Students Must Demand Change

Many people – administrators, faculty, students, parents, employers – are far too accepting of poor teaching in higher education. This situation has gone uncorrected for years and years. Students, being the most affected stakeholder, should demand better. But they do not. Why? Perhaps it is because they feel faculty and administrators are indifferent to their concerns, or they prefer to remain focused on the goal: graduation. Whatever it may be, the typical result is slow or no improvement in teaching.

Surely students are frustrated with the quality of their education. But, are they finally ready to do something about it? Are they ready to become activists to bring about positive reforms?

byteaching_welearnI would like to see students become more responsible for their own education, and I would like them to articulate the high-level outcomes that they desire from higher education. In particular, I would like to see students create a student-led movement that identifies the changes that are needed in teaching – from both classroom (and online) and policy perspectives – and organize in creative, peaceful ways to protest and pressure administrators and faculty to make those changes become reality – either on the basis of an individual institution or more broadly across all higher education institutions.

How would faculty and administrators react to a student-led movement to improving teaching? Probably not well, because it threatens the status quo. But, that reaction would inform students that their movement is exactly what is needed.

They would surely find partners in the process, such as myself, and perhaps you as well, to help make positive change and an enduring commitment to continuous improvement come about.

Read: “Better All The Time” by James Surowiecki (The New Yorker, 10 November 2014)

Weekly Learning Reflections

This semester I introduced a form for graduate students to use during the semester to document key learning week-by-week. It is called the “Weekly Leaning Reflection.”

The course, Supply Chain Strategy, is taught as a hybrid, meaning about 50 percent of the classes are face-to-face and 50 percent of the classes are online. My concern was that in the weeks we did not meet face-to-face, some of the key learnings might be missed.

Weekly Learning Reflection

So far, it seems to be helpful for those students who really want to get some lasting knowledge from the course. Here is what a student had to say:

“You’re weekly reflection sheet is a great tool. I wished I had had it for TM590 and TM572. When finished, it and the visual control will help as a reminder of the important points and learnings of the class. I will use the same idea in my future classes, it is easy to forget certain aspects when you stretch the course work over five years!”

I intend to introduce this form into my other courses. You may find it useful to do so as well.

Bosses Flunk Critical Thinking

I have commented previously (here, here, and here) about how bosses want new hires to possess good critical thinking skills. But, due to a lack of critical thinking, bosses mistakenly ask for critical thinking when what they really want is people who can solve problems.

It looks like bosses did not learn much about critical thinking in college or graduate school. While critical thinking should be part of problem-solving, problems can be solved (albeit poorly) without critical thinking. That is what most bosses want. The phrase, “Just fix it; I don’t care how you do it,” sums it up nicely.

Most bosses want young people who have been trained by their professors in how to solve small problems within their work area, to relieve burdens on management. What they have difficulty realizing is that many of these problems are created by bad policies and poor management decisions. New hires, therefore, are expected to clean up after management’s messes, among their other duties.

Most bosses do not want young people to think critically about the their decisions and speak truth to power. New hires will get in trouble for doing that. Bosses do not want young employees (or anyone else) to critique their decisions, because they would find many (most?) decisions are made with a lack of evidence, misinterpretation of evidence, the use of illogical thinking, conformation bias, closed-minded rationalizations, insufficient analysis, etc.

In Lean management, employees are taught to recognize and correct problems using structured problem-solving processes such as PDCA, A3 reports, and kaizen, all of which are derivatives of the scientific method, which, of course, require critical thinking. The difference is that organizations whose leaders understand and practice Lean correctly, foster a no-blame and open communication environment so that any employee, new or not, can speak truth to power. And, management takes responsibility for developing and improving employees’ problem-solving skills through daily coaching.

