August 2009

Dan Pink is one of the most fascinating thinkers in our era, and I have been a huge fan since his book, A Whole New Mind, which has influenced me enormously.  Now, this video from TED is 18 minutes long,  but it is really worth it: it speaks compellingly to the question of how to motivate people, workers or students, to tackle and solve complicated, 21st century type of problems.

Pink explains that rewards systems (contingencies, carrots and sticks, extrinsic motivators) do, they do, still work for simple tasks, for if-then thinking problems.  But they do not for more challenging tasks.   For challenges that require creativity or innovation, problems which require thinking out of the box, rewards and other extrinsic motivators not only don’t help, they harm.  (more…)

Yong Zhao, an educational professor in Michigan, published today an important editorial on the question of moving ahead with unified national standards in reading and mathematics.   Zhao and I share a commitment to preparing students to compete globally, and we have to acknowledge that the proponents of national standards, the Obama administration chief among them, argue that these new national standard initiatives do precisely that. “The joint initiative promises to help America’s children ‘to be prepared to compete globally.”

But the standards are concerned exclusively with assessing children’s ability to pass standardized tests in multiple choice formats in only mathematics and reading– and these standardized tests are set at a level that may be high for some children, but low for many others.     The result is anything but preparing students with the thinking, creating, innovating, criticizing, and collaborating skills necessary for their future.

More from Zho:

In reality, it is precisely what is needed to ruin America’s capacity for global competitiveness. No evidence shows national standards result in better academic achievement. Most countries have centralized standards, but their performance on international tests varies a great deal. (more…)

Wired has an article up this week, arguing for the value of geekifying our schools.

“The best schools,” Grodd told me later, “are able to make learning cool, so the cool kids are the ones who get As. That’s an art.”  The notion itself seems incredibly daunting—until you look at one maligned subculture in which the smartest members are also the most popular: the geeks. If you want to reform schools, you’ve got to make them geekier.

Our school here in Tucson is all about the whole child, and celebrates the artists and the athletes, and it celebrates the “nerds” too– it is not a social Siberia for lovers of computers or science fiction.    But there are still steps we can and should take to do more to put student learning front and center, as they are doing at one of my favorite high schools, High Tech High:

“Geeks get things done. They’re possessed. They can’t help themselves,” says Larry Rosenstock, founding principal of eight charter schools in San Diego County collectively called High Tech High. He has come up with a curriculum that forces kids to embrace their inner geek by pushing them to create. The walls, desks, and ceilings of his classrooms teem with projects, from field guides on local wildlife to human-powered submarines. (more…)

I am an enthusiast for student robotics clubs and activities to serve the project of 21st century learning; I became an enthusiast upon seeing the seriousness of purpose the High Tech High student robotics team displayed when I visited there in San Diego in December.     Yesterday edutopia published a short piece celebrating the robotics movement in Hawaii, and pointed the way to this article in the Hawaiian Airlines flight magazine (admittedly not my most common source!).

Some pull-outs:

In fact, robotics attracts students of all stripes. The same day I spoke with Sara, I spoke with Jon Asato, who is a student in Maui High School’s arts and communication track. He calls robotics “a good outlet to express my creativity at school. 

We the Academic Committee were treated to this Slide Show this afternoon by St. Gregory Middle School Head Phil Woodall, laying out Seven Perspectives on the need for improved reporting of student learning.  I thought I would share them with you here.

Edutopia, always great, has a piece this month by Rebecca Alber called how to give your school leader a grade.   As someone who tries my hardest to practice leadership by backward design and keeping the end in mind, and someone who says that what gets measured gets done,  it is only fair that I do the same.    Here is her list on the criteria by which to evaluate your school leader.

1. Making connections. —  Alber puts this first, and explains that it means that the principal genuinely values, and enjoys, visiting classrooms.    It is about rolling up sleeves and working side by side.  It is about being a teacher’s principal and being a kid’s principal.   It is about showing you really care about everything that happens and everyone who participates in the work of teaching kids.    I too think it is essential, and I would add that it is about understanding the challenges of teaching and seeking to understand the particular goals and concerns and values of each individual teacher; it is about taking the student side and looking at learning from the point of view of kids.

2. Clear, Comprehensible Goals.  For Alber, the principal’s  “fundamental philosophy and beliefs about educating children stay the same, and are transparent to all… (more…)

Below is the Academic Committee agenda for the year– in draft form.  We had good feedback from committee members today, to consider streamlining it, and to adjust it such that we tackle each of the three main projects one at a time, advice we will consider.   But in the interest of transparency, here is the tentative year-long agenda:

2009-2010 Academic Committee  Calendar and Agenda:

August 26, 2009 – Reporting of student learning and student advisory: 1) Seven perspectives on grading                                   and 2) The student advisory puzzle: 9 key pieces. (more…)

Nice to see that you, our students, are in good spirits this morning, and to hear you speak about junior statesmen of America and about community service; nice to see that spirt of service and public-mindedness so alive at our school.

I am wearing my mourning tie this morning, and feeling very sad, because we lost last night a great leader of public service, someone often referred to as the “Lion of the Senate,” Senator Ted Kennedy.

I met Senator Kennedy two times when I was in high school, when I was fifteen and sixteen, and it was an amazing  and wonderful for me to experience first-hand his interest in young people, and receive personally his encouragement for public service.

