Education, Beyond Fight or Flight

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When it comes to education, we have gotten ourselves firmly stuck. The lack of a clear and compelling vision coupled with an insatiable thirst for assessment and accountability have left us trapped with little room to move or breathe. Our schools and students are being squeezed by tightening expectations and external scrutiny, thrusting us into a collective tailspin of vulnerability and threat. Naturally, our instincts of fear and self-preservation are kicking in. But unlike in our evolutionary past, the options of flight or fight are no longer sufficient to save us. Instead, trapped within the complexities of our own inventions, we must transform our manufactured constraints into something inherently freer and more expansive.

The how is clear. We need visions and commitments that are more powerful and resonant with the broader world, and we need to put assessment and accountability back in their appropriate place- not as drivers or engines, but instead as tools to help us clarify and strengthen our ability to fulfill our (individual and collective) promise.

Based on my experiences in higher education, K-12 and the community sector, our core commitments are rarely sufficiently clear, compelling, or grounded in core capacities to be measurable, actionable or ultimately meaningful. They are either too vague, too specific, or too vacuous to drive change within the complex and dysfunctional landscapes which they claim to address. It is not surprising that related assessment plans, no matter how sophisticated or comprehensive, cannot measure or inform movement toward some vision or commitment that has not been sufficiently operationalized, internalized, or infused. And yet, assessment has become high-stakes in virtually every sense and sector. Assessment based on externally imposed standards, expectations, and metrics drive investments, public trust and reputation.

Without a clear and compelling vision, these externally imposed standards and expectations become everything. We adapt and optimize our systems and resources to produce outputs that mirror those expectations. And if permitted, we go so far as selecting applicants (or inputs) that are closest to the desired output, minimizing variance and optimizing resources while celebrating our success and superiority.

Yes, we are in need of a compelling collective vision, but we cannot wait. Individual schools can clarify the best versions of themselves, their strengths and gifts brought by their students, histories, communities, staff- virtually any qualities or virtues that are inherently authentic, meaningful and important. They can check these against the ambient world- the needs, the challenges, trends and opportunities. And as they toggle between the processes of looking within and outward, they can infer the essence of what they uniquely have to offer, what they can promise, what they should expect. If they can achieve clarity to the point of knowing and feeling and articulating what they are about, they will be able to see themselves fully actualized, and identify the gaps and needs along the way. Once they can commit, boldly and absolutely, they can create spaces and opportunities for their communities to move toward that vision while finding the sense of security and support necessary to actualize their potential.

To be clear, even in this ideally clarified and resonant state of identify, vision and mission, schools will need to meet external expectations, including metrics that are neither sufficiently clear nor meaningful. Leaders will have to ascertain what is necessary and non-negotiable and what can be relaxed or stretched or translated through more meaningful and textured metrics and stories.  But as the clarified and resonant vision and mission become internalized and permeate through the culture of our schools, those leaders and students and teachers can begin to stretch the spaces and expectations around them, feeling courageous bold and secure in the knowledge that they are successful in ways that are inherently meaningful and important.

It is only in this state of relaxation and movement that we can escape our threat responses, emerging from the traps and cages we have created, and finally enjoying the possibilities that will be catalyzed through our expansion.

 

 

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.

Flipping the Privilege Continuum through Project-Based Collaboration

collaborationPhoto by Doug Levere

When I consider the promise of project-based collaboration, I get very excited. I have already seen its benefits for traditional college students. Challenged assumptions, deepened learning and clarified career goals, accompanied by fascinating cultural interactions and stories to share. It is not at all surprising that students are seeking more of these experiences- opportunities to get close to people, places and problems, to innovate and add value in meaningful and compelling ways. Figuring out how to offer such experiences at scale represents a fundamental challenge for Higher Education but also a pathway toward continued viability and relevance.

While I am completely convinced of the value of this new paradigm, and immersed in creating such a model at the University at Buffalo, I cannot help reflecting on its promise for those on the periphery of the privilege ecosystem. In the new frontier of innovation and design thinking, the most exciting projects are those associated with the most compelling needs, challenges and communities. These types of high-impact challenges allow students to develop critical skills and competencies while showcasing their work and abilities for multiple audiences. But at the very heart of this paradigm is the idea that those who are closest to challenges are best positioned to address them, possessing the necessary credibility, inside knowledge, and social capital to engineer nuanced solutions. When we look around our own communities, opportunities for innovation are literally everywhere, but especially within the neighborhoods and populations that are closest to the challenges, and farthest from the resources and structures that control them. Clearly, these are the most compelling challenges and represent exciting projects for students of all ages.

