Thursday, June 17, 2010

Reminding Myself About the Importance of Having a Personal Philosophy of Education

Recently I co-facilitated a workshop with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, at the annual International Conference on The First-Year Experience. I received some feedback during that event that reminded me of an important prior learning.

We have about 30 participants in this event so it was of a size that was ideal for interaction. And because it was an international meeting, we had educators from a number of countries, all of whom had in common their interest in improving first year tertiary education student success. Two of the participants were from South Africa and one of them sent me a message.

As part of the workshop, Betsy and I gave each participant a notebook of print materials. And we tend to over prepare and so sometimes, particularly I, do not always get to “cover” all the material I inserted as companion documents. And in this event I neglected to make any specific comments about/reference to a document I included entitled “My Philosophy of Education.” Well, this South African higher educator came up to me at a break and pointed out to me that I had “skipped” that handout, asked me why, and strongly but politely asked me if I would revisit it. She told me that she thought it was extremely important for me to make explicit to the other participants not only that I actually had a philosophy of education but what it was very specifically. And so, later in the day, I did exactly as she had asked. After the workshop she told me that was the most meaningful and “powerful” part of the day for her.

So what was going on here? Well, as a public intellectual and leader of this so-called “first-year movement” I realize that people do want to know what I think and why. More broadly though, I think many educators want to know that their educational leaders have a clearly defined, well thought out philosophy and rationale and that such is the basis for their work with students, in the research, and in other areas of responsibility. I have also learned that many educators so rarely hear a leader articulate a consistent, concrete philosophy that it is rather striking when they do hear one! What a sad commentary.

Betsy Barefoot and I taught a course at the University of South Carolina for a number of years, a graduate seminar for masters and doctoral students in the Higher Education program(s) offered by the College of Education. This was a “special topics” seminar on the literature base of the “first-year experience” educational reform movement. Betsy and I would tell our students the very first day of class that they would be required to submit at the end of the course an explicit statement of their philosophy of education. When we presented this requirement we initially drew blank stares and requests for explanation of just exactly what were we asking the students to do? Why no one had ever asked them before to even think about having a philosophy of education, let alone to write and submit one for critique. At the end of the course, we were told year after year that this was one of the truly most important things we asked the students to do. So I had a number of reminders previously that this kind of thinking, sharing, could be influential with aspiring and current educators. But I had really forgotten for a long time to be so explicit myself, that is, until this new colleague from South Africa requested me to elucidate in this fashion.

I really appreciate what she did. And I am going to do this more often, including tomorrow in a speech I am going to give. Moreover, I would invite any/all of my hardy band of readers to do the same—to share with their students, audiences, employees, mentees, etc, your philosophy of education. After all, your philosophy, your core values and beliefs are and should be at the root of everything you are trying to do for students and higher education. I believe you will really stand out if you do this and you will especially help your students to understand what you are really all about and just what it is that you are trying to do for them.

If you are interested in my statement of philosophy, drop me an e-mail and I will send it to you (gardner@fyfoundations.org). Better yet, write and share your own.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, June 14, 2010

An Obvious Opportunity and Suggestion

The purpose of this blog is to make a suggestion about a very obvious opportunity: the need to integrate what we do in first-year seminars this fall with something about the ecological, economic, human, and political disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.

While there is much that is unclear, one thing is certain: this matter will NOT be behind us by the opening of the school year and we are faced with unprecedented opportunities for teachable moments this coming fall. If ever there was an external, overbearing topic that every entering college student should be considering and trying to develop some new ways of understanding, studying, researching-- this is it.

This also gives us the opportunity, recognizing that there are many different types of first-year seminars, to make one bold fell swoop of a move to finally make every such course have compelling academic content.

Be thinking in advance not only what you can have students read and discuss, but who are the members of your faculty whose disciplinary expertise would lend themselves to be called upon as guest commentators, discussants.

We are faced here with a real game changer, and as Rahm Emanuel has so famously reminded us: “a crisis is a terrible opportunity to waste.”

-John N. Gardner