General Education III Preliminary Propositions
General Education Background
Twenty years ago, the State University of New York at New Paltz designed and instated its first college-wide general education program. In the midst of a regular ten-year review the work of the GE III Taskforce was "interrupted" by the December 1998 Board of Trustee mandate. Ultimately, there were few changes and amendments that had to be made in General Education II in order to meet the Provost's guidelines. These changes were adopted by the college as General Education IIA. The Task Force returned to its substantive work in the Fall of 2000 and with its efforts focused, in particular, on issues of process, consultation, and communication, met with individual departments on campus. In the Spring of 2001 the Task Force began preliminary student discussions with two focus groups and continued to become acquainted with contemporary literature on the trends in general education nationally. This culminated, in the Spring of 2001, with a statement of broad General Education principles that was presented to the campus community. This provided a strong working foundation for the team of five task force members who attended the Asheville Institute on General Education.
While the following series of propositions is a synthesis of all of those experiences and the knowledge we acquired, we did learn several important things:
- While we heard consensus on a need to improve the writing, critical thinking, information management, and quantitative capacities of our students, the current knowledge areas captured in our current general education curriculum seemed to be acceptable.
- Faculty in many department meetings indicated a need for general education to participate in preparing students for participation in a globally diverse society.
- General Education is by most accounts too large in terms of credit hour requirements.
- Trends nationally and conversations with students and faculty identify a need for a more coherent and integrated general education "vision" and experience.
- General Education programs cut across departmental and disciplinary boundaries often creating a need to establish a separate entity specifically "responsible" for approval of courses and coordination of the overall general education program.
- Identifying student learning outcomes, while also consistent with the direction of the Board of Trustees, establishes a strong foundation for improving a general education program through formative assessment.
Proposition 1: The SUNY New Paltz General Education curriculum should articulate a mission and goals that identifies for parents, students, faculty, and staff what can be expected of the general education experience at New Paltz.
"The faculty and students of SUNY New Paltz have defined the purpose of the General Education Program with an understanding of the mission and characteristics of the university, and an appreciation for the changing conditions of knowledge, pedagogy, and the contemporary world. The purpose of General Education is to help students develop as critical thinkers while they gain the breadth and depth of knowledge that will allow them to become active citizens and productive members of their communities. The program exposes students to the areas of knowledge that characterize a broadly educated person, and assists them in developing a global perspective and an understanding of the traditions and complexities of a democratic society. Balancing learning experiences in four different knowledge areas-Arts and Humanities, The Natural World, The Social World, and Diversity and Globalization-the General Education program provides both discipline-based and interdisciplinary opportunities for advancing knowledge. A complementary focus of the General Education program is on developing key capacities and competencies that will enable students to excel in their professional lives and to become life-long learners. Students' capacity for Critical Inquiry as well as competency in, Effective Expression, Quantitative Analysis, Information Literacy, and Self-Discovery will be developed through designated courses in General Education, the Major, and elective course offerings.
Recognizing that students come to SUNY New Paltz with a variety of experiences, expectations, abilities, and interests, the General Education Program provides a full and flexible foundation for a shared experience of learning, inquiry, and exploration. The program attempts to accommodate and encourage independent thinking, while providing the personal, intellectual, and creative resources that prepare students for the depth and focus required in a major area of study".
Proposition 2: While the knowledge areas clearly must reflect the trustee-mandated student learning outcomes, they should be more clearly connected or integrated into and across four knowledge areas, including Arts and Humanities, The Natural World, The Social World, Diversity and Globalization.
Four knowledge areas serve to integrate the disciplines, encouraging students to make linkages between ideas as they assimilate knowledge. An appreciation for artistic, literary, and philosophical endeavors is developed in Arts and Humanities courses. Scientific and mathematical ideas and models are explored in The Natural World. The Social World focuses on knowledge of political, economic and cultural processes in the United States and in other civilizations influenced by Western traditions both currently and historically. Lastly, an understanding of civilizations and cultures influenced by a wide range of non-Western traditions is fostered in Diversity and Globalization, as is an appreciation for cultural and individual differences.
