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Principles, Practices, and Creative Tensions in Progressive Higher Education: One Institution’s Struggle to Sustain a Vision

reviewed by Guichun Zong & Juliann Noble-Healy - March 01, 2018

coverTitle: Principles, Practices, and Creative Tensions in Progressive Higher Education: One Institution’s Struggle to Sustain a Vision
Author(s): Katherine Jelly & Alan Mandell
Publisher: Sense Publishers, Rotterdam
ISBN: 9463008829, Pages: 422, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

Katherine Jelly and Alan Mandell’s recent book, Principles, Practices, and Creative Tensions in Progressive Higher Education: One Institution’s Struggle to Sustain a Vision, is based on a case study of the State University of New York’s (SUNY) Empire State College, an institution deliberately created in the 1970s with the dual goals of “greatly expanded access and highly student-centered education” (p. 33). This expansive volume includes an introduction and 19 chapters authored by 27 current and former employees of Empire State College (ESC), including faculty, staff, and academic administrators. Together, they represent the spirit of dialogical inquiry, a central tenet of ESC’s progressive roots, and examine the College as it has evolved over time, as it currently functions, and as it grapples with ongoing questions about the future.

In the introductory section, Jelly and Mandell outline the theoretical underpinnings of the academic programs and pedagogical models of ESC through an examination of the basic tenets of progressive and adult learning theory. They provide a detailed description of the progressive mindset at ESC and its related practices of individualization, innovation, experimentation, access, and democratic social change. Ultimately, the two editors identify a range of critical issues, essential questions, vigorous debates, and creative tensions arising from integrating ESC’s core values into teaching and learning practices. They argue that these issues, questions, and debates are productive tensions that can help educators “to examine, experiment with, and improve our practice” (p. 16). The editors grouped these various tensions into five broad themes: philosophy, students, pedagogy, institution organization, and broader context. Each of the book’s five sections corresponds to one of these themes.

Section One, “Underlying Principles, Ideas and Values: Perennial Questions,” includes three essays that examine the philosophical basis of ESC’s founding and current practice. Of note is Wayne Carr Willis’ “Empire State College and the Conflicted Legacy of Progressive Education,which situates ESC in the larger history of progressive education and masterfully illustrates the complexities and tensions involved in simultaneously achieving open access and striving for individualization through mentoring and learning contracts. Willis highlights issues resulting from diverse populations that demonstrate varying degrees of desire for independence and faculty expressing varying degrees of commitment to underlying ideals in light of time constraints and heavy workloads. Chapter Two addresses the significant changes brought about by ESC’s Center for Distance Learning, a considerably timely issue for many institutions as online learning changes the landscape of higher education. The section concludes with a chapter that provides an insightful examination of Dewey’s philosophies and strikes two exceptionally thought-provoking chords: the significance of considering guiding ideologies in the resolution of tensions and Dewey’s notion that resolving tensions may lead to entirely new perspectives rather than a choice between polarizing opposites.

Section Two, “Student-Centered Pedagogy”, includes four chapters that highlight several key pedagogical approaches employed by ECS faculty as they work to create a student-centered education environment. Each chapter contextualizes the pedagogy historically, theoretically, and as it relates to ESC, building a framework for understanding that provides multiple avenues for further consideration. Chapter Four explores the tension embedded in dialogical learning and traditional conceptions of teaching and learning as a knowledge transmission process. Chapter Five describes the history and evolution of individualized degree design practices and examines the two related tensions between “fluidity versus structure” and “process versus product” (p. 112). Chapter Six addresses the relationship between ESC and interdisciplinary approaches to teaching as well as program development. The author of the closing chapter of this section describes how a hip-hop metaphor that reflects the introspective and reflective nature of teaching and learning enabled her to create a method for students to take control of their learning in an online environment. The essay exemplifies the importance of educators actively seeking avenues for the implementation of theory in their practice.

Section Three, “Let 1,000 Flowers Bloom,” contains four chapters in which the authors describe a range of academic support and service programs designed to fulfill ESC’s commitment to serving nontraditional and underprepared learners. The section begins with a chapter that highlights an inspirational approach to curriculum design for a unique program at ESC that serves trade union members. This design is informed by students’ individual and communal literacies and their access to discourse, and exemplifies culturally sustaining pedagogy that leverages students’ “funds of knowledge” (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) to engage and empower all learners.

Chapter Nine outlines the development of an embedded academic support program at ESC that involves a partnership among faculty, staff, and students to ensure students’ formal academic learning. The particular strength of this chapter resides in its articulation of human factors that impact academic support from multiple perspectives, such as issues of trust, flexibility, motivation, confidence, and shame, beyond the contextual variables of economics and geography. The next chapter extends the concept of mentoring and academic support as a complex human endeavor to the global level, specifically with regard to students enrolled in the ESC international program based in Prague. The inclusion of Chapter Ten is timely as the globalization of education poses challenges and possibilities to the vast majority of higher learning institutions. The section concludes with a chapter that provides a thorough analysis of Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), its various philosophical approaches, its implementation through the mentoring structure at ESC, and the tensions this creates for both faculty and academic programs.

