Monday, February 7, 2011

A quick word about bowling

I just finished the first day of the Strategic Planning Roundtable, which is part of the administrators' retreat here at BSU. I am there as a member of the nascent Strategic Planning Committee, not as an administrator. I hope to write more about this experience in the coming days, but for now I want to share briefly my experience at our end-of-day event. We all went down to Jillian's in downtown Indianapolis for dinner and "crazy bowling."

We were formed into teams, and each frame of the game had a different theme. The first round involved using your non-dominant hand; the next had us throwing the ball without using the fingerholes; and this pattern continued with breakdancing, ballerina, backwards-through-the-legs, and pirate bowling. (By the way, I have determined that this last one is physically dangerous. The constraint is that you hop up to the foul line on one foot and throw the ball, while holding one eye closed. If you are not used to hurling 10-16 pound objects, doing it while on one foot can lead to significant muscle strain. I'm glad I brought Aleve.)

After the game, scores were tallied. When we were told that there would be another round, there was an audible moan. We did then play another round, same as the first, and then the winners got some prizes.

Two things struck me about this experience. The first and less important is that it was not Fun. (I will remind the reader that there are important distinctions between the colloquial "fun" and the scholarly "Fun.") At least on my team, we would have rather just bowled. Big-F Fun emerges---at least in part---from the balance of challenge and skill. Doing these little one-off silly tasks did not give room for skill improvement. The challenge far exceeded our skill, and so we were all just frustrated, essentially relying on random chance for points. As an alternative, knowing that there were prizes at stake, there was always the option to cheat, too. There were some laughs and a few lucky shots, but at least on my team, the general feeling was one of malaise, a frustration at our inadequacy to meet any of our goals and expectations.

This leads me to my second and more pertinent point: we pull this kind of crap on students all the time. We put students into uncomfortable situations, where their abilities will be measured against their peers, and where they have little or no existing skills. They do not know why they are doing what we make them do, and we do not give them the time necessary to develop skills that escalate with the challenge. Some people will cheat, and usually they will get ahead for it. Then, we're off to a new topic or a new class or a new semester, which may seem to have as little to do with the previous one as ballerinas to pirates. "Ballerinas? Pirates? I came here to get better at bowling!"

Now if that was the real intended lesson of the administration in planning this activity, I will be duly impressed.

Aside: I don't mean to be overly critical of the retreat planners' goals: they wanted a nice team-building activity where no one had an unfair advantage. I will be the first to admit that "team-building activities" are not my forte, and the lack of them has probably had negative impact on some of the teams I've formed over the years. I have developed a preference for designing situation where the team feels good about themselves by actually accomplishing something. I try to bring this into my teaching and mentorship by following an early win design: setting up a team so that on the first iteration, they have readily achievable goals that they can feel good about. This has been recommended in several of the agile software development books I've read, notably Cockburn's and Keith's, if I recall correctly.

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