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Dec 28, 2007

Educational Reform: The Denial of Ignorance

As the presidential campaign flares up, No Child Left Behind seems to be in big trouble; see the NY Times account. Virtually no one wants to keep the law as it is; everyone wants to either change it or scrap it. What is conspicuously absent? You guessed right: alternatives. There is a talk of changing the emphasis from testing to teaching, of changing the punitive aspects of the law, etc., etc. It seems most people, especially on the Left, imagine some vagueS softer version of accountability and perhaps more funding for schools. Folks on the Right still hope for deregulation in education, with vouchers or other form of competition unleashing market mechanisms to improve education. Of course, the Democrats are almost forced to make it an election issue, but all they can do is the negative stance against NCLB. The entire bent of Democratic strategies is anti-Bush rather than pro-anything (with the exception of the host of tame medical reforms); education is a part of this: anti-Bush, and pro-very-little. That and some personal innuendo about who’s got more experience and who’s more of a non-Bush.

However, the political discourse on education suffers not only from the normal campaign-induced shallowness, but from a genuine absence of any plausible alternatives. I wish a politician of any kind, let alone the pres candidates, would just stand up and say: “Folks, we’ve got no idea what to do with K-12 education. There were a couple of ideas, and none of them seems to be working. I am pledging significant support to generating new ideas, which then will all be discussed and tested.” Sounds highly unlikely doesn’t it? Yet that would be the only practical position to take. We do have a problem after all: the educational gap between rich and poor kids is still tremendous, which means education for the poor can and should be improved. We don’t have anything close to consensus on what should be done. Moreover, all existing approaches so far have proven ineffective, or very difficult to replicate.

So, what? We have a number of other problems without solutions; deadly diseases is the most obvious example, but also crime, teenage pregnancy, social inequality, etc. Why is it OK to admit that there is no cure for cancer or even common cold, but not OK to admit there is no cure for education? There is a peculiar phenomenon I would call “the denial of ignorance.” Our culture allows for certain things to be unknown, while others have to be known; we do not admit our ignorance about them. Education is clearly one of these areas of “must-know”; politicians have especially hard time admitting having no clue. Or as Dewey used to spell it, no clew.

See for yourself: OK to say, “I don’t know…”

  • …How to influence price of gas
  • …How to treat Alzheimer’s
  • …What is going to happen with stock market
  • …How to win all elections

Not OK to say, “I don’t know…”

  • …Who I am and what my beliefs are
  • …What’s right and what’s wrong
  • …What to do with education
  • …How to fight crime


The truth is, most people individually, and we as a society, collectively, have no more clarity about the first set of claims than we have about the second one. Our ignorance is abysmal; our knowledge is frustratingly limited. Among other things, we have created the wonder of contemporary schooling, which turned out to have some nasty side-effects, and we have very little idea about fixing it.

The existence of the “denial of ignorance” is an interesting phenomenon; it is a special case of a knowledge claim. Some institutions are based on implicit knowledge claims. For example, it is very hard to claim an autonomous self, if you cannot define who you are. One who is in doubt about right and wrong cannot claim to have ethics. Once you build an extensive public schooling system, and collect tremendous amount of taxes to support it, you’d be a fool to admit that you have no idea how to make it work properly. Such an admission undermines the legitimacy of the whole enterprise. Yet explaining does not mean justifying. I still think an honorable position for presidential candidates would be to admit the ignorance – not personal one, but our quite obvious collective ignorance, and seek real sizeable resources in finding solutions. Admitting the ignorance about educational reform may actually serve as evidence of being informed. A part of the position of ignorance is to leave the system to its own devices, until a solution is to be found. We simply cannot continue experimenting with the huge national system of K-12 education with unproven interventions. Just to remind everyone: no one has shown that accountability measures will positively impact learning achievements; it was simply assumed (wrongly) to be self-evident. What we need is a moratorium to new reforms, a freedom for states and districts to experiment, and most importantly, a call to develop new models of educational reform.

Of course, I am biased, because I have a proposal, which may be one of many. The point is, by pretending that we have a solution, we waste our time and energy on politics, on little fights about this kind of reading instruction versus that kind of reading, etc. If we focus our energies on developing a new, truly new approach to educational reform, well, we might actually get there.

Dec 21, 2007

Right-brained Teachers

Here is an argument by Daniel H. Pink which I find convincing. You can read a short version on-line, or get his book. Basically, his point is that the linear, logical, sequential thinking is becoming less important, for economic reasons, while right-brain "inventive, empathic, big picture capabilities" come to be the most valuable. His reasoning is quite simple: the computer-like information processing that can be reduced to a number of algorithms, can be handled better by computers, and is easily shipped overseas where it can be made cheaper. We see the evidence of this right here, in our School: instead of paying computer programmers some 30,000 for developing a database, we used a commercially available (although quite sophisticated) software and did it ourselves. Too bad for the company that was hoping to sell the thing to us; great for us. I just got a Christmas card from the company, and feel sorry for these people, but we simply do not need their skills; one does not need to know code to develop databases.

However, my point is this: Teaching seems to be going in the opposite direction. We still are trying to boost very technical skills in teachers. Scripted instructions and standardized assessment seem to call for sequential, linear thinking among teachers. One is supposed to know the curricular standards, and then go through an algorithm to plan instruction, assess, adjust, re-teach, and start over again. Teachers become more and more like knowledge workers and some people link hopes to professionalize teaching with the mastery of knowledge processing. There is nothing wrong with that, except this seems to be too late. We're trying to catch up with a train that is left already; instead of going ahead of the next one. Here is what the new age is calling for, and what we need to teach teachers to do:

High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new. High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one's self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning (Pink).

Somehow news reaches education much later. One of my doctoral students, Jen Davis, just turned in a paper which convincingly shows that schools use an outdated model of literacy; they are trying hard to reach a wrong goal. Similarly, teacher education might be improving fast but in the wrong direction.

The routine parts of teaching should and will be taken over by computers. For example, computer systems, such as the PLATO are much better at delivering the right curriculum at the right pace, and minutely assess the progress. They are also much better at individualizing the pace of instruction. Sometime soon they will also be able to individualize by learning style and learning disability. Therefore, instead of focusing on what machines can do better, we need to train teachers to relate to students and their parents, to figure out motivational and learning problems, to build supportive communities in their classrooms, and to spread joy. Creativity specifically can be cultivated in people; instead, we send them through compliance school. Our students are so used to complying; they get anxious when directions are not too clear, and the situation is ambivalent. But teachers should thrive on ambiguity and be non-conformists.

Paradoxically, to be creative, teachers need to know which parts of their work can be delegated to computers, and how to use the new informational universe. To even make a distinction between a linear information processing and an insight takes some skills. We still teach our students how to use PowerPoint, which is simply a glorified chalkboard. However, we spend very little time teaching them how to use the course management systems, or ways of creative Googling, etc. We spend almost no time on development of people skills; such as empathy, the ability to interpret emotions, how to listen, how to read body language, how to modulate one's voice, how to act, etc.

I taught a class like that in Russia for a couple of years. It was somewhere between an Encounter group, or socio-psychological training group and acting class. I taught them how to look in the eye, and how to walk in class. We trained for ability to withstand aggression, how to use self-suggestion, and to command attention. I taught them how to smile and charm parents, how and when to touch people. We practiced reading facial expressions. Not sure if they still do it, but that would be some right brain training.

Dec 14, 2007

Special Interest and Teacher Education

In the last few months, our College has been approached by several groups; among them the Teaching about the Holocaust group, teaching about American Constitution group, the teachers unions, and the alternative non-union teacher associations, the dyslexia advocacy group. Each wants us to do add their specific concern to our teacher education programs. Some are more effective than others, because they come with willingness to help, to contribute resources, and see how their specific agenda fits into our larger objectives. Others just come insisting we should change our curriculum to address their concern, just on the merits of that concern. All come in hope of getting their agendas extra-mileage, because of the scope of our reach. Indeed, we graduate, some 600 teachers a year, each of them will teach thousands of children over her or his life time. The potential reach is enormous, that's why they all come.

Here is an example of some of the most dangerous, although also well-intentional attempts to influence teacher education. On Wednesday, Harvey Rude, the Director of the School of Special Education, took me and two of his faculty along to a meeting with a State Representative, who is considering introducing a bill on dyslexia in the Colorado General Assembly. The representative is a former teacher and is sympathetic to concerns of dyslexic children, so he all but made a commitment to introduce a bill. The question is, of course, what kind of a bill, so he asked for our input, which is a very reasonable.

Yet the dynamics of such an initiative is very troubling. The special interest group is well organized and well connected. They have a very good cause to defend, and have aggregated a lot of expertise on the issue. The group feels, justifiably, that dyslexic children may be misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, and neglected by the schools. The problem is, of course, that they see the world through the lens of this specific issue; everything else takes the back seat. So, they would like to see something like a special course in all teacher education curriculum, and if not that, a special procedure for reporting to the State how the information on dyslexia is a part of teacher education curriculum. In other words, they would like to see the State agencies such as the Colorado Department of Education to enforce a mandate from the state. The narrow focus and belief in unfunded state mandates are the two problems; the third one is the assumption that teacher education does not do its job, and our graduates are ignorant in dyslexia issues, and just about everything else.

