Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Best Buy, Amazon, and Independent Schools

                Recently Best Buy has been determining how to respond to a growing phenomenon: shoppers who visit its stores to try a product, then whip out a smartphone and order from the vendor offering the lowest price. Usually that means Amazon. This morning I saw a headline on the HBR blog about why Best Buy should not try to beat Amazon at the price game, because it can’t. I didn’t read the article, so I don’t know what alternatives may have been proposed.
                Whatever they were, an article from a few days ago said that Best Buy is considering creating more high-end retail centers. I guess they would be like Apple stores but with a wider array of products. I’m not sure that is the answer, either. Too much brand affiliation for Best Buy to shift.  I suspect not many people go to Best Buy to spend even more money on electronics.
                If I were Best Buy, I’d focus on trying to provide what Amazon and other on-line retailers—not even the fabled Zappos—can deliver: outstanding face-to-face, genuinely caring service. As much as people want to save a few bucks, they also groove on human interaction. And I think they will spend their dollars where they feel that sense of connection. It’s naturally more personal when the interaction is not virtual.
                There’s an important reminder for independent schools in there. A couple of years ago, videos on Khan Academy were the rage; now everyone seems to be talking about MOOCs. In various ways, on-line learning is becoming more common. I advocate leveraging technology to enhance learning, but we must do so thoughtfully and in ways that keep us true to who we are and what makes us great. That’s why I like the possibilities opened by the flipped classroom. It allows for more frequent and individualized teacher-student interaction.
                After all, great independent schools are not Best Buy or Amazon. In Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America, George Whalin writes, “They all share an extraordinary passion for their businesses and an obsessive commitment to serving customers” (Kindle edition, Loc 77). He adds,
When asked whether their companies had been built based on a business plan or set of guidelines, they invariably answered no, their growth was guided by what customers wanted and expected from their stores, what the marketplace dictated, and how they could best serve their customers. (Page 3)
I like to think of us as the all-too-rare owner-operated stores where they know the customers’ names and preferences, take the time to help them make the best buying decision, build that sense of loyalty and trust, and really make a positive difference in their lives. That’s about more than price point. It’s about both value and values.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Expectations, Ideas, and Hope

Expectations, no matter how powerfully felt, are only ideas garnished with hope.
                The above quotation (I assume it’s a quotation; see the endnote) appeared in my Twitter feed yesterday. Normally I don’t pay that much attention to quotations presented in isolation as truths. One reason is the lack of context. It is too easy to interpret a quotation in ways that may be far from its actual meaning. But I have found myself thinking about this one.
                I may be wrong, but the quotation seems filled with futility and even cynicism. The words no matter and only connote disappointment; garnish may add a decorative effect to food, but no real flavor or nutritional value. Thus, expectations and ideas and hope seem worthless.
                But aren’t those some of the most valuable things we have? They excite us; they inspire us. They prompt us to imagine; they encourage us to strive. The most effective leaders cause these feelings to surge through us while motivating us to become better than we may have thought possible. Certainly they rest within the heart of education.
                Cynicism is easy. The world provides plenty of reasons to become that way, and such an outlook can become an easy excuse. We must have the resilience and courage—and help young people to develop them—to believe in expectations and ideas and hope. After all, where we would be without them?

[i] I say unattributed because the tweet did not provide a source, a situation which annoys me. I tried to find the source via Google, but all I could find were a couple of other people who had tweeted it. So some people are not giving credit where it’s due. Plus I would simply like to know.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Real Innovation...or School as We Know It?

Recently I sent out the following Tweet:
Of course, innovation is one of the hot words in education currently. It has followed right in the footsteps of creativity. (I can’t recall what the word was before that.)
                I know that aside suggests a degree of cynicism, but I don’t mean it that way. In fact, if you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I believe in the immense power of education and that education would benefit from some fundamental changes. But my referring to the series of hot words is a way of introducing my theme. We go through a series of words, trends, reforms, latest-greatest…yet it remains school as we know it. So no cynicism, but some skepticism.
                Let’s go back a few years, when schools were first developing 1:1 laptop programs. The move, we were told, would prove transformative. Was it? Perhaps in pockets. A school here and there really shifted. But at most of the places I studied or visited, except for a few classes, it looked like school as usual. In most classes the only difference I could discern was that the kids had replaced traditional binders with expensive machines.
                Still, I remain hopeful. Thus, I have been following with great interest Grant Lichtman’s blog The Learning Pond. For the past 14 years Grant has filled many roles in association with The Francis Parker School in San Diego, one of the largest independent schools in America. Over the past several weeks he has undertaken a remarkable journey. As the header on the blog reads:
What does the future of K-12 education look like? What programs are leading the way? How are educational organizations changing in order to promote real innovation? Join me as I visit 60+ schools across America this fall to learn and report on how leading educators are implementing significant change to meet 21st Century challenges.
I’m incredibly jealous, as I often have imagined taking such a trip (but without all the driving). The chance to visit so many excellent schools and to meet with so many top educators would be stunning. As great a job as Grant does at sharing his experience—and, Grant, thank you for that!—I wish I could see all this for myself. First, I think of all I could learn and bring back to my own school.
                But, more than anything, I want some assurance that my hopes remain true possibilities. In at least some cases, even emerging realities. As I read his entries, I find myself asking pointed questions. For example, I will see that a school has implemented a new program or created a new position; and I wonder how it truly has changed the learning experience, if at all. Changing curricula does not guarantee anything; it may just emphasize different content. Adding an administrator does not ensure a pedagogical shift. I want to observe the classes. I want to talk with teachers. I want even more to talk with the students.
                Even though I lack the tangible, first-hand evidence, Grant has deepened my hope, primarily for two reasons. I find it truly heartening that he found over 60 schools he judged worth visiting. Also, what he found showed enough variety that suggests the innovation is becoming part of each school’s culture, that each is remaking parts of itself in line with its mission and culture and not just grabbing onto the current flavor. Consequently, Grant has given me another hope: that when he finishes the journey, he can summarize the lessons learned in a way that enables to see what these schools have in common. How did they become transformative? Each entry has some of that, but I think we all would benefit from a synopsis from the person who has made the actual journey, because it strikes me that we’re talking about changing the DNA of many schools and educators. Then I hope we would see even more real innovation and not just school as we know it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On Blogging during Break

