Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dreaming of School-Business Symbiosis

     During my thirty-two years in independent education, one trend I've noticed is schools taking more and more lessons and directions from the world of business. Some of the topics which immediately jump to mind include strategy, branding, metrics, return on investment, scalability, distributed leadership, design thinking, innovation...I know I'm missing some. Educators read more books traditionally associated with the business world, a trend that seemed to start with Good to Great.  Whatever the topic, while we always seem a large bit behind the curve, we're looking in that direction and, to use another term we've co-opted, trying to become more nimble as organizations. In many ways all these experiences, whether we do them well or not, are beneficial in that they become an important part of our paths to progress. In today's world they are particularly vital to our future as enterprises. That's all great stuff.
     At the same time, however, I wonder where the tipping point lies--when it becomes "just business." As a school head, I sometimes feel as if it has because of how I spend my time and what fills my thoughts. I hope that never trickles down to faculty, although I do want them to accept on some level--as much as it feels like a gut punch to some--that ultimately we are a business. I accept it and, even though many of the business aspects still baffle me, I find them some of the most intriguing parts of my job because I have to keep growing. I can't lead unless I do.
     Still, I feel pangs of discomfort with certain aspects of this trend. I worry that we can lose sight of the more ethereal, yet perhaps more eternal and valuable aspects of education. We can spend so much time measuring where a child is a this moment that we lose sight of the possible adult. We can become so concerned about next-level readiness (high school, college, career) that we suck the joy out of right now. We can worry so much about how the world is changing now and in the future that we forget about developmental changes in a child at each and every stage of their learning.
     These last few lines should remind us that, yes, an independent school is a business. But I think we are truly unique. Granted, I have never worked as an adult in anything but independent schools; so this is based on conversation, reading, general impressions from myriad sources. I doubt there is another business more intense on a human level than independent schools.* Consider the number of people who form a very complex web or deep relationships based on a topic about which they all have invested a great deal of time, talent, emotion, and money: the education of children. Everyone cares incredibly. Working with children is demanding. Loads of stakes are put in the ground. Every day is packed with potentially pivotal moments. I'm sure other business have days and periods like this. But in education it's a regular day. And while there are gleaming moments of real breakthrough, progress can prove slow and elusive. You don't do a product launch and see sales skyrocket.
     I'll continue to stretch myself in the business side of leading a school. We have plenty to learn from the business world. I hope, though, that I can always keep a large part of my focus on the teaching and learning. That desire expands into a dream not just for my school or independent schools, but for all schools. For whatever reason, people feel free to critique and "advise" schools with a degree of confidence and in ways I don't hear people direct towards other enterprises. My dream is this. We're the experts on teaching and learning. It's not just schools that need to keep evolving. Businesses do even more desperately. As is the case with schools, some do it better than others. I hope that someday we develop such incredible schools that businesses take more and more lessons from us. We need to achieve the perfect symbiosis.

*I don't mean this as a slight to other types of schools. It's the world I know, and I base it on what I know from people who have worked in various types of schools and what they have told me.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Death of the Blog?

       This post is longer than usual, and for that I apologize. Perhaps I could have shortened it. In fact, I'm sure I could have. Yet, as should become clear to those of you who endure, the length reflects the theme.
       A few weeks ago, in a post of somewhat random thoughts, I mused about the current state of blogging. I noted that fewer and fewer posts seem to be showing up in my aggregator. Then, in a very unscientific experiment, I kept clicking on the little link at the top of this blog that says "Next blog." I most often--and it wasn't even close--came to blogs that hadn't been updated for many months, sometimes even years. Some announced their own demise. Others simply fizzled out. Saddest of all were the ones on which the final post declared one's sadness at not having blogged for a while, followed by a pledge to resume and keep it up, sort of a digital-literary New Year's resolution by February. Some were quite good. But one point above all depressed me a bit, something about which I've written before:

I find it incredibly disappointing when a blog dies, abandoned by its creator, no longer lovingly nourished through regular cerebral feelings. You can see it coming. The posts become less frequent, the content less stimulating, as if the author has begun to bore him- or herself. Though the author owes me nothing--and, I hate to admit, I did not encourage through comments or Tweets--I still feel somehow betrayed. When reading a book or article, you know it will end, even wonder how it will, appreciate the fabulous wrap up. But a blog seems to carry an inherent pledge of infinite development.(from "On Blogging During Break")
       I totally understand the challenge of maintaining a blog. I once confided: 

