Knowing When To Quit

A recent article talking about knowing when to quit/retire from teaching had me reflecting on my own experiences with quitting.  Truthfully, I can’t recall many instances where I quit something.  Often, I will drag out experiences long after they have been useful, and instead of quitting as an active decision, I’m more likely to let things fall away through neglect.  Perhaps there isn’t a strong difference between the two since my history is littered with things that I eventually stopped doing.  I suppose in my mind, the difference comes down to whether I made a decision to stop – whether I took ownership over the act.

The strongest instance where I actively made a decision was when I stopped hosting at the local karaoke bar.  I was three or four years into my tenure as a host, and for the most part I enjoyed the experience.  I had a regular crew of friends who would come in and make the night interesting.  However, towards the end, I grew to resent patrons coming in who weren’t my friends.  I worked the slowest night, so if things were quiet, we’d shut down early.  But if patrons filtered in and kept purchasing stuff, we’d stay open.  Catering to the average customer felt like a chore, rather than chumming with friends with our own song preferences and inside jokes.

I started to dislike going into work, and even to this day I don’t sing much like I did while I was a host.  I’ll grab the mic from time to time, but I don’t go out to enjoy karaoke anymore.  I still work security at the bar, but I stopped hosting all together.

I made the decision to stop hosting because a small part of me knew it was time to move on.  I learned what I could from the experience, cherished the memories it gave me, but I recognized that I no longer wanted to spend time doing it.  I think that’s the critical part in the art of quitting.  It’s not about actually quitting or the how.  Instead, it’s about recognizing when the time has come and why.

Sometimes we have to slog it out in things we hate.  We don’t quit those things because we assign value to the activity (or someone else has assigned value and we are dragged along for the ride).  But quitting is more than stopping a thing you don’t like.  It’s about recognizing when the thing is no longer of value to you; that it won’t take you where you need it to go.  It is the recognition that your time is better suited elsewhere.  The art of quitting ultimately comes down to taking an active role in how you choose to spend your time.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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Emotional Baselines and Achievement

A recent SMBC comic discussing how humans tend to revert to emotional baselines got me thinking.  Go check it out; it’s humorously astute.

Shortly after the last Game of Thrones episode aired, reports came out that actor Kit Harington checked himself into a wellness centre to work on personal issues.  This was later corroborated with behind the scenes footage showing some of his emotional reactions as they filmed the final episodes.  Given that the show was one of his first major long-running parts, it’s not unreasonable that he’s experiencing complex thoughts and feelings around the show coming to a close.

Similarly, Olympian Michael Phelps appeared on Tony Robbins’s podcast and discussed his experiences with depression after his achievements in the pool.  He notes that after running on an emotional high from training and competing, returning to “normal life” without any substantial goals is a tough adjustment for athletes.  They spend long chunks of their lives devoted to a singular aim, and once they close that chapter of their lives, it can be difficult to find meaning in more mundane pursuits.  Instead of reverting to a normal baseline, their sense of balance is skewed and their baseline dips emotionally lower.

I’m neither an acclaimed actor nor athlete, but I have experienced similar emotional falloffs that helps me relate to what these two people might be going through.  After a summer of outward bound adventure in my army cadet days (we climbed mountains, glaciers, and biked through the Albertan countryside), I returned to my normal high school life and I experienced a week or so of crushing depression.  I felt that after climbing a mountain, what else could I possibly experience in life that would top that?  Setting aside that I was a teenager and lacked a more global perspective on life, in that moment I felt that I had peaked, and there was nothing left for me to achieve or look forward to.

The so-called “quarter-life crisis,” which for many coincides with graduating from four grueling years of undergraduate study, is a similar experience, where you no longer are striving towards a goal and now have to seek out to find your own meaning in life.  The vast, open stretch before you is daunting in its emptiness.  But, instead of possibility, you view the void with pessimism – what do I have before me that can possible measure to what has come before?

I don’t have children, but I suspect that the “empty nest” feeling that parents get when their children head out on their own is similar.  You’ve spent nearly two decades caring for your children, nurturing and guiding them towards self-sufficiency, and now that they are heading out, your goal is largely fulfilled and you need to redefine your identity and time in a post-dependent world.

When you experience the closing of a long-term goal that has spanned years, there seems to be a harsh recalibration period for your emotions.  Not only do you snap back to baseline, but you have to redefine your expectations for the baseline, and re-code that experience with a new sense of purpose and meaning.  The longer you stay in this limbo, it seems the harder you languish.

