Re-Imagine Education

Gallup sends regular updates to those who are registered with their services and often times they include interesting articles that relate back to strengths-based education or general education discussions. Below is an article from their most recent listserv about needing a new approach to education. Sir Ken Robinson claims that it is not legislation and testing requirements that is going to improve our education systems, but it is the ideas of creativity, diversity and maintaining an organic experience that will drive education to the next level.

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Sir Ken Robinson calls for a radical transformation in education

“For most companies now, creativity and innovation are bottom-line issues. And the great irony … is that our education policies, which are meant to be serving the needs of the economy, are stifling both of those qualities through standardization and compliance,” says Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D., an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation.

Robinson called for a radical transformation in education during his presentation to the 2012 Gallup Strengths in Education Conference. Legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Robinson says, won’t bring about that transformation because it contradicts three fundamental principles of human life.

First, to be a human being is to live a life that is essentially creative. “We create our lives in the way that’s not true of any other species on earth,” Robinson says. The second key principle is diversity, which gives humanity its texture, its dynamic, its vibrancy, its color, and a sense of possibility. The third principle is that human life is organic, “an interaction between ourselves and our environment.”

Yet these three principles are contradicted by most education systems. “Our education systems don’t promote creativity, they promote conformity. They don’t promote diversity, they promote compliance. And they don’t promote organic development; they’re premised on the opposite idea, [which is] linear development,” Robinson says.

It will take a radical transformation to re-imagine education to arrive at a system that promotes creativity, diversity, and organic development. The problem begins when politicians call for a move to get “back to basics” in education, because as Robinson says, policymakers usually mean a group of subjects, such as science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM).

“I’m not knocking the STEM disciplines,” Robinson says, because “they can be every bit as creative as music or art or dance.” But while they may be necessary, they’re not sufficient — they provide a partial education at best. “For a community and economy to flourish, we need a multiplicity of talents of every sort,” Robinson says.

How would Robinson start the process of transforming education? Rather than building on the current industrial model — or “specifying more and more national standards” — Robinson would ask educators and policymakers to recognize that education is a personal process. “Personalizing to me is not a slogan,” Robinson says. “It’s the axiomatic basis on which all good education has always worked. You know, it’s the teacher who looked you in the eye and got you — the person who understood what you were about and encouraged you.”

Robinson focused on this in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. “To be in your element, you’re doing something for which you have a natural aptitude,” Robinson says. “And this, by the way, is why I think Gallup’s work in strengths is so important, because part of the premise of the work in strengths is to discover natural aptitudes.”

In the end, a key to transforming education is to find ways to discover what kids’ natural aptitudes are, then helping them understand what excites and motivates them. Teaching is “about creating conditions for growth, Robinson says. “If you create an appetite for learning, you have a very different style of education than one based on feeding kids a dry diet of condensed information. If they have an appetite to learn, they’ll create their own opportunities.”

~from Gallup’s Strengths Insights

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Susan Cain: The Power of Introverts

In an age when we get concerned about students who seem detached or unsocial, Susan Cain argues that introverts are being mislabeled and misunderstood. There are opportunities to embrace those that process information differently. Commonly, introverts are misunderstood to be shy and unable to handle social stimulation. The reality is that people who would identify themselves are introverted simply get their energy in a different setting than what most of our educational institutions provide.

While we certainly want to see engagement from all of our students, it is important to think about environmental and social elements that may affect the successes and opportunities experienced by our students. Do we embrace creativity? Do we allow for students to be at their best?

“There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” ~Susan Cain

I Believe…: Purpose Behind Student Affairs

After a educational day at the Maryland Student Affairs Conference in College Park, I am feeling in a state of reflection. In one of the 30-minute learning labs, Susan Comives spent time discussing the Student Personnel Point of View and its 75th anniversary. The documents (both the 1937 & 1949 versions) talk about the concepts of holistic development, embracing opportunities for student growth, incorporating a global perspective and assisting in the embracing of democratic ideals and effecting positive change. Some of these concepts were rather revolutionary for the time.

The question that started off the session was simple: what you believe about students and the student experience? This question hits the core of why we work in this field. It drives our departments and divisions, even when it may be forgotten during the day-to-day grind. It is important to never forget why we entered into student affairs, so here are my beliefs about our purpose.

