Critical Thinking, Dialogue, Thinking

The Opposite of Twitter

This week I deleted the Twitter app from my phone.  It probably won’t stick.  I will find myself wanting to know what folks are saying or what is prompting the “arguments” that are taking place in the media and in grocery store checkout lines.  Nevertheless, I have deemed this particular communication format to be an anger-accelerant and not healthy for our society.

This is not my usual way. As a media ecologist, I have a habit of examining all new communication platforms via plusses and minuses or winners and losers.  I consider the concerns Socrates expressed about the invention of writing (no one will know anything if they just look it up), and remember that I still like books. I consider the observations of Marshall McLuhan who suggested that we focus on the medium instead of the message, and the analysis of Susanne Langer, who detailed propositional (emotional) vs. presentational (logical) forms, and think what they might make of today’s media environment.  I review Neil Postman’s argument that television redefines public discourse in such a way that prioritizes amusement over analysis, and consider how that has been heightened when everyone interacts with that “entertainment” format. I have always taken cues from their observations, and tried to reflect deeply on how our shifts in communication environments may be changing us. I don’t just dismiss things.

As social media took over the world, I took just such an approach. As my children and I dove into Facebook, I did not just worry about the bullying that could occur there; I also looked at the connections that were maintained over distances and time that once were lost to geographic changes.  The dangers of the algorithms are real, but there are some redeeming qualities. As I pondered Instagram, I observed that although it is well used by influencers hawking products, it is also a fun place for families to share updates on children, grandchildren, travel, etc.  But as I observe what is happening with Twitter, well, I am out.

Here’s the thing, Twitter encourages all of us speak in headlines.  For newspapers, radio, and television, headlines are meant to be a tease to get you to learn more.  In all of those media, the art of the headline is to frame issues in the most heightened state of conflict or disagreement so that people will buy the paper or tune into your network (yes, they sell a product). Ostensibly, that follow-up step would lead to a greater understanding of an issue than reading the headlines revealed. This sometimes happened. As television and radio news moved into 24 news cycles (CNN, FOX, MSNBC), the agonistic tones intensified and, although the time allotted to the stories was significant, the snippets that most people heard were shout downs between commentators and guests, rather than a true exploration of the story.  Twitter doesn’t even try to get to the full story. It is only the shout down.

Last week I realized that even people that I know and love are behaving badly on Twitter.  They have embraced the format and tweet responses of outrage to everything that offends their sensibilities.  In the process, their tweets are promoting petty and divisive approaches to all topics.  Since I know these people to be smart and well read on the issues they tweet about, I must conclude that Twitter is the problem.  It is all sensational headlines with no opportunity for dialogue.

Now some of you might be thinking that Twitter could lead us to the dialogue, but I don’t think so.  It is not what it is designed to do.  It is the perfect response and distraction medium, keeping us engaged in the next tweet, with no time left for research.  Even those who do their research about an issue continue to communicate in this abridged and inflammatory way. There appears to be no real motivation to go into the details of a story in rational tones. No, this just won’t do.

In higher education, our job is to do the opposite of Twitter.  We are tasked with helping students (and ourselves) see the full argument, not these truncated and fallacious syllogisms. We must learn to dig in and uncover as many assumptions as we can. Then we must examine the supporting and contradictory evidence before forming an opinion or drawing a conclusion. This is where true argument and debate live.

True argument (as opposed to shouting matches) is what we should be fostering at all levels of education, because if we don’t do it, there will be no opportunity to develop these skills in our citizens. There are just too many distractions outside of our halls. The world is facing serious questions about how to organize our efforts around climate, poverty, mental & physical health, economy, equity, etc., and answering those questions will require reflective, evidence-based thinking. This thinking cannot be achieved through Twitter.

So, I’ve deleted the app, for now.  I may go back and figure out how to use it as a teaching tool, or even better encourage its use for poetry. But for now, I want to live in the opposite world where thinking still has a chance.

 

Thinking

Doing Less

At WCSU, and many of the colleges and universities in the Northeastern US, this is just about the fifth week of classes. Faculty have found the rhythm of this version of their courses, having had the chance to get to know a new group of students. Students have grown accustomed to the expectations of this semester’s professors, and most are busy juggling those expectations in four to six classes. In other words, we have settled into the fall semester.

