Monday, August 25, 2014

Respecting Experience as a Qualifier

In their timely and perceptive book, “Life Reimagined: Discovering New Possibilities,” Richard Leider and Alan Webber lay the base for one of the most important things most of us do without any support or advice: plan for the future. In thoughtful and clear prose, they outline why planning consciously for and reflecting on what you want from your future will add great value and happiness to both the process and the outcome of this work.

At the heart of their recommendations and advice for planning lies the role of experience – life experience, professional experience – that amalgam of forces that combine to shape each of our current-day realities, outlook, and potential.

To this I would add that, as mentioned in my book most-recent book, understanding your experience, learning from the process of reflecting on it, and harvesting the learning that it has brought you is a powerful process with significant impact.

In a major development that heralds a new age in innovative collaboration, Kaplan Higher Education Group, AARP, and the authors of the book Life Reimagined have pooled resources to create the AARP Life Reimagined website. This website is chock full of helpful advice about planning for change in your life, including retirement and re-careering. No longer does this critical transition have to be navigated alone, with no structure or support to inform the process. Kaplan's contribution to this effort is LearningAdvisor. LearningAdvisor is a combination of career and educational assets that help the user sort through options and opportunities using up to date data and  exercises.

Not surprisingly, once again, the importance and value of understanding and building on the experience that adults have accumulated lies at the heart of the value proposition. Adults, while they may be interested in getting a degree at this stage in their lives, are more interested in solving the problems facing them and, in the process, getting the respect and lift that valued experience gives them. After all, why should someone be required to relearn something they already know?

An important part of the LearningAdvisor suite of services is the Learning Recognition Course Documenting Your Experiences for College Credit. This course helps learners organize evidence of their experiential and professional learning into useful course equivalents. If desired, that learning, assembled in a portfolio, can later be assessed for academic credit. There is great value to cataloging this learning and having it assessed. First, people who do it and proceed on to enroll at Kaplan University save, on average, nearly a year's worth of time and money in earning their degrees. Second, the information is also extremely useful in the workplace, supporting promotion and transfer.

Collaborations like the Kaplan/AARP/Life Reimagined venture mark a new frontier in partnerships that serve the human interests of the people involved. Furthermore, they also underscore the power of personal and informal learning and experience in our lives by providing a way to convert that experience to added value.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Gift of Self-Confidence

In the 60’s, along with an outpouring of sentiment around the Civil Rights Movement and the war on poverty, there was a strong current of empowering marginalized people through education. My way of expressing it was through my early work at the Community College of Vermont (CCV). As I proceeded through those first few years, however, I kept thinking that there was more to my education than knowledge and degrees. The degree may be the external symbol of achievement, but the internal qualities of optimism and grit are equally important, both in earning the degree and in living a happy and productive life. With time I came to understand there was another lesson embedded in the breakthrough that allowed me to understand my fear of coming to Vermont. It took me awhile to get to it, excavate it, hold it, understand it, and use it, but when I finally did, I wanted to make it an educational objective as well.

As far as I could see, the greatest privilege was being encouraged to believe that when you get knocked down, when life deals you a blow, you say, “I am not supposed to be on my knees. I am supposed to be standing up and moving forward with my life.” After all, the difference between success and failure is whether you move through and around obstacles or you let them defeat you. This was part of our credo at CCV and I have carried it with me throughout life.

Recently studies at Gallup and the University of Texas-Austin (UT Austin) have validated this belief by, in different ways, describing why some people succeed (relatively) and others fail (relatively) in school, work, or life. At Gallup, they found that people who are optimistic about their futures do better than those who are not. They also found that “optimism” (their word) can be taught and encouraged by the structure of assignments, language used, and expectations created.

Likewise at UT Austin, they found that students with similar SAT/ACT scores coming from relative wealth (top 25%) and relative poverty (bottom 25%) performed according to their income level, not their tested capacity. Basically, the wealthier you were, the better you did. And traditional remediation had only a marginal positive impact, with the poorer kids graduating at a far lower rate than the more affluent. When the researchers probed deeper, they found a critical effect that had nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with sense of self. “Optimism,” if you will. Specifically, when poorer kids hit a bump in the road, got a failing grade, or had a negative social encounter, their immediate reaction was “I do not belong here. I am in the wrong place and I need to go home.” And ultimately, many of them did just that. But rich kids were far more likely to get up, dust themselves off, and proceed successfully to graduation. Their self-confidence was as innate as was the poor kids’ lack of confidence.

Based on these studies, UT Austin has developed leadership programs for these lower-income students, with high support, lots of active learning, and team building. These programs have caused their success rates to increase dramatically, rising to equal the success rates of the rich kids. By learning Gallup’s optimism through the structure of the program, they now understand that they are not supposed to be on their knees, which is one of the great gifts that education can give.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Pulling and Pushing: Alaska vs. Vermont

While I was enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I wrestled, as did most of my fellow students, with the issue of where I would begin my professional life. And the answer throughout that fall was Alaska. After all, I had travelled and worked there twice, my sister Susan lived there with her family (still does, in fact), and it was far away, romantic, and very rugged, which fit my Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) experiences.

Still and all, I had a persistent, gnawing sense that I was running away from something; that there was a "push" as well as a "pull" in my calculations. Why didn't I want to go to Vermont where I knew so many people, the terrain, and the history so well? And then, one sunny Sunday afternoon in North Cambridge, it hit me: I was afraid to go to Vermont.

My extended family was large and had played a significant role in the political and economic development of the state (particularly northwestern Vermont) since their arrival around 1800. The “push” towards Alaska was my fear that I would not be able to develop my own professional and social identity under this historic cloud of family achievement. That, both in terms of career arc and psychologically, they would control me.

I struggled with this fear all afternoon that day. It was a little like a combination of wrestling an elusive greased pig: furtive, dodging in and out of the shadows of my consciousness; being denied, then affirmed, and finally…..understood. I reckoned with it and the message was clear.

It went like this: “Peter, you cannot run away from your family name and history or the privilege, the responsibility, and the identity that comes with it. You could be in Madrid, Spain, get robbed and left for dead in an alley. And, if you could beg a dime and get to a phone, you could call home and everything would be okay. Also, if your family can dominate you in Vermont, they can dominate you wherever you are. The fear you have is your construction, not theirs. So you can deal with it or it will color your life. Decide where you want to live and go there. And, no matter what, understand your privilege and what you are going to do to be yourself and use it for good things, if you can.”

I went to Vermont, and over the next 20 years I lived near and loved my parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and charted my own path, sometimes to their consternation.  During that time, I founded the state's community college system (Community College of Vermont), and served as a state senator, Lieutenant Governor, and Congressman-at-Large before leaving the Congress in 1990 at the age of 45.

In the end, everything worked out for the best.  But without my Turning Point that sunny Sunday afternoon in North Cambridge, I am not sure any of that would have happened.