Let's consider all three assumptions:

  1. "My issue is more important than your issue." It is very easy to believe, especially if you have a child of your own who suffers from a particular disability. The special interest groups by definition do not attempt to reconcile their interest with others. However, it is a deeply unethical assumption. What would you like us to remove from curriculum to make room for the dyslexia education? What about other disabilities? Other concerns about teacher training? Also notice that disability does not know class distinction, which is why these groups can recruit a lot of middle class, educated parents to argue for their cause. We never see Latino parents lobbies or poor parents or single moms lobby at our doorsteps, simply because they have little resources to organize. And their children deserve to have a teacher who can individualize instruction to meet their needs, and be sensitive to their specific issues. So, I argue, to be effective a special interest group must be not so special, and show empathy for other causes. They must form broader coalitions, and figure out broader solutions, and make an effort to be useful to people whose work they want to change.
  2. "Just tell them to do it." Many special interests groups just do not know how higher education and its teacher education branch work. They tend to assume that the State law can effectively change curriculum. In fact, new mandates without any funding attached to it wreck havoc on higher education, and do more damage than good to whatever just cause they are supposed to help. Part of it is that such states as Colorado keep their public colleges on a starvation diet. So faculty feel resentful, tired, and hate new demands. Second, state mandates can create a flurry of reporting activities, but rarely change what is going on in college classrooms. Short of monitoring every classroom, how do you ever know that what we report is actually happening? Third, university faculty's sense of self-esteem comes from being specialists in their fields. State mandates always ignore controversies in scholarship, and prescribe something at least part of faculty does not agree with. Dyslexia is a case of this. When I listen to the advocacy people, they seem to be hundred percent sure about what works and what does not. I come back to my colleagues who actually research the issue, and they are telling me, wait a minute, it is not really that clear, and we do not know much about dyslexia, or even how to define it. Telling a faculty that the State mandate must override his or her scholarly knowledge is most often counterproductive.
  3. "You suck, because there is a problem." The special interest groups rarely find out what we already do. Their logic is this: there are reports from schools that our issues is not addressed adequately, therefore teachers are not adequately prepared. For example, such and such percent of US population cannot say how the Constitution begins. Therefore, teachers are not prepared to teach it. Notice no one claims that because certain percent of cancer patients still dies, we have a disaster on our hands with medical training or medical research. People who care about cancer get together and find ways of raising money and helping raise awareness. People who care about K-12 schooling mostly get together to lobby state governments to pass laws. Lobbying is a lot cheaper than research. I would like to propose a law to cure cancer by the year 2010, and have all hospitals send the State government annual progress reports… The deep fallacy here is that everything is believed to be possible in education, while in medicine, there are limits to what can be done. In fact, all areas of human activity have intrinsic limits of what is possible. Back to dyslexia: it is possible, that after a careful study, one could find that within the limits of the possible we indeed do not do as much as other comparable institutions do in these areas. However, no one has done such a study to make such a claim. Instead, someone has spoken with this woman who is a UNC graduate, and she even did not know what dyslexia means. On the basis of such "evidence," the entire State of Colorado may introduce a new law.

This is not about us protecting our turf, but rather about the unhealthy blend of special interests activism, popular conceptions about education, and reckless law-making.

If you're not too tired yet, here is the entire letter I have written to the State Representative after our visit:

Dear Representative Merrifield:

Thanks for inviting us to yesterday's meeting on dyslexia, and for allowing us to provide further input. Here is my five cents.

  1. The Performance-Based Standards for Colorado Teachers already include Standard Six: "Knowledge of Individualization of Instruction: The teacher is responsive to the needs and experiences children bring to the classroom, including those based on culture, community, ethnicity, economics, linguistics, and innate learning abilities. The teacher is knowledgeable about learning exceptionalities and conditions that affect the rate and extent of student learning, and is able to adapt instruction for all learners." Our Teacher Education programs are authorized by CDE on these standards, and it would be very difficult to show actual evidence that these regulations are not enforced. Of course, you can suggest that this specific standard receives more attention or that CDE introduces the Dyslexia Directorate to make a whole new set of standards out of this already quite specific standards. As I mentioned at the meeting, there is a fundamental problem with this sort of regulatory enthusiasm. Among other things, multiple sets of standards present an oxymoron: a standard only makes sense when there is only one. We already have four sets to comply with; three of them overlap greatly (The Licensure standards, the PBSCT, and the Reading Directorate).
  2. I believe The Colorado Educator Induction Statute (see how CDE is applying it at http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdeprof/cdeprofsvc/iheprograms/downloads/IPTemplateteachssp.pdf) can be amended to include more incentives for partnership for collaborative efforts between higher education institutions and school districts in induction programs; and also include partnerships with non-profit entities such as IDA who have collected a wealth of expertise. Such partnerships were encouraged by the Statute, I believe in 1994, but as far as I know, none established with UNC. Perhaps the Statute can be amended to give more teeth to requiring meaningful induction programs. Teacher Education research has plenty of evidence that good beginning teacher training is more effective than piling up a lot of stuff in pre-service programs.
  3. I also suggest that Colorado experiments with state-NGO partnership models. Frankly, the State has no funds and limited expertise in such highly specialized areas as dyslexia or other learning disabilities. However IDA and its peer organization do have significant expertise and some resources. So, why not use them not only for legislative activism, but also as a resource to promote their causes with State's help? For example, CDE can serve as a clearing house for resources to be used in higher education instruction; to have a list of guest-speakers, of adjunct instructors with specific expertise, etc. In my experience, relatively little money used as mini-grants can generate a lot of interest among university faculty. It can be a mixture of the NGO's money and State matching funds. NGO's such as IDA can help review applications and evaluate the results of such mini-grants. University faculty's buy-in is incomparably higher if they are enticed rather than forced to comply.

You also invited us to comment on the Colorado Reading Directorate.

  1. The core problem as I see it is that CDE is trying to regulate the input rather than the outcome. CDE and CDHE should be mandated to stop wasting public money and use national accreditation to the extent allowed by Colorado statutes. For example, 39 states have adopted or adapted the NCATE unit standards as their own and apply them to all institutions for purposes of state approval. The national accreditation agencies simply have more resources and have better accreditation systems, which are increasingly performance-based. CHEA is another example.
  2. The legislature should regulate the regulators. Can we put limits on how much reporting and what kind of reporting a State agency can demand? Can the regulators be held accountable for following the best practices of regulation? Does anyone actually check their review process for integrity? Can someone ask them to prove that their specific way of authorization actually does ensure quality of programs? You guys pass a statute, which then is converted into rules and regulations document that may or may not have anything in common with the intent of the law. For example CRD, in my view, clearly exceeds the authority granted to CDE by the State law. The line between regulating and prescribing which textbooks to use in which course has been crossed; with absolutely no reason to believe it will do any good to anyone.

Anyway, thanks for listening. If you want an angrier version of the regulations argument, feel free to read http://sidorkin.blogspot.com/2007/05/what-makes-me-angry.html

Dec 6, 2007

Something uplifting

A colleague told me last week, “Why don’t you write something uplifting in your blog; this is the holiday season.” What she meant to say was that many of my blogs read like litanies of problems and complaints. You read them and think the guy is working at a horrible place full of problem. Of course, she is right. The blogs are intended to share my world with my colleagues, and my brain works in such a ways as to focus on problems, and their solutions. This can present a somewhat skewed picture, so let’s count our blessings.
First, STE is generally a very happy place. We all are a bit overworked and sometimes cranky. However, our little group has a tremendous amount of good will and good energy. Simply put, most people do not walk away from problems, and embrace new things. Every time we accomplish something, I have a funny feeling: is this all it took? A complete list would be boring to read, but just a few things: we finished NCATE program reviews this fall, and working on the State review; we revised out biggest program twice; we have a new and growing teacher preparation program; our Doctoral program is revamped, and growing, our off-campus offerings have doubled, we agreed to learn on-line and hybrid pedagogy, our people get grants and publish books and articles… Anyway, this is not a newspaper, so no more bragging, although this could go for another page or two. I guess the kick I get out of all this is connected to the sense of agency. Hope others experience this too. There is nothing worse than knowing something should be done, and not being able to do it. Conversely, the knowledge that if we agree to do something, it can and will be accomplished, this feels really good.
Second, we are a very collegial group. I would love to claim credit for it, but cannot. My colleagues have made a collective decision to get along and become one cohesive community, and they carried it out. Considering the history of typical academic mergers and splits, plus some unfortunate past personality clashes, our School is a remarkably professional and cordial group. This demonstrates that any community has cultural mechanisms of healing. While there are clearly differences in opinions, they rarely grow to become interpersonal conflict. For example: my own proposals and ideas are just as likely to get voted down as they get to be supported. And this is, of course, OK with me and everyone else. At the same time, I am proud to say, I have no enemies. Moreover, there is very little animosity among my colleagues.
Collegiality is very important; so important that pre-tenure faculty cite it as more important than compensation in job satisfaction. Court consistently recognize the lack of collegiality as a valid reason for termination of employment or tenure denial, even if it is not specifically spelled out in contracts and tenure and promotion documents (references are available upon request). A lot is at stake with collegiality; not just warm and fuzzy feelings, but life or death of an institution. A lot of my colleagues understand it better than I do, and we try to keep this place friendly and collegial.
Thirdly, we have some of the best jobs around. Even though faculty and staff are relatively underpaid, our jobs are not boring; they include a lot of intellectual and emotional stimulation. Tons of people would like to be where we are now, so we should really feel fortunate. Thos who complain about working at a university most likely have not really tried anything else, or have forgotten.
So, let’s reflect on what we have, and what we have achieved. This will help us develop an ambitious view of what could be yet achieved. Or as Randy Bachman said and Al Gore repeated, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Nov 30, 2007

