Looking for Liberal Learning in Unexpected Places

The California Acceleration Project is generating new promise for setting up pre-collegiate learners for success through programs in community colleges.  It’s also forging potential for advancing liberal education outcomes within developmental education—a place where people might not expect such learning to occur.  We often hear negatives about remedial and developmental placement and outcomes. There are indeed concerns to raise about the well-being of students who never make it beyond pre-collegiate courses.  But the California Acceleration Project (CAP) makes a case for using active learning to advance 21st-century outcomes along a developmental pathway. Katie Hern’s article “Acceleration Across California: Shorter Pathways in Developmental English and Math” in the May/June 2012 Change magazine, suggested to me ways that this high-energy initiative aligns with the goals of AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative.

If you look to CAP for your typical remedial approach, you won’t find it. Instead, you’ll see students absorbed in and excited by rigorous, effortful work, “doing things you’d think they couldn’t do,” Hern says. The website is chock full of classroom materials and videos, “creating as many pictures as we can that are compelling to faculty.”  You can watch a team of students debug a question on the national Comprehensive Assessment of Outcomes in a first Statistics Course (CAOS) exam, reasoning and learning their way through a tough box-plot problem.  You watch them teach each other standard deviation.  In the end they conclude that the answer key to the exam question is actually wrong.  And not a one of the students in the video placed into college-level math.

CAP brings educators together through the California Community College Success Network (3CSN).  3CSN is funded by the state community college chancellor’s office’s Basic Skills Initiative.  Additional support for CAP comes from the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, LearningWorks, and the “Scaling Innovation” project of the Community College Research Center. Faculty—full-time, part-time, tenure-track, non-tenure-track—in thirty colleges are now directly involved in CAP.  The growing project has also reached out to more than ninety of the state’s 112 colleges.

Hern tells me about the mission and vision of CAP: “The project supports faculty to redesign their long remedial course sequences in English and math to offer under-prepared students shorter, more challenging, and more supportive paths to the college level.”

As an English instructor in the project puts it, it’s about “equal opportunity through curricular redesign.” This is a great way to make excellence inclusive.

CAP intends to change practice through professional development, beginning with the premise that pre-collegiate learners have plenty of potential and that engaged learning is the way to unleash it.  In conversation, Hern and I work our way through the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes and make a crosswalk at each and every point.  CAP doesn’t just make the argument for rich and challenging outcomes; the project seeks to compel by example and illustration, with data to back it up.  Led by Hern and her colleague Myra Snell, CAP works with developmental English and math by seeding and modeling highly effective and high-impact educational practices. The project targets professional learning for faculty and makes the case for new thinking and practices for student development—encompassing the psycho-social dimensions of learning.

As readers of this blog likely know, the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes are grouped into four big categories and one can find amazing examples in this program of advancing outcomes from each of the four.

ELO 1: Broad Knowledge focused by engagement with big questions.  CAP recommends that faculty organize their accelerated English classes around an interesting theme that asks students to engage in big questions across the disciplines.  At Butte College, students assess the ethics of the Milgram obedience experiments and debate the use of animals in Harry Harlow’s experiments on infant bonding. At City College of San Francisco, accelerated English courses focus on big questions such as:  What does it mean to be ‘green’? How does food shape our identities?  Can we stop gang violence? Is technology making our lives better?

ELO 2: Intellectual and practical skills.  CAP encourages faculty to transform the developmental curriculum through integrated learning.  There are no baby steps here in English composition, no forcing students to trudge from sentences to paragraphs. The work is “progressively more challenging,” Hern observes.  She adds, “Subskills presented as linear is NOT what we want.  We ask students to practice what they will do in higher-level courses.” For example, students at College of the Canyons use statistical tools to analyze real-world data on automobile accidents. In collaborative teams, they come up with policy recommendations for a company and deliver these recommendations in a poster presentation. Students at Los Medanos use statistical tools to analyze the nutritional value of children’s cereals.

ELO 3:  Personal and social responsibility.  Connecting to students by cultivating self-awareness and perspective taking—as a way to encourage their taking responsibility for their learning—is integral to the student success plan.  CAP faculty members have used Carol Dweck’s research on mindset and resilience to help students understand their own approaches to learning.  Student testimonials on “fixed” and “growth” mindsets are truly inspirational. Fullerton College students address issues of intelligence, education, and disability through their study of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Ethical and social issues engage students at many of the project sites. At Moreno Valley College, students explore issues of ethnocentrism and the need for culturally sensitive medical care through the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

ELO 4: Integrative and applied learning: “If you create a rich theme,” Hern says, “it all follows.”  The CAP website offers a visual and verbal feast of learning.  Students at City College of San Francisco look at the relationship between income-per-capita and total education spending in a state. Mount San Jacinto College students apply different psychological theories to analyze the reality TV show Survivor.  For a moment of inspiration, see Hern’s class do a fiercely spirited group reading of Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

It’s refreshing and liberating to watch these growing learners think. The concept of high-effort and high-impact accelerated learning, tied to learning outcomes and assessment, using backward design from collegiate-level courses, points hopefully toward a better future for the new majority of students.


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2 Responses to “Looking for Liberal Learning in Unexpected Places”

  1. I really enjoyed this post, Susan, and your analysis of the California Acceleration Project — work I’ve admired but only recently begun to really study.

    Many CAP students intend to transfer into the California State University, where I work. Although the CAP curriculum is developmental, we’re seeing that it still challenges traditional college-level articulation, which turns in part on the universities’ recognition of a familiar sequence of prerequisites.

    CAP and others have improved persistence by abbreviating that long, dispiriting chain of remedial courses. (As you put it, “There are no baby steps here in English composition, no forcing students to trudge from sentences to paragraphs.”)

    You relate CAP courses to AAC&U’s work on high-impact practices and the Essential Learning Outcomes, and like you, I see the same shared principles. It’s exciting.

    But at the receiving end of transfer traffic, we find it just as meaningful to connect CAP curriculum to another AAC&U-developed framework, the VALUE rubrics. For the sake of setting transfer credit, we need to locate this new educational model somewhere in the continuum of learning we assert with our baccalaureate degrees. In other words, our faculty need to understand what gets left out in the abbreviation, and — critically — whether it matters.

    The CSU and CAP are in touch about this, thankfully. I worry that without ongoing communication, the demands of portability may threaten the same innovations we’re trying to promote.

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