The Whys

So what is the real “why” of your course? Why should students take it? How will they be changed by it? What is your discipline’s real “why”? Why does it matter that students take __________ courses or become _________ists? How can digital and networked technologies effectively support the real why of your course?

I teach general education courses at VCU called Focused Inquiry. Focused Inquiry is a three-semester sequence–each course is worth three credits–that is housed in the University College. I have been teaching at VCU for 15 years (previously in the English Department), but I never really understood the true value of general education before I began teaching this course 8 years ago.

When the University College first opened its doors, I was one of approximately 40 full-time faculty who were hired. Before the semester began, we were asked to read 10 books about the scholarship of teaching and learning prior to spending one week in intensive faculty development in which we learned the hows and whys of the Focused Inquiry courses. I knew what teaching and learning meant before I was hired for this new position, but what I learned from these readings and during these five days of faculty development changed the way I would teach, and the way I would think about general education, immediately and forever. While I had always tried to be a good teacher and help my students who needed assistance, the expectation in my prior department (where I taught writing) was that unfortunately, some students would fail–as some students simply didn’t have the skills yet to write effectively in college and these students would need to seek help and take these general education courses again. My attitude was that I would help any student who wanted help–but I didn’t try to force students who didn’t request help to get it. I offered it, and if they didn’t take me up on it, that was their choice.

As a result of reading these 10 texts and that intensive faculty development, I stopped thinking that way. I started thinking that I really could help many of those students who we expected to fail, and I wondered if I went really far out of my way to try to help them, would some of them end up excelling or at least doing okay? It turned out I was right, and in the last 8 years, I probably “save” half of those students each semester who would otherwise fail. If you think about it, though, if we all save half, that’s a whole lot of students who would otherwise not make it past their freshman year in college.

In the first video, Mike Wesch introduces purpose-driven courses. This concept is similar to the skills-based courses that I teach in Focused Inquiry. While our classes have themes and we use content related to the theme in our classes, our goal is to teach important skills–written and oral communication, critical thinking, ethical reasoning, collaboration, and quantitative reasoning–not content. Content is used to facilitate practice in these skill areas.

So what is the WHY of my class? The answer is simple: what is more important to learn in college than being able to effectively communicate? Regardless of discipline, don’t we all want our students to think critically and explain their ideas clearly? The courses I teach get to the heart of these issues. Students can’t be “ists” in my field, but that’s okay, because we need all students to be good thinkers and writers in order to become effective “ists” in any field. As I said at the beginning of this post, I didn’t used to really understand the value of general education–I just thought it was providing basic knowledge everyone needed to know–but now I see that it is, or it can be, the most important and fundamental learning that students do in college. After all, without critical thinking and communication skills, students can’t even begin to excel in any of the disciplines that produce the “ists” in higher education. And, as Mike Wesch said at the end of the video in reference to his Anthropology course that is taught to a large group of students who will not go on to be Anthropologists, this type of education is preparing them for “the great initiation ritual of our society, what ultimately makes them great adults who have the capacity to find meaning and happiness and those types of things.”



4 thoughts on “The Whys

  1. Finding the ‘why’ sometimes seems so complicated and hard to define, but you see it clear as day and it seems evident this is your calling…great blog! It is so true…being able to effectively communicate is so important and I think sometimes we forget about that very important detail when trying to figure out our ‘whys’

  2. In watching and reading the information on “Why We Need a Why” I also felt very strongly about the need to build strong critical thinking skills. However, what I enjoyed about your blog is the way in which you look at setting and building the foundation for critical thinking. I had not thought about general education as the building block for developing these necessary skills in students and/or product adults in our society.

    • Hi. I think many general education programs don’t focus on the important skills; instead, an English class teaches basic literary analysis and how to write a persuasive essay. I’m lucky to work in a program that is so unique and has such high, but achievable, goals. Thanks for your comment:)

  3. Pingback: A thinker’s thoughts | Cats & Coffee

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