The Life Grade: Reimagining Higher Education

By Jonathan T. WarnockThe sun sets over the Blue Ridge Mountains

This is the second in a series of blogs from developmental educators who participated in the 2019 Kellogg Institute run by the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University. You can read the first installment here.

For two weeks this summer, I was nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains attending the National Center for Developmental Education’s Kellogg Institute at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. If you’ve visited ASU or seen the Blue Ridge Mountains, then you’ve probably asked yourself why the craggy ridges and foggy valleys appear blue. You may have thought about it and developed an educated guess. But eventually, curiosity got the best of you.

A Google search produces quick results: volatile hydrocarbons, specifically isoprene—and who doesn’t know what a hydrocarbon like isoprene is, right? If you’re a learner, you’ll want to know more. (And you’ll appreciate this link.)

If you’re wondering where I’m going here, consider this question: What if the goal of higher education was to immerse learners in opportunities to apply academic knowledge and skills to life situations?

“Education,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “is the drawing out of the soul.” Students enrolled in developmental coursework, however, often miss out on the opportunity to experience education in this way at the beginning of their time in college. Rather than recognizing learning as enlightening, applicable, and fun, they frequently consider it confusing, irrelevant, and boring. But what if developmental education was more about guiding learners to discover the intrinsic value of education and less about accelerating their progression through the developmental sequence while regimenting the assessment of student success and retention?

I had ample time to think about what makes for a good learning experience at the Kellogg Institute, as 17 other Kelloggers and I immersed ourselves into student life. We lived in dorms with suitemates and communal bathrooms. We ate cafeteria food, worked in computer labs, and made Walmart runs. Instead of driving to work, we walked to class. We entered classrooms where teachers became students. We sat in circles—and learned some of the best decisions are made in them.

As Kelloggers, we balanced weekday seminars designed to further our knowledge in the theory and best practices of developmental education with opportunities for recreation. During seminars, we discussed terms like andragogy, metacognition, identity, raison d’être, and deus ex machina, and we explored characteristics of adult learning, including community, choice, autonomy, experience, pragmatism, determination, maturity, self-direction, and purpose. These principles became the foundation for our Kellogg experience, for we not only engaged in course content but also developed an understanding we could apply to our lives in and beyond the classroom. The more we learned, the more we exchanged ideas, and the more we became intrinsically motivated to answer the call to action to apply the Kellogg experience as much to the classroom as to life.

To that end, our hours of recreation became opportunities to continue classroom conversations and to nurture our learning community. The most celebrated of our leisure activities was a tubing excursion on the New River. The river had a way of carrying some tubes faster than others, but the distance in between fostered opportunities for personal reflection, resilience, and growth. As we pondered our natural surroundings, enjoying serenity and breath-taking mountain views, the current carried us toward and away from each other. Eventually, one Kellogger asked, “Why do these mountains appear blue?” There began a telephone-game conversation with our community of adult learners, floating the river while sporadically sharing our own educated guesses and the answers of others.

Participating in that tubing trip and in Kellogg is similar to participating in college. Each of these journeys requires navigation, rerouting, and an internal willingness to become aware of and thrive in the intersection of education and life. If we as institutions, educators, and policymakers want to facilitate transformative lifelong learning experiences, then maybe we should focus less on course redesigns and mandates for reform and more on reinforcing the messages embedded in coursework and influencing students’ behavior.

I believe higher education exists to immerse learners in the conversation that is learning. I believe all learners are unique and have individual academic and nonacademic weaknesses. I believe the college experience can help students to overcome weaknesses by guiding all and each to discover education is as much about the life grade as it is about the classroom grade.

Jonathan T. Warnock is president of the South Carolina Organization for Student Success (SCOSS). He teaches developmental English at Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton, South Carolina, where he also serves as faculty advisor for the Learning Beyond Campus student organization. You can email him at jwarnock@tctc.edu.