Thinking Outside the Box

Breaking free from the wrong limits.


September 11, 2016
Let’s begin with two contemporary koans: Do pet fish realize that they are confined to a fishbowl? Do most educators realize that they, too, reside in a fishbowl?
Education is nested inside a series of boxes. There is one box we call the course. Another is called the semester. Yet a third is the school year. Then, too, there is the degree.  Credit hours, departments, majors, these, too, are boxes.
What happens when we think outside these boxes?
No longer forced to think in terms of courses, semesters, school years, or degrees, we are free to imagine other possibilities.
Instead of the semester, we might think in terms of micro-lectures, lessons, practice exercises, modules, or missions.
Ditto for the fixed-length semester. Once we break away from the notion of a quarter or semester, we can envisage more flexible term lengths that better conform to students’ learning needs, whether accelerated or slower paced. We need to recognize that many students who are not ready for an exam on October 15 might succeed on November 1. We can also consider more flexible start dates.
Too often, I would suggest, we find ourselves trapped inside an educational paradigm and fail to see alternatives or to appreciate their advantages. Many of the roughly forty percent of students at four-year institutions who never graduate would benefit greatly from access to alternate credentials. These might include professional certifications or badges that might eventually stack into specializations or degrees.
All of us recognize that students’ communication skills benefit greatly from substantial amounts of writing. But many faculty members limit the amount of assigned writing because drafting comments and grading is too time-consuming. But one can imagine other ways to give students more opportunities to write while ensuring that they receive valuable feedback. These might include peer or near peer feedback, using carefully designed rubrics, or even a degree of auto feedback.
Breaking free from legacy models liberates us by expanding our options. We might then envisage programs that make it easier for students to incorporate learning experiences from a variety of providers, including military or workforce training. We might also blur the lines separating the campus from the outside world, by integrating more experiential learning into educational pathways, whether in the form of internships or e-internships, clinical or field experiences, or service learning, and further blur the line between high school and post-secondary education by integrating foundational courses, tightly aligned with college expectations, into secondary school.
The boundaries between face-to-face and digital learning, too, might blur. Instead of relegating one modality to knowledge transfer and the other to active learning, we would ensure that both the online and face-to-face components of a class involve highly interactive forms of learning.
Formalized course sharing and cross-registration arrangements (modeled perhaps on the way that the Big 10 Academic Alliance collectively offers over a hundred less commonly taught languages) greatly expand student access to specialized courses while keeping education affordable.
We are at one of those rare moments of fluidity when it is possible to think outside the box. In Texas, we are experimenting with alternatives to high stakes examinations, including frequent low-stakes assessments and a multi-tiered assessment ecosystem that ranges from Checks for Understanding (to monitor lower-level thinking skills, such as recall) to performance based assessments (which involve application, analysis, and evaluation), and team- and challenge-based activities (to assess creativity and problem solving abilities). Such an approach has the beneficial side-effect of discouraging students from punctuating long periods of disengagement with unhealthy cramming for exams.
We are also testing team-based approaches in which small groups of students devote significant amounts of class time to solving challenging problems and applying essential knowledge and skills.
Such approaches alter the traditional instructional staffing model and, to a certain extent, the role of an instructor. Faculty, in such contexts, demonstrate skills less apparent in conventional classroom environments. In team-based courses, faculty must serve as learning architects, mentors, and instructional scaffolders, as well as content experts and providers of feedback and evaluation. Generally, such classes are augmented by a robust online experience and the faculty members are assisted by one or more instructional facilitator. Such an approach can allow a faculty member to work with more students than in a typical “small” class, but with far fewer than in a large lecture, while ensuring that the students engage in active learning and receive the substantial feedback that they need to hone their skills and competencies.
One of postmodernism’s key insights is that many practices that seem natural or inevitable are anything but. Many of higher education’s boxes are constructs, reinforced by tradition and custom. Many may well have outlived their usefulness. Let’s take advantage of this moment of fluidity and re-imagine education not as it is, but as it might be.
Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.


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