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Teaching to Promote Intellectual and Personal Maturity: Incorporating Students' Worldviews and Identities into the Learning Process

By Marcia B. Baxter Magolda
Jossey-Bass (http://www.josseybass.com)
120 Pages
2000
ISBN: 0-787-95446-2
$27.00

Reviewed by

Richard L. Johnson

California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
History Department


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Marcia B. Baxter Magolda has edited a slim volume of discrete essays under the title, Teaching to Promote Intellectual and Personal Maturity: Incorporating Students' Worldviews and Identities into the Learning Process. Despite its brevity, just under one hundred pages, this volume provides helpful insights into the ways in which teachers in diverse classrooms can make their teaching environments more open to and appreciative of the diversified experiences of their students. It also offers some justifications for doing so. It is a valuable introduction to the topic. Readers will appreciate the annotated table of contents containing thirty- to fifty-word descriptions of each chapter.

Teaching to Promote Intellectual and Personal Maturity appears at a time when much of America is going in the opposite direction, away from personal integrative meaning and toward greater emphasis on "high stakes" standardized testing. Our present addiction to testing gives the book additional significance. Even teachers who believe they have had marked success in creating holistic classrooms are encouraged to read this book. Why? Because in the next few years the students arriving in their classrooms will be significantly less prepared and less willing to embrace activities that promise personal growth and awareness, wanting instead to focus on the answers to questions anticipated on the next test.

The nine essays in this volume, averaging about ten pages each, are addressed to college teachers but would benefit many high school teachers as well. They are especially helpful to teachers who are looking for ways to facilitate holistic student learning. The essays target college teachers who are trying to encourage both intellectual and affective change among students. For students, such changes usually involve at one level a modification of perspective about a particular topic. At a deeper level, the changes may also involve a whole new understanding of the processes by which people create meaning and understanding from sets of disparate facts and concepts. The first three chapters of the book offer a theoretical base, followed by five chapters that focus on specific examples of identity development and the ways it affects learning. A final chapter by Baxter Magolda gives a summary assessment of the preceding chapters. Those who seek more detailed understanding will find useful the references listed at the end of each chapter and, at the end of the book, a substantial index to topics and authors mentioned in the essays.

In her summary essay Baxter Magolda lists four main themes present throughout the book, noting that the authors encourage teachers to

  • Establish communities of learners among peers
  • Support the struggle inherent in exchanging older, simpler perspectives for newer, more complex ones
  • View students as capable participants in their journey to "self-authorship"
  • Provide directions and practice for students in acquiring internal authority where they synthesize ideas and think for themselves rather than relying on the ideas and concepts of others to provide their meaning.

(Baxter Magolda, 94)

As contributor Patricia M. King points out, pursuing these objectives means a general abandonment of the "I pitch, you catch" view of knowledge acquisition (24). Teachers instead must encourage students to take more responsibility for "self-authorship" and recognize that their education is a vital, integrative part of their own development.

The first three chapters provide a theoretical understanding of the process of meaning-making, drawing upon the work of Robert Kegan, John Dewey, and others, buttressed by occasional examples from the lives of some students. King's essay in Chapter 2, "Learning to Make Reflective Judgments," demonstrates that college students rarely show the kind of reasoned, reflective judgment expected by college faculty. This gap between student performance and faculty expectation is often the result of student assumptions about what kind of knowledge is important and how it is to be gathered. Students frequently offer a collection of specific facts, unaware that faculty expect a reasoned analysis and synthesis of those facts. King suggests ways faculty might clarify for students the stages of reflective judgment so important to achieving effective analysis and synthesis. Students might then alter their assumptions about knowledge gathering and think more reflectively. Such practice is especially important in areas of complexity where students are exploring new ideas and perspectives. Moreover, reflective judgment has important affective results as well. King quotes studies to indicate a correlation between advances in reflective judgment and increased tolerance for diversity and multicultural competence (22).

Blythe McVicker Clinchy in the next chapter, "Toward a More Connected Vision of Higher Education," builds upon her previous scholarship on gender and women's ways of knowing. She offers the term "constructed knowledge" to describe the integration of detached and critical "separate knowing," as well as the more empathetic "connected knowing." Clinchy then briefly suggests that the university needs to encourage "connected education" that fosters more personal growth and exploration of knowledge.

