Monday, March 29, 2010

Colleges without administrators; colleges without faculty

We are at a funny time in the history of higher education, where our current conditions--high cost, uncertainty about the depth and breadth of student learning, very complex institutions, unrest about traditional roles, and new technologies--might push higher ed in two opposite directions at the same time.

In one direction, we might see more "colleges" created and run solely by faculty. These would be small institutions, with limited curricula, and teaching much more on the model of mentorship or apprenticeship that flourished earlier in the history of higher ed (think Oxford, or even earlier, think Socrates). If one of these colleges ever got too large, faculty could just form a new one, perhaps using the model of growth favored by WL Gore and Associates, where if a factory or work group has over 120 employees, then a new one forms.

In the other direction, you can imagine institutions of higher learning where the traditional faculty no longer exists. Instead, you have a team of educators--some who design content, others pedagogy, others assessment, and others still who coach students who together ensure the delivery of courses and the assessment of student learning. Here it would be like taking the model of Western Governor's University to its furthest end.

Given that each of these options seem viable (setting aside the problem of accreditation for a minute) which do you suppose is more likely to flourish? To lead to student learning? Do these two possibilities suggest anything about the particular ills of higher ed and the solutions to them?

Friday, March 26, 2010

What can the corporate world learn from education?

The "corporatization" of education is so well-established that it is hardly worth mentioning any more. Any business trend imaginable gets imported into the schools, business leaders are always at the table when the future of education is discussed, business leaders leap straight to the presidency of colleges or the superintendency of schools with hardly a remark.

In some ways this is a good trend, for by focusing schools on their markets it has forced us to pay more attention to what we do, why we do it, and how we communicate it to students. In some ways it is hardly a trend at all in a nation that has long had business values at its heart, and at the heart of its educational systems.

But as a believer in reciprocal relationships, I wonder how education can return the favor. Especially in a period when parts of the global corporate model are coming apart, what can education teach the corporate world? (Please note that this is a different question than "How can colleges and universities educate students to be better employees?" which is really more evidence of, among other things, the corporatization of education.)

I need to think about this question more, but here are a few things that come immediately to mind:

1. Peer review. Much of the business world uses a hierarchical model to evaluate its employees. If your boss likes you, you get ahead. If not, too bad. Where peers are asked to comment, the comments are almost always kept secret, which makes room for back-biting and -stabbing. In higher ed's model, peers evaluate each others' work, regularly and publicly. Of course there is plenty of back-biting in higher ed as well, but this system of evaluation encourages reciprocity as much as back-biting.

2. Decentralized decision-making and implementation. The business world is slowly coming to understand that centralized power doesn't guarantee either profits or unanimity. In contrast, the decentralized decision-making system in education at least opens the opportunity for an organization to be very responsive. A single school or a single discipline can remake themselves to respond to particular needs must more easily than can an entire corporation.

3. Resisting the urge to merge. There are a handful of major accounting firms with national (or global) reach. There are thousands of institutions of higher education with the same reach but much smaller size. In this, education is much more market-responsive than are big corporations.

4. Learning, not knowledge, at the core. Businesses are coming to think that it is knowledge that is at the center of the American economy. While this is healthy (at least when compared with putting manufacturing there) it also encourages the sort of information-hoarding that limits growth and creativity. Education does its share of info hoarding itself. But a learning focus relies heavily not just on sharing information but in training people to remake it for their own use. Compare, for example, the ways that the music industry regulates its product with the way schools regulate theirs. Re-use a track and get threatened with copyright infringement. Re-work someone's argument in class and get an A.

What else can corporations learn from education?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Student Engagement: Does Success Require Faliure?

In the 2009-2010 academic year we agreed that all entering students would have a mentor assigned to them. The mentor would be one of the student's learning community faculty members if the student was in a fall learning community. If not, the mentor would be an administrator. The entire senior administrative staff (including the President and Provost) participated as mentors--each assigned to 3 to 5 students.

The school year is mostly over, and reports are rolling in from the administrative mentors. Almost universally there have been frustrated by the failure of their efforts. Many students never responded to contacts from their mentors. Of those who did, only a few stayed engaged for more than a single meeting.

