28 October 2011

Reflections on Creating a Degree Program: Conversation Café 1

Having spent a good part of this week reflecting on the insight, suggestions, and collective wisdom shared at our first Conversation Café for the master’s degree we are developing in leadership and organization development, and executive coaching, here are some ideas and inspirations that stand out for me.

Most academic degree programs are focused on knowledge. If there is a critical or constructivist bent about them, they include a strong acknowledgement of ways of knowing. If the degree is professionally oriented, as opposed to more purely academically focused, it will additionally have a strong emphasis on practice, or ways of doing. What we heard strongly from our participants – consistent with my own thinking – is that this new program must also encourage individual transformation—realization of each participant’s human potential, holding an inherent optimism in the value of that potential, and being true to the notion that individual change is intimately connected and implicated in the larger project of social change. This adds one more “ways” dimension to knowing and doing, namely an equal emphasis on ways of being in the world, and particularly, ways of being in relation in the world.

We can consolidate these ideas as Savoir3: Savoir, Savoir Faire, and Savoir Être, or Knowing, Acting, and Being. These three, to be integrated by design into all aspects of the degree program, represent the dual ethos of praxis and transformation that informs not only our program and pedagogy, but the intended experiences that we intent to enable among our participants. Thus, what may well become the slogan of our eventual degree program is almost self-evident:
Transform the individual.
Transform the organization.
Transform the world.

How, then, will our students know if they are successful in the context of such guiding principles; indeed, how will we know if our program itself is successful? With conventional academic degrees, the answer is fairly obvious: students are graded for assignments and summative assessments according to some appropriate rubric, they accumulate a certain number of course credits that are required to complete degree requirements, and the school itself processes… rather, graduates a continual flow of completed candidates.

However, if the objective of both the program and (presumably) the students themselves is transformation, how can that be assessed in a more-or-less rigorous, but non-positivist, fashion? (There is another post begging to be written on how the notion of objectivity – externally constructed measures of truth that impose themselves as structure – renders a degree program inorganic; in other words, dead—but that's for another day.) Several Conversation Café participants coalesced around the idea of defining success in terms of the participants’ individually held understanding of “where and how do I want to grow?” and “what needs of mine am I trying to fill?” This is a useful starting point, as it suggests appropriately facilitated processes of reflection and check-in through our participants’ transition through the degree process. However, a large part of measuring transformation must be rooted in how the individual’s perceived needs evolve and emerge consistent with the individual’s changing worldview. Merely satisfying preconceived needs and attaining goals projected from one’s starting point suggest a deterministic process that is inconsistent with the type of transformative effects that are at the heart of the program’s ethos. In particular, the program can only consider itself successful if there are aspects that the learner will discover as s/he navigates the program experiences through which individual transformation begins to emerge. It is quite likely that the successful participants will change their intended and desired outcomes for growth, personal transformation, and perceived needs during the course of the program. Conversely, we might say that if one’s recognized and self-perceived needs haven’t changed by the end of the program, the person simply hasn’t been paying attention!

How, then, do we evaluate our students? As a capstone or thesis endeavour, they must be able to usefully demonstrate what they have contributed in their individual and collective transformative contexts to Savoir3—Knowledge, Action, and Reflection on Being. Success is manifest in the students necessarily engaging in complexity thinking, creating connections in social relation as a way of being, and having experienced transformation among the three elements that comprise Savoir3. Part of the summative evaluation challenge for the students will be for them to design and realize that demonstration—how’s that for transformation in pedagogy?

In many contemporary degree programs that address leadership and organization development, there is a strong thread – if not overarching theme – of change. Change management, resistance to change, organizing for change, ensuring organizational readiness for change, technologies of change—I hate to use the very tired cliché of “and the list goes on,” but I’ve surveyed quite a few graduate programs and the list indeed continues in this fashion!

In keeping true to the ethos that inspires and provides impetus for this program we – without question – need to foster a change in our own understanding and experience of change itself: from deterministic, planful, outcome/objective/goal-biased change to an appreciation and understanding of, and comfort with, emergent transformation, navigating intended effects among complex human environments. This concept strongly suggests – almost mandates –  considerable care in adopting a new(er) lexicon throughout our curriculum content and subject matter. Curriculum is only a framework for the program. To effect the type of transformation suggested by holding true to Savoir3, our intent in course designs will be to create powerful experiences that will enable our students to make sense of their own contexts and histories through both the source materials and collective experiences of instructors, other participants, and other engaged constituencies. Out of these powerful, sense-making experiences Savoir3 will emerge in ways that complete the course syllabi and overall curriculum.

If you are interested in contributing to this conversation, there are still a few places available for both our November 1 and November 7 Conversation Cafés in Toronto—please contact me for details and an invitation. And, if you are unable to attend, I would be grateful to hear your thoughts, either in the comments or directly by email.

1 comment:

Joanna Fletcher said...

Sounds fantastic - in the sense that it is the kind of Masters I dream about. Although I know it holds me back in my "career" in the corporate world, I have strongly resisted gentle urgings to take a Masters program. I have zero interest in traditional academic notions of what is important to know and how to do things, prefering to co-create that in the moment. This progam is perfect, except it's in the big TO!
Very best of luck and let me know if I can help,