Exploring Diversity to Engage in Meaningful Conversation

Diversity is more than a word; it’s a conversation. It requires definition, context, perspective. It has been applied to groups, to initiatives, to companies, to food, to ecosystems. Diversity can and does mean so many different things that in this day and social media age, it’s all but a prerequisite to unpack the term before you can ever begin talking about it.

I took a multi-culture and diversity course while completing my graduate degree. The first assignment consisted of completing a 2 sided diversity wheel that asked about you as a person and you as a construct. I know, I know, but stick with me. We were paired randomly with a partner and then asked to share as much as we felt comfortable sharing. At the end, we wrote brief introductions of our partner and shared it with the rest of the class.

I learned a few things about myself, things that I’ll likely discuss in another in-depth post. More importantly, I learned a great deal about the assumptions that are made when talking to other human beings. For example, by some accounts, our species is all we have in common. By others, looking alike is all it takes to be alike.

As a member of my company’s ERG program, I was finding it difficult to get real, deep, and frankly uncomfortable, conversation going. We were going in circles, talking about ‘us’ as women, as one homogeneous group that shares the same experiences. To some degree, that’s the truth. I’ve been cat-called, I’ve been judged for my gender, I’ve been challenged because of it. I also know, however, that my experience as a woman of color, as a person who is on a different education or career track, as someone who grew up in NYC, means that I don’t necessarily share the same perspective as the woman sitting next to me. This doesn’t make one of us better than the other but ignoring these differences can divide us.

Below is a workshop I delivered in a small group setting. I’ve expanded the initial exercise to open up conversations about what diversity and culture are, as well as to have participants identify their own knowledge gaps and look for ways to further explore them.

Telling Ain’t Training – Pt I: Understanding Your Learner

What’s Your Approach?

When designing trainings, how often have you considered the learner? And in what capacity? Do you think about your delivery method? What about the classroom environment? A dozen things might go through your mind as you mark off the unconscious checklist but let’s take a moment to think a little different about what training means and what it should accomplish.

Telling Ain’t Training starts with a few key points centered around understanding your learnings before they even step foot into your classroom, chief among them the tenant that we should be building trainings for the needs of the learners, investigating their roles, responsibilities and prior experience in order to build something meaningful and relevant for them.

What Do You Want to Accomplish?

According to the authors, what we do falls into three categories:

  • Training – Is the goal to teach participants how to complete a step-by-step task?
  • Instruction – Is the goal to teach participants how to react in a situation with one or more variables?
  • Education – A culmination of life experiences and learning principles that go beyond reproducing or inferring; the road to expertise.
The purpose of training, instruction and education is to transform the learner, not transmit data. We want the learner to be able to apply what has been communicated and not just repeat it back.

Find Your Center of Focus

There’s a mantra repeated at the beginning of the book, educators must be “learner centered, performance based.” This encompasses not just your delivery but the content you build, where you build it, and how you interact with participants. Lose sight of this and you risk losing your credibility and your learners’s interest and respect.

Learner Centered Means Adapting

How we learn is part of our genetic make up. Garden’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences tells us that w need to negate different senses and learning types in order to really make teachings stick. The question is how to you cater to an audience you’ve never met. Training can take advantage of what we know about the human body to build flexible courses that can be modified or already integrates best practices for engaging many types of learners.

Think About It!

Humans can store massive amounts of data. The issue lies in retrieving it. Assuming that it’s relevant to the learner, then organization is the key. Consider the acronym PEMDAS and the mnemonics My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. Can you remember what they mean? If the answer is yes, when was the last time you needed to use the information? Chances are you haven’t consciously thought about either in a long time but the information still lives on. That’s the power of organization coupled with effective teaching and the human brain.

This, of course, doesn’t mean the classes where we learned these pieces of information were successful but rather that someone stumbled upon a great memory technique that may or may not have translated into other parts of the curriculum. I can’t readily recall most of what I learned in Earth Science but I vividly remember Algebra. The teacher included hands on and group activities, employed a reward system and used visuals and audio cues to draw connections between prior knowledge and newer, more complex pieces of information.

Click here for the next post in this series where we’ll find out why trainings fail.

Using Inter-team Collaborations to Promote Critical Thinking Skills

This is part of a 3-part series focusing on applying adult learning theory in the workplace. To see the other articles, view A Brief Intro to Adult Learning Theory and Self Directed Learning as a Training Solution

Current Problem

Teams across 15 campuses are finding it increasingly difficult to track information and share it with the stakeholders. In addition, there is a lack of standardization in the way programs are run, further complicating alignment and adoption of initiatives to solve this problem.

Proposed Solution

Many of these conversations have started with ‘we can’t’ or ‘we don’t’. We can’t change this system or we don’t use this method. I usually ask probing questions to get to the bottom of these opinions. Is the ‘can’t’ related to something tangible? Is the ‘don’t’ due to a lack of structure or something else? Until a problem can be broken down into it’s smallest parts, a holistic fix cannot be created. Asking teams to think critically about their current processes will force all parties to honestly evaluate the problems they face. I highly recommend using this list of Socratic Questions to get past the surface issues. Much like the worksheet found at the bottom of this page, you can create an evaluation worksheet asking similar guiding questions to reach a conclusion.

