Friday, January 25, 2013

Learning to Fly: The Greatest Time to be an Educator

Note: This post works as a follw-up to previous post, "The Real Enemy of Great."

Earlier this month, St. John’s had Jonathan Martin lead an in-service on 21st Century Education for us. It was awesome—“best in-service ever,” several teachers praised. Jonathan packed his presentation with loads of theory and concrete information, and teachers left with clear steps for moving forward. The day made me miss being in the classroom as a teacher. What has resonated with me since then is a question Jonathan asked: When was a time when you suddenly knew things would never be the same?
While I can think of many pivotal moments during my career in education, four stand out as “Aha!” sort of experiences.
·         The first came in the mid-90s. I was teaching 9th grade English, and students were doing research on a small section of Genesis or Exodus. The idea was to dig as deeply into it as possible, from various angles. Our library had limited resources, and my knowledge was finite. I convinced the tech director to give each student an e-mail address. Then I contacted various seminaries and religious studies departments around the nation to see if anyone would be willing to serve as a “telementor.” Suddenly my students were collaborating with experts on some very serious scholarship. I wasn’t obsolete, but my role was certainly different as I became much more of a guide and partner in the learning process.
·         Around 2005 or so, I was teaching a self-developed course called The Ways We Know, a hybrid of neuroscience, cognition, and epistemology. Needless to say, there was no pre-existing textbook, and I wanted a wide variety of resources. The course book became a page in a content management system with a bunch of links to myriads materials. So much for my notion of the textbook.
·         About that same time, I was teaching a junior poetry course. For the final project, I wanted the students to do something that would incorporate all the facets of the course. The typical analytical essay just wasn’t going to work. Instead, the students created electronic poetry museums which had multiple facets, including the usual written elements along with created and downloaded multi-media elements. An added bonus was how much time the students spent exploring each other’s museums.  Authentic assessment became my ideal.
·         The final one occurred in the spring of 2010. The chairman of the arts department came to see me about an email he had received from someone in Bhutan. The person was an education student and was inquiring about something she had traced to our school via an article in some education journal published in Asia. But the information was vague, and we had no idea what she was referring to. We apologized for not being able to help, but the person politely tried us again. We involved the educational technology director, who did some searching and “got a Google”— a single hit for the entered search terms. It turns out the article had contained a reference to a website some of my students had created in a junior English class several years earlier. Yes, we are closely connected in unforeseen ways, and students can make important contributions.
At the end of each anecdote I comment very briefly on its significance, and each point matters. More important is the composite. Together, they show just about every traditional aspect of the teacher-student relationship beyond the basic human connection being upset to some degree.
                At the same time, however—and this where the crucial idea really starts—these epiphanies did not alter my essential philosophy. Powerful relationships, finding relevance and purpose, learning how learn, creativity, collaboration, student as worker—all these ideas and others have fueled my practices from the first time I stepped into a classroom. After all, I’m the guy who put everything aside for a month in 1988 when a bunch of eighth graders wanted to rewrite their own version of Romeo and Juliet and then videotape the performance (still one of my greatest experiences as a teacher; how I wish it had been digitalized before the tape was ruined). Two simple truths often held me back. The first was, as a young teacher, having to reconcile my beliefs and wishes with so much of what my experience as a student and the larger culture were telling me a teacher should do—the very traditional view of the role. Working through that was difficult, full of inevitable pitfalls only deepened by the mistakes most young teachers make. The second was more practical. It was too hard and even impossible to do some of what I would have liked. For example, recall the story above about creating the on-line repository of resources for a course. Back in the 80s, I wanted to create a reader for one of my classes. Dealing with the publishers, the copyright issues, the fees, and the sheer time involved were simply overwhelming; and I abandoned the project. Twenty years later, I could create just what I wanted, with multimedia, rather easily.  I’ve written many times that technology must function as a tool that allows us to achieve our objectives in the bet fashion. Tablet, laptop, phone—the device doesn’t matter. The power lies in the what and the how, driven by the why. As suggested above, that why becomes much more achievable.  It’s really quite amazing and empowering.
                Sometimes I think we forget that. We have become so accustomed to rapid technological change that we fail to consider its impact. Take a minute and ask yourself: What am I glad I can do now that I couldn’t do x number of years ago? Even more importantly, what can students do? Think about what happened in the examples outlines above. In just about a decade, my students went from passive consumers to active creators and even contributors on a global scale. Imagine, then, what the future may hold. And we must prepare young people not for our pasts or even our presents, but for their futures.
                Even beyond that, this empowerment feeds the educators our children need in other key ways. As Dan Pink’s work in Drive shows us, true motivation and fulfillment come from autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In the right environment, teachers have more and more opportunities to sense those feelings. While doing so, to borrow Seth Godin’s metaphor about important work, thoughtful and brave educators can become true artists. We can build upon the great work done before our time. However, we have an obligation to break molds, to imagine and design and create, to take small steps into the adjacent possible or flying leaps into the skies of what could be.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Real Enemy of Great

