It’s important to remember that the FYS is one of the four tools of integrated clusters that President Birx identified in a blog post. It’s also important to remember what we’re trying to achieve with students in the cluster initiative. We are trying to ensure that students are able to articulate what their college curriculum is all about. We want them to be able to tell their educational story and to really own their educational experience. We want students to be active participants in their educational journey. That journey starts in the FYS. FYS is the place where students are introduced to the major ideas of the cluster curriculum. I articulated an early vision of what the course would be about back in November, 2016. We have mostly implemented this vision.
The general description of the FYS is:
Introduces students to the General Education program’s four habits of mind as well as project-based learning. Using critical thinking, design thinking, and information literacy skills, students and the instructor together engage in the development of a project that addresses some aspect of a wicked problem. The wicked problem varies across sections of the course. Required of all first year students during their first semester at Plymouth State University. Elective for transfer students entering with 24 or more credits. Falls and Springs.
There’s a lot packed into this short description and I think it’s worth pulling it apart to be sure we understand all of the pieces.
Our General Education program is a place where we want students to develop a set of habits of mind (or ways of thinking) that will serve them well throughout their lives. These habits of mind are introduced in the FYS. They are:
- Purposeful Communication: Students should be able to comprehend messages that they receive as well as purposefully express messages for others. They should seek an awareness of the cultural and historical contexts of messages they are sending and receiving. And they should use effective strategies for communicating that take the different perspectives of those with whom they communicate into account.
- Problem-Solving: Students should be able to identify and frame problems, identify challenges in solving the problem, develop a plan and an approach for solving the problem, and evaluate the results of the problem-solving attempt.
- Integrated Perspective: Students should be aware that their perspective on the world is not the only valid perspective. The should understand the role that the larger natural and social world plays in the development of particular person’s perspective. They also should seek the perspectives of others and work to incorporate multiple perspectives when collaborating.
- Self-Regulated Learning: Students should become responsible for their own learning and be fully engaged with the learning process. Students should also be able to reflect on their own learning so that they choose the most effective strategies for learning in a particular situation.
To work on the development of these habits of mind, students will engage with the faculty member on a wicked problem in the FYS. A wicked problem is a social problem that is difficult (or impossible) to solve because of incomplete or contradictory information. People with different perspectives may come to different ideas about how to solve a wicked problem but each attempt to solve the problem changes it so that a new set of issues arises. A wicked problem is connected and interdependent on other wicked problems in complex ways. For example, if we try to solve the wicked problem of poverty, we will soon realize that it is connected to other wicked problems like access to education, homelessness, drug abuse, etc. Every attempt we make to “solve” the poverty problem changes the problem in unanticipated ways. I’ve heard wicked problems described as being like water balloons. If you squeeze the balloon in one place, it bulges out in another place. We would like students in the FYS to learn about a wicked problem and become engaged in working on the problem, trying to make a difference in the world. The idea is that doing meaningful work that has some impact on the world helps students to become engaged in the educational experience.
To work on the wicked problem, we want students to do something, to take action by working on one or more projects in the FYS. This represents another difference between this new version of the FYS and our old version. In our old version, students would research a question and develop a research portfolio articulating what they’d learned. In this new version, we want students to go beyond articulating what they’ve learned about the wicked problem. We want them to engage with the world outside of the classroom and try to change that world in at least some small way. Again, the idea is that such work will feel meaningful and motivating to the student.
Design thinking is a non-linear process that students will use to develop their projects working on the wicked problem. I described what that would look like in a previous post. Students engage in a variety of types of research to develop empathy for those who are impacted by the wicked problem. They define the aspect of the problem they want to work on. They ideate (brainstorm) possible actions (projects) to take to work on that part of the problem. They implement a prototype of their project. And they test the results of their prototype. In all of these stages, students will need to use their critical thinking and information literacy skills and so they will be developing those as they work on these projects.
Throughout this course, the instructor is a guide for the students. Ideally, students will develop their self-regulated learning habit of mind sufficiently that they are able to be the driving force, determining what they need to learn and why they need to learn it. The instructor must be flexible and help students move forward from wherever they are rather than having a predefined plan for how the course will go.
I enjoyed teaching the FYS in Fall 2017 although it was the most challenging teaching experience I’ve ever had. The shifting of the focus from the teacher to the students is difficult because both I and my students are used to the teacher being in almost complete control of the classroom. For my part, a big part of the challenge was figuring out how much control is just enough at each stage of the semester. I’m not sure I ever got it right but by the end of the semester, I think a majority of the students was on their way to actually taking charge of their education. This is what cluster curriculum is all about!