Monday, January 30, 2012

Pride and Perspective

      About a year ago, I read a bit of wisdom from a veteran school head. It was something like, "A head of school cannot love his school too much. What he really has to love is the vision of what that school can become." I understand the logic behind this statement. There has to be a degree of objectivity and a certain distancing to allow for certain hard decisions. But recently some ongoing work and a couple of meetings have made me think quite a bit about this statement.

     In my year-and-a-half here, I've been learning more and more about my school community and developing a better sense of just what it can become. I first laid out some notion of this in a presentation last spring. It was expansive and far-reaching; no one could have taken all of it in. Recently I've been trying to reduce all those thoughts to a short, yet comprehensive written package. It's getting there. The process is very invigorating. Who doesn't like to have big dreams? Who doesn't like to wax idealism?

     At the same time, I've been deep in the budgetting process. Sometimes I feel like a parent telling his children what they may and may not have. Everyone has his or her idea of where those limited dollars should go, and inevitably the wants are greater than the dollars. 

     Both these processes--the visioning and the budgetting--share an inherent danger: each can cause one to focus heavily on what's missing. Certainly I have found myself doing that at times. Often the two go hand in hand. For example, as I work on the vision, I wonder how we will find the money. I have to weigh each decision carefully, and it can become frustrating. Sometimes I just want it all!

     But two visitors last week helped me regain perspective.

     The first was a young woman from one of the most famous and prestigious schools in the nation. In fact, the school is also one of the most expensive, with tuition for day students close to $39K. It's a gorgeous place, with incredibly bright, well-credentialed faculty and students from very prestigious families. You'd recognize plenty of names from the alumni list. As I toured her around the school, she commented on many things that she found engaging. The warmth of the colors and artwork filling the building, and also of the interactions she saw between people. The spirit of our prayer wall. The incredible lab and teaching areas we have in our middle school science wing. The media center and our daily student broadcasts. A SmartBoard in every classroom. She may be moving to Dallas and is looking at schools that she finds attractive.

     The second was a young man in the Teach for America program. He told me about how he has 161 sixth-graders during the course of a day and how he tries to differentiate instruction as much as he can so they learn to read. Out of all those kids, only 20 parents showed up on meet-the-teacher night. If he calls a home, the automatic response is fear about what the child has done wrong. He has several conversations each week trying to convince students not to drop out as soon as they can. He tries to inspire them with stories of positive role models. Sadly, this idealistic, talented young person may leave teaching because of his circumstances. After spending some time here, he is thinking about looking for a position in the independent school world.

     Both these people reminded me of some of the many reasons why this school is special. They helped me to recall anew why I joined this community. Yes, there is plenty of work to be done, various enhancements and changes to be made over the next however many years. After all, we can never stop improving. Yet at the same time, we must take caution not to lose our soul. As I see my role, it is not to turn this school into my ideosyncratic notion of the "perfect" school. Instead, it is to help this school become the very best possible version of itself. In the best cases, those notions match.

     There is, as I alluded to in the paragraph on budgetting, something parental about being a head of school. About teaching, for that matter. The endless and exhausting work of parenting and education both are re-fueled by love, by dreams, by the art of possibility. We see those young people, and it's hard not to imagine who they might become. But it's also vital--for us and for them--that we celebrate who they are right now.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Generation Gap

