Using “my voice” in class

•April 22, 2014 • 1 Comment

Maybe you didn’t notice, but I used my voice frequently in class. No, I didn’t talk about the specific needs for a returning combat veteran. But at times, I shared in the psychological struggle, the similar feelings associated with being “an outsider” to an established and close knit group, and the courage needed to stand up for my beliefs.


I started silent for first two classes and then found my courage to voice a different opinion – I noticed, seriously, classmates snickering when I would speak. It didn’t matter. I knew my perspective was different and something they didn’t want to hear, but something they needed to hear in order to be more effective when serving others.


My success and connection to the course is a direct function of the pedagogy employed – the student-centered, group-based learning community model. My courage to speak in class was derived from my belongingness, which began with the friendly folks in my learning community and spread to the class. The professor could have suggested to each student, “hey, go out of your way to befriend Shane, since he’s new to the cohort group.” But, I didn’t want to feel like a charity case. Instead, the course was structured in such a way that my success was a function of my teamwork, which required me to know my team.

It’s on me too

It’s easier to expect or feel entitled to getting extra benefits or even to complain when you don’t, but I learned early on that you are responsible and accountable for the success of a team. Thus, I held a 3-hour initial meeting with my learning community team in order to talk about their “why,” our shared and differing philosophies on people and education. It wasn’t the instructor’s responsibility to direct individual behaviors, but to set the goals and structure with suggestions for processes (e.g., work together and collaboratively on each project). I knew I was responsible for my learning and my group’s learning, and I took that role seriously.

Learning to “fail”

In class, we discussed the idea of “letting people fail to promote learning and growth,” but it’s not that simple. Failing and learning is moderated by two essential factors: mindset and social support. In Tagg, mastery vs. performance mindsets are discussed as one’s learning orientation as process (mastery) or outcome (performance) focused. If an individual with a performance mindset fails, s/he internalizes the failure, it does not promote learning and reduces self-efficacy. Additionally, if this individual or even a mastery-oriented person does not feel supported by a teacher or classmates, or even friends outside of the classroom, the failing could be catastrophic.  As we learned from visiting the architecture students, these students could fail and learn, because they felt connected and competent.

Competence and Connection 

In my learning from this course, I am even more confident that every organizational decision should include student competence and connection as the primary outcomes – not just as learning outcomes, but as effective measures for organizational outcomes. For every decision, we must ask: what specific resources does this student (or group) need to facilitate competence and community? And we shouldn’t employ an equality ideal, but rather one of equity. If a former solider needs significant resources for a student club or a resource center to attract other veterans and build relationships, we should provide it at a different level than the student who needs a club to sing a cappella. Objectively unequal allocation of resources is always a challenge to individual’s perceptions of fairness, especially among those receiving less, so our challenge is to alter environments disproportionately in favor of those groups needing more in order to achieve the same level of competence and connection as others.

What’s easy and profitable vs. hard and meaningful

In my numerous rants throughout the course, I think I embodied the perspective of a student veteran with the vision to learn from history and improve it.  Rather than be a usual suspect by working for Northrop, Lockheed, etc. on a high-paying salary, I wanted to re-write history so we don’t head to war again, rather than follow the big contracts to facilitate the continuation of war. Similarly, I am a year away from my Ph.D. in organizational psychology and the big jobs are waiting to fill those 6-figure “organizational consultant” roles. Sorry, but that won’t be me. My commitment is to people – finding a way to give psychology to the masses in order to improve the lives of students worldwide. I’m not a historian, but rather a futurian(??). I’m prepared to re-write history by practicing with the future in mind, but I need to know my classmates – those student affairs professionals and educators – are willing to join the mission.


It’s not our first rodeo…

•March 31, 2014 • 1 Comment

Veterans, Civilians and Cadets

I heard the Student Government President talking about cadet-civilian relations. In fact, he suggested an executive cabinet position in order to improve those relationships. I don’t know much about that, but I do know I don’t fit in that dyad. We aren’t civilians and sure aren’t cadet members. I hate being grouped as a cadet.

I was sitting in Torgersen and talked to a student who asked why I wasn’t sitting with my friends – as she pointed to the cadets in the front row. I wish I had a soapbox to explain the difference. I’m not 18, young, naive, and protected. In fact, I am the exact opposite of those. I am a 31-year old protector with some wisdom and a plethora of experience that most people could only imagine.

I was reading an article from the Atlantic about other fellow veterans and a few words really stuck. “Universities have long been a place where young people develop a purpose in life. But for older students with wartime experience, those lessons have already been learned.” I couldn’t agree more, which is probably why I feel so disconnected. I am a different developmental level and place in life.

The first rodeo

Homer wrote the Odyssey about 600 BC. Who knew the message would foreshadow the experiences of so many veterans who are not returning home but rather to college campuses?

