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A philosophy of teaching and educational leadership

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In the last topic I shared a big-picture view to inform your thinking on the idea of a ‘next-level educational leader.’ Here I’m going to try and make that concept a little more tangible. To bring it to life by sharing a little of my own personal worldview – how I think about the work I do as an educator. In turn, this is meant to catalyze your thinking as you contemplate these things for yourself.

I started teaching in 2007, and in the time since then I have been fortunate to be involved in building some pretty cool courses, programs and even a school. Both for in-person and online delivery. And I’ve been lucky to teach faculty members and spoken in centers in lots of cool places around the world.

The following is my philosophy on teaching, education, and educational leadership and development – as it stands today. It is a pretty personal statement written over many years now for my own development purposes. It serves me as a conceptual foundation for the work I do and as a bit of a mission for the work I hope to do in the future. It also includes some “imaginings”, which help remind me to stay on my toes.

I share it with you as part of this experience to provide a baseline for your thinking and our conversations about these notions of being and growing educational leaders in a discipline – something I expect everyone going through this experience aspires to.

Oh, and you don’t have to agree with my views. I’m certainly not your grade school teacher. There’s no right or wrong in teaching and educational philosophies, and these views are just my own.

And it’s probably best if it’s a personal thing anyway. Please chart your own path through this stuff.

But I do want you to take it in, so we can bounce off it together. And because I’m going to ask you to share your thoughts as part of the work you’re going to do when we meet the other Scholars. (Starting in the topic after this one.)

Beyond “can it be taught?” and “how?”

When I began teaching in mid-2007 I was handed a stack of business cards that said “entrepreneurship instructor.”  This was after an 11-year career in higher education, engineering and innovation/business, in roles that included researcher, post-doctoral fellow, inventor, product and project manager, trainer, trainer of trainers, co-founder of an innovation department, and co-founder of companies. I was suddenly and somewhat accidentally a new teacher in a field that I loved at a college on an exciting mission to become “Canada’s premiere undergraduate university”. I set about energetically developing courses and before long I was fortunate to lead a team of faculty colleagues in the design of a new curriculum that has since been implemented, which has enjoyed a great response from students, and which served as a key pillar in the proposal for a still-fairly-new and fully-funded institute now serving students on campus. I loved (almost) every moment, especially those spent in classroom and thinking about things at the level of the entire program and curriculum. And, of course, I thought I knew what I was doing.

I share this story because it provides the context out of which came a question that I now recognize to have been a push for me to embark on an exciting teaching and learning journey; one that I hope is still only just beginning, and, one that has in its unfolding so far unearthed (and even answered a few) other fascinating questions. You see, when you hold a business card that says you’re an entrepreneurship instructor and you hand it out often enough at networking events attended by sharp-thinking students and community leaders, it isn’t long before people ask you: Can entrepreneurship really be taught?

At first, I would answer this quickly with a “Yes, of course!” while very quietly asking myself “I mean, didn’t some nice people just hire me to do that?!” But a semester hadn’t passed before I found myself thinking more deeply about that question and how to answer it. Looking back, I can see that I was fortunate to have begun teaching in the areas of innovation and entrepreneurship because, perhaps unlike my first “home” discipline of engineering, questions such as this don’t seem to be as easily answered when looking at things through only a teaching lens.

Today I write and speak and train people regularly on topics such as “teaching and learning for innovation and entrepreneurship” and when I’m asked whether entrepreneurship can be taught I find myself reframing the question. This is because even though everyone seems to want to debate whether entrepreneurship can be taught, nobody seems to argue very much that people get better at entrepreneurship by doing more of it. So, by extension, more important questions to me have turned out to be: What learning needs to take place? How do the learners learn? How do we build the environments that encourage them to do so? How can we know when the learning has happened? And how can we help others answer these questions too?