Writing this blog, I feel real pressure to ship at least once per week. As someone pointed out to me, “You create a monster; then you have to feed it.” At first this was easy: I was new to my school, wanted people to learn about me and my ideas, had plenty to say. It was purely rational, grounded in my cerebral cortex. Now, shipping has become harder. I find myself asking questions that, while logical, still drip with juices of the lizard brain. What am I going to say this week? Haven’t I already written about that? Is this worth posting on? What are people thinking about my posts? Have I gone too far in some of my points and overly offended someone? Would anyone notice if I didn’t post for a while? If I stopped posting at all? Why isn’t my mind working the way I want it to? When did I forget how to write?  (from "Taming My Lizard Brain: An Unforeseen Lesson from Blogging")

I compare that to Tweeting, something about which I was once skeptical but now embrace. It's really easy, almost automatic now. It's a wonderful way to share information, to compile quality resources, to engage in quality conversations during chats. It's amazing how well I feel I've come to know some people through Twitter although I've never met them or read anything else by them. That also may explain another trend I've noted in relation to the first. As I've noticed less blogging, I've noticed more Tweeting. And despite my love of the Twitter-sphere, that concerns me.
       In  ThinkingFast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman contends that our thought patterns operate in two ways--System 1 and System 2. System 1 consists of our automatic, almost instinctual reactions to things. They are often based on prior knowledge, assumptions, things we take for granted. System 2 involves deeper thinking; it is more reflective and analytical. Not surprisingly, Kahneman contends that we operate mainly per System 1. He says that this occurs in large part because we are intellectually lazy. But there are other reasons. Heuristics cause us to see things in certain ways. For example, the way information is presented can "anchor" us and influence how we respond. Other heuristics include availability, emotion, risk, sample size. We also have a poor grasp of statistics. I would add that we are simply busy, we want quick answers, and we haven't really been trained to think deeply. In "Some Thinking About Thinking" I relate this idea to education.
       I think we can use this framework as a way to think about Tweeting and blogging. While exceptions certainly exist, in general I would say that Tweeting equates to System 1 thinking and blogging to System 2 thinking. In anticipation of one argument against this, I acknowledge that good Tweeters will reveal the outcomes on System 2 thinking in many of their Tweets. Yet I'm focused on the process.
       For me the best blog posts have a meditative quality, as if the writer has peeled back his or her scalp and allowed you to see the neurons firing. Such posts echo the origins of the essay, its name derived from the Middle French essayer, which means to examine and to test. Part of the power lies in the struggle to construct that scaffolding, and it's why we hold in awe those who can do it so gracefully that we read the words and they seem so natural, so easy, so much what we want to say...but can't figure out how. They capture humans at their reflective best.
       It also captures the very essence of teaching and learning. Teaching, no matter what subject, boils down to an attempt to capture and to communicate an understanding. Math, for example, is much more than numeracy. Eventually it becomes a tool by which we can understand basic truths about the physical universe. Learning does not occur without at least a bit of reflection, when we take new information and figure how how it fits within existing schemata. Notice I said bit of reflection. Deeper, more powerful learning entails more extensive, more probing reflection. It's why, when I asked an admission director at a top liberal arts college what makes a student essay stand out, she told me a student's ability to truly reflect.
     I fear even the idea of our losing that. I see schools doing cool things with Tweeting and video and other forms of expression. They're wonderful and creative and often worthwhile. Yes, the notion of literacy is much more complex than it used to be. But what has gone by the wayside? I worry it's writing, something which often was not taught often and/or well enough anyway. I've argued for a long time--long before the days most of us had any idea about personal computers and the Internet-- that students need to be writing more in all their classes. And, as I argued in "Do Students Ever Get to Blog in Their Underwear?", it doesn't all need to be your typical academic writing. The important thing is the digging, the connecting; the discovery; as someone forgotten once said, and many have repeated, "I don't really know what I think until I write it." Ponder what I proposed in "Potential of Student Blogs."

But consider what could happen if each student's blog became truly personal, a place for musing and exploring and poking. A place not for trying to build a strong case, but a place for refining a big question while considering various options. A place for students to share with each other in a collaborative "big dig" that spills over into the classroom. A place where the teacher doesn't go looking to see if students have the right answer but a place to be surprised by what they know and are figuring out.
     I hope the assessment would focus on that. Of course, I want more of that to be happening everywhere, not just in blogs. In this case, a powerful blog becomes a multi-faceted symbol of a more modern education. It captures a new dynamic of individual and collective learning. It highlights a more necessary set of skills and attitudes. It marks a shift in the dominant voices of a class. It suggests a way in which each student can play a leading role in his or her own fashion. 

