Friday, August 8, 2014

Three BYU images that made me cringe (and laugh) this week

Image #1:  The Presidential Inauguration Invitation (Are there storms ahead for BYU?)

On September 9th, Kevin Worthen will be inaugurated as the 13th president of BYU.  I know this because I received a formal invitation to the inauguration activities in my campus mail box last week.  Like most of the communications that come from the President's Office at BYU, the invitation was highly formal and signaled the formality and tradition associated with the event.  Like most formal invitations, it was also highly impersonal and forgettable, except for the curious image that appeared on the front cover (see below):

I didn't notice it at first, but the tone of the cover raises some funny (if not alarming) questions about the next few years at BYU:  Is there a storm brewing?  Are dark clouds ahead? I wasn't worried about the new President, but should I be?

It's a nice enough image of an iconic aspect of BYU, but it's a strange image to select to announce this particular event.  Dark, ominous clouds aren't really what I would use to represent an event that most would associate with new beginnings, renewal, and optimism.  I'm actually looking forward to President Worthen's administration and have no reason not to be optimistic, but optimism isn't what I feel when I look at this invitation.

Image #2:  The 2014 BYU Football T-Shirts

After I read this story, I started to wonder if BYU Athletics and the President's Office might have been using the same marketing intern this summer.  In what I see as delicious irony, it was revealed this week that BYU Football's anticipated 2014 slogan ("Rise as One") has already been used by. . .wait for it. . .Budweiser of all corporations (you couldn't make this stuff up), not to mention by Nike the year before .  Not really the association the athletic department was going for.  Apparently, no one had the 12 seconds it would have taken to do a google search of the slogan before printing thousands of t-shirts.

Image #3:  "Please tell me he's not one of our alumni" 
People tend to turn into idiots when they have a microphone, news camera, or reporter in front of them, as demonstrated very well by Cliven Bundy over the last few months.  Not only are Bundy's views on government extremist and skewed, it appears that he is also racist and somewhat deluded.

I cringe anytime I see any news story associated with he or his family, but especially when I saw this accompanying photo this week (look at the t-shirt his son has on).

I don't know if Cliven Lance Bundy (the son) ever attended BYU, but just him wearing the shirt in front of reporters is probably enough to make the Alumni Association pretty nervous.

So, to the President's Office, BYU Athletics, and the Bundy clan--thanks for making me laugh this week!  Here's to hoping the press for BYU is a little less embarrassing next week.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Ohio State Marching Band: The underbelly of tradition and ritual

I've written several times about the role of ritual and tradition in higher education.  I'm a big believer in the miseducative if they marginalize certain members of the community, silence diverse perspectives, or send mixed or conflicting messages about institutional values.
power of traditions to connect members of a community, communicate key community values, and facilitate learning.  However, traditions and rituals also have the potential to be

Over the last week, +The Ohio State University Marching Band has received a great deal of attention surrounding some of the rituals and traditions that are, allegedly, part of the culture of the band in Columbus. On one side of the debate OSU administrators claim the band has developed a hyper-sexualized culture, while others argue that the practices in question were both harmless and unifying.

While I'm not sure how much recently-fired band director Jonathan Waters had to do with the culture and whether his firing was justified (he claims he was working on changing the culture of the band, but wasn't given sufficient time to do so), I will say very emphatically that I do not endorse the types of hazing practices that were well documented at OSU.  There is a very vocal contingent of band alumni that will disagree with me who disagree with me.  A group of 15 former band members (mostly women) marched on OSU's campus earlier this week to protest Waters's firing and sing the praises of the OSU Marching Band.  In her statement to the press she claims to represent the "women's side" of the issue and goes on to say that the actions of band members were appropriate because they "acted like college students."

Cohen's statements represent one of the fundamental dangers with any tradition or ritual.  In asserting that she and her 14 companions represent the "women's side," Cohen fails to acknowledge that her views do not necessarily represent those of the hundreds of other current and former band members.  It's a bit laughable for her to claim that a group of 15 people represent anything other than a very narrow perspective on a very complex issue.  Additionally, she makes a gross overgeneralization in equating "acting like a college student" with the behaviors outlined in OSU's report of the problematic practices taking place among band members.

While traditions and rituals are ideally meant to have a unifying effect within an organization, claims that hazing practices achieve this outcome are naive.  Furthermore, claims that hazing is an acceptable practice that unites a community are always made by a particular segment of that community:  those with privilege and power.  It's safe to say that Cohen was part of the inner circle during her time as a band member.  She didn't have a problem with the practices because they didn't marginalize her, silence her voice, or make her feel unsafe.  But, there is another segment of the OSU Marching Band who feel very differently about these practices and I'll bet the farm that there are more than 15 of them.

In a comment on a post I wrote nearly four years ago, a good friend and colleague +gary daynes pointed out that one of the characteristics of a ritual is that it contains multiple meanings.  And, this is what is often looked over when those in power institute rituals, even well intentioned rituals.  OSU's hazing rituals hold multiple meanings for members of the band.  For some, those meanings include fun, unity, and feelings of belonging.  For others (those whose voice is silenced when these rituals become formalized and part of the culture), these practices mean shame, marginalization, fear, and immorality.

I say this as someone who, 15 years ago, would have sided with Cohen and her group.  During my freshman year of college, I was hazed as part of my initiation to the men's soccer team.  While it was uncomfortable and a little embarrassing for me, I wasn't overly bothered by it because I wasn't on the margins of the team--the team leaders liked me and I didn't feel threatened (it was also fairly mild as far as hazings go).  But, I clearly remember two of my teammates who were very shook up by what went on.  And, it's no coincidence that they were the two members of the team who, even before the hazing, were on the outside looking in (it's also no surprise that they left the team after their freshman year).  From where I sit now, and as someone who has hopefully developed a bit of appreciation for diversity, I see how divisive that hazing was.  

Ritual and tradition should always be a part of campus communities.  But, institutional leaders (like Jonathan Waters) have a responsibility to (a) ensure that campus rituals do indeed have a unifying effect and (b) educate members of the community (especially students) about what constitutes a truly unifying ritual.  As higher education professionals, one of the outcomes we claim to be promoting for students is an appreciation for diverse perspectives.  Those advocating for the appropriateness of OSU's hazing practices clearly haven't learned that lesson.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Peer Leadership as an Emerging High-Impact Practice

Like many, my college years (interrupted by two years of missionary service) were transformative for me. Mars Hill University, the University of Utah, and Brigham Young University (yes, I transferred twice) were all tremendously impactful.
 By the time I had graduated I had new intellectual skills, had learned what it meant to be part of a diverse community, and had a much clearer idea of who I was and who I wanted to become (both vocationally and otherwise).  As with any kind of learning, there were a number of factors that contributed to my growth during this period, but my undergraduate experiences at

To be more specific, there were particular aspects of my experiences at these schools that were impactful.  At +Mars Hill, intercollegiate athletics helped me feel a sense of belonging and identity on campus, the common "Liberal Arts in Action" curriculum gave me a chance to reflect on and have conversations about big questions, and an internship in the Athletic Training department was my first taste of authentic experiential learning in the college setting.  I was only at "the U" for a semester, but it was impactful in that I figured out (a) that I really didn't want to be a doctor (thanks to 1,000 seat "weeder" classes in biology and chemistry) and (b) that I was really going to hate my college experience unless I found a way to really immerse myself in the experience, which was hard to do living at home with my parents.

