Teaching an Open Mind through Contextualization

08/17/2017
HIGHER EDUCATION
Dale Schlundt

The fundamental purpose of higher education is more than teaching the today’s facts. Unfortunately, it is a more complex initiative. The outcome for which educators should strive is for students to be able to self-educate after leaving post-secondary institutions, applying such in both a personal and professional context. This remains true regardless of the discipline being taught, but to accomplish this requires defining the characteristics of the individuals being taught. 

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Young adults make up a substantial part of the population in post-secondary institutions, many of which are entering college directly after leaving secondary education.

Student Demographics

Young adults make up a substantial part of the population in post-secondary institutions, many of which are entering college directly after leaving secondary education. For instance, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the Fall of 2015, full time undergraduate students under 25 years of age made up 75 percent of enrollments in two year public colleges. That percentage increased in four year public universities to 89 percent, as one might have inferred.  While these statistics do not define the various student makeups when factoring in part time enrollments and private institutions, it is undoubtedly a trend seen by many faculty in various classes. This allows for a discussion on how to adjust one’s teaching strategies to achieve the aforementioned goals when dealing with an age group that often lacks knowledge from both inside and out of the classroom. Among the multiple pedagogical challenges seen when teaching this demographic, there is one that is at the forefront. This is promoting something which could be referred to as a skill, which is objectivity.

Few students come into the classroom believing their perspectives have been limited. The vast majority are eager to learn, but their exposure to diverse ideas has been limited, simply due to their age and lack of experiences. Aside from their high school teachers, their parents have typically been a significant influence on their lives. While we should not discount this understanding of the world from which they have gained from those mentors, one should also note the potential limitations. For most youth, a parent’s role has not been one that facilitates an environment that allows students to arrive at their own conclusions or ones that necessarily differ from their parents. This is not to argue that this is a negative attribute in all regards. Young adults need that guidance in finances, fundamental conceptualizations of society, or ethics, for example.  Yet, the result is a learner in higher education that is supposed to critically analyze complex content that has either previously never been discussed for various reasons or subjectively perceived, without room for debate.

For instance, to contextualize the 14th Amendment, a government instructor may cite the Obergefell v. Hodges case (the Supreme Court decision giving federal protection to same sex marriage), asking the students to debate its Constitutionality as it relates to the amendment as well as the social aspects of this wide reaching case. Are students who grew up in a socially conservative family or community prepared to participate in an objective dialogue, unhindered by the lens of their guardians? Considering how contextualizing this presents contemporary issues that are rooted political and religious virtues, one has to now address the student’s perhaps inherited views from their past, in an ethical manner.  Asking students to view this not solely through an ideological lens anymore, but through a legal and multifaceted one can be pose a challenge.

Three Teaching Strategies

Creating a classroom environment that allows for a discussion of sensitive topics such as this will prove to be indispensable, regardless of the students’ age range. The objective should be to facilitate a greater and more comprehensive understanding of both sides of controversial topics, in the process of teaching the content, which will ultimately allow students to arrive at independent conclusions to which they may subscribe.  There are many methodologies utilized to achieve this end. However, three overarching strategies will lend themselves well to this endeavor.

  • Understanding and Respect for Learner’s Beliefs
    Initially, an awareness the learner’s understanding of the content and their relevant beliefs as it relates to such. A respect for those beliefs, regardless of any acceptance of new perspectives offered by the instructor or student peers.
  • Promoting Debate and Pragmatism
    Secondly, one must facilitate an environment that both applauds disagreement, active listening in class discussions, and acknowledges pragmatism in both the instructor as well as the students.
  • Awareness and Empathy, Not Ideological Change
    Finally, utilizing a teaching philosophy that promotes student awareness and dialogue, not necessarily ideological changes within the learner.

Understanding and Respect for Learner’s Beliefs

One can apply these strategies to a multitude of lessons. In the example regarding Obergefell v. Hodges and the 14th Amendment, there is truly no point in discussing this amendment’s larger role in society, without a fundamental grasp of federalism or even meaning of the amendment’s text. Assessing student knowledge of the content that is initially brought into the classroom, perhaps informally, is an invaluable tool. This will determine to what extent the instructor will need to simplify the material being covered. The simplification of the content is many times one of the most important tasks within pedagogy, a need that is increased exponentially when teaching younger demographics. Yet, it is one that is too often either overlooked or dismissed.

However, with that knowledge in place, it invites the instructor to refer to applicable events and rulings in a real world context, which will now invite discussion and debate. This enables one to learn their students’ perspectives. Unfortunately, this is where the instructor’s ability to take a pragmatic approach in one’s facilitation of the class will be the determining factor in their overall success in contextualizing the material and engaging the learner. Although educators should advocate equality in their instruction where applicable, their role is certainly not to dictate any student’s personal beliefs, as staying true to principles of equality arguably means the leaner has a right their own ideals. The instructor must present points that appeal to both those who support and those who would dissent on these issues. To be sure, this is a daunting task at times.