                The opening line of Jim Collins’ best-selling Good to Great declares, “Good is the enemy of great” (1). There is no telling how many times over the few years immediately after the book’s release I heard that line in a presentation or read it in some sort of piece. I don’t disagree with the notion; and I won’t argue with the many examples, the piles of data, and the behaviors that Collins presents. Ultimately, though, I’m not sure Collins identifies the real enemy. The closest he comes is when he writes, “That good is the enemy of great is not just a business problem. It is a human problem” (16).
                Agreed. But Collins doesn’t dig any further into the issue; in fairness, that is not really his point, as his real work lies in delineating the process for improvement. He does focus on qualities needed to make this happen, whether at Level 5 Leadership or in the various seats on the bus. Certainly important. However, the question of the real human problem lingers.
                Complacency, blind spots, limited abilities, narrow bandwith, practical constraints—I’m sure you could add to the list, and all are realities. But I think there is something more insidious at work.
                Hiding behind a cloak of cool, this jaded posture is quick to launch spears of negativity at new ideas, at the unfamiliar, at the original. It’s often the spawn of ego and fear, so it lashes out at any threat. And what’s required to become great—the risk, the uncertainty, the personal investment, the vision—threatens many.
                Sadly, reasons abound to have become cynical. People we’ve chosen as role models and leaders seem to let us down almost daily, i.e. cheating athletes and dogmatic, uncompromising politicians. So now cynicism seems to fuel much of what passes for humor. After all, do we laugh or cry?
                I cry. Mainly because of the effect on the target of the barbs, and those are the people who can move us toward becoming great. Instead, they begin to feel those tugs of doubts, to heed those cries of the lizard brain, to suffer bouts of paralysis. It also can erode the belief of those who support the move.
                More dangerously than anything else, cynicism carpet bombs the realms of possibility. Ideas are reduced to rubble; dreams, burned to crispy cinders. Unless we can construct ever-taller towers, how can we become great?
                Sometimes the move towards great is relatively easy, when we take small steps into the adjacent possible. The real gut-wrenching occurs when we leap into a place realized primarily in our imaginations. That calls for courage and faith.
I am sure this concept holds true for most areas, but I think it’s particularly true for education. At its essence, education depends on a steadfast, unshakable belief in the possibility of each child. It’s not just the adults who must have this belief. The child must internalize it.
                We also must embrace the possibilities of education—not what it can achieve, but what it can become. I know that I couldn’t do my work without grasping that ideal. That is particularly true now. This is my thirtieth year in independent schools; and, as I plan to explain in my next post, I think this is an amazingly exciting time to be an educator. Maybe the most exciting. An era to accomplish truly great things. It’s certainly no time to be cynical. It is time to conquer the enemy.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Sleep and Dreams

