We Tell Ourselves Stories

Earlier this week, an essay written by Adam Kotsko was published in InsideHigherEd called “Making the Best of Assessment.” Two key sections of his piece stood out to me:

Would I really object if someone suggested that my institution might want to clarify its goals, gather information about how it’s doing in meeting those goals, and change its practices if they are not working? I doubt that I would: in a certain sense it’s what every institution should be doing. Doing so systematically does bear significant costs in terms of time and energy — but then so does plugging away at something that’s not working. Paying a reasonable number of hours up front in the form of data collection seems like a reasonable hedge against wasting time on efforts or approaches that don’t contribute to our mission. By the same token, getting into the habit of explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing can help us to avoid making decisions based on institutional inertia.

And a bit later on in the piece, referring to his own institution, department, and colleagues:
Despite that overall optimism, however, I’m also sure that there are some things that we’re doing that aren’t working as well as they could, but we have no way of really knowing that currently. We all have limited energy and time, and so anything that can help us make sure we’re devoting our energy to things that are actually beneficial seems all to the good.

Recently, I experienced an assessment phenomenon that I’ve started to affectionately call “when data challenges our belief system.” (My colleague has also written about this here; when I was telling another colleague about this, she referred to it as “when reality interferes with our denial.”) I’ve been helping my colleagues work with assessment methods and their findings for many years now, but it only became apparent to me recently that sometimes we don’t want to believe what we see in our assessment findings or in other sources of data. Sometimes we’d prefer to just erase the evidence or the findings of a inquiry project rather than face the reality that we might be able to do something better, something different.

Thanks to F. Jourde on Flickr for making this image available for use through a Creative Commons license.

Thanks to F. Jourde on Flickr for making this image available for use through a Creative Commons license.

Joan Didion wrote a book with the title We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

In trying to build an evidence-informed culture for improvement in higher education, I have come to believe that our willingness to interrogate the stories we tell ourselves might be one of the biggest challenges we face. Resources? Yep: we certainly need those! Buy-in that the process is worthwhile? Totally important! Support and learning to enact effective assessment practices? Absolutely necessary. But …

We tell ourselves stories.

And guess what! I am totally guilty of this! Here’s a recent example: Using findings from a database-informed report I received almost 7 years ago, I believed that 95% of students who took an introductory course offered in my department went on to take many more courses at the university. This became my department’s story (because it was true — in 2006). It was a great story, until it wasn’t. When I requested and received an updated report, this is what we found out, and what we did:

Of 388 students from Summer 2009 – Fall 2013, 90 took only this course.  Thus, 23% of students who took the course didn’t take anything else. And although this means 77% of students did take other courses (we can celebrate that – it could have been worse, after all), we needed to think about whether or not our original story (remember it? 95%?) still held water. My departmental colleagues and I discussed this report, and once we came to grips with the new story the data was telling us, we realized that we wanted to make some advising process improvements with the goal of increasing the number of students who go on to take more courses at the university.

What’s challenging from an assessment perspective is that this practice of storytelling can totally limit our ability to use information to make improvements; more significantly, it can limit our learning.  Of course we should be analytical about our findings; we should understand their limitations, reliability and validity, the circumstances, the context. But if we believe everything to be perfectly fine — or even quite good — reliable findings that tell a different story can be hard to stomach. Sometimes what happens is folks blame the data; worse is that they blame the messenger; far, far worse is that they blame students.

We tell ourselves stories.

One of the greatest powers of assessment and of an evidence-informed, improvement-oriented culture is that it can foster critical reflection on practice, but only if we can be — if we’re willing to be — critically reflective. I also think assessment can foster really important conversations about students’ experiences and learning among colleagues (such as the great conversation we had in our department when the new data no longer supported our outdated story).  In other words: assessment itself can foster our learning.  But when we get stuck with our stories and we can’t see that there might be a different reality that’s out there, we shut learning out, and we shut out the opportunities that can result from learning.

No doubt that stories are important — to culture, to humanity, to life. As Brene Brown said in this TED talk, “stories are data with soul.”  I do think our stories can inform us and teach us (hey – I was an English major; of course I think this!) But I also think that if we’re not open to alternative views, to other voices (namely those of students), and to new information, then we’re being irresponsible educators because we’re not walking our talk. And so I’ve come to realize that a big part of my work is to support people in being willing to engage in critical reflection on practice, and to consider changing their stories if needed using the information they learn from assessment (it may come as no surprise to some of you that my work with Prior Learning Assessment and interest in heutagogy greatly inform my perspective and my approach). After all, education is supposed to be about learning; let’s use information we have to learn, and to get better.

