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Wilmette Institute Staff Discusses Vision and Pedagogy of Extension Courses at Annual Retreat

Jun 18, 2022
Administrators of the Wilmette Institute in their meeting room at the Los Angeles Baha'i Center. From left to right: Justin Scoggin, Jeff Albert, Ymasumac Maranon-Davis, then Julian Daniels (Nicola's husband), Nicola Daniels, Robert Stockman, and Chitra Golestani

by Robert Stockman

The staff of the Wilmette Institute had a very productive staff retreat at the Los Angeles Bahá’í Center on June 5-7, 2022. The focus of the meeting was on the Institute’s non-credit “extension” courses, their purpose, audiences, scope, and pedagogy.

Present were Nicola Daniels, Registrar; Chitra Golestani, Associate Director; Ymasumac Marañon-Davis, Course Designer; Justin Scoggin, Chief Academic Officer; and Robert Stockman, Director. They were joined by Jeff Albert, Director of the Education and Schools Office. Ymasumac (“Yma”) was welcomed to the staff of the Wilmette Institute, having been hired on June 2. She brings a wealth of experience in education (she is a doctoral candidate in the field), course design and development, and deep familiarity with the Nine Year Plan and community building. 

The Institute wants the extension courses to be of interest and value to everyone, both Bahá’ís and the wider community, though currently the vast majority of participants are veteran Bahá’ís. Consequently, the Institute decided to explore ways to increase the interest among younger adults, through developing courses that are more appealing to them. 

Purpose and Vision

Considerable time was spent on defining the purpose and vision of the non-credit extension courses. The Nine Year Plan defines three main areas of endeavor for carrying forward an ever-advancing civilization: community building, social action, and public discourse. The Wilmette Institute seeks to contribute to these areas of endeavor through capacity building among the participants, which can lead to stronger community building at the local level, more effective social action, and more capable discourse. The Wilmette Institute’s extension courses can particularly help its participants to contribute to public discourse, which includes meaningful conversation on the personal level, public discourse in public spaces, and contributions to Bahá’í scholarship at a broader level. It seeks to collaborate with historically significant populations (traditionally marginalized communities) as we develop these capacities. 

These three areas of endeavor–community building, social action, and public discourse–also help to define the scope of Wilmette Institute courses. The request to develop a new course could come from any of the three protagonists–the individual, the community, and the institutions—and consultation may take place at different levels to determine the specific needs the course meets. The Wilmette Institute has already collaborated with Bahá’í institutions to develop courses that meet their specific needs, as it recently did when the Regional Council of the Northwestern States requested that a course on Anti-Black Racism be developed in the Persian language.

Illustration featuring diverse figures engaged in learning and community building, with the quote "The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice...." -Baha'u'llah

Bahá’í-infused Pedagogy

The Wilmette Institute is developing a pedagogy for its extension courses largely gleaned from recent messages from the Universal House of Justice. It emphasizes that participants, faculty, and administrators approach each course with a humble posture of learning. The aim of our courses is to:

* Embody the Faith’s central principle of the oneness of humanity

* Recognize and enhance the nobility of each participant

* Foster the ability of the participants to read their own reality through the cycle of learning (consultation, action, reflection, and study)

* Be consultative in their design and function

* Generate universal learning: the faculty, teaching assistants, and participants are involved in a reciprocal process where all contribute and all learn

* Model unity in diversity; ideally each course is taught by a team of at least two individuals (at least one faculty and teaching assistant, for example) so that multiple voices and perspectives are offered

* Are based on the concept of accompaniment, so that participants are encouraged and inspired to fulfill the course learning outcomes.

* Strive to generate new capacity for the Institute: some participants may be identified as potential teaching assistants, and teaching assistants may be trained to become future faculty

* Carry forward an ever-advancing civilization through community building, social action, and particularly public discourse, which includes meaningful conversation on the personal level, public discourse in public spaces, and contributions to Bahá’í scholarship at a broader level

* Provide discussion questions and a variety of learning experiences so that participants can express their learning in specific plans for further study and action

Institutional Learning Process

Above all, Wilmette Institute courses are themselves in process; the content of each course must evolve to some extent to meet the specific interests of the participants, and the content itself must be reconsidered and revised from iteration to iteration in order to foster continuous improvement.

Implementing this clarified vision of the Wilmette Institute’s pedagogy will take several years and will be conducted progressively. For 2023 the Institute plans to develop and deliver at least five brand new courses and revise at least five of our existing courses. Another twenty-five of our existing courses will be continued with minimal upgrade, half our usual course load, and the course schedule will be stretched out over additional years. A free orientation course will assist our learners to understand this approach to learning and to manage the educational technology, so they will be able to apply the pedagogy more readily in the course they take. A course to train faculty will also be created, to help them revise their courses accordingly and apply this approach to the topic. A meeting with all faculty will be held on Friday July 22 (revised date) where we will consult about the plan and its implications.

With these progressive improvements over the next nine years, the Wilmette Institute seeks to become an important engine for carrying forward an ever-advancing civilization.

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