Thursday, December 18, 2014

Single Tweet Spurs Big Thoughts

Last week I was reminded of just how awesome Twitter can be. I follow Tom Peters, the famous business writer. I'm honored he follows back; and he's even replied to, re-tweeted and favorited a few of my tweets. On this day he was wound up about email and sending out several mini-rants on email etiquette. I replied that I often write email I wish I could send in Word so I don't accidentally send it, then write the more appropriate one. He replies and re-tweets. Over the next twenty minutes or so I'm in a conversation with him and people from South Africa, Dubai, India, England, and various U.S cities. They were people from various professions, from financial advisors to tech consultants to a Wall Street Journal reporter. Pretty darned cool!
The reminders go deeper than that. After all, that story can be reduced to a rather simple and oft-repeated notion: that now it's so easy to connect to anyone in meaningful, purposeful ways. Indeed so, and really quite amazing. We've even reached the point where we've stopped realizing just how signficant this is. Yet while we take it for granted, schools have yet to harness the full potential of this. Yes, many are doing more with different types of connections and blended learning and social media. But how much has it changed school as usual? That question is borderline rhetorical, except that I think it begs many others, beginning with "Should it?" and "How?" and "Why?" Any regular readers know my answers. The point is that the possibilities should be driving us to ask such questions continually.
That becomes quite philosophical. As much as I like to swirl around in pedagogical ether, since that Twitter experience I've found myself thinking about something more practical. The exchange dealt with email etiquette, and one point early on was that in many ways we are the sum of our emails. (You could substitute tweets, posts, et cetera for emails.) So in many ways it was about digital citizenship and how it plays out in two distinct yet overlapping realms. First, how do we treat others? Many people find it easy to hide behide the anonymity of the screen and a cryptic user name, spewing vitriole they likely would not say to someone in person. Even if the people know each other, something about it being on-line empowers--if that is the right word--people to express things in a manner they normally wouldn't. I think it's a matter of physical and psycholgical distance. We have no face, no voice, no body as we do on the phone or in person. Becasue of that, we are less likely to consider the impact of our words on others. The inverse, however, holds true in that the recipient is forming a very strong impression of the deliverer and creating a distinct persona of that person. Hence we have the second area: What is the online persona we are creating? As much as we might wish otherwise, the reality is that our online and "real world" selves are not separate beings, as much as we may try to keep them distinct. Analogously, while someone may try to separate her personal and professional lives, together they form the whole person. Schools must be very intentional in realizing this and in helping students understand this.
That is very practical in that it involves essential knowledge and skills for the world today and the foreseeable future. Yet it also speaks to a broader philosophical view. During and after the Twitter chat, I found myself reflecting on my practices and what they say about me. Not just in email, but other parts of my life. What are my actions saying? How, to use the Quaker saying, does my life speak? I believe that's what a meaningful education is for. It helps young people struggle with the answers to such questions. They also need to do so in conjuction with what's happening in the world around them. To grapple with what local, regional, national, and world events say about humanity and about themselves. That's how they find solid footing and a place in the world rather than drift along aimlessly. It determines the quality of our relationships in ways that go far beyond email.
I know I've rambled in this post, and I hope it makes sense. Maybe there are bits and pieces of something slightly profund. I know I've written and said much of this previously, and others have done so better than I have here. But reminders never hurt.
And to think it all began with a simple Tweet.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Classic Whateverness #3

     As we approach the end of the year, the time has come for another post in "Classic Whateverness" mode--those times when I do some mental de-cluttering. In these posts I rather randomly, though perhaps with some stream-of-consciousness logic flowing beneath the surface, briefly share thought which haven't grown into full posts. (Previous such posts: the first one; the second one.)

Whatever one may think about the Brown and Garner controversies, they capture why schools must have good digital literacy programs. We saw the best and worst of social media in action ... Speaking of these cases, really tests the ability to teach how to think, not what to think. Always was proud when students told me they couldn't really tell my stance on an issue ... When a school does not address such events in some fashion, we fail. We allow students' education to exist in a vacuum rather than have a larger purpose. Indeed, we even signal that it doesn't really matter in a larger societal context ... If teachers are to be judged on their students' standardized test scores, how far up the chain should we assign such responsibility? ... Not sure where I saw this, but love it: Why emphasize standardized testing unless you want standardized kids? ... Been thinking about what I would choose if I had to select a single word for what I want school to be. Current favorite is inspiring like how all-encompassing it feels ... I keep seeing the argument for changing certain practices in schools as "That's not how the real world works" or "Adults don't have to do that in their work." I understand that thinking and often agree. But we're talking about school and kids--not miniature adults. That was the thinking behind child labor over a century ago ... Along those same lines, that's one reason schools are not going extinct any time soon: the adults need something to do with the kids during the day ... I've decided I don't like how so many use the term "grit" for another reason: something that is gritty is abrasive and wears down whatever it's rubbing against. I much prefer determination, perseverance, or resilience. They seem more in line with my educational philosophy of steady growth in the face of regular, appropriate challenge ... Besides the complexities of human nature, two other things make working with teachers hard. They are accustomed to being the most knowledgeable (though not necessarily smartest) person in the room most of the time. They also spend so much of their time telling people what's wrong with something and how to fix it ... Has any school had as much giant, public stress as the University of Virginia over the past year--the board-president imbroglio, high-profile murder of a student, and now the apparently false story about rape on campus ... I saw an interesting note in a news article regarding a Plano, TX, ruling about equal rights for LGBQT people. Those opposed voiced their concerns via email; those in favor mainly used social media. There have to be some other demographics that align with this ... If I were truly brave--and I mean really, truly brave--and less of a realist, I'd eliminate grades. They inevitably frustrate everyone in some way, and I think they do more than anything else to obscure what learning should be about ... I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the inverse relationship between responsibility/supposed "power" and control. Seems the more of the latter you have, the less of the former you actually have. And I think that's necessary for effective leadership--that one doesn't try to control but instead empowers ... Fewer posts are showing up in my blog aggregator. I wonder if blogging is dying out, and maybe not so slowly ... Hmmm. So could/should each bit in here have been a tweet? ... I hope that's not true about blogging. I love the meditative quality of great posts. I can't recall the source, but some famous author once said, "I'm not sure what I think until I write it." ... So now I wonder: Should some  of these become full posts rather than pellets among scattershooting?

Monday, December 1, 2014

RIP Mark Strand--Inspiration for the Blog's Title

     Mark Strand died this past Saturday. If you don't know why I'm writing about that, scroll down and look at the bottom right corner of the blog's template. You'll see his poem that serves as the inspiration for the name of this blog. Of only slightly larger claims to fame were his being named U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990 and winning the Pulitzer in 1999.
     I've loved the poem "Keeping Things Whole" since the first time I read it, which was in the early 1980s when I stumbled across it in a collection of modern American verse. It has stuck with me, although I'm not sure I truly understand it except in that loose deconstructionist way which allows one to bring whatever meaning one wants to a work. However, my reasons for naming the blog after the poem seem consistent with other themes in his work. His death prompts me to write this post, which I've thought about doing many times in response to the question some have asked: Why did you name the blog To Keep Things Whole?
     The most basic and general (and certainly most true) is, as any regular reader knows, an affirmation of my belief in holistic education. Yes, I value the life of the mind; some would say I spent way too much time in my own head. Yet I assert that we must develop all parts of ourselves and our students. If we don't, we cede something essentially human about ourselves. We are not, to paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson, simply brains whose bodies are solely a means of transport. Along with the physical, we have all the facets of the psyche (however one wishes to identify them).
     As an educator, I've always striven to pull together pieces that become increasingly fragmented as students proceed through school. We separate more and more, when we should be connecting more broadly and more deeply. The overwhelming majority of the world are not academic specialists and have no intent of becoming such, but we organize schools that way. I think we assume, perhaps with interjections of hope, that students will coalesce all their disparate experiences into a coherent understanding of something. Just what that something is, I'm often unclear. So now, as a school leader, I try to keep things whole by helping a group of strong, smart, talented, independent people come together under a vision. I have to go where necessary, and use all sorts of ways, to move us in that direction.
     And, as the world changes and we contemplate our students' futures--and how schools must both maintain and evolve--we "all have reasons for moving." The process should be continuous, never-ending. All Strand's poems echo this notion. In his obituary, The New York Times calls him "hauntingly meditative" as he contemplates the expansive nature of the self and its relationship with the larger world. The poem thus becomes a metaphor for what we should want our students to learn, perhaps above all else: that learning must never cease, lest we cease to be wholly human.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What's Your Mission?

