Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gut Check

            Consider two people. First, think about someone in a typical student leadership positions—team captain, student council officer, et cetera. Now, think about a student who reaches out to the “weird new kid.” Who shows greater leadership? Who may grow up to become a stronger leader?[i]

Leadership is a hot topic right now, particularly in independent schools. Many schools have added leadership to their mission statements. It seems simple enough. After all, of course we want to foster leadership. And I believe that leadership can be developed in many ways. Plus I think everyone has opportunities to lead and must be ready to grasp them when they appear.
I appreciate all the traditional ways schools have helped students develop their leadership skills. Many schools have added special leadership programs; kids go off for special leadership experiences; and I’ve toyed with the idea of teaching an elective on leadership. Many such programs are excellent, and I’ve certainly grown through participating in some. Still, I feel we’re missing something.
I think about great leaders from history. (Rather than name them, I encourage you to create your own list.) I recall examples of truly inspired leadership shown by young people. They all have one common secret ingredient.
For kids to develop leadership, we have to allow them to face discomfort. Even more, to wrestle with big, hairy challenges. They must be able to stare at themselves in the mirror and promise themselves that they will do what is hard and uncomfortable and right. They have to grow more and more resilient.
Contrast this to another hot topic in schools—snowplow parents. Unlike helicopter parents, who hover and are ready to swoop whenever necessary, snowplow parents try to clear any obstacles from their child’s path. They jump out in front and smooth the way.
That leads to a logical question: How does a child learn to lead if he or she is always following?
The quick answer is that he or she can’t, except in theory. And in theory leadership can be taught. But in practice leadership is learned mainly by discovering what lies in one’s gut.

[i] The answer is, I think, “Depends.” Many factors could come into play here. I’ve seen fantastic student leadership in those positions, but also some poor leadership. Please understand I am not disparaging those roles. It’s just to start myself—and, I hope, you—thinking.

Friday, October 21, 2011

An Athletic Education

                Watching Game 2 of the World Series last night, I had one of those moments that reminded me why I love sports and their educational value.
                I think it was in the fifth inning. I say think because, despite the tension of the game, I was dozing off a bit. Suddenly there was the Rangers shortstop, Elvis Andrus, lunging full length at a sharp grounder straight up the field. He snared the ball, managed to prop himself up on his other elbow, and flipped the ball out of his glove towards second base. Second baseman Ian Kinsler arrived just in time—he had been shaded towards first base and thus had extra far to go—to catch the flip right before the runner arrived. Crisis averted. Without this play, the Rangers probably don’t win. (Amazingly, the defensive duo had pulled off a pretty sweet play to end the previous inning as well; it just wasn’t as spectacular.) I snapped wide awake.
                Let’s think about what qualities were captured in this play. There was pure athleticism on display. Both Andrus and Kinsler made great individual efforts. They reacted instinctively, and Andrus was amazingly innovative. At the same time, they had to collaborate in perfect sync. In those couple of seconds, we saw the result of thousands of hours of practice. Interestingly, in the past both players have been criticized at times for making too many errors, so they certainly have shown resilience. Andrus also put aside individual ego for the team. After game, when asked about the play, he said, “I always say when you're not hitting good, you better do something good defensively.” And he did get a key hit in the ninth inning rally.
                Certainly my experience playing soccer drilled into me the importance of these qualities. In fact, I think about the reasons I was drawn to the sport. First, I simply found it fun because it challenged me in ways no other sport did. Second, soccer provides ample room for tremendous individual creativity and flair within a strong team concept. One of my favorite players was Vladislav Bogicevic, a Yugoslavian who played for the New York Cosmos in their glory days. Bogie had magical skills and amazing vision. Rather than look to score, he continually tried to make the unexpected killer pass. He derived pleasure from untangling the knot and from making others look good. I found myself trying to play that way (admittedly, sometimes to my coaches’ consternation, when I would not take certain shots). Today, I frequently say most of the qualities that serve me well emerged during my soccer career.
                This notion calls to mind the story I once read about an upper-level math teacher’s response to the inevitable question, “When are we ever going to use this?” He told the students that they might have to, but they very well may not. Then he compared it to lifting weights as part of training for a sport or for better health. They weren’t, he explained, doing math for the sake of doing math. They really were pumping intellectual iron to strengthen themselves. The analogy works better than the response I’ve often given to that question: “You may, or you may not. But you want to be ready because you never know what life may throw at you.”
                All schools actually teach two curricula: the explicit and the implicit. The explicit is what you normally think of—the objectives, standards, content, skills, et cetera. The implicit curricula encompass all the other lessons that occur along the way, such as self-discipline and perseverance. Both certainly matter; and, structured well and intentionally, they feed each other in a virtuous circle. It can happen anywhere. I know people who talk about their theater experiences, for example, in the same way I talk about soccer. In fact, the implicit curricula is learned in very powerful, often longer-lasting ways than the explicit. I don’t recall much calculus, but I do remember the logical precision that Dr. Haytock required. And while my touch on the ball is now rather pathetic, I draw on other skills every day.

