Thursday, May 23, 2013

Post-Surgery Reminder

     On April 30 I had some extensive ENT surgery. I guess it was pretty necessary since when the doctor had examined me, within seconds of looking up my snout, he proclaimed, "My gosh, that's a mess!" It turns out that my septum was badly deviated in two places. The doctor also determined that he should remove my tonsils and trim parts of my uvula.
     The recovery has been tougher than I expected. I figured I would be out of school for a couple of days and work from home during that time. Then I'd be right back at it. After all, about ten years I'd had a hernia repaired on a Friday and been back on Monday. (Please, no comments about the aging process, especially since today's my birthday.) Little did I know, and no one had really warned me. For about two weeks I had terrible congestion and quite the aching throat. It wasn't really in pain; it was more as if I were walking around with a bad sinus infection. I lacked my usual energy, and I couldn't sleep well because of the other symptoms. Of course, I kept overdoing it and pushing at least a bit too hard each day. I probably wasn't resting enough and may have slowed things down. Meanwhile, I couldn't take anything to alleviate the congestion that exacerbated the other issues because it was part of the healing process.
     Finally I'm beginning to feel myself once again--I'd say about 80%--and I can now see why this surgery will prove beneficial. Plus it's given me another anecdote/metaphor for an important truism about children and their education. As much as we may try to force it, certain parts of the process simply have to happen organically and on a certain timetable no matter how much we may wish otherwise.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Pondering the Pace of Innovation

In Now You See It!, Cathy Davidson tells of some people who designed a robot in 2006 to take a typical bubble test. The robot was capable of decoding the question, conducting a simple search, and then using algorithms to select the answer. The robot scored significantly higher, 82%correct, than an average human. Given technological advances, now the robot likely could ace any of the tests currently out there. That notion is particularly scary since Davidson's major point is that such test focus on lower-level aptitudes. While this section of the book gave me plenty of ammunition in my tirades against standardized testing, this particular example prompted my thinking about something else: innovation--or at least what sometimes passes, and is even celebrated, for being innovative. As it that's enough in itself.

When I share the robot story with people, they generally have the same initial reaction that I did. They think it's pretty darned cool that someone designed such a robot. And in many ways it is. But when you really take a closer look at this, not to say it's easy, but this really is not particularly complex artificial intelligence.Yes, one might counter, but it's a robot! I mean, it's a robot reading and answering questions! How cool is that? Well, kinda cool. But I'd be really jazzed if it could...

Some of the innovation I read about in schools strikes me the same way. On the surface it looks great. But perhaps we confuse greatness with new and different, with unique. (I'm not going to provide any truly specific examples for two reasons: I don't want to single out anyone, and I hope you will consider cases of your own by this standard.) Whenever we evaluate curriculum and pedagogy, we must consider carefully what students will be asked to do and what criteria we really want to assess. Having students collaborate or blog or complete projects doesn't matter if students can still do so while having to do little more than basic recall and simple, routine tasks. Trivial pursuit remains trivial pursuit, whether played on a board or on a tablet pc.

Consider the following two scenarios. Teacher A is a master of the traditional Socratic method, and the routine seldom varies. Students in her class are challenged to think in ways they never imagined; as one student says, "I leave that class every day with my brain aching." They learn to question, to probe, to provide evidence, to can go down the list of vital critical thinking skills. They have to communicate through carefully crafted essays and eloquent speeches. Teacher B is incredibly creative, always finding exciting ways to engage the students in some fun class activity. The students Tweet as historical characters, create time period electronic archives, and map out elaborate timelines on the washable paint of their rooms. But it all remains superficial, a mess of dates and facts and names. The energy shaping the arc of history remains fuzzy.

Which class would you want your child in?

Obviously they are extreme examples, and In an ideal world we could merge the two. I hope that doesn't weaken the point. Plus I offer extreme examples for another reason, one that leads to perhaps a much tougher question. It's not uncommon for a school to have teachers at both ends of the spectrum. Think about the innovation craze. Think about what kids really need. Which teacher concerns you more?

I'm not some sort of educational Luddite. As I have written many times before, we need to keep reworking our models to provide better, more relevant education. We have an ethical, professional obligation to keep finding better practices. I want teachers experimenting; I want teachers creating a modern educational experience in every way. And I want it all not now, but years ago. But in doing so, I also want them to be quite mindful. That means we have to tap the brakes frequently rather than simply careen along random superhighways of innovation.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Classic Whateverness

When I was in college, a friend and I hosted a show on the campus radio station. We called it "Classic Full Operation." Our musical tastes diverged wildly, with only occasional overlaps. our format was quite simple: we alternated tunes, each of us picking whatever we felt like at the moment, often in direct response to the other's choice. It probably was the only radio show where one might here The Grateful Dead followed by Spyro Gyra. Sometimes we mixed it up and had to pick random songs from what the other had brought. Thematically it made no real sense. But somehow it worked. Well, for us; I can't speak for anyone who actually may have been listening.

I bring up that memory because I suspect this post is going to take on the feel of Classical Whateverness. Like a scattershooting piece, I'm simply going to comment on a variety of topics as they pop into my head. Some have been bubbling there for a while. Some are just occurring to me as I write. Don't expect much depth, but perhaps I'll stumble into something thought provoking. So here goes.

