food fights and thresholds

thresholdHigh school diplomas and college degrees suggest that something as incremental as learning can be subdivided by broad markers, that for example, you gradually improve your reading until Dickens makes sense to you, you remember some history and science and a smattering of civics, and then the world attaches to you a high school diploma, while you go on about your learning from there.  Your growing proficiency was gradual and invisible, but its certification is explicit and punctuated.

The implied precision is laughable, this sense that suddenly in your 18th spring, you and everyone else your age – all over the country – have achieved the same thing.  No wonder adolescents are cynical.

The cognitive dissonance rings louder up here in postsecondary, amplified by our gigantic differences in majors, academic calendars, institutional rigor.  Even from the same college, two baccalaureate degrees can mean very different things.  So is there a same thing that they also mean?

This question is coming up now in the California State University, where administrators and faculty are looking for some shared way to determine the right number of academic credits to put into a degree.  In general the faculty pulls toward more units, the administration toward fewer.

The effort is complicated by conflicting senses of how the decision should be shared.  Both sides agree that “faculty own the curriculum,” but neither sees a full role for the other in setting the size of that curriculum.  It’s been a trying discussion, made harder in part because each behaves as if it’s somehow magnanimous to discuss it with the other.

For reasons that are unclear to me, some subjects have defined the bachelor’s degree more expansively than others.  My own undergraduate major was in French literature.  (A safe fallback, in case I couldn’t find a job as a state bureaucrat.)  I blew through the requirements in about three years and took up the slack in arts and other humanities, especially film.  Had I instead taken a bachelor’s in metallurgical engineering or jazz piano, the same credential would have taken almost twice as long.

Ask the pianists and metallurgists why this should be and you get one of two answers, neither of them very satisfying:

a.            because that’s how our profession defines a baccalaureate.  (Yes.  And that’s how the rest of us define a tautology.)

b.            because that’s the minimum learning you need to practice the profession as a graduate.

That second one gets more traction among my colleagues.  My devastating rejoinder:  so what?  Then say the entry level degree for your job is more than a baccalaureate.  Say that to get a job you need a masters, or a doctorate, or something else.  This solution works fine for California’s attorneys, dentists, second-grade teachers, architects, and for that matter college professors.  The big difference:  all of them have a fully credentialed off-ramp after four years of college, while the engineers and pianists do not.

In earlier internecine CSU food fights I’ve thrown some spaghetti, but on this one I’m politely sitting out.  It’s just too hard for me to see both sides, so I can’t participate constructively.

But it does have me wondering whether these degrees are set at the wrong size altogether.  If we leave behind credit hours and go to outcomes, will they need to cover a broader swath than you see with the baccalaureate?  It would be easier for me to tolerate wide differences in time to degree if the degrees really were signifiers of entry-level proficiency, instead of just time served.

1spaghettiwall1But the more I think about it, the more I think we need to count outcomes in smaller units, not bigger ones.

There’s an effort in the California Community Colleges along these lines, called the Threshold Project.  The tacit premise is that it’s hard to say when someone’s done learning a whole domain, but easier to know when they understand just one critical piece of it, a “threshold concept.”  Like a doorway, it’s a visible marker you cross on your way to understanding the rest of the field, with a clear before and after.  (I’m oversimplifying a bit.  Friends who lead the project point out that sometimes students backslide to the pre-understanding side of the doorway.  For the full story see this two-page explication, highly recommended.)

A couple of examples:  as you first learn chemistry and understand that molecules are comprised of atoms, you need to internalize the truth that the combinations follow rules, based on numbers of electrons.  No one gets this instinctively; you have to work at it, and until it makes sense to you, the rest of chemistry never will.  So you balance equations and write out atomic structures, and recognize the same compounds over and over, and eventually you grasp the threshold concept of covalent bonding.  Now — and only now — you can move on to the next one.

Another example comes from my home discipline, screenwriting (not French).  Aspiring screenwriters are often readers, and as fans of fiction they like narrating.  But for most movies the point is to make it look like the story told itself, as if we just happen to be watching people interact in a compelling sequence.  It’s very hard to write that way, and you can’t even begin until you first internalize the truth that movies only look spontaneous, because the narrative is deliberately self-effacing, another threshold concept.

In any discipline, as you identify these little comet tails of visible learning a couple of good things happen.  First, faculty can agree on a shared set of assignments – student work samples – that tell anyone in the field whether a student has successfully stepped through a given doorway.  For learning outcomes assessment, ePortfolio construction, and the recognition of credit this is priceless.  And second, administrators can start to see something portable, interchangeable, and akin to currency in higher ed, only more meaningful than a credit hour.

Put our attention there, and disputes over the size of the degree would be on better footing.  We might even holster our spaghetti.

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7 thoughts on “food fights and thresholds

  1. Beautifully stated!

    I have a question that I have posed to colleagues who can only say “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” My question is: Where does the concept of the four-year college degree come from? Why four years? Why not two, or five, or seventeen? Why is four the magic number? I know it predates Carnegie contact hours and whatnot, but I can’t find a good answer anywhere. Can you shed some light on this?

    1. Apt association! These food fights unnerve us all.
      Regarding competency-based education as it’s emerging in Wisconsin, versus the four-year degree: well, you’ve outed me. I’m tickled that you connected these two posts, and yes indeed, I wish our degrees indicated a level of learning rather than the passage of time. But we have a very long way to go: it’s easier to be certain (and billable) about how long someone has been studying, than about how well.

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