Empowering students to be change makers

This is a transcript of my presentation given at the Ashoka U Exchange at Brown University, February 20-22, 2014.

My elevator moment

For over five years I’ve been teaching courses on sustainability at Capilano University in Vancouver, Canada. I help students to understand and, ideally, take action on environmental and social issues.

Personally, I consider myself to be socially conscious and environmentally concerned. As much as possible, I try to “walk the talk” by living with compassion for people and the planet.

Despite my values, a few years ago I had formed the embarrassing habit of taking the elevator three floors to get to my office on campus. I had always silently cursed low-floor elevator users in the past. Now, I had become one of them. Given my self-professed concern for the environment, I found it quite troubling that I had failed the simple task of choosing the stairs.

How could I authentically convey the importance of sustainability to my students, if I couldn’t even take a few flights of stairs to get to my office? This was my elevator moment.

My elevator moment made me rethink how I approached the classroom (Image from iStockphoto.com)
My elevator moment made me rethink how I approached the classroom (Image from iStockphoto.com)


Staircases and Frappuccinos

So, I decided to start a one semester challenge to only take the stairs while on campus and to count how many flights I actually climbed and descended.

One semester is a good time frame for a new challenge because it is short enough to be doable, but long enough to form a new routine. In fact, most experts suggest it takes two months to form a new habit.

Not only did I want to do good for the planet, but I also wanted to measure the benefits to me personally. After one semester I had taken just under one thousand flights of stairs, both up and down. Using a simple online calculator I learned that I burned roughly around 2,000 Calories, or 0.6 lbs of fat, over the course of the semester. This is equivalent to two coffee Frappuccinos every month but without the guilt. Now, in my books, that’s a change worth making.

How do you make change?

Changing anything in life is hard. We often possess the knowledge and skills needed to make a change, but without sufficient desire it simply won’t stick. For me, the incentive of two guilt-free Frappuccinos a month makes it easy to keep using the stairs. The warm and fuzzy feeling that I’m helping the planet is a bonus.

My elevator moment made me rethink how I approached the classroom. My past courses on sustainability had focused squarely on the domain of the head, in other words, cognitive learning. This isn’t all bad. Cognitive learning lets you expand your knowledge base and enhance your critical thinking skills. In a nutshell, it helps you build book smarts.

While important, book smarts alone don’t create positive change in the world. For example, a strong understanding of the theory and history of music won’t make you a musician. You also have to practice, and eventually master, all the skills necessary to play your instrument; and, ideally, nurture a passion and caring for the music you play. All three domains of learning – the head, heart, and hand – should be developed to make a real contribution in the world.

Empowering students to be change makers

And so back in the Fall of 2009, I decided to overhaul my course to try to strike a balance between all three domains of learning. While I made many changes, the backbone of my new course was a capstone project called Project Change.

Project Change is a semester long group project designed to encourage students to become leaders and agents for positive change in the world. It gets students out of the classroom and into their communities to create positive and measurable social or environmental change.

There are only three rules to Project Change. The first rule forces students to link their project to something they care about. Whether their interests are in fashion or mountain biking doesn’t really matter. Nurturing passion for an issue is much easier if you link it to something you already care about.

The second rule forces students to get out of the classroom, and out of their inner circles, to create positive change in a broader community. This is done so the students will be able to develop the skills and competencies needed to make a contribution in the real-world, not just in the classroom.

The third rule forces students to measure and report the impacts of their projects. The key word here is measurable. By tracking specific metrics, the students are able to see the real impacts they make in the world.

Beauty on Duty

Let’s take a look at one example from this year’s class. This group of students wanted to make a difference in the lives of homeless women in Vancouver. So they created a project called Beauty on Duty. This brief two-minute video will tell their story:

What are the prerequisites to be a change agent?

One thing I always hear from students early in the semester is “We’re not in a position of authority to do anything. What difference can we really make?” So, early in the course, we have a look at some of the most important change agents throughout history. One of the key differences between these people is not all were in traditional positions of power when they made their biggest contributions. The moral of the story is you do not need authority to move mountains. These people did it and so can you.

In the final class of the term, I have the students list all their project impacts and then we aggregate them on the board at the front of the classroom. Since the students have all tracked their impacts using specific metrics, this turns out to be an easy task. But it’s a powerful and gratifying moment to recognize the incredible impacts the students have made and to clearly show they are indeed agents of change.

From the classroom to the community

What began as a single class project in 2009 is now a province-wide competition that has the power to influence real change in communities, and help develop important leadership skills within students.

