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.
In this video I share a process for resetting your community development work that can be used when you are feeling stuck or out of alignment. By using the modeling framework described in my previous video, I discuss 5 design elements that will allow you to identify changes or challenges and make the necessary adjustments to get your initiative back on track toward greater success and sustainability.
Although traditional planning exercises can be useful, they’re inherently limited and flat, and of little use as we try to navigate the challenges and changes that swirl around our work, lives, and efforts to add value. In this video I make the case for “modeling” as a dynamic and powerful tool to support all stages of creating movement, building capacity and getting unstuck.
Through this new video series I will share strategies and reflections for building capacity, getting unstuck, and creating movement toward more impactful results and relationships. These tools can be applied to organizational, programmatic or individual efforts and accompany the “Be Brilliant” eBook available through this site. Join my blog site (button on right) to receive new posts and videos directly. Please share feedback and requests for additional videos and exercises focusing on specific topics or areas of brilliance. I hope you find these useful- Mara
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.
Tomorrow in Musoma, Tanzania (a rural area near the border of Kenya, along the shores of Lake Victoria), 16 girls will be receiving bicycles of their very own. The bikes will allow them to continue their schooling, providing a safe alternative to walking the many miles between the nearest school and their villages. For these orphans and vulnerable girls, bicycles will offer hope and a pathway toward growth and empowerment. The value of these gifts cannot be overstated.
So how did these beautiful, shiny new bikes find their way to Hope Revival Children’s Organization, ready to change the lives of girls who will receive them? This story involves the virtual meeting of two of my favorite people- Stephen Marwa and my father, Rich Goodman.
Those of you who follow my work, and blog, already know Stephen. I have extolled his virtues through numerous posts and also in our eBook . Since first connecting with Stephen via email in 2016, I have found him to be an outstanding partner, mentoring our students, leading collaborative initiatives, while expertly building his capacity (and the capacity of his team and organization) to steward positive community change. When our student, Danielle, became interested in a model for reusable sanitary pads, he jumped on the idea and quickly initiated the project, creating a new social enterprise that is gaining attention both within and outside of the country. From the very beginning, Stephen was ready to embrace new engagement ideas and collaborators.
Enter my father and his life-long love for bicycles. Most of my childhood memories feature my Dad engaging with bikes- fixing them, building them, or helping others learn to do so, either in his workroom, or through various community efforts, fundraisers, and collaborative initiatives. More than a hobby, he used bicycles as a vehicle for supporting learning, independence, health, and community responsibility. His organizations- first Wheel People and then Spoke Folk have done amazing things for Dunkirk, NY and the surrounding community, working with the disabled, vulnerable populations and most recently partnering with Meals on Wheels as featured in this video. Over the years I had hoped to connect my father’s social entrepreneurship projects with my evolving efforts in Tanzania, but finding the right partner has been a challenge. You see, my father’s ethical standards and expectations for collaboration are quite high, to say the least. He insists on doing things the right way, with a sense of integrity and commitment that can be daunting to some. But not to Stephen.
Upon connecting these two innovators, the impacts were catalytic. Stephen embraced the bike idea immediately, identifying a nearby bike store and getting a plan in place. The beneficiaries were identified, and he worked with his team to ensure sufficient capacity for maintaining the bikes and supporting the investment. Within three days of wiring the initial donation from THE SPOKE FOLK/WHEEL PEOPLE COMMUNITY BICYCLE PROJECT (now an independent community initiative), I received pictures of the purchased bicycles and news that they will be distributed tomorrow.
I cannot wait to see what comes of this initiative. It appears that Stephen and my father are already discussing future plans for a bike repair center and workshop. Clearly the programmatic possibilities are infinite. But beyond this, their collaboration makes me realize the importance of readiness. My father has been ready for a long time, waiting for the right opportunity and partner to activate his considerable talents and resources. And Stephen’s readiness has been building; a readiness to embrace opportunities that align with his community’s needs, building his amazing HRCO team and organization, and his relationships with area leaders and their communities. His capacity building has extended to his mastery of technology, grant writing and a reputation quickly built on integrity, transparency and follow-through.
What can happen when we connect people who are truly ready; when we incubate partnership spaces that are built on trust, respect and a mutual commitment to growth and empowerment? I feel truly blessed to be engaged in this work and poised to behold and nurture its impacts.
Photo 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.
(photos by Doug Levere)
As we deepen our commitment to high-impact experiential learning and collaborative innovation, we recognize that everyone has something of value to contribute. We find that the closer we get to places, people and problems, the more we can leverage our talents, resources and connections. This is the promise of high-impact experiential learning that we look forward to actualizing in the coming year.
This July, as we travel to Tanzania to celebrate 10 years of engagement, friendship and discovery, I am excited to bring a select group of non-students to join our study abroad cohort, ready to contribute their talents, resources and ideas to help expand our reach and broaden our impacts.
What will you gain from the trip? In addition to experiencing the unparalleled beauty of Tanzania and the hospitality of its people, you will engage with our students, joining all aspects of the program and customizing your own goals and projects based on your unique background, areas of expertise and networks.
The course focuses broadly on women’s empowerment and social innovation, with many themes and topics to be explored, including but not limited to: girls’ education, water and sustainability, economic development, global health, social entrepreneurship, technology, STEM education, and leadership. Our partners include non-profits, higher education, faith-based, schools and other communities and organizations eager to expand our collaboration toward mutual goals and interests.
You can learn more about the trip and our broader Tanzania project by reading our eBook, “On Tanzania Time” available as an open-source free PDF http://hdl.handle.net/10477/78315
If you are interested in learning more, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org I would love to discuss your interests!
Registration is now open for our 2019 Study Abroad trip to Tanzania. begin registration
Through this unique high-impact experiential learning course, participants will engage with our community partners cultivated through 10 years of engagement, friendship and collaboration. Students will participate in activities designed to foster critical reflection and transformative learning around topics related to girls’ empowerment, community development and collaborative innovation.
Although the course is designed for students, a few spots will be reserved for non-students who will share their expertise, resources and ideas through customized experiential learning projects.
Trip highlights will include:
- 2-week trip will begin and end in Dar Es Salaam, the cosmopolitan port city with cultural tours and visits to Bagamoyo
- After flying to Mwanza , we will drive along Lake Victoria to the Mara Region for 4 days of learning and engagement with our community partners
- A 3-day guided safari through the Serengeti Game Preserve, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara Region, before driving to Arusha
- Return visit to Dar Es Salaam with day trip to nearby island before flying home to work on final projects