Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Catalytic Conversations is on the Move!

Catalytic Conversations is re-launching in full at a new location. To check out the new site and next entry, click below!


Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Ready to Dive Deeper into Big Data and Learning Analytics in Education?

Here's a great place to start!

The folks at the Journal of Research and Practice in Assessment (RPA) put together this special edition to provide a rich resource for those looking to dive into a broad and deep pool of the ideas, issues, policies, practices, and research related to the use of advanced analytics in learning and student support strategies. I helped co-author an article in this edition that's an overview of Civitas Learning's work with colleges and universities nationwide. This article also provides three case studies that showcase the use of insight and action analytics to power student success efforts, especially work to get good data to the front lines of learning in compelling ways--i.e., using apps to inform and inspire students, advisors, and faculty.

Here's the PDF link to the full RPA Winter 2014 Edition: 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

High-tech learning is no easy A

(Originally published in TribTalk: Perspectives on Texas, a publication of the Texas Tribune, August 5, 2014).

My nine brothers and sisters and the 25 foster children who rotated through our house when I was growing up made for a diverse, sometimes crazy household. There was a lot of love to go around, but not a lot of experience in navigating higher education. If it wasn’t for the faculty and staff at a local community college who helped and challenged me early on, I doubt I’d have earned a bachelor’s degree, much less a Ph.D.

That experience, along with my two decades of working with innovators hoping to improve student learning and college completion — especially the work of many business and education leaders here in Texas — has made me a passionate advocate for a grand bargain we should be willing to make with college students today: You do the work; we clear the way. Here’s how it works.

Innovations like digital courseware, online and blended learning, and competency-based models — in which students progress based on content mastery, not time spent in class — have transformed higher education in recent years. Lower-cost, high-quality options are now available to more students than ever before. But the reality is this: Too many students think these new options are meant to make learning easy.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Quality learning often pushes you — and pushes you hard. The time, energy and money spent developing these innovations aren’t intended to make learning easy but rather to ease students’ journeys. At their best, they bring learning to life in new and compelling ways and make an often-impenetrable higher education system easier to navigate. These innovations are pointless, however, if students don’t live up to their end of the bargain.

Indeed, research, practice and the lived experience of educators show that all students — in both live and online settings, and in both traditional and competency-based models — must show up, be willing to do the often challenging work of learning, and develop the tenacity and grit to deal with the inevitable struggles they’ll face in both life and learning along the way. Unfocused students are more likely to leave education with debt, not degrees. Entitled students convinced that we should cater to them will blame anyone but themselves for their failure. Uncommitted students may have big dreams but no willingness to defer gratification or sacrifice along the way.

We felt so strongly about this bargain when we launched WGU Texas — a fully online, competency-based university, of which I was the founding chancellor — that our advertisements featured taglines like “If it were easy, it wouldn’t be Texan” and “The Texas Two-Step: Work Hard, Succeed.” These messages weren’t about scaring students away but about readying them for the road ahead. Our typical student was 37 years old on average and returning to school after struggling to complete a bachelor’s degree or to find a learning model that would put them on a path toward a master’s degree. WGU Texas’ competency-based model might have been more accommodating, but it definitely wasn’t going to be easy. We were looking for students who were willing to do the work, not looking for an easy way out. To date, more than 5,000 Texans have risen to this challenge.  

However we challenge students, though, the other side of the bargain is ours. If students approach their learning with purpose, engagement and tenacity, they have the right to expect — and insist — that we make their journeys through our state’s education system learning centered, data rich and high value.

Our policies and practices should be focused on improving and expanding learning, not maintaining tradition for tradition’s sake. Students should have clear, comprehensive information about where they are and what’s next. That may mean sharing and better analyzing student progression data, even between institutions and systems, and getting these data in the hands of students, advisers and faculty. We simply can’t continue to force tens of thousands of students to fly blind while making their way through our courses and programs or, even worse, while navigating needlessly confusing transfer agreements — especially when more than 70 percent of all baccalaureate recipients in our state transfer credits from community colleges to universities.

Most of all, successfully completing these journeys should result in both credentials valued by the labor market (if getting a job is part of our promise or their purpose) and deeper knowledge that prepares students to learn for a lifetime, participate in a democracy and develop the agency to guide their lives.

It’s an exciting time to be in the fast-changing, furiously innovating world of education. We have the opportunity to help more students succeed than ever before using the most compelling learning resources the world has seen yet. However, high expectations and hard work are a must on both sides of the grand learning bargain if we’re going to make the most of this moment and realize the true promise of education in Texas.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Early Learning Later

There’s a lot of energy and conversation in education circles about the power of early learning—from head start to advanced early childhood development programs. In short, I’m a fan. However, what I’m talking about here is opening the doors to early learning options for students further along the path. As we continue to break through the boundaries of time-based learning – argued for so well by Terry O’Banion back in the Learning College for the21st Century days – we have to continue to push the boundaries all along the K-20 pathway. One particular boundary to push is bringing even more early learning later.

Clearly competency-based programs like Western GovernorsUniversity, Southern New Hampshire’s College for America, or the emerging programs such as the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s initiative with South Texas College and Texas A&M Commerce, are going to make acceleration more common. By allowing students to advance based on learning-competency achievement as opposed to 16-week-calendar advancement, they’re helping earlier learning take shape. More integrated and accelerated programs in developmental/college readiness programs like MathMyWay at Foothill-De Anza College District or the soon-to-be “largest math emporium in the galaxy,” as Austin Community College president Richard Rhodes calls it, are using early learning to bring more students into their purposeful education pathways sooner by helping them engage learning on demand, show what they know, and then go on to the next learning challenge. But there are still too few of these options.

But the story of Alexander Gilman, a 15-year old from AZ, struck me this morning. At 15 he is graduating with multiple associates degrees thanks to the early college programs in place through the Maricopa Community Colleges and is now poised to enter Arizona State University’s honor’s college as a junior! As you read the story you realize that we have to do more to help bring early learning to those ready for it. The Early College High School movement has been around for some time now and is taking clearer shape across the country. The folks at Educate Texas have been a key catalyst for these here in Texas – and have helped bring together the insight from rolling out over 100 of these schools over the last decade. But, again, there are still too few of these options.

What we’ve learned from the competency-based, accelerated developmental education, and ECHS work is that there are thousands, if not millions, of young people ready to be challenged to learn earlier. There are thousands, if not millions, of returning adults that are seriously delayed or derailed on higher education pathways because of course-based, calendar-tied curricular paths. They too are ready to learn sooner. Early learning matters to both of these cohorts—and more--and we need to do even more to make it more common.

Of course there are lots of questions and key issues to consider. How do we effectively identify the students ready for early learning options? How do we tune and time their learning journey’s to make sure the moments that require more capstone experiences and reflection are met? How do we balance these efforts with or weave them into the necessary efforts to help students who are falling behind or completely off their educational path? How do we fund these models with secondary and postsecondary funding formulas and financial aid models? What is the best facilities and technology mix to make it happen?