Relational disorder and the question of power

Writing these blogs made me so transparent, there is no mystery anymore. Those who read them probably know already how I think and what I worry about. However, there is a whole set of things that cannot be disclosed, that will never make it to these blogs, other than in abstract and metaphoric form. Those are, of course, problems related to other people.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a professional development workshop for School Directors, entitled “Things that keep you awake at night.” What transpired from the conversation is the common concern about faculty. Specifically, when someone’s behavior negatively affect students, programs, and other faculty, and we have very limited range of powers to address the situation. The frustration comes from the very nature of our position: it is our job to make sure the environment is good, and people are comfortable; all people: students, staff, and faculty. Because we are the lower-level managers, we receive all the complaints. None of the school directors believe everything we hear. All agreed that one should always listen to all sides of a dispute. These old tried techniques work well, and most of conflicts can be resolved with time and patience and with a little bit of luck. All human cultures have developed some mechanisms of forgiving and forgetting, otherwise no social life would have been possible. Thank God for holidays, breaks, parties, and other things that help us forgive and forget.

However, each of us had some cases where complaints are numerous, credible, and persistent. They seem to be rooted in certain personality traits rather than from miscommunication, specific conflict, or differences of opinion. We all have troubling and troubled individuals who seem to invite conflict, complaints and resentment. None of these people realize they have a problem; they always place the blame in others, no matter how numerous those others are. The power of denial is a tremendous force; people sometimes come up with a completely irrational, far-fetched version of reality just to avoid acknowledging “I have a problem.” Unfortunately, in an academic setting, we have little power to protect other people, especially students, from individuals with the relational disorder. Once someone is tenured, supposedly to protect one’s academic freedom, it becomes very difficult not only to let one go, but also to effect any changes in behavior.

At least some of my colleagues believe that the solution is in more power; wouldn’t it be nice if we could fire someone who is clearly a trouble. I don’t think so. I don’t like to have power, and dislike exercising it. There is a risk in having power concentrated in someone’s hand, both for others, and for those who are given power. It is an old tradition among Russians, which originates in the Orthodox theology, to treat power with suspicion, and try to avoid it as something spiritually corrupting. In my view, the collective power of faculty should be sufficient to solve problems such as relational disorder. However, I would like to comment on a systemic problem: all the good news are openly shared, and people tend to know about each other’s achievements. The bad news, however, accumulate in my file folders. Complaints are dealt with discretely. I am happy to share some of the bad news with the Dean, but he is in the same position: there is no way to make the bad news public, for the obvious reasons. However, faculty have a lot of say in peer evaluation but they basically operate without inadequate information. Some of it, of course, gets through the rumor mill, but that’s just it, the rumor.

Because of this curious mismatch in information flow and decision-making power, administrators sometimes look like the bad guys. They make a decision that, given equal access to information, everyone else would have made exactly the same way. However, because others did not have the same information, they may see the decision as unjust or frivolous, or worse, motivated by personal likes or dislikes. The power balance between faculty and administrators is needed, in part, precisely because of the difference in information to which they have access. However, for it to work well there should be some initial trust on both sides. When I learn of someone’s decision which I consider to be erroneous, I must first assume that the person who made it is not an idiot and not evil. Most like she or he know something I don’t. This does not prevent me from questioning, and demanding clear answers, but the initial hypothesis to be proven or disproven should be exactly this: something I don’t know has led to the decision I do not understand.

Nov 16, 2007

Thinking with Ursa

A significant portion of my week was spent working on curriculum changes. It is an interesting work, actually, because a lot of it deals with imagination. When you set curriculum as described in catalogue, you have to imagine all possible implications such changes may have. For example, we have found a few bugs that created problems in this registration session; none of these were on our radar screen last year when we introduced the changes. For example, we added a certain prerequisite because program faculty who teach it believe the course should be taken later in the program. We missed of course that it is mathematically impossible for students to fit the specific course so late in the program, because of other requirements. So, they all need to be manually cleared, which is exactly the problem we were trying to solve in the first place. Here is another example: some courses had Provisional admission to a program prerequisite. However, some students went directly to Full admission, and skipped the provisional. In any person’s mind, full supersedes provisional, but computer read these two as separate codes, so it wont’ let fully admitted people to do what provisionally admitted can. We failed to think like a computer, and in a contemporary organization, such a skill is a must.

It is funny how we talk about Ursa (our registration software). She is really a person, but then she is a very peculiar one, with her own logic, her own quirks and obscure rules. We say “Ursa thinks they have not met the requirements,” or “Ursa read this course on their transcripts, and she cannot read the attribute after that.” Ursa has its own logic, so we need to learn to think like Ursa. We wonder how to make Ursa understand something, how to translate our point into Ursa’s logic. YOU cannot argue with her, but you can trick her into doing what we want, only if you understand the way she thinks.

It is all about imagination. We consider possible implications of our curricular changes for students, programs, faculty. It is all but impossible to anticipate all consequences of a change, but we need to see at least the major ones. My wonderful curriculum team, Vicky and Karon, and I take one change, one specific adjustment, and then we basically let our imaginations run. How is it going to affect A, B, and C? What about past and the future? Let’s imagine those students two years from now? What about all these special circumstances we know about? In a way, it is like writing a fiction story, where circumstances are imagined, but they need to have some level of plausibility to them. I guess other people would call it modeling. It is an interesting intellectual and creative challenge though. It requires contextual knowledge of the multiple programs. Funny how computers themselves are not capable of doing such imaginative work. Computers relieved us from a lot of tedious work, but it seems like there is even more demand for human brains that can connect seemingly unrelated dots, and imagine real-life scenarios. Human brains can pick on subtle patters that computer completely ignore, and their owners actually enjoy doing it.

Nov 9, 2007

Junior high politics

Junior high politics can be brutal. Adolescents discover the world of relationships, and engage in it with enthusiasm of zealots. One essential feature of human relationships is their selectiveness. Being a friend with certain people means you’re not friends with other people. If you are friends with everyone, this removes any meaning from the concept of friendship and renders it empty.

Of course, by definition, adolescents have not yet established long-term relationships; they are trying it out. So, there is the constant sense of being unsure. The affiliations and alliances change, shift, they fail and are reestablished, and consequently, not much trust exists among adolescent friends. And because power comes with the quantity and quality of friends one has, the constant fears of betrayal are only heightened.

What comes with mistrust and insecurity? It is constant demands to prove loyalty, and to dispel suspicion. For example, if Lucy your best friend, and Sarah is your worst enemy, Lucy may not be friendly with Sarah, even in passing, even briefly. And if she is, she has some explaining to do. This is about the appearance of friendliness. However, if Lucy openly suggests that she would like to be friends with both you and Sarah, well, that is an open invitation to break the friendship.

Adults develop a lot more sophisticated understanding of relationships. First, they will learn the shades and gradations of friendship, and will develop a repertoire or f relationships that is much richer than friend/enemy dichotomy. Second, they will realize that no relationship is truly inclusive, even the most intimate ones like marriage: spouses must still have their own friends, and a whole range of other working and personal relationships. Healthy relationships of all kinds require certain amount of trust and predictability. Adults also learn to calibrate their assessment of relationships. Someone who disagrees with you, or who even has lost temper with you, is not necessarily your enemy or dislikes you. We learn this one way or another, to a different degree.

This is how things normally work. However, when adults experience certain traumatic, dysfunctional communities, they sometimes revert to junior high level of politics. This has little to do with individuals, or their maturity. It’s just the lack of trust that comes from past experiences. If you do not believe the relationship you develop with someone is safe, you will be scrutinizing the other person’s behavior for signs of betrayal. You will interpret her or his friendliness with your enemies as a worrisome sign.

Whoever is in the position of leadership has to be careful treading the relational waters. She needs a support group, those people who most close to her in outlook, and just simply people she draws emotional support from. However the leader cannot engage in junior high politics. He cannot ensure the support of his base by alienating the others. The temptation to anoint friends and enemies is great, especially if there is some genuine dispute within the group, and especially if the leaders feels he has the majority’s support. Nothing unifies your base group as a defined enemy, the others. Nothing brings people closer than a warm discussion about shortcomings of those not currently present. But that is exactly the strategy that would erode trust and plunge the whole group into junior high politics. This has to do with power asymmetry. Although in an academic setting administrators’ power is severely limited by faculty governance, faculty and administrators still have different kinds of powers to balance each other. It all goes wrong when an administrator or a faculty member attempt to tilt that balance by augmenting their powers by personal relations.

Social systems are powerful, but not all-powerful. Systemic problems can nudge a person towards reverting to junior-high politics, but we all have the choice to remain adults.

