Freedom to choose... a structure

"Frihet under ansvar"

Freedom under responsibility is one of the most important principles governing Norwegian society. The idea is good: You are free to choose your way to reach the goals, you gradually learn to take more and more responsibility, and as you do, your degree of accountability for your actions also increases.  Businesses thrive on this, and the flat hierarchy in the Norwegian working culture pays tribute to applying this principle.

A principle is, as we know, a rule about things that truly matter. One would think that, being as important as it is, incorporating it in schools is a no-brainer. Having this as a cultural trait, schools must be really good at doing this -  raising independent, self-directed and organized students, ready to face the challenges of a complex and uncertain future when they get there.

Except that it doesn`t work so well. By the time students enter higher education, and get closer to their work life, they increasingly prefer traditional lectures and teacher-led activities. Introducing digital innovative teaching technologies, blended learning, or more active student-centered techniques is problematic, as several research reports show.

Not so free after all

The trouble is that students will have been taught to exert freedom within a given structure - the one the teachers provide. So when asked to provide their own structure, be that to choose the way to deliver or a theme for a project, students often refuse - it is so much less cognitively demanding, and much safer that the teacher provides the frame, and the students respond to specific demands.

Freedom to decide over one’s own way of learning - co-creating the content and outcomes of a project are essential skills in the workplace. But this freedom can also be overwhelming, and since the exposure to innovation in higher education is diffuse and ill defined, both institutions and students rarely take chances. Yet, in the workplace students are preparing to meet higher demands with higher degrees. Students are asked to create structures, to provide frames, to make sense of the mess, so called generic skills for innovation.

Innovating the box

Earlier this spring, I was invited to guide several researchers and research administrators from the University of Bergen through a process of designing a PhD course for generic skills in service innovation (link in Norwegian). Instead of working top-down, from learning objectives, the outcomes of the course came through a collective effort of visioning, sense-making and letting content arise from the type of skills that needed to be developed - and not the other way around.  

Designing courses in this manner increases the chance of using similar techniques in one’s own teaching. The first prerequisite for student active learning in higher education is a shift from content delivery towards collaborative, social constructivist, even more chaotic models of teaching.

Universities need to create safe places where innovation can be systematically practiced. As with any other mastery, mastery of the freedom needs to be practiced. Defined. Put in the system. Freedom without structure is very hard to tackle. Innovation needs to be structurally inserted in education in order to provide room for creativity. As Howard Gardner put it: to be able to think outside the box, you first need a box.