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Pick a problem not a major - updated 2/27 insights and challenges

Students plan their educational pathway around solving a problem in society rather than a particular major or career outcome

Photo of Terry Hosler
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Concept and Need

In thinking about reimagining Higher Education, we need to start with a change in mindset on approach. By changing the paradigm from narrowing a student’s focus to broadening possible pathways to solving problems, we empower students and build the concepts of transferable skills rather than single focus pathways.

Have you heard of Jaime Casap? He is the Global Education Evangelist with Google.

His approach and many at Google is exactly this: Stop asking students what they want to be or major in and start asking 'What problem do you want to solve?' Then, help them find the pathway to getting the skills, training, classes and connections they need to do exactly that.

By utilizing a 'mixed method' approach, students can tap into resources both locally and online to develop a broader pathway and explore more ways to get to the career they want to achieve through higher education or even before.

Human connection is very important here as most students look at a very linear/direct approach to a career rather than examining the skills and knowledge needed to help them in their efforts in 'problem-solving' - identifying transferable skills. All learners, from pre-k to lifelong, normally need advisement or help in the protocol and access pathways and to knowing how to reach beyond the traditional to the innovative.

A problem students often encounter when they have a very narrow focus is that when things go awry, they run into a wall such as not being admitted to a program or needing to repeat a class, they don’t have any wiggle room in career options. An example might be the large number of people who end up working in a field or job not directly related to their academic training. By starting with a broader approach to finding a ‘passion point’ students are more ready to adjust and know they can still be part of the team impacting a ‘solution’.

A rising trend in medical or engineering schools is to view candidates with favor who think outside the box. For example: If you at looking for the best candidate for medical school to look at innovation and broad approach possibilities in the changing landscape of medicine, do you choose from the 400 applicants with biology degrees or maybe an equally qualified applicant from bio-engineering or even communication who can bring a new approach to resolving patient care and research.

This 'starting point' opens the higher education window to a multisource approach. Students have a societal contribution and a purpose in mind from the beginning. They are empowered to know they can be involved in the solution regardless of their background by tapping into their strengths.

This could be linked as well with Industry/Company-sponsored learning opportunities with students who are all working toward the same goals.

Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine higher education to support the needs of tomorrow?

The idea is to reset and support a student's approach to Higher Education. Stakeholders would be Schools (K-12), Higher Education Institutions, Advisors/Counselors, Industry and Governments. Working with school systems and institutions in our service region to help students find their passion by broadening their approach to education. Through the cornerstone question – ‘What problem do you want to solve?’, we will encourage college and career exploration throughout the educational pipeline.

This idea emerged from:

  • A group brainstorm
  • An individual

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Input on how to reset the approach so that students could more easily develop networks of mentors in the fields or learn from those 'farther down the road of the solution'. A number of ideas have strengthened the approach and input would help with the synergy for an overall impact on the Higher Education and Vocational/Technical, Industrial communities.

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

We will be working with school systems and institutions in our service region to help students find their passion through broadening their approach to education. The question - What problem do you want to help solve? will be a discussion prompt to encourage college and career exploration throughout the educational pipeline. See attached feedback document outlining 3 current prototypes.

Tell us about your work experience:

Our organization, Partners for Education at Berea College has a multifaceted decades long mission of educational outreach to Appalachian rural communities of Kentucky and are working heavily with primarily low-income community school districts and agencies serving our students and families. Berea College, founded in 1855, offers a high-quality education to bright and talented students who have limited economic resources. 100% of Berea students receive a full tuition scholarship.

How would you describe this idea while in an elevator with someone? 2-3 sentences.

Confining students to declare a major or single career path puts blinders on their consideration of the skills, experience and abilities needed for a focused approach to problem solving. By asking what problem they would like to help solve as a guidance tool allows them some flexibility in career pathways while still gaining a focus toward a purposeful and passionate pursuit in higher education and beyond.

What is the specific problem your idea is trying to solve? 1 sentence.

Students feel currently declare a single major or career without fostering the resiliencies of identifying transferable skills and problem-solving approaches to educational and career development and pursuits.

How is your idea different or unique from what is currently on the market?

This idea is more of a paradigm shift than a marketable app or interest inventory. It is a guidance and development framework to lead discussion and advisement in student development across the learning spectrum. Although a marketable curriculum and/or professional development trainings could be developed, the simplicity of the idea is easy of use without cost or a lot of training.

How do you plan to measure the impact of your idea?

The impact could be measured through a number of formats, for example: 1. The increase of students of all ages engaged in civic involvement and team projects. 2. Surveys with education professionals on the use and impact. 3. Development and enhancement of curriculums based on the concept. 4. Tracking students in this framework in their grit, resiliency and persistence toward their educational goal. 5. Feedback from students longitudinally on how the idea assists their progress/approach.

How might your idea be transferable to a large number of people?

The idea is very easily transferable as simply a discussion prompt or a question to open advisement/guidance or even classroom discussions. It can be used in a large amount of variations, situations and group sizes.

What are your immediate next steps after the challenge?

Our first steps are to work with college access and support personnel on using the question as a discussion/guidance prompt with small, targeted groups and individual students on multiple educational levels in our region of initial influence, Eastern Kentucky's Appalachian schools and Higher educational institutions, as well as with efforts by OpenIDEO members. Expansion will then focus on sharing the concept with regional and national opportunities through conferences and workshops.
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Attachments (4)

Insights-Barriers - Pick a Problem.pdf

Brief discussion of Insights, Barriers, Challenges and Approach Priorities

User Experience Map - Pick a Problem.pdf

Storyboard comparing two students utilizing traditional vs. Problem-Solving approach.

Feedback - Pick a Problem.pdf

Feedback responses from discussion groups, individual responses and field professionals

Prototype - Pick a Problem.pdf

Descriptions of 3 small prototypes utilizing the approach idea


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kaye Han

Hi Terry, conceptually this idea is very attractive. I love it! Upon reading the details of its execution, I think there is some synergy with this and entrepreneurship courses - essentially teaching the fundamentals of solving problems. The question of curriculum becomes a little more hazy when somebody chooses a 'problem'. It would be excellent if there was an example. E.g. If I chose 'obesity' as my problem, what would that look like in curriculum and assessment? How would a university configure their faculties to cater for this? A person working to solve obesity would need to be flipping between classes in the science, to psychology, and likely to education. Anyway, just some food for thought. :)

Photo of Terry Hosler

Hi Rob
Thanks for the interest in our idea and, yes, entrepreneurship courses are a great example of a problem-solving approach. I love the word ‘synergy’ as a description. That is exactly what is going on in this proposed framework. Students learn that solutions are very rarely made by a single individual or in a vacuum. But rather by connecting the energies, ideas and analysis of many to arrive at the solution. Rather like how Google combines millions of servers to provide answers and pathways to explore in a search engine.
You may want to take a look at the very brief example found in our storyboard of the User Journey or as cited in a number of the comments below. I agree that as the idea develops specific examples would assist in developing the structure, rubrics and curriculum or guides. The paradigm is designed to be fluid and adaptable to a student’s interests and resources. The main starting point is from a guidance or advisement point of approach but could be utilized in most interfaces with students in any part of the learning continuum or work environment.
I do like your example, and it would be exactly that – gaining skills and knowledge in a number of disciplines to design the collection of abilities and contacts a student needs to ‘get the job done’ by maintaining/achieving personal impact on solving their individual problem.
Great ‘food for thought’. Thanks again.

Photo of Kaye Han

Awesome. Glad the 'thought food' helped. :)

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