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Refocusing Experiential Learning for Greater Equity and Impact

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photo by Doug Levere

Well-designed experiential learning offerings support deep and transformative outcomes. While this is true, it is potentially misleading- suggesting that the primary (or only) flow of learning moves from the experience- designed and delivered by educators and institutions/organizations- to the student. In reality, the student plays a more powerful role, one that is certainly not passive or secondary in nature. Even the best-designed experiences require students to activate their potential, bringing a sense of openness, curiosity and knowledge along with other skills and dispositions that affect short and long-term impacts. While the best programs and implementers work to foster these critical student attributes, they often rely on the selection of students to ensure ideal fit and the ultimate success and sustainability of programs.

However, if we were to shift our focus from program design and implementation to preparing students to embrace and leverage experiences in their most diverse and varied forms, we would reach a startling realization. If students were truly empowered with the mindsets, tools, and processes to transform (their) experiences into the greatest impacts, then power would shift away from the institutions and structures that have traditionally controlled the opportunity landscape. It is not that schools or teachers would become unnecessary or unimportant, but instead, that their influence would be tied to their ability to support and integrate student experiences (both in and out of school) with academic learning and development.

This shift in power- from institution to individual students and groups of students- would be even more profound if we were to sharpen our focus on the types of experiences deemed valuable. If we take our lead from the Global Challenges, 21st Century Learning/ Professional Skills, and other efforts to identify critical areas for growth, leadership and innovation, we would begin to prioritize those most closely aligned. And if we were to acknowledge the value of Design Thinking and Innovation, we would observe that those who are the closest to the most pressing problems are the best positioned to lead their respective solutions. Accordingly, we would begin to value authenticity of experiences and prioritize the students who are most compelled and inspired with the necessary credibility and “social capital” to dig in. If we were to empower students who met these new definitions of “readiness” to transform their experiences into innovation and problems solving, imagine what they could accomplish and how communities could benefit from their growth.

I want to make this point clear, because I think it is quite profound – not in terms of my own insight, but instead the associated implications. If experiential learning truly represents a gateway to deep student impacts and opportunities for academic and professional success, and we allow institutions of education to be the only way to access recognized experiences, then we are missing the point, and promise of this paradigm.

Experiences, by definition, are highly personal and contextualized. We do not own them, should not control them, but we can and must support them.

Some may find this assertion/realization troubling in that it challenges the status quo in ways that may (will/should) threaten our existing structures and systems. It is true that in order to remain relevant and viable, institutions of higher education and schools will strive to offer more high-impact learning experiences for students. And those who have access will hopefully continue to embrace them. However, once we acknowledge that this is not the only pathway, we must begin the work of clarifying and developing the tools and resources that will help students (wherever they are) transform their own experiences into high-impact practices. It is through this simultaneously top/middle-down and bottom-up approach that we can begin to realize the true potential of high-impact experiential learning and the exciting expansion and innovation that it will catalyze.

Be Brilliant: Reflections and exercises for helping ourselves, and others, give and get more

 

Delving into Dissonance

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Dissonance is like the Holy Grail of learning. It is the place where we hit a conceptual wall, where our core assumptions about people, life, knowledge, and ourselves are rocked to the very foundation, forcing us to do something drastic- to alter our ways of understanding and interacting with the world.

To say that dissonance is uncomfortable would be a gross understatement. As humans, we go to great intellectual and emotional lengths to remain “ok” with ourselves and our views of the world. We surround ourselves with people who confirm our viewpoints and spend endless hours explaining away any thing or person who might disagree. For these reasons, we avoid dissonance like the plague, continuing – whenever possible- to believe that everything makes sense and that we essentially have it right. It is only when we find ourselves in places and situations that are so unexpected and surprising that dissonance has a chance to take root. But even then, if given the option, we will find an escape hatch- retreating to a place of comfort, reframing what we have experienced, and preserving our core frameworks and beliefs.

Clearly, we are tenacious with our assumptions. That is why our study abroad trip to the Mara Region of Tanzania is so powerful and exciting. Not only do we take students into a sorely underestimated part of the world, but we expose them to countless examples of people and projects that challenge their core assumptions and beliefs. We visit schools and clinics, agricultural projects, and community development colleges, and see the amazing work being led by Tanzanians, within their own communities, regions, and neighborhoods.

