A Conversation of Values

Today in my human resources class we were talking about the different ways people view work and the importance of  “good work” and a “good workplace.” The idea of “good work” entails 6 key components:

  • intrinsically interesting
  • varying/challenging tasks
  • opportunities for personal achievement and fulfillment
  • teamwork with autonomy
  • pay and job security
  • investment in human capital

These factors are important because “good work” leads to higher levels of job satisfaction, commitment, and motivation which leads to better job performance and overall a more productive business, so it’s mutually beneficial to employees and employers to make a good workplace.

Naturally, me being me, I saw these 6 components and wondered, is school a good workplace? For all stakeholders (admin, staff, teachers, students, parents)?

I mean if we know incorporating these elements leads to better performance based on this business research, to me it seems like a no brainer that we’d also want these opportunities at school.

I’d argue that I see evidence of these components in school, but I think what’s more important is the question of if they are valued. Ie, do we value students being intrinsically motivated at school? Do we value creating a variety of challenging tasks? Do we value-creating opportunities for personal achievement and fulfillment? Etc.

And when I say value, I don’t just mean we appreciate when these things coincidentally happen, I mean do we have goals and action items put in place to ensure they actually happen?

Some may say yes, some may say no, either way I think this framework is an interesting way to think about the kind of environment we’d like to see in school workplaces.

And I know it’s hard to brainstorm goals and action items around concepts like “intrinsic motivation” – it’s something that’s been personally stumping me for years, to the point where I think I’d actually really enjoy partaking in research study around student motivation one day. But maybe sometimes we’re putting too much pressure on ourselves to try and figure it all out, I think what’s important first is to just know what you value and why and claim those values so others know what you value and why. Then we can start worrying about how to make it happen. But a conversation around values is something I think every school needs to have, and more frequently than just when there’s a change of leadership.

Physical Development in Education

One of my classes this semester is Human Development Through the Lifespan. Our textbook is broken down into chapters that represent each stage of development as seen with the lifespan theory (so pre-natal, infant, toddler, early childhood, middle childhood…) Within each chapter there are three sections to breakdown the three major types of development: cognitive, social-emotional, and physical.

Currently we are studying middle childhood which is highly associated with the beginning of formal education. Something that stuck with me after reading the chapter today is that I feel like school disproportionately focuses on these three types of development. Cognitive development being the most emphasized, then sometimes social-emotional development, and really physical development seems to be more of a side thing.

Sure we may have “Physical Education”(PE) time, but often this is a short amount of time, sometimes it’s only for a few days a week, sometimes it’s on rotation with other classes so kids only take PE maybe for a semester or a quarter, and as kids get older recess time becomes smaller and smaller and PE often becomes a choice class that kids can elect to take or not. Granted, as you get to high levels of education most schools will still have some sort of physical requirement like playing a sport if you choose not to take PE, but learning about development is making me wonder, is this enough? At the same time though, as a student, I’m personally very grateful I didn’t have to take PE in high school. PE was kind of seen as a class you tried to avoid because it “wasted time” in your schedule and wasn’t fun… But what does this say about the societal views on physical education?

Research says kids should be getting at least one hour of physical exercise a day for healthy physical development. Furthermore, physical ability is correlated with increased cognitive ability (which school definitely stresses). And there is also a trend in decreased physical activity and increased child obesity levels over recent years.

Physical Development So why is it that physical development in school is often treated as just a box that has to get checked off and then ignored?  Why don’t we spend more time not only talking about it’s importance, but making it fun so kids actually want to spend an hour a day exercising rather than sitting on their computer?

Getting Students to the Table

One of my primary goals for the future of education has always been to include more students, as well as other not as represented stakeholder groups, in the school decision making process. And I’ve found that a lot of educators share this sentament, and furthermore, there are a lot of educators who actively try to engage students in these conversations. And yet, we still don’t notice all that much student voice in education, and if it is present, it’s often the same few voices. Why is that?