But once we recognize the value for our own students, aren’t we compelled to go even farther, to play out the innovation paradigm to its most powerful implications? If it is true that solutions should be “owned” by those closest to their associated problems and most poised to address them, then the youth should be our focus. More specifically, the youth who are stuck in the complex layers of inequities and obstacles associated with their poverty; perhaps not all youth- but certainly those who are motivated to lead positive change through building capacity. Because these youth are far from the levers of privilege, they would need considerable help and support to be able to initiate and steward collaborative innovation. But luckily, cities like Buffalo have an abundance of institutions, systems, leaders and networks poised to offer resources, facilitation and expertise. This is most certainly the case for Higher Education. And since the very future of our colleges and universities will rely heavily on our ability to provide meaningful collaborative experiences to our students- we should be more than eager to rise to the opportunity.

Through my global engagement work, I have already seen community development through this flipped lens. When we take students to rural Tanzania, we visit “social innovators”, who are our partners, working within the most challenged communities and regions, and with the most marginalized populations. Invariably, these community leaders are from the very same communities and contexts that they work to serve, possessing the commitment, relationships, and experiences that position them to make meaningful change. In fact, we have found that these are the best partners, really the only partners who can make a lasting impact within the most challenged communities. Of course, these innovators are in need of collaboration since they lack systems-level knowledge, access to models and research, and critical resources of many kinds. Because of these limitations, they often see grant funding and donations as the only pathway to development, viewing potential partners as benefactors and themselves as fundamentally deficient or lacking. However, in the new paradigm of project-based collaboration, these partners have so much to offer. Our students, looking for real-world projects and platforms for developing and showcasing their skill sets, rightly view our partners as community leaders, mentors, and above all collaborators. Through equitable engagement, they work on producing research, marketing materials, grant applications, and exploring viable models and techniques that can be tested and built upon. Our students also come to understand the benefits and resources that their own privilege affords, and how by working together, they can contribute to change while not attempting to impose assumptions or models on communities and cultures that are not theirs.

Clearly, the worlds of innovation, design thinking, and project-based learning are not going away. In fact, as we come to understand their benefits we will continue to deepen our investment while searching for models that are scalable and sustainable by design. This will force us (eventually) to see our most challenged communities and those who are poised to support and uplift them as leaders and innovators, who are worthy of our collective support and collaboration. We all stand to benefit from this new educational frontier, and there is simply no time to waste.

What is High-Impact Experiential Learning?

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Photo by Doug Levere, University at Buffalo

This past July I led a UB study abroad trip to the Mara region of Tanzania. By all measures the course was a success. All expectations and outcomes were met and the students arrived home safely with enough memories and photographs to last a lifetime. Officially, the class is done, but the impacts are just getting started.

As I struggle to communicate the meaning of high-impact experiential learning, I can only offer a glimpse into my world- a world of infinite possibilities and points of connectivity that often leaves me exhausted and exhilarated as I try frantically to keep up.

In the seven short weeks since we’ve returned, so much has happened- is happening. Every day I brace myself for new developments. Here are just a few highlights from this week alone- and it’s only Wednesday:

