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"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Margaret Mead

What does civic engagement have to do with teaching and learning? How does it affect student progress and performance?

When people encounter new ideas and information, they try to make sense of it in terms of something they think they already know. (They use existing constructs and models to interpret new ideas and information.)  Learning is the process of coming to see reality in a new way. In teaching disciplinary knowledge and methods, what we’re doing is stimulating in students the new construction (or reconstruction) of reality.  We’re helping them build new, or expanded, or revised models of reality.

Can students truly understand the current knowledge in any discipline if their education is confined to reading, attending lectures, and participating in classroom discussions?  For some students, certainly.  For most?  Probably not, at least by itself.

In “Medieval Models, Agrarian Calendars and 21st Century Imperatives” (Teacher – Scholar:  The Journal of the State Comprehensive University, Fall 2010), George Mehaffy writes  that “public higher education is approaching a crisis of imagination and adaptation to wrenching economic, social, and technological changes….”  Thomas Benton (in “A Perfect Storm in Undergraduate Education”) identifies a number of factors that are contributing to this crisis through their adverse impact on student education success:

  • Educational Consumerism.  Academic marketing has cultivated a belief that college will be at least primarily recreational:  social activities, sporting events, and travel. 
  • Changing forms of literacy.   A growing percentage of students are arriving at college without ever having written a research paper, read a novel, or taken an essay examination.
  • Declining academic engagement.  Students increasingly are pressured to go to college because they believe that not going will exclude them from middle-class jobs.  Moreover, much of the academic program, particularly general education, seems disconnected from the practical skills needed to secure those jobs.
  • Alienation from faculty.   Many students arrive believing that professors, especi-ally in the humanities and social sciences, are mostly political radicals who will try to convert them to some outlandish belief system from another era.   At the same time, students recognize that most of the teachers with whom they have more personal contact—graduate students, adjuncts, and other part-timers—are not held in high regard by their institutions.
  • Expanding social and extracurricular commitments.   Social programming and extracurricular activities have expanded to fill more than the available time.  The status hierarchies of college come primarily from nonacademic activities.
  • Escalating cost of education.  College has become unaffordable for most people without substantial loans.  In order to reduce borrowing, students are working to provide money for tuition or living expenses.   Many are working longer hours in order to afford social activities, cars, and consumer goods.
  • Anxiety about future employment.  The job market seems to demand increasing specialization, leaving less time for intellectual exploration.  It’s hard for a young person to understand that higher-order thinking skills—those most needed in a turbulent job market—can come from courses that are not obviously job-related.
  • Disillusionment.  The common experience is that getting admitted is the most exhausting part.   After that, the struggle mainly is financial.   It is easy to become lost amid a sea of equally disenchanted undergraduates looking for some kind of purpose—and not finding it.

The challenge is this:  if prosperity, a democratic way of life, and high-quality education are things we value and want to preserve, how do we overcome the negative influences Benton discusses and thereby avoid the “crisis of imagination and adaptation” Mehaffy has warned of?

The answer, in short, is that we must achieve more effective student engagement.   Engagement, Mehaffy believes, is the key to better learning outcomes.  The question, then, is what engages students?  In brief, learning through doing does.  (Recall the ancient wisdom:  “Tell me and I will forget.  Show me and I will remember.   Involve me and I will understand.”)  Considerable research shows that the way to improve student performance is to engage them through hands-on, contextual experience:

