We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Lever

Julia M. Williams,
Interim Dean of Cross-Cutting Programs and Emerging Opportunities & Professor of English, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

leversOn May 7 and 8, I joined a group of STEM educators for the inaugural “Levers for Change” meeting, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  The goals for the meeting were clear:

  • To capture a snapshot of the current state of research-based reform in undergraduate STEM instruction within six clusters of STEM disciplines: biological sciences, chemistry & biochemistry, engineering & computer science, geosciences, mathematical sciences, physics & astronomy.
  • To identify key levers of change that are seen to have been effective in reaching this state, and to identify additional levers—less-tapped or untapped—that may be useful for fostering further change in the next decade.
  • To convene a group of leaders with experience in research and practice on STEM instructional change in higher education, to learn from, inspire and connect with each other.

In advance of the meeting, certain individuals were asked to write a white paper in each of the six cluster areas, a paper that attempted to demonstrate the current use of research-based reforms, particularly the use of RBIs, or Research-Based Instruction practices, in STEM classrooms.  As the meeting commenced, “Faculty Focus” published a report on the work of one of the Levers attendees [3].  Dr. Marilyne Stains (University of Nebraska) and colleagues had just published the most comprehensive study of the use of RBIs in STEM education, in the journal Science (March 29, 2018).  In that study, “the largest-ever observational study of undergraduate STEM education,” researchers monitored “nearly 550 faculty as they taught more than 700 courses at 25 institutions across the United States and Canada.”  The results of the study were not promising:

55 percent of STEM classroom interactions consisted mostly of conventional lecturing, a style that prior research has identified as among the least effective at teaching and engaging students.  Another 27 percent featured interactive lectures that had students participating in some group activities or answering multiple-choice questions with handheld clickers. Just 18 percent emphasized a student-centered style heavy on group work and discussions. The predominance of lecturing observed in the study persists despite many years of federal and state educational agencies advocating for more student-centered learning, the researchers said. [3]

Continue reading “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Lever”

Navigating Rough Weather: Emotion Regulation Techniques for Change Agents

Navigating Rough Weather: Emotion Regulation Techniques for Change Agents

Kay. C. Dee

Recently, I wrote a post about a change agent colleague who was working on reframing negative feelings into more positive, action-oriented points of view.  This isn’t an easy process.  Although I’d call myself a fairly experienced change agent, I still sometimes wrestle with impatience and frustration when faced with resistance to a change I believe in and am working to implement.  Today I’d like to share some strategies for handling those (perfectly normal) negative emotional reactions, and balancing those emotions with logic – which then allows deliberate reframing of situations, as discussed in the previous post.

The first suggestion is to practice coping ahead of time.  For example, you may know that you will need to have a difficult conversation about your change effort with someone who is highly resistant to change.  Drawing from dialectical behavior therapy skills[1], you might:

  1. In writing or verbally, describe the situation in which the conversation will likely take place. Be as specific as possible, and name the emotions you are likely to feel during that conversation.
  2. Decide what coping or problem-solving skills to use during the conversation. Plan ahead, and describe your coping strategy[2] in detail.
  3. Imagine the situation as vividly as possible, placing yourself in the situation as an active participant.
  4. Rehearse the conversation. Imagine your actions, your thoughts, and the possible responses of your conversational partner.  Practice (out loud) what you will say and how you will say it.  What is the worst, most catastrophic way that your conversational partner might react?  How would you calmly respond to and cope with that scenario?
  5. Relax after you’ve rehearsed, and let any residual negativity evaporate away.

The second strategy will be useful if you find yourself having a hard time coping with or relaxing after the practice outlined above.  It will also be useful if you find yourself experiencing strong negative emotions in anticipation of a meeting, presentation, or conversation.  This strategy is directly quoted from Linehan’s DBT® Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets[3] – “Examining our thoughts and checking the facts can help us change our emotions”.  How to check the facts: Continue reading “Navigating Rough Weather: Emotion Regulation Techniques for Change Agents”

That’s Perfectly Normal

That’s Perfectly Normal

Kay. C. Dee

I once announced to a psychologist that during that day’s session, we were going to play a game called “That’s Perfectly Normal.”  I would tell him something that I was thinking or feeling, and he would respond with “That’s Perfectly Normal!” and then describe why.  It was a reassuring (and entertaining) game, and I recently found myself playing the other side of this game with a colleague who has been leading a major curricular change effort.