     Ever since I can recall, I have been a soccer fanatic. Player, coach, fan--I love the sport and every role/connection I've ever had to it. I've also studied a great deal about the history of the sport.
     My twelve-year-old son Stephen also has the fever. He can, for instance, give you all sorts of World Cup trivia. What to know who scored in opening match for Italy in 1934? He may know. Every weekend we watch matches, and we love the Premier League Review Show on Sunday evenings. Sharing this love of soccer is one of the great pleasures of parenthood for me.
     Yesterday, the soccer page at had a fascinating package of articles. Their ten soccer writers conducted a fantasy draft of players from any era, based on their prime. Each pick told about the writer's reasoning and also gave some info about the player. Computer projections the determined how the season would go. I loved it, and I was very excited to show it to Stephen.
     His reaction? Meh. He loved the concept; that wasn't the problem. He immediately asked, "Where do I make my choices?" I explained it was just the writers. He asked, "Why shouldn't I be able to take part?"
     It was just the latst, powerful and personal reminder that students today are different, mainly because of digital technology. It’s about more than agile thumbs, shorter attention spans, and an LOL lexicon. Young people today learn differently and are motivated differently. No longer a TV-watching generation, they grow bored by one-way communication channels. Instead, they revel in participation and collaboration. They love to work with content, not just absorb it; they believe in collective rather than individual knowledge. Indeed, young people today learn actively all the time.
     Growing up in the early 21st century facilitates and demands such an outlook. Ubiquitous information, media, and resources are easily available. Easy-to-use tools keep becoming increasingly inexpensive and powerful. All this is happening against a world backdrop that is increasingly multi-cultural and inter-connected. Thus, collaboration has grown more essential. Innovation and creativity are key qualities. The rapidity of change shows no signs of slowing. Instead, all the factors continue to accelerate steadily.
     These changes pose a literal and symbolic challenge for schools. Since the onset of the Industrial Age, schools have operated per the factory model. Now, as we have jetted into Information and Creative Eras, schools must reconsider how to meet students’ needs. Key questions include: What should future learning environments look like? How should we organize time to learn? What types of relationships and communities will nurture our students? What tools do they need? How will we assess student progress?
     I'd love to know how you answer these questions.

Monday, January 23, 2012

On Happiness

     This morning my daughter was sitting at the kitchen table, one ear bud in, eating breakfast as she glanced through the newspaper. She suddenly declared, "I love having all my music on my phone. This makes me irrationally happy." She turns 15 tomorrow, and yesterday we finally upgraded her phone to a new iPhone. It was long due (well, long due in tech terms), and she is a very responsible tech user. I enjoyed her comment, just as I had enjoyed watching her and her brother come up with ridiculous questions for Siri the day before.

     But those words  irrationally happy keep running through my head. Recently I have been working my way through the latest edition of Harvard Business Review, the cover of which proclaims "The Value of Happiness." I found particularly intriguing the piece by Shawn Achor titled "Positive Intelligence." Achor is a Harvard professor who specializes in the study of happiness. In fact, his courses on finding happiness are among the most popular at Harvard. Ironically they are so oversubscribed that many end up sad because they can't get in the class. (This probably deserves an entire post by itself.)

     Here is the article in a nutshell. We believe that hitting a certain mark of success will lead to happiness, when it actually works the other way around. People who have a positive mindset perform better in the face of challenge. The happiness must come from within, not from without. This also belies the common notion that genetics and environment determine happiness. They have an impact, but three other factors matter more. The habits we cultivate, the way we interact with others, and how we think about stress--these seem to have the closest relationship to happiness. We can train ourselves and our brains to increase our happiness. For example, we almost automatically think of stress as a negative. Certainly it can be, particularly if it becomes overwhelming. But stress also is what spurs us to innovate, to create, to problem solve. Stress motivates.

     Achor says small exercises can form a happiness training regimen. Some of the things he recommends doing on a daily basis include jotting down three things for which you are grateful; writing a positive message of support to someone; meditating for two minutes;exercising for ten minutes; journalling about a meaningful experience in the past 24 hours. People who did these things while participating in study moved their life satisfaction scores from an average of 22.96 to 27.23 on a 35-point scale after four months.

     While Achor focused on a work environment, I think the article and entire issue holds a key reminder for parents. Ask parents what they want most for their kids, and the first response is usually to be happy. I say reminder because Achor doesn't say much that most of us don't already know on some level. But in the hustle and bustle of life, blinded by shiny gadgets and our love for our children, we can forget.

     I want to believe that when my daughter used the words "irrationally happy," it was to some degree because she already grasps these truths. If she doesn't now, I hope that someday she will. Then I can know I've done part of my job as parent. In the meantime, I reveled in the moment. It made me truly happy.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dear Nicholas Kristof

