Friday, December 6, 2013

Access . . . to what?

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit two fairly unique educational institutions in the Wasatch County access in preparation for a more intensive two-day conversation that will be held in January.
School District as part of my involvement with BYU's partnership with the District.  The purpose of the day was to provide raise issues of

Our first visit was to the North Campus of Wasatch High School, which is a satellite campus of Wasatch High School and whose mission is to support students who are at risk of not graduating from high school.  As an aside, the District has taken a unique approach to supporting highly at-risk students by eliminating its "alternative school" and integrating it with the traditional high school.  In addition to countering the stigma of "alternative education," it provides these students with access to the resources and opportunities enjoyed by their peers (e.g. clubs, interscholastic athletics, elective courses).  After brief remarks from the administrator of the North Campus, Adam Hagan, we heard from a panel of eight students who described the challenges that led them to the North Campus and what they were currently doing to work toward graduation.  Every one of them was articulate, candid, and respectful in their responses and it was incredibly enlightening (and somewhat sobering) to hear their stories of school and where our traditional approach to education had fallen short in their cases.

Our second stop was at the Wasatch County Jail where we had the opportunity to meet and talk with two panels, both a group of men and a group of women who are enrolled in adult education programs while incarcerated.  Again, they were far more articulate than I had naively assumed, seemed passionate about learning, and incredibly grateful for the access they were being provided with to improve their lives (One of the most interesting stories of the day came from 45 year-old Duane who was raised on a farm in Ohio and to this day has never stepped inside a school.  He's learning to read and write through the adult education program at the jail).

These two experiences have shifted my view of issues of access in education.  Typically, dialogue around access centers on rather simplistic (though not unimportant) questions of providing educational access to underrepresented or underserved populations, and providing access to technology.  But, what I realized in listening to the students I met yesterday was that access is a much broader issue than just making sure kids get to school and have a computer.  The stories they told, except for in Duane's case, were not about access to school or even access to technology.  They went to school and, for the young students at the North Campus, had access to a relatively rich array of technological tools while at school.  But, what they repeatedly shared with us was that their experience of school failed to provide them with access to nurturing and supportive relationships.  Each of them told the story a little differently, but the overall theme was the same.  For Orlando, he didn't have access to teachers who were willing to try and understand the challenges he faced as a 17 year-old father and student for whom English is a Second Language.  For Joe, there was no one who knew him well enough to know that he was working 40+ hours a week at the community grocery store, so he could buy a car that would be dependable enough to ensure he could make the long drive to school each morning.  For Starr, who was probably the most articulate of the group and wise beyond her years, "people listened, but never heard" her.  And, McKayla, an Iraqi immigrant who you'd guess had lived in Utah all her life because of her complexion and perfect English, had no one to talk to about what it was like to be bullied because of her ethnicity.

Everyone we spoke to was quick to recognize their own personal responsibility and failings that had contributed to their struggles; however, it was clear that, to a person, they had felt forgotten, overlooked, and isolated throughout the vast majority of their school experience.  They had access to school, but had not been able to access the relationships they needed in order to navigate and make sense of their school experiences.  The value of the "schools" they are in now is that relationships are a key focus.  At North Campus, students benefit from what Adam Hagan described as "shoulder time," where a caring teacher works one-on-one to teach, answer questions, encourage, and challenge.  And, at the jail, Ms. Wheatley (who was described with fondness, accompanied by tears, by more than one inmate), has clearly left students in her classroom feeling valued and respected because of the individual attention she provides.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't be focused on more traditional issues of access and work to provide educational opportunity for all students.  However, part of the discussion of access needs to include consideration of, not only how we get students "into school," but also how we provide access to the human resources and relationships that, ultimately, are the vehicle for meaningful learning.  Whether those relationships are with teachers, parents, aides, peers, or anyone else within the school environment may not matter as much as structuring schools and school systems in ways that allow these relationships to take hold and flourish.

The take home for me from my experiences yesterday is that access is a layered and multi-faceted phenomenon including access to opportunity, access to subject matter or content, access to learning tools and resources, access to dialogue and conversation, access to models and exemplars, and access to relationships.  If we're really going to tackle problems of access, we've got to take on the whole problem.  A piecemeal approach won't do.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The John Swallow Resignation: Mistakes were made (but not by me)

This morning, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on what I think is one of the most interesting types of social phenomena we observe in our modern society--the resignation of a high-ranking official in the wake of accusations of misconduct.  The state of Utah breathed a sigh of collective relief this morning at the news that State Attorney General, John Swallow, is resigning from office after only 10 months on the job.

Regardless of where you sit politically or feel about Swallow personally, the breadth and quantity of the accusations levied against him make it difficult not to question his ethics.  There were claims of facilitating bribes, promises of preferential treatment to various individuals and businesses, questions of extortion, and issues relating to the receipt of improper gifts.  And, there was also talk of possible campaign violations in his most recent election.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I lean democrat and thought Swallow was a bit shady long before he was elected (indeed, the SL Tribune's endorsement of his challenger looks pretty prescient at this point).  But, those biases aside, 88% of the rest of our heavily conservative state was less than pleased with him as evidenced by his most recent approval rating, so it's hard to argue that this has all been driven purely by party politics.  Additionally, members of his own party (including the Governor) had done very little to impede the House investigation into the accusations at the center of the controversy.

The almost unbelievable part of this story for me has been Swallow's continued unwillingness to acknowledge  any degree of carelessness, naivete, or unprofessionalism, to say nothing of guilt or unethical behavior. This statement sums up Swallow's stance quite well:

"I maintain my innocence of all allegations and I want you to think for a minute what that means," he added. "If I truly am innocent, as I claim I am, then today is truly a sad day in Utah, because an election has been overturned."

It sounds a bit like Henry Kissinger's response to charges he committed war crimes during the Vietnam era ("Mistakes were quite possibly made by the administrations in which I served."), except that Swallow isn't just pointing the finger at his colleagues, he's denying wrongdoing from anyone in his circle.  His statement "I want you to think for a minute" seems to suggest that the collective citizenry of Utah has made the mistake by "overturning an election."

We may not ever know if Swallow is really guilty of what he's been accused.  But, if he's not guilty, he's either incredibly naive or just plain stupid to have allowed himself to become entangled in so many questionable practices.  So, one way or another, he's made mistakes (I made a similar argument about 18 months ago in a post about athletic scandals).  At this point he'd do well to consider Lao Tzu's  sage advice:
A great nation is like a great man: When he makes a mistake, he realizes it. Having realized it, he admits it. Having admitted it, he corrects it. He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers.
One way or another, mistakes were made, and not just by everyone outside of the Swallow camp.  

Friday, November 15, 2013

Educating the Whole Athlete: The Georgetown University 'Hoyas Lead' program

I'm often critical of intercollegiate athletics in these posts; however, as a former student athlete I do recognize the contribution that college sports can make to a student's development.  The problem is that most large Division I institutions are not as strategic and intentional about creating athletic programs that facilitate this growth as they could be.  There are, however, some notable exceptions.

One institution that seems to have gotten it right is Georgetown University.  Now in its second year, Georgetown's Hoyas Lead program is a very intentional, organized, and well-supported attempt to make good on the institutions philosophy that athletics should, ultimately, be focused on achieving developmental outcomes for participants.  The existence of the program isn't all that noteworthy because virtually every Division I athletic program has some kind of program, initiative, or council whose stated mission is to support the overall development of student athletes.  What is impressive about Georgetown's program is it's comprehensive approach, its scalability, and the high level support it has received on campus.  Indeed, there are a number of things about Hoyas Lead that set it apart from the myriad other programs which seem to only pay lip-service to their missions.