Eventually I ended up at +BYU.  While I enjoyed many aspects of my BYU experience, it wasn't the classes I took (although I took some great ones) or my major (which I enjoyed immensely) that most influenced me during my three years on campus.  Instead, it was the two years I spent as a peer mentor in what was then known as "Freshman Academy."

More than any other experience I had as an undergraduate student, being a peer mentor met the criteria for high-impact practices put forth by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).  It provided me with meaningful interaction with faculty members, engaged me in critical thinking about important issues, provided me with undergraduate research opportunities, and taught me to work collaboratively with others on sustained projects.  In fact, in the recent alumni survey I completed, I cited it as the single most impactful aspect of my experience at BYU.  I say this because it made a more meaningful contribution to my realization of essential learning outcomes than any other part of my experience, and, more importantly, launched me on a career trajectory in higher education that I would never have imagined.

AAC&U has defined 10 discreet high-impact practices (HIPs) that are widely-tested and linked with substantial educational benefits:

  • First-year seminars/experiences
  • Common intellectual experiences
  • Learning communities
  • Writing-intensive courses
  • Undergraduate research
  • Collaborative assignments and projects
  • Diversity and global learning
  • Service and community-based learning
  • Internships
  • Capstone courses/projects
I'll argue, both here and hopefully at AAC&U's Centennial Annual Meeting next year, that peer leadership should be included on this list because of it's potential to contribute to 21st Century Learning outcomes and provide for a transformative undergraduate experience.  National studies of peer leadership point to this practice as an emerging HIP with potential to fulfill the promise of a liberal education (e.g. Keup, 2012).  Indeed, peer leadership promotes the hallmark outcomes that characterize liberal learning by integrating many of the characteristics of the more established HIPs llisted above.  

Yet, the quality of the PL experience varies across campuses.  But, when institutions merely cobble together sexy “best practices” rather than intentionally inter-weaving established HIPs to form a focused and intentional educational environment, the potential for the PL experience to yield substantial educational benefits is lost.  In contrast, when stakeholders thoughtfully integrate established HIPs into the PL experience, students are positioned for tremendous growth.

What are the characteristics of a high-impact peer leadership experience?

Close ties to the academic curriculum.  Peer leadership comes in a number of flavors, with peer leaders being used to support student athletes, first-generation students, and women in STEM.  And, at some level, any type of peer leader experience can be impactful.  But, peer leaders are likely to experience greater gains when their work is aligned with a credit-bearing course that is part of the required curriculum.  Required first-year seminars are a great setting for this type of peer leadership, but it could also take place in another substantial academic course that is a required part of the curriculum.  This alignment brings validity to their work, while also providing opportunities for peer leaders to engage with course content and pedagogies in ways that promote critical thinking.  Even better -- embed peer leaders as part of a learning community where peer leaders and students engage "big questions" and work to integrate their learning across courses.

Meaningful engagement with faculty members.  A big part of the reason I was changed by being a peer mentor was that it brought me into a situation where I was being mentored by full-time faculty members who were interested in my development and new how to challenge and support me.  Too often, peer leaders are hired or selected, provided with minimal sub-par "training," and then set loose to somehow figure out how to "lead" their peers.  In these cases, being a peer leader isn't likely to lead to much growth.  Worse--there's a decent chance it will do more harm than good.  Peer leaders should be provided with opportunities for regular and meaningful interactions with the faculty members who supervise them.  Even better -- engage peer leaders in research and assessment examining the impact of the peer leadership initiative of which they're a part.

Make it academic.  Peer leadership is often critiqued by those who view it as nothing more than taking students on campus tours during new student orientation or organizing weekend social events.  There isn't anything wrong with peer leadership experience that is firmly grounded in the social aspect of college; However, peer leadership that takes on a more "academic" tone, will both be viewed more favorably by the academic officials on campus, and contribute to the academic outcomes of the institution.  Whether it's substantial writing assignments or tasks completed by peer leaders, undergraduate research, capstone projects that invite peer leaders to integrate and articulate the learning they've experienced in their role, or an academic course that they register for as part of the experience, the peer leader experience needs to have some kind of connection to the academic life of the university.

Clear learning outcomes and focused assessment.  It isn't enough to just claim to be providing a great learning experience for peer leaders.  It needs to be directed by well-articulated learning outcomes and documented by high-quality assessment.  

High-impact peer leadership experiences are already happening on a number of campuses, but for peer leadership to really emerge as a truly high-impact practice, institutions need to approach it as such.  Considering the above issues will be a great start.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Power of Productive Time Off: What would a sabbatical for undergraduate students look like?

I have a confession -- I'm really bad at relaxing, taking breaks, going on vacation, or anything else that means
just slowing down.  Case in point:  I haven't eaten yet today, am not likely to stop for lunch (or even eat anything for that matter), and will probably get home later than I'm planing.  It's bad and I should be different.
This malady isn't unique to me, and is particularly prevalent in high intensity work environments where there is an expectation to continually crank out new ideas, products, and programs.  A few weeks ago, I watched a TED talk from +Stefan Sagmeister, in which he argues for the value of extended periods of time off and shares his practice of taking every seventh year off to rejuvenate his creative outlook as a designer.  Sagmeister's shop shuts down completely every seven years and he takes off for some kind of exotic place.  But, he isn't just lying on the beach sipping fruit drinks.  He's relaxing in productive ways that mean he comes back at the end of the year with ideas and projects that drive his work for the next six years.

Watching the talk did two things:  (1) made me feel guilty for not being better at taking time off and (2) made me wonder what an undergraduate student sabbatical might look like.

Sabbaticals (or "professional development leaves" if you're at BYU where we rename everything), have been a long standing tradition in for faculty members in academia. The goal is to provide time and space for a faculty member to increase expertise, enhance creativity, or take a deep dive into research.  Because I'm not in a faculty position and never been on one of these leaves, I can't comment on whether or not they are truly renewing in the hoped for ways (I'd imagine that varies from person to person), but I'm willing to believe that it's a good thing.

So, if it's good for faculty, might it also be good for students?

An initial response from many might be that we already provide students with these opportunities through study abroad programs and internships.  Fair enough.  I'm willing to accept that some of these opportunities have the effect of truly being renewing and rejuvenating for students in ways that truly contribute to their academic experience.  But, the reality is that study abroad programs and internships touch only a small segment of the student population and, in many cases, are cost prohibitive.

What I'm softly arguing for is consideration of some sort of extended sabbatical as a required aspect of  the undergraduate experience and that drives students toward more productive outcomes in the one, two, or three years after their sabbatical experience.  My sense is that this sort of thing is happening in pockets on innovative, small, liberal arts campuses.  So, if you know about those schools, please let me know so that I can learn from them.

Until then, I'll just have to guess at what the characteristics of this kind of experience might be:

1.  Intentional alignment with institutional goals.  Because we've been told we have to by accrediting bodies, we all have learning outcomes and institutional aims.  The sabbatical should provide an opportunity for students to both explore these outcomes and demonstrate their progress toward fulfilling them.

