Wednesday, 30 January 2013

TEAM AMBITION

I wrote my first entry for this blog on January 7, 2010.   At that time, I expected to write 5 or 10 essays.   I thought I might get a few hundreds readers.   I had one goal in mind:   to get more teachers talking about teaching.  Personally, I don’t think we come close to having enough serious conversations about the challenges and fun of being teachers and I wanted to push people in that direction.   I just think we need a lot more exchange of ideas if we are going to meet the educational problems of today.

Well, this is now my 159thposting on this blog and there have been more than 72,000 page views over the past three years.   I very much appreciate everyone who helps to spread the word by mentioning the blog to someone else.   The goal never changes – to get people talking about their teaching.   Education is serious business.   It is not a job to be taken lightly.  Every day seems to be full of both heartache and excitement.   Over the years, teaching has made me ecstatic many times but it has also made me miserable.   The actress Bette Davis had a famous quote:   “Old age is no place for sissies.”   Well, as far as I’m concerned, teaching is no place for sissies.

I never fail to remind myself of one of my favorite quotes – one that comes from the movie A League of Their Own.   Tom Hanks is talking about baseball but he could have been talking about teaching.    “It’s supposed to be hard.   If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.   The hard… is what makes it great.”

**

In case you are interested, here are the posts that have gained the most readership over the years:

(1) – What Do We Add? – July 22, 2010
(2) – Introduction – Teaching (Financial Accounting) – January 7, 2010
(3) – What the Catcher Tells the Pitcher – August 21, 2011
(4) – The Future Is Now? – August 13, 2012
(5) – What Is the Purpose of a Final Exam – May 12, 2010
(6) – What Is the Best Book You Ever Read – June 23, 2012
(7) – A Note to My Students – January 15, 2012
(8) – We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us – May 22, 2012
(9) – Now, That Is a Very Good Question – May 14, 2012
(10) – Big Mistakes – March 26, 2011

**
The Super Bowl is being played this Sunday.    The Baltimore Ravens take on the San Francisco 49ers.   What do the players want?   My guess is that they each want to do very well individually.    No matter what position they play – from quarterback to strong safety - they want to excel.   But, I doubt that is good enough for any of them.   Their team did not get this far because a few of the players were great at doing their jobs.   The players have to want the entire team to excel.   They must have a burning hope that they will be able to work together as a group to accomplish great things and be victorious.

In other words, each player has an individual ambition.  Those players want to play great.   But, more importantly, they also have a team ambition.   They must be deeply devoted to the possibility of the whole team doing well.   Very little good would happen without that team ambition.

Individual ambition is pretty common.   Team ambition is a lot trickier.   In sports, one of the things that helps create team ambition is that they keep score.   Ultimately, one team wins and one team loses.   That provides a common goal – every person works to achieve the ultimate objective:   victory.   No one ever argues about the mission or its importance.

You occasionally see the same thing in some businesses.   At most companies, everyone has his or her own turf and each person wants to be good (or, at least, good enough) within that personal territory.   However, at the best run operations, there also appears to be a team ambition.   In those cases, employees are willing to do the work necessary to push together toward a common goal to make the entire organization great.   This is found for a number of reasons but one is that people actually keep score in business.   What is the amount of revenue we earned this period?   Are operating cash flows going up or down?   How did reported net income look for this quarter?   People want to do well personally but they want their organization to do well also. 

My guess is that if you are able to take a lot of individual ambition and use it to create team ambition then you are potentially the next Steve Jobs or Jack Welch.  

College education is under attack these days.   According to many critics, college costs too much and accomplishes too little.   In fact, it is a challenge to find anyone who sings the praises of a college education in 2013.

Why is that?  

I think one of the reasons the college experience is being questioned is that most of us in the teaching business have a lot of individual ambition.   In our own teaching and research, we really hope and work to do well.   We like being successful on our own turf.   However, I am not certain there is enough team ambition in college education today.   Most of the readers of this blog belong to a department, a school, a university.   What is the goal of that team?   Is it a goal that can be easily measured?    Is it a goal that will stretch the members of the team beyond their comfort zones?   How hard are you willing to work to achieve that team goal?

