Coe College President David McInally talks education in the Perrine Gallery. PHOTO ADAM MOORE
Sponsored by West Bank, this is the latest edition of the CBJ’s Q&A feature with Nate Kaeding and notable Iowa business and cultural leaders, available first to CBJ members. Read more about the idea for the series here, and watch the video interview at the CBJ’s YouTube channel.
By Nate Kaeding
This past spring, as my oldest son Jack prepared his history report for third-grade social studies, he sat at the kitchen table and blurted out, “Alexa, who is Lewis and Clark?” Without even lifting a finger, the answer traveled through the airwaves and onto his page. I couldn’t help but laugh and think back to my own school days, when I (at least) had to get up, walk over to the family book shelf and leaf through a set of World Book encyclopedias to do my research.
Without a doubt, the process of how we learn and obtain facts has undergone dramatic changes in recent years. But just because learning has become more effortless and convenient doesn’t mean it is any less important or complicated. In fact, as Coe College President David McInally professed during our recent sit-down, today’s challenge in higher ed is less about what students know, and more about the know-how. How does one learn how to ask the right question? Discern fact from fiction? Work together in diverse teams to arrive at multifaceted solutions? What about empathy, respect and humility? Can we learn these skills?
That sort of know-how is at the foundation of any successful career, and leaders like Mr. McInally are at the forefront of retooling education for the information age. I sat down with him at the historic Perrine Gallery in the Coe Library to talk change and the art of learning:
NK: You’ve spent your entire career in higher education – from your perspective, how has learning changed over the past few decades?
DM: One of the things that’s changed the most is that learning at one time was faculty-centered, and now it’s student-centered. There are probably a hundred things that have happened in between – it really is a fundamental difference in the class approach. Obviously, technology has come into the picture, and economic circumstances affect that. Take higher ed, for example – most of that used to be funded by the government, now most of it is funded by students and their families. In terms of what happens in the classroom, there is much less time spent lecturing and much more spent on engaging activities that pull students, like discussions, leading their own projects and doing research.
What are a few characteristics that make someone a good learner?
Funny advice that our student athletes used to get is “sit in the front of the room so the professor knows that you’re paying attention.” Whether they were or not, it looks like they were. It’s harder to choose not to participate when you’re in the front of the room, when you’re engaged in it. If you want to be successful, it comes down to not just acquiring the information you think you need, but also asking, “why is that important for me to know? How does it connect to other things I’m learning?” I don’t know how many people over the years told me, “I don’t need to learn calculus or trigonometry because I’m going to be a writer.” Well, that’s a superficial way of looking at it, because you do need to learn quantitative reasoning, which you pick up in those classes.
In this day and age, it’s not always knowing the answer, but knowing the right question to ask.
Absolutely. Curiosity is one of the things that I think defines us as human. It makes us learn more when we ask, “why is this the way it is?” and “how can it be different?” To frame a good question, I think a lot of it is encouraged by good faculty who, when a student comes to class after reading the materials, ask “what questions does this raise?”
In a college environment that’s incredibly important. That, for me, is really what has changed [in education] – approaching the risk of passiveness and Googling everything. That’s fine, but are you asking the right questions, and are the answers helpful and meaningful? It has shifted from acquiring knowledge to separating fake news from real news.
Can you teach someone to be a good learner? Or is that a more innate quality?
I absolutely think you can teach them, and like anything else, it’s practice. If you’re a professor, and you have a group of students who don’t seem too engaged, you’re not doing anyone any favors by trying to teach them 20 things at once. Pick the two or three things you want to work on and practice them, because learning is a process, not something where you can just flip a switch. You develop the ability to read more closely or identify a meaningful question, and then that’s the foundation you build on.
How have you designed an experience where the students you teach aren’t just focused on their one domain?
This is a sacred beauty of college. I don’t believe that everyone has to go to college, but in our case, what we do is described as a “liberal arts education.” What that really means is that a populace has to be properly educated to run itself in a participatory democracy. In other populations, everyone has a single technical skill. We think it is an essential service to society to not just develop a skill for one particular job, but the ability to learn and integrate knowledge and acquire new knowledge. The way we do that is through the curriculum, where every student is liberally educated. Those who are studying nursing are also studying business. Those in a traditional liberal arts path like literature are studying math. They’re all liberally educated.
