Learning How to Learn: A Mandate for Change in Today’s College Classroom

 “It is not the subject per se that is educative or conducive to growth…There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract.”
– John Dewey, “Criteria of Experience,” in Experience & Education, 1938.

“Students’ long-term success does not depend upon short-term business cycles or the technical demands of the latest ‘hot’ industry.”
– Carol Geary Schneider, President, American Association of Colleges and Universities, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2011.

Author Neil Baldwin

Author and Professor Neil Baldwin

I. What kind of essay this is; and to whom addressed. 

Learning How to Learn is a wake-up call directed at those who care about the perplexing challenges involved with educating today’s college youth in our interconnected world: Where is the common ground? How should we be talking to — and with — these mercurial young people? And how can we convince them that learning how to learn should be their ultimate goal?

This essay avoids the debilitating ideological “war” between utilitarian education for a job (vocational), and general education for well-rounded citizenship (liberal arts) fueling the crisis mentality that pervades media conversations, blogs, and articles about American higher education.  The time has come to focus the scatter-shot, overheated debate about what is “wrong” with college and “the system,” and to bear down instead upon the most intimate arena in which education actually occurs: the classroom.

Learning How to Learn encourages teachers to draw upon what they know, with confidence — their expertise — then take a crucial step beyond, making use of common sense pedagogy that recognizes the unique mind-set of their generational audience, aged 17-22.

This is not a utopian dream about what could happen if we had all the money in the world.  We must work with what we have been given. The American public higher education landscape is commonly portrayed as impoverished and out of balance financially and intellectually. Therefore, what can the everyday classroom teacher be expected, supported — and inspired — to do, without sacrificing standards and ideals?

Let me also say at the outset that Learning How to Learn is not predicated upon any authoritative, longitudinal studies. It is documented with a rich and varied bibliography of current literature on American higher education that I have been tracking down, reading, writing about, and commenting upon from the web-based vantage point of the virtual Creative Research Center at Montclair State University.

As a tenured full professor and classroom teacher with a “3-3” curricular load of undergraduate introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses as well as graduate seminars, I have given deep thought to what should be going on “on the ground;” why, and toward what desired ends.

II. The Current Crisis. 

My simmering contemplation of the current crisis was crystallized by two chance readings that, on the surface, seemed unrelated. The first began as a conversation about teaching I was enjoying with a friend in the Philosophy Department who glancingly referred to “the only essay on education that Hannah Arendt ever wrote – and it’s all about the American educational system” — did I know of it?  I raced home and pulled Arendt’s classic collection, Between Past and Future, from my shelves.

Arendt’s major concern in her essay “The Crisis in Education” (1954) was that our much-vaunted school system, at all levels, was “helpless before the individual child,” that we were in danger of forsaking the “obligation that the existence of children –  human beings in the process of becoming — entails for every human society…One cannot educate without at the same time teaching,” she wrote, but “an education without learning is empty.” The ultimate iteration of freedom as action — in Hannah Arendt’s hopeful words — would be only through education to inspire and encourage “care for a world that can survive us, and remain a place fit to live in, for those who come after us.”

Soon thereafter, I was rushing through Newark Airport when a headline on the cover of The Atlantic caught my eye – Scenes from the Class Struggle, by Joel Klein, recently retired chancellor of the New York City public school system.  I grabbed the magazine and read the piece on the plane. “President Obama was on to something in 2008,” Klein wrote, “when he said, ‘The single most important factor in determining student achievement is not the color of their skin or where they came from. It is not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is.’ ”  Klein warned that, “Time is running out. Without a citizenry willing to insist upon reform, our schools will continue to decline…Shocking as it may sound, the cost in human terms, to our nation, and to the kind of people we aspire to become, will be even greater.”

Fifty-seven years apart…and yet, both Arendt and Klein are saying the same thing: Our educational system, designed in another time for other purposes, is in a state of emergency; and something needs to be done right away, or we will suffer the loss of future human capital.