I am not talking here about a mission statement.   A mission statement says “we want to have a good football team.”   I want something more concrete – “we want to win the Super Bowl on February 3, 2013.”   At the end of the time, you know whether you have been successful.   When you eventually make the tally, you know whether your team was victorious.   With that goal, you have something for the group to work toward.  

Let me make a suggestion.   We are still near the beginning of 2013.   Call a department meeting or a school meeting or a university meeting.   Ask everyone to suggest “New Year’s Resolutions” for the team as a whole.   Pick the ones that seem most intriguing.    Then tell the group that you are going to reconvene in 365 days to measure the team’s success.   What specific goals do they want to have achieved (not individually but as a group) by this time next year?

Those goals have to be something that can be measured (you have to keep score).   They should stretch the group.   Then you also need to decide on a legitimate reward – a nice dinner for the team, perhaps, or a bottle of wine for everyone, or a trip to a local theatre. 

I believe college education will begin to improve when we start thinking about producing more team ambition.   We already have role models:   the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers.   Set some legitimate goals that will push the group over the next year beyond their individual comfort zones.   Measure the results.   Provide a nice reward.   This is not rocket science.

In your dreams, what can your team accomplish over the next 12 months?   Don’t always set individual goals.   Set some team goals.   Then make them happen.   Measure the results.   Celebrate the victories.
 

Friday, 18 January 2013

HELPING YOUR AUDITORY LEARNERS

I am beginning an experiment today to help more of my students be successful in the classroom. If you look on the upper left hand side of this page, you should see a link titled “FINANCIAL ACCOUNTING – 2nd Edition.” If you click on that link, you will come to a page that has a series of audio clips between 8 and 11 minutes in length.

These audio clips were created by me to accompany the Financial Accounting textbook that I have written with CJ Skender at UNC (and published by FlatWorldKnowledge). Although these audio files are specifically designed for our book, they could probably be used quite well with any book. Debits are debits and credits are credits in every textbook.

Right now, I have five audio files posted but I hope to have many more soon. If you are teaching financial accounting, please feel free to suggest that your students listen to these files to see if they are helpful. Heck, they are free. What do they have to lose except for a few minutes of their time?

Each file is a carefully sequenced series of questions and answers. I ask a question and pause for a few seconds so the student can consider the answer. Then, I provide the answer and move on to the next logical question. I am quite literally trying to guide the students, step by step through the reading material.

As I explain in the rest of this posting, I started to create these audio files as a result of reading an article in the Wall Street Journal. I have long felt that our educational system is designed more for visual learners than it is for auditory learners. The article below pushed me to stop thinking about that problem and start trying to do something about it. If you have students who are struggling (in any course that you teach), you might consider whether they are auditory learners who are having trouble in visual learning system.
**

On Thursday, November 29, 2012, I was sitting at my very favorite deli having my very favorite lunch. I was reading the Wall Street Journal for that day as I ate. On page D6, I came across a story about Joe Moglia, the head football coach at Coastal Carolina.

He is the 63 year-old, first-year head coach of that team. And, he is a successful coach – his team made the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. However, five years earlier, Moglia had been the chief executive of TD Ameritrade (a company with a market capitalization of $8.9 billion). Of course, the article was about the mystery of how a very successful corporate executive could retire and then become a very successful college football coach.

It was a fascinating story. But, if all the story had told me was about blocking and tackling, I would have moved on to the next article. But one sentence really caught my attention. It is a sentence that I have thought of often since that day. “In his first months, Moglia tested each of his players to figure out whether they were auditory, visual or kinesthetic (touch-and-feel) learners so he and his coaching staff KNEW THE BEST WAY TO TEACH EACH OF THEM.” (emphasis added).

Okay, how many of the teachers reading this blog have ever done anything to figure out how each of your students learn? My best guess is that the answer is close to absolutely zero. Which of your students are visual learners? Which of your students are auditory learners? (I understand that only a relatively small percentage of students are kinesthetic learners.) We tend to treat all students exactly alike. Or, if we classify them at all, it is not as auditory learners versus visual learners but rather as “smart students” versus “not so smart students.”

