Sunday, February 27, 2011

An Ethical Dilemma

            Let me tell you a story. I’ll call the main character boy child. (It’s a true story, so as you would expect, the names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.) He’s a delectable mess in that special way of a fifth grade boy. At the same time, his struggle captures an essential dilemma for many students.

            Boy child walks into his parents’ bedroom right before dinner, and he’s lacking his usual bounce. With a truly perplexed look, he shares, “I’m not sure I made the right decision about something today.”
            Alarmed but feigning calm, the parents ask, “What’s that, bud?”
            Boy child goes on to explain the he had received back a quiz that day. It was in an area in which he had been struggling, but he had worked extra hard to be ready for this quiz. “I made a 97, but I could have had a 100. I saw that Mr. Teacher had made a mistake and I told him, so I lost those three points. I’m not sure that was the right thing to do.”
            Relieved parents hug boy child extra hard, tell him it definitely was the right thing to do, and let him know how proud they are of him for every part of this story. Boy child bounces extra high on his way out of the room.

There are so many wonderful aspects to this story. It captures the emergence of a young person’s ability to grapple with abstractions and moral constructs. For boy child, this marks a defining moment in his identifying how he wants to lead his own life. He receives affirmation of  all his positive decisions.
            The story also raises some obvious questions: What do you think of boy child’s actions? What about the parents? What about the teacher? What would you have done if you were any of those people? Those apply to any ethical dilemma.
            When you broaden the focus, the story begs another huge question: What does it say about our educational system and our culture and our parenting that a student faces such a struggle over a mere three points?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mr. Zuckerberg, Here's What You Get for That $100 Million

            As many here at the NAIS conference have commented, we find it ironic that we are ensconced in the Gaylord National Conference Center when the theme is “Advancing the Public Purpose.” It’s a sterile, artificial environment fairly removed from D.C. itself, which tempts us from across the harbor. I draw some hope, however, from the fact that less than a decade ago this land was a wasteland surround by urban decay.
            I draw less hope from some follow-up news regarding something I posted about several weeks ago: Mark Zuckerberg’s donation of $100 million dollars to improve the Newark, New Jersey, public schools. The good news: they have managed to double the money by finding some other sources. The bad news: how the money is being used. They are asking people what they want, preparing a report of the findings, and finding a new superintendent. What actions do they expect to take? School choice, principal empowerment, accountability—the same old, same old. If you want, you can read the article here. But I warn you that I found it rather depressing.
            I really don’t mean to be casting stones. I can’t imagine trying to solve the problems in a public school district like Newark’s, which has a graduation rate around 22%. Educators there face all the challenges we associate with a large public school system in a depressed urban area. Besides that, they have chosen to have twice the number of administrators per students than the state average. Also, while $200 million is a great deal of money, when spread over five years it’s not much considering the annual budget is $470 million.
            At the same time, I have to question how Newark is spending the money. And I have to wonder what Zuckerberg is thinking, given his ultimate goal of using his creation to change the world in positive fashion. After all, what’s Einstein’s definition of insanity?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Righting Wrongs

            “I was wrong.”
            We don’t hear that statement very often. At least not that directly. Sometimes it comes veiled in a superficial or automatic apology, or supplemented by rationalization. Even those brave enough to say it often give a shrug of the shoulders, faces red with embarrassment. So when we hear someone say this with a genuine ownership, it jars us. We’re taken aback, disarmed in whatever may have been the disagreement. We forgive the other person. We even develop greater respect for her or him. “I was wrong” is a powerful statement.
            So why do we have such problems with being wrong and accepting it?
            I recently started reading Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. I’m not far into it—perhaps 25%. It’s a fascinating book, a wonderful mix of far-reaching epistemology and cultural history with wonderful current references and humor. It’s also a slow book in the best sense: I find myself stopping rather frequently because I have to rethink some ideas I’ve held as the answers to this question. This post will synthesize some of Schulz‘s general points and my own, as they are aligning in some key ways.
            Human beings like to be right. It seems part of our DNA. From little kids raising their hands and shouting, “Ooh! I know!” to politicians filibustering on Capitol Hill, we want people to know that we know. I want you to read this blog and believe I have some secret understanding you might be able to grasp. Such is the human ego’s hunger for fulfillment. Conversely, there is the human fear of rejection—not just for being wrong, but even for disagreeing with the norm. Comfort comes with being right; we feel affirmed as part of a community of believers. If we were unable to live with the confidence that we are right about most things, we would become paralyzed with doubt, like a modern Hamlet questioning our own existence and unable to act.
            Too much certainty clearly produces problems. Few of us like a know-it-all, particularly one who might rub it in our faces. Smugness and arrogance hold little appeal. At worst, certainty becomes zealotry. Schulz illustrates how this leads to a purely binary view of the world, with something being either right or wrong. Taken to an extreme, this zealotry becomes the sort of fanaticism associated with Nazis or the Taliban. “Rightness” then takes on moral overtones and fuels the imperative to wipe out “wrongness.”
            While the above is dramatic, in our daily lives this can have severe consequences. My favorite line from Schulz’s book thus far: “…certainty is lethal to two of our most redeeming and humane qualities, imagination and empathy” (Note Loc 2644, Kindle edition). Imagination—as reflected in human creativity in every sense--is perhaps the most vital quality behind human progress. Without it, we would see no possibility other than that which has been “known.” To use Sir Ken Robinson’s quip in making this point, “Without human creativity, you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Largely because you wouldn’t have a bed to get out of.” As for humans having less empathy, aren’t our relationships already complicated enough?
            We also like to be right because our educational systems stress that more than anything else. Curricula have long been structured around content, and mastery is measured by the percentage of items answered “correctly.” Standardized tests are accepted as signs of intelligence and knowledge. (A relevant aside: I remember even as a child looking at multiple choice and true-false items and thinking, “Well, sometimes, but what about..?”) Essay writing is often reduced to following a formula, yet the five-paragraph essay seldom appears outside school. We have moved far from the roots of the genre, the very name of which denotes an attempt to understand.
            Therein lies the real challenge that schools have to embrace. We have to help young people realize that they don’t know, but that they believe. And that that’s okay. We don’t want cynicism or nihilism, but we should nurture healthy skepticism. We can foster the attitude that power does not come from pure knowledge. Instead, power comes from knowing what and how to question. It’s all about the ongoing struggle to understand. To move closer to possibly being right, we first must be able to say, “I was wrong.”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Polishing Up on The Golden Rule

