Congratulations, Class of 2016: Go do what we (hope we) taught you to do!

It’s graduation season, and this year I’ve had the opportunity to attend a few ceremonies. Whether or not you’ve been to one lately, I’m sure you are familiar with the genre of the commencement speech. The format often goes like this:

  1. Congratulate the graduates. (Be sure to include some kind of verbal “high five” and remember to pause when it inevitably elicits uproarious clapping.)
  2. Reflect a bit on the past, noting graduates’ achievements and hard work. (However, be careful about naming this the “best class ever” as there may be siblings in the audience who are just a year older or younger than the graduates, and they will remember…)
  3. Include a personal anecdote about yourself or your interactions with the graduating class. (Note: If you’re worried that you need more laughs in your speech, self-deprecating humor is a good strategy here.)
  4. Spend the bulk of your time inspiring the graduates’ future actions.

In this post, I want to focus on step 4 and how we can use it as an unexpected driver to enhance our curricula.

Step 4 is the part where the speaker essentially says “Now that you’ve earned this diploma, go off and do something really important!” In cases where the commencement speaker is an official of the school, i.e., someone responsible for guiding its mission and activities, step 4 can take the form: “Now that you’ve successfully completed our program of study, go off and do great things with what you’ve learned.”

Typically, the speaker then elaborates by providing his or her choices for what the graduates should go off and do – for bettering themselves or the world. Here are a few examples of such calls to action, loosely drawn from speeches I’ve heard or read recently. For the purposes of this post, let’s call this the “Go forth, ye graduates” or GFYG list:

  • Don’t fear failure; learn from it.
  • Work with each other to build something bigger than yourselves.
  • Care about those around you.
  • Live a life with integrity.
  • Find your own path and follow it.

This is a pretty inspiring list, right? It includes sage advice for what graduates should go out and do to make a difference. But what interests me about this list is not only what it includes but also what it excludes: There’s no mention of technical knowledge as the key thing students should apply once they leave the school’s hallowed halls, no reference to disciplinary expertise as helping students make the world a better place, not even a plug for students to use the problem-solving or critical thinking skills they’ve so carefully honed.

Why is that?

It’s not because technical and disciplinary skills are unimportant. (Indeed, they are very important.) One might hypothesize it’s because kind-hearted commencement speakers are sparing their audiences the technical jargon and nitty-gritty detail that would be required if they chose such topics.

But I don’t believe the GFYG list is simply composed of easy-to-explain, second-choice imperatives. Graduation is a time for stepping back and looking at the big picture. What gets emphasized in commencement speeches is a reflection of our deepest values – compassion, open-mindedness, fulfillment, honesty. Consequently, the contents of step 4 in these speeches can give us a clearer picture of what we want our students to be able to do once they graduate… but that we may be inadvertently taking for granted.

Now, anyone reading this post who is familiar with the notion of backwards design will recognize where I’m headed with this. (In backwards design, one starts with the end in mind, by defining the goals/end-state we want students to achieve, and then designs learning experiences to help students get there.) So, this leads me to the question:

Are our curricula designed to get students to a place where they will be able to do the things on the GFYG list?

If we want our students to learn the concept of integrity, the skill of working with others, and the comfort to fail productively, we must not only mention them in commencement speeches, but demonstrate their value by providing regular practice and feedback throughout the curriculum.

Before pursuing this further, I want to be clear: I’m not arguing that we should de-emphasize technical skills or disciplinary knowledge in favor of items on the GFYG list. Far from it. GFYG learning goals can (and should) be complementary to technical/disciplinary learning goals. What I would like to see are more deliberate attempts to weave the two together.

But how can we do that?

Here are two quick examples I know of, labeled by the corresponding GFYG learning goal. (In upcoming posts, I’ll elaborate on a couple more from personal experience.)

