Coaching Engineering Education


Engin Ed(ie): A Troubled Client

As a one-on-one leadership coach to academic administrators, faculty, and others, I’ve learned that clients oftentimes struggle with various misalignments in their lives.  That is, they say one thing and do another, or they think one thing and say something else, or put one thing in one thing in one compartment and something somewhere else, and the two things exhibit values inconsistent with one another.  Of course, these misalignments and inconsistencies are a normal part of being human, and a coach approaches these things in a spirit of curiosity and non-judgment to better understand the ways in which these misalignments serve or don’t serve the client’s life.

One way way a coach aids in reducing the client’s struggle is by listening deeply and abstracting the inconsistency or misalignment and then offering distinctions that may be helpful in sorting through the issue & asking open-ended questions that help the client resolve the differing values at stake; if the client chooses to work through the inconsistencies, the result is oftentimes a more coherent position in the person’s life, greater calm, and often increased efficacy.  Oftentimes this “working through” involves the client rewriting or reframing fundamental elements of their story in ways that (a) maintain the underlying facts of the case, and (b) reinterpret the client’s assessments or opinions in ways that bring greater consistency, productivity, and peace to his or her life.

As engineering education has attempted to reform itself, various reports have been written and various initiatives have been undertaken, and yet many of the tensions, misalignments, and incoherencies of past practices persist.  In the same way a client can achieve greater peace and a better life through deep reflection about tension & misalignment, it may be that better educational transformation or reform can take place with deeper reflection about fundamental tensions & incoherencies in the story and the system.  To that end, here I imagine my client to be Engineering Education (let’s call him/her “Engin Ed(ie)” ) and, we’ll listen to him/her, offer up some useful distinctions, and ask him/her a number of open-ended questions to spur reflection and forward movement.

Listening to Ed(ie)

As I listen to Engin Ed(ie), he/she tells me his/her personal history from prehistoric times to origins of modern engineering education in military drill and rigor, the building of the canals and the railroads, to the golden era of the engineering hero in the late 19th century to the socially captive engineer of World War I, WW II, and the cold war, to the Grinter report, through three missed revolutions (quality, entrepreneurial, and IT), to the 21st century and the creative era. As I listen various misalignments & tensions emerge as part of the client’s personal struggle:

  • The struggle between engineering as taught versus engineering as practiced.
  • The struggle between the importance of theoretical versus the importance of the practical.
  • The struggle between engineering as primarily applied science & math versus engineering as a kind of design.
  • The struggle between the importance of research versus the importance of teaching.
  • The struggle between the success of the individual versus the success of the institution/community.
  • The struggle between engineering as a status profession and a serving profession.
  • The struggle between media attention to science versus media attention to engineering.
  • The struggle between education as a sorting/competitive versus education as a caring/collaborative institution.

This is a load of struggle, and the conventional views of Engin Ed(ie) tends to lean toward the first item in the dichotomy (as taught, theory, applied math/science, research, individual, status, media & science, sorting/competitive) as opposed to the second item (as practiced, practical, design, teaching, institution/community, serving, media & engineering, caring/collaborative).

2 Distinctions For Ed(ie)

As I listen to Ed(ie)’s story and abstract some of the misalignments and tensions, two distinctions strike me as helpful, and I offer them to Ed(ie) as a way to reflect about the list of tensions above.

Internal versus external. An important distinction in psychology was made by Julian Rotter in the 50s between internal and external locus of control.  People with high internal locus of control rather strongly believe that they can control events in their lives and those with external locus of control believe that much in their lives is beyond their control.  In looking at the first items in the list above, they seem tilted toward external locus, concerns outside of engineering, concerns with status or decisions made on the basis of status, and how others think about engineering & engineering educators.  Of course, these things aren’t bad or wrong, and calling them out is a way to to get Ed(ie) to notice the pattern and reflect on whether it serves him/her.

Either/or or polarity management. Another thing I point out to Ed(ie) is the sense in which the list of “struggles” itself seems to imply that someone must win and a choice must be made.  In noticing this pattern, I offer up Barry Johnson’s distinction between choosing once and for all and managing a polarity (here).  Johnson points out that often we imagine that we need to choose between polar opposites and that sometimes this choice is false and that the real challenge is to manage a shifting balance in the complex context in which the choice appears.  As we examine the list above, there is no need to make choices once and for all between theory and practice, science and design, teaching and research, etc.; however, the systems embedded in educational institutions are often such that choices are made and flexibility and polarity management are difficult.  Once again, these choices and the systems that embed them aren’t right or wrong, and raising the distinction is a way to get Ed(ie) to reflect on the way in which other systems or processes might serve him/her better.

Questions for Ed(ie) to Spur Reflection

We’ve made good progress in these opening sessions and the tension and misalignments that Engin Ed(ie) faces are substantial; we shouldn’t expect overnight resolution and more sessions will be required to delve into different pieces of Ed(ie)’s story.  On the other hand, these beginnings are good ones, and I leave Ed(ie) and the first session with a list of questions for reflection and journaling:

  • In what ways is engineering education aligned and misaligned with engineering practice?
  • In what ways do these alignments and misalignments serve engineering education? the practice of engineering? the young people educated? the educators and other stakeholders?
  • In what ways is engineering tilted toward the theoretical?  In what ways do these biases serve or not serve?
  • To what extent is engineering viewed as applied math and science and in what ways does this serve or not serve? What other views are there on the question, ‘What is engineering?’ and how do they serve or not serve?
  • To what extent is the current culture of engineering education individualistic? In what ways does this culture serve and not serve?  In what ways can the polarity between individual and team/organization be managed? in education? in research?
  • In what ways in higher education biased toward research?  To what extend is that bias intertwined with ego and status concerns?  To what extend do these things serve or not serve stakeholders in the educational system?
  • To what extent are engineers and educators concerned with their status and the status of their profession and to what extent are they concerned with serving others?
  • To what extent does the media portray a balanced picture of engineering and science?
  • To what extend is engineering education a supportive culture? a competitive culture? In what ways does this serve or not serve?

In coaching, it’s always interesting to see what work the client does between session.  I can’t wait to learn what Ed(ie) comes up with.