Reflecting on the Continuing Challenges of Teaching at Community Colleges

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As we take this time to look back upon 2014, those of us who teach and work at community colleges may consider how much our work has reached the attention of the nation. The challenges posed in educating our students are not completely lost on observers and critics. But when focusing upon the statistics often featured at the center of official reports and white papers, it is easy to miss the narratives of the main stakeholders, the students and educators.

A recent New York Times article highlights some of these challenges as told through the story of Dr. Eduardo Vianna, a psychology professor at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, arguably one of the most diverse community colleges in the nation. The article, “Raising Ambitions: The Challenge in Teaching at Community Colleges” by Ginia Bellafante and published December 19, 2014, reminds us of the important role our institutions play in educating nearly half of all undergraduates nationally. Even more so, community colleges see the majority of our students coming from the “lower half of the income distribution.” Along with this come many challenges in terms of the lack of preparation for college, including poor analytical and critical thinking skills. Yet those skills are vital to meeting the demands of economic mobility and growth.

To create a world of young people skilled at analysis, you first need to create a world of young people receptive to complexity, and many of Dr. Vianna’s students, he said ‘cringe at complexity.’
– G. Bellafante, NY Times, 12/19/14

Many of us who teach at these institutions will recognize elements of the story from our own classroom experiences. Vianna shares how his students found it difficult to assess evidence from data posed to them that conflicted with their own assumptions. By way of example, he shares how he gave his students an assignment based on the work of psychologist Edward C. Tolman. The graph they were reviewing showed that rats could learn to navigate a maze without extrinsic rewards, yet the students could not see this and came to the opposite conclusions.

“Often learning requires changing one’s position toward some issue and they resist this.”
– Dr. Eduardo Vianna

To help prepare incoming students to meet the expectations of critical and conceptual thinking, many community colleges have begun requiring students to take a first year seminar course. The courses also connect students to faculty in their majors, another important aspect in student engagement, according to much of the published research. Community college educators are also leading the way towards facilitating learning rather than simply lecturing facts, involving students in more active learning and collaboration, and offering continuous forms of low-stakes assessment. These are all parts of the arsenal of techniques meant to improve student engagement. These and other pedagogical approaches are addressed in a forthcoming book “Taking Teaching Seriously: Why Pedagogy Matters! that includes contributions by Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College.

At Columbia’s Community College Research Center, assistant director Melinda Karp suggests that in order to engage our students in academic discourse, a more constructivist approach may be necessary, one that involves more active and collaborative learning. These techniques have already been embraced by many community college educators. Bringing it mainstream requires sharing it college-wide.

As we reflect upon the needs of our students, at the Center for Teaching & Learning at Mott Community College, as with similar centers at community colleges around the country, we understand the role of professional development opportunities in addressing the issues raised in the NY Times article. Just as with the students we teach, sharing among our colleagues about successes gained, while working through the challenges, can help community college educators – faculty and staff alike – meet the challenges of raising the ambitions – and ultimately the success – of the students we serve.

With warm wishes for the holidays and beyond!

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