And with these experiences, through the process of guided critical reflection, cracks in our core understandings begin to emerge. If Tanzania is so underdeveloped, then why are the people so happy and industrious? If they are so primitive with regard to infrastructure and innovation, why does everyone have cell phones and access to the internet? And if they are so vulnerable and in need of external support, why are they so committed to education and to strengthening their own workforce through training and professional development?

Eventually, when the differences between the realities of what we are experiencing and our initial understandings become too great to sustain themselves, something powerful and life-changing begins to happen. We admit that we were wrong. Not just a little wrong- but stupidly wrong. And if we were wrong about Tanzania, about Africa, about communities and people around the world and in our own backyards, then we are undoubtedly wrong about so many other important things.

And this, my friends, is when life finally gets interesting. Yes, dissonance is a powerful pedagogical tool. But it is not for the faint of heart. It is strictly reserved for those who are open to a life-changing adventure, to seeing the world and themselves in fundamentally different ways. And to coming back changed.

For me, this is the promise of experiential learning, and the new frontier that lies ahead.

 

Helping Students Find their Power

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When did we give away our power? I found myself pondering this question at the prompting of a graduate student who was sitting in my office, eager to soak up every drop of insight I could offer. It was an excellent question, rooted in what I knew to be his complete sincerity and a palpable longing to make a difference in the world.

My answer rang cynical as it reverberated through my consciousness- how can you give something away when you never had it in the first place? As I reflected on the various leaders with whom I’d worked over the years, I was left with a general sense of disappointment, potential unrealized in so many ways.

I offered that true power comes from a place of clarity, some value or proposition that one knows to be absolutely and unequivocally true. Powerful people are able to steward a mission, an idea, or a contribution- holding it up, creating a path forward, dodging distractions, and elevating everyone in the process, moving us collectively toward a better and more enlightened place.

While non-traditional, this conceptualization of power does not preclude one from earning a good living or rising to a position of influence. On the contrary, it supports many of the familiar trappings of success that society craves. But it does so in a way that is fundamentally different, flipping one’s locus of influence, elevating the importance of ideas, and the skills and competencies needed to steward them.

How do we cultivate this re-imagined notion of power? By providing students of all ages with opportunities to delve within, exploring their own gifts, talents, and passions while developing a sensitivity and responsiveness to the people and world around them.

Central to this vision is the role of teachers, professors, and adults of all kinds.  For while the delivery of information and knowledge remains important, the new frontier calls for the creation of opportunities for students to connect with new situations, contexts, and challenges- stretching their understanding and skills, building their sense of power and agency. And above all it calls for mentors- powerful people who can harness their own strengths, connections, and experience to support the cultivation of students, putting them at the center, helping them prepare for their place in the world.

As (higher) education contemplates the next phase of its evolution, working to remain relevant and responsive within a quickly changing landscape, student outcomes and competencies will continue to guide us. But until we are able to elevate our notions of power and success, we will continue to miss the mark in helping students navigate and prepare for academic and career pathways.

Clearly, helping students to find their impact stands as a noble and important goal toward which we should strive. By preparing strong and powerful graduates we will support not only their own success, but ultimately a better and more enlightened world for all of us to experience and enjoy.

-For Andrew Tabashneck

Raising Powerful People

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I had the talk with my daughter the other day, the one about using her powers for good and not evil. It was in the midst of the talk that I realized it was actually the fourth iteration, a common thread woven across each of my children’s formation.

While the talk has varied with the particular transgression under review, the plot line has remained largely the same.

It begins with me enumerating my child’s gifts and talents, articulating the qualities that make them uniquely special and precious to the world. I assure them that they will go on to do important things and acknowledge that they are clearly leaders, undeniably powerful. I provide evidence as to how their behavior makes a difference; how when they are at their best, they have a tangible impact on the people and situations around them.

At this point, they usually sense that we are circling back to their transgression, a realization that catalyzes a stream of excuses and accompanying tears. This is always the turning point in the talk; the place where I reaffirm my love and clarify that we always have choices, opportunities to add value and to do the right thing. Finally I offer a path forward, an opportunity to make things right and to reset intentions.

While I’m sure my children dread these talks, they always bring us closer. In the end, after the drama clears, there is a palpable sense of intimacy, a new bond that somehow tethers our souls more closely.

When I think of my own upbringing, I still remember the sting of disappointing my parents. But I also recall, and continue to cherish, the security that comes with their unconditional love and unyielding expectations that I will always do the right thing.