Friday, October 14, 2011

How Time Flies!

            A few days ago a post appeared on the Fast Company blog that made me think, “Wow! I want one of those gadgets. In fact, I want one for every classroom. I want one in my house. I think every family needs one."
No, it’s not some super-cool tablet that will replace the iPad. It’s not a robot that will do routine chores. It’s a clock. A clock that takes a full year to complete its cycle: “This Seasonal Clock Will Keep You thinking About the Present.”
            In many ways time is a form of currency. How we spend it sends signals about our priorities, and we never seem to have enough of it. We often say that we didn’t get something done because we ran out of time; what we’ve really done is choose to use that time doing something else. We all have 24 hours in a day, although our ultimate amount of mortal time obviously varies. And when we do toss off that mortal coil, how do we want the epitaph to read—“He simply ran out of time” or “He made the most of it, and it mattered”?
            That’s pretty big picture. As the article points out, “our obsession with small increments of time often keeps us from focusing on the bigger picture.” This manifests itself in some obvious ways in education. Curricula is organized into discrete units, usually with a defined time frame and marked by a test at the end. Add enough of those and it’s suddenly time for a “final” exam. Seat time becomes a key measurement of assumed progress. Grade levels and divisional organizations become major transitions, like flipping months on a calendar and then buying a new one (a metaphor becoming rapidly obsolete, but that’s another post). Teachers fret about having to make sure students are ready for the next level. A student having to apply to another school in 4th or 8th or 12th grade imposes another deadline.
            The problem with all this? Too often we feel that we have to finish kids. And we often want it to happen on our timetable, not theirs. Plus it should come with a certain payoff.
            Such an approach is not a healthy one for children, particularly when it comes to their long-term development. It fosters a product-focused orientation, one in which a certain result takes on too great an importance and becomes a measure of self-worth.  That can obscure what led to the result, which is what really needs to be examined for growth to occur. Similarly, struggles become “catastrophic” and provoke finger-pointing rather than reflection and lessons in determination and resilience. It undermines natural inclinations to love learning for its own sake. (Read more about this in an earlier post on Carole Dweck’s Mindset.)
            What are the not-so-long-term effects of this? Recently National Association of Independent Schools president Pat Bassett was part of a panel with the president of Georgetown, the president of Stanford, the dean of the faculty of Arts & Science at Harvard, and the Director of the Initiative for Innovation in Engineering Education at Olin College. Afterwards, Bassett wrote on his blog:
The university leaders also confirmed with what a professor at Harvard told me last year, that 30–40 percent of the undergrads are on anti-depressants, and 10 percent of girls suffered from eating disorders. While the university leaders were quick to point out that their universities were mirroring national data, it is particularly interesting to me that the students at these colleges had already “won the lottery” by matriculating at places that were nearly impossible to get into for mere mortals, and yet so many were still stressed beyond belief and needing medication (prescribed or, probably in much larger numbers, self-medicating — see the next bullet point).

