January 2011

David Brooks is an old faithful for me, an inspiration for his ability to bring wisdom and broader understanding to the daily events of our time, and to draw from our society trends of larger sociological or even philosophical significance.  I don’t always agree with him, often I don’t, but I am nearly always intrigued by what he has to say. If you haven’t read his recent piece in the New Yorker,   Social Animal, How the New Science of Human Nature Can Help Make Sense of a Life, stop reading this post and go read it now!

In the piece, there is a small subsection of particular interest to educators; Brooks draws upon his wide reading of recently published research in social psychology, happiness pyschology, and human development to articulate a vision of effective secondary education, and in doing so, he offers two strong assertions about excellence in education.

1. Connections matter:  Students need to feel a deep and strong connection with their teachers.

One of [a successful student’s] key skills in school is his ability to bond with teachers. We’ve spent a generation trying to reorganize schools to make them better, but the truth is that people learn from the people they love. (more…)

This TED video is inviting and intriguing, even if it is not easy to tell how far in her cheek is her tongue.    Part of McGonigal’s point: if kids are more engaged in videogaming than in any other activity, and if deep, compelling engagement is the sine qua non of excellence in learning, then we have to ask: shouldn’t gaming have a place in K-12 learning?   (more…)

[ Remarks delivered Wednesday, January 12, 2011, after a moment of silence)

On Saturday, our hometown Tucson was struck hard by an individual acting without conscience, without reason, and possibly without sanity.   This terrible strike hit us at our community’s most sensitive place: not only did it harm and kill many fine, fine people, it hit us in the heart of our body politic.

Since the ancient Athenians conceived of and built the polis, a democratic state composed of citizens governing themselves in the open air by way of free and spirited discourse and debate, this idea of the body politic has been our civilization’s ideal, our shining city on a hill.

Saturday morning, in front of a Tucson Safeway at which many of us shop regularly, an elected official and her staff came to talk in the open air with Tucson citizens, acting out our nation’s and our civilization’s ideals.   In a scene that ancient Athenians would have immediately recognized, a diverse set of Tucsonans came together to discuss their views, argue their opinions, and express their hopes for our nation– in other words, to talk politics.  Senior citizens came to discuss their social security, a federal judge to discuss the future of the judiciary in Arizona, and a young child who had recently been elected to her student council to meet her role model, preparing herself to join the body politic as an adult.

When this terrible attack came, it came at a moment when they were, all of them, together, acting out our nation’s highest political ideals: to discuss and debate ideas about our society respectfully—and this is why the strike, was so especially devastating even also to those of us who were not immediately present and did not necessarily know anyone hurt.

This was not only a group of people attacked– and let’s be clear, it was a very fine group of people attacked, truly wonderful people– it was also our ideal of the polis, the acting out and practice of true democracy—politicians, judges, and citizens, adults and children, gathered together in a public square, in an event called Congress on Your Corner– which was attacked.

Because of that, I think that we all have, as citizens and as people concerned and committed to that ideal, a special responsibility to respond with a renewed commitment to live and fulfill that ideal. (more…)

On my recent post about the disappointing PBL-Explained video, I got a great comment today from Jill Gough, a fine independent school educator and blogger (Experiments in Learning By Doing); she argues that the PBL video explained, while not perfect, is a fine introductory PBL video.   Jill writes

HTH is one of a very few examples shown to me as a classroom teacher…over and over and over again. My colleagues’ reaction: “If it is so easy, why aren’t there more examples? How many times are we going to watch that video of the Blood Project?”

Here, for your viewing pleasure and information, are more exemplary videos articulating the value of PBL in forms more substantial and sophisticated than the disappointing PBL explained video.  In each case, there is a demonstration of excellence in the completed student products that testify to the serious academic rigor PBL can accomplish, a rigor about which, I  believe, PBL skeptics are often skeptical.  Three school networks are represented in the following videos, New Tech Network, High Tech High, and Envision/Metro Schools, and I am pleased to say I have spent entire school days shadowing students at schools in each of these three networks.


In my own effort to lead a 21st century school, I am finding no issue more difficult than determining the proper role of the AP exam and AP exam preparation curriculum.

On the one hand, it cannot be ignored that the AP is an important symbol and signifier to many families of a high caliber academic college prep secondary curriculum.   Over a period of several decades, the College Board’s AP curriculum did indeed assist valuably in raising the rigor and academic standards of many academically mediocre high schools across the nation.

The AP provides a tremendous challenge to many high school students, and I use that term, challenge, in praise: the AP can be an Everest, looming high on the horizon and calling out to many an ambitious 15 year old to work harder and to make the commitment to climb and conquer it.    Looking back on my experience as an AP US History student, I know the course demanded much of me and I know I was thrilled to respond to it, and I enormously enjoyed taking the AP US History exam.

The AP may also still loom too large in the minds of too many college admissions officers.  It is becoming clear that increasingly many of the most important, most selective, most analytical, most thoughtful colleges and universities have recognized the sharp limitations and deep flaws of the AP curriculum, and so hold harmless a student’s AP-free transcript.  But it is not apparent whether this understanding has percolated yet as widely and thoroughly as it needs to across the great breadth of selective colleges and universities.

But, good golly: The AP, particularly in the History and Science subject areas, has become the antithesis of 21st century learning. It privileges breadth over depth and memorization/regurgitation over critical thinking and applied problem-solving.  (More on this just below) (The DBQ section of the AP History exams is an exception.)  For a terrific conversation about the significance and value of a less is more educational approach, see David Truss’ post here.

In my own current leadership, 18 months into it, I know that I have deferred too long confronting this quandry.  I have asked for, encouraged, supported, and celebrated each and every initiative which promotes depth, critical thinking, and rigorous project-based learning.   But in doing so, it only makes the AP course curriculum less well aligned with our school’s educational philosophy and approach.

So today’s New York Times Education Life cover story, ReThinking Advanced Placement comes not a moment too soon, offering both strong articulation of the AP’s failings, and yet also optimism for a successful revamp.   It acknowledges powerfully the problem, praises the course taken by many schools away from the AP, and also offers hope for a coming resolution between the kind of learning that is most important today and the kind of learning the AP assesses. (more…)

St. Gregory sophomore Rebecca Rogers produced this video as her entry into the NAIS Viral Video Contest.

It is increasingly apparent that video is swiftly emerging as the communications vehicle of our new era, a development about which I am conflicted.    I adore the written word, and love to write myself; I can’t ignore however my own growing proclivity to look for and choose to view video as I seek to learn more on-line about a particular topic.

For a terrific article on the boom in video as a communications and innovation medium, check out this great article in Wired by TED founder Chris Anderson.

Video is the killer app. Don’t write me. Tell me. Show me.

My thanks to Becca, and my best wishes to her for success in the NAIS competition.

A Presentation by St. Gregory’s Science Department Chair, Scott Morris, Ph.D, and Dennis Conner.

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