The first day of Thanksgiving break, and I woke up with an idea for a blog post racing through my head. As usual, it didn't crystallize completely at that time; instead, as I was running around through the day, I found myself mentally drafting as bits developed. At several points I wanted to begin writing, but either I was doing something else or I resisted the temptation. But now early evening has arrived, and I can begin composing. However, I am not expounding on that initial idea. Instead, I am reflecting on the anecdote.

You may be reaching some conclusions about what this scenario says about my work habits, mainly that I don't know how to turn it off. Perhaps. My wife says I don't know how to simply be. Again, perhaps. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. She is right in that, unless I am watching a soccer game, I tend to keep busy, often with tasks. But, while my mind seldom shuts down, I do not put in ridiculously long hours that often.

The real point of the post has to do with my relationship with blogging. Even before I came to St. John's, I had toyed with the idea of starting a blog. But I was sort of like the shy boy who gazes longingly at the beautiful girl, fantasizing about their relationship but never gathering the courage to ask her out. Basically, I couldn't imagine an audience. Then when I came to St. John's, the Director of Communications encouraged me to start one as a way parents could begin to know me better. I don't know how well the blog achieved that goal, but two years later the audience has grown. Now I feel as if I wooed the girl and convinced her to marry me. As in any marriage, effort is required to keep it going, full of both pain and reward. The pain comes from difficulty of the writing itself--each facet of the process, the self-doubt, the public nature of it. It's very different than turning in a paper for a class or submitting a manuscript for possible publication. The blog is all you, all the time, responsible for every aspect of it.

I find it incredibly disappointing when a blog dies, abandoned by its creator, no longer lovingly nourished through regular cerebral feelings. You can see it coming. The posts become less frequent, the content less stimulating, as if the author has begun to bore him- or herself. Though the author owes me nothing--and, I hate to admit, I did not encourage through comments or Tweets--I still feel somehow betrayed. When reading a book or article, you know it will end, even wonder how it will, appreciate the fabulous wrap up. But a blog seems to carry an inherent pledge of infinite development.

Therein lies another motivation. I see that infinite development as indicative of the blogger's own growth. I will use first person, but I suspect this point is axiomatic. For this blog to flourish, I must provide stimulation not only for readers, but also myself. In fact, I doubt I could do the former without the latter. So the blog becomes another motivation, another impetus to keep discovering more and to figure out how it fits into this incredibly complex pursuit of education.

Thus, the rewards. Yes, a larger audience and burgeoning view count is nice. The reflection is wonderful. But perhaps more than anything, blogging puts me in the position of student, with the pressure of having to deliver something that passes muster. As a head of school, I don't have as much contact with students as I used to, and it's critical that I keep in mind their experience.

Yes, it's Thanksgiving break. No one expects a post. I don't have to publish one. I just want to.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Evaluating Evaluation

                Last week at the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS) Heads of School meeting, two sessions provided an interesting juxtaposition. On Monday Tim Fish from the McDonogh School (MD) presented an overview of the Folio faculty evaluation system developed there and now being used by a growing group of schools. Tuesday morning we watched the film The Finland Phenomenon and had a Skype session with Tony Wagner. Actually, the juxtaposition was more than interesting. It was almost jarring, and I am just starting to reconcile the issue.
                Folio is a highly systematized system of evaluation which stresses professional growth. Cornerstones of the process include personal reflection, ongoing goals, classroom observation, and multi-dimensional feedback, all occurring annually. A key is informed and honest conversation. The software helps make it more manageable. I very much like what I heard in the presentation. The new system I put in place at St. John’s has many similar features, but without the nice technology packaging.
                Then we watched The Finland Phenomenon. To summarize: for the past few years Finland has led the world in multiple measures of academic excellence, and we need to learn from them. While the film made many compelling points, a comment in the Skype session afterwards is what struck me. Wagner told us that Finland has no formal teacher evaluation system. Instead, teachers are greatly trusted.
                I imagined myself reporting to my board of trustees that I had decided to eliminate our evaluation system.  They are wonderfully supportive, but that would have been pushing my luck way too far. Besides, it’s not something I would do, as I believe an effective evaluation and growth program is essential to school improvement.
                Before I go anywhere else, I must say I understand the myriad problems with many evaluation systems. First and foremost, the entire process evokes dread for most people. Having once suffered as the target of a poorly done evaluation, I know the scars it can leave. I went into the next one fearfully; and while it went fine, I suspect that lessened the experience. Another issue is that in many places the process is little more than a checklist completed after a cursory observation; there is no reflection and subsequent planning for improvement. Consequently, it honors neither the teacher’s individual qualities nor the institution’s higher ideals. Finally, when done right, the process is extremely intensive and time consuming.
                So what makes for an effective system? The highest of standards must be articulated and shared; and everyone must strive to meet them, with the desire to improve being the default mindset. Tied to that notion, rather than being used punitively, the system must function in a way that fosters reflection and growth. This necessitates trust and optimism. In many ways, it should resemble a wonderful classroom.
                In an ideal situation, the level of collaboration would have colleagues making this occur organically, and poor performers would not survive, mainly because their peers would not stand for it. But teachers are accustomed to working in professional isolation, the lords of their classroom fiefdoms. So we’re talking about shifting engrained school culture. And that is where Finland has a distinct advantage. Besides the cultural homogeneity, a teacher cannot take over a classroom without having undergone master’s degree level preparation, much of which involves classroom observation and analysis, a process that continues throughout one’s career. While the evaluation system may not be formal, in reality it is intense and continuous…and very welcome.
                This calls to mind Jim Collins’ admonition in Good to Great (passé, but apropos): “First who…then what.” More than any system or lack thereof, what matters most is having the right people. If you really want to fulfill your mission, they should serve as the true embodiment of your mission. Those will be your best teachers—the ones kids want to grow up to be just like.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Not Voting=Educational Failure