Professors, such as myself, who teach PDCA, A3 reports, and kaizen give students the problem-solving skills that employers want. The difference is that most leaders do not understand and practice Lean correctly (if at all), and foster a blame environment that shuts down information flow so that employees cannot speak truth to power. New hires learn this quickly. Predictably, management does not take responsibility for developing and improving employees’ problem-solving skills. Employees must develop it themselves, if they wish to do so.

Professors can teach students the problem-solving methods that managers in industry want, but it is up to managers to develop that skill into something more than rote problem-solving devoid of critical thinking.

Quality Education Charade

It seems whenever a college or university is criticized for tuition increases, the defense given is: “This allows us to provide the high-quality education that students and families deserve.” Everyone accepts that without question – with no critical thinking. Hmmm.

Of course, quality in higher education is loosely defined and poorly measured. Despite this, the near-universal claim by colleges and universities that the education they offer is “high quality” bears close scrutiny. Fundamentally, any service that is offered via batch-and-queue processes will be not only low quality, but also high cost compared to what it could be if the service was offered via flow (smaller batches, and no queues).

My experience in developing Lean Teaching and the simple data that I have collected suggest that higher education (both academic and administrative processes, must be significantly improved before one can claim it is “high quality.” Then, continuously improved thereafter.

Have a look at my data and I think you will see that the claim of “high quality” is based more on perception than on facts:

Of course, my surveys should be replicated on a larger scale to test the accuracy of the findings. Nevertheless, I am certain they are directionally correct and identify real problems large and small that degrade the quality of higher education and increase its costs.

But, in order to improve, one has to recognize the existence of problems. College and university administrators cannot lead improvement if they don’t now about problems. The question, then, is why don’t they know about these problems?

In most cases, there is some sort of organizational dysfunction that prevents leaders from seeing problems, plus a perception that the rudimentary problems identified in my surveys were corrected long ago. Invariably, along with that are some forward-looking initiatives that are perceived as vital to the success of the institution, and which take precedence over backward-looking recurring process problems that negatively affect students, payers, faculty, and staff.

In other words, there is a remarkable lack of critical thinking in higher education. It is ironic that segments of higher education could fail due to a lack of critical thinking. It is further evidence that they have graduated defective products, for they are victims of the system that they have perpetuated.

Education and Satisfaction

Are education and student satisfaction antithetical, as is argued in this article written by Prof. Joanna Williams in Times Higher Education (16 October 2014)? The premise is that resources are expended on facilities and services to ensure student satisfaction erodes the authority and importance of academic work and subject matter knowledge.

Of course, there is some truth in the article. However, as readers of this blog know well, the quality of teaching and value of higher education can be greatly improved, while the prevalence of teaching errors means that only a small percent of professors are truly good at what they do.

This passage in the article caught my eye:

“Speak to students, and many say they resent being treated as customers. They do not want people to think they ‘bought’ their degree. Their desire to reject the label of ‘customer’ reflects a desire to work hard and learn.”

In my experience, students do think of themselves as customers and expect better administrative and academic services for the tuition and fees that they pay. Though, I have not yet come across students in public higher education who have expressed a concern of the appearance that their degree has been bought.

I understand the frustration expressed in the article, which has more to do with the diversion of resources from academics for facilities and services. In my own university, academic advising performed by full-time staff advisors is seen as critical for helping students chose their major area of study, financial aid, course scheduling, progression through their program of study, and graduation. Perhaps so. With the exception of choosing a major and financial aid, the staff function is duplicates the academic advising that professors conduct twice a year with undergraduate students in their department.

advising_jobs1So, while department chairs and faculty are unsuccessful in obtaining new faculty lines for programs that are growing or that have many students, and which are aligned with the priorities and interests of the State and of employers, the administration budgets over $9,000,000 to more than double the number of full-time advising staff as shown in the image to the right (click here for source p.84; red boxes are mine).

This request to hire an additional 54 people, 15 of which would be located at my campus (at a cost of $969,994), has a far better chance at being funded than just one additional revenue-generating faculty line in my department to support our undergraduate manufacturing management and graduate technology management programs.

