Wilderness Explorers

This spring, my partner and I found Florida resident tickets to Disney World that let us explore all four parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot), one day at a time. As a Disney newbie, I didn’t know what to expect aside from the general hype surrounding the experience, particularly the Magic Kingdom. We had a wonderful time at all four parks, but one park became the clear winner for us, though not for the rides, shows, or even the food.

The Wilderness Explorers program at Animal Kingdom stole our hearts (and minds) and we haven’t been able to stop talking about it since, despite visiting the park before any of the others. As I shared about the experience, I realized that many of the things that made it so great are the same things that make learning great in general.

Personalized (and Exciting!)

When we walked up to Wilderness Explorer Headquarters, we weren’t even sure if adults could participate in the program. We were happily greeted and inducted into the Wilderness Explorers organization with a pledge and handshake that proved to set the tone of the day. The program is a self-guided scavenger hunt with a wide variety of activities to complete around the park. At most stations, you interact with a troop leader who verifies you completed the activity and gives you your merit badge. These folks were outstanding at making their station relevant to whoever was visiting. They were easily able to transition from discussing the color or sound an animal makes with a child explorer to explaining some of the conservation efforts for that same animal to us. Plus, nearly every staff member we encountered assigned to this program was highly enthusiastic, making you want to learn more about their station, regardless of what it entailed.


The program was designed so that it could be completed across multiple visits, in any direction, and at whatever time of day. The types of activities were incredibly varied; some asked you to find information from a sign, others to engage with someone from another culture, still others had you learning something about the animal, culture, or exhibit nearby. More than once, I found myself outside of my comfort zone, being asked to engage with something new or in a way that I would never have chosen on my own, which stretched my brain in all the good ways.

Self-Paced and Self-Driven

While we chose to attack the task with a vengeance and complete every single badge, it was far more common for explorers to choose those badges that interested them, or that they happened to pass by as they explored the park. Because of the self-contained reward system, participants could easily decide how much reward was enough for them or how frequently they wanted to obtain another badge. Finding and completing the next badge was incredibly motivating, but we still were able to take the time to fully engage in the activity at each station (plus explore some of the parks features that weren’t part of the program). And if you weren’t interested in one or more of the badges, that was okay too, though the motivation of the sticker was enough to keep explorers trying new things.


Each activity was related to an exhibit, animal, or culture otherwise highlighted in the park. Some of the badges were even tasks you completed while waiting in line for a ride. By contextualizing each of the tasks, it was easy to explore further around each topic, based on what captured your attention. More than once, we found ourselves talking about new facts or knowledge we had learned long after we left that station. Plus, we realized that the program had us engaging in much more of what the park had to offer than if we had tried to see it all ourselves. There were many signs, exhibits, and people that we wouldn’t have given a second glance to if we had been merely traveling to the next ride.

While we didn’t set out to spend the day learning our way through Animal Kingdom, we had an absolute blast, and became Senior Wilderness Explorers – see?

Of course, we could just be nerds who both have Learner in our top five, but even so, Disney gave us an educational adventure we will always remember.

Customers, Students, or Both?

This morning I read an article arguing that college students are not customers, primarily founded in the reality that the student is not, nor does not always expect to be, right. Sure, sometimes this may be hard to believe as you interact with today’s college student, but on the whole, if you asked them whether they are always right the answer would almost always be no.

In principle, I agree with this article. Students shouldn’t be seen as customers. But from my experiences at various institutions, I can’t say that they are always being treated this way, especially in Student Affairs. My last institution offered laundry and water services in the residence halls. We had a Clinique counter in our bookstore. Students were bribed with iPads to attend the institution in the first place. And to some extent, this makes sense. Universities need students to choose to come there in order to continue to function. Sure, classes and professors are incredibly important to the college experience, but most 18-year-olds are unlikely to predict a huge difference in their experience in Physics 101 based on whether a highly decorated astrophysicist is teaching or that professor’s first-year graduate student TA is teaching.

So, much of this ‘customer’ attitude lands on Student Affairs, where student experience is among the primary goals (though this is arguably not where it should be). And it has implications:  students feel entitled, they fail to learn independence and life skills (which is arguably what Student Affairs should be facilitating), and they find themselves leaving the college bubble not nearly as prepared as they thought they were. This varies across our functional areas, with some more focused on providing services and others with greater freedom (read: no need to be revenue generating) to educate.

In my office, we work almost entirely with volunteers, which puts this customer dynamic in the spotlight regularly. Sometimes, our volunteers aren’t doing a very good job. But they are volunteers; how can you ‘fire’ a volunteer? Typically, we don’t. We try to work with these students to improve, to identify what is hindering their ability to fulfill their responsibilities, to help them learn and be better in the future. On occasion, we try to coach them into quitting, usually because they are wildly over committed and not invested enough to learn from the experience if they continue. These conversations are meant to be developmental, and given their non-paid status in an educational institution, this is a relatively agreed upon approach to being a good Student Affairs professional.

