Friday, March 22, 2013

On Intentionality: An argument against hoping good things will happen

"Unless the students' experience of classes is connected, it is trivialized. Any course that isn't part of a larger journey is a dead end."

This comes from one of the best books on higher education that I have read in the last decade, The Learning Paradigm College, by John Tagg. It represents what I believe to be the biggest failing of higher education, which is our consistent inability to provide a cohesive, holistic experience that, taken together, actually means something for students. If you haven't read Tagg's book, you should.  And, if you think you don't have time or that the $9.69 it will cost you to buy it used on Amazon is too steep a price, at least read the seminal article upon which the book is based.

Given my frustrations with the problem of fragmentation that pervades higher education, I was ecstatic to hear about my own institutions efforts to provide our students with an alternative approach to their general education.  As I listened to our Associate Dean for General Education describe this new "mosaic" approach to general education, I had to pinch myself a few times. What she was describing seemed nearly identical to what I had dreamed about for some time. General education courses would be grouped thematically. Students would be invited to select a mosaic that provided a series of linked courses, all exploring a larger theme or issue. There were options that aligned with particular courses of study, as well as more general mosaics that could complement nearly any degree program. And, most importantly, it seemed aimed at providing students with an integrated experience that could connect with their interests and future goals. But, the longer I listened, the more I started hearing what became a very troubling phrase: "We hope. . . ."

Let me be clear, there are lots of things for which I hope. I hope my March Madness bracket doesn't get any worse than it did last night. I hope it will stop snowing outside my office so I can walk across campus to the Education in Zion Gallery. I hope my daughters will fall asleep early tonight, so I can spend quiet time with my wife. And, I hope that both of those daughters will become more and more excited about learning as they grow and eventually want a college education.  Hope is great.  But, only if it moves someone to action and becomes an incentive for making intentional decisions that increase the likelihood that the hope will be fulfilled. Without intentionality and action, hope is empty.  What's more, empty hope inevitably leads to the discouragement and frustration that come with unfulfilled hopes. And, as I sat listening to the presentation on BYU's new general education mosaics, I saw us headed down that path.

Theoretically, the notion of mosaics seems sound. After all, if the problem is that students aren't connecting their learning across courses, the solution is to connect the courses for them, right? If we map out those connections and then tell students to take, for example, "Environmental Biology," "Introduction to Human Geography," "Theories of Human Freedom," and "Current Social Problems," they will have completed the "Human Dignity" mosaic and have had a connected experience. Right?  Well, what I found out during part two of the meeting was that we hope this happens. While the mosaic initiative sounded great on the surface, it turns out the proposal is to do nothing more than provide students with a webpage that shows how various courses are connected around loose themes. No culminating or integrative academic experience. No collaboration among faculty members. No invitations to students to demonstrate that they have had the type of integrative experience we hope for.  The moment in the meeting that was, simultaneously, laughable and unbearingly frustrating was when the presenter was asked how many students she thought might take advantage of this opportunity (My guess is next to none because central administration has, in an incredibly curious move, barred the sending of any formal communication to students about this new initiative. Instead, the hope is that students will find their way to the obscure website I linked to above, be fortunate enough to take the initiative to meet with an academic advisor who happens to be aware of and endorse the mosaics, or be told about mosaics by one of the 13 students who meet the previous two criteria).  The response to the question: "We're really not sure how many students will take this route.  But, we hope that even for those who don't, just thinking about the possibility of making these connections will make GE more meaningful for them." Cue unicorns, money descending from the sky, and raucous laughter at our foolishness.

This assumption that grouping courses thematically and attaching a hip name to these categories will fundamentally change the experience of students flows from what Tagg has described as the Instruction Paradigm.  From this perspective, the business of colleges is to offer instruction and "learning" is then operationally defined as teaching classes. You see this at the core of my campus's mosaics: "If we offer the right courses (hopefully the same courses, so it doesn't disrupt things too much) and then point out that they are "connected," students will the make the connections and have an integrative experience.  Lots of empty hope, without any intentionality or strategic thought about the process of learning.

