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)