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.

Friday, April 6, 2018

A Quick Thought on #Leadership

     During a conversation a few days ago, I was asked to talk about a leader who had influenced me. The question threw me for a moment, mainly because I'm fortunate to have many people I could have cited. I settled on one, and after sharing some qualities and anecdotes, I concluded by saying, "What ultimately has stayed with me was how he carried himself with such an air of integrity."
     Yes, I mean integrity in the way we often use the word, meaning ethical, essentially good. But I meant more than that. I also was referring to a sense of wholeness, the way in which the disparate parts of something add up to a distinct and discernable unit true unto itself. That requires a genuineness; it radiates from an inner core.
     Meanwhile, I regularly see Tweets about different formulas for leadership, whether in books or workshops or videos. I don't dismiss them at all; in fact, I have tapped into them for my entire career. But they don't work...at least not by themselves. Leadership is not a series of steps to follow. It is not a persona one can throw on like a cloak. All those experiences must be part of continual growth, reflected upon and rejected or internalized gradually as we sculpt ourselves. Becoming a stronger leader does not mean being/becoming a certain type of person. It means becoming the best possible person. Your best self. One others want to follow in some sense.
     This essential truth can be lost in our culture, particularly in schools.We can become so caught up in producing the best academic, the best athlete, the best artists, the best student council president--usually per some sharp criteria--that we forget we should be about helping each person develop. That's going to mean different things for each. It also means that each person has the potential to become a leader in some fashion, in some circumstances, if we allow for the possibility.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Making the Right Choice about Student Choice

     For the past few years, I keep thinking that I'm going to learn some things about physics. Such as gain some basic understandings. I didn't have to take physics in high school or college, and I'm quite aware of this gap in my knowledge.Sometimes I even feel rather embarrassed about it. After all, I am the head of a school. Yet, despite my best intentions--I've even held copies of Physics for Dummies in bookstores--I haven't pursued this study.
     I'm not sure why. Perhaps the motivation isn't strong enough. Perhaps there's too much else to learn. Perhaps other things hold more appeal. Perhaps I fear I won't grasp the material. Most likely it's some combination of all these factors.
     At the same time, such a pursuit would fit my preferred way of learning. I've always leaned towards autodidactism. As a young soccer player, I read the few coaching guides available in this country at the time over and over, analyzed broadcasts from Europe on the local PBS affiliates and then ran into the yard to practice new moves, and studied the history of the sport. Whenever I became interested in a topic or certain author, I checked out all the small local library had. In college the syllabi served mainly as springboards for my own exploration. My favorite academic experience was the independent study that led to my senior thesis, during which my advisor encouraged me to dive into any rabbit hole I spotted.
     This introductory reflection is a means of moving towards a larger point. It's an issue that I've been struggling with for quite a while, and it was captured in a Tweet in my stream this morning.
The article to which the Tweet refers makes many fine points, but my dilemma reaches further than the content versus skills debate. For me, that's an easy one: emphasize skills. I believe this holds not matter hat the course or age of the student. Things become murkier when you consider the idea of student choice, whether within a course or a full curriculum. I'm certainly no adherent to the dictates of cultural literacy as promoted by the E.D. Hirsch's of the world, and I've constantly called for more student choice. But that choice has to be guided to a certain degree. After all, someone should have realized that a basic grasp of physics is part of being wholly educated. Not necessarily a whole course, but a primer of sorts. As much as I want to give students greater and greater autonomy and thus perhaps thus see more relevance and draw inspiration from their learning, doing so begs questions which give me some pause. When does a student have enough perspective and maturity to make these decisions? What key pieces of knowledge can build the scaffold to facilitate such autonomy? Isn't this more of a pedagogical issue than a curricular issue, in that we need to give much more emphasize on how we often teach things? Is what matters really a debate between content and skills, or should it be more about a mindset regarding learning? While wisdom is what ultimately matters more--and always has, not just in this age of Google--isn't some knowledge (perhaps even common knowledge) worth having in our brains and not just at our fingertips?
       Someone reading this, particularly if they've read my other work or heard me speak, may wonder if I'm becoming more of an educational conservative or traditionalist because of the caution expressed in here. But I'm not yelling at any progressives to get off my lawn. Actually, I'm hoping my questions are ones they ask themselves. In doing so, they can better address legitimate concerns and maybe convert some skeptics. Maybe not. No matter what, though, our asking better and harder questions about our work can only befit our students. That must be our choice.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Off to #NAISAC 2018--A Different Approach