               This morning my daughter ranted with the sort of indignation only a fifteen-year-old can muster. The target of her disgust? People who do not seize the opportunity to vote. While I share her thoughts, I also asked if she would want uninformed people voting. Naturally, that made her question why anyone would remain that way given the privilege we have to live in a place with such a system.
                As I drove to my polling place early so I would be towards the front of the line, I made a mental note to look up how many people have voted in the last few presidential elections. But the radio hosts did my work for me and announced that in the last four elections, the average turnout was around 55% of all age-eligible citizens. Higher than expected, but still disappointing. The natural question arises: Why?
                Many reasons exist. One host said he doesn’t vote because in Texas the result is so clear that his vote doesn’t matter, citing the electoral college system. Others feel one vote does not really make a difference. Many have grown cynical about politics and government in general; like me, you probably heard people darkly joke that one good thing about Superstorm Sandy was the break from political campaigning. Some are simply apathetic. The natural question remains hanging: Why?
                I consider this an educational failure—not one of curriculum or pedagogy, but one of mission and philosophy. If a school has not prepared its students to engage fully in their role as citizens, that is a failure. In fact, I would argue that wise voting captures many of the fundamental skills schools should be developing, particularly in this modern era. A student must learn to slog through tons of information, much of it conflicting and even false; discern a reasoned conclusion; and then perform a relevant act with a real world connection.
                While I have felt to some degree all the reasons not to vote cited two paragraphs above, they don’t hold much weight for me. My belief is someone has no right to complain unless he or she helps to find a solution. I also see deciding not to vote as an act of ingratitude, even entitlement, that disrespects all those who have made doing so possible, from the Founding Fathers on up.
At least people feel they should vote. On Jimmy Kimmel’s show yesterday (when no polls were open) he sent a crew out on Hollywood Boulevard to ask people if they had voted that day. Everyone said either they had or they were on their way. And I just saw that #ivoted is the top trending hashtag on Twitter today. Both are scant consolation.
Ultimately, in the partnership between school and family, a primary goal—perhaps the primary goal—must be helping young people become the type of adults we need to improve the world. And as I once saw on a plaque, “It’s easier to build kids the right way than it is to repair adults.”
                I’m proud that my daughter cares so passionately about this topic. She keeps herself quite informed on the issues, and she can cite factual evidence to support her opinions. From the time our children were young, her mother and I have engaged them in political discussions. I’m grateful they have teachers who take time from the regular curriculum to study the election and that their school encourages active engagement in the larger world. It’s why studies show independent school graduates are twice more likely than students from other schools to become involved in political and civic causes. These strike me as strong markers of success.
                I hope my daughter has a chance to vote before she departs for college. I can imagine the glow of her smile.

