Peer Review

Building a Culture of Transparency

Most universities respond to public demands for accountability in the form of increased attention to rates of performance, retention, and graduation. In our experience, these metrics are often administrators’ or departments’ main concerns when conducting self-studies for program review. However, there are other important measures of student success prior to these outcomes that are often overlooked or dismissed as classroom issues. When considered within an institutional framework of faculty development, we feel that providing faculty with opportunities to codevelop course content and approaches to teaching and learning can also contribute greatly to student engagement and success.

Toward that end, a team of California State University–Los Angeles (CSU–LA) faculty from our biology, Chicana/o studies, child development and family studies, English, and liberal studies departments recently participated in the AAC&U Transparency and Problem-Centered Learning project. In order to contribute to the implementation of a civic-learning requirement in CSU–LA’s new general education (GE) curriculum, our team chose to pilot GE courses that focused on civic- or service-learning projects in local communities. The team’s goal was to implement the new GE civic-learning requirement in a way that meaningfully engaged the predominantly Latino, first-generation college students who attend CSU–LA. We focused on issues and needs in local communities addressed through a service-learning project or “real-world” issues considered in a civic-learning course—where students did not spend time working in a community setting. Thus, we defined our approach as “problem-centered” and we developed assignments that allowed students to research solutions to problems in relation to the cultural wealth of community residents and the process of problem solving outlined in the Problem Solving VALUE Rubric.

Our team project used transparency within a student-centered, community cultural wealth (Yosso 2005) framework that highlighted students’ life experiences and acknowledged the cultural competencies they brought with them to their identities as college students. This community cultural wealth approach had several advantages: it provided a common platform for problem-centered learning across a variety of disciplines, and students’ knowledge and ways of knowing not only informed but also shaped their instructors’ teaching and learning.

A Student-Centered Approach to Problem-Based Learning

The community cultural wealth (Yosso 2005) approach views students’ cultural knowledge and life experience as academic assets. As a theory of education, it can be applied in pedagogical practice to help students identify what types of cultural wealth they bring with them to college from their communities. Yosso identifies the knowledge, skills, and contact of at least six forms of cultural capital that communities of color possess and nurture: aspirational, linguistic, familial, navigational, social, and resistant capital (77). Pedagogy informed by this theory is a student-centered approach that emphasizes teaching from and with students’ experiences, acknowledges inequalities students may have faced, and acknowledges students’ lived experiences as assets to their education.

As part of the transparency project, we viewed our courses through a community cultural wealth lens. These classes included a liberal studies class about community arts called Multicultural Arts, Los Angeles (Willard) and a biology class called Plant Biology (Fisher), in which students explored how disciplinary methods (the arts and ethnobotany) could inform solutions to local problems. These two classes participated in service-learning projects in East Los Angeles schools. Also, students in a Chicana/o Studies class, titled Class, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender (Talavera-Bustillos), led workshops on college readiness; and in a child development class called Urban Families (Kouyoumdjian), students worked with middle school students and parents. Finally, in an English class, Understanding Literature (Roy), students participated in a service-learning project in which they corresponded with prison inmates about their experiences training American Staffordshire Terriers (one of the breeds commonly known as pit bulls) rescue dogs to be nonaggressive. As part of the project, students edited inmates’ writings on this subject for publication.

The community cultural wealth framework made classwork more relevant to students as it challenged them to identify their strengths (or assets). One such strength was their status as college students. Embracing this status, especially with regard to their civic- and service-learning projects, allowed students to view themselves as community resources (sometimes in their own community) and as agents of change. Identification of one’s own strengths was foundational to a problem-based learning approach. In their classes, faculty members found ways for students to identify forms of cultural wealth from their own lives and/or in their communities. After first providing students with a general overview of the problem-centered assignment(s) related to a civic-learning research or service-learning project, the next step was for faculty to engage students in discussions and dialogues about the forms of cultural wealth that they already possessed or that were already present in their communities.

For example, students in the child development class that worked in East Los Angeles schools participated in a community walk in which they identified assets—such as murals as physical assets—in the neighborhoods surrounding the schools. Students involved in the prison literacy project in the Understanding Literature class read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in order to understand the concept of voice—a complex concept that can be defined as writing style, but also as a rhetorical technique intended to evoke an “affective response” from a reader. It was then possible for students to understand the importance of inmates’ writings as a use of “voice” to communicate their experiences and point of view. Finally, students wrote about their own voices. Through these comparisons from literature (Martin Luther King Jr.), to inmates’ writings, to their own writing, students came to understand voice as a form of cultural wealth.