In contrast, Tagg's Learning Paradigm defines a "curriculum" as being about what students learn, not what teachers teach or what courses are offered:
The curriculum should be the institution's systematic plan for what and how students learn (emphasis added). The guiding principle in restructuring curriculum should be that the whole is more important than the parts. Individual courses are of trivial importance. What matters in terms of the students' whole experience is how courses--or other learning experiences--fit together. Colleges should seek to create a curriculum that leads somewhere rather than spinning in an infinite variety of nonintersecting circles. A curriculum should not be a list of classes; it should be a description of learning outcomes. (The Learning Paradigm College, Tagg, p. 326).
The problem with BYU's mosaics is that they are still built around individual courses.  We're still operating from the Instructional Paradigm. Until there is a fundamental change in perspective away from trying to recycle worn out tiles (i.e. courses) to cobble together a poorly looking mosaic (general education), we'll still be providing a fragmented experience for students. Instead, what BYU (and a lot of other institutions) needs is to stop thinking about courses and start thinking about learning. There are at least two fatal flaws in BYU's current mosaic program. First, there has been no attempt to show students where we want them to end up, which is to say that we haven't developed any clear and understandable descriptions of the outcomes for the mosaics (rubrics, video recorded interviews with students who have achieved these aims, and other multi-media descriptions of this type of learning would be a great start). Second, we haven't designed any learning experiences or environmental features that encourage integration across the courses that make up a mosaic (e.g. capstone experiences, assignments or projects that span across courses, faculty collaborations, reflective or integrative writing assignments).

To hope is not enough. Institutions have a responsibility to design and structure both experiences and environments that move beyond hope and into the realm of intentionality and action.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Tears, disappointment, and feelings of success: Revisiting the power of reflection

A significant portion of my time each week is spent in conversations with undergraduate peer mentors who work in the Freshman Mentoring program at BYU. I've found that one of the best things I can do in these conversations is to ask peer mentors to tell me stories about their mentoring work. For me, this is a beneficial exercise because hearing these stories gives me remarkably raw and authentic insight into the experiences of the mentors I'm supposed to support and develop.  Some are stories of success (e.g. a student who finally agrees to visit the counseling center for help in dealing with a mental health challenge); some are stories of failure (e.g. I met with the student three times before the exam and he still failed).  But, the most interesting stories I hear are those that are a bit of both.  Earlier this week I heard one of these "hybrid" stories. And, as I listened, I was reminded of how powerful reflection on experience can be in driving learning and facilitating personal transformation.

Topher is everything a person like me would want in a peer mentor.  He is a great student, not just because he is successful in terms of things like GPA, but because he understands learning in the deepest sense.  He reads, writes papers, and prepares for exams because he enjoys learning and knows that he's preparing himself to be more useful as a citizen, an employee, and a human being. He    is a southerner and endears others to him with his easygoing nature, big North Carolina Smile, and social versatility (in a single conversation he can talk intelligently about philosophy, transtition to Chinese culture, and then finish with his thoughts on why the Duke Blue Devils are the most overrated team in the upcoming NCAA tournament. When you meet him, you don't have any reason to believe he wouldn't be successful in just about anything he does. What's more, he fully expects himself to be successful. This isn't to say he's arrogant--it's just that a lifetime of experience has taught him that if he works hard, he'll achieve.

Last fall when he first began working for us, that narrative of traditional success continued. His students loved him, they lined up out the door to meet with him, and he felt incredibly useful and successful.  After all, he was helping lots of students and they appreciated him for it.  However, when he returned from Christmas break and inherited a new group of second semester freshmen  to mentor, things were a lot different.