So Many Posts; So Little … Posting

I have about 50 posts started, but none finished — or at least none worthy to post. As usual, I’ve been prattling (though only in my head, so far) about change in higher education; about the importance of leaders-as-learners and teachers; about technology, learning, assessment, teaching; about heutagogy; about access; etc. etc. etc.

So many posts; so little posting.

While not posting, I have been contemplating the lessons in two poems by Marge Piercy: The Seven of Pentacles and To Be of Use.

And I did take this picture of a lovely spring flower while out on a bike ride with my kid:

Meditation on a spring flower in the forest.

Meditation on a spring flower in the forest.

So there’s that.

Instead of posting my own ramblings right now, I’ll share a few links to others’ pieces that have really inspired my nog as of late.  I’ll also share a few quotes from each that I mentally highlighted – may they inspire you to inquire and reflect, too.

How Disruptive Is Information Technology Really? by Judith Ramaley – EDUCAUSE Review

The act of teaching is becoming more about designing the educational context and engaging students as they learn to approach material in more insightful and demanding ways. We are not transmitters of knowledge very often today, although an occasional superb lecture by a remarkably perceptive and even prescient speaker or a carefully crafted blog contribution can open up new ways of thinking about things.

We all know these simple things about how the educational experience is changing, but how recently have we paused to think about how truly wonderful it is to be able to use our smartphones to answer a question right immediately? My real concern is that not all questions have a quick, well-researched, and easy-to-find answer. Many, perhaps most, questions in today’s world are hard to formulate, are seen in very different ways by different people, or simply do not have good answers at all. That is why we still need real people who interact with each other in real time in order to frame questions that matter, to explore the ideas that come from those questions, and to work together to find solutions. No longer, however, are those people confined to the knowledge and experience that they carry in their own minds or that they can bring along with them on paper. They can tap into a true universe of material whenever they wish.

Good Teachers Become Less Important by Bernard Bull – Etale – Life in the Digital World.

When I think about the role of what we traditionally think of as teacher, one of the most important roles of teachers is to work hard at making themselves as unimportant as possible, not unimportant in the sense of lacking value, but unimportant in the sense that they are eventually no longer needed.  In other words, the goal of the teacher is to aid the learners in becoming self-directed learners.

Notes on social learning in business by Harold Jarche

Training and instruction are all about control, with curricula, sanctioned learning objectives, and performance criteria. This works when the field of study is knowable. But fewer fields remain completely knowable, if they ever were. Many institutions and professions have been built on the premise that knowledge can be transferred in some kind of controlled process. If you question that premise, you threaten people’s jobs, status, and sense of worth. This is why you see some violent reactions to the notion of informal and social learning having validity within organizations.

A major difference between communities of practice and work teams is that the former are voluntary. People want to join communities of practice. People feel affinity for their communities of practice. You know you are in a community of practice when it changes your practice.

And finally, a post from the Heutagogy Community of Practice: The PAH Continuum: Pedagogy, Andragogy, & Heutagogy, by Fred Garnett

When we collaboratively developed the ideas of the open context model of learning, Wilma Clark had pointed out that in Russia the word ‘obuchenie’ means both teaching and learning, and the PAH Continuum might be seen as a way of scaffolding ‘obuchenie’ as a move from teacher’s control to learner’s control. I would see it as axiomatic, as I did when I was ‘brokering’ learning, that teachers, whilst delivering their subject expertise, should be enabling learners to better understand the process of learning for themselves.

So many posts; so much learning. With great appreciation for all my teachers out there. As Bernard Bull wrote:

In one sense, a teacher is anyone or anything that contributes to our learning.

The Risk Of Doing Nothing

1. My son Mac, now 5, has been interested in the Titanic story for about a year now. I shared with him the theory that had the Titanic turned itself around and parked itself next to the iceberg that it had hit, most of the passengers and crew could have gotten off the boat, onto the berg, and been rescued. (According to some oceanic archeologists, the ship could have turned itself around.) They would have been cold, for sure, but they wouldn’t have drowned. Instead, they all saw the iceberg as the threat (The Threat!!!), so they steered away from it. They didn’t see the threat as what it could be — a life saver. (I can no find no reference to this now; I heard it many years ago so I imagine it’s totally urban myth. But for this story, it serves a purpose.)

