Monday, February 12, 2018

Coherence amid Dissonance

       We could argue about whether we live in a time of continuous change, discontinuous change, extreme disruption, accelerated change, disequilibrium, matter what term we apply, the reality holds. The new normal would seem to demand that we count on nothing as normal. We're having to reconsider most of our assumptions, although perhaps we're not actually acting fast enough. But many feel as if they are adapting as quickly as they can. In schools we're asking questions about all sorts of time-honored practices, many of them the more technical aspects of education, such as curriculum design and assessment.
       Lately I've been thinking about a deeper question, one I'm not sure I've seen explored extensively (although I'm certain it has been). From the start of my career, I've heard about the importance of curricular coherence. When I was a curriculum person, I focused on it. Now, I'm struggling with the concept. Indeed, struggling that may lead to this post being anything but coherent.
       Before I go any further, I should clarify that I'm not talking about coherence in the traditional scope-and-sequence sense. I've never believed in that for some simple reasons. It assumes that once a teacher presents something, a student has learned it. It fosters anxiety within a heightened pace, the idea being that so much must be "covered" by year's end, a student in a sense "finished." It negates  flexibility in response to student needs and interests. It also adds to what may be the difficult part of innovating, which is forgetting what's already in place. Every new idea becomes measured versus what exists.
       Somewhat ironically, that ties to the strongest argument for a coherent and firm scope-and sequence. Learning involves, both literally and metaphorically, constructing schema in which new pieces fit onto existing frameworks that create sense. We also have to think about developmental readiness. In its essence, learning means developing a sense of coherence.
       Creating a coherent curriculum used to be a fairly simple endeavor, really. Yes, it took time and a certain degree of expertise. Well, simple at least in relative terms. But think about some of the ways things have changed, particularly over the last thirty years, with increasing rapidity. School used to be about content; now it should be about learning skills and conceptual understanding. Success pointed at standardized measures; now it should be about softer things. Closed cultures could focus on a canon; now we should be considering diversity, equity, and inclusion. Paper and pencil were the timeless tools; now we should be harnessing ever-more-powerful technology. The schoolhouse used to be an intellectual sanctuary; now we should be connecting students to the real world. Overall, we have to rethink everything. And then remake everything. Continually.
       In such a world, how does one achieve a coherent program? How do students piece things together in a way that works? What holds it all together? Can anything? What should? Does something need to? I think so...but we must think of that in different ways also. It's why we have to be reconsidering not just all the usual minutiae of schooling, but the very essence of our missions and what they now should mean.
       Besides, sometimes I wonder who really craves the coherent scope-and-sequence. Perhaps the adults want it more than the students. For us it's a convenience that in many ways makes teaching easier, like the student who wants to know exactly what will be on the test. It provides a degree of certainty, of clear direction, of control. We can delude ourselves with the notion that coverage equates success.
       Most schools, especially now, say they want to instill a love of learning for a lifetime (or some similar aspiration). They explain that learning how to learn is the real goal. I don't disagree. But sometimes learning is easier than at other times, particularly when tings have been laid out too clearly and predictably for you. Perhaps the truer--and likely more fun--challenge is discovering how to create one's own coherence when less and less seems to make sense.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

