A Project Begins

A colleague today said how amazing the young people in her program are, how they almost don’t understand what some of the antinomies that vexed our generation were even about.  We mused that maybe they’d realize some of the human aspirations that had eluded us.  This potential, I think, poses an immense challenge to those of us who continue to collect paychecks for being this generation’s teachers.

One can hear some voices saying “we don’t need you to teach us anything” and certainly some of our colleagues advocate the laissez-faire response. Some folks might have read Tim Kreidermarch’s March 2018 op-ed, “Go Ahead, Millennials, Destroy Us,” as advocating a stand -back-and-let-them-at-it approach, but I don’t think we get to do this as educators. As often as I’ve heard resistance to, and dismissal of, the educational status quo, every signal I’ve ever received from my students is captioned “teach me something, damn it.”

But what?  Another tired defense of the liberal arts won’t do.  Our education turned out to be a good fit for getting to the end of the last century and starting this one.  The challenge is to formulate the education that will turn out to have been a good fit for the next half-century. Some of it will be different, but not all. And there in the challenge.

And then I read an article in the New York Times about tech wunderkinds growing older (and acknowledging that they were also growing wiser) started me thinking.  These brash disruptors become parents and their perspective shifts. Just wait, I thought, until they have teen agers, experience the death of their own parents, become empty nesters, and on and on.

But no, let’s not wait. Let’s not be like the singer in that old song, “Ooh La La” who said

Poor young grandson, there’s nothing I can say
You’ll have to learn, just like me
And that’s the hardest way, ooh la la.

If we are not going to sit back and wait, what of the “received wisdom” should we be evangelizing?  Most of us academics just pick out our favorites or the parts that advance our careers.  But what would we teach if the criteria were “what do they really need to know about?” And their lives, not ours, depended on the answer.

Design Thinking for Higher Education: A Different Take on “Student-Centered”

In the spirit of eating my own dog food, I started asking what would happen if we brought a design thinking sensibility to higher education.  Really using it.

A main idea in human centered design is that good design emerges from deep understanding of a user’s needs.  This turns out to be a really hard thing to do.  It goes against all the urges of genius.  Almost everyone starts with a solution and then burns cognitive energy to defend and market the idea.  So it goes when I think people should read Moby Dick and then sit down to right out the reasons why. Or when I want to require two semesters of calculus and can present a strong argument as to why.

Now there are problems that can be solved this way.  Sometimes we are so thoroughly familiar with a problem arena (the study of mechanical engineering, say) that confidence in the thing we just know to be the solution may be warranted.

But the world of the 2020s, 2030s, and 2040s ain’t like that.  In fact, the world of 2018 and 2019 is not familiar enough either.

So here is the project: study the user; identify her needs; develop criteria for the solution; brainstorm; prototype.

In a sense this will amount to taking seriously and at face value that annoying challenge “how is any of this relevant to what I’m trying to do?” Except for two things: we want to start with the “trying to do” and we don’t want to be limited to “now.” We will use wisdom, dialog, listening, and researching so that we can begin with “a thing you will want to do” (or a hurdle you will face) and then we will dig through our mental archives and find the “this” and then we will figure out how to articulate the relevance in a manner that makes the sale.

Warm Up Exercise

Frankly, I think the project will be too hard.  To break into it I am going to propose a less pure version. In this version each contributor will identify a single work, author, concept, school of thought, finding, or experiment that bears a keen relevance to something our audience are or will be grappling with.  And then we pitch it, maybe TED talk style, as a sort of curricular recommendation.

If done well, this could lead us toward a “student-centered” education worthy of the name.

Author: Dan Ryan

I've been an Academic Program Director at MinervaProject.com, a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. My current mission is to figure out how to reorganize higher education and exploit technology so that we can teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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