Friday, December 3, 2010

Do freshmen students know what is good for them?

About nine months ago I blogged about a new mentoring initiative on my campus intended to benefit freshmen students.  At that time I was a bit worried at the backlash we might receive by "requiring" all freshmen students to participate in the program and asked the question "How much should we require?"  A posting on the blog Confessions of a Community College Dean earlier this week got me thinking about this question again, but from a slightly different angle.  

In the post, "Dean Dad" tells the story of a first-year initiative that attempted to integrate a variety of best practices (a learning community of linked courses, joint assignments between faculty members, and co-curricular activities) but that, in his estimation, was an utter failure.  Interestingly, he reports that the students who participated in the program achieved "course-level academic success," which could be tremendous sign of success.  However, the problem he saw with the program was that students "hated it" and opted out of the program as soon as they were allowed to.  The program has now been discontinued.  Obviously, I don't know enough about this specific situation to make a judgment about whether or not this was a good decision, but I do think it raises some interesting questions for those who design programs and make policies on our campuses.  

There seem to be two competing forces at work in situations like the one on Dean Dad's campus.  First, as educators we are attempting to creat environments that allow learning, growth, and personal transformation to occur.  We create structures, implement policies, provide access to resources, and make requests of students all in an effort to provide them with an opportunity to "learn."  Second, as institutions we have to have students choose to come to our campuses and want to stay once they are here.

This can create interesting dynamics because we have to balance "requirements" and asking hard things of students (things they may not like) against their expectations and desires for their experience (which are quite often naive).  

College will always invite (or require) students to do things that are difficult, frustrating, time-consuming, etc.  I will be the first to admit that many of things we ask of students have no real learning benefit; however, I would like to think that we know something about what promotes learning, and that at least a few of the things that we require of students are in their best interest.  So, what happens when things we truly believe are beneficial for students--general education, new student orientation, a learning community program, etc. aren't well received by students?  And, as we measure the "success" of a new initiative, how important is the question "Did you like it?"

Part of why I'm asking these questions has to do with the experience I've had watching my campus' new peer mentoring program unfold.  There were lots of complaints early on we occasionally hear things like what Dean Dad described in his post (e.g. "you're taking away my freedom" or "this feels like high school").  However, it has been surprising to me to see how many students, faculty members, and parents who once "hated" the program who have are now saying things like "Thank you for your help."  And, "I never realized what a good think you're doing."  I would also wager that there are a number of students who don't realize the value of the experience they are having now, but that will look back and realize they grew a great deal.  

None of this means that an institution should have free reign to require anything and everything from their students and pay no attention to how students are responding.  But, I worry when solid academic programs, supported by the literature and that demonstrate academic value,  get the axe just so we can keep students "happy."  

Friday, November 19, 2010

What is the essence of "education?"

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie was knocked unconscious in a recent game against the Philadelphia Eagles.  The story ended better than expected and Collie sat out a week's worth of practices and the following Sunday's game.  Nonetheless, it was a frightening reminder of the violent nature of football and the risk players assume when they step onto the field.  The NFL has tried to find ways to protect players (penalties for "unsportsmanlike" play, fines for particularly violent hits, etc.).  But, this has raised interesting questions about the nature of football and how much "violence" can reasonably be removed from the game while preserving the essence of the game.  The PGA was faced with a similar dilemma a few years ago when Casey Martin appealed to the association to be able to use a golf cart on the tour.  His case, which eventually was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, hinged on whether "walking" was a fundamental part of the game of golf.

Situations like these are interesting because they force us to examine a practice (golf, football, etc.) and determine what the fundamental and cores aspects of the practice are.  In short, how much can we change about a thing, be it sewing, driving, cooking or otherwise, before it is a different thing?  

With the rapid pace at which education is advancing, developing, and evolving, those of us who care about learning will be faced with this question more and more.  And, it seems to be at the very core of many of the debates being waged in education today from online/distance education (does it count as education if the students aren't all in the same classroom?) , to school vouchers (is it education if the government doesn't dictate what happens?), to teacher education (can someone who didn't go through a formal teacher training program really educate our children?).

Thinking about these and other similar questions seems important because it requires us to separate ancillary trappings from those core principles that define education as a meaningful process.  And, it seems like a really useful way of keeping us focused on the part of education that really matters--human beings and what they are learning.

So, what is the essence of education?  I'm not sure that it has anything to do with buildings, teachers, technology, or administrative structures.  Those things can and generally are part of an educational environment and are likely to facilitate a number of pretty desirable of outcomes. So, what are the aspects of education that cannot be altered?  Some things I would include on my list

  • Environments and experiences that change those involved in fundamental ways.  I don't just mean the acquiring of knowledge.  What I'm talking about is a change in the identity of the participants (sometimes minor, sometimes major) and a parallel change in the community of practitioners.  If this is true, a lot of what passes for education really isn't.

  • Relationships, interaction, and joint participation around a common purpose.  This doesn't mean that education always has to take place in the presence (virtual or face-to-face) of others.  Sometimes the relationship is with someone's ideas (a book, recorded lecture, piece of art, etc.) or the interaction is with an artifact.  But, education is inherently social because we interact and participate with people or things people have created or produced.  

  • Support and resources that facilitate the pursuit of individual goals for learning & growth.  But, the individual goals should align with or flow from the common purpose shared across the community.  
For me that's about it, which means that I see "education" happening in formal school settings, in businesses, on athletic teams, within musical ensembles, and lots of other places.  In fact, those of us who are involved in more formal or traditional forms of education could learn something by examining the learning that goes on outside of our institutions.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Remembering the "invisible" members of school communities

At a Provo School Board meeting earlier this week there was a recognition award presented to Carmen Duarte, who is a child nutrition cook at Farrer Elementary School.  It was a pretty simple presentation--a district official read a short nomination submitted by someone at the school, the Board shook Carmen's hand, and she was given some sort of small gift bag.  And, I would imagine that this sort of thing happens in school board meetings all over the country.  But, what happened next was really quite profound for me.  The president of the Board, almost non-chalantly, asked Carmen if she would like to say anything (I think expecting her to decline).  Carmen hesitated initially and then, in broken English and fighting back tears, said something like "Thank you.  I love working with the children.  I love my job."  Then she sat down.

It was simple, but I was touched and left having been reminded of some important things

1.  Schools are made up of more than teachers and students.  And, some of the things that go on behind the scenes--in the library, on the playground, in the cafeteria--are just as important as what happens between teachers and students in a classroom.

2.  Recognizing and celebrating good work is a powerful thing for communities.  Something important happened when Carmen was recognized.  I haven't quite figured out what it was, but something occurred when she was publicly recognized and then had a chance to vocalize how she felt about her work in her school.  I think it was a way of our all being reminded of why we care about students and do the things we do.  It might have been as important as any business item that was addressed later on in the "important" part of the meeting.  I wish we could have had 20 minutes to hear some of Carmen's stories about working in her school and to hear from some of the students and parents who have benefitted from her work.  

3.  People who care about students can make a difference in schools, regardless of their job.  I doubt that the job description for custodians, cooks, secretaries, etc. include much language about teaching or learning.  But, I'd bet the farm that students at Farrer learn from Carmen and have a different experience because of their interactions with her.  

I was glad I was there on Tuesday.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Learning is risky

Back in September I outlined a number of assumptions that I hold about learning.  One of those ideas was that learning entails some level of risk.  At the time, it was a foggy idea that sounded interesting, so I included it in the post.  But, since then I've continued to chew on it and more and more it seems like an important idea.  

An example that comes to mind immediately is of a child learning to ride a bike.  At some point the training wheels have to come off, which in most cases means at least one or two skinned knees.  While training wheels, riding on the back lawn, and having mom or dad jog along side the bike can move a child towards competent bike riding, there comes a time when further development isn't possible without a higher level of risk-taking.  The same is true of learning a new language--books from the library, Rosetta Stone, and online tutorials will help, but to become proficient, I have to actually speak to other human beings and risk looking stupid.  The good news is that eventually I'll figure it out and get better.