     I conduct a series of seminars for St. John's parents called Inside the Head's Head, during which we focus on a variety of educational topics and how they apply to St. John's. Last year, for instance, we talked about education being responsive to changes in the world. This year we're pondering notions of success. This morning was our first session, and it was a very spirited and encouraging discussion. In response to one of the prompts I provided, the topic of money came up. Someone offered that while we all want to make a certain degree of money, and that varies from person to person, he believes it's most important to follow one's passion. I've been thinking about that very notion when it comes to students entering college. That's quite natural since I have a senior daughter.
     You know the question that people inevitably ask high school seniors: What do you plan to major in? While my daughter, Kate, has some possibilities in mind, she simply doesn't know for sure. I believe that is normal and probably healthy. I went to college with vague plans of entering the radio business, probably fueled by too many hours listening to Scott Muni on WNEW-FM while growing up. Anyway, more on that later in the post. For a seventeen-year-old, that's akin to asking what they want to be after college, as they often see the two in lockstep. She doesn't have any clear idea about that either. But she does know what she is interested in and passionate about and draws meaning from. So both of us have become rather intrigued with ideas being voiced by the new president of Goucher College, Jose Antonio Bowen. He has received quite a bit of press for introducing the concept of the video application. But I'm more interested in another one of his thoughts--having a student declare not a major, but a mission; or a major shaped by a personal mission (See paragraph 7 in this piece. Also read this New York Times article for other thoughts.) I love how this captures a sense of meaning and purpose that should fuel one's education.
     Of course, many think that's a "big ask" of a young college student. To some extent I agree. But I'm not sure it's any bigger than asking for declaration of a major. Actually, it should provide even better direction because it prompts much more reflection and perhaps less of a major-by-default process. I think about the incredible insights and then pointed guidance a young, impressionable college student could receive. Interestingly, yesterday I had the chance to visit with a former student-athlete of mine and I bounced this idea off him. He responded, "I wish someone had sat down with me at the start and asked me what I really cared about. I might have had more direction." I think back to the insight a career counselor showed during my senior year. The radio dream popped after I spent a couple days at that station and some realities. So I needed a new plan and went to the career services office. After looking at my paperwork and talking with me, she told me I should think about working in an independent school. I had no idea what that meant, but it's proven wonderfully rewarding for over thirty years. I just wish I'd been asked sooner. Until that session towards the end, I'd been left to figure it out on my own.
     Here's where much of the encouraging part of the sessions comes in. As we talked about success, the parents and I kept returning to ideals that fit this notion. Knowing oneself, values, perseverance, growth, mistakes, soft skills and qualities--the things that enable one to strive towards fulfilling a mission. It's why I believe the best schools are not just idea factories. While that suggests an innovative streak, it's too purely academic. The truly excellent schools, from elementary through college, are ideals factories. They are places where young people receive affirmation of themselves and their views and their aims. In other words, they become people with and on a mission.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ego Tripping

Since I attended the fantastic Changing the Odds conference put on by The Momentous Institute a couple of weeks ago, the idea for this post has been popping in and out of my mind. Usually when that happens, I jot down notes in my journal, hoping that someting takes shape well enough to produce a post. Not this time, however--no notes, no plan, no real idea of where this may go. So excuse me if it gets away from me. That's because I feel some trepedation about this post; in fact, I'm even reluctant to write it. I easily could come across as a rather pompous jerk in here. But since that probably happens too often anyway, I'm going to go for it.

During the conference many clear themes emerged, but one stands out in how it has resonated since then. Empathy. The concept is simple enough. And in education one would expect loads of it wafting through our schools like enticing bakery smells. Like so many things, however, the theory is simple. The practice is not. So what trips us up? Ego.

Please don't misundersttand. I want to clarify immediately that I'm not calling educators raging narcissists or massive egomaniacs. Are some? Of course. Just as some of anything likely are. However, I truly believe most are not and, in fact, went into the profession becasue they are not--that they have a strong desire to serve others before themselves. But they are human, and humans are very ego-driven creatures. It's part of our deepest survival instincts going back to early humanoid stages, and it remains embedded in our basic make-up. For a simple example, think about the pleasure tied to the serotonin that courses through us when someone favorites a Tweet of likes a Facebook post.

Certainly that's harmless. It's even necessary in some ways. I mean, imagine if you never received any affirmation. The danger comes when the ego trips us on the journey towards fulfillment of our larger mission as educators. What are some of the tell-tale signs? Not listening well, if at all. Closed-mindedness to new ideas. Believing one has all the answers. Negativity and cynicism. Those are the extremes, but they can occur.

The problem can begin in a way that seems harmless. It probably even is...until it runs amok. The emphasis on my. My students, my classes, my curriculum, my lessons--overuse of the pronoun signals a shift in priorities. At the very least, it certainly suggests a teacher-centered--perhaps even dominated--classroom. The slope gradually becomes even more slippery, to the point where the teacher's wants and needs can completely obscure the student experience. When that happens, teachers pile on work without considering the cumulative effect of students' outside lives and don't coordinate major assignments. They may fail to collaborate or to share professionally. Sometimes they become jealous of each other. Meanwhile, their empathy evaporates.

A few weeks ago Grant Wiggins posted a reflection by a veteran teacher who shadowed a student. It's gone viral; and people have reacted as if this were an eye-opening, even shocking revelation that kids' days are exhausting and full of passive listening and being chided, often sarcastically. I've shadowed students many times. Luckily I've worked in healthy schools, so there wasn't much negativity--but I'd feel worn out by lunch. Even if I hadn't done that, I don't think the post would have surprised me. All one really has to do is think about what a typical day must be like for a student in even the best schools. Loads of highlights, for sure; but plenty of regimentation and performance pressure as well. Then throw in all the stuff besides academics. Add the homework.

I think sometimes we become so caught up in our jobs that we easily forget to consider the experience through their eyes. Why does this happen? Well, I don't think there is a single answer to that. Some of it is the same reason such behavior can happen in any area. We all, for example, can probably think of stories of bosses who micromanage and demand complete control. However, I don't think that explains the issue in education. I think a primary explanation is a bit more ironic.

It's because so many teachers care so much and give so, so much of themselves. Simply put, they want the best for their students and believe so passionately in the importance of the work that they can develop a sort of tunnel vision. The focus can become narrow and myopic, the sense of urgency swelling beyond reason. Without realizing it, a teacher can seem to believe, "I have to finish these kids this year"; when our real goal should be helping them grow in ways that insure their learning never ends.

I'm not sparing heads and other administrators from this analysis. Yes, our roles involve considering the larger picture, and we often have more pieces of the puzzle than others. That, however, can just as easily lead to our failing to realize what the daily life of a teacher may be like. I try hard to remember how technology has made the job much more demanding in some ways, particularly when it comes to the type of communication families may expect. Plus there are ongoing changes in curricula and pedagogy. Most are for the better and should be encouraged, but it is demanding.

The balance necessary is a delicate mix. Everyone needs a degree of affirmation; that's natural and even vital to a healthy ego and sense of self. But the ego can be fragile, often tied to our being rather emotional creatures. One point to consider is the source of fulfillment, and that should align with mission. We ned to ask continually, "What's best for kids?" That doesn't necessitate being totally selfless. Actually, it a Zen sort of way, it relates to a saying I shared with a group of new heads recently in a leadership seminar: "Shrink yourselves so that others may grow."* For real educators that's the most nutritious way of feeding one's ego.