1) I believe the student experience must take into account every aspect of their lives on and around their college campuses.Β While the main purpose of students going to college may be to attend classes, learn about their field of study and earn their degree, there is just as much (if not more) opportunity to learn outside of the classroom. Students contain great book smarts but need the college experience to refine their moral development, communication skills, interpersonal skills and functional life skills. Student affairs professionals get all sorts of opportunities to engage in each of these areas through residential programming, career services sessions, employment supervision experiences, student activities offerings and other advising opportunities, just to name a few.

2) I believe students need to be challenged. While millennial students are more confident and even have surpassed some current professionals in global perspectives and social justice, they struggle with several of the items I mentioned above. In addition, their confidence gets in the way of listening to professionals with experience. In a similar vein, there are many students who lack community perspectives and either fall into issues of misbehavior or a willingness to change negative perspectives. Academic affairs can challenge them academically, but student affairs picks up the remainder of the student’s social, spiritual, moral and community development.

3) I believe students challenge us to be better professionals. While students like the ones mentioned above can definitely frustrate us from time to time, their challenges keep us moving forward and changing with the times. It is easy to get stagnant in many jobs, but students are so diverse in their personalities and interactions that they keep us guessing. Each new generation of students has their own characteristics and challenges to which we need to adapt.

These are only a few of my thoughts, but students are the core of our work and the reason I chose into this profession.

Student Stress & Emotional Health: Concern on the rise

In a recent posting in the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/College-Freshmen-Report/126068/), research has shown a decrease in student emotional health and an increase in students’ drive to succeed. The author points out that the two are related and many factors contribute to the correlation. It is clear that this is a concern we need to think about and see if there are ways to better improve our campus services to match the growing needs of our students.

With each generation comes a new set of problems. Millennial students are challenged by a number of different characteristics, including feeling special, sheltered, confident, pressured and achieving. Each one of these traits has its positives and negatives, but the combination of each of the challenges is taking its toll on many incoming first-year students and extending throughout their college career.

When you think about the combination of the traits special and achieving, there is this added focus that this nation’s youth is responsible for grabbing hold of their future and changing the world. Our current students are supposed to be up and coming politicians, business moguls, media personalities, environmental activists, educators and professionals. They are to take on many of the challenges that exist including a failing education system, international military programs, economic woes and a broken medical network. If those elements were not enough, they need to do this better than the current generation and fight their way going through schooling without the same financial resources that existed in year’s past (including economic stability of their parents).

The concept of being sheltered takes a different turn of pressures. Millennial students seem less prepared today for the more functional aspects of life than previous generations. When they get to college, it may be the first time they have ever lived away from home. This means it may be the first time they have ever cooked for themselves, done laundry, balanced a budget, gone shopping for needs versus wants, managed their own schedule and tried to meet new people in a new environment. Already confronted by the stresses of doing well in the academics and trying to enjoy their college experience, add these functional elements on top and it is no wonder that a number of students still rely on their parents to help manage tasks or even take over responsibilities like paying bills and selecting their classes.

Confidence would be seen as a positive going into a college environment, but what happens when the screen is lifted and students realize that they are in a sea of intelligence and talent? College may be the first time they have ever not been selected for a job, received anything less than an A or B in a class (or on a paper) or not been the most active student in their classes. Connected with issues of being high achieving and special, there is also a belief that they are going to automatically be better off than their parents. College can be a very eye-opening experience as students are both confronted by the talent and intellect around them and the real world issues that may affect their college experience directly or their prospects after graduation.

With these other traits posing their own issues, it is not surprising that students feel pressured. But is any of this really new? For the most part, many of these problems existed in the past. To issue for the current generation of students is that they feel like they are all hitting at once. While intelligence and pressure to succeed keep increasing, availability of resources to help students cope and effectiveness of preparation before entering college do not. Students are ill-prepared for the experience of college and tend to have more moments of failure or stumbling before getting it right. This may be necessary to an extent, but there are some barriers we have control over.

How do we affect change to support students better? Good habits and preparation need to take place during the high school year, but on college campuses it is the student affairs services that need to pick up the slack. Counseling and Wellness Services need to be prepared for both the quantity and severity of problems with which students bring to college. Residential Life departments need to make sure they have student staff that are ready to challenge the confidence of incoming students and help provide peer advising to help with the transition. Career Services tends to struggle with visibility and access for students, so for them it would be more about exposure around campus. There also could be more consideration for an introductory course for all entering students which helps to guide students through a number of these challenges they may face.

Higher education is not responsible for preventing these issues, but students are entering campuses with a number of challenges. It is up to use to find creative and innovative ways to help support them through these challenges in preparation for the world beyond the college grounds.

