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Stop Talking and Start Doing: How to Deliver 21st-Century Student Engagement and Education

first published on The EvoLLLution

It’s interesting to see the evolution of the conversation within education reform circles. The “college for all” access agenda seems to have had its day. Getting in is no longer enough; many are recognizing the need to get better at the through and out parts, as well.

At the Strada Education Network, a national nonprofit that invests in higher education, we’ve made our mission, “Completion with a Purpose.” We believe in focusing on outcomes and educational well being, ensuring that all students have the opportunity to make it in, through and out, to achieve meaningful careers and lives.

It’s what motivated us to create the nation’s largest database of consumer insights on postsecondary education. For the past two years, we’ve interviewed 350 Americans every day with Gallup. So far, we’ve heard from more than 250,000 Americans aged 18 to 65 with experiences at more than 3,000 schools and programs. Students (of all ages) tell us over and over again that their main motivation for pursuing higher education is for job and career outcomes. In their own words, more than double any other motivation, they tell us that the reason why they enroll in higher education is to get a good job.

And yet within that same survey, only 36 percent of our currently enrolled students feel ready for the workforce.

Our students are telling us that a trajectory is not enough. We can’t just promise them that in 20 years, they’ll see the return on their educational investment. “Here, make one of the biggest investments of your life and just you wait and see: It’ll all be great!” That’s not working for our students, especially now that the cost of higher education is so high.

It used to be that, by pursuing almost any bachelor’s degree program, a postsecondary credential would equate to an automatic ticket into the middle class. That was in 1970. That just isn’t the case anymore. We now have 4,700 four-year degree-granting institutions that will need to differentiate themselves more obviously from one another by making something more than vague promises of future success.

Small tweaks here and there will not be enough. Booting up online programs geared toward the new traditional student—the adult learner—or pursuing international students and creating new campuses in foreign countries will not be enough. A reimagination of something much more fundamental will need to take place.

What is required for the future is a more substantial overhaul of our curricula that might even involve dismantling the fundamental structures of a college: departments. For hundreds of years, we have artificially separated subjects from one another. Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, captured the arbitrary ghettoization of subjects like genetics, physics, and chemistry as separate fields in his book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, arguing: “All of these divisions limit understanding and suggest a false picture of how the universe actually works.”

As a result, students are not adept at making connections across disciplines, connecting one domain of knowledge and another. One of the most infamous examples was when a film crew asked newly minted college graduates from Harvard and MIT’s engineering programs to light a bulb with a battery and a wire. Most of them failed to turn on the light.

Stephen Kosslyn, former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard and the creator of the curriculum at Minerva Project, often talks about this inability for students to move from near to far transfer: “Probably the single biggest challenge that you see in the science of learning is a problem transfer, by which I mean you learn something in one context, typically in a classroom, and then you fail to use it when it’s appropriate in different contexts.” All too often, students are unable to make connections between their knowledge and real-world applications.

And yet, most of the current literature on the “future of work” underscores the need for power skills, such as systems thinking, creativity, critical thinking, high emotional intelligence, communication, agility, resilience, and flexibility. Employers are looking for candidates who can respond well in highly ambiguous situations and demonstrate a strong grasp of initiative, resolve and ethical judgment. And yes, many are also looking for STEM skills.

So how exactly do we prepare the students for uncertain futures when we continue to teach in siloes? How do we build in creativity and resilience in scenarios with high ambiguity when we continue to scaffold learning in artificial ways?

We are going to have to present our students with real-world problems to solve. They’ll need to struggle with connecting concepts across a multitude of disciplines. And in the context of that problem-based learning (PBL), they will learn—just in time—the kinds of theories, mathematical or other concepts needed to apply to the challenges ahead. Olin College embodies this philosophy by not housing different departments. Students and faculty engage in learning but through a blurring of boundaries that centers on problem-based learning. At times, even a single course can combine what in most universities would be three different courses into one.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the opportunity to engage in PBL is only apropos disciplines like engineering or computer science. Despite the fact that the National Academies of Engineering came up with the Grand Challenges Scholars Program in 2007 to prepare undergrads with a hands-on, interdisciplinary, research-based curriculum that encourages entrepreneurship and global, service learning, problem-based inquiry, PBL is not just for the future engineers of the world. This goes for all of the disciplines we teach on a campus or online, and there is no reason why we cannot do the same kinds of problem-based challenges in K-12 systems, as well.

Whenever we solve any problem in the world, it is and will be, by nature, transdisciplinary. As much as colleges and universities believe that they are preparing students with the skills to adapt to any conceivable situation, the underlying structures of our postsecondary system betray how siloed our efforts are. A core curriculum, distribution requirements, cross-listed courses—these are inadequate and artificial ways of creating the next generation of systems thinkers. How might we better empower our students to be more nimble agents of the future?

The world will need more agile and resilient thinkers with a serious handle of various technologies and digital literacies. Those who will be able to navigate the turbulence of the workforce of 2030 or 2040 will need new ways of learning how to connect the theory to the application of knowledge. We must do more to transform in truly radical ways what is clearly not working for our students now and will continue to not work for them in preparation for the exponential changes ahead.

Using the same methods that we used to train the clergy will not be enough. Let’s stop talking about how we produce critical thinkers and instead reexamine our methods and leverage the latest learning science to engage our students differently and with more impact than ever before.

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