This semester I did have to outright ‘fire’ a volunteer. She had been working with one of our local schools and we had had nothing but problems with her behavior. The school staff identified her by name as someone who was negatively impacting their environment and other volunteers. The conversation she and I had about this situation was particularly indicative that somewhere along the way, she had come to view herself as a customer. She explained that there was no way that she could have caused these problems, threatened to convince all her friends to leave the program (yes, like she was going to write a scathing Yelp review), and approached the entire conversation as though I was there to remedy all the wrongs that had been done to her. This attitude made it much harder for me to help her understand the problem, much less any mechanisms to fix it. While she was dismissive of my attempts to help due to her dissatisfaction with how she’d been treated, I can only hope that she will one day reflect enough on the experience to learn something from it.

My question is this: how did this ‘student as customer’ situation come to be? And is it trickling down to the K-12 schools too? For many years, as a nation, we have had a completely different view on K-12 education. Mediocre, disengaging education was (and in many cases still is) justified with battle cries of “that’s how it was in my day” or “I had to struggle through it, so can you”. But more and more, you hear stories about this shifting – how teachers have little autonomy to teach because of parents arguing that they know best. That poor grades and loss of privileges are being argued against and eliminated despite the best judgment of the instructor in the classroom. I would wager that these instances happen far more in middle and high SES schools, where parents have the social capital to make these arguments, but it’s an interesting potential trend.

Students are learners, and by the very essence of that identity, they do not know everything, much less are they always right. Most students know this. They would not choose to engage in an educational experience if they honestly believed they knew everything or could not be wrong. Most of them wish to learn and improve, it’s our job to help them do so, despite pressures to win their dollars. Ultimately, we will win more of them by challenging them to be better, smarter humans.

What’s in a Game?

Power outages. Sewage problems. A housing crisis. More jobs than workers, and more workers than jobs. A school filled to capacity and turning away students. Congested highways. And a zombie attack.

Were we taking a trial run of the Governor’s job in the apocalyptic future as we worked to overcome each of these challenges? Not exactly – we were playing SimCity. After placing the first road in our newly founded hamlet, I found myself completely consumed for the next four hours, something that rarely happens to me with a digital game. Between my fervor for improving Norwich Hills, Tuesday’s staff game of Scattergories over lunch (it’s summer, remember?), and repeated attempts to escape the Forbidden Desert, it’s been a week full of games.

I’ve always loved a good board game, but it wasn’t until recently that I figured out exactly why. And as it so happens, it’s the same reason I’m a person who often signs up when there is a call for volunteers – structured relationship building. I’ve learned that the way people get to know me best is by working with them. This is how I build trust, respect, responsibility to them, and, with time, collegiality and friendship. Games allow context to dive into hard work immediately and jump start that relationship building process. Bonus points if it’s a game that makes me think and work to solve a problem. These games engage my brain on another way that leaves me associating the positive stress induced from playing with the people across the table. Even better, a collaborative game, that asks players to work together to defeat the game instead of each other.

I suppose it should not have taken me so long to put all this together, as we often play “games” with the students we work with to help them build relationships. We just call them teambuilders and make them much more highly intentional and focused on reflection than your typical bout of Battleship. In fact, I believe so strongly in the power of gaming, that I use it far beyond traditional teambuilding. Nearly every student that I work with could likely identify a time when I have turned something into a game or advised them to do the same. Games allow for active and engaged learning alongside that structured relationship development, making them an incredibly valuable tool in leadership and education.

So for now, game on.

Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death: Reflections on the Idea of Self-Management

On Tuesdays, my partner has a weekly “lunch and learn” where he and his colleagues choose a TED Talk to watch together then process the ideas. When the topic strikes a chord, he and I will continue the discussion. This week, the video was called Beyond Empowerment: Are We Ready for the Self-Managed Organization presented by Doug Kirkpatrick at TEDxChico in late 2013. You can watch it here:

Don’t have 15 minutes? Cliff notes go something like this: Mr. Kirkpatrick worked at a large tomato processing facility with hundreds of employees but no bosses. Instead of the traditional hierarchical workplace, colleagues agree to two principles (not to use force against another human and to uphold their commitments to one another) and form peer to peer contracts that outline what they are responsible for completing. According to Mr. Kirkpatrick, this allows them to make connections across a wide swath of the company and encourages innovation from anyone.

As I was watching, I found myself drawing connections between the principles he discussed and those Montessori students are (self)governed by that I wanted to explore further.