                I apologize for using the same rhetorical trick twice, but this seems to be my time for responding to nationally renowned columnists. Two weeks ago, Jay Mathews. This week, Nicholas Kristof, for his recent column “The Tangible Value of Great Teachers.” I’m not as upset with Kristof as I am with Mathews, but I do feel the need to point out some of my concerns with his argument.
Dear Mr. Kristof:
                Thank you very much for your recent column on the amazing difference a great teacher can make.  In particular, I want to commend you for two points.
First, while you cite test data, you talk about trends of data over a period of time. That makes a great deal of sense. Any test, no matter how well structured, gives a snapshot of a point in time. Tests also can provide very important insights into particular knowledge and skill sets. But they may not tell that much about how a student can apply those discrete bits. And they certainly cannot capture the attitudes fostered. I’ll share an anecdote to illustrate my point. I once worked with a teacher—and he remains one of the best writing teachers I’ve ever seen—who wanted to see student scores rise on the verbal portions of the tests being used at that school. That year, kids’ scores soared. When I talked with the teacher, he took no joy in this. Instead, he lamented, “I think I improved their writing less than I ever have with any group.” Still, used correctly over time, standardized tests can help through the revelation of patterns. Thank you for not falling into the high-stakes, single-test trap.
Second, you focus on the long-term benefits of an education, those that come out much later in life, often in ways that one cannot necessarily see coming. Considering the impact of a fourth-grade teacher later in a student’s life takes care of that. At first glance, the numbers don’t seem all that significant: 1.25% more likely to go to college, 1.25% less likely to get pregnant as a teen, likely to earn an average of $25,000 more through a lifetime. But they are massively significant to those who benefit. I’m even more struck by the notion that having a very poor teacher is equivalent to missing 40% of the school year.
The obvious conclusion is that we need more great teachers. Ideally, schools would get rid of all the poor ones. (Determination of such is another long, complicated topic.) I believe it was Newsweek that, a few years ago, had a cover story about firing all bad teachers. The natural question is: And replace them with whom? After all, we’ve said there are not enough great teachers. Hmmm…
Here is where I start to take issue with your argument, particularly the way you use the financial implications. We need more of the right people going into education. That is not going to link well with financial gain. No, I’m not about to rant on how teachers are underpaid. (Another long, complicated topic.) My point is that if we want the right people to go into education, along with many other lines of work that provide social service, we can’t focus on material gain as the measure of a meaningful education. We need more great teachers. Well, what if one of the measures of a great teacher were how many people he or she inspired to become a teacher? Or to serve others in some other crucial fashion? Not realistic in any way, but worth pondering.
One truly difficult aspect of being an educator teacher is often not knowing for sure if one’s work truly matters. There are myriad reasons for this, and all are real. If you don’t immediately sense why, stop and think about all the demands teaching really entails. Plus, as your column suggests, many of the pay-offs come later, long after a student has left a particular classroom. But when a teacher does know—such as when we hear from a former student who is doing beautifully, having found meaning and purpose—the feeling is amazing.
I’ve been fortunate enough to hear from many of my former students who have entered the education field. Some have joined the independent school world. Some have gone to the other extreme and worked in Teach for America and KIPP. Some do policy work, believing they can make a difference that way. I am very proud of them, and I am proud of myself, for I know those former students are contributing positively to a virtuous cycle.
To flip that coin, I’m saddened when I hear of people who have given their children wonderful educations, only to tell them they do not want them to become teachers. The reason usually has to do with the salary.
So, Mr. Kristof, I’m not condemning your argument. Nor am I against the notion of making money. I see why you have grasped onto this study. Rather than focus on the dollar amount, I probably should stress that this means those students have found steadier employment. My having to do that points to our needing a broader definition of success. Perhaps then we can find many more great teachers. Enough of them for every student to have one more often than in fourth grade. Imagine the value, tangible and intangible.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ready or not?

Please watch this video.

Are we ready or not? More important, are we helping young people become ready? Or not?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Art for More than Art's Sake

