Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Shoes . . . and Other Thoughts from WGU's Graduation

I just returned from a meeting of the Board of Trustees of Western Governors University (WGU). The meeting was held in conjunction with their February graduation ceremony. WGU is an interesting story in the world of education. Just five years ago, this online, competency-based, non-profit university, formed by forward-thinking education governors, received its multi-regional accreditation and started its work with some 500 students. I joined the board four years ago when they were just passing the 1,700 student mark. Today, thanks to the great work of President Bob Mendenhall and a dynamic team of leaders, mentors, and support staff, WGU has more than 10,000 full-time students spread across its business, education, information technology, and health colleges. About 650 students from 48 different states were a part of this graduating ceremony. Appropriately, some were live with us in Salt Lake City and others joined the ceremonies online.

While at some point I probably need to spend a good amount of time talking about the successes of WGU over the last five years, I want to take a little bit of time here to talk about shoes. Yes, that’s right, shoes.

Whenever I attend a graduation and have the great pleasure of sitting on the dais, I’m struck by the shoes. As the students cross the stage, if you take a minute to look below the hemlines on the black gowns, you see it all. These celebrating students are sporting sporty shoes, practical shoes, dress shoes, work shoes, boots, pumps, stilettos, and even sandals. Some shoes are new, symbolizing how special this moment is for the graduate. Some are worn, almost telling the trying story of where that student has been on their educational journey. Some look comfortable, especially on those students who seem full of confidence. Others clearly need to be broken in, for those who are about to go on to a very different life.

Of course, the shoe sights are more interesting when it’s an institution that has a diverse student population. And WGU not only has ethnic diversity, but age diversity as well. In this graduation, we had students as young as 20 and as seasoned as 60. Moreover, the stories of their journeys were as unique as their footwear. Several students spoke during the ceremony about overcoming significant challenges to achieve their degrees. Some spoke about inspiring educators and mentors who guided them. Others told of grade-school teachers who tried to kill their aspirations—telling them they were “not college material.” Some praised the support of family and friends. Others told of finding new strengths in themselves. Their stories made you laugh and they made you cry. Most of all, they made you proud—proud of these determined students who now are on such an exciting pathway.

But these stories also made you proud to be a part of the education system we have in the United States. Yes we have challenges in policy and practice, funding and finance; but still, the opportunity in the US is unparalleled. Because of the diversity of our educational opportunities— from public and private K-12 schools to local community colleges to state colleges and universities to small independent colleges to Harvard to Western Governors University—students from all walks of life, from disparate and diverse backgrounds, at all ages and stages, can walk on the pathway to possibility that is education . . . in whatever shoes they like.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Transcendence and Education

During one of the catalytic conversations I often hold during consulting visits at colleges, we started talking about transcendence and education. One teacher commented that, for a minute, she thought we were going to start chanting. Sorry, no soft music and mantras on this one folks. However, what we were opening our minds to in this conversation was the importance, process, and challenges of transcendence in education—for all of us.

Transcendence is about “taking it to the next level,” as one student put it. She was right on. Much of education is about helping students transcend their current state. Sometimes it’s their financial state—helping them leverage education to move from working poor to credentialed professional. Sometimes it’s their state of knowledge—challenging them to move from curricular beginnings to more nuanced and full understanding of content. Sometimes it’s their state of mind—helping them move from having unquestioned belief systems to embracing critical thinking and problem solving. Sometimes it’s their state of ability—assisting them in their progression from fumbling nursing student to well-trained clinician, from frightened med student to a quality doctor.

However, arguably one of the most vital transcendence challenges for students involves their state of belief. Do they believe that they are capable of going to the next level? Do they believe they deserve it? Do they believe it’s worth the effort? An important part of breaking this boundary is overcoming a fear of the unknown. Research is pretty clear that our students’ internal homeostatic psychological systems—systems that try to keep things at their current pace and place at all costs—are not all that cooperative about this “next level” stuff. Indeed, student self sabotage is one of the key barriers to student transcendence.

Great educators understand these transcendence journeys. Indeed, their work often revolves around being the instigators, guides, cheerleaders, and celebrators of and for student transcendence. One of the great psychic benefits of being an educator includes watching students of all ages and stages take their steps along this journey to move up and on. It is always inspiring to see a student overcome internal fear, to break old borders down, and move beyond where he or she even dreamed possible.

What came out of our discussion next was an interesting and ironic turn. Because we as educators know the power and promise of transcendence, why aren’t we embracing it for ourselves more—particularly in areas like brain research, technology tools, and a host of other possibly transformative education topics? Are we really challenging ourselves to do the work necessary to transcend—go to the next level—as educators. Can we do more to transcend our state of knowledge about brain research? Can we work more with each other and our students to improve our state of ability in using learning management systems, e-portfolios, blogs, podcasts, social networking, gaming, and analytics? And, most important, can we overcome our fears about the new and novel (particularly regarding technology) to ask the hard questions about whether or not these intriguing theories and power tools might take our teaching and student learning to a new level? Are our own fear-based homeostatic systems keeping us stuck? Or are we on the move?

Physician heal thyself is the phrase used in the medical community. It was a phrase used in this conversation as well. Put simply, not only should we be energetically encouraging our students toward transcendence, we should be willing to take the transcendence journey ourselves. The students in our group assured us they would be just as joyful in watching our move to the next level as we are in watching theirs :)