GenEd: From Content to Cognition
— Terry Halbert, Director of the General Education Program and Professor of Legal Studies in Business in the Fox School of Management
Director of the General Education Program and Professor of Legal Studies in Business
A generation ago, when we were debating the Core, we didn’t know what we know now. General Education reform—which is taking place across this country—is a response to recent research findings about how people learn, and about how college affects students. In 2005, two scholars, Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, past presidents of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, published a meta-analysis of some 2,000 studies from the 1990s and early 2000s. They concluded:
If the literature…says anything, it is that, although colleges can fashion an undergraduate experience characterized by a plethora of learning opportunities, it is the extent to which students become engaged in and fully exploit these opportunities that largely determines the personal benefits they derive.
Pascarella and Terenzini report that learning is more likely to be relational and social rather than an activity that takes place in solitude. Learning is a holistic phenomenon:
The research consistently shows that learning is bound neither by time nor by place, that it occurs continuously in a variety of locations, often unpredictably, and that it is maximized when both the activities and outcomes have meaning for the learner. [How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2005)].
GenEd takes these findings seriously, asking us to imagine how we can make what we know—the disciplinary knowledge that we understand so deeply—“engaging” to 18 year olds who might never take another course in our department. Stepping outside of the traditional disciplinary frame, faculty have been experimenting, finding ways to render what we know compelling to the neophyte.
To do this, some GenEd courses demonstrate how disciplinary knowledge intersects with important controversies—a history faculty member teaches a course on global slavery, a physics faculty member teaches about renewable energy. Some GenEd courses stretch across disciplines: a US society course at the convergence of history, political science and sociology or an art course at the convergence of film, media and race studies.
We are also linking what goes on in our classrooms with the world outside. About half of our GenEd courses make connections with Temple’s urban setting in what we have labeled “the Philadelphia Experience.” A science course takes students to the Waterworks to study 19th century sewage treatment. An art course sends students into Old City for First Fridays, to interview painters and photographers. These encounters leverage the interest our students already have in Philadelphia. Last year 90% of first year students cited our location in a large city as an important factor in choosing to come to Temple. The “Philadelphia Experience” is flourishing. Faculty and students have cottoned to it, and it promises to be a distinguishing feature of GenEd at Temple.
The empirical evidence tells us that when students sit passively during a lecture presentation—even a fascinating lecture presentation delivered by a superstar faculty member—they will quickly forget what they hear. According to former Harvard President Derek Bok, who encapsulates what we’re up against in Our Underachieving Colleges (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006):
[T]he average student will be unable to recall most of the factual content of a typical lecture within fifteen minutes after the end of class. In contrast, interests, values and cognitive skills are all likely to last longer, as are concepts and knowledge that students have acquired … through their own mental efforts.
To the extent, then, that our students are active and participatory—debating, writing, role-playing, critiquing, creating—what they learn is more likely to stick. Much of our work of the past couple of years has been the testing of practices like these, of various forms of learning-by-doing, by problem-solving.
We want to make GenEd work. If we do it right, our students will have honed the basic tools of academic discourse and by the time they arrive in their upper division courses they will be better able to handle the more sophisticated work of the major. They will be more fun to teach. They will also be more likely to do well on professional and graduate exams.
These are wonderful goals, but there is another essential strand to the GenEd vision. It is expressed in the GenEd request for course proposals:
Ultimately, GenEd is about equipping our students to make connections between what they learn, their lives and their communities. It aims to produce engaged citizens, capable of participating fully in a richly diverse world.
Here it is in a promotional snippet describing the graduates we hope to produce:
Artists who have strong, well-informed opinions about whether Philadelphia should have casinos, lawyers who can tango, doctors who have built hydroponic gardens in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, poets who can read GIS data, rabbis who have lived in Tokyo, high school teachers who have studied the criminal justice system in classes held at Gratersford, entrepreneurs who can argue about Kant—General Education is about a new way of defining the educated person. We want to produce not just successful doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers and teachers; we want to graduate citizens, voters, people who care about what is going on in the world and who believe they can act to change it for the better.
At the heart of GenEd reform at Temple is belief in praxis. Yes, we certainly aim to prepare our students to succeed in the multiple careers that most of them will pursue, and to appreciate the multiple cultures that most of them will inhabit. But we are also preparing them to grapple with complex local and global problems. We are readying them to determine where change is needed, and then to be agents of change. It’s a vast mission, but one that is, as some say, “in Temple’s DNA.”
GenEd is an evolution, not a revolution at Temple. The Core was studded with many excellent courses and plenty of excellent teaching. Community-based learning, experiential learning, interdisciplinary learning—all were present in much of the Core—but they were happening without fanfare and/or against the grain, and usually in spite of a lack of structural support. The difference with GenEd is that we will be paying attention to best practices in our teaching, to cognition as much as content. We will be supporting faculty development in a variety of ways, measuring, tinkering with and improving our teaching. The stars are aligned—amazingly—for teaching and learning at Temple to come out of the closet.
The Herald asked Terry Halbert how a business school professor with a law degree ends up so committed to a progressive General Education program.
Faculty Herald: What in your background might have prepared you for GenEd?
Terry Halbert: As an undergraduate, I was part of an experimental program in which students designed their own curriculum. I was able to put together my own interdisciplinary program in art history, anthropology, religion and English lit. I studied the Irish literary renaissance, the year 1200 in France and in Japan, Inuit art and world myths, among other things.
I spent several years outside the USA—based in Scotland but traveling a lot. I taught in Malawi with the British version of the Peace Corps. Returning to the States, I decided to stay home and develop a stable career. I went to law school, and then was hired by the business school at Temple. In the Legal Studies Department, I was teaching business law and contracts. Legal studies is inherently interdisciplinary, and I found myself drawn to its ethical and political dimensions. I wrote about employee free speech—or the lack of it, the lack of first amendment protections in the private sector workplace. I have co-authored textbooks, Law & Ethics in the Business Environment and CyberEthics, which present legal cases in the context of relevant news, and readings from the social sciences and the humanities.
Over the years, I’ve fumbled and experimented my way towards active and collaborative learning. I’ve used team projects, mock trials, role-plays and debates in my teaching, mainly because I could see how well those techniques worked. Verbal sparring in mock trial would cross over and produce noticeable improvement in my students’ writing.
In the 1990s, I developed an Honors course called Tobacco in America: From Pocahontas to Virginia Slim which looked at the tobacco industry from the perspectives of history, law, economics, pharmacology, race/class/gender, film studies and so on. At the time there was a steady media hum on this, building to a multi-billion dollar tobacco settlement.
It’s fair to say I became obsessed with interdisciplinary teaching from then on. I taught a Honors course about gambling and risk which dealt with the birth of statistics, gambling as a theme in literature, the sociology of play, and looked gambling manifestations, from state lotteries to Native American casinos to derivative trading. After Enron and Worldcom put the spotlight on ethics, I worked with colleagues from several departments in the Fox school to develop a core business ethics course for undergraduates. After the planning phase, our team continued to meet as we were teaching the course, to tweak it and share ideas. This collaboration was terrific—a taste of what I would see later in GenEd.
In spring 2007, during the run-up to the last Philadelphia mayoral election, I taught a course about a controversy that was in the local news virtually every day—the question of whether we would have casinos on the Philadelphia waterfront. Guest speakers—from the CEO of Sugarhouse to anti-casino neighborhood activists to several individuals who were running for city council that season—would come in every week to present their views and be queried by my students. This time an interdisciplinary course was bringing me closer to another aspect of GenEd—the “Philadelphia Experience.” The students had developed research questions that they were genuinely curious about, and some of them assisted Fox Professor Fred Murphy, who did an economic impact study of the casinos and testified to City Council. This course, oriented around understanding a divisive situation that was unfolding in our city in real time, gave me a great preview of another facet of GenEd, a theme we will be developing this year: Community-Based Learning.
Faculty Herald: What has it been like to work on this program, and to take on such a large administrative task?
Terry Halbert: In the late 1980’s, when the Core was new, I was Associate Director of the Honors Program. What I liked about that work was the bird’s eye view. You interact with people in advising, registration, financial aid, admissions—parts of the university that are often less visible to faculty. This is one of the advantages of doing GenEd—getting to know all the contributors, understanding how all the different parts of the Temple fit together. This work has brought me back in contact with this network, and I’m really enjoying it.