Unit Level Development -Teaching Philosophies at the Unit Level
Developing in Fractal Patterns IV:
Edward Nuhfer, Idaho State University
Steve Adkison, Idaho State University
Thinking in fractals involves polishing one's ability to see patterns within complex forms, and to perceive a common pattern operating recursively while observing these forms at different scales. In our last Diary, we concentrated on the nature of teaching philosophies constructed by the individual professor. It's no accident that we placed introspection at the foundation of the fractal generator described in earlier Diaries I and II. Introspection brings to light what one most wants to do, reveals the origins of these aspirations and clarifies renewed purpose. These highly personal attributes produce the intrinsic motivation to love one's work and one’s students as a scholar and teacher. Without such motivation, it's probably hard to function well for long in any aspect of teaching, so some would consider clear statements of these alone to be a teaching philosophy. However, we distinguish here what we term a "sophisticated" philosophy that shows that personal choices have been informed by knowledge beyond knowledge of one’s self and one's own motivationthat is, by familiarity with some key literature on adult teaching, learning and thinking and not merely by one's own or one's students' expressed sense of satisfaction with a particular course. Because introspection is fundamental to uncovering instructional aims, as well as understanding where these aims originated, our next step as developers lies in extending the thinking that builds sophistication in a teaching philosophy to the larger scale of unit levels.
Units can be programs, departments, colleges, universities, or committees that have a particular curricular responsibility such as general education requirements for a university. They carry the collective philosophies of two or more professors, which if shared and coordinated, can build a stronger curriculum and probably furnish better education. Just as individuals seek to consciously understand their teaching and their students’ learning though self-reflective practice, units too, can better understand and structure the overall arc of student learning in a given program or curriculum by engaging in discussions that lead to unit-level self-reflection. Just as every teacher has a philosophy, whether written or not, units operate with a philosophy whether stated or not. In some cases, the unit's operational philosophy promotes academic freedom and individual competition to the degree that it precludes awareness or support for needed cooperation or for awareness of collective responsibility. In extreme cases, poor relationships dominate to such a degree that individuals within these units cannot have the necessary constructive conversations. Such an atmosphere can erode even individuals' intrinsic motivation. By incorporating unit-level introspection into their day-to-day functioning and structure, units gain a powerful tool for both instructional alignment and for overcoming the all-too-human foibles that can impact the unit’s ability to move toward that alignment. The research is clear  unless we do have such conversations within our units, we cannot produce the kinds of results for our students in thinking or content learning that are possible with the instructional clarity and deliberate coordination that unit-level introspection brings.
Developers practice unit level development less frequently than they do individual development. Some developers never do unit level work, but the literature has long shown that unit level development is necessary to produce outcomes that single individual efforts cannot produce. The work on levels of thinking since the classic work of William Perry in the 1960s is in revealing that mentoring students to higher level thinking cannot be accomplished successfully by a single course consistent (cf  NTLF, V11, N1, pp. 5-8); it requires a planned, coordinated curriculum of at least a few courses offered over time. The National Survey for Student Engagement confirmed that learning outcomes are superior when larger units (colleges, universities) have an identity recognized by the individuals within them: “Studies show that what has the greatest impact on student learning is engaging them in a variety of challenging complementary educational practices that reinforce one another.” (NSSE Report 2000; emphasis added). In the assessment movement, in particular, assessment of learning is highly focused on unit level outcomes. Intra-institutional reviews such as general education curriculum assessment, external professional program reviews, discipline-specific program accrediting bodies, even institution-wide accreditation reviews all focus closely on the articulation of outcomes that are directly assessable and which lead to the kinds of assessment data that directly advance student learning through ongoing programmatic or institutional reflection. If assessable outcomes cannot be articulated by a unit, then that unit will be incapable of any meaningful assessment efforts. Faculty development can reflect this reality and it can help to support such outcomes.
In our last Diary, we showed that detailed introspection at the individual level must precede the drafting of philosophy statements. In that same Diary, we listed twenty-five items useful for assisting personal self-reflection. Developers can also use those items to design a workshop in unit level introspection. In fact, every one of those twenty-five items has a correlative at the unit level. Consider the first six items from the past diary. It is important to stress that there are many good ways an individual can address these items, and the development of a sophisticated unit-level philosophy does not seek to have the unit's members conform to a single philosophy, but rather to consider how to make best use of such diversity as exists within the philosophies of individuals that comprise the unit.

Part 1. Knowing myself as a professor

1.   I clearly know the two major reasons why I became a college professor.
2.   I clearly know two aspects of my work that are most satisfying.
3.   I clearly know two aspects of my work that are challenges or frustrations.
4.   I can recall a mentor who was a particularly positive influence on my teaching, and the setting in which this memory occurred.
5.   I understand the significance of that memory with respect to how I teach today.
6.   If a decade from now, a student recalled me as an influential teacher, three traits I would like to be remembered for are _____, ____, and __________.