2.  Flexibility.  For the undergraduate sabbatical to hold meaning for students, they need to take personal responsibility in crafting their experience (just like a faculty member would).  While study abroad or an internship might be what they select, students will come up with much more educative experiences if they are given the autonomy to design their own experience.

3.  Accountability and Support.  This characteristic serves as the necessary balance to #2 above.  Most students will need some guidance and support in developing a sabbatical experience.  Further, a simple set of criteria for evaluating and approving proposed sabbaticals will provide helpful constraint to students as they are making decisions, as well as ensure that sabbaticals meet their educational purposes.  Some kind of formal proposal process should be developed (perhaps a simplified version of the thesis/dissertation defense process).

4.  Accessibility.  Well resourced and well connected students are already having these kinds of experiences.  Institutions need to find ways to extend this opportunity to the rest of the student body.  This, of course, will involve finding ways to provide funding for experiences that take a student off-campus.  But, it also means providing advisement support (either through professional advisors or faculty advisors) to help students explore and identify suitable experiences, and then navigate the process.

5.  Immersion.  For a sabbatical to be both restful and impactful, it needs to be long enough and involved enough that a student truly becomes immersed in a project, new way of living, etc.  A year might be too long, but two weeks is definitely too short.

6.  Thoughtful consideration of timing.  Taking a sabbatical during a student's first semester or first year might be too soon because they may not have a refined enough idea for what type of experience they need and want.  Likewise, a sabbatical too late in a student's experience means they won't be able to bring their learning back to campus and use it to shape and inform the rest of their experience.  The ideal time seems to be after the first year, but before the fourth year.

7.  Bookends to both prepare and debrief students.  The first year could be spent helping students develop a plan and proposal for their sabbatical.  This would also engage them with faculty members and staff who serve as mentors, involve them in consideration of key questions about what they want to learn and how, and provide direction for decisions about first-year course registration -- all things we want first-year students doing anyway.  So, in many ways, providing students with the responsibility of developing this kind of plan can nudge them toward a whole constellation of  high-impact practices and behaviors during their first year.

When students return, they can be involved in a similar set of high-impact practices, including developing an integrative report/portfolio/project that reports on their learning and maps out next steps for using their sabbatical as a springboard toward future learning (both at the institution and beyond).

It would be a lot of work and take adaptation for each individual practice, but the "undergraduate sabbatical" would be a way of transforming the undergraduate experience and bringing new meaning and relevance to everything else that a student does during their experience.

Friday, July 11, 2014

New Student Orientation as an "Inoculation" for the realities of the college experience

As I've argued before on this blog, student affairs and higher education professionals are often overly
preoccupied with making new students feel comfortable when they arrive on campus for new student orientation.  Of course, it's important that students feel safe and supported as they begin their college experience.  However, we often have a fairly narrow definition of what a safe and supportive environment looks like--one that emphasizes comfort, hyper-positive messaging, and reassurances that "things will be fine" and "you'll do great."

While this approach to orienting new students provides initial feelings of safety, it fails to consider what is required for newcomers to feel safe and supported after the honeymoon phase has ended and they find themselves in the midst of the realities of the college experience.  At that point, what new students need is an accurate understanding of what to expect, including the "warts and all" description of the challenges that they're likely to face.

In their most recent book, Decisive, the Heath brothers describe the idea of the "realistic job preview" and its value in combating the problem of employee turnover and hiring mismatches.  The idea behind this approach is to make sure that job applicants really understand what they're getting into, by providing cautions, warnings, and simulations that "expose people to a small dose of organizational reality" (see Jean Phillips research in the Academy of Management Journal).

Realistic job previews have been proven by a large research literature to reduce turnover.  Like I did, you're probably thinking "of course turnover went down--people stopped taking the job."  While that's true in some cases, the effect of "dropouts" in the recruitment or new hire phases is actually quite small.  In fact, in many of the studies reviewed by Phillips, people more no more likely to drop out of the recruitment process that recruits who weren't exposed to the realistic preview.  

Instead, realistic job previews seem to be effective because of the way that they "inoculate" new hires against shock, disappointment, and frustration.  In short, when new members of an organization have a realistic view of the challenges they should expect, they aren't quite so alarmed or taken back when they encounter hard experiences.

Here's the interesting implication for New Student Orientation:  realistic job previews seem to reduce turnover even when they're given after an employee is hired.  The message here is that realistic previews don't just help people make better choices about what job to take (or, for those in higher ed, which school to attend), they help people more effectively cope with the difficulties and challenges that they are certain to encounter.  Not only do realistic previews decrease turnover, they increase satisfaction.

So what does this mean for New Student Orientation programming?  First, we should do a better job of talking about the hard things that we know (from both experience and the research) students will encounter (time management struggles, homesickness, issues in the residence halls, substance abuse, etc.).  This should move beyond discussion of abstract challenges and include real stories, of real people, and the real challenges they've faced.  Whether it's orientation leaders sharing stories of the challenges they've faced (if you go this route, be sure to provide training and scaffolding so that they're sharing the kinds of stories you want) or faculty members and administrators sharing stories from their own undergraduate experience, students need to be exposed to the hard things they'll be facing during their first year (check out what Stanford is doing to leverage the power of stories in preparing students for challenges).

Second, and more importantly, new student orientation (whether you define that as a one or two day program or a more extended orientation in the form of a first-year seminar or peer leader program) should trigger students coping mechanisms by engaging them in thinking and planning about how they'll react when the challenges come.  These mental simulations and reflections are what really provide the inoculation students need because it prepares them with a concrete plan they can implement when they've failed their first exam, heard about a tragedy at home, or realized their roommate is an alcoholic.

So, to sum up, here's a set of recommendations for student affairs professionals who want to "inoculate" students during new student orientation:

  • Be real -- make sure students understand what to expect during their first year of college

  • Use stories to provide understanding of (a) what to expect and (b) how others have responded to the challenges they should expect to face

  • Provide opportunities for students to reflect on the challenges they anticipate facing and, most importantly, how they'll respond
Clearly, what we're currently doing to retain students and encourage persistence isn't working.  And, I can't help but wonder if part of the problem is that students haven't been sufficiently inoculated for the college experience.  Ultimately, a safe and supportive environment includes a clear understanding of expectations, not just well-meaning (but hollow) messaging about how "you're great," "you'll do fine," and "don't worry."

Friday, May 30, 2014

A Summer Reading List

When I was an undergrad I got into the habit of using the extra time I had in the summers to read as much as I could.  Some of my fondest memories of my time in college are of summer afternoons in the basement of the Harold B. Lee Library, reading books that were recommended to me by my first intellectual mentor.  Since then, I've made it a bit of a tradition to put together a summer reading list for myself.  I try to read books that, while entertaining, also change my perspective on my work, my relationships, or the world at large.

If you're looking for your own summer reading list, here are a few I'd recommend:

The Tipping Point.  I almost hesitate to list Gladwell's first best seller because it is so well known.  While not a "classic" in the traditional sense, it's what I'd call an "oldie but goodie" in terms of the recent wave of popular psychology books.  This was the first book I read during my first foray into summer reading.  Reading it was like being handed a new set of glasses because I suddenly saw everything differently.  It's especially useful for anyone who wants to understand how ideas disseminate and get adopted.