Visible, public, and financial support from the Univ. President.  President John J. DeGioia created and funded (from his own budget, not athletic monies) the assistant athletic director position with responsibility for overseeing and administering the Hoyas Lead program.  If nothing else, this is a symbolic gesture that conveys a message of urgency and importance to both the athletic department as well as the rest of the campus community that he's serious about providing a certain kind of experience to student athletes.  And, because he has financial skin in the game, he's likely to be more interested in what's happening in the program and following up to ensure that they are achieving their outcomes.

The right leader.  Hoyas Lead is led by +Michael Lorenzen, Georgetown's Assistant Athletic Director for student-athlete leadership and development.   Lorenzen brings a unique background and set of experiences to his role that position him to have credibility with stakeholders both in and outside of the athletic department.  He's a former Division I head coach (and was very successful when judged by traditional measures of athletic success), which earns him credibility with coaches at GU;  ran a consulting firm for college athletics administrators, which means he understands the administrative realities of NCAA athletics; and has a PhD. in leadership education and is a well respected scholar in that field--a tremendous asset when it comes to interfacing with faculty members and administrators at GU who don't live in the fieldhouse.  It's this last credential that makes Lorenzen most unique.  Very rarely does an athletics department hire an "academic" to fill these kinds of roles.  The fact that they have isn't just savvy, it means that Lorenzen has a philsophical and research-based approach to his work.

Bridges across campus.  Although Hoyas Lead is administered by the department of athletics, it brings together colleagues from athletics, academics, and student services (a rare feat in the academy).  Not only does this mean that its visibility is elevated, but by bringing together experts from all three of these areas, GU is able to provide a much better service to student athletes.  Compare this to the typically insular attitude and approach that "athletic success centers" typically take (case in point:  I have sent probably 10 emails to the director of my instition's "Student Athlete Academic Center" over the last year to notify him of first-year students that are struggling and, in every case, the response has been give or take a few words "Thanks, we'll take care of it."  No additional questions, follow-up, or requests for support from the academic side of the house).

A multi-faceted approach.  While Hoyas Lead does include the traditional orientation and leadership coursework that is found in a lot similar programs, it also includes co-curricular components (e.g. field work, mentoring, opportunities to teach, and service).  Even more notable is the fact that Lorenzen spends a good chunk of his time consulting and interfacing with individual head coaches and athletes.  He observes teams "in the field" so to speak by attending practices, games, and team meetings to get a sense for team culture.  Then, meets with individual coaches and athletes to integrate the more formal parts of the program to the unique needs of individual teams.  The most important by-product I can see from this approach is that he now has relationships with coaches and athletes.  And, relationships are vehicles for change.

The right not to participate.  I've written before (quite adamantly at times) about the need for institutions to require more of students.  And, I still assert that for the overall campus population, requiring students to engage in a small number of practices that clearly lead to positive outcomes is a good practice.  However, in this case, I think Lorenzen has been wise to shy away from requiring every student athlete to participate.  The first and second year curricular component is "required," but technically isn't mandatory and Lorenzen doesn't hunt anyone down who doesn't register for the coursework.  While this is potentially problematic because it leaves students wondering what the term "required" really means, it's not a bad approach to have an expectation that everyone will participate in the low-level introductory aspects of the initiative.  Once student athletes reach their junior year, their participation is completely voluntary.  This means that Lorenzen can devote the most valuable resources and impactful aspects of the program to those students who are truly committed to and invested in growing as leaders.  And, in reality, without a voluntary buy-in to things like service, mentoring, and the like, students aren't likely to grow anyway.  The key is in developing a culture and expectation among new students that carries through to these later years.  That way, it's understood that "Hoyas lead," and there's some social pressure to participate, but ultimately it's up to each individual to take up that opportunity.

Georgetown has provided a great model for the rest of the NCAA to follow.  Maybe the women's hockey teams at Ohio State and Bemidji State should pay attention.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Mr Holland's Opus, The Freedom Writers, and Stand and Deliver: Educational pornography that is bad for the teacher's soul

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week I participated in a retreat as part of Brigham Young University's Wasatch County School District (WCSD), based in Heber City, Utah.  This partnership is coordinated by BYU's Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education & Schooling (CITES) and includes an "Associates Program" that brings together both public school and university educators to discuss provocative educational issues.  I've been incredibly impressed with the passion and thoughtfulness of both the teachers and administrators from the WCSD.
partnership with

In a conversation on Wednesday, Jim Judd, the Director of Human Resources for the district made an incredibly insightful observation about the genre of films celebrating the efforts of inspirational teachers (i.e. like those I listed in the title of this post).  He pointed out that while these kinds of stories are incredibly inspirational for non-educators, they can (much like pornography) create unrealistic expectations for how educators can and should do their work.  In short, just like the adult film industry leaves ordinary people wondering how they could ever perform like the "actors" they see on screen, the stories told of Jaime Escalante, Erin Gruwell, and Glenn Holland leave most educators feeling both inadequate and discouraged.

Jim's observation is an astute one.  The reality is that very few teachers have the time, energy, or disposition to approach teaching in the super-human way that is subtly advocated for in these kinds of films.  And, when teachers are made to feel that they should all be like Ron Clark (one of the new breed of "inspiring," "innovative," and superstar educators), frustration, hopelessness, and feelings of failure won't be far behind.

Another problem with these films, one I've noticed before and that Jim commented as well, is that they tell a story of successful teaching that implies that the professional identity of the teacher is more important than any other aspect of their lives including health and family.  Consider the fate of the three teachers I've referred to above:  Jaime Escalante has a heart attack, Erin Gruwell gets divorced, and Glenn Holland has a deteriorating relationship with both his wife and his hearing-impaired son.  Yes, they're all great teachers, but is getting all your kids to pass the AP exam, to write well, or to play a score of music as important as your health and your family?  Hollywood would have us believe yes.

Finally, this group of feel-good films, does little to help a teacher understand how to facilitate meaningful learning.  They follow a typical narrative form:  new or unprepared teacher enters a challenging classroom environment, things are so bad they consider quitting, they come up with some kind of creative or "engaging" activity that breaks through the icy-cold disengagement of the students, and "poof" magic happens and lives start to be transformed.  Inspiring, but empty when it comes to helping real teachers understand how to facilitate real learning.

So, as entertaining and sometimes jear-jerking as these films can be, think twice before you show it to a teacher.  It's as good as showing them porn.

Friday, November 1, 2013

A case study in deep and engaged learning: A virtual tour of BYU

I have been accused (and probably rightfully so) at times in the past of being overly critical of my own institution (as an aside, my response has been and still is that I'm critical of what happens at BYU because I care deeply about its mission and hold those who work and learn here to a high standard).  So, periodically, I intentionally go looking for good things happening on my campus.  I found one this week.

A team of 15 students from BYU' BYU's College of Fine Arts and Communications has developed a virtual tour of BYU's Provo, Utah campus.  In addition to the fantastic visuals tour goers encounter, there are opportunities to explore historic images, video content, and social media plug-ins.  And, just as an in-person campus tour might be interpreted as a mechanism for telling various aspects of the "story" of an institution (this article from +Peter Magolda makes one of the best arguments for this idea that I've read), a virtual tour has the potential to tell other aspects of this story, using different means of storytelling.  And, it's a tour that a student can "take" from anywhere in the world, and any number of times.  Finally, because the tour is self-directed, it allows students to customize their experience and search for the things they need, as opposed to the traditional canned, one-size-fits-all tours led by a student leader (though this format clearly has its own advantages).
But, this post isn't about the virtues of the tour itself, but rather the process that led to its creation.

