Waking to the Needs of Adult Learners. Dialogue with Stan Ward.

Hilary: Hi Stan, it’s a pleasure to meet with you again.  I know we want to talk  about connecting up our communities as we move toward the AR+ Transformations Gathering, a community organizing event around transforming the future of learning. But first things first. What’s holding your attention as you start into a new school year in your role as interim dean at Claremont Lincoln College?

Stan: My inquiry around the future of learning is highly pragmatic. What I mean by that is I work for a university wanting to engage students in an online space, in making a master’s degrees in pro social studies. Students may be interested in all forms of social impact. We have a peace and social justice program as well as a variety of organizational leadership programs. And part of our mission is to bring about measurable positive social change through practices of Mindfulness, Dialogue and Collaboration.

Hilary: I love this! Mindfulness, Dialogue and Collaboration. And the possibility of framing action research activities around those key practices.

Stan: Our school, Claremont Lincoln University, was a startup in 2011. It emerged from a larger institution of higher education to allow more focus on supporting students in social change. The accrediting agency required that we develop some sort of research system. And as we looked at who we were wanting to work, namely with adult learners, who are mid-career, with very practical concerns, I was brought in to shepherd that process. I spoke of action research as something that would be useful, it’s highly practical. It’s a good practitioner centered research model, it’d be a good fit. So without any previous training in action research, I jumped into this space with both feet and it’s been self-educating along the way.

Hilary: You’re appreciated as somebody who’s able to respond to our complex environment in a way that is helpful to those around you. That includes new student demands for a more change supportive model of research and learning.

Stan: Originally I came to CLU to work with some consultants from Pearson to design a new change leadership class for an online program. . Time went on, next thing I knew I was the interim Dean for the school leadership program. So there’s no five year plan here. More kind of walking along and responding as needed.

Hilary: Did you feel prepared for this role given your PhD training in leadership studies?

Stan: One of the dangers of the PHD system is you’re taught to think I’m the smartest person in the room and my job is to point out why everybody else is wrong. So the unthoughtful next step is often to come in as an instructor with a course design where I’d suggest five, six textbooks that I expect a student to read in a 10 week program. But they are adult learners. Much better if I show empathy for them, and challenge what are really unrealistic expectations of learning. It’s a sorting through what’s valuable versus what’s not valuable from the inherited system. We are trained that the instructor coming into the room is the expert. Right?

Hilary: And the action research spirit and principles calls for much more curiosity of what the participants bring with them into that room too. I think we are called to “respect the wisdom in the room.”

Stan: It feels in a lot of ways like what we’re doing is much participatory. Action research type projects are popular in education because we’re really big on the idea of the constructivist learning environment. I’m not coming in as the expert, certainly not with working adults who’ve had 30, 40 years in a career. So now we’re putting a topic essentially in the middle of the digital room and sharing and testing our observations and then synthesizing some new understanding that we can go out and apply in the world.

Hilary: We connected most recently in a webinar you hosted to explore how action research allows students respond creatively in our  VUCA world. And we explained VUCA with your lovely whiteboard technology.  Love that.  We also heard examples of action research by students in other programs similar to yours. I am remembering one was working as a firefighter helping rethink our fire management practices. Or another had a student project inside the community college system to help immigrants. So might I imagine that your program includes the same kinds of social change endeavors? And students share their work to get input from peers. Your program then shepherds them through a learning cycle around their concerns. Does that sound about right?

Stan:  Essentially. It’s very practice and skill-based. I’d mentioned three core skills of mindfulness dialogue and collaboration for change. So it’s taking a very skills driven model, and marrying it with course content that brings literature in the various fields of study, and then looking for how to apply that. Both in workplaces and in their communities, where their change endeavors are found.

Hilary: Given the origins, I’m thinking pastors and pastoral work may be part of the mix.