The Talent Code.  This is the best book I've read that I never hear anyone talking about.  Dan Coyle does as good a job as anyone at telling the story of talent and skill.  He draws from very sophisticated lines of research in neuroscience, instructional design, organizational behavior, and educational psychology, but writes in ways that make critical research accessible to nearly anyone.  His suggestions for the design of learning and practice environments are second to none.  While Outliers and Talent is Overrated get more press, I think Coyle's book is the best from this genre.  

11/22/63.  I don't read much fiction, and I tend to stay away from uber popular fiction writers, but this historical thriller from Stephen King had me skipping meals and staying up all night.  It's a bit of an intimidating read at 850 pages, but it felt much shorter because it was so engaging.  King captures the social, political, and popular culture of the JKF, as well as an intriguing view of Lee Harvey Oswald.  My guess is it's only a matter of time before Hollywood picks this one up, so read it before they ruin it.

Give and Take.  If you write in your books, be prepared with lots of extra lead when you this one from Adam Grant.  He makes a refreshing and optimistic argument for the value of unselfishness, charity, and relationship-building.  It's a book that will make you feel guilty for the times you've been a selfish jerk, concerned only with  your own well-being; and, more importantly, help you see how being a "giver" isn't just the nice thing to do--it's the path to success.  I'd say this is the best book I've read in the last five years.

Mindset.  Carol Dweck's book on the psychology of success has impacted my thinking about teaching and learning as much as nearly any book I've read in the last decade.  It changed the way I see and understand myself and my own tendencies (for instance, I came to see very clearly that my perspective on my artistics abilities was very fixed, while I was very growth-oriented when it came to athletics).  What's more, it's just as applicable and useful for a teacher as it is a parent or a friend.  Mindset is required reading for all the students I hire to work as peer mentors and 9 out of 10 report back to me that it has transformed their view of their educational experience.  The short of it is that everyone should read this book.

What's on your list for this summer?

Friday, May 23, 2014

The danger of eclecticism in learning (or, an argument for the virtue of syncretic learning)

One of the best parts of working on a college campus is that, almost by definition, my job is to be a learner. And, in addition to traditional courses, college campuses offer a wide variety of learning opportunities, from theatrical performances, art exhibits, lectures, and (one of my personal favorites) afternoons reading in the library.  At BYU, this list also includes weekly campus forums and devotionals.  This past week's speech was given by John Lamb, BYU's Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer for 2014.  I shouldn't hold this stereotype, but because Lamb is a scientist, I was expecting a highly technical and uninteresting talk.  I was pleasantly surprised.  It was one of the best talks I've heard at BYU in recent memory and Lamb made a strong argument for the value of a university education and the importance of being a deep and broad learner.

But, there was one aspect of Lamb's remarks that I think is potentially problematic, and that represents a more general problem in higher education.  Toward the end of the talk, Lamb told students:  
Let me encourage you to be not only diligent, but to be eclectic (emphasis added) in your learning.
 Like many others, Lamb is encouraging students to learn as much about the world as they can.  It's good advice and aligned with the mission of nearly every institution of higher education.  So, the problem I see isn't so much in what Lamb said, but in how he said it.

Eclecticism is characterized by the absence of any kind of guiding system, philosophy, or theoretical framework.  This can be quite advantageous in situations in which breadth and variety are the only concerns, precisely because eclecticism provides the "flexibility" to select from a variety of sources, without any concern for the relatedness of the things that are selected.  So, for casual decisions about tastes and preferences--e.g. where to go to dinner tonight, what movie to pick from Netflix, etc.--eclecticism functions perfectly well.  Unless I happen to be a film critic or restaurateur, there's no need for me to make these decisions based on any kind of underlying philosophy, or to try connect my various decisions into some kind of integrated framework.

Similarly, eclecticism is sometimes touted as a virtue in learning because it conveys the sense of breadth and well-roundness that we strive for in university education.  However, while eclecticism as an approach to learning does achieve the breadth we hope for, it's failings come with regard to the way in which learners connect and integrate their learning.  Eclecticism makes no attempt to provide a sense of coherence, integration, or alignment.  And, this same disconnectedness is one of the primary problems with formal education, particularly the general education experience on college campuses.  Far too many students approach their education eclectically, picking and choosing courses haphazardly and never participating in any kind of integrative experience that helps them connect their learning across their varied experiences.  Consequently, their learning remains superficial and disconnected from their lived experience.

What I wish Lamb would have told students was to be syncretic learners.  Syncretism allows for breadth and variety, but is ultimately focused on reconciliation, union, connectedness, and integration.  A syncretic learner still reads broadly, takes a variety of classes, and  seeks out a diversity of ideas.  However, this learner moves beyond eclecticism by looking for connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, theories, or concepts.

Capstone projects, theses, internships, and other culminating learning experiences are really about leading students to syncretism.  While eclecticism sounds nice and gives learners the freedom to dabble in a variety of areas, a university education isn't simply about a disconnected, albeit pleasurable, learning experience.  Our goal as educators is to move beyond providing variety for students, and to engage them in the hard work of achieving cohesion, wholeness, and integration.  



Friday, May 16, 2014

Pseudoteaching, pseudoengagement, and the dangers of equating teaching with performing

One of the best books I've read in the last 10 years was written by Dan Coyle, whose blog is also one of mymost recent post, Coyle discusses the concept of pseudoteaching, which I would define as high-energy and quite often entertaining teaching that looks impressive, but that leads to very little learning for students.  Coyle links to a great post from +Frank Noschese that explores the concept in more depth and provides two contrasting cases that further illustrate the difference between pseudoteaching and "real teaching."  If you have six minutes, watch them both below.
favorites to follow.  In his

#1 -- Pseudoteaching Example
Pay attention to

  • How animated the teacher is
  • How entertaining he is
  • How much students seem to be enjoying the demonstrations
  • Who is doing the talking

#2 -- "Real Teaching" Example
Pay attention to

  • Who is doing the talking
  • Differences in the looks on students faces (as compared to the pseudoteaching example)
  • What the teacher is doing

See the differences?

The typical narrative of "good teaching," (especially in popular media) is nearly always aligned with what you see from Walter Lewin, the physics teacher in the first clip.  It's characterized by energy, excitement, smiling and laughing students, and a teacher with a big personality.  This is the cover story of good teaching that Hollywood, booksellers, and the general public likes to believe.  But, there is a more subtle narrative beneath this type of teaching.  Look again at the physics teacher and the way he views his role.  He proudly boasts of "rehearsing" each of his lectures to empty classrooms, two to three times before teaching them.  Consider what this means.  His role is to "perform" and this performance is the same regardless of whether he's "teaching" an empty lecture hall or one full of laughing students.  