2. I recently read a publication called An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead.  If you work in higher education, you might consider reading it, or at least skimming it. The authors explain the avalanche metaphor this way: “The avalanche metaphor is appropriate because the one certainty for anyone in the path of an avalanche is that standing still is not an option. Indeed, it is a classic error of strategy to calculate the risks of action but fail to calculate the (often greater) risks of doing nothing” (pgs. 3-4).

Thank you sgillies at Flickr for making this image of the Gavarnie Avalanche available for use.

Thank you sgillies at Flickr for making this image of the Gavarnie Avalanche available for use.

I read words like “avalanche” (which sounds strong, forceful, and terrifying) and “revolution” (which sounds challenging and yet potentially transformative), and I get … I get … (what do I get?)  Well, I get disconcerted. But I also am inspired by a key idea in this report:

Given the state of the global economy, tensions in international relations, massive gaps between wealth and poverty, the deepening threat of climate change and the ubiquity of weapons of mass destruction, our contention is that we need a generation better educated, in the broadest and most profound sense of that word, than ever before. We need – as the London 2012 Olympics promised– an inspired generation, all of whom are well-educated and some of whom are able to provide the bold, sophisticated leadership that the 21st century demands. We need citizens ready to take personal responsibility both for themselves and for the world around them: citizens who have, and seize, the opportunity to learn and relearn throughout their lives. We need citizens who are ready and able to take their knowledge of the best that has been thought and said and done and apply it to the problems of the present and the future. This surely should be the mission of universities, and here in An Avalanche is Coming we have sought to describe the threat posed to traditional 20th century universities if key institutions don’t change radically, as well as the huge opportunities open to them if they do.
Within this, I have hope for and in heutagogy to be a significant part of the future of learning (which is related to why I underlined that sentence above, by the way).

3. I am still trying to make sense of this idea about change (which I have prattled about before),  especially as applied to real life.

Correction: Especially as applied to my real life.

Change motivates and challenges. It makes clear when things are obsolete or have outlived their usefulness. But most of all, change forces us to learn differently. If the twentieth century was about creating a sense of stability to buttress against change and then trying to adapt to it, then the twenty-first century is about embracing change, not fighting it. Embracing change means looking forward to what will come next. It means viewing the future as a new set of possibilities, rather than something that forces us to adjust. It means making the most of living in a world of motion. ~Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown: A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change

4. Another idea that’s rattling in my head right now is this, but I don’t know whom to attribute it to other than a colleague who quipped it recently in a meeting:

Never waste a crisis.

“Crisis.” Yet another scary word that is being used quite a bit in higher ed: student debt crisis; academic quality crisis; online learning / MOOC crisis; full-time faculty crisis; part-time faculty crisis; crisis this and crisis that. You name it, it’s a crisis (if you decide to call it one).

Define “crisis,” higher ed. Is it crisis because it’s change? I seriously doubt it. Perhaps it’s a crisis because change challenges our beliefs about what higher education / our university / our program should be. And because we now have to think, and act, and learn (!) differently. Perhaps *this* is the avalanche, and the revolution — the avalanche is within us, not happening to us; and the revolution can result in freeing our thinking.

5. Mac told me this last night as I turned out his light after we read a book about the Titanic:

Mama,  do you know what happens to an iceberg when it melts? It becomes water. It becomes something really different. It doesn’t get to do that if it stays an iceberg.

Icebergs, avalanches, revolutions, crises. These all demonstrate the risk of doing nothing: the most significant of which, as I see it, is not getting to learn, differently.

You’ll excuse me now please: I have to go do something.

Bookmark: Living In A World Of Motion

There were three notable chapters in my book this week, and I placed a bookmark on the page with the paragraph that wove them all together in a lovely way.

