Widening participation requires new ways of learning

College participation throughout the world is widening and the make-up of those attending college is more diverse. This fundamental change is having an impact on many aspects of college life and operations and will have a wider impact on society.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

One aspect of college that will face bold new changes is the role of faculty. Faculty members, in most countries, are the purveyors of knowledge and they teach what they think is best for students and all too often, what is most convenient for them as intellectuals.

As colleges become more and more diverse, students will demand more innovative and challenging teaching methods and a role for themselves in the classroom beyond the empty vessel that is filled with the knowledge of the professor. Unfortunately, most faculty members are not prepared for a sea change in teaching and are often resistant.

One way to generate new ideas and approaches among faculty is to look to institutions that have a long record of working with diverse populations, institutions that could provide transformative leadership. These institutions, which we call Minority-Serving Institutions, or MSIs, in the United States, approach learning from a student-centred, rather than faculty-centred perspective.

A student-centred approach

My colleague Clif Conrad and I studied the approaches of MSIs for nearly six years, culminating in our book Educating a Diverse Nation.

We found that MSIs foster a student-centred approach in a variety of ways. First, they assume that their students are going to be successful from the moment they enter the classroom and communicate these assumptions to the students. Students feel empowered and gain a sense of belonging.

Second, they work together to co-construct a curriculum in which classes speak to each other rather than operate separately with no connecting forces. Students can see the interconnectedness and learn to think in interdisciplinary ways, which is instrumental when students consider graduate school in the future.

Of note, MSIs in the United States disproportionately send students to graduate school and these students have high self-esteem and the ability to make connections across the curriculum with little guidance.

Third, faculty members at MSIs spend time getting to know the whole student and don’t ask the student to ‘check part of themselves at the door'. They affirm the identity of the students and don’t assume that Whiteness is the norm in the classroom.

Being able to express all aspects of one’s identity is instrumental to learning. Although allowing students to express themselves is important in any setting, it will become even more important as classrooms become more and more diverse and Whiteness becomes less visibly central.

Lastly, MSIs allow students to work on culturally relevant projects that speak to the communities from which they hail and the issues that have an impact upon their daily lives and those of their families. Faculty members make connections between larger, overarching concepts and the experiences of students. Knowing that they are having an impact on a society that they are tied to is powerful in the lives of students.

One of the best ways to learn how to serve the changing face of the world’s college population is to create networks of educators interested less in the prestige of learning or intellectual arguments and more in student learning and innovative teaching strategies. These networks should centre those institutions, like MSIs, across one’s country and perhaps beyond boundaries.

Embracing diversity

A few years ago, I brought together, with the assistance of Educational Testing Service and the Salzburg Global Seminar, a group of people interested in the growing diversity of college students to look at how we can move these students from the margins to the centre of higher education discussions.

Interestingly, although we spoke different languages, were from different countries and were of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds, we had a central goal of providing opportunity to more students and preparing for a future college population that may not have the social capital that its predecessors had.

We didn’t all agree, but that is not the point of coming together across diverse networks. The point is learning. Just as we were committed to providing quality experiences to a diverse group of students – but not requiring them to all think alike – we too were open to embracing our diversity.

I urge readers to look outside of their higher education world to those institutions and people that they think view the world differently. I urge them to embrace new styles of learning and empowering students. We can’t hold on to the same approach as we used in the past because our future is nothing like the past. Holding onto the past limits opportunity, limits our students and limits us as faculty.

Marybeth Gasman is professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, USA.