Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Linchpin Educator

            Recently I’ve immersed myself in some work with a group designing a new program for independent school leadership. One guiding premise stresses non-titular leadership. As part of that, I revisited some of Seth Godin’s work. While I read his blog each day, I decided to re-read three books: Tribes, Linchpin, and Stop Stealing Dreams. Tribes explores groups connected to each other, a leader, and an idea. Linchpin considers the indispensable employee. Stop Stealing Dreams is a manifesto about traditional schooling. Together, they prompted me to try identifying the key qualities of a linchpin educator.
            Three of Godin’s regular themes apply here. First, digital technology changes everything, meaning we should re-examine old models. Second, Godin contends everyone has the potential and means to lead in meaningful fashion. The question is not whether someone could lead. It is will that person lead. Then come matters of what, where, when, and how. Third, merely answering those questions affirmatively falls short. One must produce and ship their particular form of art, the way in which their work touches and changes people.
            Those who do become linchpins. As Godin explains,

What the boss really wants is an artist, someone who changes everything, who makes dreams come true. What the boss really wants is someone who can see the reality of today and describe a better tomorrow. What the boss really wants is a linchpin.

If he can’t have that, he’ll settle for a cheap drone. (Linchpin, 38)
That passage comes a few pages after the following:

Let me be really clear: Great teachers are wonderful. They change lives. We need them. The problem is that most schools don’t like great teachers. They’re organized to stamp them out, bore them, bureaucratize them, and make them average. (29)

In Stop Stealing Dreams Godin thoroughly derides the assembly line model of education. I’d add this is not just a school problem but a societal problem, in that cultures have created their typical school in a way that reveals beliefs and values. Consider what resonates in a politician’s platform regarding education. Ultimately, schools are human constructs.
            Of course, that means humans could change them, provided we muster the collective fortitude. That’s where linchpins come in.
So what makes for a linchpin educator? Nothing in the following is about the nuts-and-bolts of teaching, although those matter. But they can be learned and really are secondary. Much more important are certain personal qualities. We need people who can enhance, perhaps even transform education through shaping a particular type of culture.

Curriculum as Markers
            The etymology of the term curriculum refers to a set path. Through time, as more and more traverse a path, the ruts become deeper; a traveler can have a harder time deviating from the preferred route. In education this has played out in greater standardization, the curriculum becoming almost a script for the teacher. Content becomes paramount, and pedagogy takes on a degree of mechanization.
            To a linchpin educator, however, curriculum serves only as markers. It provides a general sense of direction, but the educator wants to embark on expeditions with the students, often through exploring interesting problems. The linchpin not only ignores the map, but shreds it. After all, here during the fourth industrial revolution, we have no reliable maps.

Questions Trump Answers
            As a general rule, questions can be organized into two categories. The first require factual answers, those sort of lower-order bits of recall that may win someone a Trivial Pursuit game. The second provoke higher-level analysis. Perhaps discourse of some sort may help articulate the stages of determining a possible answer. They don’t work on bubble tests or robo-graded essays.
            These questions beget even more beautiful questions in some sort of epistemological evolution. They allow us to unlock even the thorniest problems. They urge us to question everything. A linchpin educator swims in a sea brimming with “What if’s…” and “How might we’s…,” all the while yelling, “Come on in! The water’s fine!”

Appreciate Weird
            We shy away from weird. Even sometimes its less-threatening synonyms such as unusual, novel, original. It defies our created limits, and thus we cannot measure it. That rocks the stability of the average. We feel unsafe because of how it scoffs at our expectations.
            The linchpin educator embraces the specialness in that which is unique. The English teacher who sees beyond the misspellings or usage errors to see the passion, the imagery. The math and science teachers who delight in a loopy proof or wacky hypothesis and cheer, “Give it a go!” After all, they reason, a standardized education fosters standardized people…and we have plenty of those.

Comfort with Discomfort
            Fear, confusion, lack of certainty, resentment, jealousy, anger (on all sides)—the discomfort can manifest itself in these and many other ways. It’s resistance. It comes from those comfortable with the status quo, and even those who aren’t but feel secure. Or the resistance might be internal, the lizard brain gnashing its fangs and spitting venom, fed by cynics.
            The linchpin educator, though, continues to create art, both drawing on rich traditions and experimenting with new forms. Just as an education should, the best art jars us into a new consciousness. It broadens and deepens our perspectives. It does so through taking risks mitigated by idealism and faith.

A Shrunken Head
            All of this requires a secure, under-control ego. Recall the function of a linchpin: to hold other pieces in place so that the whole can function. Ultimately, school is not about teaching. It’s about learning. Ideally, everyone’s learning. Ironically, an oversized head gets in the way of learning. Egocentricity causes someone to wrest too much control, to reject possibilities, to lessen others. It becomes about the I.
            The best educators shrink so that others may grow. It is about us and them. They challenge and affirm, reflect and imagine, prick and caress. In urging people to become better, they invoke our higher selves. Linchpin educators thus give us gifts wrapped in passion.

