Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mission and the Inner Muse

       I love those moments in life when two things merge in my thinking in a way that causes me to rethink something. In preparation for part of our August board retreat, I have been thinking even more than usual about the notion of mission. Also, for whatever reason, I've been seeing loads of references to muses lately, whether in the book I recently finished or the NYT crossword or in various conversations. Whether coincidence or serendipity, when these connections occur, I pay attention.
       At the retreat we're going to do a mission-review exercise. Like most independent schools (most non-profit organizations, I guess) we emphasize that we are mission driven. Everything we do should advance that mission. It's the beacon.
       That is simple in theory, but the challenges are complex. Consider, first, that most schools have the same basic elements and similar words. Yet language is inherently limited, with commonly precise meaning elusive. Just what is, for example, "academic excellence"? It varies by community, and by the members within a community. Another issue is that we most often look for signs that we can declare mission accomplished through affirmation from external sources. It's a natural human impulse, and it makes business sense. It certainly can fuel motivation.
       Throughout the history of creativity, we see artists invoking the muse. At the start of The Odyssey Homer cries, "Sing to me, Oh Muse!"; and Picasso had six women he called his muses. I suspect all of us, when seeking ideas but feeling stuck, pray for some spark of inspiration, whether divine or not. Another natural human impulse.
       I wonder if, in seeking to fulfill our missions, schools seek to inspire students with the wrong sort of muses. When a teacher warns, "You'll need to know this because it'll be on the test" (or even a more subtle variation thereof), don't we conjure up the grade as a form of muse? I'm sure you can think of other analogies. The carrot-and-stick approach works in the moment and can be sustained for a long time. But as Daniel Pink's Drive made clear, it doesn't really sustain human's craving for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
       And the need for those is just as naturally human as those impulses mentioned about. Indeed, it may be even stronger. Living without it can lead to a lack of fulfillment and even depression. It certainly doesn't inspire. So I'm musing on a new way of thinking about mission. What if our mission became about helping each student discover their own inner muse?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

End-of-Year, Heading-into-Summer Charge to St. John's Episcopal Employees

What follows is the text of my end-of-year, heading-into-summer charge to St. John's Episcopal employees. They lost something without the slides, but you'll get the gist.

