by Ansley LaMar

Dr. Ansley LaMar is Professor of Psychology and the founder of the Urban Mission Conference series at New Jersey City University. At the time of the “Conference on Innovative Methods of Teaching in Higher Education,” he was the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at N.J.C.U. As the Chairman of the Executive Committee, Dr. LaMar played a key role in the planning and realization of the Conference.

Recently, I was reading over notes I had taken several years ago in the heat of some insight or other. When I wrote them, I was not thinking at all of Howard Gardner and his Multiple Intelligences, and only vaguely of innovative teaching in higher education. However, as usual, serendipity seems to have been at work. Several of the questions I jotted down were, in effect, taken up by the gentleman from Harvard in his visit to New Jersey City University (NJCU). My first question had been in relation to the Equal Opportunity Fund Program (EOF), which is available to students who are financially disadvantaged and who, because they are academically under-prepared, cannot meet our regular admission standards. In other words, students whose future in academia is grim.

Yet about 15% more EOF students graduate than regular admits. So that, without fanfare, we are able to educate and award Bachelor degrees to these students, and by doing so enrich their personal lives, make them more productive members of their community, and perhaps, by some unspecified social dynamic, enhance the lives of their closest associates. Any one of these EOF graduates constitutes one of the near-miracles that go almost unnoticed in an urban institution of higher learning.

How did we manage to do this? First, let’s consider what EOF does. It provides financial aid, an on-going skills workshop, specially trained advisors, and, before classes begin, an intense six-week-long academic boot camp. The students live in a dormitory, get up at 7:00 a.m. sharp, and follow a tight schedule of study, classes, meals, relaxation, and lights out. As might be expected, a strong sense of community develops. This is undoubtedly very important to the program.

Enter Serendipity

The crucial element, however, seems to be a tight focus on pedagogical innovation. The EOF instructors continuously try new methods of teaching, assess the impact of these innovations, and are flexible enough to change the methodologies accordingly. When I studied these areas of innovation more closely, it seemed as if each made a close fit with one or another of Gardner’s eight Multiple Intelligences. This insight was validated by the 5th annual Urban Mission Conference, which had as its theme, “Innovative Methods of Teaching in Higher Education.”

The purpose of the Conference was to expose the members of the academy to new metaphors of teaching and to begin a dialogue on the pedagogy of higher education. The Conference took place on October 26, 2001 and featured Dr. Howard Gardner as the keynote speaker, followed by thirty-five individual presentations. Dr. Gardner’s remarks and twenty-nine of the papers are published in this anthology.

Gardner argued for two educational paradigms that have just begun to enter the discussion of post-secondary teaching: constructivism and multiple intelligences. Briefly, constructivism refers to the notion that, regardless of what is taught, ultimately, a student’s understanding of the subject matter is strongly influenced by his prior knowledge and experiences. The Multiple Intelligences Theory is Gardner’s idea that traditional IQ tests measure only a part of a student’s capabilities and say little or nothing about his or her abilities in art, music, personal relations and the other aptitudes that make us human. Taking these “non-academic” aptitudes into account enriches the learning environment and assists the student in developing an understanding of the subject matter.

These two paradigms provide a broad intellectual framework for many of the papers that follow. Others referenced Freirean pedagogy, feminist pedagogy and multiculturalism. Few papers sought to use the reflexive practitioner’s model—a pedagogical orientation that encourages faculty to discover and critically examine the assumptions they bring to the classroom, as a starting point. Experiential education, the belief that learning takes place when students are encouraged to reflect on and process relevant experience, while never overtly identified, did serve as a guiding paradigm for many of the pieces.

Of great importance to each innovative method treated in this book are (1) viewing the student as an active learner; (2) viewing the professor as a facilitator who orchestrates the construction of an understanding; (3) creating a psychologically safe classroom that encourages students to express their ideas fully; and (4) believing that through active exploration of the subject matter and informed discourse, the students’ understanding will become broader, deeper, and increasingly sophisticated.

A Concern and a Caveat

I enjoyed reading and being inspired by each of the papers, but I kept wondering to what extent the innovations were more effective than conventional methods of instruction. Perhaps I am being unduly influenced by my background as an administrator or my training as a social psychologist, but outcomes must continue to be measured and the efficacy of the approaches must continue to be evaluated. However, recent research in neuropsychology and cognitive psychology provide a good deal of empirical support, and there is ample anecdotal evidence for these innovations.

A viable pedagogy of innovative instruction in higher education must have as its foundation a research program that asks several questions. Given the cost of the innovation (1) do students learn more, (2) do they retain more of what they learned, and (3) are they better able to use the knowledge acquired in one context to more effectively solve problems that emerge in another context? (I think that this ability is precisely what Gardner was referring to at the University when he said that students must be encouraged to “perform their understanding.”

And finally this research program must be designed to identify those elements of the instructional environment that result in the student having a broader, deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the subject matter. Perhaps we will learn that certain techniques work better with certain students or subject matter, or that it is simply the amount of time spent on task, or that it is the teacher and not the technique.
Someone once said that ideas we read about strike us as being twice as valid if we have—however fleetingly— entertained them before. I like to think that that’s why Howard Gardner and his Multiple Intelligences seem so well grounded to us. It is quite possible that we have engaged some of them before, but certainly not in the concentrated yet clear manner you will find them presented in the essays that follow. I think it is important that you read Gardner’s piece first, although you might have encountered him before. The things he says about teaching for understanding and about Multiple Intelligences are echoed and reinforced in the writings that follow, writings by teachers from very different areas of higher education.

The Standard of Innovation

I hope that you feel an irresistible urge to make your own notes as you go through those pages. Suggest to yourself ways in which the ideas presented might be applied to different fields and classrooms. At some point in the past, the lecture was “standard fare” in college. Some professors and students are still quite comfortable with this protocol, which can be excellent. It seems, however, that the singular message of Gardner and of this book is that “the times, they are a-changing.” There is no longer a “standard fare” in the classroom. The new standard of innovation knows no limits, but rather always leads to another door that can be opened by the professor, the students, or by whatever it is that is on the other side.

I think that the most distinctive value of this book is that it brings to all of us the spirit, enthusiasm and knowledge that Gardner took to his plenary and that the presenters gave to each of their audiences. As a rule, conferences are intellectually stimulating and bring us into contact with persons we will never forget. The Conference at our University last year certainly did that—and more. Teaching methodology in higher education had been addressed before, but very possibly never with the focus, depth, vigor and expertise we were fortunate to welcome. One of the contributors to this volume called it a “national leadership conference.” I doubt that any of us who helped organize it would have been so bold. But New Jersey City University will gladly consider this a challenge made and accepted. Whenever possible, we will cooperate to further the cause of innovation in the methodology of teaching in higher education. We invite you to join us in flying this banner and in the worthwhile pursuit it represents.