*Unfortunately, I cannot recall where I first learned this saying or the root source.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Greater Expectations Post Changing the Odds Conference

     For the past two days I have enjoyed the great privilege of attending the Changing the Odds conference put on by The Momentous Institute. This is a group of over 600 community and business leaders "committed to transforming kids' lives." They now run two schools in Dallas, and their success rate is very high, with their students going on to graduate high school at much higher rates than other public school students (other supporting data here). The key is that Momentous focuses on kids' social-emotional well-being.
     Simply because of the amazing line-up of speakers, I knew the conference would be a treat (even if I had to miss Wendy Mogel at the end). I'd heard some of them before, and I'd read about some of the others. I'll cite several of them as this post proceeds. Pieces of the conference are coming together in a way that speaks loudly and clearly to what whole-child, modern education should be about. This post is my first attempt to weave that tapestry, so forgive the dangling threads. They are all coming together under the idea of expectations.
     Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators, is always an energetic and dynamic speaker. After pointing out how Google allows people to be the architects of their own learning, he stressed that "it's not about what you know; it's about what you can do." I found myself thinking about this in terms of how schools often assess, even when using more project-based approaches. We say we assess because we want to see what students can do. I agree, and I see how important this is when it comes to certain essential skills. We must, for example, make sure a child is learning to read proficiently. A students must learn basic numeracy. However, too frequently we assess students within a rigid framework based on our preset determinations for their performance. Overly strict guidelines and rubrics are two examples. Some will argue that those help students know what is necessary to experience success. Yes...but within limits. It risks limiting the possibilities of what they can achieve. This coexists with the "single curriculum" that Wagner says he sees across most schools, driven by standardized measures of accountability and notions of success.
     Think about the typical school project, even a relatively open-ended one, and compare it to these two examples shared by Ron Berger, chief program officer of Expeditionary Learning and author of An Ethic of Excellence. He told of the young teens from Springfield, MA, who did energy audits in their school district and saved them over $150,000, and were then asked to expand their work on a larger scale. Even more amazing were some Chicago elementary students who lived in the center of an area riddled with gun violence. They campaigned against it, even approaching gangs to put down their weapons and for there to be a day without any shootings. It worked in their neighborhood. They also produced a beautiful book commemorating neighborhood angels working to lessen the violence.
     Yes, extreme and amazing examples, but also illustrative. When we let them, kids can do amazing things. They epitomize Berger's opinion that "everyone wants to create something original, beautiful, and of value." So why limit that? Why be surprised when they do? That says something about our expectations, and it speaks loudly to those young people hearing the message. Do I believe all kids will go out and do something such as those two wonderful stories? Not necessarily. But I believe each could. I'm not sure I'd want someone who doesn't working with my kids. But too many people don't. Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Outliers, David and Goliath) talked about how we have a national fixed mindset, one that causes us to overlook all sorts of talent, which harms us individually and collectively.
      Part of the problem is that teachers are accustomed to pointing out what's wrong with something. Marking points off, if you will. And, as Dr. Rick Hanson explained, the brain is hard-wired to latch on to adversity more readily than other experiences. Since experience leads to cortical thickening, this leads to the type of mind-brain connection that we don't want. It reaffirmed both scinetifically and emotionally why I have concerns with the current, I hope faddish, emphasis on failure in school. Handled correctly, this can build resilience. But the effects can prove devastating, as captured in the riveting story of her life told by Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, who grew up poor and abused, only to be affirmed in her late teens that she was very bright. Give the encouragement and put in the right environment, she became the first woman commissioned in the Texas ROTC and had a star twenty-year military career. And that brings me back to the Wagner quotation in the third paragraph, Yes, he's right, but per the maxim, no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Educators must create the environment in which young people can thrive in all parts of their lives--mind, body, and soul.
     And that comes down to expectations. Expectations not just for academic performance, but expectations for how we are going to treat each other as individuals of worth. As individuals who will do great things. We should never discount the possibilities of what any young person can achieve. After all, I'm writing this just a couple days after seventeen-year-old Malala became the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Not Either/Or; but Yes, And...

Many people have offered many valid reasons innovation can occur slowly in schools. Risk aversion, ossified structures, lack of vision, fear, silos, intellectual arrogance, myopia, standardization, the textbook industry, poltiics, parental concerns, silver bullet belief in the latest fad--I'm sure you could add some other items. As I reflect on that list, I notice that many of them share a common problem, one which smacks of oversimplification. Too often in education we engage in either/or thinking.

To illustrate, let's consider a recent, perhaps ongoing, battle about early childhood language instruction. In this corner, we have the defending champion, Phonics Instruction. In the oppositie corner, the challenger, Whole Language. In schools all over the country, people picked one side or the other and bet the house. Phonics people continued with the "tried and true," and Whole Language folks threw out the traditional. Was one side right about the better approach? Perhaps. Then one would have to be wrong, and both had very valid points. Yet in many cases one side viewed the other only with disdain, rather than with an open mind that would enable integrating the two in a way that woudl work. They thus missed an opportunity to reach more children through effective differentiation.

Let's take a curernt example but switch focus a bit to consider two issues: cultural literacy and a more modern approach. I'll stick with language arts. Most people--even those who are not the most vocal defendants of a cultural literacy approach--likely would argue that students should have some familiarity with Shakespeare. Let's use Romeo and Juliet since that seems a popular choice for inclusion in many curricula. We know the traditional way of studying Shakespeare: read it while struggling with the language, analyze the themes, take some quizzes, memorize and recite passages, take a test, write an essay. Now imagine this approach. The students, upon hearing of the trend in modernizing the Bard's works, suggest doing that also. So as a class they decide to rewrite the play. They figure out a plan and go at it. They keep all the key elements; for example, the balcony scene remains an interlocking sonnet. But now it's set on a porch outside the school library. Once done writing, they rehearse and then perform and record their version of the play, making it availaible for a much larger audience. After, they have to write reflections that show their understanding of the play and how this project aided in that. They've gained the cultural literacy. After all, which approach do you think will better lead to kids learning and even appreciating Shakespeare? They also had to work on the basic literacies of reading and writing. Plus they had to be creative and to collaborate, and their final product was a contribution to their community--some of the essentials of a modern education.

That Shakespeare project--one of the real highlights of my teaching career--epitomizes how we can take a "yes, and..." approach to education. The best part? The students initiated it. All I had to do was go along. This happened in the late 1980s, and I argue that our doing more and more work like this is more imperative now than ever. But too often the response is "yes, but..."--that killer phrase which is the hallmark of either/or thinking and even closed-mindedness. Even beyond the curricular and pedagogical implications, I worry about this in terms of role-modeling for students. F.S. Fitzgerald wrote, "The sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still maintain the ability to function." Kid suffer when we can't--or won't--do this to improve education.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Further Thought on #EdJourney

     A few days ago I posted "First Thoughts on #EdJourney." It wasn't really a review of Grant Lichtman's new book--just some of the larger ideas it prompted and some of what I guess could be called cautionary notes about how people might miss some of the more important ideas. That could occur mainly because it's easy to become focused strictly on the many wonderful examples from different schools. Almost as soon as I posted, a new idea about the book occurred to me. Not just about the book, but about the entire project that has led to the book.
     Grant set out in search of innovation in schools. He found plenty of it, sometimes in little pockets, sometimes in sweeping models. We now have this wonderful book as a product. But we also need to think about the process. Both literally and analogously, we have a wonderful model for the type of learning that should be going on in our schools.
     Consider, in no particular order:

  • The entire idea begins with a giant question about education and is a deep, wide exploration. Questions beget more questions, with ongoing reflection and generative thinking. "How might we..?" and "What if..?" never cease to peel away more layers. 
  • Rather than merely muse inwardly, Grant looks outward, connecting with the much larger world in a search for understanding.
  • In doing so, he forges multiple connections with people all over and brings in varied perspectives. He refers to myriad sources. In a sense, while Grant is the sole author, one gains a sense of collaboration.
  • That happens because Grant let us share the experience and comment on it through social media. Reading his blog, for instance, was like reading his drafts as they developed. We see his thought processes.
  • Speaking of his blog, Grant utilized the best technology tools at his disposal, from his Prius and iPhone to his blog and Twitter. Of course, he also went through dozens of the old stand-by: legal pads and post-its.
  • The book is a creative endeavor. The whole thing is a creative endeavor.
  • The work is highly relevant, and the contribution to the field is meaningful.
  • The quest leads not just to accumulation of knowledge, but to some new wisdom.
     When you consider the entirety of the project, Grant is both student and teacher. He writes about the schools he visits,
"I increasingly hear teachers and their students talking about the adults becoming 'lead learners' and 'co-learners' along side their students...teachers develop a view of themselves as participating in a constantly evolving journey of exploration with their students, as opposed to teachers' traditional role of providing knowledge to their students" (104-5).
He has given us many models--including himself.
     So here's a thought. A challenge if you will. Obviously we can't send students off to drive around the country on their own. But how might we design learning experiences just as full of purposeful discovery?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