This result, and a decline in our scores on the NSSE "faculty/student interaction" index even while we are trying to increase it has led to some anguish on campus. These events have gotten me thinking that a campus trying to create a system that encourages all students to be engaged will necessarily have more and more failed interactions between faculty (and staff) and students.

Here is my thinking: engaging students depends on three things: offering a wide range of engagement opportunities, getting all students to participate in at least some of them, and ensuring that of the things individual students engage in, at least one of them turns out to actually engage the student (which in turn depends on a student knowing what they find engaging).

The paradoxical result of these requirements is that a good system of engagement--one that stands a real likelihood of engaging nearly all students--will be home to lots of failed interactions. The Center for Civic Engagement, for example, might host many service opportunities, but each opportunity will only attract a few students, of whom even fewer will stay engaged. We will work feverishly to connect mentors with students--but most of those efforts won't succeed because most students won't find meaningful connections with most mentors. We will let students form dozens of clubs, but only a few will flourish while most will limp along with a handful of participants, offering events that attract only a few students.

So, lots of failure, but the overall result at the level of individual students will be a system that is likely to engage them in one way or another.

There are two (at least) big implications of this fact: 1. anyone involved in engaging students will have to spend a lot of time managing frustrated "engagers"--those people whose efforts are rebuffed by students, and 2. any effort to assess engagement has to look at the system as a whole (is the system likely to offer engagement opportunities that will appeal to nearly all of the students who choose our campus?), and students as individuals (do most students find something--anything--that engages them?). Only after assessment at these levels does it make sense to assess at the program level.

Creating Extraordinary Citizens

I spoke earlier today at a conference on civic education sponsored by the Utah State Office of Education and the Utah Coalition for Civic, Character and Service-Learning. Here is an outline of my comments--called "Creating Extraordinary Citizens."

Creating Ordinary Citizens
By this time, well into the third decade of service-learning, we have figured out how to create ordinary citizens. It is visible in my own life, in the way, for example, that my daughters not only filled out the census but also also analyzed it in the context of contemporary politics.

More importantly, the creation of ordinary citizens is visible in schools across the US. We know, for example, that a civic curriculum can improve the likelihood of voting, particularly in high-poverty schools. There is some evidence that experiencing democratic deliberation in school (i.e. regularly participating in discussions about governance) increases the likelihood of students being involved in service. (In Utah one school that does this very well is the City Academy charter school.) And a recent report suggests that a comprehensive civics curriculum helps students develop 21st Century Skills.

Taken together, these reports suggest that a combination of rules and incentives--requiring civics curricula, for example, or funding to support student-led civic behavior--can encourage civic engagement. And the result of all of these efforts (plus many other forces, to be sure) is that young people are increasingly likely to vote, to serve, and to engage in public life. That is, youth are more likely than they were a decade ago, to be ordinary citizens.

Creating Extraordinary Citizens
It is not clear, though, that the same activities can create extraordinary citizens. Consider the story of Jane Addams and the founding of Hull House. Or Greg Mortenson's efforts to build schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. Or the actions of the villagers in Le Chambon during World War II who sheltered thousands of Jews from the Nazis.

If these three accounts are wrapped around the actions of extraordinary citizens, what do they have in common?
  1. The people, Addams, Mortenson, Pastor Trocme who led the Le Chambonnaise, were all more or less willing to do what ordinary citizens do--vote, participate, serve their neighbors.
  2. When faced with a moment of great potential import, though, all of them made a quick decisions to take enormous actions--build schools, create a settlement house, shelter refugees--for what they saw as the good.
  3. They made these decisions without a full plan or even with certainty that things would work out well for them. And in most instances, they made plenty of blunders.
  4. Their decisions were counterintuitive. That is, the rules and incentives in place would urge ordinary citizens to behave differently than did these extraordinary decisions.
  5. In retrospect, all of the extraordinary citizens looked at their activities and said that what they had done was perfectly natural for them. By this they meant (I think) that their extraordinary acts helped them to see themselves in a new, more authentic light.
Note that many of the characteristics of extraordinary citizens, then, differ from or contradict the characteristics of ordinary citizens and their actions.

