Thursday, March 31, 2011

A really good story, regardless of the ending

At the beginning of the semester, I wrote about student frustration as a valuable learning opportunity in our business simulation.  Today, one team hit the jackpot.  I watched in utter fascination as four students who have been struggling with their decisions--and, therefore, the performance of their company--stayed beyond the three-hours scheduled for our class...because they wanted to stay.

They were excited about the all-or-nothing plan for the next round.  They assured me that this plan will make them the story I'll remember and tell when I talk about business strategy. They reminded me that I have encouraged them to take risks in order to learn.  They laughed, they talked about how energized and excited they were, and they reminded one another what a great end-of-semester presentation their decision will make, whether or not they are successful.

Hearing the excitement and the laughter...seeing the smiles on the faces of these young men...knowing four students chose an opportunity to learn over an opportunity to play it safe...

They're right.  This is the story I'll tell.

Monday, March 28, 2011

We have come to equate erudite and obscure with competent and intelligent.

It's a note I scribbled on the back of a business card.  I don't remember why or when I wrote it, but the note has stayed next to my computer for several weeks.  I'm not opposed to big words, complicated theories, or the need for scientific-mathematical accuracy, but I'm frustrated by the tendency to confuse obfuscation with knowledge.

Distilling the essence of a thing accurately and precisely requires far more understanding than endless writing or talking about the fine points or meandering through the complications and details, until all hearers, readers, or followers are lost or befuddled.  Einstein's brilliance is represented both by the details behind and the summation of  E=mc².  The details of Einstein's theory may be difficult to grasp and follow, but the distillation hooks us, allows further exploration, and anchors what we do learn.

Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist, may be one of the greatest minds of my lifetime.  One of my favorite things about Professor Hawking is his ability--and desire--to explain his insights in language that most adults can grasp.  That, and the fact that he has chosen to author books for children.  Yep, he writes for children.  Stephen Hawking writes children's books.  So did Rudyard Kipling, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis and a host of other competent and intelligent men and women.

Perhaps it's not so far-fetched, then, for me to insist that students be able to explain what they know using terms and words that a 12-year-old can understand.  To delve into a subject, wrap ones mind around the nuances, wrestle the subject matter into submission, then master it fully by explaining the subject simply and elegantly is the goal of education.  It's my goal, anyway, and I think there are adequate examples throughout history that greater thinkers than I have used this method of assessing mastery.

Erudition and obscurity are overrated; competence and intelligence are not.  We need the hooks that lead us to explore and the anchors that allow us to retain.  True genius lies in that direction.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Our childhood stories

The majority of the 35 graduate students who were asked to write about a children's book--a book which might hold lessons for their professional life--chose to write about their favorite book from childhood.  I'm not sure why that surprised me, but it did.  And I was equally surprised by how many of their selections are on my own list of favorite books:
  • Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol
  • The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper
  • If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff
  • If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss
  • Curious George by Margret and H.A. Rey
  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • You're You, Charlie Brown by Charles M. Shultz 
  • The Tale of Benjamin Bunny by Beatrix Potter
  • The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room by Stan and Jan Berenstain
  • The Missing Piece and the Big O by Shel Silverstain
What touched me were the personal stories woven into the beloved books from childhood.  Books read by mom or dad...the first book they remember reading alone...the book that helped make sense of the world.  One student told me about going home over the previous weekend and asking her mother about Plateo.  Mom had forgotten about the book and, once reminded, didn't know where it was.  But the student searched, found the book, wrote her assignment, and brought the book to class. 

One doesn't expect a graduate student in accounting to bring a children's book to share with her teacher.  And I didn't expect to see her eyes light up when she talked about Plateo (Guy Gilchrist's Plateo's Big Race: A Tiny Dinos Story About Learning), her memories of the book and the character, the scribbling (her own) she'd found in the book, the message she remembered, or how happy she was to have reclaimed this piece of her childhood.  She brought the book to class so that I could see it, touch it, and read it. She brought a reclaimed piece of herself to class and it was the best moment of my day.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Stay tuned for Dr. Seuss

The assignment for Wednesday is to read a children's book and write about the lessons to be learned for your profession or career.  As an example, I offered what I wrote about Amelia Bedelia when my daughter was in elementary school:

Like many of you, I wear two hats.  By day, I work for Accenture’s resources operating group out of the Houston office; the rest of the time, I’m the mother of seven-year-old Emily. Being a bibliophile for most of my life, I originally had some concerns that my brain would atrophy as the books I opened most often had more pictures than words. But I assure you, I was wrong. The expanded diversity in my reading matter has had unexpected benefits.  Stepping away from all the serious stuff provides a slightly different perspective on my world, both personally and professionally (you just can’t read about the stubbornness of north-bound and south-bound Zaxes without doing some serious self-examination). In fact, in most of the best children’s literature, I’ve discovered an untapped network of experts on topics of vital interest to consultants, mommies, and people in general.

