Values-based Decision Making

In a recent accreditation visit at work, a comment was made in the visiting team’s report that the college and engineering program need to better demonstrate the rationale behind program changes that are tied to something called “graduate attributes.”  I won’t bore you here with the details of how an engineering degree gets accredited since it’s a bit more complex than a short blog post would allow.  The main point is that the visiting team wanted to understand the motives we had when making updates to the courses in our continuous improvement process.

This reminded me of my KWCF experiences, specifically the Engage!KW program.  One of the activities we did was to reflect critically on our values.  We were asked to come up with a list of our values, and compare our espoused values with how we choose to spend our time in a week.  The point of the exercise is to a.) see whether you are living according to your values, and b.) to reinforce that you should make decisions based on your values – and if a decision does not align with your core values, it’s probably not something worth pursuing.

The visiting team’s comment didn’t sit well with the faculty and administration, largely because we felt that all of our decisions were made in the spirit of making graduates from the program better prepared for their careers.  The idea that we need to somehow demonstrate or explain better what we are already doing was hard to understand.

My best explanation for how this would work goes like this:

Suppose you receive feedback from your industry partners that in order for graduates to  be successful, the college needs to buy every student a pink hat.  The students must wear the pink hats at all times, and they must bring them with them into their careers after graduation.

Now, it might be the case that these pink hats are a good idea.  The idea originated from our industry partners, whom will be the very people hiring our grads.  However, buying the pink hats is an expensive endeavor.  The money we spend on pink hats means we can’t allocate those resources elsewhere to improve the program.

When the team evaluates the idea, they should look to the core values of the program and see whether the pink hats falls in line with those values.  In our engineering programs, we have twelve graduate attributes that we seek to instill in our students.  Every student who graduates from an engineering program will possess these attributes if the program is designed well.  If we look at the attributes (our values) we won’t see a connection of how pink hats are essential to making a better graduate or a better engineer, even though industry is telling us this is the case.  And so, we would make a decision to ignore industry’s suggestion, and instead allocate our money elsewhere.

Pinks hats might seem like a silly example, but the situation is the same for any piece of technology that industry wants us to teach, such as 3D printers and proprietary programming languages for manufacturing robots.  It costs a lot of money to adopt these technologies, and it takes a lot of time to teach and reinforce the skills in our students.  At each point, we have to ask ourselves whether this investment materially improves the students, or whether there is a better way we can allocate our time (such as teaching good computer modelling for 3D printers, or teaching good programming foundations so that our students can easily teach themselves any programming language used in industry).

The key lesson is that these decisions should not be made on a whim, but nor should they be made because a stakeholder tells you they are important.  Input from industry is only one point of data in a sea of information.  In order to tease out the signal from the noise, it’s important to use your values to help determine what’s worth pursuing, and what’s worth leaving behind.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

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What I Read in 2018

Here it is, my yearly update on what I read over the last 12-months.  Overall, I far exceeded my 2016 and 2017 lists in terms of the number of books (42 in 2016, 44 in 2017, and now 57 in 2018) and even the number of pages (4,600 pages more over 2017’s total).