Footnote to “success-driven parents and college counselors”: beware of what you wish for: What we actually do well is place students in the “best match” college, where they will be successful and can pursue interests that will keep them engaged and balanced.(
In The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, educational psychologist William Damon cites a meta-analytic study of college students which points out that 45% of them show serious signs of depression. Per that same study, only 20% could be called “truly purposeful.” The rest possess a “foggy self-identity” and can see only the short term rather than have long-term aspirations. I can’t help but believe that this is caused in part by children feeling rushed and thus pressured at younger and younger ages.
            Helping young people remain life-long learners has longer term benefits. Particularly in this day and age, when so much changes in a constant swirl, people have to be able to react and adapt and evolve, and quickly. It’s also a matter of long-term health and quality of life.  In A User’s Guide to the Brain, Dr. John Ratey talks about the nuns of Mankato. Many live into their nineties and even past one hundred; on average they live much longer than the general public. They also show far fewer cases of all mental and neurological diseases. Why? It’s not just living in a convent and perhaps escaping many of life’s stressors. The nuns vigorously play intellectual games, engage in debates, and earn advanced degrees. Many of the nuns donated their brains to science, and examination revealed unusually great dendritic growth. The brains of those nuns who were more intellectually engaged showed more growth than others. The implication, as Ratey explains:

Like the nuns of Mankato, if you constantly challenge your brain to learn new things, you may develop more neural connections that help you delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, recover from a stroke, and live a longer life. And your life will be more interesting. It’s never too late to start: studies show that the adult cortex retains its basic plasticity. You can indeed teach an old dog new tricks. (364)

That depends largely on how we nurture our pups and make sure they get what they need when young. As a former colleague of mine is fond of saying, “It’s easier to build children than to repair adults.”
            It’s a tremendous challenge to keep the long view in mind. We want the best for our children, and in this hyper-competitive world we fear their falling behind in the race to whatever goal. Life comes with certain realities, including deadlines. Sometimes I watch both the children here and my own kids and feel as if I’m holding a stopwatch, ready to click the buttons as milestones are passed. I can grow impatient; I think, “Shouldn’t you be able to do this by now?!?” I have to take a deep breath. I remind myself of what really matters. And I realize that I need to trade the stopwatch for one of these new clocks.

Friday, October 7, 2011

I Take the Challenge

                About two weeks ago, I posted a challenge.  I asked readers to complete the phrase “School as a ___.” I would then have the challenge of completing a “meditation” explaining the completed phrase.
                There were several strong suggestions, and I would have found any of them fertile ground. But “crucible” both struck me as most interesting and received two votes…so “School as a Crucible” it is.
                Before I launch into this, I need to make a disclaimer. As this is a “meditation,” I’m really figuring this out as I write after having done just a bit of poking around the Internet and thinking. It isn’t thoroughly edited and polished. Apologies for that!

School as a Crucible
School as a crucible: a sturdy container in which the contents are challenged, altered, and fused to create beauty, strength, and resilience. (Kara Name’s comment on the post posing the challenge)
The crucible has always been a melting pot for valuable materials, the origin of new alloys, materials of innovation. How should the post-industrial Crucible melt and blend ideas? (from the website of Crucible: Research in Interdisciplinary Design)