            At least on paper, the Golden Rule is wonderfully simple: Treat others as you would like them to treat you. I’ve been thinking about this maxim quite a bit lately, mainly because we have been working through The Sermon on the Mount in our daily chapel services. Many cultures throughout history have had some version of the Golden Rule, all grouped under the philosophical construct called The Ethic of Reciprocity. It’s a clear enough directive, and it should be easy to follow. That’s why teachers so often invoke some variation of it when creating their classroom culture. Of course, human nature interferes with the execution. And that’s why, as is usually the case with any of Jesus’ teaching (even if this sermon is more direct than most, at least on the surface), some key points remain unsaid.
            The grammatical structure of the rule puts the onus on the subject. You. As Tom Peters points out, “The thing about the Golden Rule is, the first move is yours.” In every encounter you can set the tone; you can determine the level of discourse. You can attempt to make every encounter as positive as possible in the circumstances.
            Achieving this necessitates an addition to the Golden Rule. It has to be more than treating others as you would like to be treated. Think about how you would like to be treated if you were the other person in that particular situation. Otherwise, it verges on narcissism. Mastering the Golden Rule requires empathy.
            Schools have ever-expanding curricula to deliver, each program being vital to a young person’s holistic development. We’re demanding that kids achieve more at younger ages. At the same time, we must not forget that education must remain a human—and, I hope, humane—endeavor. Otherwise, we risk creating a generation who, to use one of my wife’s favorite sayings, may make straight As and flunk life.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Skidding Out

            Last Saturday, having been cooped up four days because of a freak ice storm in Dallas, I ventured to the grocery store. The street from my neighborhood to the main thoroughfare is entirely shaded, so it remained a solid sheet of ice. As I waited to turn onto it, a woman drove by—talking on her phone. My daughter and I made some appropriately disparaging comments about the woman’s intelligence, and I made sure to keep an even larger distance behind her car. Sure enough, as the woman approached the intersection, she hit the brakes too late and too hard. She skidded into the road and narrowly missed being broadsided.
            The next day in the “Community Opinions” section, The Dallas Morning News had a point-counterpoint section entitled “Driven to distraction?” Elizabeth Suggs argues that one should “embrace the clutter that Facebook and other luxuries bring to your life.” Towards the end she writes,

...We’ve turned a lot of weird little ‘wants’ into ‘needs’ in modern society.
            Take me, for example. While writing this column, I have checked my e-mail no less than 15 times. I’ve checked Facebook twice. I’ve listened to my iTunes on shuffle nonstop.
            So when you read this column, if it seems scatter-brained, blame it on my media. But don’t blame me. I have to partake in these daily luxuries. They’re just as essential to me as my daily coffee and my TiVo queue. (Full column)

Contrast this to how Brynne Sissom begins her column:

As an author, I have been seeking better means to a better experience of writing and as a human being, a life better-lived. I found part of an answer when I read a review last autumn of Jonathan Franzen’s book, Freedom. The review’s photographs of his very bare writing room moved me. It was empty of books and research paperwork. It appeared that little or nothing was on the wall. You could liken his writing room to a cell, except that it was plenty big enough to walk around in. His computer wasn’t connected to the Internet. (Full column)

