Media, Technology, and Education
Cluster PedagogyHabits of MindIntegrated Clusters

The Cluster Initiative at PSU

For the past five years, Plymouth State University has been working on the Integrated Cluster Initiative, the vision of President Donald Birx. Our ideas of this initiative have evolved but the core principles remain in place. The focus of the initiative is to provide students with learning experiences that will help them to develop knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will serve them well both while they are in college and after they graduate.

Habits of Mind: Goals of the Cluster Initiative

A successful Plymouth State University graduate has developed knowledge, skills, and dispositions related to the Habits of Mind, which are particular ways of engaging with the world. The four Habits of Mind are lifelong learning goals that we continue to work on throughout our lives but our graduates have an excellent head start on developing them. Our graduates are purposeful communicators who take the context of a communicative event into account as they think through the most effective strategies for sending and receiving various kinds of messages. They are excellent problem solvers who can identify the various challenges in a problem and develop plans for addressing those challenges. They evaluate their progress in addressing those challenges and revise their plans appropriately in response to their evaluation. Our graduates are skilled collaborators who understand themselves and what they bring to the collaboration. They actively seek out and incorporate the perspectives of others and understand the value of connecting with others. Finally, our graduates take responsibility for their own learning, understanding that education is a lifelong pursuit. They seek out experiences that will provide them with the opportunity to learn what they need to in order to accomplish their goals and they value  learning for its own sake.

In summary, the four Habits of Mind that our students graduate with are purposeful communication, problem-solving, integrated perspective, and self-regulated learning.

The Cluster Learning Model

We have created the Cluster Learning Model specifically to provide students with opportunities to develop the Habits of Mind. There are three major components to the Cluster Learning Model.

When a student chooses to major in a particular field, they are choosing to learn a particular set of ways of viewing and engaging with the world.  Each student will learn about the methods used in their chosen field. They will learn about what counts as evidence or knowledge in their chosen field (which is called epistemology) as well as the historical development of these methodological and epistemological choices. These items comprise the discipline of their chosen field. The ways that an English major engages with the world is quite different than the ways that a Physics major engages with the world. This is an example of disciplinarity. Plymouth State University students have a strong disciplinary grounding through the courses in their major. The Cluster Learning Model focuses interdisciplinarity. We bring students together in interdisciplinary teams (students from different majors) and help them to integrate their particular disciplinary expertise with that of other students. Students learn to talk and collaborate with other students whose backgrounds and education cause them to view and engage with the world differently.

We believe that deep learning comes from action. Therefore, we provide students with the opportunity to work on projects that will make a difference in the world. This project-based learning allows students to practice all of the Habits of Mind as they take increasing responsibility for designing and implementing group projects that will make a difference in the world.

And we understand that our students come to us with full lives outside of the classroom. We are committed to using open educational practices (which is called open pedagogy) to take those lives into account. Open pedagogy means that we try to break down various barriers that are features of traditional educational experiences. For example, we break down the economic barrier to access to educational materials by using Open Educational Resources (OER) which are free to students. We understand that students come to us with pre-existing knowledge and that they can do more than simply consume knowledge created by others. They can contribute knowledge that benefits the world and so we engage them in writing OER and creating web sites and designing and developing projects with and for off-campus partners. We want our students to have the opportunity to practice their self-regulated learning skills and so we break down the traditional conception of who has control in the classroom. We provide our students with opportunities to determine what they will learn about a particular topic, how they will learn it, and how they will demonstrate their learning. Open pedagogical practices allow us to truly put students at the center of the classroom.

In summary, our Cluster Learning Model has three major components: interdisciplinarity and integration, project-based learning, and open pedagical practices.

Some Tools of Clusters

At Plymouth State University, we have, for a long time, provided some of our students with the opportunity to practice the Habits of Mind using projects and other high impact practices. With our Cluster Learning Model, we provide these opportunities to ALL students. We do this by situating the opportunities within the General Education program, a set of courses that are required of all students. In particular, we provide every student with at least two Cluster Learning experiences.

In their first year at PSU, students are required to take Tackling a Wicked Problem (TWP). Each section of the course is focused on a cultural or societal problem (a wicked problem) that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to solve because there are so many perspectives on the cause of the problem, because implementing solutions would be expensive and likely have unforeseen negative consequences, and because the problem is intimately connected to other wicked problems. Examples of wicked problems from previous sections of TWP include homelessness, poverty, racism, climate change, disinformation, gender inequality, pollinator decline, hunger, and so on. In the class, students are guided by a faculty member to design and develop projects that might have some lasting impact on some part of the problem. Students will not solve the problem but are trying to make a some sort of difference in the world. They might organize a food drive to combat hunger in their local community. They might design a micro-windmill to provide alternative energy sources in the fight against climate change. They might build a claim checking web site to combat disinformation. They might plan a campus garden that is friendly and attractive to bees and other pollinators. They might organized a petition in support of a low-income housing project to try to combat homelessness in the local community. The students come up with the ideas. They design the projects. They implement the project plans. They think about their current development of the Habits of Mind and set goals for themselves in reflective essays. And through their self-reflective work on their self-designed projects, they work on their communication and problem-solving skills, they collaborate with each other and people outside the classroom, and they begin to develop a sense of agency necessary for becoming self-regulated, life-long learners.

Near the end of their time at PSU, students take an Integrated Capstone (INCAP) course which mirrors TWP in many ways. Students engage in a signature project which:

  • 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. 

Because students are in their junior or senior year when they take the INCAP, they are better able to bring their disciplinary knowledge to the projects that they design than they were when they took TWP. Like students in TWP, they write reflective essays about their development of the Habits of Mind and set goals for themselves.

Plymouth State University has built a variety of spaces across campus where people (students, faculty, staff, community members, external partners) can come together to talk about and work on projects. We call these spaces open labs.

What We Are Still Working On

When President Birx wrote his blog post about Tools of Clusters, he identified four of them. The fourth is Thematic Pathways in the General Education program. Although we have offered several of these in the past we are still working on developing consistent sets of classes between which students can see and experience connections. These classes will use the Cluster Learning Model and provide opportunities for students to work on the Habits of Mind.

We are also working on developing more examples of the INCAP to provide students with choice in the kinds of projects they can work on.

The Habits of Mind are being used in a variety of places across campus as a framework for student learning. For example, events in the dorms now focus explicitly on student development of the Habits of Mind. Many student employment opportunities use the Habits of Mind as a framework for evaluating student performance. Various academic programs are providing explicit opportunities for students to practice the Habits of Mind.


Image Credit: Dandelion taken by me on May 24, 2021

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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