Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Michele Marden and the Blame Game

Michele is a math instructor, co-chair of the math SAC assessment sub-committee and a valued member of the Learning Assessment Council

Error-Denying Culture VS Error-Embracing Culture

Which are we in and which will prevail?

This idea has surfaced at three separate meetings I have attended recently.

An “error-denying” culture is one where mistakes are hidden and blame is shifted to others. Individuals quickly find a safe zone and don’t step out of it. Innovation and new ideas, which are both inherently risky and have a much higher potential of failure, are avoided. Growth and improvement stagnate because individuals are on the defensive and unwilling to take risks. On the up side, everyone knows what is expected of them.

An “error-embracing” culture is one where mistakes are expected to occur and individuals are encouraged to experiment and then learn from the results. Growth and improvement happen and individuals support each other instead shifting the blame. On the down side, expectations may change quickly and it may be hard to keep pace.

The first meeting where these ideas surfaced was held by a manager at PCC who was previously from the “outside.” I am still relatively new to the college, so I asked his opinion: is PCC was an error-denying or an error-embracing institution? Without hesitation, he said we are very much an error-denying institution. I found this surprising.

Since this meeting I have been reflecting on previous colleges and high schools where I have taught. Outside of a very short-lived experience, I have always been in an academic setting either as a student or as an instructor. I would have never described academia as error-denying. We are in the business of learning, right? When learning, errors happen and we correct them. But the more I reflect, the more I see evidence of an error-denying culture at PCC and at all the other places I’ve taught.

The blame game: Reflecting on whether or not my experiences as a teacher were error-denying, I first thought of the blame game. I taught at a university where we had a lot of students from the local community college. We complained ruthlessly that it was the community college’s fault for not bringing students up to speed. When I taught at a community college, we naturally looked down on the high schools for social promotion and various other horrors. When I was teaching at a high school? Oh, those middle school teachers had no clue. The few middle school teachers that were respected by the high school teachers felt that the elementary school teachers were the problem. Pretty soon it becomes obvious that the real blame lies with the mother who did not listen to Mozart while she was pregnant. Don’t blame me for the student’s inability to solve a linear equation, it is clearly the mother’s fault for listening to pop music during her pregnancy!

Blame game, version II: Every college and school I have taught at has internal issues of consistency between instructors (regardless of full-time or part-time). This is such a hot topic that I hesitate to mention it. I am definitely going outside of my error-denying safety zone on this one.

This is a very real problem and one that creates many bad feelings between instructors. Worse than the bad feelings though are the ones who really suffer: the students who pass a class, only to fail the next sequential course because they were not adequately prepared. I have had the experience of being on both sides of this. I have been the instructor that required too much, and I know of one experience when I was the instructor that did not require enough. I say “one experience” because there might have been others, but no one told me. The only reason I know about the one time was from an off-handed student comment that made me wonder if something was off. The student comment is what started a very secretive detective-like investigation into what the department wanted. I wonder now why being stealthy felt like the appropriate course of action rather than just asking someone.

Maybe it is a personality defect that I alone have. But if not, why is it so hard to have these conversations about expectations of student work? Perhaps an error-avoidance culture is to blame. This is a sensitive matter that can easily fall into the categories of “good” teacher and “bad” teacher. One of the best experiences I have had at PCC was when a colleague set up team-level meetings for a course. I came to really enjoy and look forward to the meetings, but at first I was nervous about what would come of them – if I would become viewed as a “bad” teacher because of being “easy” or too “hard.”

Due to low turn out, the meetings are no longer held, but there is hope for trying to revive them. Without these meetings, it is harder to have a sense of connection and I now feel adrift. Without the self-correcting that occurs when faculty members talk with each other regularly, there is the potential that we will grow apart in our expectations of students over time. The big question: If it reaches the point where students can no longer transition easily between instructors, will we be able to discuss it without it feeling like an attack?

In just about every conversation I have heard that involved consistency between instructors, someone said “academic freedom” and the conversation shriveled up and died. I completely support academic freedom, but we are doing students a huge disservice if we can not find a way around this issue of consistency.

I would like the college to provide some tracking of students that would help inform instructors of their student’s success in sequential courses. The fear is that if we do this in an error-denying culture, faculty will be on the defensive and those without tenure will worry that their job security is in jeopardy. If we had an error-embracing culture this could be one of many indicators that might help a large department refocus if inconsistencies were found.

What, you aren’t perfect?: I have seen error-avoidance attitudes in myself and other colleagues through out my teaching career. I have had colleagues ask me a question about math problem that they didn’t fully grasp or about how to explain a slippery concept to students. It is often with embarrassment and/or gratitude that they knew that I would not share their “failure” with others.

I very rarely ask for help, even when I know I need it. I’m all about reinventing the wheel – I’ve done it a 1000 times. But lately I have truly started to appreciate how much I can learn (ie, steal) from others if I get over myself and talk to them about what they do in class.