Why Promote Critical Thinking?

Human beings draw conclusions from past experience – personal or otherwise. We can become entrenched in views because we have had positive and negative experiences that influence what we think will happen. Perhaps we’ve were involved in an unpleasant outcome related to group work that prevents us from trying something new. Conversely, maybe we heard of a new technology and we want in on it because everyone else is raving about it. Either way, it’s necessary to break down and evaluate this feelings or instincts in order to make logical and well informed decisions. Even if they result is less than stellar, you have begun a process of evaluation that allows you to continue build until you reach success.

What Does it Look Like?

Start by creating a list of specific issues that your team is trying to tackle. If you are a manager, create your own and allow teams to do the same. For each issue, have team members brainstorm about the root causes and 2-3 possible solutions.  You can have participants fill out the worksheet to the right, use the template at the bottom of this page, or create your own.

It is unlikely that everyone will have the same answers, or answers that get to the bottom of the problem. Ask team members to share their view of the problem then use Socratic Questions to whittle it down to it’s simplest form. This might look something like this:

Stated Problem: There aren’t enough people or resources available to complete this project

Follow Up Questions

  • Can you give me an example of a time when this was apparent?
  • Can you describe the scope of the project? In what ways can we leverage the strengths of you and your team members to solve this problem?
  • How can we look at this another way?
Do the same for each section of the worksheet until there is a clear idea of what actionable steps can be taken to begin to solve the issue.

Once that has happened, have teams pair off with members of other teams to get feedback on how they handled similar situations. The idea is to have fresh perspectives challenge existing perceptions and require the problem solvers to re-evaluate, explain and if necessary, defend their beliefs and next course of action.

Will this work for me?

  • There is a question or issue that requires deeper exploration in order to resolve
  • You are looking to engage your audience and get them involved through intellectual contributions
  • You  need to change long held thoughts or processes but are facing resistance (change management)
  • You want to empower your audience to go beyond surface knowledge and use their skills and experience to develop their own ideas

Want to try it out? Use this PDF template to build a framework for applying any adult learning strategy to your current work.

A Brief Intro to Adult Learning Theory

There’s a lot of info about learning theory in the early years, but what about for adults?

That’s the first question every adult educator should start with. Unlike K-12 education, there aren’t strict governing bodies that inform every decision made in adult education. Instead, our community depends on years of independent and industry research as the basis for our practice. This means that there isn’t just one, or two, or even three ways in which we believe adults learn. In fact, on a whole, facilitators of adult education haven’t entirely agreed on what that term actually means. They have agreed, however, that a few key concepts are consistent when teaching adult learners.

Adult learners are looking for:

Can you break that down for me?

Of course! We’ll go piece by piece so that you can get an idea of how these seemingly simple components come together to form the complex field of adult education. Before we continue, remember that no one component is inherently more important than the other and there a billion other factors that determine why a student showed up to your class. Also, keep in mind that each learning situation is based on the circumstances and abilities of the instructor, the learners and the environment in which you teach.

Relevance of Content

Do you remember sitting in pre-calculus and desperately wondering why you were learning it? What’s the likelihood using advanced math in your everyday life? It didn’t really matter because someone decided you needed to learn it and so you did. Or I assume you tried to. If you’re like me, you didn’t retain anything after algebra because it held no relevance to you.

There are so many reasons someone shows up to your classroom; job mandated training, skill building for employment, individual pursuit of knowledge. Regardless of what got them there, your students are looking to learn something that means something. It’s important for you, as an educator, to identify that reason in order to ensure the success of your students.

Immediately Applicable Skills

Skills don’t always have to be manual, but for most adult learners, they do need to be immediately applicable. That means that what you teach today should be translatable to what your student does tomorrow.

Regardless of your audience, your content should aim to teach practical skills or knowledge in a way that is easy to relate to. Learners should know why they are being taught the content and how they can expect it to help them in their personal or professional lives.

Involvement in the Process

The most prevalent classroom structure in K-12 is teacher as leader. This means that the teacher, or person at the front of the room, makes all decisions about what and how content is learned. This can lead to passive learning, in which your audience only learns what you teach them with no consideration for their own interests, strengths or preferences.

Involvement level can vary based on any number of factors;  subject matter, government guidelines, time constraints, program structure and audience composition are just a few. Although it may initially sound challenging, there are simple ways to get everyone involved and invested in what is being taught. Having your learners share what they want to learn during the course or what projects they would like to work on, and then integrating that feedback into your lesson are just to examples of how this could work.

Acknowledgement and Inclusion of Prior Experience

One major difference between K-12 and adult education is that children are assumed to have no prior experience to build upon. This is not the case with adults, as discussed by Paulo Friere and to some extent, John Dewey.

The model of ‘educational banking’ does not translate well to higher education because adults are not empty vessels. They carry with them many years a experiences that shape the way they view the world and approach every situation. In order to keep them engaged, it’s important for educators to acknowledge this fact and look for ways to incorporate those experiences into the lesson. Asking learners to apply what they are currently learning to past experiences is an easy way to include student experiences in the classroom and help them understand the value of the content being taught.

