Friday, December 31, 2010

Lessons from Break

            The two-week winter break offers some important lessons. In many ways the first week is simply a continuation of the school year, packed with rushing around and the rapid completion of pressing tasks. Truly restful sleep remains elusive, and exercise is crammed in when possible. Even though I avoid work-related items as much as possible, it isn’t a break. Only during the second week does it begin to feel like vacation. The pace slows, and I find myself lolling around at times. Ironically, even though I’ve begun doing some things for school—my in-service presentation, clarifying goals—I feel more relaxed as I can focus and reflect. I can even stop and take some deep breaths.
            Most of us live hyperlinked lives. Like surfing the web, we quickly glean what we need from a site and then click for the next page. Often it’s done thoughtlessly, in the name of expediency. Done! What’s next? Analytics show that when people use Google, they seldom go past the first page of hits on any search. I have to wonder how much they think about the information they find.
            In a way it’s like a meal prepared entirely in the microwave. It may taste just fine, and it may even be relatively healthy for you. But compare it to a lovingly prepared meal, full of fresh ingredients. The various aspects of the cooking come together slowly, and it makes you want to savor it rather than scarf it down.
            In our frenetic worlds, as we’re always wondering about the next item, where is the space for the sort of intellectual serendipity or randomizing that always seems to occur while we are in the shower or exercising? In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson illustrates how vital this is for innovative thinking. Perhaps, like me, you wake up at 2 A.M. with insights or ideas. Those are the times when we finally let our minds off the leash. They can wander in subconscious muck rather than march down the linear to-do list.
            Recently I read about a hotel chain that caters to business travelers. In the showers they have placed special whiteboards. In this way someone can jot down any great ideas had while lathering up. I think this captures both sides of the issue. Slow down and relax and let those brain juices flow—but don’t waste a moment.
            To  twist another idea from the business world, I fear that top schools have gotten caught up in a non-virtuous circle. You may know that in the concept of the virtuous circle, certain aspects of an organization are plotted on a circle as they affect each other. The circle generates momentum, like a flywheel. The organization grows stronger.
            In the non-virtuous circle, however, the effects are deleterious. Here’s how that happens. Independent schools want to fulfill their missions, so they try to do more. Parents want to see a return on their investments in those schools. So schools try to do more. Parents want their kids to have advantages, so they do more outside of school. More leads to more leads to more leads to... As a current film makes clear, it can become a Race to Nowhere.
            This doesn’t strengthen the school, and it certainly isn’t great for kids. We see the stress and exhaustion. How will this affect what type of adults they become? Meanwhile, schools and families can grow upset at each other, rather than realizing they are both adding to the problem. Yet we ultimately share the same values and hopes and dreams for our children. That’s why we choose each other.
            We need to have deep, fruitful conversations about this. And let’s not forget to breathe. Deeply.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Learned Happiness

                In an admission of my true nerdiness, I jotted my initial notes for this post while sitting on a bench in Stonebriar Mall this past Saturday evening. No, this isn’t some sociological study. And I really do have a life. My fifth-grade son was attending a birthday party at the skating rink there, and I’m not much of a shopper. So after picking up some Christmas gifts for my wife, I found a spot to sit. Around me swirled an incredible flurry of people, some of them looking like overburdened pack mules. I was heartened by the scene for a few reasons. I hope this means people are feeling greater consumer confidence than they did a year ago.  People also seemed genuinely happy as they bought gifts for others. We’ve always known that doing for others makes us feel good. Now it’s been scientifically proven: a study by the National Institutes of Health found that when people are prompted to think of giving money to charity, the pleasure centers in the brain are activated.
                Yet too often we can find ourselves searching for happiness in the wrong places. Money, possessions, attention—yes, these matter and are necessary; but once people have enough, studies have shown the direct link to happiness weakens. The obvious correlation in schools is grades. Yes, they matter. But students—and teachers and parents—can emphasize them in ways that erode the joy of learning.
                So what brings about eudemonia, or fundamental happiness? Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, recently published Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. I highly recommend reading both books, as they have fueled a great deal of important discussion regarding education. In the meantime, you can watch Pink’s presentation on the ideas in Drive at the July 2009 TED conference or this cool animated summary.  I won’t ruin it for you by citing any of the wonderful evidence he uses. For the sake of this post, I will share the basic premise. The traditional carrot-and-stick approach to motivation doesn’t work, at least not beyond the immediate. Instead, people are motivated by three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
                Think about the times you have had a flow experience. Once of those times when you get into such a groove that you lose sense of time. When you feel that you truly are in your element. (Another book recommendation: Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element.) I suspect you enjoyed the three feelings stressed in Pink’s work.
                Perhaps not all of school can become such an experience for all children. But I believe that more of it can. Whatever pedagogical approach teachers take, they should assess what they ask students to do per three criteria. Is it engaging? Is it meaningful? Is it productive? Not every lesson or activity will meet these lofty standards. But as we reassesses and redesign program, we must aspire for the overall experience to reach them on a regular basis. It’s going to require reconsideration of some fundamental principles, from the language that we use when talking about education to how we have structured our schools.
                We owe this to our kids. Not only will it better prepare them for their futures. It also will help them in the quest for eudemonia. Think of it as learned happiness.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dear Santa