     The 2018 NAIS Annual Conference begins Wednesday in Atlanta. Every year I write a post about my hopes going into the conference, and they've remained fairly similar for the past few years. But this year I'm taking a different approach to my conference experience. That's a bit ironic and/or coincidental as, while I haven't spent much time in Atlanta, but it was the location of the very first one of these I attended, some time back in the 1980s.
     Like any conference, this one depends almost entirely on the people attending and presenting. For me NAIS is usually a great time to catch up with people I've known a long time, perhaps used to work with, whether over a meal or when we happen to bump into each other. I hope some of that still happens.
     But my real goal this year is to strengthen some loose connections and make some new ones. Perhaps they will be people I know only through social media; maybe they will be people I know only through reputation or role. It was kind of magical when I met some actual flesh-and-blood folks I knew mainly through Twitter the last couple of years. I've already scheduled time with several folks, and I hope to encounter some others. If I see a familiar name on an ID badge, I may even fight through my shyness and go up to that person.
     It feels strange--and rather un-conference-like--to be planning my NAIS experience this way. Usually I've studied the program and struggled with choosing which sessions to attend. Following on Twitter while there, I'll rue missing certain ones. Yet I suspect I will gain much more.

Monday, February 26, 2018

An Educator's Hopes after #Parkland

     As a reader of this blog, surely you've been inspired by the teens driving the #NeverAgain movement which has since flourished since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. In the aftermath of such a traumatic experience, these students have displayed incredible grace, respect, intelligence, wisdom, determination, and maturity. Surely any school, especially the more mission-driven among independent schools, would want to claim them as students. In fact, I've wondered about what a fantastic place MSD must be to produce such students.
     The students have drawn the admiring support of other students, adults, celebrities, journalists, businesses. Some of that is due to who they are and how they are conducting themselves. Much of it is due to our having finally had enough with school shootings I think it's also snapped our eyes more fully open to what these school shootings--and all the tangential issues connected to them--say about our nation.
     As I've watched these kids in amazement, I've also found myself worrying about them. Right now they are surfing along on a crest of adrenaline, which all of the media attention keeps refueling.  While it has lasted longer than usual, at some point it will end. What then? Even if it were not to end for a long time, at some point these people--not just the kids, but the adults there--will have to stop long enough to grieve and mourn and recover, likely with ongoing therapeutic assistance. When the overwhelming support becomes more muted, how will they handle the despicable vitriol some were already spewing towards them?  I want them to grow into the healthy, passionate, thriving adults they show all the potential of becoming--the adults our culture needs.
     What if their movement fails to make significant difference? What if another school massacre happens? (Sadly, I feel as if I should write "when another one happens.") Would that deepen the psycho-spiritual wounds? Will it steel their resolve, or will it burst their optimism? Will it say to these kids that once again the older generations have failed them? While we may feel as if a tide has turned, resolving tough issues in times of extreme rancor is a gargantuan task.
     So I hope we remember that these are kids. They are rising to this occasion, partially because they lack the life experience to know that they aren't supposed to be able to make all this happen. That lets them operate with a certain derring-do, but they are going to slip at times.  (Yes, they are acting better than many adults.) Meanwhile, are we, in our guilt and desperation, putting too much on them? Yes, follow their leadership; revel in their passion; voice your admiration. But please don't make them into messiahs who are going to resolve the sins of older generations. They don't need that at a time they are determining the destiny of their own generation. We can't abdicate our responsibilities for the past, the present, or the future.
     So, yes, I want their movement to work. I want new, effective legislation. I want it not just about guns, but about many things. And it's more than new laws. I want us regain our civility and our virtues. I crave leadership that unites and inspires. I want equity and justice. I hope we can discern the light shining in each person. 
     Even after all the school shootings since Columbine, kids still believe our world can become better and better and better. If education is really going to matter, we have to support them in those efforts. That's true not just for the Parkland kids. It's true for all kids.