There are examples of this in more formal academic settings as well.  First-year writing courses almost always employ peer reviews or writing groups where students read and critique one another's writing.  While an argument could be made that the feedback students get from peers is often useless (e.g. hollow statements of "great job" or "you need a semicolon here."), the principle still holds true that the point is for students to make their writing public and get feedback--that means the risk of having someone tell you that you have been unclear, boring, etc.  And, of course, scholarly work is frought with risk (submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals, sharing ideas at conferences, etc.).  But, these "risky" behaviors lead to refined ideas and improved academic work.  Our "service" assignments on campus can also lead to tremendous learning as pointed out by Gary Daynes in a recent blog post.   Gary argues that it is those assignments that we are unprepared or slightly unqualified for that lead to the most meaningful learning and growth.  But, again, there is the chance that we'll (at least initially) be viewed as ignorant or incompetent and that scares us (and those that make the assignments as Gary articulates very well).

Aside from my own thinking on this issue, I would argue that there is plenty of supporting evidence from the academic literature including Carol Dweck's work on intelligence (mindset), constructivist descriptions of learning that emphasize the role of social negotiation, and ideas from management literature regarding the role of transitional phases in organizational learning.

I'm convinced that most organizations don't take the right kinds of designed and thoughtful risks necessary for really great learning to occur.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Flash Mobs & Education

This morning during the middle of a meeting that I should have paying closer attention to, I looked out the window onto our campus "quad" and saw a crowd of students gathering.  Over the course of about 15 seconds, the crowd grew to about 50 people, some of whom were standing on benches taking pictures of whatever was happening at the center of the crowd.  When I looked closer I could see that the crowd had formed around a young woman in a wedding dress and her tuxedo-clad "groom."  After a few moments of perplexity, I realized I was watching a "flash mob."  

Flash mobs are interesting for all sorts of reasons (e.g. What is the benefit or value for those who participate?  What sorts of efforts are required to actually pull it off?  Why do they make officials, police officers, etc. so nervous?).  But, the episode I witnessd this morning has me wondering what the dynamics of a flash mob might have to teach those of us interested in learning.  

By definition, a flash mob is pointless, so a strong argument could be made that they have nothing to contribute to our understanding of learning and education.  But, I would argue that those that participate in a flash mob, particularly those who organize one, are doing a lot of peripheral learning along the way.  This morning's wedding episode was quite elaborate and had to have required someone to pull together a variety of resources beyond the human resources involved.  I saw multiple cameras, an authentic wedding dress, a refreshment table, guest book, floral arrangment, table setting, and bridesmaids.  Someone did a fair amount of coordination and communication to pull all of this off.  It was also fairly well choreographed (or improvised) and included a brief reception line, tossing of the wedding bouquet, and a first dance (complete with a group A Capella performance of what I think was a Backstreet Boys song).  So, pointless as it might have been, someone had a pretty good experience in bringing together a group of stakeholders, garnering resources, communicating details, and directing the activities of a relatively large "mob."  

I'm always fascinated by these sorts of organic community activities and the learning that happens without any sort of external influence.  I'm not equating flash mobs with the sorts of deep and meaningful learning that we want to happen in higher education, but flash mobs might have something to teach us about bringing people together and engaging them in a common cause.

Some interesting connections/implications I see to/for learning:

1.  Giving learners/participants ownership over their experience matters.  Most of the learning we try to facilitate in schools is directed by the teacher.  He is the one who identifies the learning goals, articulates the guiding questions, decides what readings/resources to use to support the learning, etc.  In this approach, we assume (often mistakenly) that students will automatically buy into what we're trying to accomplish and jump into the experience with learning goals identical to the ones we have for them.  My hunch is that flash mobs work because there isn't an "expert" directing and coordinating them.  Of course, there are individuals who take more prominent roles in coordinating and organizing them, but each participant has a fair amount of freedom in determining how they will participate and what role they'll play (although some have commented that flash mobs are just another form of conformity, but that only look organic and creative).  That freedom seems to be part of the attraction for those who participate.

2.  Having an authentic, public audience influences behavior.  When learners know that their learning will be made public and that the audience includes more than an external authority who assigns a grade, they modify their behaviors.  I'm not sure that I'm willing to say that an audience always improves learning, but in certain circumstances it seems like it would.  Flash mobs form and take place because participants are interested in how their performance will be received by others.  If no one would ever see it, there wouldn't be any motivation to organize and pull everything off.  The same is true of learning.  If the learner doesn't see any use or value in the learning or that there is any possibility that anyone outside of the teacher will care, they aren't likely to be very engaged.

3.  Students are not inherently lazy.  This isn't earth shattering, but seems worth reminding ourselves of at times.  Quite often I hear myself or colleagues disparaging the work effort of students.  But the real story is that students are plenty motivated, they just aren't always motivated to do the things we would like them to do.  Students work hard in areas outside of their school experience.  It is occasionally useful to inquire about what those settings are and why it is that students are willing to work so hard in them.  We might learn something.  No one forces a flash mob to happen, yet students feel motivated enough to do enough work to have something come together.  Why is that?  

4.  The unpredictable & unexpected make us nervous.  About 5 minutes into the flash mob I saw today, campus police showed up and started asking for student ID's.  I've heard that the same sort of thing happens more and more every time a flash mob forms, regardless of the locale.  Most are harmless and occasionally things get violent or problematic in some other sort of way (impede traffic, etc.), but they make officials nervous because of the unpredictable nature of the group.  Learning environments where the teacher cedes control and allows unpredictable and unexpected learning to happen are a bit nerve racking as well.  And, while a lot of good things can happen when the teacher takes a step back, they carry risks as well.  The question for educators seems to be "How much risk am I willing to tolerate in my classroom, lab, etc.?"  Thinking through the sorts of risks that could lead to productive learning, while also considering the potential pitfalls, seems like a productive exercise.  But, avoiding all risks inevitably leads to sterile, unproductive learning environments.  The interesting thing is that these sterile learning settings might sometimes pass off as "successful" because things have gone "smoothly" or "according to plan."  

Again, my purpose with this post isn't to suggest that all learning (or even the best learning) should look like a flash mob, but I can't get past the fact that a group of 50 students got connected, coordinated their efforts, and performed today, without any real reason.  I also suspect that at least a few of these students would say things like "I'm too busy" if asked to organize and form a group study session, attend a campus lecture, or meet with a faculty member for additional help in a class.  What if they approached with their education (or a small part of it) with the same motivation and effort that they did today's flash mob?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Retention: What is the essence of a successful retention effort?

This past week I had the chance to visit Mars Hill College, where I spent the first three semesters of my college career.  It was a great trip--I reconnected with old friends, saw the Mars Hill Men's soccer team beat a conference rival, drove the Blue Ridge Parkway at the peak of the fall colors, and ate at The Waffle House (where even the worst food somehow tastes amazingly good).  

In between reminiscing with old friends and eating far too much southern fare, I thought a bit about my work and what I might learn during my visit.  Mars Hill College is an interesting case study in retention because, on paper, one would expect them to have an outstanding retention rate.  Classes are small (12:1 student to faculty ratio), virtually all freshmen live on campus, there is a big push for students to connect with faculty and participate in meaningful research projects with them, and it is rare to find a student that is not involved in some sort of campus organization (e.g. 35% of the students on campus are members of one of the NCAA Division II athletic teams).  What's more, campus is a bit like Cheers in that "everyone knows your name" (This was driven home to me powerfully in the hour that I spent with the Dean of Students and his assistant--they literally knew every student they passed on campus or that came into their office and called them by name).  As far as I could tell, Mars Hill is doing a lot of the right things that should translate into a campus where students want to stay and graduate from.