It's important, at this point, to understand the nature of the work of peer mentors at BYU. During fall semester, they provide mentoring support to a group of students who have just arrived on our campus.  They don't know where the library is, they have never lived away from home, and they are generally fairly receptive to help from someone who has been down the college road before. What's more, my experience has been that new students have a way of imprinting upon their peer mentor(s) because they are one of the first people they meet when they come to campus for New Student Orientation. So, during this first semester, peer mentors are positioned to be both needed and wanted by the students to whom they have been assigned.

Winter semester is different.  Because mentor assignment is determined by course registration, mentors inherit a group of completely new students and students are handed off to a new mentor, with whom they have no relationship. And, there is no imprinting period to facilitate the development of this new relationship.  On top of that, students have been at the institution for a semester and (for the most part) have been successful in passing their classes. This all means a rough slog for an invested, interested peer mentor like Topher who ideally wants to build a relationship with all of his students.

The story of Topher's mentoring so far this semester has been sporadic meetings with somewhat apathetic students who come to him mostly because they feel guilty if they don't respond to the guy who has been emailing them since January. And, a good portion of the time, a student will make an appointment, but then never show up.

This all sets the backdrop for the story Topher told me last Tuesday in our meeting. He had finally made a breakthrough with a student who has been struggling all semester.  The student is failing most of his classes, rejecting the help offered by professors, teaching assistants, and others, and up until recently, had never responded to Topher's emails. But, late last week, he came out of the woodwork and scheduled a meeting.  So, naturally, when I met with Topher earlier this week, I was expecting to hear a story about how successful he had felt.  I did hear a story, and it was about success, but it didn't really fit the typical "script" of peer mentor success (or at least the script Topher had held about what it means to be successful up to this point).  In Topher's own words:

"Today I had a meeting with Brad [Topher's student supervisor] and we talked about my meeting with Caitlin. She came to our meeting peppy but when we started talking she broke down in tears about her feelings of self-disappointment and failure. She hasn’t been performing up to her standard in organic chemistry and it’s had a negative emotional impact on her. Brad turned that into a discussion about the nature of success and how it should be measured. Since I’ve encountered a great deal of difficulty in setting up student meetings and have any form of consistency in my meetings with students, like Caitlin I haven’t felt like I’ve earned an A in mentoring this semester. I feel that my impact has been minimal or at best superficial. But I want the depth, and I want to really be an agent for change or growth in the lives of these students. That’s the attitude that I’ve brought with me to my meetings, and it’s the attitude that I took with me into my preparation for my meeting with George. I spent an hour  and a half extensively planning a reflective meeting to help adjust his perception of American Heritage [a challenging general education course required of all BYU students]. From the last meeting we had he disclosed that he didn’t care much for the class and didn’t see much of a point in it. What I saw in him as we talked was a deeper apathy about his BYU experience in general, so that’s where I was going to begin, but he cancelled; and I felt especially disappointed. I really wanted that meeting to happen, not because I needed employment or because it was obligatory for me to insert myself into the life of this student, but because I really wanted to. He didn’t show, and I felt a disappointment I haven’t felt since my mission. I realized in the moment that I felt such significant disappointment that I was being successful as a mentor; that I was doing things right."

As much as I'd like to take credit for facilitating this shift in Topher's thinking about what it means to mentor and what it means to be successful, it didn't have anything to do with me.  In fact, Topher had "told" this story before he ever sat down in my office. His story (as shared above) was actually a reflection he wrote on the day George stood him up. At the moment he was feeling discouraged at not being able to help, one of his first thoughts was "I need to reflect on this." Somehow, he knew there was a lesson embedded in this experience, but that he wouldn't discover unless he started to write.  So, he pulled out his laptop and typed out this story.