Don’t fear failure; learn from it: A colleague in engineering teaches a project-based capstone course in which the first project he assigns is explicitly designed to give students the experience of failure. Not “now I can never get an A in this class” failure, but reality-check-worthy failure. Once the class has undergone this shared experience, the teacher explains why failure was (and often is) to be expected and, in so doing, he makes failure ok by emphasizing how much students can learn from it. The rest of the semester, students apply their lessons learned from failing fruitfully – along with a heavy dose of engineering principles, knowledge, and skills – to build some amazing projects. What I love most about this course is that, by providing students a safe space to fail, it turns what could be considered a negative experience into a highlight of the curriculum, where a GFYG goal and domain-specific goals end up supporting each other.

Work with each other to build something bigger than yourselves: Another colleague – someone who teaches Information Systems and Technology Consulting – designed a course in which students learn about Information Technology (IT) systems in order to engage in a team-based, client-serving project. Arguably, IT is an inherently applications-oriented field, so real-world cases and project work are already used by many faculty members to give students authentic practice. I find this course especially interesting because it goes a pedagogical step further by incorporating service learning. Students work with a client organization or government agency in a foreign country where the technology infrastructure is poor. The students learn to investigate the local IT need and devise contextually appropriate strategies to address it. Sometimes doing so is a real challenge because the basics we might take for granted (e.g., being able to rely on 24/7 electricity service) are not always a given in the client’s country. After doing preliminary work and consulting from afar, the students then spend time abroad working on the actual implementation of their IT solution. Through the process, students not only learn relevant technical and professional skills (e.g., how to write a detailed plan of action for a client), they often discover what it takes to revise their plans once on site, and they gain a meaningful experience from seeing their work have a positive impact on others.

So, what’s the moral of this commencement speech story?

A literal interpretation of this post’s message to faculty members and program heads might be this: listen to some graduation speeches, identify the GFYG goals that you want your students to achieve, and then find ways to integrate those goals into your curriculum. Admittedly, I would be delighted if even one person took that suggestion to heart. But I have a better one, and it’s a strategy you can implement any time of the year (not just at graduations). It’s a variation of two related strategies I learned from Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You have more time than you think.

Vanderkam’s strategies are motivated by the fact that we all have lots of great goals that are important to us but don’t necessarily get achieved… in part, she posits, because we don’t have a way to translate our “100 wishes and dreams” list into a “What I should do in the next 12 months” list. Sounds familiar, right? Her pro-tip is to be concrete about it by writing either (1) your next year’s Christmas letter – the family resume of adventures and activities you’d like to be able to send as an insert with next winter’s holiday greetings, or (2) your next year’s performance review – the report of achievements and activities you’d like to be able to show your boss when it’s time to discuss next year’s salary. In other words, Vanderkam advises us to sit down and write – yes, actually write – one of these documents as if we’re a year in the future, looking back on what we’ve already accomplished. Writing with this frame of mind keeps us focused on what we truly value (or we wouldn’t include it in these documents) and on what’s relatively feasible (because we’re thinking in concrete terms).

My variation on these two strategies is to suggest that you sit down and write a commencement speech – namely, the speech that you’d like to deliver at your current students’ future graduation, looking back on their “past” achievements and inspiring them toward their next steps. Try to be concrete, as with Vanderkam’s strategies. Then take a look at what you wrote and analyze it:

  • What achievements did you highlight? The specific contents of your speech will tell you something important (and maybe new) about what you really want your students to do when they are in school. Are your current graduates earning similar achievements? Are they having the impact you have imagined, in and out of the classroom? How could you foster them to do more of what your speech envisions?
  • What future actions did you seek to inspire in your would-be graduates? Here your speech can provide insight into what you want your students to be able to after they leave your institution. Do your current graduates have the skills and knowledge (and attitudes) to take on these great deeds? Do you have assessments in place to tell? In what ways are your graduates ready for life’s future goals and challenges, and how can you help them further?

Leveraging your commencement speech to ask and answer these questions can guide you to enhance your curriculum in ways that will enable your students – once they do graduate – to actually go off and do what you truly hope they will.

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