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Rewarding Interdisciplinary Teaching

An interview with James McKenney,
American Association of Community Colleges

In some ways, two-year colleges face demands similar to those facing high schools--to prepare students both for further education and for work. Do interdisciplinary programs offer a viable response to that challenge?

I do not totally accept the premise that the challenges facing K-12 and community colleges are comparable. That would be far too simplistic, given the tradition in community colleges of planning programs in two-year time blocks. I appreciate that these time frames may lack significance given the drop-in/drop-out behavior patterns of our students. Nonetheless, credit-bearing course work at community colleges is generally blocked in such a manner.

K-12 has the luxury of being able to block learning according to age ranges. Part of the attraction of integrated courses in K-12 is the usefulness of such an approach to draw in a large range of learners at varying degrees of motivation. Also, it could be argued that integrated learning is an effective strategy for reaching students with different learning styles. Thus, the case for integrated learning is probably more easily made in K-12.

Conversely, the age range of students populating community college classes is much broader than in K-12, and the range of motivation much less volatile. While it is true that the traditional college-age student might exhibit many of the volatile characteristics of K-12 students, I would guess that half of those students would also defy the premise of this question. Certainly, the non-traditional community college adult population (whose average age nationally is 29) would have in place a much higher degree of learning readiness factors.

I hope this does not sound like I am digressing on a small point. It seems to me that the strongest argument for integrated academics is for those young students who need to strengthen their academic foundation but who either may not see the relevance of these courses or may have learning styles that conflict with the traditional book-learning and theory-based approaches to instruction.

Given these differences, I would suggest that integrated academics might be very useful for the myriad of non-credit basic skills enhancement courses offered at two-year and four-year institutions. In these courses, I think one can assume that skill application will be critical for transferring knowledge.

One could make the argument that traditional community college mathematics and language coursework should largely reflect the experiences students must master to survive in the four-year college environment. That is not to say that this course work could not afford a greater indulgence with applications. But these courses were built over time to reflect the anticipated challenges at the transfer institution.

It is my experience that academic support courses for occupational curricula are, in general, more closely tied to an applications approach. For example, the technical mathematics and report writing courses are, by nature, applied courses. One can argue for a greater degree of integration by embedding the mathematics and writing within the occupational courses. But that could easily undermine the learning of major principles, which in turn could impede access to further education.

I would conclude by saying that community college faculty and administrators should spend more time looking across curricula for opportunities to integrate principles. In this manner, sound academic building blocks could be preserved even as one seeks to integrate new principles or cantilever significant points across different curricula. For example, it could be argued that computer skills should be integrated across the curriculum.

This seems to suggest that a primary purpose of two-year colleges is to prepare students to transfer to four-year colleges. Is this implication warranted? If so, where do you see technical education fitting in?

I think we need to integrate academics in the technical areas. Community colleges have already created support courses in mathematics and English that are customized for technical programs. True, these are not integrated in the fashion that I would like. However, I am not so sure that what we have created is not sufficient given that the objectives for integration in secondary schools are not present at the postsecondary level.

The degree of occupational crystallization is such that postsecondary students should understand why they are in an academic course which has been created in support of their occupational program needs (e.g., technical mathematics, technical writing, anatomy & physiology). More customization at the postsecondary level might interfere with the potential for students to transfer--which we should not rule out given the likelihood of changes in students' goals and the massive changes in program adoption underway at the university level.

I am only saying that in this technical and information age, the lines are blurring between community college students' goals and university goals. We need to be careful about foundation academic courses so that universities do not judge them as too watered down and therefore useless for transfer credit. This could have a chilling effect on the soundness of all our programs, whether the intent is to transfer or not.

What other strategies besides interdisciplinary courses would help students learn to use mathematics in a variety of real-world settings?

I'm convinced that some of the materials being developed through the NSF ATE grants are viable alternatives. One particular program--to create, develop, market and sell a new car--is focused on general education courses that might be used to support a manufacturing curriculum. The mathematical problems of this program have already exhausted the parameters of the two-year college transfer mathematics offerings. Hagerstown Junior College in Maryland is developing this particular CD-ROM. New Hampshire is creating one that infuses physics into an environmental problem surrounding the siting of a new plant in a small town.

These approaches are interdisciplinary and can be applied broadly at community colleges. Once created, they will offer inexpensive ways to introduce real problems in mathematics courses. Also, the interdisciplinary "heavy lifting" will have been done by a few institutions, thus relieving others of having to recreate the wheel. Such endeavors can become showcases to stimulate reluctant faculty who will see the richness of the experience and realize that quality has been enhanced rather than compromised.

Some educators have argued that departmental boundaries in education may set up artificial barriers to collaborations on curriculum development and improving instructional strategies. Based on your interest in the school-to-work movement and the fact that disciplinary boundaries are not relevant in the workplace, what do you think is the proper balance of disciplinary and interdisciplinary curricula in education, especially in grades 10-14?

I regret that I may waffle on this one. I do think a balance is appropriate. I still think we need faculties organized within disciplines in order that internal rigorous debate can take place regarding decisions of course and curriculum policy. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with having folks be adjunct members of other departments in order to cross fertilize and to share in the interdisciplinary dialogue. Such relationships should be encouraged through various mechanisms like release time or salary enhancements. We ought to reinforce interdepartmental dialogue, cooperation, and teaching as much as possible. The private sector finds such behavior useful in raising productivity. I think we might find the same to be true with respect to enhancing learning and, therefore, student success.

What opportunities for professional development of two-year college faculty do you think are offered by the creation of interdisciplinary programs? How can we convince two-year college administrators that these efforts should be acknowledged in the faculty rewards system (for promotion, tenure, merit pay, etc.)?

In a sense, I have already answered this question. It is my observation that interdisciplinary courses and team teaching provide a substantial amount of team building, faculty learning, and professional development. As I mentioned, the reward system is vital in driving these kinds of behaviors. If you don't do that, you essentially divorce your desired changes from the existing reward system. You are telling folks that it matters, but not too much.

I should also add that I think mathematics leaders should be looking ahead to the substantial opportunities they have to change the culture with the large-scale retirements that are on the horizon. Most community colleges are about the same age. Faculty will begin retiring in droves over the next 5-10 years. This represents both a problem and an opportunity. Smart administrators should begin guiding this process in terms of creating the department of the future. If you want interdisciplinary behavior, you should reward and replace faculty on that basis. The message will be clear.

James McKenney is Director of Economic Development at the American Association of Community Colleges. He can be reached by e- mail at jmckenney@aacc.nche.edu.

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Last Update: June 17, 1997