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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 Pranav

Hi Terry,

I certainly find your project interesting and unique, but I still have a few reservations about the idea especially in regards to higher education. As a current college student, me and many of my peers are still unsure of what we want to do for certain, but have developed areas of interest that have become our major/minor/concentration. At this stage, I would find it much more difficult for me to try to define a problem I'd like to solve in this world, rather than delving into an area of interest and seeing what comes of it following internships, club involvement, etc. Also, for those of my peers who do have a certain specific problem in mind, they can tailor their education to help meet these goal, but will still require extensive knowledge in certain subject matters. It seems more likely they would find their problem after picking a major than vice versa.

Another question I have is regarding the measure of impact. For an impact to be made, it would likely require a significant amount of time, and I'm unsure how willing higher education would be to shifting their curriculum to even allow a test like this. I'm curious how standards such as the "grit" or "resiliency" you mentioned in your impact measurement could be attained. I think the current system of majors still allows for great flexibility in career and life choices and that asking someone to define their entire education in a single question is more difficult than it may seem.

I do really like the idea of having a defined purpose with education, but I think it would be better to incorporate it through the form of a club or organization that steadily gains traction. A lot of social impact curriculum in higher education seems to relate to the approach you outlined, but it is used as a supplement rather than a replacement.

Photo of Terry Hosler

Thanks for the input, Pranav.

We admit this shift will not be accomplished rapidly nor is it meant to totally change the way higher educational is structured nor functions.

As a starting point the 'single question' What problem do you want to solve? is designed as an advisement prompt and working structure or framework  to work with students on either designing their own major or broadening the scope of the classes they take to promote the maximum flexibility of skills and qualifications they take in higher education.

It would also become relevant in combining student choices of majors and minors, suggesting participation in clubs and organizations, connecting with mentors and targeting locations for co-ops and internships.

Regarding measurement, we can see projects or development and participation of multi-disciplinary teams in problem solving targets.  It is likely that a multi-phased levels of involvement would be developed that would engage professionals in the fields as well as employers along the way.  This would be a great avenue for potential employers to get to know students who may someday be their employees from a mentoring and project team perspective long before the interview process.

Thanks for helping us consider how to frame our design on this. 

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