Tag Archives: student

Pieces of an Ecology of Workplace Learning

9 Apr

Lately I’ve been saying that you should cultivate learning in your organization as you might manage an ecological resource, like a forest, or any other complex system of high priority (like your computer network or your budget). As if learning were a “cognitive enterprise infrastructure” or worked like a kind of water cycle. But how would you do that, and what would it be like, and how would it be different than what you do when you think of your workplace as a kind of machine that consistently produces material stuff? I am not totally sure, but here I take a guess at nine possible pieces of an ecology of workplace learning.

  1. Cultivate Development, Rather Than Manage Performance. The point is not to manage people’s performances, but rather to get them to develop as much as they can, on the assumption that more highly evolved people do better things. The annual performance review that tracks behaviors against rather limited metrics and has a kind of binary output (wrong or OK) here evolves into something more like a coaching relationship in an experiential context: growth is the focus, not proscription. You look for activities that are motivating to the individual, that are a bit out of their comfort zone, yes, and you expect to support them in iterative cycles of trying things out, reflecting, adapting, and trying them out again. And you might add a variety of unheard-of supports and activities to help people think and reflect and be aware of themselves in a variety of dimensions, drawing on things from personality styles assessments to mentoring relationships to counseling-like activities, such as item 2, below. The trick is that these things, that we kinda do now in a knee-jerk way, away from work, would be more like the work.
  2. Support Cognitive Development. According to the work of Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey (whom I talk about a lot), we evolve through a series of increasingly sophisticated ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us. That is, we can so develop, if given the right environment. And with this increased epistemological sophistication comes a better ability to deal with and thrive in complex environments. One such complex environment is the increasingly global, flat, multi-cultural, resource-starved, post-ideological, environmentally-challenged, a-traditional, scary world of today. To help people be effective in this kind of world requires activities that help us know differently; Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change coaching process is one such structure. Having done it myself, I am amazed by its ability to make you reinvent the way you think about yourself and the world in which you engage; I fairly salivate to try it with a team of colleagues in a workplace. The downside? It’s an intensive, six-month process of bi-weekly meetings, invoking much deep personal questioning; that’s a huge investment. But in an ecology of workplace learning, invest in people is what you do: no rain means no rivers means no seas means no evaporation means no rain, etc.
  3. Assess Development in New Ways. In Higher Education we try to assess student learning, and it’s a challenge. But we don’t even try to assess faculty and staff learning; and the generic workplace doesn’t generally assess staff learning, either. But we should.  To promote development over production, we have see where this development is happening, individually and in teams. Of course it gets tricky: it’s easy to see your behaviors, but how do you see what’s going on behind the behaviors? Fortunately there are new kinds of tools that have potential in this regard: things like the Developmental Testing Service’s reflective judgment assessments, such as their test of managerial decision-making, which asks you to analyze complex, asymmetrical workplace problems, assesses you according to a complex scale of cognitive development rooted in Kurt Fischer’s work, and gives you (you yourself, the test taker!) rich feedback about your strengths and ways in which you can improve, data which feeds right back into the coaching relationship I mention above.
  4. Represent the Learning Ecosystem. If you’re going to try to manage an ecosystem, you need some kind of a representation of it. As the water cycle has its famous circular chart with arrows and the budget has its classic representations in profit/loss statements and balance sheets, so does the learning system have something. I don’t know what it will look like, exactly; but I imagine it will be something like the famous Kellogg Logic Model, which the well-known foundation suggests you use to understand your various high-stakes interventions, and which helps you see programmatic inputs, outputs, assessments, changes. With a key difference: the effect of your ecology isn’t an output external to you, it’s an evolution of your ecology. So a learning logic model would show as its characteristic feature a looping back upon its constantly changing self.
