To Africa

Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya

Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya

In October, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Kenya to facilitate a week-long faculty and staff workshop about Prior Learning Assessment at Tangaza College in Nairobi.  I am grateful to my colleagues at the School for New Learning of DePaul University for inviting me to participate!

In a bookstore in Nairobi, I purchased Beryl Markham’s autobiographical account of her time in Africa titled West with the Night.  Here’s a particularly relevant and poignant paragraph that captured my attention:

“There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa — and as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime. Whoever writes a new one can afford a certain complacency in the knowledge that his is a new picture agreeing with no one else’s, but likely to be haughtily disagreed with by all those who believed in some other Africa. … Being thus all things to all authors, it follows, I suppose, that Africa must be all things to all readers. . . . Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. ”
― Beryl Markham, West with the Night

Read more about my trip here: Out to Africa


Now Here’s An Idea: Hospitality In Higher Education

I’m devouring The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal, by Parker Palmer, Arthur Zajonc, and Megan Scribner right now. It’s a good read. It’s a thought-provoking read. It’s an inspiring read. It gives me hope.

One premise put forth by Palmer is the idea that a key virtue in higher education that is not always present is hospitality. He says it much better than I can summarize, so here goes his argument:

Learning spaces need to be hospitable spaces not merely because kindness is a good idea but because real education requires rigor. In a counterintuitive way, hospitality supports rigor by supporting community, and the proof can be found in everyday classroom experience.

Pedagogical rigor requires more than a professor doing a rigorous solo act, which can feel more like rigor mortis from where the student sits. A classroom becomes rigorous when a student is able to raise his or her hand and say, “I disagree with what you just said, professor.” Or, at even greater personal risk, “I disagree with what my friend in the second row just said.” Or, pulling out all the stops, “Excuse me, I don’t understand anything that’s been said in here for the past two weeks. Could someone please explain?”

Admitting ignorance and encountering diverse viewpoints on facts and interpretations require us to clarify our assertions, explain ourselves at deeper levels and perhaps, mirabile dictu, even change our minds. Professors who encourage student behaviors such as these invite true intellectual rigor, the kind that emerges from a community of inquiry and is far more educational than a nonstop diet of “rigorous” lectures. From where the students sit, these behaviors are also riskier than keeping one’s head down and taking notes. That kind of behavior is not going to happen in a class that lacks hospitality, a class where people feel too threatened to say anything that might get them crosswise with the professor or other students. (pgs. 29-30)

I read this passage and I found myself asking this: What would an entire university dedicated to hospitality, as Palmer describes, look like? How might it be organized? Might it be a “learning paradigm college” as John Tagg calls for? Might we engage in assessment as an act of care, as I keep yammering about? Might we look at academic disciplines differently, at credits and seat time and accreditation and transcripts and requirements and learning outcomes and and and … and all that, differently? I am thinking that the simple (yet complex) virtue of hospitality, well-developed and enacted across an institution, could in fact result in a transformation of the academy, as the subtitle of this text suggests.

And I am also thinking that hospitality is not at all a bad place for true renewal and transformation in higher education to begin. In fact, it might be the only place from which people feel invited and welcome to contribute to real change.

The Bottom Line

I’m happily working my way through the reading assignments for the WASC Assessment Leadership Academy that I am participating in (and finding all sorts of goodies to share with my colleagues), and this paragraph from Mary J. Allen’s book Assessing Academic Programs in Higher Education (2004) reminded me why I care so much about assessment — because it’s (once again) about informing teaching and learning:

Earlier teaching models, primarily based on delivering content through textbooks and lecturing, assumed that students learn through listening, reading, and independent work. Typical grading practices, based on grading on a curve, frequently put students into competition with each other, discouraging student collaboration. More recent conceptions of learning stress that students construct knowledge by integrating new learning into what they already know. Learning is viewed as a cognitive and social process in which students construct meaning through reflection and through their interactions with faculty, fellow students, and others. This approach involves expanded use of active learning pedagogies, such as collaborative and cooperative learning, problem-based learning, and community service learning. Our ability to meet the educational needs of our diverse student body depends on developing an expanded repertoire of pedagogical strategies with demonstrated effectiveness, and assessment helps us identify these strategies. (p. 3)

And then (as if that wasn’t enough of a Rah! Rah! for educators), Allen identifies the bottom line:

The bottom line for assessment is student learning (p. 6) . . . . Just as the bottom line in business is the generation of profit, the bottom line in higher education is the generation of learning. (p.19)

Generating learning. That’s a really great bottom line.

