August 2008

Dan Pink is hot these days within NAIS– the keynote speaker in March for the annual convention, he was excellent.  His book is a very user-friendly introduction of what to think about when considering what the fast changing world will demand of us in the years to come. 

The book, A Whole New Mind, has two subtitles: first was Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, and then the paperback went to something I like less, Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future. 

We read it for summer faculty reading in Summer 2006, only months after the books publication, and I was proud to be in early on this curve.   I was greatly energized and enthused, and jokingly suggested we change our name, in the way that schools are named for educational philosophers, i.e. Montesorri schools, from Saklan Valley School to the Pink School of Saklan Valley.    (It didn’t fly– his name doesn’t really work in this mode). 
 I didn’t know what resistance I’d encounter– but the primary opposition was from some left-leaning teachers, young, who seemed too worried that this was combatively competitive book: we need to teach kids how to compete in the economy and let that drive our curriculum.   I tried to reply to the contrary: it offers a very holistic, healthily balanced response the anxieties of a changing world.   Some seem to say that the competition from abroad demands we teach students ever more math, science, and computer programming, and while Pink doesn’t say we shouldn’t, he does insist we think about this more broadly than by any narrow and rigid thinking. 
High Concept, High Touch is Pink’s reduction, and I love it.  I could imagine putting it above the gates: enter here for an education that teaches broad, rich, creative and analytical thinking, and teaches care and compassion.   These are the skills required for the 21st century, because they are what cannot be easily outsourced or easily automated.   Schools can do well to regularly ask of themselves what more can we do to teach our students to think larger and care better. 
The book, which is just a treat to read, more so than almost any others in its class, breaks it down further into six “senses.”  I think Pink flopped on that word choice– sense doesn’t quite get it, aptitude maybe would be better, or skill, or capability.    Here’s the list: Design, Story, Empathy, Play, Symphony, and Meaning.    For each, Pink, in an almost impish tone full of vigor and humor, shares 5-10 distinct activities which will strengthen this sense. 
For each, we at Saklan considered how we already teach them, and then brainstormed what more could done.   Six months later, I took a template from Pat Bassett, in which he cited examples of best practice in each of the six senses from his observations at NAIS schools, and adapted it.   For each, I inserted examples from our own school, and suggestions how we might extend it, and then shared it with faculty, board, parent, and community groups.  (thanks Pat).  Using Pat’s template (just download it from his site), this is an easy and fun thing to do, and makes for a really engaging presentation.    Meanwhile, I think that by highlighting especially successful applications, highlighting them in front of large audiences, there is some likelihood of reinforcing what is already done, and stimulating further development. 
The particular list I like, but don’t love.  I think symphony is poorly labeled and meaning a bit new-agey and abstract.   But read the book, read it in a group, read it along with Gardener, maybe Sternberg, and then as a school community generate your own lists of 21st century success aptitudes.    Pink is a great stepping off place. 

Classroom Instruction that Works, the book is called, and it is a very valuable primer, it could be a terrific school-wide bible and centerpiece for referencing what is research based teaching excellence. It consists of very good, solid, meta-analysis of hundreds of research reports. Comparing and Contrasting, Quality Note-taking, Recognizing Student Achievement, Promoting Student Effort, Homework, Quality Feedback: they really do make a real difference.

Now, three caveats:

1. Marzano’s ‘scientific’ agenda is explicit, and induces in me a conflicted response. He is determined to shift the field of teaching “from an ‘art’ to a ‘science.'” For me, whose ten year teaching career began right out of college, and for which I never had a teaching credential or ‘scientific’ teaching preparation, I was always proud of the ‘art’ of my teaching: inspired, inspiring, engaging, vigorous, intellectual, problematizing, richly relational– but never, I thought, never ‘scientific.’ And yet, here I am, ready to embrace the significance of research supported instructional strategies– and I am, ready to, but still seeking to reconcile or synthesize them with the value of teaching ‘artistry.’ What does this mean in practice? In hiring, it means I will still value, still eagerly hire an artistic teacher (uncredentialed, unschooled in the research, but passionate about subject, energetic and engaging interpersonally), but I will ask, insist, that these folks be serious about studying Marzano, and utilizing this kind of research in lesson planning, and I won’t consider someone who in some way indicates a lack of interest or readiness to employ research-based strategies.

2. Achievement here in Marzano is a pretty narrow concept– it is about standardized test scores. Everything recommended in the book, every research-based strategy, is established upon the evidence it raises test scores, but we can worry that there is more to learning and school than that. What about motivation, what about curiosity, what about compassion, what about creativity, what about mental health, what about participation, what about the many things we want instruction to accomplish that are not measured by test scores?