For peer mentors (and, I would argue, any learner), telling these sorts of stories isn't just therapeutic. It is a reflective tool that positions them to make meaning from experience and move toward new understanding.  In Taylor's story, we see how his understanding of what it means to be a mentor has shifted from "meeting w/ students" to "being prepared to be a resource who can support student success." Relatedly, he comes to redefine success not as holding meetings, but in genuinely caring about the success of his students and doing all he can to support them. And, this is not insignificant learning for someone in his role. It represents a fundamental shift in his frame of reference towards mentoring and will shape how he approaches and evaluates his work in the future. In this way, it seems closely aligned with what Jack Mezirow has described as transformative learning that is personal, irreversible, and integrative.

This is the type of learning that is possible when we engage learners in meaningful reflection on experience.  Reflection invites learners into a space where they can inquire into their assumptions, derive learning from experience, and articulate new understanding.  Topher wasn't just telling a story or simply putting into writing something he already knew.  He learned as he wrote.  That's the power of reflection.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Why are we so bad at spotting "talent?" And, what does it mean for colleges?

If I were to show you the picture at right (minus the text at the bottom), what would be your guess at the occupation of this man?  Accountant? Used car salesman? Computer engineer? Nope.

This is +Tom Brady, three-time +Super Bowl Champion, two-time Super Bowl MVP, and eight-time Pro Bowl Quarterback. On paper, in person, and on film, Brady would have been a bust for any team looking for a quality quarterback (here's 30 s. of video evidence further reinforcing how utterly unimpressive Brady was as an NFL hopeful). But, +New England Patriots Head Coach +Bill Belichick can do something most of us can't. He can spot talent.

One of my least favorite parts of my job is interviewing and hiring undergraduate students to be peer mentors in the department where I work. Part of this dislike stems from hours of conversations built around the same eight or ten interview questions, which typically yield the same mundane responses from applicants. But, I've also wondered (out loud at times, which gets me in trouble) whether we might have just as much luck throwing the applicants names in a hat, drawing out 50 names, and hiring them. In short, we often care too much about things that don't matter (high GPA, impressive essays, and well-articulated responses to our questions). And, every year we have a "Tom Brady" who we somewhat grudgingly hired, but who then turns out to be one of our best finds.

The same thing happens in various other parts of the academy, but most notably in admissions. This is particularly true when campuses heavily weight more "visible" factors such as standardized test scores, long lists of service and leadership experiences, and HS GPA (though it's a better predictor than standardized test scores).  We're overly impressed with "achievement" and "performance," while undervaluing more subtle and less visible characteristics like resilience, grit, and the ability to receive and use feedback.  This is what Belichick looked for and noticed in Brady and that allowed him to feel comfortable using a sixth round draft pick on someone no one else really wanted. But, Belichick only learned this because he focused on the right piece of data.

Belichick's method is pretty simple, when the Pats find a player at the NFL Combine that they are slightly interested in, they schedule an interview (which is pretty standard).  But, what he does next is where the genius lies.  Belichick has his staff find footage of one of the player's worst performances from their most recent season.  He turns off the lights, plays the clip, and then asks the player "What happened?"  Then, he listens for how the player responds to and explains poor performance.  The conversation that follows helps him identify whether or not the player has the right mindset to play for him in New England. He is only interested in players who want to get better and have the qualities that make that improvement possible.

My colleagues and I need to be more like Belichick and find ways to use our application and interview process to understand the less visible (but more important) qualities of our peer mentor candidates. And, institutions should move, more and more, towards models that allow them to gain insight into the kinds of qualities that Stanford University has come to value and celebrate in recent years and that have been researched by Angela Duckworth and her colleagues. This isn't to say that Tom Brady's speed didn't matter at all, a peer mentor applicant's well-written essays shouldn't be considered, or that a HS GPA shouldn't be considered when deciding whether or not to admit a prospective student. Rather, we should be looking beyond these attributes and find ways to understand whether or not applicants have the qualities that will allow them to thrive and develop once they get into the system and benefit from the training, coaching, and resources provided by the institution or organization. When we do, we'll start to find a lot more Tom Bradys and avoid bringing in any more Ryan Leafs.