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Empowering leadership through dialogue

Dr. Mark Winston enjoys a conversation with students from the Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue.


By Rebecca Cohoe

“Undergraduate students are capable of way more than we think,” asserts Dr. Mark Winston.

As the director of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, Dr. Winston believes that underestimating students is a major, and all too common, mistake that universities make.

“Undergraduates can have considerable positive impact on their world around them,” he continues. “When we don’t provide opportunities for them, we’re wasting a huge amount of social capital.”

This month Dr. Winston will be at Memorial, sharing his experience with dialogue-learning with students, staff and faculty.

One of the most exciting elements of his work is the Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue. With class sizes limited to around 20 students, the program is a hands-on learning experience with an emphasis on community-engagement. Students work on self-initiated projects, convene public policy forums and moderate discussions with leaders from industry, government and the arts.

“What’s different about our program is the chance to provide catalytic experiences, the kind of transformative experiences where a student can explore who they are in relation to what they want to do in the world,” explained Dr. Winston.

“These students are highly motivated, really interested in engaging with the world outside the university; however, they tend to be dissatisfied with the sit-in-the-chair-and-listen approach to education,” he said.

That was definitely the case with Katie Raso, a former participant of the program: “I was able to centre my individual project around issues that mattered to me (connecting youth with tools and skills for healthy eating) and to use a medium that I believed was the most powerful (visualization and illustration). Not only did I feel empowered, I created something that semester that mattered, not just another term paper in a sea of term papers.

“I was amazed by how much freedom we had in our learning process,” said Ms. Raso. “We were actively mentored by two very knowledgeable facilitators, but I don't think they ever said no to our ideas. They certainly challenged us to ensure that we were getting the most out of our experiences, but our creativity was celebrated.”

It’s just the sort of experience that Dr. Andrea Rose of Memorial’s Faculty of Education would like to share with students and faculty at Memorial. As one of the Memorial faculty members organizing Dr. Winston’s visit, she is interested in finding innovative ways to incorporate dialogue as a pedagogical tool for interdisciplinary and university-community wide studies.

“As an educator, I’ve always instinctively used dialogue as an important pedagogy for teaching and learning,” she said. “When I was invited to teach with Mark Winston at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue and saw firsthand the experiences included in his Semester in Dialogue programs, I immediately started to envision how this approach could benefit students in this province. Since then, I’ve participated in three of these semesters as a guest faculty member, and have seen firsthand the professional transformation that takes place in all involved – undergraduate students, faculty and community leaders.”

According to Dr. Rose, Memorial is ready for this sort of project.

For example, we now have great opportunities to research, explore and analyze important public policy issues through the Harris Centre. The time is right to build academic programs in collaboration with the centre and varied faculties across campus so that students have structured opportunities, within their degree programs, to engage in meaningful, real-world dialogue with community leaders, businesses, researchers, governments and non-profit organizations about important issues of the day,” she said. “The goal would be to help our students bridge their academic and professional studies with public policy issues, challenges and opportunities as they develop their own professional identities and career goals. It is well proven that meaningful dialogue is a critical component of professional engagement and leadership.”

Another Memorial proponent of the approach is Dr. Janna Rosales, research associate in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. Dr. Rosales and electrical engineering professor Dr. Cecilia Moloney are the brains behind the MetaKettle Project, a legacy project of the 2004-09 NSERC/Petro-Canada Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (Atlantic Region) devoted to integrative and innovative engineering and science education. They too were impressed by Dr. Winston’s work, and saw the potential benefits a similar approach could offer students at Memorial.

“Right now, we’re focusing on staff and faculty, with the plan to start a conversation about the future of learning at Memorial, but we’re also trying to start it more publicly. Before long, we’d like to pilot a two year program, starting with a summer institute in dialogue and leadership,” said Dr. Rosales. “The students would come from interdisciplinary programs to work together to explore and hopefully find ways to take action in their respective disciplines.”

She’s also careful to point out the professional benefits that the program could offer students as they enter the workforce. “They could be engineers, they could be artists, or they could be entrepreneurs; it doesn’t matter. With the opportunity to explore issues from many angles, and engage first-hand with leaders, undergraduate students get a jumpstart on their professional thinking and the development of their own identities as leaders.”

Along with several private sessions, Dr. Winston will also speak at two public events, including a Harris Centre lunch-time synergy session, “Talking Our Way to Action: Dialogue, Experiential Education and Community Engagement,” in the Junior Common Room in Gushue Hall, from 12 -1:30 p.m. on March 21, and “Dialogues in Bee Time: Experiencing Your Education” that evening, from 7-8:30 p.m. at the PetroCanada Hall at the School of Music. Parking for the evening event is available in Lot 15B, and a reception will follow.

A live web broadcast is available for the Synergy Session. To register for the broadcast or to attend in person, please contact Braeden Pilgrim at (709) 864-8418 or by Friday, March 18.