First Thoughts on #EdJourney

     Like many other independent school folks, I've eagerly awaited Grant Lichtman's new book #EdJourney  * based on his massive driving trip in search of educational innovation. In fact, at one point I wrote a blog post in which I expressed my hopes for such a book:

          "that when he finishes the journey, he can summarize the lessons learned in a way that enables to see what these schools have in common. How did they become transformative? Each entry has some of that, but I think we all would benefit from a synopsis from the person who has made the actual journey, because it strikes me that we’re talking about changing the DNA of many schools and educators. Then I hope we would see even more real innovation and not just school as we know it." (full post)

Grant and I have had several interactions since then, and we're asking many of the same questions. Now the book is here, I downloaded it as soon as possible, and it certainly does not disappoint. The temptation is to write a review, and while there will be bits in here that come across that way, I intend the post to be more a reflection of general thoughts in a certain context. That larger context has to do with change and innovation in schools. While some of my points may seem like conclusions, they really are musings that lead to even more and, I hope, better questions. It's also what's boiling in my brain juice after the first read of a book to which I'm sure I will return.
     In a very practical sense, the book is important for many reasons. Grant shares dozens of the examples that he experienced on his trip, and he categorizes them in ways that help clarify the key points. One can find ideas and examples of current best practices, and it's easy to recognize your own school within the frameworks established. I found myself wishing my school did certain things. I also found myself beaming about some of the things we already do.
     However, as important as those examples are, the book truly matters for more philosophical reasons. After all, one can find many examples of innovation via multiple media. Part of the book's power lies in how they are pulled together in such a comprehensive way. That creates a real sense of possibility and hope. The book is also very generous in how it portrays people and programs and schools. It oozes optimism while posing clear challenges. That spirit is too often missing from schools. In that way Grant helps with one of the knottiest issues in changing schools: "reframing the mindset" of many educators (43).
     For many that means not only reframing the mindset but broadening the perspective, maybe even realigning it. Some will read the book and latch on to particular examples. That can be good, but it also can be the sort of silver-bullet thinking which has marked education for so long. Instead, much of the book encourages really big-picture, question-asking reflection and ideation. For instance, consider this passage on strategic thinking rather than the standard strategic plan: "Strategy becomes a continuous process of thinking, and organizational habit and capability that promotes ongoing innovation practices among all of the valued and valuable members of the school community" (40). He also proposes zero-based strategic thinking, a wonderful and healthy process.
     Therein lies another cautionary note for those who may simply grab examples and see them as the real thesis. The book forces bigger thoughts than many educators often consider during their hectic days. From the historical context to the ecosystem metaphor, Grant widens the lens. In zero-based strategic thinking, yes, everything one does is open to question. But your core is not. Early in the book Grant includes real wisdom from Alan Smiley, head of St. Anne's Episcopal in Denver, about the need to balance rapid innovation while maintaining a center of focus for students and adults that does not change. And that's why, while I agree that "each year should be different" (97), in some ways each year should be the same when it comes to certain philosophies and values. Sometimes one has to take "different things that already exist and piecing them together and making them work in a profoundly different way that makes teaching and learning better" (108). But sometimes it's a matter of steady growth and improvement. As much as I worry about schools where nothing changes, I also worry about schools and teachers that seem to grasp onto every new trend, who are always reinventing. I admire the courage and energy and spirit, but I also wonder who they ultimately are and what they stand for. I'm sure they know but, looking from the outside, I wonder. If I could pick one passage in the book to shout from every mountaintop, It would be this:

          "Schools need to rebalance their portfolios to allow more experimentation and more risk that will generate long-term growth. If well-designed, this rebalancing yields an equilibrium between what the school has always done that made it successful in the first place and what they need to attempt to stay competitive in the long run" (456).

It's very similar to one of my favorite lines from Jim Collins' Good to Great: "Preserve the core and stimulate progress." A delicate balance, indeed.
     That core centers around relationships and everything they produce:

          "Nearly everything a school does today can be effectively outsourced except the powerful relationships that grow between students and teachers and between peer students, and the culture and traditions that make a school such a powerful part of young people's lives" (444).

I would add the relationships between school employees and families, and employees and each other. That's part of independent schools' beauty, but it's also one of the major roadblocks. Because we like to think of ourselves as communities and/or families, it becomes quite complicated and painful when we talk of making sure we have the right people on the bus. Especially when those are the people who've helped the school succeed and become what it is, some of which is based on the very things they are now being told have to change. There are plenty of nice, neat intellectual frameworks for this process which are wonderful in theory; but we're talking about really gut-wrenching, very personal things for people. Grant likes to say, in comparing it to events such a D-Day, that change isn't hard, it's uncomfortable. On some level I agree. But on another level the intense human elements of education do make things difficult. Of course, I find that an appealing part of the work.
     Perhaps those people struggling with change and innovation will find inspiration and encouragement--perhaps even permission--through reading Grant's book. They may see what can happen. What should happen. For those of us already on this journey with Grant, the book affirms we're heading in the right direction. It's why I can't wait for him to visit St. John's in January and help us ask even more questions about what we should be doing for students.

*Available Sept. 8 on Amazon. Available on iBooks now!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ignore the Doom Criers. Listen to Kids

     In a recent post on his Practical Theory blog, principal Chris Lehmann of Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy wrote about the vision he and teacher Matt Baird have for an American History course. Among many salient points, he stated, "Both of us believe that we teach history so that kids can make sense of the world they live in, and therefore, be more informed and active and engaged citizens of that world." This resonated with me quite a bit. Regular readers know I often talk about this idea as the ultimate goal of education in some form or fashion. You can see this particularly in any of the posts where I address the notions of "value-added" or attack the over-reliance on standardized testing.
     I also reacted so positively because Chris' sentence aligns so closely with an idea that has been percolating in my mind for a few weeks now. If you were to dig deeply enough--and sometimes it's right there on the surface--making sense of the world is the primary driver of any academic discipline. Literature allows us to probe into the human condition. Languages are a means to connect and thus do the same with people from other places and cultures. Science allows us to grasp the tangible and intangible mysteries of the universe. Math is a language that allows us to express and calculate and extrapolate and achieve in ways we otherwise couldn't. Ultimately, that we even have academic disciplines comes from this desire to make sense of the world we live in, to somehow categorize and thus corral the wild herd of complexities--of stuff--that could so easily overwhelm us.
     I also wonder, well aware that this next statement smacks of possible hyperbole and melodrama, if this goal isn't more vital now than ever. Well, at least at any point I can recall. Yes, I know that history is full of doom-criers, convinced the end is near because of human behavior. And I remain basically an optimistic, occasionally idealistic person. Yet at the same time, it seems that recently my various news sources have been serving up an particularly unappetizing and varied buffet of human dysfunction. ISIS beheadings and stonings; Ferguson, MO; Ukraine; a growing wave of neo-Nazism is different areas; kidnapped girls in Africa; Israel versus Hamas; an epidemic of sexual abuse in one town--that's my list compiled in just thirty seconds of brainstorming. None are really new issues; just the details have changed. We're also more continually aware because of how we are bombarded with information and how easily we can find even more. Some data suggests it wasn't "the worst month ever." I know all that. Our current malaise still feels extreme.
     Even if it's not, I'll make a more purely analytic argument. Given the perfect storm of technological advances, shifting demographics, and geo-political upheaval that has swirled--and even gathered strength--over the past 25 years. Along with other factors, these trends have made already knotty global issues even more complicated. Thus, we're going to need even more creative, truly collaborative people to develop comprehensive solutions.
     For that to happen--and I fervently believe that it can and will--two key, slowly emerging trends must accelerate. Both necessitate keeping that long-term goal in the forefront of our consciousness. It should be the answer to the question about why education matters so much that it's about the only compulsory things in this country. The first trend is rather ironic, given where this post began by talking about a vision for a particular course within an academic department. We have to break down all the boundaries that exist in education--between disciplines, between all constituencies--and focus on the inter-connectedness of it all. The second is, in some ways, a natural outgrowth of the first, at least when it comes to program and pedagogy. Schools need to focus much more on students as real-life problem solvers working in teams. Foster this mindset, and they will launch their own moonshots.
     That's also why I remain inherently optimistic: my faith in young people. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote, "Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged by humanity." With the right opportunities, each can improve the world, one little corner at a time.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Tech and Empathy--Post for Tech #LeadershipDay14