Section Four, “Organizational Frameworks,” includes five chapters that collectively examine ESC’s internal administrative structures and practices that both help and hinder progressive approaches to teaching, learning, and mentoring. They offer a more macro-level view of the College than the previous section while reinforcing the challenges cited by the aforementioned authors. They also reveal the complex institutional contexts and infrastructures that support the progressive values of Empire State College as well as the challenges posed by such a “geographically dispersed and pedagogically dispersed organization” (p. 241). Some authors keep up a promising outlook on the College’s potential to maintain core values through decreasing organizational fragmentation, leveraging technology, and better communication and collaboration to ensure more consistency, predictability, and reliability. Others acknowledge the pressures and challenges mounting due to the goal of increased student enrollment and the tension deeply embedded in the operation and management of the College: “The very features that make Empire State College distinctive have made it difficult to govern” (p.146).

The fifth and the final section of the book, “Empire State College in a Broader Context,” acknowledges and addresses three external forces that have a direct impact, explicitly and implicitly, on teaching and mentoring at ESC: the bureaucratic structure of the larger SUNY system, the expanding use of technology, and the increasing demands of accountability and accreditation policies. Chapter Seventeen provides a thorough analysis of ESC’s relationship with its governing body, the State University of New York system, outlining the potential struggles and opportunities as the College continues to redefine its identity and practices. It contends that even though SUNY recognizes ESC for its leadership in online learning, PLA, and online academic support services, ESC needs to continue to demonstrate a willingness to adapt and contribute to the larger system in order to sustain necessary funding and reposition itself strategically amid various political and economic forces shaping higher education in general and the SUNY system in particular.

Chapter Eighteen traces the historical development and current uses of technology from various vantage points regarding its impact and potential in service of ESC’s core mission, leaving a dizzying trail of technology considerations from MOOCs to e-portfolios to Personal Learning Environments. The chapter ends by recommending a critical, intentional use of technology characterized by risk-taking and a keen awareness of pitfalls. Finally, Chapter Nineteen illustrates how a progressive institution like ESC can successfully address external demands for accountability and leverage the current outcomes-based assessment movement in order to improve academic programs and, ultimately, students’ learning.

Jelly and Mandell’s case study derives considerable strength from the significant historical and theoretical contextualization provided in each essay as well as the breadth of perspectives on key issues of student-centered learning, mentoring, technology, and organizational structure. These range from deeply personal journeys of individual faculty to painstaking and productive collaborations. The narrative chapters are thought-provoking, prescriptive, and inspirational, and serve to exemplify the relentless flexibility and commitment required to deliver progressive higher education. Ultimately, one institution’s struggle to sustain an educational vision exemplifies the very complex nature of education as a human endeavor and the myriad issues that arise when theory is put into practice in an environment that is anything but static.

Overall, Jelly and Mandell’s comprehensive book makes an important contribution to the field of higher education research and practice as it illustrates common tensions, offers creative solutions, and poses questions to some of the most pressing issues that are currently at play in colleges and universities across the United States and around the world (Zemsky, 2013). The case study approach also serves to inform education policymakers, political officials, and government agencies tied to higher education regarding the impact of their policies. Technology innovators may take an interest in the various ways technology impacts the student-teacher interaction and the overall process of education. The text might also provide ideas for how to facilitate better user experiences with technology. Considering the complex nature of the topics addressed in the text and the varied levels of complexity of the chapters, in whole or in part, the text may serve to generate dialogue in graduate education programs, faculty professional learning communities, and faculty advisory committees.


González, N., Moll, L., & Amanti, C. (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


Zemsky, R. (2013). Checklist for change: Making American higher education a sustainable enterprise. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 01, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22294, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 7:34:50 AM

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About the Author
  • Guichun Zong
    Kennesaw State University
    E-mail Author
    GUICHIN ZONG is a Professor in the College of Education at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests are curriculum and instruction, teacher education for global perspectives, and higher education. Her most recent co-edited volume, Global Perspectives on Gender and Sexuality in Education: Raising Awareness, Fostering Equity, Advancing Justice was published in 2017.
  • Juliann Noble-Healy
    Kennesaw State University
    E-mail Author
    JULIANN NOBLE-HEALY is a National Board certified teacher with 15 years of experience teaching social studies in middle and high schools. Her research interests focus on gifted education, problem-based learning, and teacher development. She is a doctoral student at Kennesaw State University.
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