            I always find these end-of-year remarks a big challenge. It’s a crazy-busy time, and we’re all running on fumes. But it’s more than that. In reality, a large part of me has been in 17-18 and beyond mode for quite a while. It’s part of my job. Plus I’m just always thinking “What’s next?”, my mind racing in an educationally nerdy mania. I can’t seem to stop imagining what’s possible. Also, I must admit part of me is already hiking around Tahoe and Yosemite. I’m hoping for that combination of relaxation, exertion, and inspiration I enjoyed last year in the Tetons. But the biggest challenge is trying to grab and hold your attention on the first day of June.
We’ve had another wildly successful year by multiple measures. You saw, I hope, the email which went to families and captured many of them in broad strokes. I encourage you to take time to celebrate your own particular successes. Share them with each other and with people who need to know about St. John’s.  This year has provided further compelling evidence of how we continue to become better and better at creating the type of modern education students need in the emerging world. Yes, it’s really hard work. But it’s also vitally important work. It’s thus really fulfilling work.
            Of course, we still have more to do. The pace of summer is different, but those who talk about educators having the summers off just don’t get it. Whether doing tangible work or not, the best educators seldom let school drift far from their thoughts. Summer is when we have the time to do some of the most important work—the sort of reflection and musing so essential to progress. My objective today is to prod you with a question I hope you will ponder at different points during the lulls of your summer. If not often, at least during the summer reading of Launch.  It’s a sneaky question, one which in its ideal form would be rhetorical, the answer so patently obvious we would need to think about it as often as we think about our hearts beating. But I believe it’s an essential one for us to grapple with if we are to keep evolving as a school.
            Here’s why. Like Snoopy, when it comes to big, hairy questions—and there are plenty of them--too often the education world in general avoids them. At St. John’s, I’m glad to say, we don’t. We understand how important they are. So we think about them. We keep them and our mission and ideals in mind, at least subconsciously. But we must admit we sometimes lose sight of them in our busyness. We have to avoid that as much as we can. We also have to be honest in how we answer them. Both easier said than done.
            I know what you’re thinking: okay, Mark, so what’s the question? I’m getting to it. Just one more tiny preamble. In priming you to think about it, I’m going to talk about education in very general terms, with many sweeping statements, as I did a moment ago. You need to think about how it applies to us as a school and to you as individuals.
            Now that the suspense is killing you… The question is: Who owns the learning?
            I most recently began thinking about this question when I came across Alan November’s book Who Owns the Learning?  I haven’t read it, but I know it focuses on empowering students through digital technology. I love that premise, but we’re being professionally and intellectually lazy if we don’t think beyond that. It’s too easy, and even irresponsible, to provide the quick and obvious “right” answer, one perhaps sprung from wishful thinking as much as reality. As we formulate our own answers, we must think about the goals of the learning. Those determine in large part who should own the learning.
            Yes, the students, of course. But do they? Can they? Do adults—teachers and parents—allow them to? Do we do so as much as we could? As much as we could? What if we allowed for them to own it more? What could school be like? I find myself thinking of Mark Twain’s famous quotation, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Recently Sir Ken Robinson updated this when he said, “Children love to learn; they just don’t like to be educated.”
            For all of us—from a newborn to a senior citizen—learning seems to peak when it’s natural, joyful; when we become caught up in those flow experiences. Most often that happens when learning is self-driven, or at least set up in a way that taps into our natural curiosity and motivation. Maslow sees such learning as essential in the hierarchy of human needs.
            I wonder how often school allows this to happen. More importantly, I wonder how much schools do that actually counters this. Sometimes we become what one person calls “tourist teachers.” Rather than letting students explore, we give them all sorts of maps, literal and metaphorical, to direct their paths. Perhaps that’s because for so long schools have been the gatekeepers to knowledge, as if we were protecting something sacred to which students need a secret access code. Accumulate enough baubles, the shinier the better—think high grades and AP courses, for just two examples—and you could be declared educated. But that’s not really the same as being learned, or knowing how to learn. And I’m not sure we’ve thought enough about actual, genuine learning. Instead, think about the demands that school and life piles on young people nowadays. It’s no wonder that mindfulness has become a hot topic. I’m glad the issue is being addressed. But maybe we should be asking why we’re driving kids crazy in the first place. I think it has something to do with how our society mistakenly has associated quality learning with more, faster, harder—what we label greater rigor. Meanwhile, we want to control it all in the name of high standards. But a standardized education serves neither anyone nor our culture well.
            The digital revolution, like other things before, was supposed to change all this. I wonder. Yes, there are myriad positives. In particular, digital technology makes the ability to learn anything ubiquitous and easy. We can make extensive connections. It truly is awesome. But digitalization in and of itself does not necessarily mean better. In fact, it can simply exacerbate the focus on efficiency and uniformity which has driven education for so long. Bad practice is bad practice, whether real or virtual. Clicking through stuff as you navigate the shallows is not ownership, and it is far too easy to create one’s own echo chamber, deafening any dissent that could lead to learning. And I would argue right now this is one of our nation’s worst afflictions.
            Why is owning the learning so important? It keeps us curious. It fuels a growth mindset. It emboldens us to take on challenges. Studies show the best leaders are voracious learners. Nowadays we all must learn constantly to keep up with the rate of change. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson delineates how for most of the 20th century, innovation followed the 10/10 rule: ten years to build a platform, 10 years for it to gain acceptance. Now, with technology and the internet, innovation follows the 1/1 rule.
            In some ways, innovation is synonymous with learning. As Johnson delineates, innovation does not come in a sudden flash, that proverbial light bulb moment. Instead, it comes through a connection of existing parts and ideas in new ways. So we’re better served by connecting ideas rather than protecting them because if you want more new ideas, scatter more stuff on the table. Learning opens new paths to explore—without a clear map—novel ways of combining parts. It creates what Johnson calls a “sense of the adjacent possible.”
            That concept makes me think we should flip one way of thinking about learning. We should not think about it as measured by an exit ticket. Perhaps we should evoke a sense of learning as an entry ticket into the adjacent possible.  Of what learning can be and where it can lead. Or what it can mean for students and their potential. All of our human, cultural, and global potential.
            That desire, I think, is the whole impetus driving the maker movement, which led into other associated ideas such as project-based learning and design thinking. I believe it’s a clear attempt to take ownership of creating and learning. It’s not just about making things. It’s about the making of a self. This process and outlook should not be restricted to a makerspace or certain units. It should infuse our entire approach throughout the school.

