Blog Post

Futures Initiative at CUNY Inspires New Teaching Styles (originally posted on CHE)

Originally posted on the Chronicle for Higher Education at


In a science course underway this semester at City University of New York’s Lehman College, the instructor used a teaching technique called "think-pair-share" one week. Each student took 90 seconds to write on an index card three ideas about an assigned reading. Then the students paired up, took turns reading aloud to each other what they had written, and decided on the single most important idea to share with the class. Later students wrote one another follow-up questions using the website for the course, "Anatomy and Physiology of the Speech Mechanism."

Across the city, at Queens College, another instructor was using the same technique in her "Introduction to Narrative" class. In fact, the learning method was being applied concurrently in a variety of disciplines at a dozen colleges within the CUNY system.

The instructors are doctoral students and teaching fellows at the CUNY Graduate Center. They are among 12 participants chosen to take part in an interdisciplinary, student-directed doctoral course called "Mapping the Futures of Higher Education." Each graduate student teaches an undergraduate course or directs a program at a CUNY college.

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Cross-listed by eight departments, the "Mapping" course is the first to be offered by the Futures Initiative, a new program located at the Graduate Center and serving all of CUNY.

In a rapidly changing world, as whole professions are disappearing and new ones are constantly emerging, we want to provide students with an education more practical than a strictly vocational one that promises "work-force readiness" but really prepares students for only their own obsolescence.

Our goal is to enhance student success, in the classroom and beyond. By coupling the right methods and message with the right tools, we are modeling a new relationship between learning, research, teaching, technology, institutional access, career pathways, and social change.

Our goal is to provide students with a more practical education than a strictly vocational one.

I co-teach "Mapping" with Bill Kelly, president emeritus of the Graduate Center and a former interim chancellor of the CUNY system. The course is centered on topics fully designed and executed by the students.

They work in project teams to design a unit on a pedagogical topic, assign relevant readings in qualitative and quantitative research, propose new feedback methods, and offer collaborative pedagogical exercises to the other graduate students.

Each week, all of the graduate students in the "Mapping" course apply some technique they’ve worked on to whichever undergraduate course they are teaching or program they are directing. The following week they report back on how the peer-learning exercise worked in their particular field for their particular audience.

At the same time, undergraduates are able to give feedback to the graduate students on how the learning techniques worked, engaging in what educational researchers call metacognition, in which students are trained to think about how they learn best, a practice honed in peer mentoring.



This is experiential, progressive learning, with roots as deep as John Dewey’s 1938 book, Experience and Education.

 In medical school, this method, used by interns and residents, is called "See one. Do one. Teach one." We have updated the medical-school trio with a fourth, digital component, "Share one," by developing a social-media platform that allows the CUNY students to communicate with one another across classes in a way that they could not before. They can now share ideas with their classmates as well as with students in the various courses being offered under the Futures Initiative umbrella at the other CUNY campuses — and, finally, with the public.

"Mapping" is radically interdisciplinary, and so are the classes being taught by the graduate students in this course.

In addition to the courses on speech anatomy and narrative, other students are teaching courses as varied as "Greek and Latin Roots of English" (to 55 students at Hunter College), "Databases and Data Mining" (at John Jay College of Criminal Justice), and "Composition and Developmental Reading and Writing" (at Kingsborough Community College).

To our knowledge, this is the first time that a course has focused on pedagogies for the full, diverse range of learning institutions, from high-school equivalency programs to community colleges to selective universities.

Each week in the "Mapping" course, the pedagogical focus shifts. "Assessment" was the first unit, "Student-Centered Pedagogy" the second, then "Life Circumstances and Professional Ethics," then one on movement and nonverbal learning. We read the pedagogical research, try a different set of peer-learning methodologies in the graduate class, discuss how they might be applied in the undergraduate courses, and then the whole process begins again.

This year more than 350 CUNY undergraduates are learning together via the graduate students in the "Mapping" course. Next year we hope to offer four or five team-taught graduate courses on different topics, with instructors teaching some 1,500 CUNY undergraduates.

Proposed educational reforms are too often motivated by ideology or shareholder profits, not by a concern with preparing successful future citizens of a complex, interactive, interconnected world.

Our aim is not just to inspire new forms of teaching and learning for the 500,000 full- and part-time students in the nation’s largest urban public system of higher education. We intend this effort to attract the attention of the general public and of policy makers and to model what a future for higher education might look like.

Cross-course collaborative projects help students to see themselves as valuable contributors to a much larger whole. We hope that students helping one another succeed in such a diverse and thriving hybrid learning community will be able to envision their own future, with career and life pathways along which they can contribute as productive members of society.

Successful higher education helps all students, at all institutions, to discover their life’s passion, develop their skills, and hone their talents. The university we have inherited was designed in the age of the telegraph and the Model T.

A cadre of American educators from about 1865 to 1925 worked hard to transform religiously affiliated liberal-arts colleges into discipline-based, professionalized, credentialed, and specialized research universities. Now we need to rethink that antiquated legacy for the world of the Internet.

Sadly, many of the educational reforms being proposed by business leaders, pundits, and legislators make the situation worse. They are too often motivated by ideology or shareholder profits, not by a concern with preparing successful future citizens of a complex, interactive, interconnected world. They often preserve and replicate Industrial Age hierarchies, but with shiny and expensive new digital tools.

We are certain that we can do better. We are contributing to a growing national movement to transform higher education while also arguing that, as a society, we must revitalize our support for higher education.

The 40-year assault on higher education is the unmaking of the middle class. The Futures Initiative represents our part in working to reverse that spiral.


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