Achievement and success is wonderful, but I think we tend to only tell stories of the climb up the mountain and we tend to forget the back-half of the experience when we carefully climb back down, taking care not to fall back to earth.  I think sharing these stories is important because it lets us know we are not alone in the dark.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Books on Vocational Reflection

I finished reading Complications by Atul Gawande last week and really enjoyed it.  It was his first book and covered stories from his apprenticeship phase of becoming a surgeon.  I thought back to the first book I read from him, The Checklist Manifesto, and realized that while I enjoyed the topic Manifesto covered, I found it lacking a certain charm that Complications had.

Manifesto felt like a good idea that was stretched a bit too thin to fit the book format, and was heavily supplemented with references to studies done by other researchers.  This isn’t meant as a criticism – it was a good book!  But what I felt Complications (and his other book Better) had is the first hand reflection on one’s professional development.  It’s not just a memoir of one’s life, nor is it a tell-all, but instead it’s a focused meditation on the training, learning, failures, achievement, and lessons one gains from devoting themselves to their vocation.

Over the last three and a half years of reading, I’ve found I really enjoyed these kinds of  books.  I looked over my reading list and pulled a bunch of examples randomly below.  Some of them are about medicine, others are of actors, and a few books from the business world.  The common thread is that it’s less about the personal biography of the person and more about the development of the professional (for this reason, I didn’t include Elon Musk’s and Enrico Fermi’s biographies, or career retrospectives like the books from James Comey and Hillary Rodham Clinton).

It describes a world bigger than the person telling the story, and their attempt to grapple with the epistemological, ethical, and professional obligations that comes from entering a profession, and where their limits lie.  These are not stories about heroes – the stories are about human error and fallibility, and learning to deal with that revelation.  It also keeps its eye towards what it means to serve others, and where the profession should go in the future.

Ultimately, these books differ from the animated bibliography in one crucial area.  The animated bibliography is often a book that results from a person researching and stitching together the ideas of others.  In some cases, these books will require the author to attempt to put the ideas into practice, but in my opinion this is in service of selling the credibility of the book.  However, the books I’m discussing here and listing below are different because they are an account of people who are learning by doing.  They are applying what they previously learned during formal education, and reflecting on the outcomes to see what lessons can be derived.  In some sense, the books are an autopsy that try to tease out causes, or at least serve as a cautionary tales for those who come later.

 

A Thousand Naked Strangers – Kevin Hazzard

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23/ This book came from the @artofmanliness #podcast a few months back. Talk about an exhilarating read! I identify strongly with the author, Kevin Hazzard, as he spins his memoirs of life as an Atlanta paramedic in "A Thousand Naked Strangers." His listlessness and feelings of being unchallenged, not knowing just how much potential he had in him, or how far his limits went, are things I've grappled with recently. A lot of what he wrote resonates with me, but his tale also serves as a caution: Am I on the right path? Am I willing to make the necessary sacrifices? Am I strong enough? Can I hack it? Will I choke? It's a trial by fire in the purest sense and a book I intend to revisit. #reading #books #selfimprovement

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Doctored – Sandeep Juhar

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/29 – my trip to Scotland threw my reading schedule off, so I haven't finished a book since before I left. I picked this book up in the spirit of Larry Smith's advice to read broadly in your passions when looking at career options. Since I'm considering paramedicine, I thought this would be good to check out. Juhar writes a fantastic reflection on the 5 or so years after he finished his formal medical training, and the stress and burnout he experienced as the realities of a medical system with misaligned values is forced upon him. Money, family, and values all weigh him down as he is forced to work within the private medical industry in Manhattan. I very much enjoyed his prose and story. I'm very happy I picked this up from the library. #reading #books #selfimprovement #medicine

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I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had – Tony Danza

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-/32 I'd Like To Apologize To Every Teacher I Ever Had by Tony Danza. This was a spur purchase I made while browsing books on sale from Audible. I figured I could relate to his experiences, having just finished my first teaching experience this past year (albeit at the college level). The book was a lot more engaging than I expected! I felt absorbed as Tony told his story of his year teaching high school 11th grade English. While initially the set-up for a reality show, the experience quickly morphs into a huge learning experience for Tony as he learns what it means to be a teacher and what it takes to be effective in reaching students. It's a humbling story, and I am glad to have learned from it. @tonydanza #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #teaching #education #memoir

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Total Recall – Arnold Schwarzenegger

*Note – I include this mostly because of his telling of his time as a body-builder and actor.