Chapter One: Last night I returned from an accreditation team training, and the theme of most of our discussion in the meeting (as well as the discussion on the airport shuttle bus) was “change in higher education.”  We watched this video to provoke our thinking:

Chapter Two: I have been collaborating with a new wonderful set of colleagues — Lisa Blaschke, Stewart Hase, and Chris Kenyon — to design and launch an international Community of Practice focusing on advancing the theory and practice of heutagogy. And if there’s one thing heutagogy is about, it’s about learning and change. (An aside: we’ve not launched yet, but when we do, here’s our Twitter handle: @HeutagogyCoP)

Chapter Three: I am teaching our PLA Seminar: From Experience to Learning this term. I’ve connected with wonderful, amazingly smart and caring adult learners, many of whom are starting to write about their own learning experiences and challenges with change in their PLA essays. (Have I mentioned that I really love teaching this course? I wish I could do so more often!)

book3dBookmark: I just finished devouring Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

These three chapters of my week converged when I read this paragraph from the book’s chapter titled, “Embracing Change:”

Change motivates and challenges. It makes clear when things are obsolete or have outlined their usefulness. Bot most of all, change forces us to learn differently. If the twentieth century was about creating a sense of stability to buttress again change and then trying to adapt to it, then the twenty-first century is about embracing change, not fighting it. Embracing change means looking forward to what will come next. It means viewing the future as a new set of possibilities, rather than something that forces us to adjust. It means making the most of living in a world of motion.

The book reflects a lot about learning in online community-based gaming – which I know next-to-nothing about. But now I think I’d better learn. (GULP! I never thought I’d say that!)

(Unless, of course, Pinterest provides the same experience, by any chance? Because I’m getting really good at learning with Pinterest!)

Rearranging Our Sense of What’s Possible

In his recent post titled Napster, Udacity, and the Academy, Clay Shirky writes a few very important things about the future of higher education that I believe we need to pay attention to. This paragraph sums up why:

Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.

MOOCs, I believe, are currently a place-holder for Big Changes A’ Comin’. I actually don’t think MOOCs as we know them now (in all of their various forms) will BE the change; I think they are instead indicators that change is happening now. And Shirky says why:

The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system …

I, for one, do want change to come to higher education — I deeply want improved access to meaningful and significant learning experiences. But I don’t think of students as an “audience for education.” This implies a somewhat passive, receiving role for learners. (And thus the MOOCs that are recordings of superstar professors giving their lectures aren’t that exciting for me.)

Change – Thank you zacklur on Flickr for allowing this image to be used.

The change I want to see is focused not on how content is delivered because content delivery is not learning (though this will surely be part of it), but in how we engage learners in processing that content, integrating it with their own learning and experience and other ideas from other sources, and making some sense of it all. I want to see changes in how we help our learners and ourselves develop our capabilities to be able to work and communicate effectively with others, to be creative in solving our world’s significant social and environmental challenges, to deeply value diversity and experience and wisdom, and to excel at critical self-reflection and ongoing learning. As I’ve written before, enough with the ivory tower that privileges obtaining certain kinds of knowledge and privileges who gets to obtain it. More and more, our non-ivory towers are doing this same thing, and not even realizing it.

My biggest fear right now is actually not that higher education is changing;  I fear that if we’re not careful with how it’s changing — not careful and super-intentional as we lead these changes — that more people, not fewer, will be shut out of significant, meaningful, transformative learning experiences.  MOOCs might solve part of the access problem for delivering content and perhaps even being able to work through that content with others; MOOCs aren’t going to solve the access problem to significant, meaningful, transformative learning experiences. For one thing, MOOCs do not at all address the digital divide, which I believe is still an issue in our world.

Furthermore, problematically, we still are attached this construct called a degree that is supposed to represent learning and ability. This is evidenced in Shirky’s post:

In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as songs came unbundled from CDs.

I think it’s ok if learning becomes unbundled from the pursuit of a degree if by offering degrees we are really only aiming for students just getting degrees. Unless we can focus on ensuring meaningful, engaging processes and experiences of learning, then why bother? I am as compelled by the piece of paper as I am by the archaic representations of learning such as seat time. I am thus also compelled to lead change in particular ways — with learning and access to it at the center of decision-making and innovation and resourcing — because I  actually believe in the value of rearranging our sense of what’s possible. When we rearrange our sense of what’s possible, we can ensure that our students can, too.

And THAT changes everything.

Learning Through Commitment

Thanks to eschipul on Flickr for making this photo available for use.

