The Importance of Getting Inside the Mind of Faculty

As all competent and seasoned educators know, both the affective and cognitive domains must be attended to.  Whatever action taken is determined by the way a person is thinking.

I was thrilled to read in Paul Tough’s New York Times article, “Who gets to Graduate“, that “To solve the problem of college completion, you first need to get inside the mind of a college student.”  It appears that progress is being made at the University of Texas at Austin to seriously address the difficult challenge that Latinos will need to earn 5.5 million more degrees by 2020 in order for the United States to regain the top ranking in the world for college degree attainment.  With science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) occupations slated to become all the more important to our growth as a nation, it is in the national interest to break down the barriers that create obstacles to college graduation.

According to the article, the students who are failing are overwhelmingly “white kids from rural West Texas, say, or Latinos from the Rio Grande Valley or African-Americans from Dallas or Houston from low-income families.”  U.T. has identified what it believes to be a major obstacle to graduation, mainly, “… If you want to help low-income students succeed, it’s not enough to deal with their academic and financial obstacles.  You also need to address their doubts and misconceptions and fears.  To solve the problem of college completion, you first need to get inside the mind of a college student.”

The individual at U.T. who has been given the primary responsibility of helping these students succeed is a 56-year-old chemistry professor named David Laude.  Part of Laude’s and David Yeager’s, a U.T. assistant professor of psychology, approach to help students from low-income families graduate centers around a one-time intervention conducted during an online pre-orientation that takes 45 minutes for each student to complete.  The “mind-set” intervention required students to read “an article about the malleability of the brain and how practice makes it grow new connections, and then read messages from current students stating that when they arrived at U.T., they worried about not being smart enough, but then learned that when they studied they grew smarter.”  Based on their findings, the “U.T. administration was encouraged; beginning this month, the ‘U.T. Mindset’ intervention will be part of the pre-orientation for all 7,200 members of the incoming class of 2018.”

As an immigrant from Mexico, raised in the Sacramento Valley of California in a low-income farm labor family, and a college graduate; this is what is inside my mind.  It appears from Tough’s article that the “U.T. Mindset” intervention approach has incorporated Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea that “we feel before we think — that emotion is natural and thinking a product of social conditioning — suffering is caused by our struggle to reconcile our ‘true’ emotional selves with social expectations.”  In other words, we need to get into the “heart” (affective domain) before we can get into the “mind” (cognitive domain).  That is a good start.  However, it is only a start.

What requires particular attention, reflection, exploration and discussion is what is inside the minds of U.T.’s undergraduate faculty?  In the article, Laude states: “To many professors, this pattern simply represents the natural winnowing process that takes place in higher education.  That attitude is especially common in the sciences, where demanding introductory classes have traditionally been seen as a way to weed out weak students.”  Therefore, it is timely and incumbent for all who are serious and fair minded about breaking down the barriers that prevent low income students from graduating from college to consider Bertrand Russell’s enlightening explanation that:

“…science and philosophy were pursued in schools of societies where there was close collaboration between teachers and students.  The important truth which seems to have been understood, implicitly at least, from the very beginning is that learning is not a process of dishing out information…All the more is it to the credit of the philosophers of Greece that they should have grasped how genuine education must be pursued.  The role of the teacher is one of guidance, of bringing the pupil to see for himself.  But learning to think independently is not an ability that comes all of a piece.  It must be acquired by dint of personal effort and with the help of a mentor who can direct these efforts.  This is the method of research under supervision as we know it today in our universities.  Education, then, is learning to think for oneself under the guidance of a teacher…”  Source.

In short, I think Russell is restating what Heraclitus had previously pointed out–“The learning of many things does not teach understanding.”  The entire US educational community, from pre-school, grade school, high school, community colleges, colleges and universities through graduate programs, would be wise to take heed to both Russell and Heraclitus.

I agree with Tough’s observation that “…For almost all of the 20th century, the United States did a better job of producing college graduates than any other country.  But over the past 20 years, we have fallen from the top of those international lists; the United States now ranks 12th in the world in the percentage of young people who have earned a college degree.  During the same period, a second trend emerged: American higher education became more stratified; most well-off students now do very well in college, and most middle- and low-income students struggle to complete a degree.”

His assessment of the situation is both accurate and hopeful:

“These two trends are clearly intertwined.  And it is hard to imagine that the nation can regain its global competitiveness, or improve its level of economic mobility, without reversing them.  To do so will take some sustained work, on a national level, on a number of fronts.  But a big part of the solution lies at colleges like the University of Texas at Austin…that are able to perform, on a large scale, what used to be a central mission — arguably the central mission — of American universities: to take large numbers of highly motivated working-class teenagers and give them the tools they need to become successful professionals…that process isn’t easy; it never has been.  But it also reminds us that it is possible.”

My response to the serious question of why students from low-income families fail to graduate lead me to create  OjoOido delivers a blended multimedia student development pedagogy that Latino-serving institutions and its administrators, teachers, parents and, most importantly, its students can utilize to improve educational attainment.  As stated earlier and in a previous post, STEM occupations are very important to our growth as a nation.  To successfully develop the next generation of talent for STEM positions it is essential to develop the core academic habits and skills of all students, including students from low-income families, in order create a reliable and skilled workforce to fill those positions.

To effectively encourage greater participation and access in STEM it is imperative that all Latino students develop a basic understanding of basic critical thinking and strategic planning.  The development and transfer of critical thinking skills are recognized as primary goals for education.  Although there is substantial evidence that explicit instruction is an effective method for teaching critical thinking skills to high school students, there is little evidence that Hispanic/Latino serving schools, or schools with large minority enrollment, are focusing on teaching and enhancing basic critical thinking skills and strategic planning.  Latino students need to be exposed to critical thinking tools to take charge of their learning and their life choices.

Latino student’s cultural perspectives need a “reboot” as it pertains to education generally, and STEM specifically.  Latino students view people in the STEM field differently than Anglos.  Therefore, a major challenge with combating existing stereotypes within the Latino community regarding STEM occupations is to put forth more Latino role models to change the current thinking.  As all competent and seasoned educators know, both the affective and cognitive domains must be attended to.  Whatever action taken is determined by the way a person is thinking.  Whatever people feel, all emotions, are determined by thinking.  Whatever people want, all desires, are determined by thinking.  If thinking is unrealistic, it will lead to many disappointments.  If thinking is unduly pessimistic, it will close the door to many opportunities in which an individual should properly consider and pursue.

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