  5. Analyze How We Work; Analyze Our Culture. Part of learning is seeing yourself learn. That may be the single biggest difference between a learning organization and a producing organization: the learning organization sees itself and not just the things it makes. We will need to learn to pay attention not just to the products of our culture but to our culture, not just to the deliverable of the project, but to the way we work together on the project. For that a lot of tools exist already, like various kinds of post-activity group reflection encouraged in psychologically safe spaces, that let anyone share their experiences along the way. But new tools will help: the same sort of analytics thinking that has been transforming everything around us can help transform how we work together: social and network analyses to show us how we engage, corpus-linguistics analyses on the big data of our communications and cultural artifacts; these will help us, too, to see the patterns that make up our togetherness.
  6. Assign Staff to Cultivate Learning. Of course you can’t really have a garden without a gardener. And all the network analysis and group reflection exercises you might want to use won’t be that helpful unless it’s somebody’s job to watch learning in the organization at a meta level: to gather relevant data, assess its meaning, and help the group understand where it’s going. The teacher, if you will, of the organization. This would be a new thing: we’re used to thinking of Chief Information Officers, Chief Information Security Officers, Chief Executive Officers: this would be a Chief Learning Officer. Although of course it needs to be more than one person. And of course everyone has to be involved. But still the CLO might help organize it all. How much of your people resources should you put into learning, CLO and everything else thrown in? I propose 20% as a start. But I suspect it should be more, maybe up to 50%. Maybe 63%.
  7. Find New Ways to Gather and Share Ideas. Which Means Liking Them. One of the most important things in your organization are the ideas in people’s minds. The business world is just beginning to learn that to be relentlessly innovative, they have to gather and tend ideas in new ways, because ideas are the seed of innovation, be these ideas from their staff, their customers, their partners, their competitors. (See my last post for more on this). Part of this idea-tending requires a real cultural change–towards the acceptance and collective cultivation of ideas–and away from the general distrust of all things new that naturally grows up in an organization designed to perform consistently. Let me say that again: we will have to learn to like each other’s ideas.  And treat them, as it were, like a community resource, like, as it were, children. Because without them growing and maturing, we’ll fail. Businesses are starting to do this by building open, inclusive, idea-participation systems called Ideation Engines or Idea Stock Markets that aim to make the ideas in the group transparent and collectively developed. But I suspect you can go a long way without a particularly unique tool (a shared spreadsheet might work as well).
  8. Create Loops and Groups. In my perhaps over-simplified way of thinking, learning comes down to loops (in that feedback and reflection are crucial) and groups (in that learning is social; and in that your co-learners are as important for your learning as your own mind). So I think much of the key work of the Chief Learning Officer and her team will boil down to finding or building, and supporting, new sorts of groups in which people are desirous of learning together, and in adding “loops” to existing processes, to work reflection into the fabric of the organization.
  9. Do Some Old-School Ethnography. I am continually amazed by the complexity and mystery of people and of organizations. And by the fact that all you need to do to begin seeing and unravelling (or ravelling) the mystery is to observe people and ask questions (of course taking notes and writing down the answers). This is the way anthropologists settled on coming to know things as complex and mysterious as entire alien (to them) cultures. Libraries and IT departments have recently begun seeing that ethnography helps them understand the mysterious complexities of cultures alien to them, too (their customers). And it will work for you. On a certain level you can see an ethnographically-inclined research project as a kind of mirror to the people (if its results are shared with the people it studies), a loop at a high level, that both honors people and lets them see what’s going on. I think a lot about the emphasis in the popular Reggio Emilia model on the artful documentation of what the learners are doing; an ethnographic approach to your own organization is like that.