How do you create extraordinary citizens?
Surely some of the actions of extraordinary people comes from sources other than schools. But schools can do things that help provoke extraordinary citizenship. Here are a few:
  • Use real stories of citizenship. By real I mean "not bowlderized stories meant to inspire, but unvarnished stories of crisis and heroism." (Addams herself collected such stories.) Two overlooked sources of these stories are the works of Robert Coles (especially in The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination) and the philosopher Philip Hallie (especially Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed and In the Eye of the Hurricane.)
  • Give students open-ended, complex problems to solve. By this I mean particularly that teachers should avoid the sort of simulations with a single, right outcome. Instead, we might look to the sort of story-based problem solving found in multi-player online games. (I am indebted to this talk by Jane McGonigal for making this point. See especially her games "World Without Oil' and "Evoke.")
  • Encourage the development of moral skill, moral will, and moral freedom. That is, in both objective, content, and assessment, encourage these sorts of behavior. (For suggestions on how these things differ from the typical rule- and incentive-based forms of motivation, see this talk by Barry Schwartz.
In closing, let me refer to two additional examples of extraordinary citizenship. The first, well-known, comes at the end of the Declaration of Independence, where the signatories pledge not just their support or service to the cause. Instead they pledged "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

The second, more recent and less well-known, happened in Haiti after the earthquake. There, Gilbert Bailly, the owner of Muncheez restaurant, decided that rather than let his food spoil he would serve it to the hungry. Then he decided that when the food ran out he would figure out how to keep feeding the hungry. His snap decision led to something extraordinary--people coming together, sharing out of their lack, not their wealth. By the time NPR covered his story, Muncheez was feeding 1,000 free meals a day.

Moral skill, moral will, moral freedom leading to extraordinary citizenship.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Teach to the test, or to the "standards"?

Today's news juxtaposed two stories about Utah K-12 education. One coming out of our legislative session described bills that will reduce the number of standardized tests required of Utah students. Gone will be criterion-referenced tests in several grades, and the UBSCT--a test that all high school students have to pass in order to receive a diploma--looks to be on its way out as well.

The other, featured here, describes a national effort, of which Utah is a part, to describe "standards" which should be common in all English and Math classes across the US. The standards are essentially the outline of a curriculum--thing to know, things to have read, types of problems to be solved. Utah is a party to this effort.

I am not sure how to feel about these changes, especially taken together. Ten years ago I would have been happy, feeling that the effort to define a common body of knowledge would aid society, and ensure that when students got to my college classes, I could count on them having been taught certain things. And I clearly remember being angry at the rise of standardized tests with No Child Left Behind.

But today I am much less certain, for at least two reasons. One, any system of education concerned about learning has to have a set of outcomes--things a student should know and do. As bad as they are, tests like the UBSCT measured certain outcomes.

Second, and more importantly, I think schools can learn a lot more about what works if student learning is measured by a common standard. I lecture, you encourage group work. Which approach is successful for which students/ We can only know if we agree on the goal.

Put in the vernacular, though, it sounds worse. Really what I am saying is that given the option, I would prefer to teach the way I think best, but teach to the test.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Nodes, metaphors, and learning

Thanks for the comments on my last post about the discussions at Grinnell organized around nodes. LionofZion raised some strong concerns about the value of discussions like these: in part because they seem to be trendy ways of talking about old things, and in part because of the loose use of language--that is, that just because people use the same words for something doesn't mean they are communicating. And thanks to Paula Smith from Grinnell for commenting. I appreciate it.

A quick response on the node idea, and then something a bit longer about metaphor in higher ed. I am sympathetic to LoZ's views on the loose use of language, which is often a sign of intellectual sloppiness. (My favorite George Orwell essay, "Politics and the English Language" is a bracing statement of exactly this view.) But I think that the word "node" is exact evidence of the value of conversations based on similarity, if not agreement.