Oct 26, 2007

Just-in-time scheduling

We live in the midst of an incredible information technology revolution. We ask questions that were never asked before, we can know things that otherwise simply could not be known. For example, here is a simple question: how many students will need class X in the next semester, and what time of the day will accommodate the most? To answer this question, we usually use the last year’s experience, some informal feedback, and whatever other hunches we might get. To prepare for especially hard-to-plan course like student teaching, we use some sort of application process. However, we can never account for fluctuation in numbers and scheduling conflicts.

Let’s assume the Math school decided to move their MATH 283 two hours down, simply because they cannot have faculty who can teach it during their regular hours. This means that Elementary kids cannot take our EDRD 419 class. So, a lot of them decide to try it in the following semester, and we cancel a low-enrolled class. Yet in the following semester, there is a bubble we have no idea about: kids whose time is it to take 419, plus all those who delayed last time because of Math, all want to take the class. They try to get in, they cannot, and then they start complaining to the Dean. So we realize there is a problem, create a sign-up list, struggle to find an instructor, and finally offer it anyway. All of this is OK, but costly: students are upset, our FT faculty maybe underemployed when we cancel, but then we have to pay an adjunct extra. School Director’s valuable time is wasted.

What we need is a data management system. Students will develop their four-year tentative plans, so the system will know how many students need what when, for at least a couple of years in the future. The closer it gets, the more accurate picture of student demand we will have. We would also have a better idea of our expenses in the future, and could plan our budgets accordingly.

Then if Math 283 will happen to get scheduled first, the system will know that students who need it also need EDRD 419, and will suggest the best times for it and other yet unscheduled classes, so most students do not have conflicts in their schedule. Of course, if we schedule first, Math folks have to use the free time available.

Of course, something like this does exist already; just check out all these products. Yet it does not appear any of them have the capacity to look several years ahead; they basically play one semester in advance, and help match people’s preferences (they ask students and faculty when they would like to teach or take classes). Of course, no student wants to drag his or her behind on campus at 7:30 in the morning, and faculty may have their own preferences. So, the system can keep track of three factors: how many people need a class, when they are available to take it, and when they would rather take it.

It is not really that complex, and probably not that expensive to develop. Other industries such as shipping may have used similar algorithms to manage different processes. Any takers?

Oct 19, 2007

Morsels of the Real

This is my sixtieth blog, and I am not sure how many more things I have to say about all this life. I have something today though.

We had a good conversation with my Philosophy of Education class last week. We talked about Buber, and about I-Thou relations. Basically, Buber says that what’s important in our lives is not necessarily what takes the most time, nor is it something you can pinpoint as a behavior or a principle. The brief, infrequent, fleeting moments is what’s most important. Otherwise, the routine of everyday work and home worries and interactions sweeps away the very humanity we all possess. Buber suggests that the usual lives we live are not completely human, that the only way to become a full human being is to seek and appreciate these fleeting moments, when another person comes in direct relation with me, and as Buber writes, fills the heaven. It is when we relate to another person outside of restrictions and considerations of our relative positions, characteristics, stereotypes, and expectations. Those moments are the morsels of the real that actually make our lives worth living. Just thinking about scheduling, budgeting, big and little conflicts, programs, curriculum, etc, etc. – just thinking about this is actually quite depressing without some sort of a window to the real.

Our lives in big bureaucratic institutions and impersonal suburbs actually make this worse: we do not go to war, do not get lost in the desert, do not think about survival. The opportunities to reflect on our lives are not that plentiful. So, small problems tend to look bigger than they really are, petty fights look like big fights, and generally, the routine tends to eat us alive. How do we develop the capacity to always be on for the real? How do we manage to also pass this capacity on to our students?

What I am talking about may or may not be spiritual life. It’s basically, the ability to encounter other people without BS, directly. Lots of deeply religious and deeply atheistic people develop such abilities, although many others never do. Some people are a lot better at it than others. The problem is, we never specifically learn or teach how to seek the I-Thou, and how to recognize it once found.

What worries me is that this will sound crazy to many people. Then you ask them to tell a story about their lives, and how they sometimes feel a very deep connection to another person in a specific moment of a specific conversation, when the outside world somewhat disappears. And they suddenly remember, and agree that yes, it felt real, somehow profound. So, here is my suggestion: let’s amend the Performance-Based Standards for Colorado Teachers as following:

Standard Nine: I-Thou relations

The teacher has demonstrated the ability to:

1 Seek dialogical relations with his or her students
2 Maintain openness to the Other
3 Develop the need and ability to experience live in its fullest
4 Create classroom situations conducive to spontaneity, complexity and carnival

Or something like that...

I look at the list of my 59 blogs and wonder: how many of them about the real, and how many are about the superficial? Hmm, perhaps not that many.

  1. How to alienate people and damage relationships
  2. The Nomadic conference
  3. Authority and power
  4. Going with the flow: On the horizontal transparency
  5. On-line is on the line
  6. Playing the “you”
  7. Switching gears
  8. The Organizational Drift
  9. Can you ever go home?
  10. Dances with Data
  11. Churchill and tenure
  12. Freud for teachers, amended
  13. Weddings, rituals, and memories
  14. Curriculum and communication
  15. Shift Left
  16. The 90/10 rule
  17. The cost of fairness
  18. What is the most important
  19. Zeno, Buddha and Program Development
  20. What makes me angry
  21. Gospriyomka and NCATE
  22. Time density
  23. The clouds glide by
  24. The ethics of rumoring
  25. Time Management and Sorry
  26. The Lake Wobegon Effect
  27. The “B” Word, or How do you know what you say you ...
  28. Notes from AACTE, or American Absurdities
  29. On Scholarly Productivity
  30. Memories and time Symbolic violence
  31. Merit, Shmerit, or “Evaluate not and thou shall no...
  32. Why are we poor?
  33. Midwives, matchmakers, Napoleon, and Kutuzov
  34. On failings of humans
  35. On the Money
  36. What makes a problem hard to solve
  37. UNC’s Organizational Culture and Change
  38. Community and innovation: On the Academic Plannign...
  39. Neo-prog’s Educational Agenda
  40. Neo-progs wanted: Toward a new educational progres...
  41. The Academe and other Soviet states
  42. Teaching as research
  43. Justice is good bureaucracy
  44. Fall, foliage, and intrinsic motivation
  45. Notes from the Dark Side
  46. Accreditation and ambivalence
  47. Levine Report
  48. Cultural cycles
  49. On human errors
  50. The anatomy of human conflict
  51. How to stop turf wars
  52. Your director's list of task, abridged
  53. On the nature of human knowledge
  54. On authority
  55. Big ideas
  56. Complexity and catch-22
  57. On vision, geeks, and technology
  58. WHAT THIS IS ALL ABOUT

Oct 12, 2007

How to alienate people and damage relationships: A comprehensive guide for college professors

Introduction


Relationships with colleagues and with students are the least important asset you have, so why not take some time to diminish it? There is no easy way of ruining your relationships, because people tend to be forgiving, and generally avoid conflict. They will give you a long time and overlook your efforts. Besides, you probably have a great deal of likable traits which can outweigh your poor relationship skills, at least in the beginning. Be persistent; many small offenses will accumulate over the years, and eventually you will reach a point when almost everyone will hear your name, roll one’s eyes and say, “Oh, this person.” Poor reputations take years to build.

Dealing with Authority

When you talk to students or staff, always emphasize rank and assume the air of superiority. You can do it by ignoring their suggestions, by patronizing them, and by making it clear you are in charge. Do not allow them question your decisions, and perceive any doubt as a direct challenge to your authority and a personal affront.

Emphasize other forms of authority you may have over other people. For example, if you’re talking with people not from your field, make sure to mention that by definition, you know more than they do.

Flaunt your special expertise whenever you can. Bring it up in any conversation, even if not called for.

When talking to someone with a higher rank and more experience, make sure to ignore the rank. Send a message that you know it all already simply because you do. Always challenge the other person’s knowledge and judgment.

Dealing with mistakes

Whenever possible, point out people’s mistakes, just for the record. Find a way of reminding everyone around you about other people’s mistakes, especially to the offending individual. Imply incompetence s a reason for every mistake.

Whenever you make a mistake, make sure it is traceable to someone else’s mistakes. Remember, it is never your fault. Never acknowledge or remember your own mistakes, never refer to them.

When your mistake is made known to authorities, find out how the information got through, and make sure this does not happen again.

People skills

Nothing alienates people more than yelling at them. Do it often, with or without a reason. Let them know how frustrated you are at their lack of competence, of intelligence, and their ethical flaws.

See the intrigue everywhere. Any negative comment or unexplained action is but an element in a complex chain of intrigue. They are out there to get you.

Select someone as an object of intense dislike, and make everyone know about it. Give the most irrational reasons for dislike you can come up with. This not only will put an end to your relationship with the person in question, but will also damage your relationships with everyone. No one wants to be a partner in hate, so your friends will eventually turn away from you, too.

Write long, angry e-mails about any disagreement. Always CC the Dean, the entire department, and everyone’s brother.

The art of the argument

Never change your opinion. If you mentioned something, however briefly, it is now your position and you should stick to it. Whatever else other people say, no matter how reasonable, simply stick to your guns. Remember, you cannot ever agree if you previously disagreed. Compromise can save deteriorating relationships, so avoid it at all cost.