This is the kind of management decision that drive faculty nuts.

Of course, there is no effort to understand and improve the advising processes performed by staff and faculty, as Lean thinkers would do. That will surely lead to a doubling in student advising capacity for both staff and faculty, while greatly improving quality and significantly reducing the time to takes to advise students. That would save $9,000,000, thereby reducing the cost of higher education. Or, much of the $9,000,000 could be used to fund revenue-generating faculty lines for programs that are growing or that have many students, and which are aligned with the priorities and interests of the State and of employers.

Education and student satisfaction are antithetical to faculty who don’t know Lean. For those that do, education and student satisfaction must go together for the good of all. To argue otherwise will cause delays in improvement and worsen higher education’s many problems.

Enrollment Goals and Tuition Revenue

A recent article in The Chronicle for High EducationGoals for Enrollment and Tuition Revenue Elude Many Colleges” (13 October 2014, subscription required), gives interesting insights on the simplistic and unimaginative actions taken by colleges and universities when enrollment goals and tuition revenue are not met.

che_imageThe graphic to the right is from the article (click to enlarge). The actions taken are (approximately in order of the number of institutions taking said actions):

  • Improve enrollment-management operations
  • Start new programs to attract students
  • Put more resources into marketing
  • Eliminate low-enrollment academic programs
  • Layoffs, early retirements, or furloughs
  • Reduce campus services or operations
  • Raise discount rates

The survey limited responses to these seven items. Perhaps people are doing other things as well, but these are likely to be the focus areas. Let’s deconstruct these and compare it to how a Lean organization would deal with the challenge of meeting enrollment (sales) and tuition (revenue) goals.

Conventional Thinking and Action: The general approach to meeting enrollment and tuition goals is results-focused, i.e. do whatever you can to solve today’s problem, worry about tomorrow’s problems later.

  • Improve enrollment-management operations means to hire people (spend money) and improve a few key processes in an ad-hoc manner.
  • Start new programs to attract students means to make informed guesses as to at what students and industry wants.
  • Put more resources into marketing means to hire people and spend money.
  • Eliminate low-enrollment academic programs means to throw away past investments because they do not deliver a financial return at the present time.
  • Layoffs, early retirements, or furloughs means to reduce costs by getting rid of people.
  • Reduce campus services or operations means to reduce costs by reducing or outsourcing campus services or operations.
  • Raise discount rates means to spend money.

Lean Thinking and Action: The general approach to meeting enrollment and tuition goals is process and results-focused. People would use of structured problem-solving processes (i.e. the scientific method) and kaizen (“spend ideas, not money”), to improve the results for today and establish a foundation for continuous improvement in order to respond effectively to tomorrow’s problems.

  • Improve enrollment-management operations means to improve processes and re-focus or re-deploy people.
  • Start new programs to attract students means to carefully identify new areas of study based on quantitative and qualitative data, involving students, payers, and employers.
  • Put more resources into marketing means to improve processes and re-focus or re-deploy people.
  • Eliminate low-enrollment academic programs means to understand the causes of low enrollment and improve the the academic programs prior to combining or eliminating them; involve key stakeholders in the process.
  • Layoffs, early retirements, or furloughs are the last resort, and signifies that senior administrators (president and provost) have failed and must resign.
  • Reduce campus services or operations means to identify services and operations seen as valuable by students, payers, and employers and improve them.
  • Raise discount rates means means to improve the value proposition for students, payers, and employers before resorting to discounts (and perhaps even raise prices if the perception of value is great).

I hope that this example effectively illustrates the difference between conventional management and Lean management, and how Lean is much better suited for dealing with the kinds of common problems that educational institutions face.

Stasis In Teaching

An important thing that professors can improve upon is to overcome the perception, or reality, that teaching is static. By that I mean, courses that remain largely unchanged from one semester to another, in their content, assignments, evaluations, pedagogy, and other elements.