Next, examine  this same pattern of awareness is carried to the unit level.

Part 1. Knowing ourselves as a unit

1.   We clearly know two major reasons why we are a separate unit.
2.   We can clearly state two aspects of working in this unit that are particularly satisfying.
3.   We can clearly state two aspects of our work that are challenges or frustrations to be addressed.
4.   We can point to an equivalent unit at some other institution, which has some traits/accomplishments worth emulating.
5.   We understand the unique value of our unit as distinct from equivalent units at nearby institutions.
6.   If a decade from now, a student recalled their experience here, three signature traits we would like to be remembered for are ______________,  __________________, and _________________________________.

In two-day retreats with colleges, we have spent day one on the individual introspection and day-two on unit level conversations. The patterns of introspection important to the guided conversations held with oneself to create a teaching philosophy remain visible as equally prominent when conversations about the unit are held with one's colleagues. Like fractals, they are one and the same, differing in the scale to which they are applied and in the richness that minds working together can produce.
Following are the remaining unit level facets that are parallel equivalents to items 7 - 25 of the individual facets printed in the last Diary.

Part II. Knowing what we want/need to do at the program level in our unit
7.   “Successful teaching” at the unit level means achieving the following outcomes for our students with respect to content knowledge: ___________________
8.   “Successful teaching” at the unit level means achieving the following outcomes for students with respect to students' attitudes: ___________________
9.   “Successful teaching” at the unit level means achieving the following outcomes for students with respect to values: ___________________
10.   “Successful teaching” at the unit level means providing students with the following experiences: ___________________
11.   “Successful teaching” at the unit level means achieving the following outcomes for students with respect to levels of thinking: ___________________
12.   We understand how each of the required courses fits into the department/college/ university curriculum in regard to what each is supposed to contribute to each of the five areas boldfaced above in order to achieve the outcomes we want.

Part III. Understanding the pedagogical distribution
13.   Students should experience the following as dominant pedagogical method(s) in our curriculum, ______________; we identified these particular methods as important because________________________
14.   If our students experienced only the lecture method, their education would differ in these important ways__________________
15.   Our students' favorite experiences among the non-lecture approaches to teaching are _________________________
16.   We know that these favored non-lecture approaches are effective because ________________
17.   We have considered the following non-lecture approach/model and rejected emphasizing it because________________
18.   There are several well-established models through which to recognize students’ levels of thinking.   The model we’d like our students to be familiar with is _________________________
19.   We’ve chosen to utilize this particular model for our students because____________
20.   In each of our required courses in a sequence, we know the progressive distribution for levels of thinking that we want to emphasize.

Part IV Understanding how successful we’ve been
21.   When a class session ends, we know that most students have understood and achieved what was intended because our teachers_____________
22.   We know that the pedagogical approaches we’ve chosen to emphasize are effective practices because _________________
23.   When a course ends, we know that we have been successful in improving students mastery of our intended content knowledge and/or skills because ___________________________
24.   If our students were asked: “What were the most valuable experiences that were provided for you in our unit's program?” most would answer___________________________
25.   If our students were asked: “Aside from factual knowledge or skill proficiency, what was the primary change in your awareness with respect to values and/or attitudes that the program produced?” most would answer___________________

Those developers who work closely with their assessment offices (and we all should!) will quickly recognize how such development assists units in assessment efforts. As we mentioned earlier, meaningful assessment is impossible without well-articulated outcomes, and this type of unit-level development is often instrumental in shaping sound and productive strategic planning and assessment frameworks. Developing awareness of the need for individuals to work together in order to produce the curricular coordination required for high-level learning translates into assessment efforts that "close the loop," helping to ensure that instructional alignment is actual and sound, not just wishful thinking. Such development provides an operational framework that ties improved learning to the same efforts used to assess it.
In summary, the literature is clear that faculty need to work with one another in units in order to design curricula that achieve educational outcomes that go well beyond mere learning of factual content. Fractal thinking does not just encourage instructional alignment; it demands it. It is also clear from the assessment literature that evaluation of learning and decisions about what defines successful educational outcomes requires much more than the satisfaction ratings provided by participants. Development that helps individuals to improve their student evaluations certainly remains important, but development must extend beyond remedial help for individuals in order to deliver the potential that development has to offer to promote learning, high level thinking, or good assessment practices. Consider the activities you do now for individuals and try some fractal thinking. When we can see how things we emphasize as valuable for individuals also apply at the unit levels, it provides exciting insights and permits the kinds of important conversations that A. T. de Nicolas (Habits of Mind, 2000, NY, Authors Choice Press) notes are crucial.

Ed Nuhfer, Director
Center for Teaching and Learning
Idaho State University,
Pocatello, ID 83209-8010
Telephone: (208) 282-4703
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