About Faculty-Student Interaction

22 Sep

We’ve been talking about Faculty-Student Interaction on my campus lately. It’s one of the key criteria of the success of a learning institution, it’s about whether your students and faculty talk to each other, and it’s hard to get right.

For our discussions we read Cotten and Wilsons’ “Student–faculty interactions: Dynamics and determinants,” in Higher Education, 51, 2006, which includes a good overview of the literature and describes a qualitative assessment of faculty-student interaction on a campus that I think is pretty representative.

Here’s a stream of thought influenced in part by Cotten and Wilson and in part by my own observations.

First of all, the research generally says that more student-faculty interaction is better–for student learning, development, self-worth, persistence, and other things. It also says that this interaction can come in lots of ways: it can be formal, informal, in-class, out-of-class, social, academic, accidental, planned, one-on-one, in a group, etc.

But the literature also says it happens surprisingly rarely. Why? Well, a lot of factors come to mind. Faculty and student time, the way campus space is designed (faculty and students have their own ghettos, if you will); the difference in age and activity (faculty are at “work” and students are learning and living and having fun); even differences in, um, feedback styles. Cotten and Wilson note that faculty are trained to find fault and eliminate it, while students often need just the opposite–validation.

To my mind a little bit of fear is involved, too. Many teachers seem have a deep-seated fear of having their personal life overrun by needy, informal, chaotic students asking for extensions, calling them by their first names at 3 AM, and generally acting 18. Cotten and Wilson point out students have a fear as well, of feeling obliged by a closer relationship to do more, take more responsibility, of being afraid to let the professor down. You can see each fear as the shadow of the other; in both cases people worried about the unpredictable effect of these mysterious new relationships on their work and life.

Of course these fears both assume extreme cases. You can probably hang out with students a little bit more without suddenly having them stalk you, and you could talk a little bit to a professor about their research now and then without feeling like they would show up in your dorm room if you slept late one day.

Cotten and Wilson also share what I think is a key idea–that what’s really behind improved interaction is simply a better sense of community. It does seem that people in a community do better–maybe because they have more opportunities to understand what’s expected, more room to explore how to be themselves, more room to grow into and try on new ideas and roles, something more lasting than grades and keg parties to invest in, a feeling people care about them, a feeling they are part of something bigger. But of course you can’t have a community made of ships passing in the night. (On a side note, when you start to think about community, you also realize that there are a lot of other ships passing in the nocturnal sea of our campuses. Shouldn’t we be talking about faculty-staff and student-staff interaction? Staff-parent interaction? Faculty-visitor interaction? Interactions with grad students? Etc.)

What’s sad for me about limited student-faculty interaction is that we’re missing an opportunity to let people discover their own personal path to learning by seeing how other people do it. When you think about it, the intrinsic motivation to learn–that desire to discover, learn, understand, share, improve the world, solve problems–that reason why faculty like their subjects, are drawn to research and scholarship and teaching–that wonderful motivating spark–is a deeply personal, simple, humane, human essence. That’s what we’re tying to help students find in themselves, but that’s not really communicated well in formal instruction–that’s the kind of thing that you see when someone lets their guard down, inside the Actor’s Studio, if you will, at ease in their lab, or being reflective over lunch. Situations where you don’t need to be right or official, but just yourself. If we don’t have good faculty-student interaction, students won’t get a lot of chance to see this in their faculty; if they figure it out on their own, it’ll be as it were in spite of school, not because of it.

So that’s the trouble. The solution is likely (as usual) a smörgåsbord of options. A lot of great programs exist already to improve interaction. Mentor programs, have class over for dinner programs. Take a faculty member out to lunch, Anthropology Department candle pin bowling night, etc. These are great. Even little things like reminding faculty to “act like you care about the students” or nudging students to “ask your professor about their research” help a lot, too.

As I reflect off the top of my head on additional possible things we could do, I come up with four, which I array for you free of charge, as my concluding device:

  • Share space. Let your campus space be a big studio where faculty, students, and staff are interminged in their various moments of work and play. Build buildings and networks of buildings that are not designed for any one thing–be it study, teaching, living, or research, but that allow them all. Let the Reggio Emilia idea of the environment as the “third teacher” influence the way you work together. Even let faculty live on campus! I know, crazy.
  • Eat together. You probably can’t have the magic ceiling and floating candles, but you probably have some of the other attributes of the Harry Potter dining hall experience in the big cafeterias on your campus. Why not make it so no classes or meetings or work may happen from 12 – 2 and then require people to all repair to the cafeteria? Make the food free. Add some announcements. Summer camp effect.
  • Advisory Committees. I’m a big fan of the personal advisory committee made of people outside your context (I should blog on this). It’s like peer review for your life. One boss and a colleague or two from your small sphere is not enough feedback or breadth of input for your serious and meaningful plans and personal improvement. The advisory committee could work for faculty-student interaction: imagine if each student were required to sit on the advisory committee of a faculty member not in their major, understand their research, give them suggestions on their challenges, contribute feedback on their activities, tell people about how great they are. Wouldn’t that feel neat? Call it an adopt-a-faculty member program.
  • Co-labor. This is of course rather basic, but it’s probably the best way to improve faculty-student interaction, at least of my four: give your faculty and students some task they need to do together, something they can’t do on their own, with a shared goal, and hold them mutually accountable. They will know each other fast.