If you have certain experiences, or qualifications, use them as arguments sufficient on their own merit. The logic is like this: 1. I know more about A. 2. We are talking about A. 3. Therefore, all my opinions are more valid than yours.

Do not engage in substantive discussion; imply that your opponent wouldn’t understand.

Give non-replies. Just dismiss your opponent’s arguments with a quick come-back that has nothing to do with the essence of your conversation. Remember, replying is more important than figuring out a sensible position.

Always have the last word. One-upmanship is an excellent tool and works every time.

Interpret differences of opinions as a clear sign that other people are wrong.

Imply ill intentions: if people disagree with you, it is because they are either (a) stupid, or (b) evil.

Conclusion

Never reflect on your relationship skills. Don’t worry about it, don’t think about it, don’t discuss with anyone. You’ve got a doctoral degree, so you’re perfect already. There is nothing else to learn, especially about such silly things as getting along with other people. People get pissed at you only because they are really bad persons; it may never have anything to do with you. Only idiots actually worry about an impression they make on other people. Smart people are smart all around. The end.


Oct 5, 2007

The Nomadic conference

Most of us love to travel. Tourism, of course, is not the best way to do it; far from it. First, it is very expensive. Second, you do not get to interact with locals; waiters and hotel clerks are the extent of your local friendship circle. Third, you get to experience pre-packaged, touristy things, mainly because you don’t know where to find places with real-life flavor. And did I mention it is expensive and not tax-deductible?

What if our School made a deal with a teacher education college in another country? It goes like this: a group of us come to your institution for a few days, say, during Spring break. We stay in your homes, and hang out with you. We put together a conference on teacher education, so we exchange our thoughts and experiences. Next year, or in the Fall, we do the same in reverse: you come to us on the same terms, we do another conference. Not only this would be more meaningful, and more fun than tourism, but we also could claim professional development funds to cover some of the expenses. The rest we can legitimately claim to be professional expenses on out r tax returns. Then we hook up with another institution in another country, and do the same thing again; perhaps inviting the first one to join as well. So STE’s traveling circus snowballs in a global network for teacher education.

One rule: No elite institutions. It’s just hard for us to relate to, say, Tokyo University or Beijing University, or Moscow State. We are in a different business, so we need someone like us, who trains teachers, and does it well. So, let’s call it “ The Off-Center Nomadic Conference”

I figure, if we go to, say, Siberia, it would add to about $2000 per person, half of which can be paid for by professional development. Perhaps Office of International Education and other University bodies will pitch in some more (Eugene? Got cash?). After all, we’re building the best kind of international collaboration, based on personal contacts, which can and will result in greater opportunities for students. This will also let us build the sort of experience that makes us a community. Just imagine fun of having been left behind in the middle of trans-Siberian railroad, or playing a drinking game with some very determined Russians. On the other hand, I am sick and tired of Russians, of our railroads and our drinking games. Perhaps some other country would be more interesting.

Here is my wish list:

  • Morocco
  • Brazil
  • Israel
  • Norway
  • Czech Republic
  • UK
  • Chile
  • Singapore
  • Egypt
  • Ireland
  • Swaziland
  • Georgia
  • Japan
  • Germany

What is yours?

Sep 29, 2007

Authority and power

A certain meeting in the State’s capital made me think about power. How come people who are incompetent also inevitable feel the need to exercise authority? These two seems to be coming hand-in-hand. If you meet a bureaucrat, who begins a conversation with a not-so-subtle “who’s the boss” theater, -- be sure, whatever he is going to tell you is going to be poorly thought out, unorganized, and lacking rationale. This is true not only in management; teachers who suck at teaching will pay excessive attention to maintaining their treachery authority. They act preemptively; making sure everyone around knows who the emperor is, so the emperor’s nakedness will be ignored by the crowd. The less secure a person is about her competence, the more authoritarian she becomes.

Authority in general comes from weakness. The lavish medieval theater of authority reflected the incredible weakness of medieval rulers: they had no real economic or military power, so all they did was pretending to have authority. In modern democratic societies, government power stems from public consent and assumption of competence. Incompetence quickly erodes consent, and diminishes power. Hence the theatrics of authority make their come-back. Presidents suddenly start worrying about looking presidential when their failures become obvious. In our little neck of the woods, a state agency that butchered review process suddenly is keen at pointing out how the Law of the Land (capitalized) is behind their demands. If those to be reviewed come up with a better idea, it is even more threatening, because by definition, those in authority must be more competent than those underneath. What they do not understand is this: recognizing and supporting a good idea requires higher competence than developing it. Absorbing and supporting someone else’s better idea allows the persons of authority rightfully claim ownership over its results.

Worrying about authority too much actually makes one’s power weaker, because it destroys the foundation of modern authority – its claim for competence. Worrying about authority is self-defeating and counterproductive, in management, in teaching, and elsewhere.

Sep 21, 2007

Going with the flow: On the horizontal transparency

The Dean is asking for goals again. He needs to know what our goals are for the year. I chatted with Mark, my fellow School director yesterday, and he commented about how 90% of our jobs are not really goal-oriented. He is right; most of the day is taken with small tasks such as talking to faculty, listening to student complaints, doing paperwork, answering inquiries, figuring out solutions for problems.

An example: We had an adjunct faculty arrested for sexual assault this week. So, it's probably 8-10 hours’ worth of work; absolutely not planned for. Other, less dramatic things happen all the time, like, say, a glitch in our new database that won't go away. OK? Two hours or more this week. A TB testing event turned into a disaster, because health clinic ran out of vaccine, partly because we changed somewhat the procedure for keeping track of TB tests... another two hours or so. This stuff is not trivial, and needs attention, because it touches real people's lives and in the long run, makes or breaks the organizational culture. So, let's call it the flow - the flow of unpredictable events.

The best part of the flow - it is unpredictable, and therefore never boring. Each little event teaches something about human conditions, about behavior of organizations, and about my very self. Some of these happenings are just so delicious; no fiction will ever measure up to the novelty and amusement value. Some are just annoying. However the common quality of the flow elements is this: one does not plan for them, and does not cause their appearances. The worst thing about the flow - one has no sense of control whatsoever over it. They come and go, uninvited, unexpected, and unknowable in advance. Things just happen to you, and they always have the initiative, while you always have to be on defensive, improvising a response. The flow eats up your time without having really anything to show for it. Jobs like mine are judged by what we accomplish, hence the Dean’s request for goals. So, only offensive moves really count. The defensive ones remain largely unknown. There is simply no one to report them, to – no one is interested. Would you want to know the results of my negotiations with four Social Foundations faculty about teaching Spring classes? No, you’d never be interested. My wife asks me to tell what I did today as a sleeping aid. It does not sound exciting when you tell people, although this work is actually quite interesting. The Dean has even less interest in those, because he’s got enough of the flow of his own.

The danger is that people like me will be tempted to neglect the flow, and concentrate on showy, visible projects. After all, when we get a big grant or open another program, everyone notices. When we avert a crisis, no one does. I suppose the CIA makes the same claim. And this is not only about school directors, of course. Program coordinators and faculty deal with the flow a lot. A problem student, a need to rework curriculum on the spot, because something is not quite working… All of these things are invisible and certainly cannot be put on one’s yearly report. If you become too goal-oriented, you create problems in the flow; the unresolved problems accumulate and will blow up in your face. If you just keep up with the flow; people think you’re not really doing anything important. I suppose there is a balance somewhere there.

I am not sure there is a good measure of how well one deals with the flow; not sure if it can be worked in the evaluation system. However, I think it is important for us to know what our colleagues are doing, without becoming an impossible bore. The illusion that one works more than everyone else is a common problem in higher education, because we work in isolation from each others. We need to have some horizontal transparency, so we do not come to a conclusion that so and so is not working hard enough just because we do not see her or him working, or do not have people complaining all the time. By the way, the complaining is a strategy for making the flow more visible for others, a reassurance against your work becoming invisible to and underappreciated by others. Some people really excel at it, but I don’t believe complaining is the most effective way of establishing the horizontal transparency, because it is ultimately misleading and makes our work look unappealing.

But what is? I don’t know. Maybe we should have a bulletin board of some sort where people will post the flow notes? I mean, these things can be amusing, even if small. But then we all are too busy to post and to read someone else’s diaries. Weekly lunches could help, but those are hard to schedule practically. Right now, I am open for any suggestions. I think some sort of horizontal transparency could be very beneficial, so we know who’s done what, who has been dealing with what issues, so we can coordinate and value each other better. It’s a matter of counteracting the flow with diffusion of information horizontally. I am certainly not interested in knowing all the flow of all my faculty and staff; this is way too much information. However, I am really interested in faculty A knowing what her colleague B down the hall is actually doing, with as much detail as possible. I can just ask people to talk more, but it does not always work. So, again, I am open to any suggestions.

If anyone is interested, I would love to include one-paragraph long Flow Notes into the weekly updates. Tell us just one story, one unexpected little thing you were dealing with? I think those might be fun if enough people will start doing them.

Sep 14, 2007

On-line is on the line

We had an interesting, productive discussion on the on-line offerings. I was arguing that we should move rapidly towards acquiring expertise in this area and perhaps converting some courses, while many of my colleagues questioned such a move. All had some doubts about effectiveness of the on-line pedagogy, especially for methods courses that require a lot of demonstrations and modeling. The main question was, however, why we should do that. Just to jump on the bandwagon? Just to make some money? What, they wondered, is, exactly the problem we are trying to solve? Why fix it if it ain’t broke? I was not quite prepared to answer the why question at the time, so I am trying to do it now.