Mr. Kirkpatrick introduces his talk by discussing Gallup research about workplace engagement. He cites that some 70% of the workforce is not engaged at work, and 20% are so unengaged that they are actively disengaging other people. Sound like any schools you’ve been in lately? If you had asked me in high school, I would have been shocked to hear that 30% of my peers were engaged in their work. But that is not the experience at most Montessori schools. Dr. Montessori shares, “Whoever visits a well kept school is struck by the discipline of the children. There are forty little beings – from three to seven years old, each one intent on his own work…” (Montessori, 1912, p. 346).

The piece that struck me the most was the quote, “At the core of Morning Star’s eccentric, yet effective management model is a simple idea: freedom.” The moment that word entered the conversation, my mind jumped to Montessori. The entire notion of discipline in the Montessori philosophy is based on liberty; “we call an individual disciplined when he is master of himself, and can, therefore, regulate his own conduct when it shall be necessary to follow some rule of life” (Montessori, 1912, p. 86). These days, I think this most resembles the concept of Emotional Intelligence that has been seeping through the leadership arena (a la the most recent Forbes article from a quick Google search while I was writing this).

So what does this actually look like? The best example I can think of is the expectation of how a student works. At a Montessori, students can choose where they are physically while they do their work. They can lay down, join a table of peers, sit on the floor, find a quiet corner, and move between whatever position is comfortable for them as they see fit. There isn’t overwhelming noise, chaos, or distraction; choosing where you work is simply a part of completing the task. They often have great autonomy in what work they do and when they do it as well, very similar to the Morning Star employees described in the TED Talk. Each student is working toward a goal (grandly, their self development; weekly, a certain amount of academic progress) and how they get there is largely up to them.

As they strive for those goals, few elementary schoolers hold titles or responsibilities like employees in a traditional company, but the lack of titles and command authority Mr. Kirkpatrick describes reminded me of another aspect of the Montessori experience. Because each child is disciplined in their own work, rarely are students concerned with what others are doing. The sense of competition is low, and the sense of support very high. Students are asked to consult their peers before the teacher for any question they are struggling with. The environment is collaborative, with new ideas and insights flowing from all groups.

I grapple regularly with the concept of work/life integration that Mr. Kirkpatrick mentions, and while I have no answers to that particular problem, I do see a strong connection to the way Montessori students interact with school. Students in a Montessori program don’t see school as a discrete entity that they turn off when they get off the bus in the afternoon; instead, they see learning as something that happens all day every day. It’s one of the reasons that no homework is possible. It also allows students to maintain their drive and curiosity throughout their entire lives, but most importantly at school.

While I think self-management practices are strongly correlated with the Montessori model, I don’t agree with all that Mr. Kirkpatrick has to say. One of the biggest issues I have with this talk is the definition of empowerment the speaker uses. He assumes that power is loaned and can be taken back, when typically, the empowerment that leadership theories espouse requires the actual giving of power. While this may not seem a critical distinction, I believe it creates a fairly large hole in the basic argument. As he mentions, leadership is not designated, it is earned through work, but inherently, leaders have more power than others, even those who have earned the role. As such, to achieve the self-managed company he speaks of, empowerment must be present.

Further, and this may simply be a limitation of a 15 minute talk, but Mr. Kirkpatrick doesn’t address many intricacies of the system. What happens to bad self-managers? Law breakers? Moochers? Are they simply driven out by poor environmental fit, or is there actually some authority that handles the situation that wasn’t identified in this TED Talk. How is an overall vision maintained with people working from wildly different fields and a variety of interpretations?

After much discussion with my partner, I concluded that providing a person or collective to provide guidance, support, and vision (much like a teacher in a classroom) seems more practical and beneficial that a purely boss-less approach. But, if we could be a culture of workers who would thrive in a self-management type system, I think overall productivity would skyrocket. And I think the best way to create the type of worker who is driven, passionate, takes initiative, and is curiously engaged in problem solving is to foster that process throughout their education.

What do you think about the notion of self-management? DId you learn these skills in school? What would your work look like tomorrow without a boss? What would need to change? Would you?

Summer, Student Affairs, and the Nature of Fun

Student Affairs has two seasons – summer and not summer. During the year, I find myself in back-to-back check-ins, presentations, or meetings with students, colleagues, and who knows who else day-in and day-out. Mid-semester, it’s completely reasonable to throw a small party in gratitude at the sight of 45 uninterrupted minutes sitting next to each other on my calendar. During the school year, I long for summer. I long for the peaceful afternoons, 4-hour focused work windows, leisurely jaunts to Starbucks, staff coloring breaks, and Minion YouTube videos. And every year, summer disappoints me.

For me, summer in Student Affairs is a giant expanse of the doldrums. And I think I’ve finally figured out why that is.