Well this isn’t the full answer to this question, but something I’ve observed is that most students don’t respond to mass open invitations. Doesn’t matter if you blast it in a school email or try to “be with the times” and use social media platforms students frequent on, if it’s a general invitation, most students don’t respond. This isn’t something I can explicitly point at research to support (maybe it exists but I’ve not looked for it or seen it accidentally), but it’s something I’ve noticed from experience when trying to create opportunities for student voice.

I’ve experienced this when trying to get writers for Trailblazers, when hosting events, and when just trying to get people together for a causal but focused discussion. Every time I try a mass marketing method to try and get students involved with education initiatives, I end up with little to no responses. And yet, as a student myself, when I’m just going through life I will frequently hear other students say, “Oh ya, I have a lot to say about XYZ.”

So how do we capture those thoughts? How do we get students to show up to the table? Because it’s not a question of if they have opinions to share, it’s a question of how we hear them.

I didn’t realize that this was a unique insight until working on this project with OpenIDEO where I was involved in a conversation around trying to brainstorm social media marketing geared towards getting students to contribute to the design challenge. The brainstorming was discussing things like word choice, length, what slogans are cool now, what platforms to use, what if we could get students to respond on the platform then challenge their friends to do it and like all of those other challenges happening in quarantine, etc.

But I realized the conversation was likely pointless… I told them how I don’t consider myself to be gifted with social media or marketing but in my experience most students don’t respond to those kinds of campaigns for education stuff. And the other student on the team (who I had no relation to before joining this project), confirmed my opinions with a bit more socially minded perspective suggesting that kids use social media mostly for fun and entertainment and those challenges that get passed along are because they’re easy and goofy; an education challenge would require actual thought work and time, so student’s probably won’t engage with it.

I actually don’t know what kind of marketing they ended up going with because I didn’t really look out for it. Though considering I find myself more frequently viewing education social media than the normal student and I didn’t see it, I’m guessing not many other students did either if there was a specific marketing campaign geared towards students.

Yet, for some silly reason, even after this conversation, I still choose the same strategy for trying to get people to join my discussion/brainstorm session held earlier today about learning during COVID-19…

I posted on every social media platform I have including some group chats with students who have previously demonstrated interest in education transformation focused events, and even got some likes and retweets, yet, as I expected only 1 person actually showed up to the Zoom call today. And that was my best friend who I explicitly asked before setting up anything, “Hey does this time work for you, because then at least worst case scenario, no one else shows up and I can at least pivot the discussion to an interview with you.” My little sister did also show up about half way through, and the three of us did have a good conversation from a variety of perspectives about the challenges and opportunities with online learning. So I don’t think the event was a total bust, though it was pretty much exactly as I had cautioned the rest of the IDEO team.

So what to do about this?

Well, what I have noticed is that students are very likely to respond if they’re specifically reached out to. For example with Trailblazers, which I consider a long term individual comittment since the writing/editing process takes place over a number of weeks mostly independently, this means we try to contact teachers we know from different schools and get them to identify specific students we can ask to write. While in school, it looks like seeing students in person and 1:1 asking them to join a meeting then following up with the calendar invite. Even when trying to get teacher participation to join a student-teacher card game tournament, we were much more successful when we individually delievered each teacher a typed and stamped invite in person. And for short term projects, such as this design challenge it means I try texting individually all the other students I have info for.

Now I knew this information before sending out my mass media open invitation, so you may wonder, why did I still choose the mass media route anyway? Well, it’s a lot easier to send mass invitations, esspcially in regards to time which is something I have not had much of this past week with midterms being upon me. So trust me, I know it doesn’t seem like the most efficient method to individually send out requests/invites for students to share their thoughts/opinions/stories, but in my experience it has always proven to have a greater response rate.

It was the exact same message I shared on social media, yet when texted individually I got 12 responses with-in 30 minutes even when sent at 10:30pm/later at night and had at least 3 others specifically say they’d get back to me tomorrow. Versus my media posts had been out for a week and I had 0 people respond to my questions in the comments and 0 people show up due to those posts. (My best friend and sister only showed up to the Zoom because I specifically asked/bugged them about it and they confirmed as much.) That’s an over 1200% better response rate with the same message… And for some responses I was given paragraph long answers per question. That means students had a lot to say and were willing to take the time to say it, they just had to be prompted to thinking their opinions in particular mattered.