“If we did a better job of listening, history wouldn’t have to repeat itself.” This philosophy dictates my life. In fact, it was my sole reason for becoming a history major at Virginia Tech. How many times has such an influx of people like me.. required the university to alter protcols and procedures to meet needs. I recognize that it probably hasn’t happened for any person, but what about the institutional memory?

According to the VT website, world war I and II, Vietnam and Korea,  and now post-911 wars are producing nearly identical situations for students returning home. This isn’t a fad or a trend. It’s a reoccurring trend. And so, I hope to document my experience and the experiences of others to meet the needs of the next wave of veterans. I want to support the infrastructure and ideas that lay the ground work for this generation and many to come.



Grateful for Virginia Tech, but longing to belong

•March 5, 2014 • 1 Comment

I recognize that I am lucky. After returning home and to Virginia Tech, a few of my buddies received calls from the University of Phoenix and other for-profit colleges. According to data from, degree completion for veterans is only 28% for students at for-profits compared to 56% for public institutions. I feel terrible that they don’t have the support I have. Here, we have a center and resources for dealing with all of the post-9/11 GI issues in order to pay tuition and support my family.

I don’t understand how ungrateful all of these students are for this gift of education.  I’m in this amazing class and everyone is texting and facebooking. Sure, the environment could be more inclusive, but it works for now.

To be honest, I am struggling in my classes. I cannot connect to students who sit next to me in class, or eat near me at lunch. I’m alone and confused about what might happen next…

Living with PTSD at Virginia Tech: The fictional story of a 31-year-old veteran

•February 11, 2014 • 3 Comments

Reflecting on my own story… again?

I remember college as if it were yesterday. I was a motivated undergraduate student, who sat in the first-row of every class with an attentive look and hung up on every word spoken by my wise professors. I must admit.. for the first day of every class… I was very annoyed. I wanted to learn, not hear the rules of the university explained to me as if I were a 6 year-old headed for the playground. Do we really need the university’s mission and disability policies at the bottom of our syllabus? If we cared, we could look it up.

Oh, how everything has changed.

After four tours serving the United Stated Army in Iraq, I see things differently now. Literally. My sight and hearing are off.

My first class… as me?

I am back on campus, an unfamiliar campus at Virginia Tech, using the post-911 GI bill to fund my next degree.  I review my class schedule only to find my first “class” is at the Math emporium. I get on a bus, feeling crowded by the other students. I walk in to the “empo” as they call it, but I am flashing back to a vivid memory. The six-person computer pods remind me of our six-person tents, each tent lined up only a few feet from the next. I know efficiency when I see it. Am I right? Yeah, totally confirmed by the professor who explains the “red solo cup phenomenon”. Just do everything by yourself and ask for help when you need it. When your red cup goes up on the computer, it means you need help from a math tutor. Well not me, I am not asking for help from some 22-year-old know-it-all wiz kid.

I am a number… and some?

I am not part of the 1%; I’m part of the 79%. The 79% who lost a close friend in battle when attempting to secure a post. And the 63%, who saw dead bodies in the streets. And the 60% who were ambushed on a regular day. Finally, I am part of the 36% who discharged a weapon. These numbers don’t define me, or us, but they are part of my story.

The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) reports many more disturbing statistics related to my pains and perils. This explains the sounds — the clicking, buzzing, and heavy breathing. That clicking sound from the metal beam contracting inside the frame of every door… it sends me back to the same “click” – the trigger being pulled. I hear this sound with every person exiting through a doorway  – in the residence halls, classroom hallway, stairwell, and dining facility exit. At any time, it can send me back and remind me I’m part of the 36%. I can’t connect the dots differently in my head. I want to hear clicking and think about a door, but it’s not that simple. It’s not just clicking, the lights in Mcbryde  Hall take me back. Some of the light fixtures rival me for years spent in service. Instead of letting me retire after a good run (of say, a tour or two), they pushed me to four. I know how the dim light above my head feels, if it were to feel anything at all. But, I can’t feel connected to the object, it bothers me after all. The buzzing is constant. It’s the slightest of hummmm, but never stops. Nobody else but my comrades have ever heard this distinct sound, but I have. It’s the sound of eight electrical generators running all day and night to keep certain medical supplies and organs cooled before a surgery.


In order to truly put yourself into someone else’s shoes, you must attempt to live as if you were him/her. This is the start of my journey. After reviewing some of the research literature on military veterans and experiencing campus with a new lens, I came to write the story above. I sat in absolute darkness in order to hear every sound, listening for every kind of sound on campus that reminded me of a war movie.

I expect my voice to intersect with age, nationality, class, and disability status. I have been continuously schooled since Kindergarten, which is a stark contrast to someone who has spent four years overseas serving in a war. In short, a veteran has different experiences and a few years on me. Although, we are both Americans, I expect to see things very differently. As a Washington, DC native, I know the beliefs and politics of war, not the scars and pains from being on the ground. I also come from an educated family in Northern VA, which contrasts with the rural and lower SES typically exemplifying the average veteran. Finally, I have never had a mental illness or experiences intense trauma while many veterans do. The PTSD and other related abilities will affect my daily life, but I have more to discover. I am not entirely sure of my “voice” yet, but I am still searching. My point: Shane and a veteran are not and will not be the same.