                The best leadership in educational technology really isn't any different than any type of great leadership—the most effective leaders serve others. If tech leaders and administrators really want to help a teacher, they should begin with a really simple and basic step. Ask him or her.
                I know my post on this topic is heavily influenced by my current focus. I asked all our employees to read Creative Confidence this summer, and yesterday we had a workshop on design thinking. In my mind, the second step in design thinking is the most crucial: Understanding. If you don’t gather meaningful, personal information about the person you wish to help through the design process, the rest of the steps don’t really matter. It’s simply a matter of empathy. That necessitates asking and then truly listening. From what I’ve seen and heard, too often tech leaders want to do all the pontificating and expect others to do all the listening. (Of course, that makes them no different than any other ego-driven leaders.)
                But I’m also basing this on experience, recalling when I was still in the classroom. I was fortunate to work with a tech guru, Chris Bigenho of Greenhill School, whose real focus was the teacher and student joint experience. One wonderful example from several years ago comes to mind. I used to do loads of collaborative work in class. As Chris and I were talking one day, I mentioned a wish I had. I wanted to be able to have groups in my class each contribute to a single mind map as they worked on things. He couldn't immediately think of a way for that to happen, and it took a while, but eventually he came back with a great tool for us to use.
                It was before design thinking had become such a rage; but looking back, I see that we were basically using a common design thinking tactic. In essence, we were asking, “How might we utilize technology to enhance collaborative learning in the classroom?” Then we worked as partners. And we had to empathize with each other and with the students.

                I encourage more leaders—whether in technology or elsewhere—to begin in that space.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Opening Remarks to Employees 2014

Introductory Note: The following are my opening remarks to all-employees on August 14, 2014. Our theme for the year is creativity, and this was right before a design thinking workshop. I apologize to regular readers, who will see a previous post contained herein. But two-thirds of it is new.

Since we’re focusing on creativity this year, for my remarks this morning I’m going to talk about what I believe to be a topic never before addressed in schools: what I did on my summer vacation. Or, more accurately, what I did on my summer vacation and how it provided some great metaphorical reminders.
                We’ll begin with a short video: ( Obviously that wasn’t me, but last week I scaled the Beehive in Acadia National Park (Maine) with my two children, Kate, 17, and Stephen, 14. Or, more accurately, they basically scampered up as I slowly eased my way along, clinging to every little bit of granite I could, even crawling in a few places. See, it was only a short way up when I realized I had a newfound but quite profound fear of heights. As I squeezed as flat as I could against the wall, Kate and Stephen kept peering over the edge and looking down, Kate talking about adrenaline rushes and Stephen yelling, “Yee-ha!” Meanwhile, I was thinking about how the previous year Kate had gone down the Beehive, which strikes me as much harder.
                Once I reached the top, I was glad I had. As you could see on the video, the view was amazing, and I was proud of having forced myself to persevere. Still, I will admit that I had some bad dreams that night. We did some more climbing, though nothing quite as challenging. Despite their begging, we avoided the trail called “The Precipice.” Still, The Bubbles and the cliffs along the ocean shore had some very steep drops. I found myself struggling to allow for their sense of adventure and to manage my parental fears. There was a lot of “That’s far enough!” and “Not so close to the edge!” Probably too much, in retrospect.
                See, it’s about balancing that level of healthy fear versus confidence versus realities. And that is affected by life experience. For me the idea of falling was very real, very possible; the odds were probably increased by my conception and fear of it. Kate and Stephen have that adolescent sense that it can’t happen to them. Yet they, like most kids, can be overly dramatic about what we perceive as mere learning experiences, such as bombing an assessment in school. To them that feels like falling off a cliff. We have to consider every aspect of the school experience from the student perspective and do so with great empathy. The parent one also. So there are three challenges in there for us to think about. How do we create the right environment for kids to take risks which to them seem reasonable? How do we get parents to understand this and how it relates to the big picture of learning and growth and perseverance? What risks are we going to take as the role models for that?
                Some of my angst about the dangers of these climbs was heightened by an incident a week or so earlier.
The phone rang around 7:30 PM one Saturday. The number was unfamiliar, so my wife almost didn't answer. But she did because both kids were on adventures: Kate biking from Reno to San Francisco and then down the coast to Santa Barbara; Stephen hiking around the Colorado Rockies. Both go with an amazing company called Overland, who sponsor different types of programs all over the world. We were enjoying being “kid-free” for a while.
The call was about Stephen. While climbing to an alpine lake, he had slipped and smacked his head on a rock. He didn't show any signs of injury other than a three-quarter-inch long “jagged gash” above his eye that would require stitches. Plus they wanted him checked since it was a head injury. Adding to the challenge was that the group (2 leaders and 12 kids) was in real back country. One leader and Stephen would have to hike 2 hours just to reach their van, then drive about 1-1/2 hours to a hospital. Meanwhile we’d have to wait until they reached a spot where they could get cell service for any more word. (They had called the office on a satellite phone, which needed to stay with the group.) So my wife and I simply had to sit tight, unsure when we would hear more, and of course that took longer than we believed it would, knowing it was getting dark on the trail, worried about all the things that could go wrong on the trail, such as one of them getting badly hurt. Honestly, I was especially worried about the leader getting hurt.
                As we waited, my wife commented at one point, “Kids really are sacred, aren't they?” We sort of let that comment sink in. We comforted ourselves by talking about how incredible the leaders at Overland are, the great training they receive, their experience, their optimism. They, as an organization and individuals, take on an incredible responsibility. And they've suffered tragedy, such as when some teens were killed on the Ride across America last year. It’s a trip Kate plans to do in a couple of years. I was struck anew by just how much trust we had placed in Overland by sending our kids on these trips. It was Kate’s third and Stephen’s second. While I was worried, I also had faith in Overland. They honor the sacred trust.
                It should be no different in schools. As I saw in a tweet recently, “Each child in our class is someone’s whole world.” Our relationship with children and their families should be a sacred trust, ideally one that goes both ways. Parents place incredible faith in us to do what is best for their kids, to appreciate their absolute uniqueness, to forgive their inherent and developmental foibles, to nurture them lovingly, and to challenge them appropriately. That trust is the deepest root of a partnership. During that sleepless night and since, I've found myself thinking about this quite a bit as perhaps the key of a truly great school.
               We heard from Stephen and the leader as soon as they could call, then again from the hospital, then again after he’d been treated. The communication was great, and we heard again the next morning. Stephen checked out just fine, just needing a bunch of stitches. No other problems. He will have a pretty good scar; but as we like to say, scars are just tattoos with better stories. Furthermore, he also found the positive in the situation. On the phone from the hospital he gushed that on the trail they had seen an “amazing sunset and a bunch of deer and five moose.”
                That attitude ties to my third point. Cadillac Mountain is one of the first places in the United States to experience the sunrise each day. So on our final day in Maine, we woke really early to be at the peak by 5:00 AM. (We drove, not hiked.) We’d had some storms the evening before, it was cold and windy, and the cloud cover was fairly heavy. There was one long horizontal strip which slowly filled with glorious pink and purple streaks. Gorgeous, but it wasn’t the full sunrise, and people started to leave. We were at our car when we looked back, and the sun had suddenly burned through all the clouds and shone like I’d never seen it before. Just absolutely stunning! I was reminded again how each new day, like each new school year, is bursting with possibilities. It’s up to us to use our creativity to realize them.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Problem in a Nutshell