As always, the launch has been a whirl.  As an administrator, I too face the long to-do list and I have to adjust to the rhythm of due dates and meetings.  There are new curricula and policies to review, organizational practices to reconsider, and a looming crisis or two always lurking in the wings.  As I consider the best way to accomplish all that is on my plate, I wonder, can I do less?

This is a question I learned to ask many years ago when I was still teaching.  One particular lesson comes to mind. In 2004, when I moved from teaching undergraduate to graduate students, I carried with me a set of assumptions about graduate level work that focused on quantity. My assumption was that we should cover a book per week and write reflections on them at the same frequency.  This was what I experienced in many of my graduate classes, so I was just building on that experience.  It was awful.

In trying to replicate the experiences I had in graduate school, I had not taken the time to evaluate the lives of my students and my ability to support them.  I had allowed an imagined ideal graduate school experience to drive course design, rather than weaving the goals for learning into a series of well-constructed assignments and conversations.  It took about three weeks, but I learned the error of my ways and regrouped.

The process of discovery went like this:

  1. Students were providing responses to discussion prompts that revealed a less than careful reading of the material.  I suspected this was because there was not sufficient time to complete it.
  2. Students were having trouble meeting all but the most high stakes deadlines (turning in weekly reflection papers).  Again, there was not enough time to do everything, so the students were prioritizing based on weight of the assignment in relationship to the grade in the course.
  3. I was unable to give feedback on the reflection papers before they were finished writing the next one. The turnaround time was too short.  This did not seem fair to the students.

Observing all of this, I reconsidered the whole experience. First, I reduced the assigned readings.  When I was in graduate school, I think the assumption was that students were not working, so completing that weekly reading load was achievable. The conditions of students in graduate school have changed, and now most are working. If I wanted true engagement, I could select only what I thought to be critical works and then provide a list of recommended readings related to the course. After all, the books were readily available and the critical works would provide a framework for any follow-up reading they might engage in later. Now we could read less and discuss more.

Second, I reimagined the writing assignments.  Instead of weekly reflection papers, I constructed more focused assignments to help students develop the critical reading and writing skills I felt were essential in a foundational graduate course. In other words, I scaffolded the learning goals of each assignment, building new skills with each one. This allowed me to reduce the number of assignments and gave me the chance to provide clear and timely feedback, so that students could incorporate that guidance into their next paper. The reflections were reserved for our discussions.

In the end, I cut the reading and writing lists for this graduate class in half. I believe our ability to meet the learning goals for the course doubled.  Instead of skimming, rushing, and reacting, we all had a little more room to think, reflect, and ask the questions that would help us grow. Simple, right? Starting with the end goals in mind is certainly a basic idea in curriculum design.  Considering the environmental influences that might get in the way of those goals, also just a good idea.

But can we go a little further?  Have we designed for the end goals of a university degree from this perspective? I know we do it in places – majors/programs have learning outcomes, general education has learning outcomes, career services has internship targets, academic success programs are focused on retention as some measure of impact–but is the whole thing woven together around some coherent goals?  I am not so sure.

So today is Rosh Hashanah, a time to reflect on the year that has passed and the year to come, and although the academic year has just gotten into full swing, I see this day as an opportunity to pause and refocus our efforts. In its simplest sense, this turning of the year asks us to think about how we might be a little better.  As I take this pause, I want to be a little better at looking at the whole of the university experience and think clearly about the goals of that whole. I suspect that if we work together to define our overarching goals, we may find that we can develop plans to meet them by doing just a little less. We’ll see.

Shana Tova everyone!

 

Evaluation, Higher Education

Root Causes

Since many institutions of higher education set preparation for and engagement with life-long learning as a goal, it is fitting that I should take my own continued education to heart. Recently, I enrolled in a course called Policy Design and Delivery: A Systematic Approach to strengthen my skills at both developing and analyzing policy proposals.  Motivated by a sense that the many “solutions” to higher education’s problems do not represent a clear and thoughtful analysis of the contexts in which those problems arise, I am searching for a better understanding of how to craft a good policy.  It has been illuminating so far.

Without even using the tools in my policy design course, though, I can see that many of our education policies mistake correlations for causes. For example:

  • Students who participate in co-curricular activities have higher retention rates than those who do not, so we push to require co-curricular activities.  Sounds good, but maybe the students who are committed to staying at a university are the ones who decide to get involved.
  • Students who attend classes regularly are more likely to be successful than those who do not, so let’s adopt attendance tracking technologies and pair them with nudge technology and get students into class.  Attendance matters of course, but not attending is often a decision that no amount of nudging will change. Perhaps attendance is the mark of a student who wants to succeed.
  • And for today’s discussion: Students who commit to a true full-time schedule are most likely to complete their studies…otherwise known as 15 to finish.