Of late as I have pondered the qualities of leadership, I have been accused of being overly romantic about all that we should expect. Courage, integrity, a commitment to doing what is right and true, and an ability to make strong decisions especially in the face of challenge or uncertainty. Aren’t these the very qualities that we expect of our own children, the qualities that we expect of ourselves and one another?

Although it is too early to predict whether my children- or any children- will go on to be great leaders or innovators, they are honing their powers every day, through their studies, their interactions, and their dreams. They are developing a sense of identity and place in the world, setting expectations for themselves and those around them.

The phrase, “for those to whom much is given much is expected” rings clear and loud in my inner voice. As a society it is our job to nurture and extol our children’s precious gifts, while setting high and clear expectations for their impacts.

The truth is that we simply cannot fulfill our potential without raising powerful people. And thankfully, with every new generation, we have another chance to finally get it right.

Fairies, Unicorns and Most Things Magical

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I have a fairly expansive belief policy. My kids will tell you that I believe in anything that is good. Santa Clause and Guardian Angels, yes…. evil monsters and zombies, definitely no.

This may seem like a joke, but I assure you that my policy is well thought out and quite sound.

It is grounded in the existence of infinite diversity, and the knowledge that virtually anything is possible, especially when we focus on the greater good.

From an implementation standpoint, my policy is highly robust, transferrable and scalable to most domains and settings. It allows me to scan for the positive, picking and choosing perspectives and teachings, remaining open and determined to find something of value.

From an impact standpoint, it serves many functions. By espousing such a policy people always know where I stand, especially my children who I am most interested in influencing. My policy also affords a certain protective functionality- preventing me from getting bogged down in the endless negativity and defeatism that threaten us at every turn.

To be clear, I want to be known as a dreamer, an optimist, someone who believes in infinite possibilities and potential. And so I let my curiosity and openness guide me, feeling my way forward toward new adventures, relationships, and the magic they afford.

In some ways my policy has high discriminative validity. If it resonates strongly with the policies of others, I can usually tell right away. There is a certain synergy that ignites, catalyzing collaboration, innovation, and excitement that is too apparent to be ignored.

But interestingly, my belief policy does not have the opposite repelling effect on those with more cynical tendencies. Although I have been known to madden my staunchest and most empirically minded colleagues with my openness to the worlds of the unknown, they seem to be drawn to my sense of wonderment, even if they would never admit it.

Let’s face it, the opposite of openness is not very inviting, even for those who are trapped inside. The Land of the Cynics, Skeptics, and even Realists can feel dark, desolate, and shrouded in fear. And clearly, it’s growing more crowded by the minute. Conversely, the Land of the Dreamers is infinitely inclusive and open, with endless room to stretch and explore the landscapes that continually change and reimagine themselves.

You might ask whether my belief policy is somehow counter to my training as a researcher, but I would argue that the two go hand in hand. Data and research allow us to be thoughtful and reflective, pushing the boundaries of what we know and can do. But ideally, they should be grounded in theories and world views that are strong and powerful, guiding our questions and interpretations, scaffolding us higher and further.

I concede that my approach- and associated policy- may be unconventional, but I can assure you of their inherent appeal. And since the Land of the Cynics isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, I encourage you to take a little vacation.

I will leave my door ajar, just in case you choose to visit… and stay.

Navigating the Bounty of Higher Education

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Although I’ve worked at the University at Buffalo for over eleven years, I still feel like a kid in a candy store. With every new researcher or project I discover, my mind spins with new ideas and wonderment.   And although my role as Associate Dean allows me to engage broadly with the University community, I can’t help envying the thousands of students who by virtue of their status have complete and open access.

If you think of UB, and perhaps all universities, as smorgasbords or grand buffets, you will envision endless arrays of delicacies. In addition to degree and certification programs, students can partake in study-abroad, internships, research experiences, and service. They can cultivate leadership and entrepreneurial skills, explore career paths, and make connections with alumni, while sharing hobbies and interests through clubs, sports, and social activities.

With so many struggling to afford basic luxuries and resources, the sheer abundance of higher education can seem down-right decadent, leaving us to wonder whether it can even be sustained. But from a student’s perspective, assuming they can handle their respective course work, the most critical challenge might be how to best access the universe of opportunities that lies before them.

Tis notion of access can be trickier than it seems. Clearly, some students get it immediately, choosing activities and courses that naturally build on their strengths and interests, leveraging valuable connections, while opening doors for future opportunities and support. But many students, too many students, instead meander through the grand buffet, either focusing solely on their required coursework or stumbling through the opportunities, failing to emerge with a cohesive or compelling plate.

