Heather Curl

Theories of Change and Pathways for Action with Heather Curl

Dr. Heather Curl came to Antioch University Seattle (AUS) from Bryn Mawr College in the spring of 2018 as a new teaching faculty member in the Masters in Education Program (MAEd). She brought with her a “cool course,” called Theories of Change and Pathways for Action, which was originally developed with a colleague at Bryn Mawr, Dr. Alice Lesnick.

Their process of refining the objective of the course began with a query: “How to support undergraduate students in identifying challenges in the education system without trying to “fix” them as is so often argued in reform efforts, while still maintaining “desire” that real work can be accomplished within and against the constricted forces of systemic oppression.”  In their collaborative thinking, they came to an approach that prioritized “struggle” and conflict as necessary components of change. Curl and Lesnick recently published their conceptual argument and data analysis from the course in The SoJo Journal.

At the outset of the course, students draft their own “theories of change” based on a class exploration of how change has occurred in their lives. They consider various frameworks for change including teacher research, business models, network and relational models, mindfulness and listening, journalism, social media, podcasts, and digital humanities, curriculum design, activism, and artistic expression. “This method of research is a challenge to discourses dominated by impersonal representations of learning and standard measurements of achievement,” said Curl. “Students then bring these considerations to a reading of current reform initiatives co-determined by class participants as a means of exploring the intersections of personal and structural change and growth.” The culmination of the course is a final draft of students’ “theories of change” and a Theory of Change Action Project.

“The final projects were incredibly powerful at AUS this last spring,” said Curl. Projects ranged from a children’s book grounded in sustainable and edible education; to a plan proving with budgets and statistics that drug rehabilitation is a more cost-effective strategy for addressing addiction in the district where he lives than incarceration; to a project challenging the damage framework so prevalent in anti-racist or white privilege seminars; to an art project which explored the role money plays in society and the painful realities of what people have sacrificed for it.

Though this was Curl’s first-semester teaching Theories of Change and Pathways for Action at Antioch, she saw students respond to an action-focused program of study very quickly. “The challenge to bring their ideas to really enact change was something they felt excited and ready to do,” she said. “The course showcases the incredible talent, skills, and experiences that our adult students bring to the classroom and invites those dynamic backgrounds to play an explicit role in the course.”

Understanding how change occurs from theory to practical application, and actively creating change while still in the classroom gives students who take this course a headstart in their fields, whatever their field may be. Just imagine what they’ll accomplish after graduation!

Malia Gaffney holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She lives in LA.
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