We cannot reach certain populations otherwise, and these people need us the most. For example, our Alamosa Early Childhood project won’t work without at least some of the courses being on-line. The Four Corners project working with Ute tribes is in the same position.

As our on-campus enrollments decline, we need to seek new audiences for our programs. Prospective students, especially graduate working students come to us with certain expectations. While some got burned by bad on-line experiences, and crave human contact, others, especially from outlying areas, would like to do substantial part of work on-line; that is simply more practical for them. We must accommodate both groups.

Higher education is competitive, and we are a bit behind in the on-line game. As our competitors learn to use the on-line tools, they are likely to improve overall quality of their programs, and we will be forced to catch up. That’s the main reason I think we should pursue on-line technology. It is a sophisticated educational tool, and it does improve quality of regular face-to-face instruction. I cannot prove this with research, but I bet instructors who have on-line expertise are also able to transfer many of the skills into a regular classroom. For example, Blackboard grade book tool is vastly superior to any hard copy or electronic grade book you might use, because it allows students instant access, gives ranges of scores, is directly linked to assessments, etc. The testing tool of Blackboard is a lot better than anything you could come up on your own, if you do multiple choice or short answer or similar assessment. The threaded discussion is pedagogically superior to other forms of journaling, because students can read each other’s entries and learn from them. There are dozens of ways of creative use of threaded discussion. Using threaded discussions enhances classroom discussion, because it allows more time and space, and encourages shy students to participate. How many times have you walk out from felt like a great discussion, only because three or four good students participated, and the rest just sat there? Blackboard allows fight plagiarism; it also reduces cost of printing to the university and to students.

The on-line teaching experience is a powerful professional development instrument. Instructors are forced to reexamine the content of their courses, and look at them in a different light. What feels good in a face-to-face classroom is not necessarily effective instructionally, but many of us cherish the warm and fuzzy feeling of human connection over the instructional effectiveness. Say what you want, but some professors tell too many random stories, listen to too much discussion, and waste too much time on demonstrations. While hands-on experiences are often productive and necessary, they are not always effective, and quite often are not challenging enough. The ensuing reflection and discussion is important, but the activity itself takes the bulk of time. The on-line format, with all its tremendous limitations, and because of these limitations, forces one to see what exactly students should know, and which skills to develop. It allows for greater individual feedback.

Of course, some people say that what they use now is just fine and works for them. However, this is a claim that is often stems from lack of desire and experience. Some people still prefer typewriters to computers, because they sound so well, and make you be careful with words, etc., etc. However, the refusal to use a more efficient tool is not benign. It is every professional’s responsibility to stay at the level of productivity comparable with other professionals in the field. Just like when computers were implemented, many professors believed in a God-given right to have someone around to type their handwritten manuscripts. They were wrong, and were forced to change. The same is going to happen with on-line tools.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of very clever and very honest people who make an effort to figure out how the new tools can be used to improve instruction. Even though the tools have their own limitations, and are not a panacea, those people will succeed in finding something useful in them. In general, variety of tools used makes for more effective teaching. The advantage is not marginal; it will add up to a substantial one over the years of trying. So, if we refuse to join the process, too bad for us.

In reality, people who refuse to learn on-line instruction will still do it, but because they were slow to react and lack skills, they will do it badly, thus reinforcing their own initial belief. People who hurry too much, and jumps into it for the wrong reasons, also will do it badly. What we should do is to take the challenge head-on, be thoughtful and creative about it. We should develop some quality standards and measures, implement peer-review process to ensure quality, and, most importantly, build expertise. Only from the position of knowledge and strength can you say “no, this is not going to work in the on-line environment.” Only then will you have credibility and authority to say so.
On-line is on the line

We had an interesting, productive discussion on the on-line offerings. I was arguing that we should move rapidly towards acquiring expertise in this area and perhaps converting some courses, while many of my colleagues questioned such a move. All had some doubts about effectiveness of the on-line pedagogy, especially for methods courses that require a lot of demonstrations and modeling. The main question was, however, why we should do that. Just to jump on the bandwagon? Just to make some money? What, they wondered, is, exactly the problem we are trying to solve? Why fix it if it ain’t broke? I was not quite prepared to answer the why question at the time, so I am trying to do it now.

We cannot reach certain populations otherwise, and these people need us the most. For example, our Alamosa Early Childhood project won’t work without at least some of the courses being on-line. The Four Corners project working with Ute tribes is in the same position.

As our on-campus enrollments decline, we need to seek new audiences for our programs. Prospective students, especially graduate working students come to us with certain expectations. While some got burned by bad on-line experiences, and crave human contact, others, especially from outlying areas, would like to do substantial part of work on-line; that is simply more practical for them. We must accommodate both groups.

Higher education is competitive, and we are a bit behind in the on-line game. As our competitors learn to use the on-line tools, they are likely to improve overall quality of their programs, and we will be forced to catch up. That’s the main reason I think we should pursue on-line technology. It is a sophisticated educational tool, and it does improve quality of regular face-to-face instruction. I cannot prove this with research, but I bet instructors who have on-line expertise are also able to transfer many of the skills into a regular classroom. For example, Blackboard grade book tool is vastly superior to any hard copy or electronic grade book you might use, because it allows students instant access, gives ranges of scores, is directly linked to assessments, etc. The testing tool of Blackboard is a lot better than anything you could come up on your own, if you do multiple choice or short answer or similar assessment. The threaded discussion is pedagogically superior to other forms of journaling, because students can read each other’s entries and learn from them. There are dozens of ways of creative use of threaded discussion. Using threaded discussions enhances classroom discussion, because it allows more time and space, and encourages shy students to participate. How many times have you walk out from felt like a great discussion, only because three or four good students participated, and the rest just sat there? Blackboard allows fight plagiarism; it also reduces cost of printing to the university and to students.

The on-line teaching experience is a powerful professional development instrument. Instructors are forced to reexamine the content of their courses, and look at them in a different light. What feels good in a face-to-face classroom is not necessarily effective instructionally, but many of us cherish the warm and fuzzy feeling of human connection over the instructional effectiveness. Say what you want, but some professors tell too many random stories, listen to too much discussion, and waste too much time on demonstrations. While hands-on experiences are often productive and necessary, they are not always effective, and quite often are not challenging enough. The ensuing reflection and discussion is important, but the activity itself takes the bulk of time. The on-line format, with all its tremendous limitations, and because of these limitations, forces one to see what exactly students should know, and which skills to develop. It allows for greater individual feedback.

Of course, some people say that what they use now is just fine and works for them. However, this is a claim that is often stems from lack of desire and experience. Some people still prefer typewriters to computers, because they sound so well, and make you be careful with words, etc., etc. However, the refusal to use a more efficient tool is not benign. It is every professional’s responsibility to stay at the level of productivity comparable with other professionals in the field. Just like when computers were implemented, many professors believed in a God-given right to have someone around to type their handwritten manuscripts. They were wrong, and were forced to change. The same is going to happen with on-line tools.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of very clever and very honest people who make an effort to figure out how the new tools can be used to improve instruction. Even though the tools have their own limitations, and are not a panacea, those people will succeed in finding something useful in them. In general, variety of tools used makes for more effective teaching. The advantage is not marginal; it will add up to a substantial one over the years of trying. So, if we refuse to join the process, too bad for us.

In reality, people who refuse to learn on-line instruction will still do it, but because they were slow to react and lack skills, they will do it badly, thus reinforcing their own initial belief. People who hurry too much, and jumps into it for the wrong reasons, also will do it badly. What we should do is to take the challenge head-on, be thoughtful and creative about it. We should develop some quality standards and measures, implement peer-review process to ensure quality, and, most importantly, build expertise. Only from the position of knowledge and strength can you say “no, this is not going to work in the on-line environment.” Only then will you have credibility and authority to say so.

Sep 7, 2007

Playing the “you”

I often tell future teachers that their bodies and selves are the most important instruments of our profession. Just like a violin player must know what her violin can and cannot do, and how to tune it, and how to care for it; the same way teachers should learn about themselves. What keeps you going? How do you rest an recharge? What can you do, and you cannot do? Can you manage your emotions? Can you tweak your thinking processes? In other words, can you play the “you” well?

Not that I am myself a great player: I do get stuck, get anxious, and sometimes cannot generate energy, etc. However, a few tricks I have learned over the years; and these are just a couple.

Yesterday, I walked over to the library. Not that I needed to go; I am sure one of our helpful work studies could have done it for me. But a five minute walk in early September does wonders. The light is just so slightly changed. It is not autumn yet, but there is a little promise of an autumn in the air. Our magnificent dark-haired pine trees outside of McKee stoically ignore the hints of the changing season, as they will stubbornly try to ignore the coming winter. The deciduous trees are not like that; they are still green but somehow more fragile, a yellow leaf prematurely shows now and then. I see all this, inhale the cool air, squirm at the sun; the emotional engine in my brain hums and spins, and voila, my mind is clear.