Promoting Debate and Pragmatism

Continuing with the same example, perhaps an instructor would note that the expanding role of government is at times necessary to enhance equality in society and the social impact of such, exemplified by the now non-discriminatory legal benefits afforded to these new marriages. These could be much needed social security benefits from a deceased long-term spouse, healthcare coverage, to a wide spectrum of other legalities not considered by students unfamiliar with these realities. An instructor may have the leaners discuss these realities that are not focused on when perceived solely through an ideological lens in the media or perhaps among family.  One could also acknowledge legal aspects of related events, aside from the actual text of the 14 Amendment used in the justification of this ruling on same sex marriage. Events such as the expansion of the federal government’s role, which sets a precedent, making it easier for new rulings to occur which have a positive impact on the populace. The evolution in the concept of federalism during Reconstruction in the 19th century that resulted in the 14th Amendment, could be argued to be an unforeseen catalyst for the federal oversight that brought the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to fruition in the 20th. Noting that these were controversial issues as well at the time, educators should ask the leaners to make similar connections. Where is society currently apathetic to what some would argue is inequality today and have they considered all the aspects of the issue that is misperceived as simplistic?

The inevitable fact is that perspectives on such topics such as same sex marriage are influenced by religious views and disagreement with the Supreme Court’s decision as well as similar findings are to be expected. It is vital to remember the instructor’s position on any contemporary issue used in their contextualization of content should be comparable to the objective approach which is asked of the student in their critical analysis of the issue. As teaching students to be pragmatic and unbiased is never accomplished through invalidating their own beliefs, especially if they have a religious foundation. Their views on the topic should be respected, of course, with exceptions where they are deemed inappropriate. Educators should illustrate that their views are not irrelevant in society.

As prominent ideologies held by society will play a role in court case rulings, an instructor may explain the complexity of this case is in promoting equality in a slightly different context as well. This being in the context of religious freedom that is affirmed through one’s 1st Amendment rights who would dissent on the central issue of the Obergefell v. Hodges case due to those religious beliefs, or other ideological ones, to which they subscribe. Stated in the opinion of the court,

“Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protections as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons. In turn, those who believe allowing samesex marriage is proper and indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate. The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.” 

An instructor could have students analyze and debate this statement. In promoting objectivity, one should ask students to derive a conclusion about the complexity of our legal system as it relates to this case and the misconception that this issue is not multifaceted. While one hopes the learner will see the value in these expanded civil liberties given to same sex couples, they will also realize that comparable protections allow for their own liberties. Ultimately, this may also lead them to a greater realization of the importance of these rights in any context.

Awareness and Empathy, Not Necessarily Ideological Change

In making points such as this to the students, an instructor is essentially giving their world back to the learner, awarding them influence they have always held, but may have not realized. This highlights the power of the learner, whether it be through advocating change or promoting the status quo, as both are necessary at different times. As much of the content in these courses is contextualized through sensitive contemporary topics, meaning they are also relevant, educators should not be dissuaded from utilizing them. However, throughout the first two of the three strategies offered here, one needs to keep the initial goal in mind, which is not necessarily to change the learner’s central beliefs during a class meeting, that is their decision in the end.  While one should address student arguments that are factually incorrect, discounting a student’s ideological beliefs, religious or political, in a classroom setting does not create a nurturing environment that allows for student growth. Educators must practice the approach asked of our students. Rather, the initial goal is to have students, with a fundamental knowledge of what is taught in the discipline, self-educate after leaving the post-secondary institutions through an objective approach. As the facilitator acknowledges the diverse perspectives of the students, they will not only be more apt to engage, but to see the credibility in new ideas offered by their peers. Despite many of those ideas being in opposition to their previously held beliefs, they will create awareness and a greater retention of the content studied. Thus, the final strategy of teaching with impartiality through creating understanding is accomplished throughout the entirety of the process of facilitating the discussion. This is simply done through allowing students to voice those, perhaps now negated, previously one sided ideas to their peers. In the end, it will prove to be enlightening to individuals who may lack those conceptualizations of society. 

Conclusion

Lastly, all topics should be presented with information derived from peer reviewed research when possible, as opinions should never be substitute for evidence.  Depending on the course and content covered at the time, the application of this type of facilitation will vary. Nevertheless, personal reflections can complement research. For instance, in 2015 Pew Research analyzed the changing views on same sex marriage of Christians, showing that 62 percent of what they refer to as “white mainline” Protestants are not opposed to same sex marriage as of that date. Once again, this should not be used to invalidate students’ beliefs. However, such work would be an asset that combines complimentary evidence and opinions that could be used by an instructor to illustrate the pragmatic changes to social norms within religious groups. Additionally, opinions are an innate and vital aspect of society where there is not a quantitative or definitive answer. 

One should keep in mind the final results that are to be achieved, which is to prepare students to continue what they have learned in the classroom. This includes the skills to self-educate, making objective and uninhibited inferences that will apply to the real world, which they will presumably one day influence.  Learners that fall into the demographic which is under 25 years old may have experience that has been limited to primarily theories and summative evaluations. This will require teaching methodologies that account for these challenges. Upon greater understanding through contextualization and applauding disagreement, an educator should facilitate a discussion that allows for a realization of the multifaceted aspects of the issues being covered, in an effort illustrate that concrete conclusions are not necessarily the goal. Rather, a greater comprehension that possibly leads one see the merits of both sides of opposing concepts. Ultimately, it will give them the tools needed to pause, when presented with complex issues outside of the classroom, arriving at sound, instead of quick judgments.

Dale Schlundt holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Dale has taught at Northwest Vista College, Our Lady of the Lake University, and is currently a faculty member at Palo Alto College. He is co-founder of Palo Alto College’s new program for individuals with intellectual disabilities, Project Access, and a co-chair for the Texas Regional Alignment Network.   He can be reached at [email protected].
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