Tag Archives: teaching

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.

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.

A Question to Students: “What do you want to learn?”

I am convinced that the most significant question a teacher can ask a student is, “What do you want to learn?”  It is a simple question, but it is not often asked – and the implications run deep.  Of course, the question takes many forms – “What do you need to know?”  “Where do you want to begin?”  “What strikes you about this text?” – all variations on the same revolutionary question that assumes that students want to learn and can be trusted with their learning.

I once heard of a multi-day workshop in leadership that unfolded from a single question, literally the only words the teacher spoke on day one, “How shall we proceed?’

“What do you want to learn?”  To a high schooler used to traditional schooling, the question can raise suspicion.  “Aren’t you supposed to know?” some think.  “Does it matter?” others ask.  This latter is particularly troubling to a progressive educator because it defines the student role in school as inert and passive, as if the curriculum could not respond to the curiosities of students even if it wanted to.  And in some schools it can’t.  The curriculum takes on a life of its own, becomes paramount, and must be satisfied regardless of student interest.  But interest in learning does matter.

“What do you want to learn?” communicates a value to students.  It says that the curriculum is flexible, that it is responsive to the human beings in the room, and that it is worth doing because of human endeavor, not institutional mandate.  The question puts student learning front and center, and it engages students in the daily business of learning.  Because all students, whether they know it or not, ask themselves, “Can I use this?  Is this about me?”  In some way, in order to engage students, the answer must be “Yes.”  If it is not, it doesn’t matter what is taught – and what is taught won’t matter.  Shakespeare becomes lifeless, solving for x becomes useless, and mitochondrial DNA might as well be alien.  Actually, alien DNA would be exceptionally relevant – but, again, only because it would put us, human beings, in perspective.  Point being, “What do you want to learn?” gives students a personal stake in their learning.

For far too many students, the only stake they have in school is the grades they receive.  That’s what ends up mattering, because the learning itself doesn’t do as much for them and doesn’t have as great an effect on their lives in the short term as their grades do.  But it should.  First and foremost, learning should be immediately useful and obviously relevant.

I once taught a journalism class that took as its primary project the production of the school newspaper.  The student staff chose the articles, researched the stories, wrote the copy, and laid out the paper.  My job was to teach the skills and understandings necessary to do so ethically and well.  The course was graded but all students began with an A and it took real missteps to earn something less.  The idea was to take grades out of the equation because what is written for the newspaper should be published free of coercion.  The prevailing interest in writing the news should be the good of the community, not personal gain.  And it worked.  One of my students said to me, “I have never had a class in which I tried harder, learned more, and in which grades meant as little.”  But I spent a long time thinking about why it worked.  I believe now that the students in my journalism class learned without concern for their grade because they knew that what they wrote mattered – learning to write accurately and ethically was of immediate use and obvious relevance.  And my students were asked the question, “What do you want to learn?”  In this case, it was more specifically, “What do you want to write?  And what do you need to know to write it well?”

Projects are certainly one way to ask the question, “What do you want to learn?” but they aren’t the only way.  The key is to trust students to be in charge of their learning, to have confidence that they know what they need to know, and to take for granted that they want to learn.

One of my colleagues in the Science Department tells me, “I don’t want my students to learn about science.  I want them to act like scientists.”  In his hands, science is not a subject matter, it is a methodology for discovering how the world works.  As scientists, his students ask questions, form theories, design experiments, and analyze results – and that leads them to ask more questions.  Along the way, he teaches them what they need to know to run their inquiry well and arrive at their own answers.  The process is fundamentally experiential and we are well versed in the experiential model of learning, but it begins differently – with questions to students: What do you want to learn?  Where should we begin?  How shall we proceed?

With these questions, education comes alive.

Why I Teach – A Personal Philosophy of Education

What one does and how one does it is the product of what one believes and one’s orientation toward the future.  Upon that premise, I set forth now, as a classroom teacher and an experiential educator, my personal philosophy of education.  Let it be known that this I believe:

What is education?  What is teaching?

