Monday, August 31, 2015


Navigation as a New Gen Ed

What skills do students need, regardless of major or career?  What skills do we just expect all educated adults to have?

In the world of undergraduate education, we answer those questions by defining certain skills as “general education.”  Gen Eds, as they’re called, cross majors.  The idea is that whether a student is studying business, engineering, history, or art, there are certain basic skills we’d expect her to have.  

Each college has its own list, though they tend to have a lot of overlap.  Most include some variation on “communication skills,” which tend to result in requirements for English Composition and, sometimes, public speaking.  Most have some sort of “quantitative literacy” requirement, which typically covers math or closely related fields.  After that, they get more site-specific: some have a “diversity” requirement, some require some sort of service learning, some have a “civic knowledge” requirement, and so forth.  The Gen Ed competencies that a college adopts are supposed to drive its course requirements -- though it’s often the other way around on the ground -- and they’re supposed to reflect the common challenges and expectations facing educated adults.

I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about the seeming disconnect between an economy in which paths to prosperity are ever more complicated and opaque, and the move afoot on campuses to make pathways simpler and clearer.  They actually make sense together.  They assume that the ability to navigate complexity is the new Gen Ed.

As with any Gen Ed competency, we can’t just trust that students will pick it up along the way.  That’s where the move to guided pathways comes in.  We have to design for it.  That means not assuming that students come in with it, but building pathways so that they can’t help but encounter it as they go.  

In many ways, I suspect that the current generation is far better at navigating complexity than any other, including my own.  That’s because they’ve handled more complicated social lives, and many of them have handled far more complicated schedules than we did.  But time management is only one element of navigating complexity.  

Over the past (coughing over the number) years, I’ve been to more than my share of employer advisory boards.  Across fields and institutions, a common denominator has been a complaint that many new employees don’t know how to read, and adjust to, workplace culture.  They keep waiting for explicit directions.  Some of that may be age and/or life experience -- “kids today” is hardly a new complaint -- but some of it may be the unintended consequence of years of educating students around standardized tests.  We in higher ed can’t change K-12, at least directly, but we can counteract some of the damage.  We just have to make a point of choosing to.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways of helping students develop the ability to make sense from chaos?  And are there ways to measure that sort of thing?

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