An ‘A’ Does Not Equal Effective Higher Education
Assumptions regarding classroom success permeate the education system and families of individual students. For many an ‘A’ is the ultimate prize, a ‘B’ is disappointing, and a ‘C’ may signal inadequacy. Society as a whole, represented by the educational and family structure, seems to confirm this thought. GPAs of 4.0 are the pinnacle. Entrance into an elite university depends on receiving nothing but the ‘A.’ Graduation designations, honor cords, and student keynote speakers are determined by the multiplied solidarity of that one letter. Self-esteem and family honor are often constructed on the preeminent ‘A.’
My experience replicated these assumptions. My older brother and sister, highly successful students, cried when they received their first ‘B’ in college. In stark contrast, I was viewed as the ‘inadequate one.’ So shamed was I regarding my high school and college transcripts that I allowed my parents to pay for only one semester of my nine-year pursuit of an undergraduate degree. I was an academic disappointment to the colleges, my family, and myself.
Critical Self-Reflection of an Assumption: The Significance of an ‘A’
Mezirow states, “Critical self-reflection of an assumption (CSRA) involves critique of a premise upon which the learner has defined a problem (e.g., ‘a woman’s place is in the home,’ so I must deny myself a career that I would love). Significant personal and social transformations may result from this kind of reflection.” Critical reflection has established a new frame of reference for me regarding the ultimate significance of an ‘A,’ changing my belief regarding the value of grades. The premise of being less worthy due to my GPA is one outmoded assumption to which I no longer adhere. Success is now based on the measurable and assessable guided application of the educational material at hand, not solely the GPA.
Brookfield encourages the hunting of these personal and societal assumptions, “Assumptions are the taken-for-granted beliefs about the world and our place within it that seem so obvious to us as not to need stating explicitly. In many ways, we are our assumptions.” According to Brookfield there are three broad categories of assumptions. Because of CSRA, my paradigmatic assumptions shifted regarding the ‘A’ being the ultimate sign of success. I experienced a personal transformation.
Critical Self-Reflection of an Assumption: Instructing and Mentoring Students
As a direct result of the personal transformation, the CRSA paradigm shift brings new application to my leadership of Yellowstone Christian College (YCC). Our mission statement speaks of instructing and mentoring. Instruction by qualified faculty is imperative. The quest for student mastery of knowledge is vital. However, education is far more than mastery of facts, details, and arguments. Education in the new paradigm includes the additional mentoring component of all students as they pursue their ministry objectives. Mentoring means that faculty members must not limit their work to being a distant lecturer. They must know and be known. Mentoring for ministry must include significant interaction with a mentor in the context of a real ministry (e.g., fieldwork). The academic process needs these additional components to tell the entire story of student learning.
Quicker and Cheaper – Dangers to Effective Higher Education
Berry writes of new farming techniques that immediately and economically increase production but sow seeds of destruction of the farm land and surrounding culture. It is results-oriented innovation with little regard for long-term repercussions. There is no critical reflection regarding the assumption that quicker and cheaper farming is the best farming. This relates to biblical institutions that are tempted to quickly and cheaply produce ministry graduates devoid of field testing. Unchecked, these institutions imitate Berry’s illustration of destructive farming practices. Untested, even dangerous, practices may be born out of self-serving methods of education whose goal is to produce graduates quicker and cheaper, but ultimately sow seeds of destruction in the churches and communities they serve.
Critical reflection reveals that making our lives easier or grossing more revenue is not YCC’s mission. Like a sage farmer teaching his son the family business, instructing and mentoring men and women to shape the church and culture by reflecting Christ’s character is our mission. It is seldom painless guiding these excited, young, inexperienced ministers and missionaries-to-be. Neither is it quick or economical. It is, however, a critical part of the mission born from critical reflection of what I believe Bible college education needs to achieve.
Education that Does Not Educate
Using the old paradigm of ‘A’ as the ultimate in success, online education can more easily and economically produce an honor graduate with little experience, no monitored ministry success, and less than stellar people skills. Similarly, classrooms in which the main activities are lecture, note taking, and working alone at desks will not equip students to work with people, accomplish projects, or succeed in a career. But it can certainly be cheap. Indeed, online courses may have more sound instructional design, more intelligent strategies for achieving learning objectives, than mere lecture halls crowded with isolated note takers. But to have effective higher education for ministry, education components in our paradigm must include people skills and leadership ability. These are gained best by the face-to-face mentoring process.
Critical reflection of how colleges gauge student success must include the body of work consisting of both classroom production and real-world experiences. No longer can ministry institutions send out students who have simply completed academic coursework and believe solely on that basis they will be successful. Online education of undergraduate students without a mentorship component , or limiting classroom work to lecturing, is not a viable long-term process.
One final word regarding critical reflection of online education is tied to Brookfield’s second distinct purpose: “to question assumptions and practices that seem to make our teaching lives easier but actually work against our best long-term interests.” Teaching solely for coverage will satisfy a host of criteria. Teaching for coverage will allow our college to say a certain body of knowledge was addressed, even providing students the roadmap leading to the coveted ‘A.’ What coverage does not do is ensure content mastery or connect knowledge with guided practice leading to a functional ministry skill set. To allow students to enter the ministry field without guided practice is to put them and their ministries at risk of tumultuous failure. This deficiency of coverage without mentorship is against our long-term interests of preparing men and women for successful real-world ministry.
Without critical reflection Yellowstone Christian College would have multiple goals that include high student GPAs without the need for practical experience and mentorship, cash flow reflecting a growing online population, fully-packed classrooms taught by poorly-paid teaching assistants, and constant searching for quicker, cheaper, surface-oriented methods. With critical reflection Yellowstone Christian College has different goals: instruction and mentoring as twin structures, graduates who will bless their churches and mission fields, and a constant search for more effective ways to build value in to the students rather than simply increase the institution’s bottom line.
Finally, a personal reflection about my current degree: I am absolutely satisfied with a 3.8 GPA. Earning an ‘A-’ in my first doctoral seminar was most beneficial because it allowed me to focus on using the material in my work rather than pursuing the perfect GPA. This, too, is a direct link to the critical reflection regarding grades and praxis at YCC. I insist our college understand instruction and mentoring is important. I also insist that our evaluation of a student includes the whole body of work, not just the student’s GPA. I live this paradigm personally and professionally with great satisfaction and peace.
Berry, Wendell. The Gift of Good Land. Berkley: Counterpoint, 1981.
Brookfield, Stephen. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Counterpoint, 1981.
Mezirow, Jack. “On Critical Reflection.” Adult Education Quarterly 48, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 185-198.
Bruce Cannon is the President of Yellowstone Christian College, Billings, Montana, and a doctoral candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds master’s degrees from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary and Montana State University, Billings. Having served for five years as an educator in two Middle Eastern countries has given him a unique perspective on education.
Jack Mezirow, “On Critical Reflection.” Adult Education Quarterly 48, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 186.
Stephen Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 195), 2.
Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, 2-3. Prescriptive assumptions revolve around thoughts of correct action in particular situations. Causal assumptions deal with the way processes can be changed in the current situation. Paradigmatic assumptions are unquestioned axioms used to put all things in correct categories.
Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Berkley: Counterpoint, 1981), 134-145.
Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, 8. Brookfield’s other distinct purpose is to understand how considerations of power under gird, frame, and distort educational processes and interactions.