Elizabeth Coleman discusses the challenges of education reform during Purdue visit

“When you are making something new, you’re discovering it as you’re doing it. When you can’t answer the question is precisely the moment when everybody wants to know what it is. It’s a fundamental frustration," said Dr. Elizabeth Coleman, president emeritus of Bennington College, who spoke with Polytechnic Incubator faculty and staff during a recent visit to Purdue's West Lafayette campus. "As things happen, you have artifacts you can point to which capture what it is."

"Beginnings are the single most important moment in anything,” Coleman said about the first year of degree programs. “If we could take the word ‘introductory’ out, it would be a very good idea,” she said, suggesting the word “beginnings” as a better choice. In traditional higher education environments, first years are often characterized by large classes and inexperienced instructors, Coleman said, so first years are “a great place to do something wonderful. The possibilities are enormous. Anybody who has worked in the [Polytechnic Incubator] classroom has got to see the extraordinary capacity of students if they are given the opportunity to display it.”

Coleman talked about the challenges of scaling a new program to reach more students. There are challenges just in determining what the right size should be, she said. “When you’ve reached a size which dictates pedagogy, you’re in a bad place. The assumption that any [specific] number gives you good or bad pedagogy is also a real challenge.”

There's no quick way to extend a program's reach, Coleman said. "The most important accomplishment is to show that it’s possible. The greatest challenge to an idea like this will always be ‘it’s a great idea but you can’t do it.’ You have to show it’s a great idea and you can do it."

“One of the things about your work that distinguishes it,” Coleman said about the Polytechnic initiative, "is that your work does not build walls. It does not shut things out. It’s a way of bringing things in."

"There's a profound difference between an organization which is ‘this’ but not ‘that,’" Coleman said. One department might say it's about "history, not politics. Politics, not economics. Chemistry, not biology. This kind of biology, not that kind of biology. That’s a siloing way of thinking,” she said. Purdue Polytechnic Educational Research and Development isn’t about what should be excluded, Coleman suggested, but rather “how it is included." Orderly implementation of systemic upheaval might be neither possible nor desirable. "You want to be as close to chaos as you can get. Why? Because that’s when most things are possible.”

Coleman discussed the inherent tensions between teams charged with designing new ways to work and those who perhaps are still preparing to embrace upcoming change. "In a new idea, one of the messages seems to be, ‘What you’re [already] doing isn’t interesting.' That’s how people read it. That phenomena is not different in technical institutions or liberal arts colleges. How do you [achieve] a complete mind-shift? The most important thing is patience. It’s going to take time," Coleman said.

Coleman also talked about the human brain’s “astounding flexibility," the widespread resistance to altering higher education’s credit-based system, and managing the rate at which change is implemented. Watch the video below or on YouTube at http://youtu.be/kt6LUnmnAB4.