3. As Marzano himself acknowledges, even calls attention to, there is no differentiation here for grade levels or aptitude. A struggling LD student in first grade and an IB honors student in 12th grade might, we could guess, benefit from dramatically different instructional strategies, yet this book offers no such differentiation. Marzano writes that “teachers should rely on their knowledge of their students, their subject matter, and their situation to indentify the most appropriate instructional strategies [from amongst the ones in this work].”

Marzano appears very much to this writer to lay a good claim to being the Jim Collins of educational research. I realize they are different in their approach to research: Collins and his team do original, long-term, rich research, whereas Marzano uses the tool of meta-analysis of exisiting research. But they parallel each other in the seriousness of their following the data: there is no agenda, no bias, no pre-condition– they want to wallow in as deep a data pool as they can, and from the deep data only generate the significant strategies. (They are both based in Colorado, too.).

Marzano organizes his book into 9 suggested strategies (some of which are awkwardly combined pairs of strategies), each with its own chapter, and then five more “specific type of knowledge.” What he calls “The Nine” I think could be considered as 18 or 19 in total. I am choosing to focus my discussion on about dozen of them, organized in the order he offers, which roughly corresponds to the significance of each, i.e. the size of impact they make on student achievement, from most to least.

1. Identifying Similarities & Differences, (or Comparing & Contrasting)
This teaching “strategy” tops Marzano’s list, with by far the greatest impact on student learning, which comes as a bit of a relief to me, a former English and History teacher who has assigned many, many compare and contrast essays in my time. The found impact is enormous– an average effect size of 1.61, or a percentile increase of 45 points! Admittedly it is a pretty large category– so large that you can start to wonder whether it a bit tautological to say that it is a recommended instrutional strategy, it being so central to all teaching. Contained within the category are Venn Diagrams, C&C essays, and learning of metaphor and analogues. To whit: “Researchers have found these mental operations to be basic to human thought. Indeed, they might be considered the ‘core’ of all learning.” Yes. Certainly, making metaphors and finding analogues are intellectual projects that define us as humans, and we do need to teach this, explicitly and emphatically. A tad self-evident, but essential to be sure.

2. Notetaking
Students who know how to, and have been taught effectively to, take notes, will be significantly more successful. This is true too of the closely related and intertwined work of summarizing. Some points: Verbatim notetaking is the least effective way to take notes; notes should be considered works in progress; notes should be used as study guides for tests; the more notes that are taken, the better. (I have a vivid memory of being a freshman in college, preparing for my first final exams, and being a bit overwhelmed by the vast quantity of information in my Comp. Gov course. I spent about 8 hours rewriting all my lecture notes into my computer, and was subsequently stunned by the mastery I felt during the exam.) “Although we sometimes refer to summarizing and note-taking as mere ‘study skills,’ they are two of the most powerful skills students can cultivate. They provide students with the tools for identifying and understanding the most important aspects of what they are learning.”

3. Reinforcing Effort
Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, is quite in vogue this year, and it should be. Her research very powerfully demonstrates the significance of how we think about our abilities, and if we just can persuade ourself to believe that if we try hard enough to do something, our performance dramatically improves. It is the same here: A student’s “belief in effort is the most useful attribution” for success. “Not all students realize the importance in believing in effort,” but “students can learn to change their beliefs to an emphasis on effort.” “Reinforcing effort can help teach students one of the most valuable lessons they can learn– the harder you try, the more successful you are.”

4. Recognition of Student Accomplishment

Marzano really dives into this complicated subject, and jumps into the fray regarding praise, rewards and intrinsic v. extrinsic motivation. Many of are steeped in Alfie Kohn’s fierce advocacy for exclusively intrinsic motivation, and so it greatly appreciated that Marzano explicitly speaks to Alfie. Marzano does accept Kohn in that there is evidence of rewards creating a small decrease in intrinsic motivation when measured by students’ “free time activity” but not when measuring students attitudes or ability/achievement. To summarize: “rewards do not necessarily have a negative effect on intrinsic motivation; reward is most effective when it is contigent on the attainment of some standard of performance; and, abstract symbolic recognition , especially praise, is more effective than tangible rewards.” “Providing recognition for attainment of specific goals not only enhances achievement, but it stimulates motivation.” This really resonates here: I don’t like prizes or rewards, and don’t want gimmicky motivators, but praise matters– it impacts– especially when it is specific, contigent, spontaneous, and attributes success to effort.

