An Engelhard Conversation: Building Shared Approaches to Integrative Learning, Formation, and Well-being

On Wednesday, March 23, Dr. Marcia Baxter Magolda shared her theories of self-authorship and learning partnerships with a crowd of nearly 100 staff and faculty from across Georgetown’s campus. This workshop, “Building Shared Approaches to Integrative Learning, Formation, and Well-being,” marked the third event in the Engelhard Project’s ten-year anniversary conversation series, “Engelhard Conversations on Educating the Whole Person.” The Engelhard Project collaborated with the Division of Student Affairs, CNDLS, and the Doyle Engaging Difference Program to host this event.

The morning opened with a keynote address from Dr. Marcia Baxter Magolda, Professor Emerita of Miami University of Ohio. A noted scholar in student learning and development, Baxter Magolda reviewed her theories on self-authorship and learning partnerships. She shared observations and findings from her longitudinal study following 80 traditional age college students for 4 years. Though initially a research project intended to focus on the students’ college years, Baxter Magolda’s data collection extended far beyond that original time period, and led her to additional theories and insights on development [note: in its 29th year, the study still has 30 remaining participants.] Throughout her presentation, Baxter Magolda shared many audio clips from study participant reflections to illustrate the nuances of each story and development.

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In opening the morning, Baxter Magolda called on faculty and staff to ask “what are we really asking of students here [at college]?” and to consider how we all make sense of our experiences. She noted that her goal for the day was to offer “one possible narrative” for understanding and connecting to student development, and challenged participants to think about their students throughout built-in reflective interludes and the afternoon’s working session.

Baxter Magolda theorizes that students come to college with a way of constructing their world that has been learned from previous schooling and external authority; that we have “trained” students for this mindset, but then place them in an university environment that “demands something else,” for which they are not prepared. Instead of asking more of students than they have been asked in the past with little additional support, universities should instead create a “holding environment” in which students can truly grow and develop—an environment which at the same time both accepts people as they come, as well as “invites them to be something more.” Often citing Robert Kegan (scholar in adult learning, professional development, and transformational learning), Baxter Magolda posited that higher education focuses too much on “informational” learning at the expense of “transformational” learning, an issue that holds true for the educators supporting that learning as much as it does for the students themselves.

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Self-Authorship and Learning Partnerships

One of Dr. Baxter Magolda’s key theories is that of self-authorship, which she states is not about independence or egocentrism, but “an internal voice coordinating and navigating what goes on around you.” It is to achieve a state of deep self-knowledge and trusting. She notes that a common turning point is the “realization that reality is beyond [one’s] control, but [one’s] reaction is not.” According to Baxter Magolda, the journey toward “internal authority”—when one can “manage, navigate, choose, and direct” what goes on in one’s life—has three stages:

  1. External: following external authority uncritically.
  2. Crossroads: a battle between external and internal voices as one learns to discover and trust their own “internal voice” (one of the more difficult phases.)
  3. Internal: when one’s internal voice is the grounding direction for action, although Baxter Magolda is careful to note that “the external [influences] never go away; they have to be managed.”

This development is both complex and crucial as “we can’t figure out who we are and what we want to do if we don’t deal with the complexities.” Baxter Magolda suggested that higher education can play a role in this process by not shielding students from this conflict, but instead helping to support them through it.

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One way higher education can offer this support is through learning partnerships, which Baxter Magolda discussed using the analogy of a tandem bike. Of the two people on the tandem bike, the front rider is the “captain” directing the way, and the second is the “stoker” providing power and fuel. Too often in higher education, she argued, educators assume the captain’s seat and merely “drop the students off” at graduation. Baxter Magolda suggested that colleges should reverse these roles and instead support the journey (and direction/captaining) of their students. It should be the role of educators to support and challenge learners—to offer a “developmental bridge”—while joining them in the often messy process of development, instead of trying to “fit it.” The journey is the most important part, not the outcome; therefore, educators should strive to meet students where they are and encourage them to feel comfortable asking questions, exploring their experiences, and drawing personal connections. In closing, Baxter Magolda recognized Georgetown for its long tradition of “whole person,” noting that—among some challenges—the university has a great opportunity to transform higher education and “make something good happen.”

Jesuit and Ignatian Tradition

Following the keynote, Randy Bass (Vice Provost for Education) and Father Kevin O’Brien (Vice President for Mission and Ministry) offered additional reflections not only on Magolda’s work, but also on connections to Georgetown’s commitment to whole person development. Bass urged participants to think of self-authorship as a goal that should underlie all learning outcomes, as opposed to the other way around—in other words, that independent learning outcomes do not necessarily achieve self-authorship, but that self-authorship should be an intentional learning goal itself. Included in Georgetown’s mission is the formation of men and women, the creation of knowledge, and serving the common good, and so our focus ought to be on transformational development for all—even educators and the institution itself. Father O’Brien emphasized this same focus on the development of unique, self-authoring selves using the lens of Jesuit and Ignatian tradition, wherein “each self has a dignity that can never be taken away.” Jesuit education encourages individuals to be attentive, reflective, and loving, and—in the end—”what we do should flow from the deepest sense of who we are.”

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About 65 staff and faculty participated in the afternoon’s working session, which included facilitated discussion among tables to reflect on individual experience and shared approaches for furthering this work. Discussions centered around challenges to learning partnerships and inspiration for continuing to strive towards an ideal for student learning and development within higher education.

The Engelhard Project would like to thank Todd Olson, Vice President for Student Affairs, and Carol Day, Director of Health Education Services, for their work in collaborating on this workshop, as well as Dr. Marcia Baxter Magolda, Dr. Randy Bass, and Fr. Kevin O’Brien. We would also like to thank all of the faculty and staff who participated in the event, making clear their commitment to cura personalis across campus. Those who were unable to attend are encouraged to view the full keynote and reflection via Vimeo.

The Engelhard Project for Connecting Life and Learning focuses on teaching to the whole student by linking academic course content to health and well-being topics through readings, presentations, discussions, and reflective writing assignments. By incorporating health and well-being issues into the classroom, the Project fosters academic learning and encourages students to reflect on their own attitudes and behaviors.