A Gift for the New Year: Helping your Student Navigate Higher Education

New Years can be a time of great excitement and anticipation but also one of angst and concern. Over this break, I have talked with many parents who are anxious about their children’s journeys at college, or their upcoming transitions into Higher Education. The conversations have reminded me of the countless discussions I’ve had with UB students over the years, trying to put them at ease while helping them clarify their goals and choices. For whatever reason, this type of mentoring seems particularly needed at this time, so I will attempt to offer some general insights and guidance in hopes that it will find and resonate with whomever is in need.

College is not an end in itself but a portal to opportunities and experiences

With so much emphasis placed on getting into the “best” schools, it is no wonder that students feel extreme pressure and also fear and anxiety. Through my experiences with my own children’s high school guidance process, there has been little discussion of how to prepare students to be successful once in college, or more importantly, how to access the resources and opportunities to best support their happiness, mental health and achievement. While gaining admittance to many colleges and universities can be challenging and certainly worthy of focus and celebration, it is by no means the end, but only a beginning. The notion of leveraging the opportunities and experiences that a particular college or university affords, calls for a different type of support, guidance and empowerment. Since many students select colleges and universities from a distance, that is, not necessarily going deep into respective offerings and opportunities, they must orient themselves while at the same time completing demanding coursework and requirements. Moreover, the process of exploration can take time as students begin to discover what they like versus what they thought they liked or wanted to pursue. If parents can see this exploration as an integral part of the college experience, rather than a failing of the student or the institution, students can embrace the journey more fully and often towards better outcomes.

Curiosity and excitement rather than fear

Intentions matter when it comes to education. Students who approach their experiences through the lenses of positivity and confidence fare better across a number of measures. They also show more resilience, persevering over time and experiencing more satisfaction in their accomplishments. In order to reap these benefits, however, confidence must come from a place of authentic interest, vision or a sense of purpose or belief in what is possible or important. The source must be deeper and stronger than simply wanting to achieve, perform, or make one’s parents happy or proud. It needs to be strong enough to guide students through failures, crises and other bumps in the road that invariably creep up during college.  When students are caught up in fear, I try to help them “flip it”, to set some goals that connect with their curiosity and excitement. Helping students see the value of these intentions early on (in fact, as early as possible) will help them develop an internal “sensor” and an ability to make good decisions when they find themselves off course or in a state of dissonance (when their feelings or outcomes conflict with their expectations or plans).

The value of negative evidence (when we are able to access it)

From the standpoint of helping us clarify our academic and professional goals, negative evidence is even more powerful than our successes. By negative evidence I mean “when things do not result in the positive outcomes we desire or expect”- I hesitate to use the word “failures” which is the obvious way to think about negative evidence. The notion of failure is so charged, especially in education, that we literally shut down when we feel ourselves in its gravitational pull. Instead, think of negative evidence as disconfirming input. If you try one method of studying and you get a poor grade, then your grade suggests that your method of studying is not effective- at least for that particular course or professor. If you get poor grades across a category of courses, then the pattern of performance may suggest certain weaknesses or challenges or perhaps a lack of fit. The point is that our methods and approaches to interacting with our world aren’t always successful or adequate, especially as the context and expectations around us change. Often we need to modify our approaches, and the more information we get, the better we can adjust and adapt. But the beauty of college is that we can pursue areas of study and work that align with our core interests and strengths. So while students will and should experience challenges that stretch and develop their capacities and toolkits, sometimes patterns of negative evidence suggest problems with “fit” and can provide opportunities for students to pivot and explore other pathways that may be better suited. I find the biggest challenge in helping students access the insights offered by negative evidence is their fear of parents’ judgment, disappointment, or insistence that they pursue a given major or complete their studies on time.