                Recently my family attended a wonderful performance of Les Miserables. Normally I don’t care for musicals, but I love this one. It’s thematically and philosophically rich, and it doesn’t feel as campy to me as many do. This occasion marked my fourth time seeing it, but the first time with my children. Perhaps for that reason, I feel prompted to write about a topic I have mentioned in passing but never explored in much depth: why the arts are a crucial part of a great education.
                Art makes us want to learn more. Since we saw the performance on New Year’s Day, we’ve had several conversations about the French Revolution. They have been more than your standards facts and figures, although that is where they started. We’ve talked about what motivated the students to rebel. We’ve talked about idealism versus pragmatism. We’ve discussed classism. We connected the show to recent events in the Middle East and to the 1988 uprisings in Tiananmen Square. Some of the staging has led to analysis of how certain effects were produced. The learning has unfolded both broadly and deeply. In fact, my daughter received inspiration for her research paper in history.
                Art reminds us of what we can create and achieve. It inspires; it challenges us to discover and harness our talents, particularly those which distinguish human beings. I listened in absolute awe as the performers created a world for us, really believing that Jean Valjean had aged 20 or so years within those three hours. Their voices filled the opera house, with incredible range and an amazing ability to hold dramatic notes. Even the entire stage was a work of art, quite literally so in the way some of Victor Hugo’s paintings were used as backgrounds. Who among us hasn’t seen a dynamic performer and imagined ourselves in that role? Believed we could create a post-modern painting or sculpture? Exemplars surround us.
                Those are rather trite thoughts, ones that others have expressed many times in much more eloquent fashion. And while important, they also do not capture nearly the entire argument. To begin doing that, we must cast the net in the opposite direction—away from consumption and toward creation.
                The attempts to create art hold invaluable lessons. It’s about more than the fundamental lessons of drawing or music or drama. It is beyond tapping into our innate creativity. Once we develop a certain level of awareness, we quickly sense our shortcomings. Creating art is not something we can achieve through memorization or drill, through passive absorption or simple regurgitation. We have to persevere through disappointments and even failures; to celebrate all the steps of the process of steady improvement while waiting patiently for a quality product. Perhaps because we are so aware of our artistic shortcomings, we are more accepting of these truths in this realm than in others.
I think it also happens because of another key notion. At some point, the creation (whether process or product) becomes public. The artist cannot hide.  A recital, a piece in a gallery, appearing on stage—the medium and forum don’t really matter. In some way, the artist must present. Yes, it’s about the work. But it still remains highly personal. It’s the most authentic, most personal type of assessment. That’s why doing this can foster courage, resilience, confidence, empathy. These are lessons which may not be part of any explicit curricula, but truly matter. It’s why we need art for much more than art’s sake.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dear Jay Mathews

Jay Mathews is an education columnist for The Washington Post. Before that he wrote for Newsweek. He started the annual rankings of the nation’s high schools. If you read this blog regularly, you know how I feel about such things. You will understand why his December 28, 2011, post—“Revealing private school secrets”—struck a nerve. The following is my response:
Dear Mr. Mathews:
I respect you as an important voice in much-needed discussions concerning education in country. You have strong beliefs, and you stick to them. I hope that, at the same time, you are willing to consider some points that don’t fit your world view.
In a recent post you were celebrating that this coming spring’s Challenge Index will include private schools. You also refer to the first publication of the list in 1998 and how “the headmasters and headmistresses of our nation’s tuition-charging high schools reacted as though I had invited them to a strip joint. They were offended.”
As one of them (and, by the way, most of us prefer the title “head of school” for many reasons), I still am offended. And the strip joint analogy is apt. Most heads of school find your approach against their ethical code. Obscene, even. And while your approach has a certain allure, we know that ultimately it's teasing promise provides no real satisfaction. It’s why we choose to be in independent schools. Repeat: independent.
Why independent? What does it really mean for us? It can take many forms, but the most important is quite simple: we have the freedom to establish our missions and to teach our students in the way that is best for them.[1]
You have established a very simple formula by which to judge a high school’s quality with your Challenge Index. You figure out the college-level test participation rate of the students. One thing I haven’t seen is whether or not you consider how students do on those tests. Even if you do, it doesn’t change my essential concern with your approach.
I ask you to think about schools such as these. A school that takes students very much at-risk, immerses them in experiential and outdoor learning, and has them end up attending college. A school which does not teach AP American and AP European History but has a course called Understanding 9-11 that students call the best experience of their lives. A school for kids with extreme learning differences, who learn how their minds work and grow in intellectual confidence. Schools for young people who are passionate about the arts or athletics or science. Schools which are small enough that anyone, no matter their talent level, can participate in activities often open to only a select few. Schools in which character matters, and it matters more than a particular score on a particular test at a particular point in time. The National Association of Independent Schools comprises hundreds of such schools.
And our society is better for it. In another gross oversimplification, you “think this will help parents who wonder whether public or private schools would be better for their children.” To some degree, that is the choice. But the beauty of independent schools is that they provide a much greater choice. They provide families with the possibility of finding a school with a mission and culture that meshes with their own. Of finding a school that can best serve a unique student’s—and each is unique—particular interests and needs. Since you clearly want to help families make an informed choice, it strikes me that rather than deride such a world, you should be advocating such a model for all education.
But you don’t. Instead, you promote a one-size-fits-all approach when the issue cries for custom fits. I’ll give you a concrete example why that doesn’t work. Recently I was able to visit with a student at what, per your index, is one of the absolute best high schools in the United States. This is a very bright, curious, intellectually lively young person; her sense of humor is particularly sharp. Listening to her describe her school experience saddened me. Very little writing (only paragraphs), plenty of fact memorization, constant drill work—little about it engaged her. No doubt she will do quite well on the tests. But will her education have truly served her as well as it could have? (In fairness, I will say that the same thing could happen at a poor independent school. I also will acknowledge this approach could be the best for some students.)
I don’t expect to change your mind. After all, you’ve probably considered all my points at previous times. The thing is, Jay, you have one of the true bully pulpits when it comes to education. I just want to see the dialogue elevated. Right now I’m afraid you are doing more harm than good.

