A Fourth Systems Thinking Building Block?

Some of my friends and readers know I am nearly finished pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at American University. (No, I am not intending to pursue a career in the federal government; the MPA is like the MBA of the social sector and I thought it a useful higher degree to have.) In my current course, which focuses on systems-level technology and change management, I have had the pleasure of re-reading Peter Senge’s seminal The Fifth Discipline, which I read decades ago when it first came out.

When I first read it, I really didn’t know anything about anything and had certainly not worked long enough in any organization to grasp what Senge was saying. So reading this work now has been a highlight of my program.

One of Senge’s core points is that by looking at system archetypes, it is possible to determine ways to address problems that otherwise would be vexing and intractable. That is, by seeing systems we are able to see relationships and leverage points that are otherwise invisible. An example is the “tragedy of the commons” archetype as it relates to, say, traffic. Traffic jams are often the result of a systemic tragedy of the commons, where individual self-interested (and reasonable) behavior results in cars vying for the same small piece of real estate. The knee-jerk reaction to a persistent traffic jam at a certain freeway entrance might be top widen it, the logic being that it must be a bottleneck. But by taking a systems view, another answer might present itself: throttle down the traffic entering the onramp by using, say, an alternate-lane traffic signal.

Senge presents a number of systemic archetypes. But what interests me is that the fundamental building blocks for all of these archetypes are just three processes. Systems are built out of combinations of amplifying processes (which can either go upwards or downwards), balancing processes (where change is resisted by the system), or feedback delays (where there is a lag between cause and effect).

When I read this as a young person, I did not see how sweeping this claim is. Three processes describe all systems. It’s as crazy as saying just four amino acids can be combined to create the blueprint for all of the varied life on Earth!

576px-Zentralfriedhof_Vienna_-_Boltzmann 2
Ludwig Boltzman’s grave. Boltzman first theorized about entropy.

This is important to me, as I study political ecosystems in community. Is it possible to describe all such systems using just three building blocks? I am resistant to the idea. Political systems are comprised of individuals, all acting on their own and operating within multilayered and interlocking networks of association. It seems too mechanistic to think that three Newtonian laws would account for all the activity I see.

I have thought of a fourth potential “fundamental process,” especially as it relates to human behavior, but I am not sure it counts in this way of thinking. The process is entropy: the tendency for any system to move towards randomness unless energy is added into it. This seems like it might be a confounding factor in any of the feedback processes described above.

I’ll keep thinking about it.

Missed Opportunities in Adult Education

I note a repeated missed opportunity in teaching across many of the courses in my executive-level graduate program, an opportunity missed due to design decisions. Often, instructors develop exercises where students work (individually or in teams) to develop their own work product. The instructor then evaluates the work according to some framework, or compares it to some existing professional version of the same work. The idea is to have students try their hand at manipulating some framework, and then provide constructive feedback on how they did.

The problem arises when it comes time for the instructor to provide feedback. Over and over I have observed instructors engage in Herculean efforts to make incorrect work seem correct. There is a strong disincentive to say students’ work is “wrong” in such a public setting. (This may be more the case with adult learners versus younger students.) Because of this, learning opportunities are missed and frequently students are left thinking that they have mastered material that they have not mastered. This seems especially prone to happen in “judgment” fields where there is not an objectively correct answer but there are definitely best practices. For example, in a communications class where students are asked to develop an influence campaign, there may be no objective basis to criticize poor campaigns. So the impression is left that anything goes. But this can happen also in “harder edged” fields such as budgeting or economics. Students are rarely told that they missed the mark.

The conclusion? Avoid such situations unless you are a very unusual type of instructor, with the gumption to publicly make clear, constructive criticism. Develop some other mechanism for giving students hands-on experience and useful feedback. Two potential means of doing that would be for students to evaluate each others’ work, or to give them a rubric and ask them to evaluate their own work. However, the challenge remains of providing feedback from an expert perspective.

Engaged, Not Engaged?

College Fair

The other evening, my wife and I accompanied our daughter to a college fair. She’s a junior, and this is an important part of the college selection process. Over one hundred colleges all came to display their wares, with many hundreds of high school students on hand to try to make their connections and winnow down their choice (or make themselves stand out in the minds of the admissions officers of their chosen schools).

