Much of the training that students receive in college involves working with well-defined problems that can be resolved using the tools and techniques of a specific discipline. In this episode, Paul Hanstedt joins us to discuss strategies that colleges can use to better prepare students to collaborate on the “wicked problems” they will face in the future.
Paul is the Director of the Houston H. Harte Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington and Lee University. He is the author of Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World, General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty, which is about to go into its second edition, and numerous publications related to general education and writing across the curriculum. He has worked with many colleges and universities in revising their general education requirements.
- Hanstedt, P. (2018). Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- Hanstedt, P. (2012). General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty. John Wiley & Sons.
- Hanstedt, P. (2021). Helping Students Understand Our Codes: Designing Inclusive Open Curricula. AAC&U Liberal Education Blog. April 29.
- Jessica Tinkenberg – twitter
- Standards of Learning (SOL) – Virginia Department of Education
- Warner, J. (2018). Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. JHU Press.
- Blum, S. D., & Kohn, A. (2020). Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). West Virginia University Press.
- Hanstedt, P. (2020). Higher ed needs to redesign gen ed for the real world. Inside Higher Ed (Opinion). February 10.
- Zull, J. E. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- Kate McConnell
- Textbook used at Plymouth State in a wicked problems seminar: LeBlanc, C. (2019). Tackling Wicked Problems. Plymouth State University.
- An article by the instructor on the course: LeBlanc, C. (2019). What is “Tackling a Wicked Problem”? Desert of My Real Life. May 10.
John: Much of the training that students receive in college involves working with well-defined problems that can be resolved using the tools and techniques of a specific discipline. In this episode, we examine strategies that colleges can use to better prepare students to collaborate on the “wicked problems” they will face in the future.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners..
Rebecca: Our guest today is Paul Hanstedt. Paul is the Director of the Houston H. Harte Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington and Lee University. He is the author of Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World, General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty, which is about to go into its second edition, and numerous publications related to general education and writing across the curriculum. He has worked with many colleges and universities in revising their general education requirements. Welcome, Paul.
Paul: Thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be here.
John: Today’s teas are… Paul, are you drinking tea?
Paul: I am drinking tea.
Rebecca: Yes, rejoice! [LAUGHTER]
Paul: I’m actually normally a coffee drinker, but I’m drinking tea. [LAUGHTER] I was part of the new educational developers for the POD organization and Jessica Tinklenberg sent out a care package afterwards. And in my care package was a Stash Tea Jasmine Blossom. I’d already had a 16 ounce cappuccino today, I thought I’d better keep it mellow [LAUGHTER] for later in the day.
Rebecca: Sounds nice and relaxing.
Rebecca: I have Yunnan Jig again. I think it’s becoming one of my new favorites. I don’t have my Golden Monkey around, so I’m going to have to drink something different. But it is also a golden-tipped tea.
John: I’m drinking a peppermint spearmint blend today… taking it easy on the caffeine.
Rebecca: I don’t know why, John, it’s halfway through the semester. What is wrong with you? [LAUGHTER]
John: I need some sleep, it’s been a stressful semester. We’ve invited you here to talk about a couple of things. We saw an article that you posted on April 29 on the AAC&U blog on “Helping Students Understand Our Codes: Designing Open Curriculum.” But we also wanted to talk to you about Creating Wicked Students. When that book came out, we both looked at it and read through it. But we were at a really early stage in the podcast, so we weren’t quite ready to ask people that we didn’t know who were already on our campus or that we were comfortable inviting because they knew of us already. And that’s long been on our list of topics that we wanted to discuss. So maybe we can start with Creating Wicked Students. What is a “wicked student”?