The strange part of this story (and the discouraging part for Mars Hill's administration) is that their retention rate is pretty abysmal--about 55% in an average year.  So, that left me wondering why that is and what a school like Mars Hill could do to hold on to students.  What is the essence of retention?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Inspiring stories of friendship

Every once in a while I hear a story that is incredibly inspiring.  A story that leaves me feeling uplifted and motivated to be a better person.  Last night KSL news in Salt Lake City ran this story about Mack Bawden and Cameron Judd.  In short, Mack and Cameron's story is about friendship, sacrifice, and being human.  It also reminded me of  the story of Leroy Sutton and Dartanyon Crockett that aired on ESPN's Outside the Lines last summer.  It has close parallels to Mack and Cameron's story -- themes of courage, selflessness, overcoming obstacles, and loyalty.

I sometimes wonder why we don't hear stories like these more often.  Do they happen all of the time and we just don't know it because there isn't a camera around?  Or, are they rare exceptions in a world where self-interest and vanity are the norm?

The thought I had today as I watched both of these stories again was what leads someone to become a Mack Bawden or  Dartanyon Crockett?  Was it the influence of their families?  A teacher?  Or, did they just become the sort of heroic people the rest of us aspire but generally fail to become?  And, what role do schools have in developing these sorts of students?  

Friday, September 24, 2010

The value of tensions

I attended a talk last Friday on innovation in educational settings by Keith Sawyer.  The talk was sponsored by BYU's Mckay School of Education and the Department of Instructional Psychology & Technology.  Dr. Sawyer's work is in cognitive science and focuses largely on how to endgender and facilitate creativity within organizations.  He spent the last 15 minutes or so of his presentation discussing the challenges that come in trying to create a culture of innovation where one didn't exist before.  Much of his ideas were framed around the concept of tensions and constraints (e.g. How can we provide freedom to innovate while also meeting standards and expectations of clients, lawmakers, investors, etc.?).  His remarks resonated with me because tensions were something that I've been thinking about quite a bit lately.

By definition, tension implies some degree of discomfort or stretching.  It's that gray, ambiguous area that isn't all that comfortable to be in.  That place where we're torn between two competing forces that require us to bend and stretch.  But, that bending and stretching is a good thing because it forces us out of the comfortable poles into a place where we have to think critically, consider multiple perspectives, and be innovative.  Working in the space between the tensions ultimately leads to growth.

Here are some examples of productive tensions I've encountered recently:

-Which students most need my support & Who is most likely to respond to my efforts?

-How can I allow meaningful choice for learners, while still meeting standards laid out by my department, college, or university?

-How do I allow a toddler to explore, learn, and develop independence, while still keeping her safe (and keeping the house standing)?

-How do you facilitate coherent, integrated learning across a course, and foster some sense of emergent or constructivist learning?

-Where is the balance between bottom-up creativity and top-down guidance?

-How do I sincerely forgive those that have made sometimes grievous mistakes, but still hold out some level of accountability?

There are no easy answers to these sorts of questions, which is a good thing because easy answers to tough questions are dangerous and short-sighted.  As I struggle with these sorts of issues, the progress is slow (in some ways, these are the sorts of questions that take careers and lifetimes to answer), but I find myself having the occasional insight that makes me a better educator, parent, and person.

So, where are the healthy tensions for you?  What sorts of tough questions guide your work?


Friday, September 17, 2010

The dangers of zealotry & ideology

"The spirit of which I speak creates imaginary and magnifies real causes of complaing; arrogates to itself every virtue--denies every merit to its oponents; secretly entertains the worst designs . . . mounts the pulpit, and, in the name of a God of mercy and peace, preaches discord and vengeance; invokes the worst scourges of Heaven, war, pestilence, and famine, as preferable alternatives to party defeat; blind, vindictive, cruel, remorseless, unprincipled, and at last, frantic, it communicates its madness to friends as well as foes; respects nothing, fears nothing."

This is an excerpt from an 1830 Senate speech given by Edward Livingston in which he spoke critically of the reflexive partisanship and unreflective ideologies that were manifesting themselves in the debates about states' rights.  Livingston, who was a close political ally of Andrew Jackson and who like Jackson believed in the inherent goodness and wisdom of the American populace, was discouraged by the lack of civility, informed discourse, and thoughtfulness he saw in the political conversation of the period.  At the risk of an oversimplification, Livingston believed that people could make wise political decisions, but that uncivil, ideological debates prevented the wisdom of the citizenry from winning the day.  

When I read this part of Livingston's speech last week (in Jon Meacham's biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion) it resonated with me because I see a lot of the same sort of thing today (maybe it has always been a part of large societies?).  Of course I thought immediately of the political realm and the unbending ideology that is part of every election cycle.  But, I also see it in education.  There are the qualitative & quantitative wars within research circles, the acquisitionists vs. the participationists in the learning sciences, and of course the behaviorists vs. the cognitivists vs. the constructivists.  Differences of opinion are a good thing, but only if those that hold those varying positions can engage with one another in civil and productive ways.  And, there is less and less of that happening these days.

Pluralism, be it theoretical, political, or practical is a good thing.  Communities can thrive when they are made up of diverse individuals who see the world from a variety of perspectives.  But, that outcome is only possible when we can engage in thoughtful dialogue with one another and use this diversity to work towards common purposes and, whenever possible, an enriched shared understanding (see James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds for a great treatment of this and related ideas).  In fact, the tension created between conflicting ideas can be powerful when it protects against excess, extremism, etc.  When two (or more) positions compete for attention and screen each other for weaknesses, we have a much better chance of arriving at some sort of critical understanding that is useful in guiding policy, practice, or behavior.  But, we have to listen to each other long enough, closely enough, and open-mindedly enough before we'll ever get to that point.  

I saw a good example of this (on a micro-level) recently when I attended a meeting of the Provo City School District Board of Education.  One of the agenda items for the board's study meeting was a proposal for the district to contribute some of its property tax revenue to the development of a parking structure for the Provo Freedom Plaza.  The board was fairly split and, from what I could infer, felt quite passionately about the issue.  There has been some history of less than outstanding real estate deals with Provo city in the past and some board members felt like the district had been burned.  Others felt strongly that the board should support the project because of its potential to bring money back to the district in ten years and because of the projects potential positive impact upon the city.  Initially, the discussion was quite heated, but I was impressed with board members' ability to put their passions and biases aside and listen to one another.  The final vote in the business meeting later on in the evening was still split, but at least two board members who were initially quite passionate in one direction or the other had changed their stance by the time the final vote was called for.  It was gratifying to see elected officials who were able to listen dispassionately and be critical of their own views.  Ultimately, I think the board made the decision that was best for the city and best for the district.

If only there were more of this in other places be it the senate or academic conferences.


Friday, September 10, 2010

IKEA & Instruction

My daughter turned two yesterday, which was lots of fun. But it also meant that I spent my labor day putting together her birthday present -- a dresser and night stand for her new room. As an aside, it occurred to me while searching for screw #14554, that I will probably spend the next 8 or 10 labor days assembling some sort of gift because of the fact that my daughter's birthday will always fall just a few days after labor day. The good news is that things seem to get better each year (this year's furniture project went much better than did last year's swing set debacle, but that's another post).

All in all, the furniture was pretty easy to assemble, mostly because the folks at IKEA know a thing or two about design and how to help people like me put together their products. In the four hours or so I spent trying to follow the instructions I had some insights about teaching and learning.