Everything is connected but it can be tricky to see the patterns

Students often find me when they have switched majors multiple times, either formally or in their heads. They share a sense of frustration and even desperation as they try to settle on a major, reporting that they have “tried” a number of options, but can’t seem to settle on the right one. As I listen to them list their pivots, I often hear embarrassment and shame, a sense that they have somehow failed and wasted precious time pursuing the “wrong” pathway. In these situations, my work involves disabusing them of this notion of failure and instead encouraging them to see their various efforts as valuable data points. The notion of trying something is exactly what we want students to do in college. In essence, we want them to become researchers on themselves- trying something based on hypotheses or expectations, and then they see how it goes- reflecting on the results and learning from outcomes, they can make modifications and adjustments toward some increasingly clarified goal or endpoint. The great news is that there are so many different career paths and professional pathways- more than students, and certainly parents, even know. And the fact that new fields of study and innovation are emerging all the time means that professional and academic opportunities are much more abundant than we are led to believe. If students are able to see patterns with regard to their interests (and their boundaries), they can find areas of study and work that align closely with their strengths and passions, setting them up for exciting and fulfilling careers and the ability to flex and pivot as the landscape continues to evolve and change.

You as a mentor

Ideally, the relationship between parent and child evolves as the they get ready to start college or university. As my own children get older, I think of myself more as a mentor, recognizing that their choices are largely their own, and that the best I can do is to help them navigate options and experiences, learning as they go towards finding their place in the world and hopefully living fulfilling and productive lives. Being a mentor is not always easy or natural for everyone, but it is a journey worth taking. Here are some points of conversation or exploration that I utilize in my own interactions with students – and even adults who are contemplating professional growth or change.

Start from what you love

I begin my conversations by asking students when they are their happiest, what activities they most enjoy, what they are really good at, or other types of questions that seek to clarify a point of positivity, excitement or joy. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for some students (and adults) to get there. Sometimes we need to look for “clues”, asking what their parents, siblings, friends or childhood teachers would say about their strengths or talents. However you get there, this place of positivity can be “mined” for valuable details about the why’s and how’s and what’s- why do you love to ………….., how does it make you feel, what is it about that activity or topic that makes you feel that way…..   these insights can be pivotal in developing a sensitivity to “fit” with regard to careers,  academic pathways, and learning experiences that might be worth exploring.   

Explore emerging fields and innovations to see what inspires you

You would be amazed at how many students say they want to be engineers, doctors, lawyers (or virtually any other career) and yet show little or no interest in related stories, topics or articles. To be blunt, you cannot really fake interest- even if your parents expect you to. I find that many students, and adults, aren’t really curious about anything- or rather, haven’t discovered areas of curiosity, often because they are so busy meeting the expectations of their daily lives. With the demands of coursework, jobs and related commitments and social engagements, it is easy to become detached from curiosity and inspiration. Taking time to scan magazines, news sites or blogs is a great way to discover or rediscover your interests, a step that is critical to finding greater fulfillment and inspiration.

Examine your own experiences through this aspirational lens

Once your student gets excited about some field or area of innovation, help them examine their own experiences through that lens, identifying any accomplishments, skills or experiences that are at all related. Students (and adults) often miss authentic experiences that may not be tied to formalized jobs or programs. In the world of experiential learning, authenticity is the gold standard. So even hardships, struggles or negative evidence can be transformed into assets and resources related to academic or professional opportunities. Having a strong foundation on which to build is the best place from which to approach growth and opportunity.

What are the key gaps between your current capacity and where you’d like to be?

Once you have a point of inspiration that connects with your curiosity, passions or sense of purpose, and you can see your core capacities and resources on which you can build, now you can identify gaps and areas for cultivation and growth. Notice that approaching our “deficits” in this way is neither threatening nor demeaning. It is simply recognizing a pathway toward a goal or vision that is inherently meaningful AND possible to achieve. This approach is more likely to encourage risk taking, resilience, and grit while supporting mental health and general wellbeing than the alternative approaches often embraced.

Now look at the systems you have access to

Once you have a general sense of directionality and areas for growth, it is time to revisit the systems you have access to- including college or university. I often say that my own university – and really all US colleges and universities- are like grand buffets, with an amazing array of opportunities, programs and resources all waiting for students to activate. Of course, each college and university has a unique assortment of resources, both in terms of formalized programming and unique culture and setting, with people, places and experiences that can be accessed and leveraged. When we lack a clear sense of purpose or inspiration, we often fail to recognize the full array of opportunities that are available and instead see only the negative, pulling us into “the weeds” and undermining our success, fulfillment or growth.

