The late Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture) described the role of professor as being a fitness instructor for the mind. As I have been considering ways to improve my own skills as an instructor/facilitator and as a mentor/coach, that image haunts me and inspires me.
There are two kinds of fitness instructors. One kind you just hate. They’re mean-spirited, demanding the next-to-impossible as if it were easy, and they’re dismissive of your genuine efforts, scoffing that you’re not trying hard enough. The other kind you love to hate. They push you, stretch you to your limits without breaking you, cheer you on, build on your strengths. They tell you, “you can do it.” They explain technique and tell you why it’s important. They set demanding but reachable goals, and work with you to achieve them. They don’t let you get away with slacking off. It’s not easy working with this kind of fitness instructor, either, but you leave your workouts feeling good about yourself and ready for the next challenge. As a fitness instructor for the mind, that’s the kind of professor and coach I want to be.
Becoming an effective fitness instructor requires two things: knowing what it means to be fit, and knowing how to work with people to get them there. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been clarifying both for my own role as a fitness instructor for the mind. I’m defining the skills and knowledge base that I want to strengthen, and I’m considering a different method of challenging my students and my colleagues to get there.
In doing some further reading on 21st century work skills, I’ve come across a starter list of the skills that need to be the focus of our mind fitness exercises. We should be working to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills; collaboration and influencing skills; agility and adaptability; initiative and entrepreneurialism; effective oral and written communication skills; the ability to access and analyze information; and – best of all – curiosity and imagination. (List from Tony Wagner.) These skills can be honed through course assignments and through work-based coaching if we do our jobs well. I’m also a strong advocate of a scholarly, evidence-based approach to workplace learning, and we can enrich people’s understanding of the theoretical and research base of our field – and why it’s important – as we coach on projects. In our field, we can focus on designing learning strategy as a core skill as well. I’ll be continuing to clarify what I think are the critical few areas of focus.
As to how to strengthen the mind without sapping the spirit… The strengths movement and appreciative inquiry perspective both talk about how to take strengths and leverage them. Both approaches remind us to ask questions that move us in a positive direction rather than highlight what is wrong and fix it. I want to develop that approach. Being able to identify what is missing from a project or an assignment and provide feedback is an important role. But I’m considering that another way of approaching that role is to spin the feedback around the good that can be found in any effort. Together with an employee or student, I can ask: What positive features can we bring forward and expand? What message is intended and how do we strengthen it? How is this effort reflective of the characteristics of the ideal, and what changes could we make to have it be more so? What learning do we want to take from this experience that can be applied in later efforts along these same lines? I’m hopeful that I can become more encouraging but no less demanding, and I’d welcome any additional suggestions in this effort from fellow fitness instructors of the mind.
I see the role of professor/mentor as an important responsibility and opportunity. Teachers and coaches can have a tremendous impact on the people around them – either for good or for ill. It’s well worth considering how to be among the best in these roles, and it’s one of my personal commitments for 2009 to become more fit myself in this area.