February 17, 2022
“What is the purpose of college?”
When the question is first asked by Clifton Conrad of UW-Madison, it seems simple enough. But after a few seconds of awkward silence, you begin to realize that while many generally accept the importance of higher education, its purpose is a bit vague. At least for different people it can mean different things.
One of the most cited reasons is to help get a good job and become economically stable. Another popular reaction is that college in general is about preparing a person for success in life – as an active and productive citizen who can think critically, speak clearly and realize their dreams.
Of course, there are a number of reasons for higher education. And perhaps that’s why most American colleges and universities put individual learning and achievement at the center of the undergraduate experience, and student success is usually measured by achievement scores, credits, degrees, and employment.
“Once students have gained a highly competitive student experience, individual achievement for personal gain is often the foundation of higher education in the United States,” says Conrad, Professor Villas with outstanding students from the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.
But should higher education work like this? Is it worth it?
“I don’t think college education, which is largely a private trip, serves students, their communities, or our ever-changing world,” Conrad says.
Conrad and Todd Lundberg are co-authors of a new book that encourages readers to rethink what college education can be based on collaborative learning – and teaching students how to solve problems together. This book, “Learning with Others: Collaboration as a Path to Success in College and Students,” is coming out March 15th.
“This ambitious, bold, and potentially controversial book advocates reconsidering the undergraduate program as a collective enterprise,” says Lori Paul, a recently retired professor at Boston University’s Wilcock College of Education and Human Development. “… He also asks us to change our perception of the goal of higher education from one that prepares people for success to one that emphasizes general learning that leads to change in society.”
“Learning with Others” provides a new perspective on collaborative learning, which has been part of education reform initiatives over the past four decades, ”said Adriana Caesar, Professor of Dean Leadership and Professor of Higher Education at Wilbur-Kiefer University. Southern California. “The authors question the individualistic orientation of American higher education and its roots in colonialism and racism, and believe that we would be much better off, especially in promoting the public good, moving toward a greater collectivist orientation.”
Putting co-learning at the heart of higher education, Conrad and Lundberg argue that students will learn to work together to better address the many challenges facing the nation and the world today, from racial inequality and discrimination to political polarization. , environmental issues and more.
This research work builds on a three-year study of the perseverance and learning of students in institutions serving minorities (MSI). The authors say they learned from more than 300 interviews, along with notes on 14 campus visits, three national conventions and more. The authors found that MSI tends to do noticeably better work on engaging students in collaborative problem-solving than their counterparts in predominantly white institutions. Institutions that serve minorities also more effectively encourage young scholars to accept interdependence and different perspectives.
Based on this context, “Learning with Others” presents pathways to collaborative learning and highlights a number of programs and practices that put collaborative problem solving at the heart of student success. The authors also outline how colleges and universities can better combine the roles and responsibilities of faculty, staff, and students to encourage collaborative learning. And the book explains how colleges and universities can adopt best practices for receiving and feedback on problem-solving initiatives, and how to solidify the curriculum in collaborative problem-solving.
Conrad and Lundberg explain that involving students in collaborative problem-solving can greatly motivate young scholars to take advantage of contributing to the lives of others, including friends and family, colleagues and fellow citizens. As one example, they note how students participating in the Full Circle project at Sacramento State University are involved in community service in the 65th Street Corridor project. This work is based on partnerships with low-income schools and a diverse community, with college students in this project working closely with each other, faculty and society to address a number of real-world issues. Conrad and Lundberg’s research at MSI shows how students at these institutions take “returns” to others and often describe their education in terms of the health of their communities.
“Collaborative learning awakens students to the importance and value of learning with others, from and to others, as working to create solutions to common problems,” Conrad says.
The authors also argue that if education is to prepare students for prosperity, they must learn not only to use their own knowledge and experience, but also to study ideas by participating in collaborative problem solving. Too often the emphasis on individual learning in many colleges and universities drowns out the voices of people traditionally unheard of.
“While collaborative problem-solving is often implemented in the family and community of traditionally underrepresented students, their contribution to collaborative problem-solving in academia is often lost when individual learning is at the heart of the experience,” says Conrad. “We need to remove barriers and enable all students to better engage those whose life experiences and voices are marginalized.”
Conrad has been considering these topics for more than two decades. In 2012, Conrad and Laura Dunek co-authored a book, “Developing Demand-Oriented Students: College Studies for the Twenty-First Century”. In this book, the authors invite higher education stakeholders to an active dialogue on the goals of higher education and explain how problem solving should be at the forefront of higher education.
In 2015, Conrad first highlighted a study collected during a three-year study of institutions that serve minorities, co-authored with Meribet Gassman, “Diversity Education: Lessons from Institutions that Serve Minorities”. This work highlights MSI’s innovative programs that promote perseverance and collaborative learning, and the book identifies specific strategies that enable non-traditional students to succeed. This work also stressed the need for joint problem solving. Lundberg was a research assistant in this project and today is the Deputy Director of the UW-Madison Center for Teaching, Learning and Teaching.
Conrad and Dunek then released the second edition of their book in 2020, entitled “Developing Demand-Oriented Students: The Purpose of College in the Twenty-First Century”. A preview of this paper explains: “Two decades in the 21st century, our country’s colleges and universities no longer accept a clear and convincing definition of the goal of higher education. Instead, most institutions have fallen victim to the standard goal, in which the college is essentially preparing the workforce for jobs that already exist, while students are seen as a commodity rather than trained to thrive for life. ”
“Learning with others” – which continues to build on this preliminary investigation – has been running for the past few years.
“It’s time to rethink what college success looks like,” Lundberg says.
Making such bold and ambitious changes will not be easy – especially if these efforts are seen as a reversal of individual choice, which is often seen as a core American value. And given that individual learning and achievement are a central part of the undergraduate experience at many universities, is such a significant shift in American higher education possible?
“Real change can be difficult,” says Conrad. “But we should also think of it as a great opportunity – an opportunity to rethink the purpose of higher education. It is long overdue to have serious talks in this regard. “