Educating Wholehearted Engineers & Educators

I was giving a short workshop to PhD students at the National University of Singapore on Thursday, and the title was Mastering the Leadership, Organizational, and Emotional Challenges of a Career in Teaching or Research. This particular offering was two, three-hour sessions covering the noticing, listening, questioning (NLQ), and story reframing skills that are necessary for the PhD to augment his or her normal technical expertise in a world in which returns to expertise have been diminished, both in the classroom and in the lab.

I’ve worked with students, grad students, faculty, and administrators on four continents with this material, and it rarely fails to shake participants up and it often gets them to be more reflective about their careers and their lives more generally. This appears to be especially the case for PhD students, and it is always a treat for me to work with the next generation of higher educators. This time was no different, and it was a pleasure to witness the changes taking place.

The Power of Vulnerability

As I often do as part of the story reframing work, I showed Brene Brown’s 2010 TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability. This 20-minute video never fails to move the workshop participants (and me), and I like watching it as a reminder of the big picture of what the Big Beacon is all about. If you haven’t seen it before, take a moment and watch it below:

The video’s discussion of vulnerability, trust, courage, and wholeheartedness connects directly, I think, with the most important lessons of the Big Beacon. Too often, we use rational code words in educational reform that mask what we are really trying to

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accomplish. For example, CDIO stands for long lists of rationally numbered course content, and active learning and problem-based learning have their lists of rationally couched pedagogical techniques and tricks designed to “motivate students.” And of course, none of these things is bad or wrong and when properly done a CDIO curriculum or an active learning or PBL classroom can be beautiful things to behold.

From Code Words to the Heart of the Matter

I think, however, the problem I have with rational code words is they make it more difficult

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for us to talk about what we are really trying to achieve. A properly executed CDIO program, or PBL class, or active or experiential learning setting unleashes students to take charge of their own education, but instead of dressing this up as a rational process, I think we need to discuss it by being much more direct about the emotions involved in what we are really doing.

In other words, what we need is educational transformation that makes it OK for students (and faculty) to be vulnerable, both in the classroom and in their larger lives. Time and time again, I’ve seen magic in the classroom when the following took place:

Someone trusted the student –> the student believed he/she was trusted –> the student had courage to act

This magic triple–trust, belief, courageunleashes students to take greater charge of their own learning, and classrooms where it occurs are special places. Instead of dressing this up in rational emperor’s clothes, we need to make it OK for us as educators to speak and act with emotion about something that is fundamentally emotional. To do otherwise is to not be vulnerable ourselves to what it is we are really doing as part of effective educational reform.

A Vulnerability Pact

So let’s make a pact. Let’s use emotional words to talk about emotional processes in educational reform. If we do this, the cool thing is that we will hasten the day when we educate wholehearted engineers and wholehearted engineering educators, both. Making our classrooms and our faculty lounges safe for emotional language isn’t that hard to do, and the payoff in getting more quickly to the heart of the matter appears to be far reaching and great.