The project was organized and coordinated by BYU's +Laycock Center, which is housed within the College of Fine Arts and Communications and whose mission is to provide students and faculty members within the college with opportunities to collaboratively develop solutions that address real problems both at BYU and elsewhere.  It's a great example of how an academic unit can provide meaningful opportunities for students to integrate their academic work with what they might term "real life."  And, the virtual tour project illustrates a number of best practices for the deep and engaged learning that should be happening in higher education more often.

1.  It was collaborative . . ..  The project led to good learning for the students who participated, in large part because it involved them in interacting with other students.  Instead of holing students up in the basement of the library to prepare for an exam, write a paper, or do some other kind of lonely academic work, the project brought students together to gather data, analyze a problem, and develop a solution that drew upon their collective knowledge, skill, and experience.  Listen to what one IT student had to say about his experience with the project:   "I thought it would just be coding things, but I was able to meet so many good people and learn a lot of new skills." As the student alludes to, this team approach was likely a bit jarring or even frustrating for some students accustomed to working on their own, but led to a much better learning experience than they would have had with a traditional do-it-yourself project.

2.  . . . and interdisciplinary.  Not only did students work collaboratively, but they worked collaboratively with people from outside their departments.  So, there were musicians working alongside actors, and IT students trying to get along with students in journalism.  In addition to improving the quality of the final product, this cross-section of perspectives and skill sets provided opportunities for students to hear new ideas, practice representing their own ideas in coherent ways for others who think very differently, and to see how ideas are improved when they emerge from dialogue among a diverse group of thinkers.

3.  Support from faculty mentors.  Although the project was largely student-driven, students weren't completely on their own.  They worked closely with faculty mentors who could provide guidance, raise new questions, direct students to resources, and provide feedback all along the way.  And, this participation alongside experts is just as important for learning as is the experience of working through problems with other novice peers.  When a student is mentored by a faculty member they see how an expert does their work and how they think about problems.  Those are things they can't learn from a textbook or a collaborative project that involves only their peers (valuable as that may be).

4.  Expanded opportunities for future experience.  I've blogged before about John Dewey's criteria for educative experience, one of which is the notion of continuity.  In a nutshell, this criterion emphasizes the need for a learning experience to expand a learner's possibilities for future learning experiences.  Thus, a good learning experience is one that serves as a springboard for future learning.  And, this is exactly what happened for two of the student leads who worked on the virtual tour.  One is an advertising student, the other is a student in Information Technology--two groups that rarely interact.  However, their experience collaborating together on the virtual tour, not only convinced them of the philosophical value of collaborative efforts, but led them to join forces for work on additional projects since completion of the tour.  Virtually every institution of higher education contains some kind of language in their mission statement about life-long or continued learning, and students' continued participation in collaborative, interdisciplinary work is tremendous evidence that this objective has been meant (much more telling than a students response to a survey item inviting them to report their likeliness to "continue learning."

As educators, we need to be providing more opportunities like this for students.  Teaching and educating, ultimately, is about providing learners with experiences that shape and transform them.  Although increased knowledge, skill, and understanding come along the way, this should all be subsumed by a more holistic change in a learner's view of the world.  And, that's what I see happening (even on a very small scale) among students who have opportunities like those who participated in developing the campus tour.  And, even if you don't care all that much about learning (I know no one working in higher ed would ever knowingly admit this, but you know who you are), these kinds of experiences have relevance for the financial and business sides of the institutional house.  Listen to how one student's perspective of the institution changed as she worked on the virtual tour project:
"I'm a senior, and honestly, I was starting to get kind of sick of campus, [said +Paris Sorbonne, an advertising student who served as the project manager on the virtual tour] but there was this moment during this project when I thought 'I want to be here.'  This campus is just so beautiful.  There is a legacy behind it.  It's changed lives.  So that split second when I felt that, I thought this is what I want the tour to be about."
Working on the tour didn't just enhance Sorbonne's learning experience, it helped her understand and connect with the institutional narrative at BYU.  And, that left here feeling a sense of purpose and motivation that had been missing before the project.  That connectedness is likely to stay with her long after she graduates, and that holds big implications for the type of alumnus she'll be.

So, whether you're a faculty member, administrator, or someone working in the enrollment management, business, or alumni office, you should care about whether or not this type of thing is happening on your campus.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The First-Year Experience: Shifting from a movement to a respected discipline

Earlier this week I attended the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) Annual Conference in BYU looks and feels a lot like advising.  To be honest, I wasn't expecting much, largely because the professional development provided to advisors on my campus is pretty pedestrian and uninspiring.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that, on the whole, academic advising is really growing into its own as a viable discipline, as opposed to a marginalized movement that can be pushed to the periphery of higher education.
Salt Lake City, UT.  It's not a conference I normally attend because I'm not an academic advisor; however, it was only an hour away and a portion of my work at

During the conference, I attended a presentation by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition where Mary Stuart Hunter, the Executive Director of the Center made a really interesting statement, which was that their center is working to move the First-Year Experience from "a movement to a discipline."  I couldn't agree more.  And, I think that FYE could learn from NACADA about how to navigate this process.  I say that because during the NACADA annual conference I saw some signs that academic advising is maturing into a real discipline.  And, if FYE is ever to become a real discipline, they will need to follow a similar path.

There were some important things I noticed about NACADA during the conference, and things that FYE will need to attend to if it is serious about becoming a respected and viable discipline:

1.  An attention to its history.  There were a number of sessions during the NACADA conference that focused on examining the history of academic advising and how the advising field has evolved over time.  In addition to being interesting, this historical focus is critical for a field in terms of documenting and learning from its past.  While veterans of FYE like John Gardner frequently discuss its history, it isn't part of the shared dialogue among practioners and scholars who are concerned with the first year.  And, I've never seen a conference presentation or extended dialogue around historical issues.  By examining its history in a scholarly and even empirical way, FYE could take great strides toward becoming a discipline by documenting how it has evolved and changed since the 1970s when it first emerged as a movement.  And, this historical glance would yield important insights related to the theory and practice of FYE (see #2 for more on that idea).

2.  A move toward a unified theory.  One of the hottest topics at NACADA this year was whether or not academic advising can or should attempt to articulate a comprehensive or unifying theory of advisement.  Part of the struggle is that there are a number of different theories than inform advising practice, from student development theory (e.g. Chickering and Reissor), to educational theory (there was a fascinating session from +Kurt Xyst on how Deweyan theories of learning might inform advising), to hermeneutic theories (think Heidegger).  So, naturally, there is some disagreement over what theories are more appropriate for the aims of academic advising.  I'm not sure that I believe that its necessary for a field to subscribe to a single theory and it doesn't seem realistic that advisors will ever come to any real agreement over this; however, the discussions and attempts to clarify the theoretical positions that should inform the field are critical.  For FYE, theory isn't absent; however, there seems to be a bit of theoretical orthodoxy around student development theories, such that there are very few other voices represented.  For FYE to become a discipline, it will need to invite practitioners and scholars from other theoretical backgrounds (e.g. education & the humanities) to the table and involve them in meaningful ways.  For example, what does learning theory have to offer in terms of structuring meaningful first-year experiences for learners?  What tensions might exist between student development theory and educational theory?  What other theoretical frameworks might be helpful to consider?  I don't hear or see people in FYE asking these kinds of questions, at least at the level where it is visible to others (e.g. at conferences, in publications, etc.).

