Friday, May 24, 2019

Last Last Day

     Today is the last day of classes for the year at St. John's. As excited as students are on this day, sometimes the teachers are even more so. They've given so much of themselves for the past nine months, and they need to enjoy a more relaxed pace for a while.
     For me, the last day has always been a bit mixed. Yes, there is the prospect of summer and all that implies. At the same time, however, it comes with a sense of loss. the relationships have deepened, and the student growth is growing exponentially. The possibilities seem even greater.
     This year I feel that loss more acutely. Today is my last last day. While I'll still be working with and visiting schools, I won't be in a school, surrounded by kids, experiencing those daily and yearly rhythms, hearing that joyful buzz. I won't be saying "Happy New Year!" twice a year, even more expectantly in August/September. I won't, as just happened, have two third-grade girls bringing me a special poster about carnivals, giggling when I asked about their research and replying, "Google."
     Remove the kids, and you remove our reason for being, our motivation. I know that seems obvious, but sometimes we lose sight of that as we grapple about all the other facets of school. Meanwhile, kids place tremendous faith and trust in us. That's easy to see in younger students, but it holds true even as they're pushing us away at key developmental points. At times I feel a bit overwhelmed by the awesome responsibility with which we've been charged. It can even feel somehow sacred.
     On this last last day, I intend to cement as many images in my memory as I can. Along with ones from throughout the past 36 years in a school, I'll evoke them for inspiration in future work.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Is The Room Really That Smart?

     I hadn't heard/seen the phrase "The smartest person in the room is the room" for a while. Or perhaps it's just become such a commonly accepted truth that it doesn't register anymore. Today, though, when I saw it in a Tweet, I wondered, "Really?"
     The concept makes sense: that there is greater collective intelligence in the room than in any individual. I'm sure that's true when it comes to conglomeration of knowledge, skills, understandings. Advocates like to point to some example in which a group's estimates are averaged about something and that turns out much closer than any single stab. At the same time, however, we've probably all been in situations when the room is not that smart, mainly because of the dynamics in the room. Groupthink, domination by the loudest voice, individual biases coalescing, intimidation and fear--all these things and more can, no matter how brilliant the people in the room, dumb down the room. This can show up in meetings, through our media and information consumption (the how and the what), and in our rush to judgmental conclusion.
     Perhaps we need to add the word possibly to the saying: "The smartest person in the room is possibly the room." The goal remains admirable. To achieve it demands rethinking some of our conceptions about learning, particularly as it's tied to achievement.
     While there's been some shifting, for the most part schooling has been seen as an individual endeavor, albeit within a largely homogeneous context. Even efforts to differentiate highlight this personalization. It becomes a competition, even a sort of contact sport. Students receive individual grades. Their achievement is scaled against other students'. They are ranked. They fight for admission. Events such as the recent college admissions scandal morph the competition into a battle royale straight out of pro wrestling.
     Yes, I exaggerate somewhat. But I contend the underlying points are valid. Further, they contribute to why the room may not be the smartest person. We are not trained that way. Plus human egos can take over.
     But the potential is there; as I said, the concept makes sense. Turning that concept into reality will necessitate some shifts.
     We have to become even more mission driven, particularly in ways that emphasize the common good as being the desired derivative of individual progress. For example, "smart cities" are those which put a premium on all sorts of learning, which improves life throughout those communities. This also means rethinking the markers of success, the standards for entry, and the impediments to access.
     Tied to all that, and particularly the markers of success, we need to reflect on what we mean by  "smart." What are the things we truly value, and how do they relate to our conceptions of intelligence? Do our practices really foster them? We would have to shed our obsession with metrics, contests, and award. We would have to embrace process over product. We would have to secede from the cults of personality and individualism.
     If we can rock our worlds in those ways, then we can do a much better job at how to really make the room smarter. We must learn how to collaborate. By that I don't mean simply cordial and collegial when working together. I mean pushing and prodding each other; challenging respectfully; holding firm while remaining open; admitting vulnerabilities; adapting one's position, maybe even 180 degrees; all while aspiring towards higher, common goals.
     Yes, then the room would be much smarter. And so will each person it it.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Reimagining Independent Schools. For Sure. How about the Conference Itself?

Preface: I need to acknowledge at the start that this post is going to bother me, and it may bother you for the same reason. I'm going to point out a challenge; I may even rant a bit. But I don't really offer any solutions, as I recognize just how complicated this is. Sigh...