The urgency of the language in both cases emanates from fear on the most personal level that we as teachers and parents are in danger of literally losing our youth – abandoning them – by not serving them as well as we should; and that we, as a society, on the largest level, are neglecting our mission as adults, forsaking our obligations to the young, chastising ourselves for being unresponsive to what Arendt calls “The New Ones,” the newest generation — new at whatever stage they may be, from pre-school toddlers to college freshmen.

A powerful element at the core of the current cultural crisis is the intensified pressure upon higher education professors as “content-deliverers” who must justify and quantify the ultimate applications and uses of the information and knowledge acquired (or not) by their students.

But remember: Information is not knowledge.

My vigilant classroom anthropological “fieldwork” has led me to try to come up with new ways to elicit and legitimize the affect of college students, encouraging them to take enduring values and morals to heart that originate in content and subject-based arenas, and extend beyond them.

III. The American Idealist Tradition and Its Pedagogical Legacy. 

As an historian and biographer steeped in American culture (works on William Carlos Williams, Man Ray, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford) my current teaching behavior and beliefs grow out of decades of writing books that identify and elucidate redemptive qualities in our native imagination, most recently The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War. 

This American chronicle [see  http://www.neilbaldwinbooks.com], combined with immersion in teaching, inspired me to revisit — with rejuvenated appreciation — our mainstream pragmatist pioneer, John Dewey (1859-1952). No self-respecting examination of American higher education can be complete without (re)encountering Dewey – prolific public intellectual, exemplar of progressivism, hailed by The New York Times as “America’s philosopher.” As Chairman of the Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago, Dewey founded an experimental elementary school and launched his quest to “define democracy in all its phases – political, economic, social, and cultural.”

The pragmatic philosopher celebrated what makes us most human. Dewey encouraged every American student to explore his literal and figurative neighborhood, “just local, just human, just where we live.”  Indeed, the original name for pragmatism, as coined in 1898 by Dewey’s faithful correspondent and friend, William James, was “practicalism.”

Henry Steele Commager praised Dewey as “the guide, mentor, and conscience of the American people.” Here was a teacher who predicated his life’s work upon empiricism, the supreme value of experience in all domains of life, spanning from primary education to the imperative social contract that connects every one of us to each other.

My affinities as a classroom teacher resonate with Dewey’s lifelong intention to “reach beyond the academy and speak to a wide range of citizens…[in] the general march of events…outleadings into the wide world of nature and man… of knowledge and of social interests…”

I am impelled forward by John Dewey’s endorsement of ways of knowing that carry across the boundaries between disciplines; his melding of the ethical and the practical; his conceptualization of teacher-as-learner (particularly pertinent today); his faith in process before product; his view of the institution of the school as the proper spawning-ground for moral sensibility and the development of role models; his healthy opinion of the child’s affection for the teacher as a suitable foundation for learning; his belief in the organic relationship of disparate subjects to each other; his conviction that art is a form of praxis and that the quality of the thing made far outweighs quantity; his insistence that the “machinery of thought” must be kept moving for reflection to exercise its greatest influence; and that the teacher demonstrate correct learning through daily behavior – not only through what he says, but what he does.

John Dewey’s greatest follower, Jane Addams (1860-1935), declared, “The sphere of knowledge is the sphere of action.” In that same spirit, I endorse converting pedagogical thought into purposeful action.  Dewey’s vintage writings have much to tell us now about remedying systemic problems in higher education. America’s philosopher is due for a vigorous revival.  His prescient and seminal studies including Experience & Education and Art as Experience provide timely reading for today’s teachers, parents — and millennials.

Social MedaIV.  The Challenge of Social Media.

College professors are constantly reminded of our obligation to teach – to be “exposed to” — the many (as expressed through calculation of Student Semester Hours, or, colloquially, “butts in seats”).

I am constantly asking, “how I can get to know my students as individuals?”

