Tuesday, December 9, 2014

micro-communities of sameness

In the op-ed piece "A Pox upon Campus Life," Frank Bruni writes about college fraternities:  "They contrive micro-communities of sameness in a world of difference. They favor contact with like-minded individuals over communication with a spectrum of individuals. There’s an understandable draw to these enclaves. People are tribal, ineluctably so....But ... such comfort strangles curiosity and binds a person to a single crowd, a blinkered viewpoint. Not letting that kind of tribalism get out of hand is one of the central obligations of a country like ours."

Bruni opines that our nation has an obligation to oppose tribalism, the urge to associate with like-minded people.  But why? Does the Statue of Liberty whisper, "It's the right thing to do?" 

Scott Page has a more pragmatic perspective on the matter.  Page is a professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan. 

In his book, The Difference, Page "reveals that progress and innovation may depend less on lone thinkers with enormous IQs than on diverse people working together and capitalizing on their individuality. Page shows how groups that display a range of perspectives outperform groups of like-minded experts. Diversity yields superior outcomes, and Page proves it using his own cutting-edge research. Moving beyond the politics that cloud standard debates about diversity, he explains why difference beats out homogeneity, whether you're talking about citizens in a democracy or scientists in the laboratory."

I heard Scott Page speak to the heads and board chairs of the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS) two years ago. What are the implications of his work for private schools?  Too many private schools are enclaves of tribalism. Page presents a compelling case for diversity of background and of thinking in our schools -- if we want to prepare students to contribute to progress and innovation in the 21st century.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Not my best parenting moment

Here's a blog posting by Scott Dannemiller, "The one question every parent should stop asking."

He goes on to say, "As parents, we focus 100 percent of our energy asking the wrong question...Bottom line: we parents need to chill out and change our questions. Here are two (questions) that can help us all gain some perspective and start finding more genuine joy in our lives."

Want to know the two questions Dannemiller suggests we ask?  Follow the link.  It's a good read.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Anyone? Anyone?"

Is teaching a performance art?

That question is at the heart of NPR's education story, "Channeling Springsteen: teachers as performers," that aired Monday.

Check out the You Tube clip of Ben Stein droning on in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. or his polar opposite, Robin Williams in Dead Poets' Society.

But is teaching really performing? 

"Maybe not, says Bruce Lenthall, who runs the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pennsylvania.  He has seen some teachers bristly at the idea that successful teachers have to also be performers...Lenthall says teachers tell him, 'I'm here to convey my ideas, I don't need to get into this stuff that seems ephemeral.'"

Teaching is not entertainment, though it certainly helps to have some performance skills in your pocket.  What's more important is that students know that you know them, that you care for them, and want the very best for them.

And I'm not here to 'convey my ideas' either.  I am here to help students find their own inner voice, to discover their interests, to develop their talents, and to learn the basic skills required to pursue them.

Is that all?

No, but it's a good start.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Parents, calm down

A recent post on the blog Rox and Roll: the Cacaphony of Motherhood has stirred up a bit of controversy:  "Parents: Let Harvard Go." 

Rox's post was precipitated by several teen suicides close to home and a You Tube video posted by one of her neighbors, sixteen year old Martha Cabot, who attends Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California.

Is Rox encouraging the acceptance of mediocrity?  No, as a former admission officer at an Ivy League school, and another "Ivy equivalent" on the West Coast, she has an insider's view of the college admission process and she considers life in the college admission pressure cooker a public health issue.

Read on, parents.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Carrots and other vegetables

The Finest Fruit and Vegetables On Display At The RHS Harvest Festival Show
(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Giving elementary-school students small rewards, such as stickers and toys, helped encourage them to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, according to researchers. A study of students in 31 schools in England found that the incentives led students to consume on average 4.5% more fruits and vegetables than the control group, and even more was consumed when researchers turned the effort into a competition. The Conversation (Australia) (10/6)

Interesting.  Of course it works.  In the short term.  But what are the unintended consequences?

I turned to Dan Pink's 2009 book Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. In writing about the problem of parents trying to get their children to empty the garbage, Pink refers to the work of Russian economist Anton Suvorov:

"By offering a reward, the (parent) signals to the (child) that the task is undesirable.  If the task were desirable, the (parent) wouldn't need to prod.  But that initial signal, and the reward that goes with it, forces the (parent) onto a path that's difficult to leave.  Offer too small a reward and the (child) won't comply.  But offer a reward that's enticing enough to get the (child) to act the first time, and the (parent) is doomed to give it again in the second. There's no going back. Pay your son to take out the trash--and you've pretty much guaranteed the kid will never do it again for free.  What's more, once the initial money buzz tapers off, you'll likely have to increase the payment to continue compliance."

