Lessons I Have Learned | Barratt

written by: Will Barratt

As a retired Professor of Student Affairs and Higher Education, I have watched the intellectual, theoretical, and practical climate of our field change over the nearly 50 years of my professional life. These are my lessons learned. These may well be different from your lessons or different from what may benefit you now. These are the lessons that have served me well in multiple settings, from pre-Internet classrooms in the US to workshops at the US Embassy in Ulan Baatar, Mongolia, and many venues in between.  I learned some of these lessons at a much younger age, some are relatively new to me, and some just keep getting refined.

What does the research say?

Science is real. The round Earth is widely accepted because of experimental results. Applying our trust in science to professional life is another thing altogether.  All too often campus decision-makers form new campus policies and practices that depend on the few students who speak with them. All too often decisions are made primarily on the basis of feelings with little emphasis on data. What we like is what we like, but what may be most effective for others may be quite different than what works for us. One of the purposes of graduate class reading is to develop a knowledge base and skill set based on demonstrated success. Learning how to get good information, how to evaluate good information, how to understand our own roles in this process, and how to use good information in our everyday practice is a critical professional skill.

Books like the “How College Affects Students” series are a must read. These books are a summary of the science, the research base, of the profession. They summarize our foundational knowledge base. Do students actually develop in college? Are there differences in student learning outcomes between colleges? What is the most effective leadership style? The answers are in those, and other questions are in these volumes. The answers are both simple and complex. Yes, students do develop in college, but it depends on the student and on the experiences the students have.

Learning is the acquisition of knowledge and skill as the result of experience.

Read that slowly and think about each word. Knowledge refers to a knowledge base, a collection of facts and figures and often called declarative knowledge. Skill refers to a skill set, a how to, like critical thinking and often called procedural knowledge. Results is an emphasis on outcomes. Experience is an emphasis on process and a way to identify events that have an impact on learning. As a teacher I was in the experience business. As a learner I am in the learning business. Teaching and learning are quite different.

Learning declarative knowledge, facts like names of Chickering’s seven vectors and APA formatting rules, is most effective in certain types of learning experiences. Memorizing word lists is a declarative knowledge learning experience. In-classes exams over content are an indicator that declarative knowledge is important to the teacher. Declarative knowledge typically has an expiration date, procedural knowledge does not. Knowing the names of the Chickering’s seven vectors has diminishing utility, and basic communication skills is always a basic skill.

Learning procedural knowledge, skills like critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, or riding a bicycle is most effective in certain types of learning experiences. In-classes essay exams, papers, short analytical case studies, and the like are hallmarks of an emphasis on procedural knowledge. I personally value procedural knowledge, but I always read the University Handbook so I can cite the rules.

Unlearning is often critical to new learning. Software updates usually require us to unlearn declarative knowledge and software skills in order to learn new knowledge and skills.

What should students know and what students should they be able to do are foundational questions. How much emphasis should be placed on knowledge, and how much on skills? Should a class on multicultural issues focus on information or on skills? My answer is always that a skill, procedural knowledge, how to, is the most important and enduring part of lifelong learning.

My lifelong learning involved serving on a lot of campus committees, from search committees to campus wide IT policy committees. I used committee membership to build knowledge and skills. In my final years on campus I was asked to be on some serious campus committees, for example the faculty promotions appeals committee. I took that assignment as others’ confidence in my knowledge base and skill set built up since my own graduate school days.

Learn how your brain works.

Pay attention to how your brain works. Your brain works in predictable ways, and developing language about how your brain works gives you agency in your life and learning processes. Developing multiple ways to understand how your brain works gives you multiple pathways to be more effective in your world.

Big Five Personality is an empirically derived model (science based) that has been repeatedly confirmed by research for over 40 years. Based on factor analysis of personality tests using large numbers of participants in multiple nations, Big Five remains the dominant research-based model of personality that provides language on how our brains work. Our personality, as assessed using a Big Five tool determines a lot about how we learn, how we think, how we feel, and how we interact with others. Simply put, Student Affairs is dominated by people who score high on extroversion and who create many learning experiences for people who are extroversion-centric thus excluding people who score high on introversion. When you have a lot of extroverts in a student affairs staff meeting you have an extrovert echo chamber. That discriminates against, or oppresses, those who score high on Introversion.