Monday, October 22, 2012

New Reading Plan--Courting Serendipity

Last February I posted “On Reading,” in which I reflected on my love of reading and how it fuels me. I was prompted to write it because I took a respite from my usual reading regime and read a book strictly because I wanted to. Currently, almost everything I read is somehow tied to work. In some ways that is okay. I am fortunate to be a person whose natural interests and passions align almost perfectly with my career. There is, however, a problem: my mind thus seldom takes a break.  While the reading re-energizes, it also can deplete me over time.  I also feel the need to keep up with many, many different sources of information to help move my school forward. The question becomes, as my former board president used to encourage me, “How do I meter myself?”
To do that I’m going to try a new reading regimen. I call it “One and One.” I am going to alternate my reading choices, at least when it comes to books. (Blogs and articles will remain as they are now.) First I will read one that I feel is a must-dofor school. Then I will read a title that I simply want to read. For example, two days ago I completed Steven Johnson’s incredible Future Perfect, which I believe has enormous implications for the increasingly connected lives that our students will be leading. Last week I began Dave Eggers’ stirring Zeitoun about a Syrian immigrant in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. My daughter and wife both urged me to read it because of all my Louisiana connections, but I had left it far down the list. “Someday, when I have time,” I figured. I’m loving it.
I’ve been pondering this new plan for a while, and I feel good about it. Still, the tension exists between professional obligation and personal maintenance/fulfillment. A degree of guilt also lingers, I suppose.  I became convinced to implement it upon reading a post on the Fast Company blog titled  “How to Hack an ‘A-Ha!’ Moment.”  Consider the following long excerpt:
Because we can't beat the brain's hardwiring, we've got to train it by routinely introducing new information, people, settings, sensations, and experiences in order to expand our databank of memories. In this way, we create more flexible and varied mental models that our brains can use to fill in the blanks of the future. With a richer store of memories, we are able to imagine a vast range of possibilities, appreciate the web of factors affecting a given issue, and make more of the associative links that prompt consideration of different scenarios. This is your best defense against--and preparation for--unforeseen events and opportunities that will likely impact your business.
Whether you're looking for the next big idea or a fresh perspective, solving an innovation challenge, or hunting for an emerging technology, market, or business model to invest in, it is absolutely essential that you begin by immersing yourself in new material. New research, new disciplines, new sources, new experiences, new inputs, new approaches. It's this simple: To have an authentically new idea, you must begin with new inputs. If you don't, you can--truly--do no better than produce another version of what you already know.
The big payoff is what happens when new information collides with established memories. As your brain tries to make sense of the incoming data, it looks around for what's familiar, linking the new to the old. And suddenly your perspective changes: That's the moment of "Aha! I've never seen it that way before!" Indeed you haven't. Without the new input and the new synaptic connections it stimulates, there's no physical way that you could have seen it that way before.
Suddenly I had not only permission to enact my new plan, but a legitimate rationale. While so much of the reading I was doing certainly extended my thinking, it was not necessarily providing the sort of collision described above. Theoretically, as I cast a wider net, that new input will increase the chances of really unique and thus more powerful moments of serendipity occurring. For example, reading Zeitoun, I am having some new insights regarding leadership, or at least a new way of helping to explain it. This notion has me thinking even more about how the Baran Web referenced in Future Perfect works not just as a social network but as a form of enlarged understanding. Aha moment, indeed!           
             All this, of course, led me to think about curriculum and learning and objectives. In the above passage, think of how the memories work: they function like a complex framework into which we fit new learning of any sort. In a sense, then, our objective should be to create a Baran Web as tightly woven with as many nodes as possible. This increases the chance of connectivity and relevance in the learning process. Thus, the goals of a program should focus on larger understandings and the abilities necessary to both extend and deepen them. It's highly personal.
           This cannot happen willy-nilly, based strictly on student interests. Were that the case, some of our current eighth graders might study nothing other than baseball. Consider a recent example in which a father argued his high school son should not have to study chemistry because he has no interest in the subject. I won't argue that everyone needs to take chemistry; in fact, I've advocated for an integrated science approach as best for some students. However, I contend very strongly that all students should develop a strong grasp of basic scientific principles, some of them right from chemistry.
            If we accept that premise, then we need to rethink the traditional practice of organizing curricula by content and even the departmental structure. Compared to how learning really works for all but academic specialists, both these are artifices, based more on convenience than any actuality. They are, however, so firmly entrenched culturally that we have difficulty conceiving of it working any other way. So, to apply the notion from the long excerpt, we must continue to introduce and consider loads of new input. Perhaps then we will have the crucial "Aha!" moment.
            Certainly I hope my new “One and One” reading plan leads to several such epiphanies. So I would appreciate any and all suggestions drawn from the hither and yon of your learning.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Power of Positive Feedback

                Last week my seventh-grade son had a very exciting volleyball match, and his team won after having lost to these opponents twice previously. The two schools are fierce rivals. As I left the gym, I saw another father and his son , who was from the other team. The dad was chewing him out about a series of mistakes the boy and his teammates had made. Once he finished ripping into the boy, dad snarled, “Let’s go so that I can get you to tennis.” An important bit of background is that all these boys just took up the sport this year.
                Having coached for over thirty years and having two children who have played sports, I have seen more scenes like this than I can remember. Unfortunately, as a coach I’ve sometimes lapsed into similar behavior. I don’t think I’ve done it as a parent, at least not too badly. (Maybe that is selective memory…) Something about athletics seems to bring out some of the more unsavory aspects in people. Maybe it’s our innate competitiveness; perhaps it’s because it’s so public. Of course, simplified psychology suggests we dream of our kids fulfilling our own thwarted athletic fantasies. It suggests a value system. I don’t know. I have wondered if the same sort of thing happens in the art world. You do hear stories about the archetypal stage mom, so I expect it does. With my sophomore daughter becoming involved in theater, I guess I’ll find out.
                I started thinking about classrooms and the desire to have students take risks. Let’s consider an English class. Perhaps the teacher has encouraged students to use more sophisticated diction or to craft more elaborate sentence structures. When a student does so, he or she may make mistakes. At that moment, the feedback is crucial. Does the teacher praise the attempt and give credit for that, or does the teacher take off points because it’s wrong? Most students’ response to either approach is obvious. I wonder which one occurs more often. Both must happen to some degree, and striking the right balance for any individual is tricky.
                In the example just cited, at least the feedback often is private. In athletics and arts, students perform in public. I recall a response I once gave to someone complaining about coaches being too serious about their sports and demanding too much practice time. I asked her to imagine if her students had to take their tests in front of their peers and families, with people yelling at them, a running grade being kept on a scoreboard.
                Contrast any instance of negative feedback to the following anecdote. Last week I published a post titled “Heed the Dodo” in which I linked recent works by Howard Rheingold and Will Richardson. These men are true leaders in their fields. Rheingold, who has taught at Stanford and UC-Berkeley, explores the relationship between technology and human intelligence. Richardson is one of the most important voices in the education debate and the desperate need for reform. As usual, after putting up a post, I tweeted an announcement. Then, something inspired me to tweet Rheingold and Richardson about the post. After all, I follow both of them. I didn’t know what to expect. One time I tried replying to a tweet by Tom Peters and heard nothing. But within a couple of hours both Rheingold and Richardson replied with some very nice words. Even more, they re-tweeted my original message to their combined 70,000 or so followers.
                Now, bear in mind that I am 51 years old, and I have been fairly successful in my field. But when this happened, I did a literal and metaphorical jig while letting out a whoop of joy. I bragged about it at dinner that night. A few days later, it still makes me smile. In time the nice memory will linger, but the emotions will fade.
                Four points strike me as significant reminders from this. One, these gentlemen could have simply ignored my tweet or dismissed my reaching out. Instead, they responded with a generous spirit and simple act of kindness. Two, little things matter, particularly in how they can make one feel. Indeed, how you make someone feel may matter more than any particular action. Three, this is particularly important when working with young people, who are developing the cognitive strength to put things into perspective. Four, the closer the source, the more impactful the feedback.
                My son’s volleyball team plays that other school again soon. After the game, win or lose, as I always do, I’ll wrap my arm around my boy, give him a high five, and tell him I’m proud of him.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Heed the Dodo