Then the library itself: the trick is to find one code, and then just browse through the entire shelf, look for the unexpected. I was thinking about writing a piece on learning motivation, and found just two books that somehow strike me as interesting. So, I will ignore the books I must read, but will read these two, simply because it is a torture to read boring stuff, and one should always read in the path of the least resistance. But most importantly, I had an idea. There is nothing more pleasurable than to experience what appears to be a new thought. I know that most of them in the end turn out to be duds, and that’s OK. Yet the very moments when something pops into your mind, something that should not really have been there, something unexpected – these are difficult to describe and wonderful to live through. It is does not have to be big, or earth shuttering, but you know when you just might have had an idea. And it works like this: reading random stuff, making connections, talking to colleagues, having an idea – feeling great. I don’t really do scholarship to improve the world, nor do I do it primarily to achieve recognition. It is more of a drug; I just need my fix now and then. It’s the endorphin balance I am after.

What I am telling here is quite trivial. All of us professional educators have found our own ways of playing the main instrument, ourselves. The tricks are all different, the result is the same: we learn how to manipulate our emotions and intellectual work so we can stay and shape and enjoy ourselves. How do we teach young teachers to do that? My unscientific guess is that the inability to control and enjoy oneself is the main cause for teacher burnout. We teach our students to model good practices, and to exhibit certain behaviors. Who is going to teach them to learn about themselves, to regulate their own minds and bodies?

Sep 2, 2007

Switching gears

It has been a difficult week. The regular beginning of the semester stuff (not enough sections, waiting lists, small classes, etc.) coincided with the new procedures we implemented (checkpoint courses), overlapped with the last-ditch efforts to find and write up data for the NCATE reports. I actually like a good crisis now and then, but this was not a crisis. It felt like I was constantly interrupted by small and big things, forgetting where I was, and I am afraid, not terribly effective at any of my tasks. Also, you cope with time crunches like this by postponing working on other important things that need long-term attention, and thus planting seeds for future time-crunches. This is what happens when you run out of time: you don’t work on the future and by doing that, you make sure it happens again. It’s worked out OK in the end; however, I noticed a subtle difference in my reactions to information that comes my way: in the course of a normal week, I always look through the information in search for opportunities for my School and for myself. Last week, all I asked myself was: “Can I ignore this for now?” In other words, when you are too delete-happy, you may miss on something really important for the future, either a sign of danger or a promise of an opportunity. So, I don’t want things to stay they are; I need time and space for thinking and being creative.

The reasons for this less than splendid week are entirely obvious, and almost all are traceable to my own errors. Want examples? OK, there just a few: should not have taught Summer class so late; could be a week ahead on NCATE now. Should have been more careful scheduling Fall, and avoid last-minute searches for faculty, etc., etc. I am reasonably tolerant to mistakes, mine and those of other people, so no guilt feelings here, trust me. Yet, I need to learn something from this, but what? I am still stubbornly clinging to this lesson-finding expedition, although I could have spent this time catching up. And that’s what I think we all should do: invest time in understanding how we work, and maybe make the process a little better, rather than keep working same way, and running into the same problems again and again.

OK, maybe this: I need to learn to switch gears and work in a different mode when needed. Many years ago, I had a privilege to work with a wonderful interpreter, Andrey Falaleyev. He is a professional, with many years of experience; he interpreted for Yeltsyn and Gorbachev. He told me once: you are doing a good job, but you need to learn to work in different modes. If someone speaks slowly, you translate almost everything. Someone speaks really fast, OK, you do not panic but translate only the basic meaning. Someone speaks poetically, you look for metaphors; someone loses one’s train of thought, you force the sentences to make sense, even if quite generic. It’s like tennis; you need to have a defense for every kind of attack.

We took turns every 30 minutes (you cannot interpret for longer than that; you brain goes mush; it is a highly stressful job), and he was clearly better than me – not because his knowledge of both languages was better, but because his repertoire of modes was richer, and he could move from one to another instantly. I could almost see him switch gears; he never stressed out even in most complicated situations (we sometimes translated highly technical stuff). Not once did our audience notice any loss of meaning in translation. Now, I saw some losses, of course, but that was his point: meaning is lost in any communication, translated or not; you need to make sure the main ideas are getting across.

Here is what I should have done last week, if only I could remember Andrey’s advice: I should have set specific time for e-mail replies, and not try to read them all through the day. I should have shut my door, despite my open-door policy, at least for a few hours every day. Instead of constant multitasking, I should have only done a few things well, rather than many things so-so. Oh, well, there is always another week.

Aug 25, 2007

The Organizational Drift

Several contradictory experiences of the last week allowed me to see a pattern. I had a few frustrating moments trying to navigate through UNC’s on-line catalogue. To say it is a mess is an understatement. Just try to find Elementary PTEP, the largest teacher education program on campus. The system of internal references broke down, the Index is incomplete, inconsistent, and confusing. No one can navigate it. At the same time I know that the University’s IT team is highly competent, and the web administrators are also very knowledgeable and dedicated. We have a problem that like most, cannot be blamed on individuals.

Our School had a retreat, a very productive one. It made me appreciate again the professional strength and dedication of my colleagues. Meetings like this make me remember why I chose to work in higher education: to hang out with smart people. I also had to look at some curricular pieces in the last two weeks, and was again impressed with the thoughtfulness and expertise that went into development of the programs and individual courses. Yet our programs seem to have gaps and overlaps.

What happens is what I would call organizational drift; it is somewhat related to the concept of organizational entropy. What happens is really simple. Let’s say a group of faculty have developed a new course together; they have a good understanding of the course, and all teach similar things. Then some of the original group members are replaced, so they teach the course slightly differently. The original authors also change and update the course as a matter of good pedagogical practice. While each section of the course is improved in comparison to the original design, they also drifted apart, sometime significantly. This creates a problem of inconsistency: the same course taught by different professors looks completely different.

Of course, the original course was designed to fit into a specific program or even to several programs. While the program was originally designed in a certain way, each of the courses have been continuously improved or just changed because of the faculty turn over. The drift is natural, inevitable, and wholly expected. The same happened to the catalogue: it is a complex system with internal references among multiple parts. Different people are in charge of the individual parts, and no one can have a view of the entire system. As the parts drift apart, the references disintegrate and the system collapses. Our programs are not in the Catalogue’s position yet: the systems were designed relatively recently, and designed rather well. They are small enough for some communication to take place and to maintain their integrity. Yet the tendency is evident; where there is flexibility, there is also the drift.

One solution is to limit change: to redesign once and for all, and them limit any change. Some organizations do that: here is your syllabus, here is your textbook, and this is how you’re going to teach. It leads to stagnation and turns people off, but such a solution hold the drift in check. It also very difficult to enforce in Academia: people chose to work here because they are creative, and like to experiment and be independent. Without change, we simply would not survive for a long time, because education is in constant flux, and we need to run just to remain on the same place. The standards movement is another version of the same solution: it seeks to limit certain parameters of change by introducing a permanent set of references around which everything must order itself. It does not work like this, because professors largely ignore the standards. Or, rather, we claim to follow the standards after the fact of delivering curriculum. We do this not out of stubbornness or defiance, but because standards are too crude to keep the system organized. We understand that standardization means the death of the system that loses its ability to innovate. On the local level, the curriculum approval process seeks to limit the drift. However, as everyone know, most people ignore officially approved syllabi, for the same reasons.

Another solution is to make all changes transparent and encourage all parts of the system to react to every change in one individual part. In other words, the solution is to have constant meetings, and make all changes totally visible, while adjusting every little part to every little change. We are planning to do something like this in our in-service days. Smaller institutions do that constantly, and are often very successful in designing coherent programs. They can do this over a lunch meeting with a few people. But for a larger organization like ours, such efforts if they are continuous would take enormous resources. The constant information flow will become incredibly taxing in terms of time and resources. Going back to the catalogue example, the second solution of that problem looks like this: all school directors plus the registrar staff plus IT (about fifty people?) would have to spend a day or two going through the catalogue page by page to ensure the coherence of the entire system. Of course, we simply cannot do that even if we wanted to. If I remember correctly, groups of Microsoft staff at one point read together millions of lines of code to eliminate bugs; this was a very expensive solution, and their programs are still buggy, mainly because they are so huge and because of the drift.

The third solution is, I a way, a combination of the first two: you’d break the system into smaller chunks, explicitly define responsibilities of each one towards another, limit any changes in relationships among the chunks, but allow changes and abundant information exchanges within the chunks. This solution has its own limitations. For example if we were to create small teams, one in charge of literacy instruction, and another in charge of, say Social Studies and Math methods, and then another working with Art, Music, and PE, OK, they would work fine to improve their specific area, but then the areas will start to drift from each other. As a result, we would have no unity on matter that run across different areas: knowledge of diversity, classroom management, sound assessments, etc. In other words, we would export entropy to a different level, as biologists might say, but there will be about the same amount of it in the system. And this is what we have been doing anyway.

