Finding your groove

Alignment is hard to achieve, but you know it when it happens. And you also know it when you are out of alignment. Everything seems like friction. The farther out of alignment, the more friction you feel.

Ken Robinson, in his great short book, The Element, describes being in your element as inhabiting the intersection of what you are good at and what you love. He says it is one of the keys to success, and, intuitively, I think he is right. It is a wonderful conception and I have no need to quibble with a knight, but I would suggest that there is an environmental component, as well. Nothing you can do or think or feel or imagine can be done independent of the environment in which you do it. I mean, sensory deprivation tanks notwithstanding.

Truly finding your groove requires inhabiting the intersection of talent and passion – in an environment of cultural affinity. It is entirely possible to find yourself doing what you love and what you are good at in a cultural or professional environment that neither needs nor values what you are doing. It is odd, but it happens.

There are two insights that come from this. One, if you find yourself in your groove, it’s not all you. There is a small humility embedded in the realization that part of being in your groove is the fact that your environment agrees with you. Values you. Likes you. Says yes. And two, if you find yourself out of your groove and out of alignment, it’s not all you. You could be doing everything right and still find yourself out of alignment if your environment says no. Persevering in what you love and are good at in an environment of friction can be noble, even satisfying, like a salmon swimming up stream. But over time, it doesn’t end well. Just like that salmon.

Finding your groove, then, means inhabiting that space and time in which you can do what you love and what you are good at in a cultural environment that agrees with you.

When you find it, keep it as long as you can. If you have lost it, keep looking. The search will take courage, but it is worth the risk. Your groove is out there waiting for you.

How to handle the election

Schools and educators – regardless of political stance – are struggling to address the election and its outcome with their students.  The campaign – on both sides – embraced and normalized behavior and attitudes that schools simply do not support – and yet, this is our democracy.  Here is as good a letter to staff and parents from a school leader as I have ever seen.  High praise to Redwood High School Principal David Sondheim for his sharp and heartfelt guidance of kids.

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What is a good school?

I look at dozens of schools each month.  I look for indications of school performance, evidence of student learning, a track record, positive school culture, leadership, data, results, metrics – lots of things.  Mostly though, I look for organizational integrity.  There are many successful school models out there, which is not surprising.  What is surprising is that there is a handful of things they all have in common.

One quality all good schools have in common is a full-depth integrity of intention, practice, and outcome.  Without fail, in all good schools I have found, there is a noticeable alignment in what people say, what people do, and what they expect – and it extends across all constituencies.  The way the administration interacts with the faculty and staff is similar in key ways to the way the teachers interact with students.  Families, board, external partners, the local community – it doesn’t matter.  An authentic school culture is obvious and operative to everyone.

But the alignment of intention and practice and measured outcome is key.  Is what you say you do and what you actually do the same?  And are they both well designed to produce the outcomes you say you want for kids?  Or is your rhetoric mismatched to the lived experience of students and teachers?  Misalignment of intention and practice is one of the first things people will notice about a school.  They said it would be this way; it turned out to be quite different.

Parker Palmer once suggested that the one question every student asks of every teacher at some point is. “Are you the same on the inside as you are on the outside?”  The answer matters.  I will trust you if I think the answer is yes – and learning with a teacher always requires trust.  (I will also slip in here, not too ridiculously, I hope, that that is the scariest thing about clowns – the disparity between outer and inner.)

In my work, I am afforded the opportunity on almost a daily basis to interview school people about their schools.  I talk to superintendents, principals, heads of school, administrators, teachers, and others.  The conversation always begins, in one form or another, with “What’s working at your school?”  And it always progresses to, “How do you know it’s working?”  It is an illuminating question, answered as often with a nervous chuckle as with a straightforward response.  My inclination is always to put folks at ease.  Often I hear myself explaining that I know it is a difficult question, that many schools are struggling to answer it, and that the metrics that measure what matters just haven’t been invented yet.

But I don’t let them off the hook.  It is a simple but important and often neglected question: How do you know that what your school is doing is the right thing for kids?  It asks educators to be reflective, honest, thoughtful about the whole, and compelled.

The answers I get are usually of one of three kinds and in about equal measure.  Defensive, as in, “We don’t need evidence to know that it is happening” or “Not everything can be measured” or “We don’t value what other schools value.”  Honest and unprepared, as in, “Good question.  We don’t know.  We would love to be able to measure what we value most, but we don’t know how to do that yet.”

The last kind of answer I get about a third of the time is confident, as in, “I know our place-based learning practices work because I can drop any of my students in any place in the country and they will start by saying, ‘What can we do here? How can we improve this place?'”  A teacher said that to me once and it blew me away.  Or this, from a principal recently, “We know our performance assessments are working because you can ask any of our students about what they are learning and why and they can tell you.  They could not do that three years ago.”