Leadership is…

As one of the instructors to the Peer Leadership in the University Environment course, I work with students who are exploring what peer leadership is, how to merge their understanding of leadership with that of the course material and learn how to apply their newly found knowledge of leadership to their current and future positions of significance. On the first day of class, we ask them to think about the meaning of peer leadership and define it in their own words. While some inevitably quote from the text, it is still a great feeling to hear about their experiences through their own definitions of leadership and how they actually match up to the definition used for the course.

For the sake of our conversation, we use the text Exploring Leadership by Komives, Lucas and McMahon. In the text, the concept of leadership is described as the “relational and ethical process of people together attempting to accomplish positive change” and is identified as the Relational Leadership Model. When I defined leadership for myself, I identified several key factors: inclusivity, people-oriented, process-oriented, shared goals and visions and positive achievement. When the students defined the term, they identified similar but different concepts.

While it is important to have a group of people when engaging in the leadership process, they identified the importance of knowing when to allow oneself to be led. It was just as important to step back and allow for group members to be empowered to lead even in your presence. They identified ethics as important but also identified that ethics were adaptable to the group involved in the process. With this, the conversation about Hitler’s involvement as a leader came up, and my co-instructor stepped in to talk about the difference between commanding/directing and leading. It is not enough to inspire people to act, but it needs to have a positive purpose for the action to be seen as positive leadership. Lastly, they strongly engaged in the concept that the process was just as important as the end result. The group needed to feel that they were getting something out of the steps leading to the product just as much as the acknowledgement for a job well done.

I feel like there will be a lot of learning this semester, both for and from my students. This is going to be a good experience.

Balance & Involvement: Separate but Related Concepts

One of the most interesting things I have noticed about students in the past few years is that classes and some involvement in extracurricular activities is no longer adequate for the college experience. Instead, I tend to find that most students I engage with are trying to overload in their courses, find a job on or around campus and get involved in several campus organization (including holding leadership positions). I look to my Resident Advisors and find that having the job is not enough for their fill of peer leadership. It is certainly admirable but there are two questions that arise: why overload yourself with involvement and are you truly balancing your experience?

On the first question, students are feeling the pressures of being from the millennial generation. With a poor economy and higher numbers of competitors entering the college arena and job market, they are feeling the need to overcommit to have the resume-building statuses to distinguish their place amongst their peers. And as mentioned before, it is not enough to just be involved. Leadership opportunities and substantial positions are what are more meaningful for these students transitioning into new roles. Although they certainly may be getting great experiences and broadening their exposure to a number of new areas of knowledge and skills, most employers are more interested in quality over quantity. This is where I seen experiences like a journalism student editor a campus magazine or a business student working as an office manager as more beneficial individual experiences as compared to being able to describe a laundry list of positions and organizations that may include intramural athletics, a cappella groups and social fraternities. I will acknowledge that each of those groups may still have some significant positives, but they make less of an impact than that focused experience.

So in the end, our students are struggling more and more with balance. One of the craziest concepts to me is that some of the students I work with come onto the college campus in the fall semester already connected to several organizations before even attending their first class. Personally, I thought that there were events to allow students to explore the vast ocean of student organizations each school has to offer. Usually our conversations regarding balance now take place after the students are struggling, or even if we catch them beforehand, they are less likely to grasp the concept until they start to experience the stress. The more students stretch themselves thin across multiple groups outside of work and classes, the less they are going to get out of them. I have seen a select group of students accomplish the “everything under the sun” approach to campus involvement, but these are few and far between.

In the end, we as professionals need to help provide the proactive support to students who are looking to start their college career or exploring ways to enhance their college experience. As the start of the academic year is fast approaching, it is good for me to remind myself of the opportunities I have to help students find their balance and enjoy their total experience in college.

Where Does Grade Inflation Come From?

In my continued pursuit of increasing student success, an article in the Chronicle had me thinking about grade inflation (http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Student-Evaluations-Grade/24926/). While there were certainly a few points in the piece that hit a nerve (especially the crack about Education departments), the essence of the article makes sense. Less rigorous courses are seeing higher grade averages than more rigorous ones. The more a professor is involved in their students’ education, the lower the average is. It is simple balancing of proportions.

Then you have students’ direct impact on grading. Student evaluations are always going to come out more positively than ones from professors and TAs. Why would a student harm another student’s grades by marking them down on a group project? Isn’t there some sort of unspoken agreement? I think I would boost my colleagues evaluation similar to how I would hope they reciprocate, right?

