We are continuing to work on The Four Tools of Clusters at Plymouth State University. Thematic pathways in the General Education program is the tool that is the most challenging to get going because a pathway involves some sort of coordination among multiple classes. I facilitated a session during January Jamboree this year to talk about creating them and realized that, although the Gen Ed Committee has talked about the characteristics of a thematic pathway and how it is different than a minor, many faculty and staff do not know what we have said about that. So I thought it might be helpful to put together a quick guide so that we can really start to focus on developing this important tool on a larger scale than we have so far.
[w]e 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.
After the General Education Committee discussed these ideas, I wrote a concise definition of a thematic pathway:
A thematic pathway in General Education is a set of courses in which the connections between them are made explicit to the students via the pedagogy of the classes. In addition, to participate in a thematic pathway, a student must be able to articulate both the connections between the classes as well as the material/concepts/skills learned in those classes that can be transferred to other contexts.
At around the same time that the General Education Committee came up with this definition of a thematic pathway, we were applying for a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation to help us with the implementation of cluster pedagogy. As I wrote when we learned we had received the grant, cluster pedagogy is characterized by:
Interdisciplinarity and integration: Students are challenged to understand and use various disciplinary perspectives and to integrate those perspectives to create new and unique projects and/or solutions.
Project-based work that extends beyond the walls of the classroom: Students work on projects that impact the world outside of the classroom in some way.
Sharing with an external audience: Student work is shared with an audience external to the course.
The General Education Committee then decided that a thematic pathway helps students make the connections between classes via the use of cluster pedagogy in the classroom. In the nearly year and a half since we received the Davis grant, we have broadened our ideas about the third bullet, expanding it to include a broader set of principles related to open pedagogy which was explained in the grant application like this:
Our vision of cluster pedagogy is informed by the wider movement toward open pedagogy that we see taking hold in higher education. We subscribe to the definition of open pedagogy articulated by DeRosa and Jhangiani in “What is Open Pedagogy?”. They write that open pedagogy is advocacy for the use of open educational resources merged with pedagogical approaches that emphasize “collaboration, connection, diversity, democracy, and critical assessment of educational tools and structures.”
When we first started talking about thematic pathways, we focused a lot on microcredentials (a badge or a certificate, for example), some sort of designation a student would get when they participate in a pathway. The badge or certificate would be a tangible expression of the pathway experience. As our ideas about thematic pathways have evolved, we have mostly neglected this part of the conversation. I have been reluctant to foreground the credentialing aspect of the idea because I have wanted our focus to be on creating meaning through the educational process so that we actually change something about our teaching practices. But I acknowledge that there is potential meaning and value in the product that students might get from receiving a credential that clearly marks their participation for the world outside of PSU. So as we develop our pathways, we should revisit the conversation about microcredentials. And most importantly, we should involve students in the conversations so that we have a better sense of the kinds of thematic pathways they would value.
Image Credit: “Railroad Path” taken in Plymouth, NH, on November 10, 2019 by me.
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.