One of the progressions of that is the library, which used to be stacks of books, but now it’s about shared workspaces. There are still lots of books, but there are also a lot of places where students can use technology or work in groups to solve problems.
If you could wave a magic wand over the country and be president of the University of the United States of America, what classes would you make mandatory? What do you think we, as a society, need to learn?
We’re kind of drowning in information, so if I did have that magic wand, I’d want us all to recognize the complex problems. An example I would give is health care. The Affordable Care Act rolled out and there were a lot of problems with technology and other issues. With an issue like health care, if you want to address that, they [citizens] had better know something about biology, but also economics and communications and technology – I could go on and on. They all have a role in solving that complex problem.
Learning doesn’t stop after high school or college. Talk a bit about the importance of learning as a life-long pursuit.
I believe that college is a fun place to be. It’s stimulating in all kinds of ways. But our greatest impact isn’t what happens here. Hundreds of students leave here every year and go into their communities or their workplaces and lead or contribute in a way that is more meaningful. They are more aware of the needs of society as a whole than they would’ve been if they hadn’t had their education, and so I think for me, the first characteristic of a lifelong learner is someone who sees the common good as their responsibility and have the ability to solve problems and collaborate successfully in a global society. Those are the skills that will always be needed, no matter what.
More broadly, how is the educational landscape changing for liberal arts colleges like yours?
There has been quite a bit of change and a lot of liberal arts colleges are struggling, especially for enrollment. We’re very fortunate to say that’s not true at Coe, but the trend is that the student population is not afraid of change. What we used to teach as a particular topic a couple years ago may not work now, because the culture has changed. This generation has grown up with tools the previous generation did not have. We are constantly moving and attending outside conferences to try and adopt those practices from others, and creating our own.
There is a tendency for most organizations, when they do strategic planning, to begin with a focus, do a traditional SWOT analysis and focus on their wishlist. When we did it here, it was all focused externally first with what we call an environmental scan. We looked at political, economic, social and technological trends, and then tried to figure out what kind of college could be successful in that world. Our world changes too fast to look ahead 20 years. We developed a plan for what’s to come in the next three or five years, looking at that external environment.
With that in mind, how do you reinforce the unique value proposition of residential education when students have so many other choices these days?
I celebrate all forms of education because we still have a lot of people who would like to have more education and are able to do it. I don’t think we have to worry about finding other opportunities. It’s important for any organization to know what you do well, who you are, and try to do that better than anyone else. For us here at Coe, that’s residential, undergraduate education. Other education sources exist and are integrated. They don’t replace face-to-face education, but technology and online courses can be used.
A lot of teaching and learning happens outside of the class. It’s unstructured and happens one-on-one with the professor, where you go to their office and talk more about a concept you don’t understand. There are also activities and a lot of learning occurs through those. You can’t do that online. It’s the same with performing arts, where you really need to learn with a team and take risks together.
Looking ahead, say 30 years from now, how will the process of how we learn be different?
I think it will definitely be more self-directed and will sample from a lot more places. Long before they get to higher education, they [students] will have figured out how to get all the information they could possibly need. Learning will instead be about problem-solving and group work, about research and creativity, learning to ask the right questions. We don’t know what that will look like, but with other substantial changes to society in the past, humans have adapted to it. There was an agricultural and an industrial revolution and I think the same will be true for the information age.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
What other profession would you most like to attempt?
People often ask me if I’m a minister. I think I would go into the ministry, because people don’t ask me if I’m an athlete or a rock star.
Favorite business leader?
Marv Levy, a Coe grad and Hall of Fame NFL coach. His leadership style is based on balance, and he had the right values to help people make themselves successful team members.
Preferred news source?
I start with the Cedar Rapids Gazette over breakfast and then the Washington Post.
Podcast or TV show?
It’s a tie between my two favorite shows, “The Office” and “Game of Thrones.”
Favorite motivational quote?
If I had to pick one, it’s from Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull: “It’s only the giving that makes you what you are.”
If you had an extra 30 minutes a day, what would you spend it on?
I would play my guitar and write songs. I think creativity is one of the qualities that makes us most human.
In one sentence, how do you define success?
Serving the greater good, no matter what your organization or industry.