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Coulter Faculty Center
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Western Carolina University
Cullowhee, NC 28723
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Faculty Forum

Vol. 14, No. 4 December 1, 2001
The University as a Learning Park--a "Playground" of Ideas

Suzanne Langer, the American aesthetician, said that every age is defined by the questions it asks. The same may be said for universities and even our classes. When we are forced to recognize that things are no longer working the way they used to, we begin asking questions. I believe we at WCU have been asking the wrong questions. Our current approach is to ask, "What are the problems?" Applying this approach to education tends to focus on quick fixes and treats the university and those within it as if they were machines with interchangeable parts. I suggest we ask instead, "What have we been doing right?"

The other day in my English senior seminar I asked "What are the most exciting learning experiences you have had in your life, and what made them so valuable?" Only two students reported experiences they had had in a classroom. Most of their peak learning experiences came from those moments when they learned to think for themselves and produce something tangible or valuable. They talked about "learning to live outside their safety zones." They spoke of the conversations that took place outside of class, over coffee. They talked about professors who "constantly asked us real questions and valued what we had to say." They wanted teachers who were passionate about their beliefs and professions but who treated them as valuable partners in the ongoing conversation of an intellectual community.

When I asked these seniors what worked in their university experience, I got a wild variety of answers, each valid and worth pursuing. The room was filled with passion and excitement. The experiences they valued most were ones where the learning was open, collaborative, experiential, and explorative. Some suggested we replace grades with juried projects because grades tended to emphasize a closed system of knowledge. Others wanted more collaboration across disciplines. Others suggested abandoning syllabi so that we had the freedom to explore topics deeply instead of focusing on covering material. Most of them had little respect for textbooks. All of them placed their highest marks on classes where the work done in class actively explored uncharted territory beyond what was in their texts.

Maybe your first response is to ask, "What’s wrong with what we’re doing? What’s wrong with our old tried and true teaching methods? What’s wrong with the students?" David Perlmutter's article, "Students are Blithely Ignorant; Professors are Bitter," in the July 27th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education clearly emphasizes how looking for problems results in finding someone to blame for the dysfunctional university classroom. We ask what the problems are and we blame the students, TV, ourselves, the administration, the legislature, or anybody we can for what is wrong.

The same blame game has been applied to retention, pointing fingers first at the students, then the faculty, then administrators, or even to the absence of malls. The result is that people end up being defensive, devalued, and dejected, pitting us all against one another. The blame game looks for the one right answer. It tends to ignore possibilities outside the assumed framework, and it devalues experimentation, isolates individuals, and creates a timid and cautious community.

When students become more actively engaged in the learning process, instructors no longer need to grip tight to the steering wheel—the learning guides itself. Students will feel like valuable partners in an intellectual community when they experience student-centered--or better yet, learning-centered--rather than teacher-centered classrooms. We need to stop asking "What’s wrong with the students?" and start asking our students for input on their most successful learning experiences. Given the opportunity, our students are willing and able to tell us what we have been doing right.

John Seeley Brown, winner of a MacArthur award and chief engineer at Xerox, points out that the typical content delivery view of education suggests that to become a physicist you need to take in a lot of formulas and absorb a lot of experimental data. But he points out that people don't become physicists by learning formulas any more than they become football players by learning plays. Most of us recognize the limitations of the simplistic content approach to education: it misunderstands how people learn, where they learn, and when they learn. This simplistic approach tends to augment the passivity students learned in front of TV, turning them into desk potatoes. Brown says that students still learn the way most of us as children and adults learned: by hands-on activities, not through abstractions. Today’s university, he says, should be like a regional learning park, an open source consortium for content and its continued renewal.

A Regional Learning Park--I like that idea because it resembles the fondest memories of my university experience. I learned as much outside of class as I did in class. I explored ideas and was nurtured by teachers, mentors, fellow inquirers, and a library. I loved science, poetry, music, art, and philosophy and could not figure out why the disciplines had to be so separate. I tried things out, reapplied ideas across disciplines, and created my own body of knowledge. The university was an adventure.

I say it’s time we look around at what works for us at WCU. Think of the university as a lab, a greenhouse, or a studio where we grow and experiment with what works, what might work, and what is, first and foremost, interesting to our students and to us. Think of it as a learning park, a playground of ideas. If something excites us in our field or outside it, add it to the list of things we are willing to try. If some particular class or out-of-class activity really works, share it with others. Instead of focusing on our weaknesses, let’s build a campus environment using our strengths.

Asking what we have been doing right focuses on what is working, what it feels like when everything is going well and what the key characteristics are of those top moments. This approach says, "Let's do more of what works," instead of the negative, "Let's do less of what doesn't work." This approach is unfamiliar because we are trained as problem solvers. We are used to saying we must learn from our mistakes. Rarely do we focus on learning from our successes.

So let's focus on what the university does well and look around for ways to enhance these activities. On the first day of class and every week or so thereafter, let's ask our students questions such as "What is the most exciting thing you have learned so far," and "What would make this learning experience more memorable and successful for you?" And then let's have the guts to follow through and prove to students that we hear them by making appropriate adjustments in our classroom activities.

In the words of the old Johnny Mercer song, let's "Accent the positive, eliminate the negative, and don't mess with Mr. In-Between." WCU: the Learning Park. WCU: A Community of Learners. WCU: Propagating New Ideas. WCU: We’re Painting the Future….You get the idea.

Newt Smith, English

The opinions printed here belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial staff or of the Faculty Center. If you would like to respond, e-mail Nienhuis by the 8th of the month.