Two additional chapters are especially valuable. In Chapter 7, "Expressing Cultural Identity in the Learning Community: Opportunities and Challenges," Anna M. Ortiz draws upon her Southern California experience to emphasize the need to work with even greater diversity in the classroom than that treated by the authors whose chapters appeared previously. Her understanding of diversity includes gender, ethnicity, race, and racial mixtures. Her own studies of ethnic identity among college students in Southern California convinced Ortiz that models of biracial interaction (such as that used by Mary Howard-Hamilton in an earlier chapter) are much more simplified than the actual experience of students in the classroom. Employing such models might actually reduce faculty credibility if students perceive that their own experiences differ significantly from that of the model. She is very frank in acknowledging that a richly diverse classroom is fraught with risk, and even implies that faculty should be prepared to make a few mistakes. Still there are great learning opportunities in a classroom that encourages and allows the expression of cultural identities.

The key to Ortiz' essay is her recognition that knowledge is contextual, not static. Such recognition is, in her view, fundamental to the development of critical thinking. Concern for contextuality leads in turn to three classroom strategies to develop intercultural competence:

  • Encourage students to develop a sense of community in the classroom
  • Use cooperative learning techniques to foster a growing sense of community
  • Design assignments that encourage students to draw upon personal as well as external knowledge

Implicit in these strategies is the assumption that exposure to the learning experiences of others in a diverse society will encourage individuals to comprehend themselves and others in a larger multicultural context. In her conclusion Ortiz states, "Creating communities where cultural identity can be expressed openly and applied to knowledge learned also means creating communities where students feel safe in taking risks, which fosters a hunger for analysis and reflection of content regardless of its disciplinary origins. And that is an honorable goal for any educator" (78).

Nancy J. Evans follows in Chapter 8 with her essay, "Creating a Positive Learning Environment for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Students." In this essay Evans argues that issues of gender are very closely related to issues of self-identity for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. (It is now customary to add "transgendered" as a fourth category and use the acronym, GLBT, to refer to all four groups. I do so in the remainder of this review.). Sexual identity and interpersonal relations are very important for almost all college students, but they are especially hard to manage for GLBT students. Often it is during their college years that they first acknowledge their sexual orientation and then begin the difficult process of seeking ways to negotiate acceptance from those who have previously known them only as heterosexual. They have a special task of finding and nurturing a community that will support them. Evans refers to the "Safe Zone program" established at Iowa State University in 1998, where faculty were given the option of putting "Safe Zone" stickers on their doors as a way of saying to GLBT students that they would not face discrimination and hostility in that professor's office or classroom. Evans' primary goal is to reduce hostility so that GLBT students find it easier to focus on their studies.

Valuable as this book may be, it points to the need for studies that treat more explicitly conditions of even greater student diversity and give added focus to the character of the teacher. For readers who are teachers in California and other areas where very diverse communities come together in the classroom, perhaps there should even be an explicit caveat. While in these essays there often appears to be the oversimplified assumption that student perceptions are similar and can be easily categorized into hierarchical models, this same assumption is strongly contradicted by the diversity of anecdotes found in the same essays. It may well be that the authors of these essays have underestimated how difficult it is for a teacher to understand the variety of student worlds that enter a single classroom, at least in the complex, diverse multicultural communities of Southern California. Consequently they may also have underestimated the difficulty of getting students to "travel together" to the same level of perception and competence (13). I suspect that the highly diverse classroom presents a special case that may need to be addressed more carefully than this volume does. Teachers with experience in multicultural classrooms may find it necessary to provide multiple and varied ways of "making meaning" for their students.

With the exception of Ortiz and Evans the essays seem to give insufficient attention to the behavior of the teacher that accompanies the techniques offered. Fundamental to all the proposals in this book is an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect between teachers and students. Without mutual trust, the techniques are useless. In the highly diverse classroom, mutual trust, while just as important, may be even harder to achieve. Yet little in this book addresses that extremely significant factor.

Finally, Teaching to Promote Intellectual and Personal Maturity highlights a pernicious tension within academia itself. While we recognize the importance of personal knowledge for student growth, as academics we seem less comfortable affirming the same values in our own growth and development. We shun the personal "I" and seek to cloak our studies with "objectivity." Each author in this volume, then, faces the problem of how to present the results of their research. Theirs is a difficult decision, and the result is not entirely successful. All the essays applaud and promote the value of personal knowledge and self-authorship. But with the single exception of Ortiz' essay, the authors do not put into practice what they preach. Only Ortiz integrates her own personal journey with the knowledge she offers. It might be unfair of a reviewer to hope that academics who fervently support integrated knowledge in their students would also illustrate its importance in their own lives. Perhaps that task will be achieved by future scholars.

Posted February 11, 2002

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2002 by Richard L. Johnson.

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