Dear Christy Clark,

I know I won’t get a response; I’ll be lucky if anyone actually reads this.  I know a little about education and have a great deal at stake here in BC regarding the current labour issues with the BCTF so I hope you’ll at least consider what I’m about to say.  I spend most of my time working back east in Toronto and traveling throughout Canada.  Almost all my work is with 40 or so universities across the country – dealing with issues about entrance standards, curriculum, pedagogy, and faculty development.  I can’t say I understand how to teach kindergarten but I do fully understand what it takes to help a student in grade 12 prepare for entering university.  And I have some personal skin in that game as well – my 17 year old daughter should be starting Grade 12 this week.  Should be.


How do I explain to her that in nine other provinces the new Grade 12 students are now going back to school. They will have the full nine or ten months of education that their provinces have deemed ideal or necessary to help students learn the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary to enter university 12 months from now.  But here in BC the government is okay with letting our Grade 12 students fall behind.  I’m not okay with any delay for any student, but my disgust is particularly relevant for our Grade 12s.  They don’t have years to get caught back up and be at the same level as students from Alberta or Ontario.  And yes, less than six months from now BC Grade 12 students, and particularly my daughter, will be submitting their university applications to universities across the country, in the US, and elsewhere.  And what will those applications say?  “I was barely able to complete Grade 11; I wasn’t even able to have Grade 11 final exams.  And I haven’t even started Grade 12 yet.”

Now if you were an admissions officer at a university, how do you assess that student’s application when you are comparing it to students from other provinces where their Grade 12 students are actually doing classes, completing curriculum, and writing exams?  It’s not a good situation.  Perhaps if you have a son in Grade 8 or 9 who can make up the deficiency before they need to apply to university or perhaps if you choose to send your child to a private school where the current strike/lockout does not apply, you don’t care.  But I do because my daughter who is bright – really bright, and should have her choice of some top flight universities is being put at a serious disadvantage.  The sad thing is, there’s nothing she can do about it.  She’s spent 17 years working very hard to be at the top of her class and you are about to slam that door in her face.  Try explaining that to her.  I have tried and there is no good explanation.

Christy – you need to step up on this and actually be a leader.  Take charge.  I completely understand the difficult situation the BCTF and BC Government are in.  But as adults we shouldn’t be harming the future of our most valuable resource – the kids.   At a minimum, get the Grade 12s back in school.  I don’t care how you do it.  We’ll call it a reasonable step forward, a compromise, perhaps we’ll even say that we’re acting in the best interests of our kids.  Wouldn’t that be something?

So as an educator myself, as a parent of two kids in public school, as a parent of a Grade 12 student desperately waiting to start and complete Grade 12, and as a resident in the Premier’s own riding I’m imploring Christy to step up to the plate.  Usually I’d ask you to swing for the fences and get a home run, but I’m far too realistic.  All I’m asking is that you negotiate a walk and get to first base, or bunt the ball three meters and get to first base.  It’s not about winning the game, or the BCTF winning the game.  It’s about playing the game and realizing that there are multiple futures at stake here.  You keep trying for a homerun and missing the ball so just slow down and try a gentler approach.  Let’s get the Grade 12s to first base – in the door, back at the desks and labs.  Next year we can all rejoice and celebrate when those same Grade 12s go off to begin their lives as university students – a road that will lead them to joining the electorate, the workforce, and becoming socially responsible citizens of this province and country.  The other option is not acceptable and your lack of attention and leadership is deplorable.  So dust off your cleats, step into the batter’s box, and don’t swing for a homerun.  Small steps forward are better than no forward progress.

Yet another post on drunken student behaviour

I’ve posted before about alcohol use/abuse (and earlier) on campus and while I support the notion of “students growing up” I truly think that universities, administrators, faculty, staff and students need to approach this problem (and it is a problem) with renewed interest.  The article below is about how student groups were shocked/dismayed/upset at the University of Alberta’s recent decision to ban alcohol in public portions of some student residences.  I’m actually surprised that such use was ever allowed.  Yes the drinking age in Alberta is 18 but surely there are many minors in residence and why would public areas of a residence building ever be appropriate for drinking, drunken behaviour, and vomiting?  If you don’t think student drinking is a problem, read this – it’s disturbing and shocking.

A university must be primarily a place of higher education.  That requires a focus on learning and rarely do learning and alcohol go together.  In fact, learning and alcohol ABUSE never go together – well except for the first time you wake up with a hangover and say “never again”.  I’m all for holistic student development; university should not just be about formal learning in the classroom.  This is an excellent time to explore new things and meet new people.  Those don’t require being drunk.  If students think that wandering through four years of university in a drunken haze is acceptable, society has done something incredibly wrong.  If you want to drink your brains out, withdraw from school and fill your boots.