The administrative/economic-productivity mandate to reach more college undergraduates is at odds with a constant succession of observed behaviors in our students – resentment of high school and the legacy of No Child Left Behind of teaching to the test; individual and quirky cognitive gaps and lapses; continuous partial attention; vicissitudes and inconsistencies over the course of a semester, during which time a teacher occasionally finds himself wondering why some of his students are even there in the first place.

We read nowadays about how teachers are trying to incorporate social media into the classroom instead of heading in the other direction, which is to outlaw it.  Every teacher needs to ask himself, when in front of the class, how he honestly feels about looking out over the students and seeing them on their laptops, wondering if they are texting, tweeting, or Facebooking.

One short year ago, the girls used to hide their phones inside their purses on their desks, and text with one hand; and guys in the back of the room leaned against the wall, baseball cap brim pulled down, and cradled the phone just below the edge of their desks.  Now, they are unabashedly overt, nestling the phone in their laps or laying it in plain view on the top of the desk and texting “unobtrusively.”

What does this behavior signify? Insouciance? Rebellion? Habituation? Ignorance? Instinct? How are teachers supposed to interpret and act upon such behavior? Are students conscious of what they are doing when they do it? Do they understand (or care) that their habituated mediations infringe upon the pedagogical atmosphere? What does it mean if, in fact, they are not conscious and/or do not see anything wrong with incessant electronic chat?

The virtual is real to this distracted and (self-characterized) omniscient generation (i.e., “It’s all on the Web whenever we need anything).  The great danger for the teacher is automatically reading such multi-tasked immersion as indicating that students are not paying attention. Could it be that their mode of situated cognition has conjured up an utterly different definition than mine of what it actually means to “pay attention?”

To what degree should teachers be willing to accommodate the technology? To what degree should we resist or (even) criticize it? When I start to call them out I feel a twinge, as if I am acting like a high school teacher or disciplinary monitor. When I tell the class how awkward I feel, they may tone it down for a day, but texting and surfing invariably return.

When the investment of the teacher and the mental disengagement of the student are at odds, my going-around-in-circles with the dilemma is compounded by reluctance to downgrade my status at the front of the room, which is, after all, where I belong. Each disciplinary comment I put out there is one more incremental departure from the reasons we are supposed to be in the room.

My inner monologue goes something like this: They are in my class, well-aware that they, or their parents, are paying to be there; they are experiencing first-hand contact with a noted author, and making a choice to do what they do. If it is impossible for students to stay off their phones for an hour and fifteen minutes, or to sit in the seat without getting up, eating, drinking Starbucks, going to the bathroom, dropping their highlighters and hand-held devices, and other random gestures, then what is to be gained by my trying to stop them coercively, as opposed to permitting them to behave in customary ways?

This past year marked Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday. His dictum that “the medium is the message” applies to this pedagogical dilemma. Case in point: To discuss my ideas — and assuage my apprehensions — about the format of an online graduate course I agreed to teach, I met with a well-meaning instructional designer.  It was self-evident to him that anything I taught face to face could be accomplished and executed equally well through technology. It was going to be a matter of my providing learning objectives for the course and the structure of the syllabus; then he would work with me to devise the technology that would “best convey the desired content.”

He used a container-analogy, explaining that teaching a class online was just like choosing between a “truck or a van or a car” to “deliver” a package. I countered that this translation did not hold up.  Learning is a cognitive process of uncertain duration that transpires between the time a concept or idea is launched and whether (or not) it lands in the student’s mind in a way that will be sustained beyond the moment.

V. The teacher as mentor.

Arthur Levine’s trenchant observation in The Chronicle of Higher Education strikes a responsive chord: “Graduate-level teacher training programs created by schools and school districts tend to emphasize practice over theory, clinical education over academic instruction, pedagogy over content, and faculties of expert teachers over university professors.”

Rather than legislate abstract, over-arching national curricular standards for the common core, the best way to improve our educational system is to start at the classroom level, with teacher preparation that bridges the metaphorical “widest street in the world” between colleges of education and colleges of arts and sciences. Classroom teachers should be singled out and trained based upon their commitment to developing a positive classroom ambience and emotional climate; at the same time, the affective quality of classroom life must be enhanced in support of the teacher’s level of expertise in a specialist subject area.

Teachers need to reallocate their energies, draw upon empathy rather than cultivate resistance, and re-evaluate how subject matter is conveyed.  In the classroom, at that point where the expert meets the novice, there needs to be an unforced lamination of subject matter onto meaningful engagement.

Students expect the classroom teacher to place greater demands upon himself.  This is a message many professors do not like to hear. The contrarian dimension of my manifesto is an appeal to change our ways, as difficult as that may be for those of us further along in years.

Today’s college teacher needs to be a guide and a coach — not a judge. He must learn a new cognitive language when he steps into the classroom. He must muster up the energy to leap over the generation gap; possess behavior-modification strategies of other-directedness, empathy, patience; understand the students’ brains and accept that they operate differently than ours.

In the ideal classroom environment, students will notice and emulate thoughtful, well-considered, authentic modeling behaviors. The fact is that until teachers are committed to adaptive behavior (as distinguished from the dangerous pitfalls of trying to act “cool” or to talk like the students; and not unlike insisting upon speaking English in Paris) we will never be able to convey any “major” or subject matter successfully.

More importantly, again invoking the precedent of John Dewey, any useful praxis must continue beyond the limits of a semester. We must pay more attention to the definition, cultivation and reinforcement of lasting epistemic virtues that cross subject boundaries – attentiveness, benevolence, creativity, compassion, curiosity, inclusion, objectivity, tenacity, and wisdom.

Today’s college teacher, whatever his specialty, must inculcate and encourage in his students an inquisitive, associational, imaginative mentality through habits of mind dedicated to – yes, even obsessed with — the continuous pursuit of knowledge, linked to the positive implications of that pursuit for the greater society.

This broad path supercedes particular courses for which students have willingly and/or unwillingly registered. As I tell my (required) Play Script Interpretation class on the first day of the term, “It doesn’t matter to me what subject I teach.”

The student needs to understand that memorizing is not learning. Neither, for that matter, is abstract intellectualizing. Giving a quiz to make sure that everybody has at least read the assignment works on the reductive, essential level.  The only way for a teacher to find out if students are learning is to ask them to apply principles or themes or ideas from a wide range of perspectives to creatively devised hypothetical situations, challenges and prompts.

Unless students feel emotionally comfortable with the teacher, they will not learn in a sustained fashion; they will only acquire information expediently and transiently. They must be reminded by the strategically self-conscious teacher about the ongoing narrative/through-line of the course, where they are located within it, and how the course will eventually pertain to their lives in the day to day larger society.

Students need to trust from the first class meeting that the teacher knows the syllabus-as-narrative best of all, because he has conceived of it and written it, and will keep writing it as it goes along. The teacher must remain confident of this classroom “story,” welcoming the students in on it from time to time, so that they begin to think of themselves as co-conspirators.

Hence, what I call…

VI. …the Existential Curriculum.

When I reference “existential” I am drawing upon aspects of the empathic theory of Hannah Arendt’s student, Maxine Greene. I envision a curriculum created with the understanding that, although it is purported to be and presented as a plan, it will still be in a state of continuous formation. The existential curriculum exists to be modified, elaborated and clarified as you forge ahead through the term.

The decisive, adaptable, aware, questing/questioning and observant teacher — active observation being among the desired attributes for any nimble teacher of young people – will be the most effective bearer of any subject embedded in the fluid, evolving situation of the classroom that he/she must be mindful of and control.

Once the plan is in place, teacher and students, together, construct and make the course.

The teacher’s performative cues must be presented openly so the class will perceive what they value (in their words) as the teacher’s “passion” and “caring about / respecting the students.”  The reciprocal degree to which students feel the passion and trust the teacher’s feelings as being sincere will have a salutary influence upon the depth and extent to which the subject-matter is learned.

