Stonehill Faculty Focus 2009
From Hypothesis to Action
What would make Stonehill College a better living and learning community? The question isn't an academic hypothetical; it's the actionable inquiry at the core of "Beyond the Bottle and the Ball: Is a Good Life Possible at Stonehill?" - a Learning Community (LC) taught by Professors John Lanci (left) and Anna Lännström (below left).
These two professors decided to use a problem-solving pedagogy for the sophomore Honors LC. "We wanted to find a way to make the integrative seminar more than just another class," says Philosophy Professor Lännström. On the first day, Lännström and Lanci asked the group to brainstorm ideas of what they feel is missing from their Stonehill experience.
"The goal for the LC is for students to develop a concrete and realistic proposal for what Stonehill should do in order to become a better place - and then propose how to do it, based on solid empirical data," Lännström explains. After investigating a number of possible avenues, students broke into five groups to explore a handful of promising ideas, from special-interest housing to improving communication between administration and students.
"This course puts the onus on students to be responsible for their own learning," says Religious Studies Professor Lanci. "These are open-ended, messy problems. Anna and I don't have the answers or the expertise. We can give them ideas on where to start, but they need to develop a solution to the problem issues they identified - one that makes a difference in their own lives."
In this way, engaged learning demands that faculty play a fundamentally different role. "Anna and I are more like cheerleaders, guides and enforcers of deadlines," Lanci points out.
"The bottom line is that you cede control to the learners, and that can be tough. I'd much rather be in control. I'd much rather be the font of all wisdom. Without question, teaching this kind of course is harder. You have to be committed to a different style of learning and, at least at the beginning, you have to trust the data that say this way is better. After all, the amount of new information is exploding. We can't possibly teach it all: problem-based learning gives students the capacity to be lifelong learners," adds Lanci.
Students rave about the LC. "I love this course; it's absolutely different from any of my other classes," says Erin Horanzy '10. "It's my favorite because I have a real say: I produce an important, concrete part of the class. Because we helped create the syllabus, it's guaranteed we'll be discussing something I want to discuss. I'm in the student-administration communication group," she continues. "Through this LC, I've learned you're not powerless as a student. You can assert yourself - you learn, 'Hey, I can do things.'"
In fact, for the final exam, students must present an actual proposal to the appropriate administrators. "We've been reading a lot of pedagogical theory that indicates it's much more powerful if students actually do something like this. It ups the stakes," explains Lännström. "These students feel so strongly about these issues, I think a lot of them will continue to work on them beyond the course."
"Bottom line, their voice will be heard," adds Lanci. "We don't know what the end result will be: their product may or may not make a difference. But that's part of the learning process, too; they're discovering what it's like to work in an organization."