Take Amelia Bedelia, for example (who, by the way, never goes by just “Amelia”). She’s been one of my daughter’s favorite characters for about a year now. If you ask her why she likes Amelia Bedelia, Emily will answer, “Because she makes me laugh and, after a while, I can tell what she’s going to do…(pause)…and because there are no bad guys.” I can understand that completely. When I think about it for a minute, that’s a pretty good description of the best work and/or teams I’ve experienced: I enjoyed them, I acquired a sense of mastery, and there weren’t any bad guys.

At the beginning of her first book, Amelia Bedelia has just been hired by Mr. and Mrs. Rogers to provide housekeeping services. In a brief suspension of reality (ever notice how good children are at that? and how bad adults are??), the Rogers leave Amelia Bedelia in their home on her first day of work with a list of duties to be performed and instructions to “do just what the list says.”  Some of the items on the list:

  1. Change the towels in the green bathroom
  2. Dust the furniture
  3. Draw the drapes when the sun comes in
  4. Measure two cups of rice
Though she doesn’t understand why she’s being asked to do things that make no sense to her, Amelia Bedelia fulfills every request. Using scissors, she cuts artistic designs into the towels, then hopes she’s changed them enough. She locates the “dusting powder” in the bathroom and thoroughly dusts the furniture, admitting that it does smell nice. When the sun comes through the drapes, she sits right down and draws a lovely picture of those drapes. She finds two cups, fills them with rice, carefully measures (“4 ½ inches”), and then pours the rice back into the container. With good humor, she acknowledges that “these folks sure want me to do funny things” and continues with her list.

Oh, and while accomplishing everything on her list, Amelia Bedelia takes the initiative to throw together “a little of this and a pinch of that” to create the best lemon meringue pie Mr. and Mrs. Rogers have ever tasted. Good thing, too, because that pie is the only thing that keeps Amelia Bedelia employed. Being able to eat pie that terrific is worth a little adjustment in communication style (“undust the furniture” and “close the drapes”).

As I read (and read and read and read…you get the picture) this book, I began to see some messages for me in my role as a consultant:

  • A little suspension of reality may be required to finish the story… or to reach a positive outcome. Try to suspend judgment that it won’t/can’t work; maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
  • Good communication is more of an art than a science. Hang around enough to be sure the message you think you are sending is the one being received.
  • It’s not always easy working with creative or innovative people…but there’s generally a really good reason to do so.
  • Nurturing creativity (I’d settle for just not killing it) requires some adjustments all the way around. If we “adjust” the creative folks into alignment with the rest of us, we’ve just destroyed the very thing that makes them so valuable.
  • Most of us take ourselves—and our deliverables—just a wee bit too seriously. Mistakes in our industry are generally not life threatening…unless we’re the ones making the threats. We learn from our mistakes because they are inherently painful, not necessarily because someone else beats us up.
  • Sometimes it’s the little, unasked-for things we do for clients—the ones they haven’t expected, but end up valuing—that cement our relationship with them.

The big message: If we are truly open to learning, we can find knowledge in the most unlikely places.

Many years removed, in a different place and time, I'm curious what the students will submit.  Stay tuned. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Defining moments

"And the next time I teach this course, I'd like to..." was the phrase that clinched it for me.  I realized when I heard myself speaking those words that I want a next time...I want to teach this class again...this is where I want to be.  It took both that defining moment and every bit of resolve I have to turn down the non-teaching role I was offered last week.  To look a person I admire in the eye and say that I'd rather be in the classroom than in the role being offered.

Conventional wisdom says that we advance in our chosen professions, that we take the next step up the ladder, that we move, ultimately, into management.  I've taken those steps before--sometimes choosing wisely; other times not--and I am honored (and not a little surprised) to be given another opportunity.  But if I have a calling, it is to lead within the classroom, rather than without.  It's not a perfect job and there are days when I question not only why I do it, but also whether I am remotely competent.  The answers to both why and whether are seeing a student have his "aha" moment or hearing a student say she's thought about something in a completely new light.  And one of the greatest joys is reading what students are capable of writing, especially when they given room to find a voice--their own.The one they lost in some academic desert.

It was hard for me to hear that my "no" was a disappointment to that person I admire.  It would have been far harder for me to walk away from the classroom.  And the next time I teach this course, I'd like to remember this moment.