How James Bond and MacGyver Helped Me Write This Blog Post

Educating future MacGyvers means ensuring that students have a solid grounding, then presenting them with new, unstructured problems and paying attention to their process.
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No one ever taught me how to write a blog post for the Huffington Post.

At first, I had no idea if I knew how to do this, just like with many of the things I'm required to do every day. But for most of us, having to do the unexpected is our new normal. Labor Economists Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane make the case that more work in the future will require synthesizing a range of information to solve complex problems, and acquiring, making sense of, and communicating new information.

Yes, just the kind of skills needed to write a HuffPo blog post.

And yet here I am, figuring out how to do this. In just the same way you, gentle reader, solved non-routine problems like that dilemma about that new client at work, made sense of that vexing midterm election ballot initiative, and figured out how to prepare dinner for your family with just the bottle of pickles and maple syrup left in your refrigerator.

So, how'd we do that?

The authors of the National Research Council publication Education for Life and Work made the case that the ultimate goal of education is the ability to take what was learned in one situation and apply it to new situations. This is called "transfer," which stems from what they called "deeper learning"--mastering content through critical thinking and problem solving, communicating effectively, collaborative problem solving, learning how to learn, and maintaining an "academic mindset" (or the belief in yourself as a learner).

We know that this transfer happens somehow; I then wonder what schools can do to promote and measure it. To illustrate, if you'll allow me to drop a whole load of meta on you right now, I'm going to try to solve this problem by applying what I've learned from my doctoral training years of research obsession with Hollywood secret agents.

Let's start with 007. Near the beginning of any Bond movie, Q provides our hero with a complement of gadgets: exploding toothpaste, a keychain that emits stun gas, and a pack of cigarette darts. And then we wait in anticipation to see 007 deploy each of these devices to get out of a sticky situation.

In many situations, we take this 007 approach with student learning: a teacher introduces fractions and provides students with a project (e.g., cutting up construction paper shapes into equal parts) where they apply this new knowledge. And then the unit culminates with a test where students demonstrate they can apply their knowledge to practice solving an anticipated problem (e.g., cutting a recipe in half). If we were to assess for longer-term 007 transfer, we'd wait for that moment in real life when students use that knowledge in more unexpected ways (e.g., figuring out how to defeat Goldfinger when you're down to only 1/7 of a pack of cigarette darts).

My English teachers assumed the same role for me that Q did for 007, planning forward to provide me then with tools I'd need to identify a thesis and use metaphor to make a point, which I'm applying now.

So I'm starting to think I had an educational foundation to do this.

Now by contrast, in the 80's television show "MacGyver," our hero is a secret agent without a Q. Instead, he has to solve complex problems with everyday objects -- he has to think back and figure out which knowledge and skills to draw upon. Trapped in a burning barn, he looks around and sees cold medicine, a chocolate bar, and a paper clip, and uses his understanding of chemical reactions to create an explosive to blow open the door.

Educating future MacGyvers means ensuring that students have a solid grounding, then presenting them with new, unstructured problems and paying attention to their process. Educators' role shifts to provide feedback on how successful students were in choosing what knowledge or skills to transfer to this problem, and how they might could think about the problem in a different way so they could use other knowledge and skills to solve it, perhaps, better, faster, or with fewer resources.

So to solve the problem of this blog post, I considered bringing in my academic training, debated using my research skills, but chose to use my obsession with pop culture to blow open that door.

So now I have an additional strategy to wind this post up.

Understanding both ways of thinking about transfer explains how I'm writing this. So, when we think about how our education system can prepare students to transfer what they've learned to succeed in work and life, the 007 approach reminds us to focus on the knowledge and skills that we anticipate students will eventually need, and give them a chance to practice applying them. The MacGyver perspective suggests we should provide students with unexpected problems and focus on what and how they transfer what they've learned before.

So there it is: I 007-ed and MacGyver-ed my way to finishing this. Whew! And just in the nick of time, because this blog post will self-destruct in five seconds.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Close It Summit, in conjunction with the Close It Summit (October 26-28, 2014, in Washington, D.C.). The series will address issues critical to building new pathways from education to employment for young adults, veterans, transitioning workers, low-skilled workers and recent graduates. To learn more about the summit, read here.

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