Developing powerful narratives

Realizing that this post is already way too long, I will end with the importance of developing powerful narratives. Stories are undeniably powerful- both the stories we tell those around us, but also the stories that play out in our heads as we go through life. One of the most exciting things about college is the opportunity to develop powerful and resonant narratives about ourselves that emerge as we meet diverse people and ideas, challenge our core assumptions and beliefs, and explore and test different career options and ways of life. As we gain insights about ourselves and our place in the world, we can practice talking about who were are and hope to become. Sharing this evolution of ourselves with families, parents and friends, can be exciting when others recognize the vulnerability that comes along and respond with care and support. I can tell you that colleges and universities are full of faculty and staff, like myself, who are ready and eager to help your child navigate this process and leverage the buffet of resources and opportunities that we provide. When I contemplate the future of Higher Education, I am unsure whether our institutions in their current states of abundance will be able to continue to thrive. But I do know that they are a gift to our children, our communities and our world, offering riches beyond what most of our students and parents recognize or understand. In addition to helping our children gain access to Higher Education, we need to help them leverage and navigate the opportunities and resources within. I hope these insights and suggestions are helpful.

A New Version of the Higher Education Game

Dr. Nyaronga (Empire State College) engaging with student in Tanzania (his home country)

Can you feel disruption happening?  I can. Higher Education is changing from within, and it is only the beginning.

In the new version of the game, degrees and credentials are still essential, but no longer sufficient.  Experiences and contributions are the new differentiators, with employers expecting to know and see what candidates have done- what they can and will do, if hired.

Some are already playing the new version of the game, leveraging projects to open doors and access opportunities. They know that projects are undeniably powerful. At their best, they can activate ideas, theories and competencies, allowing students to reflect and demonstrate impact through compelling media and testimonials. Imagine students not just saying they are interested in a profession, but instead demonstrating their commitment, their journey to develop their knowledge and skills, their promise viewed through tangible contributions and products.

This is already happening with our top students- those competing for prestigious fellowships and scholarships. The narratives they weave for applications and interviews demonstrate they are already on their way to becoming change agents- they are safe and worthy investments, having leveraged the opportunities and resources afforded them- not just through their colleges and universities, but their unique lives, challenges, and personal stories.

Individualized experiences are clearly part of the answer. The good news (for us) is that we are still necessary. Universities and colleges offer treasures of expertise and knowledge but also the relationships and connections that undergird the best experiences and opportunities, those that support innovation and growth. The same faculty and staff who lead courses and programs can frame-out experiences that prepare students for emerging fields and systems in need of innovation and change. In addition to instruction, they can be facilitators, mentors and guides, opening up their own academic, professional, and even personal journeys for students to explore and leverage.

But how to actualize these latent resources in ways that elevate students’ access while supporting the continued viability of our educational institutions and systems? This question is quietly (in some cases silently) percolating within Higher Education, with implications that are profound and deeply threatening to the status quo.  

Clearly, the new version of the education game excites me. For it is no longer one of traditional prestige or privilege, but instead access and authenticity. It also deeply challenges our notions of leadership- calling on new skills and competencies that are largely yet to be developed or accepted. For in this new version of the game, leaders must re-imagine and re-engineer our systems, moving us from structural constraints and limitations to catalytic possibilities and growth.

As someone who has long worked to disrupt from within, I can feel the energy of this seismic shift. Students and employers are wanting more, and young faculty are neither afraid nor reluctant to meet the call. As we dip our feet into project-based collaboration, virtual exchange, and other pedagogical innovations that open up our university while connecting students with the world in personal and profound ways, we cannot help wanting and pursuing more.

Yes, the game is definitely changing, and many of us are beyond ready to play.

As our universities deepen investments in experiential learning, we need students who are ready and able to play

Increasingly, I see my University as a vast playground filled with experiences and offerings of vibrant shapes, texture and variety. Our playgrounds call us to create, to fill their spaces and open their walls, inviting in and reaching out as we become more experiential, global and integrative.

While our playground is indeed spectacular, I wish there were more students willing and able to play. Instead, many are too busy; consumed with multiple majors, accelerated programs and matters of importance. Others feel squeezed by competing jobs, responsibilities, and day-to-day obligations; and other students simply lack the curiosity or interest to explore.

