The New College Classroom: The Liberatory Potential of Active Learning

In celebration of the launch of their cutting-edge book The New College Classroom, Professor Cathy N. Davidson and Dr. Christina Katopodis, conducted a discussion via Zoom and in person on September 7, 2022 at 3pm at the CUNY Graduate Center. Davidson, the founding director of the Futures Initiative and Senior Adviser on Transformation to CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, and Katopodis, a postdoctoral research associate, are two of the world’s foremost innovators in higher education, arguing that current modes of instruction in colleges and universities are antiquated and reflect outmoded methodologies, arguing for an overhaul in instruction reflecting the principles of active learning, using cutting-edge research to demonstrate how teachers at every kind of institution can help students become independent, creative, and active learners, rooted in developments in the science of learning and pedagogy. The event featured opening remarks from Chancellor Rodriguez and Graduate Center Provost Steve Everett.

According to Davidson, there are over 1000 research studies corroborating and supporting the techniques of active learning, pointing to the efficacy of such techniques in various educational outcomes. Davidson argues that active learning has the potential to shape a learning environment which is more equitable, more student-led, and more effective than traditional instructor-led lecture or question-and-answer discussion methods, even constituting a paradigm shift towards a model which invests trust in the students themselves, empowering them to take charge of their own learning. Another advantage of active learning is that it does not demand extensive knowledge in pedagogy on behalf of the instructor; Rodriguez shared personal anecdotes from his early career as an instructor of Caribbean women’s history that he was thrust into the classroom without any experience in a classroom setting or advanced training in pedagogy or education; the acknowledgment that most who teach on the collegiate level aren’t trained in pedagogy and don’t know where to begin is an eye-opening admission which helps build the case for active learning as the way of the future. Knowledge of different learning styles yields greater empathy and awareness of diverse student assets in support of the learning process; The New College Classroom marshals a plethora of empirical evidence-based arguments in favor of active learning across diverse educational settings and learning communities.

The New College Classroom makes ten overall arguments in favor of active learning and makes many suggestions on the macro and micro level for improving the learning experience, reflecting contemporary research and best historical practices of collaborative and participatory pedagogy. They provide historical context for how traditional lecture and assessment reflects the standardization of industrialization and its emphasis on streamlined methods, and seek to offer a model for creating effective learning environments of the 21st century, wherein collaboration serves as a basis for transformation in educating for the public good, a prevalent theme throughout the text, which argues that education truly exists for the betterment of society. Personal and social transformation is affected through learner-directed methods which create greater engagement, and which reciprocally can transform the world around us.I found the ethical and social dimensions of active learning to be most engaging and interesting, as explicated by Davidson and Katopodis. They argue that transforming the college classroom into one based on active learning will better serve the diverse needs of students of varying abilities, as the classroom is redesigned to suit the success of all students, modeling a more just, democratic, and liberatory society which empowers all learners, thus reducing or eliminating gaps in achievement, particularly for students who come from low-income backgrounds or from poor educational backgrounds with little prior methodological research training. Indeed, I was inspired by the liberatory themes embedded throughout the presentation and the emphasis on social justice; the thought of such luminaries as Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, and bell hooks were featured prominently throughout the presentation (and book), and incidentally, all were CUNY faculty. The process of active learning has the capacity to not only stimulate interest and active participation, but to also build upon such efforts to transform society and effect change, grounded in the notion that “the learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot.”

In addition, the active learning methods endorsed by Davidson and Katopodis seek to utilize learning not as a means in and of itself, but as a means to prepare students for life and careers outside the classroom; active learning seeks to teach higher-order thinking skills which are marketable and desirable skills sought by employers, including proficiencies in collaboration, project management, synthesis and generalization from examples. Another means by which active learning seeks to transform the collegiate learning experience is by reclaiming and transforming the word “activity,” which is often associated with the elementary school classroom. Activities in the collegiate setting instead involve the pursuit of knowledge through independent exploration, critical thinking, explaining a concept to someone else or applying a newly acquired skill or method in another context, thus increasing engagement and fostering the transfer of knowledge to domains including the community, and individual lives and careers.

In conclusion, the new college classroom is geared towards a liberatory, justice-oriented pedagogical posture which is rooted in the principles of active learning. Such participatory methods allow students to take responsibility for their own learning and growth, offer real-world applications and the transferal of knowledge, skills, and capacities from the classroom domain to other domains in the student’s life, and equips students with strategic learning tools and research methods to dig deeply and to learn better answers for themselves in the classroom and beyond. Davidson and Katapodis synthesized the findings of hundreds of research studies to convey the importance of active learning in transforming the classroom and society itself in democratizing the tools which allow all students to succeed, rooted in contemporary findings regarding metacognition, guiding students to reflect on not just what they have learned but also how they have learned it, but also allowing for students to apply what they have learned in daily life, furthering the efficacy of such methods. In this sense, I believe that the active learning methods advocated by Davidson and Katapodis can further our awareness of oppression in learning; active learning methods can decolonize learning away from the outcome-oriented, industrialist, capitalist models of uniformity in learning and assessment, while fostering a sense of respect for and awareness of the various oppressive societal structures which foster institutional racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and the like which hinder learning. By democratizing learning, active learning applies an intersectional lens to the pedagogical process, empowering students to take charge of their own learning, while seeking to remedy inequities which continue to be a barrier to inclusion and learning.

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