At the core, how a school functions depends on the relationships and interactions among all its constituents. Right now I’m imagining the utter awesomeness of working in a school full of such people. More importantly, I’m thinking about how truly joyful that school would be for kids. I see them emerging as the people who solve all our current and future problems. And some of those kids will grow up and become educators, and we’ll have more and more such schools. And then more and more flywheels will spin faster and faster, each held in place by a linchpin educator.

Monday, January 18, 2016


       Olio is a word that I'm not sure I've ever seen anywhere except a crossword puzzle. It means a mixture, a hodgepodge; a dish of many ingredients. I think it would make a great title for a blog. But rather than start a whole new blog, I'm using it as the title and structure for this post, in which I plan to just share a bunch of random musings that have been running through my mind but aren't growing into full posts. Perhaps I can't corral them well enough. Perhaps I simply need a brain dump. Anyway it will be similar to previous posts "Scattershooting," "Classic Whateverness," and "Classic Whateverness #3."
       Before I trigger the randomness, I wonder why I'm doing this on my blog. Really, each point probably could be a Tweet; maybe should be a Tweet. For some reason, however, I'm feeling drawn to blogging these days, more than I have for a while. I think it may be because of how much writing helps me to make sense of things. Maybe I finally feel as if I have some new things to share after a relatively dry spell. The medium feels more purposeful. I've also been trying to figure out if I want to keep this blog going, or if I want to move on to another type of writing project. Yes, that might mean a book. With that daunting thought...

When/how did we reach what seems an assumed agreement all young people should be budding entrepreneurs? ... Also, will everyone really need to know how to code? ... Someone recently chided school heads for being too fearful of litigation. In this day and age, you better believe it ... Probably not matter of if but when regarding some form of litigation for any school ... Perspective changes when you have ultimate responsibility for your school ... Conversation other day made me wonder what work I'd be doing if not education and in a school. Can't imagine anything else ... But I do think I would make a heck of a consultant, workshop leader, etc. ... If you won PowerBall, would you keep working? .... People love to post pictures of work done with Post-It notes. I love Post-It notes and use them all the time. But a mass of Post-It notes means nothing. It's what might be on each one that matters. That and any subsequent meaningful action ... Sometimes I'm reminded of a student who studies more or writes a longer paper, then assumes it means a higher grade ... Arm teachers? Anyone ask most of the teachers I know? .... Recently someone challenged people to define "future ready." Of course no one knows for sure. But I combined it with popular one-word challenge. Chose nimble ... I love that so much of what is held out as enabling people to be future ready calls for celebration of the unique gifts of humans ... Interesting exercise. Spend some time thinking of different ways that schools could be organized than they are now. Think about "What if?" for each of them. So why do almost all of us do it the same way? ... I love that we have easier access to more data. But one ultimately frustrating by-product is that it seems every professional organization feels compelled to put out a long, comprehensive, data-crammed report. And then we feel compelled to review each of them. You know, just in case ... I don't claim, by any means, to be an expert on design thinking. But I'm really glad to finally have a term for the way my mind has worked for as long as I can recall. And that it's actually desirable! ... Hypothetically, what if you're a head of school and one of your alums is running for a high public office but you disagree with stands and loathe the behavior? Has to be weird mix of pride and disappointment ... Bit hard to understand all the outrage about violence in football when ultimate fighting keeps growing in popularity ... Sometimes professional athletes make it really hard to teach sportsmanship. Some politicians make it really hard to help kids see meaning and value of public service ... Always an amazing feeling when a former student, sometimes from over 25 years ago, comments on a blog or follows on Twitter...

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Course Idea Both Parties Should Support

       Listening to President Obama's State of the Union address  and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's response, I couldn't help but be reminded of a post I wrote three years ago. In it I decried the current political climate and wondered about the lessons it teaches children. One excerpt reads:

 I’m wondering more about what lessons young people are gleaning from what they witness. What are they learning about leadership? About constructive debate? About seeking compromise? About thoughtful deliberation? About respectful disagreement? About respect in general? About working together for the common good?
                This last point is crucial. We face enormous problems—energy, environmental, financial, technological, infrastructure, international—which will require our collective resources to solve. However, we continue to squawk about our disagreements to such a degree that we cannot collaborate in any fashion. And the frightening thing is divisiveness tends to breed greater divisiveness. When and how does it end?                In the big picture, I don’t know. Perhaps when some situation becomes desperate enough that we have to pull together.  In our own corners of the world, we can help children by asking questions and initiating discussions with them. At just about any age, children have reactions and opinions, often laced with insight that we can neglect in our busy adulthood. We must model the desired behavior. Simply put, to have the type of political leaders and citizenry we want and need, we have to nurture the essential qualities. It’s hard, slow, often messy work. It’s vital work. Imperative work. (Full post here.)