I have read that roughly 30 percent of students are auditory learners. That’s a pretty large percentage of any class. Wikipedia provides this information:

“Auditory learning is a learning style in which a person learns through listening. An auditory learner depends on hearing and speaking as a main way of learning. Auditory learners must be able to hear what is being said in order to understand and may have difficulty with instructions that are written. They also use their listening and repeating skills to sort through the information that is sent to them.”

Now, in most classes, we will tell students “go read Chapter Two in the textbook” or “go to the library and read this journal article.” Some students come back with a clear understanding of the material whereas others come back lost and confused. Maybe, those lost students are not just being lazy. Maybe, those lost students are auditory learners who struggle with comprehending the visual words.

In class, we write things on a board which is visual but we usually talk about what we have written so that we are meeting the needs of both visual learners and auditory learners. However, many of our assignments are purely visual – especially assignments that are textbook based: read the chapter, answer the questions, do the problems.

After finishing the WSJ article and leaving the deli, I started trying to figure out how we could use our textbook to help both visual and auditory learners. We already have 68 videos which are both visual and auditory. But, I wanted to try something different. The result of that thinking is the audio files that will now be attached to this website.

Will they work? I honestly do not know. But, as I often say, the only way you can find out in teaching whether something works is by trying it. If you have a financial accounting course (even if you are using a different textbook), suggest that your students (especially any who seem to struggle with the visual words) try listening to these files. After all, they are free. It might prove to be helpful.

If you don’t teach financial accounting (intermediate accounting, for example, or the history of the Roman empire), think about how you can meet the needs of your auditory learners. If a 63 year football coach at Coastal Carolina can do it, so can you.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

AN INTERESTING WRITING ASSIGNMENT


At this moment, I am half-way through my 42nd year as a college professor.   Tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. I walk back into class to see if I can do it all again.   This semester, I have 28 students in one Intermediate Accounting II class and 26 students in another Intermediate class.    I also have 15 students taking my Governmental Accounting course.   I have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of these 69 young people.   Hopefully, that will be a positive difference.   That is not a responsibility that I take lightly.   Whether each of these students is better off on the last day of the semester depends in large part on how well I do my job.    After all this time, I am still thrilled when I think about going into class and leading the conversation.   I never fail to get a stomach full of butterflies before the first class.   You could describe my feelings as somewhere between deeply anxious and completely excited.   If it were not important, I would not care so much.

Good luck to all of you other teachers who are starting a new semester in the next few days or weeks.

**
Unless you have never read my blog before, you probably know that I teach all of my classes by use of the Socratic Method.   I pose some kind of weird situation and then, by asking a series of questions, I try to get the student to figure out a logical response or solution.   I often begin each day with a statement such as “What would happen if….”

 I think teaching by the Socratic Method is just the most fun you can have without laughing.   Plus, I truly do believe that it helps young students to develop their critical thinking skills.

However, I am also a big believer that students need to learn to write clearly and professionally.   In my college days, I considered majoring in Journalism so I have a real appreciation for the importance of the written word.   Plus, recruiters and employers often complain that they have problems finding new accountants who know how to write well.   Because of texting and the like, writing skills seem to be deteriorating.

Here in the Accounting department at the University of Richmond, we require a certain amount of writing in most of our upper-level courses.   The question I face is how to make that writing assignment relevant and beneficial to my students and also consistent with a class based on the Socratic Method.   Some type of essay would work but does not seem to go along with the way the course has been constructed.

Over the last few years, the writing assignment I use has developed into one that seems to work well and accomplishes my goals.   I am not sure how this could be adapted to a course other than accounting but you probably can make it work with a few adjustments.

I divide this assignment into three parts (and the first part has two separate assignments) with each due about two weeks apart.

Part One – Assignment One.   As in our daily classes, the student must pose an accounting problem that needs to be resolved.   The student pretends to be a “business person” who has encountered a reporting challenge where no easy solution has been found.   To stimulate their creativity, I provide the students with a list of hundreds of different problems that have been put forth and solved in previous semesters.   Students often believe that only a few problems remain unanswered in accounting.   This list alerts them to the almost infinite number of problems that accountants face in their chosen profession.  

