The Curiosity Test

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

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This post is the second in a series highlighting the work of Ken Coates and Bill Morrison’s book What to Consider When You’re Considering University.  The first post introduced the book and highly recommended that all high school students, struggling early year university students and parents pick up a copy right away.  The moral of the story is that a university education is not for everyone and that there are many other highly attractive options including college, polytechnic and trade educations that may better align student’s (or is it really their parent’s?) goals with desired outcomes.

Throughout the book, the authors argue that far too many high school students chose the university route when they are either ill-prepared or ill-suited for the quest.  The quick and dirty measure Coates and Morrison use to assess a student’s suitability for university is the Curiosity Test, which is presented in Chapter Two, the “Know Yourself” section.  This test asks five straightforward questions.

  1.  Do I like to read?
  2. Do I read high-quality non-fiction?
  3. Do I watch foreign films, art films, CBC documentaries, or thoughtful PBS programs or series?
  4. Am I troubled or excited about world affairs?
  5. Do I enjoy learning?

Let’s explore the questions…

The first two questions are closely connected but distinct enough to warrant separate queries.  If a student doesn’t like reading much at all, even if we’re talking about the latest People Magazine or a Twilight series novel, the chances of that student surviving, let alone enjoying the volume and nature of university course reading is minimal.  Let’s say that a student does enjoy reading for pleasure but the scope of materials has been limited to what would be considered “low-quality” works.  Under this scenario I am optimistic that the student could handle and possibly even enjoy university course reading materials.

University courses require a lot of reading (and writing, but we’ll get to that later).  If a student doesn’t like reading or can’t handle the quantity of reading necessary, the chances of success and enjoyment are low.

The third and fourth questions explore a student’s interest in the world around her.  Have you ever turned to the internet to Google information about an issue, situation, world leader, or even a country you didn’t know about just because you wanted to (and not because it was assigned work as part of a research project)?  If you heard about the 50th anniversary of the Selma march on the news or through Facebook posts, did you look up what it was all about?

An orientation towards exploring issues, ideas, situations and seeking understanding and meaning from them is what drives learning and is the core of the university experience (and what relates to the final question of the test).

So, what is the likelihood of a 17 year old you know acing this test?  Probably fairly low.

Does this mean that those students should throw in the towel and write off a university career?  Not necessarily.

Even though most high school students may not take an active interest in world affairs, choose CBC documentaries over Netflix and actively subscribe to many news sites, not all hope is lost.  The early years of university are a time when students are presented with the opportunity to explore various topics and learn more about the world around them to figure out what piques their interest.

Even if a student doesn’t arrive at university innately curious but does begin her studies with an open mind and a true desire to learn and grow, there is still hope.

The key to success is for that somewhat curious student to immerse herself in the university experience by:

  1. Doing the work (read, prepare for discussions),
  2. Being an active member of the class (show up, listen and engage with professor and fellow student points of view), and
  3. Participating in as many of the amazing campus activities (student clubs/teams, “celebrity”/alumni talks, student government) as possible.

If after the first or second year, a student does not find herself truly interested and engaged in her program of study, it is a pretty good sign that it’s time for a change.  That change may involve a program shift, a change in institution or even a withdrawal from the post-secondary experience for a period of time.

Either way, parents need to be open to that possibility.  I’m directing this portion of the post to parents because far too often they do not recognize the consequences of pressuring a child to “stick it out” because “that’s what we do in this family”.  If the environment or program isn’t a good fit the whole experience is bound to result in bigger debt, more stress, strained relationships and overall unhappiness.

As a parent, that’s the last thing I want for my children and I’m sure others feel the same.  This doesn’t mean I’m going to let my children off the hook for commitments and responsibilities throughout their lives but it does mean that I am aware that university might not be the best fit and I will genuinely listen to my children’s account of what is working and what isn’t working to help support them when the time comes.

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The Best Gift for High School Students

Where has “What to Consider if You’re Considering University” by Coates and Morrison been all my life?

In my opinion, this book should be required reading for every single grade 9 student and her parents from coast to coast.

What, you may wonder, has got me so excited?

It’s real. It’s honest. And the information is absolutely relevant to the swarms of graduating high school students seeking direction on what to do next.

Coates and Morrison use the term swarm to describe the large majority of university bound students who have been “influenced by the over-selling of a university education”. These are the students who don’t necessary enjoy reading, probably won’t engage entirely in what a university has to offer and who seriously lack in the curiosity department. Swarm students are less likely to succeed at university and if they do manage to scrape together the grades required to graduate will probably be no further ahead (just further in debt) then they were after high school.

It’s no surprise that I have encountered a number of students from the swarm over the years. In extreme cases, swarm students have admitted that they just want to “get through” the next four years and it would be so much better if I would just get on with it and tell them what I want them to do and how they should do it to make the process as painless and expedient as possible.

