Policy vs. Guidance Pedagogy

During an ethics board meeting recently, we discussed ways of providing direction to faculty members who have student-based research in their courses.  For faculty who have research elements built into their courses, it can be a challenge to determine what counts as research, and whether said research is subject to the rules governing conducting research at an institution (specifically in our case, whether an ethics application would need to be submitted to the board).  Not every scholarly activity necessarily counts as research, and not every kind of research requires an approval from the institutional research ethics board.  Since this can be a bit of a murky area, we have been considering ways of providing direction.

The conversation abstracted away from the specifics of this case, and we discussed some of the issues concerning policy and guidance, which applies to education and pedagogy more generally.

The benefit of policy is that it spells out clear expectations of what is expected, what the division of responsibility looks like, and what consequences might be considered in the event of a policy breach.  Policy is designed to protect the institution through due diligence, and it focuses on expressing what rules need to be followed in order to not get into trouble.  Loopholes arise when the policies are not sufficiently rigorous the cover contingency cases and when policies are not harmonized laterally or vertically with other policies.  Policy documents focus on the “ends.”

On the other hand, guidance documents focus on the “means” by providing suggestions and best practices that could be followed.  Guidance documents typically do not include comprehensive rules unless it’s appropriate.  Instead, the purpose of the guidance document is to provide clarity in ambiguity without necessarily spelling things out.  They are deliberately left open because guidance documents are meant to supplement and add to ongoing conversations within a field or system.  While guidance documents also do not provide comprehensive options to contingent situations, the strength of the guidance document is that it’s educational in intent – it provides reasoning that helps the reader understand the position it takes, and paints a vision of what success looks like.

I realized in the meeting that this has a lot of crossover into considerations for teaching.  It’s is better, in my opinion, to teach students frameworks for thinking, rather than rules for success.  In the case of ethics, I would avoid teaching students what rules they need to follow, and what they need to do to avoid getting into trouble.  Instead, I would seek to build good practices and habits into the material I’m teaching so that I can model what success looks like and help them understand why.  This way of conceiving the material is forward-thinking.  It gets the students to envision what the end-step looks like, and allows them to work backwards to figure out how they want to arrive there.  By focusing on the principles you want the students to uphold (as opposed to rules to follow), the students learn to think for themselves and are able to justify the decisions they make.  This also has the benefit of avoiding the problem with prescriptive policies – students are prepared to reason through novel situations based on principles.


Stay Awesome,




It’s Not Easy Being Chair

I recently took over as Chair of the Board for the non-profit I sit on.  So far, I’ve chaired two meetings and I have to admit I feel out of my element.  I don’t mean that I’m not able to carry out the job – I seem to be doing alright by the feedback I’m receiving from the other board members.

It’s one thing to sit as a board member and evaluate how a meeting is being run, spotting pieces here and there that could be run more efficiently, or structured different, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually run the show.  I think the past Chair did a fantastic job, so when I say there were things that could be more efficient, I don’t mean it as a criticism.  What I mean is, when someone else is putting things into motion, it’s easy to see various areas where something could be done better.  But when you are the one putting things into motion and steering the ship, you spend so much time keeping things going that you don’t have the time or the mental bandwidth to evaluate things in real time and adjust for efficiency.

Before, I would receive the agenda, figure out where I could contribute to the discussion, show up and sit in as part of the group (which sometimes amounted to sitting back and letting others run the discussion).  Now, I make the agenda and set the tone, then I have to be the one to get the discussion rolling.  It falls to me to manage the Board’s caseload, and lead any strategic directions we choose to go.  In time, it’ll also fall to me to work within my mandate from the Board and start the generative process of strengthening the organization and planning for the future.

Based on these last two meetings, it’s going to be a long time before I’m leading in any meaningful sense of the word.  The best way I can describe my performance is managing how much force is getting applied to the flywheel to ensure momentum isn’t lost.  When I reflect on my performance, it feels awkward and a little weak (wishy-washy, as opposed to done with a sense of conviction).

My default state is to excessively talk and look to the body language of others to see if they are receptive to what I’m saying.  If I sense they are not understanding me, I keep talking and hope that if I throw everything at them, they’ll understand what I’m saying.  A friend once likened it to a faucet.  Where I should be dialing things back, I instead open the valve and give them a fire hose of information.   Of course, this is the opposite of what I should be doing as a leader of a group like this.  I should spend less time talking and more time listening to the wisdom of the group.

The good thing is that it’s early in my tenure so there is plenty of time to get more comfortable in the role and learn how to settle into a groove.  Like I said, I’m not doing a bad job.  The rest of the group is fine with how the last two meetings went.  This is merely my critical self-reflection coupled with my desire to do better.

Stay Awesome,