Almost 30 industry partners have come on board to sponsor Project Change and donate amazing prizes for the students to win. More importantly, the involvement of these companies sends a clear signal to students that knowledge, skills and the desire to create change in the world is valued by industry.

Each year, we end with an awards gala to showcase all the projects and recognize the top teams. It’s also an opportunity for students to network with professionals from industry, and with each other.

In the first two years, 46 student teams (170 students) from nine universities and colleges took part in Project Change. We’re now in the third year of the competition and it looks to be our most impactful year yet.

Students from Camosun College accepting the award for Best Overall Project at the 2011 Project Change gala (Photo by LinkBC)
Students from Camosun College accepting the award for Best Overall Project at the 2011 Project Change gala (Photo by LinkBC)


How do you change the world in a semester?

So, how do you change the world in a semester? First, work on cultivating an attitude of curiosity and enthusiasm for an issue. By doing so, you will naturally strive to go higher and further in taking action. The importance of nurturing passion for an issue cannot be overstated – it is the fuel that powers you forward.

If passion fuels your interest in an issue, then knowledge provides the bedrock to create and contribute your own ideas. If you want to create beautiful music, it helps to have a firm understanding of the key theories and concepts in music. A strong base of knowledge provides the foundation to formulate your own ideas.

Finally, work on developing all the skills and competencies needed to make a contribution in the real world. Just as a musician needs to be proficient with her instrument, a change-maker needs to develop effective leadership, project management, organization, and communication skills. These skills will help you convert your ideas into reality.

With the right mix of passion, knowledge and skills, you’ll have everything you need to change your own corner of the world.

Change starts now

One last thing. If you want to test drive the power of change making for yourself, I will leave you with a challenge. Right now, challenge yourself to make one small change in your own life that will have a positive impact on the world. You don’t need to do it forever. Just do it for a semester… and see what happens. What’s your elevator moment?

Three tips for overcoming writer’s block

One of my guiding principles in writing is to separate my creative voice from my technical voice. What are these voices exactly? Your creative voice can be thought of as your internal artist who creates the ideas that fill the page. Whereas, your technical voice is your internal editor: the part of your brain that likes to edit and shape those ideas into a more polished product.

Both voices are important in writing, but work best in sequence rather than in parallel. Your creative voice lets you generate new ideas, arguments, and linkages. Subsequently, your technical voice helps to fine tune those lines of thought into a comprehensible, finished piece. Usually, several passes of both voices, in sequence, are required to make your work shine: creative, technical, creative, technical, and so on.

However, when both voices compete for the same airtime in parallel, the critical nature of your technical voice can debilitate the creative process. This is akin to that annoying guy in a brainstorming session who loves to nitpick new ideas as soon as they are shared. At best, this limits your capacity to generate new ideas. At worse, it results in burnout and mental paralysis.

In a brainstorming session, a good facilitator can effectively manage an overly critical participant. In writing, as with other individual creative work, it’s not so easy. It is difficult to keep your inner critic in check. If your technical voice gets too boisterous, your creative voice can freeze. In my view, this is one of the chief causes of writer’s block. It’s like having a micro-managing boss constantly looking over your shoulder as you try to work. Not the best conditions for optimal performance, especially when your work requires creative and original thinking. Your technical voice is that over-eager boss. Sure, its input is valuable, but it needs to give your creative voice space to do what it does best: create.

To this day, I routinely struggle to keep these two voices separate when I write. While I haven’t found a foolproof solution, I believe these three strategies can help:

Design in analog

In first year university, I took a computer science course to learn how to program. I still remember the professor telling our class how the very best coders designed in analog. What he meant is they used pencil and paper to map out the logic of a computer program before making a single keystroke on the computer. Typically, the result was a more elegant program design: one that’s more efficient, has fewer lines of code, and with less bugs. Simply put, designing in analog helps a programmer to be more creative and effective in developing software.

While I’ve long since forgotten how to code, I still take this lesson to heart in my own work. I find that using pencil and paper is conducive to the expansive style of thinking needed in the early creative process. Ordinary handwriting helps to slow down your thinking, which is important when generating new and different ideas. It’s only after I have etched out my ideas on paper that I start working on my laptop.

My computer’s word processor works wonders in the latter editing stages of writing, but all those easy-to-use tools that make editing a breeze can restrict the creative thinking process. One example is my word processor’s thesaurus. Sure, it beats manually leafing through the thick hardcover version sitting on my bookshelf. However, with its ease of use also comes the temptation to almost instantly fine-tune my words as they hit the page. My habit to wordsmith on the fly has good intentions, but hinders my creative thought process. Designing in analog – with old-fashioned pencil and paper – helps to keep my critical technical voice in check, so my creative voice can flourish.

