Agile Mind Education and Value Creation in "Wicked" Learning Environments

By Maria Toyoda, PhD

If much of the work of the last century involved kind domains, the future of work for our students in this century is all wicked. Human intelligence (versus AI) has the advantage in so-called “wicked learning environments,” where feedback is characterized by uncertainty, poor information, and ambiguity. Contrast that with “kind” environments, where feedback is accurate, immediate, predictable, and directly linked to appropriate actions (see Hogarth, et al. 2015).

This shift is a good thing. If work can be automated, it is likely because this is work that takes place in kind domains. It’s much harder to build algorithms against the backdrop of noisy feedback. Our job is to ensure that our students develop and hone the ability to roll with the unpredictable and the uncertain, and play confidently inside wicked domains. Yes, this will require agility, but what does that mean, and how do we cultivate it?

The answer is that we get back to some academic basics. We’re fortunate to be a comprehensive University that seeks to turn out well-rounded individuals. With five schools and colleges that cover a wide disciplinary span, we have richness in our choices. But are we best exploiting our intellectual wealth effectively enough?

We rightly take pride in our cutting-edge professional education. But if the cutting edge dulls at an accelerating pace these days, our students also need enduring lessons in agility. These come from the ways we root students in the abilities to connect ideas across subject domains, to appreciate different perspectives and frameworks, and to engage in intellectual playfulness and risk-taking. We know what this looks like: it is the heart of liberal arts and humanistic study. But are we giving our students enough time, space, and encouragement to explore “liberally” and in interdisciplinary ways so that they may discover their “why” and these critical connections? It’s time to step back and reflect on whether our curriculum is providing that liberal space.

Agile Mind Education builds the ability to transfer knowledge across domains. Liberal exploration is the first step towards this goal, and that exploration can happen anywhere on- and off-campus. It happens through high-impact practices, both inside and outside the classroom. It happens when an Accounting student realizes that behavioral science can help explain tax dodging. When a Criminal Justice major connects incarceration to something she read in a Kafka story. Or even when a Mechanical Engineer working on a tricky mechanics problem has a lightbulb moment triggered by a basketball defensive move.

Agile Mind Education is characterized by continual and transformational learning. Practicing it prepares learners of all ages to navigate change in a complex, hyperconnected future that is both disrupted and disruptive. Those who adopt an agile and growth mindset are prepared to create new value, not just once—but as a continuous and iterative process. It is one of the three pillars supporting Powerful Preparation for the Future of Work, but I hope this post shows that the New Traditional University (described by President Johnson in his last post) is the vehicle for delivering on the agile mindset, and this, in turn, will enable Personal Exploration and Growth (PEG). Kristine Goodwin will talk more about PEG in the next post.

Nothing is more important to the work of the future than the ability to make these connections. I would like to think that One University means not just breaking down structural silos, but breaking down the intellectual ones, too. 

Robin M. Hogarth, Tomás Lejarraga, and Emre Soyer. “The Two Settings of Kind and Wicked Learning Environments” Current Directions in Psychological Science 2015, Vol. 24(5) 379–385

Maria Toyoda, PhD

Dr. Toyoda was appointed Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Western New England in July 2021. BIO