Kudos to the University of Alberta for their stance!

Click the image below for the full article and comments – trust me, the comments are entertaining.

Screen Shot 2012 08 15 at 10 26 33 AM

If you build it they may not come

If you are a late 80’s movie buff or a Kevin Costner fan you may have seen the movie Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner plays a character who builds a baseball field in the middle of a corn field because he believes that the baseball-great Shoeless Joe Jackson will come back as a ghost and play baseball in his field.  An odd premise for a movie to be sure but it spawned the relatively famous quote, “If you build it he will come.”  


It turns out that you can build something and have no one show up; that’s exactly what is happening at Research In Motion (RIM), the maker of the once-revolutionary Blackberry smartphone.  Like any wholesaler or retailer, RIM carries a certain amount of pre-built inventory on hand, ready to sell at a moments notice.  Grocery stores need milk and eggs, clothing stores need clothes, gas stations need gas.  These are all inventory – product that is intended to be resold.  Inventory is usually a current asset shown on the balance sheet.  Inventory management, that is, determining the correct amount of inventory to carry at any one time is a critical business skill.  Carry too much and the milk goes bad before you can sell it.  Don’t carry enough and you’ll have angry customers that purchase their milk at your competitor’s store.

Screen Shot 2012 07 21 at 11 11 47 AM

In RIM’s latest annual financial statements, inventory has grown from $618 M to $1,027 M, a 66% increase.  That by itself is not necessarily bad.  Businesses experiencing or about to experience strong growth and expansion would likely have similar inventory growth.  In RIM’s case though, the inventory increase is NOT due to growth but completely the opposite.  Inventory increases can also indicate slow-moving inventory; that is, no one is buying your stuff.  RIM’s rapid decrease in the smartphone market share is no secret.  If people stop buying Blackberrys and Playbooks but RIM continues to manufacture them, inventory must grow.

Another way to consider this is with the inventory equation: Closing Inventory = Opening Inventory + Units Manufactured – Units Sold.  If Units Sold decreases faster than Units Manufactured, Closing Inventory will be higher than Opening Inventory.

So, point #1: Inventory growth can be a sign of an unhealthy business.  This is certainly the case for RIM.

Point #2? Obsolete or slow-moving inventory may actually require a write down.  That is, the value recorded on the financial statements ($1,027 M for RIM) may be too high.  If RIM needs to decrease the selling price to encourage sales and that sales price is lower than the manufacturing costs, a write down is likely required.  Why does that matter?  Well for one, RIM’s assets would be smaller than currently shown on the financial statements and two, the write down is also an expense which would further decrease RIM’s net income (loss).

What’s the quick lesson here?  When you read a set of financial statements, look carefully at inventory trends.  If inventory is rapidly increasing and there is no planned business growth in the short term, that inventory growth may indicate that customers don’t like what that company sells.  Never a good position to be in.

Note: this blog was originally posted on my site hosted by Pearson Education (

How do we teach “critical thinking”?

Lots of higher education teachers talk about teaching or developing critical thinking skills in students but I’m never sure if (a) we’re all on the same page and (b) if we actually know what we’re doing.  This summary of a great article suggests that some teachers have some good data to make some decisions about how to teach critical thinking.

The original article is Carrithers, D., Ling, T., and Bean, J. C. (2008). Messy problems and lay audiences: Teaching critical thinking within the finance curriculum. Business Communication Quarterly, 71 (2), 152-170.  Available here if you’re a UBC faculty/staff/student. There are five major findings that can help us develop critical thinking in students:

1) Students don’t like “messy”.  They don’t like uncertainty or estimation and try to make the problem as simple as possible.  We need to help students get familiar and comfortable with making decisions with unknowns.

2) Students respond as if the professor is the key stakeholder even when the problem is introduced from a client’s perspective.  We must have them focus on the people involved and make the client central to the process.

3) Strong students write a textbook as their responses.  Students are so keen to show us that they “know it all”, they tell us everything.  Even when such information would not be appropriate for the client.  This relates to #2 above.  We need to get the focus off the professor and the grade and onto the process and the client.

4) Students write textbooks rather than “advice-memos”.  This relates to #2 and #3 – if students write to the professor they want to demonstrate their entire process rather than just give great advice.  Personally I encourage students to show me their thinking process, even if that wouldn’t be appropriate for the client.  Maybe I’m perpetuating #2 and #3 without knowing it?  I suppose I can ask for the process (i.e. how did you come to that conclusion) and the product (written for the client) as two distinct items?

5) Students like words not pictures.  Students do not use graphics effectively, they would prefer to write an entire page when one clear bar graph, pie chart, or table would sum it all up.  Are students unfamiliar with software to produce those graphics or have we focussed on page-length or word-count far too much?

A few thoughts to ponder …




Quotes – not mine!

