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Knowing Your Why?

August 23, 2017 — Leave a comment

My boys are competitive Down Hill Mountain bike racers and they recently raced in several events at Whistler Crankworx. This meant that they had several practices, qualifiers, and final races that ran very close together and had to incorporate protein and energy bars into their nutritional plans to get them through their hectic schedule over the week of racing. High quality protein and complex carbohydrates packed into a portable bar are not just a convenience for my sons, they are a necessity if they wish to stay fully fuelled and competitive. Slipping a couple of these small energy packed bars into a jersey or shorts pocket means my boys can quickly and easily maintain their nutritional needs for the hectic training and/or racing session.

A quality protein and energy bar has little or no sugar, uses natural ingredients, and has a balance of protein and complex carbohydrate to help an athlete maintain their energy when they are unable to access whole foods. Bars that are nutritionally high quality often don’t taste the greatest because the manufacturers stay true to the purpose of helping to fuel a competitive athlete. Unfortunately, as protein and energy bars get more and more popular quality bars are getting harder and harder to find because too many manufacturers are willing to move away from the fundamental purpose of the bars and focus primarily on the taste of the bars at the expense of the nutritional quality.

When you focus on the taste and not the nutritional needs of an athlete you end up with something that sounds like it would be a good thing, but when you look at the details you find it’s not the case. The list of ingredients on the following popular protein and energy bar reveals that taste and not nutrition is their priority:
Power Bar Ingredients

Evaporated cane juice syrup and corn maltodextrin are the first and third listed ingredients which also indicates their quantities. While neither of these ingredients are listed as sugar they are essentially the same as sugar hiding behind a more natural name. The more diligent athlete who is aware of the sugar synonyms won’t be tricked by the manufacturer and will look for a better bar, but for the average person who isn’t as informed this fake protein and energy bar is really not much better then a typical candy bar. At least in the candy bar the manufacturers don’t try to hide the actual ingredients behind more natural sounding names:
chocolate bar ingrediants

What makes this really serious is that the majority of protein and energy bars are really not much better or different then candy bars when you look at the first three ingredients:

Protein bar – Evaporated cane juice syrup oat bran, corn maltodextrin and soy protein isolate
Candy bar – Sugar, peanuts, and corn syrup

Yes the protein bar does have a few better ingredients, it does have soy isolate protein powder, but for the most part it is just a candy bar with added protein. This is very alarming and in the display pictured below there are a couple of dozen different types of bars and there were only two that were actually healthy enough to be used by a competitive athlete:
Protein Bars on Shelf

How does such a good idea, a portable highly nutritious bar that a competitive athlete can use to stay energized, go from good to bad. Simply shift the primary purpose from a portable highly nutritious bar used by competitive athletes for fuel to a good tasting convenience snack used by anyone. Most competitive athletes are willing to deal with the lack of flavour and even a chalky texture in their bars because they know that it isn’t about the taste it is about the fuel that they need to stay competitive.

This shift in purpose from fuel to taste has as a dramatic effect on an individuals results as a shift from a focus on learning to technology has on the learner.

We can run into a similar problem in education when we shift our focus from the learning to the technology. In his post How to Fake a 21st Century Classroom Terry Heick satirically posits how to:

“fake 21st century thinking and learning environment to make the right kind of impression with the right people, and give the appearance of forward-thinking.”

Useful ideas like Project-Based learning, 1 to 1, and blended learning can all too easily loose their benefit when we shift the focus from learning and just do projects, just focus on the devices, and just focus on the content delivery part of the blended learning. Heick points to ten good learning ideas that can easily go bad for the learner if we shift our focus from the learning to the technology or to what appears to be a trendy 21st Century activity. His post How to Fake a 21st Century Classroom Terry Heick is worth the read but I must caution you that you may be bothered or convicted by a few convenient or fake activities that you may have fallen into. I know I am taking a hard look at several of my activities as a result of reading his post.

As educators, our responsibility is to know better, to know that you can’t fake Project-Based learning by doing make work or fake projects. You have to give the learner the control, ownership and voice over an authentic project that will make some sort of difference in the learner’s personal life or community. You can’t just fake 1 to 1 by making students do digital worksheets on their iPads. You have to give the learner the opportunity to use their devices for creation, collaboration and communication and enable them to learn all the time and everywhere with everyone. You can’t just fake blended learning by focusing on the content. The emphasis on creation, collaboration and communication in your blended learning environment will also enable your learners to go much deeper then they would if you were to focus on the delivery of content.