Paul: Good question. Maybe I should define a wicked problem first. A wicked problem originally came out of city planning. And then it was adopted by engineers because they looked at it and they said, “This is exactly what we’re dealing with all the time.” A “wicked problem” is a problem where the dynamics are in flux, they’re shifting. What the problem looks like on Tuesday and what the problem looks like a week from Thursday can be completely different. Oftentimes, the data is incomplete. Oftentimes, previous solutions don’t apply. Very often, wicked problems are problems that must be solved, you can’t let it sit. There’s oftentimes contention about how to solve it, how to fix it. And almost always—and this is where the gen-ed person in me gets all excited—the solutions for a wicked problem are going to require drawing from a bunch of different fields. So the best example, and it’s a horrible example, but everyone will understand it immediately, is COVID. COVID is the perfect, horrible, wicked problem. The dynamics have been changing constantly. Even now, we’re still waiting to get around the bend and say, “Oh, okay now we’ve arrived.” If it were purely a science problem we’d be in great shape because we would have been done early this summer. But there’s politics in play, there’s economics in play, there’s culture in play, there’s religion in play. There’s messaging and communication and images and memes and social media and technology. All of these things are creating a dynamic quality to COVID that makes resolving it very, very difficult. And, of course, we must resolve it. So that’s a wicked problem. A wicked student is a person who can solve that problem [LAUGHTER] when they graduate from college. But in engineering, what they said when they saw wicked problems is, “Our students need wicked competencies, because they’re going to face, once they leave university, they’re going to face these wicked problems in the field.” So much of what we do in education is tame, static, the answer is at the back of the book, there’s clarity. So a wicked student is a student who can move beyond simple answers, move beyond solving problems where they know the answer because they’ve been told the answer, or they know the answer because it’s at the back of the book, or they know the answer because they apply an algorithm and arrive at a solution that’s clear. A wicked student is a student who can deal with uncertainty, who can struggle, who can ask good questions, who can draw from different fields, who can collaborate well, and who can, when they fail, pause, step back, deliberate, reconsider, and try again. I have a colleague in biochemistry, Kyle Friend, who talks about what he wants his students to finally know is that he gets it wrong 70% of the time, and that’s normal. For so many of our students, getting it wrong is bad, it’s failure. And, frankly, that’s our fault because we create that dynamic.
John: Would you say that most curricula is well designed to create wicked students who are able to handle these problems that are not so well defined, that cross disciplinary boundaries?
Paul: No. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: The end. [LAUGHTER]
Paul: Yeah. So many of the systems that we’ve put in place—in Virginia, it’s the Standards of Learning tests—they ask for certainty and clarity. I’m running a writing pedagogy seminar on my campus right now and using John Warner’s wonderful book Why They Can’t Write. And he makes a point that the five-paragraph theme, which for those of us with composition and rhetoric backgrounds, is the root of all evil. He says, “Actually no, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the symptom of the larger problem.” And the larger problem is our desire to mass produce education, to make education easy, to make our grading easy, to make learning easy so students can feel like they’ve mastered it, because they’ve got the five facts, or the 10 facts, or the 11 dates, or the four algorithms that they need to understand in order to do well in the class. So no, I think so much of what we do is tame.
Rebecca: So if we’re saying, “Yes, please,” to these wicked students, what do we need to do in our classrooms? What can we, as faculty, implement in our course structures?
Paul: Yeah, how long you got? [LAUGHTER] So…
Rebecca: I have all day, if you’ve got all the answers!
John: And there’s a good book on that, too, that people can refer to.
Paul: There is a good book on that, yeah. So any number of things. One is finding ways to bring uncertainty, lack of clarity, into the rhythm of the classes that we teach. Years ago, I was running a workshop and a gentleman named Dan Clark who was then at Western Oregon University, he’s not there anymore, and I forget the institution he’s at. But he talked about Monday morning riddles. You know, you walk in, and whatever field you’re in—whether it be psychology, or accounting, or politics—give a problem and put students in groups and have them not come up with one solution but come up with three solutions, three ways to approach it. And ask them to be able to articulate why. And then put them all on the board and discuss them. And the point is not: there is one answer, and there’s one way to get to that answer. And oftentimes there is, let’s recognize that. But learn to play, learn to ideate, learn to work with multiple paths, because sometimes the first path you take isn’t going to work. And I should say, really quickly, I’m always aware that there are people in the room in various fields, whether it be French or chemistry, where they’re saying, “Well, there are facts, and they need to know the facts.” Yes, it’s not about knowing the facts, it’s about whether or not 100% of our time in the class is about content delivery and content reiteration, or if we create space in there for application of that content, and sometimes application of that content and then discussion about that application, where clarity and certainty isn’t necessarily achieved because that’s not the point. So it can be in our daily practices, we can create exam questions like that. I can, in a literature class, give students a poem and say, “We’ve been studying the Romantic poets, which one of the Romantic poets wrote this poem?” The fact that they’ve never seen the poem isn’t the point. Actually, I might choose to include a poem from a poet they’ve never read. In fact, I might include a poem from a poet who’s not even a Romantic. Thing is, can they analyze? Can they think? Can they explore? Are they being deliberate about their exploration? And what I’m grading them on is not their ability to get to the answer, it’s their ability to travel to make that journey. I could keep going if you want me to. [LAUGHTER] We can talk about paper assignments, we can talk about text selection, we can talk about the goals we create for a course. When do our goals move beyond content delivery? When do our goals move beyond application? When do our goals move into our ideals? I mean, I didn’t go to grad school and then take a job where I was diving underwater for nine months a year in order to just make sure that students could identify passages from Dickens that we’d already discussed. There’s more to it than that.