Well, all of this is true, but there are many more factors that contribute to the problems of inflation and performance. Students are going to work less because there is more to do. I the comparison of hours per week of work, the 33% decrease in schoolwork probably also would see a nearly 200% increase in extracurricular activities and at least a 100% on work involvement. These are just guesses, but extracurricular activities and work have to be factored into changes of direct schoolwork focus. So the concept of less working hours cannot be completely in the students’ blame.

But what about the professors? Research and discovery are what help to drive education further and further. We know that professors who are more focused on research are less focused on teaching. This of course explains the lesser attention to grading and the potential desire to fluff one’s teaching records with lighter grading policies (like easier exams or larger curves). Tenure and the like have requirements that are still somewhat tied into one’s teaching records. Successful performance, not actually knowledge passed, contributes to positive decisions. So can you blame the professors for their lesser attention to grading and teaching when they have competing demands.

So what about the competitiveness of the market. Within the realm of education, competition is determined by the numbers generated from the letter system. A 5-letter system is less specific than a 13-letter one but both involve the same basic distinctions of performance. Pressure on and from the students to succeed and move on to their next stage can help dictate the significance and presence of the inflation. Students take professors that are rated more forgiving or easier. Notes and books (or electronic accounts) are passed down among social circles. Safeguards and protections (like extra credit and TA assistance) are available to cushion some of the difficulty level. While there may be a drop in hours spent and an increase in average grades given, there is no proven drop in actual student performance.

In reality, students may be doing more with less (time not resources). Technology creates a huge boost to resource accessibility and reduction in actual library time. I can search for an article for a paper in less than 30 seconds online or in 30 minutes of library searching. Study groups in person are less of a necessity now since students can communicate via Skype or other social networks. Group projects can be posted and manipulated online without the group ever laying eyes on one another. Is it really a surprise that the number of hours has decreased so significantly?

I do agree that grade inflation is a bad thing, but some views on the subject get too narrow to see the true picture. It is more important for students to self-evaluate their purpose for being in school, their takeaways from their studies and the total experiences they are getting in college.

Tournament of Graduation Rates

Although the 09-10 college basketball season is over, there are still some remnant issues that have been in discussion. I am not referring to the possible expansion for next year from 65 to 96 teams. Instead, there was a great concern brought up for the graduation rates of student athletes, in particular our male basketball students. This is not a new discussion but still is important to consider. It all falls back to the debate for the purpose and limits for playing in college prior to going pro.

The University of Central Florida conducts a yearly study to review the graduation rates of the 65 teams in the tournament. The average for this past year was 64%. While this is slightly up from previous statistic, the spread from the highest to the lowest goes from 100% all the way down to 8%. On the positive end, there are several schools that can boast their perfect records (BYU, Marquette, Notre Dame, Utah State, Wake Forest and Wofford). On the bottom of the list sits the University of Maryland. Although their overall athletic graduation rates are around 76%, their basketball rates are getting highly criticized. The closest to the bottom with Maryland are California (20%), Arkansas Pine Bluff (29%) and Washington (29%). Amongst the #1 seeds, the variation is fairly high as well (Duke @ 92%, Kansas @ 73%, Syracuse @ 55% and Kentucky @ 30%).

Maryland and Coach Gary Williams came under fire for being at the bottom of the list and for having such a low record. In response, Williams identified that his players have been tempted and moved onto the NBA and careers with other basketball leagues, but the worst of the graduation rates took place around the national championship of 2002. While many left school without finishing their degrees, most of the players have the choice to finish their degrees later on and that many end up taking the opportunity, but in the end the large salaries definitely tempt many young adults to go for the money over the education.

This of course leads to the debate of focus on education or support for the stepping stone to the pros. The reality is that sports (particularly men’s basketball and football) are revenue generators for successful, significant Division I schools. Many of the players who leave early move on to successful careers and massive paychecks. As an educator, I would want to reinforce the emphasis on the real college experience and the main focus on education. Why call these individuals student athletes if the student part is just a cover for the real purpose of their presence on the campus?

While I believe the revenue will win out, Coach Williams made a point that his school is taking active measures to improve the graduation rates in the future. What this highlights is at least a small interest in placing the value back on the education. In the end, it is all we can ask.

If you want to take a look at the study from UCF, click on the following link: http://www.tidesport.org/Grad%20Rates/2010_Mens_Bball_PR.pdf.