Ownership starts with engagement which can be developed with experiential education
Cynthia Bainton and Jim Stellar
We have noticed that when it comes to taking responsibility for a task or project, whether at school or at work, people fall into two groups – those that demonstrate ownership, openly embracing the responsibility for that task, and those “Teflon” individuals to whom the task just doesn’t stick. As parents, managers, and educators one of our main goals is to foster that sense of ownership in the people under our care. How is this done? In a word – engagement.
College provides many opportunities for students to engage. The process begins with the student identifying an interest: biology, soccer, dramatics, social justice. Then comes the act of engagement: declaring a major, playing a sport, joining a club, performing a co-op work experience. Captain Michael Abrashhoff (you may remember us mentioning the captain and his book, It’s Your Ship, in an earlier blog) increased the loyalty and productivity of his sailors by giving them free reign to find projects of personal interest that would improve efficiency and economy onboard ship. But how does one get students to engage and develop ownership in a college setting? One answer is to do like Captain Abrashhoff did and give them real responsibility. It is hard to take responsibility in most classrooms where the emphasis usually is on information transfer between the one professor who knows and the many students who must absorb that information and be graded on it so the course credit can be fulfilled and the tuition bill justified.
A very different picture emerges in experiential learning. For example consider what happens when a student is placed on an internship or a cooperative education experience in a real-world organization. That organization typically must deliver as a team on which the student is often the youngest and most inexperienced member. The student has to take ownership of his/her work and transmit that ownership sense to others on behalf of the organization. In an employment situation it just does not do to be “Teflon” and not have the task stick.
What happens to a student who starts taking ownership in that situation? Ideally, the student receives immediate feedback on the tasks he/she has owned, either positive or negative. If the feedback is positive, one hopes the student will respond with a sense of pride and a confidence that will lead her/him to another instance of taking ownership. If the feedback is to be negative, it should be delivered constructively so it is still a growth opportunity. Assure students that mistakes are an integral part of the learning process and they will likely continue to take ownership. Pummeling students with criticism may promote the very “Teflon” behavior we are seeking to avoid in our future employees.
Sticking with this paid internship/co-op example of experiential education, we have also noticed that ownership is better fostered when students are given work they want to perform and feel is important. This works especially well when the students can do that work in a high functioning group. The group dynamic, perhaps through nonverbal communication, supports this positive attitude and teaches how make the complex emotional logic trade-offs that permit the rapidly size up a situation (what Malcolm Gladwell calls “thin slicing“). Living and working in that world can teach powerful lessons about taking ownership. We have previously mentioned in this blog Northeastern Professor Joseph Raelin’s book Creating Leaderful Organizations: How to Bring Out Leadership in Everyone. These organizations are ones with distributed leadership that are very powerful at adapting to change and that provide a healthy environment where many individuals lead, not just the boss in hero-leader mode. Once at a conference, we heard Raelin give a talk where he speculated at the end that experiential learning in college might be a good way to teach leaderful practice in organizations. To us this is very close to ownership and underscores the call that many industry leaders are making for higher education to generate a more work-ready graduate, one that not only knows the facts and theories, but can apply them in a group work environment, work in a team, and advance a project through ownership. If experiential education can contribute to this kind of learning, then it becomes more than just a benefit to the student, it becomes a benefit to society as a whole. If higher education can produce this effect by marrying academic excellence to experiential learning, it becomes an obligation for those of us in the business to implement and improve student learning experiences outside the classroom.
So, what are the lessons here for higher educational institutions? We have as students the next generation of leaders, individuals who can either lead us into another sub-prime mortgage type situation or individuals who can exert what Barry Schwarz calls on TED the “practical wisdom” one learns from people. Predictably (to our regular blog readers), we think the lessons are to push higher education to do more experiential education. More than that, we need to study how to connect lessons learned informally from internships, co-ops, service-learning, group work in undergraduate research, study abroad programs, etc. not only to content but to leadership in the curriculum.
How does this experiential-academic connection work? Do advisors/coaches/co-op coordinators/mentors step in and help students extract the leadership lessons from experience? Do the students do it themselves through reflection? Can peers play a role through social networking software and blogging? Is this something faculty should worry about or should they stay with the knowledge areas in which they were trained? Just asking all of these questions is not enough. From those who practice experiential learning, we simply need more research on what we are doing and how to do it better. We need it on the level of institutions and programs and on the level of students and their learning. We need it to generate more students who feel an ownership for their work, their society, and themselves.