Aliki Nicolaides keeps a statue of Yoda on her desk and recalls the Star Wars character’s well-known words of wisdom-“you must unlearn what you have learned”-in describing the nature of her work. Nicolaides is fascinated by how people learn and has devoted her career to advancing learning pedagogy, both in theory and in practice.
An assistant professor of lifelong education, administration and policy in the College of Education, Nicolaides recently was named one of three Public Service and Outreach Fellows. Established by the Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach in 2011, the PSO Fellows Program was designed to help create more service and outreach opportunities for tenured and tenure-track faculty members.
Unlike the highly visible work of other past and current PSO Fellows, Nicolaides serves predominantly behind the scenes. Working with the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, Nicolaides evaluates both the practical and theoretical aspects of Fanning’s leadership methodology to better equip trainers to address unforeseen needs in the future.
“My contribution to Fanning, and ultimately to PSO, has been prompting an organizational shift in focus from training to capacity building,” Nicolaides said. “The traditional concept of training assumes that solutions to challenges are known, whereas capacity building refers to preparing both trainers and learners to effectively adapt to ever-changing needs that are in many ways quite difficult to understand.”
Nicolaides’ fellowship proposal centered on an emerging approach to leadership known as “collaborative methodology.” At its root, collaborative methodology assumes that leadership needs constantly are evolving, and as such there can never be a one-size-fits-all solution to any problem. This concept is especially applicable to the complex issues emerging leaders face.
“Collaborative methodology is actually a specialized concept that is not necessarily intuitive for those people outside the field,” Nicolaides said. “It is not simply throwing the preconceived notions of more than one person into a hat and devising a plan that gives equal weight to everyone’s contributions; rather, it is a highly volatile process that inherently shakes the foundation of what trainers think they know.”
Nicolaides frequently cites the concept of the “new normal” when discussing how ongoing changes in economics, race, class, access to resources and traditional leadership structures-among many other topics-constantly redefine cultural norms.
Nicolaides has spent the last 10 months collecting and analyzing data to integrate the resulting insights into Fanning’s training practices. In academic terms, this process is known as “theory to practice” and serves as the foundation upon which all of her work with Fanning relies. The data provide a starting point for a collaborative dialogue with Fanning and provides a metric by which progress can be measured. Nicolaides currently is compiling and organizing a vast swath of such data, and soon will present the full report to Fanning.
“When my fellowship began, I hoped and expected to do a bit more work ‘in the trenches,’ ” Nicolaides said. “However, Fanning has an abundance of excellent people to carry out their work on the ground, and ultimately it was most effective for me to get a clearer view of the big picture while also keeping track of the ‘boots-on-the-ground’ needs. The heart of my work is promoting paradigm shifts, and I hope the successes we have seen so far will ultimately lead me to more work in this capacity.”