Lean principles and practices applied to teaching mean that courses undergo change both during and between semesters – usually a combination of many small changes and a few large, significant changes – all designed to result in improvements to student learning outcomes and their view of quality and value.

At the start of each semester, I inform my students of the specific changes I made to the course based on the prior semester’s student feedback and other improvement that felt were necessary to make. The basic message that I want to get across is that my courses are not evolved. They are never static and never done, but are constantly evolving and improving.

My fear is that courses perceived by administrators, students, and others as unchanging over time are at risk of becoming commodities and transformed into MOOCs or the like. Courses ranging from English literature to chemistry to statistics and fluid mechanics are at risk. Yet, they can easily be transformed from static to dynamic courses via Lean teaching.

It is my hope that professors will see the risk as I do and embrace Lean teaching. The biggest challenge will be to embrace the spirit and meaning of continuous improvement and overcome the deep-rooted desire to create a course and be done with it.


Class Participation

Here is an article worth reading from Times Higher Education (25 September), “No place for introverts in the academy?” The author, Bruce Macfarlane, criticizes those who demand that students be actively engaged in class and who award points for class participation:

“…university students are no longer allowed to be shy. ‘Active learning’ has become a modern mantra. Students must ask questions, express opinions, lead oral presentations and participate enthusiastically in community projects. To collaborate is sacrosanct. Passivity, on the other hand, is considered the enemy of learning. They must be vocal, expressive and assertive. The extrovert ideal… is all the rage.”

As a student, I too was shy and non-participative. I liked to learn by listening and observing others (and through hands on work of making or breaking things in labs). Now, as a professor, I try to elicit student participation with varying degrees of success. One thing I did long ago was to eliminate grading associated with class participation.

My rationale for this, explained in The Lean Professor, is as follows:

“I do not award points for class participation because I do not want to penalize introverted students who prefer to learn by listening, observing, and doing the assignments. Of course, I appreciate extroverted students who like to learn, in part, by engaging in classroom discussion. Introverts appreciate that as well.”

As professors, we have to respect student’s individuality and learning preferences.

I often receive feedback from students in end-of-semester anonymous surveys asking for greater class participation. But I have come to understand this feedback to mean:

 I think more people should contribute to the class discussion. Other people should speak up. I can learn from that. Maybe I’ll add something to the conversation if I feel like it.

Translation: Class participation is not my job; it’s other student’s job. To address this feedback, I now require students in all of my courses to submit discussion questions each week. They fill out a google docs form with one, two, or three discussion questions and press the “Submit” button. The discussion questions are collected in a spreadsheet which I print out and bring to class. The benefit is that questions get asked that would not normally get asked. The drawback is that discussion questions often fail to generate discussion due to a lack of class participation!

MacFarlane makes an important point worth reflecting on:

“The virtues of being shy are, in fact, well suited to many of the central values of higher education. These include not being overconfident about making knowledge claims and thinking ideas through before speaking.”

My view is that one should not lose sight of the goal, which is for students to learn the material and understand how to apply in the real world post-course and post-graduation. Class participation is great when it happens, but it is not the goal in teaching.

Students, however, do need to recognize that most workplaces value extroversion, which can put introverts at a career-long disadvantage. So, introverts have a decision to make: Should I learn how to be extroverted when conditions demand that I be, or should I be who I am under all conditions. You then have to live with your decisions. Likewise, extroverts ought to reflect on how being overconfident and speaking before thinking can damage their careers.

Graduating Defective Products

A philosophical question often prevents the start of process improvement activities in universities: Are students students? Are students customers? Are students clients? What are students?

