Update: Open Letter to the President’s Office

Several months ago I published “An Open Letter to the President’s Office” in response to a request for students to participate in the Student Engagement Survey. The survey request was sent at a time when I noticed a considerable amount of conversations related to improving how we learn occurring around me, and  the issue being one I am intensely interested in, I couldn’t bear the idea of these conversations ending in the hypothetical.

In a spur of naïve passion, I wrote to the president’s office offering to share some suggestions on how to improve learning – borne of these conversations – with President Hamdullahpur. This morning that conversation happened, with Sean Van Koughnett (Director of the Student Success Office), Bud Walker (Associate Provost, Student) and Feridun Hamdullahpur – the goal of the discussion was to cross-pollinate the ideas of students to improve learning with UW leadership’s vision and vice versa. I would argue the most important part of any conversation is listening, and this post aims to be a fruit of that endeavor – outlining commentary on the discussion’s themes: improving how we learn innovation, improving how we learn from each other, and improving how we learn from professors.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill

It seemed appropriate to stage the most intriguing questions that beset the students conversations to this group, and so the format generally followed a pattern of asking a question, everyone adding supporting content and their opinions, comparing with student consensus points, and finally segueing to an ‘actionable suggestion’ from student conversations. Like you might imagine, the ‘actionable suggestions’ are as they sound: a fairly concrete opinion on how to solve the problem brought to light in each discussion question, posed as one possible solution. In reality, frameworks for conversations are a last resort and rarely used. A healthy conversation will be very agile, with different people’s opinions bringing the current topic far from anything that could be planned, so please forgive the absence of commentary within some topics.

(Improving how we learn innovation) We talk a lot about the need for innovation in the workplace – its importance in transitioning Canada to a knowledge-based economy, in keeping Canada globally competitive – but specifically, what does innovative behavior look like?

The discussion begins with an illustration of the University’s founding ethos with respect to innovation. When the University was founded in 1957, it’s innovative genesis was in the unique opportunity it afforded motivated and intelligent individuals who could not necessarily otherwise afford to study at university without the Co-op program. The founding students were those intrinsically motivated to progress towards a better life, and possessed a certain motivation to make such happen. It reminds me of Keynes’s animal spirits.

The anecdote leads naturally into the role of motivation within learning, and strategies for teaching underlying behavior requisite to innovation. We mark the role of professors in this process, and discuss UW’s requirement of hiring professors who excel at both research and teaching. Dr. Hamdullahpur outlines a vision for exceptional researchers using classroom time for scenario based learning, inspiring students by linking what’s being taught to specific examples of application. MIT is brought up as an example of a university where ten years ago, the focus was extremely biased towards research. MIT and many other American universities today recognize the importance of placing equal priority on teaching and research, as does UW.

It’s an incredible direction. A direction that will admittedly take time – but the excitement in the room was tangible, and the vision contagious.

(Improving how we learn from professors) How do we kindle a motivation to teach within professors primarily concerned with research? Or a desire to improve within professors who have no reason to attempt to?

UW has some great researchers, and it’s hardly a secret that some professors much prefer their research to teaching. UW has a well regarded Centre for Teaching Excellence with many resources available to help professors become more comfortable and interactive with their classes, though as previous conversations with some of my professors indicated, the Centre tends to be of most value to those who are already good communicators wishing to improve. The real issue is one level deeper – it’s the motivation to improve – and how can we kindle motivation?

The actionable suggestion for this question was to to create a system of peer-mentorship for professors,  such that professors are cross-exposed to other styles of communicating and engaging with a class.

The system for student evaluations of courses and their professors is explained and ideas are brought up for where it could go in the future. Mr. Walker explores differences between teaching and learning, and comments how professors not comfortable in a “50-1″ learning environment may be exceptional one-to-one. This leads into a discussion on integrating research into undergraduate education, bringing the “learning is experience” mantra of Co-op full circle into the formal learning experience.

This is an exciting possibility for the future of UW: tightly integrating experiential learning into all facets of education. Once again the room was charged, and a twinkle adorned an eye or two.

How can we motivate students to take charge of their own learning and create an environment where there are opportunities to take risks and learn leadership?

I tend to far underestimate timelines when planning content for discussions or presentations, and on suspicion I verbally noted I wanted to be When you teach you learnmindful of everyone’s time, as I was not sure how much had passed. We had indeed fared well beyond the 1/2 hr tentatively booked, and it is only a testament to the politeness of the group that no one had mentioned it.

There seemed to be an interest in this topic, however, and we agreed to take a couple minutes to wrap up with discussing the actionable suggestion of creating a formal system of peer-learning, where students would teach each other. Such a system would not only partially meet the challenge of the first question mentioned (on developing skills requisite to innovation, such as risk-management and the ability to think across silos) but encourage leadership and develop communication skills. In order to teach something well, you have to understand it at a deeper level than pure memorization. To this end, peer-teaching encourages mastery of material as opposed to regurgitation.

It is a subtle area of passion for me, and I was surprised to hear Mr. Van Koughnett talk of the concept being within the realizable vision of Office of Student Success, and how UW’s living / learning communities are a step towards such a direction. Dr. Hamdullahpur followed with a story of such practices being employed in a trial at his previous institution, where the class rose by seventeen percent.

Within a supported context that ensures students experience success in teaching others, there is significant potential for students to develop confidence in themselves and their abilities. I believe there is compelling reason t0 correlate confidence in one’s abilities with the ability to further one’s abilities.

“When you teach, you learn” – Helen Suzman

The conversation left me excited for UW’s future –  I have substantial confidence in the the administration to execute a vision to bring the university to an experiential, research intensive, student focused learning environment of tomorrow.

 

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