By ALEC MACLEOD, core faculty member in the Bachelor's Completion program
This article was originally published in Cambio, the newsletter of the Office of the Dean of Students at CIIS.
Having faith in human beings is not an action one can take; it is a belief one must hold. It must, as Brazilian educator Paulo Freire reminds us, come from the heart: “You need to love.” It is important to remember that while Freire’s critical pedagogy is one of the fundamental influences on the educational practice in the School of Undergraduate Studies at CIIS, the practitioner’s relationship with that practice is as important as the practice itself. The belief that our students can learn and grow and change—regardless of their age or background—is what shapes our approach to teaching and learning.
Because of our belief in the capacities of our students, we have viewed learning as a collaborative process from the beginning. And especially because we have recruited and admitted a largely adult student population (the average age is in the mid-thirties), we are able to rely as much on their knowledge and experience as on that of our faculty teams.
Our educational goal is not simply to deposit knowledge into the brains of our students, what Freire calls the “banking system” of education. Instead it is our goal to enhance their capacities for critical engagement with their knowledge and experience. First, the banking system of depositing and withdrawing information is inherently disempowering to the student, assuming as it typically does, that the student is at best ignorant. Second, in the multicultural information age it begs the question of what knowledge is to be deposited. Half a millennium ago when the idea of the university emerged, it was possible for the educated person to determine what were all the important books ever published and then read them. Today even a serious scholar is hard pressed to keep up with all the significant publications in her field. New fields and knowledge emerge constantly. Many of the jobs our graduates will be applying for in ten years do not even exist now. How can we know what particular knowledge will be relevant? What we can assist our students in doing is knowing how to find information, make discerning judgments about its validity, and engage critically with it to determine its relevance and utility in their lives.Therefore, we do not prescribe that students know a particular set of facts or read a particular canon. Instead we work with our students to identify their own learning goals and assist them in meeting them. In this way we affirm the value of what they bring to the endeavor as well as their ability to succeed. There are several key elements to this approach to learning.
First, we work to promote a critical relationship with all knowledge, in particular the assumptions that the students have developed in the course of their lives. We term this process of assumption analysis, “critical reflection.” Students are asked to identify the a priori assumptions, whether their own or those implicit in a text, and challenge them. Next, students identify and challenge the contexts that give rise to the assumptions. Then they are asked to imagine alternatives to these assumptions. Challenging assumptions does not necessarily mean that they are wrong; indeed the process of considering them may affirm them as often as reframing them.
Second, our approach is to see all the activities as opportunities for students to learn what is important to them. For instance, in the first semester all students are asked to write a research paper on the nature of the self. In our readings and class discussions we consider the self from multiple perspectives, such as psychological, sociological, biological, spiritual, and literary. Individual students pursue a perspective that has particular interest for them. Perhaps, as many of our students do, they want to pursue a degree in psychotherapy or counseling. In such cases they may wish to look at the self through a particular psychological school of thought or to view the impact on the self of a specific psychological condition. Others may choose a particular faith tradition, political framework, or social location.
Further, the opportunity extends beyond simply the choice of subject matter to form and approach. While in many educational environments it is—implicitly—the students’ task to intuit what the faculty want them to do, we reverse this dynamic. When students submit their papers, the goal of the faculty—and of their fellow students, who also give feedback—is to identify the writers’ objectives for the paper and support them in reaching those objectives.
Finally, we emphasize collaboration. This is evident in a classroom experience that is collaborative between faculty and students, and in our curriculum that requires students to work and learn collaboratively. We believe it is especially important that our students enhance their skills in working and learning across differences: differences in beliefs, differences in life experience, differences in social background.
We believe that these are the skills necessary for the world around us today. And our practice of education intentionally models and mirrors these skills. And first and foremost must remain our faith in human beings.