The ability to answer the question. “How do you know that what you are doing at your school is working for students?” is critical because it integrates intention, practice, and outcome, and because it is one hallmark of a good school.

Caveat, and this opens a larger conversation for a later date: the important part is not just coming up with an answer to the question.  The important part is doing the work that enables a confident and authentic answer.   In a nutshell, that entails first identifying your intentions for kids.  What do you intend for your students?  Second, naming your outcomes.  What skills and understandings will manifest from your program?  And third, designing the practices, experiences, and structures that support your outcomes in the service of your intentions for kids.

What I believe now

Turns out, things are simpler than I thought.

I used to think that education and schooling was an unimaginably complex system.  I used to think that because no two people and no two brains and no two circumstances are alike, education, which is a fundamentally human endeavor, was essentially un-replicable.  You couldn’t do it the same way twice.  And you couldn’t predict outcomes (because the starting conditions were so varied).  And you couldn’t plan for it with any real surety because the fact that learning ever happened at all, was a miracle, so unlikely as to be unexplainable and totally unique.  Like magic.

I think I used to think that teaching was magic in some way.  Like prestidigitation.  Conjuring.  Alchemy.

Don’t get me wrong, learning still impresses the hell out of me.  Sometimes, I will be watching something simple happening – my son learning to juggle, my daughter taking free throws – and I still find myself in awe.  She misses the first 3, makes 2 of the next 4, and then makes 3 in a row – and I find myself in total disbelief.  What the hell just happened?  I mean, actually.  Literally, what changed?

Learning makes things different now than they were before.  And that is like magic.

So I am still impressed with what learning is and how fast it happens, but the conditions necessary for learning no longer seem unknowable or mysterious.  Whereas once, I thought what conjured learning in each individual was unique, I now believe that there are only a handful of design principles that set the conditions under which learning happens:

  • Relevance
  • Utility
  • Connectedness
  • Competence
  • Autonomy

Each has subtlety and nuance, and I will try to break it down for you.

You can’t sell what people already have

The 36th Learning and the Brain conference is happening this weekend in Boston.  Amazing messages about the future of the educational model are coming out of it.  Here is a good, virtually realtime analysis of a couple of the keynotes and some of the themes:

Rethinking Teacher Roles in a New Networked World by Liana Heitin of Education Week

The pace of the education revolution that is underway is inspiring.  Things ARE changing.  Finally.  The leading educational thinkers are talking about the research, not the fads.  They are talking about the changes wrought by the information age and a networked world, and what they mean for schools – not what they hope they mean.

The best minds in education right now are talking about a model of schooling that is different than the one they experienced.  That is key.  The first trap educators fall into is in promoting a model of schooling that is exactly like the one they experienced – regardless of whether it works for students.  “It worked for me,” the argument goes.  Teachers tend to teach in a way that mimics their own schooling, which goes a long way toward explaining why change occurs so slowly in education.  Imagine if doctors practiced medicine the way they experienced it growing up.  Imagine any industry, profession, or craft that had such a built in mechanism for resisting change and growth.

Some highlights coming out of Boston this so far weekend:

  • The new PBL = place based learning = real projects of real relevance with direct and permanent impact on real communities that are local to the learner
  • Richard Louv on the deep and complex value of nature to student learning and well-being
  • Will Richardson says, “Stop asking questions on tests that can be answered with a Google search.”

If you – or more likely someone you know – has any doubt that things have changed and school has to change with it, consider just Google.  If everything else in our society, economy, and global community were the same, Google alone would change schooling.  Every one of us (with a smart phone) carries the entire internet around with us.  We have the complete curriculum of 90% of traditional schools literally in our back pockets.  What does that do to schools that are built on the notion of a discrete curriculum?  You can’t sell what people already have.

This is what they are talking about at the Brain Conference in Boston.

The Failure Résumé

I came across this recently and liked it.

Let’s talk about failure by Heather Long of the Guardian.

It is a great idea to think about the positive effect of experiencing failures in life.  As a kid I was captivated by the old legend of Abe Lincoln who purportedly failed in almost everything he ever tried.  The myth generally goes something like this:

A list of Abraham Lincoln’s Failures:

  • Lost job, 1832
  • Defeated for legislature, 1832
  • Failed in business, 1833
  • Elected to legislature, 1834
  • Sweetheart (Ann Rutledge) died, 1835
  • Had nervous breakdown, 1836
  • Defeated for Speaker, 1838
  • Defeated for nomination for Congress, 1843
  • Elected to Congress, 1846
  • Lost renomination, 1848
  • Rejected for Land Officer, 1849
  • Defeated for Senate, 1854
  • Defeated for nomination for Vice-President, 1856
  • Again defeated for Senate, 1858
  • Elected President, 1860

It turns out that the whole truth is richer and more complicated than that, but for me it was still a moving myth.  “You mean a guy like that can become a great president?”  Yep.  And that realization was one of the first concepts that changed the way I saw the world.

