Succeeding at teaching and the value of cultural wealth

The decision of pursuing a doctoral program was strongly influenced by my previous experience as a lecturer. Having taught 16 courses in two different countries, investing more than 900 hours on direct class instruction, I confirmed that disseminating knowledge is a core dimension of my professional plan. The satisfaction I experience when teaching, should be aligned with a commitment to learn, internalize and apply, the state-of-the-art pedagogical practices; as PhD. Linda Nilson titles one of her books, I should “teach at my best”.

Have I been successful at this endeavor? My personal database of courses statistics indicates that the courses I teach are rated in average with 3.62/4.00 (90.5%) and my role as a professor with a 3.74/4.00 (93.6%). In average each course has served 35 students with an average withdrawal rate of 6.0%. Based on these metrics, I would be mislead to affirm that I have succeeded. My answer should not rely on one-dimensional metrics, but acknowledge each of the components of the learning process. Are the learning environments I promote welcoming and inclusive? Have I provided intrinsic and extrinsic motivators to stimulate the learning of the 564 students who had enrolled in my courses? Did the experience on the classroom improved their awareness about the importance of academic integrity?

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To answer this question I will go back three decades ago when K. Patricia Cross affirmed that as a society it was imperative to adapt our teaching and learning methods in response to the long-range need of a learning community. Contemporary efforts like the Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) lead by the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) had made significant contributions to this pursuit by fostering a natural science community in undergrad programs across United States; nonetheless, it is my belief that in this journey we have not fully embraced the value of cultural wealth from all groups.

My Duke journey has allowed me to walk in the appropriate direction. Since my first semester, I have been enrolled in the Certificate in College Teaching where I have taken courses to reinforce my understanding of the fundamentals of learning process. Complementary, I have been able to review the tools and techniques that facilitate learning, while engaging in meaningful conversations with my peers to identify the best ways of improving students performance. After this process, I have aligned my intention of becoming a next-generation education innovator with the idea of promoting the development of asset-based frameworks that value of cultural wealth from underrepresented groups. As a result, I defined three traits of my teaching philosophy:  a) enabling engagement of marginalized populations by means of authentic assessments based on digital technologies, b) making excellence inclusive by promoting cross-cultural and multicultural understanding, and c) encouraging integrative global learning by incorporating elements of cultural heritage.

Enabling engagement of marginalized populations by means of authentic assessments based on digital technologies

Duke University states that its mission is to “provide wide ranging educational opportunities, for .. life-long learners using the power of information technologies; and to promote a deep appreciation for the range of human difference and potential“. When I first read this declaration, two concepts resonated with my intention of becoming a better pedagogue: information technologies and human difference. Could digital technologies be the solution to become a better pedagogue while enabling me to showcase my cultural background?

Having the immense privilege of travelling through Latin America, I learned valuable lessons about the cultural value of the region and the particular environmental challenges faced by community members. Now, the university ecosystem was the perfect opportunity to share my insights. After knocking on the correct doors, I was given the possibility of working as the Instructor of the Record at Duke University. Sponsored by the Cultures and Language Across the Curriculum program in the Trinity College of Art & Sciences, the Voices of the Environment course was aimed to give Duke students the possibility of practicing their Spanish while advancing their environmental knowledge. I was given all the support to envision and implement the class, resulting into a new Voices of the Environment venture.

By exploring how ecotourism and biodiversity conservation improve the life of Galapagos Islands inhabitants, or how paramos enhance the water distribution system in Colombia while helping local community markets, students learn about the key elements of environmental issues in Latin America and their relation to the community. As the course is open to all majors and years (freshman through seniors), discussions on how to benefit the communities reflect the difference disciplinary perspectives. Participants majoring in public policy are inclined to analyze how policies could increase farmer wellness. Others majoring in environmental sciences feel more attracted to explore the value of ecosystem services.