There’s a lot that can be claimed about what this says about my generation that we don’t respond to mass messages but will give lengthy responses to personalized messages. (Really not even personalized, just individually sent because I sent pretty much identical messages to everyone, just sometimes slightly changing the initial greeting sentence if I was texting a parent to get their child’s response vs a peer.) And again, perhaps I’m making this sound too generalized, but I feel like I’ve had this happen on a lot of occasions at this point (I can think of at least 5 examples off the top of my head). However, I don’t share this information to make claims about my generation, I’m just sharing an observation/theory that has proven to be true on numerous occasions:

If you want a greater variety of student voices involved in the conversation, try asking indidviduals directly rather than just, “Hey anyone who’s interested I would love your response to…”

The Little Bugs

Throughout k-12 we learn about 5-paragraph essays. I understand why this format is used: it’s a simple way to be introduced to academic writing and when frequently writing timed essays throughout high school, there isn’t really enough time to adequately develop ideas past 5-paragraphs.

However, then you get to college and all of a sudden essays go from 600 words to 1500 words to 3500 words, and the 5-paragraph essay format just really doesn’t make sense to use at that point. But when are we expected to learn how to transition away from the 5-paragraph format? As a student it feels like this transition is just kind of thrown on you without much official guidance. It’s not even that you’re told not to use a 5-paragraph format, it’s just that it’s obvious that it doesn’t feel right when using that many words in an essay. So then everything you’ve learned about essay structure becomes warped. With a 5-paragraph essays we’re taught to introduce three main ideas in our introduction and those three ideas become the focus of each paragraph. Well, just because you’re writing more doesn’t it mean it makes sense to all of a sudden have 6 or 7 main points – then it becomes unclear what you’re saying. So how do you transition to writing multiple paragraphs about one key idea? It’s not really discussed, we’re just expected to start doing it based on gut feeling I guess…

Not to mention there is a whole other kind of academic writing that honestly hardly gets touched on at all in high school: reports. We talk about research reports and maybe look at one or two, we maybe even try to write one, but I remember even with the one time I was assigned to write a report in high school for AP Chem, the teacher’s instruction was, “look up examples online and base it on that.” So my peers and I kind of just winged it and I don’t remember getting much feedback on the matter. Yet we when we then were in college chemistry our first semester of freshman year, we’re all of a sudden assigned a research report every week after lab.

To be honest this isn’t a huge issue in the grand scheme of things that need to change with our education system, but sometimes it’s the little things that just really bother me. The little things show just how disconnected our k-12 and high ed programs are from each other. There are things like long essay and report writing that seem to never really get taught, and yet there are things like general US history that seem to be required every two years starting in 2nd grade and all the way into college… (I legitemently have a “US Consistitution requirement” in my online degree portal, and I took this course online and it was one of the easiest classes I’ve ever taken because I learned nothing new.) The little things on their own may seem insignificant, but they can be really bothersome for students especially when those little things start to add up.

The Next Moment

Today was my little brother’s 14th birthday. It’s insane to think that he starts high school next year! I’m starting to actually be able to have adult level conversations with him and that’s a very odd thing, especially since he’s the “baby” of the family. (And I mean my entire extended family as well.)

Sometimes I feel like him getting older is what makes me most realize how old I am. Being a junior in college is a crazy time because, with potentially only one year left of school, it’s when you have to start thinking about what you want to do next and where you want to go for that matter. It seems like there are a lot more options at this point in life than there really ever has been before. There are also so many questions to ponder, like whether to go to grad school or look for a job, and then, of course, there is the question of what grad school or what job, and where in the country or even world might that school or job be, and how long in advance do you need to start prepping your application.