No easy answers to these, but there is exciting early learning happening on these fronts as well. From the emerging Competency-BasedEducation Network to continuing work of Educate Texas, there are a growing number of voices in the chorus asking how we bring more early learning later! 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Reflections on MOOCs

WGU Texas Chancellor, Mark Milliron
in discussion at the
Innovation in Teaching & Learning Social
Think Tank
hosted by Dell and Intel during the
2013 NISOD conference in Austin.
(photo courtesy of
Dell Flickr)
*The original version of this post was published on the WGU Texas Blog on 7/9/2013

Over the course of the last month, I’ve been a part of a number of interesting conversations regarding Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their place in the quickly changing landscape of higher education. The first was at the Dell Social Think Tank at the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) conference in Austin (TX). The second was at an Executive Committee of the Midwest Higher Education Consortium in Indianapolis (IN). Moreover, there have been a number of interesting background pieces published on MOOCs recently that are absolutely worth the read—Kevin Carey’s in particular.

You can count me as someone who is intrigued by MOOCs—especially the more personalized, social-network fueled, and analytically informed approaches being explored. However, as we engage in these conversations and read these explorations, it becomes clear there are some key issue areas that need to be considered as we go forward.

Conflation Issues

Because of the institutions involved—the elite Ivy League, in particular—and the technology being leveraged, MOOCs have dominated education press coverage for the last year. However, in that coverage, there are two key conflation challenges. First, MOOCs are often used as the lead exemplar of all of online learning. More troubling, some of the reporting makes it seem as though online learning itself is new to higher education.

Of course, anyone close to the field knows that online learning was new and innovative in the mid-to-late 1990’s. Indeed, that’s when Western Governors University was launched. Based on data from Sloan-C and a host of others, online learning is relatively mainstream in higher education, with almost 1/3 of all students taking one or more courses online. WGU, for example, now has close to 40,000 students in all 50 states. Moreover, most students in US higher education have their on-ground courses supplemented by significant online systems (i.e., learning management systems) or are taking hybrid/blended courses. Beyond just being a normal part of higher education, the variety of models of online learning are almost as diverse as the variety of models for on-ground learning--e.g., a large lecture hall is not the same on-ground experience as a small-group, in-person graduate seminar.

The second major conflation is with the world of “open.” In conference conversations in particular, the open movement tends to get short shrift when MOOCs come up. Open education is not new. The Open movement has a long and strong history well beyond MOOCs and is keenly focused on more granular curricular resources as well as full courses. Indeed, the host of Hewlett-Foundation-funded projects of the last decade or more, not to mention the Capetown Declaration on the international scene, long predate the more modern MOOC movement.

Promising Issues

The conflation notwithstanding, there is much promise in the MOOC movement. First, and probably most obvious, MOOCs are a 21st Century update to the long-standing extension services of many universities. These universities see making their best and brightest and some of their key research applications more accessible to the broader population as part of their core mission. MOOCs are arguably doing that in a BIG way.

Beyond extension, the opportunity to innovate and examine possible new, engaging, lower-cost, and broadly accessible learning models is intriguing. As said, the designs that are far more than just digital broadcasts of lectures with simplistic testing, e.g., the ones that are using social media, customization, and analytics to take what is big and make it smaller and more personalized, are compelling. Moreover the ability to weave MOOC resources into existing educational models as curricular resource—simply making the MOOC an element of courseware—are gaining ground in conversations. WGU in particular is interested in wrapping the mentor model around high-quality MOOC resources.

There is much to learn from these innovative adventures. We can’t oversell the promise, however. Few can show a clear path to broad sustainability of many of the models or how standalone MOOCs will substantially impact degree completion rates for low-income students, which is clearly a glaring problem is US higher education. Nonetheless, it is absolutely worth taking the time to innovate and learn together what might be possible.

Perilous Issues

But the perils of irrational exuberance in this case are real, and we need to deal with them with eyes wide open. In the conversations on MOOCs, some thoughtful challenges have clearly emerged. For example, there are scarce R&D dollars for innovation in higher education at the moment. Funding is not on the rise, but tuition is. This means that a good deal of the public resources that will be put into MOOCs will be taking striving-student tuition dollars that are often drawn from students taking on debt and using these scarce resources to invest in a model that has yet to show a path to significant impact on student outcomes. Is this the best innovation bet out there to make a significant difference in US higher education? It may be. But all other innovations are being held to this tough-minded standard; indeed, over the last five years, a host of foundations and associations have promoted the idea of “path to scale” as a requirement for innovation investment decisions (e.g., see AAC&U's recently published "four big goals"--number three in particular). MOOCs have to be held to the same standard for strategic investment.

More important is the concern around reifying an already uneven higher education system. While many MOOC advocates tout the ability of these models to touch the masses, models are already emerging that will charge extra fees for those students or institutional partners that want to have a path to credit or to receive key student support. This could have the horrible unintended consequence of creating MOOC gated communities and ghettos. This issue is particularly concerning given that a good deal of the “MOOC mania” is the result of the involvement of Ivy League institutions, not the impact of MOOCs on improving learning or pathways to degree completion. There has to be a more compelling reason for the time, effort, and money involved than simply wanting to be associated with lead “brands” in education.

Continuing the Conversation

The conflation, promising, and perilous issues surrounding MOOCs make this an important conversation. If nothing else, MOOCs have put educational innovation conversations into high gear, which is welcome. However, we do need to take the time to dive deeper. At their worst, MOOCs are elitist cat-nip that draw press and funding because of who is involved, not who is served; at their best, they hold the promise of pushing our thinking, changing our models, and opening the doors of learning for millions. There likely will be some rowdy conversations as we learn together how to make the most of these models, especially as we work to reach and teach striving students in the months and years ahead.

Monday, September 03, 2012

An Open Letter to Students: You're the Game Changer in Next-Generation Learning

In reading the recently published EDUCAUSE e-book Game Changers: Education and Information Technologies --which is outstanding, by the way--I came to the realization that many of us in higher education are too often "preaching to the choir." In addition to talking to each other about innovation and change and transformative educational technologies and techniques, we need to be talking to those who are most affected by our choices: our students. What follows are links to my open letter to students published in Educause Review as an attempt to catalyze this conversation. Here's the web version and the PDF version from the print journal.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Success Strategies for Working Students: The 'Learn and Earn' Baker's Dozen

Coming soon will be the newest book from the Workforce Institute at Kronos, "Elements of Successful Organizations." Joyce Maroney, their ever-energetic leader, has been the driver of a host of interesting dialogs on the state of workforce development and effective engagement of employees. Check out their website at for more on their continuing good work.

I had the pleasure of writing the concluding chapter in this book, entitled "Success Strategies for Working Students: The 'Learn and Earn' Bakers Dozen."  Joyce gave me licence not to write the chapter for people managers, but for the people themselves--working students in particular. It's a quick review of 13 key success strategies drawn from research and practice aimed at helping students learning and earning--progressing through higher education while working--move faster down their pathways to possibility. From getting clear to getting tenacious to getting smart about choosing the colleges or universities they attend, the strategies outlined in this short chapter are intended to help working learners begin to ask hard questions early and often. Joyce has the chapter up on the WFI blog here, and the printable version is available here.

I hope the piece helps start good conversations in your company or educational institution. More important, however, the intent is to help working learners start well and finish strong on their learning journeys. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Pathways to Possibility

I’ve taken a bit of a break on the blog for the last year or so. I’ve been diving into some fascinating learning experiences in philanthropy and beyond—and focusing more on other social media outlets. However, some reading this morning compelled me to engage this conversation form again.

