A year devoted to what Lawrence does best

Emily Passey

At her Matriculation Convocation given Sept. 21, President Jill Beck made the announcement that this school year would hold something a little different. This year will be a theme year: Lawrence faculty, staff and students will explore individualized learning and its practice across departments, from college to conservatory.
Lawrence students are engaged constantly in tutorials, independent studies, small group laboratories or studios, individual lessons, intimate discussion-based classes, collaboration with professors and honors projects — all of these forms of individualized learning.
Lawrence’s emphasis on the development of the individual is, as Beck puts it, “unique and precious.”
However, President Beck stresses, of the utmost importance, and really, the engine driving the theme for the year, is to define just what individualized learning is and how we at Lawrence University practice it.
Beck expounded John Stuart Mill’s philosophy of personal liberty in her convocation and believes that at Lawrence, we truly engage in and practice it. It is important, however, to know the extent to which Lawrence is truly working within Mill’s philosophy, and not just “pretending or assuming” we are, Beck points out. The end result of this year’s effort should be some irrefutable proof.
“We need to realize that [individualized learning] is an extremely powerful part of the Lawrence experience,” says Beck. A major goal of the exploration is to determine just what many and varied forms individualized learning take across campus. This, Beck stresses, will “provide a real sense of unity.”
Provost David Burrows, the designer of this year’s theme, points out that the theme will allow everyone in the Lawrence community to focus on something that is an integral and distinctive part of the university.
He wants to “get everybody thinking” about this important issue. Associate Professor of Biology Beth DeStasio offers that in the past, there have been too many varying ideas and goals for a given school year and believes that instituting a theme will provide a sense of drive.
Burrows emphasizes a sense of the unknown when speaking of individualized learning, echoing Beck’s concern with generating real proof of Lawrence’s work within Mill’s philosophy.
There seems to be no way of knowing just what individualized learning means without exploring it deeply and with vigor through plenary discussions, focus groups and panels. DeStasio calls this an “organic process.”
DeStasio, appointed Faculty Associate to the President last spring, offers up her definition of individualized learning without hesitation. “Building student autonomy,” she says.
An individualized learning environment creates autonomous learners who can go out into the world armed with the knowledge of how to work and learn on their own. For DeStasio, individualized learning also means that “students are taking responsibility for what they do.”
Both Beck and Burrows were immediately struck with Lawrence’s tight academic and artistic community upon their respective arrivals.
Beck looks at Lawrence with what she calls an outsider’s perspective. Having worked at three universities prior to coming here, she believes that she has found something special.
“None of them were like this at all,” she says. The faculty introduced Beck to the Lawrence community by defining it for her: There is little coercion to conform in Lawrence’s collaborative environment and there exists a distinctive respect for the individual.
As a university dually strong in academics and fine arts, it is especially imperative that all faculty and students develop a deeper understanding of how learning is done and thus work within a community of mutual respect.
Burrows is optimistic that this investigation into the nature of learning will strengthen the existing programs at Lawrence.
There are two pillars around which the rest of the exploration of individualized learning will be conducted. One, Henry Mayr-Harting, a Regis professor from Oxford University’s New College, will visit in November.
Mayr-Harting will give an organ recital — his hobby — Nov. 8, and, on Nov. 9, a talk on traditions of individual learning at Oxford University, the international leader in the practice and technique of individualized learning.
Then, in the end of March and beginning of April, the President of Oxford’s New College along with the presidents from Sarah Lawrence College, the College of Wooster, St. John’s in Annapolis and President Beck will convene to compare and contrast philosophies.
To further investigate individualized learning, there will be faculty plenary discussions; panels open to student, faculty and staff input; and focus groups throughout the year.
DeStasio, in her position as Faculty Associate to the President, has done most of the organization of these activities.
She began last spring by putting together a cross-departmental Committee on Individualized Learning, and worked this summer with student Georgiana Mihaila on researching the various ideas about individualized learning in the academic community.
DeStasio is leading faculty input on this issue-garnering feedback, fears, concerns, ideas and hopes from various faculty members.
The investigation into individualized learning began Sept. 28, with the “Plenary on Individualized Learning and the Lawrence ‘Difference,'” hosted by Burrows and DeStasio and open to all faculty members.
The premier plenary consisted of a discussion of the concept of individualized learning and allowed faculty to ask questions.
DeStasio stresses that the first few activities at the beginning of the exploration will be faculty focus groups to meet in late October, designed to narrow down ideas. The exploration will stem out from there with Professor Mayr-Harting’s visit in the first week of November.
The last item on the tentative schedule for first term is an interactive panel discussion regarding strategies for managing individualized learning. Terms two and three also have similar tentative schedules.
At the end of the school year, after two unique opportunities to hear from faculty at Oxford University and a series of groups, discussions, panels and meetings, there is hope that Lawrence’s educational philosophy will truly come into focus.
Beck, Burrows, DeStasio and the various committees involved are all working with an optimistic desire to answer questions, trying to shed a bright light on the as yet undefined world of individualized learning at Lawrence.

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