The massive historic sweep of Howard Rheingold’s Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter? pivots on a central premise: “…humans appear to be ‘natural-born cyborgs,’ biologically equipped to reprogram each other’s thinking machinery through culture” (Kindle edition, loc 65). Essentially, then, our evolution into modern human beings has been inextricably linked to our ability to learn. He argues, “It’s not just the mind-tools that matter when creating civilization shifters. Knowing how to use mind-tools is what reshapes thinking and bends history” (loc 29). Similarly, “…the human brain’s self-programming capabilities seem to have arisen from, and remain coupled to, a co-evolutionary upward spiral” (loc 104). Because of that, “The road to microchips started when humans began growing food instead of hunting for it” (loc 158).
It’s really much more than our having enjoyed all the benefits of the opposable thumb. But let’s go ahead and start someplace similar. Something inspired someone to use some object—stick, rock—as a simple tool or weapon. Scientists speculate this move and how it affected the cerebral cortex primed the pumps for the eventual emergence of language development. Both operate on similar types of abstraction and ideation. The flywheel began spinning and picked up speed. Once we began growing food, communities formed, leading to further language enhancement. Alphabetic communication and thinking naturally leads to abstract thinking, logical analysis, and classification systems. And so forth and so on…
Which brings us to today. As Rheingold sees the current situation: “We’re beginning to see how the process of using old tools to create new tools works. This means we can influence or exert control over the process of evolution of the extended mind rather than simply coping with it” (loc 90). More specifically:
The question now is how to incorporate what is known about the psychology of attention, the reprogramming of the neuroplastic capacity of the human brain, the effects of human-computer interfaces, tools for turning complex data into visualizations, and the collaborative affordances of online media to deliberately design the next level of abstraction. (loc 437)
And: “The design of computers to enhance cognitive functions of individuals becomes an order of magnitude more complicated when enhancing the cognitive functions of human social groups” (loc 470).
                Those passages raise gigantic, hairy, frightening, exciting questions. They demand our consideration, and answers aren’t likely to come very easily. The implications for human culture are massive, and they are approaching much faster than we may realize or want to believe. I’m fascinated by the topic and could go on and on.
                But for now, I want to zero in on one of those implications: What does this mean for schools? Or another way of putting it: Why school?
                It’s not a new question. I suspect it’s been around ever since there have been schools. When my wife attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the early 1990s, “Why school?” was an oft-repeated query. In this case, it pondered why education—more specifically, school—is one of the few compulsory things in the United States and just why that is. If it is going to be, we should keep re-examining the objectives and the practices. While I have not read Mike Rose’s Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us, my understanding is that he does so through both broad and narrow lenses. Browsing some reviews, I sense Rose focuses on rather eternal educational values.
In the wonderful Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information are Everywhere, Will Richardson considers the question in a more pointed, historically immediate sense. He challenges: “…what’s the value of school now that opportunities for learning without it are exploding all around us?” (Kindle edition, loc 65). As he sees the world developing, “In this new story, real learning happens anytime, anywhere, with anyone we like—not just with a teacher and some sage-age peers, in a classroom, from September to June” (loc 53).
In answering the question, schools have to consider a power shift. Or at least a shift in control. Until recently, schools and teachers maintained power and control primarily because they were the means of access. Naturally, schools grew in forms that established this sense of control in both overt and more subtle ways. Departmentalization, classroom design, curricular organization, age groupings, standardization, rigid assessment criteria, library collections—each is hierarchical and prescriptive.
Now, however, the hierarchies are tumbling, the prescriptions being shredded. Literacy simply ain’t just the three R’s any more. Posing the right questions is just as important—maybe more important—than being able to answer the same old ones. Consumption still matters, but upon digestion one must be ready to contribute and collaborate. Connect with bigger experts than the ones at the front of the class, and put yourself out there for anyone to view and critique. And it’s all cheap and easy. The control has begun to shift, and learning is becoming the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure book.
So that “Why school?” question takes on an unprecedented urgency for all sorts of what seem obvious reasons. More schools are having those conversations and responding in positive fashion, but I don’t see it happening on a wide-enough or fast-enough basis. Many reasons exist, ones I have cited in many places throughout this blog.
Rheingold’s book provoked me to consider this entire issue from another angle. In this emerging world, schools still can have an absolutely vital role. But will they? Yes, if they heed a simple warning based on scientific history. It’s one I think particularly apropos for schools such as mine, to which people pay tuition.
Evolve or die.
I know that sounds dramatic, but consider what Rheingold lays out for us. At the risk of oversimplifying, when it comes to human intelligence, our evolution has come about through key intersection of existing human brain power and massive cultural/environmental factors. It is happening right now. Given the shifts outlined a few paragraphs back, schools need to figure out which useless appendages to shed and which make us fitter in a very conscious attempt to influence natural selection.
Reportedly the last dodo bird, considered a myth by some, was spotted on Mauritius Island in 1662. People speculate the dodo became flightless because of the abundant food sources and lack of predators on the island. It also never developed defense mechanisms, so hungry sailors armed with clubs and invasive species wiped them out within a century. Its extinction was not immediately noticed, and now the dodo exists only as a symbol of obsolescence.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Hard Line on Soft Stuff