Toward a conception of educational development

In hindsight, I see that my adopted discipline of entrepreneurship provided me with a unique form of encouragement to broaden my lines of thinking and inquiry from just questions of teaching (such as Can it be taught? and How best to do so?) to questions of learning and questions of how to design the learning environments in which the learning happens. As a result of this journey, my philosophies of teaching and educational development start with an understanding of the difference between the concepts captured in the two figures that follow.

If one takes the teaching view shown in Figure a below, then the questions at hand tend to be about how faculty members can best teach their students in order to prepare them to go out and create value in society – as engineers, nurses, doctors, artists, scientists, criminologists, designers, journalists, managers, sociologists, philosophers, or in any other role our students might be preparing for, including becoming teachers themselves. As shown, the key role in this view is perceived to be “teaching the creators” who will later go on to “create the value.” Done right, the focus is on enabling good teaching for good learning in a course, on how to assess what outcomes have been met in the classroom (or in the field, or online), and on how to improve the learning based on that feedback.

This is the perspective a new professor might take on his or her first day, after being handed four sets of textbooks and course outlines and being told to get cracking. It’s a straightforward but absolutely critical perspective that I view as a foundational piece of the educational development opportunity.

But it’s important to realize that the teaching view is just one part of a whole picture. I have mentioned that I feel fortunate to have led a team developing the curriculum for a new program soon after joining MRU. In that context, I got to play the role of “curriculum and environment designer” shown below in Figure b and this allowed me to do a new kind of work, with both faculty members, prospective students, potential funders, and seasoned entrepreneurs. This opened my eyes to what I call the learning environment view – a broader perspective on what is happening to enable an innovative educational process. I was no longer only focused on questions of teaching, learning, and assessment within my classroom. With the help of experts from MRU’s Academic Development Centre (ADC) on my campus and from across my discipline, my perspective grew to include a focus on designing the broader environments in which the learning can happen: curricula; learning spaces; community and work experiences; learning competitions; and different modes of learning. In turn, this included thinking more broadly; connecting the dots between multiple courses; helping faculty to work together to a common goal; drawing both from the literature and from practice in a discipline; facilitating processes for curriculum development and assessment; and, to some extent, helping colleagues and students develop skills in using technologies that support their learning goals. As shown below, the key role in this perspective is to “design and build the broader environments” (within which faculty members will be “teaching the creators” who will in turn go on to “create the value.”)

Occasionally when I get philosophical enough, I find myself trying to explain how doing entrepreneurship or engineering and teaching them are as different from each other as dentistry is from woodworking. (Because they are.) But people tend not to really understand that unless they’ve done both well for long enough. In the same way, I believe that working in a discipline with the teaching view (Figure a) is fundamentally different from working in the same discipline with the learning environment view (Figure b).

The learning environment view involves quite different skills and abilities, such as: the ability to facilitate and inspire through all phases of a curriculum or program development project (including and especially during potential conflict and what I call vision-collision phases); the ability to help a team of people discover their own curricular mission; the ability to help faculty learn how to navigate a curriculum design process; the skill to explore for and select between various enabling technologies; the ability to understand a discipline; knowledge related to learning physical spaces and what kinds of learning they afford; and the ability to document desired learning outcomes in a way that can be reasonably and usefully assessed. Just to name a few.

It also involves a different mindset, as might be evidenced by someone who sees their role not as being the students’ heroic teacher but as needing to quietly enable the success of other heroic teachers, for example. In fact, I’d propose that perhaps the most important realization for someone who works at the level of the environment view is that their role is to help others create value and no longer really to create it themselves (unless they are fortunate enough to also teach).

My experience with that first entrepreneurship program project was one of a few key experiences that forever changed how I think about education and my identity as an educator. Informed in part by my pre-teaching experiences as an engineer, in which I designed technologies, products and businesses, and in part by experience gained in the teaching trenches, I felt I was able to help others make positive change in support of better learning. At the same time, however, I began to realize the limits of what one individual or small team could achieve by itself; sustained leadership and innovation in teaching and learning needs something more than good people building their own learning environments for their own students.

