Monday, August 31, 2015

Finding the Holy Metric

       If you read this blog with any regularity, you've seen numerous comments and even full posts about educational metrics. There are simply too many for me to provide links. I've railed against ones I abhor, extolled those that seem worthwhile, patched together comprehensive packages of various ones, and contemplated "new" ways to capture educational value. Sometimes it feels as if I've spent a large part of my professional life for the past fifteen years on the quest for the holy metric of education.
       Recently I may have found it, even grasped it for a moment. And it made me so proud of St. John''s Episcopal School. 
       Before I share it, I ask you to take a moment and reflect upon a pretty basic question. Basic...but one I'm not sure we talk about enough. What does great learning look like?
       On Friday, August 21, I experienced a first in my 33 years in education. As I took one of my walks around the school, I didn't see a single classroom in which students were simply sitting and listening. I saw them engaging in lively discussion, working in small groups, brainstorming on idea walls and researching on iPads. They were spread out among the room and even spilled into the hallways. I saw students creating in art classes, baking gingerbread men, reading in quiet corners, and playing in PE. Everywhere I went students were engaged in active learning. There were loads of smiles and shining eyes.
       Of course, I Tweeted about it, which led to these two responses from Grant Lichtman, who's probably visited as many independent and public schools as anyone the past few years:
My pride grew even more, and since then I've been gushing to folks about it and hoping I help them understand what a big deal this was. It may not indicate an individual student's progress in any particular area, but it highlights how we're creating the fertile environment for tremendous individual growth. The type that comes via great learning.
       I haven't had the same experience since. But now I know it can happen. The North Star has become more distinct and even brighter because we're drawing ever closer.

Monday, August 24, 2015

As My Daughter Leaves for College

       Tomorrow my wife and I bring my daughter, Kate, to college for the first time. She's matriculating at Bryn Mawr College right outside of Philadelphia. (You can read about the selection process here.)It's one of those moments that both seems to be here all of a sudden and feels as if it's been a long time coming. Yes, it's full of all the feelings you've either experienced or can imagine. This time is also one of those points, like a new job or perhaps a particular birthday, when you take stock of some things if you're reflective at all. Even more than usual, I feel the dual roles of parent and head of school blending in both my thoughts and emotions. So while I write this post during a brief lull from those many last-minutes tasks, I'm doing so from my professional perch while hoping they resonate even more with fellow parents.
       I believe you can tell a great deal about what really matters by what you really stew about, often revealed in the questions you're asking when left with only your deeper thoughts. They're the deeper doubts which lurk beneath the tiny anxieties that nip at our ankles each day. Similarly, certain points may dart in and out of your consciousness, but they don't alight long enough to signify any true fear. In my case, I think my fatherly ruminations at this point capture my professional beliefs quite well.
       Let's deal with academics first. I don't think I've ever wondered at all what sort of grades Kate is going to make. I've thought about her academics in much more holistic terms, such as how she will respond to the challenges and in what ways she will stretch intellectually. I wonder what courses and/or professors are going to grab her interest and perhaps lead to a major. I wonder what passion will be roused, perhaps one that lasts for a lifetime.
       But that's about as far as I go in thinking about her academic work. And I'm aware, perhaps even hopeful, that the final awakening in that last paragraph could occur just as easily outside of class. That's where my questions can really take off. Will she find activities that engage her? That sparkle because of mutual recognition and kindling of her talents, perhaps ones that she doesn't even yet know she has? Will she connect with dozens of fascinating people who both support her but also challenge and provoke her? Will she believe she can continue to be this fiercely independent young person who is who she is? At the same time, will she form those life-long friendships so many do in college? Will she take good care of herself, including continuing her love of long bicycle rides, and others? Will she be okay? No, much better than okay? Will she figure out her place in the world?
       I imagine, even have faith, that the answer to all these will be affirmative. The wonder, though, comes with the territory of educator and parent. Not just at times which are real milestones, but each and every day to some degree. It is at the larger moments, however, that we have to ask about the rest: Was I worrying about things that really matter in the long term?

Friday, August 14, 2015


"Complexity arises whenever a system--technical, social, or natural--has multiple, interdependent parts." 
"Meeting complexity with complexity can create more confusion that it resolves."
          --from Simple Rules by Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt

          I don't think many people would argue that in most ways our world has become more complex, mainly through the intersection of a greater number of moving parts. As the authors point out, examples can range from the increasingly global economy to home entertainment systems (versus an old-fashioned tv) with tangles of wires and multiple remotes. They also point out how complex US tax codes have become--a situation which has led to more and more people being in violation simply through ignorance rather than defiance. Even tax experts ended up finishing with vastly different returns for the same family because of the complexity. The lesson is simple, perhaps even obvious. The greater the complexity, the greater the chances for problems of any sort.
          Schools are naturally complex systems. Anytime you bring together a large number of people and attempt to unite them towards a common purpose, even in the best of situations--complexity arises. After all, each person is a complex organism. But I wonder if we've made school/education more complex than it needs to be. I've hinted at this notion before, particularly in a post titled "Biggest Change in the Last 30 Years of Independent Education?" My answer: "how much more schools are expected to do." You can add to the mix how much more we know about brain development and cries for innovation new models for curricula and numerous other points. It's all great stuff, but it certainly adds to the complexity. Sometimes it seems as if respond by drafting more and more arcane tax codes of our own. So I've been thinking about this idea for quite a while, and this book brought it back to the surface from deeper in the juices of my mind. How might we, I've been wondering, simplify the complexities of school? And is this how we zero in on the true priorities? How we help students have deeper, richer learning experiences?
          The authors explain how we can manage complexity by creating simple rules: "shortcut strategies that...focus our attention and simplify the way we process information." They say these must be very particular, tailored to a given situation, while also providing clear guidance without being overly prescriptive. Simple rules are not a once-size-fits-all solution for cutting through complexity. Yet they work when well articulated. One great example the authors give is triage on battlefields and how that has cut the mortality rate.
         I'm sure this could help in schools. In some ways, I'm reminded of a key element of design thinking, in that the simple rules could provide a degree of restraint. It's an approach I plan to use on some projects this year. Grant Lichtman, from whom I learned about the book, has posted about some very concrete ways that schools could benefit from using simple rules.
          Since I seem to be doing nothing but stealing from others in this post, I'll close with what I hope are a couple of other compelling bits of my own. Recently I was listening to a pro football player being interviewed. At higher levels, sports become incredibly complex. Pro athletes always talk about just doing their job, focusing on their role, doing the simple things right...add your own cliche. Usually we don't think twice about it. For some reason, during this recent interview, I found myself thinking there is real wisdom in that. And it's a perspective that helped these people reach the top level.
          Then there is this passage from a letter by Henry David Thoreau:
"I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run."