In this short blog venue, I can’t fully describe the amount of energy, effort, collaboration, communication, and social/political capital that my colleague has invested in this change effort over the past two years.  As I am writing this post, their institution’s faculty assembly is preparing to vote on whether or not the change will be implemented.  As a change agent navigating their way through a great deal of peer judgement about their project, my colleague has been thinking and feeling a lot of Perfectly Normal things right now.  For example:

  • My change project is being held to standards that are far higher than are expected of any existing project.  I resent that.  Some of the people calling for additional assessments, information, and review processes sound hypocritical to me.
  • Others are using my change project as political leverage or a bargaining tool to try to achieve their own goals.  I am bewildered by this.  My project has nothing to do with Program X’s ability to hire an administrative assistant, or whether Program Y’s proposal for a second major is likely to be approved.  Why is my project being dragged into these discussions?
  • People with no expertise in the subject matter of my change are challenging my experiences in and mastery of that subject matter.  This makes me feel resentful and disrespected.
  • I’m being told that people who I thought supported me and the broad goals of my project are saying negative (and untrue!) things about me and my motivations for undertaking this project.  This is disappointing and painful.  I don’t want to get involved in gossip, but at the same time, I want people to think well of me and to understand my actual motives for this change.
  • People who aren’t aware of all the constraints I have been working under, and who have never championed a similar magnitude of change, are telling me that I should have handled things differently – and that if I had done so, I would not be experiencing the current level of consternation over the proposed change.  This frustrates me.  I think it’s meant to be helpful constructive criticism, but I guarantee that I did the best I could with what I had to work with.  At this point, I kind of just want these people to shut up!

Continue reading “That’s Perfectly Normal”

Ask Powerful Questions

Ask Powerful Questions

Ella Ingram

“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom” Francis Bacon, English philosopher and scientist

I recently attended a workshop focused on training academic leaders as coaches. During the workshop, I realized that a key skill of coaches is one that change agents also should have: how to ask powerful questions. Powerful questions are questions that go beyond. They go beyond trivialities and superficialities. They go beyond examining the current state and the current answers. They go beyond an immediate response. They go beyond our current thinking to imagine what could be. So, what are some powerful questions that change agents can ask of themselves and others? Try these on for size.

Identifying Obstacles

What are the barriers that are easy to see in this situation?

What are the barriers that are under the surface in this situation?

What is desirable about the current state of affairs?

Why hasn’t a change already occurred in this situation?

What’s one change that would open a path forward with respect to this problem?

Describing the Greater Good Continue reading “Ask Powerful Questions”

What could go wrong with my plan?

Steve Chenoweth

When you are asking an organization to deviate from “standard operating procedure” (SOP), plenty of prickly weeds await.  Anticipating these is crucial to success: hoping for the best while planning for the worst.

Picture1.pngThe stickiness surrounding SOP is a wonder to behold.  I used to work for “the phone company,” and we thought we were highly creative.  We researched new ideas in giant buildings that looked like what’s shown.  This one was designed by Eero Saarinen — wasn’t that a perfect setting?  Well, maybe. When asked why he made it so gray, Saarinen quipped, “Have you seen the people who work here?” We were part of a machine, and earth-shattering change would mess with that machine.

One creativity guru we hired brought along a large tub of hats, so we could role-play at will.  He observed that our organization was the only place he had been, where participants could go all day with nobody ever trying on a new hat!  You get the picture:  the sense that we were open to new ideas didn’t fit with our actual actions. If you stuck out your elbow, you would hit something important.

The people who work where you do will feel issues with your new idea which you never anticipated.  As much as you are in a mindset that your plan will work, they are in a mindset that what they do now works.  Their current process is how they solve problems.  You would like to open their eyes.  But perhaps it also helps if they open your eyes.  Here’s how:

  1. Invite people to meet with you who are happy as they are, asking them to brainstorm your possible plan for change.
  2. Open them up by playing “Edsel.” What’s that?  It’s a brainstorming game we play in MACH.  More about it, below.
  3. Enlist them in working on the most challenging problems they brought up. Surprisingly, people who can think of roadblocks often will help move them.

Continue reading “What could go wrong with my plan?”