Building capacity for sustained innovation

My journey had begun to provide me with an important glimpse beyond the classroom toward designing the broader environments in which the learning takes place for my students.  This is the point at which I became much more aware of what “I didn’t know that I didn’t know” about education and about my own teaching, curriculum, and learning environment design skills.

The next step – which led to further expansion of my teaching philosophy (or what I now call my philosophy of educational development) – came from some opportunities I had to get help from others. This was when I became more aware of the faculty development perspective, or, as shown below in Figure c, what I tend to think of as the enabling capacity view. As indicated, the key role in this perspective is that of helping faculty members working in both the teaching roles and the environment-building roles by “building their enabling capacities” (so they can in turn better “design and build the environments” and “teach the creators” who will themselves go on to “create the value”).

This can imply reaching across one’s own discipline, e.g. into the related literature on pedagogy or education or the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. It can imply looking to other disciplines, e.g. analogous teaching and learning models other fields, or at the psychology of learning. And it requires getting trained by expert colleagues, from on and off your own campus.

For me this has led to being part of some exciting innovations in curriculum and assessment, such as: constructive alignment; backwards design; assessment menus; un-exams; rubrics for selective feedback; making explicit room for and encouragement of failure; and the power of inspiration (vs. motivation). It has led to opportunities to co-develop curriculum with my students and to run inquiry-based special readings courses in which they lead their own learning. It has opened my eyes to the difference between a working technology solution and a scalable technology solution that would have the potential for adoption by a whole team or group of faculty (and not just the tech savvy early adopters). It has led to opportunities to help other faculty members and curriculum designers get better at their work. This has in turn led me to tentatively conclude that there are at least three types of faculty members: those who seek help or support because they are panicked or told to do so; those who seek it out of a desire to grow professionally; and those who will likely not seek it because pride gets in the way. And that its critical to find ways to support all of these people.

I have since done this work at educational institutions across North America and I know that I am only beginning to scratch the surface of what educational development leaders do well. But I thoroughly enjoy the process and mindsets involved and look forward to getting more practice with the enabling capacity view.

The final piece of my personal philosophies of teaching and educational development is better approached if one imagines what might be and, in turn, how we can best equip teachers to support their students as they face the future – whatever the future might look like.

Some imaginings

The Internet puts more information at our students’ and our colleagues’ fingertips than most of us know what to do with these days. (Doesn’t it blow your mind just a little bit that Google didn’t even exist some 20 years ago?!) Our digital social networks can connect us to people all over the planet in a matter of minutes. (They might not respond but if a student was so inclined they could tweet a message to Warren Buffett, Pope Francis, Madonna, Donald Trump, and Justin Trudeau – all while on the run between classes. Wow!) With pretty much no barrier to entry we can access and use a wealth of freely available collaboration, communication and other productivity tools that didn’t even exist a few years ago. (Skype, WordPress, Google Apps and the whole Apple App Store are particularly powerful examples of free or nearly free services that now enable a great many people every day.) We can all take free or relatively very cheap online courses taught by world experts on pretty much any topic you can imagine. (So-called MOOCs and Nanodegrees are great examples of the day.) And we can do all of this from a small device that fits in our pockets. (I’m sure that when I was growing up I saw episodes of Star Trek in which Captain Kirk’s communicator couldn’t do as much as the smartphone that’s in my pocket right now.)

