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.

 

On Innovation and Horizontal Knowledge

The events I describe in this post comprise one chapter in a series of events which I would describe as formative experiences. Occurring over the past year, these milestones have collectively set me on the path I currently travel.

It’s fall 2010. I’m a brand new student at the University of Waterloo, staring wide-eyed at a hall full of kiosks, noise, and demonstrations. It was clubs day – the two days of each term where the student clubs on campus all clamor for new recruits. It reminded me of a conference, or mini trade-show. When reading the small posters plastered around campus informing everyone of the upcoming showcase, it never quite occurred to me that there would be hundreds of student clubs – covering quite practically everything. To someone with diverse interests, it was a ‘kid and candy store’ moment.

After signing away my email address at seemingly every other booth (essentially agreeing to spam-for-life), I happened upon a table that was a little bit different from the others. It was backdropped by a large pull-up banner instead of folded cardboard -  the kind you see in actual tradeshows – that read ‘IMPACT’ in large white letters set against an orange and yellow texture. Eric Ho would go on to explain exactly what Impact was: a national organization dedicated to student entrepreneurship. To someone raised with the silent expectation to ‘invent’ things – a phenomenon in retrospect that could be considered a self-fulfilling prophesy – the mere existence of such an organization was elating. That Impact was holding an expo the following weekend was even better.

The format was conference-typical; keynotes, workshops, sponsor showcases, and a twitter wall. The people that filled in this framework were all but typical. I first met Albert Lai behind his Kontagent booth at Impact Expo (after asking if he was a Co-op student with Kontagent). It was also the first time I chatted with Kunal Gupta after his workshop on Polar Mobile about inflo. I would later learn he was a Shad Valley alum, and was Impact’s founder and Chair. Larry Smith gave the closing keynote; several months later I would sit in his macroeconomics class, and we would discuss strategy and market research during office hours.

 

But it was Evan Koslow’s opening keynote that would keep me awake at night. The man owns a company you’ve never heard of and never will – unless it’s too late and they’ve already taken over your market. They have expertise in almost everything. from power plants in Bangladesh to chemical processing and encryption algorithms. Koslow holds 50 patents and has 70 pending. Their headquarters is  housed in an entirely unassuming building in an industrial zone of Waterloo. Their website has lots of pictures of smiling people that will fundamentally tell you nothing of what they do – it’s the perfect stealth operation.

Koslow essentially described an established concept for a fuzzy philosophy on education I had long held. For the first time I had a label – a term – for a set of loosely coupled ideas and theories on education, innovation, and learning I had half-wittedly developed over the course of my high-school career. My conundrum is best surmised with a graph:

Right / Left brain bellcurve distribution

That is, as we travel to either extreme of stereotypical ‘left’ or ‘right’ brained activities, my interest generally dwindles as time spent exclusively on those activities increases. I become most passionate (take the y axis to be ‘excitement’, if you will) with activities that require employing thought processes typical to both seemingly polar mindsets, and what I busied myself with during high school reflected this.

By definition this goes against the grain of specialization. In balancing down the middle, I was refuting the general post-secondary ethos of ‘you shall become an expert in building bridges’ or ‘you shall become an expert in creative writing’. Granted, I surely understand that near every profession requires the capacity to be creative and logical at some level, though the focus is almost always slanted to one or the other.

Koslow spoke to this effect, insisting that the structure of higher education was entirely unconducive to serial innovation. He described higher education as a hole you start digging with your undergraduate degree, and continue to dig deeper with your masters – digging deeper still with your PhD – until finally, one day (if you’re exceptionally good), you dig the hole a little deeper than anyone else and you’re the world’s foremost expert in something. Something very small. This is all fine, it is the process by which much of knowledge we consider now consider ‘boilerplate’ that contributed to our standard of living eventually came to be. However, it hardly allows one to think across boundaries and disciplines – which, when you think of, is somewhat fundamental to innovation.

I define innovation to be the creative correlation of previously unrelated ideas. In this case, it somewhat helps to have a lot of unrelated ideas to draw from.

Koslow went on to speak of Horizontal Knowledge – that instead of resolute knowledge of one hole, a framework knowledge of a thousand holes is better suited to spontaneous innovation and the era we live in. In the not too distant past, should one not be able to recall offhand critical information specific to one’s field, he or she might spend a week in the library hunting down the required piece of missing information. Efficiency dictated memorization king. Today, with quality information (such as scientific journals and references) is instantly available and searchable, we are far better suited to concentrate on the supporting framework and infrastructure of understanding and intuition than mere information.

In the context of Entrepreneurship, horizontal knowledge is especially important. Due to the multifaceted and ambiguous nature of entrepreneurship, entrepreneurs need to be well versed and capable – at the very lest competent – in a wide and varying set of often hard to define skills and abilities.

I now had an established concept under which to gather my thoughts on education and learning. My theories was in some way validated – I had a basis to build from.

For three continuous hours after his keynote ended, a fluctuating group of about 20 people continued to talk with Evan as he touched on his adventures in bringing down billion dollar companies, in contracting himself to companies to ‘innovate on the spot’ and – what intrigued me most – in developing a system of extremely efficient learning with a college friend.

There is more to come. Far more to come.