5. Homework
Homework adds value, the research establishes. We are all enaged in the 21st c. “homework wars,” thanks in part again to Alfie Kohn, but the research of Marzano, with much reference to Duke’s homework guru Harris Cooper. Points to consider, all of with which I concur: it should ratchet upwards with advancing grades, but should start as early as second grade; parental involvement should be minimized; homework purpose should be clearly articulated; if homework is assigned it should be commented upon; and schools should establish and communicate a homework policy. Homework is a good thing, and the 10xgradelevel rule is a really useful rule of thumb.

6. Nonlinguistic Representation
Learning via multiple modalities is common currency these days: let’s provide, insist, students engage with and master concepts via approaches other than verbal/linguistic. Draw a picture, create a diagram, act out a performance: create visual/symbolic and bodily/kinesthetic learning opportunities for everything complex. And, it is not just a good idea: the research supports it strongly. “Probably the most underutilized instructional category of all those reviewed in this book– creating nonlinguistic representations– helps students understand content in a whole new way.”

7. Cooperative Learning
Do it thoughfully, avoid ability grouping, do it sparingly, keep groups small, and student learning does improve. “Of all classroom grouping strategies, cooperative learning may be the most flexible learning and powerful.” I would add that today’s digital tools can really enhance this approach; student chat rooms, peer review, classroom bulletin boards, asynchronous classroom discussion all can make for high quality cooperative learning. The student work demonstrated by English teacher Jonathan Howland at Urban School for instance, where his students posed to each other textual interpretations and got engaged in so-what and problematizing naysaying (see Graff) discourse really helped them sharpen their writing and argumentation, and it is all done, or mostly done, digitally.

8. Providing Feedback
Powerful it can be. Marzano refers to another meta-analysis, of nearly 8000 studies (!): “the most powerful single modification that enhances achievement is feedback. The simples prescription for improving education must be ‘dollops of feedback.'” Marzano makes these points: “Feedback should be corrective; timely, specific and criterion referenced; and students can effectively provide some of their own feedback.” Rubrics, Marzano goes on to point out, can be a valuable tool for feedback.

9. Questioning
Like Wiggins and Graff, two others I have been reading lately, the point made here is that research supports instructional strategies by which students really organize their learning around key, critical, higher level, analytical questions. Wait, pause, before accepting students answers– and use questions throughout as a framing technique and followup. Ask students to critique in order to sharper their questioning and analysis.

10. Vocabulary
Delving into what Marzano calls teaching specific types of knowledge, I want to call attention to two of his five key points. First, he presents a strong research backed case for teaching vocabulary “in a systematic way at virtually every grade level.” He engages with, and counters, the argument which I have been a fan of at times that reading alone– sustained silent reading it is sometimes called– will do enough to, or even will better achieve the goal of bolstering vocabulary. Instead, he says “students must encounter words in context many times to learn them, instruction in new words enhances learning those words in context, one of the best ways to learn a new word is to associate an image with it, direct vocabulary instruction works, and finally, direct instruction on words that are critical to new content produces the most powerful learning.” Sign me up for support of more frequent, more concentrated vocabulary instruction.

11. Organizing Ideas
Finally– and forgive my long-windedness– I like Marzano’s discussion of what he calls “organizing ideas,” and I think he gives it short shrift. Details are important, and another section of this chapter deals with how to teach details, but I am more drawn to the case for having students use “generalizations” to organize their ideas, and to understand why we bother with details in the first place: to support general ideas or propositions with supporting facts. I also like the connection here to Graff, whom I wrote about yesterday, and who is a great advocate for the theory we must teach to think via argument. To quote Marzano: “The biggest conceptual change comes when students must provide a sound defense or argument for their position.”

Many will wonder are schools selected for visiting? Well, first and most simply, they are coming from my own first-hand knowledge of Bay Area schools, schools where I already know administrators whom I can prevail upon to welcome me.

Second, I will be expanding my outreach to schools which I know of to have “good” qualities worthy of observing. Examples would be IB schools, schools featured in the recent Ed. Leadership issue on “reshaping high schools,” schools known for innovative programs.

Third, I welcome nominations and invitations. Like me to visit a school or your own. Recommend it to the school’s administrator to invite me, or nominate yourself.

I’ve long been a Graff fan–I thought his Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education the best treatment of how to teach the so-called Culture Wars, to bring them right into the classroom and make them part of an engaging curriculum.

