Education as transformation

While many students enter college wondering “What’s in it for me?” WSU’s “Self in Society” learning goal challenges faculty members to send students out into the world with a different question to ponder: “How can I contribute?”

The tough question is, “What does that look like when it comes to curriculum?”

In Rick Gill’s Environmental Science 101 class, students chart their water usage for three weeks. Students in Lisa Carloye’s ntomology 401 class write critically informed position papers exploring the multifaceted context of current socially scientific debates, such as stem-cell research. And in March Denny Davis and four of his students in bioengineering spent two weeks in Malawi, where they tested the feasibility of a foot-powered water pump the students developed as part of their senior project.

These are just a few of the assignments that came to mind when a handful of faculty were asked how they incorporate the “Self in Society” learning goal into their courses.

Articulated by the President’s Teaching Academy and approved by the Faculty Senate in April 2005, the Six Learning Goals of the Baccalaureate are, for the most part, formal acknowledgment of what effective teachers have always worked for: Students who can think critically, reason symbolically, communicate effectively and gather, evaluate and use information. And, of course, students who have acquired a knowledge base and skill set appropriate to their intended profession.

But, the “Self in Society” goal is a little different.

Tailoring the fit
Teaching Academy Chair Carol Anelli said the “Self in Society” goal arose from the notion that a university education should be a transformative experience. “The college experience should be more than acquiring skills and knowledge,” she said. “It should be that you are a better member of society, that you have been changed for the better.”

“Basically,” said Davis, “that goal deals with an individual’s ability to see how they fit into the larger context.” Davis, who is vice chair of the teaching academy, said most of the senior projects he supervises involve students using technology to attempt to make a difference in people’s lives, which is very clearly a part of the “Self in Society” goal.

Gary Brown, director of WSU’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology and a leading resource for faculty working to develop appropriate assessment tools, said the way faculty members interpret and assess each of the six learning goals varies by department and by discipline, and that includes “Self in Society.”

“It’s a recursive process,” he said, “and we count on the expertise of the faculty working with students on the ground to articulate what the goal means and how we can best assess student learning.”

In interior design that might show up in a carefully constructed model that shows an informed understanding of the needs and cultural sensitivities of the people who would actually inhabit the space, he said, but in a different discipline that awareness of self in society might be apparent in student writing.

Answering the ‘why?’
Even within the six learning goals there is significant overlap, he said, but the “Self in Society” goal seems to most fully articulate the question, “So what?”

“It’s oddly one of the most overarching goals and the most taken for granted,” he said, but it pushes faculty to clearly communicate why they do what they do.

Tom Tripp, professor of management and operations at WSU Vancouver and a member of the teaching academy, agreed that the “Self in Society” goal is less skill-based and more about developing a worldview.

“You really can’t understand who you are and what you think until you have other people and other ideas to compare yourself to,” he said. Tripp, who teaches leadership skills and negotiation, recalled the aphorism, “The fish doesn’t know it’s in water,” and said he creates role-playing exercises and other assignments that help students see the water.

Nancy Blossom, director of the Interdisciplinary Design Institute at WSU Spokane and a member of the teaching academy, said the academy knew the “Self in Society” goal would be more of a reach for some faculty than others, but decided it was still a worthwhile goal.

“A graduate of WSU should have a broader view of themselves and the world than the one they came to us with,” she said, regardless of his or her major.

Learning is holistic
Len Foster, a professor in the department of educational leadership and counseling psychology, said all six of the learning goals are attainable in all areas because learning is holistic.

“The disciplines in and of themselves are artificial constructs created to organize knowledge,” he said. He said the “Self in Society” goal is a good reminder for faculty members that whatever the subject matter, they are educating the entire person — which affects self-concept as well as worldview — and that is always a multidisciplinary process.

For students in Gill’s introductory environmental science course, the focus is very much on the student and his or her place in society. Not only are they asked to chart their water usage to see how their actions have an impact on limited natural resources, but every semester students work on a creek restoration project in the Moscow-Pullman watershed.

“The whole class is focused on, ‘Your choices make a difference,’ ” Gill said.

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