I believe that the true goal of education is the realization of human potential, that one’s personal human potential is the full expression of authentic self in relation to truth in community, and that realizing one’s personal potential depends on a reliable foundation of accurate self knowledge.

Therefore, education is the system by which we strive to realize the heights of human potential through the practice of teaching and the process of learning.

Teaching is the day-to-day endeavor to inspire and bring about learning in students. Its goal is the acquisition of knowledge, the advent of insight, and the development of personal capacities through live encounters with matters of real concern and the processing of experience. All knowledge is self-knowledge by virtue of the subjectivity of the knower; what is known, and even the act of knowing, is not independent of the knower, and, ultimately, what is experienced by the knower is a manifestation of self.

Self-knowledge is that collection of relevant and comparative information that a student uses to form a conception of self in community others and with truth. Furthermore, self knowledge allows the identification of passions and empowers the pursuit of happiness in moving forward with the uncertain business of living a life.

Fundamentally, teaching is the judicious practice of managing experiences to make them useful to students in interpreting the world and in pursuing their passions. Interpreting the world means making meaning of history and the human condition and understanding one’s place in both human and natural contexts. Pursuing their passions means identifying their talents and affinities and feeling empowered to develop them in community with others.

The individual and the community

The individual and the community coexist in collaborative interdependence, the two thriving on each other in measured balance. Human potential can only be realized in community with others because it is dependent on a human social context for its value. Individual expression in isolation has no effect, no benefit, and no real-world value. As such, it is a feckless and impotent gesture, incapable of either improving or diminishing the human condition. Self expression is made real when the effects on other people are manifest.

Community only exists to the extent that it recognizes and celebrates individuals and their free and personal expressions of self. Oppression is the curtailing of free and personal expression of self, and an oppressed community is diminished in capacity and human potential by the lack of expression. A community without a vibrancy of distinct and striving individuals working in common cause does not advance or progress and eventually collapses for lack of original thought and new ideas, both of which come only from free and personal expression of self.

The questions students ask

While they might not always be consciously aware of the questions they are asking, and even if they have come to give themselves automatic and pat answers, I believe students always ask three big questions about themselves while learning:

    • Is this about me?
    • Can I use this?
    • What am I compared to this?


These are the questions that compose the student experience of learning.

Is this about me?

This is the fundamental question that determines a student’s level of engagement in the learning process, and engagement is the primary modulator of lasting learning. Engagement engenders experience, and experience causes and necessitates a change in one’s perception of the self in relation to truth and the world. In reaction to experience one changes one’s mental models of the self and of the world, and from there one moves forward into new experiences with a new set of expectations and understandings.

So, “Is what is happening around me about me, of me, for me?” becomes the primary question, often tacitly asked and tacitly answered.

The degree to which a student feels able, invited, and compelled to participate in the content or material being learned is the degree to which it has an influential effect on his or her mental models of the world, of truth, and of the self. Enduring mental models are most of what we call knowledge, and a mental model that includes a conception of self with an active agency in the world is the foundation for citizenship in a community.  To create a sense of citizenship, of vested interest in a community, schools have to succeed in engaging students and instilling a sense of effectual participation. To do that, students have to feel that what they are learning is essentially and in some way about them.

And so, the content of what is taught should be relevant, first and foremost.

At risk is the alienation and anonymity that comes from the perception that this community or this experience or this world is not about me or my people, and there is nothing at stake for me here.

Can I use this?

The human brain forgets far, far more than it remembers, and thankfully so. Actually, it doesn’t forget so much as it sifts and filters experience to identify relevant and useful information to store in memory. The vast majority of what perceived through the senses is never even stored for future recall – because it is deemed irrelevant and has no identifiable bearing on health or well being.