His latest isn’t as good– Clueless in Academe makes a fine, but small argument, and might have been better in a shorter version, an Atlantic or Harper’s magazine article, perhaps. But though smaller than the size of the book, the idea at its heart is really a helpful handle on the question of why don’t students “get” academic argument. Because we don’t teach it, Graff says; we treat the somewhat artificial and certainly alien construct of academic argument as somehow implicit, when it needs to be made explicit and modeled before students can be effectively initiated into the “game of persuasive argument,” or what we might call the land of “Arguespeak.”

His target audience is for teachers of introductory college students AND, even more so I’d argue, most high school students. He tells a funny story that resonates here about sharing with new college students articles from Allan Bloom and bell hooks, and finding his students couldn’t differentiate between them because they were equally foreign in the abstraction of their argumentation. He cites Gardner on the point that students are often “insensitive to the vocabulary of argument: ‘contend,’ ‘hypothesize,’ ‘refute,’ and ‘contradict.'” And there is the “problem-problem.” Academics know that their work depends on “problematizing” texts or topics so as to have an angle for argument and analysis– to answer the so-what question– but students at the outset are often only frustrated by why we are asking them to make a problem out of something seemingly simple. (This is not news to any of us who have taught high school students, I realize, that they are sometimes frustrated by problematization, but sometimes we as teachers get frustrated with their frustrations, rather than realizing they are predicated on our lack, Graff suggests, of laying a metacognition understanding of why we problematize in the first place.)

I enjoy Graff’s reassertion that argumentation is at the heart of persuasive writing and clearer thinking; it offers a stimulating connection as well to Grant Wiggins work, and his lesson that we must construct our units around “essential questions,” and essential questions must be things that can and are argued about, vigorously, ideally outside the classroom as well as in it. That is good teaching for understanding for Wiggins, making it paramount for both writers. Graff says “Conflict and controversy should be made more central for the curriculum.” He laments, pointedly, that “most American students go through their entire high school and college careers without ever witnessing a debate between their teachers.”

The real practical suggestions come in the chapter/essay, Why Johnny Can’t Argue. Here, Graff grapples with what we all have in high school, and middle school, writing: its flatness, its tone of summary or perfunctory recitation. The teaching trick, (and I know this is not revelatory, many of us do it all the time, but it is important) is that “students write better when they have conversations to enter.. the key point is that in order to make your own argument, you have to write someone else’s voice into your own text.” Introduce and emphasize, push hard upon, the “so what” question: a reader over your shoulder, pressing your thesis: so what? Who cares? Plant inside your text a naysayer. “Instructing students to write a naysayer into their text is the single most effective device I have come up with in teaching writing.”

Teach the controversy, put argument into the heart of the curriculum, wrestle with essential questions, and have kids write as conversants in the “volleyball” game of intellectual discourse, explicitly introducing them to arguespeak. Their thinking will clarify, their analysis sharpen, their engagement grow, and their preparation improve.

As noted, Michael Thompson and this book are major influences on my project.

Michael has long been an inspiration– there is no better counselor about children’s social/emotional lives. Michael, (and I call him that because I did get to know him well as a member of his small group at a week-long conference in 2000), blends a vivid memory of his own childhood with an acute perception of the trials and struggles of growing up and an astounding degree of compassion and sensitivity. His works, particularly Best Friend, Worst Enemies, are for this school-leader the bible about children and their development.

In The Pressured Child (2004), he tackles the elusive subject of what makes a student successful in school. To best understand their experience in school, Michael “felt the need to shadow students” across the course of a school day. As quoted in the blog heading, and in what is something of a motto for this blog project, he writes at the end of his introduction: “A critical part of our job as educators and parents is to understand a child’s daily experience in school… Let’s go back to school.”

Michael writes he is there to shadow one student, but to learn from all. As a child psychologist, his focus is a bit different from that of this educational administrator: he is primarily concerned with observing the students: their affect, attitude, and strategies.

School, as Michael sees it, is difficult for all students– every bit as harsh as life, deeply flawed places, a high stakes game, challenging places, an Appalachian Trail like hike of endurance, blisters, perseverence, and exhaustion. Don’t you dare condescend or patronize a high school student– or envy them their playful, free from responsibility existence. It is grueling having others set your schedule, having to be at the mercy of teachers (not all of whom you respect), and making your way through the alternatingly demanding and boring routines. “No one has an easy time of it in school.

[Myself, I don’t know. My first reaction is Not-me! I loved high school– well, on deeper reflection, let’s say I got to a point somewhere in the spring of my 11th grade (nearly 3/4 of my way through it, I suppose I should acknowledge) where I felt very confident, very connected, very engaged, and very stimulated by the life of my school. In that spring, and for most of my senior year, I wanted to be at school all the time; I was entirely enthralled with my studies, my friends, and my student activities.