Use pictures

If there is one thing I do well in writing, it is editing. With the written word, my technical voice is strong and confident. It has been built up through the years in my work as a consultant and university instructor. I have edited, critiqued, and given feedback on hundreds, if not thousands, of articles, reports, essays, and papers. From all this practice, my technical voice is razor-sharp and operates almost on autopilot.

Possessing a strong technical voice is useful. Its critical approach helps to improve your writing, but it can be a hindrance to your creative voice. One way I’ve learned to quiet my domineering technical voice is to change mediums. Instead of using the written word – where my technical voice is strongest – I will often use pictures to help generate new ideas and lines of thought.

For me, drawing pictures is an effective way to temporarily sideline my technical voice. My pictures are simple and rough – think stickmen and the sort. They aren’t especially good; in fact, they probably wouldn’t make the grade in an elementary school art class. But because I have neither experience nor aspirations in the visual arts, my technical voice doesn’t have much of an opinion on my drawings. In the visual realm, I’m like a five year-old with a box of crayons. I don’t over-analyze my work; I just draw. By using pictures in the early creative process, my creative voice is freer to express new ideas and think outside the box, without the constant interruptions of a well-meaning, but stifling, technical voice.

Be your own facilitator

Your technical voice can be very persistent. Despite your best intentions, it is almost impossible to silence your internal critic during the creative process. So when your technical voice starts to act up, it helps to adopt a third voice: that of facilitator.

In this role, think of yourself as the person responsible for keeping your own internal brainstorming session on track. When a participant in an actual brainstorming session critiques a new idea that is generated, the facilitator should politely acknowledge the comment, and then “park it” and quickly move on. Do the same thing in your own mind. I literally tell myself there will be plenty of time to edit my work later. My technical voice can have its say then. For now, I need to park my critiques and give my creative voice the space to create freely.

To avoid writer’s block, try to avoid the tendency to critique and edit your work during the creative stages of writing. Designing in analog, and using pictures, can help in this regard. And if you do catch yourself being too critical, try adopting the role of facilitator to get the creative process back on track.

Do you have other tips for overcoming writer’s block? Please share your ideas below.

Technology has radically changed the role of universities

Technology has radically changed what types of cognitive skills are valued today. Prior to the Internet age, it was difficult and time-consuming to obtain information; you had to navigate libraries and other repositories to find material relevant to your needs. Information was more scarce, or at least accessing it was more difficult, so there was inherent value in storing it in your brain or in your notebook.

The Internet has changed all that. Information is no longer scarce. It is free, endless and available almost instantly. Now, there isn’t much value in storing it in your brain or in a filing cabinet. It’s more important to be able to synthesize, process and analyse information. Higher-level skills – such as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, cross-disciplinary thinking, and communication – are the new cognitive currency in the Internet age.

According to a national survey of businesses and non-profit leaders conducted in the United States, employers are more interested in critical thinking and problem solving skills than a candidate’s major. Nearly all employers surveyed (93%) stated that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” is more important than an undergraduate’s major when evaluating new hires. Three-quarters of the employers surveyed said they want more emphasis on five key areas: critical thinking, complex problem solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings (AAC&U, 2013).

The implications for post-secondary education are profound. If universities are to add value and thrive in the future, they will need to move beyond the outdated model of content delivery and rote learning. Since content can be accessed much more efficiently and cheaply online, universities will need to look for other ways to position themselves in the marketplace, especially given the high price of college tuitions. To remain relevant in the Internet age, universities should help students develop the skills needed to make sense of all this readily available information. The role of universities should be to develop students as critical thinkers, innovators, effective communicators, and problem solvers.

Not only has technology created the impetus for change, but it is also part of the way forward. Technology can play an important role in transitioning the classroom from a means of content delivery to a space where students can learn and practice higher-level skills. In his book Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, Jose Bowen argues that technology should be used to deliver content mostly outside of class, while class time should be used to develop higher-level skills.

With the use of technology, the options for introducing new material are considerably more diverse. Instructors no longer have to stick to one type of media, such as a single textbook or reading package. Technology allows content to be delivered in a wider variety of ways (text, videos, games, etc.) and gives students more options for accessing new information. And by moving content delivery out of the classroom, class time is freed up for more engaging, hands-on activities that help students cultivate advanced cognitive skills. Examples include class discussions, debates, case studies, interactive workshops, and other applied activities.

Like most educators, I want to do my best to help students learn and acquire these higher-level skills. It will take work to restructure my courses, but the fulfillment in knowing I am setting up students for future success will make it worth the effort.