The longer I work with teams in organizations, the more I realize the power of asking the right questions. Here’s a sampling from Bob Tiede’s Great Leaders Ask Questions ebook.
General questions for meeting with a client, customer, team member, or employee: 1) What is going well? 2) What’s not? 3) Where are you stuck? 4) What needs to change?
Helping a group get unstuck in brainstorming: How can we do this in a way that guarantees its failure? (After making this list): What, then, do we need to do to guarantee its success?
Connecting with somebody the first time: Would you please tell me your story?
Great manager question #1: What can I do to help you be more effective?
Great manager question #2: What can I do to make your life easier?
Great manager question #3: Who needs to be encouraged?
Asking the second question can be a transformational move — good general ones: What else did you learn? Can you please tell me more?
Change management questions: What do you like least about this [organization/group]? What do you like most about it? What is one thing you would change if you could?
“Leadership is about opening doors for people.” (Powerful insight)
Getting clarity about the work: What outcome are we looking for:? What might the solution be?
Ask “why” about a problem 5 times.
Avoiding victim-mentality: What/How/Where/Who/When can I do/help/see/try/learn/pursue/act?
What is one thing you know you need to do to remove an energy drain, and when will you do it?
What do you want to work on? Where do you want to go? What are 4 options that could get you from here to there? What hurdles should you anticipate?
What is most energizing about your work? What is inhibiting your success?
What’s something that would be impossible to do, but if you could do it, would dramatically increase your success? What would make it possible?
End a conversation with a question.
What questions are you asking yourself?
I’ve started in on Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School. The sub-line is more informative: “A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom.” See here, here or here.
Without giving an in-depth summary or review of the book, here are some of the more fascinating insights I’ve gained thus far (through 2 chapters). I’m sharing them largely as tidbits for reflection rather than being particularly analytical:
Thinking and Memory
- Compared to the majority of the brain’s other functions, conscious thinking is actual rather slow, inefficient, and clumsy.
- “Thinking” is defined as combining information in new ways and that information comes from both the environment and one’s long-term memory.
- The argument that we ought to focus on teaching people/kids to evaluate information rather than acquire new knowledge because of the volumes of information readily available in the internet is false (I used to hold the evaluate rather than acquire view).
- “Working memory” is the part of the brain where thinking and awareness take place.
Knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. When it comes to learning and thinking, the effectiveness of our working memory doesn’t depend on the amount of information we are trying to take it, it depends on the number of meaningful objects, or “chunks” of related information we are trying to process.
The more “chunking” we can do with all the information around us, the more and faster we can learn. Chunking requires background knowledge in order to group things in our working memory, combining information and tying new information to existing information. Therefore, “background knowledge allows chunking, which makes more room in working memory, which makes it easier to relate ideas, and therefore to comprehend” new ideas or knowledge. Empirical studies have demonstrated — in reading comparisons, for instance — that the amount of comprehension depended far more on a reader’s prior knowledge than their reading level as indicated by standardized reading tests. To sum, comprehension depends on background knowledge. The more you know, the faster you learn, and the more you retain.
Willingham addresses the proverbial (and demonstrable) “fourth-grade slump” whereby students from at-risk or underserved backgrounds tend to lag a grade level behind their peers in reading ability suddenly fall even further behind starting at fourth grade:
“reading tests start to emphasize comprehension. As described here, comprehension requires background knowledge, and that’s where kids from privileged homes have an edge. They come to a school with a bigger vocabulary and more knowledge about the world than underprivileged kids. And because knowing things makes it easier to learn new things, the gap…widens” (p.28).
Background knowledge is necessary for cognitive skills.
Long-term memory plays a much greater role in problem solving than specific critical thinking skills. Memory is “the cognitive process of first resort.” It is naturally what our brain turns to first before conscious thinking in working memory. Consider the difference in thinking required by a 15-year old student driver versus a 40-year old adult who’s been driving in urban traffic to work for decades. The latter has to do very little concrete thinking because of the vast knowledge bank (also called “experience”) they have accumulated: road routes, vehicle speeds, traffic patterns, muscle control, foot-hand-eye coordination, road locations, turn signals, exits, and so on.
Factual knowledge improves your memory
Experimental studies demonstrate that having a greater amount of background knowledge directly correlates to the amount of newly acquired information you retain as time goes by. Consider two people, one of which is a dedicated football fan and the other who knows virtually nothing about the game. Imagine they both are asked to read a summary of a college football game from the prior weekend. Which would you suppose would recall more details or have an easier time recalling those details from that article 24 hours later? The more knowledge you have of something, the greater your memory when absorbing new information because you have a much greater bank of knowledge to tie it to. Having factual knowledge makes it easier to acquire more factual knowledge.