How much if I eat this carrot, mom?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Excellent Sheep?

Here's a reference from NAIS' "Education in the News:"

Colleges Make It Easier for Students to Show, Not Tell, in Their Applications
By Richard Perez-Pena, The New York Times (from September 27, 2014)

    (TOWSON, MD) – “Under the policy announced this month by Goucher, a 1,400-student liberal arts college near Baltimore, a prospective student may apply by submitting two pieces of work (at least one of them a graded high school writing assignment) and a two-minute video, rather than a high school transcript. José A. Bowen, Goucher’s new president, readily admits that he has no idea how many applicants will go that route, how many will be accepted or whether they will work out.
    Students, parents and academics have long complained that competition for admission to highly selective colleges has become an overwhelming ordeal that favors bright but conventional, privileged worker bees over peers whose trials or quirks have gotten in the way of school. That is one of the criticisms in a much-discussed new book, “Excellent Sheep,” by William Deresiewicz, and a growing number of colleges have tried to address it.”

Googling "Excellent Sheep" led me to Nathan Heller's intelligent rebuttal of Deresiewicz in his New Yorker article "Poison Ivy?"  ("I went to college early in this century when the drug of choice on campus was sleep deprivation.")

This is not the same argument as Denise Pope's 2003 book Doing School, whose subtitle is: How we are creating a generation of stressed out, materialistic and miseducated students., though all three works would be on the syllabus of the same Graduate-level M.Ed. course at a top-tier university. (Pope is a prof at Stanford; Deresiewicz graduated from Columbia and taught at Yale; Heller graduated from Harvard.) 

Connect the dots and their dialog is all about the pressure and the presumed value of entrance to elite colleges in the early 21st century, and the impact that has on individual students and ultimately, our culture.

All of this leaves me looking for an antidote. 

I went first to Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak.  Listen to your inner voice, he says, and find your vocation.  I suppose my own elite education in the last century encouraged me to seek meaning in my life; to contribute to the culture, to advance it, and in so doing to be of service.

That is my aspiration for our students at The Post Oak School.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Head Butting

Friday Night Lights author speaks out against youth and high school football.  How do you spell 'concussions'?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Is the student the builder or the brick?

Parent-teacher conferences.  Where are the students in that picture?  Who owns the learning?  Who owns a student's interests and effort?  Put the student at the table.  And prepare them to lead the conversation about their own school performance.  This builds skill.  It is an important element of 'character education.' Locus of control, responsibility, self-advocacy, planning, communication.  All of these attributes are in play in a student-led conference.  Is the student the builder or the brick?

Monday, July 28, 2014

"This playdate garbage is ruining our kids. I shudder every time someone asks me if our kids can have a playdate together. That word is almost as bad as Mr. Mom. "

thanks to Post Oak parent Richard Yoo for forwarding Chris Bernholdt's great article to me.

non-digital job skills

"5 non-digital job skills."  An article forwarded to me by Mirna Andrade-Salgado, our technology director.  Mirna displays these skills herself, and as a mother of 4 Montessori children, she recognizes this:

"These 5 skills are taught and practiced in a Montessori classroom starting in the infant community."   :)

thanks, Mirna.

Friday, June 27, 2014

World Cup Montessori

We had a World Cup viewing party at Post Oak School yesterday.  Fajita lunch with birthday cake, too, since it is my birthday tomorrow. Red, white and blue balloons.  It was fun to watch the game with lots of people from school and as I read the paper today, to realize what a national celebration it was.

Here's a story by Lisa Falkenberg from this morning's Houston Chronicle.  Lisa usually writes about state and local political issues.
The story gets doubly funny when it goes all Montessori!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

National Institute for Play (Really!)

This is serious stuff. The science of play.   Stuart Brown, founding director of the National Institute for Play,  is interviewed on my favorite early-early-Sunday morning radio show, "On Being" with Krista Tippett.  "Play, spirit and character."

