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.