November 2012


It being Thanksgiving week, I thought it might be appropriate to share “from the archives” these remarks I made at a middle school graduation in 2005.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Graduation Dinner Address, 2005

Tonight I wanted to speak for a few minutes about privilege and anxiety.  I was struck this spring upon recognizing that the two books in my reading experience that best capture the sights and sounds, the environment—the culture—the world of excellent independent schools and universities—that both books contain in their title the same word:  Privilege.

The first, Art Powell’s 1996 academic analysis of the great value independent schools have offered their students for a very long time, is entitled Lessons from Privilege: The American Prep School Tradition.   The second, brand new this spring and leading me to this epiphany, is a young man’s memoir of his undergraduate education: its title is Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.

These books portray the culture of schools where teachers are passionate about ideas and intensely committed to their students, where students love learning and are restlessly striving to advance in the American meritocracy.  There is competition and there is community; these schools are places of self examination, critical thinking, independent minds, ambitious yearnings, and amazing growth.

It is striking that that both books contain the word Privilege in their titles— and probably not a coincidence.  It is truly indeed a great privilege to attend such schools, and I think our graduates tonight realize it.

It has been a privilege for them to enjoy classrooms of so few students.  It is a privilege to investigate Washington D.C. with the powerfully sharp-minded Mr. Prestianni, or to hike the volcanoes of Hawaii ’s Kona with the adventurous Mr. LaBonte and Madame Amy, or to learn Algebra from the incomparable mathophile Mrs. Ellis, or to be sensitively counseled from the compassionate Ms. LaDuc, or be coached in basketball by “T”.  Some of them even had the privilege to learn to research their family heritage from Mrs. Schofield.

And it is a privilege indeed for these graduates to have had the support of families who have provided them such an education.

Privilege is complicated—having had such opportunities forces us to wonder and to worry whether we deserve what we have and others don’t, and whether we will achieve all for which we are being prepared.  To be human is to be anxious, and ironically, sometimes the more privileged we are, and the more opportunities we have, the more we worry about what is to come.

Last fall, a British philosopher wrote a book called Status Anxiety:

Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first – the story of our quest for romantic love – is well known and well-charted.

The second – the story of our quest for love from the world – is a more secret and shameful tale. And yet this second love story is no less intense than the first.’  (more…)

The Fall issue of the Secondary School Admissions Test Board member newsletter, Memberanda, was just published, with my article introducing its new think tank.   Click here to read the full article; below is the top section.

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“Sure she’s smart, but I wish I could tell how creative she is: can she think out of the box?”

“His scores are middling, but he seems pretty motivated and persevering: too bad there isn’t a way to measure that.”

“You know, she had some difficulties on the test, but this teacher says she is a leader in her class – will the committee trust this one recommendation?”

Gather any group of admission directors together and before long, the conversation invariably turns to the issue of testing. While testing is useful and does tell us something about how a student will perform, there is so much more that we want to know about our applicants and so much more that is important about what they can bring to our school. How can we capture more information about our applicants?

SSATB recognizes that in the 21st century the nature of testing and assessment is changing and that its member schools are seeking new ways to assess diverse applicants’ readiness for their academic programs and educational settings. In response, SSATB has convened a Think Tank on innovation in assessment…. Read more. 

This free publication, dated to February 2012, is a valuable and economically efficient vehicle for enhancing the understanding of any faculty which is making the move toward PBL.   If it were me, I’d think about distributing it widely, making it available in a printed version for those who prefer reading that way, and use it as a faculty summer reading option or for part of a year-long faculty study of PBL.

Coming as it does as an addition to the existing literature on project-based learning, and most particularly the many resources available from BIE, both free and priced, the new book offers both reiteration, valuable as that is and well supported with examples, and a few new notes.  I thought it’d be most helpful to identify what it adds to the conversation, and most particularly where its emphases are different/additional to what BIE calls the 8 Essential Elements (and, of course, which I think are especially important).

These differences/additions can be best summarized with four C’s:

Currency, Critique, Collaborative Colleagueship, and (Traditional) Components. 

1. Currency: The booklet opens with a helpful commentary on why PBL now.

There have been two key shifts that have reignited teachers’ interest in project-based learning and helped it to shake off its stigma.

Firstly, and most obviously, digital technology makes it easier than ever before for students to conduct serious research, produce high-quality work, keep a record of the entire process, and share their creations with the world.

Secondly, we now know much more about how to do good, rigorous projectbased learning, and we can evaluate its effectiveness.

Surely all of us exmaining PBL would find many more reasons to add to the mix, most importantly that an embrace of PBL methodology follows naturally upon the previous embrace of teaching 21st century skills as our first and foremost “outcomes” priority.

2.  Critique.  BIE’s essential elements includes, importantly, one entitled “Revision and Reflection”  (though I’ve always been curious why in that order: wouldn’t one normally reflect before revising?). (more…)

As a followup to yesterday’s post on Angela Duckworth and her research/advocacy for the importance, perhaps equal or greater to that of traditionally defined intelligence, of cultivating self-control and grit/perseverance in our students, it seemed useful to share this fine short lecture from Paul Kim, of Stanford.

I’ve been participating with some moderate profit in Professor Kim’s Stanford MOOC, Designing Learning Environments.  (any other readers out there participating?  I still need to build my team).   Kim’s most recent lecture was on a topic that I’ve increasingly recognized must be woven into every aspect of technology integration: the importance of and more importantly, the techniques of attention, concentration, and self-control.