That’s sad. And the individuals I described are not the type of students for which the university system was designed.

What many soon-to-be high school graduates and parents don’t realize is that there is more to life (and post-secondary education) than universities. In fact, other post-secondary options might be a much better fit for both the student’s learning style and desired outcome.

This post is the beginning of a series of four that will delve into the key takeaways from Coates and Morrison’s book.

I encourage all high school students, students struggling through first or second year university and parents of said students to pick up a copy of the book.

Unfortunately many students and their parents were mistakenly led to believe that a university education would somehow automatically line them up for a great paying job so if they could just “get through” the next four years, all will be well in the world.

Reality check – a university education does not equal job training (unless you are in a professional program like nursing, medicine, engineering, teachers college and possibly some business programs). If a specific job is the desired outcome, one of the other options might be better for you.

Let’s explore…

Colleges

Coates and Morrison describe college as the road to employment. If you are interested in a particular career then a college program might be the right choice for you. Colleges typically offer a range of programs (most often diplomas) in the areas of social service, health care, paraprofessional, and trades. Colleges tend to be regionally focused and do a good job adapting to the changes in local and regional economies (which is rarely on the agenda of universities). Not only do colleges train students in high-end facilities using the latest technologies, but they offer a direct pipeline to potential employers who often have longstanding relationships with the institution.

Polytechnics

Most people don’t even know that polytechnics exist or how they are different from colleges or universities. There are similarities and differences.  Polytechnics can offer certificate (typically one year programs), diploma (typically two to three year programs most like colleges) and degree (three to four year programs) programs.  Polytechnics are informed by advanced applied research and offer practical, hands-on training, often designed in conjunction with employers. If you’re looking for a direct connection to work upon graduation, the polytechnic choice might be the right one for you.

And what about universities you may ask? I will leave that to the next post where I explore Coates and Morrison’s Curiosity Test as a measure of university readiness.  In the meantime, share this post or order a copy of the book for that special high school student in your life.

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Why Group Work Doesn’t Have to Suck

 

I feel really awkward using the work “suck” in the title of this post because I wasn’t allowed to use the word when I was growing up. My parent’s detested it. Although my kids don’t always agree with the decisions I make, like it’s time to tidy up or go to bed, they haven’t floated the “s” word yet. If they do, I’ll crack down just like my parents did. In the meantime, I hope my mom will forgive me.

Working in groups is an inevitable part of life. Because none of us work or live in a vacuum, group work is something that we will be required to partake in so we might as well figure out the best way to manage it.

Professors don’t assign group work just to torture you. We actually do it for very sound reasons including:

  • To provide an opportunity for students to develop employer sought transferrable skills including communication, time management, conflict resolution, coordination and project management;
  • To assign valuable projects that would not otherwise be possible to manage on an individual basis; and
  • To generate stronger insights and approaches to issues, topics or problems.

I guarantee that one of the questions you will be asked at your next job or volunteer placement interview will be, “tell me about a time you worked in a group and what you learned from that experience”. If you didn’t experience group work, you wouldn’t have anything valuable to share, thank you very much.

Even though (most) professors have good intentions in assigning group work, I understand that it isn’t always easy.

I personally work in multiple “groups”, which are called “committees” in the real world, and I can vouch that the experience isn’t always great. Just like in student groups, there are members who contribute ideas, ask great questions, perform background research, coordinate and track progress and are effective members overall. And there are the others. These members show up when they please (or not at all), complain, offer no constructive feedback, block progress and ultimately take up the good oxygen in the rooms in which we meet.

It’s true. Even experienced, educated “adults” can be ineffective group members!

So what can you do about it?

One of the most effective tools I have used to manage group work is a work plan. A work plan is a document that specifies the tasks to be performed for a particular project. The set up doesn’t have to be fancy. A work plan can be prepared the old fashioned way using a basic table pen and paper-style or can be prepared using sophisticated software.

In addition to the benefit of helping the group reach a consensus for how to tackle the project, a work plan also provides a method for ensuring accountability. Although I’m not in the business of calling people out for not contributing, a work plan allows you to do just that.

Below is a sample work plan template I have provided for my students.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Objective entries represent the overarching goals for the project. For a business plan project, one of the goals would be to understand the customer. Another would be to understand the competitive landscape.
  2. Action steps required outline the process to be followed to meet the objective. In the business plan project example, understanding the customer might involve preparing, testing and administering a survey. Each of these three phases could be broken down into individual action steps with more specific action steps outlined.  The more specific the better in a work plan.
  3. Specific output is a critical part of the plan. This is what you expect the individual to present to the rest of the group when she reports back. Are you expecting a complete summary of the survey results so that the rest of the group can analyze and discuss the findings together? Is an oral report ok?  Or are you expecting the individual responsible for this step to do that work herself? These are very different outputs and if the group is not clear on what is expected,misunderstandings will most definitely arise.
  4. Responsibility simply identifies which member(s) of the group is responsible for the task.
  5. Deadline is when the group decides the work should be completed.