3.  Lively disagreements and arguments.  There was a great deal of disagreement (albeit very civil) at the NACADA conference over issues of theory and philosophy.  That's a good thing and the sign of a maturing discipline.  But, it's something I don't see happening a great deal within FYE.  There are plenty of disagreements and arguments we participate in, but they are largely with those outside our movement.  One of the signs that we are becoming a viable discipline or field will be when we are starting to disagree with one another around critical issues (and they are likely to be associated with history and theory).  That seems a bit paradoxical, but it's those tensions, disagreements, and contrasting ideas that will move us forward and give us credibility as a healthy and thriving discipline.

4.  A member driven governing body.  NACADA is a membership organization, meaning that academic advisors have the option of becoming members.  That means paying annual membership dues, but also means that those who do are able to be involved in the organization in really meaningful ways.  It also means that there is an elected leadership that has a strong voice and influence in shaping and directing the field.  NACADA also has an executive office with a paid administrative staff who work with elected representatives.  This hybrid structure of elected volunteers and paid administrative staff helps to balance both continuity/stability with innovation and growth.  This, currently, might be one of the most glaring gaps in FYE.  The National Resource Center is a great resource to practitioners and scholars in FYE.  However, because it is made up entirely of an executive staff housed on a single campus, it is ultimately a pretty insulated body.  They do their best to form partnerships with other groups (like NACADA and NODA) and involve scholars on other campuses in producing publications, offering online courses, and organizing conferences.  However, if FYE is really to become a discipline, it needs to provide membership opportunities and everything that comes with that structure.  In fact, the previous three recommendations I've made aren't likely to be realized until a membership structure is in place.  I'm not suggesting that the National Resource Center should go away, rather that it should work to bring into existence a complimentary membership organization that it could support and guide into the future.

Ultimately, what FYE needs to work toward is becoming a community of practice, with its own history, philosophy, theory, discourse, and dialogue.  The progress it has made as a movement over the last 35 years, leave me very hopeful that the next 35 years can see it become a discipline.  And, if this is to happen, it is likely to happen around issues of history, theory, lively disagreement, and membership.

Friday, September 27, 2013

(Mis)Education and Experience: Two examples grounded in the work of John Dewey

Recently, I've been re-reading John Dewey's seminal work Experience and Education.  It's not an easy read (though it's short), but it's a must-read for anyone who believes that education is about more than transmitting information.  The core of Dewey's argument is that all genuine learning comes about through experience; however, not all experience is equally educative.  He differentiates between educative experience, which expands a learners opportunities for learning and growth in the future; and miseducative experience, which stops or distorts future growth and learning.

I came across two cases this week that are great examples of each of these categories of experience.

First, the miseducative experience from the German school system.  There are 4 million muslims living in Germany, which has led German government and school officials to look for ways to integrate German-Muslims into communities, while still respecting their religious beliefs.  The most recent case has centered on required swimming lessons in German schools and has received a fair amount of international media attention.  At the heart of the buzz is a German court's ruling that Muslim girls must take part in co-educational swimming lessons as part of their educational experience, but will be allowed to wear burqinis.  There are two issues associated with the case--modesty and male-female interactions.  The modesty issue has largely been addressed through allowing Muslim girls to wear burqinis.  However, the plaintiff in the case, a Muslim teenage girl and her parents, claim that requiring her to participate in swim classes with other young men runs counter to their religious beliefs and practices.

German schools clearly believe that swimming is a fundamental skill that all German students should master.  This seems sound and, at some level, the court's ruling makes sense.  If they were to grant exemptions to this requirement for particular students, they would be neglecting their obligation to educate all students.  However, this is faulty logic, and here's why.

The ultimate goal of educational experience is to facilitate and encourage future experience (see Dewey's definition of educative experience).  It's probably safe to assume that the basic swimming instruction German student's receive isn't enough to make them master swimmers.  Instead, it's purpose is to equip students with basic levels of competence and also encourage them to participate in recreational swimming outside of school.  It's a sound approach (and one educators apply in all sorts of other disciplines).  But, the German court's decision is likely to have the opposite effect.  By forcing Muslim girls to swim, they will ensure that these girls will swim for the few hours a week they are required (during the few months when they are in the class).  But, this forced participation is also likely to turn Muslim girls off to swimming in the future.  And, in that way, this will become a miseducative experience  because it is likely to inhibit these students' learning and growth as future swimmers.  In this case, the court has forgotten that the swimming lessons offered in schools are the means to an end.

Now, the educative experience from a pretty unlikely source--a grassroots movement to end street harassment toward women.  Essentially, +Emily May and the Hollaback movement she started invites women to use their smartphones to document, map, and share incidents of street harassment with a worldwide internet community.  It's a really clever idea that uses technology, social networks, and social pressure to fight back agains a pretty ugly trend.  And, it invites and empowers women to participate in an experience that meets both Dewey's requirements for educative experience.  First, it attends to the criterion of continuity because it positively impacts the future experience of both the women who participate as well as the men they are "hollabacking" at.  Women who share or read stories of fighting back against street harassment are likely to be more empowered and skilled in doing so in the future (which would then provide additional experiences and learning opportunities)
.  And, the men who they are responding to are likely to think twice before making similar comments in the future.  Second, Hollaback has provided meaningful opportunities for interaction through its platform because it allows women to share and hear one another's stories in ways that lead to learning.  So, in addition to Hollaback being termed a "movement," it might also be characterized as an educative experience.  From this standpoint, Hollaback is fulfilling the role of an educator to provide, design, order, or facilitate an experience that leads to long-term and meaningful growth.

My point here is that, when it comes to issues of learning and the types of experiences educators should provide, it's important to consider long-term outcomes and how educational experiences and environments can be designed to not only ensure that learners "do what they're supposed to" in the short term (the German example), but that the experience we've provided has the potential to lead to additional learning and growth in the future.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Legitimate Peripheral Participation: A new lens for viewing the first year of higher education

At the outset, let me say that I'm a theoretical and philosophical nerd.  I like to read about theory and educational philosophies because they're just plain interesting and they lead me to see educational experiences differently, which I enjoy.  That said, my strong stance is that, without a theoretical foundation, those who design and order educational experiences (whether that is in a classroom, a home, a playing field, or music hall) aren't nearly as intentional and impactful as they can be when they are operating from a clear set of theoretical or philosophical principles.  Steve Yanchar, a faculty member in the Department of Instructional Psychology and Technology at BYU, has written very eloquently and persuasively about this idea here.

So, with that roundabout disclaimer for any theory-averse readers, here goes.

One of the most interesting theoretical frameworks for describing and understanding learning that I've come across is Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger's notion of Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP).  To really understand the theory, you'll need to read their book.  But, for the sake of this post and your time, here are the main ideas.

