Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Post-Race Commentary—Take #2

                In “Post-Race Commentary—Take #1” I focused on some overall impressions of Race to Nowhere and the subsequent discussion. The piece has a rather typical essay-like framework. For this post, I’m going to take a different approach: bullets, fired almost in scattershot fashion. Each will be some point that struck me as telling or worth some thought, and each certainly contributes to the larger discussion.
·         Almost everybody in the film looks so tired.
·         The film points out so many issues that I’m surprised it omits another one: how this can shape a child’s mindset. I wrote about this early in the year in a piece title “Perception and Perspective.”
·         When I’m observing classes, I watch what the kids are doing just as much as I watch the teacher. In the film, except for one snippet, the kids in class are doing nothing but sitting. They’re not doing; they’re not making; they’re not talking. I am confident they’re not listening. Put all that together and I’m sure they aren’t learning…except for some lessons we’d rather they not get about learning.
·         One of my favorite moments: the young woman who says that the worst question an adult can ask is “And?”
·         Another favorite moment: I forget who says it, but it’s the comment about how we teach everyone as if each is in the top 2%. I’d add that too often we push kids to be in the top 2% in more than one area. That’s why we often treat kids, as it’s put in another catchy line, like “little professionals.”
·         That leads to one of my criticisms of the film. At one point we’re shown Bill Gates, Richard Branson and a couple other people as examples of folks with little college who have done wonderful things. People such as them are not the norm; they are not even a minuscule percentage of that top 2%. The overwhelming majority would benefit from a top-quality education and need it to thrive. Plus even for the exceptional, it doesn’t happen without really hard work and perseverance. Read Gladwell’s Outliers to get a good sense of how even geniuses have to grind it out.
·         Similarly, let’s not forget that the film is a documentary, one with a very particular agenda. While I happen to agree with the basic philosophy of that agenda, in many ways the film is excessive. Many of the examples are extreme. But maybe that’s what is needed to force an examination of a real problem.
·         Many people were very compelling, but for me two really stole the show. I forget the first one’s name, but he is the teacher whose father works in a psychiatric ward. His mix of passion and intellect were awesome. The other is Denise Pope, who works at Stanford. I highly recommend her book Doing School.
·         I find it ironic that the film highlights Challenge Success and several people from the education school at Stanford University. I admire them and their work…but Stanford is one of the institutions that students chase in this race. Stanford exacerbates the problem as much as anyplace.
·         The AP biology teacher points out that he cut the homework in half and scores went up. I applaud his courage, particularly in a course where people judge the quality of the teaching by a single measure. But I’d also like to know what type of homework he was giving. I don’t believe homework is necessarily bad and that it should be abolished. I believe fervently, however, that we need to rethink the purpose and type of homework typically given.
What moments in the film stand out to you? How would you boil down the message?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Post-Race Commentary--#1