John Dewey distinguishes illuminatingly between content-value and form-value. Students in the throes of an existential curriculum must be made aware that their sentient teacher has not only a pedagogical methodology but also a moral stance. The behavioral medium is one in which the teacher projects confidence that the students have the capacity to take on and learn difficult concepts. In such an environment, the subject matter will have the optimal chance to traverse the distance from the teacher.

The existential curriculum coalesced in my imagination when I was trying to arrive at a more methodical, “not-rushing,” self-regulating, better-paced way to move through the syllabus as a coherent narrative with a beginning, middle and end. The existential curriculum had roots in the realization that, as is my nature, I had been pushing through recent semesters at a high metabolic level, putting forth one intense idea after another without respite.  I became anxious that, even though my intention was to challenge them, the students were having trouble keeping up.  Conceding that it sounded somewhat “hokey,” I told them, “We are all on the same journey.”  This was a metaphor I had actually learned from them; they approved of my epiphany and began to relax somewhat.

My personal strategies of behavioral self-modification include, for example, but not definitively:  “show and tell,” talking the class out loud through whatever I am doing — even something as simple as using chalk to write on the blackboard; conscientious avoidance of flashy media in the classroom, such as Powerpoint (of which students are quite critical); handing out questionnaires halfway through the term to get their feedback and establish mid-course corrections; encouraging legitimized confusion by trying out new questions, experimenting, and readily admitting when they do not work; pointedly acknowledging my mistakes; using constant interrogation as a primary mode of discourse; accepting all student answers as valid perceptual and learning moments; collapsing the readings syllabus into fewer required works in order to spend more time on each one; impromptu elimination of an exam or exams; shifting emphasis to reading aloud; and establishing a final, collective project embracing contributions from the entire class, such as http://www.montclair.edu/creativeresearch/studentcenter/index.html

VII. Pure epistemology.

Transitioning from the existential curriculum that advocates intellectual and affective development in the college classroom, I propose initiating a conversation about learning at the outset of every class, every semester.

The subject matter of the conversation is heightened awareness of the nature of learning itself – “pure epistemology.”

Start a course – any course — by reading and talking about how learning occurs, and what it means.  Use the discussion of the actual meaning of learning as the common denominator, the obligatory entrée.

This initial conversation requires an accompanying assessment of the students’ “knowledge base.”  Take informational inventory, coming to terms with their prior knowledge of whatever book or subject you are discussing, without placing a value-judgment on the discrepancies different students bring to class from varied high school days and real-life experiences.

Through this collective exercise in metacognition, the teacher helps the students confront the meaning of learning and draw out its connotations.

I frame learning – it should be obvious by now – as an inherent asset, something desirable. The incoming student often needs to be convinced of this value.  Maybe you “have to take” this course, I say to the class, because it is required (as so many general education courses are). Instead of resisting, I continue, you might think about looking at the class as an opportunity to develop your learning skills beyond what the catalog says the course is about. You may end up discovering that there are classes you have to take that you actually end up liking. With more than one-half of the typical college curriculum made up of general education classes, shouldn’t all such classes embody some useful meaning?

In the process of teaching students to learn how to learn, we must revisit the unresolved debate about Liberal Arts education – the oft-invoked canon: what belongs, what doesn’t, according to whom, and how this gatekeeping stricture can be adjusted – not sacrificed, not jettisoned — to reflect the times in which we live and the fragmented mentalities of our students.   In the enlightened future I want for my students, and never stop trying to articulate, there will be skills, attributes, and qualities they will always need out in the world.

It is also a fallacy to decide that a teacher absolutely must cover everything laid out in the proposed curricular terrain. The millennial mind finds it tedious to bear the pedagogical burden of an over-regulated syllabus. Up-front, we should be wary of the oversold or pre-packaged promise of a course because, by the end of the term, what we really want to generate is the realization that.

VIII. …Pedagogy is for Life. 

The college professor and his students face pressures to show documented, measurable outcomes. I am not discounting these out of hand; however, we must also seek to get beyond the hermetic idea that when a course runs, it de facto serves its purpose when it is over.  We must demonstrate greater permeability between the higher education world and the rest of the students’ worlds.

