Archive for category: Change

HuffPo Part 2: Steps 6-10 of Ten Steps to a Whole New Engineer and a Whole New Engineering Education

Mark Somerville (Olin College) and my article on Huffington Post on Ten Steps to a Whole New Engineer and a Whole New Engineering Education just was published on Huffington Post (here).  For example, step 10 says the following:

Step 10: Band all stakeholders together coordinate effective action and collaboratively disrupt the status quo.  To date, education reform has largely been a school-by-school or even classroom-by-classroom attempt to bring about local change, and oftentimes schools or departments carefully guard their innovations as giving their unit a competitive advantage.  Unfortunately, the real competitor here is not the university down the road.  The real competitor is an educational system and cultural forces that preserve a 60-year old engineering curriculum that is demoralizing prospective engineers while or even before they come to school.  Even when change efforts aren’t viewed in this competitive way, schools have had difficulty coordinating, diffusing, and sustaining the results throughout their own institutions and to others.

Read the whole article  here, and if you missed part 1, read it here.

Trust and Engineering Education Transformation

In the article Engineering Students Can Do X on Huffington Post (here) I talked about the role of trust and other essentially emotional variables in effective education reform, but what is trust?  It is a word that we use quite a lot, but it is one that we use in a number of different senses, oftentimes without clarity or precision. 

A resource to better understanding of trust is the book by Bob Solomon and Fernando Flores, Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life, and the review at Coaching Counsel (here) covers a number of the essential points.  I became familiar with Bob Solomon by taking most of his Teaching Company courses in philosophy.  Fernando Flores is know for his dissertation in which he laid the foundations for modern coaching in Speech Acts and Heidegger (see earlier post on speech acts here), and Building Trust picks up where that work left off by viewing trust as action, really an investment, one that effects both the person trusted and trusting person.

There are other business books that deal with trust, but if you are interested in a conceptually rigorous examination of the concept, take a look at Building Trust.

Engineering Education Economics: The Goldberg-Laffer Curve

In discussions of why engineering education is so hard to reform, any number of culprits are often identified: stronger interest in research than teaching, lack of familiarity with or interest in active learning, experiential learning, problem-based learning or other pedagogical techniques, insufficient interest in the cultivation of our young people, and so on.  A factor that is rarely brought up is money. 

To get a handle on the economics of education transformation let’s turn back the time machine to the Reagan presidency and to an economist named Arthur Laffer.  Laffer suggested a theoretical construct, the Laffer curve, that postulated a relationship between government revenue and tax rates that first increased and then decreased as a function of marginal tax rate.  Laffer argued that if taxes were sufficiently high, and that if tax rates were reduced, that government revenue would increase.  Laffer was and is controversial, but whether he was right or whether he was right for the right or wrong reasons is unimportant to us here.  The shape of his curve, however, inspires our discussion.

Goldberg-Laffer Curve of Engineering Education

Consider the curve at the right.  Here we imagine that the cost (or time) invested by a faculty member in teaching as a function of student engagement.  At the left, a professor walks in with well-tested and well-worn 2o-year old course notes and gives the same lectures he or she always has given.  This is low cost, relatively low in student engagement, and in engineering education circles this situation is called the sage on the stage. 

In reform efforts, we encourage the sage to adopt experiential, active, problem-based, or some other form of enhanced learning, and if the instructor does so, we say he or she has become the guide on the side. He or she does so, however, at some personal cost, as shown on the curve with some increase in student engagement.  Since the faculty member is already fully involved in other actitivies,  the ΔC invested by the faculty member, of course, comes out of his or her discretionary time at home, in the lab, or doing other things the faculty member already values. Reformers suggest that this investment is important for the young people in the class room, but the individual instructor may or may not share their enthusiasm and commitment, and the cost is arguably the fundamental barrier to reform.  Dedicated missionaries like Rich Felder and Karl Smith have been teaching us all how to be more engaging in the classroom for two decades or more and yet, the classroom, especially in research universities, remains stubbornly resistant to wide scale and sustained change

Returning to the Goldberg-Laffer curve suggests another way out.  What if we could jump to the point on the curve labeled the learner with fervor where high student engagement is present and faculty-neutral costs are required?  This suggests we can have our cake and eat it, too, but is such a point even possible?