Title Author Date Completed Pages
1 Saga, Volume One Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples 12-Feb 160
2 Witches Abroad Terry Pratchett 23-Feb 288
3 12 Rules for Life Jordan Peterson 5-Mar 448
4 Skin in the Game Nassim Nicholas Taleb 10-Mar 304
5 Proust and the Squid Maryanne Wolf 11-Mar 336
6 Small Gods Terry Pratchett 16-Mar 384
7 Conspiracy Ryan Holiday 21-Mar 336
8 Lords and Ladies Terry Pratchett 7-Apr 384
9 Thinking in Bets Annie Duke 7-Apr 288
10 Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari 13-May 464
11 Career Manifesto Mike Steib 4-Jun 288
12 This Is The Year I Put My Financial Life in Order John Schwartz 5-Jun 320
13 Men at Arms Terry Pratchett 12-Jun 384
14 Soul Music Terry Pratchett 24-Jun 384
15 Interesting Times Terry Pratchett 8-Jul 352
16 The Achievement Habit Bernard Roth 21-Jul 288
17 Discover Your Inner Economist Tyler Cowen 26-Jul 256
18 Maskerade Terry Pratchett 30-Jul 384
19 The Five Love Languages: Men’s Edition Gary Chapman 31-Jul 208
20 David and Goliath Malcolm Gladwell 3-Aug 320
21 Feet of Clay Terry Pratchett 10-Aug 416
22 Originals Adam Grant 13-Aug 336
23 Own the Day, Own your Life Aubrey Marcus 17-Aug 448
24 Hogfather Terry Pratchett 17-Aug 352
25 Tribe of Mentors Timothy Ferriss 20-Aug 624
26 Better than Before Gretchen Rubin 21-Aug 320
27 Jingo Terry Pratchett 25-Aug 416
28 Books for Living Will Schwalbe 27-Aug 288
29 The Last Continent Terry Pratchett 6-Sep 416
30 Unshakeable Tony Robbins 17-Sep 256
31 Shoe Dog Phil Knight 17-Sep 400
32 What Happened Hillary Rodham Clinton 26-Sep 512
33 When Daniel H. Pink 28-Sep 272
34 A Higher Loyalty James Comey 30-Sep 312
35 Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull 2-Oct 368
36 Why Buddhism is True Robert Wright 15-Oct 336
37 The Element Ken Robinson 19-Oct 320
38 Elon Musk (Biography) Ashlee Vance 24-Oct 400
39 Reinventing You Dorie Clark 26-Oct 240
40 What the Dog Saw Malcolm Gladwell 4-Nov 448
41 The Daily Show: An Oral History Chris Smith 12-Nov 480
42 Waking Up Sam Harris 15-Nov 256
43 If You’re In My Office, It’s Already Too Late James J. Sexton 24-Nov 288
44 A Life in Parts Bryan Cranston 24-Nov 288
45 5 Love Languages Gary Chapman 27-Nov 208
46 The Perfectionists Simon Winchester 1-Dec 416
47 Entrepreneurial You Dorie Clark 3-Dec 272
48 The Dip Seth Godin 3-Dec 96
49 The Last Man Who Knew Everything David N. Schwartz 7-Dec 480
50 Ikigai Hector Garcia and Francesc Mirales 20-Dec 208
51 The One Thing Gary Keller and Jay Papasan 20-Dec 240
52 This Is Marketing Seth Godin 21-Dec 288
53 The Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. Du Bois 23-Dec 272
54 The Artist’s Journey Steven Pressfield 27-Dec 192
55 Running Down a Dream Tim Grahl 28-Dec 198
56 Zen to Done Leo Babauta 28-Dec 114
57 What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Haruki Murakami 31-Dec/1-Jan 192
Total: 18544

As I mentioned last week, I have some thoughts and reflections while reviewing the list.  First, when I was selecting my best 5 for the year, I noticed that the books in the latter part of the year were ones I felt resonate with me the most.  I think this is for two, related reasons.  First, this was a huge year for my wife and I.  We renovated our old house, sold it, bought a new house, renovated the new one, moved cities, got married, and got me a new car.  We had so much packed into one year on top of work and family, that the year seemed to have flown by without me realizing it.  Someone pointed out to me that there was a Winter Olympics at the start of last year – I couldn’t believe it and had forgotten all about it.

The second, somewhat related reason is because of the sheer volume of books finished, I don’t think I gave the material time to properly settle in my mind.  Fifty-seven books is a huge amount, and I think that by the end of the year, I couldn’t really remember what I had read during the first half of the year.  Instead, most of the impact was felt in the readings from the latter half of the year.  That’s not to say that the books from the start of the year are forgotten, because I feel that lessons taken from Skin in the Game and from Sapeins, for example, are prominent in my mind.  It’s just that they didn’t really stick out in my mind at the end of the year when I was picking my top reads of the year.