Dear Santa,
                How are you and Mrs. Claus? How about the elves and the reindeer? I hope that it’s been a great year for everyone in the North Pole.
                My wish list this year is pretty simple—one item. A second Earth.
I’m basing this request on an article I read recently: “In 20 Years, We Will Need a Second Earth.” It’s based on simple math. Really simple math based on some basic facts about our consumptive habits.
I know this second Earth request is a longshot, so I’m glad this isn’t a total doomsday scenario. There are glimmers of hope, particularly when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint. But we’ll really have to change our dietary habits. I imagine some other new ways of living will be required.
How’s that going to happen? I haven’t figured out the exact plan in detail just yet. But I do know that we have to help young people develop the ability to consider all the possibilities, particularly those that produce new paradigms. The ones that got us in this jam aren’t going to get us out of it. Schools have to reconsider what it means to prepare students for their future.
So if the second earth thing doesn’t work out (maybe I haven’t been nice enough), help me to lead a school in which…
·         students keep alive their innate curiosity and desire to explore;
·         they learn to ask important questions and to seek meaningful answers;
·         they use technology in powerful, purposeful ways;
·         the focus is on what students learn, not what is taught;
·         rigor becomes about individual growth, not the current demand for more and faster that actually harms learning because of the stress it engenders;
·         a large part of what students learn is their place and purpose in life.
Thanks, Santa. Ultimately, this is up to other educators and me. Parents, too. But I know you can help. After all, every December you do an amazing job of defying that whole time-space continuum thing. And it’s pretty vital, given that possible need for a second Earth notion.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wikileaks and Education

                If the St. John’s website is shut down for a while, blame me. I’ll apologize in advance for any inconvenience. I hope it doesn’t happen, but the hacktivists may come after me. Yes, I’m going to share some thoughts on the current Wikileaks firestorm.
                Maybe they will leave us alone. I don’t plan to comment much on Julian Assange or his disciples. You can form your own opinions on that. Instead, I want to share how all this has reconfirmed some of my thoughts about students and digital technology.
                Clearly, computers are now part of just about everything. You can read an interesting recount of an interview with Steve Wozniak, one of Apple’s founders. He states, “All of a sudden, we’ve lost a lot of control.” He’s referring to how dependent on these machines we have become. For our children, computers are essential tools—in many ways, their paper and pencil.
                Wozniak could just as easily be suggesting the massive questions raised by the Wikileaks issue. To play off the old advertising pitch: Does information really want to be free? Or is it that we think we want it to be free? And all information? Really? No matter what?
                Most of the education surrounding computers in many ways amounts to vocational training, albeit with an academic slant. There is a place for that approach; students have to learn how to use certain tools as powerful levers to produce quality work. But if we emphasize tools as just new ways of doing what we’ve always done, we miss the real transformative potential for education. We also would not be teaching some of the more important lessons.
                Similarly, many parents quite understandably install monitoring software or other safeguards on home computers. I get that. Children can very easily stumble across things you don’t want them to, and there are sick people who use tricks to make that even more likely. But we can’t let the illusion of software solutions keep us from fulfilling our responsibility as adults and teaching the more important lessons.
                So what are those more important lessons?
                We have to help our children learn to be ultra-responsible citizens in this new world. At different ages, this will mean different things explored in appropriate fashion. As you discuss current events with your children, this should lead to some powerful discussions about privacy and access; about how things live on-line; about whether the ability to do something means you should. The list could be much longer.
                Of course, some of these are eternal lessons, ones applicable throughout our lives. Wikileaks drives that message home as well. After all, we never know what information might get out.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Where's My Educational Jet Pack?