Complete College America has invested a lot in the 15 to finish initiative, and for good reason. First of all, we have been confusing our students about the meaning of full-time.  Federal financial aid rules set full-time status at 12 credit hours per semester. This status opens up access to housing and many grants.  A student might logically conclude that 12 credits per semester is sufficient for timely completion of a four-year degree.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up. State, national, and accreditation standards define an undergraduate degree as a having a minimum of 120 credit hours (there are some regional differences, but this is the generally accepted standard). The true number is 15 credits per semester.  This is important for us to communicate, so the slogan is a good start.

Second, there is a growing body of research surrounding the notion of “momentum.” Simply put, students who are engaged in their majors early and earn those 15 credits per semester tend to remain motivated to get to the finish line. This is usually linked to guided pathways, which help to limit the chances that students enroll in courses that do not support progress in their degree plan. Success and engagement propel students forward.  Those on a slower path have a greater tendency to stop out, or grow discouraged and lose sight of the finish line.  So, in an ideal world, a truly full-time schedule with a mix of general education and major coursework from the first semester of enrollment is the best approach to degree completion.

Great, but here is where it starts to get problematic. Once we clear up the mystery of degree requirements so that all students understand the 15 to finish concept, there are still myriad reasons why 15 credits per semester is not possible for a significant number of students.

  1. A student may need to work on some foundational skills in their first year of college and the better path to success is 12 or 13 credits, rather than 15.  For example, if a student is behind in their math skills, they might enroll in a 4-credit course in math (rather than the more typical 3-credit general education math course).  To get their schedule just right, with adequate time to pay attention to those math skills, it might be best to stop at somewhere between 13 credits.  If all goes well, the end of the first year might leave that student with 27-29 credits. This is technically behind (below 30 credits) and penalties follow. In this case, the most obvious penalty is their continued status as a first year student. Registration priorities are tied to the number of credits earned.  Higher numbers go first.  A student who took this slightly slower path is at a higher risk of not getting into the next class in a set of requirements because they are still registering with first year students.
  2. A student may be enrolled in a highly competitive program that requires very challenging foundation courses, and opts for a slightly lower number of credits to help manage their time and attention.  For example, science, nursing and pre-med students are likely to take this option.  They might be enrolled in two lab sciences (8 credits), math (3 credits or 4), and humanities (3 credits). If the math class is 4 credits, they will be on track for the 15.  If not, they will be behind and suffer the same penalty as the student with some foundational needs.
  3. A student may have to work while in college (or raise children or report for military service).  The rational decision is to take a lighter load, but the penalties abound.  A part-time student will not be eligible for many grants, will not receive the benefits of the bundling discount (charging the same price for 12-18 credits) and will suffer the registration penalty because they have not yet made it to the status of sophomore or junior or senior.  This means that a hard working part-time student could be in school for eight years, steadily working toward a degree, and never be recognized as deserving of the benefits of higher class standing and never receive any financial support. Now that is a real disincentive to completion.

So, what’s the point. Well, if 15-to-finish were just a catchy slogan it would be of no real concern.  Indeed, some of the things I have described are things that we can fix locally by reimagining our registration priorities and focusing on part-time tuition support. But there are now trends toward additional financial aid strategies being tied to the 15 credits per semester (See New York’s Excelsior Program as a start).  As the nation discusses free tuition, the nuances I have described are frequently missed. Many of these proposals are built around that ideal full-time student.  Yet many of the students who would benefit from this tuition break will not qualify because they will not be able to complete 15 credits per semester.  Again, the penalties can be tremendous.

As for cause and correlation, well it is obviously true that completing 15 credits per semester is correlated with higher graduation rates. But the root causes of student success, which lead to the ability to actually complete those 15 credits, are far more complex than the credit story.  We need to step back and look at the conditions that are driving those behaviors so that the policies we design do not continue to disadvantage those who need our help the most.

 

 

 

 

equity, Higher Education

Credentials

Last week, the Lumina Foundation released, Unlocking the Nation’s Potential: A Model to Advance Quality and Equity in Education Beyond High School. This report details some of the ways in which the structure of post-secondary education has not fully adapted to the needs and expectations of our students and their potential employers.  In reminding everyone that students attending college have different preparation and numerous demands on their time (jobs, families, etc.), one of the most important messages of this report is simply that education designed for traditional four-year experiences does not meet the needs of the students we are serving today.