     In Think Like a Freak, Levitt and Dubner write, "The key to learning is feedback. It is nearly impossible to learn anything without it" (34). A few paragraphs later they add, "But the more complex a problem is, the harder it is to capture good feedback." I'd add this goes for all parties in the process.
     Therein lies the entire problem with assessment/standardization/data/value-added issue in education in a nutshell. It's just too wonderfully complex.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Sacred Trust of Schools

                The phone rang around 7:30 PM this past Saturday. The number was unfamiliar, so my wife almost didn't answer. But she did because both my children are on adventures: Kate biking from Reno to San Francisco and then down the coast to Santa Barbara; Stephen hiking around the Colorado Rockies. Both go with an amazing company called Overland, who sponsor different types of programs all over the world. We've enjoyed being “kid-free” for a while.
                The call was about Stephen. While on the trail, he had slipped and hit his head on a rock. He didn't show any signs of injury other than a three-quarter-inch long “jagged gash” above his eye that would require stitches. Plus they wanted him checked since it was a head injury. Adding to the challenge was that the group (2 leaders and 12 kids) was in real back country. One leader and Stephen would have to hike 2 hours just to reach their van, then drive about 1-1/2 hours to a hospital. Meanwhile we’d have to wait until they reached a spot where they could get cell service for any more word. (They had called the office on a satellite phone, which needed to stay with the group.) So my wife and I simply had to sit tight, unsure when we would hear more, and of course that took longer than we believed it would, knowing it was getting dark on the trail, worried about all the things that could go wrong on the trail, such as one of them getting badly hurt.
                As we waited, my wife commented at one point, “Kids really are sacred, aren't they?” We sort of let that comment sink in. We comforted ourselves by talking about how incredible the leaders at Overland are, the great training they receive, their experience, their optimism. They, as an organization and individuals, take on an incredible responsibility. And they've suffered tragedy, such as when some teens were killed on the ride across America last year. I was struck anew by just how much trust we had placed in Overland by sending our kids on these trips. It was Kate’s third and Stephen’s second. While I was worried, I also had faith in Overland. They honor the sacred trust.
                It should be no different in schools. Our relationship with children and their families should be a sacred trust, ideally one that goes both ways. Parents place incredible faith in us to do what is best for their kids, to appreciate their absolute uniqueness, to forgive their inherent and developmental foibles, to nurture them lovingly, and to challenge them appropriately. That trust is the deepest root of a partnership. During that sleepless night and since, I've found myself thinking about this quite a bit as perhaps the key of a truly great school.
               We heard from Stephen and the leader as soon as they could call, then again from the hospital, then again after he’d been treated. The communication was great, and we heard again the next morning. Stephen checked out just fine, just needing a bunch of stitches. No other problems. Furthermore, he also found the positive in the situation. On the phone from the hospital he gushed that on the trail they saw a “bunch of deer and five moose.”

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Challenging Indy Schools to Take Advantage of Independence

     During some various Twitter chats on assorted subjects, I've often asserted that I believe independent schools (including mine) should take greater advantage of their independence. Out of all my tweets, these seem to generate the most positive responses, retweets, and favoriting. Clearly this notion strikes a chord, at least with a certain audience, one I believe is fairly representative.
     The question becomes rather obvious. Why don't we?
     Let's first consider the answer from a rather sweeping philo-psycho-socio-historical perspective. Recently I've been reading Frederic LeDoux and Ken Wilbur's Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Generation of Human Consciousness. The basic premise is that each major shift in human consciousness has led to giant leaps in our level or collaboration and thus how we set up institutions. Under-girding it is how we perceive humans and how we measure value. Each stage is assigned a color. Currently most of our organizations (and I'd say much of how we live) is based on amber and orange type thinking. This emphasizes power, authority, hierarchy, measurable outcomes--that which we associate with the "business" world but dominates so much of human establishments. It's obvious how this links to the factory model of education that has become so entrenched over the past 150 years. The authors believe we are moving into the teal stage, which is more about extensive collaboration, transparency, and self-management of individuals and teams. It's much more soulful. They cite 22 businesses, both profit and non-profit, that operate in teal fashion, the best known of which may be Patagonia. They do refer a few times to a school in Germany. All, of course, sound like wonderful places.
     I'm not going to question Ledoux and Wilbur's general thesis. In fact, I think it makes great sense. We know, for instance, that schools operate as they do because of large cultural shifts and needs. Now they're changing, albeit slowly for the same reasons. And therein lies the real reason that, in this broadest of senses, we don't take advantage of that independence much, much more than we do. We're rather trapped within a strong historical framework, and such shackles are difficult to break off. Especially if we're not fully conscious of them.
     Even if we are aware, it's all many of us know when it comes to education. It's how we were educated. It's how our parents were educated. It's how much of the world has been educated. And, to a certain degree for a while, it's worked well enough. That's particularly true in independent schools, where we serve a clientele that is highly motivated and thus basically compliant. Tied to that, it's how many of our families want their children to be educated. As some parents have told me, they don't want their kids being used as guinea pigs in an educational experiment. So, yes, it's what we know and what we know is safe.And there, for independent school leaders, reality hits. Like it or not, we are a business; and we need for enough people to buy what we are selling. For us, full enrollment is safe. Glowing next level placement, high test scores, prizes and honors--those are assurances of safety. For us, anyway. Or, I should say, some of us. At least in the immediate and short term.
     The problem lies in a certain failure, or lack of imagination. We know the world is changing, but we do not fully conceive what this means. In fact, we can't except in abstract ways, and that troubles us because we can't fit in in our existing schemes. Similarly, it requires true vision to conceive of truly different ways of doing school. Then come the challenge of actual implementation and courage.
     I realize this post may suggest frustration, even hopelessness. There is some of the former, but none of the latter. Quite the opposite actually. We see wonderful innovation happening in independent schools around the country, and I'm very proud of the strides we've made here at St. John's. I expect even more this year as we focus on creativity in our professional development. As we all work on rethinking and re-imagining education, it's essential to understand the deep and broad complexity. Then we'll be better poised to take full advantage of our independence.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

World Cup 2014 and Cultural Change

     I don't recall when I first started playing soccer. Maybe around 1970 or so. I know that was the first World Cup I knew of. As I was growing up, we kept hearing two things about soccer: that it would be the next big sport in America, and that Americans never would embrace soccer. We just kept playing, half-delighted we played such a "minor" sport, half-frustrated by the lack of recognition. Of course, we really weren't very good on any sort of global, or even regional scale. Our national team would lose badly to third-rate European teams and sometimes hang tough against Central American teams. When we qualified for the 1990 World Cup--the first time ever, with previous appearances based on invitation--it was like the miracle on grass.
     Now here we are, just a generation later, and World Cup fever has struck America. People have the games on; the US-Portugal match was the most viewed ever in this nation. They are talking about the games, albeit with pretty limited understanding. But they are talking about them! They care! Sports websites have the cup as the lead story every day. Our team is very competitive in the Group of Death and should qualify for the next round. To someone with my historical perspective, it's quite remarkable and invigorating.
     Of course, the fervor will recede after the cup. But it's grown since 2010, which was bigger than 2006, which...Soccer now is in the nation's consciousness. Do I expect it to reach the levels of Brazil or Spain or Germany. Probably not. But I never believed I would see what's happening now either. I think we safely can say we're witnessing a true cultural change.*
     So what's the moral of the story? Many others share my soccer past, and many of us ended up coaching. We passed on our love of the sport to whomever we could. One player, one team at a time. With dedication, determination, and faith, true change can occur. In some ways it's frustratingly slow. But in others it's faster than imagined.**

*I also wonder if in this World Cup we are seeing another cultural change one tied to the era of globalization. While upsets often have occurred in the past, this time more of the minnows are doing quite well. The gap has closed as players have more exposure--whether actually playing experience or simple exposure--that has raised everyone's level. Now everyone can analyze and learn from the best.