What struck me was the increasing cacophony around college completion and whether “going to college” is for everyone. Some question the investment in a college education given the cost in time, money, and effort. Others have an outdated view of what “college” is and confound the argument by scoping it to four-year degrees. A couple of articles in the last week tackle many of these issues head on and are worth the read:
  • In Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off, David Leonhardt quotes MIT labor economist David Autor as saying, “sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea…not sending them to college would be a disaster.”
  • Derek Thompson’s What's the Best Investment: Stocks, Bonds, Homes ... or College? reminds us of the importance of time in a college investment – “if you don't feel like college is paying off ... maybe just wait a little. School is an appreciating asset whose value accelerates in growth until you reach middle age.”
But there’s more to this discussions than making the case for college—because it’s not really about college. It’s about pathways to possibility. It’s about enabling strivers—people hell bent on improving their lives—to get on positive paths that lead to better futures. In short, helping those with the will, find the way to live well and free.

For more and more Americans that future will involve education and training beyond high school. Economist Anothony Carnevale’s work makes the case that we need to help more young people realize this fact if our economy is going to hum in the years to come. Education reformer Geoffrey Canada pushes this issue further, arguing there is no future for business if we don’t get more of our low-income students in particular to and through college. Moreover, he argues that lowering the education expectations for the poor runs counter to what rich people do for their own children. Still, we can’t slip into more is better for everyone. The challenge is to prepare people for the paths that are “on purpose” for them. Check out Shop Class as Soul Craft for an articulate argument about the value of different paths to better futures and lives with deeper meaning that might not fit the norm.

What I hope we keep in mind as we continue the conversation about the increasing need for education is that while we do care about keeping our economy strong, our efforts should be rooted in a deep conviction that we want students willing to do the work to succeed on paths that are right for them. We should work to shine a bright light on the value of deeper learning and careers with both economic opportunity and personal meaning; but equally important, we should aggressively clear the brush of bureaucracy and eliminate nonsensical busy work that wipe too many strivers out. If you want to get motivated to take on this work, check out the Degrees of Difficulty site and watch videos submitted from today’s “traditional” students to get a sense of the effort they are putting in to these journeys.

Education experiences should add value and map to desired future opportunity. We cannot afford to dead-end folks on single-track credential or career pathways of no return. Indeed, we should do the hard work of stacking and syncing credential pathways to enable educational experiences less encumbered for the long run—enabling real lifelong learning. Most of all, we should not be taken hostage by the tyranny of “the one best way.” Our students may need to take more time, achieve smaller credential wins to pay for life along the way to bigger career goals. Particularly for low-income students, their support systems are rarely strong and their lives are far from simple. A certification along the way to an AA, or an AA on the way to a BA, can mean the difference between a living-wage job or welfare when “life happens”—e.g., kids get sick, plant closes, car breaks down—and the college journey has to stop for a time

My wife Julia and I have large and diverse extended families. We have relatives who work in the military, home construction, heavy equipment, retail, small business, education, software development, insurance, banking, and more. And we have relatives that have earned industry certifications, AAs, BAs, BSs, PhDs, EdDs—and soon an MBA & JD—from public, private, for-profit, and not-for-profit providers. They’ve worked hard to achieve the credentials they needed—some are still working—and are in careers that make sense for them. They are on their pathway to possibility. I’m sure many of you see the same diversity in your own families.

It’s not about college for all. It’s about an America where diverse pathways to possibility are clear and compelling; and where those willing to do the work of the journey can succeed.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Proceed Until Apprehended: Reflections on the Big Ideas Fest

Now that was interesting--the Big Ideas Fest 2009. I came away from this confluence of conversations more convinced than ever that the work of education is ripe for change.

Brewster Kahle set a bold tone from the beginning by calling for “universal access to all knowledge.” Using the work of the Internet Archive as a frame for the discussion, he challenged the preconceptions that we technically or logistically can’t make this vision real. His dream of a digitally fueled, open, and mobile-device-accessible version of the Library of Alexandria was a grand stretch of the mind. Why not? Seeing the progress of the Open Library project in particular gives us hope.

Alan Kay pushed forward, challenging participants—all of whom were working through an education innovation design process made up of identifying, designing, prototyping, and scaling action collabs—to move beyond just big ideas. He argued that all big ideas challenge common sense, but they are only meaningful when they transform into powerful ideas. He used the example of the common sense notion of not too long ago that “kings are natural and normal.” The big idea that challenged this conventional wisdom came from folks like Thomas Paine, who maintained it is not the King that is the law, it is the law that is king. But such a big idea in and of itself is impotent until it is put into action. It became a powerful idea in practice through documents like the United States Constitution.

He argued that while most would point to technology as a big idea with powerful potential, unfortunately, it was mostly used to dress up conventional approaches. Most uses of technology in education have been to imitate or animate paper, or to automate or expedite existing processes and techniques. Can we leverage technology tools in a way that is really supporting a big idea and leading toward a powerful idea?

The rapid-fire, TED-like, action collab-framing discussions pushed the boundaries further, exploring extra-institutional learning, connecting gangster rap to ancient literature, dynamic digital learning communities driven by students, student perceptions of our change initiatives, hands-on experiential learning models, gaming, global competencies, interdisciplinary interaction, entrepreneurial learning outreach, making teachers rock stars, and more. These 15-minute bursts of energy kept the momentum and stirred the conversation among a broad set of education professionals, advocates, and change agents.

But wrapping the four days into a bow for me was the thread of conversation from the fabric of student experience. For example, students from Road Trip Nation participated in the fest, sharing their stories and interviewing the on-site educators. They wove in an important personal connection to this convocation: “I didn’t drop out, I was pushed out---and no one came looking.”

Adding to this chorus was Sandy Shugart’s poetry and song-filled, after-dinner dialogue on our ability to truly connect with the rising post-modern student. Are we ready to hear their stories, accept their voices, and truly care about their condition? Or will they simply be reduced to data points in a customized, technology-infused, newly-minted learning infrastructure? Can we create authentic and meaningful connections with students? If so, could it be that these connections will count most in a post-industrial creative economy? Could both of these be true: All high touch with no high tech is unnecessarily restrictive and regressive while all high tech with no high touch is necessarily impersonal and impotent?

Of course, as with any stimulating event, more questions were raised than were answered. But that’s what made it satisfying. And working to answer these questions using tools like the innovation design process with the passion proposed by Yvonne Chan—“proceed until apprehended!”—seems like a great idea.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Time for Big Ideas

On December 6-9, 2009, the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME)—the research institute that champions the open education movement and developed the award-winning treasure trove of teaching resources, Open Education Resource Commons—will be hosting the first annual Big Ideas Fest. This small, interactive, and innovative event will be held just outside of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley, in Half Moon Bay, CA.

With support from a broad base of foundations, corporations, and non-profit organizations, Big Ideas Fest intends to bring innovative doers and thinkers from all levels of education together to explore “big ideas in education” that will better position us for a post-industrial world. From small moves to big systemic change, everything is on the table.