I know that many of our students will eventually find their spark, but it often takes time. I am increasingly meeting students who wait until their senior year to explore internships or projects, often creating a “gap year” after graduation in order to gain experience and clarity before applying to graduate school or seeking employment. In the meantime, we all stand ready- developing new programs and opportunities, waiting to support students’ interests, passions, and sense of purpose as they become clearer; waiting to connect them with the world and the world with them. I just wish they would come more ready to play.

But how would they even know about our playground? With two college-aged children of my own, I am all too familiar with the seriousness of college preparation. Taking advanced courses, preparing for standardized tests, competing to get into the best colleges, there is virtually no talk of play or leveraging the bounty of experiences once they arrive on a campus.

When I explain to students all that we have created just for their benefit, they seem surprised and somewhat confused. The idea of finding their purpose through travel, research, internships or mentored projects, seems somehow foreign and perhaps in conflict with the prescribed nature of their formalized curriculum. How do we expect them to conform to expectations and competitive standards, while at the same time stretching and soaring, diving into complexity and embracing challenge and ambiguity?

I explain that achievement and mastery are undeniably important, but are not to be sought in isolation, or as drivers of learning. They are not powerful enough to sustain our interest or commitment over time and challenge. Instead, we must seek inspiration, a sense of curiosity, purpose, a drive to innovate, or a passion to lead- goals that are bold and personal, and will provide us courage and comfort when we need them most. These are the ideas that will inspire us to play.

Perhaps it is our responsibility to introduce learners of all ages to our new playgrounds much sooner, inviting them to engage and explore the benefits for themselves. Maybe we can (should) help the community build experiential learning playgrounds of their own. For if we truly believe that experiences can empower students to take their place in a rapidly changing world, then don’t we need to stretch beyond the constraints of traditional programs and curricula, awakening and leveraging our collective sense of purpose and play?

An Elegant Education System?

I’ve always been drawn to the elegant simplicity of well-designed systems.  Perhaps it’s the certainty of success that grabs me, the notion that the desired outcome will be a foregone conclusion once the design is complete and all components working in concert.  Or maybe it’s the inherent leanness, with no extra parts or unnecessary complexities, the entire system existing for a solitary purpose and functionality.

Nowadays we have endless examples of well-designed systems, especially in the technology domain. In fact, we’ve become so good at building them that we find ourselves providing conveniences and applications that we never even imagined ourselves needing or wanting.  Constrained only by our ability to dream up new functions and outputs, it’s not surprising that many view our capabilities as endless with nothing but potential ahead.

Yet in stark contrast to these elegant and efficient applications are the very systems that underlie and affect our most critical societal functions and needs.  And although a number exist, the most troubling by far is the public education system which impacts virtually every facet of our societal health and wellbeing. The target of seemingly endless criticisms and critiques, the education system as we know it continues to be both broken and incomplete with no indication that any of the component pipes or their respective leaders have the capacity- or intention- to reengineer the pipeline into an elegant system.

But since there is no viable alternative to be found, we must forge ahead with the painful yet critical comparisons between an elegant and well-designed education system and our current approach.  For it is only by envisioning our ideal system and ientifying and clarifying the gaps and failures that we can discover the drivers and levers for change.

I look forward to diving into this design and mapping work in the coming months.  I’ll try to post the products of our efforts as they evolve, but please contact me directly if you’d like to participate.

Please view and share my recent TEDx presentation to learn more about why our pipeline is incomplete in addition to being broken….

http://youtu.be/NpNwz0zk7ns

Dear Superintendent (From Say Yes “Letters to the Superintendent” Book Project)

May 24, 2012

Dear Superintendent,

It is with somewhat conflicted emotions that I welcome you to our schools and community. Like my fellow Buffalonians, I have anticipated your arrival with great hope and urgency and a clear understanding that the future of our youth and city lies largely in your hands. But as I welcome you I must also share a sense of caution and a need to prepare you for the darker side of our community’s embrace. You will find that like other cities across the nation, we too are experiencing a heightened need for accountability and change; a need that has grown over the years into an almost ravenous impatience, making us both fickle and self-destructive, and most desperately in need of leadership.