1. Every once in a while force yourself to try to teach & learn visually. IKEA's instructions were made up exclusively of images. That meant that their visual descriptions had to be incredibly clear because there was no written description to fall back onto. It also meant that the design of the furniture had to be very simple and intuitive. Too much of instruction relies solely upon written or oral pedagogies. Written or verbal methods are not inherently evil, but because we're so accustomed to communicating in these ways, it's easy to do it badly without really knowing it. Representing ideas visually requires teachers and learners to think in new ways--recognizing patterns, making associations between ideas, and making sense of the parts of an idea and how they come together to form a meaningful whole (see Dan Roam's ideas in The Back of the Napkin). Chances are that if a teacher can teach a concept visually (pictures, symbols, flow charts, etc.) they (1) understand it deeply and (2) have developed a clear way of communicating those ideas to a learner. The same is also true of a student learning a new concept. If they can "draw" it, chances are they understand it more deeply than someone who cannot (in some ways this is the same premise behind concept mapping and other similar learning aids, but even concept mapping can rely too much on text at times).

2. Identify pitfalls and help learners avoid them. One critique I had of the instructions I used was that there were a couple of places where I made stupid mistakes (mistakes that, in my pride, I feel like most inexperienced furniture assemblers would make) that could have been prevented with simple reminders or warnings. Most were minor, but one added about an hour onto the project (this is one of the few cases where IKEA might be wise to break it's rule of no text. In fact, because text is so out of place within the overall landscape of IKEA instructions, the very limited use of well placed text could draw attention to critical instructions or reminders). When designing instruction, we need to pay close attention to any pitfalls--meaning those things that could be significant setbacks for a learner--and help them avoid them.

3. Minor mistakes, early in the process can be a good thing. This seems a bit contradictory to my comments in #2 above, but let me explain. There is a Japanese proverb that teaches "You will become clever through your mistakes." I believe that is true, particularly of minor mistakes that occur early in the learning process. Mistakes focus attention, can increase engagement, and when caught, can prevent more major mistakes from occurring later on. Good instruction provides opportunities for minor mistakes to be made early. The very best instructional experiences are designed so that mistakes become clearly apparent to the learner (as opposed to being pointed out externally by a teacher or coach) and then force them to figure out what went wrong. That process of asking "why didn't this work?" yields learning that becomes valuable later on and helps the learner better understand the whole (e.g. How the entire dresser will need to come together. There is a fascinating case study on how this happens among West African apprentice tailors in Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger's book, Situated Learning.

4. Provide a real person when things get unmanageable. Luckily I didn't get to this point with my IKEA assemblies (but last year's swing set nightmare was a different story). But, I knew that if I did reach an impasse, I could call the number on the instructions and a real person would answer. Whether it's faculty office hours, a teaching assistant, a help lab, or a peer mentor, learners need a human that can help with things get tough.

5. Humor is a good thing. Although I dreaded the thought of putting together the furniture all weekend, I started off the project laughing because of images like this one. Just the fact that I smiled a bit at the outset, made me a lot more willing to dig into the project. It's important that we find ways to do that sort of thing with learners, because the honest truth is that the best learning is hard and takes effort. The more we can do to prime the pump and make learning an appropriately enjoyable experience, the better.

I still refuse to enter the front doors of IKEA, despite my wife's efforts to convince me that I'll "love it once I try it." And, I'm still not really looking forward to next Labor Day and putting together another birthday present (I'm banking on a bike with training wheels). But, at least I learned something in the process.

Friday, September 3, 2010

My Assumptions About Learning

I began a new semester of graduate work this week and will be participating in a seminar course exploring learning theory. It should be a nice experience--there are only six of us in the course, we'll be doing some interesting reading, and should have some lively discussions about what learning is and how it happens.

On the first day, Steve Yanchar, the faculty member leading the seminar, did something which I thought was quite useful. He spent about 15 minutes sharing with us what he believes about learning. Steve is one of the most unassuming faculty members I have worked with and it was obvious that this wasn't a case of academic showboating. Rather, he wanted to let us inside his brain for a few minutes so we could better understand his rationale for structuring the seminar in a particular way, one that aligns with his beliefs about learning. He also included in his syllabus for the course, a brief description of his "assumptions about learning." That sort of purposeful, intentional instruction is something I appreciate.

It also made me feel a bit guilty because I realized that I have never sat down and tried to articulate exactly what it is that I believe about learning. Really, answering the questions of "What is learning?" and "How does learning occur?" are the guiding questions for the seminar and I hope to have something a little more polished and thoughtful to say in December. But for now, I thought it useful to try and summarize some of the fundamental assumptions I hold about learning. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Learning involves growth and change. To say that someone has learned something implies that they have been changed in some way. At its core learning involves internal changes wherein knowledge, values, beliefs, or understanding have changed; however, learning is often detected when we observe outward changes in behavior (e.g. the performance of a new skill, the verbal explication of a newly learned concept, etc.). When a person learns, they are a different person in some way; they think, feel, or behave differently.

2. Learning entails some level of risk. Because learning involves change or growth, learners must acknowledge that potential for change exists. Admitting such gaps in knowledge, deficiency in skill, or inexperience is perceived as "risky" because learners often do not wish to appear to be "dumb" or "incompetent." Assuming that risk is a necessary part of the learning process. Until one does, very little learning will occur. Additionally, learning requires an individual to venture into the cognitive unknown where mistakes, failure, and miscues are part of the landscape. Trekking through this space where we struggle, stumble, and fall is a necessary part of the process.

3. Learning improves when learners can make meaningful choices about what and how they learn. Learning requires some sort of active choice on the part of a learner. And, meaningful opportunities to exercise agency increase engagement in the learning process. Consequently, learners are more willing to do the hard work that leads to learning (whether that involves lonely hours in the library, challenging academic dialog with colleagues or otherwise) when they can make some of the choices involved in that process.

4. Learning is improved when it is shared and celebrated. Learning is hardwired into us as humans. I believe it is one of the fundamental purposes of our existence. We are also social creatures. Thus, learning is an inherently social process. I don't wish to discount the necessity of individual study and scholarship; however, at some point the very best learning will always involve some sort of social interaction. Articulating ones learning to an audience deepens the learners thinking, exposes gaps in understanding, and invites the feedback necessary to refine and polish ideas. This "articulation" also includes performances, displays, etc. wherein learned behaviors and skills are shared.

5. Learning is not merely the acquisition of knowledge, rather it is an active and participatory process wherein learners construct new meaning. For a fascinating discussion of these two views of learning see Anna Sfard's work ("On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of choosing Just One"). While some of learning involves knowledge transfer, learning is more accurately described as the process of becoming a participant in some discourse, activity, or practice. Ultimately, one of the goals of learning is to become a useful and contributing member of some sort of community, be it a city, a professional organization, or family. As a participant in this process, learners have experiences that provide opportunities to change, grow, and adapt in response to those experiences.

I could go on, but it's 4:00 and the sun is shining. These are just some of the key beliefs I hold about learning. You?

Friday, July 30, 2010

What is success? And, how important are outcomes?

In my work I spend about 25% of my time supervising undergraduate peer mentors.  Peer mentors support students in their transition to the university, connect them with university resources, and become sounding boards for new college students as they learn how to learn.  Not suprisingly, these peer mentors are largely high-achieving, highly engaged students who do the sorts of deep learning that we wish happened for every college student.  

I meet with these peer mentors every other week to hear about their work with students, discuss challenges they face, and support them in their development.  One of the most frequent things I hear in these 30 minute conversations is "I'm not really sure if I'm making a difference" or "my students don't respond to me."  Essentially, the question these peer mentors ask is "Am I doing a good job?" and "How will I know?"

Those are fair questions, questions we have all likely asked at one point or another.  As a very young and very inexperienced high school soccer coach, I asked this question after almost every game we played (especially after losses).  Any time we lost I found myself in a dilemma:  I believed I was a good coach and that I worked hard to prepare my players for matches, so what did it mean when we lost?  Was the fact that the opposing team had scored one more goal that we did evidence that I wasn't successful?  These sorts of questions weighed more heavily on my mind when we lost 4 out of our last 5 games of the season after going undefeated up until that point.  Teachers face the same sorts of questions when they work hard to help students learn, but are then faced with test scores that are deemed unacceptable or below par.  

