Thursday, September 22, 2011



If at first you don’t succeed...

a. You’ve revealed your incompetence. Hide the results or shift the blame, quick!
b. What are you suggesting? How dare you, sir?
c. Some blithering half-wit must have sabotaged you. Burn the heretic!
d. Do the exact same thing over and over again until you bend the stupid universe to your will.
e. Tweak, tinker, try again.

In the abstract, we all know that e is the right answer. But in the real world, answers a through d are surprisingly popular.

There isn’t much glory in tinkering. Tweaks aren’t heralded as breakthroughs. It’s hard to rally the troops around incremental improvements.

In a setting that relies on other people, tinkering can actually be a high-risk strategy. Iterative refinements necessarily unfold over time, during which personnel can change, distractions can develop, and all manner of other variables will enter the equation. Did the success rate in basic math go up this year because of clickers, better advising, the new orientation program, an underlying demographic shift, a faculty breakthrough, or random chance? And how do you know?

It gets even harder when you factor in crosscutting agendas. Smith runs an experiment with initially ambiguous results. Jones is looking for a course release, so she suggests a tweak that involves a pile of course releases. Johnson has never liked Smith, and takes the underwhelming results as ammunition in a war of attrition. Patterson is still miffed that Smith’s program supplanted his, so he takes the opportunity to give a Back In The Good Old Days sermon. Meanwhile, Smithers just wants to join the winning side, but he’s getting frustrated and jumpy because there’s no obvious winner yet.

Moving a college from a culture of “pin the blame on the donkey” to “hmm, let’s figure out how to fix this” is the work of years, if not careers. “Let’s figure out how to fix this” presumes that this needs fixing, which involves admitting that there’s a problem. Getting to that delicate balance where people feel safe enough to admit failure, without actually getting complacent, isn’t easy.

Has anyone out there seen a college make that shift successfully? If you have, do you have any tips? We need some cultural tinkering, but the resistance is mighty...

I can tell you what won't work: making merit raises contingent on hiding problems through any of a variety of mechanisms (grade inflation, ignoring outcomes).

You have to reward honesty. I have seen this work, and work well.

I think the key is to be sure that your assess-revise cycle results in "e" rather than devolving into "d" -- unless the data say that the tweak made things worse and then you admit it and move on.

BTW, one thing that can help is to have a really creative person come up with Name for Our Entirely New Small Tweak Initiative. People who are really paying attention will notice, but there aren't very many of those.
I just left a college where the new president is changing everything (all policies, all procedures, all programs, administration, etc. I'm not kidding about everything). The college was considered a plum in the state system, so there were no obvious problems to resolve and no one was pressuring for a change.
Beside the impact on morale and human cost, how will anyone know what works, what doesn't work, and what is harmful?
Some people are working to shepherd the changes which are obviously good, others are leaving, and most are just scared to say or do anything in fears of "being on the radar." I know this is not fully on topic, but at least it is related.
Thanks for blogging and sharing.
As someone involved in education research, the other frustrating thing is that while tinkering often works, it's very difficult to measure, replicate, or scale up. When you do an experimental study on learning communities, you're testing THE WHOLE PACKAGE - a whole package that may be in its first year and not have all of its kinks worked out. But how can you test the tinkering?

Incremental change is important and may be the best shot we have at progress, but it sure is frustrating.
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