A few years away, but I’m back

Well today is my birthday so I thought I’d revive my long-stagnant blog about teaching and learning.  One of the great things with blogs is that whether your idea you choose to share is any good or not, you can still write about it.  I’m at one of those “seasons” of inspiration right now and trying to ramp up my writing so this is just another outlet for me.  Yesterday I was reading a short article by Parker Palmer (yes of Courage to Teach fame) and he writes,

I also learned that if you can’t write a book, write a lot of essays. If you can’t write an essay, write a lot of paragraphs. If you can’t write a paragraph, write a line or a word. And if you can’t do that on the page, write your truth with your life, which is far more important than any book. (Palmer, P. J. (2010). Taking pen in hand. Christian Century, 127(18), 22-25)

So that’s my plan, my goal, my objective by taking up the pen again.  I will use this as a repository of lines, paragraphs, and ideas.  Who knows where they’ll end up but I won’t lose them and that’s important to me.

I will commit to sharing at least one idea (hopefully a great idea) every week.  If I fall short please keep me accountable!  Yes, Mom I wrote that for you, my only reader!

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 – http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/01/13/bonuspay.  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.

We’d better give our heads a shake

Oil Sands

The Globe and Mail special on the Alberta Oils Sands is fascinating.  How we, as a species, can think that we can modify/extract/rape the earth like they are currently doing up by Fort McMurray and still remain sustainable is a question that needs to be dealt with.  Whether you believe in global warming/climate change or not, why should we be allowed to leave such a large, significant, dramatic footprint on the earth?  Sure there is lots of demand for oil, and sure, Alberta has a lot of it – basic economics aside, that doesn’t mean that we need to meet that demand.  Small children have an almost limitless demand for candy and TV.  I’m fairly sure that most parents don’t just cave-in and supply those “needs”.  So why do we have to do it with oil? Why can’t we just say – enough is enough and maybe we need to change our lifestyle to fit our environment rather than forcing change on our environment in order to meet our lifestyle?  I believe in small steps making a difference, in personal responsibility, and that it’s not too late.  So I ask you – what steps have you already made or what small steps are you willing to make?  We don’t need to learn from Ralph Klein or Ed Stelmach, I suggest that their way of thinking is: (a) greedy, (b) old fashioned, (c) corporate whore-mongering, or (d) all the above.  Comments are more than welcome!