Rebecca: One of the things that I really love about Wicked Students is, it’s a value system that we want students to embody. And you’ve talked about one way of getting at that and offering space for these messier problems or the journey. What are some other ways within the structure—thinking about syllabus, learning outcomes, assignment design—that might continue to embody those values? It’s one thing to say, like, “We want to do that.” But what does it look like when we’re actually doing it?
Paul: Right. Well one of the things, and everybody’s doing it these days but why not, here’s my nod to Susan Blum [LAUGHTER] and her book Ungrading. One of the things, if we’re going to have this uncertainty, if we’re going to ask students to take intellectual risks, if we’re going to ask students to not freak out when they don’t arrive at the perfect answer, we need to be sure that in our syllabus, and in the day-to-day work of our course, there are plenty of opportunities where the grade is not of consequence, where they are not hurt by the ability to get it wrong. So I talk about ungraded work that happens in the class, I talk about minimally graded work that might happen outside of the class, proportionally graded work where the first time they do it, it’s only worth 2%, and the last time they do it, it’s worth 20%. But they’ve progressed and they’ve gotten feedback. So that would be another one of the ways, even in things like large lectures, the pause… you’re 20 minutes in, you’ve been delivering content to 270 students, and now you pause. And maybe you use clickers, maybe you use PollEverywhere. Maybe you simply put that question up on the screen and say, “So how might this apply here? What do we think? What are the ways to approach it? This is considered a difficult problem, how would you deal with it?” Maybe you simply say to them, “Pair up with the person next to you or jot some notes, think-pair-share, with the person next to you.” And then you just do a little bit of pointing to the room, “You up there in the red sweater, let me know what you’re hearing. Keep in mind that we’re not looking for the perfect answer, we’re looking for thoughtful answers.” So those would be two ways. There’s a lot of other ways. I mean, I like the idea of co-writing our goals with our students. And letting them know upfront that, with this class, it is not about static information, it’s about construction of knowledge, construction of ideas. The goal here finally is, not just for me to tell you what I know or what other people think, but for all of us to approach this material, whether it’s in literature, or in chemistry, so that we take the thinking just a little bit further, or maybe a lot further.
John: How can we sell this to our students, especially our freshmen students who come in from a curriculum that’s very structured, that’s very well defined by disciplinary boundaries, and so forth, and where all the problems have nice, neat, easy solutions?
Paul: And oftentimes, they’ve gotten into university because they’ve been really good at playing that traditional game, right? And here we are changing the rules. [LAUGHTER] Well, part of it is you need to create spaces. You can’t just give them a big assignment at the end of the semester that’s wicked, or a test question that’s wicked, without creating those spaces for them to experiment, fail, and get used to it. But what I like to, frankly, do is walk into class on the very first day, and sometimes… I like to be very dramatic… and I don’t even give my name. [LAUGHTER] I just put that painting up on the screen, and I ask that question that can’t necessarily be answered perfectly, and then I ask them to write. I was at a workshop a couple years ago at a college up in Maryland, where a meteorology professor talked about on the very first day, he hands his students a meteorology map. He says, “Tell me what’s going to happen next? What’s the weather going to be like?” And he goes, “They get it wrong 97% of the time, but that’s not the point. The point is for them to work with it and play with it. And then as the semester goes along, you can periodically hand that back to them, and they can see themselves making progress.” So I think the first step is to begin. So often we try to just say, “If I just repeat it, then they’ll get it.” It’s hard to use words to combat 18 years of experience and 13 years of educational experience. We need to create alternative experiences where they live, where they see it, where they understand.