I don’t say all this just because I’m a rambling now-considerably-older-than-my-students guy who is somewhat in awe of new technology. (I am. On all three counts.) I say it because I want to point out that despite all of these changes, the fundamental characteristics of how higher education takes place haven’t changed all that much in the last century, let alone the pretty short period of time in which these shifts have taken place. The overwhelming majority of students today still sit in classrooms, for example, taking pre-planned courses, working toward pre-existing and accredited degrees, taught in buildings by people who live in the same city as us and work hard to build and share expertise. I also say it because I want to share my belief that we live in an age in which it is not technologically or economically infeasible for any student anywhere in the world to piece together a curriculum that matches his or her own wants and needs. Imagine a person who doesn’t go to university or college. Instead, pretend for a moment that she goes through her teen and adult life setting her own learning goals, finding the resources required to meet them, engaging in experiences that provide opportunities to demonstrate competency and work toward mastery, reflecting on her learning and the knowledge she’s created, and then moving on to the next stage of her life during which she’ll both apply what she’s learned and figure out what she wants or needs to learn next. Imagine that this doesn’t happen on any one physical campus or even during a certain period of her life. Rather, think of it as an ongoing, dynamic and iterative approach to learning that runs as a common thread throughout her career – she learns very deliberately but does so as she goes through life using all of the tools and resources available to her.

In balance I only mean by this to suggest that the kind of learning implied by this fictional scenario is no longer impossible or even technically hard for our students to achieve, and that it offers the potential to afford them some absolutely incredible opportunities in their lives and careers. I also mean to suggest further imagining with me how wonderful it would be to be her teacher. And to design the learning environments in which she and her peers will learn. Not to mention implementing just the right assessment approaches and technology platforms!

So, while a future like the one I just described is possible, it is important to acknowledge that for the most part we’re not there. It is fiction for the most part and I doubt most of us would really know how to respond if it wasn’t. I don’t mean to ignore the fact that every day we have to deal with the practical realities of program assessments, challenging classroom experiences, student evaluations of instruction, and everything from clickers to Blackboard (or Moodle or Desire2Learn or Canvas or whatever you use). And I’m quick to say that I’m not at all convinced a wide-open or completely 100% unbundled educational experience of the kind imagined here is a likely or very suitable path forward for individual learners or for higher education – for a bunch of reasons. (I don’t like to think about our future nurses, doctors, or engineers having educated themselves in an unbundled or way, to name just a few disciplinary examples. And as we know, there’s also a lot of learning that happens in universities that couldn’t happen without the guidance of those institutions and the fabulous teachers they employ in face to face contexts.)

But in one’s professional practice I think it’s very important to imagine and think about possible futures, even if just for fun on your own time. Imaginings are important in part because, no matter how far-fetched they might turn out to be, the exercise itself can help us prepare: considering the realities our students and their employers might face can help us make our teaching colleagues heroes in the eyes of their students as they give them the best possible education.

Even an unlikely story about the future might also be important because of the power of being able to live your way into the stories you write for yourself. And because the stories we as educators might choose to write for ourselves hold such great promise for changing the world through tomorrow’s leaders.

The opportunity for quiet, high-impact educational leadership

In closing out this personal philosophy, I’m going to wager that three decades from now, when I hope I still don’t want to retire, things are likely to have landed somewhere in the middle – between the fiction imagined here and our present-day reality. We won’t know until we get there of course but I suspect it probably doesn’t matter which way it turns out. There will always be a thirst among our colleagues to be the best educators they can be, to understand what’s coming, and to be as well-equipped as possible when it does.

And that means we’ll always have a wonderful opportunity to foster teaching excellence and innovation in support of learning.

Which brings me to the last part of my philosophy of teaching and educational development and the educational leadership view shown below in Figure d. It’s the stuff of transdisciplinary teams who work together to play all of the roles we’ve considered so far – with the goal of enabling their colleagues, their institutions, their disciplines and their communities. They understand the teaching view intimately. They’ve had deep experience designing the learning environments. They are skilled and practiced at helping their colleagues build the capacities they need to succeed through faculty development and careful technology integration. And, as a team, they are well versed in what’s happening in the broader educational context, including possible future directions, educational research, and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

On balance, I consider the educational leadership view as being the key to the quiet, high-impact leadership needed today and in the future on and off our campuses.

And I aspire to work at that level.

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