Flexibility in the Way Content is Taught

We’re all familiar with the saying ‘one size doesn’t fit all’. That same idea applies to education. Although your learners need to learn the same content, it is unlikely that everyone will learn the same way at the same speed. There are several theories that address this including Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, McClusky’s Theory of Margin and work done by Malcolm Knowles.

Although we have the benefit of technology, finding a video on Youtube or a link through Google does not guarantee learning. When we talk about the way content is taught, consider whether you are incorporating active learning techniques or content that integrates different learning styles.

This is part of a 3-part series focusing on applying adult learning theory in the workplace. To see the other articles, view Self Directed Learning as a Training Solution   and Using Inter-team Collaborations to Promote Critical Thinking Skills

Self Directed Learning as a Training Solution

This is part of a 3-part series focusing on applying adult learning theory in the workplace. To see the other articles, view A Brief Intro to Adult Learning Theory and Using Inter-team Collaborations to Promote Critical Thinking Skills

Current Problem

Where I currently work, we are finding that our instructors need and crave more targeted professional development. As mentioned in the Methodology section, adults want to know that what they are learning is relevant and has immediate application. If there is something that an instructor needs to know to do his/her job, then it is our responsibility to provide it. As a relatively new company, our resource library is limited and does not necessarily address the different skill gaps of our instructors, nor the levels at which they need to address them. In other words, we aren’t practicing differentiated learning. We are taking a one size fits all approach that leaves some instructors feeling lost and others feeling stagnant.

Proposed Solution

At the very simplest – build a searchable repository of professional development resources and pair this with the observations and assessments that are already happening. Ensure that all instructors across all campuses have access to this database and leverage instructor and employee knowledge to further populate it.

It’s extremely important that the resources you provide are accessible, relevant and accurate. Forgetting these simple guidelines can result in frustration (why do I need to learn this?), confusion (what does this mean/this contradicts something else), and resentment (I have to pay/drive an hour out of my way for this information) from learners.

Why Self Directed Learning?

You’re covering a few bases with this approach, most of which are covered in other parts of this site. Above all else, you are providing adults with actionable and applicable items. They can pursue as little or as much as they want to in order to meet the benchmarks set forth by their managers. They can also choose to expand their knowledge outside of the provided resources and are encouraged to improve their in class practice with the support of their instructional leaders.

In a classroom setting, this can be a useful tool for students who often finish early and crave additional knowledge. Conversely, it’s also a great tool for a student who is having trouble grasping a concept that everyone else has mastered. The missing information may be critical to the student’s success, so it cannot be glanced over. Instead, you can provide articles, textbooks, videos or other resources to allow the student to learn the concept on his/her own.

What it Looks Like

For me, this looks like a centralized web-based system that is managed by the instructional leaders across all campuses. Because this will be used by all instructors and is part of the message and culture of the company, it’s important that the information submitted is vetted and that it aligns with what you want to see in the classroom.

For you, this depends on the systems and process already in place for learning. Do you have a learning management system (LMS) like Canvas, Blackboard, Oracle or Schoology? If you answered yes, there might already be add-ons or functionality that allow you to build resource libraries. You may also be able to create videos, quizzes and other assessments that are specific to the goals of your course.

If you answered no, you can still create a system that ticks those three boxes. If you are working in an offline environment, have a listed of links, books, videos, etc to provide to students. Or, if you have books or articles in the classroom, suggest the student has a look during the break. You can also build a simple website, like this one, to act as an extension of the classroom materials.

How can I make this work for me?

SDL is best used when:

  • There are small or simple tasks the audience needs to know before you can move forward. This is sometimes called pre-work and has been used in as a requirement for trainings and classes.
  • A learner is struggling during class but you are unable to a)spend anymore time on the subject, b) provide the depth of knowledge necessary for understanding or c) adjust the lesson to address his/her preferred learning style.
  • A learner is excelling and requires more stimulus to remain engaged in the lesson.

Want to give it a shot? Download this Adult Learning Application Cheatsheet to get started.

Community Spotlight: Brooklyn Workforce Innovations

bwi_logo_copyBrooklyn Workforce Innovations isn’t a well-known name here in New York City. There aren’t advertisements on the subway, or anywhere on the streets of Brooklyn. A Google search doesn’t even place them in the top 50 results for NYC workforce centers. Without diligent searching, you’re not likely to come across them at all. It seems that that’s the problem with workforce centers. They provide a much needed service that the public doesn’t know exists.

I met with KenTara John, Program Coordinator for the Brooklyn Networks program at Brooklyn Workforce Innovations (BWI). Having obtained her undergraduate and graduate degree, Ms. John’s story is not an unfamiliar one. Those degrees didn’t get her where she expected. Working in non-profit organizations wasn’t enough to make up for the debt she accumulated and the skills she gained weren’t what she needed to maintain or flourish in the workplace.

During our class discussions, one sentiment became clear – workforce centers exist because college is not the path for everyone. Whether it’s a lack of education, a challenging home life or dissatisfaction with their current jobs, adults turn to workforce centers to help them create opportunities for growth. This is where organizations like Brooklyn Workforce Innovations come in.


Organization Overview

The stakeholders vary depending on the funding sources. In general, stakeholders include community based organizations, parole offices, schools, youth programs, substance abuse programs, HR administrators, ex-convicts, unemployed candidates, underemployed candidates, and New York’s Workforce 1 Career Center.