Rebecca: I know one of the things that we emphasize in design is process over product, often. We have some students who can make a fantastic product, but they do no process.
Rebecca: And so it always ends up being a really long conversation about, “Well, what was your journey here? Why are you doing that? How does that meet the creative brief? Or how does that meet the problem? How does that solve the problem?”
Rebecca: It just looks good… it doesn’t mean that it does anything. So I think we’re always working on ways to emphasize that process piece more, because it tends to get overlooked. It’s like, here’s the beginning, here’s the end, but that muddy, messy middle part—which is the most important part, especially to develop wicked students—is often overlooked.
Paul: I really do like multiplicity ideation, multiple iterations. And maybe it just happens in the planning stage where you say, “Rather than just going into the task…” because there’s very few fields where you just jump into the task… “come up with plan, give me three different plans, three different ways to approach this, three different ways we might design this, three different ways we might interpret this poem, three different ways that we might design this experiment, three different ways that we might think about how to approach culture in rural Germany, three different ways about how to solve this medical problem.”
Rebecca: So three is really important, Paul? [LAUGHTER]
Paul: Three, yeah. [LAUGHTER] I guess I’m sort of focusing on three. Well, I mean, there is a certain sweetness to three. Five is way too many oftentimes, and two is probably not enough. So yeah, I don’t know why I got on three. [LAUGHTER] But thank you for teasing me about that, I appreciate that actually. [LAUGHTER]
John: And as you move through the course, you also suggest that the degree of complexity should be adjusted from the beginning to the end of the term. Could you talk about some ways in which you might do that in a given class?
Paul: Sure, yeah. So the classic example, and I use it all the time, comes from my colleague, Chris Connors, who’s in geology here at W&L. And he talks about how early in the geology course, they’ll provide a rock sample to students. And they’re asking for, in a simplified form, recommendations about drilling or mining. And in the early data sets, there will be one or two pretty clear paths, and a minimum of noise, being data that is meaningless or simply distracting. And if the student’s been paying attention in those early data sets, they should be able to get it, they should be fine. Later data sets, middle data sets, they’re more complex, more noise, and a multiplicity of reasonable answers. Some of which are going to be more self evident than others, and some of which need to be constructed. But the students, if they’ve been growing, they should be okay. And part of what they need to do is not just say, “This is the recommendation I’m giving,” but, “Here’s the why this recommendation, rather than these recommendations.” Latter data sets are just wide open, lots of noise. And the paths of recommendations, the ideas, the thinking, the conclusions that are being drawn, really have to be constructed almost from scratch by the students individually. And so that’s one example of how progression could occur. Also worth noting that you can increase the degree of difficulty by the level of interaction that you have with students: the amount of coaching that you offer, the number of tips or hints that you provide, how much you’re walking around the room, the degree to which you’re having them collaborate versus doing it individually. What I love about the geoscience example, too, is that in many ways it’s, again, as someone who works in literature, that’s what we do in a literature classroom. When I’m teaching Victorian literature, I begin with a relatively simple Victorian text. And then by the end of it, I’m handing them Eliot, which is millions of words, and a lot of noise. And they’re having to build these maps, construct these meanings. And I’ll just point out that construction of meaning, that production component where the student is taking it just a step further, they’re not handing to me a reading of Middlemarch that they’ve read somewhere else. They are building a path, they are collecting the data, they are doing that work. And finally, that’s what we want. If we’re going to graduate these students into this complex, messy, messed-up world, we had better have people who can build that path thoughtfully and deliberately themselves. Otherwise, we end up with a situation where some large portion of our nation might be being misled by other people, hypothetically.
Rebecca: Definitely hypothetically.