Einstein was wrong…sort of.
Einstein supposedly once said, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Willingham hopes to persuade us that Einsten was wrong. I concur. Knowledge is required for the kind of imagination that is needed for creativity, problem-solving, entrepreneurial work, and good decision-making. It is true that one can have knowledge and not be imaginative, but it is difficult to grasp how one could be imaginative without have a meaningful well of knowledge (data, facts, information, ideas) which are the raw ingredients for imagination. This is all the more ironic given the incredible wealth of knowledge which Einstein himself so obviously possessed. What I would contend Einstein actually meant (or should have meant) is this: you must acquire knowledge so that you may then use it to be imaginative in a way that changes the world around you.
But knowledge you must have.
Willingham offers these implications for educators.
- Build a good knowledge base before emphasizing critical thinking.
- Do whatever you can to get kids to READ…and not music, social media, or sports sites on the internet.
- Knowledge acquisition can be…and often is…incidental. Often, the best acquisition of knowledge happens by exposure in the midst of other things than in concentrated study or memorization; e.g., factual data wrapped in math or science problems, reading good historical fiction, watching documentaries, thoughtfully written movies, conversation with friends, reading the news, and the like.
- Start early. Which also means early intervention in building exposure to the world of knowledge is both the greatest challenge and greatest gift we can give to kids.
- Make knowledge meaningful. Simply expelling lists of facts (or dates or concepts) is not all that useful. Instead, connect the dots, make it interesting, tie facts to familiar things, make it about the excitement of discovery rather than the drudgery of memorizing another useless piece of data.
Forbes ran a great blog article recently on 7 reasons why millennials fail to get promoted at work. You’ve got to go read it. Seriously. Especially if you are a millennial…or you have a job.
I’m not going to rehash that list here, but the 7 reasons are spot on. They got me thinking of some traits that I’ve observed over the last 20 years that makes for successful, valuable, and transformational members of a organization. I’m purposefully not putting this in the context of what makes a good leader because, while this happens to be true, its really not about leadership in spite of our obsession with it. Its about being great citizens of a community of people engaged in a common endeavor or effort.
This list is by no means exhaustive or categorical; merely practical observations about what makes some people shine brighter and with greater effect. People who do these things make a difference. Leadership is made possible and happens when these folks show up and do their thing.
- Find a problem and solve it or a job that needs doing and do it
- Be a self-starter, stop needing to be told exactly what to do
- Practice being curious, think and learn about things outside your job description
- Become an expert at something but never stop being teachable
- Learn to dig beyond the surface and look for other angles, other perspectives, or hidden problems
- Master the art of careful, attentive listening
- Be a great asker of questions
- Take risks, don’t be afraid of mistakes, learn from failure
- Learn to write and verbally communicate correctly and clearly — yes, your spelling and grammar really do matter!
- Study art, music, the Bible, and philosophy. You’ll be amazed at how these disciplines can influence any kind of work (this is a good place for a rant about how STEM-only thinking is killing American education…)
One interesting note in the Forbes piece. 80% of millennial see themselves as leaders and embrace the rather curious and vague notion that anybody can lead from any position. [Just one of the numerous vague definitional problems the (my) field of leadership suffers from.] Yet, according to Forbes, only 12% of this group had held leadership or management positions in 2013, a number that had been steadily declining.
Of course, as Forbes has also noted, it could be that this due to a lack of failure to provide leadership training to millennials, or the different set of values many millennial hold that may cause them to not remain at one organization long enough to be promoted. Whatever the case may be, our culture has an obsession with leadership. We are in a steady slide backwards for people who actually can do it, even at the highest levels. I wonder if some of what we see in the millennial generation’s apathy about some of these things is just a subconcious weariness with what often is a shallow and manufactured industry that seems to exist only to generate revenue for those who come up with new leadership secrets.
A better approach is to stop focusing on trying to be a leader and start trying to be a better, more well-rounded, informed citizen who is genuinely interested in the possibilities of the world around you. Focus on how to make the people and organization around you better because of your presence there. Do good work. Let people matter. Be curious about everything. Make a difference. Leadership tends to come along more organically when that happens.
Howard Gardner is the psychologist and educator who introduced the idea of multiple intelligences. More recently, Gardner has suggested five distinct mental abilities, or minds, that are important for educators to cultivate in order for students to be effective and successful in the globalized complex world of the digital information age . The first three minds are cognitive, the last two relational:
- The Disciplined Mind masters key subjects.