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-/30 – Total Recall by Arnold Schwarzenegger. As a kid, I was into his movies. After I started getting into exercise, I got more into his bodybuilding achievements. While I didn't follow his political career, his recounting of his Governor years was quite interesting (though personally I enjoyed the first two acts of his career more). The book was quite long, but I enjoyed the story and got some good advice out of it. My only critique is that parts of the end felt more like he was writing the book for damage control of his personal life and career (i.e. his infidelity and son). Still, I'm glad I listened to the story. #books #reading #selfimprovement #audiobook #nonfiction #autobiography #memoir

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A Life in Parts – Bryan Cranston

 

The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin

 

Shoe Dog – Phil Knight

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-/31 – Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. This is a good book, not because I have any affinity for Nike shoes (I don't think I've ever owned a pair) but because it's a great story. The skeptical part of me knows that Knight controls the narrative, so as a narrator we can't fully trust his objectivity as he tells his side of some of the bad events in Nike's early years. Nevertheless, even if he's stretching events to make himself look good, the lessons of his missteps are worth learning from. That, and the charisma his prose evokes, made this a gripping story to listen to and one of my top reads this year. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #Libby #management #business

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Creativity, Inc. – Ed Catmull

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-/35 – Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull. I love love love this book! I've already recommended it to a few friends because it's that good. Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, gives us an account of his early life and the history of Pixar up through 2014. I grew up watching their movies, so getting the behind the scenes stories was fascinating. The best part, though, is his reflection on what did and didn't work. From his experiences, he draws out lessons for running a company and promoting growth, sustaining output, ensuring transparency, and fostering creativity. The book is captivating and one that I plan to add a physical copy of to my shelf. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #Libby #kpl #library #memoir #pixar

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The Checklist Manifesto – Atul Gawande

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-/29 – The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. I'm torn on this book. On the one hand, the ideas are good and he has some good insights into the process of making good checklists for complex situations, like medicine. On the other hand, I was really hoping for a more technical dive into the fields he discusses that involve the uses of checklists (aviation, medicine, and construction). It felt like his attempt to make the material accessible also made it superficial and too easily digestible; that he deliberately didn't go deep in order to push out an easier book (not accusing him of it, just the feeling I got from it). Still, I am glad I read it, and like Koch's 80/20 Principle, I have already tried applying concepts and learnings from the book to my job. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction

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Better – Atul Gawande

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-/8 – "Better" by Atul Gawande. This was a great listen. I first checked out his book, The Checklist Manifesto, a few years back. While I enjoyed it, I felt it lacked a certain depth I had hoped to have had in diving into the origins of some of the checklist systems he discussed. "Better" is the kind of book I had hoped for "Checklist." This is the book of a craftsman reflecting on his work. He muses on many critical areas of medicine and asks how doctors have tackled the idea of being better. Here, he runs the gamut of behaviour changes, adapting to impossible situations, monetary incentives ruining practice, the need for diligence, and a few other valuable essays. While he's a surgeon, he explores fields outside of his own to see what kind of lessons we can learn from their stories. The book is packed with valuable insights, which is unfortunate because I blasted through the book fairly quickly, so not all of it had a chance to stick while I mulled it over. A reread for sure! #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #medicine #reflection #craftmanship

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Complications – Atul Gawande

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-/17 – Complications by Atul Gawande. This is the third or fourth book I've read from Gawande. I first encountered him in the Checklist Manifesto, but like his last book I read I really enjoy his reflections on what it means to be a doctor. Something about the gravity of the work speaks to me, and his reflections on the gaps in what can be known by people expected to have all the answers is fascinating to me. I should seek out books by other authors in professions that spark deep reflections on the training and expertise intersecting with the quest for mastery. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #medicine #reflection #craftmanship #memoir #surgery #Libby #kpl

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Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Masterclass in Political Oration – Jon Stewart

There are some people that when they speak, I will stop to listen.  We have many examples of people who are gifted public speakers, but to me few are more powerful than Jon Stewart, former host of the Daily Show.  He spoke at a House sub-committee hearing last week and so thoroughly presented his case, the bill passed unanimously.  I hope the initiative continues as smoothly through the House proper and the Senate, and is eventually passed into law, because the hypocrisy and virtue-signalling is appalling.  At the centre of Stewart’s argument is the notion that the sacrifice and bravery of the responders during 9/11 should be honoured by taking care of those who are suffering because of their service that day.

