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Pick a problem not a major (title adjustment/refinement questions 2/12)

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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In thinking about reimagining Higher Education, we need to start with a change in mindset on approach.

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 them with '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'.  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. 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 to 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.  

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.

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 the comment discussion below for work with this idea (referencing the image) with high school students from a multi-district region.

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 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 pressured to declare a single major or career pathway before they have a chance to explore a deeper understanding of the actual needs of the issue or to focus their own passion.

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 could be developed, the simplicity of the idea is easy to use without cost or a lot of training.

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

The impact of working with students on Picking a Problem 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 guidance, advisement and Higher Education and career field personnel on the use and impact of the shift in structure.
3. Development and enhancement of curriculums based on the concept.
4. 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 and situations.

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 prompt with small, targeted groups and individual students in our region of initial influence, eastern Kentucky's Appalachian schools and higher educational institutions - and then expanding to add sharing the concept with regional and national opportunities through conferences and workshops.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Joel

Hi Terry, great idea! I ran a leadership academy a couple years ago, where students had to complete 'badges', one of which was called SOLVE - where they had to solve a problem for a company or in the local community. We then taught then advanced problem solving techniques on how to disaggregate a complex problem, and come up with a recommended solution. We also did a group consulting project with a local food delivery company, to demonstrate the process first-hand. They also did a big presentation to the company at the end, which was fantastic experience for them.

I found it most effective when students solved a problem for an organization. They would network with employees at organizations of interest, interview them about their jobs, and then with this information be able to determine a problem that needs solving at the organization. I found this was more effective, because the problem tended to be something specific, and actionable.

Hope this makes sense.

Photo of Terry

Thanks Joel!
Great practice and I can certainly see it as a step in moving forward in teaching students skills in problem-solving in small manageable pieces in a way that they are encouraged by results and can identify issues in their own community.  That is normally how it begins. It is also important for students to realize at some point in the process that some problems cannot be solved in their lifetime but they can still be involved in making the move toward the answer. Often, younger generations look for immediate gratification, however, here we are working toward changing a mindset of finding a major/occupation/career/lifework that taps into the passion or something that moves their heart.

The Starfish Story
An old man is walking a beach in the early morning. He sees a young boy, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.
“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?,” the man asks. “Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die,” the boy replied.
“But, son, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all. Even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference.”
The boy listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and hurled it spinning into the sea. “It made a difference to that one.”

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