What Really Matters about Youth Athletics

     My son. Stephen, loves sports--everything about them. Of course, he mainly loves playing them. Now a high school senior, since he could join school athletics beginning in seventh grade, he has been in a sport every trimester: volleyball in the fall; soccer in the winter; track--pole vaulting--in the spring. When not doing school sports, he may go to the driving range or the climbing gym, and in the summer goes on long hiking trips. He's very fit, and while he's unlikely to play anything on the collegiate level, he certainly will play intramurals and perhaps club sports.
     Last Wednesday Stephen came home from soccer practice in a great deal of pain, limping badly. A lingering injury seemed to have exploded into something worse. The initial diagnosis was that he might have torn the labrum in his left hip. The next day he went to the orthopedist and received the relatively good news that the problem is a badly inflamed hip flexor. He was told to use ice, take ibuprofen, and totally rest for three weeks. That's where the real pain hit. Only three weeks remained in the season, when the championship tournament would take place. Yes, the physical pain was great. But the real agony sat much deeper than that. Between punches on a pillow, Stephen kept groaning, "I've been playing with most of these guys since kindergarten. It isn't supposed to end this way."
     In that moment Stephen captured the real reason playing school sports matters. It's the relationships that come with being part of a team. The joy of being a contributor in some fashion. The camaraderie which buoys you through struggles and lifts you even higher during moments of exultation. Teammates who understand, even if they don't really know what to say. Learning how to work with others towards a common goal. A coach who talks with you about ways you can still help the team through your presence...and holds out the carrot of maybe a few minutes in the tourney if you do what you're supposed to do to heal.
     In this era of what's been called the professionalization of youth sports* in our culture, I fear we've lost sight of that, even though we still say all the right things. We ask kids to specialize at younger and younger ages; we have them play more and more intense matches; we spend increasing amounts of money; and we travel further and more often. To what end, exactly? A college scholarship? A shot at the pros? In some cases even studying the odds does not shatter the dream delusion. Whether a kid shows it outwardly or not, with all this comes increased pressure. Yes a few thrive on it. Some aren't fazed by it. But many feel tremendous anxiety. Meanwhile, we see more catastrophic injuries at younger ages. We see kids burning out, forever done with a sport they once may have loved.
     The problem is not just club sports. At games at all levels, in any sport I've observed, there's an edge, almost a nastiness, among the fans, primarily parents. Yelling at officials has always occurred, but it's become more regular and sometimes abusive. Recently I've observed parents singling out players on opposing teams and taunting them. Once all this behavior reaches a certain level, players become keenly aware. It's not exactly positive role modeling.
     As a former athlete, I wonder how I would have fared in today's environment. I don't think I would have liked it nearly as much as I did. As competitive as I am with my self, my personality and values might have led me to crumble under the external pressure. Plus I revel as much in the process as any product. And that would have been a shame, because I attribute so much of what serves me well know in all aspects of my life to what I learned through my soccer "career."
     My athletic dream for Stephen has never been more than he love sports as much as I did, that he gain the sort of timeless and boundless lessons I did. Athletics should be an essential part of a holistic education, one which helps us become more fully human. That, and fun. Especially fun.

*See "How Kids Sports Turned Pro" in the September 4, 2017, issue of Time.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Seth Godin Needs to (Re)Consider...

     Seth Godin is one of my favorite thinkers, his daily blog post being among my few absolute must reads. Part of what makes his writing so powerful is his ability to boil down big, sometimes complex thoughts to their essence and drive home the key point. So I'm shocked to find myself taking real exception to one of his recent assertions.
     On January 26, 2018, Godin posted, "Where did you go to school?" One paragraph--which has been quoted in some form all over Twitter and, I suspect, other social media--reads, "The campus you spent four years on thirty years ago makes very little contribution to the job you're going to do. Here's what matters: The way you approach your work." (Full post.)
     On a quick, gut level, I understand his point. Plus there's a certain long-run, big picture, -education-needs-rethinking aspect to it which resonates with me. I even hear echoes of comments I've made.
       At the same time, I have to ask Godin a key question. Isn't it likely that the campus on which one spent those four years--often more, in the case of independent schools--affects the way a person approaches their work?
     I have to believe so. That's why we do the work. It's why we have to keep doing it better and better.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Making What?

     I'm very excited that next week our middle school is having a special Make!@St.John's day. Faculty have been planning really special events, and the kids are all fired up. The hands-on, creative work will fill the building with even more energy than usual.
    I've written before about some really big-picture, idealistic thoughts about the idea of making. You can read the whole post here. The key passage is the following about makerspaces:
I love the philosophy behind them--that hands-on, make-a-mess, take-chances sort of experiential learning. I love the active engagement of makerspaces. I love that they are places where kids do rather than get done. So I don't deliberative because of any pedagogical reasons. I just want us to take five or ten and think about a big question.       Shouldn't the entire school be a makerspace? Either literally or metaphorically?
With that in mind, I've been brainstorming about the many and varied things students can make in the right sort of school:

  • Meaning.
  • Sense.
  • Inquiries.
  • Models (Real, Scale, Theoretical).
  • Friends.
  • A Difference.
  • Decisions.
  • Progress.
  • Course Corrections.
  • A Case.
  • Wishes Come True.
  • Someone's Day.
  • A Contribution.
  • Assertions.
  • Educated Guesses.
  • Their Mark.
  • A Statement.
  • Objects.
  • Apps.
  • Art.
  • Connections.

