50 Years of Innovation

Transformative Education

Prescott College is Arizona’s only private nonprofit liberal arts college. Many of the College’s core philosophical and educational principles emerged in Phoenix in 1963 at a symposium of state and nationally known leaders in higher education, sponsored by the Ford Foundation’s Fund for Post-Secondary Education, Business and Industry. These leading minds were asked to create a cutting-edge vision of a college that would train a new generation of leaders with the skills, moral foundation, and vision to promote peace and well being among the world’s peoples, and with the foresight to attack such looming problems as environmental degradation, poverty, and overpopulation.

The core principals developed in 1963 persist today, and the school’s 50-year history has been an ongoing tale of innovation though transformative education to meet the demands of an ever-changing world and population. Prescott College was, in fact, recently named in the top ten most innovative small schools in the country, and ranked higher than the likes of Colgate, Amherst, Haverford, Scripps and others. What follows are the most distinctive innovations the school lays claim to historically and that it has continued to evolve, setting the standard for academic excellence through experiential, collaborative education.

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Interdisciplinary Curriculum

As documented by Founding Faculty Emeritus Sam Henrie in Uncommon Education: The History and Philosophy of Prescott College 1950s through 2006, the core principles for Prescott College emerged out of a gathering of national educational leaders in 1963. The Principle of Unity was primary and conceptualized a “seamless coat of knowledge” without divisions between the so-called hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Real solutions to global social and economic problems require collaborative work bringing together approaches from different academic disciplines. Early leaders of the College intended to create a learning environment that engendered responsibility, hard work, and a curious, courageous, open-minded approach across all fields of knowledge. Rather than traditional academic departments that fracture and contain knowledge in silos, the founding document prescribed one faculty body. Prescott College’s faculty were housed in interdisciplinary teaching and research centers that integrated and applied knowledge across disciplines to address critical issues in the Southwest and world: Center for Systems; Center for Language and Literature; Center for Civilizations; Center for Anthropological Studies; and Center for the Person.

Additionally, the Principle of Respect for the Disciplines meant teaching students the historical contexts and relationships between different disciplinary approaches to knowledge. Out of these principles, a distinctive academic culture emerged with faculty going beyond the mixing of two or more disciplines to develop new transdisciplinary approaches to understanding and transforming the human and more than human world. The integration of anthropology with environmental science and natural history yielded Environmental Studies; combined studies of past and present civilizations with languages and social sciences produced Cultural and Regional Studies; systems theory joined with psychology and education became Human Development; outdoor leadership with group process and experiential learning theory evolved from Outdoor Action into Adventure Education. And, while the names of nearly all the original “Centers” were revised at some point, and the names of the areas of knowledge we now use have been refined numerous times through the ensuing decades, the knowledge and curricula developed here have been widely influential in higher education movements like experiential learning and sustainability education.

Today, faculty members work together as one body supporting six interdisciplinary areas of study: Adventure Education, Arts & Humanities, Cultural and Regional Studies, Education, Environmental Studies, and Human Development. A new integrative Core Curriculum brings faculty together across departments to co-teach interdisciplinary learning communities in each year of a student’s education journey. In the freshman year, students can choose from a range of linked courses such as “Wilderness and Civilization” with “Interpersonal Communication,” or “Just Art” with “Social Movements.” Since the launch of this first year experience in 2011, first- to second-year retention has increased by 14 points. The College is now rolling out second-year core courses such as Evolution and Revolution in the Anthropocene.

While many colleges and universities these days offer some form of interdisciplinary coursework or programs combining offerings from separate disciplinary departments, there is only a handful of institutions driven by mission to be interdisciplinary as a whole. Prescott College is virtually unique in the degree of flexibility and freedom afforded to faculty in creating interdisciplinary field- and community-based courses and curricula. At other schools, this kind of thematic, problem-based curriculum is usually reserved for honors students, whereas Prescott College implements an approach to curriculum that treats all students as honors students.

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Field- and Community-based Experiential Education

In the late 1960s, Prescott College was the first school to deeply integrate the outdoor education and experiential learning approaches developed by Kurt Hahn and Outward Bound into higher education. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the Wilderness Orientation experience, which started in 1968 and continues today, engaging most new students and at points in the past, even new faculty, in a month long wilderness endeavor. More than just learning by doing, effective experiential education is an intentional process of group and individual goal setting, plan development, experience and reflection that builds and integrates skills, knowledge, ethics and character. The Outdoor Action program brought groups of students into the wilderness for challenging outdoor activities linked to study of place, group process and outdoor leadership. First Academic President of Prescott College, Ronald Nairn, wrote, “it is our belief at Prescott College that through the medium of the mountains, the sea, canyons and rivers, the qualities of style, compassion, integrity, responsibility and leadership can be fostered and encouraged. This facet of education is very often overlooked in our universities and colleges in America. When a student hangs by a rope down the side of a mountain to rescue a fellow person, it is difficult to measure how much that student has grown. A student making a decision on how the rest of the group will run a rapid in the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon is assuming a greater responsibility than any football or basketball player ever takes, and greater than any college professor can ever expect.”

