Oct 23, 2011

Virtues and Supplemental Instruction

A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to carry out what I sometimes jokingly refer to as "Virtue Ethics evangelism."  I'd been invited to submit a workshop proposal for a one-day conference held down at City University of New York (CUNY)-Lehman, focused specifically on Supplemental Instruction, bringing together educators from many different disciplines and schools, mainly from across the CUNY system schools but including a scattering of others from upstate schools -- and me, a philosopher, virtue ethicist, representing my fledgling consulting company, ReasonIO.

At my last academic position, at Fayetteville State University, where I'd focused heavily on teaching and improving the core Critical Thinking classes, I recruited -- or at least attempted to, since the better candidates were nearly always courted by other programs -- and worked with, student Supplemental Instruction leaders.  I'd given some thought to the successes and failures we'd encountered in semester after semester of classes assisted by SI, and now provided with an opportunity to reflect on those matters in the somewhat more sustained, systematic, and rigorous ways that producing a conference presentation requires, I proposed a session linking Virtue Ethics with Supplemental Instruction, arguing the need or at least usefulness of the former in thinking about and doing the latter well.

I ended up writing the draft of a paper (which I'll be fleshing out later), putting together a set of powerpoint slides, and recording video of the workshop session.

What is Supplemental Instruction, though? The International Center for Supplemental Instruction (based at University of Missouri-Kansas City) defines it as
an academic assistance program that utilizes peer-assisted study sessions. SI sessions are regularly-scheduled, informal review sessions in which students compare notes, discuss readings, develop organizational tools, and predict test items. Students learn how to integrate course content and study skills while working together. The sessions are facilitated by “SI leaders”, students who have previously done well in the course and who attend all class lectures, take notes, and act as model students.
That's a characterization that adequately expresses SI's key and distinctive features.  It introduces and initiates undergraduates into the processes of classroom teaching and course design, setting up students as tutors, assigned not only to a disciplinary subject, not only a particular course, but to one specific instructor -- a teacher with whom the student has previously taken that class, in which they excelled and impressed the professor enough to be recommended for an SI position.

What particularly interested me was the question: What sorts of skills and dispositions do we need to attend to or cultivate in order to render Supplemental Instruction a highly effective pedagogical resource?  It's easy -- I know from my own experience -- to treat SI as just another resource for our students, just one that happens to employ one more student whose participation we previously valued.  It's tempting to simply get on with all the business involved -- more and more every year it seems -- in being a college or university professor, let the SI leader set up his or her sessions aligned with and hopefully reinforcing one's own class sessions, and not give these matters more than a second thought.

We thereby end up passing up some excellent opportunities to make some additional differences in students' outcomes, careers, characters -- not least our own SI leaders -- essentially ceding the development, workings, and outcomes of SI over to the staff who manage these matters -- a position that in my three years at FSU changed hands (and directions) multiple times.
As educators, we know that teaching and learning is not -- as many of our students and external stakeholders mistakenly imagine -- merely a matter of acquiring information.  That is not all that knowledge consists in -- knowledge that is deep, integrated, lasting, transferable involves entire associated sets of skills -- and going beyond even these, even deeper, more integrative, a dimension of acquired, affective and practical dispositions.

Within classical Aristotelian philosophy of education, such an assemblage of interlocking and scaffolded knowledge, skills, and dispositions well-established in the mind of the learner is termed a hexis or habitus. It becomes as it were a possession rooted in the being of the knower (and doer, actor, producer, communicator) and is, when developed, one type of intellectual virtue, a state of excellence of the human mind.

So, again, what sorts of skills and dispositions should we be aiming to cultivate in SI leaders?  The sets -- the habituses -- that readily come to mind are three: disciplinary knowledge, pedagogical expertise, and the broad category of “people skills”.  What would not typically come to mind for most people are those other sets of skills and dispositions which are thematized mainly in the humanities, most often in moral philosophy or theology -- the virtues, both moral and intellectual, but particularly moral virtues.

The case I made during my workshop (and through my paper and slides) was that rethinking SI in terms of the family of approaches in moral theory called Virtue Ethics can make a solid contribution to developing a yet more adequate understanding of what more effective use of SI would look like, providing a needed complement to other more explicitly pedagogical-theoretical and less explicitly moral-theoretical approaches.

I am not suggesting, of course, that Virtue Ethics is a substitute for other approaches.   I am suggesting that some of the typical components of a Virtue Ethics approach are susceptible of being adopted and appropriated in one’s own approach to effective employment of SI leaders -- in two ways.

First, there are some ideas or considerations, which a Virtue Ethics approach provides, that remain unlikely to be provided or even realized as needed in its absence. Second, there are other ideas or considerations already in place, on the table, which while making good sense in themselves, can be further illuminated by a Virtue Ethics approach, one example of this being practical wisdom's (phronesis) important role in pedagogical expertise and that catch-all category of "people skills".

In my workshop session -- which went surprisingly well and sparked interesting discussion -- I gave a necessarily very brief overview of Virtue Ethics as a type of moral theory. Then, I reframed the purposes or ends of SI within that framework.  Then -- starting to run short on time, and having to cut that section a bit short -- I discussed seven moral virtues and one moral state (self-control) particularly germane to Supplemental Instruction.  I ended by outlining conditions necessary for developing virtues and integrating them with the three other sets of skills and dispositions.

Much more could and should be said about these matters, but I'm going to leave those for later writing projects.  What was particularly striking, and what I'd like to end upon was a very positive impression -- in our culture, even our educational culture, we don't talk often enough in rigorous ways well-informed by classic moral theory outside of the classroom -- and at the same time, there seems to be a genuine and great desire, a longing, almost a hunger, to consider, to discuss, to puzzle out moral matters in serious and systematic ways.  Of all the varieties of moral theory, Virtue Ethics seems best equipped and poised to respond to that need.

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