There was a time when I viewed teacher performance in very black and white terms:  If they can't get test scores up, then they don't deserve to be in the classroom.  I've softened my stance over the last couple of years and I'm not really sure anymore.  I don't know that I have a very good definition of what success is for teachers, peer mentors, or coaches.  My biggest question is how much attention we should pay to outcomes (i.e. test scores, pass rates, win-loss percentages, etc.).  There is definitely a place for measurment and assessment.  We live in a world that values numbers and percentages.  We like to count, sort, and rank things.  We believe that doing so gives us a basis to make accurate objective decsions about quality.  What's more, in an economy where resources are sparse, numbers matter a great deal.  But, when our work (and hearts) are wrapped up in helping human beings grow, learn, or change, a purely outcomes-based focus can be incredibly discouraging at those times when the people we work with "underperform."  

This post has really been a long and inarticulate way of asking how we can know when we're doing a good job as educators.  I still think that there are some key outcomes that we need to pay attention to, but some other possible indicators of success might be

1.  Effort, preparation, and thougtfulness.  While we can't control what learners do or how they respond to our invitations to grow, there are some important things that are in our control.  Preparation and intentionality seem to fit here.  Teachers and coaches should work tirelessly to be well prepared and to design learning experiences that meet learners where they are and that help move them towards meaningful learning goals.  

2.  Using feedback to improve.  While outcomes and measurements may not be the sole indicator of success, an educator has a responsibility to use feedback to refine the way they teach.  "Failure" (in the form of unsatisfactory outcomes) isn't failure if you use it to get better and change the way you do things.  

3.  Grit and persistence.  How we respond to challenges seems to be an important part of success.  While persistence in and of itself may not constitute success, there is a fair amount of evidence that the gritty, never-give-up attitude when sustained over time, does lead to success.  What' more, initial "failure" or low-performance provides nice opportunities for learning and reflection, and can be a foundation for eventual success (see this post on the virtue of being terrible, including painful footage of Charles Barkeley's golf swing).  

4.  Relationships.  I have always believed that learning is an inherently social pursuit and that relationships matter a great deal.  So, one indicator of an educator's success is the personal relationships they are cultivating with learners.  If a peer mentor has good relationships with their students (or even most of their students), I always take that as a sign that something useful is happening.  Likewise, the fact that my soccer players seemed to respect me and valued our relationship, gave me comfort after losses when I was questioning my value as a coach.  

As I finish this list I realize that this is touch-feely stuff.  I'm also willing to admit that there is danger in defining success in this way because of the slippery slope it can present (e.g. "Who cares if none of my students passed the class, they like me and I worked hard, so I am a success.").  So, how should we define success as educators?  And, how much attention should we pay to outcomes?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Diversifying our approach to problem solving in higher education

"Our Projects, if we are wise, will be myriad and quiet, not a grand few visible to the whole world."

This is a passage from Bill McKibben's recent book, eaarth.  In this part of his book, McKibben is arguing that it's time to shift our global paradigm from growth to maintenance and, that with limited resources, it's too risky to bet on a few, large projects or initiatives.  If we are going to make life on our polluted, resource-depleted planet, we need to minimize risk by finding lots of small ways to improve conditions.  In essence, in the end we'll be better off making lots of small wagers rather than a small number of huge investments.  

There seems to be some wisdom for higher education here--try a lot of different things, minimize your risk, pay attention to what works, and then replicate it if you can.  In highly centralized organizations like universities, however, we don't do well with this sort of thing.  It's more likely that we invest huge amounts of resources in large-scale initiatives that are very public and that carry huge risk.  For example, I've mentioned on this blog before how my institution will be launching a freshman mentoring program this fall wherein every freshman student is provided with an upperclassmen mentor.  This has meant vast changes in the way students register for courses, the development of technological solutions involving hours and hours of development and testing, the creation of a new full-time administrative position, and a comprehensive course redesign for one of the largest freshman courses on campus, not to mention a huge allocation of funds to pay and train the peer mentors.  The objectives of the program are to balance resources across high-demand first year courses, connect students with an upperclassmen who can support them in their transition, and increase the likelihood that freshmen will use campus resources (e.g. advisement centers, teaching assistants, etc.)

I hope that the program is a success because I value mentoring and believe that it can make a tremendous difference for first-year students.  But, McKibben's ideas have me wondering whether a decentralized effort across a variety of departments may have been just as useful in improving the first-year experience for BYU students.  What could academic advisors do in their sphere to help?  Is there a low-cost social media campaign that the Office of First-Year Experience could have piloted?  What if Residence Life had experimented with American Heritage course review sessions taught in the halls?  If any one (or all) of those things fail, no one has lost much time or money and central administration doesn't have to worry about looking bad.  As it is, the message has been "Freshman Mentoring cannot fail" (that sounds eerily simialr to the "to big to fail" rhetoric we've heard surrounding the automotive and banking industries as of late) and the individuals responsible for making it work are faced with making the impossible possible.

I recognize the value of campus-wide, coordinated initiatives where a diverse group of stakeholders work together to address a campus issue.  I hope that is what our Freshman Mentoring initiative is and that it works.  If not, we will have spent a lot of time, money, and social capital on a disastrous failure.  

So, the question I'm really asking here is when large-scale, resource intense initiatives are the answer, and when we'd be better off encouraging small innovations across a number of departments and areas in hopes that they add up to some sort of aggregate success.  

Friday, July 9, 2010

What schools could learn from cab companies

I spent the first year of my professional career as a teacher.  At the risk of sounding arrogant, I thought I was pretty good--I had good rapport with students, I tried to align my teaching with learning objectives, and I believed that I applied good pedagogical practices in my classroom.  It's probably pretty easy to spot the problem in this assessment--they are all my own personal perceptions of my ability and performance, and very subject to bias and inaccuracy.  This has bothered me lately and I've wondered how good a teacher I really was during that year.  As I look back on those experiences, two really important things seem to have been missing:  feedback and focused effort to learn from mistakes.  

While I tried to regularly evaluate my own teaching, like most of us I probably overestimated my abilities and was likely unaware of many of the mistakes I was making.  On a few occasions (three, that I can remember) I was observed by another teacher and then given some basic feedback at the end of the class session.  It's fair to assume that both my own evaluations and those of others might have had some slight improvement on my teaching.  But, in retrospect, I don't think I was much better in June when the school year ended than I was on the first day of school in September.  In fact, I probably developed some bad habits, got too comfortable with the role, and stopped doing some of the little things that make a big difference in one's teaching ability.  In short, I may have even been worse.  

At the same time I was having these depressing thoughts, I was reading Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt.  The book uses driving patterns and habits as a context for exploring human behavior.  He tells a fascinating story about how cab companies and limo services have helped improve their drivers' performance using a technology called DriveCam.  DriveCam installs cameras on the rearview mirrors of cars that continusously buffer images (like TiVo) of what is happening both inside and outside the car.  Sensors monitor various measurable forces and when a "trigger" is detected (sharp turn of the steering wheel, significant decrease/increase in speed, etc.), the camera records ten seconds of footage both before and after the trigger.  This footage is then sent to a database and may be reviewed with the driver in an attempt to correct mistakes and improve safety.  Although it probably ruffles some feathers of drivers who feel like their privacy is being invaded, the bottom line is that transportation companies have a lot to lose when their drivers don't drive well.  What's more, this is great learning.  Drivers can view actual footage of their driving, spot mistakes and fix them, and focus on small elements of the driving performance that seem to make a big difference in achieving good outcomes, namely safety (this isn't unlinke the way elite athletes use taped performances to improve).

This left me wondering why something similar couldn't happen in classrooms, particularly those classrooms led by novice teachers.  We spend millions of dollars to equip classrooms with new technologies that are touted to improve student learning and increase engagement.  And, while ipods and laptops can help, the core factor influencing student learning still seems to be the teacher.  It seems fair to ask why technology can't be used to imrove core teacher practices that would have far-reaching impact upon student learning.  There is some work being done in this area (see the work of Peter Rich and this pilot project at the University of Central Florida), but it  seems to be on the periphery.  