In this recent article written to new college graduates, Caty Borum Chattoo provides six pretty nice pieces of advice. The first seems most significant to me – it’s about the great potential of personal commitment. Though this certainly applies to new grads, even more so I think it applies to all of us engaged in learning, creating, discovering, and growing. Here it is (bold and color added for emphasis):

 (1) At the moment of commitment, the entire world conspires to assure your success.
(This was paraphrased by Norman [Lear], but originally thought to have originated from the philosopher Goethe.)
With a surface-level read, this may seem obvious and potentially overused — as in, work hard and it will all work out for you. But to me, understanding this bit of philosophy in a deep, internalized way only came with age and experience. When Norman first said this to me, I remember thinking that the key to this mantra was the “world conspiring” part of it — the thought that the world owed me success. But not only is this not the key idea, it misses the entire point. What I came to learn, through the messiness that comes from large and small professional decisions, is that the key is the commitment piece, which has everything to do with your own active engagement in your own life, pursuits and passions. At the moment in which you truly commit to a project, an idea, a version of yourself, you may find the world lining up in ways that allows the success to happen — you meet people who make connections, you have a conversation with someone who tells you the exact thing you needed to hear, you find a partner with whom to collaborate, and on and on. In my own still-evolving professional life, I have encountered the most amazing moments of a world conspiring — but only when I was fully, honestly engaged, with the kind of commitment that is felt deeply when no one else is around to see or validate.

I have experienced this same phenomena. When I fully commit to something, everything seems to line up. But it’s not “everything” doing that — it’s me doing that. There is an inexplicable energy that comes with such a commitment.

Right now I am exploring a new project, a potentially big and risky one. When I am ready to commit — and if I am, I must fully commit — I believe I will make it so. It might fail, and it might fail gloriously, but in that I will have committed to it, I will have also committed to learning with, through, and from it, regardless of the outcome.  It’s a refreshing perspective because it can eliminate some of the apprehension and fear that sometimes act as back-seat drivers.

I also wonder if this is where the construct of faith comes from — there is a leap of faith that is involved with such commitments. Because really – are we ever 100% certain something will work out? My quotient of certainty increases as my commitment increases.

PS: The Goethe Society of North America has more about this original quote, HERE. It’s a good read.

Mr. Messy Meets Higher Education

Meet Mr. Messy, from a book of the same title:

Mr. Messy is a friend of my kid Mac, who for some reason is intrigued by Mr. Messy. We haven’t even read the book (so in fact I don’t know what it’s about), but we have seen his picture and sometimes it looks to Mac like Mr. Messy is:

a) wrapped up in pink silly putty, or

b) covered in strawberry jam, or

c) “like a flower with arms and feet!”

All of these scenarios might sound pretty neat if you are 3 — eh, hem, I mean 3 and 1/2 — years old.

For us grown-ups, though, messy may not be as fun. Messy means things are not simple, clean, or clear. Messy means being able to live in ambiguity (per my mother’s motto: “We’ll see…”). Messy means that emotions can be involved, that learning is tough, that life is sometimes challenging, that the world can be a difficult place. And as such, messy also provides opportunities. Learning to deal with messy means we get to problem-solve, think differently, find a way, and figure out how to navigate the rough and tumble seas, and then celebrate arrival to dry land and reflect on what worked and what didn’t.

Without messy, we’d likely be bored. And without messy we probably wouldn’t learn much.

To celebrate messy, let me share another goodie from The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal,by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc:

If higher education cannot deal with the messiness of real life, educated people will not be prepared to use their knowledge amid the complexities and the cruelties that constantly threaten to undo civilization. And they clearly will not know how to use their knowledge with wisdom, compassion, and love. . . If higher education does not help people learn how and why to take the risks of love, its moral contributions to the world will fall short of its potential. (pgs. 38-39)

I like the idea of addressing messy with love because love represents embracing something fully and being devoted and caring. Dean Dad recently suggested that we should “tolerate” ambiguity by reframing it, and he has a great point in asking us to consider this:

Which sounds better: uncertainty or possibility? Failure or learning experience? Internal politics or growing pains?

Um, that’s easy: Possibility, learning experience, and growing pains, please!

Ultimately, for us folks who work and learn in higher education (hopefully there’s overlap there, right?), I think that love — in the way my kid seems to love Mr. Messy — is likely more sustainable and impactful than tolerance. To me, tolerance means I put up with something that might bother me (e.g., I tolerate my husband’s inherent need to reload the dishwasher after I’ve loaded it); love, though, means we can embrace the messy and, as Dean Dad proposes, work to make a difference.

My kid loves Mr. Messy.

And I am trying to, too. Even when he’s covered in strawberry jam (or in this case, nutella).

Meet Mr. Messy: Loving ambiguity one waffle at a time.