Wednesday, July 9, 2014


A recent article expounding the virtues of a life-sized maze--complete with photo and description of the maze--was captioned by a reference to a labyrinth.  That represents both sloppy journalism and sloppy thinking, a confusion of two things with some common characteristics but very different functions

The recent public press about grade inflation (which essentially means an increasing percentage of the "higher" letter grades) suggests that the increase in grades must mean a lowering of standards.  Perhaps it does.  But before I am willing to argue whether standards are slipping, I would like to see us stop conflating student ability (which is represented by various measures whose scores or results are normally distributed, thus, the ubiquitous normal curve) with student performance against a clear and measurable set of standards.

If the standards are clear for a course and most students are able by the end of the semester to reach those standards, does that necessarily mean the course standards are too low?  Could it mean, in fact, that the instructor is among the best and able to take a range of students with varying abilities and get most of them to the standard by the end of the course?

Our thinking about the goals and objectives of education is not just semantics. Sometimes it's confusion or conflation or both.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thinking about Africa

Last week, I spent time with 25 participants in the Young African Leaders Initiative. Trust me when I say I was truly humbled to be conversing with the group, as every one of them is equally or more skilled in facilitation.  They are well educated, well read, and well spoken.

While waiting for the entire group to return from lunch, I reviewed the schedule for their experience here and saw a detailed, packed agenda of sessions, events, and activities.  When I saw it, I understood why the early arrivals seemed tired.

A week later, what the group said to me has caused me to wonder (again) about the tendency of academic institutions to do what we've always done, rather than what might work better.  If I understood what these young leaders were saying, they know the challenges they are facing in Africa, they largely know what they need to do, and the realities of their lives make it difficult to plan, think, and act for the longer term. They describe Africa as in "a constant state of emergency."  The need for quick action competes with the need for thoughtful building of coalitions to achieve the goals for their communities, organizations, states, and continent.

These leaders are here in the United States for six weeks.  And I am still wondering after my brief interactions with them whether the academic "challenge" for these leaders is best served by the appearance of rigor in the schedule, the topics, and the presenters.  One wonders whether the academic challenge is how to use the six weeks (while they are at least physically removed from the crises) to collaborate on meaningful deliverables that reflect their diverse perspectives--deliverables (action plans, proposals, budgets, training plans, etc.) that have been created by the collective, allowing these leaders to model collaboration, return with useful next steps, and develop the network they will need to draw upon when the next crisis threatens.

The schedule might look less scholarly, but the outcomes might be more lasting.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

It's all connected

Grand Central Terminal.  It embodies history, architecture, advocacy, politics, fiction, romance, astronomy, art, travel, industry.  It's more than metaphor for how everything is connected.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend the Best Teachers Summer Institute, made all the more enjoyable by the proximity to New York City.  And I found myself standing quietly inside Grand Central, watching the bustle, hearing bits and pieces of conversation, and cataloging all the dots that intersected in that space and time.

For me, the dots began with childhood impressions of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who advocated for the preservation of Grand Central, intersected a work of fiction (and the love who introduced me to it) featuring Grand Central, and included the quiet moments in the midst of a busy terminal surrounded by strangers with whom I had no and every connection.

One of the gifts of time is the breadth of perspective that allows us to see more clearly from a distance. And it's odd to be a better teacher now than in my earlier years, largely due to breadth and distance that allow invisible webs of connection to be seen...or at least felt.

Perhaps not being able to articulate very well (in the classroom) how everything is connected to everything matters less than being willing to stand quietly in the midst of it all.  That, I can do.