1) My ambivert is out of whack.

I learned that I am an ambivert from reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. I fall somewhere in the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum, meaning I get my energy from other people and love working with them, but they can also wear me out, making me want to do nothing but veg out in front of mindless television. During the year I come home exhausted, drained from the energy it took to interact with so many people, perfectly content to grab something out of the fridge and spend the rest of the night quietly on the couch. In summer, I come home craving interaction and meaningful time with someone (usually my partner, who is very patient with my drastically shifting needs), making me far more needy than I’m proud to be. Knowing this has helped me manage my days better — I make a conscious effort to spread out my meetings, plan social outings for days that have no meetings, and be more aware of how needy I’m being of others.

2) The work, for the most part, isn’t “fun”.

By the traditional definition of fun, summer would be considered far more so than the majority of the year. I mean, come on, there is coloring. But I take an alternative definition, from Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, which offers that we have adopted our mechanisms of fun and relaxation as a way to counteract the negatives and overstimulation in our lives. McGonigal cites a study that finds that what we typically think of as “fun” are activities that actually makes us feel worse (i.e. less motivated, less confident, and less engaged overall) rather than better. This is true for watching TV, eating, or just hanging out, among others.

What is fun for us then? Hard work that we choose. Any challenge that we feel capable of meeting gives us motivation, creates interest, and keeps us positively engaged. In Reality is Broken, this hard work is games, but it could be anything at all that challenges you — physical activity, attempting a new culinary masterpiece, or doing something you have always wanted to do but never tried.

Maria Montessori shares a similar perspective, offering that meaningful work is the easiest and most productive method for child development. Her entire method of schooling is designed around creating the optimal environment for a student to complete his or her own development. This foundation allows children to learn not only how to choose hard work but the importance of doing so throughout their lives. She argues that, “Man has intelligence because he has to make a better world than that which he has found,” which guides the hard work of students educated through her method.

During my summers, I spend the majority of my time doing the work that I would never choose to do during the school year. Of course, there are exceptions; I will nearly always get excited and invested in creating a new workshop, or uncovering something meaningful from program data. But, working on those things alone, behind my desk, is much less of the good kind of hard work than sharing those experiences with students.

So what have I gleaned from all of this? That I need to continue accommodating my ambivert, while working harder to find hard work, like this blog.

Standardized Testing (Thank you, John Oliver)

Amazingly enough, I did not take a state standardized test until the end of 5th grade, when my parents decided that public school was my next adventure. Naturally, the school didn’t know what to do with me without those scores, so I was given the test alone in a giant classroom while my classmates continued their learning with instructions to leave me alone.

In all fairness, my public schools handled the standardized test thing remarkably well. Granted, by my last couple of years in high school, we were all too aware of our teachers attempts at test prep. From open response questions about the value of x, to long, tedious lectures about standardized test-taking strategies, the end of the CATS testing was a welcome sight. And that was at a school where things were relatively low-key, comparatively. We didn’t have to pass state tests to graduate, scores were nowhere on transcripts, nor did they affect which classes or colleges we could go to the next year. The school provided incentives for success, but no punishment, and the overall attitude was to take the test seriously but really to just do your best.

When I moved to Florida, I learned of a test reality much more like the one John Oliver describes (hence his multiple references to our lovely state). Students having complete breakdowns over the FCAT (now the FSA, see here, and here, for just some of the Florida testing “progress”), teachers doing nothing but test prep for months on end, and enormous amounts of stress across the school community.

What was your experience with standardized testing? Do you agree with John’s points? Or see merits to the system that he hasn’t identified?

Real Food Education

Though it’s sometimes hard to believe, education (in the traditional sense) is not the only thing I spend time thinking about. This year, I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on better health — from exercising more, to attempting to better balance my work-life integration (read: actually taking vacation), to trying out different diets. I’m lucky to have a wonderful partner who is willing to share these goals with me and this week we’ve been learning about a Real Food Diet, one recommended by a good friend. Our learning has been mostly fueled by Lisa from 100 Days of Real Food and her cookbook, and my, we have been learning! Do you know the difference between “wheat” and “whole wheat” foods? We never knew there was one. We’ve also been unlearning years of dietary myths, like the real benefits of natural fats, and the food industry’s mission to replace fat with sugar, lower their costs, and maximize shelf life.

While we are excited to try this new approach, and agree with most of the ideas behind it, we’ve found ourselves questioning some things as well. As we struggle through all of this unlearning, it calls into question who is an expert, what makes them that, and how do we know who to trust for guidance? These questions then lead to doubt about what I thought I knew in other areas of life — how much of what we think we know is true, especially when the nature of science and progress is that knowledge is ever evolving? And how do we keep up?

Musings welcome.