Course integration: Espoused vs. Theory-In-Use (Learning Paradigm)

If our espoused values at Virginia Tech center around the Principles of Community, then our responsibility is to maintain policies and procedures at the university and individual levels to demonstrate our commitment. Unfortunately, our theory-in-use reflects a rigid and inflexible, one-size-fits all model where each student is treated similarly (i.e., equality over equity). Unless of course, you are an honors student who gets more attention and support than the average student. If you are a marginalized group, do something or keep on waiting , because it can take some time before real changes are made.

Course integration: Environmental redesign (Educating by Design)

Did we ever consider using human-centered design principles to maximize environmental change? Probably not. After 4/16, my opinion is that there was one principle in mind: Prevent doors from being chained again. Instead, we needed to search the possibilities rather than simply reacting to an event. If the “clicking” sound of the door is this troubling to a student, how else could we imagine new handles for doors with a design thinking process that also maximized safety in order to meet more needs? Could we ask all types of students to work with an Industrial Design course to redesign aspects of campus for everyone?

Stay tuned. Over and out. 

Will our society collapse in our lifetime? The data seems to suggest…

•May 3, 2013 • 3 Comments

Research suggests tomorrow will be WORSE than today. Yes, that’s right. WORSE. Much worse. The nine trends presented below are based on scientific data and these trends are headed in the wrong direction. These trends range from personal (depression) to interpersonal problems (friendship) to health issues (obesity) to societal problems (mass shootings and climate change). The following nine trends suggest we have major societal problems that are increasing or decreasing rapidly unless we act quickly.

1. Friendships are declining.

“According to work published in the American Sociological Review, the average American has only two close friends, and a quarter don’t have any. It should be noted that other social scientists contest these conclusions. Hua Wang and Barry Wellman, of the universities of Southern California and Toronto respectively, refer to “some panic in the United States about a possible decline in social connectivity.” But notice their language: “social connectivity.” That is not the same as intimate friendship. While social networking sites and the like have grown exponentially, the element that is crucial, and harder to investigate, is the quality of the connections they nurture.

Yet we know that less is more when it comes to deeper relationships. It is lonely in the crowd. A connection may only be a click away, but cultivating a good friendship takes more.

It is striking that loneliness should be regarded as a mental health issue, and that seems right. At least since the ancient Greeks, it has been recognized in our political philosophies that we are social animals. Aristotle was just one thinker to remark that an individual could have everything that life can offer — career, family and money — but if a person didn’t have a good friend, his or her life would be fundamentally lacking. A society that thwarts opportunities for deeper sociality, therefore, stymies well-being” (Vernon, 2010).

2. Empathy is on the decline.

“Recently Fox News covered our study on declining empathy in American college students with this alarming title: “The End of Empathy.” Is this true? Are we now living in a society entirely devoid of the basic glue of human connection and interaction? In order to form an educated opinion, you’ll need some background about the study. To summarize briefly, we collected empathy scores from 72 academic sources from 1979 to 2009. In all of these sources, empathy was measured using a standard scale called the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index. People who score high on this “empathy test” give freely of their time and money and frequently help others in need. You can try the test and see how you score compared to the 13,737 students in our sample by clicking here. We ran a statistical analysis to see whether there were changes over time in empathy and found that there had been overall declines, especially since the year 2000.

Why be concerned?

1. This is not the first study to find trends related to declining empathy in American college students. In my dissertation work we also found increases in the personality trait narcissism over time. The fact that there has been other research with similar trends is notable.

2. It’s true that the average empathy score still hovers above the midpoint of the scale, but empathy is still declining substantially, and at a faster rate in more recent years. If recent trends continue, this could eventually translate into broader societal problems. I’m most concerned that current declines in empathy could lead to negative reciprocal spirals as people feed off of each other’s low empathy.

3. Right now our evidence is limited to American college students, but future work will look at broader trends in narcissism and empathy in American society at large. We’re also interested in cross-cultural changes. Stay tuned…

4. Although violent crime in general has declined, certain types of violent crimes have actually risen over time: i) acts of violence against the homeless have shown dramatic increases, especially over the past ten years, and were recently estimated to be at an all time high; ii) hate crimes against Hispanics and perceived immigrants, as well as against lesbians, gays, bisexual, and transgender individuals are all significantly increasing; and iii) hit-and-run car accidents have increased by about 20% since 1998. Each of these specific types of crime target stigmatized, marginalized, or otherwise defenseless groups.”  (Konrath, 2010, p.1)

3. Suicide Rates Rise Sharply.

More people now die of suicide than in car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and image.phpPrevention, which published the findings in Friday’s issue of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In 2010 there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 38,364 suicides.