            Anytime you try to predict the future, you risk myopia. We tend to see it through our current lenses, a stance which limits the range of vision and possibility. And true to their humanity, people can become skeptical. A couple of years a go I saw a t-shirt which read, “If this is the future, where’s my jet pack?” But committed educators must ponder the future.
            Recently I attended a workshop led by Pat Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools. The topic was Trends and Design Strategy. Pat and NAIS COO Donna Orem outlined 12 trends which will have major impacts on independent education. Without going into great detail, I’ll say they are the same trends affecting most industries: shifting demographics, a volatile economy, consumer demand, and disruptive technologies. It’s a perfect storm. We spent the second part of the session debating which most matter to the future of independent education and the best ways to respond.
            In one of those cases of fortuitous timing, two days before the workshop I had attended a lecture by Ray Kurzweil, whose most recent book is The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Essentially Kurzweil predicts the merging of machine (technology) and mankind. For instance, now that we’ve mapped the genome, we can treat it as software and reprogram accordingly. For instance, why not eliminate the fat gene that served us when when we were hunters and gatherers but now causes health problems? What hardware can improve our physical beings? Potentially life expectancy can outstrip the death rate. Kurzweil bases many of his predications on what he calls “the law of accelerating returns.” Technological innovation and its impact on societal paradigms always has followed an exponential curve. His theory has some credibility. Around 1980 or so, Kurzweil predicted how the Internet would develop and subsequently work; that a computer would beat a human in chess (it happened a year earlier than he thought); and how people would band together with simple tools to overthrow the Soviet regime (affirmed in a conversation he had with Gorbachev).
            I’ve also finished Don Tapscott’s Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World. Tapscott examines how economic, social, and technological innovation is slashing through all cultural sectors. The idea is that old ways of thinking won’t solve the problems they have wrought. For instance, we shouldn’t necessarily expect an economic oversight system to amend the problems which allowed the mortgage crisis of 2008-9 to occur. (I imagine I’ll come back to Tapscott’s work in a future post.)
            Naturally this led me to ponder all the major change I’ve seen in my lifetime, soon to be 50 years. Yes, it’s significant—but doesn’t really drive home the point. After all, it’s about accelerating returns. So think about a high school senior, born in 1992 or 1993. You know, when Yugoslavia was still a single nation and the first Clinton was just entering the White House. If you had a cell phone, it was around the size of a brick and weighed nearly as much. You would have bought your music on a CD. And the first popular web browser was being launched. There were some conferences being held to consider the notion that this whole world wide web idea might have some economic implications.
            Of course, my primary concern has to do with whether all this change should prompt education to change. And in some ways it has. But in some ways it’s also superficial. Schools are among the most traditional institutions we have. There is an old joke that it’s easier to change the course of history than it is to change a history course in an independent school. Schools operate in much the same fashion they have for decades. There are many reasons for this. Simply put, change is hard in any circumstance. Three other points add to that in schools. Many teachers naturally teach how they were taught. Many parents expect school to look as it looked for them. They don’t want their kids being used as guinea pigs. Three, things are changing so rapidly that it’s hard to find clear direction about what kids need to thrive in the coming  decades.
            Yes, the times, they certainly are a’changing. And while we may not know exactly how, we have an obligation—as educators and as parents—to respond accordingly. As Tapscott points out, “’s worth remembering that the future is not something to predict, it is something to achieve” (25). That seems like a great mantra for independent education. Particularly since, as Pat Bassett stresses, we should be preparing kids for their futures, not for our pasts.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reading--By Book or By Nook or By...?