These are the students I wish I could get to sooner, perhaps in their middle or early high school years. Ideally I could spend some time with them, appreciating their strengths and probing their interests. I would give them a tour of the University, introducing them to star students and faculty, orienting them to emerging areas of study, noting sparks of interest and curiosity as they emerged. And if I could really have my way, I would convince them that the world desperately needs their talents, and help them explore career paths through the lenses of impact, fulfillment, and purpose.

Once they felt an itch, an excitement to begin their journey, then (and only then) would I let them loose into the universe of UB, encouraging them to fully access opportunities and resources, to explore and take risks, to reflect, and to embrace their experiences and relationships along the way.

But alas, I’ve been told that my expectations are simply too high. And I hear adults talk nostalgically about their own circuitous paths, insisting that it all works out in the end. But I guess it’s the missed opportunities framed against the universe of possibilities that get to me, and the knowledge that degrees are simply not enough.

The truth is that our students have so much more to give and receive.  And higher education, and all that it affords, is a luxury worthy of our greatest dreams.

Make Room for the Unicorns

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My daughter Natalie can’t be burdened before she goes to bed. Any mention of schoolwork or summer reading is quickly dismissed. She explains that there is simply no room for serious thoughts. She must keep her head clear for the unicorns and other fanciful creatures that fill her dreams.

Not surprisingly, Natalie loves to go to sleep. She tackles her nighttime ritual with gusto, cozying under her covers and shooing me away after a quick book and kiss goodnight. And she always rises with a dreamy faraway look, slowly transitioning into the world of wakefulness and the promise of a new day.

Like Natalie, I too enjoy sleeping. But sadly, no unicorns visit me during the night. Perhaps my mind is too cluttered with serious thoughts. Perhaps there is simply no room for them to play.

Over the years I have worked at readying for sleep. I have trained myself to relax, replacing anxious worries with soothing calm. And most nights I am able to drift off into nothingness, a restful reprieve between busy days.

Yet the quality of my slumber pales in comparison to Natalie’s. What I wouldn’t give to glimpse her unicorns, to stroke their downy white fur and feed them sweet treats from my hand. But even more than her unicorns, I envy Natalie’s ability to slip into the world of magic and fancy by simply opening her mind.

Is this a blessed gift of childhood, or a secret all her own? I shall prepare my mind for unicorns and hope that they will come.

Experiential Learning: “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.” – David Livingstone

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Educational trends rarely excite me. By the time they’re broadly embraced, they’re often mere shells, stripped of any real meaning or theoretical power. And yet, despite my cynicism, I can’t help but celebrate the growing buzz around Experiential Learning.

Experiential Learning encompasses all flavors of applied education including academic internships, mentored research, service-learning, and cultural exploration. And while many schools and programs have long embraced their benefits, the notion of Experiential Learning is rapidly permeating more traditional bastions of education resulting in exciting new opportunities and programs of study.

From a cognitive standpoint, which is my own academic background, the benefits of applying learning within diverse contexts and settings are both obvious and compelling. And when facilitated properly, they can result in deeper and more sustained learning and opportunities for access and transfer of knowledge.

When viewed through the lenses of relevance and real-world application, Experiential Learning can be a catalyst for innovation, workforce readiness, and the types of entrepreneurial thinking and problem solving that we seek across disciplines and modalities.

But beyond its virtues as a high-impact pedagogical tool, Experiential Learning is a wonderful vehicle for supporting character development and identity formation, helping individuals to frame their own goals and interests within broader contexts and needs. Not only is this necessary for our long-term societal health, but also for the fulfillment of individuals seeking to utilize their own education and skills toward the greatest impact.

Interestingly, by embracing the value of Experiential Learning, we begin to view our roles as educators and parents quite differently. Schools and programs seek to provide rich and meaningful opportunities for students to explore and integrate, applying and deepening their learning through facilitated reflection and inquiry. And in this new paradigm, parents ideally help prepare their children to be open and ready to embrace opportunities and the learning they afford- even (or especially) when the lessons are inherently difficult or dissonant with their own experiences and ideas.

This is a role that I thankfully learned from my own mother, who seemed to understand the value of fully immersing oneself in new experiences and adventures, especially in the formative years. As I prepared to depart for my junior year of high school in Germany, I remember her dismissing my flowing tears, instructing me to not waste a single moment feeling sad or missing my family or life in Buffalo. Instead I should fully embrace every single moment of the experience that lay before me.