Recognizing this in myself, I am trying to break old patterns, but it is not easy. The universe must have wanted to prove this point because I faced this very issue recently. A student from a prior term came into my cubicle with a question from a course that I have not taught in a while now. I was very distracted with other work, but thought I would be able to help him. As I looked at the problem, the active shooter alarm went off. We walked to the back of the office where I stared at the problem. My thoughts cycled between “I have so much work to do” and “If an active shooter comes back here we are all nicely clumped together for a massacre.” Every now and then I’d wonder why I wasn’t able to answer the question that I knew I used to be able to do without hesitation – was I losing my mind? After the active shooter alarm was canceled and we all went back to our desks, I realized that I needed to just ask for help from someone who was fresher with the material so I could get back to the other work I needed to be doing. This felt like admitting defeat instead of being a welcomed and rare opportunity to see how a well-respected colleague explained a concept that was tough for students.

Elephant in the room: Consistency issues within a department are difficult to discuss, but they are like cuddly puppies when it comes to discussing the divide between full and part time faculty. At least consistency is addressed, albeit most often in a rant, and is a problem that doesn’t divide nicely between full-time and part-time.

Unspoken questions: How much should part-time faculty be involved with curriculum and other aspects of the department and college that are typically handled by full-time faculty? The part-time faculty are overall more willing to embrace the “new” assessment movement that PCC is just starting to define. What does this mean? What is it like to be part-time at PCC? Should full-time faculty care? Should administrators care?

I am too new on the scene to try to answer these questions, but I will share my story: This year I am full-time probationary after teaching part-time at PCC for about three years. Occasionally someone will ask me how I’m handing the “increased work load.” HA! What increased work load? The first time someone asked this, I think I laughed and said I was working less. I’ve been working 10-14 hour weekdays consistently for over a decade now, but I’ve never worked harder than I have as a part-time faculty at PCC, nor have I been under more stress. Part of the issue was that my workload was not just at PCC. I was balancing classes and committee work at two colleges while trying to discover what each department wanted. I realized that I wasn’t really working less now, because I have taken on more committee work, but something significant had changed.

The question stayed with me and eventually I figured out the difference between being part-time and being full-time: I am now “free” to take risks and it is ok to make a mistake (just one though- I am still probationary). As a part-timer I was very much on the defensive. I was hesitant to share my views in case they were “too out there.” I carefully weighed everything I wanted to say and often stayed silent. I was very much in the error-avoidance frame of mind. I will not speak for part-time faculty at large, but I will say that in talking with other part-time faculty both in and out of the math department, I know these error-avoidance attitudes are not unique. Before there is any misunderstanding, I should mention that PCC’s math department has many wonderful and supportive full-time faculty who do reach out to part-time faculty. If it wasn’t for them, I might have given up and left a career I love.

Administrators like to share at part-time in-service events that the part-time faculty carrying most of the instructional load and the college wouldn’t be able to function without them. One time when this was said, I looked around the room to see if others showed any sign of being as angry as I was. I know the administrators were trying to share their appreciation, but this “compliment” still infuriates me. Part-time faculty do carry more instructional burden and all too often they are not respected or supported. Is it a concern that the part-time faculty carry most of the instructional load for the college but they might feel the pressure of an error-denying culture more so than the full-time faculty? If so, what can we do as an institution to change this? Can we create a culture that allows for the freedom to make a mistake without running the risk, real or imagined, of being viewed as incompetent?

Really, students too?: Error-avoidance and error-welcoming also shows up in the realm of this “new” assessment culture many of us are just discovering. Formative assessments are assessments that are not graded, they are only feedback. The Anderson Conference discussed this quite a bit. I have an upcoming blog of my reflections from the conference where I discuss this more, but the research shows that students are more willing to take risks in their work on formative assessments. They explore ideas more freely than they would if the assessment was summative (ie, graded). It is all about feeling safe to make mistakes, whether this is in a meeting with colleagues or as a student in class learning something new.

Prior failures: The Learning Assessment Council (LAC) intentionally chose to leave the assessment in the hands of the faculty. They could have recommended that the college hire an outside evaluator who would have measured our success with our students and then reported back our areas of weakness.

Instead of this top-down approach that would have been met with faculty resistance, the LAC felt that faculty at PCC, both full and part time, knew what was best for our students and so charged the SACs to find their way with the “new” assessment mandates.

The LAC realized that asking faculty to “find their way” would not be easy and they would face a different kind of resistance from faculty than the top-down approach. Being new on the scene, I do not fully understand the issues that surrounded prior “assessment” attempts of the last 15 years. I have heard many comments about the fuzziness that happened when SACs were first asked to do program reviews. If I understand what was said, there was little direction, but a lot of blame when it wasn’t done well. It seems that the whole process was hoop-jumping with a hoop that was not well-defined and that moved about without warning.

So, now, faculty are again being asked to review their program/discipline under this “new” assessment idea while there is no concrete direction for how it should be done. Even worse, they are saying “it is best to show areas of weakness.” I understand why the faculty who experienced the last assessment wave are distrustful and questioning.