Suicide has typically been viewed as a problem of teenagers and the elderly, and the surge in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans is surprising.

From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7. Although suicide rates are growing among both middle-aged men and women, far more men take their own lives. The suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.” (Parker-Pope, 2013)


4. Depression in on the rise.

Rates of depression and anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past fifty to seventy years. Today five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or an anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago. This increased psychopathology is not the result of changed diagnostic criteria; it holds even when the measures and criteria are constant.” (Gray, 2010, p.1)


5. Entitlement among youth is rising.

American teenagers feel more entitled than ever, according to a new study of high school seniors from three different generations.

Teens still crave being rich, but say they are less willing to work hard to earn material belongings, a development that the study’s lead author, Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, attributes to increased advertising.

“Common sense would tell you that if you want a lot of material things, you’d be inclined to work harder,” Twenge says. “But advertising portrays these shiny things but not the dirty work that goes into getting them.”

The study asked more than 350,000 high school seniors between the years of 1976 and 1978, 1988 and 1990 and 2005 and 2007 about the importance of money, work and of owning certain material things.

According to the study, published Tuesday in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 62 percent of students surveyed between 2005 and 2007 think it’s important to have a lot of money, compared to just 48 percent between 1976 and 1978; meanwhile, 39 percent of students surveyed between 2005 and 2007 said they didn’t want to work hard, compared to just 25 percent in the 1970s.

Though the so-called “fantasy gap” between wanting a lot of money and not wanting to work hard has increased since the 1970s, American teens today are less likely to want specific material goods than they were 25 years ago.

Fewer teens said it was important to have a lot of money today than did between 1988 and 1990; teens today also say it’s less important to have a vacation house, own a boat or other recreational vehicle or buy a new car every few years than did in the late 1980s. But modern teens are less likely to want to work hard: During the late 1980s, just 30 percent said they didn’t want to work hard.

“Entitlement has increased over time – this idea of getting something for nothing,” Twenge says.”

(Koebler, 2013)

6. The obesity rate is increasing.

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins shows the evidence of an obesity epidemic with the following images on the NIH blog (Collins, 2012).

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 10.16.20 PM

7. Gluten-allergies are ACTUALLY rising.

“A study using frozen blood samples taken from Air Force recruits 50 years ago has found that intolerance of wheat gluten, a debilitating digestive condition, is four times more common today than it was in the 1950’s.

The findings contradict the conventional wisdom that the sharp increase in diagnoses of wheat gluten intolerance has come about because of greater awareness and detection. It now seems likely that dramatic changes in the American diet have played a role.

The disease occurs in people whose bodies cannot digest gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. The undigested protein triggers the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine, causing diarrhea, nausea and abdominal pain.

The researchers who conducted the study also found that the recruits who had the undiagnosed digestive disorder, called celiac disease, had a four-fold increase in their risk of death.” (Mercola, 2009).

“Teams of medical researchers in Parkville, Australia and in Albany, Ohio have identified specific proteins present in the genetically modified organisms (GMO) grain by Monsanto (a multinational biotechnology agricultural producer — i.e., they make fake food). These engineered proteins trigger gluten sensitivity and can instigate celiac disease. Internationally, we have been experiencing epidemic levels of gluten intolerance: over 40% – virtually half the US population – now cannot metabolize gluten. Celiac disease affects one in 133 Americans. If untreated, celiac is potentially fatal. According to CD support groups and information agencies, about 3 million Americans currently have CD, 97% of whom remain undiagnosed; moreover, 30% of the population has the genetic makeup predisposing towards CD.  There is no drug which can treat CD. Meanwhile, we are seeing large numbers of infants already suffering from GERD. This breakdown of normal human digestion is directly attributable to the tampering with nature instigated Monsanto: this is clear from the studies mentioned below” (Health Advice, 2011). CD has been linked to neurological disorders, autoimmune diseases, and premature death.

8. Mass shooting casualties are increasing.

Although violence has decreased in the U.S., the number of mass shooting causalities are increasing.

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 11.00.13 PM

9. We are becoming much, much HOTTER (and not in a good way) as a planet!

No matter how you look at it, the data seems to suggest we have a big problem regardless of the measures used to assess climate change.



Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 11.25.58 PM

(source: Mann, 2008; used by Poli, 2013)


Wishful thinking won’t help us address these problems and create a better society. For years, psychologists studied optimism, which in a sense is this wishful nature – a belief that future events will be positive. Research has linked optimism to better long-term health, more prosocial behavior, and better work performance. However, in recent years, scholars have suggested it’s not only optimism. It takes hope. Hope can be conceptualized as optimism + pathways and agency (i.e., the belief that you can change your the situation to accomplish a goal).