Even better, Kim’s lecture synthesizes the argument for self-control with the technology of student self-monitoring and self-tracking, an element of learning analytics I’m especially interested in.  (All quotes are from the video above.)

Basically, I would like to ask you to consider designing a learning environment that can trigger and help your students learn to better manage their own learning. I can never overemphasize the importance of this need for a learning environment design.

Kim offers the useful observation that while online learning, relative to traditional school-based learning, offers enormous advantages of convenience, it poses far greater challenges of self-control for students.   Simply put, if students have to or are very strongly expected to attend school every day, and go to scheduled classes for an hour or two at a time, they have much fewer decisions to make about their learning program, and they have, at least much of the time, a peer/social group there with them and supportive encouraging adults personally steering them forward.   But in an asynchronous online learning, none of this is the case– and so self-discipline for making your work progress is much more important. (more…)

The Ted talk above is from Angela Duckworth, a Professor at U.Penn who is fast emerging, it seems to me, as an important thought leader and inspirational figure for those of us in the field of educating adolescents (and others).

Having just finished Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, I believe Duckworth stands out significantly in that book (she’s the star); she offers a series of perceptive insights and the research evidence which underpin the book, as captured in its subtitle, Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. 

I love the quote Duckworth shares in the talk above from Darwin, which conveys much of her working thesis:

I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ that much in intelligence, only in zeal and hard work, and I still think this is an eminently important difference.

In the Tough book, Duckworth is quoted on her alternative from the norm view of school reform:

the problem, I think is not only the schools but the students themselves.  Here’s why: Learning is hard.  True, learning is fun, exhilarating, and gratifying, but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging.

 To help low performing students, educators and parents must first realize that character is at least as important as intellect.

I worry too that we forget how hard learning is, for many much of the time.   Yet at the same time, this quote only partially represents her broader argument, because when you dig deeper, she is equally worried about, or at least her research reveals that we should be equally worried, about learning that is too easy for our students, learning that is about listening to the lecture, reading the book, and “cranking out” the paper, year after year, for at least 8 of them, and then coming out of college and realizing how much more is required of success.

There is also, and I want to return to this in a subsequent post, a fascinating discussion of “under-matching,” in education: sometimes some students attend colleges which aren’t challenging enough to them, local state or community colleges overwhelmed by numbers and by needed remediation for many, but not all of their students, and those that are more prepared for the challenge are under, not over, whelmed, and, bored and disengaged, drop away.  But undermatching can occur in other dimensions too, when students perfectly competent at cranking it out and “doing school,” as Pope calls it, get by but don’t transcend.

In my own observations of highly intellectually talented students at top California prep schools, I saw far too often a stultifying dullness in what was being provided for them, resulting in an apathy about genuine learning that was heartbreaking and  which is ultimately dis-serving.  In my own recollection of college, it was only a six months or so before I dropped out, not literally at all, but in effect, transferring the largest part of my time and energy to campus activism in various forms and not doing enough for my own learning.

From her collaboration with the legendary positive psychology guru Marty Seligman, whose work has long been highly important to me,  Duckworth, as Tough explains, has derived a list of 7 key traits of character in this context, and note the way this is understood as performance character, not moral character:

Grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

In my study of 21st century learning, I’m familiar with the emphasis placed on curiosity, (see Wagner), and social intelligence and all its significance for collaboration.  I’ve also seen optimism listed  and highlighted in the recent Marzano work on Teaching and Assessing 21st century skills, and gratitude is at the heart of much of positive psychology and the broader happiness movement, which I write about and praise regularly.

But for Duckworth, the twin towers on this list are self-control and grit, and the discussion of their importance in Tough should be required reading. (more…)

I enjoyed a great day presenting at ISACS last week in Louisville.

Below you’ll find most of my materials from those presentations; thank you all who attended and thank you ISACS for inviting me.

Innovative Schools, Innovative Students:  A near identical version of those slides is available here.


Innovation is Iteration: the Marshmallow Challenge

After this highly interactive and energetic workshop, participants shared with me a set of great ideas they had for bringing the marshmallow challenge back to their schools.  One person spoke of being at a K-8 school with “family groups” composed of one student for each grade k-8, and using them there; another said she was at a PS-12 school where the pressure to be perfect and right all the time felt very strong and she wanted to do a school-wide marshmallow experience; another explained they were moving toward an iPad 1-1 implementation very slowly, concerned they needed to get everything in order just right before launching and that she wanted to do this to encourage people to jump in and start experimenting.

One of my main projects this year is serving as a member and consultant/writer for the Secondary School Admissions Testing Board (SSATB) Think Tank on the Future of Admissions Assessment.   More information on the Think Tank is here;  it’s charge is here. As part of my work I am posting a monthly column for the Think Tank; below is a “teaser” that post.  Click the link here or at bottom to read it in full. 

“Creativity,” Dr. Sternberg replied, when asked what addition to admissions assessment he would recommend if he had to limit himself to just one. Coming from the SSATB 2012 Annual Meeting’s keynote speaker, the former President of American Psychological Association, and arguably the world’s foremost scholar of – and experimental practitioner in – expanded admissions assessment, this is compelling counsel for our Think Tank’s work.

Using Sternberg as a framer and guide for the work of the Think Tank on the Future of Admissions Assessment is a no-brainer, and our time with him in Chicago was enormously valuable. In this post, we’ll take a deeper dive into assessing creativity; in future posts we’ll look at other Sternberg recommendations and many other aspects of expanded assessment for admissions.

Sternberg’s recommendation to prioritize creativity is both narrowly pragmatic and broadly idealistic.  Read on….

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