Another reason why I think I have a hard time remembering what I read from the start of the year is because the vast majority of the books finished this year were audiobooks.  Thanks to Audible and the Libby app, I was flushed with books to go through.  And because I listen to books at a minimum of 1.5x speed, I can get through the books at a far faster rate than if I were carving out time to read physical books.  This has its advantages, such as being exposed more rapidly to new ideas.  However, this advantage comes at the cost of little overall integration of the information and general lowered retention of information over time. The speed at which I’m listening to books is more like skimming than true reading.

Nevertheless, I’m very satisfied with my accomplishment for the year.  I’m not really interested in trying to top this list intentionally next year.  I will keep reading/listening/consuming books at whatever rate I happen to finish them, but I will go with whatever pace I happen to settle in, rather than trying to hit weekly or monthly targets.

For the upcoming year, I’d like to try and move away from the self-help, business, and animated bibliography genres of books, and instead tackle more books on history, biographies, and fiction that’s not just Terry Pratchett (though I will still keep ploughing through the Discworld series – that’s not changing any time soon).  If you have any book recommendations, feel free to let me know!  I’ve already got “Educated” by Tara Westover and “When They Call You A Terrorist” by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele on my bookshelf as recommended by friends.  I’m always on the lookout for the next book to read.

Have a great new year and happy reading!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Institutional Systems and Game Theory

One of the hardest lessons I grapple with is treating systems (especially bureaucracies) as a series of “games.”  By games, I’m treating it in the academic sense as a series of interactions between parties that has rules, outcomes/payoffs, and strategies.  Being the meek person that I am, I tend to default to the assumption that the stated rules are all that there is, and you are expected to follow the prescribed process if you are seeking an outcome.  The truth is, in most cases there are multiple strategies that you can use to seek out advantageous outcomes for yourself.  Depending on how the rules are set up, you can avail yourself of several options, both sanctioned and unsanctioned.

For instance, in the case of students, you need to achieve a certain grade to pass a course (say, a 55%).  There are a number of strategies you can use depending on what outcome you are seeking:

  • If you are seeking the highest grade possible – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours, learn the rubric, do well on assessments, and challenge grades to bump your marks up.
  • If you are seeking mastery of the content – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours to resolve unclear topics, research the topic, create good study notes, take practice tests, and learn from mistakes.
  • If you are seeking a moderate pass – you prioritize the work and tackle the highest value graded units to achieve at least a minimal passing grade, and you disregard low-return work that requires lots of effort for little ROI, you attend only the lectures required to get information you need, and likely get notes from peers.
  • If you are seeking a pass regardless of content mastery – you can cheat and hope you are not discovered by your professor, then deny any wrong-doing if caught or present excuses to justify your behaviour.  If that doesn’t work, you appeal using the institutions mechanism.

Something to keep in mind is that cheating is still considered at “legitimate” strategy as long as you don’t get caught, because the goal is to secure your desired outcome.  If you aren’t caught, it’s because your strategy beat out your opponent, and you won your outcome.  It might be that cheating goes against the system or the intended processes put in place, but if an adequate system to police the rules isn’t in place, you can exploit that strategy to your advantage.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not advocating for academic cheating.  I do my best to guard against cheating because I think it runs counter to my goals as a teacher.  I want my students to learn to play the game as I see it should  be played, because the skills and strategies used for my class are both useful and valuable outside of my class – the ability to read a variety of perspectives with an open-mind, the ability to articulate your position with evidence, the ability to connect ideas across different knowledge domains, etc.

I exploit the same rules when I help students navigate their way through the institution’s byzantine labyrinths and silo’d departments when they come to me with problems in their program.  I want them to get through their education with the least institutional friction and cost possible – school is hard enough and I don’t want them wasting time jumping through frivolous hoops because the systems aren’t set up optimally.

