Learning Communities, the Wizard, and the Holy Grail
By John T. Masterson

From the April 1998 AAHE Bulletin,

John T. Masterson is vice provost for undergraduate affairs at the University of Miami, PO Box 248033, Coral Gables, FL 33124-4628; masterson@miami.edu..

The Wizard of Oz taught the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Woodsman, the Scarecrow, and Dorothy that the answers they sought were discoverable within themselves. Countless colleges are discovering that same truth through learning communities.

Learning communities, which link two or more courses around a unifying issue or theme, are sprouting up in institutions spanning the educational spectrum. Through learning communities, faculty are discovering a systematic, intellectually exciting, and humane way to improve learning, and in doing so are teaching us all a lesson in how to run a university.

In January, capitalizing on our own experience with learning communities, the University of Miami hosted a conference, "Transforming Campuses Into Learning Communities: Building Bridges and Overcoming Barriers." We had hoped for 150 people; more than 600 attended.

Many came as Seekers of the Truth about learning communities. Believers and skeptics alike grilled our presenters about theory, assessment, logistics, and the politics of organizing learning communities. But why this enormous interest in the topic? Why the growing support from public agencies and private foundations? Why do learning communities multiply and thrive at the University of Miami and elsewhere? There are two reasons.

The first is simple: learning communities work. As research shows, learning communities are good for students, who learn subject material better and form stronger social bonds; good for faculty, who enjoy teaching with their colleagues; and good for the institution overall. Learning improves; satisfaction improves; retention improves. Positive effects, especially on student retention, get the attention of academic administrators, who now see learning communities as the newest weapon in the war on attrition. To stop there in one's assessment, however, is to miss the point.

The second reason speaks to why learning communities work, and it's more subtle and powerful. They work because of the power of collaboration, only fractionally realized up to now because of the departmentalization and compartmentalization of collegiate life. Learning communities are a programmatic expression of a simple but elusive truth: We educate better when we discuss with one another the outcomes we seek and the means we have collectively to achieve them.

In my role as professor, I publish and teach in the area of small-group communication. The literature on group problem solving is conclusive on the following points: (1) Almost any problem-solving strategy is preferable to no strategy; and (2) the first step in any strategy should be to define the problem. In other words, to make the most effective decisions, we first must agree on what we're deciding. This seems obvious, yet it rarely happens.

Take, for example, the typical decision making about mathematics requirements. One way to get a group of academic heads nodding in unison is to suggest that our students need to improve their quantitative reasoning skills. If this conversation takes place in a curriculum committee, the next step is usually to recommend an additional level of mathematics coursework (to be determined by the faculty of the mathematics department). The following year, all students will take more mathematics and, some might argue, improve their quantitative reasoning. So what's the problem?

The difficulty is that we haven't really thought through the problem in the first place and, accordingly, didn't find the best solution. Exactly which quantitative skills should most college graduates master? Need these skills be the same for all students? Chances are, each of us will have a different view. Yet such differences are rarely explored. Instead, we have become conditioned to respond to almost any student academic need with "let's add a course."

On a broader scale, consider the usual modus operandi for deciding on university general education requirements. The president calls for reform. The provost and the faculty senate ask deans and department chairs to select representatives for a university-wide committee on general education. Deans and department chairs consider who among their faculty is best equipped to provide thoughtful leadership as well as forceful advocacy, when necessary, to protect the interests of their academic units. Appointees understand, explicitly or implicitly, their task: to protect the existing FTEs and, if possible, generate new ones for the home department. Enrollments are, after all, academic currency.

Fortunately, many of us as faculty members can, at least in part, rise above the FTE subtext to consider the meaning of undergraduate education, weaknesses in our current offerings, and new challenges and opportunities such as ethics, oral and written communication, critical thinking, new technologies, and diversity. Nevertheless, the outcome is likely to be a rehash of the old curriculum with a new twist here, a bell or whistle there — a rearrangement of existing courses, a couple of new courses, and something across-the-curriculum. We rarely think beyond courses and credits.

But the group communication literature suggests that what we should be doing is approaching the general education curriculum as an exercise in problem solving, in which questions should be asked such as: What should be the natural and inevitable consequences of a student's successfully completing the general education requirements at our institution? What knowledge and sets of skills will the student have mastered? The discussion of these questions should be detailed and concrete and ought to avoid any discussion of what courses students should take.

The science faculty of the University of Miami have proposed an experiment in undergraduate science education that breaks the mold and could transform the education of science students at UM. They have proposed to determine collaboratively a set of realistic expectations that should be the natural and inevitable outcomes of two years of mathematics and natural science coursework for many bachelor of science students. The resulting consensus will address both content and process. The proposed two-year curriculum will integrate subject matter from mathematics and natural sciences, blending it with the development of specific skills (computing, writing, oral communication, management of scientific information, and collaborative problem solving). The goals are to increase students' academic knowledge while improving their ability to interact in groups and use technology. The overarching goal is to develop in students the ability demonstrated by the faculty themselves -- the ability to solve complex problems (and here is the key word) collaboratively.

This is the kind of thinking fostered by learning communities. It focuses first on what we want students to learn; it considers the human and other resources available to create an optimal learning environment; it sets measurable objectives. It requires faculty to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries. It seems like common sense but is radically different from business-as-usual on most campuses.

Generations of scholars have worked together in learning communities of their own -- the communities associated with academic disciplines, represented on campus by academic departments. Contemporary learning communities do not and should not threaten the great traditions of mentoring and deep inquiry that those disciplines foster. On the contrary, learning communities can enrich and strengthen disciplines by linking them with others. Our goal is synergy, not homogenization.

Academic departments and student affairs units exist on our campuses so that students can learn. The learning objectives may differ from office to office, but learning remains at the core. Despite our common objectives, though, the notion that we might improve student learning by talking and acting across departments and units has somehow escaped us. Instead, we seek excellence by asking each institutional part to be the best it can be, without much consideration of the other parts.

This thinking is folly. Students' experiences of a campus are holistic. Each of our departments and each of our units, academic or student affairs, contributes to that experience and the resulting educational outcome. When it comes to student learning, the best components do not necessarily make the best whole; better, perhaps, but not best. To optimize the system, each part should be designed with its relation to the whole in mind. The most fundamental principle of life — organicism — must drive curricular transformation.

Many of the 600 faculty and administrators who attended Miami's conference on learning communities were looking for a Holy Grail or a Wizard of Oz to dazzle them with insight. If they were paying attention, they heard that, like the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Woodsman, and the Scarecrow, we already have the answers within us, on our campuses. If we can build consensus across divisional and disciplinary boundaries about what we want our students to achieve during their time with us, it is a beginning. The learning community movement, you see, is not about connecting courses; it's about connecting us.*

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