            This weekend I read Nilofer Merchant’s 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era. It’s part of my years-long quest to capture what makes an independent school, particularly one school such as St. John’s, truly valuable. Even hoping to show—and I tread carefully when using this term—that the cost is a worthwhile investment in a child’s education. I began reading the book on a search for strategies, tactics, models. Instead, I found affirmation about points I’ve made previously in pieces such as “Less I, More R.” It came in a delightful new way.
            Almost halfway through the book, Merchant points out:
Social has never been a technology trend, as it is often depicted by the experts. Humans have always wanted to connect, organize, and create value. Back when there were tribes, people had community and naturally had relationships in the marketplace. But our current organizational constructs have been focused on scale at the cost of connections. In truth, if we let it, marketing in the Social Era will look like any other relationship, perhaps like falling in love, following an arc of romance, struggle, commitment, and sometimes, co-creation… (loc 549)
I find the metaphor fascinating, and she explains a bit about how it plays out in each stage. She then concludes this section:
No wonder social marketing is so hard to get right. It is as complex as any relationship. And let’s remember this: love isn’t rational, but a combination of logic and emotional needs. In this construct, relationships certainly aren’t predictable. (Try applying any predictive metrics to your love life and see how it goes.) And, as anyone who’s ever been in love can attest, it’s not a linear path. (loc 578)
Aha! What a great way of thinking about school! It is as “complex as any relationship,” that “combination of logic and emotional needs.” In a way, the logical part is relatively easy. Independent schools should be preparing their students academically so that they can thrive at the next level and beyond. But how that happens is neither linear nor predictable. It is highly individual and even idiosyncratic. Plus we know that cognitive functioning is greatly affected by emotional state; someone can’t, for example, think as clearly when upset. In simpler terms, ask a child about a teacher’s quality, and you usually will receive a response centered on some personal trait, usually how nice the teacher is. Even as students grow older, the student-teacher relationship often determines the learning.
Even if we could make education nice, clean, logical process, we shouldn’t, particularly not nowadays. Independent school consultant Marc Frankel recently led a seminar on 21st century skills with the board and administration at a large day school. On his blog he wrote:
Again and again, it is the so-called soft stuff that emerges from such conversations with academic and business leaders. High-level traditional academics are table stakes these days; the differentiators (for schools and students) are increasingly among the soft stuff.
It’s that soft stuff that is so hard to capture, and our logical side keeps pushing us to seek ways to do so. But as Tom Peters pointed out in Of Search of Excellence, what’s hard is often soft, and what’s soft is often hard.
            Indeed. Great schools acknowledge this, and they willingly embrace the challenge. I’d say it’s even where we do our best, most meaningful work; it’s how we influence lives. To some degree, we—educators, trustees, families—almost all believe this, particularly when we focus on mission, core values, ideal graduate profiles, educating for the future, etc. The irony is that often it’s when we become emotional, when we begin to lose faith, that we cry out for the logical, for the signs the investment in education somehow will scale.
            At those times we must heed this passage from another part of my weekend reading, a work one would anticipate to stress the logical over all else: Howard Rheingold’s Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter?:
That was the fundamental lesson I took away from artificial-intelligence pioneer Joseph Weizenbaum’s 1968 cautionary polemic Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation. Simply being able to reason more effectively is not only unlikely to improve the human condition in the absence of other, more humane capacities, Weizenbaum warned: it can do harm. (loc 543)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Aiming at Goal

                Over the past month or so, assessment and measurement has been receiving a great deal of attention. Loads of blog posts and tweets and conferences. Rightly so, I’d say, for these are very important topics—ones that we should reconsider constantly. I wrote a post that included some thoughts on the topic: “Less I, More R.”
                This past Saturday I was watching an English soccer match between Everton and Swansea. Everton was dominating the match, but the score remained nil-nil. One announcer brought up what has become a popular statistic the past few years by mentioning what a large percentage of possession Everton had. The other announcer, a former player, argued, “That’s technology driving that stat, that is. And it doesn’t matter. Only stat that matters is goals.”
                While I am not that old school, his comments started me thinking. First, how much has technology driven what is measured? In other words, how often do we measure something because we discovered that we could, and then convinced ourselves that somehow it may be meaningful? I suspect the answer to that question varies wildly depending on the respondent. Also, certainly there are things we wanted to measure and only now can do so efficiently.  I like to look at data and see what story emerges. But I have a second question. In this era of big data, with so much of it available, have we focused on the ones that really matter—the goals?
                I guess before we can do that, we need to keep clarifying and building consensus about the goals. Not as easy as sticking the ball in the back of the net.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why I Still Subscribe to the Newspaper