Each student then must write a letter as the “business person” to a local CPA firm to describe the problem and ask for help in arriving at an appropriate accounting solution.   The first part of this assignment mirrors what we do each day in class.  I always warn the students that better grades are given for more complicated problems.

Part One – Assignment Two.    The student now pretends to be an “accountant” working for the CPA firm who receives the above letter.   As the “accountant,” the student must analyze and research the issue and come up with the best possible solution.   Again, this process mirrors what we do in class.   During the semester, students learn to use various research tools and the databases available online through the university library.   Once an answer is derived, the “accountant” writes a formal letter back to the business person outlining the proposed solution and its justification.    I tell the students that the resolution letter must look completely professional and the answer should be appropriated explained.  

Part Two.   These first two letters (the problem letter and the resolution letter) are attached and turned in to me.   I then give each set to a different student who now must take the role of the “boss,” the person in charge of the CPA firm.   This second student reads both letters to ensure that the proper answer has been determined.   This verification can take quite a bit of time because the “boss” must check the research and also ensure that each letter is written professionally.   For example, I expect the grammar to be perfect.

The “boss” then writes a memorandum to the “accountant” to make constructive suggestions.   Ultimately, the “boss” is in charge of the CPA firm and is responsible for all work that is distributed to outside clients.   Therefore, the “boss” must be certain that the letter meets an appropriate standard for the firm.   This memorandum tells the first student what needs to be done to ensure that every aspect of the letter is proper.

Part Three.    The original student (the “accountant”) reviews the suggestions made by the “boss” and then edits the two letters one final time so that they will be perfect.   In my class, the student is not required to follow the suggestions of the “boss” but needs to consider them carefully.

I then grade all of the letters:   the first drafts, the memorandum, and the final versions.   The largest portion of the grade, though, is given for the final versions after the editing process is complete.

What I have found is that structuring the assignment in this way meets my goal of setting up the writing assignment along the same lines as class.   In addition having the students edit the work of their peers helps them to learn more about the importance of written clarity even within accounting.   If the “boss” does not understand the answer written by the “accountant,” then there is a serious problem.   However, the editing process gives the student a chance to see their problems and decide whether changes are necessary.   In the end, the final versions are usually quite well done which is my goal from the beginning.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING ENTIRELY DIFFERENT (NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION)

 

Before I get started today, I want to wish every teacher out there a wonderful 2013.   During the upcoming year, go out and make a positive difference in as many lives as you possibly can.   This teaching job might not always pay well but having the opportunity to be a positive influence on so many lives (especially the lives of young people) is absolutely priceless.   Enjoy every day you have in the classroom!!   Happy 2013!!!!
**

I want to experiment more in my teaching.   I guess that is my new year's resolution.   This is my 42nd year in the classroom and it is easy to get into a rut.  There are days when I can do this job in my sleep.   Sometimes I really have to stop and push myself to get outside of my comfort zone.   I never want to get into a position where I just go through the motions.   I do better work when things aren’t so easy.

For that reason, in the coming spring semester, I am going to help teach an experimental course called “The Appreciation of Literature by Accountants.”   (That’s not the official title but close enough.)

Yes, you heard correctly.   I did use the words “Accountants” and “The Appreciation of Literature” in the same sentence.  

One of the outstanding English professors here at the University of Richmond has volunteered to teach the course (I am just serving as the teaching assistant) and 14 senior accounting majors and one junior accounting major are signed up to start class in two weeks.  

 Over these 14 weeks, we are going to read and study:

--North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (my favorite of these books)
--Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
--The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

This course might turn out to be an abysmal failure.   But, in all honesty, I think we have a chance to have a genuinely positive effect on the future lives of these 15 young people.   Plus, it is something I have never done before.  And, that is important to me.

We might never teach this course again (whether it is a success or a failure, the scheduling might never work out again) but I wanted to see what the impact might be.   I believe college teachers should try more such experimentation.   There will always be some losing efforts but the successes will more than make up for that.  Don't let the fear of failure restrict what you try to accomplish.

Here is the backstory.

