Sunday, January 30, 2011

On Your Mark! Get Set!...

                Henry David Thoreau explains towards the beginning of Walden,

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise [sic] resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Why did Thoreau begin his little experiment? He had a pretty wide streak of civil disobedience running through him, but he wasn’t anti-social. In fact, while he craved solitude, he also welcomed many visitors to his humble pond-side abode. The reason was quite simple. His friend Ellery Channing told Thoreau  that to fulfill his intellectual potential, he should build himself a remote hut where he could concentrate. It seems that the hectic pace of life in bustling Concord, Mass, had become too distracting for Master Thoreau.
                Imagine if he were suddenly transported to America 2011. I suspect old Hank would understand quickly why we’re sponsoring a screening of Race to Nowhere.
                I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ve heard about it for quite a while. As I’ve stated directly and suggested many times in this blog and elsewhere, I’m very worried about the demands placed on kids and the pressure they feel to achieve. I’ve explained it as a non-virtuous circle:

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... ( )

Rationally, we know this is happening and that it’s not ideal. But—I speak as both educator and parent—emotions (mainly fear, I suspect) and current realities keep us from breaking that cycle. The discussions after the film should prove fascinating and, I hope, empowering.
                The film’s title evokes two metaphors people like to use when talking about rearing children, education, self-discovery, life. Both are clichés, but clichés become such because they ring with some essential truth we all can grasp. The first: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Definitely. Besides appreciating the typical idea behind this, I also like it because so many people train for a marathon not as a race but as a personal challenge. The second: the idea of a journey.

                It prompts me to remember a book that I had not thought about for many years: William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey Into America. On old-fashioned road maps, the interstates that we hurtle along are marked in red. Blue highways are the roads which have been supplanted by the interstates and throughways. They meander along the natural terrain rather than slice through it. Suddenly they enter small towns which struggle to remain isolated. Newly divorced and having lost his teaching job, Heat Moon outfitted a van and set off to explore America via only blue highways. In offbeat places he encounters even more offbeat characters. Of course, Heat Moon also has many personal revelations about himself and human nature:

What is it in man that for a long while lies unknown and unseen only one day to emerge and push him into a new land of the eye, a new region of the mind, a place he has never dreamed of? Maybe it's like the force in spores lying quietly under asphalt until the day they push a soft, bulbous mushroom head right through the pavement. There's nothing you can do to stop it.
Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for a while. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more.

It’s reminiscent of that innocent time when a bug on the sidewalk or interesting cloud would launch a spectrum of musing. Significantly, while Heat Moon has a rough plan for his journey—to circle America—he remains open to various detours, switchbacks, and random jags. He learns to trust in a mix of instinct and serendipity, to revel in wherever the road may lead. As one reviewer noted, “It's a contention of Heat Moon's—believing as he does any traveler who misses the journey misses about all he's going to get—that a man becomes his attentions. His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him.” Over time it becomes the slow process of self-discovery.
                Heat Moon has a bravado and courage about venturing into these unknown places. This grows throughout his travels, and he becomes particularly fond of his slowed pace across the blue highways. Indeed, the only times he seems at all jolted occur when he is somehow forced back onto interstates.
                I imagine that, while he was traversing the United States, Heat Moon realized the same idea penned by Thoreau in his little cabin, from which he seldom ventured more than a mile:

I have learned, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

Otherwise, life really does become a race to nowhere.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Not by Book or by Nook, but by…