                Lately I have been wondering why I keep my subscription to The Dallas Morning News newspaper. Nothing against the newspaper—it’s not great, but it’s fine. However, my reasoning is fairly typical. I find myself reading the newspaper less and less; instead, I turn to on-line sources. Meanwhile, the cost has risen over 300% over the past few years for a skimpier version.
                So why do I keep it? Inertia and comfort, to some degree. I am an early riser, usually up before 5:00 AM. For as long as I can remember, my morning routine has included brewing some coffee, then systematically working my way through the sports pages, the comics, and the puzzles. Then I’d finally look at the real news and op-eds. Nothing there I couldn’t accomplish with a device of some sort. But I find a certain comfort in the newspaper itself, and certain things just aren’t as fun when done by tapping on a screen. But I could adjust.
                My wife also likes the newspaper. She also could adjust, but she would do so much less willingly. She believes we all—not just our family, but our culture—spends entirely too much time staring at screens. Perhaps. While that particular discussion must wait for another time, it does hint at another reason I keep renewing. I love my gadgets, and I celebrate the possibilities that modern technology has created for education. However, with everything there is an opportunity cost, in this case one of more ethereal economics. I find the slow demise of local newspapers sad for many reasons.  In some ways it represents the microwave pace of our lives. More than anything, I mourn how we are losing newspapers because each holds symbolic value as a representation of its community. As such, they also have a unifying power.
                But another larger reason, one which includes the others, leads me to keep having the newspaper delivered each day. As part of that morning routine, I enjoy making breakfast for my two children. After I’m done with the paper, I leave it on the kitchen table near the food. When they stumble out, the first thing my kids do is scan the various parts of the newspaper. I love to see them making that connection, however fleeting, to the issues of the larger world, our nation, and our city. Often they will ask questions, either then or later; and they can have some wonderful discussions about current issues.
I’m unable to trust serendipity will allow this to happen as they browse the web. In fact, I see it happening in quite the opposite fashion: those encounters with print can positively influence their on-line behavior. My daughter will explore certain political sites. My son, when he wants more information or is rightly skeptical about some facts, will say, “Search it up.” Those are some nice exhibits of 21st-century literacy in action. It’s also meaningful engagement with the world, albeit vicariously. Both prompted by an “outdated” technology.
And that leads to my final reason for being on auto-renewal. That newspaper on the kitchen table is a daily reminder that as we hurtle into embracing the wonders of this morphing world, certain things hold timeless value.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

My Current Political Platform

                I’m treading into potentially dangerous waters here: the political scene. Because of that, I want to make clear that I am not making a statement of support for either side on any particular issue; any references to any party or topic are purely for illustrative purposes. In fact, I take it as a point of pride that students used to tell me they could never figure out my real stance on an issue. I believe very strongly that schools should be teaching students how to think and not what to think. Plus I hold both sides responsible for the current situation that has me vexed.
                The recent conventions have prompted this post. That’s because I didn’t watch much of them. I used to. I love the optimism, the faith so many still hold in the system, the unabashed hope in process and progress and better times. The conventions are an amazing reminder that we live in an amazing nation begun as a crazy experiment by some rabble-rouser just over two centuries ago.
                This year I watched bits and pieces. I’m sure the same gung-ho spirit was on full display in speeches, chants, cheers, and goofy hats. But I just couldn’t muster up much excitement.
                A large part of a meaningful education involves preparing students to engage with the world in important ways. At St. John’s, one quality in our Picture of the Graduate cites being “community- and globally-conscious.” Inherent in that is paying attention to and participating thoughtfully in the political process. Ideally one would do so in a way aligned with another POG trait: “bring[ing] optimism, confidence and discipline to solving problems through the use of critical thinking skills.”
                Unfortunately, the current political climate not only makes this difficult. It also makes it somewhat undesirable in some ways. Politicians and their handlers haven’t exactly been behaving as role models.  The problem only seems to grow worse.
                Political finger-pointing and demonizing is nothing new. The Federalists and anti-Federalists fought through our nation’s founding, and the deliberations in Philadelphia were full of acrimony. In 1856 Congressman Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner during an anti-slavery speech and almost beat him to death with a cane. So there have been rough, dark periods. But over the past decade the level of anger seems to remain at a high boil. This, in turn, has led to an oversimplified, practically binary way of thinking and acting. Sometimes I feel as if the level of debate has been reduced to this formula: “You are a ____ and support ____. Therefore, I disagree.” It can become a childish cycle of is not-is too. And the enmity seems to be expected.
                I’ve wondered if my perception is valid, or if it’s just a case of my becoming fed up with it all. So I asked myself two general historical questions. The first: when do I first recall paying much attention to political events? The second: what might be the last time there seemed to be so much deep political discord in our nation? Both received the same answer: the late 1960s and early 1970s, with all the issues brought about by the Vietnam Conflict. In Gallup Poll data collected between August 1968 and September 1969, 51% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans believed the war to have been a mistake, while 37% of Democrats and 34% of Republicans believed it had not been a mistake. Contrast that to 2005 poll data about the Iraq war in which 81% of Democrats called it a mistake and 78% or Republicans said it was not. (Data taken from Friedman and Mandelbaum’s That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and how We Can Come Back )This clear split also appears, sometimes in even stronger fashion, on most issues.
                Both parties were once coalitions of both liberals and conservatives. For example, Democrats used to include conservative Southerners whose opposition to the Republican Party dated from the Civil War. Republicans used to include people with fairly liberal social views who tended to be more conservative in economic terms. People literally used to cross the aisle to embrace political opponents. Former Republican senator Alan Simpson tells a story of going across the chamber to hug Dale Bumpers, a Democrat. When he returned to his side, another newly-elected Republican chided him by asking, “What were you doing over there with Bumpers?” After Simpson replied, “He’s my friend,” the other said, “He’s no good. He’s a Democrat. He’s a rabid liberal. You shouldn’t be hugging him.” (ibid)
                We are in this sorry situation for multiple reasons, most of which I’m sure you can tick off. So I won’t, and I’m also not going to elaborate on any of them. Maybe another post at another time, although I doubt it. Because what brought us to this point, while important and interesting, is not really my larger concern here.
                I’m wondering more about what lessons young people are gleaning from what they witness. What are they learning about leadership? About constructive debate? About seeking compromise? About thoughtful deliberation? About respectful disagreement? About respect in general? About working together for the common good?
                This last point is crucial. We face enormous problems—energy, environmental, financial, technological, infrastructure, international—which will require our collective resources to solve. However, we continue to squawk about our disagreements to such a degree that we cannot collaborate in any fashion. And the frightening thing is divisiveness tends to breed greater divisiveness. When and how does it end?
                In the big picture, I don’t know. Perhaps when some situation becomes desperate enough that we have to pull together.  In our own corners of the world, we can help children by asking questions and initiating discussions with them. At just about any age, children have reactions and opinions, often laced with insight that we can neglect in our busy adulthood. We must model the desired behavior. Simply put, to have the type of political leaders and citizenry we want and need, we have to nurture the essential qualities. It’s hard, slow, often messy work. It’s vital work. Imperative work.
                I’m Mark Crotty, and I approve this message.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Less I, More R