  • Learning isn't merely knowledge or skill acquisition; rather, learning is the process of becoming increasingly skilled in the practices and discourses of a particular community of practice.  This means that "learning" is situated in particular contexts, activities, and social groups.  For example, learning to be a nurse isn't just understanding what to call particular body parts or how to give an injection (though this knowledge and skill is part of the process).  Instead, learning to be a nurse involves learning to think, act, and talk like expert nurses do.  Ultimately, it is a way of being that subsumes a whole constellation of knowledge, skill, and values.  So, learning is the process of becoming like the experts or "old-timers" that are part of an already existing community.
  • In order to learn or become in these ways, a novice or newcomer needs to have access to the practices of the community.  So, that means being around old-timers, hearing the stories they tell, the way they describe problems, and seeing the way they do their work (whether that's making hamburgers at McDonald's, working on stopped up toilets, or writing academic articles).
  • Learners also need opportunities to participate in legitimate and peripheral activities within the community and with other community members.  Lave and Wenger use the example of apprentice Vai and Gola Tailors in West Africa, who learn to be master tailors, first by hemming cuffs and attaching buttons to already finished articles.  From there they move on to increasingly complex tasks, all of which are integral to the overall process of tailoring an entire piece of clothing.  By participating in these practices, they don't just learn how to tailor, but learn what it means to be a tailor, with all of the complexities that come with that craft.  All three principles (participation, legitimacy, and peripherality) are key here because if any of these conditions isn't met, learning isn't likely to occur.  For example, if a tailor isn't performing a legitimate aspect of the tailoring process (e.g. distributing handbills in a public square to generate more business) or one that is peripheral (e.g. working in a setting completely disconnected or isolated from the master tailors), he or she isn't likely to master the knowledge, skills, discourse, or tools necessary to be a good tailor.  Rather, the "learning" will be fragmented and artificial.
There's much more that could be said about LPP, but that should be enough to provide a basic overview of the theory.  

Given the work I do with first-year students on my campus, my question is how LPP might inform the way we welcome, orient, and "teach" students during their first year.  Here are a few thoughts:

1.  First-Year Experience programs should be built around meaningful tasks.  Although there are certainly things that we want first-year students to know and be able to do by the time they finish their initial year on campus, talking at students about these things (whether it is in new student orientation, in a freshman seminar course, or any other formal setting) isn't likely to lead to any real learning or growth.  Instead, we should be identifying a series of developmental tasks that students can be invited (or better yet, expected or required) to participate in during their first two semesters.  And, no, I don't just mean coming up with a list of courses.  Thoughtful FYE administrators will consider what the practices and behaviours of "expert students" are and structure FYE tasks/objectives around these things.

2.   First-year students should be provided with a comprehensive view of the mission and purposes of their particular mission from the very beginning of their experience.  In West African tailor shops this happens through the early tasks novice tailors are asked to complete.  It's very simple, by working with finished garments that have been tailored by master's, newcomers develop a good sense very early on of what a quality finished garment should look and feel like.  And, having that comprehensive understanding helps guide and focus their learning as they move through other tasks.  For a first-year experience program this can and should happen at New Student Orientation.  I've written before about how this could happen during an Orientation Convocation, but there are other, more active ways to give students this perspective as well.  One that was suggested on my campus by one of the administrators involved in orientation was to invite second semester students to serve as orientation leaders.  At first this seems risky, after all, how much can a second semester student really know about campus or about what new students need to know.  But, there is an intriguing idea here in that expecting second semester students to convey institutional messages and model effective student habits for their peers might speed up their development.  By expecting nearly new students to help to orient and support even newer students, we provide them with a meaningful opportunity to embrace and internalize a set of beliefs and practices that are important for their success.  And, by involving them in these ways, we involve them in an important aspect of our work (legitimate peripheral participation).  Similarly, any opportunities for new students to mentor, tutor, or advise their peers (even if that is in a simple setting like a study group) can move forward their growth, again, because they are participating in the work of the institution in meaningful ways.

3.  First-year students should have access to "old-timers."  This could mean anything from experienced students, to faculty members, to administrators or staff members.  The key idea is to structure the first-year in ways that provide opportunities for these interactions.  As a non-example, consider the practice of packing new students into large lecture halls for "survey" or "intro" classes.  Not only is this generally a poor way to learn, it provides little to no opportunities for students to have meaningful interactions with a faculty member.  In contrast, small seminars, employment and research opportunities, and mandatory advising facilitate these types of interactions where new students can learn by watching, talking, and participating with more seasoned members of the campus community.

Ultimately, the goal of the first-year experience should be to invite new students to become full participants in the campus community by structuring their experiences and interactions in ways that allow them to actually participate in those practices.  And that can extend well beyond the realm of traditional academics, to the arts, meaningful service, and anything else that a particular campus might value.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Democracy & Education: What is the role of "experts?" What is the role of ordinary citizens?

In his book First Democracy, +Paul Woodruff argues for a set of seven democratic ideals (i.e. freedom, harmony, the rule of law, natural equality, citizen wisdom, reasoning without knowledge, and education) and their value for communities and institutions.  Using ancient Athens as a model, he describes each of these principles and then asserts that they still have relevance and value for contemporary political systems.

I'm only one chapter into the book, so I won't say any more about Woodruff's argument, but I am particularly interested in his chapter on citizen wisdom, because it seems to address a question that I've written about in a past post, specifically, the role of "non-experts" in making decisions about public education.  Woodruff uses the term "ordinary citizen" in reference to this group who have no formal training or expertise in particular aspects of government.

In the 2011 post that I linked to above, I raised the question of when we should involve ordinary citizens and when to tap into "expertise" when addressing educational problems or challenges.  I can't say that I am any more clear about that question as I write this post more than two years later.  However, Woodruff's introductory chapter has made me wonder about this question again in light of what he asserts about democracy.

First and foremost, he points out that voting, majority rule, and elected representation do not constitute democracy.  So, my previous argument that ordinary citizens are democratically involved in making educational decisions because they vote for elected representatives is flawed and I readily admit that.  For Woodruff, a "true democracy" is one where all adults are free to have a voice, join the conversation about key issues, and play a role in the decision-making process.

This sounds great on paper.  How could someone disagree that all members of a community should have their voices heard and be involved in the workings of government?  At the risk of being labeled un-democratic or anti-American (which is a particular risk where I live) I'll admit that, when it comes to decisions about public education, this idea scares me.  Quite frankly, I'm not sure that everyone in Provo or Utah County, or Utah, has the experience and knowledge necessary to make informed decisions about our schools.  It's not lost on me that, in saying that, I sound incredibly arrogant.

It's important to understand where my biases lie and where they come from.  I have taught in public schools in two districts in Utah, I work in an educational setting now (higher education), and I consider myself somewhat of a "scholar" when it comes to educational issues because of my graduate training.  So, naturally, I view education and learning as complex and nuanced ideas that are easily misunderstood.  Accordingly, I'm leery of letting just anyone have a strong voice when it comes to decisions about these issues.

At the same time, I also acknowledge that educational expertise (like any form of expertise) has the potential to lead to blindness and catastrophic mistakes.  So, I'm interested in exploring ways that both experts and ordinary citizens can productively participate together in making decisions about public education.  So, how do we do it?

I don't yet have any good answers.  Instead, I have a related question that might help to extend this discussion:  How should ordinary citizens prepare themselves to participate in this process?

I wrote out a really incoherent response to that question but the longer I wrote, the more uncertain I became.  So, I'll spare readers from the pain of reading those ramblings.  Instead, I'll finish with a final assertion and a plea for help.

Ultimately, democracy requires a lot of those who participate in it. So, for those of us who want to participate in making decisions about schools, we need to be willing to do more work than we've done in the past to be prepared to participate in meaningful and informed ways.

