Bringing It

Bringing It #111: Bringing It All Back HoME: Curricular Innovation and Plymouth State University

September 21, 2023

Dear friends,

As readers of Bringing It know, our work at BT2P is focused on the Paradigm Project, an effort to advance systemic change on behalf of holistic, engaged, equitable learning for all students. One strand of the project is lifting the example of institutions, programs, and campus change-makers whose innovations give us models to learn from. Today’s Bringing It focuses on one such exemplar—Plymouth State University—and its success in re-imagining one of the biggest challenges to change: general education.

Gen ed has a bad reputation. Students tick off boxes, moving begrudgingly through introductory courses taught just as begrudgingly by their instructors. Our friend Paul Handstedt (Vice-Chancellor of Academic Affairs and Innovation at the University of Minnesota at Rochester) puts it well: “Rather than inviting students to feel capable, energized and part of something meaningful, we hand them a checklist that all but says, ‘You’re stupid. You need the basics. Again.’” Some institutions, however, are innovating new models of gen ed, infusing it with meaningful learning and in the process re-imagining curricular paths. One such case is New Hampshire’s Plymouth State University (PSU).

PSU’s general-education model, called the Habits of the Mind Experience (HoME) program, is part of a broader curricular redesign launched by president Donald Birx in 2018. That new curriculum is based on a “Cluster Learning Model,” which shifted the focus from siloed disciplinary content toward learning experiences that, “break down boundaries between disciplines, between the classroom and ‘the real world,’ and between teacher and student so that we are all learners, who—together—can change the world.” At the heart of the model is more emphasis on interdisciplinary (often interdepartmental) learning, team-teaching, and problem-based, experiential pedagogy.

What foundational learning experiences—what general education—do students need to flourish in such an active, integrative curriculum? The HoME Program is PSU’s answer. Through a series of innovative courses, students are oriented toward four key “Habits of Mind,” aimed not at delivering buckets of knowledge but at developing the capacity to learn and grow: Purposeful Communication, Problem-Solving, Integrated Perspective, and Self-Regulated Learning. Over the course of their career at PSU, students take one-third of their total units in HoME courses, beginning with Tackling a Wicked Problem in their first year and culminating with an Integrated Capstone in their last.

That initial course—Tackling a Wicked Problem—underscores what is so innovative about PSU’s rethink of general education. Amanda Whitworth (Associate Professor in Habits of Mind Experience) describes it as the university’s re-imagining of the first-year seminar. In place of a traditional seminar theme, each section takes on a complex, real-world problem, and students are tasked collectively to develop team projects that respond to it. In the process, Whitworth says, “we engage students in different opportunities to reflect on their own habits of mind and to increase their understanding and development of them.” In centering the Habits as the outcomes for their learning, students experience the growth of their own learning and reflect on how it can apply to not just their future careers, but their lives.

This reframing of general education has implications not only for student learning, but also for the classroom practices and the professional “habits of mind” of faculty. For Amanda Whitworth, teaching in the HoME program feels more like facilitating. She sees her classroom as a learning community, and she does not use a traditional scaffolded syllabus. Instead, there is an emergent course plan, where the students assist in bringing content into class. She is consistently reckoning with the fact that she is not a subject matter expert on the wicked problems she teaches, since the “subject” is as much in her students’ hands as hers. She uses “un-grading” practices to evaluate student learning, allowing students to assess their own progress and come to an agreement with her on their grade.

Asking students to assume such responsibility can be hard. “Often it is extremely challenging for students who have not had an experience like this before to engage with the course,” she reflects. “It requires this iterative, constant self-reflection that helps increase their ability to show up as their full authentic selves in the classroom.” And that makes the faculty role a demanding one. “In order to keep students going in the right direction, it requires quite a bit of feedback,” she says, “it’s heavy on writing and communicating.” Nevertheless, it is her faith in the benefits of community-building, of the grit and iteration skills that these courses develop for students, that keeps her motivated. “I have found it equally difficult and awesome,” she says.

The change accomplished by innovations like PSU’s Habits of Mind Experience (and PSU’s Learning Cluster Model more generally), is, in Amanda Whitworth’s great phrase, “difficult and awesome.” The HoME program does the difficult work of breaking open old models of general education. It integrates faculty and fields, campus and community, in new forms of interdisciplinary, problem-based learning. In the process, it helps students develop not only skills, but also habits of mind that are foundational to becoming active, self-directed, socially-engaged learners. It requires both students and teachers to shift their expectations and responsibilities. The results can be awesome.

Plymouth State is only one of an array of institutions whose re-imagining of general education we have been following and learning from. Other exemplars—varied in their design and institutional changes, but with a common commitment to holistic, transformative learning—include the Metro College Success Program at San Francisco State University, the Gateway to Phoenix Success (GPS) program at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and Purdue’s Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts Program. We are sure there are other exemplars we haven’t yet learned about. Let us know where you see positive change happening.

Thanks so much to Professor Amanda Whitworth for sharing her perspective, and to Plymouth State University for this inspirational story.

Additional News and Events:

  • Director of Elon University’s Center for Engaged Learning (CEL) Jessie L. Moore has a new book out titled Key Practices for Fostering Engaged Learning: A Guide for Faculty and Staff. Not only is Moore’s definition of engaged learning incredibly useful, it also draws upon years of research and cohort seminars from the CEL. We hope you find these key practices helpful.
  • The California Community Colleges’ Success Network (3CSN) is hosting a new season of its Civic Dialogues series. Beginning September 29th, this series covers topics ranging from Relational Organizing to Occupational Education and hosts engaging scholars and experts to facilitate discussions. For more information on session topics and dates, explore this page on Cal State Northridge’s website. You can access the Zoom link for this series here.
  • The Fall ‘23 Teaching Social Action Institute will be hosted at the University of Michigan on October 28-29, at the University of Michigan. Designed to give instructors tools and background to incorporate student-led social action campaigns in their courses, this is the first of two workshops–The Winter Institute will take place online in January. This Institute is hosted by the Bonner Pathways Alliance, and will be held at the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). Applications are due by October 10th. Any questions can be directed to Cristy Watkins and Professor Arun Agrawal, Fall ‘23 Institute organizers.

With thanks for all that you do,

David, Gianna, Gillian, Kate, Paul, and Todd

Bringing Theory to Practice
Elon University