My institution is struggling in our understanding of a component of a recommendation we need to act on for our regional accreditation. A committee that I co-chair has talked about this component ad nauseum (or at least that’s what it seems like to me), and we still don’t have a clear sense of what it is we need to do about it. It’s like we’re trying to be responsive — to conceptualize it, to enact it, to make it meaningful to us — but the language of the “assignment” (the policy) and the feedback from the “teacher” (the commission) isn’t clear or consistent or, dare I say, specific.
So — we are, alas, left on our own, struggling in the dark, wondering: “Um, ok … what do we do?”
Finally, one of my colleagues said: “It’s like we have a really bad teacher. We have something we need to do — something we will be graded on — but the assignment directions are completely vague, the expectations more so, and the feedback we keep getting isn’t specific or even helpful.”
It’s humbling, I think, for us as instructors — as educators! — to experience something in this way, and I like this analogy a lot. It is like a bad teacher, and it’s not even like we’re trying to please the teacher. No! We’re just trying to focus on improving our own efforts in this particular area because we believe that something good can come from it.
This brings me to Larry Daloz’s idea of balancing support and challenge for growth (presented in his wonderful book Mentor). If there is too much support, we get confirmation. Too much challenge? We get retreat. Too little of each? Stagnation. The ideal is high support and high challenge — balanced — so that we get growth. GROWTH!
What would support us in this dilemma is clear language about the assignment, clear expectations about success, and a clear description of what success looks like. Good teaching/learning/assessment practices grounded in support — THAT would help us. We have the challenge, and we’re up for it, and now we need the support.
As educators, I think we need to remember this feeling viscerally each time we design an assignment, clarify expectations, and provide feedback to our learners. Is there a good balance of support and challenge to help our learners not just succeed, but GROW?
We decided that our next step is to be self-directed in this learning and growth process and ask the commission for a recommendation of a university that is doing this thing particularly well, so that we can at least look at a model of what “good” looks like. Hopefully, with this action, we can clarify the expectations and define improvement for ourselves. Hopefully, we will ultimately realize our own growth accordingly.
Because right now? Yeah, it’s like we have a bad teacher … and we can’t drop the course.