A work plan is not a static document. It should evolve and be updated as new information is discovered and the project moves forward. Keeping the work plan updated is an important part of keeping the group connected and on track to produce a high quality project on time.

Preparing a work plan takes time but if the group is conscientious and thoughtful, the tool can prevent future group work tragedies.

I would love to know what other tools you have used to help manage and coordinate group work efforts. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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What the Heck are Office Hours Anyway?

Why does every professor note “office hours” on the course syllabus?  Am I the only one who has no clue what they are?  Is this when the professor is working and if so what does she do with all of that other “free time”?

These great questions are posed by many first year and even upper year students who aren’t familiar with the office hours concept.  I’m going to use this post to reveal the mystery behind office hours so that students understand what they are and how they can benefit.

Office hours are designated times professors deliberately schedule in order to meet with students.  Whoa.  Hold up.  Why would my professor want to meet with me?

I’m going to be honest here.  Some professors could care less about meeting with you while others are quite open to the idea.  Most post-secondary institutions require professors to hold office hours at a rate of one hour per class instructed, or something along those lines, so it’s not necessarily coming out of the goodness of anyone’s heart.

On the other hand, many professors value the opportunity to get to know their students personally and to help their students in a number of ways.

Here are the four most common ways students utilize my office hours:

  1. Clarify course content by asking specific questions.  I love it when a student prepares a list of questions in advance of a visit.  These students are able to stay focused and make the most of the time.  I appreciate it when students don’t waste my time by spending the majority of the meeting rifling through their paperwork.
  2. Discover opportunities to learn more about future courses, program options, volunteering opportunities and work experiences.  Professors can be an amazing resource for all types of information.  If you have legitimate questions about program pathways or ways to gain experience, your professor just might have some answers.
  3. Ask questions about papers, tests or assignments.  Sometimes you just don’t know what the professor meant by writing “awk” in the margin of your paper.  If you take the time to clarify feedback, chances are you will perform better on the next paper or test if you can apply those lessons learned.
  4. Express concern over course performance or progress.  If things are not going well and you’re not sure what you can do, your professor might be able to provide some guidance that could help you get back on track.  You might even learn that this course/program is not for you and make some changes (caution: always seek a second opinion!).

Some of the benefits of visiting your professor during office hours are obvious from the above list.  Another obvious benefit is that the professor gets to know you.  This is a tremendous help if you ever ask that professor for a reference.  See the Will You Be My Reference? post for more tips on what it takes to receive a qualified reference from a professor.

Another benefit is that you get to know your professor too.  There might be some interesting clues in your professor’s office that reveal useful information.  During one office hour visit a student realized I was a past Chapter Board Chair of Kids Help Phone from the recognition plaque on my shelf.  It turned out that she was interested in getting involved with the organization as a volunteer and we were able to have a meaningful talk.

Most professors have specific guidance around preferred systems for managing office hours so pay attention the information she shares.  In my previous role, I managed my office hours using an advanced booking system because there were just so many students to accommodate.  In my current role I operate on a drop-in basis because it better suits my style and the students I work with.  Some professors operate on an open door, drop-in basis while others would give you the nastiest stink eye ever for not respecting their time.

ProfWhile we’re on that note, let me remind you to please respect your professor’s office hours because they actually have a lot more work to do outside of preparing for class, teaching and meeting with students.  See the What Do Professors Do Anyway? post for more on that topic.

I hope you’re better equipped to understand when and why you might visit your professor.  If you have any questions around office hour etiquette or purpose, please post below.

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This is What You’re Missing…

I hate to break it to you but class isn’t over when it’s over. At least it shouldn’t be.

If you’re like many students, the typical course cycle is something like this:

Class Cycle

But this process is flawed.

It’s missing the critical step known as reflection.

Reflection can be defined as both:

  • a thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of meditation, and
  • the consideration of some subject matter, idea, or purpose.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that you take up the practice of meditation (although there are many benefits to that as well) but I am advocating for you to incorporate some intentional thinking after class is dismissed.

The bottom line is that nobody understands everything the first time. I have encountered my share of frustrated students because they just didn’t “get it” immediately after class. That’s not usually the point. If a student was able to completely understand all elements of the content, theory or practice after pre-preparation (assuming that even happened) and one class discussion, I would gladly welcome her up to the front of the room to run the class for the rest of the semester.

