MIT hosted a NCCI (National Consortium for Continuous Improvement in Higher Education) conference this Monday. Thanks to the awesomeness of the conference organizers and Sherra Kerns and Ann Schaffner, I was able to attend; it was an eye-opening experience that got my brain to spinning.
At the end of Sherra Kerns’s presentation, “Creating a culture of continuous improvement with students as partners,” the question was posed as to how to get students interested in changing a school. In other words, how do you create “uberstudents” that are involved not just in getting good grades in their classes, but in changing the actual workings of their institution for the better? Every school has them. They’re that magical 5% of overinvolved kids who want to work on and change evvvverything. We call them the crazy ones, the innovators, the active populace of the student body. The question is how you can get more of them.
Here’s my attempt an an answer.
what they are: uberstudent, n.
In any given university, an uberstudent is one who is very involved and active in running and changing their school. You’ll probably find them as active club leaders or movers and shakers in student governments, but not all club leaders and student government officials are uberstudents. There are also a few uberstudents in every school with no official positions; they simply go in and talk with administration - productively and maturely - about revising this, or petition - productively and maturely - about changing that, or they talk to professors about transforming classes or labs so other students can learn more effectively.
Uberstudents are catalysts for change. They don’t just care about getting good grades and a good job and making themselves happy; they care about the intitution as a large whole, and work towards improving that instead. Basically, if you ask “who are the kids who Make Things Happen on this campus?” you’ll probably come up with a list of your uberstudents. They’re the ones you wish you had a thousand more of.
Synonyms: Change-agent student, innovators, active students (Thanks to Patricia Brady for suggesting the clarification and definition given here.)
Prepare the soil: an innovative culture
Uberstudents create (and thrive in) innovative cultures. Innovation” is a term that’s thrown around a lot, almost to the point of meaninglessness. What does it actually mean?
Innovation: The art of learning how to leverage yourself and others for maximum positive change, often leading to unique and nontraditional results.
Innovation isn’t a set concept or action; it’s a philosophy and a skill that needs to be developed like any other. I’m an engineering student, so this is an engineering definition, but it works well for Olin, where creating innovation is regarded as the ultimate engineering optimization problem. What’s the smallest thing we can do to make the biggest difference?
An innovative culture can be characterized by three things:
- Nobody knows what they’re doing.
- Everyone knows nobody else knows what they’re doing.
- And that’s great!
In an innovative culture, passion is more important than experience. Everyone’s trusted to be intelligent enough to learn how to do what they’ve got to do, and everyone’s trusted to have the best interests of the community in mind. Because everyone’s learning, mistakes are accepted, even encouraged; failures aren’t failure but an opportunity to learn (or as Edison would say, nonfunctional prototypes that lead to a working one).
Since innovation is a learned skill, you can teach it the same way you teach any other thing - that is, convince students they should learn it, help them learn it, and then reward them for learning it. It’s the only type of environment in which you can rear seedling uberstudents and have them thrive and change your school - and then the world.
Sowing the seeds: sprouting uberstudents
Tell them who they are.
Make it clear from the start that ownership and innovation are expected and rewarded. As students, your job isn’t to learn what you’re told; your job is to learn how to learn, and to learn how to decide for yourself what to learn. Becoming an uberstudent isn’t just an option; it’s your job.
Don’t just use existing uberstudents; create new ones.
Naturally, when we want to do something a little wild, we look to the existing uberstudents first. They’re doing it all already - they can do more, right?
Instead of asking the existing uberstudents to lead the way and hoping the others will follow, ask the others to lead. The uberstudents will follow; they’re drawn to change like moths to a flame. Most students secretly want to be uberstudents. They’re just waiting to be asked. Instead of waiting for them to take the initiative, give them permission to do so.
There are 109 schoolwide committee positions at Olin. 31, or 28.4%, are filled by freshmen. Why? At Olin, when nominations for school committees come out, many students make it a point of nominating freshmen (who they’ve known for all of a few weeks) and then hunting down those freshmen and asking them, in person, to serve. “I don’t know how!” they often reply. “You don’t need to,” the upperclassmen say. “I didn’t.” This brings us to the next point, which is that…
Uberstudents beget uberstudents.
Make it a cultural norm. A sense of shared ownership is a very valuable one to cultivate. It tells students that they’re not alone; “I’m not the only one who cares about this.” Their peers and elders are doing it; they can and should as well. Because innovation is a learning process, they understand that less experienced people can, will, and should make mistakes; it’s not a matter of the good getting better and the not-so-good not getting to do anything at all.
There needs to be a shared sense of patience while uberstudents-in-training learn how to make themselves effective. The most crucial concepts are that of focus, purpose, leverage, and minimum effort. Figure out what you want, why you want it, and the smallest possible action necessary to carry it out. A sense of appropriate scope, timing, and audience evolves over time, as do presentation and communication skills and the ability to make others believe in your idea.
Since everyone in the community is figuring out how to do this at the same time, a constant background hum of tiny changes takes place. This is more genuine - and more effective - than large amounts of formal rah-rah “Innovate!” marketing initiatives. Uberstudents breed other uberstudents. Uberfaculty breed other uberfaculty. The more ubermembers you have in a community, the more likely the other community members are to go uber as well.
Care and feeding : Keeping your uberstudents going
Don’t wait for perfection. Grow now, tweak later.
The best time is now. There will never be a perfect sunny day when the heavens will align and your project will magically take shape. That day is today, but you need to make it so. Just do it.
If uberstudents have specific driving ideas they want to work on, fantastic; let them do that. If they have lots of energy but no specific direction, give them a starting point and encourage them to tinker with it a little bit and then open it up to the community. It’s easier to start with something and then ask for feedback on it than to give people a blank slate; this applies both to students working on a project and to the community they will take the project to for feedback later.