Public speaking as a skill is hard, but there is more than just vocalizing the words.  Stewart’s presentation, his ethos (he has earned the right to speak through his work), his pathos (the passion he speaks from on behalf of those he’s fighting for) and the pure logos (no one can form a devastating argument from observations the way a comedian can) all come together to give us a masterclass in political oration.

Give it a watch.  It made me feel choked up.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Grading Drift

I’ve been reflecting on the concept of grade drift recently. My brain usually turns to grade drifting at the end of each semester as I evaluate how objectively I have scored the students. If you’ve never taught before, what I call “grade drift” is the tendency for an instructor to allow their grading standards to drift as they grade an assignment. I’m not sure how prevalent this is for assessments that are concerned with exact answers, such as math, science, engineering, programming, etc. But in assessments that deal with qualitative or creative responses, it’s common for you as an instructor to change your evaluation thresholds as you make your way through the pile of papers.

There are a few reasons why this happens. In my first courses, my grades would drift if I didn’t have a sufficiently robust marking guide to help me narrow down the kinds of answers I was looking for in a student’s response. Now that I’ve taught the course a few times, I know generally what I’m looking for and can go through the assignments with a checklist of items. This form of grade drift is usually related to lacking experience in teaching and grading, especially if your course delivery isn’t tied to your course learning outcomes.

However, there is another reason why your grades might drift. On the one hand, you want to approach your evaluations as if they are objective – that there are clear right and wrong answers. After all, your grading should be defensible, and one way to defend the grade you grant is by pointing to an objective standard. However, on the other hand, you want your evaluations of your student’s work to allow for imagination, creativity, and novel connections between ideas. You also want your evaluations to acknowledge that your classes have unique compositions of people, with their own experiences and their own progressions through your course. Just because you teach the same material each semester doesn’t mean your students progress through it at the same rate. Different students will take the material differently, which means the average response you read through will be different for each cohort of students.

This means that some groups will be “better” than others in how they perform. You can choose to penalize the students for not meeting an abstract standard that you’ve set, or you can meet the students where they are and make it your goal in the course to improve their performance as you go.

I know that some instructors will take the first approach. They will believe their teaching, evaluations, and courses are reflective of an external, eternal, objective standard; they don’t think they are being arbitrary. I’m willing to bet that these are also instructors who believe that a 70% in their course is “like a 50% in other courses” (a literal thing I’ve heard said by a peer). I think this approach is wrong and it reflects a misunderstanding of what it means to pass a course. When a student passes a course, it means they have met the minimum requirements of the course learning objectives. Anything above that should reflect varying degrees of competence and mastery. If your course is designed so that a student is only “just” meeting the standards with anything above a 70%, you haven’t calibrated the course or your expectations very well. At an undergraduate level, your job is to elevate your students, and improve their abilities while meeting the program learning outcome objectives.

I find myself on the other side of this issue. I understand what the goals are of the course I teach, and my aim is less concerned with ensuring my students can adequately explain all the theory they are exposed to in the course. Instead, my goals is to make my students better thinkers and writers from where they enter my course to their exit. If they can explain Aristotle’s ideas of tragedy by the end, great! But I won’t lose sleep if they can’t. My course is a general elective, and that means I’m supposed to round them out as students and people. I care less about them absorbing my esoteric knowledge and instead I care more about them learning how to think, reason, and communicate their ideas clearly.

And that’s why sometimes my grades drift as I score the student’s rubrics. I start off with some ideas of where they could be, then I calibrate my grading to meet them at their level. It’s a little more work for me, but I think it better captures the student’s performance.

As indicated above, there are a few strategies for overcoming this, such as having a clear rubric and clear notes on what you are looking for.  Also, marking all the students on one question, one at a time, rather than marking an entire submission will make it easy to compare student fairly.

While this is an unfortunate thing (the students like to think they are being objectively evaluated) this will happen as you come to understand the natural curve of your class.  You can either grade your students to one standard, or you can reflexively respond to your class’s own knowledge and aptitudes.  If your course objectives are clear, then you can feel free to adapt your grading to match the student’s progress.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

“Kids These Days” Part 2

Last week, I reflected on the grading process and the tendency for us as faculty to sometimes judge that a student’s performance is more tied to internal motivation issues rather than external issues and a lack of experience.  When you think of a cohort of students, you can group them into three categories – the group that “gets it” and performs well, the group that is motivated but has knowledge gaps, and the group that lacks the motivation to want to meet the course outcomes.  Of course, these are simplistic categories, but I think it’s a useful illustration of how faculty approach their class, because how we choose to define the middle category impacts how we think about students and their performance.  If you frame the discussion around a group of students who want to be helped (are motivated to succeed), then you are more likely to want to extend yourself to help the student.  However, if you frame the conversation around whether the student should bootstrap themselves to catch up, you might be less willing to take extenuating circumstances into account.