It is a time for these big ideas. We’ve talked about why on this blog for some time. From economic viability to international competitiveness to personal efficacy, education is seen as a lynchpin. Indeed, it’s seen as the key to national, local, and personal readiness and transcendence.

The Obama administration’s US Department of Education, under the leadership of Arne Duncan, is being praised for their approach to this challenge, which includes a push for new, novel, and data-informed change models. From its Race to the Top initiative for K-12—see David Brooks outlook on this program in today’s NY Times—to the $12 Billion community college initiative, they are clearly hoping to push the envelope. And they are not alone. I just spent three days in Alberta, Canada, attending their Inspiring Education event. Under the leadership of their Minister of Education, Dave Hancock, they have engaged a deep, thoughtful, and long-term process to explore how they bring new, innovative, and inspiring strategies to their education system on the road ahead.

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation leaders are also in search of big ideas in education for the United States. From their early college high school efforts to their post-secondary double the numbers drive, they are exploring a range of programs to change the game in education. They are joined by—and often partner with—other leading foundations such as the Lumina Foundation for Education. With their Achieving the Dream,, and Making Opportunity Affordable efforts, Lumina is hard at work as well. And both Gates and Lumina have something in common—neither seems to believe the answer to our education challenges involves simply working harder at our current system.

It is indeed a time for big ideas. It’s why I’m excited to join conversations like the Big Ideas Fest. It’s why I continue to be impressed by not only the large-scale initiatives outlined above, but by the day-to-day innovations, insights, and inspirations that come from the classroom teachers, caring administrators, and hard-working staff that I meet across the country and around the world. Somewhere in this mix are the game changing strategies that can help us better connect with students, and help them move more purposely down the pathway to possibility that is education.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Belting Technology Users

I’ve been uncomfortable with the metaphor of digital natives and digital immigrants for some time. The idea behind it is that some are “born into” the world of technology; they’ve grown up with it—like Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital—and have an almost intuitive sense of what it can and should do. Others who are older, or on the wrong side of the digital divide, are cast as immigrants busily trying their best to assimilate—or aggressively not (think Luddite).

While a compelling concept that is certainly useful at some level, the digital native metaphor makes it sound like the digital immigrant will always be on the outside looking in. It feels too much like a fixed wall between haves and have nots. Most important, I know too many incredibly tech-savvy “seasoned” professionals for whom this metaphor doesn’t hold at all. They intuit circles around their supposedly “native” students when it comes to technology use. There has to be a better way of thinking about these differences.

The model I’ve been using for some time in workshops and speeches is less based on what you’re born into and more focused on mastery. It emerged from an article I wrote about seven years ago called Getting a Kick Out of Technology, which was based on my own technology-based learning and martial-arts experience. This article got me thinking about another way to conceive of differences in skills sets and approaches to technology: Belts. And just as the Six Sigma world has taken to the belt metaphor because of its emphasis on growth and development, we too can leverage it.

We all know technology white belts—beginners who either want to or have to begin their instruction and are taking their first steps. They’re awkward, they make mistakes regularly, and they can be quite dangerous. Black belt martial artists will quickly tell you it’s far more dangerous to spar an untested white belt than a trained fighter with control. White belts often swing wildly and are less aware of the power of their strikes. The world is full of white belt technology users. From the hasty forwarding of obvious scam emails to posting strange comments on your Facebook wall to excitedly responding to requests for bank information from Nigerian royalty, they’re not hard to spot.

Up the belt levels we go. Green belt technology users have learned the basics, are more in control, and are beginning to see how they can use technology without being used by it. Brown belt users have significant skill sets using a wide array of technology tools, but still have much to master—particularly the issue of balancing technology use with the art of mindfully relating with others.

Black belt users have mastered the core skills. They have control of why, how, and when they use technology. Most important, as in the martial arts, they have a sense of responsibility to help others learn their art. Also, black belts know there is much more to learn—it’s the beginning of their journey. As they move up the degrees of their black belts, they master more and more but realize how much they still don’t know.

I especially like the belt metaphor because it focuses on growth, development, and mastery—not existing states that aren’t likely to change. Much like Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, it doesn’t glorify innate gifts as much as it recognizes effort, experience, and insight—not to mention the good fortune to have access to the tools and teaching. For example, faculty members and students at colleges that have focused Centers for Teaching and Learning that provide technology use and instructional design support systems are simply much more fortunate and likely to better leverage technology. They have a much stronger techno-edu-dojo, if you will.

The metaphor also works because black belts in both martial arts and technology often intimidate us. There’s an air of mystery to their mastery. But as black belts in both arenas will confess, their mastery is less about mystery and more about a continually focused effort, the willingness to try, and an openness to learning.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Explosive Introspection

It was the ocean’s fault. Having grown up on the west coast, I’ve always been struck by the ability of an ocean view to give me pause. It’s like nature grabs me by the shoulders and commands me to pay attention, telling me, “You need to take a moment.” This time it was an east coast moment in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on vacation with my family. Even while swirling in the glorious maelstrom that is a family vacation with four kids, an ocean view-induced bout of introspection—about introspection—grabbed me by the shoulders.

Over the last year, I’ve been leading focus groups and holding dialogs with educators nationally and internationally exploring the question of readiness. Will our students be ready for the dramatic changes on the road ahead? Will we be ready to help them get ready? Is our education system up to the task? Given the dramatic changes at hand, what are the essential skills our students need to possess?

Out of these conversations, teachers, employers, government leaders, and parents have consistently highlighted the value of introspection as a transcendent learning skill—a skill that can prepare students to rise above their current state and achieve more. However, outside of the laudable efforts of the writing across the curriculum movement over the last few decades, introspection is a practice that many are not comfortable weaving into their instruction. At minimum, the students in our focus groups comment that the ubiquitous multiple choice tests they slog through don’t lend themselves to deep reflection. For some educators, introspection is too closely linked to religious practice. For others, it’s simply too “soft.” Still, echoing up through the passages of time, Socrates exhorts, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Introspection matters. Indeed, one of the key leadership lessons we review in our work with teams and individuals is the importance of going slowly—reflecting on ideas, issues, innovations, and connecting with people—so you can move quickly. Hardly the sexy, fast-paced technology tool, introspection remains a timeless skill our students need to develop and master for their learning today and their lives tomorrow.

To spark your own conversations about introspection, here’s a framework that materialized out of a couple of our dialogs. I call it “explosive introspection,” because it involves TNT: Triggers, Noise and Tools.

Most people are forced into introspection when emotional events trigger such a reaction—the death of someone close, a relationship ending, or a major accident of some kind. When unexpected events or powerful external forces disrupt the rhythms of our lives, introspection is almost guaranteed. I’ve argued that it is the courage to act on triggered introspection that has driven many adults back into learning. Many will relate their current bearing to triggers that led to introspection, which led to action.

Also, internal triggers can lead to introspection—the sinking feeling that you’re not on the right path, something is wrong, this is not your purpose. It’s that still, small voice speaking to us in stolen moments through an intuition or insight. Listen to the lyrics of Ask for More by David Wilcox to hear the voice of these moments. While these internal triggers are often less explicit, they wield the same power as external ones.