I sometimes feel irked or offended when I catch a student cheating, or catch someone lying to me.  I try to check myself in those instances because I know it’s not meant as a personal slight against me when these things happen; it’s because of the incentive structures in place.  A legitimate strategy is not available to the person, so they seek an alternative strategy to get what they want.  They are playing a game and their strategy is competing against mine when they submit plagiarized work, or hand me a fake ID at the bar I work at.  If my strategy is sufficiently robust, I can catch and counter their strategy.  But if I’m also using a sub-optimal strategy, then it’s more likely the case that their strategy will exploit my complacency.

It’s nothing personal.  It’s just how the institutional games work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Student Coaching

Lately, I’ve noticed that in addition to my roles of administration and teaching, I’ve been spending more time coaching students.  It tends to come up in small ways, such as offering suggestions on how to word emails or how a student should approach talking to their professor about something in their class.  At first I was a little uncomfortable with taking on a coaching role when it wasn’t really part of my job.  That’s not to say I’m uncomfortable with doing tasks that are not explicitly written into my job description.  Instead, I was uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure if it was my place to offer guidance.  Sure, I might be a decade older than most of the students, but I sometimes struggle with the impostor syndrome: what do I know?  I’m just a lowly administrative assistant.

Having said that, I recognized a fundamental truth that I think many people take for granted – students are young.  I don’t just mean young in age, but also young in experience.  Most students haven’t had the same experiences I’ve had, whether that is my post-secondary schooling, grad school, or work.  Things that I take for granted that come second nature to me are wildly new for students just coming into school.  It’s even worse for students who are first-generation college/university students (like I was).  For some, they haven’t had a lot of experience navigating systems on their own.

We bemoan the helicopter parents and make snide remarks that students don’t know anything (i.e. “life skills”), but I think we should have more empathy.  Post-secondary is a big, scary place to navigate.  If it’s your first time living away from home, having to manage your own schedule, finances, and life, would you not also feel overwhelmed?

Instead of starting with the assumption that students are lazy, or wanting everything fed to them on a silver spoon, I try to take the approach that students don’t know how to narrow down their options or choose a path.  They are the modern Buridan’s ass stuck between competing options with no practical way of making decisions or selecting priorities.  Instead they focus on what’s immediate and take the path of least resistance (for them at the time).  Without a longer view and a chain of successes, their choices may seem short-sighted, but in their context it makes sense to them.  If you couple that kind of decision framework with the complex, convoluted machinery that is “real life,” you can hardly be surprised when students make sub-optimal decisions.

In light of this, my response is not to infantilize them, nor chide them for what one would judge to be their bad decisions.  Instead, I offer my perspective and anecdotes to provide teachable moments.  I provide insight into byzantine rule structures and explain my reasoning.  And I ultimately leave decisions or action up to them.  They must take ownership of the process because they have to be accountable for the outcomes.  The point of education is to create a safe space to fail and learn.  Therefore, our goal should be to set students up for success but also provide them with the opportunity to learn through their mistakes, not by punishing them into doing the right thing.  Rote learning works in some contexts, but in order to make deeper connections between ideas and develop ones ability to reason, students need to be coached on how to shift their perspective and see new connections.

And so, I sometimes coach students.  It’s pretty interesting so far.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

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,

Ryan

 

Thoughts on Providing Feedback

I had a heartwarming moment this past week where a student provided some positive feedback about my teaching.  I “teach” an online course through the college and have been one of the instructors for the past year.  I find online courses a difficult medium to engage with students because you never get face to face interaction with them, so you need to find other ways to reach out and build a rapport.

One of the methods I choose, and use when I teach in-class as well, is to take time to provide comments and feedback on assignments.  I think of assignments as ways for me to provide real, concrete feedback on student performance (rather than just a grade).  In addition to the marking rubric, I will give three kinds of feedback:

  • comments on how well a student engaged with material according to a certain criteria;
  • areas where the student did not measure up to the criteria and why;
  • (most importantly) guidance on how the student could improve in the future.

That last bullet point is important to me because when I reflect back on my own learning in school, I realize that grades are often a poor way of gauging how well you understand the material.  Instead, the numeric grade stands as a proxy for how many “answers” you got right.  For the purposes of education, I’m concerned of the other side of the grade – the marks that you didn’t get; why you didn’t get 100%.  If I, as an instructor, can fill in the details of what the student missed, I can guide them towards improving in the future.