  • Natasha (who was featured on the cover of UB’s recent issue of its Alumni Magazine https://issuu.com/ubaa/docs/at_buffalo_fall17_-_issuu ) is ready to plan a fundraiser for the preschool in Tarime. She has been thinking about the teacher who currently works as a volunteer, and wants to start a fund to ensure that early childhood education is a priority. In preparation, she is thinking about her networks of influence and how to connect her efforts with her Sociology graduate program.
  • Danielle- a senior Anthropology student- finds herself completely immersed in an initiative that began as her final course project. With a deep interest in women’s health and specifically the impact of menstruation on girls education, she identified a Tanzania-based organization, Dare Women’s Foundation http://www.darewomensfoundation.org/ interested in bringing a reusable pad project to the Mara region. In less than a week, Danielle has raised almost $1,000 through a GoFundMe campaign https://www.gofundme.com/girl039s-empowerment-in-tanzania and is now coordinating the details of an upcoming training trip towards the goal of utilizing existing sewing projects to begin this new venture. Danielle is also connecting with a faculty member within her Anthropology department to frame her efforts within a research project which will in turn support her involvement in the UB Honors Program.
  • My own children will be hosting a book and baked goods sale this weekend to raise money for a poultry project in Tarime. Once mature, the hens will be given to women throughout the region as a means of generating income through the sale of eggs. But the cost of feed and vaccination has exceeded the appropriated grant funding, so the project is in jeopardy and immediate help is needed.
  • We’re gearing up for an informal event tomorrow evening that will help build capacity for future trips and engagement efforts. In partnership with the New York chapter of American Women for International Understanding http://www.awiu.org/, we will be featuring photos from UB’s own Doug Levere http://www.douglaslevere.com/gallery/ along with student reflections and videos. Having Doug participate in the trip, along with the contributions of the talented UB Communications team, is yielding impacts beyond anything we could have imagined. Not just for our own immediate benefit, but for our partners like Children’s Dignity Forum http://www.cdftz.org/ who are beginning to share the photos of our visits and utilize them to build further capacity for their own community development work.

Just listing these examples makes my head spin, and yet these are the type of outcomes or outputs that represent the magic of high-impact experiential learning. While the experience itself- in this case our trip to Tanzania- is hugely important, it is not the end product, but instead a vehicle for impacts that can continue to generate, build and transform well beyond the life and limits of the experience.

As we contemplate the potential of higher education to be an engine for innovation, we must insist on delivering offerings that are high-impact by design. No longer settling for localized or siloed outcomes, we have to challenge ourselves to think and design bigger and bolder. Although we cannot know what is possible, we must design with a vision in mind, building models that are generative and foster collaboration and synergies for the benefit of all involved. This represents a new frontier for curricular innovation and I’m so excited to be testing the limits.

 

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.

 

Homage to Deep Integrative Learning

Mapping Brain Circuits

For years I have watched reform play out in higher education and PreK-12, both within each respective system, and through efforts to more seamlessly marry the two.

While well intentioned, these initiatives have been woefully doomed, inherently limited by the very learning goals they employ.

For those who try to follow my blog, you may sense the coming of a familiar refrain. Namely, it is only through the pursuit of sufficiently powerful goals that we can extricate ourselves from the proverbial weeds that continue to pull us down. And unfortunately, in the world of education, and certainly PreK-16 collaboration, the goals that we have thus far followed have been underwhelming at best. Workforce readiness, critical thinking, and even college preparation, while all important constructs, are insufficiently powerful to actualize the latent potential of our systems, or their respective students.

In some ways the problem can be viewed as a moving target. We can prepare students for key jobs and career paths but the economic landscape will continue to shift and change. We can prepare students for college, but higher education will continue to morph in response to its changing realities. And while critical thinking is certainly important, it begs for specific ends and purposes in mind.

The undeniable fact is that the world is changing at an accelerating rate. And if we want to survive and thrive within this dynamic environment, we desperately need goals that can serve as both anchors and drivers, expanding the space for innovation and creativity, while at the same time ensuring a strong and stable foundation for growth.

While this may seem like a daunting challenge, such goals are well within our reach. In fact, I would argue that the notion of Deep Integrative Learning might just be the Holy Grail we’re all seeking.

What is deep integrative learning? Perhaps it can best be understood through its associated competencies: the ability to attend to the underlying meaning of information and content; to integrate and synthesize different ideas and sources of information; to discern patterns in evidence or phenomena; to apply knowledge in different situations; and to view issues from multiple perspectives.

While each of these represents important abilities that align closely with employer needs and expectations, thus supporting the goals of employability and indirectly college readiness, collectively, they offer so much more. Beyond academic and professional success, they address societal and civic needs related to personal responsibility and perspective taking. And from the standpoint of pedagogical diversity, they present a vast universe of learning opportunities, including both academic and non-academic experiences.

Beyond its conceptual merits, however, I have seen the benefits of deep integrative learning first hand. Students who return from study abroad or a service trip profoundly changed, and look at their discipline and career goals through a new set of lenses. When we are able to support and empower these students by nurturing their observations, testing their assumptions and stereotypes, and introducing them to new paradigms and frameworks, we will witness the generative power of learning. In addition to  better workers, students, and professionals, they will become better citizens and stewards of the world, the ultimate goal to which we should all aspire.