By beginning with cultural wealth, the intent was to forestall assumptions about community deficits that might be inadvertently emphasized by an instructor or inferred by a student by focusing on “problems” in real-world, local communities. Beginning with conversations in which students provided examples of their own cultural competencies or a community’s wealth allowed us to approach problem-based learning with an emphasis on individual and/or community assets. In a sense, we added a step to the problem-solving process (delineated in AAC&U’s Problem Solving VALUE Rubric) by first identifying the strengths of a community and empowering students as agents uniquely positioned to recognize and translate those strengths into the language of their respective academic disciplines.

Beginning with cultural wealth assets allowed students to identify resources that might serve as solutions later in the problem-solving process. In the liberal studies class on community arts, students proposed art projects that would incorporate and build on the social networks (social capital) within a community to address issues such as obesity, teen smoking, lack of recreational resources, lack of arts programming, and pollution. In the Plant Biology course, students assumed the role of ethnobotanists when they identified and interviewed members of their communities to discover and share plant-based treatments for a variety of health issues.

Transparency, Problem-Centered Learning, and Community Cultural Wealth

All of the faculty involved in this teaching and learning initiative agree that teaching with transparency methods and problem-centered learning was very productive. There is no question that intentional transparency benefitted our students; in fact, it clarified class goals and assignments for both students and faculty. While many of our assignments fell well outside the typical expectations of students entering our courses (e.g., reflective writing in a biology lab or correspondence with inmates in a literature course), students in our transparent course offerings were quick to grasp the relevance and coincidence of these assignments with the course learning outcomes and, more importantly, with their own development as citizens and life-long learners.

While the potential value for our students was clear, we did not anticipate the benefits that transparent methods held for us as teachers. Our experience using transparent assignment design—being explicit about “purpose,” assignment “tasks,” and “criteria for success”—pushed us to more carefully examine and more closely align in-class activities or out-of-class assignments with course learning outcomes and assessment tools.

Assignment design was one aspect of transparency, but we also discovered that transparency works best when it is incorporated into the content of a class, when transparency itself becomes the object of study, or, perhaps, when the process of assignment design is shared with students. In his Understanding Literature class, Bidhan Roy provided students with the criteria for success and then asked them to come up with an explanation of what would make a good assignment. Similarly, Claudia Kouyoumdjian explained transparency to students and checked in with them throughout the term, encouraging them to let her know if her expectations, assignments, or any aspect of the class was not clear. Both of these examples emphasize transparency as something not only shared among students but also, more importantly, possessed by students. Students were given ownership of transparency, and it became something they could use to be successful in their classes. This approach highlights a more integrated and student-centered use of transparency that scales up from intentional assignment design to course design.

Another aspect of transparency that we discovered as we made it more intentional: one can be too transparent. We found that a straightforward approach to problem solving could become even more content for students to learn, making it difficult to discern the process from other course content.

Problem solving doesn’t always integrate with disciplinary methods in a straightforward or mechanical way. Some faculty found that when they designed problem-solving assignments in what they assumed to be a transparent way—by explicitly following the steps of the problem-solving process as outlined in the problem-solving rubric (defining a problem, identifying strategies to solve the problem, proposing solutions, evaluating potential solutions, implementing solutions, and evaluating outcomes)—they encountered unexpected challenges related to their disciplinary methodologies. In the plant biology class, despite the essential structure of the scientific method as a problem-solving process, it was surprisingly complicated to align and assess the components of a scientific research project within the dimensions of the problem-solving rubric. When the research questions for these projects were formulated around civic issues, it was particularly difficult to disentangle the various dimensions of problem-solving and to explicate their connections to the civic and scientific elements of the assignment.

In classes that already included time-intensive (problem-centered) civic- and service-learning activities, teaching the problem-solving process turned into new course content that required more time in already full course schedules. These difficulties were not insurmountable, but they were unexpected and caused faculty to juggle the demands of teaching disciplinary knowledge with the demands of carrying out a problem-solving project. Such challenges (a normal part of implementing new teaching methods) were ultimately productive; they helped to clarify the distinction between “problem-centered” learning in civic- and service-learning projects and the more explicit process of problem solving in the rubric. This productive tension solidified the connections between civic/service learning and problem-centered learning (but possibly not always problem solving).

Our focus on civic/service problem- centered learning through the lens of community cultural wealth provided a means to engage in problem-solving without having to focus on the process in rigid or overly mechanical ways. All faculty were transparent and explicit about having students choose problems or issues that they were familiar with or were concerned about—but as noted above, only after they had first identified individual or community assets. These could be problems in their own communities or problems to which they had a personal connection. Faculty were intentional about making it clear to students how disciplinary methods and cultural wealth could be used to address relevant issues. Although there were differences among faculty in the degree to which they explicitly taught the problem-solving process itself, at the end of the term students in all classes could explain how disciplinary methods and the cultural knowledge from their own or other communities could be used to address real-world problems. Similar to the steps in the problem-solving rubric, they understood the sequential importance of beginning from a community’s strengths, then identifying problems (or needs), and the value of multiple (at minimum community-based and discipline-based) solutions.