I wrote the other night about the struggle of having too many choices, and the idea of thinking about what comes next in life is definitely one of those paralyzing choices. People say to try and “live in the moment,” and not worry so much about the future, but when you think about it, nowadays if we aren’t constantly planning a year and a half ahead then it seems that it can easily become too late for some opportunities.

As early as middle school we’re taught to start thinking about the future. One of the first big choices I remember is choosing what language to study, and if you choose the “wrong” language class in middle school and want to switch your choice in high school then you have to start the new language a year behind. Middle school was also the first time we could skip a level of math, but if you weren’t selected to move ahead based on your 6th grade performance then it was significantly harder to ever reach AP Calculus BC if that was something you later were interested in doing. In high school, we start choosing some of our classes, and in 9th grade, we are told to think about our entire 4 years in order to make sure we’re able to schedule the classes we want. Then junior year is when the college process hits full swing with SATs and research so that by the summer you can start touring in order to then apply the following fall. Then in college, if you want to do an internship or study abroad, especially if you want to do more than one experience, you really have to come into school already thinking about what semester you will do these experiences otherwise you could end up in a situation where you want to study abroad but none of the classes you have left to take are offered overseas.

So you see, it’s really hard to think about “living in the moment” when the past 10 years have always been focused on thinking about the next moment. At this point, I imagine that there will always be a little voice in my head asking “what’s next?” Granted, this voice often pushes me into some truly amazing opportunities, so I’m not convinced I would actually want it to disappear, though it can also be a cause of anxiety when knowing the potential options are so vast.

Research Papers

I’ve been working on this same research paper for over a year now. Our Engineers Without Borders team has been interested in the use of design thinking in the global WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) sector so we decided to do a literature review on the subject. Last spring we curated resources to review. Then over the summer, we reviewed those resources sorting by what seemed most relevant. Then in the fall, we got together our first full draft of the analysis work. We had experts give us feedback over the winter break, and now this spring we have been working on revisions. This process has taken a lot longer than we thought, but no one on our team has really done anything like this before so there has been a large learning curve. We are hoping to finally publish in the next few months or so even if it has to be an informal white-page kind of publication at first, (We’ve been working on getting funds to actually publish to an academic journal, but at this point, we believe it’s more important to just get the information out there than to wait to have the fundings for a more formal publish),  though I feel like I’ve been saying this for the past 6 months…

To be honest, I’m very ready to be done with this paper. It’s gotten to the point where I sometimes feel like I’ve re-read the same thing far too many times and just can’t think about it anymore, but I suppose that’s what the writing process is all about: writing and re-writing. Though the other thing that really bothers me every time I go to work on this project is just the general formatting of research papers.

From my perspective, there is a very small part of our population that really reads formal research reports, and it’s mostly just people actively in academia. Yet, most research studies have information that would be interesting and perhaps even beneficial for a much larger audience to be aware of, but these papers just aren’t in a very user-friendly medium. Research papers are long, use technical language to the point that almost feels like overkill, and are typically formatted in a way that’s uninviting to read (small, close together font with multiple columns all in black and white). When I have to look at research papers for school, I know that I never really want to read them – no matter how interesting the title makes the study sound – because they just look so intimidating. So every time I work on our paper I can’t help but wonder, “Is anyone really going to read this…?”

I just wonder if rather than writing a traditional research paper, if our work would be better received if we considered different modes of sharing our results. And I wonder this for all research. While it’s good to have documentation of the technical aspects of research papers, should a greater amount of time be spent on thinking about how to make that research more accessible rather than more “technically sound”?

Don’t Stand Still

I wrote most of an entire post today then decided I really didn’t like it and deleted all of it. Then I was scrolling through some saved photos on my desktop and found this quote that I guess I posted at some point in the past.

I don’t know why I originally posted this quote, but I feel like it’s very fitting for right now, so I thought it could be worth sharing again.

