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?

First, my impression is that guided pathways are not intended to help them develop the ability to navigate complexity on their own, although it might rub off on some who think about why the courses are put together like they are. It is, as you note, a response to the highly structured K-12 system where everything is directed at the specific competencies on standardized tests. But I also agree that none of this is new. Kids back in my day had followed a "college prep" or "workforce" pathway in HS -- all with defined courses to take, like precalc or shop math -- so it was comforting when colleges also had defined curricula for our first year. This was before the 'chinese menu' approach replaced 'all you want to know about humanities in one giant tome'. Advising was simple but the classes stunk. Now the classes are good but advising is a nightmare.

Back to your problem.

Your two questions are in the wrong order. First figure out how to assess "ability to make sense from chaos", and in doing so you will have defined it well enough help students do it. Said another way, assessments provide an operational definition of your course outcomes.

I can't help you with specifics, but something along those lines has been done at my college. It resulted from that "other way around" you alluded to. It was decided that a certain group of courses (not to mention the effective profs who teach them) had to be preserved because of the value added to our confused students, so that course requirement drove a gen ed competency. [I'm guessing English composition and math originally became gen eds for the same reason. Everyone "knew" students needed "those skills", so someone sat down and figured out exactly what the most important ones were.] And it can't be a gen ed without defined common outcomes and effective assessments, so that got done. I just haven't seen or heard anything about what they came up with. I suspect, like all outcomes assessment, it is a work in progress as one triennially closes the loop.
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