                This past Friday we hosted a screening of Race to Nowhere, followed by some discussion. I’m still trying to crystallize the essence of all I saw and heard. In most ways, it affirmed my thoughts in a pre-viewing post.
                The film provokes quite a visceral effect. When slapped in the face, the reflex is to hit back. In the film targets abound. Media; technology; demographics; a competitive culture and its definitions of success; parental pressure; a lack of appreciation of learning for growth’s sake; career and job fixation; demands of the next level; No Child Left Behind; messages sent by the school—all probably deserve some of the anger and associated blame. Certainly I have cast blame. I recall several years ago, when a dean at a leading university declared very publicly that high-pressure schools needed to stop sending them burned-out kids. I e-mailed her and asked when schools such as hers would stop making kids believe they have to burn themselves out to gain admission. I wish I’d received a response, because then I could better understand the pressures she had feeling from someplace.
                Now, as the leader of a school ending at 8th grade, I’m seeing the same issues regarding high school placement as I saw about college. I underestimated them, but they are very real and very understandable. I’m glad that as a parent I don’t have to go through it. For the past week I’ve seen the agony and the ecstasy piqued by a decision made by “the one perfect school for me.” First, among many good schools, there is no perfect one. Second, in this case the goal is in many ways beyond an individual’s control. A student and family can do many things to make themselves a strong, desirable candidate for admission. But they can’t guarantee it. The system can’t really be gamed, and many of the attempts to do so may hurt the student in the long run.  Plus, no matter how well a student may have positioned him- or herself, the school may desire something else in the applicant pool. Not to mention that many wonderful young people compete for each spot.
                I’m not suggesting a student not strive for the best placement possible, whatever that may mean in each individual case. I’m arguing it should not be the ultimate, defining goal and measure. Rather than external affirmation, we need to focus on the formation of a self. Resiliency, gratitude, curiosity, hope—these are some of the qualities that allow a person to thrive in any environment.
                That brings me back to the film and the notion of blame. It’s natural. However, it’s also vital we consider one other player. Ourselves. Watching the film, I wondered how much the filmmaker’s own anxiety contributed to her children’s. I also kept asking, “Okay, so how have you changed things in your own life?” Not until the end did she mention any changes. Now I wonder if they’ve stuck.
                One colleague’s comment truly struck me. She found the film to be as much about parenting as about education. So I’m thrilled we had so many people at the screening, and I am truly heartened by the points made during the discussion—including ones about our one role in creating and ameliorating the situation—and on the cards we collected (more on those and other thoughts  in future posts). People are struggling with this issue, and that’s healthy.  We live in anxious times regarding our children; we crave wonderful opportunities for them. But at what cost? What are we willing to risk? Those should be hard, even scary questions. Each family must answer individually. As a school we have to grapple with them. At the same time, we can give each other courage.

n.b. I want to express our thanks to Munger Place Church for allowing us to use their sanctuary for the screening. It was the perfect location—beautiful, intimate, and inspiring.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mixed Media, Mixed Messages

            At first I was disoriented, and I couldn’t make any sense of the two media streams. I had taken my daughter for a haircut, and a television was playing in the waiting area. Only after several seconds did I realize that the sound was off and I was actually hearing a radio morning talk show (Don’t ask me which either was tuned to. I have no idea.) That was strange enough. But what I found even stranger—and worth some commentary—was the content of the two shows. The juxtaposition captured some thoughts I’ve been trying to reconcile.
            The television was showing scenes from Japan. Tsunami waves carrying vehicles and pieces of buildings, smoke rising from nuclear reactors, landscapes of ravaged towns, people with white masks queued up in the hope of getting any remaining morsels of food and sips of water—the montage captured the devastation. It’s tragedy on a massive scale.
            Meanwhile, the radio announcers were continuing the running joke that the Charlie Sheen saga has become. There were comments about “winning,” “goddesses,” “tiger blood,” his children, his ex-wife, his Tweeting. The deejays found it all rather hilarious, and they clearly were very amused with themselves and their insights into Sheen. I know very little about Charlie Sheen and his talents. But from the little bit I’ve picked up the past few weeks, it seems his genius may be tied to his downfall. It’s tragedy on an individual, classical scale.
            Certainly there are major differences between the two stories. Japan is a much farther-reaching and significant disaster, the people victims of nature. Sheen, on the other hand, has made certain choices. Maybe that, as much as scope, explains our reactions. People around the world will aid Japan, just as they did for New Orleans and Indonesia. Sheen will remain a punchline, likely until the next celebrity misbehavior. So while the stories contrast in many ways, both should make us consider a basic question: How do we—and how should we—respond to the misfortune of others?