But even then, even at the height of my high school experience, Thompsonian experiences still existed, in plenty. My Math teacher in both 11th and 12th grades, the same one, was a horror, and at times senior year I was in almost open defiance of her petty demands of me; I was at a bit of a loss for what was expected in my 12th grade honors philosophy class; I had a series of melodramas in relationships with old friends and new girlfriends. And I haven’t begun to grapple with the difficulties of my 9th and 10th grade years. Thompson is right, and it is important to note: even for students who do, genuinely, like school, and are good at school, school is not exclusively an “easy time of it.” (And, this mini self-lesson also teaches us to be suspect of our first blush nostalgia– it is easy to say to ourselves or our kids “I LOVED high school” and be in enormous denial about so much of it.)]

But as much as he is focussed on the kids themselves, at times his insights on children and adoloscents have, of course, important implications regarding the goodness of schools.

Ultimately, the hallmarks of Thompsonian good schools can be reduced to two:
People and Purpose.

People: A good school is a genuine community, a social environment where kids are connected to each other in genuine ways, AND, that kids and teachers have an ongoing, “meaningful, reciprical relationship.” This is something that kids “crave,” they seek out, and they constantly monitor. The critical concept of trust stands in for this meaningful relationship: “the sense of trust between teachers and students turns out to be an excellent measure of the quality of the days experience… the drama of trsuting or not trusting the teachers and the school plays out in the lives of children throughout their years in school. The teachers they trust they describe as ‘nice,’ ‘fair,’ ‘funny,’ ‘strict but good,’ or even just ‘okay.'” Children, Michael writes in summation, are “always searching for a relationship with an adult that is challenging and supportive for them. It’s also crucial that it’s clear that the relationship means something to the frown-up too… Every child is looking for a teacher who finds her special.”

Speaking for myself now, I am sure manyof us remember our school years with the greatest enthusiasm for those teachers with whom we shared a genuine relationship. Teachers, or coaches, or sometimes administrators or staff: in any case, those adults who we really connected with. My seventh grade Social Studies with whom I enjoyed the Current Events Club; my tenth grade Spanish teacher whom I often bicycled to school alongside; my studiedly eccentric US History teacher who challenged my to think harder and get past my superficial and trivial historical understanding; the school registrar (later college counselor) with whom I bonded with over our shared passion for liberal politics.

Purpose: At a good school, students enjoy a meaningful curriculum and an authentic education. “Children want to feel successful,” they are “always searching for feelings of mastery,” and more than that, “they want to feel useful.” It is “our job to provide them with meaningful experiences of mastery.” Good schools avoid the trap of putting students through the “many years of enforced uselessness brought about by our extended educational process.”
There has to be purpose explicit and engaging for good schooling: “If a high school teacher does not have an answer for the question [why do we need to learn this], other than some boring response such as ‘it’s required,’ or ‘it’s on the APs,’ or ‘you’ll need it in college,’ then she has failed the test of wisdom.” Children, like everyone (!), needs to feel a “growing sense of power…: physical strength, social competence, intellectual mastery, and personal efficacy.” When this happens, all too rarely, for students, “the student is incredibly excited, and she will try to reproduce that feeling again and again.”

(An interesting aside from Michael reveals his disdain for substitute teachers: as well meaning as they may be, they are not in a position either of genuine relationship or of, most times, meaningful lesson-giving. “A majority of classes led by substitutes are a waste of the students’ time.” He comes pretty close to suggesting what I know is the preference or default practice at some independent high schools– providing a free period may be a better use of the time of these young adults than a substitute teacher’s lesson.)

A few last words about Michael’s practice of student shadowing: Michael’s reporting is more critical than is my intent– he is very much focussed on revealing how challenging school is for kids, and my intent is to observe and share best practices in action. Michael doesn’t ever communicate, to this reader anyway, any hard or fixed “rules” of shadowing: he chats with students, he talks to teachers, he follows up on questions with later inquiries. And, he finds shadowing hard– he gets restless, he get frustrated, he gets tired. All of which he reports to us, the reader, so we can experience the feeling of student-hood.

What are the goals and purposes of the school visits, student shadowing, and blog?
The primary goal is to share observations of contemporary best practices of good, 21st century high schools, and invite feedback and on-line conversation about them, in order to better reflect upon and advocate for 21st c. K-12 education, the mission of my website More personally, I have the aim of leading K-12 schools over the course of the next thirty years, and I think this project will help me grow to be a better school-leader, and my future students will have the visited-schools to thank.