This one will be brief – real brief.  I’ve had a few interesting discussions in the past few days and each one included a great quote.  One was Henry Ford’s: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”  The other was Albert Einstein’s: “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”

How does this relate to education, teaching and learning?  Ford’s is fantastic – I don’t want to dismiss student input into curricular and methodological issues, but educators need to be VERY careful designing education to suit students.  Just the other day I got my student evaluations from the fall semester – no surprises.  I knew one course had been a struggle, both for me and the students.  I think it was due to trying to do too much – not content, but rather trying to implement a new teaching philosophy too rapidly.  Half way through the course I knew it was not working and the student evals agreed with my assessment.  Was it a failure?  No.  I am still committed to the idea, I just need to implement it differently.  A perfect example of not flogging the same old horse (note: no horses were physically abused in this post:)

What about Einstein’s quote?  Passively accepting injustice or violence is clearly not appropriate, but either is passively accepting violence to one’s soul (reference to Parker Palmer’s deep thoughts).  Palmer claims that each of us needs to find careers that align with our soul – to do otherwise does violence to our soul (his phrase, not mine).  First, we have a responsibility to actively search and pursue our heart’s desire for a career – do not settle for less.  Second, we have a responsibility to help our students do the same.  I am happy to help a student choose not to pursue an accounting career if they are not committed to it.  In the long run, their happiness is at stake.

Kudos to both Ford and Einstein, thanks for the inspirations!

Students: consumers of education?

“The customer is always right”.  “Customer satisfaction”.  Those are phrases that get tossed around in pop culture all the time, but do they have any place on a university campus?  I read an interesting article about rewarding good teaching at Texas A&M by having students judge the best teacher and then giving out substantial sums of money –  Seems like a good idea, and it could go a long way to help improve general teaching but does it have any merit?

It reminds me of something I read a month ago about students as consumers of education.  For many years I considered that approach – the product is the degree, the students are paying for it, it made sense to think that the student is the consumer and to carefully consider their satisfaction.  The good news is that I’ve moved on to something I am more philosophically comfortable with, the bad news is that it sounds bad from a student’s perspective.  My new belief is that the learner is NOT the consumer, the learner is the product.

Following that thought, educators should not be focused making or keeping students happy (although that is important).  Rather, we need to ensure that the goals and objectives of your program get instilled and built within each graduating student.  As an analogy, take a raw piece of aluminum and construct an automobile.  Imagining that the aluminum has feelings etc – it is doubtful that the aluminum enjoys being stretched and reshaped from being a block of raw aluminum into some fantastic useful shape but such reshaping is necessary.

So does this mean I don’t care about students?  Absolutely I do, no question.  Caring about a student’s long term growth and development is exactly why I have such a philosophy.  Do I think that a class or a course should be a painful transition or reshaping?  Yes and no.  I have no doubts that a happy learner is a motivated learner.  Learning should be fun, but it shouldn’t be easy.  If your personal trainer only ensured that you were happy and comfortable, its doubtful you’d ever improve your fitness.  Perhaps education is not any different?

Comments from students are definitely appreciated!

A long time away

OK, so I haven’t posted anything on here for almost a year.  When I stopped posting last February, I was running into this conflict of writing about my teaching and learning in a personal way without pissing off students.  I have yet to come up with a complete answer to that but I need to share some interesting stories and do some venting!

First up – I read through my posts last year and noticed the Dec 7/07 one about congratulating the UFE grads.  I have similar sentiments for 2008 (well done!) but I took my concern about the UFE being the end-all measurement to the next level by writing a short article for the CAAA newsletter questioning the use of the UFE pass statistics: 

Some Thoughts From the Education Chair – Fall 2008

Have you ever thought about how good (or not) your institution’s accounting program is? Program evaluation is an important component to curricular improvements, yet few academics have any training in it. It’s not surprising then, that we are tempted to use inappropriate evaluation tools to measure the success of our programs. 

The professional accounting exams in Canada, such as the UFE, may be adequate or even excellent evaluation tools for determining whether individual students are qualified to obtain their professional accounting designation. Those same exams, however, are not good measures of your program’s success. During my short academic career I have experienced first hand two situations that you may recognize. First, School X’s accounting program was being “beaten” year after year by a nearby “competitor”, School Y. The faculty at School X had numerous meetings to try to figure out why this could be and what was wrong with their program?

Second, School Z was very proud of their student’s high?pass rate on the UFE, and would not hesitate to informally advertise it. 

I support internal program review, curriculum enhancement, and responsible advertising, but both situations mentioned above fail to make me smile. There are two flaws in the “logic” inherent in School X and School Z’s reactions. First, instead of reflecting solely on output measures, perhaps we should consider “value?added” measures instead. Second, professional education such as accounting should not be constrained to or even focused on one measure of performance, particularly one with such a short horizon after graduation from our programs. 

