my pathway experience

A Pathway to Greater Expectations: Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century

During the 1980s and 1990s, debate about education oscillated between fury and apocalyptic gloom. Cultural warriors waged a Manichean conflict over what texts should be taught in our schools while others, led by then National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Lynne Cheney, warned that a “rising tide of mediocrity” threatened the U.S. educational system putting the entire “nation at risk.”

Today, a new vision focuses efforts to transform education in America; formally launched by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “Greater Expectations” captures the spirit of educational reform activities and discussions that have developed over more than a decade.

The Greater Expectations effort is a positive and constructive effort. Rather than bemoan student ignorance or engage in endless debates over the canon, it seeks practical ways to enhance teaching and learning, and to help students reach their fullest intellectual, personal and civic potential.

At Colby-Sawyer College we are in the process of implementing a new liberal education program that forms part of a comprehensive, eight-year effort to embed greater expectations in all of the ways that students learn across our campus, in and outside the classroom. The heart of our effort is the Pathway, a two-year program aimed at introducing students to the pleasures and demands of learning.

Every student entering Colby-Sawyer chooses one of 16 different Pathways. Essentially a small learning community of 18 students, each Pathway consists of a First-Year Seminar, three “Stepping Stones” courses and a Sophomore Seminar that focus on a broad theme, such as “Revelations, Revolutions and Reconstruction: The Nature of Change,” “Photography and Reality,” or “Science and Religion: Strangers, Foes or Partners.”

Four values have guided Colby-Sawyer's restructuring of student learning across the college and the creation of the Pathway program: community, connectedness, excellence and responsibility. The Pathway transforms a group of students who explore the connectedness of knowledge and perspective.

In small groups (averaging around 18 students), they learn to collaborate with and trust each other, which leads to thoughtful self-reflection and vigorous but civil conversations about some difficult or controversial topics. The process of taking a block of classes together has pushed Pathway students to make connections between texts that they encounter, not just in their Pathway courses, but in other courses and even with experiences outside the classroom – in their residence halls, jobs, clubs and athletic teams.

Too often students see learning as primarily aimed at acquiring the training necessary to “get a job.” Certainly, preparing for a future career is an important function of education, but we also want to share with our students the sheer joy of learning. To this end, Pathways do not focus on any academic major or discipline, but rather on broad multi-disciplinary themes. We ask the faculty members who create Pathways to choose a topic that they are passionate about and to ignite that passion in their students.

Rather than examinations, which are necessary for many courses in majors and pre-professional programs, the Pathways emphasize student discussion and presentation, as well as reflective essays and research projects – skills that can sustain intellectual curiosity for a lifetime.

Pathways further help students take responsibility for their learning by giving them a substantial role, particularly in the Sophomore Seminar, in shaping the course, helping to choose their readings, films and other texts, and to design activities and projects. In this way, the Pathway becomes theirs. Students also create portfolios of their newly acquired understandings and insights – and perhaps even more importantly – of their newly defined questions for further inquiry.

A solid intellect needs discipline. Through substantial reading and writing requirements and high grading standards, Pathway professors encourage students to strive for academic excellence from the very beginning of their college education. Students frequently lament that Pathways require a lot of work and are very demanding. These are complaints that warm a teacher's heart.

At the end of our first complete Pathway cycle we asked students to reflect on their two-year experience. “We concluded the semester,” one student wrote, “with a more open mind because we had voiced our opinions while understanding the opinions of others. This new ability … will help us grow and absorb every aspect of our college education. We know that college is about learning and growing together.”

The Pathway, another said, is “open and student-driven. Because we are in such a position to decide and control our own fate and experience we tend to value the output more and reap more from it.” These students' comments provide the most eloquent and powerful evidence for the importance of seeking new and even radical ways to promote greater expectations for student learning. The fact that so many educators and institutions, across the country, are working together to challenge students with greater expectations should give us hope, not only for the future of higher education in America, but for upcoming generations of American youth.

Randy Hanson is a professor of Social Sciences and Education and David H. Winton Endowed Teaching Chair at Colby-Sawyer College. He served as coordinator of the Liberal Education Program at Colby-Sawyer College from 2002 to May 2007.