External triggers seize our attention because they brandish the power to slash through the noise of our everyday lives. In our forums, people ranging from business leaders to busy parents discussed the challenge of noise. For a corporate team, noise from messy meetings and poor communication blocks them from quality reflection on major issues. For college students, the noise accompanying their newfound freedom and friends often misleads them to take dangerous, unthinking turns in their first semesters on campus. For older and returning students, the noise of list-heavy lives—caring for kids, parents, and an outside job—make contemplation difficult, reflection frustrating.

Noise plagues us all. Cell phones ring, emails ping, and kids scream in the background—the incessantly distracting world of the typical home worker. Ed Hallowell’s Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap is a great read on the topic. Hallowell tackles the noise of multitasking in particular—how we go juggling through our world with persistent partial attention. We have a hard enough time listening to the person standing right in front of us, much less the still, small voice from within.

External and internal triggers have an inevitable and irreplaceable role in our lives. At the same time, the distracting noise of modern living is a diversion to looking within. As a result, we must expose our students to beneficial, proactive tools that lead to introspection, so they are not simply at the mercy of external events. In the realm of Continuous Quality Improvement, reflection tools like plus/delta and affinity diagramming allow teams and individuals to achieve this. For larger and more personally reflective models, see the work of the Center for Renewal and Wholeness in Higher Education. On the individual level, teachers in our groups offered tools like training students to keep a journal or simply writing one-page reflection papers. Other students and teachers noted how blogging can trigger introspection. Again, the goal is not to rely on reactive, externally triggered introspection, but to initiate proactive, internally disciplined reflection.

These triggering tools, however, must be accompanied by habits that dial down the noise—both the noise of our personal lives and the cacophony of “a world gone A.D.D.,” as Hallowell describes it. An executive in one group suggested, “Do less to do more.” I’ve always talked about reducing variables in a situation—a principle drawn from research design. Hallowell suggests challenging ourselves to reduce the multitasking and move toward a more mindful approach to situations, particularly with people. The Buddhist philosophy on the topic is simple: one. In one moment, focus on one thing, and do that one thing well.

Then there is earth, wind, and fire (no, not the band). Participants loved the arresting power of the outdoors. Absorbing a stunning view, sitting by a camp fire, and strolling down a quiet path were all mentioned as tools to help learning and reflection. Moreover, several people talked about the importance of play and fun in activating introspection. In the playful book Work Like Your Dog, Barber and Weinstein suggest 50 ways to work less, play more and earn more. How often are we encouraging our students in this direction? Not enough. Even with studies extolling the virtues of exercise and aesthetics in learning, many of our public schools are busy cutting recess and stomping out artistic reflection.

Finally, when groups examine this issue, they always arrive at the idea of ensuring that technology moves from being a problem—raging ring tones, tempting texts, seductive social networking, PowerPoint presentations with neither power nor point—to a tool of introspection. From the ability to instantly search for information that can serve as the grist of introspection to the capability of the DVR to stop live TV so a couple can take a moment to talk, this fact remains: We can harness the beast. I’ve long said we need to make sure we are using technology, not being used by it. See The Road to DotCalm in Education and Pavlovian Problems for a couple of takes on this topic. The key to remember is that, however advanced, all of our tech toys have off buttons. We just need to use them more.

Playing with TNT
Tomes upon tomes have been written on the topic of introspection. From religion to cognitive sciences, we have labored to harness its incredible power. And it continues to emerge as a necessary and transcendent learning skill for our students. Indeed, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner argues that introspection is an essential element of one of Five Minds for the Future – the ethical mind. As people engaged in personal development, economic development, and societal advancement, we neglect it to our peril. We need to stop and pay attention. The explosive introspection frame that has developed in these conversations is at least one way to take a breath, bring the conversation up, and reflect on the need for reflection. And if we listen closely, we just might hear the explosion of possibilities introspection can ignite.

Monday, March 23, 2009

We Want YOU . . . to Learn: The Education Imperatives

If you’ve been working in the education field for some time, you’re used to hearing the imperatives. They are supported by compelling arguments about why education matters, why investing in education makes sense, why ignoring our education systems’ performance seems individually and collectively misguided. Still, we are challenged to make the case again and again—to ensure that education is a productive part of the national and international dialogue. Today there are at least three key imperative arguments in play.

The Individual Imperative

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Because of Socrates’ dogged commitment to seeking truth, he was being tried for corrupting young minds; yet he still challenges us with these words to question, critically evaluate, and approach the world with wonder. Critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, and the related habits of mind are at the heart of why education matters to each of us. Quality education frees us; it enables us to break the silence of status quo and look at life as our chance to add to the conversation, not just shut up and listen. Moreover, it engages us in artistic and creative pursuits that elevate and illuminate our human condition.

Of course individual economic returns count as well. Particularly today, if you want to participate in a globally connected, knowledge-fueled economy, education is the pathway to possibilities. Those without education have fewer and fewer options. While the relationship is not absolute, all you have to do is visit a prison and examine the background of those held to see that there is some relationship between education attainment and options. Whether through degree programs or quality technical training, the argument is simple: If you want to live well, learn well.

It’s the interplay of living free and well that is at the heart of the individual imperative. The education arguments aimed at you personally will almost always emphasize either the enlightenment or enlightened self-interest appeal.

The Community Imperative
If we advance the argument to the next level—our communities—you see a natural extension. For example, if we want a true participatory democracy, we need well educated and thoughtful citizens. Emerging advanced analytics and political micro-trend analysis create new opportunities to manipulate and strategically persuade a poorly educated public. Thomas Jefferson said it best, “if we want a nation that is ignorant and free, we want what never was and what never will be.” Additionally, if we want communities with vibrant arts and related creative enterprises, a quality education system is essential.

However, the citizenship and artistic elements of the community imperative cannot compete these days with the frenetic embrace of the economy-related community argument. From Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded to Florida’s Who’s in Your City, pundits, politicians, writers, and researchers are making the case that our economic future is inextricably connected to our ability to educate our citizens.

Sadly, the data for the US are not good. Of the top thirty developed economies, ours is the only country whose 25-34 year-old cohort is actually less educated than its 45-54 year-old cohort. We used to lead the world in education attainment, but now we are falling behind. In a knowledge economy—or a creative conceptual economy as Pink likes to call it—we need brain power. The other players on the field are investing in education—China, India, Brazil, Korea, and the European Union. And while many of them have a long way to go to educate most of their citizens, they have sheer size on their side. The ubiquitous Did You Know presentations make the surprising claim that China actually has more honors students than we have students. While many of the competitive claims are a bit hyperbolic, we still must take pause and realize that, as Friedman shares, “if we want things to stay as they are [i.e., the US a leading player in the world economy], things will have to change.” For us to keep up, education must change so our economic outlook can change.

Patriotic Imperative
Not since Sputnik spurred on a massive investment in math, science, and engineering has the call been as clear: getting an education is patriotic. From Sputnik’s launch in 1957 through the 1960’s, we worried about the national defense implications of other countries advancing technologically. We invested heavily in programs and policies to enable us to jump back into the lead in science and technology.