The book is perhaps the quintessential symbol of learning. For that reason, I find it particularly fascinating how technology is changing the reading experience. Already there is evidence that the near-constant staring into screens is slowly flattening people’s retinas. The layout on a typical webpage forces a different flow than words on a page do. I haven’t yet purchased an e-reader, mainly because I like to mark up books in ways those devices don’t yet allow. I’m sure I’ll get one eventually. And the devices don’t seem that far removed from our traditional notion of a text.
But now IDEO, perhaps the world’s leading innovative design company, has been developing prototypes for the future of the book. This video will give you a sneak peek at three versions. I’m fascinated by the concepts and possibilities raised by these models. At the same time, just as the book symbolizes learning –and, by extension, school—I wonder how these new models grate against our long-standing paradigms of the educational process.
In these future books, the reading process no longer occurs per the simple left-to-right, down-the-page pattern. Instead, the reader has to become much more active and engaged to reap the full benefits of the experience. She will have to decide when she needs more information; he will have to determine which path of reasoning to follow. It becomes a cyber-version of the choose-your-own adventure books. We first saw movement in this direction with the advent of hyperfiction. But in both those forms, the author still retained ultimate control of the text. In these new models, the author potentially cedes nearly all control. What does this mean for the notions of authority, originality, copyright, and intellectual property? Does a book merely become a microcosm of the web?
It’s also a world far removed from the structures of education. While many schools are placing greater emphasis on critical thinking and habits of mind, they continue to organize themselves per the long-standing factory model. We have blocks of time—class periods, instructional days, units, grade levels, divisions—through which we move kids in linear fashion and thus measure their progress and, we hope, their learning. It’s just like reading an old-fashioned book.
But I’d argue that we need to embrace the new form of book as our symbol. That’s not because I like to be on the leading, bleeding edge. It’s because of that new book being more truly representative of how the brain functions and thus how people really learn.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Winning at What Cost?

By now most of you have probably seen the video of a trick play pulled off by the Driscoll Middle School (Corpus Christi) football team. The video went viral rather quickly, and a column about it by Frank Deford has appeared on both and This post will echo some of Deford’s points—although I think he goes a bit far in equating it to child abuse—and, I hope, put my own spin on this.
When you first watch the play, it can be easy to agree with the 92.1% of poll respondents who called the play “genius.” It is creative and totally effective, and it’s within the rules of game. But I’ve grown dismayed as I’ve read some of the comments on various sites about the play. Most people see absolutely nothing wrong with it.
Here’s what wrong with it. The players are kids. Not even high school kids. Middle school kids. They are at an age when they should be learning fundamentals and teamwork and sportsmanship. We should be teaching kids not just how to be good losers, but gracious and dignified winners. Instead, this sort of antic introduces the notion that only the result matters, not the manner in which it may be attained. Yes, the play is within the rules. But it’s very easy to make the leap from this to breaking the rules, and that it’s okay if the official misses it. That is, unless it’s being done to your team.  I’m reminded of how the rector at my church recently told of a conversation he’d overheard. A father had violated a traffic law. His son said, “Dad, isn’t that illegal?” The father responded, “It’s only illegal if you get caught.”
Speaking of the adult in charge, he may have shown a spark of genius in designing this play. But keep one thing in mind. He used kids to pull this off on a bunch of other kids. That doesn’t require genius. It requires narcissism. It necessitated his need for everyone to see just how clever he is. It reminds me of those teachers who are always teaching over the heads of their students, just to illustrate how brilliant they are. It feeds their egos, but not the kids’ growth.
Also, the play may not violate the literal rules of American football. It does, however, seem to violate the spirit of the game. That’s debatable. But part of the deception involves a coach yelling that his team has committed a penalty. He may not deserve a yellow flag, but he certainly breaks a pretty basic life rule: thou shall not lie.
If this had happened in a professional game, I would cut the coach a bit of slack. A tiny bit. At least there he would have been competing against athletes with a richer understanding of the sport who could react to such chicanery. Professional sports are rife with it. A long-time soccer player and fan, I’m particularly aware of the “gamesmanship” associated with my sport. I’ve heard more than enough jokes about players taking dives and faking injuries. It’s a sport that has “the professional foul.”  Growing up and moving higher in the ranks, I encountered more and more of it; sometimes I was even coached how to do it. But I had no patience for it as a player, and I hate it as a fan. I was fortunate that most of my coaches didn’t let us get away with such cynical play, and I’ve never allowed it from my own players. It’s about integrity.
I know from personal experience the powerful impact sports can have on individual development. I attribute most of what now serves me well to my soccer background. So I worry about what the kids on the Driscoll team are learning. I also wonder about something else. Suppose your child/player were on the opposing team. How would you turn this into a learning experience for them given the cultural reaction to the incident?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Quest for the Perfect Tweet