In the 1970s, experiential learning spread across the College’s programs – at first in the wilderness and then in community-based learning environments – to become a defining aspect of our pedagogy. In this era of Prescott College, the Southwest became our classroom and has been so ever since.

It is gratifying that the idea of experiential education, a core Prescott College innovation, has recently taken off in the United States as colleges and universities have been forced to recognize both the attractiveness and the need for education that moves beyond lecture and high stakes testing-based classrooms. The antiquated traditional higher education model fails to engage students or equip them with the skills and abilities needed for employment in the 21st century. However, simply adding a field trip or giving credit for an internships or lab assistantship pales in comparison to the holistic, integrated approach Prescott College takes to field- and community-based experiential education. In addition to engaging student’s imagination and equipping them for jobs, our approach guides students in the development of their own sense of purpose, commitment and meaning.

We are the only college to be accredited by the Association for Experiential Education as a whole college: all degrees, all deliveries, and all degree levels. Our faculty has grounded experiential learning deeply in community and has worked for decades building mutually beneficial relationships and projects in communities and organizations that take on the challenges of an uncertain future. Prescott College students have opportunities every semester to learn from and within communities – in their hometowns, and from Kenya to Costa Rica to Kino Bay, Mexico, from the Grand Canyon to inner city Los Angeles. Our students develop lasting relationships in real communities across the Southwest and around the world in ways that radically broaden and transform their worldviews, their motivations, their opportunities and their ability to make change.

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Self-directed, Competency-based Education

Another founding concept of Prescott College was the Principle of Flexibility: “The arrangement of the curriculum, the methods of teaching, and the sequence of courses must designed with the utmost flexibility to allow for the individuality of the student … It must be assumed that no student will progress at the same rate as the others through all the branches of knowledge … Prescott College must be prepared at all times to ‘discover’ students and help them discover themselves, whatever their chosen objectives may be … But the student must know that true education must come from his own individual drive and interest in close teamwork with faculty advisors rather than through the enforced and often reluctant fulfillment of an elaborate set of requirements imposed upon all learners regardless of individual existential involvement.”

The Principle of Flexibility is centered on the premise that each student is responsible for his or her own education. Guided by this principle, Prescott College’s self-directed, experiential pedagogy and curricular processes have evolved out of the philosophy and practices of the Outward Bound educational movement blended with those of John Dewey and Paulo Freire. Students are required to take responsibility for their learning experiences, and for co-creating their individualized programs of study with their faculty. This approach to experiential learning requires students to set learning objectives, to plan learning activities, to reflect on their experiences, to document, demonstrate and evaluate their learning. This process structures and supports student learning whether in classroom, field, community, online, or in mentored learning environments. Although there are no course requirements per se, there are a number of process requirements. At the course level, students may be required to submit individual learning contracts that set additional learning goals and activities beyond those specified for all students in the syllabus. At the end of each course, students write self-reflective evaluations of their learning prior to the instructor’s narrative evaluation; both narratives are included in the student’s transcript (grades are optional in some programs).

Foregrounding narrative self-evaluations of learning shifts student attention and faculty practice away from a comparative or competitive focus on the fetish of grades, towards authentic, formative and summative assessment of learning. This transforms classroom dynamics, faculty-student relationships, and collaborative work to view assessment as learning rather than simply assessment of learning. To that end, each student must demonstrate competence in his or her area of study. Accumulation of seat-time or credits is not enough. Students must demonstrate competence not only for prescribed general education and departmental learning outcomes for their interdisciplinary degree area, but also for the individualized outcomes they have set for their self-defined “Competence.” Rather than “major,” Prescott College uses the term Competence to highlight this approach.

Since the 1990s, the assessment movement in higher education has required all colleges and universities to begin measuring student-learning outcomes. In recent years a handful of institutions have launched “competency-based” programs that center the demonstration of competence by students. However, few colleges allow students to develop their own individualized learning outcomes or course titles, let alone individualized Competence titles that are listed on transcripts. Additionally most other competency-based programs at other schools are highly structured disciplinary programs with no room for self-direction in learning. The intentionally structured flexibility and self-direction at Prescott College has generated an academic culture of reflective assessment amongst faculty and students that is unique. On the index of Active and Collaborative Learning on the National Survey of Student Engagement, Prescott College students score amongst the very highest nationwide.

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Wilderness Orientation

Launched in collaboration with Colorado Outward Bound School, Prescott College’s first Wilderness Orientation occurred in the fall of 1968. “It is the purpose of the Freshman Orientation program to provide students with concrete, definable, realistic, and unavoidable experiences – experiences which provide challenges that speak to the problems of students in our contemporary society, that speak to developing the perspective of man that is vital to being an adult; experiences of success that, in themselves, give the individual a sense of competence; to see new human possibilities developed through determination and the will to prevail ... Emphasis is placed on overcoming difficulties such as fear, hunger, and loneliness as a means of encouraging a reassessment and a fresh view of oneself … For most of the program, students will be in wilderness areas using sleeping bags and with little more equipment than the early explorers had who passed this way hundreds of years ago.”