Got it.  We have been working on the differential needs and preparations of our students at WCSU for a very long time.  We know that some of our students are working multiple jobs, some have children, some are hungry, and some are able to focus on college completely, without all of the distractions just listed.  Clearly, those who have the benefit of not supporting themselves while in college are having a different college experience than those who do not.  Equity issues immediately follow.

Consider the criteria for awards or induction into honor societies. Awards usually come from efforts like working with a faculty member on a research project or doing exemplary volunteer work.  These will not be accessible to the student who is paying the rent and their tuition.  That student may thrive in the coursework, but simply does not have the extra time in the week to do these above and beyond things.  Some manage to accomplish this anyway, but that bar is far too high for the working student. This small observation is indicative of the long list of advantages and disadvantages we should be cognizant of as we consider the bestowing of honors or scholarships or other opportunities to excel.

Like many universities, WCSU has focused on strategies for supporting differential preparation for college. Some of that preparation is about being the first in the family to attend college. Higher education can have a lot of confusing vocabulary and hidden expectations that those of us immersed in education just know.  Adding a First Year program is our way of trying to level the playing field and demystify our processes. Similarly, we focus on getting students the tutoring or academic coaching support they need to succeed.  We invest in these resources because we know they can help us support the differential needs of our students as we strive to achieve some level of equity.

But the big can of worms opened by the Lumina report is about the quality of credentials.  The report offers a framework for developing credentials of all kinds (certificates, two-year, four-year, and graduate degrees), so that the goals and outcomes of those degrees can be easily labeled and measured. Although this is motivated by the most important of observations – the advantaged students have access to credentials that have value, the less advantaged are often duped by low-quality certificates and degrees that may not – the solutions proposed are problematic.  While trying to create a system that allows for differing missions and degree types, the outcomes measures proposed very clearly favor education that has direct career connections.  Oh boy, I can hear my humanities faculty shudder as I write.

Here are my three problems with this approach:

  1. The report itself notes ,”65% of Gen-Z jobs don’t exist yet.”  Then how can we look for direct career connections when we do not know what the jobs are?  To be fair, Lumina does note clusters of skills rather than specific training, but even those clusters are suspect if the success of the credentials are going to be measured largely on employment outcomes.
  2. Input from business and industry about the gaps in preparation for work, always ends up being descriptions of the traditional outcomes of a liberal arts degree (communication skills, critical thinking, and more recently, teamwork and cultural awareness). Yet the measures of the quality of credentials do not seem to embrace the ambiguity that a liberal arts educational experience implies.
  3. In trying to solve the problem of regulating organizations that charge a lot of money for credentials that do not connect to jobs (and are not recognized as valuable), Lumina has proposed a solution that does not recognize all of the quality education that is taking place.  It feels like No Child Left Behind all over again.

The problem, as I see it, is that we are trying to fit too many different kinds of post-secondary education into one set of outcomes.  Certificates in technology support or carpentry skills or introductory graphic design are all great educational opportunities that can link directly to careers.  A four-year degree in English, Communication, Chemistry or Psychology can also link to careers, but the focus of this educational experience is different.  This approach adds breadth to the experience, emphasizing critical thinking and life-long learning, and helping students carve paths to careers that have yet to be defined. Each of these types of credentials is valuable, but they are different.  Measuring them by the same outcomes measures is silly.

What is not silly is the reality of the equity issues that the Lumina report identifies. They are real, persistent, and troubling. Attending to these issues by focusing on designing supports for all students, better supporting K-12 education, and devoting adequate funding to public post-secondary education is very important. The work on credential design is also helpful.  They offer some excellent frameworks for reviewing what we offer, and perhaps strengthening some of what we do. I imagine I will be working through those ideas for the next few months. Most of all, the report’s overview of how inequities are being created and replicated is very valuable.  It definitely keeps my focus on the different kinds of things I should be looking at to support my wonderfully diverse student body.

But instead of looking at measurements of quality that are one-size-fits all, maybe, just maybe, we can start attending to the strengths and potentials of our differences and see where that takes us in addressing equity.