So, here's the plea, what should ordinary citizens be doing to prepare themselves to participate in decision-making about schools?  And, how can "experts" assist and support citizens in those efforts?

Again, I've struggled to know how to answer this question. In fact, because these are all such complex questions, this has been one of the most difficult posts I've ever written because I don't have any good answers.

Please help.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Redesigning our Campus Communities: What would a TEDCampus2.0 Conference Look Like?

On September 20th, TED will be holding its 2013 TEDCity2.0 conference, a day-long conversation led by an eclectic group of thinkers from a variety of backgrounds, including art, anthropology, sustainability, engineering, and transportation to name just a few.  Their goal?  Discuss and imagine what future cities might look like.  As I see it, they are essentially exploring the question "How can we design and create more effective communities?"

That's a question institutional leaders should be asking as well.  Granted, some probably are; however, TED's City2.0 conference provides an interesting model for how campus leaders could go about exploring this question.  Rather than insulated conversations among small groups of academics, what would happen if a campus or group of campuses were to convene their own Campus2.0 conference?

First, there would be a small number of core themes or issues that would be explored.  Second, experts and innovators from a broad range of areas would be invited to ensure that a wide range of perspectives are represented.  Third, the dialogue for each session would be built around a number of provocative questions.

Here's my vision of how it might look.

Session #1:  Redefining what it means to be a member of a campus community.  
Those of us who live and work on college campuses have become too tied down by our "roles" and the scripts that go along with those roles.  Students go to class, take exams, and occasionally participate in on-campus events. Faculty members teach classes, sit on committees, and do research. Administrators worry about their specific programs and make sure that resources are allocated.  It's all very fragmented and disconnected.  Sessions and presentations around this theme would help members of a campus community consider common goals and purposes, invite members of the community to reconsider what their role in the community should be (particularly as it relates to shared purposes), and discuss how various members of the campus community can be brought together to collaboratively address real challenges on a college campus.

Guiding Questions

  • What does engaged citizenship on a campus community look like?
  • How can a campus community enact principles of democracy in meaningful ways?
  • Who are the vulnerable campus populations that need a voice in the campus community?
  • What does a thriving campus community look like?  Feel like?  Sound like?
Who would be there?
  • Citizenship & community experts who can discuss the philosophy of citizenship and community building and how those ideas can be applied on a college campus.
  • Local, state, or national community organizers and activists who can apply their expertise to issues of community on campuses.
  • Poverty experts, not necessarily because traditional forms of poverty are issues on college campuses (although they are probably more prevalent than we would like to admit), but to help members of campus communities to consider what other forms of poverty and vulnerability might exist (e.g. the plight of first-generation college students, adjunct faculty, etc.).  
  • Historians who could discuss what citizenship has meant in the past, across societies, and what it can and should mean in the future.
The Dream Team (who we'd invite if we could have our pick of anyone)
  • Robert Putnam, to discuss issues of social capitol and community
  • David McCullough, because he's interesting and seems to have thoughtful things to say about just about anything.
  • Clayton Christensen, because I disagree with the management principles he applies to higher education (it's good to have opposing viewpoints represented), but think he's an excellent thinker and it would be good to have his perspective on issues of campus citizenship.

Session #2:  Reinventing the Campus Experience
In a thriving campus community, the campus experience would shift from being focused on transactions (e.g. taking classes, providing instruction, coming to work to clean the buildings) to shared experiences that build meaning, social capital, and relationships.  So, we'd invite people that could speak to the ways in which experience can be designed to lead to these outcomes.

Guiding Questions
  • How has the campus experience shifted in the last 20 years?  What might campus experience look like moving forward?
  • Who are the key players positioned to impact campus experience?
  • What are the elements of experience that will contribute to the academic, social, and civic aims of higher education?

Who would be there?
  • Artists, poets, and musicians who could help us understand how to create aesthetic experience within our campus communities.
  • Anthropologists who could speak to issues of human experience and what we know about it as a phenomenon.  
  • Technologists, to help us think through both the promise and peril associated with integrating technology (especially new and social media) into the campus experience.
  • Experience architects who can raise issues of story, design, aesthetics, interaction, and place within experience.

The Dream Team
  • Tom Kelley, who could share IDEO's expertise in designing and shaping experience.
  • Clay Shirky, to explore the impact of technology upon experience and what it means for communities.
  • Jason Sweeney, who could help us understand how participatory art (and other large-scale community collaborations) can contribute to aesthetics, dialogue, and cohesion in a community.
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to discuss what "flow" on a campus community might look like, feel like, and how it could be designed for.

Session #3:  Reimagining the Physical Campus
Campuses come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Some are small campuses in large cities, others are large campuses in what students would describe as the middle of nowhere.  And, the exact design of a physical campus should vary depending on a variety of factors, including the size of the student body, whether it is a residential or commuter campus, and its institutional mission (agricultural land grant institution vs. science and technology).  The key is making physical design decisions intentionally and for the right reasons, not just under the pressure of space and cost.

Guiding Questions
  • What can campus planners learn from successful cities?
  • How can physical design decisions be leveraged to make a positive impact upon citizenship, engagement, and the student experience?
  • What can physical campuses learn from successful virtual spaces that can be applied on a college campus?  What are the cautionary tales to be learned from these virtual spaces?
  • What are the various types of spaces that should exist within a campus community?
Who would be there?
  • Architects, because they design and build the stuff.
  • Traffic engineers, because they understand the dynamics of moving bodies within spaces and how to make intentional decisions about flow.  
  • Artists and graphic designers, because it should look nice.
  • Industrial designers, to help us think through the products and materials that should be placed within communities and how they should be designed.
  • Sociologists, to make sure the builders and accountants don't dround out the other voices.
The Dream Team
  • Ray Oldenburg, because he understands the characteristics of effective community spaces and how to create them.
  • Jane Jacobs (yes, we're bringing her back from the dead), because she could help us think about a campus community as a city and what that might mean.
  • Toni Griffin, whose background in urban design, architecture, and place-making would provide incredible insights for a college campus.

So, now we just need TED to plan this conference and invite us all.  Would you come?

Friday, August 2, 2013

Aaron Osmond's Practical (read: Illogical) Argument for Ending Compulsory Education in Utah

+Aaron Osmond, a Utah republican state senator from South Jordan, asserted in a recent posting on the Utah State Senate blog (which has, curiously, disappeared from the web) that the state of Utah should end its requirement for children to attend mandatory schooling.  Osmond's argument is centered on two main premises:
(a) The United States is a country founded on the principles of personal freedom and unalienable rights;" consequently, "no parent should be forced by the government to send their child to school" (direct quote from the original blog post).   
(b) Parents have failed to take responsibility for and engage in their children's education, and the current requirement forces schools and teachers to become "surrogate parents, expected to do everything. . . . Some parents act as if the responsibility to educate . . . is primarily the responsibility of the public school system" (blog post).

While Osmond's two observations (i.e. that the US was founded upon personal freedom and that parents often don't take enough responsibility for supporting their children's education) are accurate, his logic is flawed at best and absent at worst.