            In a previous post titled “Reading—By Book or by Nook or By..?”, I wrote about my not owning an e-reader. I had some good reasons. Note the verb tense. I had good reasons. Now I am the owner of a latest generation Kindle.
            While some of the concerns remain, one simple factor influenced the decision. My book bill. I realized that I could pay for the device rather quickly just in what I would save by purchasing e-editions. I also like the idea of being able to have numerous books with me at once. Wanting a book and having it in seconds is awesome. It’s light and easier to hold open in various positions than a regular book. Only one hand is needed, making it easier to pet the cat or sip on some coffee. The biggest perk may be not needing my glasses. I love my Kindle so much that I even bought it a nice protective case.
            The first book I read on it is Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. This book grew out of Carr’s widely-read essay from the Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (What can I say? I appreciate irony.) Carr makes an impassioned and logical argument based on neuro-plasticity and how we use the Internet. To perhaps oversimplify, Carr posits that the frenzied pace of Internet use and our so easily being tempted by distraction are changing our synapses and brain structures in undesirable fashion. The upshot? We are losing the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time and to probe ideas in sufficient depth.
            I don’t doubt Carr’s points, and I certainly share some of his concerns. No, this isn’t going to become one of those “kids today” gripes. In fact, in some ways it is the opposite. Yes, in some ways we clearly are changing. We may be in some others. At the same time I would argue that they are changes that, while perhaps not desirable, are borne of human desire. People are novelty-seeking creatures, and we like to reach quick conclusions based on scant evidence. Is that good? Not really. But it’s true. I think that Carr ignores that more people have long been drawn to light best sellers than scientific-philosophical treatises such as his. After some initial success, Herman Melville was dismissed as a “lunatic” and Moby-Dick basically ignored.
            Besides, when the earliest books first appeared, Socrates and his pals bemoaned the havoc they would wreak on human culture. Our individual and collective memory would be wiped out like a magnetized floppy disk. Throughout history similar doom criers have predicted dire catastrophe due to some human folly.
            As an educator, I find perhaps the most alarming part of Carr’s theory the evidence that academic scholarship shows signs of the shallowness he sees developing. For instance, the same references are showing up in a wider variety of papers on any given topic, a suggestion of people relying on search engines. So the problem may be affecting even those innately drawn to more intellectual pursuits.
            And therein lies the rub. I’m fairly judicious when doing on-line research. When using my Kindle, I’ve actually found myself being more thoughtful. Annotation takes a bit more effort, so I find myself underlining less but writing better notes. I actually find myself reading a bit more slowly, perhaps because less appears on the screen at a time. I don’t feel as pulled along by the following text.
            At the same time, of course I worry about young people growing up in the on-line world and all that that implies. I ponder how it affects all of us—individually and collectively. We can wax nostalgic all we want. But we’re not going to stop, and probably not even slow, the worlds’ accelerating rate of change. It doesn’t alter the eternal challenge educators face to engage young people in the life of the mind. It simply means that we have to rethink how to do it in the difficulties of the current context. And shouldn’t we always be rethinking education in that fashion?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Talent and Learning to Be

In a recent post I wrote that education is the process of “learning to be. It’s an enculturation as we slowly grasp how things operate within communities of practice. In time we discover ourselves and our place within those communities.” (Read the entire post here.) This development is crucial as a young person discovers her or his talent(s) on the path to maximizing the potential within.
Recently I read Marcus Buckingham’s First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. It’s essentially a meta-analysis of The Gallup Organization’s interviews of over 80,000 managers in over 400 companies. The book stresses many points which counter common thinking and practice. For instance, Buckingham says that a great manager does not treat everyone the same.
In a rather obvious point, Buckingham talks about how one of a great manager’s most important roles is identifying and nurturing talent. Synthesizing various responses, he offers a definition of talent as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied” (71). The initial obviousness of this echoes Ken Robinson’s definition of creativity: “coming up with original ideas that have value.” Both are simple on the surface, but they can become quite complex as you begin unpacking the implications.
Things become more interesting when Buckingham breaks this generalization into three subsets:

·        Striving talents explain the why of a person.” Where does a person draw motivation? What urges drive him on? What is her passion?
·        Thinking talents explain the how of a person.” What are her thought processes? How does he make a decision?
·        Relating talents explain the who of a person.” How do people interact and relate with each other? What ingredients from the foundation of trust? (85)

Consider the implications of this. Within any single individual, they are complicated. Throw another person into the mix.  Imagine a classroom full of young people just beginning to learn about themselves, let alone develop a sense of empathy. At the most basic level, as Buckingham points out, it’s “why any one type of education is doomed to fail” (115).  It’s why a great manager does not treat everyone the same.
            Along the same vein, education is not really about what is taught. It’s about what is learned.  Yes, certain curricula—both content and skills—are essential. But learning about one’s talents is what truly matters. The greatest educators understand that, per Buckingham, “Self-discovery is the guiding force for a healthy career” (194). I would add, a healthy life.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Shameless Self-Promotion

Please forgive the self-promotion, but I want to share some exciting news about the To Keep Things Whole blog. It’s just received two significant honors:
·         It’s been included in..told in Feb 2013 to remove the reference and link because of a conflict the spnsor has with Google. Oh well.
I share this news because I’m very proud, especially since the blog  launched just this past September. I need to give a special thank you to Pam Jordan, our Director of Communication, who conceived of and designed the blog. Thanks also to the readers who have provided such positive feedback and helped to spread the word.
I also share it so that you can follow the links to the lists. If you like what you read on this blog, you can find some other similar ones. Several on the list are on my blog roll, but I also found some new ones to test read.
One of the goals is to help more people become aware of what a special school I am privileged to serve as head. The readership is growing—in Dallas, throughout the United States, and around the world. At St. John’s we ponder some of the most essential questions related to education everywhere.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Mere Pocket Change