Even if not the sort of collaborative learning suggested by using blogs in this fashion, the larger goals remain paramount. We must help students develop the skills and attitudes integral to sustained, deep thought. Otherwise, too often we're content to skim along the surface. That's not just about individual growth. It's foundational to our growth as cultures and societies and a species. At the risk of being dramatic, evolve or die.
       Of course, all this really points to much more than a consideration of blogging versus Tweeting. It's about purpose. Values. It's about making sure making sure we always protect them. Ultimately, I see education as being about how we become better humans. Writing, whether for oneself or for an audience, is key to that. So when it comes to blogging, to riff off Mark Twain's famous line, I hope reports of its death are exaggerated.

Monday, January 5, 2015

My Big Thought in Early '15: Staying Amazing thru Independence

       In one of those cases of pure serendipity, recently an email from  appeared in my inbox to advertise this print:

The message explained that Hugh McCleod had created the image for Zappos, widely considered a great place to work. The body of the email went on to explain: "It might seem counter-intuitive, making these kinds of basic reminders for smart people at smart companies. But we've found that often, they're the ones who need it most. Because smart people are always looking at what they can do to make things better, they tend to forget that what they're already doing is pretty awesome. How do you inspire the very best? Just keep doing what you're doing."
       I call this serendipity because it fits with an idea I've been pondering quite a bit lately. The topic is, I believe, an essential balancing act of effective leadership. It's managing to inspire the necessary forward movement while honoring and even retaining that which is of essential, timeless value. The tension is captured in the essential questions of a workshop we'll be having at St. John's Episcopal in a few weeks, led by Grant Lichtman: In what ways are we already great? How do we become even greater? 
      Too often we neglect all the amazing things that already happen in our schools. Education is, in many ways, a pretty easy target for people. Those who spend their time emphasizing the problems attract a wide audience. But they also tend to paint with a very wide brush, often unfairly and in a way that ignores the exemplary work many are doing. Long-time, clear-minded independent school voice Peter Gow recently addressed this notion very well in a blog post he published while I was in the midst of formulating this piece. During some remarks this morning I made the comparison to how we act about cars and computers. Most of us take their functioning, despite how complicated it is, for granted. We don't express our gratitude when it works each time; but we express incredible frustration the first time it doesn't. And learning is in many ways a much more mysterious process than such mechanics.
       Having said that, I also argue quite fervently that we need to rethink aspects of education in some fairly dramatic ways. Certainly, as so many others and I have pointed out in various ways over and over, that holds true because of how the world is changing. But many of those changes were necessary even before now. I look back at my own education--I'm 53--and listen to others describe theirs, and everyone talks of too much emphasis on lower-order skills and memorization. So the problem is not new. Perhaps the urgency for change is greater now. I suspect many generations, while living in the moment, felt the pace of change was accelerating faster than at any other time. We tend to throw around terms such as innovation and transformation and disruption rather easily, and education has a long history of silver-bullet thinking. I want to be clear that I love the spirit and optimism and direction behind this. I'm thrilled that schools seem to be putting more emphasis on growth mindsets and creative intellectualism. But I worry that as we talk so much about the future into which our students are heading, we can lose sight of the past that brought us here and what kids may need right now.
     My thoughts on strategic plans and vision capture what likely seems like my ambivalence with this topic. I have problems with how often the strategic planning process occurs, as various groups submit their "thoughts," the final product thus becoming a wish list and action items, and perhaps not really a strategy. The commitment in theme can lead recklessly down a path. Similarly, too concrete a vision strikes me as grandiose and can actually signal myopia and a degree of blindness. That's not to say that one shouldn't have a direction, and ideal for which one is striving; a really wonderful picture of what things could be like. For instance, a teacher may envision an ideal class. The hard work--the work that really matters--doesn't lie in that vision. It lies in seeing how each day one can do the job better and making that effort. Sometimes those are big things. I suspect more often they are small things. And they add up over time.
       But leaders must show vision. We want it to be sweeping in a way that inspires. Perhaps, however, it must be rooted in a simple idea(l) rather than a utopia of magnificent facilities and beaucoup initiatives and measures. I could--indeed, I have--riffed on and on about my educational utopia in many times, Certain elements remain the same; others change. But I think that to "stay amazing," schools like mine must emphasize their independence. Not just emphasize it, but take advantage of it. That is what has made us unique, more often for better than worse, albeit not always. That independence is what allows us to be responsive and agile and to emphasize what matters; and in doing so, to provide what kids need, right now and for the foreseeable future. Any school that does that is quite amazing.