Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Back-to-School Inspiration: A Strengths-Finder Approach to Educational Progress

     Criticizing schools--or at least aspects of them--is easy. It's one of those subjects about which everyone seems to hold an opinion, usually focused on something that's wrong. Sometimes they have a valid point; sometimes they don't. Among the loudest and most negative can be prominent reform advocates, and something about human nature makes that approach work.
     Certainly I've been vocal about some ways I believe education should change, and I can be a bit idealistic, even pollyannaish, about the power of a meaningful education. I also realize my perspective comes from inside that independent school bubble, a lens which certainly skews my perspective. I don't think it lessens the point I hope to make here. Lately I've been wondering about how we sometimes go about trying to improve things.
     Typically we snatch onto the latest and greatest and preach about it being transformational. Then we do it again. And again. I suspect that happens for many related reasons. We hear something is broken, and we want it fixed. We're entranced by newness. We want the best for students. We want to believe in the promise.
     I still believe in the promise. But I don't believe true, lasting transformation occurs through just one thing or very quickly. Either the change has to burrow into one's soul, or it's already there and needs ways to emerge. Plus any single approach seldom works for everyone at one time, or for anyone at all times.
     There may be exceptions, but transformation seems to happen like innovation: assorted bits and pieces come together over time, eventually combining in something new (as explained in Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From). It's made me wonder if we should be taking sort of a strengths-finder approach to educational progress, working to scale all the promising work being done in schools. That generates positive energy.
     With that in mind, here is a list of exciting things which are trending in schools currently. It's what occurs to me as I'm typing, so certainly incomplete. But perhaps you'll feel affirmed and/or inspired by something on it.

  • Project-based learning
  • Increased concern with student's holistic well-being
  • Blended learning
  • Coding and robotics
  • Schools dropping APs
  • Colleges eliminating testing requirements
  • Design thinking
  • Community gardens and outdoor learning spaces
  • Flexible learning spaces
  • Social-emotional learning
  • Mastery and competency based standards
  • Real-world connections and internships
  • Service learning
  • Alternate/authentic assessment
  • Brain-based learning
  • Emphasis on creativity
  • Wider, deeper understanding and acceptance of diversity
Some of these can have a larger impact more quickly than others. Some naturally work together. The real power, though, lies in the cumulative effect. What also matters greatly, maybe most importantly, are the conversations surrounding them. I hope this may inspire some of your own learning and growth for the year.
     Whichever path you choose, keep in mind the most vital, potentially transformative aspect of being an educator. The lationship with a student. Nothing else works or really matters without that.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Picture of Graduate and Control of Learning

     Recently I've noticed quite a few comments in Dr. Tony Wagner's Twitter stream in which he is encouraging schools to develop their Portrait of a Graduate (PoG). For the past few months, I've also, without as much focus, seen more and more tweets referencing students' being in control of the learning. Naturally, I've been juxtaposing the two in my thoughts.
     While I appreciate the idea behind the calls to grant them more control, I've written in the past that I believe students already are in control of their learning, no matter what we may like to think. What teachers can control is creating a certain environment. In doing that, they can help students fulfill one of the most essential qualities in a PoG that really matters--controlling their learning in the right ways. Certainly doing that involves the grasping of some knowledge and developing particular skills. But the key lies in attitude.The qualities necessary include an insatiable curiosity, a skepticism that never disintegrates into cynicism, amazement with the unique, and an optimistic embracing of the possible.
     Unfortunately, large segments of society have lost sight of this. It goes much deeper than the rigid, misguided standards and frameworks  that drive so much of education, leading to the wrong measures of success. It's how people are exercising the control over their learning. They're thickening the membranes of their filter bubbles. Thus the extremes become even more so, with those who disagree becoming threats rather than potential sources of wisdom. The obvious problems exacerbate themselves.
     Of course, one could argue those people are not really learning. I'd agree. With how much is at stake, we need to make sure this ideal drives anything else in a Portrait of the Graduate. So much else of value is at stake.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Doughnut Learning?

     Recently I read Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. While much of the economic theory went over my head, it prompted some thoughts about how the same view of humans which determined economics for hundreds of years has affected how we view learning.
     Basically economic theory has been driven by the idea of homo economicus. This assumes that humans are rational, linear thinkers who always pursue their optimal interests. We would thus operate per simple patterns of input and output, which aligns with the notion of supply and demand.
     Doughnut economics presents a different perspective, one which is fluid and dynamic. Rather than independent, self-interested actors, humans (and really the rest of the ecosystem) interact in a web. Feelings influence us as much as thoughts, and it is not a zero-sum game with distinct winners and losers.
     Clearly the former view has influenced much of our education system. It goes beyond the factory model, beyond our utilitarian beliefs, beyond the desire for a return on investment. It does, however, lie at the root of those things. It drives right at how we view people as learners--that learning is a simple matter of measurable cognitive input and output.
     We're finally beginning to understand that learning doesn't happen that way. Increased knowledge of the brain has revealed how amazingly diverse we are as learners, based on myriad factors that have shaped our neurological pathways. Among those factors are emotions, previously ignored in educational design. Flow has shown that joyful learning need not--and often isn't--purely utilitarian.
     As the world continues to morph, rendering many old models obsolete, education needs to be creating new models of learning so we all--not just students--can thrive. I'm wondering what Doughnut Learning would look like...

