Research Paper on My Experience in School

Identify and describe your own experience

Within the scope of this research, I will describe my own experience of utilizing particular skill within the organizational context. The skill at issue is formulating and presenting business proposals, and the organization is university for which I worked. The skill was really helpful when our team had to come up with the new version of curriculum strategy for the whole university. What follows below is detailed description of how this happened and how my skill was utilized during the process.

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Ian, our university expert on capability-based curriculum approaches, was speaking forcefully at one of our regular team workshops. ‘What you’ve got to understand is that what we do now is add a dose of skills development to a traditional curriculum. This is not what a capability approach is about. It won’t be enough. You have to be prepared to let go and completely rethink what…’

Tony, one of the school representatives, rose from his seat and thrusting his chest forward interrupted, ‘I take exception to your tone!’ Ian also rose from his seat. The tension was palpable. It felt more like a fight scene from a school yard than a group of academics working collaboratively to design a new curriculum. How could it have come to this? Peter, who was leading the workshop, somehow managed to defuse the incident and bring the event to a close. We retired to debrief. What was going on here?

For some time we seemed to have been going round in circles. The members of the design team came from five disciplinary backgrounds. Each adopted an approach to curriculum design and teaching practice that reflected some fundamental differences in their understanding of how the world worked and the nature of knowledge and learning. According to general theories of knowledge, such approach to curriculum design is subject to bias and should be scrutinized by objective participants before being implemented. (Tharp, 2003)

There was also questionable commitment to the task itself. The project had been initiated as part of university policy, and some of the team members saw it as another silly fad that, like other initiatives in the past, would go away if they just delayed long enough. Others believed that it made no sense because it was clearly impossible to build this kind of curriculum within the constraints of an under-funded university sector. Others felt that no change was necessary because they couldn’t see how it differed from their current practice. We seemed to be stalemated by a range of arguments that cycled between ‘It shouldn’t be done’, ‘It can’t be done’ and ‘We’re doing it anyway’. In an effort to break the stalemate we met with all the team members individually outside the workshop sessions, but nothing seemed to have much effect.

“The challenges and uncertainties of the curriculum design task are usually compounded by other changes that are occurring across the university.” (Bereiter, 1999) The state of constant change that characterizes the environment for our universities had been increased following the appointment of a new vice chancellor who had new ideas about what was important. We invested a lot of effort in talking to leaders in other sections of the university in an effort to clarify some of the issues that were inhibiting the progress of the design team. The problem was that these groups too were dealing with uncertainty and could provide no real firm ground for our work. Practically everything was uncertain.

There were two different responses to this within the team. One tendency was to try and cast us as instructors-’It’s your project so just tell us the answer and let’s get on with it.’ It seemed quite threatening for some members of the design team to accept that we didn’t know the answer, and in fact no one could provide the answer.

The other tendency was to redefine the problem in such a way that it became “a simple commercial proposition rather than a complex educational renewal project”. (Gergen, 2002) In one memorable encounter, a team member captured the mood of a workshop when he said, ‘Look, the way I’ve seen this all along is there is no mileage in this approach. The financial model is all screwed up. We’re never going to make any money from this. We should just cut our losses, put together a group of our existing courses and be done with it.’

So looking back, it is understandable that this workshop erupted as it did. It all seemed to be just too hard. Perhaps we were too ambitious to expect the team to develop a radically new curriculum in such a complex and uncertain environment. We had certainly under-estimated the obstacles of adopting an action learning approach in such a context. Notions that by creating an open process the team would engage with the key issues and jointly discover the solution had been clearly misplaced. We had been unable to build a shared understanding of the nature of the task, and a number of boundary issues had proven to be insurmountable obstacles. As a result there had been little evidence of constructive or collaborative action emerging from the team.

Feeling rather perplexed and dispirited that the previous couple of months had resulted in little obvious progress, we decided to take stock before planning our next steps. After thinking about what had happened we felt clearer, at least, about the problems we faced. More than ever we felt that we had to find ways to create conditions where team members felt safe enough to work in new and creative ways. A few things seemed clear. We both agreed that we shouldn’t attempt to sweep the hostility and defensiveness under the carpet. We needed to use it as a key opportunity for learning. We might be able to use it as a vehicle for engaging the group in reflection about what was going on, and as a means of getting them to take some responsibility as a team for the future of the project.

First we needed to consolidate our own learning. Upon reflection it seemed in leading an action learning team we had taken a highly discursive approach to the initial stages. We had opened up a ‘Pandora’s box’ of issues which may well have been relevant but which the group had no capacity to influence or control. We had tried to ‘talk’ our way through these issues but instead of building clarity and commitment we had unwittingly contributed to a sense of powerlessness, frustration and inertia within the group. We began to see the possible role we had played in contributing to the persistence of the circular arguments and reinforcing the dysfunctional blockages that we saw enacted over and over again in individual conversations and workshops.