Stan: Originally we had a lot more folks in religious work and now that’s just one piece of what we do. Social impact is sort of the social entrepreneurship piece of ethical leadership. This shows up in healthcare leadership, human resources leadership. It used to be called interfaith action, but now we’re calling it peace and social justice. That seems to resonate a little better with the kinds of things we’re doing.

Hilary: What is terrifically clear is the values orientation. You’re asking from the get go that students be involved in some kind of pro social contribution. And by the way that these skills -of mindfulness, dialogue and collaboration – are very much the skills of what we might call double loop learning. It’s not just your usual learning. It’s a leap in kind from normal education to examine the values behind what we are supposed to be learning.

Stan: I think we’re still learning how to communicate those emphases in this paradigm shift. I definitely feel that the term “reflective practitioner” is a helpful way to think about what we’re doing. CLU is named for Mr. David Lincoln. He’s the Lincoln of Claremont Lincoln, and Claremont named for the location in Claremont, California. Mr. Lincoln recently passed away, but he’s famous for saying good ethics is good business. So that’s really what he wanted, namely a school founded on this idea that the majority of world religions can sort of agree that the golden rule is a good idea. So then the challenging question is what does it look like to try to bring this as an application to society somehow.

Hilary: Wonderful synergy with action research. That values orientation, coupled with what I see as developmental. Mindfulness, dialogue, collaboration grow people. You’re painting a picture of a liberated education system by telling us what you’re actually doing. Anything else to add perhaps in terms of the future?

Stan: I think I’m so caught up in the work that’s right in front of me right now. I’m just sort of trusting. Since it’s grounded in both good values and good process, we’re going to have good results, and let’s just see what those results are.

Hilary: I’m struck by a paradox I sense may be important to ask about. It’s how you lead with an emphasis on pragmatism. For many that is somehow in contradiction to a values orientation. Not that it has to be, but it’s so frequently held with an either/or approach. And so I’m curious about why you use the philosophically ambiguous term pragmatism.

Stan: With a background in humanities and philosophy, I’m definitely the idealist at heart. But there is danger and beauty in being an idealist. By definition you are inspired by beautiful things. The danger is the emotional crash you experienced when those things don’t come into fruition. I come from a world view that says the ideal is not attainable, but it is pursuable. And so when I think about pragmatism or pragmatic, I simply mean “practical,” those kinds of terms. And I have to say I used to see pragmatism as a dirty word. I really did. But I feel like one of the things that we have to do if we are going to make progress is learn how to marry the ideal with the practical. And that requires a certain kind of temperament. And I think reflecting on our earlier part of the conversation, that was some of what was going on when I went in to help redesign programs originally at CLU. I saw one instructor’s ideal that didn’t work for students — that you’re going to read all these texts on change and listen to this professor. But the reality was that ideal was so different from where the students were and what they really needed.

Hilary: So in a way, it was ideal but only for the instructor. The rest may have been rolling their eyes or simply leaving the program. Change agents don’t simply want to read about change. So even if its idealistic, it’s so disconnected from participants’ experience. So a more pragmatic approach means – let’s meet people in their experience which often is fairly practical – and then and then go from there and see what we can do. It grants that others may be idealistic too. But only if we’re pragmatic. Paradoxical!

Stan: You can be pragmatic while still being values based. I really appreciate your own emphasis on the “both-and.” Sometimes without meaning to I may over-simplify to the point that I unintentionally express concepts in an either or sense.

Hilary: Don’t we all! We can learn to trust more in a dialogic environment.  In that other persons will remind us that we’ve gone off track. You mentioned your worldview is one in which the ideal is pursuable but not attainable. That’s a very lovely formulation. Anything else to say about that before we proceed?

Stan: I prepared for Christian ministry earlier in my life. It’s a faith tradition where you have this idea that a person is made in the image of God. Yet also fallen. So, Humanity has both wonderful possibility and troublesome possibilities.