Now I have to agree with the President's statement of regret that the situation seems to have worsened.
       One positive that I've been thinking about is what a fascinating time this would be to be a history or political science teacher. Or an teacher with a predilection to consider what I'm going to describe.
       Think about the current presidential campaign. Of course, currently the rise of Donald Trump is receiving a majority of the attention, with Ted Cruz becoming a more prominent figure.That's on the far right side. What is not receiving nearly as much attention--but is perhaps just as telling--is how well socialist-leaning Bernie Sanders is doing in the polls. So we have both extremes with plenty of support. It's a fascinating development to consider; we could read multiple, varied implications into it. Is it that people are just fed up with the norm? Is it an even further extension of the divisiveness I describe above, moving from political chambers to the larger public? Is it an Internet forum coming to real life? In many ways, both the extremes run counter to some basic American tenets, from basic human rights to capitalism. While I'm not enough of a historian to know for sure, I have to think this is one of the most extreme times in American history. Even if it's not, I think my proposal has merit. I'd love to see a course focused on the current election with, to borrow theme of Steven Johnson's latst book, a focus on how we got to now. Studying history is learning a story. I'd like to see this one told backwards--to take some of these ideas and use them to unpack history. For example, some of what has been proposed about refugees could lead to a fascinating exploration of issues regarding immigration since our founding. Or one could look at various takes on wealth and issues that spin off from that. If not a full course, perhaps an ongoing unit within a course.*
       Even if one proceeds chronologically, taking such an analytical approach to any area of study is important for another reason. Besides what kids learn from the rancor and discord, such extremism tends to strip away critical thinking and sense of nuance. So I am reminded about another my posts as well: "Help Students Pop the Filter Bubble":
Pariser writes, "Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another's point of view, but instead we're more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we're offered parallel but separate universes" (4). Innovation and creativity lie at the heart of economic development, yet we're removing much of what can fuel them. Our diverse world is becoming more and more interconnected and inter-reliant; yet we dwell in a world that can foster narrow-mindedness.
     With our students growing up in such a world, schools have an even greater obligation to reconsider their large-picture mission. It's about how to live a meaningful life in such a world. That means awareness and critical thinking, not mere fact accumulation. That means helping students make connections, not keeping disciplines separate. That means learning to ask the right questions, not mere bubble coloring. That means grappling with relevant problems, not made-up examples. That means collaborating with diverse groups, not working in isolation. That means learning to use powerful technology, not letting it use us. That means helping them pop the filter bubble.

This notion is, of course, directly tied to points made at the start of the post in that we can't erase the bile until we're able to develop the necessary perspective and empathy. If we can help students in this regard, then we can take heart in knowing that we care producing the sort of leaders who can fix the current mess.

*Long ago I taught an American Lit class--really American Studies--in which I took this approach. We began with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and asked, "How did we end up here?"

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Leadership as Planned Obsolescence

       A great deal of leadership guidance emphasizes the need for the leader to beware the dangers of egocentricity. It's not abut the removal of ego, but having a healthy and secure sense of self. It's the essence of servant leadership. Lately I've found myself considering what seems an extension of this notion. Perhaps truly effective leadership means intentionally rendering one's self obsolete.
       The notion is not one that people in clearly-defined, high-profile, well-rewarded leadership positions are likely to find comfortable. However, I think we can spin the idea into a positive one. It might even be, if not the most tangible, at least the most meaningful sign of success. While I believe my points could be applied to perhaps any field, I'll stick to my realms of experience: education and parenting.
       Let's start really big picture. When a head of school is hired, it's because she or he is a particular person selected for particular reasons and a particular point in time. The school may be ready to launch a fundraising effort; there may be a need to focus on academic innovation; perhaps the school simply suffers from inertia. Over time the more immediate needs shift. If the head manages to meet all the challenges that arise during his or her tenure, at some point the time arrives for a new person better suited for the next round of work. In this scenario, the giant goal is simple. You want to leave the school in a much better place than it was when you began, what ever that may mean, and poised to improve even more under the next leader. In fact, you will recognize that you've done what you can and someone else is better suited at that point.
       In the shorter term, the leader prepares for this moment by shrinking him- or herself so that others may grow. Currently popular terms such as distributed leadership and flattened hierarchy capture this notion. Everyone--not just those with the titles--can lead from where and because of who they are. People then become more engaged and empowered. They feel more of the sense of mastery, autonomy, and purpose that fuels motivation and drives improvement. Then the institution flourishes. This directly contradicts organizations who have soared under dynamic, larger-than-life leaders, only to crash and burn when that person left. It's why it will be interesting to watch Apple over the next few years.
       The same notion can be applied to a classroom. Does the teacher dominate and attempt to control everything? Or does she or he create conditions in which the students can take control for a large degree of their own learning? Has the emphasis been on mastery of content or the fostering of skills and attitudes? Are we preparing them for the test or the next grade, or are we helping them become life-long learners?
       We could ask similar questions about parenting. There's no need here to go into a rant about helicopter and snowplow and lawnmower parents. Instead, I'll merely suggest that the top long-term goal of parenting is to help our children become independent adults who can thrive without us.
       In the professional world, a leader can delay this inevitable transition by continuing to grow, evolving as a group's needs change. It's why great leaders remain insatiably curious and pose provocative questions. Not just about the institution and employees, but also about him- or herself. They also don't accept the hackneyed bromide "Lead, follow, or get out of the way." They know when to do each, and do so quite intentionally.