We also noticed, for the first time, that the project had focused almost exclusively on the internal workings of the university and the current practices of staff. This had proven unproductive because a fundamental purpose of the capability approach to curriculum was to better prepare students to act effectively in the external professional and civic worlds they would enter upon graduation. We thought that an external focus might help to break the inward, blaming, competitive ‘us/them’ dynamic with a more outward, collaborative, ‘we’re all in this together’ one.

Turning to our conceptions of ourselves as learning leaders in this form of professional development, we needed to face some unpleasant possibilities. Perhaps our desire for the project to be ‘owned’ by the team members meant that we had hesitated to take the initiative and suggest directions or possibilities. As leaders we didn’t want to ‘tell them the answer’, but we could take a more active role in summarizing and reflecting back to the group possible interpretations from their thinking. This would provide a focus for further reflection and action, and if done carefully we could move the team forward while avoiding the danger of speaking for the group. (Tharp, 2003)

We resolved to spend the next workshop reflecting with the group on where we were with the project, how we had got there, and we hoped to guide them to an agreement that for a short while they would suspend disbelief and engage in some constructive action. Two forms of action came to mind. We could tackle some more structured workshops to develop a profile of the kinds of capability a graduate from the Bachelor of Commerce should possess. Second, we would plan a conference for all the stakeholders for the degree-industry, students, alumni, university representatives from related project areas. This would provide an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the emerging professional environment and the nature of capable practice for a beginning business graduate.

We adopted some specific practices that we hoped would “contribute to building a safer and more creative working environment.” (Scardamalia, 1996) First, we would only distribute agendas for the workshops a couple of days in advance. Our aim was to reduce the opportunities for factional groupings to plan their positions before the group activity or discussion had taken place. We would also make sure that agendas were based on openly framed questions or activities that would encourage engagement with clearly defined aspects of the work, which is the best approach according to the theories introduced in the new century (Tharp, 2003).

Establishing an electronic forum also seemed like a good idea. This would allow conversation between workshops, contribute to a sense of group identity, but most importantly allow comments to be made or alternative suggestions to be posted with a greater distance than is possible in face to face contexts. This might allow ‘space’ for initial angry or dismissive responses to be calmed or reconsidered before workshops, and contribute to more considered and careful interactions.

Armed with these ideas we approached the next workshop. On the way we confided to each other a sense of considerable trepidation. It all seemed so clear and reasonable when we talked with each other, but some of the clarity and confidence evaporated as we neared the room. It was with some relief but also consternation that we discovered Tony was not attending. In his absence the team took a more constructive approach, and even though many issues remained unaddressed, the team reached agreement on some immediate actions.

The team decided that our next event would be a type of role play. All the school representatives would imagine themselves as the heads of the relevant departments within a large company. In this role they would explain to a new graduate undertaking a rotation in each department what he or she was expected to do. From this we wanted to extract a profile of capabilities.

On the day of the role play workshop we arrived early to cover the walls with butchers’ paper so we could capture the outcomes from the imagined conversations. All was in readiness and we waited for all the school representatives to arrive. We had just reviewed the purpose of the workshop and how we might make a start when Tony came in late. He sat quietly for a while but then, unable to contain himself any longer, intervened explosively. ‘I can’t work with butchers’ paper. We should be using electronic tools to do this work. This is the height of hypocrisy. We can’t do this work cold. No one is prepared. It’s a waste of time.’

Shock made us calm. Robyn patiently explained the decisions of the previous workshop, and while it would be wrong to suggest that we had complete support or a high level of conviction from the team, there was sufficient support to give it a go and learn together. We asked him to reconsider, to stay and to contribute. He hesitated for a while but then packed his papers and left. The workshop concluded with a bundle of disorganized butchers’ paper scrawls, but from this our first profile of capabilities began to take shape.

Something had to be done about Tony’s persistent and aggressive behaviour. There were enough indicators that we were starting to form as a learning community that the team reluctantly decided we would approach Tony’s head of school and request he be replaced with a new representative.

All the old issues resurfaced along with some new ones. There was a great deal of uncertainty whether the degree was to be offered in an educational context or at an off-shore location. There was also confusion about the mode of delivery. While we were designing for a mixed mode approach with a significant amount of face to face interaction, some participants had heard that the degree was to be fully online. And the old issue of money came up.

A couple of participants expressed the view that it was ‘a very fine and lovely educational idea’ but there was no way the degree proposed could be offered at the off-shore location for the fees negotiated. In the absence of the faculty managers who could clarify these issues, the last session of the conference was a debacle. Participants tried to plan actions for the next stage, but there was little conviction that the effort would serve any useful purpose. It seemed we were again victims of continuing ambiguity and uncertainty, and in the final session participants expressed their frustration by turning aggressively on the conference facilitators.