Now, in contrast, consider the example from Cary Academy.  First, the teacher is noticeably absent from the clip, except for when he's being interviewed.  Instead of being focused on what the teacher is doing, this classroom is all about what the students are doing, which is engaging with challenging, real-world problems.  The news clip suggests that students are engaging in demonstrations and experiments, but the key difference here is that the students themselves are engaging in those activities (rather than watching a "performer" conduct them at the front of the classroom).  Even more telling is Dr. Matt Greenwolfe's description of his role which is to "create experiences for the students."  Rather than rehearsing what he'll be saying and doing (like Lewin from the prior clip), Greenwolfe spends his time planning experiences that his students can have themselves.  It's much less flashy (and so is Greenwolfe), but engages students as active participants in their learning, rather than passive observers.

This gets at another misunderstood term from the educational landscape--engagement.  Just as pseudoteaching is often confused with "real teaching," its companion pitfall is pseudoengagement.  The average citizen (meaning, someone with no formal training or background in education) sees the MIT physics clip and mistakenly assumes that students in those large lecture halls are engaged.  After all, they are smiling, laughing, and paying attention to the teacher.  In short, they're being entertained.  But engagement is not entertainment.  

Surprisingly, "real" engagement looks very different than the students we see in the MIT case.  If you really want to see it, watch the Cary Academy clip again and pay attention to the looks on the students faces.  No smiles, no laughter, no real indication that they're even enjoying themselves.  Instead, there is a look of concentration, focus, and even struggle or frustration.  And, that's what the best kind of engagement looks like.  Instead of looking like they're watching a movie (which Lewin's lectures might as well be taped performances), they look like they're at work, which is the whole point.  

Learning is work.  And, by extension, teaching involves providing environments and experiences that invite learners to engage in work.  In contrast, "performers" entertain and expect very little from their "audiences" other than laughs and applause.  Likewise, engagement is not entertainment (though it can be entertaining, but not in the same way watching a performance is).  

When we move from pseudoteaching to real teaching, and pseudoengagement to real engagement, not only do students have a more meaningful experience, but quantitative outcomes improve as well.  Case in point, Lewin's "entertaining" physics classes resulted in a drop in lecture attendance, as well as increased failure rates.  Greenwolfe's authentically engaging classes led to significant improvements in AP test performance.

For educators, our role is to help others understand these distinctions, which includes students, parents, other teachers, policy-makers, and legislators.  If we can't reframe the narrative on good teaching and real engagement, we're setting ourselves all up for failure.  Pseudoteaching and pseudoengagement are a little like educational pornography (which I've written about before here)--they serve as counterfeits to the real teaching and learning we hope happens in schools.  And, until we recognize and replace these counterfeits in conversations about education, we won't make much progress.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Institutional Innovation: Campus-wide improvement efforts, or lifeboats for a sinking ship?

The pressure for institutions of higher education to be "innovative" is rapidly growing.  While there are a few holdouts, clinging to romantic notions of what universities "should" be, it's commonly understood that the landscape of higher education is shifting dramatically.  Consequently, the "traditional" way of doing things won't be enough for institutions to remain viable into the future.

One of the most frequently critiqued "traditions" of the academy is the general education experience of undergraduate students.  This is particularly true for large research institutions where undergrads, especially first-year students, commonly find themselves in large, impersonal lecture courses or trying to make sense of complex general education 
requirements that leave students feeling fragmented and disoriented.

In response to these critiques, institutions frequently engage in small-scale innovations that are touted as improved alternatives to the typical general education experience.  The most well-known (and oldest) brand of these innovations are Honors programs, where students are promised things like "an unusally rich and challenging experience for capable and motivated undergraduate students" (from the description of BYU's Honors Program that appears on the Undergraduate Education homepage).  Another example from BYU is our new "Mosaic" approach to general education, offered as a program that "works for YOU and YOUR goals" and as a better approach than taking "random classes."  Finally, our most recent innovation--a series of three interdisciplinary general education courses titled "Unexpected Connections" and taught by administrators in the College of Undergraduate Education.  The goal of these courses, taught in close collaboration with the BYU Honors program, is to give students a "broader and more interdisciplinary education by making connections between . . . different disciplines."

At first glance, these "innovations" all seem fantastic.  What could be better than an "unusally rich" experience? A general education program that meets MY goals and that moves away from me having to take "random classes?"  Or, a broad and interdisciplinary education?  Isn't this what we're all striving for at our institutions?

Precisely. The undergraduate experience is assumed to be providing all students with these types of experiences.  But, ironically, when institutions emphasize curricular innovations like those above, they are in the words of Murray Sperber, "pointing the way to their lifeboats" (i.e. these small pockets of innovation), while inadvertently signalling that those who don't make it into the boats are, sadly, part of a sinking ship.  As innovative, enriching, and engaging as these lifeboats might be, they don't in any way compensate for the poverty of the ordinary experience.  This is the problem with innovations in higher education--they are often used as a camouflage for more wide-spread failures.  

So, what to do?  I'm not advocating for institutions to stop innovating.  Improvements to the general education experience, as small-scale as they may be, are a good thing.  But, only if they lead to one of two outcomes.

One path is to provide enough "lifeboats" that everyone is saved from the sinking ship.  In practice, this would mean allowing diverse, small-scale innovations to continue to occur on the margins, without worrying about wholesale changes to the undergraduate experience.  While it may be naive, an institution could make the argument that they have provided enough different "niche" opportunities that any student can have their "honors" experience, whether that's in a formal honors program, through participating in undergraduate research, or serving in some sort of peer leadership role (i.e. as a resident assistant, peer mentor, or peer advisor).  For this "many lifeboat" plan to work, it's imperative that campuses provide some means of helping each student find the lifeboat they'll need.  Providing adequate advisement resources and personnel seems like a good start, but this could be accomplished in other ways as well.  Without an intentional and strategic plan for connecting students with these niche opportunities, chances are only the most prepared and resourced students will benefit.

The second approach to more ethical innovation is one that moves away from providing "lifeboats" and focuses on improving the "ship."  From this perspective, innovation becomes a learning exercise for the institution at-large.  While the innovations and improvements may begin on the margins, the perennial goal is always to use these "experiments" to eventually make more widespread changes that impact all the students on campus.  The challenge here is making sure that innovations don't live and die on the margins, but that the best innovations are identified, rigorously evaluated, and then thoughtfully scaled up.

For institutions to innovate in the ways I've described here, they'll need both honesty and patience.  The honesty to admit that a handful of lifeboats aren't enough to save a sinking ship, and the patience to see worthwhile innovations through to the point that everyone, not just the privileged few who find their way to the lifeboats, benefits.

Friday, May 2, 2014

BYU and the Academic Arms Race: The quest for a Rhodes

My message to our peer institutions. . .is really a lament that universities too often elevate glitz over goodness.

The above statement came from a 2013 Huffington Post Column written by Luis Calingo, President of .  In the piece, he comments on the "gold-plating" institutions engage in as an attempt to improve the "prestige" and attractiveness of their campuses for parents and students.  Whether its luxurious residence halls, big-time college sports programs, or academically elite honors colleges, the goal is largely the same -- to stay competitive in the institutional arms race and provide fodder for shiny brochures and national tv spots that will attract students, parents, and (most importantly) their money.
Woodbury University

While BYU does a lot of things well, we can't in good conscience say that we aren't actively trying to run and win this arms race (see, for example, recent decisions regarding athletics and residence halls).  The most recent attempt to win the academic arms race has been focused on ending BYU's 15-year Rhodes Scholar drought.  The Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest and (arguably) most celebrated international fellowship in the world and provides funding each year for 32 of the brightest young scholars in the world to pursue their work at Oxford.