The nature of the course, requires a non-traditional final evaluation. Instead of having a group conversation evaluating the communication proficiency and technical depth, I developed a novel final project. Partnering with a Colombian Foundation, Fundacion Ayuda por Colombia, I ask some of the kids that are part of the NGO to formulate environmental questions that they are curious about. After linking each of their questions to one of the topics covered in the course, each course participant is assigned one or two questions. Their objective is to provide answers using a five minute audiovisual. Considering the audience of the videos (kids with no technical background), the course participant must provide simple explanations using appealing images and creative diagrams.

In the last session of the course, we gathered together and watch the videos to learn about the different approaches proposed. After this group revision, videos are sent to the foundation and shared with the kids who originally recorded the questions. As a token of gratitude, each of the kids records a short video thanking the course participants (in order to protect children rights I am not making the videos public). This is the cherry on the cake; the overwhelming reactions and response of the kids, shouting and expressing their admiration to the friends from “the other side of the world” is a gratifying experience.

The result?

After leading the course in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, I understood that my classroom was not a traditional classroom anymore; it has evolved into a multicultural environment promoting a cross-cultural understanding.

Making excellence inclusive by promoting cross-cultural and multicultural understanding

Being born in an emergent country, Colombia, withholding the longest standing civil war in the history, I was raised with the idea that valuing differences and backgrounds was the only real option to prevent conflict. Later, when my professional path required me to create alliances and connecting local and international stakeholders around the globe, I discovered how cultures approach managerial practices in such a different way. These experiences allowed me to internalize the importance of promoting cross-cultural and multicultural understanding. My commitment to promoting a culturally diverse perspective in classroom, arise from my belief of its intrinsic value. A leader in any sector, should understand that valuing cultural differences would result into a better execution of professional duties. Since I started the doctoral program, I have participated in several efforts to build a community where cultural differences is associated with positive outcomes.

While acting as a mentor of first-generation students both inside Duke (DUKE F1rsts) and outside (Ekpapalek) has been part of this objective, perhaps the most representative action I have taken recently is being a founding member of the Nicholas School Global Connections Initiative. In association with the school´s staff in 2016, we designed and launched an enterprise supporting academic initiatives, career development and social integration aiming to contribute to changing the cultural understating in the school. After its successful operation during the first three years, it was recently recognized with Duke´s most prestigious diversity award (2019 Office for Institutional Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Award). I can proudly say that the school has progressed into its path of forging the future environmental leaders while making sure they understand the value of cross-cultural and multicultural learning.

Resonating with Duke University’s intended mission of “contributing boldly to the international community of scholarship”  as crucial to provide real leadership in the educational world, I will keep promoting cross-cultural and multicultural understanding in any classroom I am.

Encouraging integrative global learning by incorporating elements of cultural heritage

The discussion about the value of education has being gaining more prominence recently; it is common that during lunches with my peers we discuss our future and inevitably gravitate towards a philosophical conversation about the value proposition of higher-education (see a recent post from Brandon Busteed). The idea that we need to promote classrooms environments where students are able to re-conceive their worldview perspective resonates with my beliefs of the learning process and the real value of college. Aligned with the traits I have previously described, I find that global learning offers a unique opportunity to connect students with civic components, taking advantage of their cultural heritage and strengthening their identity.

This belief was enhanced when I was selected as one of the eighteen members (nine trustees, one vice president, four faculty, two undergrad students, & two graduate students) of Duke’s Board of Trustees Strategic Task Force: Activating the Global Network. The university President, Vincent Price, charged us with the task of developing a plan for the “next-generation engagement platforms to extend and deepen all aspects of university life creating a robust, global, continually developing human-development cooperative” (see task force description here). After an intensive series of collaborative workshops, ideation, and creative writing during the last year, we structured the project foundation and presented it to the President. Being this one of the five projects he included in his strategic framework, and taking into consideration Duke reputation in the educational sector, I expect it to contribute as an example of the necessity of expanding the traditional approach to education; hoping it serves as a model for other institutions to adopt.

Let´s teach together

If this experience sounded appealing for you and you want to learn more, contact me. Also, if you have a class or opportunity where I can share my teaching experience I am always looking for opportunities to engage with learners. Lets teach together!