 

 

Engagement, Growth Mindset, Innovative Pedagogies

Being Vulnerable

This afternoon I am going to go and have some fun with the WCSU music department.  Part of their program includes convocations twice a week, in which various student, faculty, and guest artist performances take place.  I am going to perform with a group of talented students, answer some interview questions by the host, and take my chances on testing my very rusty sight reading skills.  The chances of making at least one mistake are very high.

As I thought about this, and the many other things I have done just this week that had a high risk of error, it made me think about the idea of vulnerability in the classroom. Every single time a faculty member enters a classroom there is a high likelihood that some error will take place. It could be small – like messing up a due date – or larger – like getting lost in an equation we are trying to explain.  These moments have the potential to shake our confidence, and worse, convince us to be risk-aversive in the classroom.

In the past several years, there has been a lot of discussion around the notion of “mindset” in education. There are a couple of important observations in mindset theory. The first is that people with a fixed mindset tend to see learning in terms of talent and innate ability. From this point of view effort matters to a point, but there is not a lot of room for change in our capabilities.  We are either good at something or not. For growth mindset people, learning is indeed a function of effort and our talents can change and grow over time.  (See Carol Dweck’s work for a more thorough explanation.)

Things that follow from these two perspectives are related to risk-taking.  Students with a fixed mindset tend to be looking for right answers and are uncomfortable with getting wrong ones. When they do make a mistake, they are likely to see that as a function of their natural ability (or lack thereof) and simply dismiss their ability to find a right answer. Growth mindset is the opposite.  Getting things wrong is the path to learning, growing, and improving.

It seems like the growth mindset is the better perspective for education.  But, do we really cultivate environments where failing or making a mistake is ok?  I’m not sure.

Some faculty are great about building enough assignments into their courses so that no single score is the measure of a student’s ability.  This approach gives students the opportunity to drop lowest grades, or get a few low scores on assignments that are building blocks to larger things, with those larger things weighing more in the grade formula. Others offer opportunities to revise things, which certainly can encourage a student to get started on a project, even if confused, and then have the chance to do better with feedback.  These are all good practices that encourage a student to try, even if they might make a mistake.

But there’s more to cultivating an environment in which we are comfortable taking risks or being wrong.  We have to be role models for failures.

I think back to how frightened I was as a student, not wanting to raise my hand lest I be way off base in my response.  My heart used to pound as I finally took the chance and there were even cold sweats involved.  I was afraid I would look stupid.  Eventually, I developed comfort in taking a chance on a response, but it wasn’t easy.  I think some successes (right answers) and some helpful follow up questions from supportive faculty (for my wrong answers) built courage. Their probes helped me see errors as part of learning, not a condemnation of my skills. I went through this process of developing courage as an undergraduate, graduate student, and even at academic conferences as I ventured to comment on a presentation.  I was truly terrified, but eventually pushed through and developed a habit of trying out my ideas.

In the classroom, I also battled the risk-aversive behaviors brought on by fear. In the early years, I prepared so many notes to be sure I did not make a mistake. Like most junior faculty, I was worried that I just didn’t know enough yet, and that I would be easily tripped up.  Over time, though, I freed myself from the need to be perfect and, though still devoted to strong preparation, I frequently tossed out ideas that just did not work. This allowed me to laugh at myself with my students watching and, I hope, encouraged my students to be brave.

Now, as an administrator, I follow the same practice. I do research, develop proposals through lots of conversations with colleagues, and then send things out to our whole community for review. Some things are revised and adopted through that review; some are dismissed as bad ideas.  I could avoid the risk of the dismissal and not have to steel my nerves for the negative comments, but I do not think it is good for our organization to wait for ideas to be perfect.  Like the mindset we are hoping to cultivate in the classroom, I am hoping for all of us to become comfortable exploring ideas, building our ability to develop proposals, and have to courage to have them edited or rejected later.  It is my best effort to cultivate an organization with a growth mindset.

Teaching, scholarship, and policy-making are inherently about vulnerability.  Those of us who have made careers in education are always risking errors and making mistakes in very public ways.  We are not able to edit everything out in a document in the safety of our offices.  We have to perform and remember things in real time.  Even our documents are open for edits and critique. It can be scary, but perhaps that is the point. If we want to support a growth mindset in our students, we have to believe in it for ourselves.  We must embrace our fumbles and errors and our capacity to learn more, and we need to do it in front of our students. Then they might come to trust us enough to try out difficult ideas and learn from their mistakes.

So, here’s to embracing vulnerability.  It is the fastest path to strength that I have found.