Is this a commercial project?
No, there are no fees associated with this project, and there is no intention or expectation of it being a revenue generating project.

Is this intended for parents who are school shopping/comparing?
No. This site will not compare, rate, rank, or evaluate schools, and the site will not be promoted/distributed to consumer parents. Some, many, or most schools might end up being masked in identity anyway. This is intended as an educators’ site, reporting and reflecting on observed best practices.

What would be a typical school visit by Jonathan?
There may end up being no typical visit, but looking forward, my ideal visit will be one where I am able to spend an entire school day shadowing a school-identified student, preferably a junior. Of course, I will not follow the student into any restroom or into a private conversation, and we can arrange a time for the student to have a break—though I’d prefer the break not be at the student’s lunch-time. At day’s end, I am happy to sit and share observations/reflections and answer questions with administrators and/or school faculty—but this is not a required element, only at the school’s request.

Will names identified?
Student names will never be identified; students will be referred to only by pseudonyms. Teachers will not be identified unless schools or teachers request they be identified. As for schools and administrators, in keeping with Sara Lawrence Lightfoot’s approach in her classic book, The Good High School, I prefer to identify them by name, but I will happily defer to a school’s request to be ‘masked.’

What will be the Frequency of blog posting?
If the school prefers/requests I will do just a single blog entry at day’s end, but my preference is for streaming/live blogging, posting multiple entries hourly. This second option provides for the school’s potential of a real-time interactive experience, as school constituents, whoever the visited school wishes, can participate by reading (and responding) to blog entries as they happen over the course of the day. The blog allows for easy posting of responses to blog entries, but I can and will also monitor/moderate the responses, to ensure their appropriateness.

Who is Jonathan Martin?
Jonathan is an experienced school administrator and writer; he holds degrees in political, religious, and educational leadership, including a MA in Ed. Admin. from USF. For the past 9 years he headed Saklan Valley School, an accredited PS-8 independent school in Moraga, California; prior to that he headed Maybeck High School in Berkeley, California. In the present year, 2008-09, he is on sabbatical and is reading, training, and blogging as part of a year’s commitment to professional growth. For a complete bio, C.V., educational philosophy statement, and selected writings, please visit Jonathan’s website at .

Has Jonathan blogged before?
Not a lot. Jonathan wrote frequently, of course, on-line for his school’s website. Recently, Jonathan maintained a three day blog totaling 10 entries and 3700 words at the Urban School Center for Teaching Innovation TechSymposium.

What will be the tone of the blog?
The tone will be respectful, professional, and constructive. At times, it will also be personal, as I relate observations to my own experiences. The predominant tilt will be toward reporting on observed good practices (“I like how this lesson displays evidence of backward design” with specifics). You might call this approach: “catching them doing it right.” At times, there may be very mild inquiries: “I wonder if they should extend/adapt/modify this” or “Perhaps they might consider.” To quote this project’s inspiration, Lawrence-Lightfoot, this is for the most part a “search for goodness—exemplary schools that might tell us something about the myriad definitions of educational success and how it is achieved.”

What are its inspirations?
Sara Lawrence Lightfoot’s wonderful portraiture of exemplary secondary schools in her 1983 The Good High School; Michael Thompson’s The Pressured Child and more particularly, his experiences reported therein shadowing high school students; Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age; Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future; Sternberg’s The New Three R’s; NAIS President Pat Bassett’s call for a renaissance for educationally sustainable programs at our schools; and the research and best-practice advocacy on learning of Wiggins, Marzano, Sternberg, Darling-Hammond, and Bransford.

To quote Michael Thompson’s explanation for his decision to shadow high school students for his Pressured Child: “A critical part of our job as educators is to understand a child’s daily experience in school… Let’s go back to school.”

These are the questions I will be using to frame my viewing and observations on visits to schools, and the questions I will be answering, with positive examples, in my blog entries reporting on my visits.

In what ways is this school demonstrating teaching and learning in the form of research based ‘best practices’ (with particular reference to the research of Wiggins, Marzano, and Bransford)?

What examples are there of the practice of authentic education: student attention to, and developing mastery of, real world applications and experiences? In what ways are students authentically “doing” the subject?

How does the teaching and learning at this school exhibit an educational program particularly well designed or suited for the 21st century—especially as defined by the writings of Wagner, Friedman,  Pink, & Gardener?

In what ways is this school using digital tools in an integrated or seamless way which genuinely enhance student learning?

In a fast-changing and rapidly globalizing ‘flat’ world, how does this school’s teaching and learning demonstrate an “international-minded” instructional program?