John: One of the barriers though, I think, is that our classes and majors and programs tend to be structured very much within very narrow disciplinary boundaries. Would it help if, perhaps, we had more interdisciplinary courses, and activities, and seminar courses, in most colleges?
Paul: Yes. And I don’t want to take us down a rabbit hole unless you want to go with me [LAUGHTER] of general education, and over the last 40 years, the movement has been away from distributional models that say, “Two of math and science and two of social sciences and two of arts and humanities.” Distributions still exists, but the movement has been towards more integration, more blending, more of a recognition that it’s not about what content we’re delivering, but how that content connects to other content. How, when I teach a class on artistic and literary responses to science and technology, I’ll have a student reading Coleridge’s Eolian Harp and giving me an analysis that ties it to string theory in physics. How do we make connections? How do things blend? So, sometimes, yes, majors need to do what majors need to do, and I want to come back to that in just a moment. But gen ed can do a better job of just replicating what majors are doing. Gen ed, it shouldn’t be just about exposure, it should be about synthesis, it should be about reflection, it should be about building something, making connections. And gen ed is going a step further and really looking at the way high-impact practices, for instance, rather than having models that are driven by distribution, they can be driven by high-impact practices: e-portfolios, which is about synthesis, study abroad, internships, undergraduate research, first-year experiences, senior capstones, all of these things that are synthetic. They’re asking students to make these connections. They also push students towards agency, towards really doing the work themselves. A student abroad, one of the reasons that’s a high-impact practice is because from dawn to dusk, they have to cope. Just leaving their dorm room, leaving their dorm, is a complex act. Getting lunch is a difficult, challenging thing where they have to assume agency and do it. So right now, though, I just also want to step back and talk about majors because I referenced that earlier. Let’s face it, increasingly, majors are becoming interdisciplinary. They’re either doing it by building interdisciplinary majors—biochem, gender studies, environmental studies—but even within majors, they’re recognizing the ways that they need to bring things into play. I mean, psychology has shifted from being a social science to more of a hard science, because it’s bringing neuroscience into play. Again, there’s this idea that the world is a messy place. The academy, we’ve got our little hallways and our little cells and our little silos and our little blocks that we built, those are very convenient for us. They’re not necessarily helpful for the students, there’s some convenience and some value to it for the students. But if that’s all they experience, and if that’s all they see, and if we allow ourselves to fall into that, I don’t know that it helps.
Rebecca: So one of the things that often is a hard sell to students is general education.
Paul: Yeah, [LAUGHTER] I’ve noticed that!
Rebecca: It’s advising time around here, so helping students identify things outside of their major that maybe they might be interested in exploring or might be useful to them in these wicked problems as they leave the institution and go into the profession. What’s some advice that you might have in making that sell towards general education? Is part of the issue the way our general education is structured, so it’s not a good sell? Or is it partly just communication?
Paul: Yeah I’ll deal with the communication question first. It is definitely communication, we spend a lot of time on the “what,” and very, very, very little time on the “why.” I mean, in so many places, if it’s not literally a box check, it’ll have a brief description of the humanities, and then it’ll be on to just a list of courses. And frankly, I would say that if you’ve got a particular learning outcome or goal for general education that you want students to meet, and you’re trying to impress them with how important this idea, this value, this goal is, and then you’ve got 700 courses that can fulfill that requirement. I’m sorry, that’s a mixed message because it basically says, “This goal is incredibly important, so important that anything can fulfill it.” And again, oftentimes what’s happening there is the system is set up to please the department or the anxieties that departments might have or to get butts in the seat. So figuring out how to better communicate that “why,” both on the front end and in advising. We have ready answers for why students should take particular courses in our field. Do we have ready answers for why a poet should take a mathematics course? For why a student in sociology should study dance or yoga? We need to work on that. There is nothing wrong with talking to your colleagues and coming up with some answers so that when students come into play, you can sell it convincingly. The other question about the structure, I definitely think that that’s a factor. If we’re selling them isolated little building blocks, it communicates to them what matters and what doesn’t matter, why it’s happening, why it’s not happening. You know, they get distribution in high school, and call me naive or idealistic, but I think even the most cynical, jaded, least-engaged student in the world comes to college and wants something different. They want it to feel like a challenge, that they’re moving up, that they’re going somewhere else, this is something more. And if we don’t give them that, then they come away with that idea that college is just a transactional thing. That’s a failure.
