Thursday, April 28, 2011

Standing firm, awash in ambiguity

I'm beginning to get more questions about what my daughter wants to study in college.  The questions, you'll notice, assume that she will go. They also assume she knows now (well before her senior year in high school) what she wants to study.  And right below the surface is another assumption--that there is a direct correlation between college major and profession or career.  

According to national surveys, (employers) want to hire 22-year-olds who can write coherently, think creatively and analyze quantitative data, and they’re perfectly happy to hire English or biology majors. Most Ivy League universities and elite liberal arts colleges, in fact, don’t even offer undergraduate business majors.
The article, a collaboration between The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education, describes many business schools as the last hope for students who are unable to perform elsewhere and questions the rigor of the typical B-school education.  And it gives me pause, for reasons personal and professional.

My undergraduate education was obtained at a private liberal arts college. I was well-prepared for the career choices I've made, most of which had little to do with my undergraduate major.   In contrast, however, is a comment I overheard a student in my class make to a class-mate; he was indignant that his instructor "doesn't even have a Ph.D. in business."  This assumption that the undergraduate major is of more value than demonstrated ability (regardless of degree field) is intriguing...and flies in the face of reality.

We look for easy answers.  We assume a simple linear model, starting with high school subject matter excellence, then early career choice, selection of the college major aligned with that career choice, and a happily-ever-after model for success.  The only problem with this model is that it rarely works.  

I teach at a B-school in the hope that it matters.  Some days, I wonder.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Learning can be painful for the instructor

In the final stretch of the academic semester, the interest always builds.  Not in the content of the course, however, but in The Grade and what it will take to get The Grade by the end of the semester.  It's perilously close to the end of my first semester to teach innovation and creativity.  I am not happy with the method I established at the beginning of the semester for determining grades and neither is a subset of my students.

In courses I've taught before, I have a reasonably robust method of assessing student learning.  I've clarified the expectations, developed rubrics (where they are of benefit), and created assignments that measure progress toward course objectives...more or less.  Because I'm never completely happy with whatever process is in place to determine The Grade.

In the innovation and creativity course, my logic at the beginning of the semester was to assess completion (rather than quality) of assignments in the majority of the homework or in-class work.  Thus, there have been frequent, short assignments with low point value (10-20 points), so that students could be candid or creative or selectively omit assignments.  The total number of points earned (at least in some portions of the course) was left to the student.  The unintended consequences were a record-keeping challenge for me and a fallacy of composition for students.

I ended up monitoring submission and/or completion of numerous assignments with low point value for 35 students; some of the students chose not to complete early assignments (due to the low point value) and are now unhappy with The Grade.  The goal of allowing students freedom to be expressive, take risks, and manage their level of interaction has worked very well for some, well enough for most, and extremely poorly for the rest.

The easy solution is to limit the number of assignments and provide more structure relative to the content.  But since the easy solution seems to defeat the purpose of the course, I have more thinking to do about how to determine The Grade when I teach this course again.  And I intend to solicit as much input as I can get from my current students...particularly the unhappy ones.  At this point, I'll take any suggestions I can get.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Perspective and meaning

This week, in the course on innovation and creativity, we talked about meaning, which is the sixth of Daniel Pink's essential aptitudes for success and fulfillment.  Viktor Frankl's work was used to introduce the final chapter:
The search for meaning is a drive that exists in all of us--and a combination of external circumstances and internal will can bring it to the surface.
I found myself wondering during our in-class discussion about the role of age on ones perspective about meaning...what it is, what it's worth, and why it matters.

I read Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning when I was about the age my students are now.  I was deeply touched by one man's ability to find meaning in the midst of suffering and loss.  The images I created while reading have stayed with me, in one form or another, informed to some degree by a visit to Dachau when I was an adolescent.  But the lifetime--one full of learning, loss, love, and laughter--between the adolescent I was and the adult I am has imbued the concept of meaning with shades and textures that may only come with living.

About the time I read Frankl's book, I also read The Phantom Tollbooth, a delight of allegory and word play.  One of the many snippets of the book that have inexplicably remained with me is the little boy whose feet don't touch the ground.  He explains that people in his family are born where their head will be in adulthood, and their feet grow down, to avoid the pesky problem of having ones perspective change as one grows.  This is, of course, delightful nonsense...but thought-provoking, delightful nonsense.

Our perspective does, of course, change as we grow, whether measured on a height chart or by some less tangible method.  The places we remember as grand are often small; the skills we struggled to acquire have the ease of habit.  We've grown and our perspective has grown with us.

Daniel Pink and I are age cohorts, which may help to explain my resonance with his assertions that we need to take our spirituality and our happiness seriously.  I wonder if my students recognize that many of their actions are mortgaging the meaningful and fleeting moments in their lives for the possibility of future gains.  I also wonder if I'm walking in the footsteps of my own teachers.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Knot in my thread

Some of the lessons are academic; others are about life.  Some are for the students; others seem to be for me.  Today is a case (or two) in point.

My first summer session will be spent with students who are employed full time, earning an MBA through the executive program, and using the business simulation to apply strategy concepts they've studied this semester.  I will have very bright students with high expectations focusing on the subject matter I fear most.  The fates seem to be having a field day here.

It's not that I don't understand business plans, income statements, balance sheets, or forecasting.  It is, however, that I am most comfortable playing to my strengths.  And I do not consider these to be my strengths. 

We challenge students to take risks, to move beyond their comfort zone, to keep learning on the job and in life. How much easier it is to teach than to do...except for the voice that reminds me about practicing what I espouse.  You can't see the look of grim determination as I write, which is probably a good thing for all concerned.

Both sides of the coin

Perhaps the corollary to taking a risk for the fun and/or the learning is that success is often met with anger and suspicion.  Human nature lives on both sides of the coin.

The team that took the big risk yesterday reaped a big win.  The first email from a student on another team arrived 30 minutes after the simulation results were posted; that email simply requested a meeting about "some simulation questions."  The next email arrived before noon and contained accusations of "unethical practices."  The correspondents are on the same team and they have concerns...about their grade, mostly, and any negative impact as a result of a competing team's success.

The phrase that concerns me the most is this one: "this jump in success is not realistic in a simulation (or the real business environment)."  Oh, but the success is realistic.  A team or a company can take an enormous risk, combining some hard-won knowledge, a bit of courage, and what can only be called luck.  There will be criticism from stockholders, customers, and employees when it goes badly.  There will be accusations from competitors when it goes well.

It will be interesting to see which students analyze this success in order to learn and emulate...and which respond with anger and suspicion.  Student frustration yields another teaching opportunity, just as soon as cooler heads prevail.