James Olsen (Philosophy), Program Manager for Faculty Initiatives in CNDLS, shares how he was inspired to create transformational experiences for students at the Summit of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation Council.
In early September I traveled with a pair of students to Merida, Mexico, to participate in the 23rd Summit of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) Council and attend meetings. It’s hard to overstate how gratifying the experience was for me as an educator, observing our students’ excitement, dedication, and success as they met with and offered substantive proposals to government officials. Perhaps it was a once in a lifetime educational opportunity. My largest takeaway, however, was not simply gratitude for our good fortune in participating at a grand event. Rather, while I can’t scale and recreate this trip for each of my students, I was struck by a set of pedagogical principles that were affirmed throughout this experience, principles that we frequently advocate for in the Apprenticeship in Teaching Program. These principles can directly inform course design, substantively improving our students’ learning and growth even without leaving the Hilltop.
Facilitate student-driven projects: This was from start to finish a student-driven initiative. They sought out and connected with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials, secured the opportunity and later the funding, and then researched, planned, and executed the trip. It required the direct involvement and backing of the university on multiple levels, but it was conceived, pursued, and ultimately executed by the students themselves. Similarly, our classrooms and major graded assignments can tap into and facilitate student motivation and ownership. That is, we as faculty can partner with students, setting forth rigorous criteria that empower them to research and pursue projects to which they are personally and intellectually connected.
Create temporally extended, multi-part assignments: The scholarship of teaching and learning offers consensus on the need for repetition, revision, and scaffolding of assignments in order to sustain deep and long-term learning. I was delighted to see this research borne out as the students researched the CEC, brainstormed and drafted proposals, sought faculty feedback, revised those proposals, and rehearsed multiple times prior to their engagement at the summit. I then experienced immense pride watching these capable and articulate students dialogue with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and her officials in a private meeting—and especially when the students offered a respectful but direct challenge to McCarthy’s ideas, proposing an alternative that created a genuine “huh” moment of reflection for McCarthy’s team. I felt this pride even more as I watched our Georgetown students gather the handful of other youth from Mexico and Canada between sessions. Together they worked out and then presented a formal, signed proposal for structural change to the CEC that would allow permanent and substantive youth participation. Our course assignments can likewise link together, incorporate revision, and build on one another, organized around a central, motivating goal.
Build authentic connections to real stakes and lives: Students need to know the relevance of what they’re asked to do, and feel the weight of their assignments. We do this artificially (and sometimes punitively) with grades; to some extent there’s no escaping this. But the stakes are both greater and more constructive when connected to students’ lives and identities. I heard and saw the way in which environmental issues were transformed for these students from a vague worry about the future, to an area of personal concern and expertise, to an area of potential life-long engagement. Not only were their efforts in Merida publicly lauded by the ministers to the Council, but, recognizing the combination of our students’ passion and competence, EPA officials later notified our students that in response to their proposal the EPA planned to create a youth chair on their National Advisory Committee and personally invited our students to submit their names. Each of these steps required the same time, effort, and care as a major course assignment. They functioned together, however, supported by the very real stakes involved.
Partner with the greater community: Fostering external partnerships is one way of intensifying the stakes and relevance of what happens in our classrooms. This trip was a direct merging of students’ studies in international affairs with agencies immersed in the work of international affairs. Similarly, many faculty at Georgetown foster such partnerships through myriad means—engaging personal contacts in the community, structuring their courses for Community-Based Learning via the Center for Social Justice, obtaining Curriculum Enrichment Grants from the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, collaborating with other educational programs and institutions such as DC public schools and the Jessup Correctional Institution, conducting field trips, site visits, and bringing in guest speakers. As an institution, Georgetown creates the conditions and offers opportunities for students to extend their research and learning into summer excursions, studies abroad, and, as in this case, participation in international events. Faculty can take advantage of and create more such opportunities.
Strive for cura personalis: All of these principles and activities are methods for cura personalis and educating the whole person. In Merida, the students constantly talked of their Georgetown classes, their majors, the organizations they were a part of, their relationships with family and friends, and their goals within society at large. Their experience and strivings were fully contextualized within and drew upon their whole selves. Cura personalis is not about figuring out how to make our course content relevant to some “outside” aspect of students’ lives, but an ideal for designing our classes as a nexus for everything else students are experiencing.
We commonly speak of education as transformative. I’m confident that this trip functioned in just this way for these students. I’m equally confident that, on a less grand scale, our classrooms can implement similar structural features and foster the positive transformation of our students. Even further, I’m confident that we can better design our classes to both integrate and become central parts of their lives.
I would love to hear from others on the ways that they see these principles at play in their own classrooms. Feel free to come by the CNDLS suite for a chat or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.