Recently I challenged myself to boil down my educational philosophy to a single sentence or phrase. Actually, the restrictions were tighter. Pare it to a tweet. I came up with what actually amounts to less than half a tweet (at least per number of characters):
Inspiring a person to become a better version of him- or herself.
Then came part two of the challenge: identifying and articulating three primary ways in which a great school can strive to accomplish this.
·         Great schools reveal possibilities and opportunities. In seeing them, students glimpse what they in turn can become. They meet people—real and imagined, present day and historical—and determine whom they wish to emulate and whom they scorn. Students are exposed to new ideas and models and minds. By experimenting in numerous areas, students discover the mélange of strengths and weaknesses that constitute the unique presence they bring to the world. As all these experiences germinate inside a student, they begin to flower in a vision of the person her or she desires to become.
·         Great schools connect students to the infinitum. All civilization is, in essence, the ever-expanding evolution of all that which has come before the present. All the tradition, all the lore, all the claimed invention and discovery—it all builds on itself in ways that propel human culture forward. Students should engage in the ongoing conversation. More importantly, just as they see what they can become, students begin to conceptualize what and how they can create their own contribution to the future.
·         Great schools invite students to play joyfully in an infinite game. Per game theory, finite games have immutable rules and boundaries, with a clear end and definite winner. Think your typical board game or sport.  An infinite game, on the other hand, involves constant morphing so that the game keeps developing. The players must adapt to whatever emerges. In fact, players must respond nimbly to keep the game going and to thrive therein. Think real life.
Too idealistic? Perhaps. But endless hope fuels great education. And a great education helps a person discover his or her place and purpose.
What would be your tweet?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Not Reinvent the Wheel?

I’ve decided that I really don’t like the aphorism “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” Actually, what bothers me is what usually follows this statement—a rationale for not changing something. Well, imagine if we hadn’t been constantly reinventing the wheel. Would we still be driving in vehicles like Fred Flintstone's hot rod?

Actually, the earliest evidence of wheeled vehicles is from the mid-4th millennium BCE in Mesopotamia, the Northern Caucus, and Central Europe. Their adoption spread rather rapidly through the next two millennia, particularly once the chariot was introduced around 2000 BCE. The first wheels were simple wooden disks with a hole for the axle. The earliest use of spokes, which provide greater stability and strength, appeared with the chariot. In the 1st millennium BCE Celtic warriors introduced the use of an iron rim around the wheel. This basic spoked wheel dominated without major modifications until the 1870s, when wire wheels and pneumatic tires were invented.

 Would you want one of these on your car?

Reinventing the wheel, or at least an innovated version thereof, has been at the heart of other key technological developments: the water wheel, the astrolabe, the cogwheel, and the spinning wheel. Key spinoffs include the propeller, jet engine, flywheel, and turbine. It’s no wonder the wheel is a symbol of basic human innovation.

Here’s the irony and the real lesson for education. Even when the concept of the wheel was first imagined and the crude prototype created, the wheel was dismissed. Wide adoption was delayed because too many roads weren’t smooth enough or had too many obstacles. For both merchants and travelers, carrying goods on human backs was preferred and more efficient.

Now that we have the information superhighway, don’t we need to reinvent some of the wheels of education?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

To Screen or Not to Screen

            In Hamlet’s Blackberry, the journalist William Powers muses on our relationship with screens and what he calls “the conundrum of connectedness.” We can do wondrous things in our interconnected world. At the same time, however, living in cyberspace has a high cost in terms of expectations, loss of focus, and shallowness versus depth. Constant tension exists between our internal and external worlds. Powers embarks on this meditation after his smartphone is ruined when he fell overboard while fixing an outboard motor. After moments of panic, he felt liberated. He illustrates how this essential issue always has lain at the heart of a society’s struggle with any emerging dominant technology.
            Recently I’ve had a small taste of Powers’ experience. At certain points in our building, I lose any cell phone signal. At first this frustrated me greatly. Particularly as a new head of school, I wanted to be in touch constantly, perhaps to ease myself with the illusion that I had things completely under my control. I found myself checking not for messages, but to see if I even had a signal. I began thinking about the possibility of offering our roof as a place for a new tower for my provider. Slowly, though, I gave in to this situation. In fact, I’ve even begun to embrace it. Now I sometimes even leave my phone in my office as I explore the school each day. Certainly I’m making human connections that I would have missed when staring into my screen.
            Meanwhile, as someone who always has sought meaningful ways to use digital technology in education, I’m concerned. I’m worried particularly because I see younger and younger children staring into screens more and more frequently.  We can become so enamored with tools that they drive instruction. We hold out possibilities and the rare example as rationales. For example, yes, a blog does make it possible for a student to have a world-wide audience. But does that ever happen? And how does a teacher give the same type of detailed feedback? I’ve heard tech fans argue that teachers must use plenty of technology because that is the world in which kids now live. But perhaps the inverse is true. As a class of high school juniors told me last year, in school they want face-to-face because they spend the rest of their time in the on-line world. The lesson for me: don’t lose sight of the more essential human objectives.
            The ease of the tools presents another dilemma. Create, click, and publish—what about filter? The process has been inverted. So too often rants replace crafted, thoughtful prose. Too many tweets or status updates suggest nothing other than a desperate need to be noticed. Jason Lanier, one of the early pioneers of the Internet, laments some of its consequences. In You Are Not a Gadget he challenges, “Post a video once in a while that took you 100x longer to create than it does to view. Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to be out.” Ultimately, Lanier cautions, “You have to be somebody before you show yourself.”
            Therein lies the challenge. Our children are living in an increasingly connected world, and we don’t yet know the long-term consequences. But we have to consider an essential question raised by Powers: How does one develop a strong inner self when the focus is always external?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Following to Lead

                For the past decade or so, more schools have been adding “leadership” to their mission and objectives. It’s a hard thing to argue against. Certainly the world could always use better leadership. For that to happen, though, we have to reconsider some traditional notions of leadership as they often play out in schools.
                In some ways this issue comes down to a matter of the individual versus the collective. Students generally see leaders as those who talk the most during class, serve as team captains, and win student elections. They are the visible faces and receive the most accolades. Whether these students are effective or not—and many are—is not the point. Instead, it’s the unfortunate lesson that students can learn about leadership: that it’s largely about what an individual gains through intrinsic talents. And students with certain types of personalities or preferences seldom get put in those roles. Early on, kids can grow cynical about the entire concept of leadership.
                Sometimes I think that we should be talking with kids about not just effective leadership, but also meaningful followership. We tend to avoid the topic because follower can have such negative connotations. Yet I believe that we can teach students really powerful and long-lasting messages by helping them think meaningfully about whom, why, and how to follow. This, in turn, forces consideration of some crucial topics, particularly as students mature. What are the qualities I really admire in people? What do they look like in action? Do I look up to that person for the right reasons? Does that person want to lead for the right reasons?
                Thus we move into the realm of the collective. The leaders we want students to follow act for the greater good, for larger and noble purposes. They realize that everyone has a role to play in that process and help each person to realize it. At the same time, the best followers become determined to make a contribution each and every day. They are the people we come to count on, the ones we know will move things in a positive direction. Others begin to look towards them for direction.
                And, when they are ready, those who follow well emerge as the true leaders.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hurrying toward - what?

                I’ve never doubted that our world is moving faster and faster. Digital technology is behind most of it. One of the most telling symbols may be our impatience when a computer takes just a few seconds longer to boot; we’ll upgrade just to avoid that. And it spreads to other parts of our lives. In Denmark, people talk 20% faster than they did 10 years ago. We’re even walking faster than we used to. In 2007, researchers studied pedestrians in 34 cities around the world. The average person scoots along at nearly 3.5 mph. That’s 10% faster than a decade ago.
                It’s hard to argue against people having some extra spring in their steps. But I have to wonder why we feel the need to be in such a hurry all the time. I particularly worry about what the trickle-down effect means for kids in school, and the early signs are dismaying.
                Instead of digging in sandboxes and concocting imaginative scenarios, kindergartners in many schools are now having to “prepare for a life of multiple-choice boxes by plowing through standardized tests with cuddly names like Dibels" (pronounced 'dibbles'). The pressures of No Child Left Behind—and its ill-placed faith in educational testing—may leave childhood behind.
                This, in turn, has led to a new cottage industry: test prep firms for three- and four-year olds. For instance, Bright Start in New York City charges $145 per one-hour session as part of its Boot Camp series. Parents who want an extra edge also can purchase $90 workbooks.
                Is it worth it? While debate rages about whether or not doctors can accurately diagnose depression in a young child, many have begun to see more signs of stress and anxiety in younger patients. Throughout my career I’ve seen plenty of kids who, pushed early on, burn out and give up on their once-favorite activities. For years colleges have been begging high-powered high schools to stop sending them exhausted kids.
                A few days ago I was driving home from school, moving at right about the speed limit. A black SUV tore past me. At the next light we were right next to each other. The light turned green, and the SUV raced off. Next light, same thing. Finally I lost sight of the SUV—until I saw it on the side of the road, along with a police car. I wonder if the driver will learn the lesson.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