As educators we should know better but just like the average person who is swayed by the appearance, convenience and taste of the fake protein bars we too often can be swayed by wanting to give the right kind of impression and the appearance of forward-thinking.

We can also be swayed by the fact that we may be faking it until we make it; meaning that we may move toward our learning goals by implementing changes incrementally and may use that worksheet on the iPad as a transition activity until we can focus on more genuine activities. This is understandable and as long as the transition happens this will be fine. But just like the fake protein bars that will work when you don’t have anything else available, temporary or transition use of technology can also work, but also like the fake protein bars long term use would not be heathy for the athlete or the learner.

The data is in and confirms that:

UK academics and professional and support staff inhabit “two parallel universes that have little point of contact”.

The Times Higher Education’s (THE) poll shows there is a deep gulf between academics and professional and support staff. Teaching and research are the primary source of job satisfaction for academics but most are not proud to represent their current university and more than half feel that their job has a negative impact on their health.

Source: THE University Workplace Survey 2016: results and analysis

In contrast, most professional (administrators) and support staff are not only proud of their current university they belief it benefits them and would recommend their institution as a great place to work.

Having worked as a faculty member and administrator in a variety of Universities across North America I am not surprised to learn that the survey reveals:

  • Most university staff find their jobs rewarding, but most academics feel overworked, exploited and ignored by management
  • A majority of staff feel satisfied with pay, conditions and professional development opportunities
  • Half of academics are worried about redundancies related to metrics-based performance measures
  • Half of academics think that their institutions have compromised undergraduate entry standards as competition for students has increased, and half feel under pressure to award higher marks.

I am also not surprised by the UK data and believe that it could be generalized and applied to institutions across the North America as well. I also see the two parallel universes in higher education here in North America because I have lived it.

Why is there such a split?

While the following attempt to explain and reconcile this split is not formally supported by any hard research I will however use the data from the survey, rely on almost three decades of experience in academia and will build on Simon Sinek’s argument in his TED Talk  “First why and then trust” to apply his ideas to this challenge.

Sinek argues that one of the most difficult challenges any organization will face is when the organization grows and becomes succesful the organizational “Why” or purpose separates from the organizational “What”. This “split” Sinek explains happens when an organization moves away from its original purpose and starts focusing on What they do without being grounded in Why they do it.

The data from the survey confirms that most faculty go into academic work because they truly enjoy the teaching, learning and research, so anything that interferes with this focus detracts from their experiences. Most educators firmly believe it is our responsibility to teach our learners to learn how to learn in order to prepare them for a world that is constantly changing. A very clear learner and learning centered Why or purpose.

Unfortunately, not all administrators have this same goal or purpose and this lack of a consistent Why or purpose is one of the primary causes for faulty distrust and the split. Too many administrators are not educators who are passionate about why we do what we do in education and are not learner and learning focused. Instead of the primary goal of serving our learners, too many administrators are focused first on the “What” on things like competition, measurement, costs, logistics and all too often change itself.

Sinek points out that when stress goes up and passion goes down, when the organization focuses more on what the competition is doing and less on what they are doing, when they start asking outsiders: “Who should we be?” and “How should we talk to you?” then you know that you have a split in your organizational Why and What and have strayed from your core values. The survey confirms that all these symptoms are present in the UK system and I from my experience would argue in our North American systems as well.

What can we do about it?

There is no denying, like so many other parts of our world, the educational landscape is being radically disrupted so there are significant changes happening with the way we learn, teach, and do research. These changes are inevitable but we do have the choice to be proactive or reactive. I have argued in the posts Sense of Urgency, Create it Now or React to it Later, Paradox of Being Proactive, and Pick Two–Innovation, Change or Stability that we need to be proactive and use disruptive innovation as a catalyst to enhance our learning environments. We have to start with the learner and the learning.

The key is to ensure that academics and administrators hold to the same Why or purpose. Not the vague or obtuse vision statement that most academic institutions have adopted as part of their business plans but the simple fact that it is our responsibility to teach our learners to learn how to learn in order to prepare them for a world that is constantly changing.

I believe we don’t have a choice but to bring together the two parallel universes we, unfortunately, see in our educational organizations. Fortunately, the steps for this unification are straight forward:

  1. Start with Why
  2. Identify and engage key influencers
  3. Install an effective execution strategy
  4. Enlist and empower self-differentiated leaders

In the post “People who like this stuff…like this stuff” I offer an explanation on how to expand on this four step process for organizational change.