Senator Kennedy, it must be said, made many mistakes in his life, some of them serious mistakes, and he experienced many hardships, many tragedies, but he never gave up, never stopped fighting for a more just America.  We called him the Lion of the Senate, and I think we will continue to refer to him that way for many hundreds of years, because he worked for so long (nearly fifty years in the Senate)  with so many people, with very conservative Republican Senators and with Americans of all backgrounds, all ethnicities, all incomes, all kinds of diversity, to make such a big difference for civil rights, for people with disabilities, for health care for all, for education and for youth.

He said his most famous words in 1980, when I was 13, and I have never forgotten them, and I think they are very fitting here at his passing,  and after I read them to you, please let us have a moment of silence remembering and reflecting on the service of Senator Kennedy– he said about his never-ending quest for a more just America and more peaceful world:

the work goes on,

the cause endures

the hope still lives,

and the dream shall never die.

We are embarking tomorrow on our year’s work at the St. Gregory Academic Committee to overhaul the reporting of student learning, and one of of our foundation books is called How to Grade for Learning.   As noted before, we in the academic leadership are committed to a focus on teaching and learning, and to a project of bringing all of our schooling into better alignment with enhancing student learning.    Grading, bluntly, is not always an enhancement of student learning, but it is an important activity of schooling, with high stakes and high visibility, and if we are to be more serious about learning, we need to be more serious about grading for learning.  True 21st century education requires revisiting the protocols of 20th century grading.

To frame our work, I want to draw upon the book’s summary and recommendations:

This [new] approach to grading ‘de-emphasizes traditional grades,’ demystifies the entire grading process,’ and ‘focuses on the process of learning and the progress of the individual student.’  All of these desirable characteristics occur because (1) the prime purpose of grades is recognized as communication, not competition, and (2) determining student grades is based on a pedagogy that views the teacher’s role as supporting learning and encouraging student success.

A whole assessment approach [should] include the following six action steps:

  1. use a variety of assessment methods that meet the needs of all students. (more…)

Visiting a science classroom here at St. Gregory today, I was greatly impressed with the thinking our seniors were doing in AP Biology.    An enormous degree of content mastery is required in AP Bio, but excellent teachers know their students need more than content mastery, they need also powerful thinking skills, intellectual tools to analyze and imagine and innovate and problem-solve.

I asked the students how their answers are graded, and they told me that Mr. Rolle is not looking necessarily for the right answer, but looking for good ideas and evidence that they are thinking well.    I think it is so important that we move away from looking for the right answer, and toward looking for deep thinking, inquiry, imagination and innovation.

These students were collaborating in small groups to deep think and address their weekly challenge questions, and teacher Kevin Rolle allowed me to share those problems here.

1. Early methods of preserving food included drying, salting, salting, and sugar-curing.  Offer a physiological explanation for the failure of spoilage bacteria and molds to grow readily on food treated in these manners.

2. Imagine an experiment that measures the initial rate of diffusion into cells placed in sucrose solutions of various concentrations.  Sketch a graph (initial diffusion rate versus solution concentration) that shows the result expected if diffusion is simple, and a graph that shows the result expected if sucrose enters by facilitated diffusion.

Many blogs often seem to focus on the negative: they live to criticize.   This blogger seeks, generally, to not be negative; the motto here is celebrating 21st century k-12 education.   But this evening I am going to step out of my norm, and take a cut at a recent article published in Harper’s magazine, an article which, plainly, boils by blood.

The article is called “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School,” and argues that the purpose of education has been subsumed exclusively into preparing kids for jobs and advancing the country economically, that science and math are overtaking our schools to the sharp detriment of humanities, and that only the humanities can educate students to be independent minded and fully realized human beings.   (the article may be hard to access on-line for non-subscribers, but let me know and I can provide a copy).

To quote author Mark Slouka:

the essential drama of American education today…is a play I’ve been following for some time now. It’s about the increasing dominance—scratch that, the unqualified triumph—of a certain way of seeing, of reckoning value. It’s about the victory of whatever can be quantified over everything that can’t. It’s about the quiet retooling of American education into an adjunct of business, an instrument of production… (more…)

I spoke this morning to the student body, sharing my enthusiasm for Carol Dweck’s ideas in Mindsets (see previous post).  I also opened and closed with this fabulous U2 song, and cited these lyrics, suggesting they can inspire us to adopt a “growth mindset”:

A star lit up like a cigar
Strung out like a guitar
Maybe you could educate my mind
Explain all these controls
I can’t sing but I’ve got soul
The goal is elevation

I read a lot of books last year, but one of the very most significant to me is a book by Stanford Psychology Professor Carol Dweck: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  [Dweck also has a new on-line learning tool for middle school students called Brainology.]  I realize that the title sounds a bit too much like a magazine self-help article, and I realize that some of the profound wisdom Dweck dispenses might seem like just common sense and conventional wisdom.  And yet– I think it is still really significant, and really deep.   And it made a personally huge difference to me a year ago.

Last spring and summer, I was confronting a funny year in my life, school year 2008-09, the very first year of my life since I was three in which I was neither a full-time employee nor student.   I had to decide what to do with the year– and I spent several months in spring and summer trying my hardest to establish myself, one way or another, as an expert, as a consultant, as an author.  In Dweckian terms, I was acting out of a fixed mind-set, one major facet of which is the intense determination to “look smart: “the main thing I want to do when I school-work (or any other “work”) is to show how good I am at it.”

But then I read Dweck’s book, and had what proved to be a very important epiphany.   I could re-frame my year to be one dedicated not  to showing how accomplished I am, but instead to accomplishing more;  I could make it a year of growing, not showing.   I could re-train my brain to recognize that looking smart is not most important– learning is most important.   (more…)

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