Monday, March 26, 2012

Everything that rises must converge

Spring is in the air at the University of Washington, Tacoma! Today, as we cross our fingers that March will continue to gambol out like a lamb, we find our spirits lifting. The sun is out and lovely flowers have begun to bloom in unexpected places. Today is also the first day of Spring quarter, and once again we sharpen our digital pencils, open new smelly markers and
"...Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines!" 

In this spirit, let's talk about hope, change, innovation, transformation, and the kitchen sink. Let us rise and converge!

CreativeCommons flickr photo from farhadfarhad
Last week, I attended a two-day, three-campus retreat on Redefining Higher Education. It was the learning-focused continuation of a larger, week-long Innovation Forum put on by UW Bothell, a campus 20-some miles to the north. Redefining higher education? Really? Embracing creativity, change, and innovation in higher education teaching and learning? Really?  Seems almost a string of gibberish oxymorons, no? 

This beautiful, ancient, unchanging, hegemonic institution redefined? The horror! Banish the thought! If it worked for our nation's richest and most powerful forefathers - then dagnabit - it should work for their off-spring today. And here's the thing: it does. Harvard graduates 97% of its undergrads in 4 years. UW Seattle, rejecting more than half of its applicants, graduates 75% within six years. (That's a great figure, by the way. Other HE institutions in Washington are closer to 50% and Washington rocks compared to other states.)

Children of the rich, powerful, and well-educated do well in college. Others often rise and converge in a mess of debt, sorrow, boredom and rage. And these latter learners, the new majority in most HE institutions, are the learners that UWB wanted us to think about in our two-day Spring break retreat. These are the students of Bothell and Tacoma. These are the 25% who drop out at UW Seattle or the 50% that Seattle turned away. The majority of students now pounding on our walls for access previously reserved for the few, the privileged, those not destined to be marines.
What would it take to create an engaging, deeper learning experience for the new learner? What would it take to move a ship larger 
than the Titanic (and in as much danger) toward more innovative blue ocean waters?

SKUNK WORKS?" one aged administrator replied. Those who have been around awhile know that the institution will attempt to kill innovation (and the innovators) every step of the way. It's the inherent biology of large organisms: the larger the organization, the stronger the need for self-preservation as is and the more resistant to change. (Hence Christensen's notion that disruptive innovation must come from the outside; hence participants of the retreat agreeing one must start small and be silent/serpentine/sly; hence most agreeing that Bothell and Tacoma had better chances for success.) 

 So, if I were to sum up two intense days of deep conversation on saving our ship...or at least saving the passengers for whom there are no row boats:

  • Believe. Change happens when people within the organization believe it is possible. 
  • Take lots of small chances. The military floats change through support for quiet, pilot projects. If it works, there's better chance of wide-spread adoption.
  • Keep your eye on the prizestudents who have the skills to be successful in the workforce, in civic affairs, in their own lives.
  • Diversify, select, amplify. Back to the metaphor of the organism: this, claimed one participant, is how we survive. Time to diversify.
  • Be fearless. If you do it right, you will fail. Often. Cultivate failure (the right kinds), cultivate collaborators, cultivate a small, vibrant culture of the imagination. 

And that's how we will redefine higher education. One step at a time, one risk at a time, one online program, one adventurous course, one implementation of analytic awareness, one embrace of Khan Academy or Livemocha or Persistence Plus or Google Scholar - Google Apps - Google Sites - Google Whatever. Embrace Wikipedia (the disdain for this wonderful democratization of knowledge by HE would astound outsiders) and flickr's visual ways of knowing and ANY crowd-sourcing and collaboration tool used in the creation of knowledge. Just do it, the folks at Nike say. Do it before "the beards" (as they're called here at UWT) know that you did it. Just get it done.
Joyous Spring! Here's to hope and rebirth and wonder.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Pi Day! Einstein's birthday! Joy and gratitude for math

...and let's not forget gratitude for math teachers.

And for the anonymous cartoonist whose backward-thinking graphic went viral this year. Thank you interwebs and tubes and collective shared learning. Thank you for geeky math humor. Oh beautiful world that makes sense, thank you for Pi.

OK, let's stop eating our 3.14 pieces of strawberry rhubarb (to infinity!) and talk about America. We're slipping. Evidence is everywhere that we are not competing on the international stage and that many students that struggle with math courses in middle school later drop out. What's happening when in China and India high school students traditionally take calculus and in the US, that course is reserved for 13% of our high school population? Math education is so poor right now that here at University of Washington Tacoma, more that 50% of our entering students don't even test successfully into college-level math courses. They are sent away, to community college, with fingers crossed they do the work and eventually return.

Some say the sports and organized extracurricular-activities we pressure our students into here in the US distracts them from study. Some say the answers are to water down the curriculum for US students so as not to damage their self-esteem or interrupt their after school party time.

Biology, chem, physics? Same story. High school requirements here are a shallow one year. In India and China? They study these subjects EVERY year. My humble opinion is that we demand more science, less modern dance. No wonder our young athletes, Glee-kids, and martial artists  do so poorly in college. They hardly studied in high school. Or middle school.

Some make the case that our well-rounded and "everyone is perfectly the best" educational approach defines more creative, innovative, entrepreneurial souls and this will be America's edge. Resume for the new millenium: stupid but creative; lazy but not a follower; no quantitative skills but great amateur jump shot.

Some make the case that in a technology age, let technology do what parents and teachers can't: keep the kids in their seats engaged in learning math. Bless you Sal Khan for attempting to do just that. Let's celebrate Pi Day by thinking deeply about how to act on evidence that some learners will stop, think, learn math if we give them the right tools.

Now, let's move Khan Academy into the high schools and colleges and graduate the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and glorious, geek-humor loving nerds. Happy Pi Day!