It’s a hard time to make decisions for ourselves let alone those that impact others, but trying to avoid problems by making no decision is often the worst decision you can make. And making a decision purely out of peer pressure is the second-worst decision you can make. (I sometimes wonder if adults actually experience peer pressure far more than high schoolers despite what media may suggest.) So go forwards, backwards, sideways, or even diagonally, just don’t stand still and try to go the direction best for you, not just the direction everyone else is moving.

Brain Training

Today was a busy day. I taught my weekly dance class (with a dance that was way too ambitious…), had a virtual coaches meeting, recorded 5 different videos of choreography stuff, compiled all the pictures I could find of my family in a tree, and finally started editing an essay I’ve been procrastinating working on.

Today was probably one of the most productive days I’ve had since being in lockdown mode. It feels pretty good to have gotten so much done, but now I feel like my mind is totally checked out. I suppose people can only be so productive in one day and then eventually your brain just needs time to not think. I also think like most muscles, with practice the brain can be trained to handle longer periods of strain before needing rest.

These past few weeks I haven’t really been training my brain much and I’m noticing now the evidence of this lack of brainpower practice at least in terms of stamina. I’ve still been doing some brain work over the break, even if it wasn’t school-related, but I definitely feel like I’ve gone a lot of days doing less mentally stimulating work than I normally would be even over the summer.

I’m curious how this will translate into starting classes again next week. I was telling a friend today that it’s kind of nerve-racking the closer we get to school starting again. The break was so long it almost feels like we were in summer vacation, and yet we’re going back with the expectation that we still know everything we learned a month ago and that we are ready to start turning in assignments in the first week. It’s like we’re going from driving 0 -100 mph at the drop of a hat.

I hope it won’t feel that way once we get started, and I know professors are in the same boat of feeling this weirdness of having such a long break then coming back to school. It’s just very uncharted territory and I’m curious how our heads are going to deal with it all. Hopefully, I’ve kept my brain in-shape enough to get by because I’m not exactly imagining a smooth transition.

Team Bonding in the Classroom

Today was team bonding day for our gym Zoom call. I’m glad I was even able to make it, especially since I forgot to turn on the outlet that charges my phone last night so my alarm didn’t go off this morning…

I found it funny how you can be on a team with the same people for years, and yet somehow still not know basic information about them. Things like where people were born, when they started the sport, how many siblings they have, favorite x,y,z, etc.

Today’s team bonding session was all about discussing the answers to questions like this and it was really fun. I liked getting to learn more about the kids I coach from a whole-child perspective. You never know when it could come in handy to know someone’s favorite animal is a narwal and they were born in Texas having started gymnastics as soon as they could walk. The more you know about a person, the more you can empathize with them and the better you can work with them.

During the normal season, we hardly do any team bonding and it’s something we’ve always regretted, so I truly appreciate this time for allowing us to start implementing this new norm of taking time to value who we are as individuals and a team beyond just gymnastics.

It’s also made me wonder, what if classrooms considered themselves a team? I mean when you think about it, a class is a group of people working together for a year to hone their skills in order to overcome various challenges related to their discipline. That’s pretty similar to how I’d define any sports team…

And yet, in a classroom we often don’t act like a team. There isn’t typically an emphasis on group norms, bonding, and support for each other’s learning and progress. Even in gymnastics where we compete against our teammates, we still talk about the importance of working together in practice, cheering each other on during competition, and doing non-judged group activities to help encourage unification and love for the sport.

I guess it’s assumed in a class that kids already know each other because they’ve been in school together for years, but even when you’ve known people vaguely for years, each new arrangement of people creates different team dynamics.

What if classes spent more time during the year intentionally bonding as a class and thinking about how they will support each others’ growth throughout the year? The more you know about our classmates, the more we can empathize with them and the better we can work with them – and this goes for teachers too. Some teachers are great about getting to know there students, but what if this was even more intentional at a cultural level for the entire school vs just the occasional teacher that everyone knows really takes an interest in learning about all the students? For example, what if the first week of class was all about “class bonding” and setting the norms for the year and thinking about how everyone can best support each other – teacher included?

I wonder how learning might improve if we took more time to know our “teammates” as whole people outside of just the subject material.

