Media, Technology, and Education
General EducationIntegrated ClustersOpen Pedagogy

Connected Learning: Thematic Pathways in General Education

Hands, United, Together

I have been doing a lot of presentations and having a lot of conversations about General Education at PSU and its relationship to our Integrated Cluster Initiative. In particular, we have increasingly been discussing what the phrase “cluster curriculum” means. And I have been turning my attention increasingly toward the idea of thematic pathways within the General Education program.

Working with the INCAP Fellows at PSU, we have created an integrated capstone course for the Gen Ed program. As I wrote in a previous post, the course involves students working on a signature project related to a topic proposed by the instructor of the course. A signature project:

  • Is transdisciplinary: The project integrates knowledge from multiple disciplines and sources to create something new that could not be created without all of them.
  • Is completed collaboratively: The project is large and complex enough that it requires input and work from more than one person to be successful.
  • Is student-driven: While faculty, staff, and community partners provide guidance and coaching, student agency and independence move the project forward.
  • Requires metacognitive reflection: Students reflect on what and how they learn and how their learned knowledge, skills, and dispositions might be transferable to other contexts.
  • Reaches beyond the walls of the classroom: The work of the project touches the world outside the classroom in some way.
  • Has an external audience for project results: The results of the project are presented to someone who is outside of the class.
  • Is completed ethically and respectfully: Work on the project engages internal/external audiences and/or partners with mutual benefit.

Looking at this list of characteristics, I see the importance of creating connections of various kinds in the work we’re doing with cluster curriculum. We are creating connections between disciplines, between individuals working on the project, between what the students are learning in this context and how they might apply it in another context, between the inside of the classroom and the world outside of the classroom, and between students and an external audience for their work. These connections tend to be exciting and motivating to students and lead to student agency so that they feel a sense of ownership over their own learning. Students who engage in this kind of work and are asked to reflect on the connections can talk about what they have learned and why it is important. And this, in my opinion, is the major goal of cluster curriculum.

This idea of learning that is connected in a variety of ways is the motivation for creating thematic pathways in our General Education program. In his post about the Four Tools of Clusters, President Birx said thematic pathways involve “linked course combinations that would lead to a certificate granted upon completion of the sequence.” I would argue that we faculty are very good at creating linked course combinations that result in some sort of certification of completion. We create majors and minors and other kinds of certificates. But students often see these linked combinations of courses as a checklist of courses they must complete rather than as a connected whole that leads to any sort of student agency. To transform a set of linked course combinations from a checklist to something meaningful, I think we have to change what we do in the linked courses. We have to make the connections that we see explicit for our students. And we have to help our students make their own meaningful connections. But the explicit connections should not be just between the courses. We should make all of the connections I listed above explicit in these thematic pathways.

My colleagues Annette Holba, Karolyn Kinane, and Brigid O’Donnell created the first thematic pathway at PSU this past Spring. They taught a set of four courses, each focused on a different component of our General Education program, all focused on contemplative approaches. The four courses were: Curiosity, Ethics, and the Public Good (a Self and Society course), Curiosity, Observation, and the Scientific Process (a Scientific Inquiry course), Curiosity, Perspective, and Shakespeare (a Past and Present course), and Curiosity, Playfulness and Creativity (a Creative Thought course). In their report on the experience, the faculty write: “we foreground approaches as the connecting thread … . What links these courses is a disposition, an attitude, a way of perceiving and working in the world. Students practice cultivating curiosity about others and practice cultivating agency (sense of ownership of reactions and responses) over themselves.” To make the connections between these courses explicit for the students, the faculty scheduled the courses so that they met all together for one hour a week in an “incubator.” The incubator was entirely student-driven in which each week a group of students was responsible for teaching everyone else about what they were learning in class. The response from students and faculty involved in this pilot thematic pathway was overwhelmingly positive.

But I think this is only one way we might implement thematic pathways. Instead of offering all of the courses in the same semester, we might offer a series of courses over several semesters with a focus on a particular approach. An individual student could take the series of courses and build on a project or some other assignment in each of the courses so that final project has gone through several iterations, each layering a depth of understanding gained from revisiting the approach in the current course. Or maybe we connect a set of courses over several semesters with a focus on particular content, rather than an approach. In each subsequent semester, an individual student would gain a deeper understanding of the content. Regardless of the way in which we implement these thematic pathways, we have to be explicit in the ways in which we see the courses connected to each other so that students can articulate those connections for themselves. The most exciting prospect to me is that we might allow students to articulate their own thematic pathways where they explain to us how their courses are related to each other. To me, this is exactly the kind of student agency we are seeking to cultivate with cluster curriculum.

So as we move forward with thematic pathways, I would like us to remember that connected learning is our ultimate goal and not get too hung up on rules and regulations about what makes something a thematic pathway. I am positive there are ways of engaging in connected learning that we haven’t thought about yet. When our students are stewards of their own educations, they can teach us all the ways in which learning can be connected and we should be open to what they’re telling us.

The thoughts in this post are my own and in no way represent settled policy at PSU.

Image Credit: Hands, United, Together, by truthseeker08, CC0

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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