- The Synthesizing Mind organizes information to make sense to self and others new connections.
- The Creating Mind breaks new ground and discovers new concepts.
- The Respectful Mind understands and appreciates the differences of others.
- The Ethical Mind seeks to identify and fulfill one’s obligations to others and society.
What’s interesting is that Gardner here is not writing as a psychologist but as an observer of culture. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Gardner said
When I talk about the five minds for the future, there is no scientific claim that these are the five minds that God gave us or that are innate or that we have to develop. Rather, I’m making the case that in the future people need to have minds that are disciplined, capable of synthesis, creative, respectful, and ethical. 
Disciplined, capable of synthesis, creative, respectful, and ethical. It’s a good simple list that faculty and teachers can use to help students understand both what is expected of them and why.
Following the instructions and rules, for instance, is a form of building discipline. Disciplined people who can understand and work within parameters, who can get things right the first time, who can stay focused and on task, even when that task is no fun: this makes for a good citizen and a good worker. Or the the ability to synthesize: it means better problem-solving and critical thinking, necessary skills in any workplace or organizational setting.
Feedback and Formation
Gardner gives us some vocabulary and concepts to approach the learning task in a better manner. I suggest teaching faculty keep this list close at hand and use it to help shape their own thinking, their own minds, about the various aspects they need to cultivate in the mind of a student. Great learning, holistic character and citizenship formation (the goal of classical liberal arts learning), and productive skill development are never the product of just one single way of thinking.
One suggestion is to use this list as you are reviewing student work. Do any of these minds seem applicable to the task at hand. And, if so, what feedback could you provide to help strengthen or better cultivate that particular mind?
A second suggestion is to use these minds as a lens for helping you communicate with students each week or session. What general things can you say in lectures, announcements, or general class discussion to help stimulate one or more of these minds? I have discovered in my own teaching that when I set expectations high (Disciplining) for students but then take time to explain my reasoning and to help them see how their growth is my motive (Respectful and Synthesizing) that students actually come to value my toughness and rise to meet or exceed those expectations. Time and time again, I have seen students grow to the place where a high level of productivity and integrated, holistic thinking has become voluntary and normal.
A Student Model
I can see possibly developing a model for student success based off of Gardner’s work in which each of the 5 minds describes a list of more particular responsibilities, habits, characteristics, or skills that successful learners demonstrate. This model could then be incorporated into student orientation and introductory courses. It would also provide a framework for helping assess and coach students throughout a course.
 Gardner, Howard. Five Minds for the Future. Harvard Business School Press, 2006.
Higher education is facing, to paraphrase Dickens and Thomas Paine, the best and worst of times, the times that try institutions’ souls. These are the worst of times because of the great challenges facing higher education: escalating costs of tuition, facilities, books and resources, and personnel; increased competition and decreasing enrollment pools; aging adult populations; rising freshmen populations increasingly unprepared for the academic and intellectual demands of college; a near-decade long recession; mounting obstacles in secondary education – lack of funding, falling graduation rates, teacher shortages, growing achievement gaps; a shrinking middle class; and an increasingly polarized political environment. Globalization, immigration, religious pluralization, and technologization put strains on both public and private higher education unlike any ever known.
But for all those logistical and operational challenges, the gravest danger is ideological. These are the times that try the soul, mission, and integrity of institutions. A battle of ideas is being waged for the hearts and minds of our children; nowhere is that battle more pronounced than on university and college campuses, even Christian ones. We are on the frontlines of this cultural collision between truth and its counterfeit. A collision in which the academy is no longer a place of the free exchange of ideas and critical thinking but is characterized by safe spaces, the “snowflake rebellion,” microaggressions, marriage and transgender equality, LGBTQ rights and their identity crises, the intolerance of the new age of tolerance, and, for Christian schools, the even more problematic reduction of Christian theology to one dimensional, self-referential proclamations of love and social justice.
The battle for the mind of the academy is not new. Mission drift has long been a threat to Christian schools. It is no accident that most of the oldest institutions in U.S. history were founded as religious schools whose mission was to ground society’s leaders in the knowledge and practice of God’s divine truth. In 1692, Harvard University’s original motto was Veritas Christo et Ecclesia, or Truth for Christ and the Church, a philosophy occasionally still found in the original seal on certain buildings around the campus. But by the 20th century the motto had been reduced simply to: Veritas, a quest for truth and meaning unanchored to any objective source.