The programs at BWI focus on practical and immediately applicable skills. Unlike a traditional college, their programs culminate in a certification, not a degree. These certifications are transferable, generally opening up access to a broader range of opportunities. One of the motivations of participants is that completing a program at BWI provides you with a skilled trade or as Ms. John explained, “Something someone can’t take away”. The certificate is a tangible and measurable representation of the skills participants learned during the program. BWI’s include:

  • Brooklyn Networks: Which leads to a career in voice and data telecommunications cable installation
  • Red Hook on the Road: Which helps students get their commercial driver’s license (CDL)
  • Brooklyn Woods: A woodworking and fabrication program
  • Made in NY PA Training: Part of NYC’s initiative to cultivate diversity in the film industry
  • NYCHA Resident Training Academy: A sector-focused training program that leads to job placement within local housing developments

Ms. John is the Program Coordinator for the Brooklyn Networks. Spanning six weeks, the program is hosted at New York City College of Technology (CUNY). It’s an installation program that focuses on cabling for network, data and security. Upon completion, participants sit for the BISCI exam, a credentialing exam that tests theoretical and practical components.

Although all of the programs through BWI are practical or technical programs, all curriculum focuses on both hard and soft skills and places equal weight on each. There is a high demand for candidates to demonstrate situational judgement, a skill that has been flagged by employers as missing, even in college graduates.

Participant Demographics and the Selection Process

The screening and selection process for Brooklyn Networks is rigorous.  The selection process consists of multiple steps. The first is an orientation that is held weekly throughout the year. Candidates are required to take the TABE, an exam that gauges math and reading levels. To be eligible for Brooklyn Networks, candidates must be able to pass on an 8th grade level. Approximately half of the candidates fail this exam. They offer retests for those who score between the 5th and 7th grade levels. If they fail that, Ms. John recommends that they take additional courses and then reapply.

The next step is an interview with one of the program staff that asks personal questions about their current situation and the motivations behind joining the program. It’s important that candidates are interested in the field and aren’t just looking for a quick way to make money. There’s a high level of accountability on the participants; they’ll be responsible for completing HW and projects, maintaining consistent attendance, and remaining professional. Ms. John has identified that this as a ‘big risk program’ because many participants have not had this kind of responsibility, especially if they did not complete HS.

If the participants move forward from there, extensive documentation is required by the state and federal government and by some stakeholders. Following that, there is a drug screening. If candidates fail, they aren’t allowed to reapply for one year. The screening is not a surprise. On the contrary, candidates are notified so that they have a chance to get clean before it happens. Once those steps are complete, applicants ‘try out’. They come in on a Monday, go over the details of the program and then attend sample classes on Tuesday and Wednesday. Finally, the director and program instructors evaluate overall performance and interview responses. This committee selects 15 participants and those that are accepted start the next day.

The most interesting portion of this visit was the level of detailed that went into preparing the candidates. The selection process is extremely discerning but there’s a quota to meet, which can affect the way the program is run. However, Ms. John demonstrated true interest and compassion in seeing candidates and participants succeed. Given the background of participants, I believe this can make a world of difference for those who have faced discouragement.

Program Structure and Outcomes

The Brooklyn Networks program is five days a week, from 9-5. There’s an exam every week and 2 to 4 HW assignments each night. The week is structured to include practical and professional skills. There are 3.5 days of lab training and 1.5 days of job readiness training.

Student progress is closely monitored by the instructor, who is responsible for curriculum and homework.

Because of the strict policies, rigorous curriculum and expectation setting, the pass rate for the certification exam is 91%. Unlike course work, the BICSI is graded pass or fail. To ensure that students are prepared above and beyond the requirements of the exam, the level of rigor in the classroom is much higher than what is required.  Upon successful completion of the program, BWI offers job placement assistance for two years. There is also a follow up 60, 90, 180 and 365 days after graduation to gauge candidate success in the field.

Social Impact

Beyond providing job applicable skills, BWI aims to empower participants to aspire to higher levels of personal success. It shows participants that they have the drive and discipline to complete their GED or get a college degree. For others, it’s a way to excel beyond cultural expectations. Ms. John shared a few of these stories, including a female Muslim graduate who was told by her family that she couldn’t complete the program because she’s a woman. She also shared the story of Pete Rosado who said he always wanted to travel the world but ended up in prison, doing traveling of a different kind. In spite of his background, Mr. Rosado graduated and is now Lead Tech at his company.

In addition to the individual impact on the graduates, BWI and other workforce centers have the opportunity to equalize pay within their industries. All graduates from Brooklyn Networks has a starting wage of $12-$13, regardless of gender or race. Employers may have the option to pay more, but they cannot pay any less, which is at odds with how traditional hiring works.

Challenges and Looking Forward

Although BWI has been around for 15 years, they face some common problems. Outreach and recruitment was more robust in 2013 but changes in the economy have affected the number of applicants. In turn, this has impacted the quality of applicants and the program. With no official outreach process, they rely on referrals and word of mouth to source candidates. Other issues include alumni data tracking, getting women to complete the training, student engagement that helps prevent burnout and withdrawals, external dependencies, and lack of reliable record keeping systems. Additionally, attendance is particularly challenging due to the backgrounds of participants. If a student misses enough classes, they will need to leave the program, regardless of the reasons. Students who are counseled out are encourage to reapply once their schedule stabilizes.