Proposition 3: A proposal for a new general education curriculum at New Paltz should infuse across the curriculum the development of the capacity for critical inquiry in students. This would be the "binding theme" for a new general education program which emphasizes competencies in information literacy, effective expression, quantitative analysis and self-discovery.
The capacity for critical inquiry is both the centerpiece and framework of General Education III. Individuals with the capacity for critical inquiry seek to be well-informed and care that their beliefs are well-founded and their decisions are justified. This occurs to the extent that they are open to and actively seek new ideas and alternatives. Critical inquiry requires a clarity of intended meaning and how this is communicated, a sense of precision and focus, an awareness of one's own values, as well as others' points of view and perspectives. It is proposed that every course approved in a knowledge area represent an approach to content and pedagogy that offers opportunities for critical analysis and investigation.
With the understanding and expectation that critical inquiry develops in different ways in many disciplines, in both introductory as well as more advanced courses, there appear to be some general dispositions that cross disciplinary boundaries. The activity of critical inquiry in most fields and disciplines generally involves interpretation of information, data, and other material, collecting and questioning evidence, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, presentation of conclusions, and a commitment to ongoing reflection.
It is proposed that SUNY New Paltz strive to develop the
capacity for critical inquiry through emphasis, across the
curriculum, in four key competencies: Effective Expression
(EE), Quantitative Analysis (QA), Information
Literacy (IL) and Self-Discovery (SD). Similar
to the Writing Intensive designation given to courses currently,
courses would be approved and given designations in each of
these areas and students would be required to not only meet
the credit-hour requirement in the knowledge area, but also
a designated number of courses which emphasize these competencies.
Proposition 4: In addition to increasing the coherence of the General Education curriculum through the four knowledge areas and an emphasis on critical inquiry, the vertical integration of General Education and the Major can also be achieved by extending the competency designations to upper division courses in the major.
A central struggle in many general education reform initiatives is to establish a relationship or link between the General Education curriculum and the various programs in the major. Effective Expression (EE), Quantitative Analysis (QA), Information Literacy (IL) and Self-Discovery (SD) can transcend disciplinary boundaries and act as the link between general education and the major. In other words, the development of the capacity for critical inquiry does not end with general education. Major courses and upper division electives would also be designated as EE, QA, IL or SD. Students would then be expected to complete a designated number of courses within each of the four areas, some completed through General Education courses, the remaining through Major or elective credits.
Proposition 5: What might the requirements of this type of approach to General Education look like ?
Proposition 6: The cross-departmental boundaries of a general education curriculum requires more focused attention to general education as a program, including explicit criteria for course approval and overall coordination.
The traditional ten-year review process at New Paltz is not sufficient to create sustained attention to general education as a program. While the curriculum committee had its original mission rooted in GE, it has since acquired greater responsibilities and workload. "Responsibility" for General Education has resulted in different forms at different campuses, including general education councils or boards. SUNY New Paltz should formally incorporate this type of attention and responsibility into its academic governance structure. One element of establishing a point of responsibility would be to have specific criteria for general education course approval, based upon the underlying philosophy and curriculum structure.
Proposition 7: Sustained general education reform must have firm, on-going commitment from campus leadership to provide faculty development opportunities in the areas of teaching and learning.
When interest in general education was revived in the eighties, attention was almost exclusively on content, or what students should know. As more research on the undergraduate experience emerged in the early nineties, more attention was paid to the "how" of student learning. Researchers in the field, like Alexander Astin and others, have demonstrated that student "academic relationships with peers, informal relationships with faculty, and time spent studying" are key factors in student learning. The emergence of learning communities, service learning, collaborative group projects and others are indicative of this attention to the "how" of student learning. Further, many general education curricula are incorporating the stages of student development into their articulation of student outcomes to develop courses that, for example, address the dualistic thinking of students who enter as freshman. For faculty who wish to engage in such pedagogical strategies it is important that a campus make a sustained commitment to faculty development opportunities in these areas of teaching and learning. This would seem an important role for our newly established teaching and learning center.