                I was a bit surprised to realize that I had not posted on my blog for a month. I say “a bit” because it wasn’t a total shock. The week before break is always crammed full as I wrap up certain things, and the week back is a whirlwind. Plus I think during the break I detached from school more than I have before. I did a few essential things, but spent very little time checking email (and even less responding), scanning Twitter (and none Tweeting), or perusing blogs (and not even jotting down ideas for my own). I didn’t do much thinking about school at all.
                So what did I do? I spent more time with my wife and children. I exercised more than usual. I played with our delightful new kitten. I had a Christmas day snowball fight with my son (yes, in Dallas—second time in the past few years). I read purely for pleasure. I watched plenty of soccer matches. We saw Les Mis and Lincoln. My wife and I had marathon viewing sessions of Lost. I slept more and better than usual; I even napped a couple times.  Often I simply was.
                This near-total hiatus was not planned or in any way intentional. Perhaps that is why it happened; it’s the whole “best laid plans” notion. In fact, I had some things that I had planned to accomplish, but I simply let them go as, in some ways, time got away from me in the best sense. It was almost a new form of flow, feeling transcendent while not being too caught up in anything.
                I think it also happened because my body and mind were screaming, “Give us a break!”  Not from any particular item, but from a series of stressors over several months. And before you jump to conclusions, remember that extreme positives also stress the system, just in a different way.  For me, such situations manifest themselves in less and worse sleep. I’d compare my situation to a sleep study cited in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s NurtureShock. Adults’ sleep was shortened to six hours per night. After two weeks they reported they were doing fine. Yet on a battery of tests, they proved as cognitively impaired as someone who had stayed awake for 24 straight hours (44). I know that for a while I simply was not functioning at my best.
                Of course, most of us know from experience that lack of sleep means poorer functioning…even if we like to claim it doesn’t. The reason is simple. As John Medina explains in Brain Rules,
The bottom line is that sleep loss means mind loss. Sleep loss cripples thinking, in just about every way you can measure thinking. Sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge. Eventually, sleep loss affects manual dexterity, including fine motor control (except, perhaps, for pinball) and even gross motor movements, such as the ability to walk on a treadmill.
                When you look at all the data combined, a consistency emerges: Sleep is rather intimately involved in learning. (163)
Two questions are thus begged. How, beyond the obvious, is it involved in learning? What are the implications for our hard-working, highly-scheduled children?
                According to NurtureShock, sleep loss weakens the body’s ability to extract glucose from the blood stream. This is the body’s essential energy stream. Without it, the brain suffers, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions such as orchestrating thoughts to fulfill a goal, predicting outcomes, and perceiving consequences. A tired brain also more easily becomes stuck on wrong answers, even known wrong answers, without being able to develop another solution. Furthermore, sleep is when the brain shifts portions of the day’s learning to more efficient storage regions of the brain. This occurs particularly during stage 2 non-REM sleep, a slow-wave period without dreams. In short, “[t]he more you learned during the day, the more you need to sleep that night” (34).
                As for children, they spend about 40% of their sleep time in that slow wave stage, or about ten times what adults spend. Meanwhile, a young person’s brain is very much a work in progress until around age 21, with much of that taking place during sleep. Some scientists even theorize that sleep loss in children can cause permanent damage in brain structure. It may also be tied to ADHD and obesity.
                Yet children simply do not enjoy enough sleep. NurtureShock contains some concerning statistics. Half of all adolescents average less than seven hours of sleep per night, and children of all ages get an hour less sleep each night than they did thirty years ago. Not surprisingly, 60% of high school students report extreme daytime sleepiness. Yet 90% of American parents believe their child gets enough sleep. I wonder how these numbers compare to the statistics in independent schools such as mine, with such a focus on achievement.
                Many points contribute to this sleep loss. Overscheduling of activities, heavy homework load, lax discipline, technology in the bedroom, ignorance regarding the issue—plenty of blame can be doled out proportionally depending on the particular situation. Culturally, we also seem to take pride in claiming we don’t need much sleep.
                Ironically, often we sacrifice sleep—or that of our children—for the sake of chasing dreams. At some point we all must ask, in seeking that proper balance, “At what cost?” My recent awakening in response to that question has left me in better shape to not only go after those dreams, but to fulfill them. Isn’t that what we want for our children?