Cooperative experiments between Olin College and iFoundry at the University of Illinois at UIUC suggest it is.  For two semesters, Geoffrey Hermann has been leading a team conducting experiments with intrinsic motivation conversion on an existing lecture course in an introductory 2nd-year digital circuits.  The early returns are promising, and a subsequent post will examine them in more detail. For now, simply put, by reframing the discussion sections as intrinsicially motivated, students are more engaged from the get go and they shoulder more of the cost of that increased engagement.  For the faculty member, the experience requires little additional preparation and if he or she gets involved in the discussion sections, the increased interaction is more like that of a graduate-level seminar, requiring coaching and extant expertise, not additional preparation or work.

This possibility is very exciting to effective transformatio efforts, and it is one tool in a kit designed to bring about effective change without a faculty uprising. Watch for additional posts on intrinsic motivation conversion, and if you are interested in IM conversion or other effective means in transforming your program, write me at

So you want to be an education change agent

Education is embedded in some of the most change resistant bureaucracies around, and trying to change the why, what, how, and way in which education is delivered can be a challenging undertaking.  ThreeJoy Associates was founded on the learning of iFoundry initiative ( or Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education, which fostered effective change at a large public research university.  The following set of rules captures key elements of that learning in succinct form:

To change an organization, prepare yourself for change. Transformation of an organization, with or without authority, requires the change agent to adopt a new role, think differently, and generally show up in a way that makes others comfortable with the idea of change.  Helpful resources: Watkins, The first 90 days and hire an executive coach.

Become a broad learning machine. Most educators come to their role with specialized knowledge in a particular discipline.  Educational change agents need to draw on knowledge across many disciplines depending on the needs of the educational transformation process at any given time.  Helpful resources: Courses in the Teaching Company.  Good starting point is Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition.

Notice and reflect to promote deeper change. Organizations and individuals get stuck in stories about themselves, and the key trick to getting out of those deep ruts is to, first, notice and be aware that you or your organization is stuck and then reflect on what misalignments exist because the story is a remnant of a bygone era. Helpful resource: Chalmers, Language and the pursuit of happiness.

Avoid the bright shiny objects of education reform. In educational reform, the bright shiny objects are pedagogy, content, and curriculum and many efforts start with these.  This is generally a mistake.  Successful change efforts change the shiny objects, but only as a response to a larger cultural, organizational, and personal developmental process that you intentionality bring to fruition through a different set of opening moves.  Helpful resource: Heath brothers, Switch: How to change when change is hard.

Start with language and story. Cultural change occurs when different stories are told and different distinctions are made.  An early step in successful change efforts is the critical examination of extant stories and terms and the repetitious use of alternatives that foreshadow the coming of a culture consistent with the changes you have in mind.  Helpful resource: Heath brothers: Made to Stick. Missing basics video (here) and Creativity imperative video (here).

Provoke collective learning, then targeted doing. Your organization has been screwed up for a long time, and hoping to change it overnight is a prescription for disappointment.  Your first steps should be to engage in what Watkins calls collective learning. Plan activities that promote learning in others.  Speaking, posting to the web, creating videos about where you’re going, organizing events and meetings that galvanize support for what you’re doing are the opening moves of a successful change effort.  Helpful resource: Watkins, First 90 days.

Don’t plan, smallify & effectuate. Bureaucracies refine old routines to reduce error and variance in outcomes.  Entrepreneurs smallify and effectuate.  Effectuation is the process of taking your best shot at a course of action and then being paying attention to what actually happens, thereafter designing next steps with emphasis on what happened, not what didn’t.  Smallifying is the process of starting small and increasing the size after sufficient success has been achieved. .  Helpful resources: Sarasvathy, Effecuation: Elements of entrepreneurial expertise. Sims, Little bets: How breakthrough ideas emerge from small discoveries.

