
6. Scholar-Athletes (Scholar-Warriors). The existing athletic model which pursues prestige from the performance of a few does an injustice to the fact that all students should be empowered to be their best, most healthy self. In our model all students are expected to engage in activities that will help them gain physical and mental health and confidence, activities which will be integrated as part of the learning experience.
7. Global and Intercultural. We believe in the integral value of building relationships across boundaries of difference and discomfort. Cultural displacement is an essential component of deep transformational learning in that it helps challenging one’s perspective and nurtures awareness of blind spots.
8. Lifelong Learning. In a transformative learning model there should never be a hard “graduation” and faculty and staff should be engaged as learners as much as their students. While there is room to commemorate milestones through certificates, degrees or diplomas, the expectation is that students will continually engage with the university and remain engaged in learning communities throughout their lifetime.
9. Coaching and Mentoring. In an engaged learning model the faculty role shifts from “sage on the stage” to one of curator, coach, and mentor. The challenge in our existing model is that faculty are not trained how to teach, let alone how to be a coach or mentor. In this model faculty development and training will be prioritized, with professors engaged in learning and refining best practices drawn from the worlds of education, personal coaching, entrepreneurship, and spiritual formation.
10. Interdisciplinary Learning. In an engaged learning model students do not choose a one-subject major, but rather a multi-disciplinary “mission” that draws from multiple disciplines and is unique to their particular calling. “It is now an accepted fact that the brain is designed for boundary spanning and is highly inter-connective.”
11. Play, Challenges, and Failure. We believe that learning is not always linear and is often messy and ambiguous. Students’ callings come into focus when they are fully engaged, whether immersed in play or a difficult team challenge. We believe that students should be trying hard things, failing, and then reflecting on that failure. We believe in the power of adventure and exploration, all things which are restricted in the normal campus and classroom-centric environment.
12. Technology as a Tool. Technology can be a valuable tool to facilitate engagement, but becomes dangerous when it replaces deep engagement. We also believe that technology-enabled forms of teaching such as MOOCs and online courses can be very valuable in providing affordable access to knowledge, especially when utilizing adaptive learning technology. However, in an engaged learning model these forms of learning are a supplement to the higher-level forms of pedagogy, and not meant to replace them.
13. Reflective Practice. We believe that contemplative and spiritual practice should be integrated with learning and not segmented out. There is a place for prayer and meditation as central and not peripheral to the process of learning…
14. Action. We believe that wisdom comes through “tasting” the world. Engaged learning is a praxis-centered model where there are constant and consistent intersections between theory, action, community, and reflection. We believe that “praxis” and “place” are inextricably linked, and that an action-centered model of learning will require a re-structuring of learning spaces. While most traditional higher education practices are passive…While in the traditional western model of education we prioritize “head” over heart and hands, in an engaged learning model we sometimes start with “hands” in action and work our way to heart and then to head…
15. Character & Virtue: We believe that character is something that should be nurtured and developed in the context of the learning experience, and that virtues like wisdom and compassion should be fully integrated….
FIVE GOALS FOR A NEW HIGHER EDUCATION MODEL:
1. Reduce the overall cost of providing higher education (resource lean).
2. Produce powerful, interdisciplinary learning outcomes (educative).
3. Infuse vocational relevance to the body of learning (market-relevant).
4. Form intelligent responses to the world’s toughest problems (socially responsible).
5. Foster lives of meaning and consequence (spiritually formative).
[i] See Ludvik, Marilee. The Neuroscience of Learning and Development. 2016.
[ii] Kuh, George. High Impact Educational Practices. 2008.
[iii] Some universities have semester-long programs centered around high-impact practices, but these practices do not extend across a major or department, except in some non-creditor non-accredited programs.
[iv] See for example the Experience Institute, Xealots, Praxis Academy, Living-Learning, gap-year programs, etc.