I challenge you to schedule some time after your next class to reflect on what just happened. Grab a tea, an apple, a chocolate bar or whatever floats your boat and ask yourself these questions:

  1. What were the key takeaways of that class?
  2. What do I still not understand after class?  And more importantly, what am I going to do about it?
  3. How does what was discussed or presented in class connect to what I am learning in this course or other courses?
  4. What over and above the course content did I learn today?

I guarantee you will get so much more out of your course experience if you build in an opportunity to reflect regularly.  I’d love to hear how this practice is working for you.

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My Daughter Got a C

My daughter Abbey is a good student. Her teachers tell me that she gets her work done on time, is a respected role model in the classroom and demonstrates great work habits. By the way, Abbey is in Grade 3.

Last term she came home with a math test in her blue assessment folder for me to review and sign off on (like it’s some kind of legal contract or something). I was shocked to discover that Abbey got a C on this particular math assessment. She knew when the test was scheduled and had spent time reviewing the content the two evenings beforehand without issue. Abbey usually gets A’s in math and has never scored lower than a B on any assessment or report card so I was a little taken aback with this result.

I could feel Abbey’s eyes on me as I opened the blue folder. She’s mature enough to understand the difference between an A and a C grade and she knows her dad and I expect good results. Our eyes only met for a moment before hers dropped.

“What happened?”, I asked.

“I don’t know”, she answered.

Sad

Abbey’s experience is no different than the experience of scores other students since the beginning of time. Abbey is not the first, and will not be the last, to be disappointed in a test result.

As a parent (and a teacher), I knew that this uncomfortable situation provided the basis for a great learning moment. I wanted my daughter to know that disappointments, mistakes, oversights and boo boos happen all the time but it’s ok under one condition:

YOU LEARN SOMETHING.

The great part about this experience is not only did my daughter takeaway some great lessons, I was reminded of what students go through when they receive a less than desirable grade.

Abbey learned:

  1.  It’s ok to feel crummy when you don’t perform to your potential. Go ahead and have your pity party, feel bad for a bit and then let it go (she loved me belting out the hit Frozen tune).
  2. It’s just one test in a series of tests that you will take over the rest of your life. Yes, it matters, but there will be loads opportunities to showcase your brilliance.
  3. Take time to figure out what happened. Did you perform poorly because you didn’t have the time or take the time to learn the content? Maybe it was because you didn’t manage your time wisely during the actual test. In Abbey’s case, she didn’t read the questions carefully or ask the teacher for clarification when needed.

 I learned:

  1. My students really do feel crummy when they get a bad grade. It hurts even worse when they know they could have done better.
  2. It takes time to rebound. I shouldn’t expect my students to spring into my next class all bright and eager when they’re just not there yet.
  3. It might take someone, ahemmmm, me, to help my students put it all in perspective and remind them that the point of this educational experience is to learn content, process, resilience, self-awareness, study skills, self-reflection, listening, writing, communication, and on and on.

Life, and school, would be pretty boring if we had all the answers all the time.  According to Richard Branson “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” Go on now and pick up some band aids.

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It’s Good to be Back

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, so today, which happens to be any old day, I have made a commitment to blog regularly and to enter a 10K race (why not?).

Blog topics have been coming to me in droves since I decided to spend more time doing, wait for it…

Staring

Nothing!

And by nothing I mean reading for pleasure, going for walks, watching my kids play, drinking tea while staring out the window, burying my smart phone deep into my purse where I won’t see it or hear it, and you know what? I’m feeling mentally refreshed.

And you can too!

Ok, I have to admit, the Christmas holidays helped make this practice a reality. It was a big advantage that my institution essentially shut down for a week and a half so no one was doing much work (unless you are the professor like me who failed to complete all grading).

Even though both students and faculty alike are back at it, I am taking a pledge to continue to incorporate my daily practice of “nothing” I introduced over the holidays for all of the many benefits it provides.

Research by Hallnäs and Redström has suggested that introducing slow technology, which involves incorporating pause and reflection as alternatives to efficiency, rationality, and productivity, may actually help individuals restore a level of calm so many of us desire.

A more recent study out of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, by researchers Oppezzo and Schwartz found that walking boosts creativity (thanks Daphne Gray-Grant). Hey, I’m all for multitasking when it can improve my ingenuity and waistline at the same time!

The takeaway here is that we are not necessarily more productive when we are “busy”. Taking time for yourself can actually improve your efficiency, creativity and satisfaction levels so why not try it. You might really like it.

 

Hallnäs, L. and Redström, J. Slow technology: Designing for reflection. Personal & Ubiquitous Computing 5, 3 (2001), 201-212.

Oppezzo, Marily; Schwartz, Daniel L. Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol 40(4), Jul 2014, 1142-1152.

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