As I reflect on my current role as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning at the University at Buffalo, I could offer the same motherly advice to our current and future students. Before them lies literally a world of opportunities. And our job is to help them embrace and integrate these experiences into their undergraduate preparation, positioning them for success, fulfillment, and an impactful career.

These are the wonders of Experiential Learning.  It is indeed an exciting time!

An Unexpected Plug for Peer Mentoring Circles

I guess I have issues with organized fellowship of most kinds. I blame it on being raised by parents who are intellectually suspicious of group-think and all the trappings of conventional conformity. So when I was asked to help start a Lean In Circle it was my love for making things happen rather than my endorsement of the model that led to my initial enthusiasm.

Surprisingly, I bought the book and made it through the first couple of chapters before I had enough. It’s not exactly that I didn’t like it or agree with its basic premise. It just didn’t seem sufficiently profound or complex to warrant the numerous chapters, examples, and associated exercises. So when my colleague and I invited some women from across the University to come together for our first Lean In session, I was mildly curious but not especially optimistic about the potential impact.

What transpired over the subsequent six or more sessions is noteworthy not in its earth-shattering outcomes, but instead in the rarity of what we quickly created. Our circle was comprised of women from various sectors of the University, all with varying levels of expertise, job security, and organizational influence. Although we loosely followed the Lean In model for the first few sessions, we focused primarily on sharing experiences, challenges, and news all with the promise of confidentiality and unconditional support.

In hindsight it’s perhaps surprising how quickly the trust and intimacy developed, with the two hour sessions flying by. Although not everyone could make every session, we all admitted to looking forward to our time together, and benefiting in unexpected yet meaningful ways.

Personally, I appreciated the opportunity to learn about other units, getting an up-close view of the complexities and pressures that were different yet related to my own. I also enjoyed hearing from young professionals who were more idealistic and less jaded than I, with so much commitment and possibilities still ahead of them. But perhaps most beneficial for me was the expansion of my own professional network. Within the first few sessions I was able to contact my fellow members as trusted colleagues and friends, gleaning their experience and wisdom, enabling me to be more effective while gaining more satisfaction from my time at work.

When the year was coming to a close the question was posed as to whether we should continue with our circle. For me, the formalized meetings no longer seemed necessary since the members had now become my friends who I would naturally seek out for conversation, support, and collaboration. So it was suggested that perhaps we should scale up our efforts to support more women who could benefit from the type of experience and discussions that we had come to enjoy.

This was the most interesting part. What should have been an easy email inviting women from across the University to come together to explore peer mentoring and related support, instead felt somehow risky and dangerous. All of us who sent out personalized invitations reported experiencing the same trepidation upon reviewing our contact lists. Suddenly, we worried about reporting structures, interpersonal politics and dynamics, and unanticipated consequences that our efforts might invoke.

This sense of danger and foreboding stood in such stark contrast with the natural collegiality and comfort that we had quickly found within our own Lean In circle. On one hand what we had created was exactly the type of environment that filled a significant need within our own professional and personal lives. Without any formalized changes to our respective job descriptions, reporting structures, or compensation packages, we achieved significant gains in satisfaction and a renewed investment in opportunities for growth and expanded impact. These are exactly the type of outcomes that Sandberg emphasized with regard to advancing women toward positions of greater influence and power.

Clearly, all women deserve safe spaces in which they can explore challenges and frustrations, gain perspectives and advice, and experience the support that comes with being valued and appreciated. From my own experiences I know that work feels completely different when you are surrounded by friends who are always happy to collaborate, support, and assist you regardless of the circumstances or changing environment in which you find yourself. In this type of culture you need not expend all of your energy on being strategic and preserving your own sense of security in the face of ever-changing threats and dangers. Instead, you can enjoy your work, finding satisfaction in your contributions, while exploring new opportunities for growth and challenge.

While Lean In circles are obviously not the only way to cultivate such a culture, they are certainly worth exploring as we consider our own growth or the dynamics within the organizations and structures that we lead. While I maintain that the affordances of Lean In circles shouldn’t be viewed as particularly radical or complex, they are unfortunately not as ubiquitous as we might think or even hope. Accordingly, any discomfort or trepidation should be interpreted as symptomatic of an obvious and compelling need.