Guided by recent alumni as well as upperclassmen and women, new students in the On-Campus Undergraduate Program still participate in a month long Wilderness Orientation that builds community and introduces them to experiential education at Prescott College. Effective learning in a self-directed program and in experiential courses requires a highly developed ability to set one’s own learning goals, intentionally integrate theory and practice, reflect on experience personally and with others, and honestly self-assess learning outcomes against goals. The introduction to experiential learning in the Orientation is critical to success throughout the self-directed, interdisciplinary, experiential degree program; it also develops practical camping, small group process, and leadership skills that prepare students for other field- and community-based learning activities throughout their four years.

Over time, other approaches to orientation have been developed to parallel the wilderness orientation. For example, community-based orientations in Prescott and other local communities have had interdisciplinary themes such as equine-based learning or sense of place. More recently, the new On-Campus Master of Arts in Social Justice and Human Rights begins with a month long urban orientation in Los Angeles in which students work and learn alongside community organizations fighting for homeless person’s bill of rights and sustainable urban development.

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Limited-Residency Delivery of Professional and Liberal Arts Learning

In 1978, Prescott College translated its experiential approach to liberal arts learning into one of the first hybrid distance education programs in the nation. In this “limited residency” model students learn through individualized, one-to-one work with mentors in their home communities. Students also travel to Prescott for on-campus orientations and colloquia. Most learning is conducted at a distance from Prescott College, but in close relationship with mentors and faculty advisors. In addition to a Bachelor of Arts, in the 1980s the College began offering teacher preparation programs in a limited-residency format. In 1992, the College launched five interdisciplinary distance master’s degree programs: Adventure Education, Education, Environmental Studies, Humanities, and Counseling. And in 2005, the College opened the world’s first Ph.D. Program in Sustainability Education.

In all limited-residency programs, students design individualized programs that achieve their professional goals, but must also be centered on social and ecological literacies as well as other liberal arts learning outcomes shared across the College. The flexibility of self-designed study; the collaborative, formative approach to experiential learning that engages multiple ways of knowing; the ability to work directly with mentors from one’s home community; the development of supportive professional networks as a part of the learning environment; and the innovative curricula and pedagogy, enable a culturally relevant and academically transformative education for diverse learners with diverse learning needs. In the last decade, the limited-residency programs have evolved to integrate online courses alongside mentored studies in ways that combine the process-orientated approach to self-directed, individualized learning with the College’s historic strengths at facilitating cohort team-building, collaboration, and leadership skills. Graduation rates for the limited residency programs average at just under 60 percent, greatly exceeding what is typical for online/distance programs.

While many colleges and universities have now implemented online programs, they tend to be highly structured and prescriptive curricula with few significant distinctions from their traditional, in-class approaches to learning. Prescott College is notable in developing limited-residency bachelor’s degrees and graduate programs that remain rooted in the pedagogical values, liberal arts curricula and socio-ecological purposes of the original programs of the College. Graduates of all Prescott College programs are notable for their ability to integrate and apply experiential interdisciplinary approaches in ways that lead to solutions to social and ecological problems. This is a particularly distinctive feature of our professional preparation programs for teachers and counselors that balance self-direction within approved curricula for certification or licensing. In all programs, given the integration of liberal learning with practical, experiential learning relevant to their own learning goals, students get the broad picture, the critique, and the ability to ask the big questions in ways that matter to their life’s work.

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The Emergent Model

Over the last several years, Prescott College’s faculty has completed a Comprehensive Program Review. The Faculty Assembly spent months identifying and discussing key global crises that will pose increasing challenges to current and future generations: e.g., climate change, income inequality, uneven development, migration, resource wars, etc. At the same time, our faculty reviewed the current demographic, political, economic and financial crises that are disrupting higher education. We developed a plan for the future of our curriculum that is firmly rooted in our history, values and traditions, but that adapts to better equip our diverse learners to address the challenges of the new century.

The Emergent Model builds on our historic mission-driven strengths of self-directed, competency-based experiential learning within an interdisciplinary curriculum. Unlike other competency-based education programs, our students co-create their content and even the titles of their individualized program of study for which they must demonstrate competence through authentic performances in the real world. The Emergent Model centers an interdisciplinary set of required Core Curriculum courses that supports each student’s academic and career success. All students must demonstrate their competence through a new e-portfolio system that allows them to showcase their learning and accomplishments to future employers and graduate schools. Students can accelerate their progress within and across degree levels based on how quickly they can demonstrate competence, thus decreasing the time and cost of degree completion.

To make a Prescott College education more affordable, the school now offers a “free masters degree” option for first-time freshman that accelerate undergraduate programs into our master’s degree programs. Additionally we will begin a paid internship program for juniors and seniors. To highlight our commitment to the students inhabiting the communities that surround us, the College has launched a program for graduates of Arizona high schools with demonstrated financial need to provide scholarship support so that they will pay less than the full price tuition at Arizona public universities.

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Historical Timeline50 Years of Innovation

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