The Theory and Practice of Action Learning in the MPA Program at Metropolitan College of New York

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INTRODUCTION: PURPOSE-CENTERED EDUCATION

Audrey Cohen founded Metropolitan College of New York in 1964 as the Women's Talent Corps. The name of the college was changed to the College for Human Services in 1970, to Audrey Cohen College in 1992, and to Metropolitan College of New York in 2002. The college was founded, along with a number of other experimental colleges, in the midst of calls for educational reform in the 1960s. Cohen believed that knowledge had become over specialized in the helping professions, fragmented in narrow academic disciplines, and disconnected from action in life and work. She took as her life-long challenge an attempt to bring together knowledge and action, theory and practice in order to make education meaningful, relevant, and useful to students. As she said,

For all of my adult life, I have struggled with one educational challenge that seems to me more important than any other: How do we help students make the connection between the great bodies of theory they learn in school and the world of choice and action where these theories will be tested? How can we help them discover the relevance of philosophy, history, literature, and science to the real problems they face at home, in the community, and in the workplace? (Cohen, 1976/1997, p. 4; see also Cohen, 1978, p. 70)

Over time, Cohen developed a theory of learning that she called "purpose-centered learning," which was institutionalized in the Purpose-Centered System of Education (PCE) (For a comparison of purpose-centered and experiential learning, see Tietje, n.d.). Cohen considered PCE to be "a brand new educational model," which "provided the guidelines for a transdisciplinary, practice-oriented curriculum, a curriculum organized to help students apply theory from the liberal arts and professional studies to the solution of real human problems in human service positions in business and the not-for-profit world" (Cohen, 1976/1997, p. 3). According to the college's current statement, "Purpose-Centered Education is based on the premise that students achieve high academic standards when they use their knowledge and skills to achieve a meaningful and complex Purpose that makes a positive difference in their own lives and in the lives of others" (Metropolitan College of New York, n.d.).

In PCE, courses are called "Dimensions" and semesters are called "Purposes." In the college's official language, "Each semester of study at Metropolitan College of New York is focused on a specific Performance Area called a Purpose. These Purposes are the basis around which the semesters in both the undergraduate and graduate programs are structured. Achieving mastery in each is critical to a student's ability to integrate and use the theory learned in the classroom at an internship or work-site and deliver effective professional performance (Metropolitan College of New York, n.d.).

All knowledge transmitted in the curriculum is organized into the same set of categories: Values and Ethics, Self and Others, Systems, Skills, and a "Purpose" Seminar. Students take this same set of Dimensional courses each semester. The content differs from semester to semester on the basis of the designated purpose or theme of the semester. There is no concern that any particular discipline be represented in the Dimensions or courses: content is selected from any discipline that is relevant or useful to the purpose of a semester. This system may be described as "transdisciplinary" because Cohen tried to formulate a conceptual framework that transcends disciplinary boundaries. The college conceptualizes the Dimensions of learning, action, and assessment in the following way:

To solve increasingly complex challenges, people need to draw upon an ever-widening range of knowledge and skills. Students at Metropolitan College of New York are asked to look at their performance from 5 trans-disciplinary perspectives called Dimensions: Purpose, Values and Ethics, Self and Others, Systems, and Skills. …