Structural Thinning: Removing the layers of structure that constrain our students’ potential

When it comes to (higher) education, structure is inherently necessary. It defines resources and commitments, ensures stability, and sets expectations for all who participate. But too much structure is detrimental. For students, it shuts down growth and creativity, and prevents them from benefiting from, and contributing to, the very resources designed to support them. And for educational systems, it prevents them from adapting and being nimble, which ultimately threatens their relevance and viability.

Unfortunately, this is true for experiential learning- the area of education that transports students out of the classroom and into the world through internships, mentored research, global experiences and project-based learning. In an effort to provide students with meaningful opportunities, colleges and universities bury their resources in layers of structure and complexity. To access offerings, students must navigate organizational offices and programs, applications, deadlines, fees and curricular requirements. And if they are fortunate to obtain an opportunity, they must comply with requirements, securing signatures, count hours, and meet stringent expectations.

How ironic that we have managed to suck the life out of the most exciting and expansive type of learning.

So let us begin to remove the excessive layers of structure, starting with opportunities themselves. Keep only what is necessary to ensure value and set students on their way. In our model, we require that experiences are mentored and collaborative, and that they result in something that is meaningful for an identified audience. Mentoring gives students a connection with a faculty or staff member, seeding a relationship that can offer support and encouragement. Collaboration provides students with feedback and challenges them to adapt and integrate as they pursue their goals. And a meaningful contribution stretches students to think beyond themselves, to consider an audience and work to add value through their actions. With these key design components in place, we release all other constraints and open up the universe of possibilities.  

When you begin to view the world through the lens of meaningful projects, amazing things start to happen. The most exciting opportunities begin to emerge from relationships, challenges, and ideas, and all a student needs to get started is a tingle of curiosity, a desire to understand, or a dream of making a difference.

But, without enough structure, how can we support and assess (experiential) learning? What about students who lack the necessary skills or foundation? Don’t we need some level of consistency across experiences to anchor learning and facilitate success? Yes.

As we remove layers of structure that constrain opportunities and experiences, we must add facilitative structure to the process of engagement, supporting students as they work through their projects, and navigate the challenges that they will encounter as they pursue their goals.   

We support student engagement through our PEARL process, helping them Prepare, Engage and Add Value, Reflect and Leverage their experiences toward broader impacts. We guide students through these stages with prompts and exercises, encouraging them to move forward, integrating their experiences with academic and professional goals. And when they reach the end of the process, we award them a Digital Badge, serving as an enduring symbol of their achievement, linking to their final project and communicating their contributions to external audiences. That’s it. No academic credit, no additional costs, and no external deadlines or threats of termination. The experience is theirs to activate and they have unconditional support to help them through.

I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about stuckness, the state that prevents us from flexing and growing as we engage with the world around us. Although this state can be perilous and demoralizing, especially at the system level, at every moment, we have the power to release ourselves by redesigning the very structures that keep us stuck.

The opposite of stuckness is magnificent. It is creative, innovative and inspiring. It is expansive and generative. It is students finding a sense of purpose and direction, seeking out opportunities to grow and challenge themselves, stretching and thriving, adding value and finding their place in a world that needs every drop of their talent. And for our colleges and universities, unstuckness is a renewed sense of commitment to our students and relevance to the world.     

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