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Two things we should all borrow from the Minerva model

Now, in year two, this university of the future has a lot to share

When I ask myself what is the essence of our work at the Education Design Lab, it is to completely reimagine “higher education”– without the constraints of existing structures and norms–in ways that better serve non-elite students. And, every time I interact with the creators of Minerva, I am struck by the “completely” part of what they are doing. There are two pieces of the Minerva model (to create a futuristic Ivy League school at $10K tuition a year) that particularly light the path for the rest of us.


115 Habits and Foundations

Wow, Stephen Kosslyn, you rock. Minerva’s neuroscientist provost has led an effort to reduce core learning objectives to a trackable set of 115 “habits of mind” and “foundational concepts” on which every student is measured throughout the year. As former chair of the Academic Committee on the board of a large public university, I wish I had had this dashboard to assess our commitment to teaching students how to learn. Minerva had the luxury to start from scratch, unconstrained by departmental budgets and deans and Carnegie units. This fresh canvas has allowed them to break down and put back together a framework for how students should grow into their abilities to manipulate knowledge, experience and relationships. Complete with handy hashtags that reduce learning objectives into assessable chunks.

The academic team at Minerva headquarters is Mission Control for Habits of Mind.
The academic team at Minerva headquarters is Mission Control for Habits of Mind.

All 115 habits and foundations roll up into four competency categories…

Two related to personal abilities:

thinking critically: evaluating claims, analyzing inferences, and weighing decisions

thinking creatively: facilitating discovery, solving problems, and creating products, processes and services

Two focused on types of transpersonal abilities:

communicating effectively: using language effectively, using nonverbal communication effectively

interacting effectively: negotiating, mediating, and persuading; working effectively with others; resolving ethical dilemmas and having social consciousness

In its pilot year (2014-15) with only 28 students, Minerva saw growth across these hard to measure metrics. For example, they saw a bump from pre to post using the CLA+ critical thinking test; however, since their entering freshmen were already at the top of the scale, they had to measure them against seniors at other schools.

This fall, the brave pilot freshmen have agreed to take a gap year so a second, larger cohort can catch up with them. And, their bosses at various internships report impressive critical thinking habits forming already.


On the Bus with Miss Frizzle

Which gets us to the second part of the model that offers important design ideas for other universities: the Global Learning Lab. Freshman year requires four foundational courses in a synchronous online format and curated learning labs around the San Francisco’s agencies and companies. Once the second cohort catches up, students will spend the next 3 years traveling the world in cohorts of about 150 students to a new city each semester. Arguably, 95% of learning happens outside the classroom, so Minerva is mapping the habits to experiential-based concentrations that will occur as students hopscotch the globe with a professor who sounds like Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus.

Chief Experience Officer Robin Goldberg Skyping with students and colleagues.
Chief Experience Officer Robin Goldberg Skyping with students and colleagues.

By the end of their four years, students will have lived in seven major cities. “We don’t have a physical classroom with four walls–instead we built a virtual classroom that allows the curriculum to travel with the students wherever they are in the world,” explains Robin Goldberg, who has the apt title of Chief Experience Officer and a professional background in education and exotic travel. “The students can then focus deeply in interdisciplinary, practical, relevant majors and concentrations and take those learnings to all corners of the globe to see how they apply in a global context.”


That Would Never Work Here

So what does a well-funded, non-profit, “elite” startup university have in common with traditional colleges and universities? The traditional schools I talk to admire these design ideas, and they believe this is where the puck is headed for the future of learning. But I hear huge frustration that it’s almost impossible for them to build a new plane while flying the old one. With Minerva willing, refreshingly, to share most of its model in design sessions or other workshop formats, this is a great opportunity for schools that don’t have the luxury of a blank slate to see if any part of its model is applicable.

We can’t all have a blank slate. But we can all benefit from the clarity of their clean room design research.

Sure, it might not be scalable for the average state university serving 30,000 undergraduates to send large swaths of its student body on far flung, integrated, credit-bearing field trips, but if Minerva’s habits of mind, for example, continue to show promise, why not prototype some custom versions for a first year experience at a community college at considerable cost savings? Micro-credentialing is starting to provide a roadmap to capture informal learning of 21st century skills. Why not adapt the habits of mind to assess and credential experiential learning at a state university? The field trips can be local, the mapping of learnings might be just as rich. We can’t all have a blank slate. But we can all benefit from the clarity of their clean room design research.


-Kathleen deLaski