  • Students who participate in community service substantially increase their academic progress.   (Astin, Alexander W. and Sax, Linda J.  1998.  “How Undergraduates Are Affected by Service Participation.”  Journal of College Student Development, 39(3): 251-263.)
  • Service and civic learning improve students’ ability to apply learning in “the real world” and have a positive impact on complexity of understanding, problem analysis, critical thinking, and cognitive development.  (Billig, Shelley.  2003.  “Impact of Service-Learning on Michigan Students’ Academic Outcomes.”  Denver, Colorado:  RMC Research Corporation.  www.servicelearning DocServer/MEAP_Evaluation_SB.ppt?docID=321 
  • Service and civic learning: 
    • Help students develop stronger relationships with faculty.
    • Improve students’ satisfaction with college.
    • Increase the likelihood of graduation.
    • Aid in student retention.   (
  • Combining students’ academic coursework with opportunities for authentic (“relevant”) experience enhances both their academic development as well as their readiness to take up their responsibilities as adult members of a democracy.  Academically, they demonstrate significant improvement in several areas:  
    • information literacy;
    • articulated thinking about civic engagement;
    • understanding of the connection between the university and public life;
    • academic engagement; 
    • civic efficacy; 
    • positive social and self-perceptions;  and
    • research-based writing.  (Wolf, Thia et al.  2010.  “Public Sphere Pedagogy”:  Toward a Renewal of the Civic Mission of the American University.”  Proposal to the Keck Foundation.  Chico, CA:  California State University)

In short, undergraduate students learn better when they learn in context.  Opportunities for civic experiential learning supply context.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Historically, teaching and learning have been based on apprenticeship.   Adults showed young people how to do things and helped them do it.  Even today people often learn through apprenticeship:  Physicians, lawyers, managers, teachers—even scientists—learn in this manner.  So must the leaders and members of self-governing communities.

Cognitive apprenticeship” emphasizes that, in contrast to schooling, learning is embedded in a social and functional context.  Cognitive apprenticeship extends practice to diverse settings and articulates the common principles so that students learn how to apply their skills in varied contexts.

But university faculty have not aspired to the status of apprenticer to undergraduate apprentices.  Rather, they have sought recognition as disciplinary specialists, “practitioners” at the highest level of the esoteric arts of theory building and testing.  In William Sullivan’s view, though, “…this is not the proper self-understanding for educators in…the realm of liberal education.  An analogy…may help illuminate the shift…that is required.  Medicine has long appealed to the canons of physical science as a model...  However, in a recent study of physicians’ ways of reasoning, [Katherine] Montgomery argues that, “faced with a patient, physicians do not ‘proceed as they and their textbooks often describe it:  top-down, deductively, ‘scientifically’.”  Instead, they reason from cases. 

The starting point for all case-based reasoning “is neither deduction from general principles nor induction from the particulars to a universal concept.  Instead, doctors form hypotheses about the possible causes of a particular patient’s situation, then test those possibilities against details revealed by closer examination of the patient.”  This is a “circular, interpretive procedure” that moves between “generalities in the taxonomy of disease and the particular signs and symptoms of the individual case.” This intellectual movement proceeds “until a workable conclusion is reached.”

The reasoning process at the center of this activity is a form of practical reasoning.  Physicians employ analytical knowledge through the interpretive work of isolating probable causes of illness by eliminating alternative possibilities—that is, through “differential diagnosis.”  Montgomery concludes that analytical modes of explanation alone simply cannot achieve the integrated forms of understanding that medical professionals produce through this kind of practical reasoning.

The point, according to Sullivan, is that “case reasoning is not a holdover from the pre-scientific past.”  Rather, it is “the best means of representing the exercise of clinical judgment.”  As such, case reasoning is the indispensable foundation of all medical skill.  Montgomery concludes that we must recognize that medicine is more than a science.  It is a complex practice of healing in which “diagnosis and treatment are intensively science-using activities,” though not “in and of themselves, science.”

In an analogous way, liberal arts teaching…is not the “application” of disciplinary knowledge.  Nor is it identical to induction into particular arts and sciences disciplines, as is typical of “introductory courses” in many fields.  These are all versions of the educator as disciplinary specialist.  Rather, the kind of liberal education [needed] requires a different understanding of the liberal arts teacher as an “intensively discipline-using” educator whose aim is practical wisdom rather than specialized knowledge in itself.

Disciplinary specialists teach as if training new disciplinary specialists.   But most college students will not become disciplinary specialists—they will become “discipline-using professionals.”  They will resemble the physician more than the scholar-researcher.

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