And then there is this:

It is far more than your average Nike commercial.  The idea that this adds to the somewhat simplistic message of the Abe Lincoln story is causation.  The Abe Lincoln story says, “keep trying.”  It’s the old, If at first you don’t succeed idea – which was never that satisfying because it doesn’t suggest you are getting anywhere by continuing to try.  There is no promise of progress through failure there.

The Nike commercial’s message is quite different.  Jordan cites his significant failures and then says, “…and that is why I succeed.”  And that asserts a direct causal relationship.  My success is not in spite of my failures; it is because of them.

A couple of short stories:

1.   I once witnessed a high school soccer player miss an important shot.  It was heartbreakingly close.  Upper right corner from 12 meters out.  It was a clutch shot that would have tied the game with less than a minute to play.  He was the most talented single player on team, and when we saw him set up for it, we thought it was a sure thing.  He had made many such shots and far harder ones before.  But he missed, just a little high and the team lost.  The next morning, he was out, first thing, with a bag of balls and his girlfriend playing keeper.  He was firing shot after shot from 12 meters at the upper right corner.  He must have hit 200 balls that morning.

2.   When my son was an infant, my wife and I hired a babysitter for an evening.  When we returned, our babysitter was visibly shaken and she immediately told us what had happened.  She had stepped away from the changing table for a moment and my son had rolled off and hit the floor.  She apologized earnestly and said she understood if we couldn’t hire her again, and I remember thinking, almost instantly, “No, no, no.  You are the one we want from now on because that mistake doesn’t happen twice.”  She was a better babysitter now that this had happened.  We should have given her a raise.

What these two stories have in common is the effect of failure and how it improves performance.

What is the practical upshot of all this?  In hiring and forming organizations, we can use information about people’s failures to understand what they have experienced and what they have likely learned.  We can certainly better understand a person’s orientation toward learning by hearing the stories of their failures – the things that did not go well and what they did about them.

If you are looking for someone who can break out of an established structure to do something different, success in that established structure is not a good indicator.  You are really looking for someone who has not done well in a previous model if you are trying to transcend it.

In schools it is the same.  Any school that is looking for bright, creative, and motivated students for a forward leaning program based on a creativity and innovation should not turn its nose up at students for whom the industrial model of schooling was an uncomfortable fit.  In fact, knowing what the industrial model of schooling does to creativity, poor performance in a standard school might be an indicator of creative inclination.  Now that has implications.

Who are the real change-makers of today?  You won’t find many of them at Yale, Harvard, or Stanford.  They weren’t admitted.

Actually, I am reasonably sure you will find change makers with a variety of academic profiles, but many of them are your typical C and D, bored high school students who spend a lot time tinkering in the shop, teaching themselves how to code, and are somewhat withdrawn because poor grades come with a stigma at no extra charge.

TEDxMarinAcademy – The Need for Positive Change in Education

Here is the video version of the TEDx talk I gave concerning the state of affairs in education today and the need for a new paradigm.  The TEDx event took place May 23, 2013 on the campus of Marin Academy in San Rafael, California, the theme was Positive Change, and the greatest thing about it was that it was fully student organized.  Two inspired seniors organized and presented the evening as their Senior Project.  They did a wonderful job, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to address an audience on a topic that has been occupying my thoughts and imagination for more than a decade.

My talk was one of seven for the evening.  They are all edifying and worth your time and attention.  The link below will play them all back to back.

The Common Good – Commencement Address 2013

Here is the transcript of a speech I delivered on the occasion of the graduation of the Marin Academy class of 2013.  The venue was a gym, and the event was a luncheon offered by the parent association for the entire faculty and staff and the senior class.

Let’s begin with a poem.  This is The Summer Day by Mary Oliver.

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

The one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life? 

Good afternoon, and thank you for the invitation – this opportunity – to bend your ear for a few minutes on this, the eve of your commencement.  Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about: commencement.

It is an odd term, isn’t it, for a time that feels so much like things ending.  But that’s what we call it.  Commencement.  As in the beginning.  The starting point.  As in, something commences tomorrow.  But what?  What begins for you tomorrow?  Do you know?  Have you wondered?  Have you made plans?  Like, now what?  High school is over.  What are you supposed to do now?  Go on to college?  Maybe.  But college isn’t a mission.  It’s a place.  Right?  It is not a thing to do.  It is a place to do something.  But what?  Well, I want to suggest something here today, and I want to ask that you think about it.

But first, we need to consider that in order to know what you should do next, you have to know what you have been doing so far.  Because it is connected. 

So, think for a moment about what you have been doing here for four years.  For four years – I mean, actually for quite a bit longer, but let’s just consider high school for the time being – for four years, at least, you have been reading and writing and studying and thinking.  You have been speaking and listening.  You have been passing tests and completing projects and turning in assignments.  You have been performing and competing and honing your skills and constantly striving for more.  Thinking, questioning, and creating.  You have been learning every day here for four years.  But, why?  Why have you been doing that?  To what end?  What has been the point?