John: I think this brings us quite naturally to your blog post on open gen ed requirements. Could you tell us a little bit about the concerns you raised about having a completely open or very open gen ed curriculum?
Paul: Sure, full disclosure—and that blog was edited to fit a certain word count, this full disclosure was in the original version—my son goes to an institution with an open curriculum. I actually think… and I’m not going to name the institution, I’m tempted but I’m not going to… I actually think this institution does an extraordinarily good job of advising. So that students, no matter what they’re studying, are pushed and encouraged to go into and take courses in different fields. So it can work really well. A couple of weeks ago, my daughter and I were visiting colleges, she was someplace where the guy ended the tour by saying he was there to study economics, he said, “If you told me a year ago, I’d be taking two classes in classics and really enjoying them, I would have laughed in your face.” That’s a win, that’s a well-done job. So open curriculums can work and I want to be careful not to just dismiss them completely. Part of the issue with them, on the faculty side of things, I think, it’s a missed opportunity because it means that faculty from different disciplines in different departments don’t need to be in conversation with each other. I think that’s a loss. And that’s unfortunate, because the more we talk to each other, the better our teaching all-around is going to be. But really, for me, the major concern has to do with students. Not all students come into college recognizing the value of that liberal arts component, that liberal arts dimension that is so much a part of the American educational system and has been almost from the start. My son grew up in a household where we went to Hong Kong for a year to help them revise their university curriculum from a three-year system with just a major to a four-year system that included liberal arts and general education. That’s been written into his DNA, written into his family history. We talk about stuff like this at the dinner table because I’m such a geek. He has an advantage because he walks in and even if he is really interested in studying physics, he knows that there’s a value to taking German courses and philosophy courses and courses in art history. So for him, in an open curriculum, there are not going to be any signposts. As bad as a really highly-structured curriculum might be, there are a lot of signposts, “This matters, this matters, you need to do this, you need to do this.” In an open curriculum with no signposts, the student who has that level of knowledge, that insider knowledge, they’re going to be okay. The student who walks into that setting, for whatever reason, without that knowledge, maybe it’s because they’re from an immigrant family that isn’t familiar with a tradition of the liberal arts, that phrase doesn’t even necessarily mean anything to them. Maybe they’re from a first-generation family. A young woman that I know actually came from a family where her parents had both gone to college, but they were running a business, and that was really their focus, a nd so this idea of the liberal arts and the value of liberal arts just wasn’t part of the conversation that they had. Perhaps it’s because students come from a historically or structurally marginalized background, I don’t know. And of course, we want to be careful about essentializing about any groups. But the fact of the matter is, if we have an open curriculum, and we don’t have some guardrails in place, we’re not paying attention, it can be inequitable. Certain students are going to benefit powerfully, other students are not going to benefit as much. That’s wrong. We’re educational systems, we’re educational institutions, our goal is to progress everybody forward, not just to allow the privileged to continue to be privileged, and the less-privileged to continue to be less privileged.
John: A lot of first-gen students come in with a very specific career goal and a very narrow definition of what courses they think are going to be relevant for that, not recognizing the wicked nature of some of the problems they’ll be facing or the world in which they’ll be living in a few years. How can we build a system that would correct for that if there is going to be a more open curriculum?