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Curse of Too Much Knowledge--Version 2.0

            As educator, institutional leader, and occasional workshop presenter, I try to remain acutely aware of the curse of too much knowledge. That is when you know a topic well enough that you forget your audience may remain below a certain assumed baseline of familiarity and understanding. For example, let’s pretend that I’m giving a lesson on economics. To illustrate a certain concept, I invoke a formula which involves multiple variables. In doing that, I am assuming that my audience has a degree of algebraic ken. This may or may not be the case.
            Recently I’ve begun to wonder if the curse of too much knowledge has now skewed about 180o. By that, I wonder if we have begun to believe that we know much more than we do or that we can easily learn what we need to. We Google something or look on Wikipedia and believe we now know. We can do this for billions of discrete pieces of information, and often we can see how one bit links to another. It’s easy—and often great fun—to become trapped in this spider web of data. It’s beautiful and enticing. It’s also misleading and dangerous.
            For example, during the recent tragedy in Japan, I have found myself looking up information about Japan, plate tectonics, and nuclear reactors. Let’s focus on the last of these. Certainly I know a bit more about how they work. But I really don’t understand the science behind them or exactly how dangerous the threat is, either within the immediate area, throughout Asia, or around the world. Similarly, as the truly historic revolutions have raged in Egypt and Libya, I’ve tried to learn more about the situations—the political structures, the history, the social conditions. I get it in general. But I don’t truly know the combustible mixture that has exploded the past few months. Even the most compelling iReport is going to evoke sympathy and perhaps some genuine empathy, but it remains virtual.
            Certainly I appreciate how much more information the Internet allows us to access. The ability to network is invaluable. Social media, list-servs, personal learning networks—certainly we can tap into the collective wisdom to enhance our own grasp of just about any topic. I see this as the real value of the web more than any information access. So this is not a Luddite rant.
            Instead, take it as a call for discernment. A reminder to step back and take stock. The wisdom of crowds is one thing. Our own wisdom is another. The untold bytes of data that form a cultural and human memory is one thing. Our individual memory is another. I worry that we are allowing the former in each comparison to replace our concern with the latter. I’ve heard people argue that there is no reason to memorize anything. I will agree that some information simply isn’t worth memorizing, but memory is a a large part of how we form any conceptual understanding. For instance, when I come across new data of any type, before I can make sense of it, I must fit it into a framework. That framework is constructed out of the memories we conjure as needed.
            As many sages have pointed out throughout the ages, we have to remain acutely aware of what we know we don’t know. Even beyond that, as Donald Rumsfeld one explained in a different context, we have to beware of the “unknown unknowns.” It’s a crucial notion as we rethink the purpose of education and any meaningful assessment of its effectiveness. Ignore it and not only will we suffer this new form of the curse of too much knowledge, we also will afflict our students with it.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Robot Love

            Imagine that you could have a life partner who completely understands you. Not only understands you, but knows exactly how to respond to whatever you’re feeling, thinking, needing. At the same time, this partner needs little in return, perhaps just some acknowledgement spiced up with a sprig of gratitude.
            Would you want this partner? Think carefully before you answer. The scenario I’ve described captures one of the many ideas Shelly Turkle explores in Alone Together, about our relationships with technology, more specifically robots. What would be lost? That’s captured in the title of a little known but wonderful movie: Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing. In other words, the things that make human relationships so powerful and deeply meaningful.
            There are some important lessons for us here regarding two current trends in education: standardization and technology. Both have the potential to slowly scrape away—even rip out—the human guts of education. Sure, we could develop some more metrics; but standardization as an approach and measure removes any intellectual idiosyncrasies. Standardize things enough, and delivery ceases to matter. Technology makes this increasingly possible. If the synchronicity—that merging of man and machine—actually occurs, could information simply be downloaded and, when the meter reads full, the person is rated as being educated? That may be a literal exaggeration, but I believe it’s a metaphor that holds an important warning.
            At the recent National Association of Independent Schools convention, educational futurist Anya Kamenetz of Fast Company magazine offered this insight—my favorite line from any presentation I attended: “Moving on-line puts a greater premium on that which can only be had off-line.” That’s where the real magic of a education occurs; that’s how a teacher changes lives. Each teacher and each student create a unique, non-replicable series of moments, thousands of which add up to an education. It’s not perfect. It’s often messy and sometimes maddening. But ask yourself this: Would you want your child to have a robot for a teacher?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

