Thank you for attending this session, and thank you everyone at NYSAIS, especially arvind, Alex, and Barbara for inviting me. I want to open with a quote:
In this day and age, many schools incorrectly view successful education as an extremely complex process, but
the formula for a really first rate education is relatively simple: put highly qualified, caring faculty, and eager, bright youth together in a personalized setting with a robust curriculum – and let things happen.
There are plenty of sentimental reasons to appreciate this quote. Some truths about excellence in learning are timeless, and I think we can still learn enormously from Socrates and Aristotle. But my suggestion is that if you accept this idea whole-heartedly, you are welcome to head over to the bar early– go ahead and get yourself a drink.
I believe the world is not just flat, the world is spinning: faster and faster, and that schooling can not rely on the simple formulas of the past:
- because what our students need to learn is changing,
- because our understanding of how learning works is changing,
- because the technology which enhances learning is changing.
I point you to Kevin Kelly’s new book, What Technology Wants, for a fascinating treatment of the way technology is advancing at an accelerating rate.
You are all here this week to learn– or to enjoy Mohonk– so I realize I am speaking to the choir, so let me just say this: the most important thing we have to learn is how important it is for us to be learners.
Leaders of Learning as Lead Learners.
I want to go back in time and tell a story from the spring of 2008. I was finishing a nine year headship, one that ended with some angst in March of that year, after a falling out with my board chair– I am resisting here telling you all about my fights with my chair, and how right I was and how wrong she was– and it being late in the year, it was too late to enter job searches for the coming year. Now, fortunately, due to my contract, I was in a fortunate position to have a salary for the next year, but not a job. So I had to decide what to do with the coming year– and it was intensely important to me to communicate to others, and to myself, that I spend the year as an expert, in a way that demonstrated how much I knew and how accomplished I was. I told folks I was going to write a book– no, three books. I was going to consult to schools; my sense of self seemed to depend upon my being recognized as full of expertise and knowledge. For the most part, I was entirely unwilling to say to myself, or to anyone else, I might take time to learn in the new year, for to admit I might have things to learn would be to undermine my own self understanding as an expert.
Until I read the book that changed everything for me: Carol Dweck’s Mindset. Now I know many of you have read the book, or are very familiar with it– there is a nice short summary in Switch by the Heath brothers. So instead of requiring you to sit listening to me tell about it, please take some time to discuss it– those of you who do know it can tell about it to those who do. I have four discussion questions for you. Alternatively, I invite you to share your understanding about it, or to learn about it, by participating in a discussion on a shared google doc, the link for which is on the blog post on resources.
What is the fixed mindset?
How does the fixed mindset limit us?
What is the growth mindset?
What are its advantages?
What other comments on Dweck would you share?
Some things I think are important about Dweck:
- These ideas are as important for ourselves as adult learners as they are for ourselves as teachers of children.
- The fixed mindset limits us when we tell ourselves there are things we can’t learn because we just aren’t good at them.
- The fixed mindset limits us when we resist learning new things about areas we think we are expert in, because to admit we need to learn in these areas is to undermine our confidence in the knowledge we have on the topic.
- The growth mindset is a muscle, which must be exercised frequently to resist the insidious creep of the fixed mindset.
To go back briefly to my story, the influence of the book was great upon how I spent my year, 2008-09: instead of trying to be an expert, I committed myself to being a learner, visiting schools and attending trainings to learn, not to teach.
So I want to make some suggestions on how we can all become better learners, recognizing of course that you all here are the folks who least need these suggestions.
First, Read Books! Now I love learning on-line as much as the next guy, but I think it is so sad how rarely educators read full-length books– which is a different, not necessarily superior, but different and very valuable learning and thinking experience. My recommended reading list is here.