Clearly, it's one of the holy grails for an institution, garnering invaluable PR in terms of recruiting future students and faculty members.  And, the Rhodes Trust (who award and administer the fellowship program) have consistently delivered on their promise to use the award to prepare future leaders having produced the likes of Bill Clinton, Edward Hubble, +Cory Booker, Bill Bradley, and David Souther.  So, it's not surprising that institutions are keenly interested in producing Rhodes Scholars on their campuses.

But, what's the cost (literally & figuratively)?

In the same Huff Post column referenced above, Salingo goes on to comment:

In my view, the so-called arms race distracts--if not detracts--from the educational mission.  It does so by siphoning both resources and focus, and it paints a less-than-comprehensive picture of the institution beneath the shiny veneer.

He makes a strong argument (one that I've also made about Honors programs, and that is made even more articulately by Murray Sperber in Chapter 13 of his excellent book Beer and Circus) and raises important questions about the lengths institutions go to in order to run "the race" with their peer institutions (or, in many cases, those they wish were their peers).

Though BYU has been more insulated from the economic downturn that has ravaged higher education over the last ten years (in large part thanks to a very shrewd, wise, and I think inspired Board of Trustees), resources are still scarce.  Approvals for new FTEs, additional research money, or travel funds are becoming more and more rare.  So recent resource allocations for the newly-branded Office of National Scholarships, Fellowships, and Programs (formerly known as the Office of Prestigious Scholarships and Fellowships--which didn't help the perception of the office as being elitist) have been both curious and concerning.

Over the last two years, a new Associate Dean of Prestigious Scholarships and Fellowships has been appointed, an Associate Director of Prestigious Scholarships position has been created, and huge amounts of travel funds have been allocated for both of these individuals to spend extended amounts of time in the UK (as well as around the US) learning how to prepare students to apply for and win a number of prestigious scholarships and fellowships, most notably the Rhodes.

Part of the irony in all of this is that these activities fall under the umbrella of BYU's College of Undergraduate Education, whose mission is to "supervise and foster essential university-wide elements of the baccalaureate."  In all fairness, I think the Dean of Undergraduate Education at BYU is just taking marching orders from administrators above him who, for whatever reason, have made it their goal to make sure the Rhodes drought ends and ends soon.  I just hope we get our holy grail before we start teaching 2,000 section seats of American Heritage and get rid of the last few full-time faculty members teaching first-year courses.  These recent efforts and decisions are neither essential or university-wide and I think, bordering on criminal (at best, foolish) given the ample opportunities to improve the general education experience at BYU.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Reading Terminal Market: A model for small colleges (and a great place to eat in Philly)

I was in Philadelphia last week for the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association.  One of the things I enjoy most when I am visiting new cities is eating good food, particularly "local" fare in local spaces.  My hotel (and the convention center where the conference was held) happened to be right next door to Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market, which many consider to be one of the finest food markets in the U.S.  In addition to being really interesting, the story of the market, including its struggles through the 70s and subsequent renewal in the late 80s, provides important lessons for higher education--especially small colleges.

The market has nearly 80 independently-owned small businesses, representing a wide diversity of products and services.  The brochure I picked up in the hotel lobby boasts that the market "has something for everyone," and this isn't untrue.  As I walked through the market nearly each day of my 8 day trip I saw bakeries, coffee shops, ice creameries, a flower shop, craft stands, meat counters, seafood markets, produce stands, and sit-down restaurants (if you're planning on visiting Philly, my personal favorites were the Down Home Diner, Bassetts Ice Cream, and Profi's Creperie).  Based on this description, it would be fair to wonder how the Market is different from a run-of-the-mill mall.  And, this is the lesson for small colleges.

One of the challenges for any institution of higher education is balancing the tension between identity and universality.  If an institution is too parochial, it runs the risk of attracting too few students and too little attention from other important stakeholders (e.g. key community & government leaders, funding sources, researchers), similar to the fate of a highly specialized boutique that can't manage to get off the ground.  Alternatively, if an institution becomes too broad or too general, it loses its identity and becomes unremarkable and run-of-the-mill, like a shopping mall.  The key for a small college is achieving balance between these two extremes--enough diversity to attract a good group of students and faculty members, but enough identity that it can carve out a space and home on the higher education landscape.

The Reading Terminal Market is a great model of this balance.  Like I mentioned above, the promotional brochure produced by the non-profit organization that manages the Market, touts that it "has something for everyone." While I understand the appeal for its brochure to make these kinds of claims, I'm not sure that the Market really offers something for everyone, like a typical mall might.  In fact, what makes the Market such a great model for small colleges is that they have made some very strategic decisions about the constraints they would place on themselves and their vendors.  And, it is these constraints, tempered by a small degree of diversity among the types of vendors they invite to house the space, that bring the Market the identity and vibrancy that allow it to thrive.

1.  Connection to history and values.  First, the the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority (the non-profit that runs the Market) has worked to ensure that the story and history of the Market have been preserved and represented in today's Market.  When the Market was re-built in the early 1990s, the Authority negotiated a preservation agreement that made sure that the refurbished Market would adhere to historic standards and maintain its historical integrity.  Those simple architectural decisions and constraints give the Market personality, voice, and signature that link it to its past and leave you feeling a bit like you've walked back into history when you walk through the market.  This creates an experience that visitors enjoy and remember--very different than walking into a shopping mall.

2.  Connection to the local community through signature services & speciality products.  When the Market underwent its initial reconstruction the Reading Railroad Company (who operated the Market until trains stopped coming into the terminal) recruited specific vendors who would tie the Market to the unique culture and history of both the city of Philadelphia, as well as the state of Pennsylvania more broadly.  This included a group of Amish merchants from Lancaster County.  They also made sure that Bassett's Ice Cream, who have been in operation at the Market since it opened in 1892, would remain in their original location.  Inclusion of these products and services diversified the Market's offerings, while grounding the Market in a local place and community.

3.  A personal, neighborhood feel.  Though I was an outsider at the Market, I felt like a local and felt like I had stumbled across something that only locals know about (which is actually not true of the Market at all).  The small vendor spaces, counter top dining, friendly merchants, and mixing of various types and demographics of people make the space feel like neighborhoods and communities should feel.  I was comfortable there, felt attended to by the merchants, and wanted to go back day after day.