            That doesn’t mean we succumb to some sort of curricular or pedagogical anarchy. When I think about who owns the learning, I believe we all should. After all, young folks need our guidance…but only to a certain degree. We know what they need—emphasis on need—to learn to become the Portrait of our Graduate. At the same time, we have to keep exploring ourselves, seeking that sweet spot between guidance and autonomy, between control and freedom.  So to me the real question—the one I hope you spend some time wrestling with this summer—becomes: How do we help students own more and more of the learning?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Cynics Need Not Apply

       On May 11, 2017, Seth Godin published a short post titled "Possibility." I immediately Tweeted this:
While Godin, as usual, nails an essential concept, he also neglects to mention another enemy of possibility, one which may prove more destructive than anything else. In its least dangerous form, it's a fixation on the negative. Unfettered, it becomes cynicism.
       Sadly, such an outlook dominates a great deal of what's written about education. I'm not talking about outside critics, many of whom have never worked in schools or really understand education. Education, for many of them, is an easy target. I'm more concerned with people recognized as thought leaders in the field, the luminaries who are supposed to be prompting us to design better schools. However, I find they often are great at pointing out problems and asserting issues and voicing extreme skepticism, often with a requisite degree of snark. Yet they nearly as often fail to present concrete solutions.
       Yes, I know such people exist throughout all walks of life. Yet my focus here is on education and why such a world view is particularly vexing there, particularly given the large followings and visible platforms these people have.
        Before I explain the larger problem, I want to clarify that I agree with these people's viewpoints. There is plenty of urgent work to be done throughout education. We can't ignore the problems. At the same time, however, there are many people striving to enact positive changes big and small in all sorts of exciting ways. We need more celebration of those. They can prove inspiring. They make us wonder what's possible.
       Ultimately, that's what learning should be about--an ever-growing sense of and wonder about what is possible. About the world. About each other. About ourselves. Humans are not perfectible, and our warts are part of what make us such fascinating critters. But our millennia of progress has been propelled by optimistic exploration, often in the face of naysayers and doom-criers.
       As young people develop their sense of self, the last thing they need is to be taught by cynical people. I think we already see the effects of this on teens. Many people see them as cynical as part of their natural development. I disagree. I think they are quite idealistic, but they are often disappointed by adult behavior. Somewhat similarly, those teachers experimenting with new pedagogy and curricula can feel defeated when lumped in with general condemnation. The issue is exacerbated in this era of widespread societal fear and loathing that is playing out on social media and all levels of politics.
     Like most things, this boils down to a human issue. What do we want to stand for? How do we want to lead? To follow? I want to believe all of us who truly care about creating the best education can tap into our best selves and the best of humanity. I retain that hope.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Product or Person? Yes.