     The list is incomplete. Even so, it suggests the most important thing a student makes in the right school. A Life.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Essays to Blogs to Tweets to One Word?

     I get it. I even like the idea of it. I've tried to make it work for me. I love the inspiration it seems to provide others. But the #oneword craze just doesn't jazz me. In simple terms, I'm reminded (as I Tweeted recently) of a former student's yearbook quotation: "My life cannot be captured in a single quotation." I suspect the irony was intentional in how well this line captured the student. I'm certain there was also some teen and intellectual rebellion happening. It also fits a worrisome trend of reductive thinking, one in which less is not more.
     The earliest essays of the 16th and 17th centuries were not the sort of formulaic expositions that have become standard school assignments. In both Europe and Japan, the essay began as explorations, often consisting of fragmented ideas the author was attempting to piece together in some sort of understanding. Indeed, the thesis, if there were one, often remained unclear until the very end. The term essay comes from the French infinitive essayer, which means "to try" or "to attempt." Montaigne, the first to use the term for his works, described them as attempts to capture his thoughts in writing. Since then, essays have varied greatly in terms of content and purpose, from light-hearted fare to political polemics. Now we find them mainly in certain magazines, and op-ed columns seem to fit the genre.
     One positive aspect of the blogging phenomenon is was that it had many people, without necessarily being aware of it engaging in the sort of intellectual exploration associated with the original essay. This idea holds particularly true in what many called "process posts." I often begin with just a seed of an idea, unsure exactly where the post may end up. I do almost no drafting, editing, or revising. In a way it's like journalling publically. The quality of writing in blogs is not always high quality; it can sometimes be rather poor. But that's besides the point. More people were struggling to capture their ideas via the written word, which often sharpens one's thoughts and leads to unforeseen conclusions. Many notable authors have said something about the notion of not knowing what they thought until they wrote it down. The back-and-forth in comments can extend that thinking. This reason, more than anything else, is why I keep blogging.
       Then along came Twitter with its original 140-character limitation. Try capturing the complexity of your thoughts in that. Yes, some would create threads and thus micro-blog (I think those are the same thing...). And while I love Twitter and have marvelled at some incredible Tweeters, it simply isn't the same. Points come across as definitive rather than speculative. It was interesting to watch as people who first scoffed at the character limit gradually embraced it. When Twitter recently doubled the limit, many folks were unhappy, talking about the forced concision as being the point. Certainly. But is there not also great value in the process that led to such concision, especially in really fine Tweets? Yes, I know that's not really the point of Twitter. Especially not when one has just 280 characters, which is the equivalent of 46.67 words if using the standard measure of five letters and a space.
     Now, a current fad is choosing one word as a yearly theme. It can serve as reminder of one's resolution, becoming a sort of mantra. It becomes very personal, and it's interesting to see what people choose. But what we don't necessarily know is why--unless the person sends out a series of Tweets or publishes a blog post. Words also pack incredible power while remaining quite limited. Context, nuance, connotation, tone--all these matter greatly. Yet they don't exist when a word dangles out there by its lonesome self.
     You may be thinking I need to lighten up, and you're probably right. But I want to be clear that I think all of these are often-powerful things, especially when used together. Still, the linguist/epistemologist/educator parts of me worries that we're reducing life's beautiful, enchanting complexity to over-simplicity. This, in turn, impacts how we read, question, think, feel. Without realizing it, we can find ourselves effortlessly skimming along. To live fully, we have to ponder deeply the intricacies of ourselves and others, individually and collectively. Of every aspect of our existence. That's the heartbeat of great learning.

*An aside: it's interesting that this is counter to so much of what I've long believed about writing, in that you must be incredibly cognizant of writing for your audience. This is almost all about the author. I'm not sure how many people actually read blogs any more.