In my last blog, I argued that Baruch breaks away from “higher education isomorphism” by not only providing access to a historically underrepresented population but also insisting on the highest academic standards. I believe this is critical because public confidence and trust in the value of a college degree are derived from the reputation of an academically rigorous institution, and only rigorous, high-quality education truly challenges and unlocks human potential. As we enter a new semester of remote instruction and student services, I ask that we ponder how we maintain the highest level of academic excellence for all students by unlocking their true potential.
As my blog allows me to think out loud with you, I will first take a small detour. Over 20 years ago, my father suffered from a brain aneurysm. After a period of drastic and painful decline, he passed away. To understand how a warm, intelligent, and dynamic human being could have the light turned off at a moment’s notice, I have since developed a keen interest in the inner workings of the human brain and have followed the wonderful advancement of modern neuroscience research. Over the past two decades, research has revealed amazing new insights about the human brain and mind. I have found their advances to not only be fascinating but also relevant to a deeper understanding of our role as educators.
Researchers study the functional organization of the human brain as a window into the architecture of the mind. They have found that while some regions of the brain are specifically engaged in a single mental function—identifying faces, places, understanding the meanings of sentences, or perceiving the mental states of others—other regions of the brain are designated to synthesize and orchestrate a complex combination of functions to perform a certain task, including a sense of consciousness or “self.” Researchers also have studied brain development from children to young adults and discovered that brain connections continue to take shape into the late twenties, which offers us tremendous new insights into human learning.
What if we use the research on brain development as a point of reference to rethink what it means to provide a high quality, rigorous education that will help unlock human potential and shape the development of healthy, well-adjusted, successful young adults? This will prompt a set of interesting questions. Some may coincide and some may differ from the conventional wisdom and long-held beliefs in education.
Brain research has confirmed the conventional wisdom in academia that it is important to challenge students in critical thinking and honing specialized skills. During this highly important period of brain development, young adults are able to absorb insights that help them to curb their impulsive tendencies and learn to become more structured and efficient in their reasoning while enhancing their understanding of the world. It is also a critical time to develop knowledge and know-how. By this time in life, young adults not only understand and constantly absorb new information but are also able to put their knowledge (now experience) to practical use, sometimes through the special knowledge of a particular field or domain.
It’s important, and perhaps more interesting, to note that there are many overlooked—but no less important—areas that we as academics can identify to re-examine our idea of learning. In past decades, developmental psychologists have uncovered numerous significant factors that impact brain development and learning. Allow me to focus on three key findings that are most relevant to our current environment.
Mitigate Environmental Stress
Young adults are particularly vulnerable to environmental stress as coping mechanisms in the brain are yet to fully develop and can experience anxiety as a result of school, work, and personal relationships. Some of these young adults must deal with setbacks, such as family issues and social pressures as well as food and economic insecurities. In 2020 these stresses are compounded by the global pandemic, racial strife, economic uncertainty, and multiple natural disasters. A 2019 survey by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that 80 percent of college students reported feeling stressed sometimes or often, while 34 percent reported feelings of depression. Further, research conducted by the American Institute of Stress found that the rising rate of stress in college students reveals the sharply intensified need for mental health and counseling services on campuses. Yet, most institutions consider these to be non-core issues and have relegated them outside the academic realm. Recognizing these environmental factors that could deeply affect learning, can we envision a holistic approach to support our students?
Leverage Technology and Facilitate Human Connections
As we look at our rapidly changing society, we can’t fail to acknowledge that today’s young adults are the most digitally saturated generation in history. Their world doesn’t know a reality without technology. It has not only seamlessly been integrated into their everyday lives but this constant access to information has actually rewired their ability to process information. The ways in which they problem-solve, network, communicate, learn, and consume information have all been greatly impacted by culture constructs and digital technologies. How could incorporating their reliance on technology with academic subjects ensure they are learning what they need to know?
While young adults are tech-oriented, they also strongly value relationships and interactions with others and are increasingly sensitive to social evaluation, including feelings of belonging, acceptance, admiration, and respect. The connections students form with their peers, both on campus and virtually, can have a significant impact on their college experiences personally, socially, and academically. It is through these relationships that they develop skills in organizing and planning learning activities, working collaboratively with others, giving and receiving feedback, and evaluating their own learning. In the current remote learning environment, how do we transform class or group projects into opportunities for peer growth and scholarship? How might this assist in or expand a young adult’s connection to their community? Some of our Baruch colleagues are already at the forefront of this innovation.
Instill Purpose and Meaning
Researchers find that social and emotional development for young adults involves exploring meaning and finding purpose, and it is important to offer them opportunities for agency where they learn to influence decisions and practices that shape their lives. The brief moments they spend in the pursuit of higher education provide them with opportunities to formulate their own identity by seeking unique experiences, making mistakes, trying new things, and both succeeding and failing. What are ways we can share diverse ideas and knowledge without indoctrinating opinions but by influencing and leading them to discover their own truth? And, as I asked in my last blog, how do we bring learning beyond lecture halls while instilling a sense of pride and willingness in our students to get involved in serving our community?
Realizing Their Full Potential
The world is filled with talented but under-challenged minds that are waiting to be discovered, polished, and matured into their full potential. Between the internet, smart devices, and immediate connectivity, a young person’s developing brain is often overwhelmed by information. It is our job as educators to impart knowledge to students—but it is also to be aware of the many difficult personal as well as academic challenges they face. If we consider the ultimate goal of education is to fully unlock the human potential, how far are we willing to go to insist that our students continue to receive an uncompromised, highest quality education in a tumultuous time such as this? As we continue to adapt to remote learning, what are the new opportunities for us to adjust, to fill in gaps, and to shape new ideas for learning? I look forward to engaging further with you on this subject.