                Quick question: What is the top university in the United States?
                Harvard? Actually, the Crimson came in 11th. I’m sure they take solace from the fact that Yale finished 41st. Princeton was 20th. Out of the usual suspects for top dog, Stanford was the highest at 3rd.
                Number one? University of California-San Diego. Some other highly-ranked universities include Texas A&M, assorted branches of the University of California system, Case Western, and University of Texas-El Paso (11 slots above UT-Austin).
                The rankings are courtesy of Washington Monthly. Per the publication,
We rate schools based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).
You can access the list, along with those for liberal arts schools, and check for your alma mater here. I’m not sure how to feel about Allegheny College coming in 41st in the liberal arts rankings.
                The initial question was, of course, a trick one to some degree. You couldn’t come up with the right answer because you didn’t know the criteria. Even if you had, you may not have because you still might not have known how the metrics were used in each area. Even then…by now you get the idea.
                Human beings love to categorize and to rank; it seems to be part of our genetic make-up.  There are also psychological elements to it. Doing so helps us to make sense of an increasingly complex and competitive world. It can provide assurance that we are making wise choices and will reap the benefits both short- and long-term. Technology and the ease with which we can accumulate, manipulate, and share data has only increased this desire. Plus we live in anxious times.
                This latest set of rankings reignited an issue I’ve been struggling with for many years—meaningful metrics for independent schools. Over time I’ve created various dashboards on AP results, college acceptance, student engagement, service hours, ERB scores…pick an area in which a school is expected to have an impact, and I’ve tried to quantify it. All in the name of trying to prove Return on Investment.
                I can articulate for you multiple reasons why this doesn’t work, why it’s a bad idea, et cetera. Let me go ahead and tick through them. We’re dealing with intangibles. It’s about the long term. What matters can’t always be measured. Some things can’t be measured. Statistics don’t tell the whole story. You need context. The assessment tools are flawed.  Many of the measures are not really in a school’s control. Certainly I’ve missed a few, but that’s okay because I’m not trying to make that argument. Instead, I’m going to encourage a change in perspective.
                Before I do, I must say understand the notion of ROI. Several times, as a tuition-paying parent, whether in frustration with one of my children or with something at their school, I’ve asked myself, “Is this really what I’m paying all that money for?” I’ve even wondered if, in the bigger picture, it’s really worth it. I think this is very human and very natural.
                Also, traditionally independent schools have not done a wonderful job of articulating why they are worth the cost. Until recently, they haven’t faced as much pressure to do so. Now they do, and we have somewhat brought this challenge upon ourselves as costs have skyrocketed. But most of us, including the top administrators, are teachers at our core. That’s why more schools are brining on marketing and communications people, and we are just starting to figure out some of this stuff.
                So how does one know? What is the measure?
                Your child.
                Despite our wishes that every family choose us because of our mission, I wonder what percentage do. Besides, most of our mission statements contain the same generic, albeit aspirational rhetoric that remains very open to interpretation.  Ultimately, the hopes and dreams of a family are highly individualized. Each has different wishes and wants and needs. It’s highly personal and internal. Yet so often we look towards external measures for validation.
                Instead, look at your child. Ask yourself if you see her or him developing in ways that match your values. For me, this means continually asking some big questions. Do they still love learning? Does their learning lead them to engage with the world? Are they becoming more independent? Are they positive and optimistic about their potential? Are they steadily becoming better versions of their unique selves?
                Not looking at it this way may even backfire, despite our best intentions. In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, Sarah Green considers how the recent cheating scandal at Harvard may be tied to students’ lacking a love of learning because of the end-product emphasis increasingly placed on education. Near the end she writes:
While great teachers have always been able to nurture that flame in their students, education policy has focused on efficiency — getting the biggest bang for the taxpayer's or tuition-payer's buck — and focusing on results is seductively efficient, especially in the short term. But schools are not factories, and students are not inputs. Efficiency is not the only value in this conversation; quality also matters.
In talking about the "ROI" of our schools, we have focused too much on the I, and not enough on the R.
I don’t know the perfect balance in that equation. I can say unequivocally that when I focus more on the R, I feel not only a sense of having invested well, but also genuine gratitude.