Are we preparing students to successfully navigate complexity and rapid change?

Last October, a group of students signed a letter complaining about an organic chemistry professor – Maitland Jones Jr. – and his undergraduate class at New York University (NYU). According to the students, the class was too demanding, had very high expectations and the exams were too hard. They also complained about the professor’s teaching techniques and supposedly lack of interest in their own learning. As an educator myself, I was shocked to learn that NYU’s response to the students’ letter was to not renew the professor’s contract. This response sets a dangerous precedent for higher education, as it extends “a gentle but firm hand to the students and those who pay the tuition bills.” To me, it also communicates to other professors not to challenge students; it is better to lower the level and get high reviews – even if this may jeopardize students’ learning outcome.

Students’ letter actually surfaces a deeper phenomenon: a change in students’ attitude and their “focus on assessment and grades rather than the learning process.” (Blaschke, 2012) More than a decade ago, Jones pointed to this problem when he “noticed a loss of focus among the students.” Today, this often manifests by students not coming to class, not engaging in intellectual discussion or with the material, and not reading with enough attention to grasp the concepts. These behaviors are coupled with a passive attitude where students asking questions and pursuing complementary resources to deepen learning (requesting office hours, seeking more information, etc.) have become rare – while COVID and online learning may have exacerbated the problem, this situation has been brewing for a long time. In general, rather than understanding the origin of students’ apathy, universities response seems to have been to “dumbing down” content and lowering quality standards – at least here in the US.

This is a systemic problem that goes beyond chemistry; it also impacts design education.

A vicious cycle

Despite the claim from various design programs that they are equipping students to become the next generation of innovators and change makers, this seems hard to believe in the current educational context. Many students attend classes with the expectation that they will be told what to do and how to do it, and they will invest little time (and effort) but be rewarded with the highest grade. Students’ lack of motivation permeates the whole teaching-learning dynamics to the point that sometimes it becomes hard even for educators to do their job: teach students to think – as happened to Jones. Probably to avoid complains and bad reviews, indirectly educators also contribute to the problem. In many classes, lack of enforcement to make sure students are applying techniques correctly, low requirements to pass assignments, and only celebratory feedback implicitly “endorse” students’ behaviors.

Grade inflation or allocation of grades that do not reflect pedagogical goals, perpetuate the problem too – and is unfair to those students who do put in the effort and want to learn. As Jones expressed, educators should “have the courage to assign low grades when students do poorly without fear of punishment” from students, peers, or the university. However, this is easier said than done.

All these factors create a vicious cycle where students are not really being challenged by higher education. In this context, how could we expect students to lead change? or to develop the needed capabilities and competences to tackle ambiguous situations or deal with complexity? To truly prepare the next generation of designers to succeed in a rapidly changing world, we need to teach students to think and reflect, to “draw logical conclusions,” to “hypothesize about how to get from A to B”; that is, to “become lifelong learners,” as Blaschke puts it.

Breaking academic resistance to change

While acknowledging the need for change, many higher education institutions continue to work with mostly traditional pedagogical models and seem reluctant to major modifications. On the other hand, some institutions have already implemented different models of teaching and learning. This is the case of some universities in Australia, the UK, and the Netherlands, which have used heutagogy, an approach rooted in self-determined learning. Working with this approach supports individual and collaborative reflection, and gives students control of their own learning and professional development, which improves teacher outcomes and students’ ability to investigate problem situations, question reality, and engage in complex settings.

Elements of this approach, such as flexible curriculum, learner-directed questions, and flexible and negotiated assessment, as well as encouraging the use of supporting reflective aids, like journals and activities, could greatly benefit design education. By engaging with real-world scenarios, students would learn in changing environments that are both complex and unpredictable. “Reflecting on the learning experiences and relating these experiences to professional practice” will help keep students “motivated to learn, to connect with other learners, and to continue on with the reflective process.” (Blaschke, 2012)

Systemic change does not happen from one day to the other. Willingness to relinquish power (from educators to students), to place students at the center (rather than those who pay the bills), and to try different models of instruction is the first step to move forward. To start shifting the focus toward student self-direction of the learning process, we need to reward growth, foster autonomy, and encourage reflection. Equally important is to shift students’ attitude to prepare them for such an approach.

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