Attending one of our accounting programs hopefully enhances students’ abilities, performance, skills, and attributes. However, we can’t dismiss the importance of the students’ first 18 or 19 years of life before they began at our institution. Perhaps we should consider a measure such as Education Value Added (EVA) – that is, how much does your program add to a student’s development. In my opinion, programs with high EVA deserve more respect than ones with high UFE pass rates but low EVA. 

The second flaw in the “logic” is that each program supposedly has the same objective. While each program across Canada is concerned about helping its students achieve success on the professional exams, some programs likely have a (thankfully) much broader objective. I enjoyed watching Usain Bolt’s two gold-medal performances at the 2008 Olympics. I also watched American Bryan Clay win the decathlon event. Both gentlemen are terrific athletes; each has chosen specific events or objectives to pursue. Clearly Bolt could beat Clay at the 100m and 200m events, I suspect that Clay could beat Bolt at eight other events. Bolt surely does not wake up in the middle of the night concerned that Clay could beat him at the shot put or high jump. Likewise, once we’ve chosen appropriate objectives for our program, let us not become distracted by inappropriate comparisons.

Professional exam results can be used responsibly to help evaluate our individual programs. As we modify our curriculum, the year?over?year professional exam results may be useful as part of an overall evaluation strategy that needs to measure a broad set of personal attributes, professional skills, and technical abilities.  When the exam results come out at the end of November, I encourage you to first phone up a few past students that have been successful and congratulate them – that surely is the key purpose of publicly releasing the results. Then sit down with your colleagues and carefully think about how you can most effectively use that data to improve your program.


Sandy Hilton


I was speaking with some of my colleagues last week, both locally and nationally, and I was disappointed with their comments on students.  Any professor has either heard or thought comments about students’ lack of motivation, poor work ethic, or students’ seemingly disrespectful attitude towards professors.  Maybe I am a push-over or naive, but I have a belief that students are fantastic people that I can learn as much from them as I hope to teach.  Sure some students are keener than others, some are more focused, and some are more similar to “us” – but each student is an important part of this world, needs to be treated as such, and the “more difficult” ones need more care, not less. Someone once told me that when teachers whine about students study skills etc, we should remember our purpose here.  An analogy is like doctors complaining about all the sick people in the hospital and how the doctors’ job would be easier if the people weren’t sick.  Clearly that’s a pretty silly argument and I claim that whining about students is not much different. So, to the students I say thank you for being you, thank you for giving me a chance to interact with you, I really do respect that.  To the faculty I say deflate your ego and rise to the challenge.  The fruit of our labours is worth it, I have immense faith in that.

Curriculum design – the easy way?

I was listening to an operations management seminar today, and the gist of it was (well the part I understood) that there are three things a service business should consider: defining the target market, deciding on the product, and figuring out the delivery model.  Where should a post-secondary program start?  Some people may think that the target market is easy, all high school grads.  Luckily there is a wide diversity of high school grads and some are more suited to a business program than others.  If we attract students that will not thrive in our program, the program will fail.  The delivery model is also up for grabs.  Although post-secondary education has (and unfortunately still does) focused on the lecture method of delivery, psychology research clearly shows that its fairly ineffective.  Western has been very successful using the case-method, then we have the alphabet-soup of PBL, TBL and others.  Last, the product.  What is the product we are trying to deliver?  Great education of course, but are we specializing in certain industries?  certain functional areas?  certain thematic areas? Continue reading “Curriculum design – the easy way?”

Leadership – a rare jewel?

In my relatively short professional and academic career I have seen first hand the importance of good leadership.  Like most of us, I’ve experienced working for/with fantastic leaders and I’ve also experienced the drudgery of working for (not with) poor leaders.  There are lots of good books on leadership – interestingly, I suspect that the good leaders read none of them, they are, as you say, natural born leaders.  What is good leadership:

  •  not following – obviously being a leader means that you can’t be a follower.  What are you doing that is innovative, pushing the boundaries, and making tomorrow’s new product/service?
  • you have disciples – not drones, but disciples.  People that understand your vision, believe in your vision, and trust you.
  • you have vision – this goes with the first point.  As a leader you must have an idea of where you are headed.  Endless committees, delaying decisions, waiting to see what the market place looks like are not leadership skills.
  • you have courage – leading is risky.  If you don’t like risk or can’t handle the potential outcome, don’t take the position.  Warming a leaders chair does not make you a leader – at best you’re a caretaker, at worst you’ve tied up a chair that is critical to the institution.

I have not always agreed with a great leader (and in a few cases there have been some heated debates), but when all is said and done, I would still follow them into battle.  To the great leaders that have shown me the light, thank you.  To the weak leaders that are still warming seats, move on.