Sissom goes on to explain how much better life has been—professionally and personally—since she disconnected.
            I’ve written about this before, in a post entitled “To Screen or not to Screen.” My final point in the column had to do with the development of an inner self. These two columns have prompted me to explore that idea a bit further.
            Granted, both Suggs and Sissom represent the extremes in connectivity. The former is hyper-connected; the latter, non-connected. I don’t really see either as the issue. What strikes me as truly worrisome is that both cede personal control and ultimate responsibility. For example, Suggs is the author of the piece but we’re not not to blame her if the piece seems scatterbrained? I’d like to think I were missing some sarcasm. Sissom reminds me of Seth Godin’s refrain that people find all kinds of reasons “not to ship.”
            It’s become all too easy for us to deify technology and ascribe it superpowers. But ultimately it’s just a tool, and how it’s used is a human decision. A pen can form the characters of a love letter or hate mail. The printing press has mass produced religious works, political tracts of every persuasion, and smut. On just about any issue, we blame media so easily that I think we forget that we can make up our own minds. This mindset also ignores the fact that media caters to our desires. It reminds me of along-in-office politicians who slam governmental gridlock as the reason things don’t done.
            In any arena, how we act is up to us. We decide how we want to harness the power of technology. We can use it for great growth and communal knowledge, or we can watch hours of silly videos and check inane tweets the second they pop up. It’s about exercising our own self-discipline, depth, and integrity. (If you want some great suggestions on how to do so, read this.)
            We also have to make sure we’re teaching our children this larger lesson. Education can’t just be about content or skills. It’s not about how to use technology. It’s not about behaving in a connected and/or virtual community. Education has to be about learning how to live a meaningful, purposeful life in any circumstances. Forgot that, and we shouldn’t be surprised when we see kids skidding dangerously on some ice.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Educational Fomentation

            For the past ten years or so, educational revolutionaries have relied on what seems an obvious truth: “The Internet changes everything!” For the ten years before that, technology in general.
            It really hasn’t, at least not in some very fundamental ways. That’s where most of these reformers miss the point in how to bring about what is desirable transformation. So to any educational reformers who happen to be reading, consider this free, friendly advice.

Rethink the attitude.
            Many reformers become revolutionary zealots who tend to process issues in binary code: Teachers who do this or that are great; those who don’t must be trained (like dogs) and adapt or be fired. They present points with a smugness that implies they pity anyone who just can’t get it. When pushed, they express disbelief that someone might not see this as clearly as they do. Also, people don’t particularly like dramatic change, particularly when told it’s necessary because they are doing things wrong. However, they often embrace a larger compelling purpose. Towards that end, encouragement trumps disparagement. Instead of daring people to leap off cliffs, help them take small steps. Recently Doug Johnson wrote about just this idea on his Blue Skunk Bog.

Rethink the logic.
            The usual argument goes this way: The world is changing in accelerating fashion; we have no way to know what the next few years will bring, let alone the next few decades. No question...but then the logic disintegrates. The reformer will invoke trends and futurists, proceeding to tell us what people will need in that unpredictable future.
Rethink the basic argument.
            Yes, digital technology has destabilized human culture. But the skills that reformers stress have long been basic facets of humanity. Indeed, they have been crucial to our very humanness.

·         Critical Thinking Skills. Weren’t these at the heart of Plato’s Dialogues? Wasn’t Jesus prompting these in his enigmatic preaching? John Dewey believed his practical philosophy of education should lead to social reform, a process that necessitates critical thinking. Art Costa has been writing about Habits of Mind—mental qualities necessary for critical thinking—since at least the early 1990s.

·         Creativity. Artistic and Intellectual. From at least the earliest cave paintings, people have used art to express the story of humanity. Our ability to use language is tied to our conception of tools, a merging of both types of creativity. The inventions that have sparked historical change—writing, clock, printing press, steam engine, microprocessor—are dramatic examples of how creativity has driven human progress.

·         Information Gathering. From the Royal Library in Ancient Alexandria to the U.S. Library of Congress, from the Capitoline Museums to the Smithsonian, we have a long history of creating glorious edifices to house and organize our collective knowledge. We do this because of our innate desire to learn. Nothing seems more natural than small children asking endless questions about everything they encounter.

·         Social Connectivity. The salons of Europe, coffeehouses of the 1950s and 1960s, the marketplaces of Ancient Greece and Modern Africa, neighbors chatting over the fence—we are social creatures interested in each other.

·         Collaborations. Early humans began to gather force when they gathered in small packs, and then we quickly developed societies for the common good. The Manhattan Project brought together many of the world’s greatest minds to end World War II more quickly. American’s Founding Fathers collaborated to create a governmental system generally resistant to the constant turmoil of others.

Rethink the Nature of Revolution.
            Are these skills likely to be even more vital in the future? No doubt. They are now essential rather than merely desirable. But as suggested above, the Internet has not changed their role in human progress. It has changed how much more easily people can exercise them. They now have tools and access which harness some of humans’ most desirable traits. Once people have experienced that power, they don’t want to give it up. Real revolution happens when the people rise.

            I’m not suggesting our students are ready to revolt in a way that changes schools drastically. (At least not yet.) I’m urging that we all rethink the essential argument. It’s not about some paradigmatic shift in the course of history. Instead, the call to action should focus on empowering students in ways that allow them to participate meaningfully in the long arc of human history.