**I'm seeing my dream come true when it comes to soocer.  That gives me hope because of all the positive developments I'm seeing in education.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Good Year?

Last week I was at meetings with my fellow Independent Schools Association of the Sothwest school heads for our annual meetings. It's always a wonderful time for us to gether and share stories of success and failure. This is invaluable because it's hard for anyone else to know just what running an independent school is like. I'm not talking about how difficult or complex it is; plenty of leadership jobs share that. I'm talking about the uniqueness of the role.

Of course, when we see each other, the conversation often begins with a single question: Did you have a good year? Natural way to begin. Similarly, my board begins my annual review with a similar one: How do you feel about the year? In the first case, it's really just a way to begin talking, to kick off a dialogue between peers who can provide mutual understanding. In the latter it's a bit more pointed becasue of the circumstances. Most years I just roll with that and don't really think too much about it. But I know that I have a tendency to become overly intellectual about certain things, particularly in certain circumstances. It's part of being introverted and deeply reflective. But this past year has been an unusual one, even downright "weird" in some ways. We faced some very sticky problems and we were launching a massive initiative with our Imagine 1:1 iPad program. And as I told my review panel, I'm not sure yet how I would describe my thoughts and feelings on the past year. To some degree, that really should be the answer each year, if for no other reason than one just doesn't really know until time has passed. The more time, the better you know.

Still, I have been pondering what I've decided should be an essential question for all schools and individual educators: What makes the year a good one?

In some ways the answer can be rather simple. Testing data, next-level placements, awards, fundraising--these are some of the tangible measures. Things become a bit murkier when one begins to consider the impact of initiatives on teaching and learning, remaking true to mission, assessing cultural shifts. In The Art of Possibility Ben Zander proffers shining eyes as the ultimate sign of success when working with kids. Often it simply comes down to a feeling of being good tired rather than bad tired.

I accept all these notions; we even use all of the and others. Still, I wish to put forth another measure, one which truly invokes the ethereal. In the best schools, a good year is one in which the school has managed to achieve an apparent paradox.

Kierkegaard wrote, "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." Thoughtful, purposeful, responsive schools manage to do both simultaneously. In other words, they reflect constantly on mission, philosophy, and values, keenly aware of who they are as institutions and their reason for being. This core does not change, yet the way in which it manifests should as a school evolves to meet what its students will need in their futures. For example, consider the rather timeless mission element of academic excellence. Critical thinking is a key facet of such. How that is taught, leanred, and expressed should change regularly. Bottom line is that you hold true to who you are while becoming what you need to be.

Of course, even beyond the paradox, operating In such fashion is fraught with various tensions, most borne of our human-ness. But it also points at what great schools ultimately are about: helping everyone there become better. When that happens, then one can confidently respond that it was indeed a very good year.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Case for Creativity

Throughout this past school year I've led some sessions called "Inside the Head's Head." In them I've been laying out my philosophy, ideas, vision, and tying it all to what's happening at St. John's. After I set the table with some remarks, the discussions would take off, sometimes in unexpected fashion. In many ways it really was like being inside my head, where things fly around all the time and I try to connect the pieces coherently as I consider multiple facets of each. The sessions were quite enjoyable, and some "groupies" appeared regularly. Along with giving me a chance to share my thoughts, I gained some insight into parents' thinking. Reflecting on the most recent forum, I realized that I need to spend much more time clarifying my explanation about one of the most pressing issues in education: creativity.

As we were talking about the notion of creativity, very quickly I could see that people were holding onto two limiting points regarding the topic. I don't say this as a criticism; the parents were willing, but they also have certain understanings that run through society as a whole. The first is that creativity refers to artistic endeavors. The second is that creativity is an innate, fixed attribute one either has or doesn't.

If we're going to consider creativity as a quality beyond the traditionally artistic, we need to consider possible definitions. Famed educational critic Sir Ken Robinson--perhaps the first voice to raise the issue via his TED presentation (the most viewed ever)--calls creativity "the process of having original ideas that have value." While I like the basic idea here, I quibble with certain elements. For example, value is quite a relative term. Also, students may have great ideas that are not truly original, except perhaps to them. Perhaps that is what Robinson means. Still I prefer a couple of other similar notions. In Creative Confidence Tom and David Kelley talk about creativity "using your imagination to create something new in the world." They move beyond this circular thought to see it as "looking beyond the status quo," with creative confidence an "inherently optimistic way of looking at what's possible." This echoes cartoonist and blogger Hugh MacLeod's definition: "Bringing new light to what life might be." I've been developing my own draft definition: Using one's talents to affect positive change which allows individuals and societies to flourish.

Each has its good and bad aspects. Most important, however, is what they have in common. First, they all ask us to consider the notion of creativity as something broader than the long-standing and limiting framework of artistic expression. It's about perspectives and orientation and action. It's about innovation and options and exploration. It's about determining what's better. Second, they imply--and further digging would let you see they believe--that everyone is innatiely creative in some form or fashion. The real issue is that we've been led to beleive, for various reasons, that we are not; and it also has not been emphasized as a necessary trait. To a certain degree, then, it's also a matter of mindset, and traditionally we've appraoched this with the typical fixed mindset.

Similarly, we must move beyond the notion that creativity is fixed. In that regard, it's no different than the notion many have held about intelligence. And we know through Carole Dweck's work that intelligence is mutable if approached the right way. Also, consider how,the concept of multiple intelligences and that we've come to understand that intelligence is individually distinct, diverse, and dynamic. Certainly the same truths apply to creativity. We can reveal and nurture all forms of creavity. Primarily by introducing the basics of design thinking, workshops based on the Kelley brothers' methods have helped hundreds feel more creative in their particular endeavors. Per the Kelleys, "Design thinking relies on the natural--and coachable--human ability to be intuitive, to,recognize patterns, and to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional." Creative Confidence has numerous examples. The brothers write, "People who use the creative techniques we outline are better able to apply their imagination to painting a picture of the future. They believe they have the ability to improve on existing ideas and to positively impact the world around them, whether at work or in their personal lives."

Therein lies the real point. As far as work goes, we've all seen the multiple surveys of CEOs and other sorts who point out the increased importance of creativity in the increasingly complex world marketplace. They see it as the number one criteria they seek in new hires, but they also say they can't find it in enough people. Certainly that's important. But I argue the real value is more essentially human than that--that it lies deep inside those qualities which help make us human. It ties to Pink's work on motivation being tied to autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Our sense of those blossoms when we are being creative in any endeavor. It helps foster that sense of flow. It helps us to flourish and to thrive in all aspects of our lives. For that reason it should be an integral part of our educational mission.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Teachers I Most Appreciate On-Line

     For my annual post during Teacher Appreciation Week, I've decided to take a different approach. After all, in the past I've written about my two greatest teachers; and I often refer to other teachers, coaches, and colleagues. Usually they are figures from my past. Fortunately, I also have current mentors and role models. For this piece, I'm also thinking about how the digital revolution has opened incredible possibilities for learning. In that context my driving question becomes "What sort of teachers do I most appreciate on-line?" For me that means mainly blogs and Twitter.
     While perhaps I should not begin with the negative, I want to state right away what I don't like. It's not much--there are just two things--but they truly rankle. First, I don't like what I can only describe as a form of self-centeredness. It manifests itself in some key ways. Tweets are strictly self-promotional. In the same vein, someone requests information but never supplies information in response to someone else's queries. A person ignores basic etiquette. (Fortunately, I don't encounter too many people who operate this way; when I do, I choose to ignore.)  Second, I don't like pieces that are overly definitive, i.e. "The Six Surefire Ways to..." Nothing is that simple. At least nothing worthwhile. These two dislikes often overlap in ways that point at the heart of what I do like.
     As a place to learn, the true beauty of the digital world is access. That holds for both quantity and variety. Plus the information links in all sort of intentional and random fashion. The structure forces one to spin a web of meaning. Despite what some promise, ultimate answers remain elusive, perhaps non-existent. In that way it is analogous to life in ways few school curricula are.
     My favorite on-line teachers are those who not only acknowledge such intellectual murkiness but actually embrace it. They are the truly honest bloggers, the ones who are willing to share the struggle and thus admit their own shortcomings and even vulnerability. They dine upon a smorgasbord of feeds and draw nutrition from each. They are the Tweeters who share all types of resources and challenge each other in chats and celebrate the virtues of others.
     Society often confuses learning with achieving a certain end. To an extent this is accurate if we're talking short term or one has a simple task to complete. However, such a misconception underlies many of the problems with educational systems. We must understand and embrace the opposite notion. Optimal learning is not linear, zeroed in a particular goal. It loops, twists, starts and stops. It's also about unlearning. It's about having the guts to ask dangerous questions that may force answers which drive us off the intended course but right where we need to go at any given time on an endless journey.
     For a society to prosper fully, it needs a spirited life of the mind. That cannot be just pockets of citizenry. It must be the culture. Standard operating procedure. So those qualities of the teachers I most appreciate on-line? Exactly what we also need off-line. Those great teachers understand it's about truly meaningful learning.