"Who knew that we learn empathy, trust, irony, and problem solving through play — something the dictionary defines as "pleasurable and apparently purposeless activity." Dr. Stuart Brown suggests that the rough-and-tumble play of children actually prevents violent behavior, and that play can grow human talents and character across a lifetime. Play, as he studies it, is an indispensable part of being human."

So when I brought my remote control helicopter back to work today, so I could fly it out of the wind in the school gym, I did so with a sense of higher purpose.

Lighten up.  Seriously.  It's good for your soul. It's good for your creativity.  And that's good for all of us.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

alligators and soft skills

We wrestle with alligators.

Education is one of those alligators.  William Morris said, "man is a learning animal."  Google that phrase and  it auto-corrects to "man is NOT a learning animal."  Wrestling.
With alligators.

We don't agree on the purpose of education.  Does it prepare citizens for life in a democratic society? Keep us economically competetive? Or enable the individual to lead an examined life?

We don't agree on what to teach.  The wisdom of our civilization?  If so, whose list of great literature do we use?  Or is this true:  "Since we cannot know what knowledge will be needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance."

We don't agree on how to teach. Direct instruction?(sounds boring, right?  You'll want to check this out!) Computer assisted learning?  Montessori method?

And we certainly don't agree on what to assess and how. "Imagining a new college entrance exam," a blog entry written by Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American, got me thinking.

Here's my quick list of notes as I thought about education and assessment:

convergent vs divergent thinking
analytical vs creative thinking (see Ken Robinson)
intelligence vs effort mindset (see Carol Dweck)
pessimist vs optimist mindset (see Martin Seligman)
knower vs learner mindset (check the table of contents to find it!)
IQ vs EQ
intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation (see Dan Pink)
hard vs soft skills:  this one is so much fun, I included two bits trolled from Mr. Google:

Investopedia's Definition of 'Hard Skills'

Specific, teachable abilities that can be defined and measured. By contrast, soft skills are less tangible and harder to quantify. Examples of hard skills include job skills like typing, writing, math, reading and the ability to use software programs; soft skills are personality-driven skills like etiquette, getting along with others, listening and engaging in small talk.

BeMyCareerCoach blog on the difference between hard skills and soft skills:
  • Hard skills can be learned in school and from books.  There are usually designated level of competency and a direct path as to how to excel with each hard skill.  For example, accounting is a hard skill.  You can take basic accounting and then advanced accounting courses.  You can then work to get experience and then take an exam and be certified as a CPA, etc..  In contrast, there is no simple path to learn soft skills.  Most soft skills are not taught well in school and have to be learned on the job by trial and error

Soft skills are not taught well in school?  Here's a group that is trying.

And the soft skill du jour?  Grit. "Can grit be taught?"  

Here's my take on this whole constellation of ideas: 
if grit -- or creativity or ethics or curiosity -- are simply added as CONTENT to conventional education and taught explicitly, it will fail because the motivational system is still external, extrinsic, teacher-driven.  Students will be evaluated on 'grit' as well as on reading and math.  We'll still be stuck in an 'intelligence mindset.' Grit will simply become a new kind of intelligence. You've got it or you don't.  How do you work harder on grit?  Grit may very well be the key to success, but does that mean it should become a new school subject?  Reminds me of the period twenty years ago when we decided that schools weren't teaching students how to think so 'thinking skills' became a new subject.  And a whole new cottage industry was born.

No, learning grit and creativity and teamwork and resilience and intrinsic motivation must be embedded in the curriculum and in the language and culture of the school.  A school that consistently tells children what to do and then rewards them for doing it and punishes them for not doing it will always be actively working to suppress and destroy intrinsic motivation. 

Want to promote the growth of intrinsic motivation?  Create a school where children are invited to make choices of what they will work on and when.  Allow them to choose how to demonstrate mastery and accomplishment.

And when they choose work that interests them, and that interest blossoms and their projects grow in scope and scale, they'll develop perseverence.  

And when they make a six-foot tall drawing of a baby giraffe with a six-foot long report to match, because that is how tall a baby giraffe actually is, you're watching creativity at work.

And if you want them to develop teamwork, encourage them to work together.  And when there is friction, and the team isn't working so well together, help them to sort out what went wrong, and what they can do differently next time.  Allow them to do this as the norm.  Not during teamwork time on Tuesday afternoon.

Children learn these skills by doing them; and get better at them by practicing all day long every day under the direction of trained adults who take the time at teachable-moments to talk about  what's working and what's not and what will you do differently next time?