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Learning the WISR Way

This web page will be devoted to an extensive examination, through detailed examples and stories, of the important subtleties and nuances that have been revealed through 38+ years of “learning the WISR way.” We hope to have examples, stories and insights from WISR’s history to share by sometime in 2014.

For now, let it suffice for us to outline some general themes that describe how learning processes and patterns often unfold and progress for students at WISR . . .

Sequences of Learning Activities

The typical path of a WISR student from admission to graduation follows three phases, at both the graduate and the undergraduate levels.

The first phase is exploratory.  Students investigate existing knowledge about a number of substantive areas, actively try to learn the “lay of the land” in fields of study with which they are working, and/or begin actively working on one or two projects that have strong, personal interest for them.   The knowledge areas, community issues, and projects pursued are defined collaboratively by the student and her/his faculty advisers, building on the student’s (pre-existing or emergent) intellectual, professional, and community interests.  For most students, this phase takes between six and twelve months to complete.

The second phase is oriented to breadth and to completing tangible projects.  Students work to complete projects resulting in tangible products that help them to learn, give evidence of their learning, and (where possible) contribute to their communities.  These products are frequently similar to “independent study” term papers, but are intended to be more deeply and thoroughly considered than those in most conventional institutions.  Repeated revisions of drafts, based on intensive, student-faculty discussions and written faculty comments, are a typical, important feature of this phase.

Besides building on each student’s own intellectual and professional interests, these projects must help the student become proficient and demonstrate competence in a range of theories and practices within a major field and in two broad, core areas of study:  Methods of Social Action Research and Theories of Social Analysis and Change.  The time required for students to finish this phase varies widely, depending on the particular student’s degree program, and the amount of academic work that the student has previously done in the relevant areas of study.

The third phase is focused on the student’s major project (undergraduate), thesis (Master’s level), or dissertation (Doctoral level).  This effort involves a serious, in-depth study of a subject intrinsically interesting to the student and, usually, of benefit to others.  This phase typically requires three to six months at the undergraduate level, six to nine months for Master’s students, and a year or more at the Doctoral level.

Evolution of Student Projects

Whenever it is deemed helpful to the student’s learning process, faculty members fill out a Tentative Project Plan form with students at the beginning of a learning project.  The student and the faculty member write a paragraph description of the project–its nature and scope as presently envisioned, the anticipated learning activities and expected products (e.g., type of paper).  In addition, the faculty and student agree on the anticipated number of semester units that the student is likely to earn through that project, and note the number of units.  Where applicable, the faculty member explains why more or less than 4 units are anticipated.

It is expected that very often student project plans will change, and students and faculty are strongly encouraged to be open to changing project plans, as well as the scope and intensity of the project (as well as the number of units awarded).  Emphasis is on achieving a quality learning experience, consistent with the student’s learning needs and purposes and with WISR’s academic standards.  Furthermore, it is expected that students may often find themselves in the middle of a project which spontaneously or fortuitously unfolds without advanced planning.  Students and faculty are also encouraged to nurture these fruitful and unexpectedly developed learning projects, even when the projects weren’t intentionally planned from the “beginning.”  In these cases, the faculty member and student may choose to write on the Tentative Project Plan form a paragraph describing the process of how the project has spontaneously or unexpectedly unfolded thus far.

At the end of a project, the faculty member articulates on the Project Evaluation Form how the project grew larger or smaller than the initial units projected, where applicable.  About one paragraph is written on the process by which the project came to change in credit unit size from what was anticipated, and another paragraph on the academic criteria and evidence used in making the final credit determination.

To learn more about WISR . . .
We invite those interested in learning more about WISR’s distinctive qualities to contact us—to arrange to visit a seminar and to set up a meeting to ask questions and to discuss whether or nor WISR’s programs may meet your learning and career needs. Prospective students are also encouraged to ask for a copy of the published article, “Multicultural, Community-Based Knowledge-Building: Lessons from a Tiny Institution Where Students and Faculty Sometimes Find Magic in the Challenge and Support of Collaborative Inquiry” about WISR written by WISR core faculty members, Dr. Cynthia Lawrence and Dr. John Bilorusky. The following is the abstract of that article:

The two authors of this article, longtime colleagues at the Western Institute for Social Research (WISR), analyze and tell a story of community-based knowledge-building at WISR in Berkeley, California. “WISR was created in 1975 to provide a very small, socially progressive, and multicultural learning environment in which community-involved adults could construct individualized BA, MA and PhD programs in close collaboration with faculty. In this article, we look at WISR’s history, keys to our success, how we measure our success, stories that illustrate some outcomes for our learners, and WISR’s intangible qualities, including the subtle ways in which WISR faculty challenge and support our learners. Quite importantly, learners at WISR often come to appreciate that they, and indeed, most everyone, is involved in knowledge-building, to a greater or lesser degree.

Our efforts at WISR are considered in relation to the ‘bigger picture’—the teaching and learning of inquiry and scientific methods, other alternative programs and the conventional higher education establishment. As individuals, WISR learners find their own voices, build bridges to their desired career paths and pursue their hopes for bettering their communities. As inquiring colleagues of others, they further contribute to knowledge-building—in immediate endeavors in their local and professional communities, while directly and indirectly conveying to others what they are learning as well as how they are learning. Amidst the nuances of such collaborative inquiry, there is a special magic. That magic is the focus of this article and at the heart of why WISR continues to thrive in the face of seemingly impossible challenges to a tiny, alternative institution with severely limited financial resources.” (The article appears in Community and the World: Participating in Social Change. Torry D. Dickinson (ed.), Nova Science Publishers, 2003, and the quoted abstract above is on page 63.)

Read more about . . . The Intangible Qualities of Learning the WISR Way