Ms. John and I spent time to discussing the struggles associated with tracking student data. Above all else, being able to measure the success of the students during and after the program is the biggest challenge that many training programs face. We swapped stories and ideas about how to improve our current systems and I was surprised to hear that they have no real process for storing records and it is mostly paper based. Given the frequency at which technology is changing, I believe this lack of integration (which was also present when reviewing the outreach process) has the potential to be detrimental to BWI’s programs. For all the work they are doing, further investment in technology and outreach would make a huge difference in program quality and reporting.

Women, Leadership and Workforce Education

Understanding the Origins of Gender Inequality to Drive Progress

Most societies evolved with a built-in inequality between men and women. Many religious texts require women to defer to their husband, something that has been carried into the workplace. Women and men are held to different standards, and are judged by different measures of success.

This disparity between the genders can make workforce education extremely complex. Consider not only religious, but also societal assumptions that unconsciously dictate the role of women in the workplace. Movies, music and tv shows all acknowledge the struggle of women to obtain respect in a male dominated workplace, but few have done so with the intention of affecting change. Instead, it’s a joke or personal story, but rarely is it a call to action.

The separation between men and women can be felt more acutely in Arab nations, where equal rights for women expands far beyond the labor force.

In this video, Dr Behjat Al Yousuf, Associate Director of Dubai Women’s College speaks about their efforts to provide educational opportunities for women, within the constraints of their culture.

Gender Equality – Perception Changes Everything

Watch this short TEDTalk by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook as she talks about unconscious gender bias in the workplace and how our own perceptions keep us and others from succeeding.


What is ‘the gender pay gap’?

This perception, along with prevailing cultural and societal norms have contributed to what is known as ‘the gender pay gap’. Countless independent and government sponsored studies have yielded the same results – across all industries women are paid significantly less for doing the same job as their male counterparts with the same or similar qualifications.

I’m not telling women to be like men. I’m telling us to evaluate what men and women do in the workforce and at home without the gender bias.– Sheryl Sandberg

In addition to the disparity in pay, there is a perception that some professions are more suited for men instead of women, regardless of previous education. The idea that women aren’t capable of achieving success in a field has lead to overwhelmingly male-centric industries, most notably in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM).

Click here to read more about how stereotypes about the ability to succeed based solely on gender can discourage girls before they even have a chance to try.

Here’s How Workforce Education Can Level the Playing Field

Workforce Education Centers have a unique opportunity. Unlike higher education institutions, they have the unique ability to set hiring requirements for employers. Brooklyn Workforce Initiative, located in Brooklyn, NY, places all graduates at companies that have a minimum starting salary of $12 – $13, guaranteeing that all graduates are receiving equal pay for the same skill set.

In addition, Workforce Education Centers generally teach practical skills with the goal of meeting certification requirements in high demand fields. Teaching the right combination of practical and professional skills – including having leaders of all genders involved in presentations or curriculum creation – can better prepare women for a competitive workplace.

Finally, Workforce Education Centers generally work very closely with employers and can gain insight on what it takes to be successful within an organization. They also have the chance to create mentoring relationships within an organization to support women as they transition into the company.

We Need Diverse Leaders – Everyone Can Have an Impact

Leaders come in all forms. Whether it be a man or a women, change can originate from those who are are truly invested in progressive actions and legislation that promote equity for all genders, ages and races.
These figures from a report by the Pew Research Center shows the trend of women in government positions over the last 40+ years. As you can see, the number of female representatives in Congress has steadily risen from 1965 onwards. 

Having more women in government brings something that is unique to all marginalized populations – perception. This is not to say that men cannot be supporters of women’s rights and equality, but rather that women bring with them experiences shaped by laws, stipulations and biased that influence their ability to succeed. Having a disproportionate number of female representatives in government means that laws for women are being passed without enough representation to really dive into the repercussions they’ll have on the populations they look to serve.

Interested in learning more? Visit the full research project at http://women-wfed.weebly.com/

Legislation, Workforce Education and Transitioning Veterans


Workforce Education legislation, including the recent passing of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) has had a focus on creating educational opportunities for underserved and marginalized populations. One such group is U.S. veterans; in addition to WIOA, they receive benefits from legislation geared towards providing education and training opportunities for those who served on active duty from 1944, onwards. The resulting programs are a mixture of government, non-profit and private run initiatives that vary greatly in content and quality. Each of these entities may serve different demographics or deliver services under a specific section of the law, but generally have the same end goal. They exist to provide transitional educational opportunities that allow veterans to complete higher education or vocational training, keeping in mind their unique and challenging experiences.