Those things deemed relevant and useful are acquired, stored, recalled, and applied to new situations effortlessly. And incidentally, it happens all the time, within school and without, in every situation. The brain never “turns off,” it is always acquiring and evaluating information for relevance and utility, and the information it stores as relevant and useful are accessed without trouble.

So, the critical question that is asked, usually unknowingly, to determine whether content material is stored for later use or not is Can I use this and how? For learning and memory, utility of what is learned is critical. If we want students to remember and use what we teach them, we need to be very clear about how they are going to use what they are learning to interpret the world and their place in it and to navigate their pursuit of what they find most meaningful in life. That is what the human brain has evolved to do; there is no other way.

And so, the content of what is taught should be useful.

At risk is the notion that what is learned in school is not necessary, static and dead, already known by other people who do other things, and that learning is simply a short-lived torture of memory.  At risk is the notion that there is nothing new under the sun.

What am I compared to this?

Learning leaves a mark on the self. Everything we experience goes to creating a conception of the self that is dynamic and constantly changing with new experience. The brain is the seat of selfhood, personality, character, affinity, truth, beauty, and passion. Everything that is perceived comes through the brain and is affected by the mechanisms of thought, memory, consciousness, and emotion. Content material exists in and of itself, but what is experienced and learned is a combination of the thing itself and the self.

So, everything that is learned serves to define the self who learns and chart a path forward.  In this sense learning is always an act of comparison.  Students work to understand a concept or master a skill and then through the questions of relevance and usefulness come to some conclusions about themselves in comparison to what is learned.

Reading and studying Macbeth,for instance, coming to know the play through experience, can bring a sense of identity, as in – I know Macbeth. I am the one who knows Macbeth. Of course, other conceptions of self in comparison to Macbeth are possible, too, as in I am one who does not understand Macbeth. Any conception of self that comes from an experience with Macbeth serves to define the self who moves forward into new texts and new learning. The anticipation of a reading of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, will be influenced by the conception of self that was changed by reading Macbeth.

And so, learning should empower further learning.

At risk is the notion that I am nothing compared to this. Powerless before knowledge, incapable of growth, students who come to see themselves as inadequate in comparison to content will choose not to learn, not to express themselves in community with others and the human condition, and the human social context will be the poorer for it.

The bottom line

Through the brain-intensive process of learning, students actively redefine their conception of who they are in the human condition. In answering the questions Is this about me? Can I use this? and What am I in comparison to this? students gain self knowledge and insight into themselves as individuals, capable of self expression, in community with others and in relation to truth.

Because of that, the experience a student has while learning is far, far more important than the material learned.

This I believe.

Questions and Answers: What you need you already have.

At minute 9:28 in the above TED talk, Charles Leadbeater, who is particularly interested in the innovation that comes of meeting great needs in under-resourced school environments, talks about one school program in one of the poorer communities in Brazil and their habit of beginning each day with a question.  Leadbeater asks us to, “Imagine an educational system that started from questions, not from knowledge to be imparted.  Or started from a game, not from a lesson.  Or started from the premise that you have to engage people first before you can possibly teach them.”  I have and I do, and I believe Leadbeater is exactly right in what he is suggesting.

Something pernicious happens right about the time students graduate from school.  It comes of a constellation of forces and societal expectations, not one of which is wholly responsible but each of which contributes to coerce a transformation in students, a turning away.  NB: by students I mean learners and by school I mean a learning environment. It comes about as a “natural” and expected step forward, an advancement in the development of the self, sometime between high school and graduate school, adolescence and adulthood.  At some point, as the result of our educational system learners are expected to become knowers.

Sir Ken Robinson, the noted creativity thinker and eminently convincing proponent of sea-change in education, points out that if you didn’t know any better, upon looking at the American educational system in 2010 and asking yourself, “What is it designed to do?” you would have to conclude that it is primarily designed to produce university professors – that is, to reproduce itself.  Our educational system produces knowers, not learner.