Hilary: Yeah. Behold the everyday truth of that. Behold the newspapers! As a worldview it heightens the fact that both is possible, right? The positive view helps balance the natural negativity bias of the brain. And the negative helps keep us safe, I guess. Its a good sesueway as I’m going to turn the conversation now toward what we might do together. AR+ and your organization. We’re wanting to invite people, like you, to thinking of ourselves as a community. A global community. So we will put a flag in the ground and actually have a community organizing event next March in 2019, at Chalmers. Not a conference, but an invitation to people who really want to be in a community that will accomplish something together. In some healthy mix of idealist and pragmatist. What exactly we will accomplish kind of up to the community to define. Perhaps that’s some kind of virtual university system using the current resources that are there.

Hilary: There is also a relational piece so people come together and feel enriched in this work. My hope is also to grow capacity for piggybacking on each other’s work, writing together, using media arts to make the work accessible. And so on. That gives a taste enough for me to ask, is this something for you?

Stan: I think I can speak on a personal level and then on sort of the university level as an ambassador for CLU.
On a personal level. I am doing the work in action research and I want to learn more with others. I have a PhD in leadership studies and when I started in that space I was a little anxious about it because I have for many, many years had this concern about the difference between manipulation and inspiration. it is an ethical issue. I felt like folks who were being recognized as some of the most effective leaders were straying into more manipulation than inspiration, aided by highly structured top down leadership models. Okay. So part of my leadership journey has been discovering this idea of leadership as a process, not a position. Helping folks appreciate what collaborative leadership really is, what it looks like, and I feel like action research really speaks to that. So on a personal level, I would love to develop a stream of literature that looks at action research for leadership development. Wouldn’t it be cool to take these participatory action research skills and marry them to some leadership concepts and then share that. So that’s on a personal level.

Hilary: I love the idea of a gathering helping us feel empowered as a community. Let’s not be so isolated in our pragmatic idealism.

Stan: Yeah. I know about isolated pragmatic idealism. I was that kid in the second grade who was getting beaten up all the time because of the “turn the other cheek” teaching. I was really trying to live that. I had to resolve that by saying to myself that the sermon on the mount is a beautiful teaching, but it’s in tension with the baser parts of human experience.

Hilary: That’s a deep double loop learning about our culture. But you were an early action researcher, practicing reflexivity in the second grade!

Stan: These conversations we’re having are confirming. There is a desire to create partnerships with other schools that are doing this kind of work. We don’t know what it’s gonna look like, but we want to be in that community. So part of my mission then as the Dean for the Capstone Program and the Director of the Center for Action Research is to help realize that community.

Hilary: I do believe where action research shows up in university settings is in the professional schools and it’s not necessarily even using that term which can make it hard to locate. So, I hear and share the desire to meet with other colleagues. Are there any aspirations, like what really are the business problems that you need to solve in partnership with others?

Stan: So again, the practical concerns for us are going to the student success. And so finding resources and creating resources that help students engage in this kind of work, and then produce meaningful work for them. That’s gonna be the bottom line.

Hilary: Is there is a need for your faculty to have a better understanding of action research?

Stan: One of the struggles we’re pushing against is there’s this dominant paradigm of what a thesis ought to look like. It’s either quantitative or qualitative and it just looks a certain way. Our action research model is saying, the emphasis is on connecting with folks, with stakeholders, and you’re not coming in with a pre-set idea and a solution but going in to talk with people, to learn what’s their experience. What are their values? Then together you can do and learn about something. So a thesis becomes telling the story of your experience doing that kind of work in an organized way.

Hilary: You’re developing this as I understand it, through the capacity building lens of dialogue, mindfulness and collaboration. I imagine that gives a flexible enough framework for comparison across. I could imagine that others would want to learn what you’re up to.

Hilary: We’re coming into creative community, right? Things will emerge. And we will help them emerge. I’ve appreciated our time. Thank you so much.

Stan: Take care. Enjoy the weekend.