The Jeff Bliss video in which he lights into teacher at Duncanville High bothers me on many levels, mainly in how quickly so many have made him a heroic figure. Whether his points are right or not--and I tend to agree with--such petulance isn't the route to improvement....Why do we revel in such scenes? I worry about our civility....Is part of that video's appeal that too many have wanted to say that to some teacher? Sad thought....First trophy in over 30 years, first league title in over 40, couple of runner-up spots, return to European football--and Roberto Mancini is sacked by Manchester City. Yikes!...I've become huge fan of Twitter, and I've become fascinated by all the various ways different people use it and the sub-cultures. I may blog about it at some point. In meantime I hope Nick Bilton's book on it comes out soon....One real danger of Twitter is how easily it can become a self-affirming echo chamber....Also need to not correlate higher numbers with better quality....Best parts: easy connections and vetted resources flowing right to you all the time....I always feel a bit guilty when someone follows me and I don't follow back. But part of how I manage Twitter is by controlled following. That and hash tags....Never fail to enjoy post-series handshakes in NH!L, especially after game 7s. Love that teams can compete as intensely as that and then treat each other honorably....Sometimes the pessimistic bit of me frets we may be more than halfway to 22nd century before we can finally stop using the term 21st century education....Does anyone who's never taught realize how incredibly difficult it is? So when I think of the video mentioned above, I know there could be way too many minute-long clips I sure wouldn't want out there....Finally reading Prof. Cathy Davidson's Now You See It. Sure, I'm part of the choir, but it's still an amazing sermon that I think all should hear....When did I stop listening to music regularly? Was it when I had kids?...Had to stop at a Wal-Mart around 1:00 PM Monday on way to an appointment. Saw at least a dozen school-aged children there. It symbolizes for me that, amidst all the educational rhetoric, a large challenge is getting many people to care and/or see value of school....I am all for schools considering new models and practices, but we need to be wary of celebrating every act of innovation as a great effort. The work is too important to just keep throwing up new stuff and seeing what sticks. I want deeply thoughtful and intentional movement forward....Those who favor year-round school have never experienced the truly good tired of May as a great year winds down.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Blogging Famine

I know that I have neglected my blog recently, to the point at which I feel as if I owe it letter of apology. Indeed, I thought of structuring this post that way...but it felt entirely too cutesy. Still, I am surprised that my last new post appeared almost a month ago. It's not been lack of desire or even a shortage of ideas or even laziness. In fact, I have been thinking about blogging a great deal, and this unintentional hiatus has reaffirmed--aye, strengthened--my belief in the value of the medium.

First, I should explain the absence. For a while there I was working on some major projects, none of which were particularly conducive to blogging. They were massive presentations, with numerous moving parts. One was our iPadPalooza, which involved dozens of teachers and students along with key remarks. It was spectacular, and the preparation just about consumed me for a while. That and the normalcy of school life. Plus some things were happening about which I simply never would blog. While social media expert Dana Boyd points out that young people live public lives by default, for a head of school to do that with some of what I experience would be simply wrong. Then, a week ago I had some extensive nose and throat surgery done. The recovery has been awful, and I am just starting to feel myself again.

So no blogging recently, which makes me think about blogging, and now I wish I could have been blogging about some of what I was trying to figure out. It really has felt like a blogging famine. Sure, I could have still written through my ideas, and I have really intricate mind maps full of notes and designs and rainbows. (The one for my thesis back in the 80s completely covered the walls of my apartment bedroom, but I digress.) Yet it simply isn't the same, and I think I have figured out why. It's the vulnerability in revealing the struggle, in showing that sometimes the room looks wonderful but, please, don't open that closet! Plus I believe that holds a certain attraction for many readers. Yes, we marvel at the shiny gadget or scrumptious-looking meal, but we also ponder the creative process. Selfishly, while I know I can put together an elegant essay or killer presentation, I also want people to sense what goes into it, the mental and, yes, physical sweat. So I'm honored and grateful when someone like Peter Gow, one of the most important voices in independent school educations, includes my work in his Education Week column on bloggers to follow ( Not only that, but comments:

"Deeply reflective and often refreshingly personal, this is a school head's blog about life, learning, and just keeping things, well, whole. Mark isn't afraid to tell us how he is learning; a recent post on experiencing his first Twitter chat (the #isedchat) was refreshingly honest and very relatable."

It's not just the validation, though I admit my ego continues to do a grand jig when I read that. It's that Peter gets what I am trying to explain throughout my work and in this piece about blogging. It's about never forgetting that learning ultimately is about process.

So while I reflect on my own blogging, the question becomes quite obvious, borderline rhetorical. Why wouldn't any teacher have students blog? It's one of the best chances we have to gain any sense of how learning proceeds for them, to raft those intellectual rapids through their ever-changing synapses. If all we assess if how well someone has learned to meet the oft-dictatorial guidelines of a rubric to produce the sort of paper no one ever writes once out of school, we haven't served kids as well as we might. In some ways we've done them a disservice. We would have denied them some key nutrients.

Then we certainly won't have kept things whole. And while I trust Peter--and most of you kind enough to read--know what that means, soon I'll explain the blog's title and thus pull back the curtain a tiny bit more.