Building a cohort

Building a cohort

We are building a cohort.

It may be summer, but things haven’t slowed down at the TRP.  While students attend modules on privacy and procurement, economics of health, or grant writing; other are busy with developing Capstone proposals; and still others are doing research assistantships or community work (like the Ride to conquer Cancer); the TRP Team, in addition to working on curriculum development and a couple big projects we are hoping to announce soon, are also working on building next year’s cohort.

Building a cohort is surprisingly difficult.  For one, we are limited to only people who apply–every year there are some potentially interesting inquiries from people who, for one reason or another, do not submit applications.   Still, for spot, we have approximately four applications, so we spend a lot of time on the selection process.

Although we are only entering the fourth round of selection, we have learned that the TRP and its unconventional curriculum is not for everyone.  The most successful students in the previous cohorts have been ones who take initiative, who are self-directed and driven.  We look for people who want to learn, and are willing and open to change; who demonstrate intellectual flexibility and an openness to trying to understand problems from multiple points of view.  We are looking for diverse backgrounds and experiences, and a genuine desire to improve both themselves as learners and advance health and well-being.

But within this subset of people we also try to consider how the composition of the cohort may contribute to each others’ learning, how interests may overlap, complement or diverge.  It is part art, part systematic learning.  And it is all work.   Since we conduct tandem interviews (two people per interview) Just the interviews alone, for twenty people take forty work-hours–not including reviewing the documents or the scheduling or the discussions before and after.

This is not gruelling work, and I am not writing this to whine or complain–this is actually probably one of the best aspects of trying to build a community of translators; meeting new people and getting to know their stories is important work.  I’m writing this because I want people to know, that if by accident or omission, we miss an email or an inquiry, it is not because we are away on vacation or somehow delinquent, it is because, despite it being summer, the TRP, school, education, admissions, recruitment, selection, graduation, proposals, development, etc., still go on.

And those of us who are zealously committed to our mission: ‘to challenge students to think differently so that they may champion change in their communities and contexts’, wouldn’t have it any other way!

–Written by: Joseph Ferenbok, TRP Director


Just give me the fish!–The dilemma of ‘teaching’ innovative thinking

Just give me the fish!–The dilemma of ‘teaching’ innovative thinking

Over the years I have on many occasions heard students say “We need something more concrete” or “If you give us a check-list and your expectations, then we will know what to do”; and I have often heard myself trying to explain that the goal of an assignment is to get students to think critically and or differently about a complex problem.  I have on many occasions had to explain that the directions are intentionally vague or ambiguous and that the expectations is that students adapt assignments to their learning interests and contexts.  I have found it frustrating that, when trying to teach students to think differently, inventively and creatively that they so often continue to place emphasis on the grade of an assignment rather than on the learning process or on their own individual development.

As many others have been increasingly stating, this is a fundamental problem with an out-dated approach to education that permeates most classrooms and levels of education, but in a program intended to help people be innovative and creative focused on self-directed and experiential learning, where the problems of health and care are rarely simple or straightforward, I guess I assumed that students selected and who self-selected for the graduate program would understand that there is (currently) no concrete and absolute formula for innovation.

But telling students that concrete and rigid approaches to learning to abstract where absolutely antithetical to the purposes and goals of the program they had signed up for, wasn’t working.  So, I decided to do something that is somewhat antithetical to my approach, I turned to the literature.  Self-directed experiential and integrative learning are based on the idea that students achieve deep learning by reflecting and abstracting from experiences.  Kolb (2001), includes abstraction and integration as key steps in the learning cycle.  Knowles (1972), in his seminal work on adult self-directed learning discusses how adult learners are interested in problem-based learning that has immediate implications for their life or work experience.

It seems that these two concepts have actually capture a tension that permeates most approaches to higher-level education and is particularly true for adult education.  On the one side is a desire to understand the forms and rules of a domain, skill or competency: “teach me what to do.” On the other hand, is the notion of how do I use this: “let me do it.”  It is an old tension.  The tension between form and function; between standardization and independence; between the establishment and the path-less traveled; the difference between following instructions and learning how to develop your own instructions; between being given a fish, and being taught how to fish.  This is not a new problem.

Unfortunately, many students have been educated in a system that prioritizes the standardization of processes towards a harmonized assessment process for purposes of credentialing and certification of basic levels of competence over the focus on individual development.  Most students have learned to prioritize external evaluations and metrics over individual interests, strengths and development.  In essence, ‘good students’ have learned how to play the educational game well.

This makes them ‘good students’ but bad independent thinkers.  In an age where memorization, repetition and following a predetermined formula is increasingly the role of intelligent algorithms, creativity, collaboration, abductive thinking, navigating complexity are becoming increasingly important for human agents.  To become better independent thinkers, creative thinkers and innovators, we must first un-teach what has been taught.  Without this step, the people who are currently in the system, the young and the experienced (though particularly the ‘experienced’) continue mapping everything ‘new’ being taught into their established mental models.  They frame new learning in terms of their established understandings.  For andragogy, this is a particularly difficult challenge.  It’s harder to mobilize people with lower neuroplasticity out of their cognitive biases, but to push people to be more creative, more innovative and better problem solvers, we have to break-down old patterns and challenge established assumptions, we must get learners to learn to “UNLEARN”.  This must be the priority before we can start to think differently.

But the question remains, how?  Or maybe not how—since there are ways that do seem to work—maybe the question is: how do we do it better?  This is the question that keeps me up at night.


Knowles, M. S., Holton, E., & Swanson, R. (1972). Andragogy. NETCHE

Kolb, D. A., Boyatzis, R. E., & Mainemelis, C. (2001). Experiential learning theory: Previous research and new directions. Perspectives on thinking, learning, and cognitive styles1(8), 227-247.