Mission to Learn

I fell into a fascinating website the other day, Stanford 2025 (http://www.stanford2025.com/#intro), describing a design team exercise to imagine what Stanford University might look like in 2025. The designers worked with hundreds of students, faculty and staff, asking groups to pretend it was the year 2100 and they were looking back at Stanford in the year 2025.

Each group was tasked with remembering what going to university had been like in 2025, after the 2014 design exercises had inspired some progressive changes in how students at Stanford learned. To focus the exercise, the design group prepared a basic toolkit and left the toolkit up on the website for anyone to use in a similar exercise.

I was struck with how different the imagined 2025 university would be, but also with how possible the changes were, with just some simple shifts in mindset and motivation. The one that really excited me was their exploration of purpose.

The “Purpose Learning” group described the current 2014 system as “Students declare majors and focus their studies on declared majors.” In 2025 “Students declare missions and couple disciplinary pursuit with the purpose that fueled it.”

Statements made in 2014 like “I’m a Biology Major” morphed in 2025 to “I’m learning human biology to eliminate world hunger.” A student with a double major in computing and political science in 2025 might develop a personal mission statement stating: “I’m learning Computer Science and Political Science to rebuild how citizens engage with their governments.”

The Purpose Learning group imagined Stanford connecting with the Olympics every two years, establishing seven new labs with each Olympic games focused on seven different local to global problems that the host city chose to concentrate on. Just as the Olympics attracts the best athletes, the Impact Labs would attract the best faculty, students and community members to create world-record progress on tough civic, environmental, political, social and cultural problems.

The outcomes for the imaginary 2025 students included:

  • Stanford graduates accelerated both their personal sense of meaning and outward global impact
  • Alumni fondly reflected on how their personal missions established at Stanford acted as an anchor as they charted their path beyond the Farm
  • An endless list of contributions to issues of poverty, health, infrastructure, renewable energy, global governance, space travel, artistic and cultural achievement, etc.

What really struck me about this vision was how much more it challenged students to make a difference in the world, as compared to the current paradigm of being taught information that can serve as a career substrate but isn’t particularly motivational to contribute towards the public good.

I have a related idea I’ve flogged around my university, only half seriously because I doubted there would be much possibility of implementing it. The idea is to create a capstone course called “Making the World a Better Place.”

In this course, students would do something in the community with their education that created positive progress, and they wouldn’t graduate until they presented their project to faculty. Students could work individually or collaboratively with other capstone students, reporting back each week for feedback and support from their fellow students and the Better Place faculty.

A final presentation and web-based report from each student or group would conclude the course, preceded by two or three dry-run presentations and drafts of their writing/website so that faculty could work with students to improve their speaking and writing skills. Success wouldn’t necessarily be required, although preferred, but at least a sincere attempt to accomplish something outside the ivory tower would be needed before receiving a diploma.

Turning education from majoring to missioning creates the expectation that life is not only about self-improvement but also about accomplishing a larger task that gives back to the community.

That’s a learning outcome I can get behind.