The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (later known as the GI Bill), was originally created to provide benefits to veterans returning from World War II. The bill has been expanded during subsequent wars, including the Vietnam War. In 2008, prompted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, this bill was revised and amended to extend those benefits to any person who served on active duty for 90 or more days on or after September 10, 2001. In addition to compensation, pensions, and life insurance, these benefits included a robust plan for aiding education and vocational rehabilitation and transition services for members that fall into this category. The bill outlines the types of programs and institutions that are qualified to provide services under the new laws and compliance is monitored and enforced by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

According to a report published by the Department of Veteran Affairs, during 2015, there were 1,016,664 beneficiaries who received education benefits sponsored under the current GI Bill and all its iterations. This includes all veterans who served in active duty from 1944 to present day. Taking a look at Table 1, you’ll see a breakdown of the educational beneficiaries (veterans and their survivors and/or dependents), the programs under which they are eligible and the level of education they are undertaking. There are six educational and training programs set up under the GI Bill:

  • POST 9/11: Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Program (Post-9/11 GI Bill)
  • MGIB-AD: All-Volunteer Force Educational Assistance Program (Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty)
  • MGIB-SR: Educational Assistance for Members of the Selected Reserve (Montgomery GI Bill – Selected Reserve)
  • REAP: Reserve Educational Assistance Program
  • DEA: Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance
  • VEAP: Post-Vietnam Era Veterans Educational Assistance Program

In 2015 there were approximately 452,000 newly enrolled participants in an educational program under this legislation. Despite the total number of beneficiaries, over one million, the total number of educational beneficiaries decreased by 7% between fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The report does not indicate the cause of this decrease, nor whether this is the intended result of the legislation. This is to say, there is no information on the impact of the US withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 and whether we should expect to see a consistent decline or increase in the number of beneficiaries each year. The report indicates a surge in beneficiaries between 2012 and 2013 and a steady decrease beginning in 2013. The question, then, is whether the decrease in participants can be attributed to less active duty service-members being eligible for the program or perhaps a correlation between marketing and outreach with the decline of enrollments. There has also not been any update to the GI Bill to account for the fact that we are no longer considered ‘at war’. This means that all service-members currently serving 90 or more days will be eligible for these benefits.

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Motivators and Barriers to Educational Success

According to the 2009 study by Ackerman, DiRamio and Garza Mitchell, titled Transitions: Combat Veterans as College Student, feedback from participants indicated that “along with patriotism, the promise of educational benefits was a primary motivator. Eight participants noted the need for financial support to attend college (pg 6)”. This implies that those on active duty, those thinking about enlisting and those that have left the military understand the value in both the GI Bill and higher education/vocational training. The financial assistance is a gateway to these opportunities that were previously out of reach due to any number of reasons, including socioeconomic standing.

However, based on the resources provided on the VA’s website, mental health services are available but not mandated in order for veterans to acclimate to life and work outside of the military. There is also no literature about the counseling process when joining the military. This begs the question whether candidates understand the potential struggles veterans will face once returning to civilian life. According to a 2012 study by Ellison et al. “war related trauma and consequent impairments can hinder educational attainment among veterans with disabilities including those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. The study conducted by Ackerman et al. (2009) shares the view of one participant in particular who “noted that the killing and survival skills learned in the military were not applicable in classroom settings, implying that a relearning of leadership skills was also necessary (pg 7)”. Limited information is available about programs that address these issues and works with veterans, specifically, to map their skills to applicable ones in the workforce.

Additionally, the same study found that “the barriers to education centered on four codes, two of which were especially relevant to young adults: educational planning and reintegration challenges”. This qualitative study found that the lack of preparation and educational experience of participants was a contributing factor in failure to complete higher education programs. Overall program administration is lacking, leading to difficulties in gaining access to available resources. This is in line with the study done by Ellison et al. (2012), which states:

“The Veterans Administration, which handles educational and medical benefits, is not an easy bureaucracy to understand, although some negotiated it well. We learned, too, that not all campuses have functioning programs in place to assist veterans who have become students. Then there were the challenges of fitting in, of just being a student (pg 9)”

This is a frequent piece of feedback that has been heard both from veterans as well as news outlets and oversight committees. In their 2016 article titled Career Transitions of Student Veterans Ghosh and Fouad suggest that “Although student veterans’ enrollment has increased, there is limited information about how the transition from military service to college life influences the career choices of student veterans (pg 99)”. They also found that “According to ACE (2011), military experiences may translate into academic credit at most universities. However, if student veterans are not aware of this and other resources and benefits, they may lack a sense of confidence in making the transition to college (pg 106)”. It is clear from both the literature review and the information available on the VA’s website that there is a disconnect between the services being provided and the audience they are meant to serve.

Utilizing Current Legislation to Create Tailored Programs and Environments

In that vein, it seems apparent that the responsibility to create successful programs generally resides with the educational institution, which would explain the variation in quality of services received. Research conducted by Lokken, Pfeffer, McAuley, & Strong in 2009 shows that institutions like St Cloud State University in Minnesota is making conscious efforts to make their campus better suit the needs of the target demographic, saying, “veteran-friendly refers to marked efforts made by individual campuses to identify and remove barriers to the educational goals of veterans, to create smooth transitions from military life to college life (pg 45)”. In July of 2006, the MDVA–Higher Education Veterans Programs split the state into 6 regions and assigned a coordinator responsible for compliance and implementation. They also assigned a Program Director to oversee the program and coordinate efforts. This move, along with increased funding for military programs saw a total of forty-one campuses running veterans resource centers. The program has received positive reviews and increased the number of veterans receiving necessary services related to education and career. Although this model will not fit all states – especially considering population density in areas like Texas, NY and LA – it does put forth an alternative way of managing resources to make services more accessible. It also demonstrates the importance of consistency, coordination, and oversight in maintaining value in government funded program.