Was it to pass the test?  No.  If that were the point, there was an easier way.  Was it to get into college?  No.  We already talked about that – college is not a point, it’s a place.  Was it to fill up your permanent record with the first letter of the alphabet?  No.  That’s a means to an end, but not an end in itself.

Was it to guarantee yourself a paycheck later in life?  Maybe.  And here is where it gets interesting.  Actually, money is a fine objective.  You know the old saying that money doesn’t buy happiness?  It is not true.  Turns out, up to about $75,000.00 a year in salary (averaged nationwide, it is a bit more here in Marin), money buys happiness.  It does.  No question.  Above that, across the spectrum, it doesn’t seem to make much difference in degree of happiness.  But if you have been doing all this learning so that you can go on, get a good job with full pay and be okay, there is nothing wrong with that.  Just realize that money is not your objective.  Happiness is.  You, like everyone else on the planet, want to be happy.  And I expect that comes as a relief.  Doesn’t it?  I mean, your are not in it for the money.  You are in it for the joy.  For happiness.  Just like everyone else.  And that is why I want to suggest a greater mission, a higher purpose, and a larger context. 

The common good.  The common good

Not personal gain.  Not to get ahead.  If someone is ahead, lots of folks are behind.  I submit that your education, like every system of education, anywhere, ever, is intended to serve the common good.  Education, as a system, is supposed to raise the quality of life of people.  And I am not just talking about the 1%.  I am talking about the 100%.  Everyone.  We all want to be happy and we all have the same claim to that desire.  And reading and writing and studying and thinking should help us satisfy that desire. 

Okay.  So, if the purpose of your education – and by that I mean the toil, the tests and projects and papers, the thinking, the questioning, the creating – if the point of all that is to raise the quality of life of all people, then what?  How does one put one’s education to use?  And that is the main question to ask at this juncture.  How can I be useful?

The simple answer is that you find a need and fill it.

So, if you want to know what is commencing for you and what you are supposed to do now that high school is over, just ask yourself, “How do I put my education to use for the common good?”  And not just for myself – or for people like me – or for my investors.  Right?  But for the common good.

Because when you think about it, one way or another today, we all live downstream. 

There are 7 billion people here.  Resources are finite.  It is a closed system for matter.  When the climate changes, it changes for everyone.  We all live downstream.  And climate change is not the only crisis we are facing.  Right?  We have real, live problems in the world and plenty of opportunity to fill a need and get involved.  The planetary population explosion.  The problem of war and global militarism. Pandemics and disease.  Human rights abuses.  Poverty.  The global bacon shortage. 

(Yeah, look into it.  It’s a pretty big deal.)

Look.  My message is not about doomsday.  My message is about the common good. 

And the need we all have to be useful and not just to ourselves.  The time of providing solely for yourself, of amassing a personal fortune and that being called success, is over.  We are all connected.  And there is no benefit for one without an attendant effect on someone else.  With all due respect to Joseph Campbell and Hippocrates, gone are the days of blissfully following your bliss and doing no harm. 

Harm is being done.  The old school educator, Horace Mann, put it well.  He said, Be ashamed to die before you have won a victory for humanity.  Ashamed to die before you have won a victory for humanity.  A little morbid, maybe, but it certainly raises the bar.  Doesn’t it?  And I don’t think your victories have to be grand.  They can be small.  Local.  Because there are a lot of us here and we can all contribute.  But they have to be victories for humanity and not solely the self.

The only question to ask now in going forward with your education is, What good can I do with what I know and for whom?  Because, you know, you are all really, really good.  Think of how good you are.  You have spent the last four years learning to be as good as you can be.  And think of how well you have learned it.  Think of all you have accomplished, everything you have done here in these classrooms, these studios, these athletic fields, and in getting outside.  You are good.  We all are. 

And you have been recognized for it.  You have been honored and awarded and spotlighted and patted on the back – and you deserve those plaudits and recognitions – and there will be more tomorrow.  

But now, as you move forward from this place of preparation, it is time for something more.  Because you are not just good.  You are also capable.  And it is time not just to be good.  But to do good and to do good wellThat is what is beginning for you.  That is what is commencing.  Because that has not yet been asked of you.  How good are you is the question school asks.  But what good can you do and how well is not asked in school.

So, I am asking you now.  What good can you do and how well can you do it?  But I can’t just ask you the question without giving you a way to answer it.  So, how do you do good well?  You ask yourself one question all the time: For whom is it good?  Right?  Who benefits from what I do?  If the answer is only me or only people like me or only the 1%, it is not enough.  Sadly.  We are not down with minimum impact or zero impact or even Leave No Trace.  I want you to be thinking about positive impact.  Active and intentional contribution to the common good. 

But how?  What can one person do and how is it done? 