Small colleges could learn a great deal from the Market.  Just as small businesses often feel the gravitational pull to become like the big-box stores around them, there is a tendency for small colleges to try to be everything to everyone.  The logic seems to be that the more we offer and provide, the more students we'll have, and the better off we'll be.  But, the reality is that identity, mission, and place are just as important has providing access to a broad range of academic programs and services.  The Reading Terminal Market has grown and innovated, but it has tempered this process by maintaining ties to its history and mission, grounding its work in the local community, and ensuring that it provides an experience that feels personal and supportive.  Likewise, there is a need for small colleges to pursue strategic and constrained growth and innovation by remembering the institutional stories and values that are at the core of their mission, providing a small set of signature programs that are ideally linked to the values and economy of the local community, and that leverage one of the greatest strengths of small colleges, which is their ability to foster a neighborhood or community of diverse, yet like-minded learners.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A potential game changer for college sports: Unionized athletes

Kain Colter, the outgoing quarterback at Northerwestern
Yesterday, Michael Tarm of the Associated Press reported on the National Labor Relations Board's ruling Northwestern University can create the first-ever union of college athletes.  While the ruling only applies to Northwestern, it has the potential to dramatically alter the landscape of college athletics, athletic department budgets, and the experience of student-athletes.
that football players at

At the core of the decision was the question of whether football players at Northwestern qualify as "employees" of the university?  In his ruling, Peter Sung Ohr, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director argued that the players meet the two major criteria for employees:  first, they are "compensated" through athletic scholarships and, secondly, they are under the strict and direct managerial control of coaches and athletic administrators.  In his 24-page decision, he went on to say that players are "identified and recruited . . . because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement," citing a lack of any real evidence that scholarship players are ever allowed to put academics first by missing games or practices in order to attend to academic obligations.

These are murky waters that Northwestern's players union, as well as the NCAA and all of its member institutions, are wading into.  College sports have long been held up as a model of amateurism and are viewed by many as the pure and wholesome alternative to the greed and commercialism of professional sports (this is particularly true at this time of year when the country is caught up in the romance and drama of the NCAA men's basketball tournament with its narratives of the underdog school and players who play for the love of the game).  So, if unionizing were to become widespread among college athletes, fans may not be so quick to view them as the noble, self-sacrificing "student-athletes" that are portrayed in the NCAA's recent marketing campaigns.

At the same time, Kain Colter (a former Northwestern quarterback,who has been the public face and leader of the push), his teammates, and their supporters have a fair argument.  For athletes participating in "revenue sports" (e.g. football and men's basketball), their lives look a lot like a professional athlete in that their in-season time commitment approaches that of a full-time employee, they do receive compensation (though minimal) for their involvement, and their lives are very highly structured by coaches who dictate how they spend their time and what other activities they are involved in.  In short, they look a lot like institutional employees, but without many of the protections that an employee in another part of the institution might have (e.g. coverage of "work-related" medical expenses).

At this point, the goals of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), which is the group that will represent the union, are to ensure coverage of sports-related medical expenses, advocate for policy changes that will help to reduce head injuries, and to begin discussions about the possibility of allowing college athletes to pursue commercial sponsorships.  It's this last one that will raise eyebrows, again, because it calls into question the notion of amateurism that has made college athletics palatable, even when its dark side has reared its head.

For the time being, this ruling only effects private institutions, and only football and men's basketball players on those campuses.  But, like ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson has pointed out (+Lester Munson), the ruling could quickly snowball to effect a much broader range of institutions.

There is a fundamental tension at the heart of this issue between protecting the rights of athletes and preserving the romanticism of amateur college athletes.  Is this the beginning of the end for amateurism in college sports?  Just a necessary protection for college athletes?  Which side of the fence do you come down on?  Which side of the issue should be more heavily weighted?

Friday, March 21, 2014

I don't want a perfect president

Last Tuesday, President Henry B. Eyring, first vice chairman of the BYU Board of Trustees announced the Kevin J. Worthen as the next president of BYU.  It was an exciting day and people seem excited and optimistic about the future here on campus.
appointment of

I was in the meeting when the announcement was made, and happened to be sitting next to a neighbour and friend who knows President Worthen quite well.  As soon as the meeting was over, and again as we were walking back to our offices on campus, my friend said:  "I've never seen him take a misstep."  

Typically, when something like that is said about a person, it is meant to be laudatory.  The message is "Here is a person who doesn't screw things up (or at least not publicly)."  Usually, we say things like this about people who we like, who we trust, and who we want others to see as competent.  So, in that sense, it was a perfectly reasonable thing for my friend to say about someone who he looks up to and sees as a great leader.

But, to be honest, I would have been much more impressed had I heard something like:  "Once I saw him take a misstep (and it was pretty bad), but then this is what he did to acknowledge it and try and fix it."  The reality is that every leader makes mistakes.  Most are behind the scenes and minor enough that they don't impact the organization on a general level, and no one ever knows about them.  But, occasionally (and I would argue at least once in every leader's tenure), they will take a major misstep.  They'll say something stupid, make a prediction that isn't just way off but that leads to losses, or make some other kind of decision that is highly public and, in hindsight, highly inadvisable.

When that happens, I'm much more interested in being led by someone who has learned to respond well in those situations (as I've argued before here).  As helpful as it is for the media and others to perpetuate the narrative of how skilled, competent and seemingly perfect President Worthen is, I'm waiting to hear stories of missteps, mistakes, and what he has done in the past when that has happened.  That narrative is much more telling and, I think, can build more confidence than sanitized stories of how everything a leader touches turns to gold.

Friday, March 14, 2014

We're not all Paul Ryan or Aaron Osmond: An argument for supporting all parents and all children

Last Thursday, in his remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Republican Senator +Paul Ryan (Wisconsin) took aim at free school lunch programs, using them as an example of the way in which the left offers "a full stomach, and an empty soul."  His remarks seem to imply that children who eat school lunches (whether they're subsidized or not) have parents who love them a little less than their best friend who brings her sandwich and apple in a nice brown paper sack (In a deliciously ironic move, he finished the speech by relating a story that was originally told by Laura Schroff, who I heard speak two weeks ago and who is actually an advocate for the programs Ryan seems to despise).

Ryan's remarks fit the pattern I've observed a number of times, from various politicians, over the last year or so.  The narrative goes something like this:    "The [opposition party] is morally wrong for providing free [fill in the blank].  Parents who take advantage of this [fill in the blank with federally subsidized program of your choice] are bad parents.  Good parents do [fill in the blank with what your "good parents" did to make you into the moral role model you are today].

A supporting case (or two) -- last summer, Utah State Senator +Aaron Osmond proposed that mandatory school attendance be abolished because it encourages parents to shirk their responsibility to educate their children (a view I've critiqued here).  He softened his stance somewhat later in 2013 and offered up a modified proposal that would require parents to opt-in to the public education system.  In Osmond's modified plan, those parents who avail themselves of public education's services would also be required to enter into a "Public Education Parent Participation Contract," that among other things would require them to attend all parent-teacher conferences, ensure all homework is completed, and cover the costs of any remediation received by their child.

Underlying arguments like those made by Osmond and Ryan seems to be the belief that every parent of every child is equally capable of providing the very same support.  Ryan believes every parent can and should make his child's lunch in the mornings.  Similarly, Osmond seems to believe that parents come in a two discreet types:  (a) those skilled and competent enough to educate their own children or (b) financially secure enough to cover the costs of their children's "remediation" (not sure what that means, but apparently Osmond has a nice tight definition for it that will avoid all controversy ).

Osmond, Ryan, and others making these kinds of arguments seem to have forgotten that parents come in a wide variety of "flavors."  While the brown bag lunch crusaders and laissez faire education advocates would like to believe that every parent has an equal (and, it seems, inexhaustible) supply of educational acumen, time, and money, the reality is that today's parents look a lot different than those that raised Osmond and Ryan.  There are parents who, despite their desire to be as helpful to their children as possible, don't have the intellectual, social, and financial capital as do others in their communities.

