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.