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.