Monday, September 5, 2011

Higher Education’s New Paradigm

“Teaching is the only major occupation of man for which we have not yet developed tools that make an average person capable of competence and performance. In teaching we rely on the "naturals," the ones who somehow know how to teach.” – Peter Drucker 1909

Every year millions of students enter or return back to college in order to live out their dream or their parents dream of being successful.

Yet for the numbers that enter college, only half graduate.  Source

Numbers like these can easily be manipulated in a number of ways to create polarized discussions on the quality of education today.  Popular documentaries like the movie Waiting for Superman and recently PBS’s Frontline segments College Inc. and Educating Sargent Pantdzke are shedding light on some of the controversies in the US education system.

Generally the contrarian arguments point out that other countries are out performing US students, cost are out of control, quality is low, and the expectations are unrealistic.  To which I don’t disagree or agree… I just don’t care.  What I care about are the students dreams and why they are risking financial uncertainty to pursue them. 

In 1998 Peter Drucker wrote an essay called “Management’s New Paradigm” in which he states that the basic assumptions of what is taught and practiced in the field of management is out of date.  The essays scholarly approach outlines the history of management, and identifies relatively unknown theorist who’s revolutionary ideas were ahead of their time that needed to be brought to light.  His essay alludes to, but never explicitly outlines that the answer is to have managers be more externally focused as the new paradigm.   What is interesting about Drucker is he wasn’t a CEO or officer of a company, yet he probably has influenced every major brand both for-profit and non-profit in the past 100 years.  His writings and theories are like Picasso, and Freud contributions to their fields in the 20th century, game changers.

My approach to writing is nothing like Peter Drucker’s work.  Drucker’s essays come from a scholastic tradition, where my writing is more like a performance.  I rarely if ever quote raw statistical figures or check my sources more then look on the Internet.  To me if I believe it is true, and my limited research backs it up, I present it.  I usually write from personal experience and share my success and failure.  I model my writing style after Chuck Palahniuk's. In a sense my essays are a patch work of real life and references I uncovered along the way much like Palahniuk’s stories.  My references are usually axioms or maxims I have adopted based on the real world experience.  So this essay comes from both the point-of-view as a student and as a college professor.

When I teach a class, I usually mimic the presentation style of a Penn and Teller performance; truthful, full of humor, and passion.  When Penn and Teller perform, they assume the audience knows they are going to perform tricks that can be easily explained by wires and fixed props.  They don’t come off like Copperfield who uses special TV effects to make the illusions look too perfect, nor do they seem to think they are smarter then their audience.  In fact I think they think of themselves as part of the audience, like if they don’t like it, nor will the audience.  What I am seeking in each class I teach is to unlock my students passion for what it is they came there to learn, but I also don’t want them to take themselves too seriously.  The reason why I want them to not take themselves too seriously is because I want them to learn from failure.  Boom! 

When I entered college no one ever tested me to determine what my personality strengths were or what I was really passionate about. As a student I was exposed to a lot of different subjects. I paid for each of my classes I took out of pocket, so the pressure was high to succeed. I was always scared that I would fail or not perform well in subjects that I didn’t have a lot of experience in. Malcolm Gladwell’s Essay about 10k Hours being needed to master something seems to prove that getting a letter grade in a 40 hour course doesn’t really mean much in the real world. Yet we still architect education around this artificial measurement based on traditional memorization testing, and writing low to medium quality research papers that parrot other peoples ideas to prove or disprove a hypothesis.  Rarely do schools teach the student that synthesis through in-process discovery is what is measured and valued outside the classroom.  

Today’s education system is focused solely on success and conformity, it seems to fail at unlocking passion and to instill the need to fail and not conform in order to be successful and evolve.  I think you need to be wrong, then learn from your mistakes to fully appreciate success.  I also think you need to learn to control your fears through non-conforming.  The fear, uncertainty, and doubt that comes from preparing to enter college, pay for college, and then get a job after college are what fuels most headlines these days.  Yet when it comes to what is taught, how it is taught, and where it is taught, it seems to follow the same academic traditions that were around when Drucker first made the quote above.  I am not suggesting to throw out the traditions, what I am suggesting is to require students and teachers to to embrace a new paradigm of trail and error, and to measure the performance, quality, and contribution based on a more personalized system that values non-conformity verses parroting what everyone else is doing.   

I wonder what it would be like if professors were required to prepare their lessons in 10 minute segments on YouTube and were compensated based on the number of votes they got, and referrals to the school they attracted.  What if students were required to blog for each of their subjects, and required to seek out real world experiences for each of the classes they take?  Also what if classes were setup like the buddy system, where civility and teamwork were the requirement?  It seem to work for Jesus’s disciples.  Hell why not turn classes into reality TV programs or massively multi-player online simulations that have levels and achievements that are unlocked based on how much you contribute.

And what of passion, shouldn’t schools be measured on how passionate their students are entering and leaving the institution?  How do you measure what someone is passionate about or could become passionate about?  Passion to me means why doesn’t matter, what’s right matters.  It seems at least 50% of college students lose their passion, out of the 50% that do graduate, I wonder what percentage are doing something they are passionate about in their field of study, I bet that number is in the teens or single digits. 

Two of my high school friends who went to College to get PhD’s didn’t compete their programs, when I spoke to them about it, I got the feeling that their advisors pretty much were the reason why they didn’t finish their programs… one dreamed of being an astronaut, and both are successful today… but I wonder if they miss the passion that drove them to initially embark on that journey.  My ex-wife was pretty fortunate, her advisor was a lot more encouraging it appears.  Even though my wife ran into a number of road blocks due to forces outside her control, she managed to finish her program in 2002, but also went on to start an industrial pharmacy company, when most of her classmates would just use their advance degree to go work for big pharmaceutical companies.  I think it was because her advisor’s approach to teaching was to unlock his graduate students passion and identify their strengths within the field they were studying.  My ex-wife was  good at arranging & interpreting data, her partner was good at developing formulas and methods, and her advisor / silent partner was good at identifying talent and troubleshooting problems. 

I was also fortunate to meet a good mentor.  In 1995, Microsoft System Engineering Programs were expensive.  Each class cost about five thousand dollars, and you needed to pass six exams in order to become certified.  I managed to find a free program in Washington DC that met on Saturdays.  My best friends and I drove down to the program in the outskirts of Washington DC, and managed to unlock our passion for IT there.  The class was setup such that the students would teach each section of the program.  Believe it or not, it wasn’t that bad.  We even evaluated one another's presentations and the students not teaching would add additional content.  After a year being exposed to the program, I started a group up in Towson, where a number of my friends joined me each week and we managed to pass all the MCSE tests.  My two best friends and I all now work together.  We were passionate about our friendship as much as the technology.  More importantly, the administrator of the DC program would have me back to teach additional classes, and it was from there I would teach other classes in the surrounding area.  My mentor always was truthful, honest, and compassionate with me, never discouraged me, but also would always challenge me and what I was presenting.  

So to me the formula is clear.

Passion + Strength + Encouragement + Non-conformity = Success and more importantly, happiness.

As my best friend says in his email signature “Love what you do”.   


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