Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Innovation, Culture, and Self

“Human societies vary in lots of independent factors affecting their openness to innovation.”  --Jared Diamond

                A few years ago, creativity was the hot topic in education. Now it seems to be innovation. A logical progression—creativity should lead to innovation, yes? And we need both if we are going to continue to evolve. Nothing new in that notion. After all, whoever first used a rock or stick as some sort of tool clearly intuited this.
                Wherever educators look, innovation is there, the latest manifestation of the Holy Grail.  A current must-read is Tony Wagner Creating innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. (Confession: No, I haven’t read it…but it’s on my Amazon wish list.) This year the theme of the National Association of Independent Schools’ Annual Conference was “Innovation: imagine invent inspire dream.” Next year’s is “Revolutionary Traditions: Think Big, Think Great.” In the summer 2012 edition of Independent School magazine, NAIS president Pat Bassett’s column is entitled “The Innovation Imperative.” Pat concludes:

Bill Gates, our 2012 Annual Conference kick-off speaker, tells us that “innovation is the means, and equity is the end goal.” One powerful way we can meet our objectives of “the public purpose of private education” is to model the best 21st-century education in the world. (p. 12)

I certainly agree with the sentiment and the charge. But I have to wonder how ready the audience is for the message. Consider the following in light of the Jared Diamond quote at the start of this post.
In “Dangerous Things School Teaches” on his Blue Skunk Blog, Doug Johnson begins by citing Jessica’s Hagey’s list of Nine Dangerous Things You Were Taught in School:

·      The people in charge have all the answers
  • Learning ends when you leave the classroom
  • The best and brightest follow the rules
  • What the books say is always true
  • There is a very clear, single path to success
  • Behaving yourself is as important as getting good marks
  • Standardized tests measure your value
  • Days off are always more fun than sitting in the classroom
  • The purpose of your education is your future career
Johnson agrees and adds:
·       There is one right answer to every question.
  • The purpose of your education is to make sure you can get a good job.
  • The more money you make, the happier you will be.
  • Heredity is fate.
  • Popularity = success.
  • You have to be smart at everything.
  • Classwork is more valuable than extracurricular activities or a part-time job.
  • You should like every teacher you have.
  • Objectivity trumps passion.

For many of us, I’m sure, these lists contained several pricks of remembrance. Each author elaborates briefly on every point.  It would be easy, and a big mistake, to think of them as isolated incidents. Instead, we need to consider the notion of school culture.
Kevin Ruth writes the wonderful, often provocative blog Introit.  A recent post was Caveat on Establishing Innovative Cultures.”  Some key passages:
Culture is a big deal in schools. We might be talking a lot about innovation right now, but a question schools should be asking is this: "Is our culture ready for innovation?" There are consequences to innovation within your school's culture. Why? Schools have always thrived on rules, predictability, and systems (hierarchies would qualify as a 'system', for example). This triumvirate of "how we do school" makes it difficult to deal with change, generally speaking, let alone the kinds of change that go hand-in-hand with innovation.
Schools should not tread lightly into the territory of "innovation." This is not how we "do school" or "do business," if you like. As Luke Johnson wrote in his Financial Times column, "The Entrepreneur" the other day (May 9, 2012), "The essence [...] is a willingness to do what it takes to get things moving. That means foregoing the joys of clarity for the messy truth that comprises any new venture -- imperfect products, clients who don't pay, the wrong staff, insufficient capital and so on. Such projects prosper thanks to many incremental wins and plenty of errors, rather than a few clean victories."
Schools would do well to heed his cautionary note. Foregoing the joys of clarity? Good luck. Plenty of errors? Not something with which we've been comfortable We need to think about how to realign school culture in order to allow for messiness, to embrace it.
Are we, as schools, prepared to "muddle through" in such circumstances? Are we prepared to realign cultures? Are we prepared for the time and effort it will take in order to make that happen?
I like to imagine a scene in which Kevin is yelling these questions at some sort of edu-vangelical rally, with hundreds of cheering acolytes screaming, “Amen!” It is very easy to respond yes to these questions; it is quite another to actually act on it. I recall how after the NAIS annual conference, numerous attendees tweeted their questions about how the zeal would lead to action post-event.
                As much of the literature on leadership stresses, bringing about cultural change is incredibly difficult. That is true in most areas, not just school. It’s not that people are totally averse to change. Otherwise, many of us would never have children. Instead, the imagined benefits must provide enough motivation to circumvent our comfort with the known. Some of the realities of school add to this. Just the management of children lends itself to a preoccupation with rules; and their developmental stages necessitate a high degree of concrete, rote learning along with some drilling of the basics. Then it is difficult for them to break out of that way of doing things, especially when they experience success. Meanwhile, teachers find it much easier to assess progress when the objectives fit into distinct boxes.
                So, if innovation is indeed an imperative, how do we proceed? In his column Pat Bassett provides many inspiring examples from businesses and schools. Leaders can, of course, keep the vision in front of people and create a fertile atmosphere. Ultimately, though, no matter what sort of systems and policies and rewards exist, everyone—educators, families, students—has to accept some fundamental understandings that may grate against school-as-usual.

