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.