I pray you recognize that these two emotions- hope and impatience- have a common root; the realization that our children are our most precious resource and a fear that we have irreparably failed them. Of course this fear manifests itself in many forms- activism, policies and panaceas- and many voices, each colored by politics, ideologies, and agendas, all clashing and competing in a cacophony of noise.

But fortunately it is not only fear that binds us. Our community is connected by a bounty of riches that we collectively guard and admire, but have yet to unlock.  And while we celebrate our grand history, world renowned architecture, and cultural assets, few realize that our schools are among our greatest riches, offering treasure more abundant than we know.

You see, Buffalo is in the midst of a most extraordinary experiment, one worthy of the country’s most careful attention.  Today, there are no fewer than five major reform initiatives underway across the district- each supported by federal and/or local investments.  They include the coveted Promise Neighborhood grant modeled after the Harlem Children Zone; Say Yes to Education; Choice Neighborhoods, funded by HUD; a $10 million NSF Math Science Partnership grant; and an initiative on the West Side sponsored by Buffalo State College.  While these programs all share a common focus on student and community supports and evidence-based interventions, they also represent important differences, with each initiative testing a fundamentally different approach to school and neighborhood reform.  And at the center of these diverse approaches firmly stands the Buffalo School District, keepers of the participating schools, students, and their respective data.

Indeed, in no other city across the country is the problem of Urban Education being studied in such a fully developed quasi-experiment. The collective data, if compiled and analyzed within a comprehensive research design, could inform not only our own efforts but the future shape of policy and implementation with implications for districts and students across the country.  It should be noted that in Buffalo these efforts are already underway, with each initiative in varying stages of funding and implementation, with its own management and leadership teams.   All that is missing is a champion to rally us around the work and a process to weave together these disparate approaches into a thoughtful and comprehensive vision.

As Superintendent you will be a primary keeper of this vision, but since it has yet to be created there is still nothing to be kept.  We cannot skip the exercise of defining our beliefs, promises, and expectations. Our vision must be powerful, clear, and shared in a way that is meaningful and real- so real that with time we will all know it, dream it, and begin to make it happen- for our students, ourselves, and for future generations.  Clearly, this exercise and our resulting efforts will not excuse us from external mandates or performance expectations.  But it will provide a more meaningful frame through which to address and interpret related metrics.  If done correctly, this vision and its components will provide the clarity necessary for us to be nimble, deliberate, and collaborative- all signs of a healthy dynamic system able to thrive and sustain itself while adapting within an ever-changing world.

It is indeed an interesting and important time to assume your new role as our Superintendent of Schools.  But as you prepare for the many challenges and opportunities ahead, please know that we are ready for your leadership and eager to contribute our own resources and contributions toward the collective good.

I look forward to meeting you and working together in the months ahead,

Points of Leverage: Teacher Preparation Programs

Just yesterday I had a discussion with my good friend Dr. James Williams, former Superintedent of Buffalo Schools. In addition to reminding me how much I miss him, our conversation focused on a topic that has dominated a great deal of our individual and collective attention- teacher preparation. Back in 2007 when I worked with Dr. Williams through my then role as Liaison for Higher Education Partnerships, and shortly after as Director of the UB- Buffalo Public Schools Partnership, he was very concerned about the (perceived) lack of alignment between area teacher education programs and the needs and realities of the Buffalo Schools. I, on the other hand, was continuing my early experiences co-leading the accreditation of the UB Teacher Education Program by serving on the Accreditation Panel for the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC), which has since become CAEP. My own interests focused on PK-16 collaboration and ways to ensure a stronger and more functional alignment between systems.

Despite our differences in specific focus, however, we have both continued our efforts and thinking related to this important topic. Dr. Williams has become actively involved in the process of researching the quality of teacher education programs through the lens of urban education and providing a publically shared rating system, in hopes that this will help drive reform and strengthen higher education programs. While I have maintained my engagement with the accreditation process, I continue to think about structural levers and mechanisms that could potentially support greater alignment if used appropriately. This is of course where my brain always goes- trying to “map out” systems and identify drivers that can help catalyze significant change.