The statistics don’t help me feel optimistic about the future, but my hope is not to instill optimism, but rather some hope for you. You have the agency – the ability to affect each of these trends by what you do. It won’t be easy, but it can be done. You have to believe it will reverse these dangerous trends and you MUST believe you can do these simple behaviors to produce these outcomes and literally save our society. hope


1. Strengthen existing friendships: Ask a friend to be your best friend. Have you ever considered actually addressing the unspoken. How awkward would it be to ask someone .. who you probably already consider a best friend … to be your best friend? You don’t need to sign a contract. Be proactive and enter a best friend relationship by making the expectations clear.

2. Repair broken friendships: Ask an old friend to be a friend again. But seriously, how often do we say to ourselves, “whatever, I don’t even care if we aren’t friends” and stop talking to a best friend because of ONE situation or mistake. Some friendships are certainly beyond repair. But, most probably are repairable. I met two high school girls who were willing to have a real conversation, to be honest with each other, and put the cards on the table about their issues. They talked about why they hadn’t been talking and expressed how much they still really cared for each other… It was unbelievable. After a two year hiatus, they are back.


1. Empathy requires concern: Watch an emotional video to feel for the other person. Empathy consists of an emotional and cognitive component. This emotional component requires us to actually feel from the other person. Put yourself in situations to experience different emotions.

2. Empathy requires perspective taking: Write a journal as if you were someone else. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be President, your teacher, your mom or dad, or your closest friend? Write a journal entry as if you were him or her. What are they thinking? Why are they thinking that way? Who influenced them to think and act in such a way? What do they expect for the future. Actually put yourself in their shoes.


Be a spy: Make an effort to be on the lookout for people who need help. It will take more work and break up your normal routine. But you really have the power to save a life by what you say.


Complement and recognize everyone. Humans have a need to feel appreciated, competent, and valued. A simple act of recognition can meet those needs.


Give behavior-based feedback. Individuals who receive person-based feedback (“you’re smart”) work less hard and give up faster than individuals who were given process-based feedback (“you must have tried really hard to get that grade).

Obesity and Gluten

Use your courage to speak up about food choices. Tell your friend not to eat an unhealthy meal or even better, pack an extra healthy meal for a friend. Cheddar Bunnies are my favorite and organic. I’ve brought them into my office and shared some. Now, they are everywhere. People love them. They are a healthier (and gluten-free) snack to enjoy.

Mass Shootings

Stop bullying and actively care for others. A study by the Secret Service concluded that bullying affected many school-based attackers. Take the time to support someone rather than cut him/her down.

Climate Change

Buy a non-refrigerated meal and non-processed meats. It’s essential that we reduce packing, and wastefulness. There are MANY more things, but try one to star

Stressed? Concerned? Disappointed? Hopefully so. We have to act and get more to act quickly before it’s too late. Start by sharing this with others…

Is the current system in higher education unethical? What happens when rewards don’t align with the “Right Thing” to do?

•May 2, 2013 • Leave a Comment

We’ve talked about ethics throughout my graduate course and I want to continue that discussion in the context of higher education. We spent a good part of a course discussing rewards systems and the importance of developing good structures to produce desirable behaviors and outcomes. Unfortunately, we have two competing issues. What do we do when the: 1) the “right thing”, and 2) the “rewarded” thing are not compatible?


What’s generally rewarded in higher education?

  1. Research over teaching (see science article).

  2. Research productivity, measured by short-term outcomes (e.g., low quality, high quantity pubs in lieu of high quality and low quantity publications) [see Chronicle]

  3. Siloed approaches – in discipline journals, conferences, and grants (see Inside HigherEd)

What if we rewarded?

  1. Teaching and research.

  2. Quality of publications.

  3. Collaborative efforts.

In A Whole New Mind, Dan Pink discusses the need for design, stories, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. Although we say we promote these ideal in higher education, we couldn’t be farther from it. Our publication process, tenure-track process, and funding sources contribute to a self-serving utility and functional perspective rather than a collaborative vision to help others. Stories are viewed as “less” than quantitative figures and the scientific method, as if to suggest we cannot learn from an inductive process. How often do we see the big picture? Almost never. I want to ask every faculty member, why do you do what you do? Where does this get us now? I think we’ve lost a sense of who we serve and why our research can’t stop in a journal. It should be fun. We get to learn and help others every day. Our work should have the most meaning.


Consider: Should we ask graduate students and faculty to go against the grain – to give up the immediate gains of promotion and fitting into the system in order to create a better and more meaningful system that produces real large-scale societal benefits? I think so. The ethical thing is to go against the conventional process and create a new one so we can use our knowledge to help more people, faster.


Why aren’t we learning from history? Repeating the 2008 Financial Crash Sooner Than We Think

•May 1, 2013 • 2 Comments

In one week, the stock market dropped 18%. The 2008 story of the financial crash is not the first; it’s the same story, but a different time. That similar story will be back sooner than we think. However, it’s not sub-prime mortgages, it’s an educational loan crisis.