·         Education is long-term and non-linear.
·         School could become messier than usual. Curricula may not align perfectly, and assessment criteria may be much more abstract.
·         We can no longer think of subjects and time in discrete units.
·         Continue to use data, but discerningly and with a clear sense of its limitations.
·         The quality of the experience matters much more than the quantity of the work and coverage.
·         Educators will have to move from being congenial and collegial to being truly collaborative.
·         Education is not a means to a particular end.
·         Individual experiences may vary greatly.
·         We have to become more accepting, even admiring, of the glorious failure.

These are just some of the major themes. I’m certain you could add to this list.
               What makes the whole issue particularly tricky is that most people grasp them in theory. But then reality intrudes. That’s why the conversations will have to be ongoing, widely inclusive, and profoundly honest. That’s really the only approach which will allow us to, as Kevin Ruth puts it, “muddle through.” Because if we’re going to heed the call and help our children become more innovative, we need to begin by re-inventing some things about ourselves.

Monday, May 21, 2012

What's the Big Hurry?

     This past Saturday The Dallas Morning News had an excellent Local Voices column by Emily Worland, a teacher at Marcus High School in Flower Mound: "The gentle, ‘no tears’ formula for AP exams." Her basic thesis is that "The AP program as it stands creates a misperception of college expectations and sets students up for handouts that simply won’t exist." Some of the reasons are programmatic, but many are developmental. (Read the column here.)
     I recall the last time I taught an AP course. It was AP Composition. Ironically, I felt that I didn't help the students improve as writers nearly as much as I could have in the time allotted. Why? Because so often I had to take extensive time to show them how to structure formulaic responses to certain types of questions.
     Beyond challenges such as this one, not many high school students can function at the level expected in most college courses. Yet a distrubing trend has arisen. AP courses used to be the domain of exceptional seniors. A while ago more juniors began taking them. Now sophomores. Middle schools have pre-AP tracks. A few years ago a prospective family with a rising kindergartener asked me about AP courses in upper school, with a focus on a particular subject.
     I'm reminded of select sports, in which kids are asked to choose and specialize at younger and younger ages. Yes, many love the sport. But many end up injured or burnt out.
     I have to ask: What's the big hurry?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Better than Best

As a former English teacher who used to teach a linguistics course, I think about the implications of language more than most people. I am not a grammar fiend, but words matter to me greatly and I try to be careful about which ones I use. So I am a bit disappointed that in the past week I have used one of my most-disliked terms...twice. (I blame fatigue.)

The term? Best practices.

My issue with this term is not that is a current buzzword. In fact, I find buzzwords a bit comforting, as they can help create a sense of commonality and direction. Language is a unifier, after all. When people choose to play "buzzword bingo" rather than engage in the real purpose of a meeting, it smacks of cynicism.

My first concern with the term is more ethereal, more philosophical. I don't believe there is such a thing as a best practice. Different situations necessitate varied responses; what is "best" simply depends on...well, many things. In that sense, the concern also is a practical one and why all strategy really comes down to execution.

Being couched in the superlative, the term also suggests that we have found the ultimate. But isn't the goal--and a mindset we want to instill in young people--to never stop finding better practices?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Curse of the Single Data Point