There is limited literature regarding the transition of veterans into the higher education and vocational institutions, how they are programs and people are supported once they begin a program or long term results of initiatives. However, the topic warrants further investigation. Research into the impact of holistic career transitioning services in higher education and vocational training can be a valuable tool for program planners looking for ways to empower veterans in the classroom and the workplace. Education institutions and local government bodies would benefit greatly from a deeper understanding of the GI Bill, it’s intended implementation and the way it is presently influencing the structure of program offerings. Finally, research into and program planning focused on bridging the gap between skills acquired and new career paths would likely be valuable to participants, especially those who enlisted at a fairly young age.



Ackerman, R., DiRamio, D., & Garza Mitchell, R.L. (2009). Transitions: Combat Veterans as College Students. New Directions for Student Services (Wiley InterScience). 24, 5-14. doi: 10.1002/ss.311

Bound, J., & Turner, S. (2002). Going to War and Going to College: Did World War II and the G.I. Bill Increase Educational Attainment for Returning Veterans?. Journal of Labor Economics, 20, 784-815. doi: 0734-306X/2002/2004-0003$10.00

Bokhour, B.G., Drebing, C., Ellison, M.L., Smelson, D., Corrigan, P.W., Najavits, L.M., Torres Stone, R.A., Vessella, J.M. (2012). Supporting the Education Goals of Post-9/11 Veterans with Self-Reported PTSD Symptoms: A Needs Assessment. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 35, 209–217. doi: 10.2975/35.3.2012.209.217

Ghosh, A.& Fouad, N.A. (2016). Career Transitions of Student Veterans. Journal of Career Assessment, 24, 99-111. doi: 10.1177/1069072714568752

Lokken, J.M, Pfeffer, D.S, McAuley, J., & Strong, C. (2009). A Statewide Approach to Creating Veteran-Friendly Campuses. New Directions for Student Services (Wiley InterScience). 126, 45-54. doi: 10.1002/ss.315

Loughran, J. (2014). Professionally Developing as a Teacher Educator. The International Journal of Teacher Education, 26, 271-283. doi: 10.1177/0022487114533386

FY 2015 Annual Benefits Report – Education Section

US Department of Veterans Affairs

Book Review: The Courage to Teach


Adding Perspective

Since starting the Masters of Education program at CSU, I have been introduced to a number of literary resources. Last semester, I fell in love with Ralph Brockett’s Teaching Adults: A Practical Guide for New Teachers for it’s down to earth style and, as the title implies, practical Parker-Palmer_Courage-to-Teachimplications. With each new piece of information I read, I found myself reevaluating the way I had been approaching the task of teaching, and more importantly, the way I interact with my audience. The Courage to Teach takes a holistic approach to becoming an educator. Whereas Brockett focuses on how you perceive your students and how they perceive you, Palmer delves much more deeply into why you, the individual, is standing in that classroom and how you, as part of a larger teaching community, can learn and grow from the relationships you forge wherever you go.

Although Palmer is speaking about his experience as a teacher, much of what he touches upon is relevant to all fields. As I read through each chapter, I found myself stopping to discuss sections with my husband, who is also struggling to find satisfaction in his career. A concept that struck me was what Palmer calls “self-violence”. Until recently, I loved my job. I was eager to go in each day and often stayed late. I felt as though what I was doing made a difference and I would argue wholeheartedly with anyone who disagreed. Two years ago, however, that all changed. I was doing the same work, but under different circumstances, in a swiftly changing environment and I felt as though I couldn’t stand behind the work I was doing. I knew that I wasn’t doing my best and I knew that to some degree, I had thrown my hands up and checked out. My supervisor and I tried everything we could think of – but the truth of it was this: the job I was doing no longer felt true to who I was and wanted to be and it showed. Much like the Eric in The Courage to Teach, it showed in my tone, in my attitude, in my temper. After two years of struggling with the idea, I decided to leave the company and find another job. I did, but in doing so I realized that I was just falling back into the same routine. I was sticking to what I was good at, what would help me pay my rent and put food on the table but did nothing for the nourishment of my soul.  So what was it, exactly, that I was looking for? I had been entertaining the idea of going back to school but having graduated undergrad with no debt, I was hesitant to take out student loans. Now, here I had quit my second job in three months and already, my application was under review. This program, I decided, was going to be me, taking a chance to find a balance between material needs, the thirst for continued learning and the spiritual fulfillment of doing what I love on a daily basis.

The following quote, just a few pages into the book, had me nodding my head enthusiastically in agreement. Palmer states that “In a single stroke, we delude our students into thinking that bad prose can turn opinion into facts, and we alienate them from their own inner lives (pg 19)”. As a result of the proliferation of ‘objectivism’ in our daily lives, in order to be taken seriously, we find it necessary to distance ourselves from our subject matter. We are taught to frame situations with you, them, or the ever so formal one but never I, never me. Those are much too personal and undermine your sense of authority, marking those self identifying pronouns as off limits in corporate literature or academic papers. Note that, depending on your environment, you may simply run out of pronouns altogether; the use of ‘you’ can been see as accusatory, the word ‘them’ as offensive and ‘one’ as elitist. We dance around syntax and fight to be so neutral that we completely remove the individual from the situation. The problem with this approach, as Palmer points out, is that teaching – and learning – is a wholly personal adventure and that self identity is an integral part of developing individuality in the academic setting.

