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.