Student-Debt-Crisis“Pew Research Center reported that a record one-in-five households owe student loan debt. The average student loan debt in 2011 was $23,300” (Bennett, 2012, p.1). In March 2012, education loan debt surpassed auto and credit card debt at nearly 1 trillion dollars. In the documentary

College, Inc., college recruiters of for-profit colleges admitted to making at least 300 sales calls per day to lure in students. These tactics were similar to those used by lenders and salespeople who were partly responsible for the 2008 mortgage crash. Additionally, individuals at the top (i.e., CEO and top executives) were making millions of dollars while students were amounting massive amounts of debt. The same is true for Wall Street execs who crashed the economy, but walked away with bonuses in 2008: AIG Exec (34 million), Citigroup CEO (11 million), Bank of America CEO (10 million), and JPMorgan Chase CEO (20 million) (see source: MotherJones). Some have used the term “too big to fail” to describe massive for-profit colleges. It’s clear the similarities are alarming, but what’s the difference?

The Difference

Individuals cannot escape education loan debt. We can file for bankruptcy for failure to pay back mortgages and credit card loans, but you can’t escape education loans. The IRS can take your refund, debt collectors can garnish your wages, one cannot escape. Thus, the next crash is looming. Why aren’t we doing more to protect consumers (students)? Better yet, why aren’t we doing more to protect ourselves?


(source: CBS)

The crux of a compassionate culture: the need for more privileged prosocial behavior

•April 30, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Our future

Our entire society is built on the belief that people will act prosocially for others, and that individuals with power and influence with do the “right thing.” However, I am fearful of the coming years. Where are we going as a society? Has technology made us closer, more caring, and deeply connected (see “Connected, but alone” on TED)? Have our science and mathematical models been used to benefit the world or served our self-interested motives (see 2008 Financial crash)? Monsanta has likely contaminated our food supply in the future and caused a national “gluten allergy” craze with their genetically-modified products (see more). Drone-led executions are serious debate in the Senate (see more).  Wall Street investors have made millions as main street continues to suffer from their actions. The problem lies with power.

Is power bad?

Power has been defined as the capacity to influence others. So, is power inherently bad? No. The process, our actions, define whether power was used for good or bad outcomes. Too often, we use power for control and self-serving reasons. Bullying behavior involves intentional aggressive behavior (harming others) that involves the recipient of the behavior feeling less power than the person performing the behavior. This behavior is prevalent in our U.S. culture today. Whether it’s academics abusing graduate students, Wall Street warriors collapsing the economy for personal gain, students in educational settings, or cyberbullying among coworkers and students.

To eliminate undesirable behavior, such as bullying, behavioral scientists have often followed a basic psychological principle: “The best way to decrease an undesirable behavior is to recognize and reward an opposite incompatible alternative.” However, in the case of bullying behavior, no such behavioral continuum existed until now.

What’s privileged prosocial behavior?

We define the incompatible opposite as privileged prosocial behavior. This involves any intentional prosocial behavior (helping others) that involves a powerful person helping the less powerful person. To create a culture of compassion, we need individuals to recognize their privileges and act on them to make a larger difference for others. A common form of privileged prosocial behavior is mentorship.

Mentorship is Key

As I reflect on my undergraduate and graduate years in the context of privileged prosocial behavior, I think about my mentors… the too many to count. Many remain close friends and continually remind me to take care of myself, but they don’t understand that these comments (which are directed to punish my unhealthy behaviors) have no impact on my choices. Why? Because, they didn’t work as hard as they did to watch me reap self-serving benefits. I bet their intention and hope was for me to mentor others. For me to spread my wisdom beyond their walls and through every future interactions I have with others. When they hear about my four-hour nights of sleep, they tell me to stop, but don’t understand that their prior privileged prosocial behavior is my driving force. I owe it to them to “pay it forward.”

Pay It Forward

I wonder if we know what our undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees actually mean and confirm to us… For most, it’s a phrase like this:

“To the one thus referred to,____ (recipient of degree), we have by virtue of this diploma, most freely and fully granted and confirmed all the rights, honors, privileges belonging to the degree of ____ (degree type), among ourselves and all nations. 

As recipients of a degree(s), we have privileges that should be passed on to others. Our responsibility is to help others obtain these same rights, honors, and privileges.

My request is simple: 1) Help more friends, colleagues, and students by allowing them to see their privileges; 2) Mentor and be mentored to experience empathy as both the recipient and provider of privileged prosocial behavior; 3) set up environments, systems, and processes that facilitate privileged prosocial behavior. If we each commit to these three requests, together, we can cultivate more compassion to meet the needs of all people worldwide.