An Open Letter Of Thanks To My Colleague

Last night I had the honor of attending the lecture of Mary Catherine Bateson, a lovely event orchestrated by Dr. Jenny Sasser. Students, alumni, community guests, faculty, and staff filled Flavia Salon to hear Bateson speak about her experiences and perspectives, her books, and her ideas about the importance of engaging and supporting elders in our society.  Oh – and an organization she founded,

Bateson’s ideas truly resonated with Marylhurst’s mission of providing access to learning for adults (as she herself pointed out – in fact, she had studied us!). Though I hate to just provide sound-bites and take such lovely ideas out of the significant contexts in which they were presented, she did say some really neat things, including:

  • “Experience is the best teacher – but only if you do your homework.”
  • “We are not what we know, but what we are willing to learn.”
  • “I’m still me. I’m the person I’ve been becoming my whole life.”

I was reminded once again about the very special work we get to do each day here, together, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Thank you, thank you, Jenny, for your work in bringing her here – I am grateful for the gift, and I hope she can come back soon!

PS, Readers: For a good sense of Bateson’s work and what we experienced last night with her, check out some posts from her blog, such as Learning to teach, Teaching to learn

A No-Brainer

A Human Brain: Thanks to EUSKALANATO on Flickr for making this image available.

I am reading a book right now recommended by a friend called How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer.  She recommended this to me when I needed to make a decision and had consulted her; her statement to me was, “You actually already know the answer. Now you’re just trying to rationalize it.” And then she loaned me this book.

I have only read the first few chapters, and what I am learning is that we don’t yet know a lot about how our brains all work (“tip of the iceberg,” as one neuroscientist observed) , but we do know that they can work in amazing ways and that we should pay attention to what we do know.

Several years ago, I attended a conference about teaching and learning, and one idea that I took away was that “perfect practice makes perfect.” I have always been a skeptic of “perfect” (who needs that pressure?),  but the idea is that if you practice something incorrectly, it will likely become lodged in your brain incorrectly. And if you practice it correctly, it will likely become lodged in your brain correctly. Kind of a no-brainer (no pun intended), but for an educator, it’s a neat idea to keep in mind and I apply the idea in all sorts of ways with my students.

Lehrer’s book echoes a slightly different take on this idea, though. He tells the story of Bill Robertie, a champion backgammon player. As Lehrer points out, Robertie didn’t become a world champion by playing a lot of backgammon: “It’s not the quantity of practice, it’s the quality.” By this he doesn’t mean practicing perfectly; instead, he argues for critically reflecting on the errors.

According to Robertie, the most effective way to get better is to focus on your mistakes. In other words, you need to consciously consider the errors being internalized. . . Expertise is simply the wisdom that emerges from cellular error. Mistakes aren’t things to be discouraged. On the contrary, they should be cultivated and carefully investigated. (p. 51)

I’ve argued for learning from our mistakes before and I’ve shared my All Time Favorite Quote that “reflection is the process by which experience is turned into learning” (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985). Robertie has argued for the same thing, and Lehrer explains the neuroscience that makes it all work. Basically:

If you want to be good at something, practice it. And when you mess up, analyze the mistakes and learn from them.

That, in a nutshell, is possibly all you may need to know about brain science (or at least all you need to know to be a PLA writer). Let your dopamine neurons and anterior cingulate cortex do the work that they are supposed to: that’s what they do best, for they’ve been practicing it, “perfectly,” for a very long time.


Boud, D., Keogh, R., and Walker, D. (1985). Reflection: Turning experience into learning. Kogan Page: London.

My Third And Final Major Was English

David Brooks has written an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times called History for Dollars in which he advocates for studying the humanities, and it has me nogging.

Thanks to quinn.anya on Flickr for making this image available.

Brooks argues that studying the humanities will make a person more employable because they will be able to read and write well, will deeply understand human emotion, can think analogically, and can “befriend” what he calls “The Big Shaggy,” behaviors and phenomena that are difficult to explain. Of the latter, Brooks writes:

The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.

Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.

But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

I object to his implication that blogs “lack the heft” of critical thought and inquiry, but I have to agree with almost every other proposition of his editorial. Let me tell you why.

My first major in college was journalism. I had spent the previous 3 years in high school tirelessly advocating for Freedom Of The Press and a separation of advertising and editorial (my main objective being to convince the school administrators that placing a Planned Parenthood ad in the student newspaper paper was not an endorsement for having sex). It made perfect sense that I would be a journalism major: I had prior experience on the newspaper and yearbook, passion, and it could be practical. I could get a job.

My second major was speech pathology and audiology. I changed it from journalism about a month into college because I decided I wanted to try to do something different from what I had been doing. It wasn’t an analytical decision at the time; it was more like wanderlust meets “I want to be employable after graduation.”

I liked this new major because I was learning in multiple disciplines: anatomy, language development and linguistics, psychology, neurology, etc. We also got to look at cadavers, which was scary and horrifying and amazing, all at the same time. However, in my first session in the speech clinic, when a distraught but forceful mother of a child with a bilateral lisp was insistent that we “FIX HIM!!!” in time for a speech he had to give at his church, my clinical supervisor turned to me and said, “Welcome to your future.” An off-the-cuff comment, but I listened.

My third and final major was English because I liked to write and I liked to read, and I didn’t want to spend time taking courses that I didn’t like. I temporarily set aside my pragmatic paycheck-oriented concerns and decided to focus on learning. And with that came great freedom and deep engagement and, as Brooks argues and I fully believe, marketability.

I have applied lessons from my English courses — from all of those Australian novels and Middle English Prologues and poems and essays and tree structures and Latin roots —  to every aspect of my work. From supervising and supporting employees, to preparing and monitoring budgets, to writing grants, to giving presentations to friendly and challenging audiences, to teaching and mentoring, to learning new computer programs or programming my voice mail, to communicating with various stakeholders and advocating with fierce grace, I call upon my English major skills and capacities of mind each and every day.

Brooks implies that there is money associated with a humanities education; I suspect that might be true (it has not been, for me). But what I DO have is compassion, creativity, energy, communication, and, in general, happiness with what I can and like to do.

My third and final major was English.  And as for The Big Shaggy? I’ll continue to nog on it, with heft (eh hem!), because, as Brooks asks:

…doesn’t it make sense to spend some time in the company of these languages — learning to feel different emotions, rehearsing different passions, experiencing different sacred rituals and learning to see in different ways?

Yes. Yes it does.

Installment #8: What My Toddler Has Taught Me About Adult Learning

In one of my favorite books on teaching — The Courage to Teach — Parker Palmer reminds us of the importance of learning in community:

The growth of any craft depends on shared practice and honest dialogue among the people who do it. We grow by private trial and error, to be sure — but our willingness to try, and fail, as individuals is severely limited when we are not supported by a community that encourages such risks. (1998, p. 144)

Shared practice.

Honest dialogue.

Encouraging risk.


Here is a picture of Mac’s toddler learning community.  (Mac is smack dab in the middle, of course. He clearly values surrounding himself with other learners. Or – he likes to be the center of attention…)

Mac's Learning Community

Mac is reminding me that it often is better to learn with others.  Though Mac is a natural risk taker, I think that having other kids to learn from and with is already key to his development. He and his co-learners may not have “honest dialogue” (yet) in the way that we do as adult learners, but they do have shared practice and they learn from watching each other and supporting each other. Just yesterday Mac’s friend Jack was helping Mac learn how to best hold the shovel so he could get the dirt from the flower bed to the bucket without it spilling. Now THAT’S helpful!

Here is another picture of all of them in active learning mode. Mac is the kid with the dark red shirt on, right side. The kids are learning Itsy Bitsy Spider — Out comes the sun! This particular skill has been transferable to drying his arm pits after bath time, getting arrested for throwing a toy across the room, and semaphore (should he ever need it).

Mac's Learning Community In Action


#1 – Learning Can Happen When We Challenge our Perspectives

#2 – Learning is Developmental

#3 – We Learn by Direct Experience

#4 – We Learn by Observing Others, Even If Others Are Not Experts

#5 – The Importance Of Books In Learning

#6 – Selecting the Right Learning Tools

#7 – Ask For Help