How to Start Institutional and Classroom Change Today

by Cathy N. Davidson


When a recent meeting designed to jump-start institutional change devolved into prolonged silence, a doctoral student in the group made a bold suggestion. What if instead of waiting for someone to raise a hand and proffer a solution, everyone spent five minutes workshopping an idea with a partner and then reported on it to the group as a whole? The administrator in charge wasn’t sure this unusual method would work but was receptive to anything that might energize the meeting. What’s five minutes? The gathering split into smaller groups. Suddenly the room became abuzz with engaged dialogue. Everyone was surprised and happy to be released from what may have seemed like collective disaffection. At the end of the five minutes, it was then simple for the administrator to “inventory” the room and find out what had been discussed in the smaller units. It turned out there were plenty of ideas as well as a greater appetite for change than one might have previously imagined.

Management experts will not be surprised by the effectiveness of this “inventory method.” It’s a proven and time-tested method for helping any group to contribute meaningfully. The doctoral student knew that these methods work as well in a department meeting as they do in the classroom. Inventory methods — what the American Psychological Association calls “total participation” — structure a way to ensure that all ideas are aired. The process of contribution itself facilitates change by inviting buy-in. It includes individuals in the process and helps motivate responsibility for change, precisely what is needed to move effectively from ideas to actual implementation in academia. It helps in the difficult process of helping individuals to alter their preconceptions, structures, workflows, habits, curricula, courses — and maybe even their old lecture notes.

Change in an institutional setting is continuous with change in the classroom because both require learning. In the classroom, inventory or egalitarian techniques are key to “active learning” or what is sometimes called “engaged” or even “radical pedagogy” as advocated by progressive educators including WEB DuBois, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Lev Vygotsky, Paulo Freire, and bell hooks. It is based on interrelated principles: all change requires learning; all learning requires change; all learning is social.

Inventory methods are based on those principles. They disperse the power dynamics in a room and structure participation to hear the widest array of ideas and diverse perspectives by simple tactics such as having individuals partner on workshopping ideas before they present them to the larger group. The method turns out to be the best way to hear from minority voices (whether marginalized by race, gender, sexuality, social class, ability, or even personality traits such as introversion).

By contrast, in academia the typical meeting, like the typical classroom, is structured by what is called an “authority-based” or “coach-style” top-down principle. Coach-led gatherings tacitly ask the individual speaker or the student to either mirror or spar with the coach. Management theorists warn that coach-style group interactions encourage “group think” and, at their worst, “group un-think.” They tend to homogenize opinion, flatten it, and reward those most willing to ape the values ​​of the leader.

Academics are often extremely reluctant to turn over our authority — as professors or administrators — to the group. That’s not surprising. It’s a structural inheritance. During the period from 1860 to 1925, when the Puritan college was remade into the modern American research university, everything about higher education — its entire infrastructure — was remade to reward selectivity and merit. Charles Eliot, who served as Harvard’s president for forty years, was instrumental in developing what he called the “new education” believing that it was important for the US to take its place as a leader in the modern, industrial world. Eliot and his colleagues worked to reshape American higher education to define, train, credential, and rank a new professional-managerial class, top down, with every institution judged by the standards set by the nation’s oldest and wealthiest.

Without question, the modern American research university has succeeded in educating and establishing a new professional-managerial class for the industrial world of the twentieth century. It also created, in Lani Guinier’s famous phrase, the “tyranny of meritocracy” that pervades higher education today, including the ways we govern our institutions, conduct our meetings, solicit advice from our peers, and orchestrate our lectures and class discussions. Higher education seems like a system that rewards merit and promotes social mobility. What we know, from numerous studies, is that higher education is, too often, the engine of social inequality, contributing to (rather than minimizing) income inequality.

I argue that we need a “new education” for our own era, and, in “The New Education: How To Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux” (Basic Books, Sept 2017), I profile visionary institutional leaders and classroom professors who are reinventing higher education for creativity, collaboration, interaction, adaptability, social responsibility, and social change. These leaders of new education are aware that students today need far more than preparation and credentialing for a professional-managerial class, especially given how many of our professions are changing, failing, or under attack. This generation doesn’t need to learn content as much as they need to learn how to learn and, in the famous words of Alvin Toffler, how to unlearn and relearn too. They also need not just digital literacy but a kind of astute, deep, and interdisciplinary technological “defensive driving” to help them take charge of the rampant financial, social, and political perils that a generation of virtually unchecked technological development has led to. Individuals and entire democracies are being manipulated, top down, in ways no one imagined. We all need to be more involved in and aware of these vast processes and how they can hurt us all, including in higher education.

So where do we begin? In one’s immediate domain, one can, today, begin to institute activist, engaged practices of inclusion, participation, and contribution. These methods offer a starting point to a new form of responsive, collective action. I now use at least one inventory activity in nearly every meeting I lead, every class I teach, and every lecture I give, whether to groups of six or for over 6,000. I’ve also used these methods in conducting a workshop for the CEOs and CIOs of the top-performing 100 companies in the Cisco global conglomerate and for local community activists. Structuring participation works as the baseline for inspiring change.

Since this is my final blog post as Author in Residence for HigherEdJobs, let me leave you with a link to yet another blog: “An ‘Active Learning’ Kit: Rationale, Methods, Models, Research, Bibliography.” This provides an introduction for anyone interested in initiating the participatory forms of institutional and pedagogical change that, collectively, will allow us to support “the new education” for the world we live in now. Let’s get started!

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