In 1971 K. Patricia Cross gave a speech called “Round Students and Square Colleges” in which she outlined the needs of nontraditional students who were relatively new to college campuses at the time. She called them “round students,” characterizing their life experiences, motivations, perspectives, contexts, and concerns as different from those of traditional students. Dr. Cross argued that the narrow, discipline-based learning objectives of traditional, or “square,” higher education were unlikely to motivate nontraditional students or to allow for their success.
Obviously Dr. Cross used “round” and “square” to describe students and colleges as a reference, albeit a modified one, to “fitting square pegs in round holes.” However as I read her speech I found the concept of “round” students meaningful in ways that stretched beyond the scope of her use. To me “round” implies holistic or whole in ways “square” does not. We say “well-rounded,” not “well-squared.” Round students are multifaceted and dimensional, possessing different identities, interests, and responsibilities across multiple communities and spheres of influence. The best round learners apply what they learn in the classroom to other aspects of their lives and connect their life experiences to what they hear and see in the classroom. They insist on active participation in their own learning. Round learners are unpredictable in the classroom, but they are also exciting, interesting, and charged with unusual potential.
I have not always been a round student. In fact I excelled in traditional higher education settings, emerging from college, medical school, and residency training with my “square” interpretation of education and learning intact. This is not to say I did not value the power of education; as a physician working alone in an under-resourced rural community, I believed that teaching my patients what they needed to know to monitor their own health was the only sustainable path to achieving a healthy community. However my understanding of how learning was achieved and what should be learned was narrow and confined. With disappointment and disillusionment, I learned that I could not lecture my patients to better health. It was a powerful and humbling lesson that, along with my struggles to define self and community, success and failure, and life and learning, transformed me into a round sort of learner.
Today, I challenge you to think about how and when you transformed from a “square” learner to a “round” one. Did it happen in or outside of the confines of formal education? Or were you always round? Somehow, that seems like a rare and special thing to me…no, I think most of us, at least the ones of us exposed to traditional schooling, started as square, so don’t take the easy way out in your answer.
Almost 50 years after Dr. Cross spoke to colleges and universities about the needs of the marginalized, nontraditional, “round” students, I hope to work with faculty to encourage all students to develop and celebrate their own “roundness” while they are in college. Are you doing and the same? And if so, how? I’d love to hear your thoughts.