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Transforming Students: Fulfilling the Promise of Higher Education
Date Reviewed: April 8, 2015
North American faculty often teach and work in milieus in which the value of a liberal arts education is continuously in question. Economic realities of the last decade have prompted administrators, faculty, and practitioners to think more deeply about the sustainability of liberal arts institutions in general. And, in some contexts, the transition to increasingly corporate models for higher education leadership means that terms such as customer service, brand, and product are gaining utility in order to emphasize the value of a liberal arts degree in a competitive market. Charity Johansson and Peter Felten recognize these trends and contend that a liberal arts education should provide spaces for college students to learn how to embrace change and encounter the unknown: faculty should be emphasizing a transformative learning process rather than a informative one that offers facts but does not push students to develop abilities to deal with complex variables after graduation. Johansson and Felten argue that a university can provide an environment conducive to transformative learning by clarifying its purpose and by developing a student’s capacity and opportunity for positive change (1). Johansson and Felten’s research is grounded in the recent literature on transformative learning in the field of adult education; Transforming Students applies these concepts and theories to young adults with the intention of emphasizing the practices and theories in which transformation can readily emerge in higher education (4).
According to the authors, the content of transformative learning begins with disruption and is followed by reflective analysis, verifying and acting on one’s new understanding of the world, and integrating what one has learned and practiced into everyday life (3). A sharp contrast is drawn between informative and transformative teaching and the various pedagogical practices that characterize them. Administrators, staff, and faculty have a responsibility to not only provide a safe, welcoming space for transformative learning to occur (which includes disruption and dissonance), but they also ought to respond holistically, meaningfully, and with integrity to the spontaneous actions of students who are “find[ing] their way along their journey” (89-90). The interplay of the individual and community in this transformative learning process will effect change because “the ultimate outcome of this type of learning is action in community” (82). If taken seriously by the educator and the institution, transformative learning has the potential to change both the institutional context and the broader community.
Johansson and Felten do not speak explicitly about religious studies or theological education, but an adept reader can easily apply their theory of transformative learning to any classroom context. With its emphasis on mentoring and creating safe spaces for openness, disruption, and critical reflection, this text prompts readers to reflect deeply about their role as educators, practitioners, or co-curricular programming staff. The cited research is qualitative rather than quantitative; much of the evidence used to support Johansson and Felten’s argument is anecdotal in nature from the context of Elon University. This may be seen as a lacuna in the evidence to some readers, but overall the anecdotal evidence provides a clear, precise thesis that is rooted in students’ experiences of transformation during their time in college.
Though other texts may need to be referenced for an in-depth, quantitative approach to higher education research, Transforming Students is especially helpful for those who want to read a short, accessible text that theoretically grounds pedagogical styles and higher education practices as transformational to “prepare students for a life of continuous change and development” (2). This book is not a list of best practices across the landscape of liberal arts institutions – though some best practices from Elon University are used as examples – but rather it serves as a convincing argument for transformative learning as a crucial paradigm for pedagogy, practice, and the holistic institutional mission of liberal arts colleges and universities. According to Johansson and Felten, transformative learning does not have to hang in the balance: there are indeed practices and methods that provide intentional spaces and opportunities for facilitated reflection and increased transformation. This concise text encourages educators, provides simple entry points into pedagogical theories, distills current student development research into poignant sound bites, and offers conceptual measures for engaging the transformative learning process with one’s own students, both inside and outside the classroom.
The Question of Conscience: Higher Education and Personal Responsibility
Date Reviewed: March 5, 2015
David Watson wades deeply into the various discourses on the state of higher education institutions (HEIs) in the UK (he also examines HEIs in the US and elsewhere), their problems and their prospects, to examine what HEIs say that they do for and to their most important members, award-seeking students. This self-critical look at what he calls “my trade” is for Watson a matter of the “question of conscience” or higher education’s role in shaping students’ moral and civic character.
This relatively short book consists of eight dense chapters on Watson’s evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the best research literature on what higher education seeks to do through at least five lenses: the “evolutionary” stages of modern university history; the sense participants and observers try to make of them in terms of institutional narratives; the types of “capital” generated by their activities; the chosen pedagogical approaches; and a declared set of “purposes” or intended personal transformations.
Titled, “What Does Higher Education Do? A Historical and Philosophical Overview,” the first chapter uses geography as a metaphor to demonstrate that the claims made by the modern universities (post-thirteenth-century) for their existence are previously laid geographical layers, some closer to the surface than others (1). Watson explores one of the earliest layers of university purposes: “that of maintaining, enhancing, and subjecting to supportive criticism the goal of ethical – especially doctrinal instruction” in Chapter 2 where the book gets its title (22). This chapter is arguably the one most relevant for teaching theology and religion. He traces how the university went from being a place for teaching doctrinal allegiances to being a secular place for personal and collective virtue. With the exception of some seminaries, HEIs today have largely eschewed doctrinal allegiances for a more inclusive ethos that embraces those from many faiths or no faiths at all. This does not mean that universities have become completely secular; to the contrary, the former university Chaplain has now become the Student Life Officer (26-27).
Watson argues that “wariness about moral education” was replaced with a concern that there had been a decline in ethical behavior in business, professional, and political life (32). Therefore, HEIs evolved to teaching for “character.” The remaining chapters explore the other claims made by HEIs for what they do, including preparing students for vocation (43), rounded or “soft” citizenship (58), capability, and lifelong learning (65). The final chapter, “Higher Education and Personal Responsibility,” is Watson’s theory for what higher education should do: prepare students to exercise personal judgment in difficult circumstances, or “cultivate humanity” (100, 108). If taking this book to heart, it would bode well for those faculty members in theological and religious studies in the liberal arts to look critically at what our institutions exist to do and how we participate in that mission.