I am purposely not directing the reader to specific resources on Big Five personality in order to encourage readers to develop self-guided learning skills.

Learn how other people’s brains work.

The basis of effective leadership and effective relationships is working well with others. Using the same research-based language and model for yourself and for others helps to articulate issues on communication and mis-communication. Avoiding categorizing yourself, or others, because categories are not developmental, not growth oriented. Don’t say “I’m an extrovert.”  But rather say “I have a tendency to be extroverted, and in dealing with this person who seems a little introverted I need to be sensitive to how their brain works.”

Research helps in developing our language on how people’s brains work. On the other hand, many people base their notions of how other people’s brains work on their feelings. I would rather rely on Big Five personality research than on horoscope signs and birth year. There are myriad models used to understand ourselves and others, often having a positive emotional effect, but few of them have any research base. As I wrote above, research should provide a foundation for practice.

Multicultural issues are more complex than we can imagine.

The list of individual and social differences is extensive. The importance, in the moment, in context, of each diversity varies a lot. In the 15 years before writing this chapter I spent a lot of time outside of the USA. In the last eight years I have lived exclusively outside the USA. Diversity issues, on a global scale, are unimaginably complex. As a Fulbright Global Scholar working at Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia my local mall celebrated every holiday through decoration. I often found out it was a holiday by going into the mall and seeing new decorations. The malls in KL are quite different in many ways than malls in the USA.

KL has ethnic diversity that is celebrated. On the other hand I gave the first two workshops on diversity at Universiti Malaya. Before moving to KL I was Professor of Educational Leadership at Roi Et Rajabhat University, Roi Et, Thailand. Unlike KL, my region of Thailand was nearly a mono-culture, and diversity was a non-issue until I brought it up. I also gave workshops around Asia, giving me a wider perspective on differences both within and between nations and cultures. It is safe to say that students and the educational context in Jakarta are very different than in Ulan Baatar. Learning what diversities are important in what context is a skill set.

A typical US undergraduate student, if there is such a person, has a world view with limited geographical and social horizons. Consequently, seeking to expand that typical student’s world view can be difficult. Differing performances of gender, for example, in rural Thailand and urban US, go to the basics of the idea of gender, in both settings.

A neurotypical student, if such a person exists, becomes the norm against which we compare the outliers, the neurodivergent students. But what if we are all outliers in our own way? What if we assume that everyone we work with, study with, listen to, is neurodivergent in their own way. The current common meme about others fighting battles we know nothing about is true. Trying to fit in with a student affairs culture is a challenge for some of us. Introverts in an extrovert staff meeting find the experience trying. Those with ADHD in a campus culture of details and planning find the experience difficult.

Differences from the macro to the micro, from differences between students at the National University of Mongolia and Indiana State University, to differences between how gender is normed in different mainstream Midwest social classes make diversity a very complex network of people and context.

Change is a constant.

Campus demographics, finances, accountability, technology and even classrooms change. Campus software changes, social media changes, competencies needed in social media change. It is critical to have the knowledge base for the current campus software and applications, it is important to have the skill set to keep up to date with changing times.  I am tempted to play the ‘back in the day’ card here, but you who are reading this are currently in what will become your own back in the day.

Recognizing change is a skill. Managing change is a skill. “We’ve always done it that way” is the denial of change. The fall campus demographic report is a source of knowledge about our changing student populations. Seek out information about the real, research based, current state of the campus and you will keep up with changes the affect your life. Better yet, sit on the committees and task forces on your campus and you can both learn about the present and about possible futures, and you can develop your interpersonal and group skills.

Keeping abreast of the financial and power dynamics in higher education and keep ahead of the changing knowledge bases and skill sets in the field.

Articulate your values often.

You do you. Classic good advice. Take the time to articulate your values. Discuss them, write them down, create a priority list, tell stories about them, do what works for you to articulate them. When an interviewer asks you to tell a little about yourself, you already have most of an answer.

tl;dr*  – Your skill set is more important than your knowledge base.

* too long; didn’t read

Will Barratt, Ph.D. is the Coffman Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Educational Leadership at Indiana State University. Will has lived in 7 states and 6 countries, studied at 4 universities and worked at 3 in the US and 2 abroad, one as a Fulbright Global Scholar. Currently retired, he is a global nomad and wrote this chapter while in Paraguay and Uruguay.