This exploration of self is a common theme throughout The Courage to Teach– the art of teaching does not rely solely on technique. In fact, with the absence of authenticity, self reflection and the support of community, a truly effective teacher cannot exist. As the book progresses, Palmer speaks about why this objective separation occurs, why we distance ourselves from our students and our environments. On this, he says “Because academic culture knows only one form of conflict – the win-lose form called competition, we fear the live encounter as contest from which one party emerges victorious while the other leaves defeated and ashamed (pg 38).” This is true of our encounters with students, colleagues, even neighbors and friends. We are afraid of having our ignorance exposed and subject to scrutiny, especially in a situation where we are restrained in our response by our institution or personal affiliations. Furthermore, this form of intellectual challenge incites a fear that we may learn beyond what we are comfortable knowing and therefore be compelled to changed. For this reason, we hide behind objectiveness to mask our fear of ignorance. However, by separating ourselves from the subject, our content and our audience, we miss the inherently personal nature of what we do.

When I was just starting out in the hospitality field, I was put in charge of training new hosts. My manager pulled me aside one day and said ‘never be afraid to teach people what you know’. That piece of advice still sticks with me 10 years later. I didn’t know it then, but he was speaking to that same fear. What if I’m wrong? It’s a question I ask myself often. As a by-product of taking up yoga, I started to truly think of it as so what if I’m wrong? Instead of leaning towards panic, I try to move towards analyzing that fear to find the root of it and inviting conversation with my peers.

An academic institution is a repository of immense knowledge, sequestered behind the same walls that we ourselves have built. The same can be said for a corporate training environment where keeping knowledge to yourself is the way to get ahead. However, we all come from different backgrounds and have unique perspectives that can be used to build a knowledge community. Instead of perpetuating an ‘every man for himself’ mentality, Palmer suggests that educators have the opportunity to support one another as a community. This process can even be used to engage students in these activities with the intention of improving the field of education and encouraging the development of what he calls “new professionals”. Despite arguments to the contrary, Palmer believes that “If community is to emerge, it will have to be in the midst of inequalities whenever two or three are gathered (pg 141).” There are those who think that a community must be built of equals, but we know that this isn’t the case. There are companies who build their culture on open communication and interdepartmental support. These companies are led by someone – there’s a person in charge who ultimately calls the shots. That doesn’t mean that the intellectual contributions of the employees are irrelevant.

Finally, I would like to take a moment to speak about the importance of freedom of thought. Both John Dewey and Parker Palmer stress the need to educate students in such a way as to encourage critical thinking and independent thought. In the last chapter, Palmer says that “we need professionals that are ‘in but not of’ their institutions, whose allegiance to core values of their fields calls them to resist the institutional diminishment of those values (pg 204).” In the same vein, Dewey states “The only freedom that is of enduring importance is freedom of intelligence, that is to say freedom of observation and of judgement” (Dewey, 1938, p. 61). There is a need for critical and creative thinkers who are able to maintain integrity while asking the challenging questions. If we hope to see continued innovation in the field of education, then we must encourage those traits in our students.

Using Learning Contracts to Facilitate Success

Learning contracts can be a great tool to clearly define course or training expectations for the instructor/trainer and the student/employee. Although an employer may hope that information provided in a training environment is clear and relevant, it’s necessary to take into account context. Your audience needs to know why they are learning this information and how they are expected to apply it.  Take a look at the learning contract (above or view the PDF here) and course description (below), that I created for my sample ‘Data Management Across Systems’.

Sample Course: Data Management Across Systems

Course Description

This course has been designed to assist Data Administrators in evaluating current data collection systems in their department or company. Regardless of the size or purpose of your organization, you collect data in one form or another. Some of us are used to the old paper and pen method while some of us are almost completely digital. Both systems have pros and cons, which we will discuss in this course. Knowing the reason your company collects various types of data, who the responsible parties are and what the output format will be, has a great bearing on the systems you use and the issues you will face. We will take a look at all of these factors over the next 5 weeks to help you lead or support the implementation of more accurate and robust data collection.


Creation of a Learning Contract

Each of you come from a different background and may have slightly different expectations for this course. The purpose of this learning contract is to ensure each student sets and completes his/her objectives. The contract is between the student and the instructor, created as a way to clearly communicate course expectations for both parties. It will be completed at the end of the first week so that you have an idea of the material that will be covered and the options for projects used to demonstrate learning.

This contract should be personal to you and focus on what you intend to get out of this course. To help you begin this process, please complete the KWL chart provided on the first day of class. Use this document, along with the course description to begin developing objectives. During the submission of the Learning Contract, the instructor will meet with you to provide feedback. Once it is finalized, both the instructor and the student will agree on at least one in-person check-in and sign the contract. A copy will go to the student, one to the instructor and one will be kept on file with the department, to be revisited during the follow up meetings to ensure the objectives are being met.

After reading through the information, think about how learning contracts can be introduced in your learning environment to facilitate success.  Does this change the way you approach teaching or training? Are there any aspects of this that you can implement now?