Monday, April 14, 2014

My Cardiac Surgery and Education

Last Tuesday, April 8, I had some cardiac surgery--an ablation because of some extreme atrial fibrillation in my left atrium. Basically, the surgeon told me that it's like having what used to require open-heart surgery except now they can do it in ways I'm going to describe. He said that even ten years ago he couldn't have done the procedure as he did it on Tuesday and hoped for as high a chance of success (still waiting on that determination). Plus the recovery is amazingly quick considering what occurred. Sunday I took a long enough, brisk enough stroll to sweat a tiny bit. Today I was at school for several hours.

To highly oversimplify, here is the process. On Monday I went to the hospital for a CT scan. This scan was used to build a multi-colored 3-D computer model of my heart, zeroing in on the affected atrium. The colors indicated the areas needing attention. On Tuesday I went to the hospital, was prepped, and wheeled into the operating room. In there it was like the pit at a car race as several medical folks hooked me up to all sorts of sensors, electrodes, lines. Meanwhile, I stared at the clearest 60-inch hi-def monitor I've ever seen right above me. I don't recall going under.

During the procedure I had one scope down my throat to check for blood clots. To reach my atrium, the surgeon made a small incision near my groin, through which he inserted a scope into the vein and thus to the heart. While watching the model on the screen, he could pinpoint exactly where to move the scope and perform the ablation. That involves burning the areas that are causing the atrium to go into a-fib in an effort to reroute the electrical impulses in the heart. Or at least that's my very limited understanding of it!

So, you may be wondering, what does this have to do with education? Plenty, I think, particularly if considered both literally and metaphorically. Plus my experience captures why the best schools, to use a phrase I've borrowed from former NAIS president Pat Bassett, are both high-tech and high-touch.

I'm in awe of the sorts of minds that can progress any field in such amazing fashion, in this case by merging their existing knowledge with the possibilities afforded by technology. Such accomplishment requires not just knowledge and skill, but also a certain perspective, insight, and intellectual courage and determination. It soars high above pure academic achievement, although that clearly is the foundation. If anything, I'm understating the stunning work necessary in such rapid innovation. At the same time, it strikes me that it encapsulates the qualities we should aspire to foster in each and every student.

We're also reminded of the incredible opportunities that we have in this unbelievable era of technological advancement. So the question inevitably arises: while the situation is improving, what keeps so many teachers and schools from harnessing this potential? I'm sure anyone reading this blog has heard the now-cliched idea that one wouldn't choose a physician who has changed as little as schools have given all that we know now versus 25 years ago. For me this has become starkly more than an analogy.

Even with all that in mind, another basic truth emerges. As I've written many times, education is essentially about human connections. The high-touch part. My surgeon has shown a patient, empathetic bedside manner with my wife and me. The hospital staff was fabulous. Trustees and employees and school families have been supportive and kind. Friends have provided meals. We have beautiful plants and two giant gift baskets of fruit and other goodies. It's been inspiring. But nothing has charmed me more than the cards from students, made the old-fashioned way with construction paper and crayons and scissors and glue. One even came with a rabbit's foot! And it's reminded me why educators must be committed to their own growth to create the best possible schools for,this young people's futures.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Why Creativity Really Matters

     Many practical reasons exist for schools to be putting more emphasis on creativity in all its forms. The move from the information age to the creative age, employment prospects, the new emphasis on design, ties to innovation, the fact that thus far computers can't ideate--if you're reading this blog, like me you know most of the broad strokes, all of which I have invoked in various fora. I've even made hour-long presentations on this very topic.
     I love what this emphasis on creativity has brought to schools. We see more project-based learning, more integrated curricula, more collaboration, more questioning. The use of design thinking principles fosters key character and intellectual principles foundational to human progress. Maker spaces and design dens and innovation labs (and whatever else they are called) are pretty awesome places to see in action. Simply yet profoundly, education now seems more engaging and more relevant. More real.
     Having said all that, I don't know that we've articulated maybe the most important reason this trend matters.
     As I see it, the educational process and all its pieces should add up to a single whole: the creation of a self. In many ways growing up is forming updated prototypes of oneself, better iterations of one's core, hopefully in relation to others.For that to happen, one must be able to dream, to conceive of the possible, and to imagine oneself moving into it, whether by baby steps or in a giant leap. The stages of design thinking, for example, thus becomes a metaphor for striving to fulfill the mission. But a crucial difference is that doing so is as incumbent upon the students as it is the school. Probably even more so, which should be the goal since education should be about their futures. When it happens, that's learning at its most meaningful.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Why Ask Questions? To Change the World

During spring break I enjoyed one of those wonderful father-daughter experiences. For six days we travelled in the Northeast to look at colleges. It wasn't about further bonding. Instead, I revelled in suddenly realizing what a self-aware young woman she had become. Even though I've been watching carefully--and I like to believe I'm an engaged parent-- the transformation felt sudden. I really sensed it when she talked about how a college might provide what she craves and needs as a learner. Naturally, I found myself wondering what experiences had fostered this growth. To some extent it results from her nature, and I'm grateful to her teachers who have nurtured it. All good schools will claim, quite earnestly, that they want their students to be reflective. However, that doesn't seem to be an innate part of young people's make-up, at least not in overt ways they want us to know about. So I also found myself doubting whether schools do enough to prompt the desired, very necessary reflection.
I'm sure that some of this pondering has gained momentum because I'm reading Warren Berger's excellent A More Beautiful Question. In it Berger points out the many reasons we may be reluctant to ask questions and don't ask meaningful questions when we do pose any. As you likely imagine, schools receive quite a bit of blame. I have to say, deservedly so. Without summarizing his points, I'll simply give my very general reasons since they have been percolating in my mind for a long time. In a way they come down to what some of our practices suggest we value. Assessment practices usually come down to being able to provide a "right" answer to a teacher-generated query. This is true whether in class on a daily basis or on a test. There are, of course, wonderful exceptions...but they remain just that--exceptions. That truism ossifies in an era of standardization. One also fairly can ask, when students are posing questions, if they are learning about what makes for good questions and how many are strictly about material rather than their learning. I believe we can better balance the two.
Towards that end, I'm trying an experiment in the seventh grade writing classes I'm currently teaching. I'm embedding asking questions into the work. For example, I am not handing the students a rubric for their essay. Instead, as we work on certain topics, they are coming up with questions that then become part of the rubric, with the students deciding which ones to include. For example, we've been working on word choice, especially vivid verbs. For a possible rubric question, one student wrote, "Do my words activate specific images in a reader's mind?" In the first round of peer review, students had to write down nothing but questions in response to what they heard from the author. Each question had to begin with one of three terms: why, how might you, or what if.
The students find this process quite challenging, mainly because it' so new for them. It requires patience on my part, and I'm struggling a bit with how much to show them up front and how much to let them figure out. Somewhere is the sweet spot, and we will find it. I truly believe taking this approach should help them in the long run. I've always considered asking great questions more important than spouting facts. Now, with pure knowledge growing so easy to access, that is even truer. It's true for curation, and it's true for creativity. It's also true for contribution in the grandest sense. As Berger quotes a professor in his book, "We create the world we live in through the questions we ask." No one is going to change the world for the better without asking the right questions.