An even better strategy is to let people mix and match among several options. Even if students might not like one idea, they’ll probably like at least one component of one idea, and it’s easier to give constructive criticism on the parts that aren’t so great if you can also compliment something you’re especially impressed by. Hybrids and mutts are often nice and hardy.
Constraints make uberstudents wither.
“Ask forgiveness, not permission.” That’s what one of our professors told us as freshmen. Don’t worry about students blowing up the building; they have sufficient maturity not to do anything that will seriously hurt a person or the institution. The problem is usually the opposite, where students want to do something but aren’t sure if they’re allowed. Make it clear that they are, and that they can go ahead and do it - they don’t need to wait for approval. They can approve themselves.
Lower the activation energy it takes to get an initiative started. You get hit for every form you have to fill out and every person you need to get permission from. Half the projects drop out at each layer of bureaucrcy. All right, I just made up that number, but the concept remains; each successive hurdle is something to convince students not to put forth the effort, and the effects of this compound fast. If you want students to empower themselves, they need to have the freedom to do it.
Uberstudents thrive on information.
There’s a game that some teachers and bosses play. It’s called “Guess What I’m Thinking,” and it’s one of the most aggravating in the world. The game is played by having the boss tell the employees to go forth and be creative, come up with something really wild - and then when they come back, having gone forth and gone nuts, the boss says “We-eeell, that’s not what I was thinking.” And the game ends with everyone frustrated; the boss doesn’t get what s/he wanted, and the employees are angry because they were scolded for doing exactly what they’d been told to do, which is to be creative.
The end result is that those employees will probably never go wild again; they’re always wary that the boss has some hidden expectation in mind that they’ve got to go poking around in order to “do things right.”
If there are bounds you want the students to stay within, tell them. If there are qualifications and rules and procedures you’d like them to follow, let them know. Don’t pull any surprises; a student should be able to sit down and plot how to get from point A to point B, and how they will deal with tinstitution to do it, and there should be no administrative surprises along the way. Would you rather be told of requirements in advance and how to fulfill them, or be told how easy it is to get things started and how you’re completely free, only to discover later that this isn’t true?
Making the walls more transparent also has the added benefit that it forces you to deal with them and see whether they’re really vital. Do we actually need triplicate for a funding request? Why does this need to be signed by four professors? Be honest to the students, and they’ll be honest to you as to what you can do to improve the institution in return.
Remind them to sleep sometimes.
In other words, make sure your uberstudents don’t burn out. Remember, small changes are great; you don’t have to revolutionize the universe in an afternoon. Dream big, but don’t have any expectations coming in. Remember that sometimes sitting back and using a prefab default method lets you save your energy to change the things that are really important.
Fertilizing your uberstudents : making it worthwhile
Instant feedback is a great reward.
When students give you feedback, respond right away. The Black Hole of Feedback is death; it says to a person “Hey, you’ve put this time and thought into an issue, and… well, nothing’s going to come of it.” By not responding to feedback, you’re telling people that they’re wasting their time by giving it.
Note that being open to change does not mean obeying all requests for change. If you try to please everyone at once, you’ll end up pleasing nobody. However, you should acknowledge requests for change, even if you can’t fulfill them. Explain why things are the way they are; open up an intelligent discussion and channel that productivity into making things happen. Tell students that their effort was wonderful, their thoughts were intelligent and correct, they made you consider this issue, and their work was productive… and even if you can’t follow their suggestion, how else might we work together to resolve this issue to everyone’s satisfaction?
Failing is awesome.
“Fail faster to succeed sooner.” –David Kelley, IDEO
Failure is a fact of life. Being innovative means trying new things, and trying new things means taking risks. Taking risks means that there will always be a chance of failure - where failure is defined as “things not working out the way you wanted them to.”
You can use that definition to your advantage. If the success or failure of an initiative isn’t tied to a certain outcome, but rather to a learning experience, then it’s practically impossible to “fail.” You see this in scientific experiments as well; the disproving of a hypothesis isn’t a crushing disappointment, but rather an exciting opportunity. If Michelson and Morley’s experiment had gone as they expected, the concept of relativity in physics would never have come to fruition.
The faster that students - and the institutional culture in general - gets used to failure, the better. Dealing with failure teaches you:
- How to recover from failure.
- How to learn from everything that happens to you.
- How not to be afraid.
The last one is particularly important. Most failures are really successes in disguise, and that’s a subtle yet crucial point to get across. So it didn’t turn out as you’d hoped. Wonderful! What do you know now that you didn’t before? How can you use this to change what you want to change?
The magic words
Here’s what I wish someone had said to me when I was a freshman and full of crazy ideas and not enough confidence. In fact, it was said to me, although I didn’t realize it at the time; the message took a million different forms, most quiet and nonverbal, but it eventually got through. It’s the magic script that turns inexperienced teenagers actively contributing young adults.
- Take ownership. You can do it. You don’t have to know how - we sure don’t (and that’s okay). We believe you’re intelligent enough to learn.
- We’ll support you. You’re not the only one that wants to do this.
- Here are things (procedures, forms) you need to know about. You have freedom in everything else. We’ll help you remove roadblocks; just ask. Nothing will stand in your way.
- Failing isn’t failure; it’s a wonderful chance for everyone to learn.
- What you’re doing will make a real difference. This is the most effective use of your time and energy if you want to see results.
- Go do something! Now!
This is a pretty rough post, and some of the ideas aren’t as fleshed out as I’d like; I’d love to hear feedback from students, professors, adminstrators (heck, anyone) on this. Is there something I’m missing? Something here that’s irrelevant or just plain wrong? Does this match anyone else’s experiences?