The radical solution will have to be based with self-organization processes and with alternative ways of information flows. I don’t have the solution; I just have a vague idea, even less than an idea, an image, a dream. Somehow, I see our students keeping track of their own learning needs: what they already know, what skills they still lack and need to work on, and what they should learn. I see them constantly checking these skills and knowledge with a constantly available testing service and then entering requests for specific knowledge into a database. Here is what I need to learn in the next semester… Then the computer matches those requests against our faculty’s expertise, and voila, it delivers a schedule. It does not look like our present schedule; it is a lot more complex: we have courses that last from one day to the whole semester. They have long names like: Elementary Social studies curriculum with use of storytelling and ideas on classroom management in urban classrooms. Or: philosophies of education plus professional writing skills plus research skills. The schedule is different every semester; it prompts professors to gain expertise in areas that are in high demand, and constantly update what we already know. Those professors whose expertise is not in demand, have to leave or work as assistants to other, more effective professors. Students are in charge of their own learning; those who cannot master skills, are forced to leave; those who can do most of their learning on their own, save time and money. The distributed knowledge makes the system self-organizing: no one knows everything, but everyone knows what she or he needs.
Anyway, that’s my Saturday afternoon dream?

Aug 17, 2007

Can you ever go home?

My Russian in-law family, six of them, stayed with us for a while. We had a lot of fun, and some very good, very Russian conversations. A visit like this always brings forth questions of identity. This country versus that country, where one should live, how do we lives, what makes one Russian, and what makes one American. The precarious bridge to the old country has been briefly reestablished, and at least in imagination, crossed back and forth. Svetlana and I have always considered going back; we have been held back because of practicalities such as lack of good jobs in Russia, kids that went native and the large American debts. There are other considerations though. In 16 years we were gone, Russia has changed dramatically, not once but twice: from crumbling Soviet Union to the deepest economic depression imaginable, back to oil revenue-prompted relative prosperity and stability. From the excitement and hope of Glasnost era to despair of chaotic democracy and lawlessness, it then became a semi-authoritarian, but stable and mostly functional state. I watched two coupe d'etates on CNN, have seen and heard tragic and uplifting news from what seems to be an intensely familiar, but also more and more mysterious country. I traveled back five or six times, each time struck by how little have changed, and how completely different the country has become.

Like all immigrants, I am caught in this interesting space in between two cultures. People like me are foreigners everywhere. With virtually non-existing English, I came to Indiana at the ripe age of 29, thus the accent that is impossible to eliminate. Moreover, the accent itself becomes a part of one’s identity; you become known as the Russian guy with an accent. Even if it were possible, I would not get rid of it. I could have become a generic Alex, but instead insisted on remaining an exotic Sasha for the same reason: Russian Alexes whose number is a million are too eager to blend in; they are afraid of remaining foreigners fearing discrimination and sometime wishing to forget. Anyway, foreigner I am, which is a mixed blessing. The American Academe tends to be remarkably tolerant to foreigners (especially to White Europeans); tolerance matched only perhaps by that of the business community and unparalleled in the world. As a foreigner, one can always claim the bogus authority of an outsider, of someone with a different perspective; the Academe values that. At the same time, people often expect you to be naïve and know nothing about simple things, and having little facility with the English language. Especially touching are complements on the comprehensibility of one’s accent, and on the fact that I can actually write. I had a very hard time getting my first teaching job, chiefly because of the obvious foreignness. But this was a long time ago, and now my job is great, and at least some people in the field claim to respect my scholarship. All’s good.

Of course, the Russians treat me like a foreigner, too. Their attitude varies between patronizing to hostile, but the message is always the same: you did not go through this with us, so you wouldn’t understand. Or, you have been away for too long, you forgot how this is. The deep seated anti-Americanism of many Russians stems from the wounds to the national dignity. The wounds are mostly self-inflicted, but when it hurts one must hate someone, anyone. The Russian Americans will always get some flack on behalf of the entire American nation for everything from obesity to the Iraq war. One sure sign of becoming a foreigner is this: you cannot criticize Russia anymore. What is perfectly allowable to a real Russian (for example, criticism of Putin’s slide to autocratic rule) will not be permitted to you, the emigrant, because you are no longer one of us. Americans do not always understand this sensitivity, because their tolerance to criticism of America is rooted in implied assumption of own superiority. What a sentence… My writing has been ruined by the practice of philosophy. Anyway, back to the point: People like me are foreigners everywhere, and we end up always defending Russia in America, and defending America in Russia. In both cases we are basically defending ourselves, the parts of our identity that do not sit easy with people around us. It is much easier in a third country, where you’re simply a tourist, and no one gives a damn about your identity.

This place in between has been described many times by dozens of immigrant writers. They all try to make people appreciate how rich and complex the creatures of cultural border crossings are. So there, see how complex I am? Can I get some respect for this? The truth is, our experiences are not at all unique, and are a variation on the universal human story of going away from home; the home to which one can never return. It is a story of nostalgia, of growing up and betrayal of one’s youth, of embracing new things but longing for the old. We are all immigrants from home; even those who have never left the home town.

I feel sad for people who have a hang up on national culture, and cannot see past it. I doubt the very notion of culture, especially applied to such large entities like the Americans or the Russians has any usefulness. In other words, one can always make some generalizations: Americans are that, Russians are this, and Chinese are something else. But how would you use such generalizations? For what? If you try to apply them in any kind of real-life situation, they will turn out wrong more often than right. In my pragmatist epistemology, that means national cultures do not exist; they are fiction, myth useful to manipulate people, but useless to do anything good. But that’s another blog.

We could go back one day, when the practicalities of such a move are resolved. Russia is so much more unpredictable than the US, it is so much more frightening and exciting, it is hard to resist.

Aug 3, 2007

Dances with Data

Carolyn, our NCATE Queen, and I were dancing with and around data a lot. Our dependable work studies have been diligently punching in numbers; our smart graduate assistants played with spreadsheets and produced nice tables. Program reports are due soon, so we are having a close look at what information we have gathered, and which of it makes any sense.

We have learned several things so far. One is that when you set up some data collection process, you don’t really know if the data in the end is going to be useful. You also never realize what will be missing. When it is aggregated, it looks differently than when you are looking at a single item or few items. Data can look really boring, when there is no variation, and everyone is proficient. Data can look weak, because it does not prove what it is supposed to prove. We also realized that data collection must be systematic from the get go: we collect too much data, actually. Each individual sheet or form has been added sometime in the past for what seemed to be a good reason, but now many serve no purpose, or are never used for anything. So, when you have too much data, you end up spending more time digging out what is somewhat useful from what is obsolete. So, it should be very limited, very focused, and have some validity. Not just what statisticians like to call concept validity, but what I would like to call the gut feeling validity: can we actually believe it measures what we say it measures? Can we stand by it?

In the institution of our size, bureaucratic procedures for data collection are crucial. Someone has to visualize the journey a piece of paper makes, and find that critical point where we can get a copy of it, and then enter it into a database. A lot of things could go wrong here: an instructor may forget to turn his or her sheets; a staff person can be recent and not realize that certain piece of paper needs to be collected, or may not know what it looks like. A paper may be filed improperly, or not filed at all, then the information may never be entered into the database, so we have to pull paper out of files, and enter it. Time also plays tricks with us: “I believe I turned it in to A,” says B about an event that happened many months ago. “I don’t remember receiving anything from B,” says A. Both suspect C might have the stuff, but C is no longer working with us C says he turned everything to D, who is also gone and out of reach, so I go into the D’s office where stuff might be, but find nothing. End of search. Now this may look like a lot of incompetence, but it is not. Data collection is a complex process highly vulnerable to error and to organizational changes. It easily disintegrates under pressures of time, large volume, and lack of strong motivation. Data needs evolve constantly, because of changes in various laws, program revisions, turnover of instructors, administrators and staff, and changes in technology.

However, the most important reason for our difficulties with data is that colleges have not learned yet to deal with accountability data. Of course, teacher education is on the forefront of the accountability movement. Most of our A&S colleagues are really behind us, and may have no idea at all about any of this. Most are making their baby steps in learning to dance this dance. However, even for NCATE accredited institutions like ours, the data collection challenge is still relatively new. Institutions have different scale of time: what is a long time for an individual, maybe just a blink in institutional time. While individuals can learn things quickly and remember what they have done, institutional capacities and institutional memories are very different – not as quick, not as reliable, and heavily dependent on writing things down. Having someone highly competent around does not necessarily solves the organizational problem.

In the end, a lot of data comes out a bit unconvincing. I treat it as a learning experience: I certainly learned a lot about dancing with data in this NCATE cycle, and many of my colleagues did the same. My worry is how to make the institutional memory and skills stronger. So, OK, we are starting fresh in this coming academic year. We need not only to revise the list of data items we collect, and revise out instruments; we need not only develop logistics for collecting and analyzing it, but also somehow make sure this process is sturdy enough to withstand changes. When we have new faculty, new secretaries, new work studies, etc., how will they know what to do with data and why we’re doing it? Next time we change something in information collection, how will that information spread? Who will make sure little pieces of data come together? How do we make this process less time consuming and therefore less expensive? And most importantly, how on Earth do we collect only meaningful data, and stop collecting crap WITHOUT failing our next NCATE review?

I am fairly confident we will pass most of this cycle, partly because Carolyn and others did a great job setting data collection in motion before I ever got here, and the process of actually writing the reports is well organized. Partly I am confident because NCATE has shown appreciation to the challenges of the institutional learning curve, and was not indifferent to the issues specific to large units. So, this is not a grade anxiety, but thinking about converting this whole accountability dance into something we can actually enjoy and look good doing.