Too tired and depressed to think productively, we shambled off to the pub for what felt like a wake. But we couldn’t let it go. We asked ourselves over and over again, ‘What is going on here?’ How did this happen? Had the team become so caught up in the development of the capability profile and the design of the degree that we had lost touch with the direction that senior faculty decision makers wanted the program to take? In overcoming many of the dysfunctional dynamics within the team we had managed to create a learning community, but clearly this was not enough. Again, it all seemed too hard, but at least we had a weekend to think about it.

It was the first e-mail we opened when we returned to work. Simply titled ‘The Bachelor of Commerce’, it contained a short video clip with the message from one of the design team members, This is what it feels like.’ The video was of a small, green, one-eyed, animated creature on stage singing the Gloria Gaynor song I Will Survive. She walks tentatively toward the viewer but increasingly gains in confidence until she is belting out the tune with conviction. Just as she reaches the climax a mirror ball, previously out of frame, drops from above and squashes her completely. (Gergen, 2002) This, indeed, was how it felt. But what should we do?

The design team met for a review session. Because the team was now well formed, with a core group working very effectively on the programme design, the setback served to reinforce the sense of team identity. As we reflected on the workshop, the team felt that its work had become isolated from other groups within the faculty, in particular the managers who would make key decisions about such issues as mode and place of delivery.

From this point the project continued on two fronts. One involved the design team working long and hard to develop, detail and document the design for accreditation. The other involved us in attempting to create a learning environment that connected the work of the team with the faculty’s managers.

The first of these worked effectively, with the design team practices drawing on the lessons learned in the earlier part of the development. We could rely on this group to keep working through the educational issues to invent ways of going from our now endorsed capability profile to a detailed programme design. We had successfully created a vibrant and collaborative learning community around this task.

As leaders we continued to take more responsibility for arriving at propositions for how we might take educational concepts and develop ways to use these for design. The balance of leadership changed, however, as other members were able to contribute their greater expertise regarding business practices, and current and possible approaches to teaching and learning. (Wells, 2001) As a team we invented methods of mapping the capabilities over the curriculum, and ways to communicate the specific responsibilities of individual, concurrent and follow on courses to those who would develop them in detail.

The work was never easy intellectually but the team dynamics were much less fraught. Quite often, the substance of the work and the dynamics of doing the work would come together. We found ourselves saying, ‘You know, we are designing a program where students will develop a whole range of capabilities we don’t have! If only we knew how to work in a team and to engage respectfully with professionals from different practice cultures!’ But now it was possible to have vigorous discussions. It was much more likely that these would end with, ‘Yes, yes, I see where you’re coming from’, ‘We’re on the same train’, ‘Let’s do it’, ‘Let’s try that.’ (Wells, 2001)

The work continued to be both hard and exciting. The accreditation document captured much of the learning from this process, and generated new ideas that have been incorporated into the university’s programme approval and Quality Assurance processes. Senior managers in the university commended the design as an exemplar for the university, and congratulated the design team on the quality of its work.

The outcome of the search conference had clearly identified shortcomings of not involving faculty management in the project. The engagement of academic staff was critical, but without the ongoing commitment and support of faculty leadership it would be impossible to deal effectively with the impact of the complex, evolving and potentially competing educational and management priorities on the programme.

We had made presentations and sent reports to faculty managers early in the process, but we had failed to establish effective and ongoing dialogue. Clearly the leadership group were driven by different pressures and priorities, and seemed unable, or unwilling, to engage with the problematic issues that had emerged from the project.

The review report from the stakeholder conference was rejected, and a proposed forum between the faculty leadership and the facilitators of the stakeholder conference was cancelled at short notice. We had requested this forum to try to consider openly the contentious issues that had vexed the conference itself. Subsequent attempts at dialogue and requests for reconsideration of the project timeline and delivery mode resulted in increasingly hostile and truncated meetings. Finally we were advised that no further discussion would be entered into, and we should ‘do what we were told’. This we did, but with grave misgivings about the likelihood that the innovations embedded within the program design would be realized in practice.

As a final contribution Robyn conducted an evaluation of the project. All those who had been involved in the project were invited to participate in an unstructured interview to describe their experiences and reflect on what they had learned. From members of the design team there was often a strong acknowledgement of learning. ‘I learned so much from you two about what a capability curriculum means, how to do it.’ This learning was clouded, however, by a sense of confusion and distress concerning why it had proved so difficult. A number of the managers declined to participate in the interviews. Those who did reflected upon their lack of connection, and the sense that this project had in many ways threatened their sense of control and ownership of their school’s contribution, challenged their perception of their professionalism, and in these ways been disempowering.


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