On The Challenges of Groupwork

I doubt anyone is terribly interested in what goes on behind the scenes at my workplace. I share this abbreviated story in the hope that you’ll apply it to your own life. The basic question is this: how does a medium or large sized group of people—a school faculty, a church council, a local government, a non-profit organization, any work team really—reinvent their work?

My colleagues and I are redesigning our university’s undergraduate teacher education program again. Instead of annual incremental tweaks to individual courses, we wait until dissatisfaction builds to a breaking point. Then, instead of identifying and building upon existing strengths, we commit to a complete overhaul. We repeat the process every five to seven years.

The problem is whole scale curriculum redesign is very difficult to pull off. I’ve lived through multiple attempts at two institutions. This time, despite different people in leadership, we’re following a nearly identical path as all our previous efforts. In our last meeting I felt like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

We never improve the process because no one makes the time to carefully consider alternatives. That’s the point of this exercise in self-efficacy.

The basic challenge is to improve the preparation of our teacher candidates by: 1) eliminating curricular redundancies; 2) filling in curricular gaps; 3) reversing “credit creep” by reducing the total number of semester hours needed to complete the program; and 4) updating the curriculum to address changes in K-12 education, changes like the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Things always start positively with creative and invigorating whole group discussion about “essential elements” or “themes” that everyone wants included in the new and improved program. Then we add in additional content determined by professional standards and (jargon alert) a new high stakes performance based student teacher assessment (otherwise known as a student teaching test). Next, advocates for specific curricular interests—technology integration, special education, reading instruction, etc.—remind everyone of just how important all of that content is. Then we try to pinpoint what will be taught when. That’s when enthusiasm wanes and things inevitably bog down.

We struggle at this work for many reasons. Two in particular. First, we’re much, much better at adding content than we are removing it. And second, it’s nearly impossible to do the careful type of deep thinking, tentative and creative sketching, and initial draft writing that program redesign requires in large group meetings.

We would make more progress in less time if we did three things:

• First, take whatever time is necessary to reach a consensus that it’s impossible to include everything our candidates might need to succeed in their first few years of teaching. Come up with a written statement to that effect and communicate it to the students at different points throughout the program. Our inability to embrace our limits is like a misaligned brake rubbing against a bicycle rim, no matter how hard we pedal, we tire before making ample forward progress.

• Second, delegate the drafting of a new program outline to one or a few people. This means trusting they have the students’ and all of the faculty’s best interests at heart. Ask that person or those people to talk with individual faculty members about what they like most about the existing program and what they’re most intent on changing. Count their curriculum redesign work both as service to the department and as scholarship of teaching.

• Third, use large group meetings primarily to receive suggestions on how to improve the most recent program outline draft, and in the end, to reach consensus on a final draft.

General Education Curriculum Redesign

My “Choosing a College 1” post caught the attention of some higher ed faculty so I thought a follow up was in order. That post could have been titled better since it dealt with differing perspectives on higher education and general education more than how to choose a college. 

Some background. I have studied curriculum development and assessment since beginning my doctoral coursework in “Curriculum Leadership” at the University of Denver in 1990.  In the mid-1990’s, at Guilford College, I was one of four Curriculum Committee members charged with redesigning Guilford’s general education program.  I refer to that challenging work as my “second doctorate” in curriculum.  At PLU, I have continued learning about curriculum and assessment through my work with the Wang Center, my facilitating a Wild Hope seminar, my service on the Chinese Studies Program Committee, the International Core Committee, the 2010 Academic Distinction sub group, the Rank & Tenure Committee, and the Faculty Affairs Committee.

I’ve reflected on each of those experiences and could write in great detail about what I’ve learned from them.  I would summarize some of the insights this way:

• Each faculty member has had their life enriched by their discipline; consequently, there is a tendency to view one’s discipline as especially important relative to others.

• When revising general education programs, faculty tend to think about what is in their department’s or unit’s best interest rather than what’s in the best interest of the university more generally. 

• When revising a general education program in the midst of an economic downturn and declining resources, point two is doubly true.

• When soliciting feedback on possible general education program improvements, some faculty will inevitably submit comprehensive proposals that they believe to be the only way forward. In actuality, progress is always slow and the result of continuous collaboration.

• For the sum of students’ educational experiences to equal more than the parts faculty have to do more than periodically exchange syllabi; at minimum, they have to talk, listen, and revise syllabi and engage in programmatic assessment together.

• When faculty are not provided opportunities to get to know their colleagues from across campus, they often fall victim to negative preconceived notions about other departments and units and don’t fully appreciate what they contribute to the general education program. Put differently, opportunities for substantive cross campus conversation fosters mutual respect which is integral to redesigning general education programs and successfully implementing them.

• General education excellence takes many forms. Successful implementation requires faculty to pay considerably more attention than normal to teaching methodologies. Faculty need to come to grips with the limits of 20th century “transmission of knowledge” pedagogies and ask “How should we adapt our teaching in light of the information revolution?”