Paul: Yeah, well, I’ve already mentioned advising. So part of it is we need to have, as an institution, and as instructors and colleagues, a language of practice, of shared practice, shared understanding, shared values, that we communicate to the students. And one would hope that that happens not just in the advising session, because that’s really kind of too late, but in everything—from the initial literature the student received, to the alums and the alumni stories that we tell in the alumni magazine or the people that we bring to campus to have conversations with our students, the internships we set up with alums, and all of those kinds of things. So that’s one thing, advising, but also advising writ large. I also think we need to create some spaces where reflection and integration is going on. So maybe it’s a completely open curriculum, but maybe in order to sign up for your classes next semester, or maybe in order to complete your work as a sophomore, or as a junior, or you do your senior thesis, you have to have a reflective component that kind of puts some of the pieces together, that does that sort of integration, that synthesis. Students, they’re so busy, and they’re doing so many things. Sometimes we can reflect, but oftentimes we’re just doing. And so where do we build those moments to make sense? James Zull in The Art of Changing the Brain talks about how there are educational experiences, and they’re really just data until the students integrate it and reflect on it. And at that point, they move from data to knowledge, meaningful knowledge. So where do we create those spaces to make meaning out of the experiences that they’re having? Kate McConnell, AAC&U, says, “Assess and then disaggregate your data.” So those are three things you can do: advising, reflection, assessment and disaggregation. Finally, when I talked about this in the essay, and this is one of my favourite metaphors, my colleague, Rich Grant—who’s a physicist at Roanoke College and he’s actually now the acting Dean of the college—he talks about how students come to college with all these experiences, some personal, some educational, some social, some related to social media, and they’ve got this box of puzzle pieces. And again, on some level, they want meaning, they want purpose, they want to know how all these pieces fit together. If all we’re doing in college is just dumping more puzzle pieces into the box, I don’t think that’s success. Some students will thrive with that, other students will not. If our goal is to make sure that everybody thrives, what can we do that’s deliberate and thoughtful?
Rebecca: I was reflecting a little bit on what you asked, John, and then also the way that you’ve been talking about gen ed, and wicked problems, Paul, and I was thinking: I was a first-gen student who didn’t give a crap about gen ed. I remember. I had a couple things I was interested in, so I curated in a way that followed my interests, but I really didn’t see a lot of value in it until later on, when I had an opportunity, really, to work on a messy problem, to work on a wicked problem. And that was in a class that was cross-listed between geography and architecture…
Paul: There you go.
Rebecca: …and worked with community organizations. And then all of a sudden, I was like, “Oh, I need to learn all of these things.” Like then I had like a to-do list of things I needed to learn.
Paul: Yeah, and so they did a great job there of bringing the messiness of life into the classroom. I’ve got a friend who’s an architect, and a very good one, and every time he moves up the ladder in his organization, the problems get messier and messier and messier. And almost from the second stage, he wasn’t prepared for it. So how do we bring that messiness into the classroom, into the academy, into the curriculum? That’s a great example, I love that.
Rebecca: It’s making me think, like, having a really messy problem really early in a college education would be really important to getting students on board with the idea that you need to learn a lot of things…
Paul: Mm-hmm. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: …to have a lot of different kinds of experiences.
Paul: And there are increasingly places that are doing that. I believe Plymouth State is. In the first year, they’ve got a seminar that deals with a messy problem. In the Netherlands, almost all of the university colleges, the small liberal arts colleges and the larger universities, have problem-based and project-based curricula for gen ed, where students are taking these things on from the beginning.
Rebecca: That’s interesting, too, because that means a gen ed class has been designed as a gen ed class from the start, and not necessarily a major class that slots into a category.
Paul: Yeah. In gen ed reform, really, one of the stickiest questions is, “How do we determine what counts as a gen ed class or not?” And in some institutions, if it’s a gen ed class, it has a gen ed prefix and designator, and it is a gen ed class and nothing but. And, on the other extreme is, “Well, anything can count as gen ed.” And then, in between, you’ve got models that have core courses and distribution courses. And the core courses are gen ed specific, regardless… And the line that I constantly give to gen ed committees as they’re doing revisions is, “If you’ve got gen ed goals, you have structure, an apparatus, a process, a protocol in your course approval that honors those goals, unapologetically.” And that’s hard, because you’ve got departments pressuring you. But if we’re going to do it, we have to do it, we can’t just give it lip service and let whatever count.
John: Early in my career at Oswego, I spent one semester serving on our faculty assembly when we were discussing putting together the final stages of a gen ed curriculum. And much of the discussion was basically departments being very worried about losing FTEs, losing lines, and so forth. How can we get past that in these discussions?