     A week ago I was attending the National Association of Independent School's Annual Conference. The theme was  "Reimagining Independent Schools: Tearing Down Walls, Building Capacity, and Designing Our Future." I'm very glad to report that much of what I heard suggests that many schools are reimagining, with no aspect of education left unexamined. Except perhaps one.
     The conference was just like so many other NAIS conferences. Except for small additions through the years, the overall format and schedule remains the same. Sessions unfold the same way, with so much sitting and listening, despite presenters' promises to make them interactive. To be fair to NAIS, I can say this about just about any conference I've ever attended. And the NAIS one is of high quality, and I always find it very worthwhile. Still, I think it's appropriate to ask, when we're being challenged to reimagine schools: How might we reimagine the annual conference?
     That's a giant ask, and it would take an extensive team quite a while to dig into it. It could be an incredible design thinking exercise. Meanwhile, the conference think tank changes each year and consists of volunteers with demanding roles in their schools. Logistically, you have to think about several thousand people. You have to book a convention center, presenters, services, et cetera. It is an efficient way for people to share and download information. In many ways the convention format works just fine, even really well; so, you know, there's no reason to re-invent the wheel.
     Some people have tried to do that, at least on a small scale. For a while the unconference was popular. I can't imagine trying that with 6000 folks, though. As I admitted in the preface, I don't have any big, hairy idea for this. I do have a small one, though. A place to start.
     School leaders everywhere have asked teachers to rethink the classroom experience. Whatever format it takes, it shouldn't look like the traditional teacher-centered classroom. We want to see teachers taking risks in how they design immersive, active learning experiences. Yet how many conference presenters do this? Most of the sessions I've attended over the years, even recently, rely on very traditional pedagogy.
     As we're reimaging a conference, consider how so much meaningful change occurs within our schools. Leaders set a direction towards an imagined better, modelling it when possible. Then the teachers in the classrooms bring about the change we need to see. Ultimately, it comes down to brave individuals experimenting as they chase an ideal.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

What Game Are We Playing? The Close of 2019 NAIS Annual Conference

     I eagerly anticipated Simon Sinek's presentation at the 2019 NAIS Annual Conference, and his extended examination of playing finite versus infinite games captured so many of the issues we struggle with in education. While familiar with the concept, I never had thought of how it applies to education. Yet it raises a crucial notion we must consider in taking a hard look at ourselves as we reimagine education.
    Among many of the thoughts that swirled in my mind, one immediately led to this Tweet:

Sinek kept talking about how finite games end, with rigid rules, with a clear winner and a loser.When we preach mission, of course, we imagine students engaging in an infinite game. A mission is aspirational; it's our linguistic attempt to express the ideals towards which we strive. Just as Sinek talked about America growing over time into the notion of everyone being equal, we grow into our missions. We keep finding ways to do better.
    At the same time, though, we must ask ourselves what are some of the traditional practices in school--ones that we hang onto as we consider other innovations--that turn learning into a finite game for students. Think about how a course ends with a test called a "final." Grading and academic prizes. The metrics we use. The celebration on next-school placement. Consider how we design curriculum, with distinct departments, courses, units, credits, scope-and sequence. We could create similar lists about many aspects of school. Many of them are captured in a book actually called The Game of  School: Why We All Play It, Why It Hurts Kids, and What It Will Take to Change It.
     As we're doing all this reimagining, we must reflect on what Sinek calls our just cause. We can't just rush forward with the new without courageously questioning everything and asking what game we invite students to play.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Serendipitous Synchronicity on Day 1 at 2019 NAIS Annual Conference

     A common question after a meeting or a conference is: What were your three key takeaways? Often this means something concrete. When I come to an event such as the NAIS Annual Conference, I hope for an idea I can implement right away, whether at my school or in my own development.Yesterday, while all the sessions were fine, I didn't get any of those gems. However, and perhaps more importantly, through pure serendipity I was reminded of a larger, imperative truth.
    I began the day with a session on the link between leadership and cultural competency. A key point is not only making sure that we recognize what diverse members bring to our communities, but also creating environments where they feel respected enough to share their gifts. After that we heard Viola Davis, whose story is one totally removed from most of our schools, and I found myself wondering how she would have fared in one of them, particularly with how many of them were when she was a child.Yet consider how she has impacted the world through her gifts. Then I ended the day hearing Franz Johansson's keynote on the link between diversity and innovation. In an oversimplified equation, I'll summarize his message as more diversity equals greater innovation. At least in the right circumstances.
     As I walked around the conference yesterday, I also found myself reflecting on how wonderfully different this conference looks than when I first attended over thirty years ago. That's another massive reason why so much reimagining is occurring. In so many ways we are learning not to reject the different,but to embrace it.