It was a packed affair. My wife and I decided that our best course would be to let our daughter use the time on her own, and not try to guide, prod, or speak for her in any way. So, we each cruised the event on our own, developed our own impressions, and then the two of us reconnoitered in the bleachers to wait while our daughter finished her work. Her part took longer, because she had to interact with a number of people. We told her to take her time. We were fine.

And, in fact, we were. Many parents were sitting around us, occupied with their own activities. As were we. Both of us found the even fascinating in its own way. My wife, Andrea Jarrell, is a consultant to colleges and universities, and found it interesting to see how her work (viewbooks and branding for places such as Lafayette University, Swarthmore, and Columbia) was used and to be on the “consumer” side of the desk. As for me, I am fascinated by crowds and like to people watch, discerning patterns in their behavior.

Naturally interested in sharing our experiences, we each pulled out our smartphones and went to Facebook. Andrea had posted a photo along with a comment about how interesting she found the experience. I weighed in. Other mutual friends were commenting, and we were each enjoying refreshing our screens, updating our statuses, joking with one another, and sharing our observations.

It was an interesting feeling of being at the same time engaged with an event in real life, and sharing it on social media . . . all at the same time that we were sharing the experience of being there together. We were engrossed, living in three or four worlds simultaneously.

Then, our reveries and interactions were interrupted. The admissions officer from a school whose table happened to be right near us had been watching our behavior, and he’d sauntered over. “I have never seen a couple more . . . ”

. . . As he began his sentence, I filled in the blank for him mentally. “Engaged.” “Proud.” “Interested.” What was he about to say?

“. . . disinterested than you two,” he finished.

I was taken aback. We were, in fact, the opposite of that. If you could be “in flow” sitting on the bleachers at a college fair, we were there. Yet, I could see how it might appear that we were bored out of our skulls. I thought of it from his perspective. There we were, sitting together, staring into our phones, tapping away. We would look around blankly for a while, then back into our phones and tap away. Once in a while we might say something to one another, but we did this sporadically and briefly. Mostly, from his perspective, we were just sitting there.

We disabused our new friend of his misperception, and explained how interested we, in fact, were. We spoke for a while. Turns out the admissions officer has two children, one a senior in high school, and he has been interested in his own experience of the admissions process from the other side of the desk. We shared about this for a while, and then he went back to work.

As he walked away, I thought about our exchange, and how appearances can be quite deceiving, especially when you mix them with stereotypes. Because we looked like the prototypical bored and disinterested  parents, our new friend assumed that was what we were.

I’ll have to remember that, next time I assume someone is not paying attention because they are staring into their smartphone. Maybe, in fact, they are more engaged than ever.


United Way Releases National Report On Education

I am proud to let you know about a new report released today by United Way Worldwide at an important Town Hall event in DC where United Way announced its pledge to generate 1,000,000 new volunteers in mentoring and tutoring for education. (United Way’s pledge is a great example of the level of educational leadership I wish we could see more of now a days.) I was fortunate enough to be asked to write and do the chief research and focus group work for the report.

I’ve posted an announcement of the report at my company’s site, the Mannakee Circle Group.  Here is the piece I posted there:

Soledad O’Brien talks to Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha at the Town Hall

Today at a National Town Hall event at Trinity Washington University moderated by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and featuring Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Corporation for National and Community Service head Patrick Corvington, and White House Domestic Policy Adviser Melody BarnesUnited Way Worldwide releasedVoices For The Common Good: America Speaks Out On Education.

Mannakee Circle Group president Brad Rourke conducted focus group research, reviewed notes from the field, and did the principal writing for this report. (Available here.)

The national report is the result of extensive work by United Way listening to community members talk about their aspirations and concerns when it comes to their communities and education. It is based on more than 150 community conversations with thousands of participants, held by local United Ways in 17 cities — along with six focus groups in Billings, MT; Chicago, IL; Detroit, MI; Los Angeles, CA; New York City, NY; and Washington, DC.

Key findings in the report include:

    • When you improve schools, you improve communities — and vice versa
    • People feel disconnected from schools
    • Instilling values is just as important to people as teaching academics
    • We’ve reached a turning point in education
    • People want to work together but aren’t sure what to do

The community conversations were conducted using a framework developed by my friend and colleague Rich Harwood. Special thanks to another good friend and colleague, Mike Wood, vice president of field engagement at United Way, for bringing me in to this project.

For more about the report, visit United Way.

Click for Full Report (pdf)

Facebook And Faculty

My friend Ed Sirianno recently drew my attention to a post at Inigral (maker of the Schools Facebook app) with ten tips for getting faculty involved in using Facebook on campus.

While it is focused on higher education, the ideas apply to getting any reluctant group of people involved in Facebook. For online community managers, this can be a daunting proposition. While it is relatively easy to evangelize to people who already have dipped their toes in the water, it is sometimes excruciating to try to make the case for engagement through social media to intelligent skeptics who listen politely and then go about their business, chuckling to themselves about how silly you are.

Indeed, in  one community content initiative I am involved with, we recently suggested to our constituents that it was critical for them to use Facebook to generate interest in the work. Some of the responses I got back made me wonder what year I was in. Typical (paraphrased) response: “I set up a profile last year when my nephew visited me from college, but it seemed silly then and still does. I don’t want to see photos of what he ate for lunch.”

A community manager who is in charge of a public institutions social media and Facebook page might justifiably throw up their hands. But the failure is with the evangelists, not with the skeptics. We may make a good case for using Facebook (for instance, higher education people take note that 90% of college students are on Facebook), we need to make it engaging in an ongoing, day-to-day way for all the groups we hope will connect with it.

Analog Computer by Flickr user Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M
"Analog Computer" by Flickr user Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M

Here are some of the key ideas from Inigral, along with some of my comments:

  • Polls: With well-crafted questions that eschew hype, you can give people a reason to visit and interact with your page.
  • Photos: Post and tag — sharing and tagging of photos remains one of the easiest ways to engage people in creating content together.
  • Sports Info: One-stop shareable hub of school sports results and other info.
  • Office Hours: Virtual office hours (like Stanford does — Stanford is the “rock star” of colleges on Facebook with more than 45,000 fans).
  • Announcements: Key departmental and other announcements — since they allow interaction through comments, this can become an important interaction area for faculty, many of whom are deeply invested in the organizational politics of their institutions.
  • Students: In my view the most important reason for faculty to want to interact with Facebook on a daily basis is that this is where students are. If a community manager were to be intentional about creating a space for interactions between faculty and students, the early adopter faculty would begin to use it and demonstrate value to their colleagues.

Replace the word “student” with “citizen,” “customer,” “constituent,” or “fan” and you can see how this can translate into many other public-facing institutions.

Thanks, Ed, for sharing! I urge you to read the full Inigral post.

How To Reclaim Pedagogy?

... Iuvenetus Summus! by Flickr user Poldavo (Alex)
"... Iuvenetus Summus!" by Flickr user Poldavo (Alex)

Andrea Jarrell drew my attention to a piece in yesterday’s Washington Post by former Howard Dean Internet wunderkind Zephyr Teachout.

Both newspapers and universities have traditionally relied on selling hard-to-come-by information. Newspapers touted advertising space next to breaking news, but now that advertisers find their customers on Craigslist and Cars.com, the main source of reporters’ pay is vanishing. Colleges also sell information, with a slightly different promise — a degree, a better job and access to brilliant minds. As with newspapers, some of these features are now available elsewhere. A student can already access videotaped lectures, full courses and openly available syllabuses online. And in five or 10 years, the curious 18- (or 54-) year-old will be able to find dozens of quality online classes, complete with take-it-yourself tests, a bulletin board populated by other “students,” and links to free academic literature. . . .

Because the current college system, like the newspaper industry, has built-in redundancies, new Internet efficiencies will lead to fewer researchers and professors. . . . [A]t noon on any given day, hundreds of university professors are teaching introductory Sociology 101. The Internet makes it harder to justify these redundancies. In the future, a handful of Soc. 101 lectures will be videotaped and taught across the United States. When this happens — be it in 10 years or 20 — we will see a structural disintegration in the academy akin to that in newspapers now. The typical 2030 faculty will likely be a collection of adjuncts alone in their apartments, using recycled syllabuses and administering multiple-choice tests from afar.

So how should we think about this? Students who would never have had access to great courses or minds are already able to find learning online that was unimaginable in the last century.