I wanted to teach a half-unit course (meeting for 75 minutes per week) this coming semester covering Governmental Accounting and Not-for-Profit Accounting.   Historically, we have not had a free standing course covering these areas and I thought we should.   The class was scheduled to meet from 1:30 until 2:45 each Monday.  The assigned room would hold 15-16 students in a seminar type setting.     That meant that the room would stand vacant on Wednesdays at this time.

I have always felt that accounting majors (who tend to be left brained) need a better appreciation of liberal arts in order to have a more satisfying and well-rounded life after graduation.   No matter how exciting a person finds debits and credits, adult life should also be full of theatre, the arts, good books, and the like.   In my mind, accounting programs often take some of the brightest members of our population and make them too one dimensional by failing to help them learn to appreciate aspects of life beyond business. 

In my opinion, we make a tactical mistake in the way our college programs are structured.   We force accounting and other business students to take liberal arts courses when they first come to college (their “gen ed” requirements).   Thus, they often rush through these initial courses to get to the material they really want to learn.   Furthermore, the left-brained accounting majors take art, literature, philosophy, and the like with students who want to become art majors, English majors, and philosophy majors.   The accounting students often hide in the background because they feel inferior to these students who appear more verbal and in tune with the liberal arts mentality.

Ask your senior students what they think about liberal arts courses and they will often roll their eyes and complain that they weren’t as good as the other students and wanted to get on with the important work of learning business and accounting.   The liberal arts courses were to be endured rather than appreciated.   In other words, many of them do not leave school with much inclination to continue reading good books, going to museums, seeing plays, and the like.   I think that is a shame.   Why take liberal arts courses if it all ends when the course is over?  

Consequently, I went to my dean and asked her if I could use that empty classroom from 1:30 to 2:45 on Wednesdays to create a literature appreciation class for senior accounting majors.   I liked the idea for two reasons:

(1) – It would be taught to these students right before they graduated so the influence might be more likely to carry over into adult life.   Once the pressure of classes, papers, and testing has ceased, students might find reading a great activity to continue.

(2) – Only accounting majors would be taking the class.   The students would all know each other and not feel intimidated or embarrassed by being put up against English majors.   In other words, I wanted to form a comfortable community to study these books as a group.   The class would not be a competition but a shared exploration.

My dean was kind enough to let me try this experiment one time to see what would happen.   I was able to talk Dr. Elisabeth Rose Gruner of our English department into leading this class of senior accounting majors (Dr. Gruner is clearly being brave and going outside of her comfort zone).  

I then went back to our seniors and told them that I had room for 16 students in my Governmental Accounting and Not-for-Profit Accounting course.   Because the number of seats was so limited, I would only take students who were also willing to sign up for the Literature course.   Each course was one-half unit.

 Many students simply could not work these two classes into their schedules.   Other students expressed shock and amazement that they would even have to consider taking a Literature course (“I majored in Accounting solely because I didn’t want to write papers”).   But, we also had a number who were delighted by the idea and even wanted to suggest books for the course.  

We wound up with 15 students.   

Several people have asked me how I knew whether the course would work.   My answer is always the same “I have absolutely no idea whether it will work.   If I knew that, I wouldn’t have to teach the course.   I am doing this purely because I am curious as to whether the students will view it as a favorable or unfavorable experience.   And, maybe in a couple of years, we’ll follow up to see if they have been more likely to continue reading because of this experiment.”  
 
Passing the CPA Exam and making partner with a CPA firm is not the only measure of success for a college education.

I love accounting and business but, if all students get from a college education is the ability to get a job, then we have failed them in some fundamental way.   Life has to be lived 24/7 and that leaves a lot of time outside of the typical work day.   I think both business schools and liberal arts programs should do a better job of helping students fulfill both halves of their future lives:   the part inside the work day and the part outside of the work day.  

I am hoping the Governmental Accounting and Not-for-Profit Accounting will assist the students as they pursue their careers after graduation.   Just as strongly, I hope the literature class helps make their lives richer outside of the work day.   To me, that really is a win-win situation.

Okay, that is my big experiment for the upcoming semester.   But, what are you going to do?   What is your new year's resolution for 2013?    Don’t sleep walk through your job no matter how long you have been teaching.   Do something that will serve to push you beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone.   You might be able to help the students as well as yourself have a great 2013.