Here is how I have long looked at it: I consider students to be my direct customers; parents, spouses, and payers, to be intermediate customers, and employers and society to be end-use customers. This is not a perfect classification, but it works sufficiently well to do two important things:

  • Focus my continuous improvement efforts
  • Assure my improvements result in outcomes that benefit these parties

I was recently communicating with an educator who considered students to be the product of educational systems. This is an interesting characterization because learning progresses over long periods of time both in school and outside of school, post-graduation. If I think of students as our product, then I am forced to recognize that 100 percent of our graduates are defective products – even those students with perfect GPAs. Why? Because because they do not know everything they were taught (nor do we as professors) and they likely suffer from overconfidence or arrogance as a result of achieving good scores or even perfect scores (professors can suffer from this as well). But, the product is good enough, in most cases, to go on to the next step and “go live.”

The software industry is famous for creating defective products that must be fixed after they have been released – often for decades – much to customers’ displeasure. Higher education is, in many ways, similar to that. Our “software” is an electrochemicaly-operated human being that we “code” through classroom teaching, homework assignments, projects, etc., consistent with the purpose of a college or university:

  • Impart knowledge to student’s in their areas of interest
  • Teach students how to think (imperfectly, but presumably better than before university)
  • Start a career (or proceed to graduate school)
  • Develop one’s self while in school and thereafter

The problem is that unlike a software company, we cannot easily provide knowledge (software) updates and “patches” to fix incorrect, flawed, and illogical thinking post-graduation. And this is why I have an aversion to attending graduation ceremonies (including my own).

Graduation ceremonies celebrate the turning out of many people who are overconfident in what they know and what they can do, most of whom will largely abandon self-study (reading and writing), research, critical thinking, and reflection post-graduation – though there are abundant opportunities to do those things in the workplace.

They will make many significant mistakes that affect self and others because they did not think as they had been taught to do by their teachers, from elementary school through college. They got out into the “real word” and do things differently because that is the way their new role models – their new teachers, called “bosses” – do things.

Unlike software updates automatically delivered via the Internet to your computer, universities and professors have no means to automatically update graduates’ knowledge or to identify and correct bad thinking and bad practice. So what can be done?

In addition to the usual happy-happy alumni magazine mailed to graduates to stoke fundraising, we could add value to their post-graduation work and life experience by continuing to educate them. One means would be to communicate examples of good and bad critical thinking in categories represented by each school or discipline. Such examples would come from real-world sources that our former students can relate to.

Maybe then I’d feel better about graduation ceremonies.

Is Teaching A Profession?

In a recent interview, “Teacher tenure has little to do with student achievement, economist says,” Washington Post reporter Max Ehrenfreund asked the following question of Jesse Rothstein, former Obama administration economist:

Eherenfreund: “Everyone agrees that the goal should be to make teaching a respected profession, a profession that talented and able people want to enter. So far, I’ve heard you say that there’s not a lot of evidence suggesting ways that that could be accomplished effectively. Is there one policy that we haven’t discussed?”

Rothstein: “We could double teachers’ salaries. I’m not joking about that. The standard way that you make a profession a prestigious, desirable profession, is you pay people enough to make it attractive. The fact that that doesn’t even enter the conversation tells you something about what’s wrong with the conversation around these topics. I could see an argument that says it’s just not worth it, that it would cost too much. The fact that nobody even asks the question tells me that people are only willing to consider cheap solutions. They’re looking for easy answers, not hard answers.”

Higher pay reflects poor comprehension of the fundamental nature of the problem and a poor, albeit likely necessary, part of the overall solution to the problem.

A hallmark of professionalism is a lack of errors. People who make a lot of errors are not considered to be “professional.” Unfortunately, teachers make a lot of errors, as do business leaders. In addition, people who provide a service, teaching, must comprehend what students want. Likewise, managers must understand what employees want, often don’t and, as a result, marginalize their interests to a great degree. On these grounds, it is difficult to characterize either teaching or management as a profession.

The good news is that the errors that teachers (and managers) make are easy to identify, and, If necessary, their root causes can be determined. This paves the way for identifying practical countermeasures to prevent errors from recurring. Teaching becomes a profession when this becomes part of one’s daily routine.