Agile Faculty Manifesto – Engaged Learning

This post is part of a summer series looking at the Agile Faculty Manifesto. Read the Manifesto in this series preview post or in Chapter 1 of the book. This post explore what it means to focus on engaged learning.

Agile Faculty value engaged learning over passive reception.

Some of my classes seem like chaos. If you came in to a class period near the middle of a project, you might see students running between small groups, disappearing into the back room with sticky notes, staring at their computers intensely, calling contacts or community partners, even asking me to stop hovering. Usually at this point, I’m relegated to the back of the room until someone calls me over or asks a question. In this course, the project is the content. And the chaos is by design.

I teach courses in professional writing and rhetoric, composition, and design thinking at liberal arts-grounded university with a deep commitment to engaged learning in all forms at the undergraduate level. I feel supported in my pedagogy to engage students with the complex problems faced by real audiences in our community.

The majority of my upper-level professional writing and design thinking courses are project-based service-learning experiences designed to keep students a little off balance (check out the blog created by the students in the second pilot of the Design Thinking Studio in Social Innovation). Not enough that they feel unsafe, but enough that they can try something, get feedback (which they can take or ignore), succeed or fail, deal with it, and get back up to complete a strong project. I get dinged in my course evaluations consistently for the measure of having an organized course, but I’m good with that (and so are my chair and dean). But I believe students need practice dealing with uncertainty, the kind driven by an unclear problem, a complex audience, a lack of measure for success. And because the content of my courses really is the process of communicating and thinking effectively, the pedagogy makes sense – I don’t have a ton of content to cover that students will need before they can enter the next level of content-driven course.

Honestly, college-aged me would have completely avoided professor me and my courses. I teach the way I do for that reason. I preferred lectures and readings, listening to others discuss a topic and then writing about it later. Hands-on learning was frustrating, and collaborative projects were maddening, largely because I didn’t trust anyone with my grades. So this entry in the Agile Faculty Manifesto is also close to my heart. I’m reading Susan D. Blum’s anthropology of American higher ed, written through the lens of her institution, Notre Dame. She argues, like many before and others to come, that the traditional system of higher ed is a game students play for the credentials not the learning.

They (and we) are always learning experientially, but perhaps not as often in the classroom as could be if we committed to varied engaged learning strategies, even those that completely transgress the standards of seat time, semesters, textbooks, and grades. This might be easier said than done in different contexts, such as large lecture sections, for example, but the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning literature is rich with examples of how to implement active, engaged learning in classrooms and programs. Agile Faculty believe in engaged learning – after all, how will students build that well of phronesis needed to make good decisions about future actions without practicing and applying? (See the post about simplicity for a little Aristotle.)

Active and engaged learning pedagogies also require faculty members to be more flexible, let go of some control in the classroom so students can teach themselves and each, perhaps learning from clients or community partners as well. we might come to rely on more just-in-time teaching during engaged learning assignments. In building up students’ resilience, we build ours as well.

Learning by definition cannot be passive. How do you interpret  engaged learning in your own work? How do you approach active learning? What works in your field?


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