In the world of teacher preparation I continue to see two prominent vehicles for major urban school districts to catalyze change. Although from the viewpoint of higher education these could be extremely scary if leveraged, I feel compelled to point them out if only as a “thought exercise”. The first involves hiring of teachers and the possibility of exercising (and publicizing) preferential hiring or endorsement of specific programs or specialized training. In major cities in which the public districts represent the main employers of new teachers, such public endorsement could have a significant impact on students’ choices for enrollment. And by partnering with districts to develop specialized programs that are deemed to be especially well-aligned, colleges could gain a competitive edge in a time when enrollments are becoming increasingly precious. Since the market of teacher education programs is not highly differentiated with regard to obvious curricular, quality, or placement related distinctions, it is theoretically sensitive to changes in the external market.

A second area that has significant implications is the placement of student teachers. Although higher education programs are required to place candidates in high needs schools/settings, there is no specific mandate for districts to accept and place student teachers. Accordingly, as a point of leverage, if urban superintendents were to limit the acceptance of student teachers based on endorsement of specific teacher education programs and their curricula, higher education programs could theoretically be impacted with regard to their own continued viability.

It should be noted that I am certainly not trying to put institutions of higher education and their programs at risk, nor am I passing any judgment on the quality of their specific programs. I am, however, pointing out some significant points of leverage that have implications for interests in strengthening the alignment between preparation programs and the realities of the districts they serve.

Mapping Not Mopping

Although the notion of a seamless education pipeline is inherently appealing, it remains a metaphor far removed from reality. The idea that the simple tightening of connections between PreK-12 and higher education will yield a continuous flow of preparation is a gross oversimplification at best. While important, public education and colleges/universities are joined by other entities such as federal and state departments of education; teachers unions; and teacher preparation programs that contribute to the overall drippiness of our current education system. These units and others that provide resources, policies, or expectations related to education must also be sealed together. But before we reach for the proverbial soldering gun, we need to make sure that all the pieces are in the right order.

The efficacy of a pipeline, after all, lies in its ability to channel matter to a specified location. It is that end location that serves as the driver for the entire system and determines the length and complexity of the plumbing. With regard to the education pipeline, we have seen a gradual lengthening over recent years. While education departments continue to focus on state assessments and high school graduation rates, they are extending their purview to include college readiness and participation. And although all agree that higher education represents a critical pathway, many have suggested adult workforce trends as the appropriate focus for reforms, implying that rather than PreK to college, the education pipeline should extend from “cradle to grave.”

By extending the pipeline to include workforce development it shifts our collective focus to the notion of “workforce readiness” and behooves us to identify the skills and dispositions that are critical for students, graduates, and employees. Clearly to be competitive in the global economy we need graduates who are innovators, problem solvers, and thinkers; men and women who can address the complex challenges and opportunities that continue to emerge and evolve within our communities- local, national, and abroad. Clarifying these dispositions and skill sets may be just what we need to reconfigure our education pipeline in a manner that will prepare our students for success- not by magic or exception, but by design.

Once our expectations are operationalized we can begin the task of working backwards to align and tighten. If we are serious about strengthening our economic competitiveness, workforce development must be front and center as we examine job trends and accompanying educational profiles, and push these expectations down through higher education and PreK-12 curricula. In addition to traditional knowledge competencies we must also create opportunities for the development of soft skills including critical thinking, interpersonal communication, and metacognitive strategies that will allow students to contribute as active participants in our evolving economy. And while we are tackling the curriculum it is also imperative that we align teacher preparation programs to ensure the development of teachers who are able to cultivate these dispositions and competencies- for we simply cannot prepare students without teachers who are prepared themselves.

Is it really possible to reconfigure a pipeline that is so complex and antiquated? Absolutely, and it is through this alignment ONLY that the system can operate efficiently and be evaluated in a meaningful way. But clearly, the system cannot overhaul itself. Regardless of their best intentions, the individual pipes lack the power to transcend their respective missions and goals. A job of this scale requires an architect who while knowledgeable about all components, maintains a clear and unyielding focus on the final vision. It also calls for a team of expert technicians who can map backwards from the endpoint, aligning and tightening as they go.

Clearly this task of retrofitting our entire education system is a daunting one. And understandably many may be more comfortable continuing with the status quo. But if this is the route that our country continues to take with regard to education, then our only hope- at the risk of taking the plumbing metaphor too far- is to invest in a serious pair of waders.