                Last night I almost fell victim to the Curse of the Single Data Point. It can strike any of us at any time, and we must remain ever vigilant, fighting the natural human impulse to allow our emotions to override our reason.
                My sixth-grade son had a homework assignment about which he felt quite dismayed. I’m not going to name the class or teacher or even explain the assignment; I have too much respect for fellow educators to do that, particularly ones who are former colleagues. He felt the assignment was unreasonable, overly tedious, and pointless. As he explained the assignment to me, particularly the restrictions on how to complete it, I began to feel the same frustration. It didn’t help that when I tried to figure it out on my own, I couldn’t do it. I grew angry, and I was thinking about what to say in an e-mail or phone call to the teacher. Thankfully I’d kept these feelings under cover.
                Then I caught myself and calmed down. To accomplish that, I had to switch from parent mode to educator mode. Did my son have all his information correct about how to complete the task? How did the assignment fit into the context of the class? What did it tie to and build on? Was the teacher asking the students to make some connections and thus push their analytical thinking? I still have many questions and doubts about the assignment. But I know something else: essentially I needed more information than the single data point of my child.
                I’m disappointed in myself because I should know better, having spent so many years in the classroom. Plus I am in the middle of reading The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, about the special and complicated relationship between sitting and ex-U.S. presidents. A constant theme is how, whatever their differences, they have great respect for each other based on the incredible complexity of the job and how only those who have done it can even begin to comprehend it. Yet we generally are tremendously quick to judge our presidents, sometimes based on a limited understanding of a single pet issue.
                I’m not equating a teacher’s work to that of a U.S. president except in one sense: the complexity. Think about what a teacher is striving to accomplish in a class. I mean, really think about it. Consider how many interactions and decisions make up the course of a teacher’s day; ponder the amount of work that goes into the entire process; imagine trying to meet the assorted needs of so many people at once.
                That’s why I’m also disappointed in myself, because I know all about those things. And here I am having those feelings when this is Teacher Appreciation Week. I forgive myself, because the reaction is human. Still, I feel I should do a bit of penance. I still need to contact that teacher, but not about one assignment. I want to say thanks for being a teacher and doing so much for my Single Data Point.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Do Students Ever Get to Blog in Their Underwear?

I really enjoy the work of Hugh MacLeod, whose great cartoons you can see at His work is a wonderful mix of skepticism and inspiration. He began his career by drawing his cartoons on the back of business cards while sitting at a bar. He built his business through his blog, and now he sells his work for high prices and produces best-selling business books. In his latest book, Freedom is Blogging in Your Underwear, he talks about his absolute love of blogging. Hugh's tale is one of those anyone-can-make-it stories, provided you have some talent, follow your passion, work really hard, and take advantages of the tools and opportunities available.
Reading the book—and it takes just about half an hour—make me reflect upon my own blogging. I certainly feel a higher degree of freedom than I do in other writing, and that freedom has grown the more I post. I write a bit more informally; I don’t pay that much attention to structure; I don’t do much pre-writing; I certainly don’t do much editing or polishing.  (I’ve looked back at some pieces and cringed at certain bits and pieces of prose.) In fact, while I often have done some reflecting before I begin a post, I often don’t know exactly where it’s going to go. The process becomes a bit more exploratory than, say, an academic paper. It also feels more personal, as if I really am leaving some clues about myself. I also know that blogging has helped me tremendously as a professional. So in many ways I understand exactly what Hugh is saying.
But I can’t say that I feel total freedom in my blogging. While the blog is mine, it’s also the blog of the head of St. John’s Episcopal School. Whenever I write for an audience, I cannot forget that awesome responsibility. It comes with certain expectations, and people may parse things particularly carefully. To some extent, I feel as if each reader may give every piece a grade.
And that gnawing feeling leads me to wonder about student writing. As a former English teacher, I’ve thought about a great deal about the process of writing instruction, particularly some time-honored practices. I’m not sure that many of them move students to the ultimate goal of written communication.
As an example, let’s take the five-paragraph essay. I haven’t seen many, if any quality pieces from published writers that follow this formula. After all, not many ideas lend themselves to such a simplistic formula. And while writers want to engage the audience, this structure almost insults the reader. It’s as if the writer is saying at the end, “I know I already told you what I was going to tell you, and then I actually told, but now I’m telling you again, just in case you’re too stupid to have gotten it.”
Writing teacher have argued with me that the five-paragraph method is necessary as a pace to begin. Maybe…but here’s the problem with that. If a developing writer follows the recipe and receives positive feedback—the high grade—then he or she grows unwilling to deviate. It leads to other pedantic questions such as “How long does this need to be?” Overly rigid rubrics have the same effect. Students can end up focusing far too much on following the guidelines and rules and point values that they end up forgetting to focus on saying something worthwhile. Teachers can fall into the same trap as they assess the student writing. Similarly, I’m not sure why teachers feel they must always assign topics. I liked to allow students to come up with their own topics, as I learned more in the process.
That brings me back to that ultimate goal, what I see as the virtuous cycle powered by the relationship between writer and reader. A cartoon by Hugh MacLeod, the one I have as my desktop background, captures it perfectly: