Sonny Ramaswamy, President, NWCCU
The drill and kill curriculum undermines, rather than improves, the quality of education. Monty Neill, National Education Policy Center, University of Colorado
As I contemplated writing this essay on creating exciting, inclusive curricula, I thought Monty Neill’s statement about the drilling and killing curricula in some ways reflects the extant situation in America regarding the value proposition of higher education.
As I delved further into the topic I wished to address regarding inclusive curricula, I was reminded of speechwriter/actor, Ben Stein, whose characters – such as Mr. Cantwell, the science teacher in the television show, The Wonder Years – delivered bland, unemotional lectures and narratives on television and in films to disengaged students in the classroom. I wondered if Mr. Cantwell were a real teacher/professor, what kind of outcomes might he have seen in his class(es).
I got to thinking. I was privileged.
Every one of the professors I had, made the courses I took, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, exciting, hands-on, experiential, and inclusive – the antithesis of Mr. Cantwell. I emulated and learned from my professors to, as a teacher, create inclusive, stimulating, inspiring, and experiential learning opportunities for my students.
Maybe it’s because I was privileged to study and later work at several Land-Grant Universities (LGUs), which were created as a result of the Land-Grant College Act or the First Morrill Act, passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 5, 1862. Incidentally, President Benjamin Harrison, signed the Second Morrill Act of 1890 into law on August 30, 1890, which expanded opportunities for African Americans to access education, specifically in agriculture and mechanic arts. Much later, Congress authorized the formation of the 1994 Land Grant Colleges in support of Tribal Colleges, which became part of the Land Grant system.
As I wrote in the March 2019 issue of The Beacon, the Morrill Act reads in part: “…without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education…”
The Morrill Act democratized and improved higher education in the United States, with three educational requirements and outcomes: foundational knowledge in the liberal arts, humanities, and science; practical education in the agriculture and mechanic arts; and military leadership.
In addition to the foundational knowledge and practical, hands-on learning, programs and curricula at the LGUs offered an inclusive educational environment – they were created specifically to offer educational opportunities to the masses, in contrast to the elites who were able to attend Harvard, Yale, and other such “ivy-league” institutions. Land-Grants also emphasized inculcation of leadership skills, particularly critical thinking and problem-solving skills, communication skills, team-work skills, and information skills.
Over the decades since their establishment, the approach used by the LGUs was to ensure students were successful in realizing their educational goals, and that it enabled them to achieve economic and social mobility.
Higher education’s critical role in promoting student success and closing equity gaps, while advancing economic and social mobility is the mantra in books, scholarly and popular articles, newspapers and other media, and of course in conversations at Think Tanks, the United States Congress and Department of Education, and even at dinner tables. In the last few years, some legislatures are also tying state funding to student outcomes.
In my experience, promoting student success, while mitigating attrition and/or dropout, is a “contact sport,” and the recipe includes a suite of approaches focused on intrusive advising and attendance, attention to student behavior, ensuring availability of relevant courses and experiential education, use of disaggregated data, financial support, and myriad other strategies.
Success depends on promoting community and group interactions to ensure student learning outcomes by focusing on the fundamentals and high-impact practices – intrusive advising, offering experiential learning opportunities and inculcating combination of technical, cognitive skills, along with the non-cognitive, core competencies, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills – combined with single-minded use of data-informed predictive analytics and other digital tools. In addition to academic support, advancing student success will require that students, particularly those from disadvantaged and underserved communities, are provided help with financial aid, just-in-time grants, supportive social networks, food, housing, child- and health-care support, and mental health counseling.
The German word, bildung, i.e., the complete moral, emotional, intellectual, and civic transformation of the individual, in part, describes and offers a framework for inclusive teaching and curricula. A critically important consideration in reducing student attrition and promoting success is the use of inclusive teaching and learning, and by extension inclusive curricula, where ALL students are entitled to a learning environment and experience that enables and seeks active participation, eliminates barriers to learning, respects learning styles and preferences, and celebrates the diverse student experiences and backgrounds, particularly race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and economic and social circumstances.
In an essay on inclusive teaching, Bryan Dewsbury and Cynthia Brame, invoke the educational philosopher Paolo Freire that pedagogy needs to be built as inclusive spaces and include the voices and lives of students. They point out that inclusive teaching is most effective when the academic experience is based on relationships and dialogue and incorporates practices that foster a sense of belonging and promote self-efficacy.
In a recently published book and in resources based on their experiences teaching undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) at the University of North Carolina, Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy offer evidence-based, best practices for inclusive teaching and to eliminate disparities in academic performance amongst students from diverse backgrounds. For example, they offer these cogent suggestions to create an inclusive learning environment: structure courses to ensure students succeed; facilitate respectful classroom conversations, including the use of student-centered language; and help students become comfortable and prepared to actively participate in classroom discussions.
The key to success in creating inclusive teaching and learning approaches, as described by practitioners, is that the effort is student- or learner-centered, which is apropos and relevant to creation of inclusive curricula, as well. The value proposition – i.e., of success – for higher education is in promoting ways to enhance completion or graduation rates, particularly amongst students from underserved and underrepresented groups, based on a renewed and vigorous commitment to student success and closing equity gaps. This will require approaches to enhancing the cognitive and non-cognitive skills of students through learner-centered experiential opportunities and helping reduce costs and enhancing graduation rates.
The dictionary defines curriculum as, the subjects comprising a course of study in a school or college. Bland, dry, and not too dissimilar to Mr. Cantwell’s teaching style in The Wonder Years television show. As demonstrated with empirical evidence by practitioners of inclusive teaching and learning, it’s not just a set of facts that students should be exposed to, to learn.
Effective learning outcomes result from, as pointed out by Paolo Freire referred to above, pedagogy that is built as inclusive spaces and includes the voices and lives of students. This will require inclusive curricula that enhance the cognitive and non-cognitive skills of students through learner-centered experiential opportunities. This will require creating student-ready campuses, which include paying attention to student needs and tailoring courses, course offerings, and programs to the needs of the individual student, each one a unique individual with a unique background and unique learning style. This will require meeting students where they are and helping them meet their aspirational goals, through experiential learning opportunities, networking, and facilitated connections.
There’s no magic formula to creating inclusive curricula and the concomitant impacts on promoting student success and closing equity gaps. It will require a concerted, collaborative, all-hands-on-deck campus effort to remove structural barriers to the success of ALL students, but particularly those from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups. Students need the sense of belonging and community, which have been demonstrably shown to enhance retention and outcomes, both in on-campus and online educational contexts. Each institution has a unique mission, identity, and culture, and within that context must work towards the goal of eliminating inequities.
To quote former President Barack Obama, “… we don’t promise equal outcomes, but we were founded on the idea everybody should have an equal opportunity to succeed. No matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, you can make it. That’s an essential promise of America. Where you start should not determine where you end up.”
Our higher educational institutions have a critical role to play in helping students realize their aspirations through inclusive curricula and opportunities that, instead of drilling and killing, help students thrive.
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