Move quickly, boldly, broadly, and well enough. The cadence of educational institutions is slow, cautious, narrow, and risk averse. Educational initiatives move quickly, boldly, broadly, and well enough.  This meeting of opposites continually risks turning the change initiative into an element of the bureaucratic blob and the change agent must guard against increasing sloth, caution, narrowness, and risk aversion, especially as time goes on.  Many of the activities of a change initiative are one-off pilots or events and are managed on a project basis.  Good project management procedures should be established with clear goals, authority, scheduling, and reporting.  Helpful resources: Allen, Getting things done. Sims, Little bets. Fields, Uncertainty: Turning fear and doubt into fuel for brilliance.

Scale up & ladder up. As initiatives are introduced at small scale, the change agent needs to increase them in size.  Also, as initiatives are introduced in lower grades, the students from those initiatives will move on, and it is important to innovate ahead of them just in time as they move through the pipeline.  Helpful resources: iFoundry papers hereherehere, and here.

Find friends up, down, and around.  Avoid boo birds. First, as a change agent you will face lots of resistance in almost everything you do.  Do not take it personally, and avoid working with or trying to persuade those who disagree with.  Thank them for their feedback and move on to others. Also, educational change does not require support, funding, or permission up the chain of command. You want friends everywhere, but boo birds in your chain of command, up and down, should be treated like boo birds elsewhere: thanked and ignored.  Network with people who like what you’re talking through one-on-one networking, group lunches and meetings, seminar series or talks.  Credible friends outside your organization who will say nice things about your efforts are especially helpful. Helpful resource: Goldman, What got you here, won’t get you there.

Create a dynamic dot-connecting hub. To change your organization you need to rewire to get different results, but many change efforts fail by imitating existing organizational forms.  Success in educational reform is the result of lateral alignment of individuals across the organization, and isolated departments or centers do this poorly or not at all.  From the beginning, you should create a hub that seeks to connect dots across campus.  Helpful resources: iFoundry papers.

Incubate, translate, and disseminate. Existing departments and units naturally resist change as threatening.  Effective transformation initiatives require a safe haven for piloting change, an incubator or pilot unit.  The key bargain for an academic incubator is permission to conduct pilot changes with volunteer students and faculty in exchange for the promise to return to regular units for regular curriculum approval.  Incubators should create new things and then translate them into practice and then disseminate the changes, both in- and outside the institution.  Helpful resource: iFoundry papers.

Unleash students and discover the power and light of scalable educational reform. Educational reform assumes that the primary actor is the faculty member and that students are relatively passive vessels into whom static buckets of knowledge are poured (and retained).  All current educational transformation efforts work, in part, because they unleash student motivation toward intrinsically motivated learning.  Many of these efforts are outside the curriculum and one of the tricks of educational transformation is to bring them inside.  Helpful resource: Pink, Drive: The surprising truth of what motivates us.

Balance change among heart, head, and organization. Education is understanding dominated in the sense that cognitive understanding is given priority over other ways of knowing.  Unfortunately change is driven emotionally and enabled by effective organizational modification.  As a result. head-based change efforts fail for lack of motivational underpinning and inattention to changing the path.  Effective change is a balance of elephant (emotion), rider (rational), and path (institutional).  Helpful resource: Heath brothers, Switch: How to change when change is hard.

Seek experienced guidance in complex change efforts. The foregoing discussion gives some hint of the complexity of almost all educational change efforts.  Administration of routine activities is very different than leading an educational change initiative.  Pushing an educational change initiative forward is a complex undertaking, intellectually, emotionally, and organizationally, requiring persistent and pervasive innovation, connection, communication, and learning.  ThreeJoy Associates, Inc. was founded on the basis of experience in bringing a change initiative to fruition at a major research university.  It is carrying that learning over to educational organizations around the globe, providing, training, coaching, and consulting services appropriate to different change initiatives in different schools, cultures, and countries. Helpful resource: or contact ThreeJoy at

Contact ThreeJoy Associates, Inc. for information about effective change initiatives and management in education.