When we assume that students are the sole reason for their failure, it’s possible for us to close off other considerations that questions whether we are dealing with a level playing field.  I don’t mean to say that students should not be responsible for their performance (and by extension, failure).  We as teachers must hold students accountable to their performance.  Yet, when a student fails to meet an objective, we should ask ourselves a number of questions:

  • Was the assessment fair?
  • Was the assessment clearly communicated?
  • Should the student have worked “harder” or “smarter”?
  • Is there something I could have done to better prepare the student?
  • Was there factors that influenced the student’s performance?

It is this last bullet point I’d like to discuss, because I think there is something really interesting going on that we often miss.

Engineering programs share a common trait – the problems are hard and the only way you will get the material is by slogging through the practice problems.  Many of the concepts are difficult to master, and the only way you can see the internal logic is to grind through problems, get feedback, and understand where you go wrong so that you can fix your methodology.  Some students appear gifted and grasp concepts easier, but most engineers will tell you stories of how they spent huge chunks of their time on manual computation.

Setting aside discussions about learning styles, this way of learning how to be an engineer is a good reflection of how the brain works.  The brain really hasn’t changed much in the last few thousand years, and we haven’t found genuine shortcuts to get around this limitation.  Structured education, being the only systematic way that allows you to efficiently teach advanced concepts, is the best approach to bringing someone to proficiency.

BUT

Students aren’t just students.  They are also members of this cultural and historical epoch.  Outside of the classroom, their lives are informed by culture, technology, and social norms, and increasingly over the last several decades, culture and technology has prioritized reducing friction.  Technology and corporations are incentivized to innovate ways of reducing barriers in our lives.  The technologies and corporations that achieve this end up shaping culture.  We spend less time focusing on basic survival, sustenance, communication, and transportation, because technology, innovation, and scale has reduced the time and resources we need to devote to these tasks.

As an experiment, consider this: when was the last time you had to carry cash?  For the average person, you can go weeks without needing to go to a bank.  Almost everything in your life can be handled through banking cards, e-transfers, direct deposits, and apps that instantaneously resolve payment upon the completion of service.  These services are available to us because they make things frictionless (and this is good for corporations because it helps us spend more).

If you want to buy stuff, you order it online.  If you want entertainment, you can find it on-demand.  If you don’t know something, a search algorithm will sort and rank answers for you.  If you don’t know how to do something, video tutorials are freely available with a few keystrokes and clicks to walk you through it.

Life outside of the classroom is frictionless, and yet we are insulted when students expect their experience in the classroom to conform to every other experience they live through in their daily lives.  Students ask for shortcuts to mastering hard concepts because literally everything else in their life operates this way.  The surface level encounters they experience have been refined through intentionally designing the user-interface (UI) and user-experience (UX).  Students have little grasp of the underlying mechanisms that hold this up because they’ve never had to worry about it.  If something breaks, it is either repaired as a service, or we cast away the broken and move on with purchasing new.

I was an undergrad student in the mid-aughts, and when I look at what life is like for students now compared to when I was a freshman in the dorm, I am startled at how easy it was for me to be a student.  I didn’t have the distractions that students experience today.  My life was less guided by algorithms and the whims of corporations and technology.  You may argue that technology has put the world at student’s fingertips today, but I think that the signal-to-noise ratio has shifted from my time.  Yes, I had to work harder to get answers, but that’s because there was less distraction clogging my search.  And don’t get me started on the attention economy and designing to maximize user engagement…

When we dismiss performance as being the result of “kids these days” not valuing hard work, we miss the fact that there is no incentive for the kids to work hard when life has grown frictionless.  I personally now value friction, because I understand what friction does for the learning process.  Much in the same way that you have to introduce low level stress to the body (exercise) in order to promote health, the introduction of friction can be a good thing.  But without understanding the motivations and lived experiences of your students, your demand for frictioned lives reduces you down to an old person yelling at the clouds.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

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