During one of our first in-service days in August, we completed an exercise in which we discussed the Portrait of our Ideal Graduate. It’s a way of examining how our mission should manifest itself in the lives of our alumni. A few days later, we enjoyed wonderful, probing discussions about adulthood prompted by our summer read, Dan Heischman’s Good Influence. We talked about what adulthood means, the adults who have mattered to us and how this all ties to our being meaningful educators.
Not surprisingly, a great deal of overlap occurred during the two sessions. It seems to me that in drafting our ideal graduate, we also are articulating what sort of adults we wish to be. The reason lies in our fervent desire to give each student what he or she craves. We want to be not just a good influence, but the best possible influence.
The lists of qualities in each exercise were long. I’ve been pondering those lists and wondering just what young people look for in adults. At the risk of oversimplifying, it’s wisdom. I define this as having a deeper sense of life’s questions and even embracing their inherent mystery. People with it seem to grasp something most of us struggle even to touch. But we keep reaching for it. This notion is captured well in a five-minute video on The Wisdom Book.
How do you define wisdom? More important, how do you help young people gain it?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Perception and Perspective

Surely tied to my new professional challenge, I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the notion of success. What it means? What it looks like? Is it eternally elusive, as you achieve one marker and then go on to the next? All interesting questions—but they are not really the issue here. I’m pondering a different aspect of success.
Success, of course, varies depending on context. A budding tennis player finally strikes a perfect serve. An artist mixes colors for just the right shade of orange. A carpenter crafts a perfect arm on a rocker. I’m seeking a common denominator here. Why do some people thrive and even flourish while others stagnate, even those who seem successful? I believe the answer lies in perception and perspective. This determines how we accept responsibility for the challenges we face. Robert Sternberg of Yale, one of the leading contemporary thinkers on creative intelligence, calls it a matter of “purposeful engagement.”
Stanford professor Carole Dweck has spent the past two-plus decades studying this question. Her conclusion in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects how you lead your life.” Her research has shown that people fall into two neat categories: those with a fixed mindset, and those with a growth mindset. That seems simple enough. The implications are extreme.
People with a fixed mindset believe that individuals have a fixed amount of an ability or characteristic. X intelligence, y ethical character, z personality type—in this mindset, in a sense anatomy is destiny. Consequently, people place limitations on themselves. They believe that they must constantly prove they have an adequate amount of whatever quality is being assessed. In the most extreme cases, anything deemed less than total success is seen as failure.
People with a growth mindset passionately stretch themselves and stick to it. Even when things are not going well, determination allows them to persevere. In fact, they seek and revel in new challenges. Everything becomes an opportunity for improvement. When they make a mistake, they voice the philosophy advocated by Ben Zander in The Art of Possibility. Instead of becoming derailed, they say, “How fascinating!” and learn from the experience. They are constantly creating new frameworks into which they can place their learning. These people more often get caught up in what Mihaly Csikszentimhalyi has identified as optimal “flow” experiences, those moments of almost euphoric absorption.
I believe that helping children maintain such a mindset is one of the most important gifts we can give them. I say “maintain” because they seem to have it inherently. Watch young children play. Watch the chances they are willing to take. Errors and embarrassment don’t cripple them. Only as they grow older and become more aware of social norms and others' expectations does the shift occur. It’s why I dislike the t-shirts that say “Second place is just first loser.” It symbolizes many aspects of our culture—including some traditional practices in schools—that promote a fixed mindset. And neuroscience has revealed that genes and environment cooperate in human development.
Unless you have a fixed mindset, for you this should beg an essential question: How does one help children develop a growth mindset? I’m curious what you think.