Approaches to Transparency

This transparent approach to teaching and learning provided many lessons. We learned that transparency and problem-centered learning in and of themselves do not ensure better teaching or greater student success—though we also recognize and heartily endorse transparent assignment design as a “best” if not “proven” practice that increases student success (Winkelmes 2016). Being student-centered about transparency and building student agency in the learning process is what we found to ensure better teaching and greater student success. With regard to transparency techniques, we learned that they are not a guaranteed solution that, simply by implementing, always yield better learning. The best results often come from using numerous techniques, not all of which are appropriate in any given class.

With regard to problem solving, we learned that the steps of the process need not always be transparent or rigidly proscribed. Whether problem-based learning is problem centered or problem solving, it may be more important for students to understand where solutions can come from (especially from their own experience and communities), and that they can use different kinds of knowledge (community-based and university-based) to effect change. These approaches to teaching worked best when they became part of a dialogue with students and when students were allowed to define transparency and problem-centered learning and use them according to interests and understandings they defined in collaboration with their instructors.

Similarly, when students were given ways to understand the cultural wealth of knowledge, skills, and social ties that exist in any community, they could frame solutions to problems in a way that was community centered—that is, based in assets from within the communities that they knew personally, that they had studied in civic learning, or where they had engaged in service learning. In this way students went beyond deficit thinking to form creative perspectives and solutions.

Implications for Implementation of General Education

Although it might not be revealed in quantitative measures of these teaching techniques, our faculty observed the affective impact that problem-centered learning based in community cultural wealth had on students. For some students this approach helped with mastery of disciplinary knowledge. Affective dimensions of this were evident in students’ expression of seeing greater value in, or larger purpose for, academic methods and disciplinary knowledge. For other students the affective dimension enhanced relevance and validation. That is, they could see how their own knowledge and experiences complemented disciplinary knowledge. Working on cultural wealth-based approaches to problem solving also allowed students to (re)examine and further develop their understanding of inequality and cultural identity.

As instructors teaching GE across many disciplines, we realized that a new kind of coherence is possible: a cross-disciplinary curriculum. Rather than focusing on shared topics or themes, this approach united different fields with the same teaching methods. Students’ mastery of disciplinary content, as well as the positive affective gains they expressed, demonstrates the ways that this approach to GE can provide students with true ownership of their education. Within this model, students can experience the production of diverse knowledge in new ways, with a clear sense of personal relevance and public purpose.

Teaching these courses simultaneously and meeting frequently to talk about them allowed us to own the GE curriculum in ways that go far beyond the language of the policy document that governs the GE curriculum. We reflected upon the mission of the GE curriculum and its civic-learning outcomes as stated in the policy, but we discovered a more nuanced relationship between them. Through faculty discussions, the links between GE policy and our individual classes that we had not previously seen became transparent. This project impressed upon us the importance of how we implement GE learning outcomes in our classes. That is, simply teaching civic content and assuming that outcomes are met may not be as effective as giving students a voice in content, assignment design, and even the learning outcomes. The courses we developed can substantiate this approach to a coherent curriculum for our faculty colleagues, who might view GE policy as something that simply warrants lip service in administrative documents or even course syllabi. Our experiences teaching these courses provide foundational evidence that can be expanded in the future to assess how well we are meeting the mission and outcomes of our GE policy.

Universities would do well to explore ways to make faculty and curriculum development more central to workload and RTP demands for their faculty. Faculty need opportunities to “co-develop” and try new teaching approaches, simultaneously and together. Allowing faculty the time to share their experiences while they are implementing new approaches is vital. Universities would do well to do this—indeed, they would probably thrive. And their public purpose would become more explicit for the stakeholders who can perhaps advocate for them better than any other: their students. 

 

References

Lieberman, Devorah. 2015. “Implementing the ABCD Model of Service-learning at the University of La Verne.” The LEAP Challenge Blog. https://www.aacu.org/leap/liberal-education-nation-blog/implementing-abcd-model-service-learning-university-la-verne.

Russell, Cormac. 2015. Asset-Based Community Development: Looking Back to Look Forward. E-book: Cormac Russell/ Amazon Digital Services.

Yosso, Tara J. 2005. “Whose Culture has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth.” Race Ethnicity and Education 8 (1): 69–91.


Kirsten Fisher, associate professor of biology; Claudia Kouyoumdjian, associate professor of child and family studies; Bidhan Roy, associate professor of English; Valerie Talavera-Bustillos, associate professor of Chicano studies; Michael Willard, faculty director of service learning, and associate professor of liberal studies—all of California State University–Los Angeles

 

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