Blog entries coming in the next few months: 
  • Good to Great, Jim Collins, Rob Evans, and Goodness in High Schools
  • Sherman Alexie’s wonderful Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  • Reshaping High School: Education Leadership’s recent terrific issue, and the lessons therein
  • Grant Wiggins, Understanding and Schooling by Design, and the Good High School
  • Bob Marzano’s Classroom Instruction that Works, and Implications for good high schools
  • Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, and implications for 21st century best practices 
  • Gardener’s Five Minds for the Future
  • Bransford’s How People Learn, and implications for good high schools
  • Growing into Goodness and the lessons of Quaker schools for good high schools
  • Graff’s Clueless in Academe, and how good high schools prepare students to be clued into the academy. 
  • Nel Noddings’ Critical Lessons: What Our [Good] High Schools Should Teach. 
  • Sternberg’s Wisdom, Creativity, and Intelligence Synthesized and implications for how high schools should prepare students for the skills they really need for success in college and beyond. 

[In a later post, I want to return to goodness as the supposed “enemy of greatness;” for now, my attention is on Lawrence-Lightfoot’s pre-Collins embrace of goodness as indeed, a very good thing.]

Consciousness of imperfections:” probably the most famous line from this book is in the opening paragraph of her conclusion, which teaches us that the consistent element of widely varying “good schools” is the consciousness of imperfection. The paragraph is so powerful it bears reciting in total:

The search for good schools is elusive and disappointing if by goodness we mean something close to perfection. These portraits of good schools reveal imperfections, uncertainties, and vulnerabilities in each of them. In fact, one could argue that a consciousness of imperfections, and the willingness to admit them and search for their origins and solutions is one of the important ingredients of goodness in schools.”

I’d guess that this is one of those profound messages that has influenced educators far beyond the circle of the book’s readers; there are probably many who heed these words without knowing their origin. I have seen this embedded in many an accreditation manual, for instance. (Not that it is an entirely original concept, of course.) Accreditation work is a place where I have sought to practice it most consciously. Perhaps the finest of the five schools I had the opportunity to vist as an accreditation team member, certainly the most well established and highest in prestige, disappointed me on my visit the most of any because of its almost-willful refusal to truly reflect, to really dig in, address, and answer self-study questions asking about the program elements are most in need of remedy.

Similarly, this lesson haunted me on nearly every admissions and marketing tour I every conducted for my previous school. As much I wanted to (and did!) show off with a passion and zeal the school’s positive qualities, I also felt a nagging conscience to go out of my way even to acknowledge, even identify or assert, the school’s challenges, obstacles, or areas of necessary improvement. For some visitors, to be sure, this was attractive and inviting; they recognized the ‘goodness’ of my humility. For others, I have to say, they were either just confused (why would he say that?) or even disappointed– they didn’t want to hear anything other than the positive.

In my first headship, a time at which I was deliberately choosing to be a provocative leader, challenging the status quo, I posted this quote in large print over my desk, in an effort to make the point that my ‘consciousness about imperfections’ was only in the service of the institution. (It reassured only a few, I fear). But I do think it is a powerful statement, and can serve schools well when engaging in the self-study or strategic planning process, or when taking time to confront ‘brutal facts.’

Fun for me, in reading Lawrence-Lightfoot’s extended discussion of “The Imperfections of Goodness,” is that her case study is Milton Academy in 1981. Fun, because in 1981 I was myself a ninth grade student at Milton, impressionable and coming into my own as a conscious observer of educational institutions. L-L finds Milton displaying the most “vivid expression” of an orientation toward imperfection, “where the philosophical ideals of humanism invited tough self-criticism, persistent complaints, and nagging disappointments.” (Remember, for L-L, these are good things!). “Criticism was legitimized, even encouraged. The stark visibility of the institutional vulnerabilities was related, I think, to a deeply rooted tolerance for conflict, idealism, and feelings of security.” [I know I am quoting too much, but the book is so good] “In general, the school community saw goodness, frustration, and criticism as compatible responses. In fact, they believed that goodness was only possible if the imperfections were made visible and open for inspection.” As a ninth grader I saw this even in advisory section, where I reacted with great surprise when my teacher, my adviser, was more than willing to express criticism or frustration with school administration. (Never nasty, but respectfully critical.)

Influenced by Milton Academy’s culture or not, I’d like to think that I have invited, or welcomed, criticism and respectful conflict and presided over a culture where there was room for this. It is a fine line though– certainly I know what it is to be frustrated with a culture of complain from certain quarters, certainly I have had moments of defensiveness, certainly I have disappointed some among the population who wished for more protection from criticism, or sought more assertive cultural leadership.