In fact, there is a significant societal stigma that attends the notion of a learner.  It connotes beginner, amateur, inexperience, even naivete and ignorance, as in language learner as opposed to language expert.  At a meeting I attended recently of the local beekeeping community I heard one new member use the phrase “still just learning” to mean that she lacked the answers she needed.  She said, to the best of my recollection and not exactly quoted, “I am still just learning about beekeeping, so I want to ask the experts in the club…”.  It was a beautiful moment of communication between club members, because one of the more knowledgeable members addressed her, saying, “I have been doing this a long time, but I am no expert.  I am still just learning, too,” to which we all laughed.   Of course we all understood both perspectives.  “I am just beginning, so how would I know?” and “I have been doing this long enough to know what I don’t know.”  Whatever your perspective, it is clear that most true experts know that the salient experience in becoming an expert is becoming acquainted with more and more challenging questions, not answers.

As much as I value questions and as much as I think about and try to understand that a teacher should strive to become a master learner, not a master knower, I too have felt the uncomfortable compulsion to give an infirm answer to a student’s question before admitting I didn’t know. Most of the time I can control myself and I am proud of my courageous, unknowledgeable response.  “I don’t know the answer to that,” I proclaim, when I am feeling strong enough.  But it is there, the insecurity, the remnant of the societal norm that I resist.  “I am the teacher,” I think to myself when I am feeling weak.  “I should know.”  So, what is it about mainstream education in this country today that so requires teachers to be knowers and students to be the only learners?  I believe the answer lies in our conception of knowledge.

If we understand knowledge to be an external thing, a thing acquired and kept, as a material object, then it follows that there are those with more and those with less.  It is a materialistic model that regards knowledge as a commodity to be bought or bartered, as in, “I have it, and I will give it to you for a price.  I will sell it to you.”  In this model, knowledge flows from teacher to student, like the filing of Yeats’s famous pail.  Students are customers and teachers are venders.  The relationship is clearly defined and learning is the agreed upon result of the commercial arrangement.  There are all kinds of problems that flow from this model – and they all have to do with the common marketplace promise of “satisfaction guaranteed.”

If, alternatively, we understand knowledge to be inherent in the learner – something a student already has, latent within him, then what some people have more of and some less is access to self-knowledge, and the teacher’s challenge becomes, not increasing the flow of knowledge through the conduit, like a hose, but evoking insight.  In this model of education, there is no transaction of material and no commercial arrangement.  Students are questers, seekers, capable of effecting their own transformation of learning and of answering their own questions.  The teacher becomes a guide, and a facilitator – asking questions to shepherd student to their own answers.

It is a radical shift in our conception of education, but it is not new.  The Quaker wisdom tradition allows for the presence of an Inner Teacher, an inherent source of knowledge and guidance that requires evocation, not augmentation.  Quaker community members strive, not to supply answers, but to ask questions that help a friend or colleague hear and understand what their inner teacher is saying.  The notion is clear: knowledge resides in all of us, latent perhaps but there.  Guides, mentors, and teachers ask questions to evoke the answers that are already there.

I confess merely a passing familiarity with the tenets of Quaker spirituality, but so be it – in that, as in so many other things, I am “still just a learner.”

This is Wendell Berry on the same topic.  Imagine what education – indeed this country – would be if we could embrace the radical notion that what you need you already have.

The Wild Geese – by Wendell Berry

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end.  In time’s maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves.  We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes.  Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here.  And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

A Letter to a Teacher

This is a letter – email, actually – I recently posted to a fellow educator and one of my earliest mentors.  It came about as you might expect.  He asked me, simply enough, “How did your school year go?”  But for  some of us in schools, the answers are never that simple.  I went something like this:

He:  “Is your year almost over?  How did it go?”

I:  “I am done only just this evening.  I am glad it is over.  It has been a hell of a year for a challenging number of challenging reasons.”

He:  “I know what you mean.  The mania and the frenzy of schooling is difficult.  I have felt that way many times before.” (paraphrase).

I:  “I am not sure you have.  Let me tell you how it hurts.”

And then I laid it on him.  The following is more or less what I wrote:

Regarding the “I am glad it is over” feeling: I feel like I am good with the mania and the pace.  I feel like that is a choice we all, as teachers, collectively make – whether we feel in control of the choice or not, we are in control of it, and we do it, and I perpetrate the mania as much as anyone by participating in the manic system, submitting to schedules and deadlines, enforcing them, etc.

The thing that is needling me now is something that I first pondered in my 3rd year here – 6th year of classroom teaching – when I spent a lot of time trying to figure out just what schooling was – what was it that we were doing as teachers?  That was the question I was always asking, tacitly or not, in my work.  It manifested in the decisions I made, the way I positioned myself at school, how I taught my classes, the identity I brought to the classroom.  And it was a worthy question – still is – because it determines all of those things and everything else we do as teachers. What we think we are doing in school – our conception of what it is to teach – determines how we do our life’s work.  Classroom policies, the space we create for learning, and how we define success in the classroom, among many other really significant things.

So, in my 3rd year here, I first glimpsed a terrifying possibility: What if when I finally come to understand what schooling is here – I no longer want to be a part of it?  What if what school really is is not good?

This is an important question?  What if I fell in love with an illusion?  What if school isn’t about human potential, experience, curiosity, surprise, self-governance, and enlightenment, not about learning at all?  What if it really is about sorting kids, categorizing them like beef or eggs, creating obedient workers with “good study habits” so that they can serve our economy?  What if it really is about homework and grades and science fair projects and pencil and paper tests?

If it is about all of that nasty dogma, then either I subordinate my ideals to the service of that and “learn to love the bomb”, or I go to work every day and I fight against the system (which not really a system, it is people) to win small battles in a lonely war with few comrades in the service of scarcely held belief.

This is the old stuff, right?  I know that.  This is Horace’s Compromise – and why Sizer started CES and his other school reforms.

Okay, so, fine, right?  Get over it.  Big surprise that my school doesn’t perfectly fit my delicate sensibilities.  Big deal that I have to put some of my idealism aside in order to go to work every day.  Lots of people have it a lot worse in their jobs.


Yes, AND lots of people don’t feel the need to improve the world with their work.  Lots of people are not teachers.  I DO believe teachers are special.  I DO believe that the work we do is fundamentally optimistic, idealistic, and forward looking – not just getting by, living through another day, but actively pursuing and effecting the change we want to see in the world.

So, these two positions are in conflict:

•Do I man up and get over it, tamp down my idealism and my need for a good fit between my work and my convictions, participate in a system that has flaws and try to value the participation and not the system, sacrifice what I think is important for the larger context of a school and a faculty and a group of people all doing the same thing, abandon my ego for the selfless goal of someone else’s vision of a better reality?


•Do I man up and get over it, stand up for my intuition, my convictions, and my beliefs because from where I stand today and what I know right now I am sure they are right and good and possible, trust in what is and has always been fundamentally with me, stop acquiescing to the impulse to accept the responsibility and the blame for when my core beliefs run afoul of institutional norms and the direction the school is going, stop wondering what is wrong with me that I seem to be the only person in the room with my set of priorities.

That question and the million, myriad ways in which it came up this year are why I am glad it is over and that I can now think about it a bit instead of constantly reacting and responding to another difficult situation.

Sometimes I wonder, what was so good about the first 5 years at this school?  Were things that different in the teaching environment? Or did I just see a lot less, was my vision poorer in some way?

Sorry you asked?

See you soon.


Teaching is a hell of a job.  I do still love it.

What Are Grades For?

Apropos of nothing the other night, my son asked me one of those questions.  He was clearing the table, just lifting my plate, and in that off-hand way that 12-year-olds have of innocently asking complex questions in expectation of simple answers, he didn’t even pause.  “What are grades for?” he said, and walked my plate and fork and knife into the kitchen.  I heard the dish clatter into the sink a bit too hard, but didn’t react to it; I had frozen up.  Seized.  Completely.

It wasn’t quite the, “Where did I come from?” question, but for a family of independent school educators, it lacked none of the gravity, none of the complexity, none of the challenge.  I knew it was one of those questions first because I was instantly aware of the myriad possible answers, the tangle of directions this conversation could go, pathways it could take, and what was at stake, and second because my wife and I looked at each other with wide eyes, mine asking, “You want this one, by any chance?” and hers saying, “He asked you.”

I didn’t know what the right speech was, but I felt myself begin, at the speed of thought, to evaluate costs and benefits, permutations, possible outcomes, effects on future conversations, effects on my son’s sense of self worth, and my estimation of what my son wanted to know.  What was he asking, anyway?

Was he asking, “How should I think about grades?” which is a good question and not one any teacher or parent should gloss over or take for granted.  If we don’t help our kids think about grades, they will arrive at their own conclusions, and in some cases spend years unlearning them.  One student I know was 40 years old before he ever heard and believed, “You write well” from a teacher.

Was he asking, “How do my teachers think about grades?” which is harder question and fundamentally speculative outside of the realm of field-of-education-wide generalizations.  But a good question, nonetheless.  One well worth asking several times a year.  As a teacher I can tell you that how teachers think about grades is variously variable in certain small but not insignificant ways by student, by quarter, and by assignment.

Was he asking, “What effect do grades have on my life, what will they do for me, or to me?” which is a question that immediately provokes the protective parent in me, the part of me that casts the world as buoyant and wants my son to see it as a playground.  This part of me wants my son to try hard, to learn well, to play, to commit, and to savor childhood and adolescence and adulthood and middle age and the later years even unto death.  Living under the threat of another’s judgement dampens the joy of play, of learning, of life.

Or was he asking, at some level that he is not developmentally ready to acknowledge, the really insidious question, “Are my grades me?”  That is, are grades a comment on me or on my work?  I know this question to be far more complex even than that.  Grades can be a reflection of a student, a student’s work, a teacher, an assignment, a home life, a mood, a social situation, a clash of cultures, a time of life, even a conversation in a morning carpool.  We live some of our best moments as teachers when we ask, “What else is going on in this kid’s life?”

I have a feeling he just wanted to know why we do it, why we give grades at all.  You know, like, whose idea was it?  And if that was a part of his question at all, I am proud of him for asking it.  Because it is not obvious.  And the question itself is born of confidence.  There is a confidence buried in that question, “What are grades for?”, that acknowledges that they may not be necessary for learning, that learning and grades are somehow separate.  Learning can happen whether we get graded or not, and so, what are grades for?  In that light, it is a beautiful question.  And he asked it on his own.

But asking a question is a vulnerable act, an unstable position, full of potential and possibility.  The answer you get, or rather the experience you have in asking, either opens a door or closes it.  The answer you get, or rather the experience you have in asking, determines future experience.  Incidentally, I don’t overthink every question my kids ask me, just the important ones.  This one had high stakes.  Hence, the moment in which my wife and I looked at each other with wide eyes, mine asking, “You want this one, by any chance?” and hers saying, “He asked you.”

And I didn’t know what the right speech was.  I just knew this was one more time when, as a parent, I couldn’t panic.  I wasn’t allowed to telegraph the small terror I felt at the prospect of saying the wrong thing.  (Some day, I am going to do it.  I am just going to fall, over the edge, into the abyss of blissful honesty.  I am going to surrender to the terror of the responsibility of constantly being in command.  I am going to abandon myself to the peace and freedom of not knowing, not needing to know, not having to support the facade of being a responsible parent.  On that day, my daughter will ask me, “Papa, what should I do with my life?” and I will say, “I don’t know.  I didn’t even know what to do with my life.  Most of the time I don’t even know what I don’t know about what I should be doing with my life.  I think I don’t know the answer to your question, but I am not really certain of that.  I don’t really know whether I know or not.  What should you do with your life?  You are doing it.  Right now.”)

Some day, that is my planned freak out.  But not today.  So, what to do as my son cleared the table and waited for my response?  Many rhetorical devices jumped to mind.

Should I lead with a question?  “Why do you ask?” (Which is, in most cases, just an evasion, a parry to buy time.  No help in this case.  The cavalry was not on its way.)

Should I lead with an affirmation?  “That’s a great question.”  (Which tends to portend an examination of an issue’s complexities and I wasn’t at all sure that was the right speech in this instance.  Or that I could sustain an examination of an issue’s complexities.  The long way around the block seemed risky at best.)

Should I probe?  “Well, what do you think?”  (Which tends to be my default setting as a generally socratic teacher.  No good.  I was, in this situation, aware that I was not being asked as a teacher but as a parent.  This challenge should be met head on.)

Other possibilities.

Should I dismiss?  “Grades are meaningless.  Don’t even think about them.”  (Not my style or even in my comfort zone.  And not true.  My son would see through me and I would probably break out in a rash.)

Should I make it seem absurd?  “Grades, in the end, are the only thing that matters, the only thing that endures from your school experience.  Your grades will be the only thing anyone ever looks at to judge you as a student, as a learner, and as a person in middle school and beyond.”  (Not as inaccurate as one might think.  Dangerously believable, but certainly not the message I wanted.)

More than anything else I wanted to tell the truth.  I was desperate for it, in fact.  In moments like this, when my kids ask me real questions, I am not as cerebral as I am intuitive.  My intuition has gotten me in trouble in the past, but I rely on it nonetheless.  I trust it, and my intuition runs toward telling the truth when it matters.  But the truth about grades is multifaceted, and my son didn’t have that much time; the table was almost cleared.

So, I gave him two sides to the issue that, together, I felt could potentially capture the whole complexity.

I said, “I can tell you what grades are suppose to do, and I can also tell you how they are sometimes poorly used.”

“Okay,” he said.

“Grades are supposed to be an objective, judgement free, evaluation of a student’s performance, not of a student, himself, but of what he did, his actions, the degree to which he satisfied the assignment and learned what the teacher wanted him to learn.  In that way, they are not supposed to be a reflection of you as a person.  They are supposed to be an accurate reflection of what you did – and that can be influenced by a million things.  How you are feeling, whether you got enough sleep, whether your natural style learning fits whatever the assignment asked you to do, whether you were absent that day, or distracted by something else.  In that way, grades are supposed to give you a sense of how your teacher thinks you are doing.  And with that information you can make changes in what you choose to do as a student – if, that is, you are particularly interested in learning what your teacher wants you to learn.  If not, then your grades won’t reflect your learning necessarily.  They will only reflect the degree to which your goals mesh with your teacher’s goals for you.  That is how they are used well.

“Sometimes grades are used not so well.  Sometimes they are used to categorize students into groups – like eggs or beef or something.  Grade A medium,  grade AA large, grade D but fit for human consumption.  In that sense, they give people ahead of you, admissions folks and teachers at schools you might get into, a way to label you as fit for a certain place or not.  It is a way packaging students and directing their flow through school.  The A and B students go here, the C and D students go there.  Maybe you can see the problem with that.

“The key is to realize and remember and believe that your grades are not you.  And that they reflect what you did as much as anything else that contributed to how hard or easy it was to do it.  Does that make sense?”

I thought I might have been over his head at that point, but as usual my son got it.

“Yeah, it’s like when my teacher says, ‘You could have tried harder.’  How do they know that?  Sometimes I try as hard as I can and my teacher says, ‘You need to try harder.’  And I can’t.  I hate that.”

“Right,” I said.  “You know how hard you tried.  And really no one else does.  Only you.  And sometimes your teachers will be wrong about that.  But you know in your heart how good you are, no matter what your grades are.”

The next thing he said was appropriately 12 years old.  “Can we have dessert?”