Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ms. Angelou Knows the Answer

Yesterday, we learned of the passing of one of our time's greatest wordsmiths, Maya Angelou. The quote here is one of my favorites from her. How curious that I also came across an intriguing new approach to higher education that uses the same principle.

Start with this question: how sustainable is the current model of higher education? 
As Clayton Christensen explains in this ECampus News article, the disruptive innovation theory may provide a way for something complicated and expensive, like post-secondary education, to become affordable and accessible. He goes on to clarify:
“If you as a little boy want to kill a giant by making a better product for better profits to the giant’s best customers, the giant will squash you,” explained Christensen. “But if you come in at the bottom of the market and pick a fight where the giant isn’t motivated to fight you for customers and will flee rather than fight, that’s the winning mechanism.”
Now, Mr. Christensen is talking about college money in a context not usually addressed: what it costs colleges to function. Usually, we're talking about the cost to students. There is a lot of (needed!) discussion around the value of college, particularly in terms of gainful employment. But who exactly are the students we're referring to? Most likely, it's the traditional image of a college student: fresh out of high school, living in the dorms, attending Chem 101, eating lunch in the cafeteria, and doing homework on the quad. How many college students actually fit this mold? 

Back to Mr. Christensen. The disruptive innovation theory suggests that technical colleges have a prime, unique opportunity to provide education for students who might find that traditional image unappealing, or unrealistic. Karen Gross, President of Southern Vermont College, wrote The Problem With Percentages and Education: Which Students Merit Our Attention? in yesterday's Huffington Post:
Expanding the funnel of who is part of and listened to in this conversation will benefit all of our nation's current and prospective college students and the institutions that serve them.  
Students in technical programs are included in that population that is too often ignored in this conversation. Among other general characteristics, the traditional technical college student does not necessarily view himself/herself academically (Hirschy, Bremer, & Castellano, 2011; Alfonso, Bailey, & Scott, 2004; Pearson, et al., 2010), and this is likely resulted in the number of students who don't complete college. The case for crafting a student's perception of himself/herself has been well documented (e.g., Shoenbach, Greenlead, Murphy, 2012; Buehl, 2011). One way is to change this perception is to embrace - EMBRACE - the opportunity to use each individual student's story to the fullest advantage to promote success for all of our students. That's a tall order; how do we do that?

The connection to my favorite quote from Ms. Angelou comes up in Mr. Christensen's first strategy, and it is what makes technical colleges stand out. Christensen recommends that colleges focus on allowing instructors to build connections with students. The reason he gives is so that the students become establish alumni and willingly give back to the college financially, and this is indeed an important part of a college's survival. However, why do students come back for second semester? Why do graduates come back to teach? Why do alumni attend senior showcases and hire recent grads? Because they're reliving, remembering something. What are they remembering? As Maya's quote goes, they "will never forget how [someone] made them feel."

When I did my research for my master's, I asked technical instructors to use literacy strategies to teach their content one day a week. From that, an unexpected effect occurred among all the instructors, and particularly with our electrical construction teacher. She discovered that, even though she had never viewed herself as a reader, the strategies she used to read electrician stuff and thus made her a successful electrician also made her a successful reader. Once she shared those strategies with her students - and taught them how to read like an electrician - a new kind of bond was made. These were students who did not necessarily "fit in" in a traditional classroom with traditional material, some because those hidden nuances of each discipline were never made clear to them. Once this instructor opened up that door to them, a unique relationship formed that allowed for deeper, more analytic learning and a richer application of those concepts. Does every technical instructor have that chance? Are they aware of this part of teaching? They are if they work with me. 

That potential for the kind of a relationship between a technical instructor and a technical student - the kind that can't be replaced with an online presence or a self-study - is what makes the "little boys" irreplaceable. Technical instructors are usually those from the respective field whose passion is such that the classroom is a form of release for them, and often those relationships happen organically. Do we do enough to encourage those connections? To recognize them? Use them? Those connections are absolutely essential to the success of our students, and to the success of our colleges.

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