Laying the Foundation for Change

Laying the Foundation for Change

By Julia Williams

For many of us, the term “graduate school” provokes specific, vivid associations.  Quoting the English novelist Charles Dickens—“ It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—graduate school can seem like wish fulfillment (“I finally get to work on the stuff that really interests me!”) and death wish (“When will I finally be done working on the stuff that used to interest me!”) rolled into one.  What graduate school may not seem like is the perfect place to begin your development as a change agent.  In fact, I would argue graduate school is the right place to begin readying yourself for your eventual role as a change agent in whatever academic or professional context you find yourself in after your pick up your sheepskin and hood.[1]

On March 21, I joined three other Rose-Hulman colleagues for the Making Academic Change Happen (MACH) Professional Development Workshop at Purdue University.  Sponsored by the Purdue Graduate Student Government, the graduate student chapter of the American Society of Engineering Education, the Electrical and Computer Engineering Graduate Student Association, and the Material Science Engineering Graduate Student Association, the one day workshop was designed to introduce emerging STEM educators to the principles of change agency and to help them lay the foundation for their eventual role as change agents.  It may seem odd to view graduate school as the place to learn to make change.  The traditional focus for graduate education is on disciplinary expertise, delving deeply into one’s research area and preparing oneself for joining the ranks of professionals.  In many cases, however, your very presence as a newly minted PhD in an academic context signals that change is occurring.

As a member of the MACH facilitation team, I have designed and participated in several full MACH workshops and customized “mini-MACHs” meant to target individuals who are about to start new academic positions, e.g., hired to be the developer for a new curriculum, a new teaching center, a new STEM major.  At the moment these new hires arrive on their campuses, they embody the change they have been hired to create.  By readying themselves with the skills that can help them achieve the change they seek—by acquiring a change maker’s toolkit—they can increase the likelihood that they will succeed with their change initiative.

During the one-day MACH workshop at Purdue, attendees were introduced to several key foundational concepts regarding change, such as academic structures and cultures, emerging opportunities for change, and effective communication practices for change agents.  The atmosphere at the workshop was intense and supportive, and facilitators and attendees alike brought their formidable talents to this endeavor.  Because I am nearer to the end than the beginning of my academic career, I was heartened by the potential I saw in these colleagues.  The future of STEM education is in very good hands.

If you would like to learn more about the opportunities we have developed at Rose-Hulman for emerging STEM educators to lay a foundation for change, check out our previous on-campus workshops for graduate students.  We are in the process of planning for an emerging STEM educators MACH in the near future.

[1] Yes, some universities still place an actual sheepskin upon the shoulders of the graduating doctor, but then I digress.

How “Buy-In” Gets It Wrong

How “Buy-In” Gets It Wrong

By Ella Ingram & Kerice Doten-Snitker

Change leaders know that the agreement, support, and participation of others is necessary for successful change. They may hear about the need to gain “buy-in” (often focusing on surly faculty members or those all-important department heads). They may be admonished by others who say, “You have to get buy-in or this project will never go.” They spend a lot of time thinking about how to make buy-in happen. In the noble work of change, change agents spend considerable mental energy and social capital on buy-in.

The problem is that buy-in represents only one engagement goal. A change agent with a focus on buy-in invites varied problems. Buy-in is an incomplete approach to engaging with stakeholders because:

  • it is hierarchical and one-way, instead of collaborative;
  • it appears to be a first step that can be checked off a list, when the reality is that issues that block change require ongoing engagement; and
  • its perspectives match dysfunctional aspects of academic units (e.g., buy-in is oppositional) rather than fitting the approach of highly functional units.

We recommend a different strategy for change agents–one that is more holistic, on-going, and empowering to stakeholders. This strategy amplifies project success, provides new and exciting insight to problems, envisions new solutions and teams, and builds bridges instead of hierarchies between change leaders and their colleagues. The strategy? Creating shared vision. We contend that shared vision supersedes buy-in. Shared vision by its nature helps change be more sustainable and more institutionalized than change based solely on buy-in.

Continue reading “How “Buy-In” Gets It Wrong”

The Importance of Communication in Change Projects

The Importance of Communication in Change Projects

Sriram Mohan
Associate Professor

Communication is often an underutilized asset in academic change projects. Most change agents are enthusiastic about the project they are working on, the new vision they are casting, and the technical details they might encounter during the project. While these are valid issues for all of us to focus attention on, communicating our ideas and process beyond our immediate change team is key to success.  In fact, effective communication from the start of the project can often be the difference between success or failure in a change initiative. Successful change depends on how the outside world perceives it. When a project is announced and gets started, many people on campus—faculty, students, staff—are curious about the project, wondering how the effort will impact them.  Their desire for information is natural, since the project may require changes in the tasks they must complete for their own jobs.