2011 NAIS Takeaways

From Wednesday-Friday, February 23-25, I attended the National Association of Independent School Annual Conference in National Harbor, Maryland (just outside D.C.) I’m a bit behind the curve here, as I know that many attendees already have shared their takeaways.  So for some of you this may be old news. Sorry. But I never really know what those true takeaways will be until I reflect on an experience and see what still resonates a few days later. I also want to share this with any readers who may not have read anyone else’s thoughts on the conference. Plus it’s nice for people at St. John’s to know why the Head of School vanished for three days.
·         The Conference Theme of Monumental Opportunities: Advancing Our Public Purpose
Numerous people, including me, have commented on the irony of the conference setting in lieu of the theme.  While the theme was about public purpose, we were set up at The Gaylord National Harbor, which is like a cruise ship on land. D.C. shone like a faint beacon across the harbor. I’ve decided to take a more optimistic view of this. I hope it cements in our collective memory as a constant reminder of how, for too long, independent schools have detached themselves.
I appreciated the theme in that in reminds us of a question we always should be asking about education: To what end? I think that is especially important given that so many of our students will be blessed to have massive opportunities to make a difference in the world. Our type of schools can provide a strong academic preparation, but we can be particularly powerful in helping young people develop a sense of meaningful purpose.
·         The Need for Both IQ and EQ
Yes, no doubt—hasn’t this always been true? Maybe we’re simply becoming more aware. For me, the key is that we stop thinking of them as separate and consider how they intertwine. Let’s take the notion of innovative thinking, which most people agree is becoming more and more essential, perhaps even a core competency. To envision and create, the rational and intellectual surely matter. At the same time, we must be aware of what people want and what will resonate with them on a visceral level. Apple seems to have mastered this.
On a more individual level, this lies at the heart of the role diversity should play in education. Too often it’s reduced to demographics. But it has to be more than that. In a community that truly has embraced diversity, the unique experiences of an individual help to inform and educate others toward a deeper and wider perspective. Children need to ponder the wonder and complexity of the differences and similarities that make us uniquely and collectively human. Each child thus grows emotionally, spiritually, socially and intellectually, and is better prepared for the challenges of higher education, the workplace, and our increasingly connected and complex world.
·         The Importance of Choice
Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, gave a wonderful presentation on choice. I must read her book, The Art of Choosing. Her basic premise is that choice is always present and that leaders embrace that; in fact, leadership in many ways involves making a series of choices. The key is that we always have a choice, although we may not like the alternatives or consequences. Along with being judicious in making those choices, we should teach students this point. Too often people will resort to victimization or invoke a damning determinism. We can help students by empowering them through the amount and type of choice we allow them to have, then prompting guided reflection. That develops both the IQ and the EQ simultaneously.
·         The Elephant in the Room
Dan Heath, whose work I follow closely and have used extensively, gave a presentation on the basic principles from his book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. His controlling metaphor is the rider and the elephant. The rider is the rational side; the elephant is our emotional side. Heath put up a picture and asked rhetorically, “If these two get in a fight, who’s going to win?” We almost always appeal to the rational, but emotions usually determine our reaction. It’s quite easy to see how Heath’s point applies not just when it comes to change, but to most of our lives. In the classroom, we have to create safe, joyful atmospheres before we can reach the brain.
·         Power of the Visual
Perhaps because the past few years I’ve focused so much on developing my presentation skills, but this year seemed to highlight the power of the visual. Graphic artists captured so many of the large presentations in wonderful murals.  In those presentations many of the speakers used powerful graphics. Even Prof. Iyengar—it took me several minutes to recover from my shock that she is blind—used PowerPoint really effectively, with few words and strong images. One of the best sessions I attended was about effectively portraying key markers through compelling dashboards. I was reminded of Daniel Pink’s emphasis on design in A Whole New Mind. Again, we see that blending of IQ and EQ, perhaps with the latter being more important in that gut response.

Why are these my takeaways? I think it’s because of how they seemed to feed into each other (kudos to the planners!) But it’s also because of how they simultaneously fit into my philosophical framework but stretched it in some areas. When I condense these points into one big idea, I’d say they beg one giant question: How can independent schools continue to become more human and more humane?