What would happen if there were cameras installed in classrooms that could capture real footage of teacher performance.  Are there "triggers" that we would want to focus on?  What would they be?  Something like this would seem to fill a gap in current teacher development practices.  Teachers would have the opportunity to really see themselves teaching (as opposed to their perception of their teaching or someone else's interpretation), use mistakes to improve, and focus on critical parts of their performance that have been shown to lead to significant improvements in student learning.  

Friday, July 2, 2010

Measuring what matters: How much should we really care about retention?

In his February 2010 TED talk, CEO and author Chip Conley tells a fascinating story about the nation of Bhutan and their transformation from an isolated, undeveloped nation to a modern, technologically rich nation that still manages to maintain the essence of their original culture and traditions.  Bhutan's story is one of striking the balance between progress and innovation, while stilll maintaining core elements of an identity (a rare feat for any country, organization, or school in today's rapid-paced world).  One of the most interesting parts of Conlee's telling of the story is his reason for Bhutan's ability to transorm in these ways.  Quite simply, he believes that it is because Bhutan has learned to "count" the right thing, gross national happiness.  Forty years ago, Bhutan's King coined the term rather off-handedly to describe his commitment to building an economy that would allow for growth, while staying true to Bhutan's Buddhist roots.  Bhutanese officials ran with the concept, developed sophisticated instruments to measure the concept, and used it as a model for the development plan that brought Bhutan into the 21st century.  This all stands in stark contrast to most nations' preoccupation with Gross Domestic Product and their belief that it stands as the supreme indicator of a nation's well-being.

There seems to be a lesson for higher education in all of this, particularly the first-year experience movement.  Like anyone else, we count what is easily countable.  So, in many ways "retention" has become our GDP.  We work hard to measure it, argue over how it should be measured, showcase (or hide) it in reports to our administrations, and tout it at conferences.  This isn't to say that we shouldn't care about retention--the reality is that enrolled students bring money to the institution and that money keeps us running.  But, there seems to be some danger in retention becoming what Conlee describes as a "misplaced metric," an easy to count measure that gives little indication as to the real health of an institution.

So, what should we be counting?  In many ways this question hinges on how we define success in the FYE movement and the factors that we believe contributes to a vibrant campus community.  What does a "successful" student look like at the end of their first year?  What skills, habits, and attitudes would they possess?  While the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) has contributed greatly to institutions' ability to measure certain behaviors and attitudes of students,  we don't seem to do much on our individual campuses to measure the equivalent of the "gross national happiness" for our campuses.  

What would these "intangibles" on our campuses be?  While they will vary slightly across institutions, some possibilities might include

A personal reason for being at a particular institution.  Do students know why they decided to come to your school?  Their purpose and commitment to the educational ideals and objectives at your institution will make a huge difference in their engagement and persistence.  If they don't have a set of fairly good reasons for choosing a particular campus, there is likely to be trouble down the road.

Understanding of and investment in an institutional mission.  This seems strongly correlated with the idea above, but it seems important for institutions to not only orient students to their physical surroundings, but to help them understand the culture and ideals of the institution they have enrolled in so they might become a part of the community and fulfill their role in it.  So, if you are a faith-based institution that espouses character development, do students believe in that mission and pursue that growth?  For liberal arts institutions, do your students value a well-rounded education and recognize the importance of breadth in their learning?  

Passion for learning.   What students believe and feel about learning are important.  We want life-long learners that continue to grow and make contributions to society after they leave our institutions.  Can the first-year experience nurture this passion?  How would it be measured?

This is obviously not an all inclusive list.  But, these would seem to be key indicators of the success of a FYE program.  There are others including deep learning behaviors, formation of supportive mentoring relationships, and the development of grit and persistence.  We probably can't measure them all, but what for you are the key indicators on your campus?  What could we start measuring on our campuses that would be meaningful and give us real insight into the success of our FYE programs?  

Universities need leaders who know what to count.


Friday, June 11, 2010

The problem of control in education

I attended TTIX 2010 yesterday at the University of Utah.  TTIX (Teaching with Technology Idea Exchange) brings together instructional designers, technology specialists, and educators interested in the use of technology.  In her the keynote address, Nancy White explored the question "Should we use communities in learning?"  While there wasn't much argument that we should not, Nancy did present an interesting paradigm for thinking about the ways in which learning occurs.  She thought about it as an issue of "me, we, and the networks."  Or, more simply, we can learn individually, in small groups, or as part of a much broader network.  

We see individual and small-group learning at work every day in higher education.  But, real networked learning that extends outside of campus seems to be missing from most universities.  Of course, students often have their own personal learning networks, but these networks generally live outside of what they perceive as their school experience.  Students do one sort of learning in class, in the library, and with project groups.  They do another type of learning "outside of school," learning that is largely separated from their course work.  This seems problematic to me for at least two reasons.  First, formalized "school learning" should be authentic and connected to students' interests.  Second, if we really believe that higher education should produce life-long learners, campuses should help students begin to build and use a personal learning network that includes people, media, web resources, organizations, etc.  While some of those elements will be available on a college campus, it is either arrogant, naive, or both to think that a single college campus can connect students to all of the resources they will need for a rich learning network.  In short, there are times when we need to get students off-campus and encourage them to do their learning there.  And, this learning needs to have meaningful connections to what they are doing on campus as part of formal university programs.

Our problem in higher ed is that we want to exert control over students.  We want to tell them what they can learn and when they can learn it (the standard course model); we want to create closed learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard &Brain Honey) that allow us to monitor student learning and keep out "intruders;" and we tell them what their learning goals will be (graduation requirements).  Universities, by their very nature, will always have some level of structure and exert some level of control over students--I've come to accept that fact as unavoidable.  However, why couldn't our institutions help students identify their own learning goals, build their own personal learning networks, and then find ways to connect that learning to university coursework (or internships, captstone experiences, field studies, service learning, etc.)?  

We often wonder why students aren't motivated to do the sorts of deep learning that we would hope to see at the university level?  But, we can't be too surprised, given the fact that we removed most of a student's autonomy.  If students don't have some choice in structuring their learning (and selecting from a list of courses to take is a poor excuse for "choice"), they will rarely be motivated to learn deeply (see this TED talk by Dan Pink for more on this idea or this condensed version of his ideas; his newest book, Drive is also a good read) .

What we need in higher education is more boundaryless, fuzzy, relationship-based learning that doesn't begin and end at the semester.  The traditional course model might not ever go away, but why couldn't there be an overarching learning process that is overlaid on top of courses?  The type of learning that is motivating, inspiring, and that will likely last well beyond graduation?  

Friday, June 4, 2010

What are committees really good for?

If you work on a college campus (or in almost any large organization) you've probably had some experience with committees.  At BYU I sit on a handful, one of which is a new student orientation committee charged with developing and evaluating programming for new students.  Our most significant responsibility is to develop a multi-day orientation program that is held on the weekend just prior to the beginning of a new semester.  This means that, although we are a standing committee that theoretical operates all year long, most of our "real work" is done in the summer months leading up to September when a large class of freshmen arrives on campus.  What's more, the attitude of the committee chair has been that if there aren't pressing agenda items, we really won't benefit from an hour long meeting.  I'll confess that, up until quite recently, I liked things this way.  From where I sat, it meant fewer meetings, fewer assignments, and more time to work on other projects I have going.  I tended to look forward to the "meeting cancelled" email that arrives the morning of the scheduled meeting.  

