Going Off-Book: Setting Textbooks Aside to Teach Foundational Skills

No visualization of the college experience would be complete without a bulky pile of textbooks stacked upon a dormitory desk for a long night of studying. And while the format provides a way for students to memorize the key concepts, vocabulary, and history within any number of subjects, it also has its limitations. The process of cultivating foundation skills, for example, is anathema to such tomes.

To learn critical thinking, communication, information literacy, and problem-solving skills, students benefit from a more active and fluid curriculum. Take this example of a textbook-free classroom from The Chronicle of Higher Education: James Madison University’s X-Labs challenge students to navigate problems that don’t have any prescriptive materials—or right answers for that matter.

The world students will enter after graduating from college is rapidly changing, and employers have noted that their newest hires aren’t always up for the challenge. In a previous post we identified the 6 highly effective habits of Real-time Learners, which empower individuals to proactively seek solutions to obstacles and adapt successfully to any situation. Courses that incorporate experiential-learning opportunities give students a head start on honing these skills. When students are pushed to venture beyond the framework of rote instruction, new pathways open up in their brains, instilling greater confidence in their ability to surmount the obstacles they will encounter in their academic and professional careers.

When students arrive at their post-graduation career, it’s highly unlikely they’ll also be given a textbook about their job with all the answers in the back. The days when most jobs were comprised of a limited set of tasks and outcomes are sunsetting across the United States. Automation and outsourcing have eliminated lifelong careers in such jobs, a trend that isn’t predicted to reverse any time soon. If higher education is to live up to its promise of preparing individuals for success in the real world, it must do more to provide an environment where students can learn how to increase their comfort in ambiguous and shifting situations. Ambiguity is the new normal, and teaching how to react to its omnipresence can’t be accomplished through mass-produced textbooks.

Programs like JMU’s X-Labs provide a place for students to dip their toes in the water while they still have the safety net and resources of their university available to them. Rather than asking them to learn on the job, when their livelihood and future prospects are at stake, institutions of higher ed should develop these skills in concert with their discipline-specific curricula. Fortunately, the same forces disrupting the world of work can also be harnessed to offer solutions for higher education. New technologies (like NimblyWise!) can help teach and consistently assess the instruction of these foundational skills, ensuring that when students graduate, they do so with the confidence to thrive in their desired field.