First, in what is likely an act of deference to ultra conservative members of his party (as well as the Utah Eagle Forum, which seems to have as much control over Republican lawmakers as nearly any single individual or organization, even more than the LDS Church), Osmond selectively applies the worn-out "personal liberty" argument to promote a narrow political agenda.  The basis of this argument seems to be that because the US was founded upon principles of "unalienable rights," parents should have free license to make any and all decisions regarding their children's lives.  However, Osmond and his colleagues don't allow political opponents to use the same logic (personal freedom = parents can do whatever they want) in other aspects of parenting (e.g. taking their children to a restaurant that serves liquor in plain sight).  He can't selectively apply the personal freedom argument in some contexts, but not others.  Additionally, this line of logic is incredibly naive for someone claiming to be a lawmaker.  The basic premise of the law-making process is that governments limit some freedoms in order to promote the general welfare of its citizenry.

Second, Utah is already incredibly friendly toward parent choice in education, providing a number of home and charter school options.  In fact, for those parents who choose the home-school route, there is no mandatory testing or curriculum inspection--all they need to do is sign an affidavit committing to teach the same subjects as public schools and for the same amount of time.  In my opinion this already borders on negligence and couldn't be much more parent-choice friendly.  There doesn't seem to be much wrong with the current system in terms of providing parents with freedom to make choices about their children's education.

Third, although most parents could do more to be involved in their kids' learning (and some could do much more), making school "optional" isn't likely to help things.  Salt Lake City School Board member Michael Clara put it most succinctly "the cure would be worse than the disease."  Imagine what an already disengaged parent would do if his kids weren't forced to go to school?  Exactly.  He'd do nothing.  How is that better?

Finally, and most importantly, education is a public good.  So, while a parent should have some choice in how, when, or where her child is educated, she should not have the choice of whether her son or daughter receives an education because all of her neighbors (both present and future) need that son or daughter to be educated.  State and local governments (and, increasingly, the federal government) are concerned about and involved in influencing educational issues because having an educated citizenry is essential for a democracy to function.  So, ultimately, education is a means to enabling the very freedoms Osmond supports.

Because Osmond has seemed relatively intelligent in the past, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he hasn't somehow become stupider over the last few months.  Rather, I think he's probably been influenced by big players in Utah politics.  Regardless, his thinking that education could or should be made optional is flawed.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Community basketball courts as a model for schools

About two months ago, Provo City opened it's new Community Recreation Center.  It is a fantastic facility.  It's well designed, has state of the art equipment, is located in the heart of the city, and is a great value (a 12 month pass for my family was just under $400).  On average, I visit the rec center about once a week, mostly to use the fitness center.  To get to the fitness center, I have to walk by the four basketball courts located on the main level of the facility.

For me, they are one of the most interesting features of center, because in some sense, they have given rise to their own mini-community.  I realized this last week when it occurred to me that nearly every time I walk by the basketball courts, I see a young man from my neighborhood there playing basketball.  Sometimes he is there alone, other times he is playing one-on-one with a friend, and on other days he is in the middle of a pick-up game with a little larger group.

But, the biggest thing I've noticed about him is how much his game has improved in the last six months.  I know this because last winter, I saw him playing basketball in our church one night and, to put it bluntly, he was awful.  He couldn't make anything further than four feet from the basket, he missed half the lay-ups he took, and it was painful to watch his jumpshot.

When I saw him last week, he was by no means ready for the Timpview HS basketball team, but he was holding his own against a group of average guys his same age.  He even "looked" like a basketball player--he wore the basketball shoes you'd expect from a relatively serious player, had on the long basketball shorts that you see when you watch an NBA game, and even had the same type of socks I know HS basketball players wear.  It was like he had been enrolled in some kind of basketball school where they taught him how to shoot a jumpshot, how to play defense in the low post (he's a pretty tall kid for his age), and even how to dress.  In fact, he has been in "school," just a different type of school than what we typically think of.

While, I highly doubt that Provo City designed the basketball complex to facilitate learning, it has a number of features that make it a great place where learning (basketball-specific learning) can take place.  It's a lot like the neighborhood boxing gym or skateboard park in that it brings together a mini-community of people who are all interested in and engaged in the same activity, but who all possess varying degrees of skill and experience.  And, any organization who cares about how its members learn could take a few cues:

1.  A focus on authentic learning.  The kids and adults who play basketball at the rec center aren't participating in artificial drills, practice sessions, or contrived activities.  For the most part, they are engaged in real basketball games that allow them to participate in all of the aspects of the game of basketball from conditioning, to shooting, to defense, to rebounding.  So, each time they play, they're developing the full range of their game.  In addition, real games are much more motivating than artificial activities, which impacts learning and development more than nearly any other factor in the learning environment.

2.  Openness and opportunities to watch other learners in practice.  The three full-size courts in the complex are located next to one another in a large open space, without any dividing walls.  Additionally, there is an elevated track above the courts, and glass windows looking into the three-court complex.  Although the fourth court (a smaller one) is separated from the other three by a thin wall, it is next door, and also surrounded by glass windows.  This all means, that regardless of what court I'm playing on, I can see what's going on in the games next to me.  This is particularly critical for novice players because it means they have the potential to watch more advanced players in the game next to them.  So, a young player can see what good defense looks like, watch a reverse lay-up, or stand in awe at a smooth jumper.  In essence, it provides a novice with access to a wide range of practices within the community.  That access and the observational opportunities that come with it are invaluable for novice learners.

3.  Learners of various skill level together in the same space.  Because of the open design of the basketball complex and that fact that anyone can use it, there is a wide range of basketball ability represented on the courts at any one time.  Just last week when I was there, I saw one game being played by middle-aged men, another game made up of kids from the age of 10 - 15, and a Dad and his three kids playing on another court.  Again, this mix of ability levels means that new basketball players are likely to be playing right next to advanced players, which provides great opportunities for learning.  And, in addition to providing benefit to novices, it may even provide mentoring opportunities for veterans or "experts" looking to give back.

The take home message here is that learning is inherently a social enterprise that occurs most effectively when it becomes a community activity.  However, much of the formal learning that takes place in schools looks very different than the kind of learning I've described above.  Instead of being based in community, where learners from varying skill levels come together and watch, learn, and participate together, it is terribly fragmented.  It happens in isolated classrooms, where everyone has the same relative degree of knowledge or skill, and is rarely authentic in the ways we hope it would.

So, what would a school look like if it were patterned after a boxing gym, a basketball complex, or a skate park?  Could it work?  And, how would it be administered?


Friday, June 28, 2013

Learning is Messy (and risky)

Last week I attended the 26th International Conference on the First-Year Experience in Waikoloa, Hawaii.  The conference is sponsored by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition (housed at the University of South Carolina) and is one of the best conferences I attend each year.
Two of the very best sessions I attended were presented by +Delsworth Harnish and his colleagues in the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University.  The focus of the sessions was the "Inquiry 1" (1E106) course that is taught in the first year.  The course is a great example of the type of class experience that should be more prominent in the first-year experience, one that essentially "flips" the undergraduate experience by providing an experience that in most cases isn't provided to students until their third or fourth year.

Essentially, the course embraces a philosophy of "messiness" and "riskiness" (issues I've frequently commented on in past posts) by engaging students in an unstructured problem identification and problem solving process that, rather than focusing on content, emphasizes a set of six foundational skills (known as the 6 Ps at McMaster:  personal awareness, problem identification, problem solving, professional communication, peer collaboration, peer/personal evaluation).  It's a brilliant approach because it equips first-year students with the skills they'll need for the rest of their experience in the Faculty of Health Sciences, and it is the best orientation to academic life at a university that a students can get and extends across their entire first year.  