Kara’s quotation defines a crucible. While the basic purpose of a crucible has remained the same, they actually have a rich history. The first ones date from the sixth/fifth millennium in Eastern Europe and Iran. You can follow their development in terms of composition and specific purpose through the Iron Age and Roman Era and Medieval Period right into current days. (If you’re really interested, click here.) Of course, the advances have appeared more rapidly as science and technologies have improved. In a way, the history of the crucible could become metaphorical for the history of modern human development in some ways. Certainly you could draw enough lines to branch into multiple areas.
So here I will draw my first one to school—the really big one. How we educate our children—the whole system of education—really follows this same pattern. Particularly now, science and technology have started having an enormous impact on the possibilities within education. We know more and more about the human brain, which promotes a new form of cognitive science far removed from simple behaviorism and rote learning. Technology has shifted humans from pure consumers of information to creators and collaborators, and great schools are preparing them for that role. In less grandiose terms, think about the time-honored research paper. The process and preparation of the final product will never again rely on index cards. We may even have to scrap using the word paper. Research project, perhaps? Why not a multimedia presentation on…?
But that doesn’t really capture school as a crucible. Consider it context, and it becomes relevant.
 Just as the basic purpose of a crucible has not changed, the basic purposes of education have not really changed even if curricula, settings, approaches, et cetera have. A crucible takes materials and breaks them down. They are then often recombined to form something new and better. Education is not just about giving students knowledge and equipping them with skills. Often it involves breaking down their assumptions and misunderstandings; then the effective teacher helps a student reconstruct the new points into greater understanding. That’s the Socratic method in a nutshell.
                The process, of course, involves both science and art. There are objectives and measurements and certain set processes. Formulae must be followed along the path to higher levels, i.e. drill your math facts so you can do algebra without having to think about basic computation. That’s all scientific to a degree. The art comes in when the teacher heats the crucible. Keep the flame too low and the right challenge isn’t there. Overheat things and the stress impedes the desired learning.  One has to add just the right elements to the mix. That becomes more like my grandmother making chicken soup than any recipe.
Interestingly, I see some of the other ways in which the word crucible has been used fitting in with the metaphor. Crucible: Research in Interdisciplinary Design ( the Cambridge, England-based group cited in the second quotation at the start) focuses on interdisciplinary education. This approach breaks down the traditional academic disciplines in the hopes of forging new understandings. We hope that students do this, but I suspect it occurs mainly when we rearrange programs for this express purpose. Crucible is the name of software used for the peer review of computer code. This approach harnesses the power of collaboration, a method that draws on each person’s respective strengths and allows him or her to learn through the process. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as a commentary on McCarthyism, but one could also see it as a story of adolescent rebellion against adult repression.
Finally, the crucible is the last stage of recruit training for the U.S. Marines—when a Marine has to draw on all the knowledge and skills gained during boot camp. Some of you may recall this commercial for the Marines that highlights a glimmering sword being forged.

In the really big picture, that best captures school as a crucible. Early on, a student enters the crucible. For the next number of years, myriad experiences are added to the combustion. When all the factors combine correctly, the student emerges not as something new, but as an improved version of him- or herself.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Taming My Lizard Brain: An Unforeseen Lesson from Blogging

                Renowned business writer and marketing expert Seth Godin frequently writes about the “need to ship.” To oversimplify, per Godin you can have all the great ideas you want; but unless you ship, they don’t really matter. In other words, you have to deliver the product. Literal in certain areas, the idea of shipping becomes a metaphor for just about any endeavor. When people don’t ship, says Godin, it’s frequently because their “lizard brain” takes over. This is the brain stem, the reptillian base of our brains, and we react in the simplest possible fashion and allow the fear to take over. If we could, we’d drop our tails and flee.
                Writing this blog, I feel real pressure to ship at least once per week. As someone pointed out to me, “You create a monster; then you have to feed it.” At first this was easy: I was new to my school, wanted people to learn about me and my ideas, had plenty to say. It was purely rational, grounded in my cerebral cortex. Now, shipping has become harder. I find myself asking questions that, while logical, still drip with juices of the lizard brain. What am I going to say this week? Haven’t I already written about that? Is this worth posting on? What are people thinking about my posts? Have I gone too far in some of my points and overly offended someone? Would anyone notice if I didn’t post for a while? If I stopped posting at all? Why isn’t my mind working the way I want it to? When did I forget how to write? How in the world does Godin manage to post every single day, and it’s almost always great?
                Suddenly I think about students, and the dominant emotion turns to empathy. We demand that they ship, on time and at a high rate of production. Some of the work is fairly mechanical, and students can simply churn out the product. But the really important higher-level stuff such as creation, analysis, synthesis? We bring kids along so that they can do that sort of work, and they often do it surprisingly well for their respective ages. At any level such work takes time and space for reflection, yet we keep kids hopping. I have to wonder how this affects deep, long-term learning.
Consider the demands of a school day for a developing child. (I’ve shadowed kids in various grades for a day, and it’s exhausting.) Now imagine that you have to go home and have products ready for the next day.  Meanwhile, the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex don’t fully mature until the late teens and early twenties. All told, it’s rather amazing how well kids can keep the lizard brain at bay.
Another blog post seems a bit less daunting.