Aug 022011

Education Reform: Students Directing Their Learning

Students: HermanMiller, Research Summary 2010

Among the many forces changing higher education, students will take the lead, forcing teachers and colleges to transform themselves. Part of this transformation will involve successfully relating to students who think differently about their education and where and how it happens. Learning spaces—how they’re conceived and the form they take—will play a role in this transformation.

The extraordinarily diverse and complicated system we call higher education has weathered previous storms—and criticism—with remarkable resilience. Yet the academy continues to move very slowly. If our world economy is in need of a major “correction,” is higher education, an entity several centuries in the making, ready to change in  difficult times, or will it fight to remain what it has always been? If higher education is the immovable object, is there an irresistible force?

Yes—it is constant, escalating change, and the increasing complexity it causes. Because change is everywhere—affecting how we meet, communicate, collaborate, purchase, and learn—the simplest processes, activities, and decisions become complicated and problematic. As the daily pace of life increases and the digital universe grows exponentially, one thing is certain: The future will be uncertain, filled with complexity, tensions, economic upheavals, dramatic twists and turns, and stress. Like the tax code, academia seems to become more complicated and complex with each passing day.

Looking to the Future

Both individuals and organizations have pondered the future of education. Their suggestions for reforming it range from taking cautious, incremental steps through radical revision and transformation. Much of the deliberations, ruminations and predictions have centered on how colleges and universities must change to meet multiple challenges such as growing calls for accountability, economic issues, fast-changing technology, and new waves of students.

While there has been much discussion on how higher education will evolve, there has been less emphasis on how the next generation of students will change, forcing teachers and colleges to rethink their venerable traditions, pedagogies, and processes in order to effectively serve a new generation of learners, as well as returning students seeking skills improvement, career enhancement, and lifelong learning. There are warning signs emanating from prominent observers of the next generation of students that the rate of change in colleges must accelerate in order for them to successfully relate to these new students, who will be different because they will think differently.

The New Learner

Harvard professor Howard Gardner, an expert in the field of human cognition, sees ever-increasing globalization influencing all aspects of society while education continues to be slow to adopt new methods or approaches. In his view, “current formal education still prepares students for the world of the past rather than for possible worlds of the future.”1

To meet the challenges of this new, fast-paced world, Gardner feels future students will need to develop five capacities, or skills—he calls them “minds”:



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