Osmond's proposal is presented as a way of "liberating" parents from the mandates of an oppressive government, however, this liberation only extends to a certain class of parent.  Osmond seems to have forgotten the parent who works 2 - 3 jobs, speaks limited English, or who can't afford to pay for remediation.  Ultimately, for a growing segment of the population, these plans masquerade as virtuous ways of supporting and liberating families, when in reality they are veiled forms of oppression for those without the privileges enjoyed by the naive lawmakers making the proposals.  Utah Senator Luz Robles, in responding to Osmond's original plan for ending mandatory education, said it best:

Not everyone might have a highly educated, Ph.D. mom or dad, what might happen to that child [who does not]?"

If Osmond, Ryan, and others are really interested in supporting parents, they can make good by considering how educational policy and legislation might be crafted to support all parents.  In a recent post on his excellent blog, my good friend +Greg Williams argues that any comprehensive attempt to improve educational systems has to acknowledge the critical role that parents play in their child's education.  He concludes his post with this provocative question:  "Why aren't we having more discussion about helping parents be great parents (emphasis is mine)?"

It's a tremendously important question and one I would posit to those who only seem interested in penalizing those parents who, despite their best efforts, can't support their children by offering home school, packing a brown-sack lunch, or doing the things Ryan and Osmond would have us believe are the hallmarks of a "good" parent.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The importance of the CSO (Chief Storytelling Officer)

I spent the last two days with a group of public school teachers, counselors, and administrators.  For the last
six months, I've been privileged to meet with them about once a month to be part of discussions surrounding important issues in education.  This week's retreat was focused on the notion of stewardship in schools and the need for educators to hold a commitment and investment in the entire school community, as opposed to what happens in their classroom.  For me, the highlight of the two days was hearing two key stories that are at the heart of the work we were doing together.  

The first story came from Steve Baugh, who is a former school superintendent in Utah and now the Executive Director of the BYU-Public School Partnership and Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education and Schooling (CITES).  Paul's purpose was to familiarize us all with the story of CITES, and more specifically, the Associates Program that we are all participating in.  He described what led to the formation of the partnership, the evolution of its core commitments, and the purposes behind the Associates Program.  Hearing this story from Steve, who has been involved with the partnership in one form or another for the last two decades, was infinitely more impactful than reading about it in a brochure or on a website (which I have done multiple times).  When he finished his story, I felt a renewed sense of purpose, pride at having been asked to participate, and a commitment to fully engaging in the process.

The second story was told by Paul Sweat, the former principal of Wasatch High School.  Paul was the principal at Wasatch during two key events:  the move from the "old high school" to the "new building" and the 100 year anniversary of the opening of the first high school in 1908.  From what I can tell, Paul's most significant contribution to the school and the surrounding community was taking what was a highly emotionally-charged, politicized, and potentially controversial transition into a new building and using that process as a means of uniting both the school community and the surrounding community of Heber Valley.  His story described the process of moving into the new school, incorporating elements of the "old school" and its values into the new building, and skillfully generating support from nearly everyone involved, including current students, parents, alumni, and community members.  I've never seen a school or administrator be so intentional or strategic about anything--it was inspiring and instructive.

Steve and Paul are what I call Chief Storytelling Officers or CSOs.  In addition to the duties outlined in their job descriptions as administrators in their organizations, they play an incredibly (yet underappreciated and often unrecognized) role in ensuring that the wisdom, legacy, and values of their organizations are understood and appreciated by others.  Clearly, to be a CSO requires skill in story-telling (which I'll get to), but it's also a lot more:

1.  Deep history and vast experience.  Neither Steve nor Paul have been around from the beginning, but they've been around long enough that they have a rich institutional memory.  Steve has been involved as a teacher, administrator, or faculty member in the partnership for 44 years.  During that time he's been a close observer of the development and evolution of the partnership, positioning him to tell its story well.  In Paul's case, he has become a student of the history of his district, both by doing traditional research and spending hours and hours in conversation with others who have been around a lot longer than he has.  As a result, he knows the story of Wasatch High School and it means something to him (he had to hold back tears a number of times yesterday as he shared vignettes of the sacrifice and commitment that others have made over the years as teachers, coaches, benefactors, etc.).  A CSO knows the meta-story of his or her place because he or she has lived it, researched it, and listened the hundreds of micro-stories from others across all levels of the organization.

2.  Credibility and Respect.  Because of their experience, Steve and Paul have street cred, which means that when they tell their story, others listen.  Steve has a natural advantage because he's been around a long time and that, in and of itself, brings respect and credibility.  In Paul's case, his credibility has come through the hard work he's done to learn the story and his demonstrated abilities in bringing people together for a shared purpose.  CSOs can't just be good story-tellers, they have to have been successful in their other roles, be it as the CFO, superintendent, director of HR, or whatever it is they're job description says they're supposed to be doing.  That success buys them the story-telling capital they need for people to listen to what they have to say.

3.  Story-telling Chops.  Steve and Paul both told their stories in very different ways, but in both cases it was effective.  Steve spoke from hand-written notes and had no visual supports, which some would say is a big no-no.  But, his sincerity and humility are disarming.  I felt like I was listening to the grandfather of CITES tell me a story that I'd heard before, but that I couldn't stop listening to.  Paul used visual images really well, from pictures of the first high school and how the new building incorporated some of its architectural elements, to the new school seal,, to the mural that was created by an alum (who also happens to be a respected artist) to visually represent the story of the first 100 years of WHS.  The images he shared, sprinkled with vignettes about key events and characters from the school's history, left me wanting to quit my job at BYU and go to work at the High School, and I've never even stepped foot in it.  

Although I'm not an employee of Wasatch County School District or of the McKay School of Education, hearing these stories left me feeling a sense of stewardship for what happens in Wasatch County Schools.  I care about the students there and want to be a part of the learning that goes on in their classrooms.  That means Steve and Paul both played their role as CSOs very well.  The stories they told helped me understand and feel connected to the legacy, culture, and purposes of their organizations.

Steve retires this year and Paul has moved on to a position at the district level.  There is an inherent risk that their stories will be forgotten.  If that happens, both the McKay School and the District will have lost a tremendous asset.  In fact, yesterday after Paul's presentation I asked him whether students and teachers at the high school knew much of what he had shared with us.  He mentioned that there is an orientation for new students in which some of the stories are shared, but also acknowledged that since he has left the HS, a lot of the stories have been forgotten.

Individuals have short memories.  Organizations, particularly those with high degree of turnover, have even shorter memories.  One of the dangers, any organization needs to be aware of and avoid, is letting CSOs go unnoticed, or worse, letting them move on without imparting their stories to new CSOs.   

So, whether you're a family, a business, a school, or a church congregation, you need to be asking yourself a set of questions relating to your stories:

  • What are the key stories that need to be told?
  • Who are the CSOs who can tell them?
  • Who will be the new CSOs?
  • How do we prepare them?

What concerns me is that neither the McKay School or the District seem to recognize Steve and Paul's roles as CSOs.