It takes me a while to grade assignments because I spend the extra time giving constructive feedback to the students.  If I simply told them what they  got wrong, the student won’t have a sense of what steps they could take to do better next time.  I don’t want the students to use trial and error to figure out how to improve skills.  Instead, I will give them explicit feedback on what I want them to do differently in the future.

Perhaps you are thinking that I’m coddling the students too much.  Maybe you are right, but I assume the students are here to learn, that I’m positioned as the expert, and that teaching is more about molding and guiding students, not expecting them to stumble across the correct answers.  I want the students to be mindful of what I expect of them (and it forces me to reflect on what I want to see in the student’s progress, which is significantly harder than a capricious grade you slap on after reading through a paper).

If done right, you should see a general improvement in the quality of the assignments you receive over the semester.  Students who are looking to improve will pay attention to your feedback and will get better over time.

I’ll close off with an excerpt from the student who emailed me:

I struggle with philosophy but I wanted to try out this elective. Your feedback has really helped me to know where I have gone wrong and what to work on for the future assignments. I have never got so much feedback from teacher, so thank you.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Study Strategies #5 – Application

One of the hardest things I find my students struggling with is not grappling with deep philosophical thoughts, or technical jargon (to be fair, they do struggle with these as well), but it’s in the application of course material.  Most often, when my students submit work for me to evaluate, they submit work that is either:

  • straight opinion (read: a submission that is not structured as an argument with evidence and connecting ideas through logic); or
  • an attempt to solve or provide a definitive response for all the problems of this philosophical issue in about a page.

The thing my students don’t realize is that I don’t care whether they “solve” the philosophical problem.  Granted, I don’t expect them to be able to solve the problem in a page, but that’s not the point.

The purpose of the exercise is for me to check the thought-process of whether they are able to understand the material and work with it.

I was recently chatting with a Program Chair about her time teaching engineering courses.  She noted that often she’d give problem sets that lacked defined measurements, and her students would pause to ask what the length or value of the unknowns are.  She was very frank that she didn’t care what number their calculator displayed because it was more important for her to see whether the students could think through the problem, manipulate the equations, and understand how to go about solving a problem.  For her, the solution was extraneous for the purposes of the class – it was a quick and convenient way to mark an answer right or wrong, but not entirely indicative of whether the student was understanding the concepts.

Now, you may say that this is all well and good for engineering, but how does that apply to philosophy (“But, philosophy has no right answers!!!) or any of the other soft sciences or humanities disciplines.

The truth is that the faster you try to apply the concepts, the easier it is to learn and make the concepts stick, and it’s not all that different across disciplines.  If you are trying to learn a concept, the best thing you can do is to try to take what you think you are learning, and apply it to a novel situation.  By focusing less on the details and working with the core concepts, you get a chance to see what makes sense to you and where your gaps in knowledge are.

For the course I teach, the students work their way through the online module materials, which includes extra readings, embedded videos, probing questions, links to additional sources, etc.  Then, after a round of discussion board posts, the students have a weekly essay prompt related to the week’s topic.

Early in the course, my students will often reply strictly to the essay question with what they think the right answer is.  Through my weekly rubric feedback and general emails to the class, I encourage them to go back to the module content and apply the concepts they are learning to the essay prompt.  What would so and so say about this concept?  How does this school of thought define this concept?  Do you agree with how this concept gets framed?

The point of undergraduate philosophy courses is not for students to generate original philosophical thought.  That is an aim, but it shouldn’t be the outcome.  Instead, the instructor should be guiding the students to think better and understand the concepts being covered so that they can then apply it in novel situations.

When studying, a good way to learn the concepts it to try and extract the ideas from how the author framed them and see how you can apply those ideas in new ways.  It reinforces the learning and helps to spot gaps in understanding in a way that straight memorization doesn’t provide.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan