Category Archives: Uncategorized

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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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.

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.

Competing Narratives: Interest-based learning vs. precise content

Here are two ends of a spectrum.  The first comes from the website of a California charter school group moving toward opening a new school.

By outlining the precise content that every child should learn in language arts and literature, history and geography, mathematics, science, music, and the visual arts, the Core Knowledge curriculum represents a first-of-its kind effort to identify the foundational knowledge every child needs to reach these goals–and to teach it, grade-by-grade, year-by-year, in a coherent, age-appropriate sequence. (1)

The second is from an older source, John Dewey and his seminal work, Experience and Education.

There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education with is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active co-operation of the pupil in his studying. (2)

So, there it is.  That is the debate many of us are having in high school education today.  I am reminded that it is an old debate – Dewey wrote the book in 1938.

The worthy question at the core of the debate is – Who decides what is worth learning?  Many teachers put themselves in the driver’s seat on this one – “I know what students need to learn,” they say, but never in quite those words.  Even so, the message is the same.

Whether it is a mission statement that claims to outline the precise content that every child should learn or a scope and sequence discussion at the department level that begins with the question, “What do we want our students to know and be able to do?”, students are not typically a part of the process – and I think Dewey would object.  Student input, he would say, is critical for real education – today we would say engaged education because engagement has become the gold standard.

How do we get engagement?  Involve students in their own learning.  Ask them what they want to learn.  Then structure the content of your course around their interests.

Here is 17 year old Nikhil Goyal, a senior at Soyosset High School in New York on the topic.  Whether you agree with choice in schooling or not, listen to him.  He is a student in the system and he is telling you what he wants to learn.  Does it sound that unreasonable?  Is he asking to squander his time?  He is asking to be an active participant in his education – and most students will ask the same.

If you care about engagement, if you believe in its worth in the learning process, it is hard to disagree with the notion that student voice is a powerful tool in leveraging buy in.  In other words, students should help determine what is worth learning if engagement is part of your equation.

But let’s be clear, if you are a teacher and you don’t care about engagement, then you don’t need student input.  Just decide what you are going to teach based on whatever metric is meaningful to you, and be sure you have a strong discipline system in place and a solid understanding of how coercion works – because you are going to need it to persuade students to do what they have not chosen to do.

It is true that students will comply to pursue goals that aren’t theirs if they are pushed hard enough, but it is a fraught tactic.  Why not ask them what they want to learn and then entice them deeper into learning with the fun and fulfillment of following their interests?

1.     http://www.northbayedu.org/academics.html
2.     Dewey, John. “the meaning of purpose.”Experience and education. 60th anniversary ed. West Lafayette, IN: Kappa Delta Pi, 1998. 77. Print.

Another Vote For a New Schooling

This article from an interesting site called Mind/Shift came to me through the network.  Nothing particularly new here if you are already in the choir, but Tina Barseghian offers a clear-eyed look at some of Madeline Levine’s ideas and a promising path to a better model for schooling. You might guess that I don’t think it goes far enough. We have to rethink the purpose of education in current times in order to know how to revise it. If the purpose has changed, then simply making the system better at doing what it always meant to do won’t do. It is also true that our best schools are already doing these things – not all to the same degree or with the same success – but the point is made: the pace of change in schools in the main is glacial.

The photo is by Elizabeth Albert.  The article by Tina Barseghian.


Finding One’s Way – A Teacher’s Intuition and the New Schooling

Some truths are born in the bones.   I mean you can’t get away from them.  You stray at times, temporarily convinced by specious reasoning that your intuition is unreliable – just a feeling and not a way of knowing – but the truth, your truth, the particular way in which all of your sensibilities come together to make sense of the world is always there.  And you know it when you feel it.  It comes back to you – or you stumble back upon it after being away – with a familiarity that feels like returning.

Much of my career in education has been spent contemplating the value of intuition.  In my practice I have weaved in and out of alignment with it, on and off the path, losing it and then finding it again when the time was right and forces – courage, invitation, autonomy, support – coalesced to make an opening wide enough for me to slip through.  A colleague of mine calls it finding the seam.  William Stafford writes there is a thread you follow.  Same idea, different words.

In teaching, there are forces and circumstances that make it difficult at times to follow your intuition and honor the truth that is carried in the bones.  And I understand them; I am not advocating anarchy in education or absolute autonomy.  It is true that as institutions schools have identity, direction, purpose, and values, and it is right that they pursue those.  To function well and with integrity, schools need to be able to hire and retain teachers who believe in and value the credo.  When there isn’t a mutually beneficial alignment of values between the individual and the institution, the individual should be let go.

What I am advocating is the habit of mind that assumes that people do not make negative decisions – that the fundamental endeavor of all people is to improve their condition, and that people perform at their best when the truth they carry in their bones is honored by the work they do and the life they live.

This idea has deep implications for professional development in schools and the for the way a school regards its teachers.  I have never met a teacher who came to work in the morning having decided to be “bad”, “ineffective”, or “not a team player”.  In fact, all teachers come to work in the morning hoping to honor the truth they carry.

That is not to say that all teachers are great or that no teacher should ever be fired, let go, or counseled out of the profession.  Quite the opposite.  If schools truly and deeply engage with the work of connecting teachers with the truth they carry and if they take a vested interest in helping teachers find their way in the institution’s transparent credo, then we would see far less conflict (Chicago teacher’s strike?), far greater alignment (Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap?), and far greater frequency of what we tend to call “great teachers.”

Because greatness, however we define it, is facilitated and nurtured when a one finds oneself at the confluence of purpose, ability, and belief.  It is about fit and alignment, self-knowledge and credo.  Sir Ken Robinson, in his clarifying book, The Element, says that your element is the place where the things you love to do and the things you are good at come together (Robinson 8).  It’s “the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion” (Robinson 21).

The only thing I would add to that is a sense of purpose, which I define as pursuit of a cause greater than the self.  And, of course, there are some teachers for whom the teaching profession is not a strong fit, but that is the case with any profession.  The point is, it is about fit.

Imagine the change in education if schools took it as a mission to connect teachers with their truth, to be transparent about their credo, and to explore  the alignment between the two.  Think of the implications for professional development, faculty-administration rapport, trust, collaboration, teamwork, innovation, and student learning.

I am a believer in 21st Century Skills for students, but I am a proponent of a new model of education for all, because we won’t change education simply by teaching different skills.  Everything has to be reworked – Teachers, Students, Curriculum, Learning, Purpose, Program, Outcome.  Let’s get to it.