Although our committee's sporadic meetings this summer have given me extra time, I think we've gotten into a bad habit, a habit that will hurt us in the long run.  I've seen evidence of this in the last few weeks as I've tried to work through a challenge with another committee member.  The details aren't important, but what I've realized is that because he and I have not been seeing one another each week and discussing our joint work, two things have happened.  First, we have not been exchanging simple information that would be useful to us in our work.  Second, and more importantly, our professional relationship has suffered.  We don't have the social capital that we need in order to discuss sensitive matters, tactfully raise opposing ideas, or work through problems that are arising in our orientation planning.  

This has all caused me to reconsider the purpose of committees, how they function, and how we build them.  So, if I were asked to create a new committee next week, these are some things I would keep in mind to help me in my design:

1.  Committee work isn't just about being productive or efficient, it is about establishing relationships among stakeholders.  While action items, key decisions, and reports on past assignments are all worthy items on a committee's meeting agenda, just being together and engaging in dialogue might be just as important.  And, these conversations don't always need to be focused on our work.  Although hearing about a colleague's vacation or how their son is doing on his study abroad in Europe probably won't have any real impact on your campus, having those conversations on a consistent basis will build social capital.  That capital will be important during those times when your committee faces difficult decisions, disagrees with one another, or has to address an unexpected problem or crisis that has emerged. 

2.  Meetings should include plenty of open dialogue and collaboration.  Too often meetings become nothing more than reporting sessions where last week's minutes are reviewed, information is disseminated, or decisions are announced.  As much as we complain about these sorts of things, I think that occasionally we like report-back meetings because they don't require anything of us.  Like a student sitting in an unengaging lecture, we can sit back and zone out, but still convince ourselves that we're doing our duty by being in attendance at the meeting.  But, this sort of meeting is a waste of everyone's time because technology has provided much more efficient ways of reporting and disseminating.  Committee meetings are about working collaboratively and that means dialogue, brainstorming, rapid prototyping, and those things that can only happen when a group of people is together in the same room.  Again, this sort of meeting, one that requires engagement and thoughtful participation, can take some getting used to.  But, I would like to believe that it pays dividends in the end.

3.  Committees should facilitate useful connections where none existed before.  Good committee chairs use committees to establish relationships between stakeholders that (1) misunderstand one another or (2) don't even realize they have a stake in one another's work.  While committees should not cease to play a coordination, governance, and project management role, we need to reframe our thinking and view them as a tool for building social capital among stakeholders.  It seems odd to put two people on a committee who don't like each other or who haven't worked well together in the past.  But, under the right circumstances, useful bonds can be formed and future problems can be avoided.  This takes a skilled chair and an already well-functioning committee.  But, I've seen it lead to tremendous benefit when it is handled well.

Here's a radical thought in closing.  Books like Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone lament the  general decline of community and social capital we see almost everywhere.  Can good committees make a difference?  On a siloed, fragmented campus where departments don't get along and very little meaningful collaboration is happening, could something like what I've described make a difference?  

Friday, May 21, 2010

How much has technology really helped us in education?

I just finished reading Atul Gawande's latest book, Checklist Manifesto.  In a nutshell, Gawande argues that the right kind of checklist (it turns out that good checklists aren't easy or quick to produce) can lead to vast improvements in the way we do things, and for very little cost.  It's a great read and one of the most practically useful books I've read in a while.

Gawande is a physician and uses stories from medicine to illustrate the effectiveness of simple checklists (there are also some fascinating examples from building construction and finance).  One of the areas where checklists have made the most difference are in operation rooms.  It turns out that for even the most developed countries--those with great hospitals, state-of-the-art medical technologies, and highly-trained physicians--surgical complications are a fairly significant problem.  Gawande and his team have managed to develop simple checklists that, when used properly, have drastically reduced complication rates.  It is important to note that these have not been modest findings, the results have been startling and and hard to argue with.  

The interesting thing in all of this is that the vast majority of physicians and hospitals have refused to use the checklist.  Instead most have opted to invest in $1.7 million remote controlled surgical robots that have driven up costs massively, without producing any significant improvements.  Meanwhile, the low-tech, low-budget checklists are saving lives.

There seems to be a parallel here to education.  More and more, institutions are adopting technology with the hope that it will revolutionize learning.  In my graduate work I spend a fair amount of time with instructional technologists, some who tout technology as the saviour of schools.  I should also confess that I am sometimes a sucker for cool ed tech gadgets because they seem to make learning fun and engaging.  That's not to mention my reliance upon technology for some of the most basic functions of my job (just last night I made a presentation to a group of parents of incoming students and used the bells and whistles of a fully-mediated auditorium to "enhance" my remarks).

The nagging question I keep having, though, is whether the very expensive technology we use has really improved the learning experience for students.  It likely cost thousands of dollars to outfit the auditorium I spoke in last evening.  And, I would estimate that there are at least 100 other rooms of various sizes just like it across the rest of my campus.  In many ways this is nice.  It means that instructors can use PowerPoint slides, show media clips, play music, etc.  These things are entertaining for students and can deepen engagement.  But, how much more did the parents in my session learn because I used technology?  What if the computer had crashed mid-presentation?  Would I have been prepared enough to make the remaining 15 minutes useful?  Would a low-tech "technology" like a "minute paper" have been just as beneficial as a data slide?

I'm not arguing for the elimination of technology in higher education (or any setting for that matter).  But, I wonder how often we falsely assume that twitter, tech classrooms, and iClickers will simplify the educational process and prevent educational failures.  Could it be that simple pedagogical tools, processes, or philosophies could be just as impactful and at a much lower cost?  And, what sorts of new failures does technology introduce?  Gawande frames this question well:

"We have most readily turned to the computer as our aid.  Computers hold out the prospectof automation as our bulward against failure.  Indeed, they can take huge numbers of tasks off our hands, and thankfully already have--tasks of calculation, processing, storage, transmission.  Without question, technology can increase our capabilities.  But there is much that technology cannot do:  deal with the unpredictable, manage uncertainty, construct a soaring building, perform a lifesaving operation.  In many ways, technology has compicated these matters. It has added yet another element of complexity to the systems we depend on and given us entirely new kinds of failure to content with."

What are our "educational checklists?" (i.e. those simple and frugal things that can make signficant differences in learning).  And, what are the "surgical robots" in education that look cool, but deplete budgets without making any meaningful improvement to the educational landscape?  And, maybe most importantly, how do we know when we're dealing with an expensive failure or something that, while expensive, truly will revolutionize learning?

Friday, May 7, 2010

The forgotten part of the First-Year Experience

A recent discussion on the first year experience listserv has gotten me thinking about the way we allocate resources across the first-year experience.  If your campus is like mine you likely have a variety of programming for first year students with most of it being front loaded to the first semester or even the first two weeks of their time on your campus (it's always been interesting to me that we speak of our work in terms of the first year experience, when most of us do very little in the way of formal programming during the second half of that year).  

This practice of front-loading makes sense (and has been advocated for by, among others, John Gardner).  Among other things, it allows institutions to communicate expectations, help students feel connected to each other and to campus, and provides proactive support that positions students to be successful.  These are all good things and the last two decades have provided plenty of data suggesting that they make a difference.  The question raised on the listserv was about end of year rituals or ceremonies and that made me wonder if what we do at the end of the first year experience matters.  

For much of the formal learning we see in schools and elsewhere, beginnings and endings get a lot of attention.  Think about a typical college course.  In the beginning students receive a syllabus that outlines the learning objectives for the course, an anticipated timeline for when and how they can expect to be learning, and some information about how to get help along the way.  The syllabus (assuming it is a well-written one) becomes a guide for the semester.  Plenty of important things then happen in the middle of the course to facilitate learning.  Then, four months later there is an ending, an ending that in some cases is quite ceremonious and ritualistic.  There is the "last lecture" where the faculty member reminds students of what the course goals were, a "testimonial" of sorts where she might remind them of what she thinks is the kernel of the entire course, and some sort of final exam or project that helps students tie things together and demonstrate their learning.  We see this across the entire college experience as well (i.e. Orientation/Convocation followed by graduation/commencement four or five years later).  I even vaguely remember it happening when I was a student in Mrs. Palmer's pre-school class.  On the first day I remember meeting Mrs. Palmer, getting a tour of the classroom, and hearing about all of the fun things I was going to get to do that year.  Then at the end of the year we had a full-blown "pre-school graduation" (complete with homemade graduation caps) where we were honored by our parents and then given a chance to showcase the cutting, coloring, and singing talents we had worked hard to acquire that year.  I would like to think that these practices, ceremonious as they may be, also have pedagogical value.  