We must guide today’s students toward the understanding that their college education is an opportunity for them to develop and to become indoctrinated to new, better, humanistic, more valuable and sustained mentalities — beyond utilitarianism, choice of majors, getting that piece of paper, and the need for a job.

By the time they graduate, students’ self-centered attentions and energies should be applied outward and forward, to a sense of social responsibility for the collective and common weal, an understanding of the democratic experiment — engagement with their society, their Zeitgeist – because it will be theirs to inhabit, survive, and ameliorate.

“I do not wish to close, however,” John Dewey emphasized in the final pages of Experience & Education, “without recording my firm belief that the fundamental issue is not of ‘new’ versus ‘old’ education, nor of ‘progressive’ against ‘traditional’ education, but a question of what anything whatever must be to be worthy of the name education.”

As Hannah Arendt wrote so movingly, “School is not the world, but it represents the world for the child when he is there.”

The “existentials” need to find better ways to aim for and reach the moving target of the “millennials.” Abandonment of authority will not help teach anybody anything. Nor will free-floating theory divorced from grounded real-life application. From where I stand as a classroom teacher, detached abstraction is of little interest to the average college student.

Rather, learning how to learn is the most urgent higher education challenge in the twenty-first century.

IX. Selected Bibliography.

Arendt, Hannah. The Crisis in Education (1954)

Dewey, John. “A College Course: What Should I Expect from It?” (1890).  In The Early Works, (Vol.3, pp.51-55). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

—-. Art as Experience. New York: Perigee Books, 1934, 2005.

—-. Experience & Education. New York: Touchstone Books, 1938, 1997.

Greene, Maxine. The Dialectic of Freedom. New York: Teachers College Press, 1988.

Hickman, Larry A., ed. Reading Dewey: Interpretations for a Postmodern Generation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Klein, Joel. Scenes from the Class Struggle. The Atlantic, June, 2011.

Levine, Arthur. The New Normal of Teacher Education. Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 2011.

Mirel, Jeffrey. “Bridging the ‘Widest Street in the World’: Reflections on the History of Teacher Education.” American Educator, 35.2, Summer 2011.

Webster, Scott. “Existentialism: Providing an ideal framework for educational research in times of uncertainty.” In AARE 2002: Problematic Futures. Coldstream, Victoria, NSW, pp.1-15.

[Note: The central theme of this essay originated in my Keynote Speech presented at the Montclair State University Student Research Symposium, April 16, 2011. I express grateful appreciation to my first readers, Susan Albertine, Vice-President for Engagement, Inclusion, and Success, and Karen Kalla, Director, Network for Academic Renewal, Association of American Colleges and Universities; and for their generous critique and editorial commentary through successive drafts of Learning How to Learn over the past twelve months, I would like to thank Ada Beth Cutler, Dean, College of Education and Human Services; Jennifer Robinson, Executive Director, Center of Pedagogy;  Linda Davidson, Associate Dean, College of the Arts; Erhard Rom, Professor, Department of Theatre & Dance, College of the Arts; Cigdem Talgar, Acting Director, Research Academy for University Learning and Julie R. Dalley, Assistant Director, Research Academy for University Learning -- all of Montclair State University.]

Neil Baldwin, a widely-published cultural historian and critic, is a Professor in the Department of Theatre & Dance, and Director of the Creative Research Center http://www.montclair.edu/creativeresearch in the College of the Arts. Prior to joining the faculty of Montclair State University, he was the Founding Executive Director of The National Book Foundation, sponsor of The National Book Awards. His teaching interests cover the span from dramaturgy and danceaturgy at the undergraduate level to arts management at the graduate level. His current areas of research include interdisciplinarity, the history of the imagination, Web-based modern dance documentation and archival practice, and the pedagogical centrality of the arts in American liberal education.  Dr. Baldwin also serves as co-chair of the NYU Biography Seminar. His Web site is http://www.neilbaldwinbooks.com

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