May 2012

8th graders now completing Middle School: 

You’ve had many fine days this school year: days when you’ve written analytical papers about Shakespeare and presented your Scientific research on an element of the periodic table; days you’ve toured the Getty Villa and raced chariots on Rome Day.

Your Mission Days were outstanding days, when you delved deeply to not just learn about but also practice our school’s core educational elements: Character, Scholarship, Leadership, and Innovation.

This may come as no surprise, but I was especially excited about your Innovation Days: what amazing things you did. You designed and executed a video newscast, planned a new garden project, researched the history of our school, and learned about the OSIRIS REX rocket mission to an asteroid.

In two projects you designed solutions to limitations of our campus: in each, you discovered underused but high potential places on our campus, you questioned repeatedly why they were not functioning effectively until you arrived at a better understanding of the problem, and then you generated solutions for these problems.

Problem-finding is at the heart of innovation, though it is sometimes underappreciated. As the Scottish educator Ewan McIntosh recently said,

While everyone looks at how we could help young people become better problem-solvers, we’re not thinking how we could create a generation of problem-finders.

In a fascinating book entitled 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, science journalist Michael Brooks tells of the many deep problems scientists are still struggling to understand, from the missing Dark Matter in the universe to the Placebo effect in medicine.  As he says:

The future of science depends on identifying the things that don’t make sense; our attempts to find anomalies with our curiosity and inquiry are what drive science forward.   The things that don’t make sense, are, in some ways, the only things that matter.”

You discovered your problems by your curiosity and your close questioning, but how did you work to solve them?   As I watched you, I saw you use several of the main ideas in a terrific new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer.

One thing you did was work in teams—which Lehrer explains is essential for innovation:

Group creativity [he writes] is becoming more necessary because we live in a world of very hard problems: all the low hanging fruit is already gone. Sometimes a creative problem is so difficult that it requires peoples to connect their imaginations together.  More than 99% of scientific fields have experienced increased levels of teamwork in published research, with the size of the average team increasing by about 20% per decade. 

One of the most successful company in the world is PIXAR: it makes movies which use awesome technology, tell wonderful stories, and are huge financial successes.   (more…)

Trustees, Faculty Members, Parents, Family Members, Friends, Students, and Graduates: Good afternoon and welcome to the St. Gregory College Preparatory School Commencement 2012.

In the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is a character so stunning that she may become the iconic fictional hero of our century, much as Gulliver was to the 18th, Natty Bumpo to the 19th, and Clark Kent/Superman to the 20th.    A loving friend and sister, a savvy and ingenious problem-solver, and, ultimately, a passionate and persevering advocate for her people’s dreams of justice, Katniss presents many faces of the 21st century hero.

She can be seen as an exemplar of social entrepreneurship, which is the work of solving social problems creatively, collaboratively, and sustainably.

Dr. Tony Wagner has written a new book about how to “make young people who will change the world” and in it he argues that social innovation is of  importance equal to technological innovation. His book was published in April, two years after he spoke here at St. Gregory, right where I am speaking to you now, under the same slogan that is written above me.   In a charming coincidence, his new book is entitled Creating Innovators.

Social entrepreneurship is innovative leadership: it demands of its practitioners the habits of mind, the intellectual skills, and the character qualities that we at St. Gregory think of when we say we create leaders and innovators.

Among our graduates today are many who are already themselves social entrepreneurs.   Emily Hansen and Jaxon Rickel saw a social issue, education opportunity in Kenya, and designed a strategy to address it.  Quoting Mr. Roberts,

The work Jaxon and Emily put into the STG12Hour embodies everything we hope to teach our students about leadership and responsibility.  It began with a vision and a passion.  They took risks, invested long hours, created new connections, and along the way made many, many mistakes.  With each mistake brought an opportunity to improve their work, and that they did.

Mr. Roberts identifies in Jaxon and Emily a quality which Dr. Wagner says is found in the development of every innovator: Passion.   He explains that the journey of innovative leadership begins with play, the activities young people find most fun, engaging, even whimsical, and then advances into an energizing and motivating passion, finally flowering as a deep and abiding purpose.

We can see this journey of play to passion to purpose in the story of Katniss: her arc takes her from archery in the forest to feverish opposition to the injustice of the games to becoming the standard bearer of her people.      (more…)

St. Gregory has a wonderful tradition, pre-dating the famous “Last Lecture” of Randy Pausch but very much analagous to that famous talk, of faculty members presenting a talk at Senior Night, a talk that is framed as what they would say in their  “last lecture.” 