Today, in addition to national defense, we worry about our economic competitiveness and sustainability in a world increasingly fueled by insight, innovation, and creativity. And when creativity is a commodity, we have to ask hard questions about why we’re stripping out the heart of that infrastructure in our public education system. Of course we need strong reading, writing, math, and science programs. Yet art, music, and theatre—as well as career and technical education—provide the context in which these skills are applied. Focusing on one over the other makes as much sense as going fishing only knowing how to cast.

Moreover, it is clear that we are facing increasingly complex, systemically intertwined issues: for example, medical advances and their ethical implications, the balance between access to information and privacy, and the interplay between economic expansion and environmental sustainability. There are no easy answers here; and sound-bite policy and limited thinking likely will cripple us in the long run.

President Obama made the strongest case for the patriotic imperative in his February speech to Congress. His message to kids considering leaving high school: “dropping out is not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country.” His challenge to adult learners: use our community colleges and public universities to get at least one year of higher education. He sees clearly the connection between his larger agenda and the ability of this nation to raise the bar on learning to a new level.

We Need YOU to Learn
Yes, education is good for us individually. It opens our eyes and—in today’s economy—it helps us feed our families. It follows that our communities are better off politically, aesthetically, and economically when more of us are educated well. However, we again find ourselves at a time when we must elevate the patriotic imperative. We need to truly become, and actively foster, a nation of learners ready and willing to embrace rookie courage, attend the latest seminar, take the extra training, and question even the most compelling claims. Indeed, our country is turning to us to say, “we need YOU to learn!”

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Change We Need in Education

*Dear President Obama,

Congratulations on running a stellar campaign and bringing such energy and enthusiasm to the electoral process. A special thank you for demonstrating what a “new generation” campaign should look like: inclusive, engaging, informative, and exciting. Your use of social networking, web resources, and advanced data analytics combined with the best of traditional campaigns—on-ground volunteers, phone banks, and community organizing—was stunning.

By the way, this is exactly what we’re looking for on the road ahead in education. We’re looking to leverage new generation technologies combined with the best of education tradition to engage, excite, and educate students in powerfully positive ways. As you noted in your campaign, education is going to be essential to prepare America to compete in tomorrow’s economy. As you well know, your administration’s aggressive environmental, health, and economic transformations will be short lived—if not abject failures—if we don’t ready our educators and educational systems to prepare our students for the change to come.

As a first step, educators need to be ready to champion digital and information literacy as a basic skill—for themselves and their students. With our students, we can’t assume that because they play video games or text endlessly that they are ready to leverage technology in the workplace or as citizens. To build digital muscle for both students and teachers, we should exercise more options to learn with new technologies. At a minimum we should expand our use of blended and online resources. This means ensuring a national broadband infrastructure for our schools, Smart Boards and projectors in our classrooms, and virtual school resources beyond the buildings. We should also explore how we bring mobile devices into learning, gaming into instruction, social networking into academic communities, and advanced analytics into assessment, counseling, and teaching.

Regarding advanced analytics, in our everyday lives, we see Amazon use these tools to give us instantaneous book recommendations, iTunes uses them to customize its “Just for You” section, and credit card companies leverage them to catch fraudulent charges. But imagine if we could use these tools to give our learners instant access to learning resources based on their assessed needs—e.g., “students like you who had these difficulties in algebra have found these web-lessons useful.” Or imagine if our counselors had analytic systems to help them identify and intervene with the most at-risk students before they dropped out. Given our dropout rates in high schools and underprepared-student challenges in higher education, the imperative to leverage these advanced analytics for more than shopping or TV watching should be an imperative.

However, as your campaign modeled, we can’t just throw out the tried and true because of tantalizing technology. We need the best of both worlds. We need to recommit ourselves to the traditions of emphasizing the human touch, fostering mindfulness in educators and students, and inspiring the best of critical thinking as we all wrestle with technology’s problems of persistent partial attention. Indeed, the longstanding tradition of educators working together to imbue our students with strong habits of mind is more important than ever before. The potential of marketers and Machiavellian special interests to manipulate this generation of kids is staggering. We must remember Thomas Jefferson’s admonition: “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it wants what never was and what never will be.” In today’s digital democracy, this has never been truer.

As they take on this change, our educators will need our state and federal education systems to incent and reward their efforts. As a result, our systems have to become more nimble and responsive. Our students will be learning for a lifetime, so building strong institutional partnerships between early-childhood, primary, secondary, post-secondary, and continuing workforce education (public and private) is a must. The expansion of early college high-schools, dual-enrollment programs, and institutional articulation agreements is essential.

In addition, the traditional “education pipeline” metaphor needs to be retired. Instead, we are better served as policy makers to think of our diverse students as swimming in a lifetime learning swirl—flowing in to and out of our education systems at all ages and stages. Correspondingly, policy that rewards partnerships, powers technological innovation, and recognizes and rewards student progress (e.g., laddered credentials) is vital. Moreover, we can’t just measure our success in these endeavors against static, 20th-century benchmarks. We need to embrace more complex growth models for students and diverse goal sets for institutions.

There are of course key tactical steps we have to take—continue to aggressively expand science, technology, engineering, and math education, and integrate globalization more fully into our curricula. However, it is the larger strategy of taking the best of our education traditions with the transformational tools and progressive policies at hand that will truly outfit us for the road ahead. That is the powerful lesson we can learn from your successful run for the presidency. And, like your campaign, we’ll need your leadership to take on a big-picture, 50-state strategy to drive this positive transformation.

Again, congratulations on the inspiring embrace of change in your campaign—and the happy result! Here’s hoping that we can embrace this model in our world and bring the change we need to education.


Mark David Milliron, Ph.D.
President and CEO
Catalyze Learning International

*this open letter to President Obama was first published by Scholastic Administrator

Friday, January 02, 2009

A 2009 State of Mind

Buckle your seatbelts. 2009 is looking like a difficult year. From all reports, more homes will fall into foreclosure and retirement accounts will shrink. More businesses will close and jobs will be lost.

Our schools will be called upon to raise standards higher, even as their budget allocations sink. Public universities and colleges will have the best of times and the worst of times. Enrollments will burgeon as displaced workers go back to school, in-place students stay longer to wait out the economy, and a changing job market demands more educational attainment. But the money needed to expand services will not follow. More accountability with less funding for the colleges and an affordability crisis for the students will be the standard fare.

These challenges notwithstanding, opportunity beckons. A new administration is about to take over in Washington, bringing hope that brighter days are ahead. We’ve been promised that we’re finally going to tackle the perennial problems of healthcare, infrastructure, energy, and the environment—issues that often need a crisis to create the collective will to act.

While the prospects for some businesses stink, some entrepreneurs smell opportunity—a once-in-a-lifetime chance to displace the “big players” that have fallen on hard times. In the world of education, the need for quality learning has never been greater. In addition, we have more exciting techniques and technologies maturing and emerging to teach and reach students than at any time in history. The promise of dynamic, engaging, lifelong learning seems within reach.

So pick your poison. Desperation and desire are driving human motivators; and in 2009 we seem to have both in abundance. Motivation isn’t the problem. The problem we must face is getting our mind around this moment and readying ourselves to take on these challenges and opportunities in the best way possible. Put another way, our charge is to approach this coming time with the right state of mind to make the most of the moment. Here are seven ways I propose for the 2009 state of mind—a mindset that will position us for a more promising road ahead.