Student Gov’t: Beyond Dance Committees

Having only been in the New Zealand education system for barely a month, I must say the most impressive thing I’ve noticed is just how much student feedback is valued.

Granted I can’t assume my experience at this one particular university is true for all of New Zealand, just as I can’t assume my singular experience in the American university system is consistent throughout the country. However, in my experience, the student voice at my host university, Victoria University of Wellington, is incredible!

Since the beginning, I have been receiving emails from the student government asking for our feedback before we even started classes, we heard from almost every representative during orientation, and once classes did start I learned about an entire system they’ve established for class representatives. Every class on campus has 1-3 student reps that serve as the liaison between the students in the class, the lecturer, and the student government by helping to provide feedback on the course. I volunteered to be class rep for my international management course because I was curious about what the experience would be like (since we don’t have this role at GT) and also because I saw it as a good way to get to know my professor better (especially now that I”m a junior and am very aware of how soon I will need people to write me rec letters).

As a class rep, I have played a significant role in any changes that happen in this course both by my professor and the student government team. Just today I was asked by the student government team to help review change approval request from mine and other professors in regards to everything that is having to be adjusted for an online learning environment.

It was crazy to realize that every proposal gets reviewed by the student government and also to know how transparent they are about the role of students in the process. I know my home university has a student government and sometimes I hear about their involvement with big decisions, but I don’t get the sense it is nearly as known about or as integral to operations as it’s been here. Nor do I think it’s as simple to join student government at home, versus here it was as easy as just volunteering in class one day to agree to make a class Facebook page, have my contact info shared, and be willing to provide feedback on the course.

Furthermore, it was really crazy to think I personally actually get a say in if I think changes affecting assignments, due dates, and weight towards final grades were reasonable. I’ve never gotten this kind of voice in a class before.

And even before the virus became a global pandemic, my professor had been discussing with me to establish a time mid-trimester to meet up and discuss the course progress and any feedback from the students and also had consulted me when debating on pushing back an assignment due date.

Ever since the pandemic has become an issue in Wellington, the student government has been doing even more very evident work. Everything from calling to check on students still living on campus to writing petitions to local government on behalf of students about grievances in regards to certain policies that were being put in place by the university administration in efforts to mitigate the effects of the virus.

Like I mentioned before, I’ve only been here for a month, and yet I’ve seen the student government so involved in every aspect of university life here. Again, I’m sure the current global situation is somewhat impacting how I’m observing student government here. Considering there is so much affecting students right now, it makes sense the student government is particularly involved at this time. However, even just the fact that the role of “class reps” exists leads me to believe the student government is always highly involved here and student voice is particularly valued more than I’ve noticed at other schools.

I think this role of class rep is a great concept and I’d love to see more universities and even k-12 schools implement similar systems of capturing more direct student voice in regards to the actual academics that happen in learning environments. So often I find that student governments just play a role in things like planning committees for dances, giving tours, and maybe helps with the process of giving feedback on potential new hires. Or even worse, sometimes student governments are merely a status symbol and the representatives don’t do anything beyond giving a platform speech, then it’s a popularity contest for who gets to put “student representative” on their college activity list – because why care about who you’re voting for when you know they won’t do anything? That’s how most students at my high school viewed the student council. Even in schools with more involved student governments, rarely do I find that students have a role in decisions around the actual academics part of schooling such as reviewing course syllabi, giving input on courses for future years, or being consulted about changing class structures mid-semester.

I like the role of a class rep also because it creates an easy way to provide teachers with verbal feedback. End of the year surveys are great for capturing large amounts of data, but they hardly capture the specific little pieces of feedback that are just hard to describe with multiple-choice options. And it makes a huge difference when a supervisor says “here’s what feedback we think is important based on student answers to this survey,” versus actually hearing the feedback from a student directly. Good or bad, I know feedback is more impactful when coming directly from the user.

Being here in NZ this past month has really made me reconsider what I imagine as adequate student voice representation in schools. How might we expand the role students play in decisions being made on campus?