Well, how about a Twitter account?  Consider Josh Begley, Marin Academy class of 2003 and current NYU grad student, a man who got upset one day that the government’s campaign of CIA-controlled drone strikes on human targets was going largely unnoticed by the public so he decided that he would tweet each one simply to raise people’s awareness of what he felt and still feels is an unjust use of power and an unethical military tactic.  He has received national recognition for his efforts, and recently the Obama administration announced the CIA would no longer be overseeing its drone program.  Because of Josh Begley?  In part.

Or on a more local scale, consider Marianne Moore, MA class of 2004, who worked with a group of community organizers in Oakland to open the Victor Martinez People’s Library. Because where there is a library there is reading and that means learning and that means education and we all know what education is for.  The common good.

Those are just two examples from your predecessors and I am not going to name any more – there are dozens of examples.  You know what good people are doing out there.  And you know how good you are.  Get to it.  If we all just stopped just being good and committed to doing good, to putting our learning to use, think of the possibilities in this room alone.  It is staggeringly hopeful.

You know, I hope it is fairly obvious that my point is not to push a particular political agenda and it doesn’t matter to me whether you think that what Josh and Marianne are doing is politically right or wrong.  My point is that these people care enough to act, to do something with what they have learned in service to the common good. 

And that is what I am asking you to consider.  You have one wild and precious life and a hell of a good education.  Now what good are you going to do with it?  It all begins tomorrow.

Congratulations to the class of 2013 for all you have accomplished.  So far.  I will watch your paths unfold with great interest.

Be well.  Do good.  And take care of each other.

Thank you.

TEDx Talk – 5/23/13: The Need for Positive Change in Education

Here is the transcript of a TEDx talk I recently delivered at TEDxMarinAcademy.  The theme of the event was Positive Change, and the purpose of my talk was to lay out, as clearly as possible the argument in favor of a major overhaul in our system of education.  I will post the video when it becomes available.


I ask questions.  I always have.  It is what drives me in life.  And I try to ask the big ones.  Like, where did we come from?  What are we supposed to be doing?  And I think these are rather important questions.  Otherwise, how do we know that we are doing it right?

I ask the same questions about education.  Where did it come from?  What are we supposed to be doing – in school?

So, tonight I want to talk about education, and I want to begin with questions.  For starters, why education?  Why systematize learning, something that happens quite naturally, all the time, school or no school?  And why school?  Why locate our system of learning in a building?

If you haven’t asked these questions, how do you know we are doing it right?  Here are some more.

Why classes?  Why do we have classes?  I don’t mean why do we gather together in rooms to learn, although that is a good question, too.  I mean, why do we coalesce a collection of skills and concepts around a single topic and lay out a sequential course of study – like a recipe.  Because it is, isn’t it?  A class is like a recipe for learning.  It’s like baking a cake.  It has a list of ingredients – we call it a syllabus.  It has a sequence of events, a list of things to do in a particular order – we call it an assignment schedule.  And it has a predictable outcome.  Serves 18.  And we assess the cake against a standard set of evaluation criteria – flavor, texture, fluffiness.  Why do we do that?  Why is that our model of learning?  I wonder.

Why tests?  Why the sit-down, short-answer or multiple choice, pencil and paper tests?  Why measure the value of what you know and what you can do by doing something later life does not value and you won’t be asked to do again outside of school.  (The DMV notwithstanding, of course.)  In any case, I do wonder.  And there are plenty of questions to be asked about schooling.

Why group students for learning by age?  This one baffles me.  Is age that significant?  Should students all be learning the same thing at the same age?  Should students all be learning the same thing? – now there’s a question.

What we know is that human beings are wonderfully differentiated, each in possession of a unique set of strengths, weaknesses, interests, and challenges that change over time.  Different things become relevant at different times.  Why, then, group students by age and have them all doing the same thing at the same time?  I wonder.

Here’s another question:

If high school didn’t already exist, if we didn’t know what high school was, what would we create to serve the purpose?  And what is the purpose of high school education?  What is it for?

I believe the purpose of education is to assist individuals in reaching their highest potential in community with others and in service to the common good.  That’s pretty much it, isn’t it?  Education is about your personal potential, it’s about living together, and it’s about the common good.  Great.  So, if that’s what it is for, are we doing it right?  And why are we doing it the way we are doing it?

Well, as it turns out, there are some answers.

Before about 150 years ago there was no common system of what would come to be known as public education in this country.  State-funded, relatively-open schooling for all did not exist before about 1860.  People did not go to school then the way we do now.  At that time, cities were growing and the urban population was expanding, and a group of folks – educators, politicians, business types – got together and created a system that would prepare almost everyone for citizenship in an increasingly industrialized society.  What they came up with was the foundation of American public education and it had a very specific purpose: To meet the needs of the emerging industrial economy and consumer-based society.

