Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Learn to Earn World

Check out today's David Brooks column in the NY Times on education called The Biggest Issue. He points to studies that show historically education is vital not only for personal success, but community and national success as well. Indeed, it may well be our national commitment to increasing educational attainment that made the US the radical success story of the 20th century. So as our state and national budgets begin to be slashed after the November election --as most government watchers agree will happen, given our economy--we should not look to education as an easy target. It's penny wise and dollar dumb. The 21st Century demographic, economic, and technological trends with which we now wrestle demand a redoubled commitment to create a dynamic P-20 education system that serves increasingly diverse individual, community, and national learning needs. While I firmly believe it's a learn to live world, it is certainly a learn to earn world as well.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Catalyzing Positive Change in Education: The Four Pillars

For those not familiar with the four pillars framework, I have used it as the foundation for change initiative work in institutions for years. The framework is based on the idea that to work toward positive change in education, these four support pillars all have to be present:

Catalyze Conversations: Involve the broad community in key dialogues on important issues to ready and engage them. In a recent white paper, I used four key conversations as examples of these efforts: students swirling into and out of our education systems throughout their lives, the impact of globalization, the changing face of institutional advancement, and the build out of the big blend—technology and human intensive—learning infrastructures.

Inspire Innovations: Spark action from the community and support key innovations. Put simply, we need both a readiness and willingness not just to talk about, but try and test new things. In the paper, I suggest four major innovations impacting education as examples: K-20 partnerships, strategic enrollment management/learner relationship management, gaming and social networking, and educational and civic engagement.

Champion Insight: Create the systems and cultures necessary to ask and answer the hard questions about the impact of our conversations and innovations. Topics range from analytics to learning outcomes to evidence-based (or inquiry-based) education. I outline four steps that must be taken to champion insight: start with strategy, build out the technology, raise your sights, and ready the culture.

Foster Leadership: Without quality leadership at all levels (faculty, staff, administrative, and governance) change initiatives will at worst not work or at best not be sustained. I offer four fundamentals for fostering leadership: find it, grow it, energize it, and renew it.

I hope you find this framework useful!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Waking the Fire

We’re in to campfires. Our family and friends love to get a fire going, cook out, roast marshmallows, tell ghost stories--the whole thing.

Everyone seems to have a theory about camp fires. They tell you the best mix of wood and tinder; which kind of wood burns the longest; how much space to leave between the wood to let in oxygen; they set up the logs in X patterns, teepees, and square crisscross. We’ve seen it all.

New technology has crept in as well. Commercial fire starters are a cheap tinder mix, but make your life easy if you don’t have the time to rustle up dry leaves, small twigs, or newspapers. Nana is never happy about fire starters. Seems like cheating to her.

Lighting a fire is an often-used metaphor for learning. All the pieces fit: tinder (engagement strategies), room for oxygen (reflection and critical thinking), theories of arrangements (learning theory), and new technologies (reading this on a computer, are you?). Moreover, once a fire gets going, there is an intense, glowing center that continues to light new fuel as it is added (deep learning informing new experiences).

However, what strikes me most about the metaphor involves what can happen the next morning. A new day is here. The sun rises, birds sing, dew glistens, and little creatures all around bring greetings as you stretch awake. The camp fire that was the literal center of attention last evening is spent—reduced to a small pile of grey ash. But wait. There is a tiny plume of smoke rising from the center. You can easily kill the fire by spreading the ashes to burn out the last bit of fuel. Pour a bucket of water on it and the final spirit of the fire sizzles and releases a billow of smoke to the heavens.

But you can wake the fire as well. You have to stir it to add some oxygen. And be careful, if you don’t add anything new, stirring can lead to an even quicker death. You have to add new fuel. Carefully add tinder and wood to the existing fire, and within minutes your glowing, warm friend is back as hot as ever. In fact, the deep center of a woken fire catches quickly and cooks a great breakfast.

This is the learning metaphor that warms me. For all of us, there are times we burn down. Our ashes are glowing, but there is no fire. All that seems left to do is to wait for the bucket, the sizzle, and the smoke.

But if we are stirred--by teachers, reachers, kids, grandkids, new technologies, or old photographs--and new learning is carefully added, we can wake up hot as ever. Indeed, our lives are a constant cycle of fire renewal, adding fuel and tending flames. So don’t be fooled by the sullen ashes in yourself or others. Look for the plume of smoke, and see if learning can wake the fire.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Are You a Life Entrepreneur?

I love this new book: Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. It’s written by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek. Many of us in the education world know Chris for his vision and leadership in founding Smarthinking.com, the innovative online tutoring company.

In short, Life Entrepreneurs advances the idea that there is a new breed of entrepreneurs who buck the conventional wisdom of entrepreneurship. They are not enamored with killing themselves and sacrificing family time in the process of starting new ventures. Indeed, they are applying traditional entrepreneurial skills toward the end of creating a more balanced, integrated, and personally fulfilling life. The venture fits the life more so than the life fits the venture. Indeed, its ideal when they are a synergistic blend—i.e., you are doing your life’s work in a way that lets you live a great life.

Central to their premise is that often you can’t find this beautiful balance by working for someone else. You have to start your own thing. Courage, passion, and purpose are all a necessity here—as are mindfulness, effort, and insight. However daunting it may seem to leave the embrace of working for someone else, Gergen and Vanourek profile people from all walks of life who have taken this fulfilling plunge. Its inspiring stuff, made more so by the sense of personal exploration that is at this movement’s root.

The reactionary education question that jumps out for me after reading this book is whether or not students at all levels of education are actually learning the skills necessary to even test these waters, much less jump in. Because of the volatility in the job market, we now talk about preparing students for careers and not jobs. However progressive these statements sound, we have to ask ourselves, do our schools and colleges prepare our students more to fit in or find a fit? Are we consciously inspiring the creativity and introspection necessary to become authentic life entrepreneurs?

The good news is that America has one of the best and broadest education systems accessible to second-act students—those returning to pursue a life’s dream. So, even if you don’t get what you need on your first swirl through our education system, there is still hope. From community colleges to alternative-delivery-model universities to corporate training providers, we have one of the best on-demand learning systems in the world. You just have to be an entrepreneurial student and use it.

And so the final question: Are you a life entrepreneur?