Dr. Scott Morris, our Chemistry teacher and Science Department chair, and my frequent collaborator on 21st century learning initiatives here at St. Gregory, delivered last night the following. 

(For last year’s talk, Finding Your Struggle by Fred Roberts, click here.)

The LAST LECTURE…. Tantalizing from an number of angles…

1) Barring some unlikely, but relatively simple, twist of fate, this is the LAST LECTURE you will get from me! (Now just hold your applause..)

2) I have tried mightily, in the last few years, to lecture less and less, and directed you to Do more.  Virtually everything I know is “out there” in the ether, and often in a more engaging format than blah, blah, blah (am I alone here?)

3) I believe that the days of the teacher centered classroom have passed, and we may be approaching the time when the actual last lecture will be given. Wow!

So, listen up and take notes if you learn best that way, but I’ll post it to the website anyway….

In the spring of 1974, I was you.  I enrolled in college in the fall, powered through my Bachelors degree in three years, earned my masters in two more, and my Ph.D. four years later.  I emerged in 1983, at the seasoned age of 26, for one brief and shining moment, one of the world’s leading authorities on soil erosion in semi-arid granitic mountain terrane [short-hand term for a tectonostratigraphic terrane, which is a fragment of crustal material formed on, or broken off from, one tectonic plate ]. I was the youngest professor at the University of Idaho, and my plan was world domination!

But convection currents in the heart kept the tectonic plates of human relations moving, and earthquakes along fault lines, and turbulent transfer in the boundary layer (as well as mixed metaphors) were inevitable.  In the end, I was forced to confront an inconvenient truth: by the time students got to college, they were beyond my power to save.  I watched freshman struggle and drop out, and bright students coast through superficial core courses, and no matter how tightly I drew the trappings of the Ivory Tower around me, and clicked my ruby slippers together, the end of that chapter was already written.  I was not changing lives, but my partner was, so there you go, and here we are.

It’s kind of comical when I think back on it– a young man so smart, and yet not wise. Yet I remain at my core, a simple bone collector.  Unable to ignore the emergent plant, the buried stick, the out-of-place cobble, the failed chemical reaction, the carapace of stretched rocks, the cloud type and position, the photon flux, and the ever-present voice in my head that chants: “The earth has a history, and every place tells a story!”  I. Just. Simply. Have. To. Know!

You should have three questions for me tonight:

1) What are the imperatives?

Clean your own house.

Tend your own yard

Wash your own car.

You will learn important things about yourself.

Begin with the end in mind.

Don’t waste food. (more…)

Last week we held our second annual faculty tech smackdown:  about 20 teachers and administrators presented one or two one to three minute presentations about ways they are using technology effectively in their work.

The slides above will take you through the tour, though some slides are less informative than others; much of the presentation was in the talking, of course.

The hour was fast-paced, informative, and enjoyable.  Over the course of the rest of the day (the smackdown was first thing in the morning), it seemed like there were many followup conversations as people took the inspiration from the morning to learn more.   The format is highly recommended.

The topics ranged a wide gamut:

  • Studying volume in geometry, students use geometer’s sketch pad to design a duck and evaluate its displacement, and then convert it to google sketchup and then print the resulting design in our new 3d printer to obtain a prototype where the analysis can be tested;
  • getting online on twitter to join educator hashtag #edchats, synchronously and asynchronously
  • videotaping lectures and posting them on teacher websites, and how that advances learning;
  • favorite extensions for Chrome, including send-to-kindle and awesome screenshot;
  • schoology and edmodo uses in the classroom;
  • AP English video projects;
  • Wolfram Alpha uses in Science and Math classes;
  • documentary videos in history;
  • following congresspersons and senators on Twitter;
  • the advantages of integrating in math classes, and the resulting gain in student learning;
  • open computer testing in theater history class;
  • and more.

Below (or after the jump) are some of the videos shared or referred to in the slides:

Advanced History Documentary Trailer:


As I wrote at this time last year, I think it is very valuable for school-leaders and other graduation speakers to use fresh, current quotations in graduation speeches, and to assist the many very busy people preparing these speeches, I offer the following:   All the books quoted below are “current” in the sense that they have been published in the past year.

Click here to see my suggested quotations from 10 books current a year ago, and here to read my 8 Suggestions for Graduation Speeches by Principals.

Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin

The dreams we need are self-reliant dreams. We need dreams based not on what  is but on what might be. We need students who can learn how to learn, who can  discover how to push themselves and are generous enough and honest enough to  engage with the outside world to make those dreams happen.

Amplified by the Web and the connection revolution, human beings are no  longer rewarded most for work as compliant cogs. Instead, our chaotic world is  open to the work of passionate individuals, intent on carving their own paths. That’s the new job of school. Not to hand a map to those willing to follow it, but  to inculcate leadership and restlessness into a new generation.

In the connected world, reputation is worth more than test scores. Access to data  means that data isn’t the valuable part; the processing is what matters. Most of all, the connected world rewards those with an uncontrollable itch to make and lead and matter.

Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

Human creativity has increasingly become a group process. Many of us can work much better creatively when teamed up…The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.”

Group creativity [he writes] is becoming more necessary because we live in a world of very hard problems: all the low hanging fruit is already gone. Sometimes a creative problem is so difficult that it requires peoples to connect their imaginations together.  More than 99% of scientific fields have experienced increased levels of teamwork in published research, with the size of the average team increasing by about 20% per decade. 

Creativity is a verb, and it is a very time consuming verb.  It’s about taking an idea in your head, and transforming that idea into something real.  And that’s always going to be a long and difficult process. 

It wasn’t uncommon for Beethoven to experiment with 70 versions of a phrase before settling on the final one.  ‘I make many changes, and try again, until I am satisfied.’

When  19th c. Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge was asked why he would take breaks from writing poetry and attend  chemistry demonstrations in London, He answered “I attend the lectures so that I can renew my stock of metaphors.”

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, quoting Jobs directly:

You would think that the CEO of Disney would be curious how Pixar was [being so successful.]  But during that 20 year relationship, he visited Pixar for a total of two and a half hours, only to give little congratulatory speeches.   He was never curious.  I was amazed.Curiosity is very important.

You always have to keep pushing to innovate.  The Beatles were the same way.  They kept evolving, moving, refining, their art.   That’s what I’ve always tried to do– keep moving.

What drove me?  I think most creative people want to express appreciation for being able to take advantage of the work that’s been done by others before us. Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders we stand on.  And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and add something to the flow.  We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to the flow.   That’s what has driven me.

Truth Beauty Goodness Reframed by Howard Gardner

The first and primary sense of “good” has been with us over the millennia: it refers to how we treat our relatives, friends, neighbors: are we cruel or kind, generous or selfish, fair or unfair?

in a way that could not have been anticipated 25 years ago, people, even when very young,  are finding themselves members of large communities via the Internet; any participant in the digital media is necessarily connected to an indeterminate number of others

we need constructive engagement: far more than in other spheres of young people’s lives, digital media make essential the modeling and coaching of healthy habits.”

Today a newly reigning cliche– lifelong learning, must become more than a cliche.  Learning ceases to be the targeted burden of childhood and adolescence; it becomes the privilege, but also the obligation, or an entire lifetime.  We now know that, contrary to long-held beliefs, the adult nervous system remains plastic, flexible, and capable of effecting new neural connections.

Disciplines can change fundamentally, splintering, coalescing, reconfiguring.  Moreover and crucially, nowadays much work is no longer discipline based- it is problem-centered (and appropriately so)); it involves interdisciplinary content knowledge as well as the capacity to work fluently and flexibly with individuals from different disciplines as well as different cultures.

It has become much easier for adults, both within and outside of educational institutions, to remain in tune and in touch if they so wish.  The ubiquitous media-old, new, mechanical, electronic, digital– enable that contact.   Anyone regularly engaged with the Internet and the web, anyone who blogs or reads blogs, will be as exposed as often as he or she likes to what is new, noteworthy, changing. 

Quiet by Susan Cain

We know from myths and fairy tales that there are many different kinds of powers in this world.  One child is given a light saber; another a wizard’s education.  The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of available power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted.

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford

There is a recipe for successfully adapting.  The three essential steps are: to try new things, in the expectation that some will fail; to make failure survivable, because it will be common; and to make sure that you know when you’ve failed.

Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner

Increasingly in the 21st century, what you know is far less important than what you can do with what you know… Academic content is not very useful in and of itself. It is knowing how to apply it in new situations or to new problems that matters most in the world of innovation.

There are three essential  interrelated elements to intrinsic motivation: Play, Passion, and Purpose.  Whether, and to what extent, parents, teachers, and employers, encourage these qualities makes an enormous difference in the lives of young innovators. (more…)