Tough Minded
These are not times for the faint of heart. We’ll need individuals and organizations ready and willing to face the brutal facts about what is happening in our world, work, and learning. Our challenges require good-intentioned, well-informed critical thinkers to help us move beyond angry screeds against the status quo to engaging explorations that include everything from the analyses of hard data to the work of soft reflections.

Moreover, in the face of often-harsh realities, we must not be frightened by the new and novel. From the auto industry to the banking world to failing schools to under-performing colleges, we have plenty of examples of environments ready for a thoughtful, critical look.

Beyond inspection and reflection, we need critical projection as well—hard thinking about what could happen by leveraging our best visioning and analytics. Even schools and colleges are beginning these progressive, prospective analyses. 2009 will be a time for thorough, tough-minded, thinking, planning, and execution.

Action Oriented
Facing hard truths can make us lose heart. Whether we’re talking about our bottom lines or drop-out rates, we may ask, “how did we ever let it get this bad?” But now is not the time for pensive pity; nor is it the time for analysis paralysis—locking ourselves in to endless loops of study and reflection and never getting on the move. 2009 is a time for action.

From the single mother who heads back to school to the business that adopts social media marketing to the college that more broadly embraces blended learning, today’s trends favor those willing to step into the mix. Combining tough-minded analysis before beginning and as you continue will be a must—but movement is the key variable in this mix.

The disheartened lead character in the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne, said it best, “we have to get busy living, or get busy dying.” I spoke at a college convocation last year where a faculty member paraphrased this same quote when talking about a key decision point in his own career: he said, “I finally decided I had to get busy trying new things, or get busy retiring.” Let’s get busy bringing good ideas and insights to life in 2009!

Next Level
The tough-mindedness needed for exploration and action, however, should not result in the far-too-common eager embrace of all things new. Neither should it lead to settling for small steps that make the least amount of people upset. Tepid incrementalism is not a recipe for success in 2009. We need to strive to have our actions take us and our organizations to the next level.

The Obama presidential campaign provided a great example of such an approach (see my contribution to this Scholastic feature). Their strategic combination of more traditional political strategies—on-ground organizing, phone banks, and volunteers—and new generation tools and techniques—online resources, social networking, and analytics—took political campaigning to the next level. It’s not surprising that this new strategy is already be modeled nationally and internationally.

Sometimes going to the next level is about changing strategy and technique. Other times, it hinges on embracing the right tools and technologies. Sometimes it’s about taking the time to invest in the research and development necessary to do all of the above. It’s rarely about working harder at what we’re already doing. Expecting that to take you to the next level is the classic definition of insanity.

By honoring and learning from the past as we move boldly toward the future with an improved approach, businesses, schools, colleges, universities, government agencies, and non-profits will all be better positioned to come together and move to the next level in 2009.

Broadly Connected
This is no time for Bowling Alone! We need to work on connecting with our kids, parents, extended families, friends, community members, as well as our deepest sources of inspiration and sustenance. Moreover, as Goleman demonstrates in the book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, we need to be intentional about forming and maintaining positive social connections in the process. Indeed, in difficult times, these relationships make all the difference.

We can use both on-ground and online tools and techniques to connect as well. Social networks like Facebook, Bebo, LinkedIn, and Twitter can help build communities of colleagues and communities of practice like never before. Indeed, record numbers of people from all demographic categories are leveraging these tools. I come from a diverse family of nine children, and we probably know more about each other today than when we were growing up in the same house. And it’s mostly because of these social networks.

Beyond social support, these broad connections help people find jobs, solve problems, and locate learning. See Sue Waters’ conversation on Personal Learning Networks (PLN) to explore how people are using PLNs to broaden perspectives, enrich understanding, and solve practical problems. If we can broadly connect to people near and far, in-person and online, we are better positioned to take on the challenges that come our way today and tomorrow.

Government agencies, corporations, colleges, and schools can leverage these broad connection strategies as well. These expanded connection strategies can help them recruit more effectively, retain more successfully, and serve more meaningfully; in addition, they can increase reach, build loyalty, improve learning, and survive the most trying of times. In short, 2009 is no time to be an island—take the time to connect!

Well Balanced
Our 24 hour access to tempting communication technologies and multimedia entertainment offerings presents a challenge. In difficult times, many people want escape. They want to find some way out of the mess we seem to be in. While getting away from it all is useful at times, this escapism taken too far can lead to problem avoidance—and even people avoidance.

Ed Hallowell’s Crazy Busy: Overstretch, Overbooked, and About to Snap is a sometimes painful look at this problem with kids, parents, schools, and communities. At times, we seem like a society on the brink of a collective attention deficit disorder—running by each other in airports and shopping centers talking and talking, but never to one another. As I noted in On the Road to DotCalm, as we fall prey to persistent partial attention (i.e., the divided mind) we need to slow down, stop the metaphorical car, and clean the windshield or else dangerous crashes can result. In Coffee Talk with Dad, I explore how the death of my father brought the need for this kind of balance into clear relief. Even though my sales numbers and article production might have been lower than normal that year, I’ll never regret the time I took to slow down and soak in those moments with my Dad.

Organizations will need to bring this mindful perspective to bear as well. While many will be tempted to move quickly, automate at all cost, drive all traffic to the web site, or rely solely on technical solutions, we need to remember that people count, relationships matter, and balance is essential in keeping us individually and collectively on a good path.

Service Oriented
One positive side effect of our major economic downturn is that many businesses suddenly care about customers again! We matter once more. Because there aren’t 100 people just like us coming through their doors or clicking on their links, our stock has risen. The survivors and thrivers in 2009 will be the people and organizations who have either had this kind of service orientation all along and have a loyal base as a result, or those who quickly learn that service matters and get their service acts in order.

In schools, colleges, and universities, embracing a service orientation means strong student services and careful attention to learning and engagement strategies. In corporations, we’ll see a renewed sense of urgency to get to know and better customize relationships and interactions. Regardless of the arena, expectations are higher than ever. Those we serve expect us to have better insight into their needs and higher standards of delivery.

Working, leading, and living with each other will have a service component as well. For many, the first instinct as the maelstrom rages will be “every person for themselves!” As Kent Keith, CEO of the Greenleaf Center, argues in The Case for Servant Leadership, we take on this selfish mantra at our peril. No matter how tough things get, we’ll be much better off if we lift our narcissistic, selfish veil and look to see how we can best serve those with whom we live and for whom we work in 2009.

Courageously Humble
My favorite Eric Hoffer quote is:

“In times of drastic change, it is the learner who inherits the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

Continuing to learn is an expression of humility. It shows that we are willing to empty our cup a bit and open ourselves to something new. It is also an expression of courage—what I’ve called rookie courage. You have to once again step into a moment, or an environment, where you’re uncertain, not in control, and vulnerable. You have to admit you are not the expert.

But the results of these courageous and humble acts of learning are renewing, energizing, and almost always open new doorways. And it’s good for our health! I once had a neuroscientist tell me that given how the brain works, if you want to stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia, you should strive to “be a rookie every year.” It is in these learning moments that our brain is at its best.