I reproduced a fair amount of the piece because I believe it is an important point to grasp fully. The institutional structures of academe are poised to undergo profound upheavals. This is due to a confluence of social forces, not the least of which is the general shift to a citizen-centric world in which people demand that institutions and organizations conform to their priorities and needs, not vice-versa.

Just as with the journalism world, we do not yet know exactly how this will play out, though we can sense the general contours. It’s possible that the education of the future will be deeply self-directed, as Teachout describes.

However, most of our prognostications are still rooted in what we believe people need or want from institutions. For instance, the above vision of college presupposes that people come to campus to seek “a degree, a better job and access to brilliant minds” from higher education. Certainly, people do seek those things.

However, like many institutions, there’s something more that people get that they sometimes do not realize they are getting. These elements often go overlooked in our talks about the future.

In the case of newspapers, it is (among other things) serendipity and an editorial eye: There are editors concerned with making sure I have the opportunity to see things I might not have seen otherwise, and overall ensuring there is consistent quality.

In the case of universities, the “more” may be a pedagogy rooted in a day-in, day-out experience. This is left out of many discussions of what higher education might “look like” as the future unfolds. Our conversations typically assume that a “student” is really a “consumer” of education.

But the pedagogy of campus does not just impart knowledge. It imparts practice, too. It forges habits of thought and attitude. It creates students. Many of the methods that higher education uses are ones that people might not seek out if they can pick and choose their program at will — just as an example, many core course requirements.

Where, then, will people seeking education find this pedagogy? Like many things that used to be taught earlier, maybe they’ll be taken to the workplace. For many people, their first encounter with someone telling them “no” is in their first job. Similarly, in a world where people create their own education, it may be that the first time people really learn how to organize their thoughts across subjects (which is the kind of thing many professional settings require) is in the workplace.

This suggests to me that the role of mentorship — or apprenticeship — will only grow in importance. Managers already know they often need to jump-start new employees. They may need to devote even more thought to first-year experiences.

But in what other ways can we convey habits that require practice over time, sometimes over the in-the-moment objections of our subjects? This has been one of the roles of some institutions in public life. With what will we replace them?

Questions On The Occasion Of A Presidential Address

Just to be clear: I regard it as a glorious thing that the president plans to address students in schools directly. The controversy that has brewed over whether this is indoctrination seems ill-founded. President Obama is not trying to control the thoughts of our young ones. He’s using the bully pulpit to urge them to take their education seriously, and to stay in school. More presidents should take such steps.

However, a closer look at the hue and cry over the speech is in order. While it may be that the underlying driver for the folks who have called for a national keep-you-child-home-from-school day could be dislike of President Obama specifically, the initial flap was over lesson plans that the Department of Education distributed along with its announcement of the talk.

The pushback was so intense that new lesson plans were developed that were designed to settle any fears that teachers would use the classroom time to promote President Obama specifically (as opposed to the office of the President of the United States generally).

New Classroom by Flickr user Editor B
"New Classroom" by Flickr user Editor B

Curious, I took a look at the lesson plans (pdf). To be honest, I can see the critics’ point, even with the new version, which includes questions such as “Are we able to do what President Obama is asking of us?” The document overall reads as if it were written from a standpoint of adulation of this specific president — one is hard pressed to imagine a similar document being written if it were George W. Bush making the same address, or, for that matter, Bill Clinton.

I can overlook that, however, even while I understand the misgivings some people may have.

A Missed Civic Opportunity

What has the civic side of me hopping mad, however, is what a missed opportunity this is. The Department of Education, in creating a lesson plan that encourages students to think of “What is the president trying to tell me?” and “What is the president asking me to do?” is squandering the chance to create a collective moment in which students are asked to think civically and not personally.

Here are some questions I would rather our nation’s students consider, on the occasion of a presidential address to the classrooms of America:

  • In what ways is education important? Is it important for everybody or just for some people?
  • How are we doing throughout our community when it comes to young people and education?
  • How can we work together so everyone has the best chance to learn as much as they can? What would it take to do that?
  • What are some of the things a president could do to help everyone learn? What are some of the things we can do together? How about in families?

For most students across the nation, this will be a shared experience — something they all do at the same time. Why not take this time to focus on our obligations and bonds with one another, rather than inwardly on what I am supposed to do to maximize my success?