Monday, May 7, 2018

Autodidactic Leadership Development

                The spring 2018 issue of Independent School magazine focused on leadership. As always, the articles highlighted the excellent work going on in many schools while prompting thoughts about ways to improve one’s own school. The story highlighted on the cover is “How Did You Learn to Be a Leader?” Naturally the question prompted some reflection.
                The question implies a professional development angle—or at least I jump to that conclusion because of how we often think of adults’ growth in schools. We assign mentors, talk about training, sit through workshops, attend conferences. Often it’s done in doses of varying sizes; sometimes it’s a single shot. I think this has been particularly true when it comes to leadership, particularly because the idea of distributed leadership is fairly new in most of our cultures. Unless someone were tapped as having leadership potential and quite intentionally mentored, or the person went to certain programs, I don’t think they received much leadership training.
                Even for those who received more extensive leadership training, it is limited. I don’t mean limited in its effectiveness or potential help. I mean limited in that it’s not enough. I assert that as one who has benefited greatly from attentive mentors and quality workshops. I also say this because I’ve come to believe everyone is ultimately responsible for their own development. Optimal learning requires some degree of autodidactic impulse.
                If you accept my premise, you’re likely wondering what are some practices that can enhance one’s leadership training. I’m going to offer some ideas, but with the caveat that you need to design an intentional program per your own needs.

  • Observation—Even if you have a fantastic mentor, that person can teach you only so much because of both human and practical limitations. To augment the mentoring, you can use other people as quasi-mentors without their even being aware through observation. Watch people you both admire and question as leaders. Study where they shine and where they misstep. Pay attention to not just large moments, but also the little things.
  •  Read—Neurological studies have shown the brain lights up during reading the same way it does when we dream. That’s fitting, as one of the main things a leader must do is dream. Reading can help inspire those dreams through the sort of extensive exposure we cannot gain any other way. In a more immediate sense, reading allows for another form of mentoring as you encounter unique situations and people/characters. Also, extend your leadership reading beyond the typical leadership books. Many are much too simplistic. Instead, read history, biography, memoir, autobiography, fiction, poetry, social sciences, hard sciences—anything that is going to extend your learning.
  •  Self-Awareness—We all have our strengths and weaknesses. But how aware of them are we? How much do we accept them? Work on them? Leaders need people who will challenge them, whether regarding ideas or behavior. Professional coaches, good friends, therapists—each can play a vital role in a leader’s development by prompting deeper reflection about one’s personal qualities and how they affect relationships on every level. Also, the point is not to change your essential core. It’s about growing as a person so you can grow as a leader.
  • Proactivity—You may be given clear opportunities to develop your leadership. It may be some sort of position, the chance to run a project, to serve as a peer-evaluator. It could be just about anything. The key is to take the chance and make the most of it. Even if you have this chance—and especially if you don’t—it’s vital to be pro-active and seek opportunities to exercise leadership. Perhaps you see a need and have some ideas on how to address it. Perhaps you foster greater collaboration among colleagues. Whatever it is, show that you are committed to helping your institution improve.

                 These are just some ideas, ones which have served me well. They may or may not help you. Despite what often seems like popular belief, leadership isn’t limited to a certain type of person. In fact, studies have shown that often the most effective leaders for long-term success do not fit the stereotypical image.  Effective leadership often comes down to being a particular type of person in a particular place at a particular time for a particular purpose, all in alignment.
                Finally, no matter what type of person you are, reflect deeply and honestly about why you want to lead.  Yes, most leaders feel called in some regard. The question is why. If it’s about pumping up your ego, think some more. The best leadership is about some higher meaning and purpose. It’s about moving towards some ideal. Thus, in a way this entire post becomes somewhat ironic given its focus on the self. Great leaders learn to shrink themselves so that others may grow.


Monday, April 23, 2018

In Search of Excellence

     I've stolen the title of this post from the classic Tom Peters work. I've been thinking about this idea because he recently published his fantastic The Excellence Dividend, which pulls together myriad points from his long career. If you've read this blog and followed my Twitter feed, you know my thoughts on the excellence dividend of education are clear: when one's endless learning becomes part of a life with distinct meaning and purpose. I hope, to use Tom's standard, that provokes a bit of a "Wow!" response.
     I'm more interested in pondering here why completing that search proves so elusive. Reasons abound, ranging from the pragmatic to the philosophical. I think the latter are the more suppressive ones in that we tend not to think of education in such idealistic terms. Instead, we focus on the utilitarian, the practical. Then the process becomes rather mechanical, overly reliant on systems and measurement. We somewhat de-humanize what should be the most human of endeavors.
     Ironically, or perhaps paradoxically, even when people share my philosophical position, true academic excellence becomes even more difficult. It's because we have to cede most of the time-honored forms of control. We have to rethink the markers of short- and long-term success. We have to trust.
     But it's even more complicated than that. For an education to be truly responsive, it must evolve continually, responding to the vagaries of human nature and culture. Yes, certain questions and topics possess an eternal quality; yet we must consider them in the light of the emerging world. There lies little value in examining the past without using it to figure out the present and shape the future.
     Even then, the challenge remains great because excellence ultimately will mean something different for each individual. It demands the ultimate differentiation. It insists we react, reflect, readjust...over and over and over.  It changes as each student changes. It changes as the teacher changes.
     At its best, it also remains an ongoing search, a quest for a mythical grail. Certainly it is that noble.