It is the courage and humility to learn that we are seeing today in displaced workers going back to school, smart professionals retooling for the road ahead, and learning organizations investing in R&D that will enable us to take on the challenges of the coming year—not to mention the years to come. The individuals and organizations courageous and humble enough to reach out, ask for help, and open themselves to new learning will be able to take on the turbulent times ahead in 2009; even as their learned colleagues curse the coming of the year.

Bringing Together our 2009 State of Mind
We can’t sugar coat the challenges that are in our face and on the horizon. Indeed, it could get much worse before it gets better. However, it seems to me, that if we take on the year with a tough-minded, action-oriented, next-level, broadly connected, well-balanced, service-oriented, and courageously humble state of mind, we will be best positioned to make the most of what comes our way in 2009.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Learning and Humility

I’m taken with this notion: as we get older, continuing to learn is an expression of humility. There are many implications of this perspective for our personal and professional lives. Moreover, there’s a real challenge here—similar to what we discussed regarding transcendence.

I’m writing a longer article on this notion this week and would love to get your thoughts on the idea in particular and any implications you see. You can either post here or email me directly at


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Memorable Messages

Some of my own memorable messages came flooding back last night, loosed by a drive-time conversation. I was taking Alexandra, our 10-year old daughter, and her friend to swim at the YMCA. En route, the subject of science came up because they had just visited a health clinic on a field trip. Then Alex’s friend said it, the classic: “science is hard.” As an educator, all the alarm bells and warning whistles went off – particularly given my sensitivity to the importance of gender issues in teaching math and science. So I probed a bit more.

“Why do you think that?” I asked.

She went in to a long explanation about how a series of other people had told her about how hard science was, giving me at times exact quotes. At 11, she was already convinced that science was not for her.

We kept the conversation going for a bit and I tried with all my might to convey some counter communication. We talked about how science could be incredibly fun, full of discovery and adventure. We talked about how easy the basic process of science was (we even used kid-speak to talk through the observation, hypothesis, testing, reporting, conclusions, and sharing cycle of science) and how neat it would be to be a part of making discoveries that made life better—or better yet, saved lives! Alex and her friend perked up and began talking about things they wanted to discover or make. I’m sure they were humoring me until we got to the pool; but, it was still fun to hear them talk about science without fear in their voice for a little while.

Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence is a must read to really get the power of these memorable messages. Seemingly off hand comments and throw away lines can turn into mind wiring realities—particularly for those following every word of a parent, teacher, coach, or pastor. Positive and negative comments that we might see as trite or silly end up shaping the way people think for years at a time—for a lifetime for some. Indeed, in student focus groups, I’ve heard so many students talk about how they were told early and often that “math is hard,” “girls aren’t good at science,” or “you’re not college material” that I think we should have laws against these phrases ever being used again!

I’m struck by how careful we have to be in our many roles—particularly leadership roles—about the messages we send. Whether we want to accept the responsibility or not, many of these comments stick. The good news, however, is that the positive ones can stick as well. To this day, I hear the voice of a little Filipino pastor—Pastor Cruz—from my childhood church who always took the time to send the most positive and affirming messages my way. His messages were reinforced by a series of inspirational teachers and coaches, most notably a faculty member at Mesa Community College, Jim Mancuso. His message—“it’s amazing how luck seems to follow people who work really hard and care about what they do”—has stuck with me to this day.

What are the messages those you teach and reach will take away? Not the big theoretical treatises, but the little life theories that emerge in conversations off to the side, throw away lines, and jokes. Are we as intentional as we should be about these messages? Or, are we content to let these life changing communiqu├ęs happen by accident?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Treasuring the Work: Portraits of our Students

Battles with educational bureaucracies can be brutal. Seemingly simple requests require forms, signatures, and endless steps in an archaic process journey. Tangling with temperamental technology can tempt the most dedicated educator to throw their hands up in disgust. The bits and bytes seem to conspire to make the task of engaging digital-age students a daunting one. And clashing with colleagues that seem dead set on demonizing the best-intentioned innovations you champion can cause you to ask the question, “Why do I put myself through all this?”

Here’s why. *Portraits of Life: Student Experiences is an exhibit showcased at Montgomery College in Maryland. It’s a tribute in words and photographs to diverse students that chose education as their pathway to possibilities. It’s a powerful look at the faces and places of these students, their stories, and the futures to which they aspire. Moreover, it’s a useful reminder of the reasons most of us champion education—to change lives for the better and, by extension, make our world a better place.

During one of the focus groups we did for the book Practical Magic: On the Front Lines of Teaching Excellence, a seasoned instructor told us one of her secrets. She said that she kept a “treasure chest” of student evaluation comments, personal notes, stories from her journal, and clippings of her students successes packed away in a special box. When we asked her why, she said the reasoning was simple. “There are many times in your career that you question your worth, your sanity, or your ability to really make a difference. There are times you feel like, despite your best intentions, you’ve just been punched in the gut. These are the times you need to cook your favorite meal, pour a glass of good wine, and open your treasure chest. You need to remember your whys for all this work.”

The Portraits of Life showcase is a moving visual treasure chest of student stories. These are powerful whys. None of these stories excuse the sloppy systems, troubling technology, or cultural challenges we sometimes face in education. However, they do give us good reasons to do the important work of improving our schools, colleges, and universities so that we can teach and reach well the students who come our way—students working for brighter tomorrows after often-challenging yesterdays.

*This effort showcasing students followed an earlier project that profiled Holocaust Survivors (absolutely worth a look as well).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Worried, Innovative, and Changing

The stakes for education are high, and the pressure is on. Thomas Friedman’s new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, is a stark admonition to educators to ready our students for a time where science, politics, and demographics converge as never before. The metamessage is not difficult to divine. It’s summed up in one of the book’s best quotes: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” However, change is not easily accomplished in the hallowed halls of education tradition. It is because of this standard resistance to change that some authors are asking if higher education may be the next bloated industry to go—much like the housing and banking industries. The link to Arthur Levine’s Higher Education in the Age of Obama in particular is a must read.

These worries notwithstanding, it is still an amazing time to be in education. Education has never been as central to economic prosperity as it is today, which means it is viewed less and less as a luxury and more and more as a necessity. Moreover, just think of the tools we have today! We’ve talked about many of these here, from YouTube to Gaming to Social Networking to Open Courseware to Mobile Devices and a ready army of student assistants in Generation We ready to take it to the next level.

While I take pause because of the challenges, I remain excited and heartened by the innovation, inspiration, and insight drawn from the field. And here’s some more. Check out this virtual resource from Google on ancient Rome:

The teacher who sent this my way was almost giddy when talking about how she planned to use this with her class.

Now check out this gaming simulation for medical education put together by George Washington University:

There is so much excitement about their effort they have been hard-pressed to handle the flood of requests to either leverage or model their work.

In short, while there are great concerns about the road ahead in education, there is great excitement as well. The challenge will be to catalyze positive change in educational institutions and systems in thoughtful and substantive ways. If we’ve learned anything from the banking and housing failures, it’s that advocating sloppy deregulation and taking dangerous risks with our nation's mission critical systems might not make the most sense going forward. However, I fully agree that “if we want things to stay as they are” (America serving as a model of high-quality, dynamic education), “things will have to change.”