                Maybe I have some readers in places that I didn’t realize. In my previous post (“With Apologies to Dickens…”) I wrote:
It’s also encouraging that education seems to be heavily at the forefront of a national conversation. In just the past couple of years, several national magazines have featured cover stories on education. And they haven’t been just the usual “America if falling dangerously behind” pieces. Instead, they have talked about redesigning schools, teacher quality, modern curricula, and other crucial topics.
                The worst? It’s that so many of those conversations lead to most people suggesting the same misguided solutions to various issues. All the solutions somehow seem to involve “raising standards”—be it for schools or teachers or students. Please understand that I’m not against standards. Certainly they should be high. I’m just not sure how they really work as a solution.
Then on Wednesday this article showed up on the blog: “How to Spend $100 Million to Really Save Education.” While I wish I could take credit for the topic, it’s prompted, of course, by Mark Zuckerberg’s gift to the city of Newark, New Jersey, to overhaul its school system. I am gratified to see that the author echoes my concerns in that Zuckerberg is following the standard thinking about improved education. It’s particularly disappointing that this comes from a guy who helped kickstart a social revolution from his dorm room.
To provide some fresh ideas, Fast Company asked 13 “edu-experts” for a radical idea on how they would spend $100 million to save education. I’m not going to go into any of them here. You can read them yourself if you follow the link to the article. Plus I don’t want to cloud your thinking before you share your ideas.
So how would you spend that $100 million to save education? (And if you really do happen to have it lying around and need a good cause, let’s visit!)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

With Apologies to Dickens...

            It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. That is how I look at the past decade when it comes to education.
            While it remains to be seen how things play out, rapid developments in two areas seem particularly promising. Technology, provided that we harness its potential in ways that allow us to highlight and develop our best selves, places greater emphasis on the role of the learner. Similarly, it makes a much more compelling argument for project-based learning. The key measure is what one could do. The second is neuroscience. Aided by new technologies, we are rapidly discovering more and more about how the brain functions. But just as we must not become overly enamored of the Internet as a massive database, we must be leery of cognitive science, which analogizes the brain to a computer. The mind and all its glories remain mysterious.
            It’s also encouraging that education seems to be heavily at the forefront of a national conversation. In just the past couple of years, several national magazines have featured cover stories on education. And they haven’t been just the usual “America if falling dangerously behind” pieces. Instead, they have talked about redesigning schools, teacher quality, modern curricula, and other crucial topics.
            The worst? It’s that so many of those conversations lead to most people suggesting the same misguided solutions to various issues. All the solutions somehow seem to involve “raising standards”—be it for schools or teachers or students. Please understand that I’m not against standards. Certainly they should be high. I’m just not sure how they really work as a solution. A couple of years ago several politicians proposed firing all the poor performing teachers. Obviously we don’t want bad teachers. But how will they be identified? More importantly, who would replace them? Any guarantee they would be any better given the challenges?
            I’m not sure at whom I should rant about this. Maybe Frederick Taylor and his whole notion of scientific management. But we seem to have this notion that education can somehow be mechanized to ensure quality. Six-step lesson plans, teacher-proof curricula, computer-assisted instruction—each was/is supposed to be the silver bullet.
            In these discussions, we have to keep one immutable fact at the forefront: education is a human endeavor. That means it is going to be messy. It’s about figuring out what kids need, collectively and individually. It’s about teachers figuring out how to give of themselves in a way that serves those kids’ needs. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. In The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown makes a crucial statement about the idea of micromanaging education: “If every detail of a student’s learning were held to public account, a lot of valuable experimentation and improvisation would probably disappear” (217).
            One of my soccer coaches used to move us all over the field, having us play in different positions. Even our formations changed regularly. Often we would grow frustrated, unsure of our roles. This would go on throughout most of the season, until we developed a sense of cohesion that came with having a much deeper sense of the sport. We learned intricacies and nuances of the game that eluded others. It helped many of us play at higher levels and coach. I now parrot one of the coach’s favorite sayings whenever we expressed our aggravation: “Sometimes you have to make a real mess in the kitchen when you’re baking a delicious cake.”
            While it serves many purposes, the process of learning is the process of learning to be. It’s an enculturation as we slowly grasp how things operate within communities of practice. In time we discover ourselves and our place within those communities.