It is true that a node in the brain, and a node on the internet, and a node in a city are very different things. But it is also the case that exchanges between partisans of these types of nodes has given us some much larger insights about learning and organization. In each instance, it is repetition of use that strengthens the node, not the quality of the node itself. So it matters less how good the stimulus is (beyond a point, of course) and more about how the new input connects to older pathways be they roads, websites, or axons. In a system organized by nodes, control is decentralized. This is good news, potentially, because it means that weakness in one area can be compensated for by strengthening another. And it means that would-be controllers, have they good or ill intentions, are less likely to assert dominance for the long run. Taken together, then, a node-view of the world provides suggestions on how to bring about change and about how influence (as opposed to power) is organized. This is a very old view of the world, one that dates to the period of the vedas in India. But contemporary society seemed to have forgotten it until the node conversation got re-started.

Of course a node, or the topics that Grinnell used as nodes, are metaphors. And thinking about the comments to the post, coupled with a debate on campus about the proper role of administrators, and my reading of a great new book, has gotten me thinking about what metaphors do in higher ed.

(The book, for whatever it is worth, is Paul Knitter's Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian. In it Knitter notes how religious language is essentially metaphorical, and then plays out how certain Christian metaphors have been mis-understood, either by reading them literally or by ignoring the implications of certain interpretations. For Knitter, Buddhism's emphasis on practice and its distaste for dogma can help Christians make meaning out of their lives and thus revive their religious language.)

Since Knitter's book is on my mind, let me use an example to describe the roles of metaphors. Take "God is love." What does a metaphor like that do? Here are several things:

1. It puts words onto experience that is hard to communicate otherwise. God is love is a way of saying that I felt something that feels like love and comes from my experience with the transcendent.

2. It allows people to see new characteristics of old things. The loving Christian God is quite a contrast from the God of the Old Testament--he metaphor makes that contrast clearer.

3. It re-groups things together that once weren't. If God is love, what do we do with the other manifestations of love--friendship, lust, companionship, etc. The metaphor asks us to consider how those things are linked to God.

4. In the re-grouping it implies a set of values that might otherwise get overlooked.

5. Metaphors have histories. Overlooking the history means overlooking some of the meaning.

In all of these ways, metaphor is an opening to conversation, not a closing. Of course, by being an opening it is also an invitation to public confusion and public debate. Metaphors always stand part way between description and dissembling.

Educators ought to be as alive to metaphors as theologians. Take some of our most basic language in higher ed. What do you call the regular gathering of students in a room? Is it a class or a course? Choose one and your focus is on geography or location. Choose the other and it is on movement or process. Or do students have majors, fields of study, or disciplines? One suggests hierarchy (major over minor), another location again, and another behavior.

The list of metaphors could go on and on. (Are you a professor? A teacher? An instructor? A coach? A facilitator?) But the Inside Higher Ed piece on Grinnell's nodes has made me think that we would be well-served to examine some of our old metaphors as well as searching for new ones. Perhaps they would serve us better if we thought publicly about what they do.

I would be particularly interested in exploring what the titles of faculty, staff, students, and administrators imply about how campuses get along and do they work they do. We could stand to revisit them.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


This piece in Inside Higher Ed argues that there are intellectual nodes that are fruitful sites for discussion across the disciplines, and that those nodes might also be a location for learning (or at least teaching). Grinnell College has been having discussions about what the right nodes are, and how they might influence learning there. I read this just after participating in a workshop about community building, one of the points of which was that cities and brains also function best when they have healthy, well-connected nodes. (See Steven Johnson's Emergence for a great discussion.)

Lots to consider about nodes. Here are some of my questions:

1. Does Grinnell have the right nodes? If you asked students what the intellectual nodes of their learning are, what would they say?

2. How are discussions like the nodes discussion more/less fruitful than those that are directly about curriculum and programming?

3. What are the other key types of nodes for learning? What are they physical nodes? Who are the people that act like nodes? Do they deserve the same sort of care and attention that intellectual nodes do?

4. In an age focused on connection, what about this point, made by philosopher Alain de Botton, that we may need fewer nodes (at least if online connections can be considered nodes) and more fasting--limiting our intake of ideas in order to improve our thinking and our lives?