[1] Another by-the-way point of clarification. Not all private schools are independent schools. The differences and implications are great. Your failure to distinguish is a bit misleading, and it is another example of your failure to consider how finely-nuanced this issue is.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Some Thinking about Thinking

     During the recent break I started to read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. The book had come highly recommended, and I used to teach a course on ways of knowing. Started, but didn't finish. The book was disappointing mainly because of how it was presented: each chapter followed the same basic pattern with a slightly different focus. However, the book's primary thesis holds some important implications for education.
     Kahneman contends that our thought patterns operate in two ways--System 1 and System 2. System 1 consists of our automatic, almost instinctual reactions to things. They are often based on prior knowledge, assumptions, things we take for granted. System 2 involves deeper thinking; it is more reflective and analytical. Not surprisingly, Kahneman contends that we operate mainly per System 1. He says that this occurs in large part because we are intellectually lazy. But there are other reasons. Heuristics cause us to see things in certain ways. For example, the way information is presented can "anchor" us and influence how we respond. Other heuristics include availability, emotion, risk, sample size. We also have a poor grasp of statistics. I would add that we are simply busy, we want quick answers, and we haven't really been trained to think deeply.
     Therein lies the challenge for schools. Too many of our current systems do not foster System 2 thinking. We race kids through curricula, through multiple classes each day, through plenty of extras both inside and outside of school. Assessment practices don't lend themselves neatly to System 2 thinking. It's simply much messier; it’s essentially non-measurable. Surely you can expand on the brief generalizations in this paragraph. I suspect you could draw upon much of your own experience in schools.
     The ultimate conundrum is that much of our educational practice is, in itself, based on System 1 thinking. Besides human nature when it comes to change, our practices are based on many long-standing notions that function as heuristics. The ways we organize schools, how content drives curricula, the motivational devices, grading practices, the role of the teacher--the list could go on and on, capturing traditional notions of education which seem inherently true. After all, it's the way we've always done it. And it worked well enough for us, didn't it? That question is rhetorical. If you answered yes, Kahneman could make you rethink that. The answer might be still be well enough...but not as well as it could have.
     In what serves as an interesting parallel, I came across this piece on the training methods of the Standard Liege Football [Soccer] Club from Belgium. Their coach uses the latest research from neuroscience as part of the players' individual and group training regimens. His goal: to help the players become better thinkers on the field. He wants them to be able to think as quickly as they can perform physically. To accomplish this, he has had to reconsider the entire way practices are organized, with a greater focus on the geometry of the game, among other points. The method also places greater emphasis on small-sided games rather than drill work and full scrimmages. This allows the players to practices their skills in more realistic context and to see the relevance more immediately. Throughout the article are ideas that resonate with any forward-thinking educator.
     There is another key, unstated point. As much as I support such changes in pedagogy, if we want to think deeply and help kids to learn to do the same, we have to make time and space for it. It's vital--in the most literal, life-sustaining sense--for young people. And don't just take my word for it. Read this article from "Why Kids Need Solitude." I think the points hold for everyone, not just kids.
     Now, take some time and think about all this, fast and slow.