Empowering Students: Using Process-Based Feedback to Recognize for a Growth Mindset

•April 7, 2013 • 1 Comment

We don’t live in silos, wind tunnels, or holes. We are in systems of people, places, and things, which includes interdependent interactions. Often, person with more power engage people with less power. For example, teachers motivate students. Managers motivate employees. Preacher motivate followers. Coaches motivate players on a team. Leaders motivate others. Clearly, we motivate each other. But for those with power, we want to go beyond motivation and empower followers with power (i.e., capacity to influence others and one’s self).  How do we enable people to feel empowered and go above and beyond the call of duty to learn more, care more effectively, and be more productive?

Psychological Empowerment

Geller (2005) adapted Bandura’s theory to discuss the three components of psychological empowerment. As a teacher, consider using the following three questions as guidelines for teaching in classes. For mentors, teachers, and managers, use these as clarifying questions to better understand how to address the students, employees, or mentors concerns. How do you know if someone is empowered? Ask someone:

  1. Can you do it?
  2. Will it work?
  3. Is it worth it?

“Self-efficacy (“I can do it”) is the belief you can organize and perform the procedures needed to achieve a desired goal (Bandura, 1997).  This requires training to develop the skills and abilities to perform task-specific behaviors.

Response-efficacy (“It will work”) explains why a process is useful for achieving a certain mission.  You must believe the intervention will have a desirable impact, and this belief can be acquired through education.

Outcome expectancy (“It’s worth it”) is the belief the consequences of the behaviors you perform are worth the effort required to perform them.  Such outcome-expectancy not only motivates you, but the collective group.  This in turn fuels self-efficacy and response-efficacy (Geller, 2005)“(McCutchen, McCarty, & Tarzia, 2013).


In our prior Preparing the Future Professoriate graduate course, a student agreed with me after my rant on the detrimental use of punitive consequences reactively. He agreed and went on to discuss his use of recognition proactively with an undergraduate student who was doing well in his class. He said something like… “This student came back the next day twice as motivated and excited to share what he had been working on.”

Such interpersonal recognition can increase perceptions of competence, fueling self-motivation (Geller & Veazie, 2009) and enhancing authentic empowerment (Bandura, 1997; Geller, 2005). Let’s recognize people proactively, so we don’t get stuck in reactive situations with pressure to use penalties as an attempt to punish bad behavior.

Recognize Behavior to Develop a Growth Mindset

The process we take to recognize people can lead to a very good or bad belief. Dweck (1986, 2007) demonstrated two fundamentally different beliefs among individuals about their own intelligence: growth mindset and fixed mindset. Individuals with a growth mindset believe intelligence can improve with practice and fixed mindset believe intelligence is static and won’t change.  A growth perspective can be developed if people deliver behavior-based feedback (process-based feedback) in relation to the outcome. If a student scores high on a test, don’t say: you’re so smart (or s/he could develop a fixed mindset). Consider saying: “I saw you scored well on the test, you must have worked very hard and studied long hours” (process focused).

Applying Recognition, Process-Focused Feedback, and Growth Mindset

Should we recognize the process people take?


If so, our “most improved” award should no longer be viewed as meaningless, but rather as a reflection of true growth and development. Should we have more process awards? “Most Hours Worked” Award. Most “Intensely Engaged” Worker Award. It seems process awards more align with our US view of meritocracy than the “everyone gets a trophy” (regardless of effort) philosophy, which reflects a group-outcome reward.


In science, should the process (e.g., methodology and analyses) be rewarded (e.g., in top-tier publications) in lieu of the outcomes (e.g., significant findings)? If someone develops a critical research question, hypothesis, and tests that hypothesis with sound methodology, but finds no significant results, should it be treated the same as paper with significant findings? Why is significance defined by the p-value (outcome) rather than the sound methodology (process)? If the vision is to contribute to science, it seems well-designed studies with results (whether significant or not) contribute equally to moving the field and theories forward.


Perceptions of empowerment and recognition can fuel self-motivation. The process of recognition (i.e., process-based) matters if we truly want to develop a growth mindset among people. The process is important. Should we rethink decisions, thinking, and our systems in light of empowerment, recognition, and process-focused feedback?


Bandura, A.  (1997).  Self-Efficacy: The exercise of control.  New York:W.H. Freeman & Company.

Dweck , C. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41, 1040-1048.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Geller, E.S.(2005).  People-based safety: The source.  Virginia, Beach, VA: Coastal Training          and Technologies Corporation.

Geller, E.S.,& Veazie, R.A.(2009).  The courage factor: Leading people-based culture change. 

Virginia, Beach, VA: Coastal Training and Technologies Corporation.

Ethical Behavior: Is the cause a character flaw or a faulty system?

•April 3, 2013 • Leave a Comment

This week’s CNN front page story leads to an important question: Is bad behavior caused by a character flaw or a bad system? 

“The former superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools was among the educators who surrendered to authorities Tuesday after being indicted by a grand jury in a cheating scandal that rocked the district and drew national attention.