My experience with change projects has shown me that change agents are quite enthusiastic about beginning their project but are averse to sharing information during the ideation phase of a project. The lack of information can be damaging. In the absence of information flowing from the change team, rumors, misleading information, and damaging inaccuracies rise to prominence. Stakeholders outside the change e team can get the wrong vision or perception of the project.  For that point on, the change team is fighting an uphill battle to make their project a reality.

The solution then is to start any new change project with a communication strategy.  An effective communication strategy can create awareness about the project early on and facilitate understanding about the project during the later stages of change implementation.  This can help persuade stakeholders, improve buy-in, and create commitment to the change idea. The Project Management Institute (PMI) has produced a roadmap for creating an effective communication strategy. This strategy identifies that “Good communication should never be an afterthought, but rather a significant part of the program’’ [1]. PMI has identified the following key ideas behind a good communication strategy:

  • Clearly communicate the change vision early
  • Outline the benefits and importance of change
  • Ensure that the leaders actively communicate throughout the change process
  • Use multiple methods and channels to communicate
  • Provide opportunities for dialogue and true representation
  • Repeat the change message often
  • Monitor and measure the effectiveness of the communication

Continue reading “The Importance of Communication in Change Projects”

Retooling for the Future

Retooling for the Future

Craig Downing
Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Professor of Engineering Management

In the article The Skills Future Higher-Ed Leaders Need to Succeed, authors Amit Mrig and Patrick Sanaghan observe, “The playbook of the past does not offer a sustainable path forward for all institutions.” [1] They further suggest that academic challenges are too complex and dynamic for senior-level leadership to resolve on their own.  The path forward, they argue, is characterized by multi-level, internal and external, collaboration:

“These [issues] are whole-campus challenges, and they require whole-campus solutions.  Identifying and actually implementing appropriate responses requires the engagement and participation of the whole campus.” [1]

I find this last statement both encouraging and concerning.  Seeking a whole-campus solution will require contributions from a new array of individuals, including individuals who do not consider themselves as change agents or influential.  Additionally, the array may contain individuals who are against changing the status quo.    From my perspective as a change agent on a tight-knit college campus, I am always seeking out tools that can help me persuade faculty to look at themselves from a very different perspective.

For those who have the opportunity to influence possible changes, Mrig and Sanaghan suggest we consider the adoption of a refined skill set.  More specifically, they believe leaders (agents of change) should be:

  • Anticipatory thinkers
  • Risk-tolerant and supportive of creativity and innovation
  • Effective conveners/brokers/facilitators
  • Courageous decision makers
  • Resilient and able to “bounce forward” after a crisis or setback

Continue reading “Retooling for the Future”

Cognitive biases that impact your team performance

Cognitive biases that impact your team performance

By Eva Andrijcic
Assistant Professor
Engineering Management

Cognitive biases that impact your team’s performance

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” has become the favorite of many of us who are interested in how cognitive biases impact our ability to make decisions, especially under constrained and uncertain conditions [1, 2]. According to Kahneman, cognitive heuristics are mental shortcuts that allow us to simplify our complex thought processes and come to a decision faster and with less mental investment.  Cognitive biases are the resulting effects of taking such shortcuts. It may be surprising to learn that cognitive biases are not always bad, but they often lead to poor decision making. Research has shown both laypeople and experts are prone to using them. Why do we use them, you may wonder, when many of us have been trained to carefully process data and information, clearly state and test our assumptions, and consider problems from a holistic perspective?

Kahneman (who has won a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics) and his collaborator Amos Tversky (now deceased; had been a psychologist) hypothesized and proved that people unconsciously employ a variety of cognitive heuristics in specific situations:

  • When they have too much information to process, or conflicting information;
  • When they lack meaning/context;
  • When they have to operate under time constraints;
  • Or because they don’t have enough mental capacity to process all information.

Consequently, humans remember “representative” examples and extremes, they generalize, make assumptions, and create patterns, all of which allows them to make decisions faster. While, from an evolutionary perspective, this ability to react fast was needed for the human species to survive, it often causes us to make sub-optimal decisions which can have significant strategic implications.

When people learn about cognitive biases, their typical response is, “Yes, I know others are prone to these biases, but I am not, or not to the same degree,” which is a bias in itself (blind spot bias). In fact, most biases occur subconsciously so people don’t even know that they are using them, unless they have been trained to notice them.

A few months ago, while teaching a professional development seminar on cognitive biases to graduate students and working professionals, I decided to illustrate the degree to which we all (even experts!) fall prey to these cognitive biases.

Continue reading “Cognitive biases that impact your team performance”