Imagine a higher education institution with each of the following traits.
It doesn’t have the time and space restraints of a evening or day-time face-to-face academic program. Instead of coming to the College daily, weekly, or several times a week; you show up twice a year for a week of carefully designed community building, collaborative learning, connecting with and learning from leading thinkers/writers/artists/educators/designers, enjoying incredible meals with new and old friends, one-on-one meetings with a mentor/advisor, and engaging in preparation for your semester of rich and incredibly personalized study.
In between residencies, you stay in close contact with an advisor who gives you personalized feedback, but so much more than that. This is a person who often becomes a true mentor.
Learner-Driven / Co-Created Learning Plans
Each program has requirements and areas of study, but you have immense choice in what you learn and how you learn it. Within the parameters of the program and with the guidance of a mentor, you get to be a designer or co-designer of what you read, what you create, what you explore, how you explore it, and often how you demonstrate what you are learning and creating. Quite often you can merge your professional and personal interests directly into your learning plans each semester.
Instead of an exercise in jumping through the entirely pre-developed academic hoops of a professor, you are truly a co-creator and co-designer of the what and how of learning. You have the freedom, even the invitation, to bring your whole self to the learning community and experience.
As such, the norm is for students to create work that has immediate relevance to their lives, goals, and work beyond the college. The lines between life and learning are often blurred to the point where it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. Instead of doing work for a course, you are more often learning and creating that which interests you, what has deep meaning and relevance to your current life or the life that you are striving to create.
As mentioned above, there are not really professors in the traditional sense. Instead there are guides and mentor who are there to support you, challenge you, offer encouragement, and stand alongside you in what many often describe as transformational. The depth and length of these relationships goes beyond anything that I’ve ever seen in higher education. And it is not just limited to a few instances. It is the norm of students.
Authentic and Narrative Feedback Instead of Grades
There are no letter grades. Instead, learners receive feedback in the form of rich, personalized, detailed narratives that resemble the sort of insights that one might expect from a personal coach or mentor. This feedback is ongoing through conversations between the learner and mentor, through ongoing feedback about work in progress, as well as with culminating feedback at the end of a term.
In this context, there is no such thing as just striving to earn an “A” or “B.” This is about authentic and deep learning, rigorous inquiry, authentic feedback, and personal growth and transformation. As such, you are less concerned about playing the “game” of school and more focused upon learning, growing, exploring, refining your craft, and deepening your perspective.
A Real Place?
If I’d not seen it and learned about it through years of study, I would have assumed that this was some brand new higher education pilot or experiment. Only what I just described is the experience that students have been getting at Goddard College for decades, and much of it goes all the way back to the launch of the school in the 1930s.
Of course, I’m biased. I was enamored by this vision and approach to education so much that I chose to leave what I thought might be the institution from which I would retire some day. I moved 1000 miles east of my 20-year home in Wisconsin to central Vermont, becoming President of the place that I just described.
It is rare that we can say this in higher education, but for many of the reasons that I just described, Goddard is a unique part of the higher education ecosystem, and so many of the practices here fit beautifully into countless recent innovations and developments. In many ways, Goddard represents a vision and source of inspiration for the future for human-centered learning. It also points to the incredible diversity of philosophy and approach in the American higher education system. We need and want a diverse system if we want to celebrate and support a diverse world. It offers learners a wonderful alternative to the dominant practices in higher education. Goddard offers a gift to the world, a glimpse into one promising future of a deeply human and humane approach to education, one that embraces and nurtures traits like wonder, experimentation, curiosity, hope, and personal agency. Maybe it is even the school that you’ve been seeking.