Beverly Hall resigned from her position in 2011 after a state investigation into large, unexplained test score gains in some Atlanta schools. She has denied any role in the cheating scandal.

A Fulton County grand jury last week indicted 35 educators from the district, including principals, teachers and testing coordinators. They were ordered to turn themselves in by Tuesday, District Attorney Paul Howard said.

By 10:00 p.m., 27 of 35 educators had turned themselves in at the Fulton County Jail to face charges including racketeering, theft by taking and making false statements about their roles in an alleged plot to falsify students’ standardized tests.”

(see CNN staff, 2013)

Who should be blamed? Who should be punished? These are the ubiquitous responses that reflect many individuals, influenced by our U.S. Culture. Hopefully, by the end of this blog post, you will ask a different question: How can I use my power and influence to change the system that led people to perform unethical or undesirable behavior?

W. Edwards Deming said, “Don’t blame people for problems created by the system.” Why? Systems produce behavior. 

Phillip Zimbardo’s infamous Standford Prison Experiment was stopped after only four days.  Ordinary people (who were playing the role of prison guards) were humiliating, verbal abusing, and depriving ordinary people (who acted as prisoners) of basic needs. See the six minute clip here. More recently, Zimbardo said, “The same social psychological processes–deindividualization, anonymity of place, dehumanization, role-playing and social modeling, moral disengagement and group conformity–that acted in the Stanford Prison Experiment were at play at Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo argued” (Dittman, 2004).

Rewarding Outcomes Leads to Bad Processes

Many argue that outcome-based rewards (e.g., financial compensation) for students’ standardized test performance will increase quality teaching (e.g., desirable process). I argue, it will increase cheating (e.g., an undesirable process) to achieving the same outcome. “Beverly Hall is Atlanta’s retired school superintendent. Her system’s turnaround won her national fame, awards, and more than $500,000 in performance bonuses. But investigators say she pressured teachers and principals to cheat, and punished those who refused. Hall, among those indicted, has denied the charges. A grand jury recommended her bail be set at $7.5 million.” (see Examiner). In a recent book chapter, I stated:

It is critical to note the importance of equifinality – different processes achieve the same outcome. Focusing on tests – “teaching to the test” and enhancing test-taking skills – is one route to achieving the desired test outcome. But, this approach will not meet social and emotional needs of students. It won’t develop character and citizenship. It doesn’t facilitate relationships and excite students. The pursuit of a more compassionate AC4P school culture may meet these needs, reduce destructive antisocial and bullying behavior, and build meaningful relationships, and as a byproduct we may improve academic performance as well (McCarty, 2013, see Part III Intro).

Punishing Poor Standardized Performance

“In Washington, evaluations based in part on standardized tests have been used since 2009 to rate teacher performance, putting the city at the forefront of major school systems that are working to reform their personnel practices. All told, nearly 400 teachers have lost their jobs since the new evaluations were put into place.

The latest round of firings occurred last month, when 98 Washington teachers lost their jobs after a rigorous evaluation system found they weren’t up to snuff. The firings attracted no national media attention and little outcry locally. In fact, the president of the teachers union praised the school system for softening some of the evaluation criteria” (see Nuckols, 2012).

Be empathic.

Imagine… you are  a teacher who makes under $35,000 per year at an inner city Washington, DC school. The median household income for parents at your school is around $40,000. Seventy percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch (i.e., measure of low SES – below poverty line). Students are in gangs, fighting to meet basic needs. Should your job depend on your ability alone to get your students at a passing rate for a standardized test? Absolutely not. Unfortunately, in a bad economy with unemployment rate still fairly high, there will be more teachers who take an undesirable path and cheat. It’s not because they are bad people or unethical or flawed in character, it’s because those of us with privilege and power did nothing to support them earlier on.

We didn’t ask: How can we help? We didn’t give our time and resources to support these struggling students proactively. Instead, we took our non-empathic perspective and acted reactively. We want to punish; we want to get even for this “criminal behavior; we point our finger at those teachers who are “wrong”. And as we look at those 35 Atlanta administrators and teachers with a punishment-mentality and ideal, we’ve lost our compassion and our humanity. We forgot we are on the same team. We forget we put these rewards/ punishers in place. For some of us, we finally realized we did it all wrong… WE set up a faulty system. But hey, it’s easier to call it a “character flaw” or “unethical behavior” then to fix the system we built.

So, keep the blame going, or feel guilty that you didn’t do something earlier and fix the system so the next teacher/admin doesn’t have to make that unfair choice between “right” and “wrong.” I recognize we still have choice within systems, but let’s make the choice easier for those in worse-off positions and situations than ourselves. Next time, you do the “ethical” and “right” thing, ask yourself: Did you have to sacrifice your entire career, your passion, and your livelihood to do the right thing? Likely not. So, why should expect teachers to do the same. Let’s help them; not punish them for the faulty system we’ve built.

Thanks for listening,