Paul: Yeah. One of the things is, in the design process, and in the communication process, about whatever new gen ed models you’re bringing forward for conversation, you have to foreground that there are generally going to be multiple paths into the curriculum. So in the distribution model, well the history department has their own, that’s great because it’s clear, and it’s simple, and there’s assurance, and every department has their own, so everybody’s happy. If you’re going to make an integrative model that’s going to counter that, you need to show the history department that, look, in this model you have your one course. In this model, you can enter it the first year, which is really going to appeal to some people who prefer working with first-year students. You can enter at the capstone level, the senior or junior year, which is really going to appeal to some people who enjoy doing that. Or there’s these interdisciplinary courses over here, which is going to appeal to some faculty who enjoy doing that. Or there’s these hobbyhorse courses over here, that might really be interesting for people who have never been able to teach the bizarre, esoteric topic of their dissertation in a gen ed course, but now you can. And the beauty of that last one, in particular, my colleague, Hedley Freake who is retired from the University of Connecticut, he’s a chemist and he says, “If you give me an option between teaching Chem 101 yet again, or teaching gender and nutrition in developing nations, I’m going to take that latter course all the time, because it’s more engaging to me, it’s more engaging to students. And this is shocking, but the more engaged students are, the happier they are, and the happier I am.” But you have to really be deliberate about foregrounding those multiple entries and the benefits of those multiple paths. Again, it’s the simplicity of the algorithm, and all the experience we have with that safe, reassuring algorithm versus, “Oh, this is new, and it’s different.” And how do we clarify that idea with more than just words? We just had this conversation on my campus yesterday.
Rebecca: Sounds like a wicked problem to me.
Paul: It is, education is a wicked problem! [LAUGHTER] And it’s terrible, right? Because I was thinking, it’s not because education’s the solution. But clearly, we’ve got podcasts, we’ve got conferences, we’ve got discussions. It’s a problem, it’s a challenge, it’s fluid, it’s dynamic. It’s changing constantly, the opportunities, the challenges, it’s all… Gosh, you teach your 9 o’clock class and it goes perfectly, you teach the same thing at 11 o’clock and it’s a disaster. I mean, you know… [LAUGHTER] Why? Because students are wicked. [LAUGHTER] There’s a chemistry there that we can’t control, a dynamic that we have to work with. I love that, and this is it. I mean, wicked problems are engaging. They engage us emotionally, intellectually, socially. They’re exciting, the brain reacts to them, we like puzzles. The part of the brain that wants to solve, that appeals. And I do think that that, again, if we’re thinking about changing the way students think about education. If education is static—you hand me this and I hand it back—that’s disengaging. And a certain number of our students are not going to see the value of that. If, on the other hand, we say, “Here’s a problem, can you solve it?” That’s powerful.
Rebecca: And it’s fun.
Paul: It’s fun.
John: For them and for us.
Rebecca: Dare I say education is fun? [LAUGHTER]
Paul: Wickedly so. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking the big, huge question, “What’s next?”
Paul: What’s next? I think we’re all still recovering. I mean, of course we are. But even those of us who haven’t been ill, the brain, our sort of cognitive power, is still depleted. So naps, naps are next. I’m very excited. I mean, I just got the contract for the revision of the General Education Essentials book last week. And I’m just delighted to be able to take that on because it came out in 2012, I wrote it in 2011, and in those 11 years my thinking has really evolved. And so I’m looking forward to seeing where that goes. I am always with the wicked pedagogies and the wicked problems thinking about, when I do workshops or something, I’m always collecting or trying to collect the examples that people use. So I kind of think, ‘Where can I go with that? Is there another way to approach this? Are there different modes of communicating that can be brought into play?’ I don’t know. So recovery and exploration and maybe trying to find some of the joy that was threatened, if not, depleted.
Rebecca: Yes. More joy, please. [LAUGHTER]
Paul: Yes please. And chocolate.
Rebecca: Yeah. It’s a good side.
Paul: It is, yeah.
Rebecca: Well thanks so much, Paul. We really enjoyed having this conversation and you always bring great ideas to the table.
Paul: Well, thank you. I very much enjoyed chatting with you.
John: We’re really happy that you’ve joined us.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle.