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Cultivating Change

Coming up with a definition of science literacy is the easy part.

Anyone can do it. Many already have. There are definitions aplenty in textbooks or online that can be borrowed and implemented. On the other hand, if the goal is to come up with something new, the easiest approach would be to have just one or two people hammer it out. One person could probably do it the fastest. But if your goal is to truly have an impact on what non-science majors learn about science, more is needed than one person’s thinking. Our work was guided by the idea that collaborating together as a group, while making the process longer and perhaps more circuitous, would make possible the kinds of radical and sustained changes necessary. Changing teaching practices—changing the culture of teaching—is necessarily a slow process. In our work, we have embraced this fact. Our approach is characterized by three tenets:

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1. Our goal is to create truly student-centered courses.

We discovered in our conversations that focusing on the student experience of learning was a powerful and generative perspective for us as teachers. It is where our work as educators begins and ends. Early in our discussions about science literacy, we asked, What do we want our students to retain from this course in five or ten years? This topic initiated a long process of dialog and debate about the literacy goals for our students and also to a follow-up question: What do we want our students to be able to do at the end of a non-majors course? Our process emphasized the doing, the ability of to act productively in response to data, questions, or problems.

We returned again and again to the extreme case of a student who takes just one science course in college. At first this seemed to pose an insurmountable challenge: how much could a student learn in just one semester? But focusing in this way simplified things by forcing us to prioritize among competing goals. Once we articulated what we wanted a student to be able to do at the end of the semester—essentially, our definition of science literacy—the next step was to (re)design the course with those goals firmly in mind, letting go of everything else. This presented us with the next challenge, and it is one that every faculty member must wrestle with when newly developed goals are brought to bear on a course: the challenge, in short, it is to wipe the slate clean, to explore new pedagogies imaginatively, and if necessary to let go of familiar ways of teaching.

For most of us, changing the way we teach is neither simple nor quick. We found that while the principles of course design were straight-forward, and while we shared a general appreciation of active learning, the process itself required an investment of time and resources so that faculty could work together productively. As new goals came into view, we needed time to collectively step back from one way of teaching and begin to envision another, keeping the student experience of learning firmly in mind. We needed time to talk, digest, and imagine together. And we needed conversations about what we were trying, what we were observing in the classroom, what was working, what wasn’t, and how we knew.

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2. Faculty have to work together to develop a shared vision.

At every level, whether discussing definitions of science literacy or the nuts and bolts of classroom pedagogy, the key ingredient to our work was the ongoing conversation among faculty. Over the course of the four years, we spent most of our time immersed in group discussions that situated our experiences in the classroom alongside empirical evidence from the field of pedagogy, case studies, and materials from related fields. As our conversations progressed, our answers evolved. Perhaps the most important insight we had was that we were making no pretense of coming up with the definition of science literacy: we realized that if we had done the process slightly differently, or if it were to be replicated elsewhere, the results might be slightly different. Different definitions, different emphases. But far from being a source of disillusionment, it became clear that this was exactly right. Our goal was not, nor should it be, to come up with a definition ready to be set in stone. Rather, the goal is to support a group of faculty as it ponders, debates, discusses, doubts, and implements a shared vision. A vision under reflective consideration by a group of faculty is far more valuable and effective than even the most thoughtful vision handed down by some other group. We prioritized developing a shared vision, applying it in the classroom, gathering evidence via assessment, and scrutinizing our own teaching in ways that are formative and constructive.

For this reason, the definition that emerged at Bard College might differ substantially from the definition that emerges at another school, and even from the definition that might emerge as our own process continues to evolve. The essential point, however, is that the definition as well as the commitments to pedagogy and the approach to assessment are part of a shared engagement with the work we do each day in the classroom. The most valuable thing we can share from our experience during the past four years is thus not any given document, blueprint, or set of bullet points. It is, rather, our process, as well as the encouragement to dive into this messy but rich array of topics.

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3. This process must be iterative, reflective, and ongoing.

The value of the process itself was perhaps the most surprising aspect of our work as it unfolded over the four years. Our shared deliberations and explorations of teaching—whether at the level of our overall goals for all student learning or at the level of planning individual classes—evolved slowly. We devoted lunches, evenings, and weekends to discussions, workshops, and working groups. As one area of our work came into focus (our definition of science literacy, for example), we used it to galvanize discussions about another (assessment, for example). This website charts the ways that a variety of faculty brought our shared thinking about literacy, pedagogy, and assessment into specific courses: different classes emphasized different aspects, and each new iteration brought something new to the conversation and helped us to see other areas of our work in a new light.

As we moved forward through time, the define-teach-measure triangle came to life for us. Because we committed early to an evidence-based approach, the information gathered via assessments provided valuable feedback regarding our pedagogy and definition. Carving out substantial time (frequently off-campus) for our ongoing conversation proved extremely important. The rich conversations guided the decisions we made about our courses and spilled over into new conversations about the nature of the work we do with students, and this in turn led to new iterations of our thinking. If we began with an expectation that we would figure out our definition in year one, realign our pedagogy in year two, and then collect assessment data in years three and four, we ended up appreciating that all three pieces needed to be in motion simultaneously. In the end, our approach to developing a definition of science literacy and to fostering the design of courses for non-majors is characterized most prominently by our commitment to developing and supporting a community of teachers committed to teaching, gathering evidence, reflecting, and teaching anew.

A final word on science literacy and cultivating change on college campuses:

Although we have emphasized the importance of process, of ongoing conversation and reflection, it remains the case that we settled on and committed to a specific definition of science literacy. To focus on the process, as we have, is not to deprecate this definition. Rather, it speaks to what we see as the usefulness and the limitations of this website. We believe in our definition and have found that it has stood the test of time in the early phase of our work together. Moreover, it connects naturally to our assessment activities and to our thinking about the most effective pedagogies for teaching non-science majors. However, it would go against everything we have learned in the past four years to suggest that another community should simply pick up this definition and apply it. While we value the definition of science literacy developed at Bard, and while we are excited by the way it connects to assessment and to pedagogy, we value still more the benefits of going through the process as a community of educators. If that means that another group might come up with different, perhaps even (to us) flawed, definition, so be it. More important is the fact that this other group is developing a definition, imagining new ways of teaching students in these non-majors courses, and envisioning ways of ascertaining what and how students are learning in the classroom.

Resources for Cultivating Change

We recommend these web resources:

(PULSE) The Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education

For faculty and administrators interested in transforming their institutions. These materials provide multiple starting points for cultivating change.

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The PULSE Vision and Change rubrics

A particularly useful place to begin. The section on curriculum is specific to the life sciences, but the other sections transcend any particular discipline.

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