Harvard represents a long list of many significant educational institutions whose beginnings were rooted in a biblical, Judeo-Christian worldview and mission. Yet virtually none of those institutions today bear any theological resemblance to their origins. Their unmooring and drift has often been imperceptible, like the proverbial boiling of the frog. Now, though, the forces against Christian truth, religious liberty, and genuine human freedom rooted in the imago dei are swift and powerful currents. Far too many Christian schools, including conservative evangelical ones and even those in the wider Wesleyan tradition are being swept away from their historical and theological anchors. Indeed, too many campuses have become centers for progressive propaganda and indoctrination.
All of this, in short, points to a pervasive loss of the Christian mind. Harry Blamires reminds us that the most vital task in “reconstituting the Christian mind will be to reestablish the status of objective truth as distinct from personal opinions.” If we ‘unhook’ our Christian worldview from the discussion of spirituality in the marketplace or the classroom, we help perpetuate the discouragement of free intellectual inquiry . In effect, we become theistic existentialists who say that although (for us) truth is rooted in God, it’s validity to the non-Christian world is only determined by its personal value to the individual, not by its nature as divine reality. For a Christian thinker, student, scholar, or professor, this is intellectually dishonest.
As Christian, if we decide we are only going to talk about values and not religious belief, in order to “engage” with those from a non-Christian worldview, we prevent the conversation from moving to the very place we think we are taking it. Indeed, we can and must talk plainly, honestly, and winsomely about our Christian faith while at the same time cultivating an atmosphere of honest intellectual freedom and a respectful listening to others.
This has happened in history and is needed again. Eugene Peterson, pointing to the effect that the Monastic movement and the Protestant Reformation had on human history, said that “Christianity can and will have a considerable impact on culture when it involves thinking at the most fundamental levels…Those who hope to see Christianity affect culture in America and elsewhere must work toward the development of a strong public Christian mind (italics mine)”. . We have no reason to be either afraid of talking “Christian” in the classroom or marketplace.
Too many Christian universities and faculty are increasingly reluctant to face the challenge of remaining truly Christian. The wide path involves either blending or hiding; blending in with the majority silencing the voices of the past, relegating them to the halls of archives and choosing generic spirituality masquerading as “relevance”; or cloistering and hiding away as we become increasingly indifferent and inconsequential, privately holding onto the truth but afraid to let that voice be heard or let its light shine for fear of public scorn, rebuke, attack, or, God forbid, closure.
The narrow, harder way is to be a lighthouse and a beacon to culture, proclaiming truth, offering liberty, and modeling transformation. As Dr. Everett Piper, our president here at Oklahoma Wesleyan, has time and again noted, only institutions that genuinely believe in divine objective truth can be places of truly higher education’s noble ideals of freedom, liberty, critical inquiry, and justice. Our culture is morally adrift and in desperate need of the freedom and power of the classical, Christian liberal arts anchored in a true north of the laws of nature and nature’s God.
No group of people are more significant in that endeavor than our faculty. The recovery effort of Christian higher education begins with the “mind” of the faculty. And it’s not just Blamers or Peterson that beckon us to the recovery of a Christian mind. The medieval Scholastics like Aquinas and Anselm were driven by this sense of “faith seeking understanding,” that God and his nature could be discovered and worshipped using the highest faculty of human reason and intellect.
As Christian professors, we do not live in the tension between faith and intellect. Rather, we can embody for our students a life of integrity in which our minds are in pursuit of divine truth which is revealed and lived out in wisdom and practice. We are called to love God not just with our heart and soul, but with our mind. We find in that, as as thousands of years of history before us, God’s truth is robust and strong enough to not only hold up to the scrutiny of human reason and inquiry, but is the only, ultimate ideal which can fully satisfy and make sense of reality.
So, dear faculty, engaging your students with the full measure of Christian truth as it permeates all disciplines and all subjects is and can be an act of worship and adoration to the God who created and revealed all truth.
 Sirico, R. (2002). The Soul of Liberty. Grand Rapids, MI: The Acton Institute. p. 34.
 Peterson, M. (2001). With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy of Education. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame. p. 206.
In the biological and social sciences, the phenomenon known as the Butterfly Effect describes how tiny small changes in the system leads to very large changes or differences in the system. There is a Butterfly Effect principle at work in nontraditional education — and especially, though not exclusively, in online courses — that relates to student satisfaction in their course experience.
Here’s the principle: the better your quality of communication as an instructor, the greater satisfaction your students are likely to report in your course
I have been studying the data from student course evaluations from the last couple of years. While I always take these with a grain of salt, one important trend worth paying attention to is emerging. One factor more significantly accounts for students being highly satisfied with their experience in a course: communication . Notably, it is not the grade received, or how easy or hard they thought the professor was, or how much they like the material. Instead, communication from the instructor had the greatest influence on whether students reported being satisfied with their experience in the course. This communication occurs in two places: clarity of expectations and timeliness of faculty response.