Up until now, we have been assessing to show success, which fits an error-denying culture. Suddenly, and with little guidance, the rules have changed. Our accreditation body no longer wants to see measures that show success. They, and the college, want to see assessments that show weak areas and a plan for improvement. This fits nicely with an error-embracing culture, but there is one big catch: prior experiences with the college have created mistrust. How do we know that this work is meaningful and how do we know that we will not be criticized if the first attempt is not perfect?

I’ve been in enough meetings to feel pretty secure that the college is on board and up front with their hopes for this faculty-driven assessment process. If I had any sense that the work I am doing for assessment was hoop-jumping, I would very quickly remove myself as a co-chair with the math department’s learning assessment subcommittee. The freedom to have the control to define the college’s core outcomes for mathematics is both liberating and maddening. I can’t count the number of times that I have wished the LAC had gone with the top-down approach, and I can count pretty high. The frustration does eventually pass, and when I meet with the incredible minds that make up our subcommittee or chat with the other co-chair I feel renewed. I also very much appreciate the critical and questioning minds of the wonderful math faculty who know PCC’s history. They are my reminder to look before I leap. I love the questions they ask and the concerns they bring to the table. I completely believe that this “new” assessment process must be seen through everyone’s eyes and the concerns must be addressed.

Headway?: If we are in an error-denying culture, I have seen some subtle shifts toward an error-embracing culture:

1. Our accreditation body wants to see evidence that we have “self-corrected” in regards to assessment (vs assessing to show success). The college is giving increased support for training to both full-time and part-time faculty for this “new” assessment outlook. [Plug: The last assessment class will be this Spring at Sylvania campus on Friday mornings – contact Shirlee Geiger if interested.]

2. The Learning Assessment Council (LAC) is encouraging an “over the shoulder” look at what different SACs are doing with regards assessing the college’s core outcomes so we can learn from each other. [Plug: Upcoming in May is the third annual Assessment Circus, and then in June we will hold the second LAC CCOR review of assessment results.]

3. Beautiful things happen when faculty talk. The LAC is fostering communication between CTE and LDC by grouping together faculty members for peer review of assessment plans.

4. There is hope to build “critical friends” groups where instructors can bring classroom issues and failed assignments to colleagues for review and brainstorming in a safe and confidential space.

5. The Teaching Learning Centers (TLC) are providing resources, book groups, and a space to discuss these ideas. They also brought assessment to the forefront with the Anderson Conference.

6. This blog and the many ideas that have surfaced through it is evidence of a shift. Communication and sharing ideas is the back-bone of moving toward an error-embracing culture. We have to be bold enough to step outside of our comfort zone and speak on issues that may not be well-received by all.

If we are indeed an “error-denying” culture, I believe we can become an “error-embracing” one. It all starts by having nice comments to this blog. J

Seriously, I am very curious to hear what others think about PCC’s culture. If I am I wrong about the college being error-denying, in what ways are we error-embracing? If I am right, what are the consequences? There might be some out there who don’t want to make the shift to error-embracing. If so, what are the pitfalls of an error-embracing culture?


  1. Michele, this is a fantastic post and I applaud you for writing it!

    I, too, have observed (and for too long was a part of) an error denying culture at PCC. Carol Dweck, Stanford psychologist, has been researching and writing about this exact issue for decades. She calls it a "fixed mindset" and a "growth mindset." My husband has also observed the same dynamic at Portland Public schools where he has been teaching for 9 years. I believe that our entire national educational culture (pre-k through graduate school) has been shifting from one of a fixed mindset to a one of a growth mindset. This can be a painful shift, but it can also be exhilarating!

    In my experience, the result of our largely fixed mindset at PCC has had serious, persistant, and negative consequences for our students - year after year after year. It has had negative implications for our budgets. It has also had negative consequences for our OWN mental health as professionals. I have watched far too many colleagues suffer serious personal consequences as a result of their not feeling as though they are able to effectively address weaknesses at both personal and departmental levels.

    I want to also expand this discussion of assessment to the rest of PCC life - to management, to AP's and to classified staff. I am not an instructer nor are most of my staff. But I have worked here for 10 years as an AP and now as Interim Director of Upward Bound. I have been voraciously reading this blog because it applies directly to my program as well. We, too, are also in the process of learning how to take personal responsibility for the success of our students and doing this in our own learning community. I applaud those individuals and departments courageous enough to have these honest conversations about how to improve our practice.

    Finally, I strongly believe that we need to integrate intercultural competency into this assessment discussion in a more transparent way. Intercultural competency is so often thought of as "separate," from the content, but it is not. It is integral to how one effectively teaches content (or supervises staff, or works with students and colleagues, or how one manages budgets). This is a part of effectively working in and preparing our students for a global community and economy. I'd like to hear more about this from everyone.

    If anyone is interested in reading Dweck's research, below is a PDF of her CV. Her research from about 1987 onward is what mostly applies to this discussion:


    Thanks again Michele!
    Amy Potter
    Interim Director, Upward Bound

  2. Here is a message from Russell Banks:

    At Weiden + Kennedy, one of the premier ad agencies in the world(think Nike, Old Spice, etc.), and headquartered right here in
    Portland, they have an a huge, elaborate sign in their office that says, "Fail Harder."