Second, visit other schools and observe learning. I think this is essential, but I also think it is problematic. Sometimes you visit schools, see some classrooms, and don’t know what to make of what you are seeing. How representative are these moments? What am I not seeing, what am I missing, what is significant and what is not? Tony Wagner, in his book I like so much, Global Achievement Gap, writes about what he calls a “learning walk,” visiting 10-15 classrooms for 10 minutes each, and then drawing meaningful inferences about the school, and I admit to being conflicted about this– and about what we can really conclude about learning in such short snapshots. But other times, I think it can be captivating and illuminating– seeing other schools in action. My greater success was in shadowing a student and spending an entire day in the student seats, an opportunity not easy to come by but powerful. Michael Thompson writes about student shadowing in his book The Pressured Child, and it really captures this significance of observing learning through the eyes of our students.
Third, network. You all don’t need me to say anymore about this, but let’s all commit ourselves to encouraging, inviting, and assisting our colleagues in how we can do so.
Fourth, use twitter. Steven Johnson, in his new book Where Good Ideas Come From, explains the magificence of coral reefs.
a coral reef is the planet’s most amazingly fertile place of organic innovation, and twitter today is our coral reef
(here is my post on Johnson’s book and its implications for teaching & learning).
I know Twitter is suspect in the eyes of many, but it is our new coral reef: it is the way people all across the planet can connect, converse, provoke, challenge, stimulate, and innovate with each other.
Fifth, blog. I have written a post explaining 13 different reasons why I blog, and you know what: the list wasn’t long enough, I still have more to add. Reading and listening isn’t enough if you really want to learn new ideas: you need to write these ideas in your own words, and you need to opine about these new ideas, if you wish to integrate them into your intellectual repository. If you are going to write them anyway, why not do so on a blog! In doing so, you are also modeling learning, which is so valuable to your learning community.
How can we promote learning among the adults in our school?
Time: Educators in our schools need time to learn, to grow, to collaborate, plan, and reflect together. In high achieving countries, we know the research: teachers have more time scheduled into their week to collaborate, plan together, reflect on practice together, research, and conduct professional development. One of the most striking discoveries on my 21 school visiting, student shadowing research project in Fall 2008 was the powerful correlation between those schools which had the most effective 21st century teaching and learning and those that had structured, scheduled, sheltered time for teacher collaboration and growth. At St. Gregory this has been among my strongest initiatives: provide time for teachers. We do so by starting late twice a week, at 9am instead of 8, giving kids the chance to sleep more, which is great for their brains (!), all the research says, and giving our teachers these two hours a week. This is never “meeting-time”– or almost never.
Structured professional collaboration: We don’t just leave these two hours a week; we try to be very diligent about using them effectively, and most particularly, we are delighting in the value of Critical Friends Groups for faculty led reflection on practice. Here is a post about CFG’s at St. Gregory.
Transparency: Let the world into your classroom, and encourage teachers to show their classrooms to the world. At some schools I visited, like High Tech High, the classrooms walls are literally glass– transparent for all to see. In others, the only windows provided are those little narrow panes on the classroom door– and those were taped over with paper! Teaching should be a public act– for the ability to influence and inspire others in their teaching, and for the opportunity to get more feedback on practice. Whether this is literally with windows, or metaphorically with online sites and sharing, we will improve learning for our faculties when we move to transparency.
Experimentation. In fairness, this is an area I am least practiced in myself, but I know some schools do this brilliantly: teachers take on their own research on what works in learning. Set up a control group and an experimental group, and go at it– see what works, don’t just take others words for how we can teach better.
One suggestion for inspiration is Medina’s Brain Rules, where he offers ten very accessible lessons on how the brain can work better, and offers ideas for how learning can improve in each lesson about the brain. Teachers can take an idea from Medina, and try it out. Have half your class take a brisk five minute walk before a quiz, and half sit at their desks studying: which group performs better? What about having an AP Chemistry class learn all year long in a classroom with a strong cologne sprayed in it every day, and then ask students to spray that on their wrists before the AP exam. Medina says they will retain it better– check it out. Doug Lemov’s new Teach Like a Champion, a book about which I am highly conflicted, is another possibility for this experimentation. (My post about using Medina this way).