     My previous post, which began with a reference to Frank Bruni's Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be and then juxtaposed its premise to the Colleges Change Lives consortium, ended this way: "The question is: Do our schools--does our school--lead to a product or a person?" I promised to tackle that question in this subsequent post. I don't know that I'll answer in any definitive fashion, but I hope to pose some important points for consideration.
     Schools are caught in a bit of a trap here. For so long, going well back in the tradition of independent schools being bastions of privilege, part of their cachet has, like certain colleges, been in producing a certain type of graduate. It would not be uncommon to hear someone referred to as "a ___ man" or " a ____ woman," almost to the point of stereotype or caricature. Still, schools took a certain delight in this and it made for rather easy marketing. It also provides a certain comfort, a sort of tangible proof that the mission has indeed been accomplished. Even now, when our campuses our not quite so cloistered, we still associate certain types of people with certain schools. Some of this is due to the self-selecting process of choosing schools and the by-product of cultural immersion, as each school has its own ethos. Therein lies the real answer...and the real challenge.
     Let's consider the topic of diversity (or multiculturalism, or equity and inclusion; for the sake of this example, I'll use diversity). Independent schools are, thank goodness, no longer such exclusive WASP enclaves. Over time many have become, at least by the numbers, more reflective of larger society. (Let's go ahead and acknowledge that extensive elements of privilege remain, however.) Let's consider two hypothetical schools; we'll call them A and B. They have very similar demographics, including a very diverse population. School A is known for producing a certain, very clear type of graduate. School B is as well, but much less clearly defined. My immediate, although perhaps unfair, conclusion would be that School A takes a diverse population and funnels those kids along a clear path towards definite goals. As for School B, I may conclude they allow the diversity to play out in more various ways.
       I realize I'm oversimplifying and ignoring myriad nuances, particularly about a complex topic. But I think the question it raises is fair, even crucial. And it could be applied in many areas in various ways. We have to dig very deep, probing far beyond the verbiage in our mission statements and philosophies. It's a heavy question.
      Just what is an education for?
      If it's a means to an end, then the emphasis becomes product. Even if it's about the development of a person, but with some preset measure of success, the person by default becomes somewhat secondary to the product. Inevitably, because of how institutions function, there is going to be some of this. The question is one of degree.
     If it's about self-discovery, then the emphasis becomes person. More particularly, about a person realizing potential and discovering possibilities. But it's not individualism careening towards egocentricity. It occurs within community norms and values, albeit sometimes pushing against them.
      While I tend to consider the latter ultimately more meaningful, I also appreciate the tension here. The best schools don't necessarily answer in one way or the other. Instead, they grapple with the issue, struggling for a balance that allows for both product and person.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Product or Person?

      I've recommended Frank Bruni's book Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania to many people, and I've twice referred to it in previous posts ( a tiny bit here and more extensively here), I agree completely with his basic premise: that on'es college experience and life thereafter is not about a school's name brand, but about how one embraces the available opportunities. Bruni cites myriad anecdotes and extensive, varied data to support his contention. I've also read other similar studies.
       Of course, much of this depends on what and how one decides to measure whatever qualities one is emphasizing. Usually, it comes down to things such as job placement, money earned versus the costs, graduate degrees, et cetera. They are all valid, especially as one considers the excessives costs of higher education. When one looks beyond economics, there are the schools which tout "softer" payoffs, such as the institutions which belong to the Colleges that Change Lives consortium.
       I trust you see the contradiction. Or, perhaps more accurately, the dilemma. Does college determine who you become or not? Maybe not at most places, but yes at certain schools. Maybe at all places if you make it happen? Is it about the college or about free will or some mix of the two?
       My current reflecting on this issue was prompted by a conversation with my wife this past weekend. She had posted something on Facebook, and she was touched by how many of her independent high school classmates had responded kindly, including some with whom she had not had much contact through the years. (Also, some of her best friends are from high school.) She believes quite strongly that the culture of her school greatly influenced how these people responded and more generally shaped them.
       On some level, this is obvious. After all, given the amount of time and young people spend immersed in their schools, how can they not be shaped to some degree? This holds particularly true in the more formative years. To some degree, college may be a bit late. After all, a student chooses a college based largely on how they already have become. But in those younger years? That's where independent schools can have dramatic impact on who students become.
      In saying that, I'm not making a blanket condemnation of public and parochial schools. Many of them do strong work, and students who want--similar to Bruni's point--can gain good enough, sometimes exceptional, educations there. But in many ways it's a standardized education, epitomized by bubble-test mania, especially the exit exam. I don't think that serves anyone as well as education could, especially in the current and future world.
       And here's where independent schools--with the freedom to teach what and how they believe best within very intentional cultures--can perform magic. To repeat, the reality is that school at any level is going to affect who someone becomes. It's inevitable. After all, we spend extensive time there, and those relationships usually extend into non-school hours. So I think we have to answer a very clear but vexing question. Most will answer quickly, and it sounds like a relatively easy thing. But then we get into yogi's reminder about theory and practice.
      The question is: Do our schools--does our school--lead to a product or a person?*

*Right now I'll just let readers think about this. My next post will elaborate. Feels a bit like I'm in the classroom again.