Industrialization?  You mean factories?  Yes, I mean factories.  Production facilities for products for large markets.  Consumerism?  You mean buying things?  Yes, I mean buying things.  The acquisition of tangible goods beyond what is required for daily life.  Am I saying that we have been convinced to buy things we don’t need and it is related to schooling?  Yes.  I am.

Think shoes for a minute.  How many pairs of shoes do you own?  Personally, I own many.  The fact is, one pair of shoes can get me to work, up the mountain, out to dinner, dancing, anything I need.  And yet, I have shoes.  Dozens.  I have shoes I never wear.  Don’t you?  Ever wonder about that?  How did we get convinced to buy all these shoes?

I have said that the industrial influence on education was profound.  If you wanted to profit from an emerging industrial economy, you needed two things.  You needed the capacity to produce products and you needed people to want to buy those products.  How do you get that?  You educate for it.  You create a system that conditions people to want more than they have.  Consumers.

If you want to think about how schooling is like a consumer economy, just ask yourself who is selling what to whom and what is the price?

But as a rising industrialist, you also needed people to work the factories – and it is tough work on an assembly line.  Long hours.  In rows and columns.  Doing repetitive tasks.  Mostly alone.  With strict time limits.  Deferring gratification.  And producing products that are subject to evaluation based on standardized measures of quality.

What?  Does that sound familiar?  Actually, I hope not.  Not too familiar.  I was talking about working in a factory, but it describes the current dominant paradigm in education in this country very well.

So, the emerging industrialists needed people to work the factories and people to buy the products.   But they needed something else too.  They needed to control for creativity.  Because it turns out that creativity in a factory setting is a liability.  If we are being honest, we do not want people on an assembly line coloring outside the lines.  An entire line of widgets assembled … creatively.  No.  We want outcomes to be measurable, predictable, and consistent, and we want to be able to track productivity and to control for quality.  So, creativity in an industrial economy becomes a liability.

And the raft of research that tracks the decline of creativity in students through schooling is well known.  Creativity declines in school.  But why is that?  What happens in 12 grades of school that makes creativity so unlikely?  I wonder.

I was speaking to someone recently and she told me a story of her son, a 7th grader at a prominent Marin middle school.  She said one day she was called in for a parent conference.  Apparently something had happened and they needed to talk.  So, she went and as she tells it, the science teacher’s chief complaint about her son was that he was singing in class.  Singing.  Well, you know.  That is understandable.  Singing during a test or a silent reading period or something.  But, it wasn’t that.  They were doing a lab – conducting an experiment, working in pairs or trios and apparently there was quite a bit of activity and chatter in the room already.  But this behavior, she was given to understand was unacceptable.  Singing is not called for on the lab instructions, is it?

I tell this story not to out these teachers but because it illustrates something about the system and what the system values as worthy evidence of quality performance.  The fact is that singing may well have been a sign of engagement.  This boy’s mother was so convinced – he is generally an A student.

Exceptionally curious.  Extremely bright.  Fully engaged.  But no where on the plan does it call for singing.  Singing is not a part of learning.  Is it?  And it is not on the rubric! – so singing becomes, by definition, out of bounds.  My point is, what our system can’t predict, it can’t tolerate.

But you know things have changed around here lately.  The economy is no longer simply industrial.  It is post-industrial.  Unto informational.  We accept the idea that anything that can be automated, will be.  Why will anything that can be automated, be automated?  Because machines are programmable, controllable, predictable.  And people are not.  People are creative.  They don’t do those jobs as well.  And so manufacturing jobs in are in decline.  We have a system of education in this country that trains people to do jobs for which they are not well suited and that are increasingly unavailable.

At the same time, our most innovative companies have recognized the value of human creativity in the work place.  I heard recently that Apple’s motto is, “If you want to be managed, you are not employable.”  If you want to be managed, you are not employable.  It is an interesting idea, isn’t it?  There was a time when part of being employed was being told what to do.  Not so much anymore.

I had an interaction with a student a few years ago that illustrates what I mean.

We were beginning the process of writing an essay – a literary analysis – and I had just finished a lesson on thesis statements and how to craft a powerful thesis out of real questions students really have about the text.  My argument was, in fact still is, that a great thesis depends on great questions, and if you are going to write the essay they need to be your questions.  At the end of class one of my students approached me, quite concerned.  In fact, she was on the verge of frustrated tears.  So we talked and at one point she said to me,  “All of my other teachers have simply told me what to write, and I have written it, and I’m good at that.”  That’s really what she wanted me to know.  “But you’re not telling us what to write.”

And I said, “That’s right. I can help you learn to write well. I can coach you on form and style.  I can give you strategies for diction and syntax and even idea generation.  And I can help you understand the text.  But I can’t ask your questions for you and I can’t tell you what to write.”

The point is, if you want to be told what to write, if you want to be managed, you are going to find it hard to find a job that is creative, innovative, and part of positive change for the future.

You know, Google, I hear, has a 20% rule.  That is, 20% of the time, one day a week, employees can spend pursuing their own, creative projects.  People work alone, in pairs, in groups.  And many of these ideas fizzle out, fail, go nowhere.  But some of them do go somewhere.  And Google trusts this.

Google Earth came out of their 20% rule.  Did you know that?  It was somebody’s independent study project.  Google, like other companies in the business of innovation and creativity, has figured out that good, new ideas come from people seeking answers to their own questions, and being allowed to risk failure without penalty.  So, the 20% rule.

Why not a 20% rule for school?  One day a week kids can learn whatever they want?  I wonder.

Failure, incidentally, is the other thing that the industrial model of schooling gets wrong.  In school, failure is one the worst things that can happen.  Right?  The F.  We give it its own letter and its own lexicon of euphemisms.  In fact, in some cases a failure on an assignment is never redeemable.  It has to be right the first time.  And maybe now you can see why.  In industry, failure can be catastrophic.  If you fail to sew the seam, make the weld, install the circuit, the thing doesn’t work.  And that is a deal breaker if you are trying to sell it.  In the production of products, failure is to be avoided at all costs.

So, if school is preparing you for work in an industrial economy, failure has to be discouraged. Vilified. Punished.  But what if school were not preparing you so much to produce products as to  make positive change in the world?  Failure in any field based on innovation is a pathway to success.  Right?  We know this to be true.  Failed attempts are keys to later success.  The design firm IDEO uses the mantra “Fail early, fail often.”  Pixar uses the same idea – so I hear.  Why?  Because they like things not to work?  No.  Because failure is the goal?  No.  It’s because they know the value of a failure well made.  They know that innovation depends on repeated attempts.  They know that creativity requires feeling the freedom to fail.  They are destigmatizing failure.

If schools are preparing students for a job market that is not about working in a factory, and is about innovation and creativity, then we should be teaching our students to fail early and often and to learn and improve from their mistakes.   And the process of failing well should be encouraged, designed, assessed, evaluated, measured, rewarded.

Crazy ideas?  Not at all.  They work.  But schools don’t do these things because they are stuck in an outdated model that has not seen change since its inception.  It is time we moved on.

So, how do we do it better?  No.  Scratch that.  Let’s ask a different question.  How do we do it differently?  Because I don’t think we need to do what we have been doing better or more or harder or more on time or with stronger study habits or with more sleep.  We need to do something very, very different.

And I have some ideas.  There are three things any school that is thinking about its future has to do today:

The first thing we have to do is shift the paradigm.  The curriculum is no longer ours and we must stop thinking of schools as delivery systems for information.  Every one of us carries the entire internet in our pocket and content is not what we are selling anymore.  The curriculum is free and available to anyone with a connection.  So, educators need to shift their thinking and their self conception from deliverers of content to facilitators of learning.  Step number one: we begin to see ourselves as educational choreographers (or what some have called learning ecologists) and not task-masters in the delivery of content.

The second thing we have to do is personalize education.  We have to stop telling kids what to learn as if we knew what content would be useful five years from now.  We don’t.  We have to start asking different questions:  What do you want to learn?  What will be your process?  And what will success look like for you and how will we measure it?  We have to involve kids much more deeply in determining and defining their own learning pathways.  And we have to help kids identify their interests and develop them into passions so that they can lead lives of fulfillment and joy at the intersection of what they are good at and what they find valuable.  So, step number two is moving from standardized curriculum to personalized learning.

And finally, we have to take the concept of relevance much more seriously.  Students should be working and learning in the real world, on actual problems that actual people face, and they need to see the relevance of their learning in the impact it has on people’s lives.  Students should be presenting their understandings to authentic audiences of evaluators – their teachers as well as people they do not already know.  Because a pencil and paper test does not measure the kind of understanding that is valued by the world we are preparing these kids to change and to heal.  But a performance of learning to an audience they don’t already know does.  Step number three: abolish the pencil and paper test and move to performance assessments and real world projects.

You know, it is critically important for schools to realize and respond to the fact that students today have access to all of the information they would ever need.  The internet is truly a game changer.  So, the question is no longer, What do you know?  It is, What can you do with what you know – and for whom?  Students can be trusted with their education.  They might need mentoring, guidance, coaching, as do we all, and there might be failures along the way, in fact I hope so, but students no longer need us to give them the answers.

They need to be put in charge of their own education, they need to put in touch with the thing itself, not its facsimile, and they need to be asked to show what they know and what they can do in authentic situations.

This is the agenda education for the 21st century.

Starting Up (Arrastía & Hoffman) – Almost a Review

I admit to having felt the stirrings to repair the traditional school.  In the epigraph of a new book edited by Lisa Arrastía and Marvin Hoffman, Maxine Greene writes,

Most of us realize that, only when we envisage a better social order, do we find the present one in many ways unendurable and stir ourselves to repair.  The sight and description of the new schools at the present time … make it uniquely possible to identify what is wrong with the traditional schools.”

I have asked for as long as I have been in education the main seminal question, “How could we do this better?” and so it was the title, first and foremost, that grabbed my attention when I saw the book,  Starting Up: Critical Lessons From 10 New Schools.

Truth be told, it was also the fact that the book was lying on Dennis Littky’s desk and he had just recommended it – sort of.  My colleagues and I were visiting the Met school in Providence, Rhode Island, and we had managed to finagle an hour of Littky’s time, something I knew going in was unlikely, but we offered doughnuts and an early start and Dennis agreed.  As a school leader and an innovator, Dennis Littky has been around the block a few times, and I have been inspired by his work and ideas for years.  Together with Elliot Washor, Dennis started the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (The Met) and Big Picture Learning, which has nurtured a few dozen Met schools in this county and abroad.  Beyond his accomplishments in education, and they are many, Dennis is plain spoken and he is clear in what he believes about education.  These are qualities I find easy to admire.

So, in a conversation that turned to innovative educational models, I asked him, “What should we be reading?”  Dennis has just a few stacks of well-chosen books in his office, and many of them are duplicates, which suggested to me that he hands them out, keeping them for targeted distribution.  Maybe he would send us home with a gem.  Not so.

“I don’t know,” he said.  “How about this?  This looks good.”

He picked up a copy of Arrastía & Hoffman’s book that was on the table, eyeballed it briefly, and then flipped it toward me.

“I haven’t read it.  Someone just sent it to me.  Maybe there is something in there.”

And indeed there is.  It turns out that Littky and Washor have a chapter in the book, and it is one of the better.

Starting Up is interesting the way a war story is interesting.  I found myself engaging in other people’s experiences and feeling grateful they weren’t mine.  Not all of the chapters tell tales of failure or defeat, but they all convey the adversity and challenge of trying to start something new in an old system.  And they are all cautionary.  The authors, for the most part, tell their stories and try in earnest to provide helpful insight, presumably for those coming after – as if the same pitfalls and traps sprung by these explorers will still be waiting.  And this is the false assumption the book makes.

Tales of headache, bureaucracy, abandonment, and betrayal are just that.  They are universal experiences that never happen the same way twice.  Where the book fails is where it reads like a treasure map, labeling paths to take, places to go, and traps to avoid.  It does communicate the depth of pain and possibility in the endeavor to educate kids, and they are amazing stories, no doubt, but in the end, they are just 10 stories that, like all first person accounts, didn’t happen quite the way they are told.  The lessons are particular to the tellers, not universally communicable.

In preparation for the arrival of our first born child, my wife and I took a series of birthing classes.  Of particular interest to us was an evening toward the end in which several new parents were to visit our class to tell their stories.  My wife and I, both somewhat over-achieving, looked forward to this as a way to prepare for the eventualities that might befall us and thereby have the best birthing experience possible.  We took notes.

And then one new father said something that was true on a different level.  He said, in listening to all of the stories of childbirth, the only thing we could be sure of was that our experience would be different.  I wouldn’t happen the way we had heard it.  We stopped taking notes.

Starting Up reminded me of a child birthing class.  The subtitle, Critical Lessons from 10 New Schools, promises to prepare you for what might go wrong, but if you are starting a new school, like giving birth to child, the only thing you can be sure of is that your experience will be different.  It won’t happen the way you hear it.  And in talking to a host of innovators, initiators, and founders in the last year, I have not yet heard one say, “My experience was typical.  I heard it would happen this way.”

The only exception to the narcissism that plagues Starting Up is the chapter written by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor.  Written as a modified Q & A, it is even different in format from the others.  It reads like the transcription of Littky and Elliot simply talking, reminiscing about old times, the early days, what they were thinking way back when.  Their chapter avoids lessons learned and insights gained and opts instead to create an ambient tone of realism, hope, and encouragement, which is most of what is truly helpful in talking about starting a school.

So, with books stacked in his office and on his desk, some of them clearly for give away, why did Dennis refrain from recommending any of them to us?  Because in any pioneering effort, like starting a school, exploring Mars, or giving birth to a child, the experience of others is not what matters.  We make the path by walking.  And Washor says as much on page 62:

This leads to one of the other points, which is about starting before everything is completely and totally planned out.  We both feel it is a big mistake for a lot of people when they do so much planning that nothing ever gets off the drawing board.  They actually think they know what the playbook is going to look like before they have done the school.  Doing all of this work was a difficult decision because we didn’t even know if it was going to pass the state legislature, but we decided to go for it because the only way to figure it out was to do it. The commissioner said years later, “The most important thing you did was to start.”

And that is the most important line in the whole book.

  • Arrastia, Lisa, and Marvin Hoffman. Starting Up: Critical Lessons from 10 New Schools. New York: Teachers College, 2012. Print.