Reflections From The Field: How Coaching Made Us Better Teachers
Date Reviewed: January 19, 2015
Who looks to middle or high school athletic coaches for innovations in pedagogy? Our stereotype of the coach in the classroom is of someone in a polo shirt with a whistle on a lanyard, teaching health class or low-tracked sections of history. In Reflections from the Field: How Coaching Made Us Better Teachers, Eric J. DeMeulenaere and Colette N. Cann, along with Chad R. Malone and James E. McDermott, undermine this image and offer glimpses of master coach-educators who are adept at discerning the unique needs of a team or class of students and crafting a coaching/teaching style that fosters not only athletic success and acquisition of knowledge, but also growth in students’ interpersonal skills and sense of their own potential.
At the heart of the book are essays by each of the four named above, recounting how the narrators addressed difficult coaching situations and then applied what they had learned on the court or field to transform their classroom pedagogy. After each coaching essay, DeMeulenaere and Cann analyze the team and classroom dynamics in light of educational theory. They also supply an introduction and two chapters of concluding analysis and reflection.
The athletes/students in question were all “at risk” or otherwise unpromising. McDermott’s principal had called one of his baseball players the “worst piece of ____[expletive deleted]” the principal had ever seen. Malone agreed to coach the Highland Park Lady Cougars basketball team after they had lost a game 90-6. Cann coached a volleyball team with no height, no strength, and no stars. And DeMeulenaere took on a fledgling girls’ soccer team whose members were more concerned about the boys watching practice from the bleachers than about training to win.
The brilliant strategies crafted by each of these coaches go beyond inspirational speeches. McDermott persuaded his athletes to stop using foul language by making himself the “designated swearer”: when a player felt a need to cuss, he would raise his hand (one finger for English and two for Spanish) and McDermott would oblige, shouting at practice but speaking into his hand during actual games (13). This use of a humorous method to encourage professional demeanor complemented other techniques McDermott employed to convince players that they could be serious athletes -- and, in McDermott’s English classroom, serious students. But to use the word “techniques” to refer to what McDermott and the other three coaches did suggests a bag of pedagogical tricks. What the narrators offer are not miscellaneous tips or even best practices, but testimonies about how acting as servant-leaders on practice and playing fields and in the classroom transformed all involved. Teaching, for these coach-educators, is never paint-by-numbers, but requires capacity to read the situation, listen to those being coached or taught, and innovate in courageous ways. Although the word does not figure prominently in their narratives, coaching and teaching in this vein require extraordinary love.
Reflections from the Field is relevant for theological educators. Despite the seeming disjuncture between the contexts described in this book and those of a religion classroom or theological seminary, readers will find analogies. They will also be prompted to think about ways that students -- and faculties -- could be strengthened by higher emphasis on collaboration and mutual support (the “team” aspect). Finally, the book will renew conviction that great teaching matters, and renew inspiration that it is more than worth all that it costs.
Transformative Conversations: A Guide to Mentoring Communities Among Colleagues in Higher Education
Date Reviewed: December 24, 2014
This book stands out for its simplicity of style, transparency of voice, and modesty of ambition. It makes an argument about the power of intentional “mentoring communities,” composed of peers at different stages of career. The authors ground the argument in their experience participating in such a community under the auspices of the Fetzer Institute and also organizing and participating in mentoring communities on their own campuses over a two-year period. Their conclusion: mentoring communities, by supporting and challenging their members to “identify and reconnect to their core values, revitalize their individual dreams, and renew their commitment to goals that serve as the foundation for their work and their lives,” help their members orient their choices and creative projects around their deep purposes and values, and so animate, from within the group, reform in higher education (5-6, 31, 87-88). The authors demonstrate what too few believe: that the solution to what ails higher education, in no small part, lies within the people whose vocation it is to teach and support students’ learning.
The transparency of their reporting and reflection on experience lends credibility to the authors’ argument – they “show” far more than they “tell.” The authors refreshingly avoid both indulgence in lament and speculative grand proposals. In language free from jargon yet saturated with the vibrancy of lived experience, they provide a readily accessible “how to” for initiating mentoring communities. These are decidedly not committees, which have “institutional mandate[s] and goals,” or therapeutic groups – which focus on “participants’ emotional wounds and disorders” (20-21). Rather, they are groups of four-to-six colleagues who commit to mutual mentoring, with the intention of helping “participants explore, form, articulate, and live out of their values” (21). The groups focus on “strengths and virtues” not “wounds and weaknesses” (21). The authors refer to these communities as “formation mentoring communities,” using the term “formation” to highlight the orientation around helping members develop as whole persons, cultivate “shared human capacities,” and advance “each person’s particular gifts and talents” (14-15).
This slim volume is a superb guide to preparing groups to enter into and sustain serious conversation. In four short chapters the authors describe mentoring communities, elaborate on the practice of conversation, explain how to organize a mentoring community, and illustrate how to do collaborative leadership in the groups. In the last chapter they argue for the centrality of such communities to any serious institutional change in higher education. The authors also provide a rich bibliography of resources on education, convening and facilitating, dialogue and conversation, formation and spiritual direction, mentoring, and community.
While not directed explicitly to theological education or religious studies in the liberal arts, deans, department and program heads, and faculty in these settings should read this book. It will provoke thinking regarding and offer strategies to those desirous of welcoming new colleagues into institutions; those wanting to provide better support for colleagues contemplating the next phase in career or life; those wanting to support graduate students; and those concerned with how to compose more satisfying, sustainable, meaning or purpose-anchored lives across the career span.
As “Chief Academic Officers” (CAO) theological school deans provide oversight for the development of an effective curriculum. They are challenged to lead Faculty to develop a course of study that can demonstrably prepare clergy and church leaders for the current, and future, needs and challenges of the Church and church-related ...