Thursday, September 6, 2012

Teaching Purpose Centered Education

Last week I posted to faculty a link to the Audrey Cohen Archive, and mentioned I was developing a lesson plan to include Cohen’s writing in the first day of class.  The formula for a first day of class seems straight forward:  introduce yourself, get to know the students, go over the syllabus and course expectations, perhaps develop class rules collectively, get writing samples from the students, etc.  I rarely get into actual material on that first day, i.e. look at a text (discursive or visual) together with students.  Here’s a copy of the email I sent:
I have begun posting a link on all of my Moodle accounts to the Audrey Cohen Archive, available at the school's library website:  The first day of class seems like an ideal opportunity to introduce (or reintroduce) students to Audrey Cohen's concept of "Purpose-Centered Education."  We will look at excerpts of "Audrey Cohen College System of Education:  Purpose-Centered Education," asking students to contextualize her theory into the "real world" of their studies at MCNY.  Particularly with the adaptation of Cohen's methodology to other majors or programs, this can spur a fruitful conversation about how Cohen's vision applies to 21st century learners and education.  As we discuss on an institutional level the future of Purpose-Centered Education, it may be useful to pose these same questions in the classroom.
One professor responded that if “Purpose Seminar professors are not doing this by now, they should not have been teaching this course.”  She is right.  But I was curious to know if, indeed, that was being done in the classroom across the board.
I did an “unofficial” (i.e. verbal) poll the next day in a Common Curriculum course.  There were 19 students from three different majors representing 5 different purposes.  Here are my findings, though obviously this is not a ‘proper’ quantitative study:
  1.  100% of the students knew the founder and the founder’s name, Audrey Cohen.
  2.  100% of the students had heard of “Purpose-Centered Education” and “Constructive Action.”  When I asked “Who can define it?”, not one student raised his or her hand.  This very well may be a case of first day trepidation, but when pushed, the students said they “had a sense of what it was but didn’t know how to define it.”  This led to a discussion about a lack of teaching what these terms mean.  One student said she did not learn about this in orientation; another said as a transfer student, she was not given guidance and didn’t know what a “Constructive Action” was until a particular professor worked with her personally. 
  3. I asked students if they think their classes are integrated, and there was general disagreement on this issue.  Some agreed, others diddn't.  They understood in principle that their dimensions are supposed to tie into their Constructive Actions, but they said it didn’t always work that way, especially when courses are taken out of sequence.
  4. I asked students if they thought their assignments in class had “meaning” or “purpose,” and 100% of them said yes.  This may suggest that Purpose can come in different forms, as this (#4) in a “strict” adherence to the Cohen Model could not exist without #3.
  5. Though 100% of the students had heard of Audrey Cohen, only two out of 19 had read her writing.
With this unofficial data in my pocket, the next day I decided to bring Cohen into the classroom for a first semester course in the American Urban Studies Program  entitled “Self Assessment through Writing and Technology.”  After general introductions, I passed out a copy of Cohen’s article, “Audrey Cohen College System of Education: Purpose-Centered Education.”  I had students read it, making note of passages that stood out to them.  We then did close textual readings of a few passages, and discussed how Cohen’s model of education was different from a traditional model of education.  We looked at the charts in the text (pages 31 & 32) that demonstrate traditional education and how “knowledge is isolated in separate compartments” and then how that model is transformed when that knowledge is geared towards a “purpose.”  I mapped the main terms on the board:  Purpose-Centered Education, Constructive Action, Dimensions, Plan of Action, and then used the reading to fill those out, as well as to lead into a discussion of the course material.  I returned to the mapping of the terms throughout the introduction to the course.
Particularly as there continues to be discussion about what “Purpose Centered Education” looks likes or means, returning to Cohen’s original text seems integral to that conversation.  She happened to apply her concept of Purpose-Centered Education and Constructive Action to Human Services, but it is clear when you read Cohen’s writings that she believed it could be applied to different contexts.  As Cohen states, “When we learn most effectively, it is because we want to fulfill a vision or solve a problem:  finding the cure for a disease, creating a mode of transportation that will accommodate mass urbanization, helping people deal with loss, fostering artistic creativity, etc.” (Cohen, 28)  Reading Cohen in class on the first day helped students concretize the course material and the mission of the college overall.  It led to fruitful class discussion and a content-driven first day of class.  In short, I think it modeled for the students what Cohen herself envisioned as “Purpose-Centered Education.”

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