Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Tale of Two Students

       Lately two former students from long ago--the late 1980s, early 1990s--keep popping into my mind. I know exactly why. I'm trying to fit them into the points made in my last post: "The Real Secret to Independent School Success." My doing so initially was prompted by seeing one Tweet several times about the other, although they went to different schools and likely never have met. And that's because of the role each has come to play in current events.
       I need to give you some background about each. For various reasons, I don't want to use their real names. I'll call them J and R.

  • J grew up poor in a very small town in the Deep South. I don't know all the circumstances, but a generous benefactor arranged for him to attend the fairly traditional school where I worked. There he excelled as both a student and community member, eventually becoming a Presidential Scholar.
  • R grew up well-off in a major city in the Southwest. I taught him when he attended a diverse, progressive middle school, and then he went to another top school. 
  • J attended a prestigious university, the first person in his family to attend college.
  • R also attended prestigious universities, nearly completing a doctorate.
  • J is an award-winning journalist who now runs the journalism department at a major university in the Northeast.
  • R didn't follow any particular career path I know of.
  • J explores and comments on how various key topics are being portrayed in the media, often from a liberal perspective. 
  • R has been in the media a great deal lately. He is a founder and a leader of the alt-right movement.
     Since I saw one of J's Tweets and then messaged him about my having taught R, a question has gnawed at me off and on: How did this happen? If you go strictly by expectations based on cultural stereotypes, if anyone was going to become a face of neo-Nazism, it would have been J. Not that I would have ever even thought of the idea. But I never would have predicted it for R, either. I recall a gangly, goofy, friendly kid.
     Even though I lost all contact with R after sixth grade, imagine what it feels like to see one of your former students having become this way. It knocks you off balance, makes you wonder. What happened?  What could have led to different outcomes? If you believe in the power of meaningful independent school education to help people create better selves and lives...well, then, I guess not always.
     I'm not saying that R's education/schools failed him. Yet something and/or someone did. I don't believe anyone is born inherently evil or even hateful. Plus, while it's not exactly guilt, passionate educators are plagued--sometimes irrationally--by memories of the ones we fear we didn't serve well. One or two of them can eclipse the success stories, particularly at times such as that our nation is enduring right now.
     Therein lies the beauty in this weird juxtaposition that is the plot of this tale of two students. For all the angst the story of R might inject into our pedagogical veins, there the story of J, one of hope and promise fulfilled. I'm sure he would tell you an educational opportunity took his life down a wonderful path early circumstances would not have predicted. J likely would have found a way, but the right school truly mattered. There's the moral, the inspiration, the mission, for a new school year.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Real Secret to Independent School Success

       On August 1, 2017, Education Week posted an article by Dr. Stephanie Hull titled "Six Secrets to Private Schools' Success, and How Public Schools Can Steal Them." A former head of an independent school, Dr. Hull highlights six key practices that are fairly common in that world (actually a subset of private school in general). We could debate their effectiveness. As with most things, that depends on implementation and the people involved. I also suspect that private schools could learn quite a bit from public schools. Or, more specifically, I suspect all educators could learn something from quality educators no matter the sector in which they work. Yet I'm digressing a bit, and my point is not to pick a fight with Dr. Hull, as she presents strong suggestions.
       I must wonder, though, whether public schools really can steal them given the politicking and bureaucracy--often being mandated by government officials with no real background in education--that rules that system. Furthermore, the emphasis on standardization and objective testing puts forth the wrong goals. Plus the issue is more than certain policies and programs.
       The real secret to great independent schools' success is not really a secret. It's right there in the name: our independence. That status allows us to focus on our missions. On the ideals of education and what it can accomplish.
       An exceptional independent school helps each student steadily become a grander version of his or her unique, best possible self.
       Ultimately, meaningful education cannot not determined by data, benchmarks, college placement, or exit exams. Instead, it’s about less quantifiable ideals—the soul of the matter. Connections in a caring community. The courage to take risks in search of understanding. Discovery of one’s talents and growing to fulfill them. Development of a supple mind, a healthy body, and a kind heart. The realization of a purpose beyond oneself.
       Each independent school should exercise its freedom to create a unique culture with such an ethos. The richness of the atmosphere prompts people to explore and to plumb the depths of themselves. Diverse experiences and perspectives provoke the deep reflection integral to true learning. Meanwhile, the teachers truly care if they have succeeded, but often do not know for sure. Then, out of the blue, we hear from an alum who is doing wonderfully. Ideally, that person is contributing positively to the world.
       The opportunities and hard work—the rewards and the joys—lie in fostering such an environment. It includes dynamic tensions that challenge our values. For example, how does one balance individuality and community? Do we encourage specialization or generalism? How can teachers cover material yet prod students into thinking as deeply as possible? In a society that stresses quick tangible success, how do we foster perseverance and intrinsic rewards? Schools should struggle continually with such questions, which should drive more immediate decisions such as schedule, policy, and program.
       Similarly, several years ago I participated in an exercise called The Picture of the Graduate. Since then I have led many others through it. Small groups brainstorm the essential knowledge, skills, and attitudes they wish to see in their graduates, eventually paring the list to the three most desired items. No one picks any particular area of knowledge. Instead, every group—school leaders, teachers, students, parents—selects certain attitudes and skills as the most desirable qualities. Synthesized, they reflect the traits of life-long learners; of good citizens; and of well-rounded, balanced individuals.
       Ultimately, education should be about how we live together—about reaffirming a social compact in which we willingly exchange some natural rights for social rights and responsibilities. When Jefferson included the pursuit of happiness as an individual right in the Declaration of Independence, he meant it as a moral claim entailing a reciprocal obligation: that it can happen only in conjunction with others’ happiness.  It’s like the paradoxical benefit of being on a successful team.  As an individual adjusts to the group, the result can be a stronger sense of self
       The best independent schools thus are places where great lives begin. It should be true for all schools.

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.