Clarity of Expectations
Students want to be know what is expected of them in the course, especially regarding graded work. This is less about what is in the syllabus or on grading rubrics and more about your expectations as the instructor. Prebuilt rubrics are usually not specific enough or individualized enough to answer that question. Students are all too aware that expectations can vary from one instructor to the next in spite of what a prepackaged rubric might say. Part of what they are actually looking for is what you as an individual instructor are thinking and looking for in their work, especially big projects or papers. Think of it this way: they read the syllabus or the rubric knowing it says one thing but wondering if you are thinking something different.
They are also concerned with your general expectations for the class and your overall approach to grading, although students rarely realize they can always ask. I have written elsewhere about the importance and value of producing your own grading philosophy and sharing it with the class early on. A good grading philosophy that is well-written, understandable, and communicated up front to the students goes a long way in establishing clear expectations for them at the beginning of the course.
Another easy way to clarify expectations on specific assignments is to provide a short personal note at the beginning of the week. Here, you can just briefly review the instructions for particular assignment and provide a little bit of commentary about how you are going to be grading it and what you are looking for. I have done this in the past, often doing little more than reading through instructions and providing a few tips or clarification about what they should do. In a face-to-face class, I’ll do this several weeks before the assignment is due. In an online course, I’ve sometimes done it via video and other times in written form–I strongly recommend a video or audio announcement. You can also host a virtual conference using something like Zoom or Skpy and invite students to join as you walk them through what your expectations are. Whatever the format, every time I’ve done it, the student response to that preview of the assignment was very significant. Students tended to do much better and complain a lot less. You can do this as a one-time thing for assignments that repeat throughout the course, such as discussion postings, reflection papers, weekly summaries, and the like. However, you approach it, this is 5 to 10 minutes well spent for both you and the student.
Timeliness of faculty response
The more critical of the two components of quality faculty communication is the timeliness of your response to student inquiries or questions. Here’s the catch: A timely response usually means a matter of a few hours. In most cases, the faster the better. Experienced online instructors understand that students in an accelerated course need feedback from the work and previous week so that they can make adjustments and turn workaround for the current week very quickly.
The policy in many online or accelerated adult programs is for faculty to respond to student inquiries within 24 hours. But this is the maximum, not the recommendation. The drawback to this is that it can often create a set of unrealistic expectations that the faculty member should always be on a short lease.
Practically speaking, I recommend trying to respond to most questions within just a few hours or at least on the same day, if at all possible. Now, this may be nothing more than just an acknowledgment that you receive their message and that you will have to follow up later, but at least respond with something. That tells the student your listening, that they are on your radar, and that you will follow up with them. This is for your benefit as well as the student’s satisfaction. My personal goal is to at the very least respond to the student within 2 hours with some kind of acknowledgement that I’e gotten their message and will follow up when I’ve had more time to investigate their question. If its easy, I can usually answer it right then.
However, when students reach out to you and a day or two goes by, it creates a great deal of frustration. From the standpoint of expectations management and student satisfaction, committing to a goal to respond within a few hours buys you a great deal of flexibility and appreciation.
Guiding the way
There are many factors tha involved in being an effective online instructor. But in our current climate of information overload, digital static, busy lives, cramped schedules, and competing priorities, no faculty behavior has greater potential to influence student satisfaction than communication. So let me summarize my suggestions:
- clarify, specify, and share your grading philosophy at the very beginning of class and talk about it frequently early on
- take the time to provide assignment – specific preview commentary, at least on big items that carry a big class grade
- have a goal of responding to student inquiries within two hours, even if it’s just to acknowledge the message and set up a later commitment to respond further
- be personal, listening, attentive to student needs and situations, and positively challenging and encouraging and all of your communication with students
If you implement these four suggestions above, student satisfaction scores will certainly go up. However, our ultimate concern is not what students say on their student evaluation forms, but what actually happens in the lives and learning of students. We know from many different research findings in higher education that faculty engagement — with communication at its heart — is one of the most important factors for whether students complete their program and eventually graduate. If faculty communication is a major contributor to student satisfaction, then your small changes in these relatively simple areas above have the potential to lead to significantly larger effects in the form of students crossing the stage at graduation. So embrace the power of the butterfly effect and communicate well!
 See Jackson, L., S. Jones, & R. Rodriguez. (2010). Faculty actions that result in student satisfaction in online courses. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 14(4). Accessed Nov. 2016. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ909918.pdf