Monday, July 27, 2009

RAGBRAI and Education?

I’ve just returned from riding my 5th straight RAGBRAI. For those who do not know what this is, it is the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. This is the nation’s largest and oldest cross-state bicycle ride, attracting between 12-13,000 riders per day each day of its week-long length, along with another 12,000 support personnel. The ride wends its way from the west side of Iowa at the Missouri River (this year beginning at Council Bluff, and ending at the east side of the state and the Mississippi River (this year at Burlington). I ride with a couple of other Palmer faculty and administrators as part of the larger Bicyclists of Iowa City. But as I rode those long miles (449 this year), it gave me time to think of some lessons from RAGBRAI which could equally apply to education.

1. Training matters. When I first began riding this year, back in March, I felt sore and uncomfortable during my initial rides. But I kept plugging away, riding 12 or 14 miles per day, not too much, and within a few weeks my legs felt better, my derriere was not hurting, and my wind got better. Now, I can ride for miles on end and I was able to finish the daily rides, even those of 80 miles, by just past noon each day. I am not skinny, for sure but I never ended up feeling too tired. Point being, the more we engage ourselves in what we do, the more comfortable we get at it, whether it is teaching, engaging in clinical practice, or our other work. Practice really does make perfect.

2. Working with a group matters. I think we see this best in the peloton of the Tour de France. In the peloton, it has been found that the energy need to keep riding at race pace is 40% less than that of a break-way group of smaller riders. Over the course of a 100-mile ride, that leaves the peloton with a huge energy surplus compared to the lead group as the race comes to its final miles, and invariably the peloton swallows up that lead group a few miles from the end, leaving the race wide open for sprinters who have huge amounts of energy left for the final 500 meters. Same in education, collaboration with your colleagues can lessen your own work load, can provide you assistance and can leave you with energy to devote to your own interests. We have a great wealth of talent in this institution, and collaborating with our colleagues is but one way to help you actualize your own abilities and talents.

3. Planning matters. RAGBRAI is a daily grind leading to a good result: completion of the ride. It requires a rider, especially one like me who is at best modestly competent on a bike, to think about the best way to complete the ride. Each day is marked by benchmarks- towns are so far apart, and nutrition is important. Do I eat first and ride, or ride for 10 miles and then eat? Should I get out early and avoid heat and wind or ride a bit later and avoid crowds? Even my thinking matters- if I start out thinking, wow, I have 76 miles to ride today, it sounds daunting. Maybe it is better to think, it is 12 miles to the next town; then, when I get to that town, I think now it is 10 miles to the next town. Breaking it down that way can reduce the larger tension of knowing I will be in saddle all day long. The obvious corollary here is in the work we do- when we look at the larger picture it can stop us cold and we might never even get started because what we plan to do is so complex. But looking at smaller pieces of our plan, and meeting each part, leads to small success but helps keep momentum.

4. You can do the impossible. This is some of what I saw this year on the route: a man riding RAGBRAI on a bicycle without a seat, so that he had to stand and ride the entire distance. People riding RAGBRAI on unicycles- how do they get up the hills? People roller blading RAGBRAI. A woman who was running the entire route, on a daily basis- that averages to 70 miles per day! A man riding a bicycle with a sail on in, the so-called Pterosail. People on single, fixed gear bicycles. 80-year old women riding the route. A 5-year old riding. If you set your mind to something and you work to make it happen, more often than not it will, it will.

I know the above may seem banal, but in fact I find that it posits a nice mechanism for helping me to accomplish my goals and to keep continually updating my abilities. It is a microcosm of a larger worldview, but one I find helpful. It helps me have faith in myself.

Ride on!

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Six Secrets of Change

A new book by Michael Fullan (1) looks at how leaders help organizations go through change. The six processes he described address what he refers to as large-scale reform, wherein the goal is to change whole systems or organizations. He notes that these six “secrets” are synergistic, feeding upon one another, and that they are heavily nuanced. By this he means that they require thought and consideration before being used. He suggests a need for motivational embedding, in order to motivate people to invest time and energy to get results. Finally, he notes the presence of tension, wherein a good leader will keep all of these six secrets in balance.

His secrets, in short are:

- Love your employees. An institution or organization should invest as much energy toward its employees as it does its customers. Translated to an educational setting, this would mean as much energy toward the faculty and staff as it does toward its students. And he places great importance on continual learning, so that people also continue to find meaning in their work and to their relation to their company or institution.

- Connect peers with purpose. Fullan discusses what he calls the “too tight – too loose” dilemma. This is the attempt to find balance between how much you delegate power during times of change; people may feel constrained if you tighten requirements too much, but if you let power devolve too far you may get uneven results. He suggests that it is necessary for leaders to build strategies that encourage what he calls purposeful peer interaction. People enjoy working with their peers and this can foster learning that leads to results.

- Capacity building prevails. This is where leaders invest in developing individuals and group efforts to enhance the efficacy of the group as a whole. People learn new skills and competencies and as a result undergo new motivation. Doing so requires a leader to avoid intimidation and negative judgment, but also to rely on peers to help drive the process.

- Learning is work. He feels that there is too little learning going on in formal training courses that institutions offer, and not enough that occurs while actually doing the work. He feels that good institutions link working and learning very effectively.

- Transparency rules. It is necessary for institutions to have clear and regular discussions of results, and continual access to practice. He states that continuous improvement is not possible without good data, which is part of being transparent. Finally, he suggests that transparency creates positive pressure to do better.

- Systems learn. He feels that systems can learn, and that using these processes you will increase both knowledge and commitment. But to do so, people need to have their motivation constantly stimulated so that it is deepened.

His text goes on to expand upon each of these ideas, and I found it a fascinating read that suggests new approaches we can all use in addressing change.

NOTE: I will be off campus next week so the next post will occur the week after. RAGBRAI beckons.

1. Fullan M. The six secrets of change. San Francisco, CA; Jossey-Bass, Inc., 2008