While the course is specific to a particular discipline (health science), it features a number of curricular best practices that could (and should) be applied across a diversity of courses, particularly in the first-year:

1.  Small Classes:  The sections of the 1E106 (Inquiry 1) course are capped at 20 students, which allows for the creation of a learning community where students know one another well, have plenty of interaction with the faculty "facilitator," and can easily access additional help or support if necessary.  Contrast this with the large lecture courses that first-year students are typically packed into on large campuses (and yes, McMaster is large -- about 25,000 students in total).

2.  Minimal Structure:  There is no formal "syllabus" when students walk into Inquiry 1 on the first day.  There are broad outcomes and a set of pedagogies that facilitators plan to draw upon to facilitate learning; however, the experience is driven by questions and wonderings of students.  This is effective for at least two reasons:  (1) students can take responsibility for their own learning and participate in self-directed process and (2) facilitators can be more responsive to individual and class needs without feeling anchored to a rigid syllabus that was developed years ago by a faculty committee, most of whom have since left the department. Additionally, the "messiness" of this course structure is what drives learning around the 6 Ps and allows students to acquire skill in problem identification/solving.

3.  Active, Collaborative, & Authentic Learning:  Students spend much of their experience in problem-based learning in small collaborative groups.  This structure increases engagement in the learning process, mirrors the type of working/learning they're likely to encounter once they leave the university, and builds inquiry skills much more effectively than independent work.  

4.  High amounts of support, balanced by high expectations.  Del and his colleagues expect a great deal of students.  The type of inquiry experience they are facilitating comes as a bit of a shock to first-year students and they struggle to navigate the ambiguity that comes with the course and to engage in the inquiry process.  But, McMaster can ask a lot of students because they have been very intentional about creating an inquiry space that makes it safe to fail by providing lots of support.  Each section of Inquiry 1 has 3 - 4 peer tutors who support and scaffold students' experience, there is no "high stakes" assessment to dissuade students from taking risks and being innovative, faculty facilitators meet with students individually to provide mentoring and support.

5.  Multiple opportunities for reflection.  Students are frequently provided with opportunities to reflect on their growth and learning.  This is important for any course, but particularly one like Inquiry 1, where the focus is on the development of broad skills, as opposed to content.  And, the reflection takes multiple forms, from written journals, to interviews with facilitators, to self and peer evaluations.

6.  A prolonged, authentic, and integrative capstone experience.  Too often courses are experienced by students as a fragmented journey through disconnected topics on a syllabus, only to end with a poorly designed final that surveys course content.  At McMaster, students have their sights set early on a final project in which they will need to demonstrate their learning across the broad course objectives.  However, the focus of the project (e.g. the question it addresses or explores) and the way students demonstrate their learning is left entirely up to them.  This brings a relevance and urgency to course activities and increases the likelihood that students will walk away being able to tell a coherent story about what they learned in the course.

Clearly, this is a great course.  Here's the rub--it's messy, risky, and students are likely to complain (at least early on).  Facilitators in the Faculty of Health Sciences never know how students will respond, what their projects will look like, or where they'll end up at the end of the experience.  That kind of thing makes most of us cringe because it feels like walking down a blind alley.  And, there's a chance things won't go well and we'll look bad.  What's more, because McMaster is asking students to do hard things, there is resistance and students don't always love the experience or have good things to say about it.  

But, if we're serious about learning, we'll have to be a lot messier, take a lot more risks, and be willing to put up with unhappy students.  The good news is that for institutions like McMaster who are willing to head down this path, the rewards are great.

If you're interested in learning more about McMaster's Inquiry 1 course, this 15 minute video is fun.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Creating Shared Value in For-Profit Higher Education

The for-profit sector of higher education is frequently criticized for a variety of reasons.  Some argue that it neglects the real needs of students and provides a subpar education, while saddling students with exorbitant debt.  Others (particularly educational traditionalists) point to its heavy emphasis on career and technical training as another apocalyptic sign of the demise of "pure" education, where students learn for the pure satisfaction of learning and receive a "well-rounded" (I've never really been sure what that means, but am guilty of using the term quite often in conversations with others where I'm defending the value of a liberal arts education) and "holistic" education.  

I'll admit that I'm still skeptical of the value that is provided by the for-profit sector to students.  However, I'm willing to admit that this value likely varies tremendously across various for-profit institutions.  Additionally, it isn't lost on me that those of us in the more traditional academy ought to be asking the same question of our work:  What value am I (or my institution) adding to the life of students?"

Notwithstanding my personal hesitancy and skepticism toward for-profit higher ed, I want to argue in this post for some ways that the University of Phoenix and Strayer's of the world could increase both profits and positive perception by reconceiving the intersection between their corporate goals and a broader set of societal needs.

In a January 2011 Harvard Business Review article, Michael Porter wrote about the need for corporations to consider the principle of shared value, by developing policies and practices that both add value to the company itself (in terms of profits), while simultaneously addressing broader societal concerns in the communities where they operate.  He asserts that profits do not have to come at the expense of adding value to society (as opposed to individual clients or customers) and that addressing societal needs should move from the periphery of an organizations mission to the core of a business model.  

Brick and mortar academic research institutions have, for some time, bought into this notion of shared value by attending to both the needs of individual students (by, for example, teaching courses and awarding degrees), as well as more general community issues (through conducting research that contributes understanding which can improve society).  Although the question of whether academia does this well, is open to debate, research institutions believe and attempt to create shared value.  For-profit institutions, however, have failed to consider how they might adopt a similar approach.   

The vast majority of for-profit higher educational institutions are stuck in an outdated model of value creation that narrowly views "value" as consisting of only two factors:  (1) profits for the company and shareholders and (2) value for students in terms of improved education, stronger job prospects, etc..  In essence, these organizations have fallen victim to the same mistake Porter points out in his article.  Like other corporations, they have not leveraged the opportunity to link their educational and economic missions with pressing issues or challenges in the broader community.  And, this is one of the potential explanations for why for-profit institutions are looked down upon by so many.  By focusing exclusively on profits and the needs of individual students, these institutions have developed a reputation of being selfish and concerned with the narrow interests of the "one."  Whether it is the corporation trying to get ahead or the working professional trying to advance her career by completing a degree, the ultimate focus is on advancing individual interests.  Although there is nothing wrong with a company wanting to turn a profit or an individual wanting to advance their education, these two images do little to engender support from the broader community.  

Clearly, a for-profit institution has no explicit obligation to add value to a community or address societal needs.  Unlike a public research institution, they do not receive state funding or other resources that come with an expectation to give back.  However, as Porter argues in his article, creating shared value isn't just about being charitable or sacrificing profits for the common good.  Rather, institutions that find ways to link their economic and educational missions with societal concerns, will be more innovative and productive and ultimately increase profits.

There are at least two reasons why this will be hard to do for the for-profit sector.  First, the lack of a research mission takes away what for most other institutions is a relatively easy and visible way to contribute.  Second, because for-profit institutions are often large and distributed across a variety of locales (both physical and electronic), they have no real sense of place and likely have a difficult time connecting their work to local needs and concerns.  

But, my hunch is that the for-profits that can identify broad societal issues that people care about, and then thoughtfully consider how their work of educating students can contribute, will be far more successful than those continue to cling to an outdated model focused only on providing convenient and accessible education for those who can't access it elsewhere, without adding value to society at large.  Finally, if any institutions take on the challenge of blurring the boundary between for and non-profit education by addressing social needs, it will be equally important for government to regulate the for-profit higher education industry in ways that don't obstruct their efforts to be both profitable and useful to society.