There is still much more in here about “goodness:”

  1. Control and coherence can be gained by a “visible and explicit ideology.” At Milton, this ideology is one of ‘humanism’ wherein there is a “responsiveness to individual differences, a diversity of talent, and the integration of mind, body, and spirit in educational pursuits.”
  2. Schools must find an appropriate balance between “the pulls of connection to community against the contrary forces of separation from it.” Build an internal culture that is a separate, safe harbor, but still engage and interact with the wider world. Milton displays a commitment to this balance, L-L writes, by its catalog cover depicting the quiet campus with the Boston skyline looming behind.
  3. Leadership is essential, and but good leadership displays a redefinition of traditional terms, which includes softer images of nurtrance, relationships and affiliations, and the subtle integration of personal qualities traditionally attached to male and female images.
  4. There is always in good schools a high regard for teachers and their work, and a consistent, realistic message to them: they are not expected to be super-human, nor regarded as people of meager talent and low status. Teachers are central actors in the educational process; their satisfaction is critical to the tone and smooth functioning of each school; their nurtrance is critical to the nurturance of students. We nurture teachers by offering them autonomy and support, by regarding them as thinkers; by providing them opportunities for colleague exchange and criticism.
  5. Good schools display “consistent, unswerving attitudes toward students” marked by easy rapport and the “fearless and empathetic regard” of them. “The high school experience can be totally transformed by a vital relationship with a special adult.”
  6. Finally, goodness in schools is seen in student “intellectual playfulness.” This section of L-L’s book is brilliant, and so essential. “By playful, I do not mean frivolous or trivial.” “Playfulness” for L-L means many things: exchanges which are more spontaneous, inspired, creative; playing with ideas by turning them on their sides and considering them from many angles; and much more, all of it wonderful and much to be sought for in good, 21st century schools.

As noted in the heading, this book, already 25 years old, is an important inspiration for this project (important enough to have its name appropriated!).

Lawrence-Lightfoot is an inspiration to many– and rightfully so. I especially am enamored of her book entitled Respect.
The Good High School, published 1983, offers “portraits” (her artful term) of six schools: two suburban public, two urban public, two independent. For each, she spent several days on site, observing and interviewing– and then composed these lovely renditions. As she takes pains to point out, this is a personal perspective– objectivity is a goal, but not an obsession, and she is quick to acknowledge she brings her own concerns and her own experiences to the work of observing and reporting.
Here I want to take note of the goals and the approach of her book: I do so to take better guidance from her for my own work. (In later entries, I will write on her ideas of “goodness in schools.”)
Lawrence-Lightfoot set out to correct three flaws she said plagued other studies of schools: the tendencies toward theoretical abstraction, toward autobiography, and toward negativism (p.11). Instead, her purpose was to “do life drawings of real schools in action.” “The Inquiry begins by examining what works, identifying good schools, asking what is right, here, and whether it is replicable, transportable, to other environs.” “First, we searched for goodness–exemplary schools that might tell us something about the myriad definitions of educational success and how it is achieved.”
The author emphasizes the qualitative and open-ended nature of her approach. There was no “rigid research agenda ” and no effort to prepare “classical, systematic research,” but instead an effort to collect “descriptive data on the schools…[which] captured their lives, rhythms and rituals.” She intended her “portraits” be “critical and generous–allowing subject to reveal their many dimensions and strengths.” Very much akin to my own way of thinking, Lawrence-Lightfoot emphasizes that there is no one “dominant or objective truth” for her to see, but instead truth lies in “the integration of various perspectives” and can only be approached via “holistic, complex, contextual descriptions of reality.”

Greetings and welcome. In this, my first post, let me outline my project for the next few months. As a key element of a year dedicated to professional growth, I aim to visit a series of exemplary high schools, ideally by shadowing a student for a day, and in the course of doing so, report my observations and reflections in this blog. Interspersed with my postings on school-visits will be reviews of classic and contemporary writings on the subject of educational excellence and innovative high school programs.

This is a non-commercial project, with the simple twin purposes of promoting my own better understanding of contemporary best practices, and contributing in however small a way to the conversation about secondary schooling in the 21st century. This blog project is affiliated with what is intended to be ultimately a broader long term endeavor of 21st century K-12 deliberation, the home of which is at my website
There is no exclusivity to the schools included; if you would like to suggest a school, or invite me to visit and blog about your school, please go right ahead and email me at