The question this raises for me is whether we could or should do something at the end of the first college year that would have value for students and campuses.  The tendency would be to plan an end of year celebration with music, eloquent speeches, and a banquet or refreshments.  That may not be a bad thing, but it is expensive and runs the risk of becoming a frilly show absent of any real value.  So, are there simple, cost-effective ways of capitalizing on the end of the first year that would be both celebratory and educationally useful?

There are a few things that would seem useful to consider when designing a "second book end" for the first-year experience

1.  Revisit the goals, learning objectives, etc. introduced at the beginning of the year.  We spend a fair amount of time and effort introducing institutional missions and aims, learning goals, and expectations.  It only makes sense that we would want to follow up at the end of the first year to remind students of these same things.

2.  Celebrate successes.  The National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition sponsors a First Year Students Advocate program wherein they recognize faculty members and administrators who have done extraordinary work to improve the experience of first year students on their campuses.  There isn't any good reason why this couldn't happen on individual campuses (I know there are a few campuses that are already doing this).  Faculty members, staff, administrators, and student leaders who have done significant first-year work could be recognized.  Additionally, first year students who have demonstrated tremendous progress towards first-year objectives could be highlighted.  This would seem useful in at least two ways.  First, people like to be recognized and when they are, they tend to work even harder because they feel appreciated.  Second, it would give institutions the opportunity to recognize best practices and communicate a set of values to the rest of the campus community.

3.  Bridge the gap between the first-year and sophomore experiences.  I'll confess that I have not followed the SYE (sophomore year experience) movement very closely as of yet.  However, it seems to be commonly accepted that the transition from the first to the second year is challenging for many students.  If that is true then an end of year book end could be designed to address some of these issues (e.g. how to prepare for the sophomore year, resources to connect with prior to starting classes in the fall, etc.)

4.  Reflection on growth, challenges, and lessons learned.  The first college year and its experiences provide students with plenty of opportunities to learn and grow.  Asking them to reflect on those experiences, make meaning from them, and share their learning in public ways could be beneficial (if you use portfolios on your campus this could be a required artifact in that portfolio).

The challenge in all of this is finding the time, resources, and space for something like this to happen.  So, can it be done?  And, how would it look on a large campus with a large freshman class?  What challenges do small colleges face in considering the end of the first year?  


Friday, April 30, 2010

Academic play: Is goofing off in the classroom a bad thing?

One of my favorite blogs is maintained by Daniel Coyle a former contributing editor of Outside magazine and now a full-time writer.  A recent post explored the power of play in developing skill and left me wondering why we don't see more "play" in academics.  

Coyle argues that the very best athletes get to be that way, in part, because they spent a fair amount of time "goofing off" in fairly unstructured environments.  That's not to say that elite athletes don't at some point adopt a very structured and rigorous training regimen.  But, it seems that the path to skill started on playgrounds (for many NBA players), empty swimming pools (skate pros), and dusty streets (Ronaldinho & other South American soccer stars) in a number of cases.  The rationale is that these unique practice environments give young athletes a chance to be creative, invent their own games, get lots of reps, and develop a passion for their skill or game.  This new-age coaching mindset doesn't always sit well with "veterans" because it can mean chaos, loss of control, and a lack of the all-important "drill."    

This doesn't seem altogether different  from the view we take of education.  In most schools structure seems to be king--highly defined curricula, students in desks, and quiet individual work.  While pure logistics dictate much of this structure out of necessity, I wonder how learning would be impacted if students were engaged in "academic play" a little more often.  

In A Whole New Mind,  Daniel Pink describes how this concept of play is taking hold in successful businesses (e.g. Google--they encourage employees to spend 15% of their time working on whatever personal projects they find interesting and loosely connected to Google's mission), the military, and medical training.  And, U.S. Soccer just hired former Men's National Team captain Claudio Reyna to try and infuse "play" into the training of youth soccer players in the U.S.  

So, what would "academic play" look like?  Would it even work in a school or classroom setting where, at best, only half of the learners are motivated to learn?  

Friday, April 9, 2010

William Kamkwamba: A case study in deep learning

William Kamkamba's story is not new (he started his work in 2002 and started getting heavier press coverage in 2008), but I heard it for the first time this week.  Aside from being very moving, there seem to be some lessons here for educators and the way we engage students in good learning.  One of the things that impressed me with William's story was the fact that he seemed to be doing the sort of learning we all hope students will do, but it happened outside the formal confines of a school or university and with no real external support.  As I write this, it occurs to me that good learning like this might result because of those factors (i.e. the best type of learning happens outside of school).  

So, my first question is whether it is realistic to expect learning like this to occur within a formal setting.  The cynic in me wants to say no, but the pragmatist part of me that enjoys having a roof to sleep under, food to eat, the possibility of providing for my daughther make me want to say "yes, we can do it."  So, here are some key principles I see at work in William's story that seem to be instructive for instructional designers, teachers, and anyone that cares about learning.  

1.  Help the learner identify a real problem or opportunity.  William's story started because he saw an opportunity (the winds in Malawi) and wanted to find a way to leverage that opportunity.  Because it was a learning opportunity that he had identified and that he cared about personally, he was willing to engage in the hard work of deep learning.  William's learning was also motivated by a humanitarian desire to help people in his village, which seems to be important in some way.

2.  Allow the learning to be self-directed.  William didn't have a curriculum or syllabus he was following.  He identified gaps in his knowledge--things he needed to know in order to solve the problem at hand (and related sub-problems that likely emerged along the way)--and then garnered resources to help him learn what he needed to know.  Not only does this sort of experience shift the responsibility for learning onto the learner, but it also prepares them to engage in meaningful learning once they leave an institution and don't have a formal system nudging them along the path.

3.  Forum for sharing/testing ideas.  William's learning was incredibly public.  If the windmill didn't work, looked stupid, or in any other way failed to meet expectations he was likely to hear about it from those in his village.  Consequently, he was more motivated to really understand the principles of windmill design, electricity, etc. and to produce something that wouldn't get laughed at or mocked.  Additionally, because the learning was public he was likely receiving feedback all along the way regarding how to improve his work.  That combination of experience and feedback led to much better learning than would have otherwise resulted.

4.  Connections to a number of disciplines.  While much of what William was learning was focused in a physical science or technology domain, he likely had to learn things from other fields--writing skills, oral communication skills, business principles, etc.--in order to really make his windmill project a success.  It was the sort of integrated general education experience that liberal arts folks dream of.  The key was that he had selected a problem whose successful solution depended on a broad set of knowledge and skills.

5.  A connection to future plans/goals.  It's obvious from listening to William's story that he doesn't plan on stopping with a rough-looking windmill outside his family's Malawian farm.  What he learned in these initial projects has raised new questions for him, provided access to new sources of learning, provided additional motivation, and helped him develop a vision of what he wants to do and become as he moves forward.  This is in striking contrast to the term project or other course assignment that dies quickly once final grades are posted.

This sort of learning requires a paradigm shift for educators.  They become designers, facilitators, mentors, and coaches rather than information disseminators and evaluators.  So, for something like this to work it would take individuals that understand (1) what good learning looks like and (2) what sorts of mentoring leads to this learning.

We see these things at work in Capstone courses and in abundance in graduate school, but how can these principles be applied at the undergraduate level (or even within secondary and elementary education)?  Could an entire education be built around capstone-esque learning like this?