Friday, June 15, 2018

The obstacle becomes the path: A short commencement speech

There is an old Zen story about a king whose people had grown soft. He wanted to teach them a lesson, so he put a big rock in the middle of the main path to town, blocking the road. Then he hid in the woods to watch what they did.

One by one they came. Most just complained. Some would try a little to move it, then give up.

Finally, one lone peasant came along. He pushed and pushed at the rock. Tried to get his hands under it and lift. Nothing worked. Then he had an idea. He went into the woods and got a large branch and used it as a lever to move the rock.

Under the rock the king had hid a purse of gold and a note that said: “The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”*

You have all had your share of obstacles in your paths. But you didn’t give up. You found new levers.

And you found new strength.

Don’t forget that.

Don’t forget that there are always other levers, and there will always be new strength.

High school will not be your last obstacle. I can guarantee that.

So remember this lesson. Remember what happened when you didn’t give up.

Remember how the obstacle became your path.

And don’t give up.

I hope that you have also learned a few things about effort--that it’s not easy to move those stones, even with a lever.

But effort pays off with new opportunities.

Now that you’ve graduated, you automatically have multiplied your opportunities.

You can repeat that process of multiplication. Every obstacle you overcome, every challenge you take on will be a multiplier.

Jobs, college, new degrees, new learning, will all multiply your options.

That’s the point. It’s not about gold purses. I think the purse of gold coins was a little lame, actually.

Here’s my version: The guy works and works on the stone until he gets so strong he can move it. He becomes like Hercules. And then he walks to the city and gets a job as the king’s own bodyguard. Or something like that.

Or maybe this version: She moves the stone and finds that the path beyond is not just one path, but a whole bunch of paths to places she hadn’t even dreamed of.

The point is, the obstacle doesn’t become a prize. It becomes a path. A new path.

And here’s the other problem with the story. You’re not alone. You don’t need to move the stone alone. Reach out for help. That guy or girl should have gone and gotten some help with that lever. The story would be just as cool and so would you. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It takes guts to ask for help, just like it takes guts to keep pushing at those stones that don’t seem to budge and to go looking for levers.

See, that’s the other benefit to obstacles. They draw us together with other people, and that’s what’s really important in life.

So congratulations Depot Graduates! You moved this stone! And I am excited to see what you find beyond it!

And good luck as you continue on your paths and convert more obstacles into new paths to success.



*Thanks to Ryan Holiday for the Zen story and for his excellent book, The Obstacle Is the Way.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Flex, tech, and checks: Preparing the next generation for the A.I. future

I have this one very thoughtful student. The other day, he asked me, "What's the point of any of this when A.I. is going to take all of our jobs?"

Great question, because it is a very real threat. Folks who argue that computers will never make humans obsolete fall prey to the "yeah, but" fallacy.

"Yeah, robots can build cars and stuff, but they'll never beat humans at chess."

"OK, so they're good at chess, but they'll never beat us at Go."

"Yeah, but they can't even tell a cat from a dog."

Except that now they can, and more.

I'll never forget reading about the historic game of Go in which Google's A.I.  beat the human champ. After a particularly surprising move by the computer, one commentator said, 'It's not a human move. I've never seen a human play this move. So beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.'"

In the past, new technologies initially eliminated jobs, then ended up creating more jobs in new areas, but in a world where computers can create beauty, will there be any niches left for humans?

One academic thinks that humans will basically become full-time gamers. Others believe A.I. could lead to a world in which none of us have to work at all. Others, like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking think the A.I. may just get rid of us altogether. This last gloomy option might happen, but as I discussed in my 2013 article, Will humans become obsolete?, I think there are two more good possibilities: 1) A war against the machines, which would probably not go well for us, and 2) A merger between machines and humans. Many would say the merger is already underway. Just look at how much a part of our lives our smart phones are already, and brain-computer interfaces may not be science fiction for long. As they say, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. The best way to stay competitive with A.I. is to incorporate it into our own brains.

The likelihood of the merger option leads me to a few conclusions about what we should be teaching the kids:

First, it means we really can't predict what's going to happen with any half-decent degree of certainty. Second, it means our focus should be on getting ready for the merger. What kinds of people will be ready for the merger? It seems to me they will have three characteristics:

1) They will be flexible. One common response to the AI threat is that we should focus humans on the imagined gaps in AI capabilities, things that "only humans can do" and higher order skills, like problem solving or social skills. But assuming computers won't out-perform us in these areas is just the Yeah-but fallacy, and filling these gaps will be a game of Whack-a-Mole, with fewer and fewer moles all the time. Who knows what we'll need to be good at? Instead, be ready for anything, and be ready to shape-shift like crazy.

2) They will really understand math, science, computers and technology. They will be tech-savvy. The Luddite who refuses to get on Facebook is unlikely to be able to get in on these technologies, but the computer programmer will have a distinct advantage. I'm not just talking about  hiring more computer science teachers, though that's a great idea. Kids need to be ready to assimilate diverse technologies into their lives and even their bodies.

3) They will be wealthy enough to afford the augmentations as they arrive on the market. It would be great if this were an egalitarian revolution, but I wouldn't count on it. Kids need to be employable right away and able to get good paying, practical jobs.

So here's our curriculum: Flex, tech, and checks. We need to teach kids to be flexible, take advantage of opportunities and learn new things all the time. For this, they need a strong sense of self-efficacy and a growth mindset. We need to teach them to master new technologies and to understand computers--teach them how to "go borg" starting right now. This means a strong STEM focus. And finally, we need to teach them how to work in a lucrative field so they can make money (STEM works for this, too). It's that simple.

I'm not saying this is all we teach. Flex, tech, and checks is just about practicality. We need equal emphasis on the humanities. We are, for now, still human, and while we wait for what's next, we still need to live fulfilling lives in this humble organic substrate. In my mind, that means art, music, philosophy, writing, and history (sounds a lot like STEAM, now that I think about it). Nor am I saying this will guarantee that our species will not go extinct before the next turn of the century, but it may give us a fighting chance of having a say in what's next.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Notes to self on the eve of the first day of school

Here are some notes I'm making to myself as the school year starts up again. Maybe you can relate.

1. It’s like jumping in a cold pool or starting a tough workout. You just do it, and then it gets better.

2. Remember that it’s the same for the students. We’re all jumping in together.

3. Remember that it’s about the students. This is for them.

4. Do the best you can. There will be obstacles you can’t overcome. Students will have difficulties that are beyond you. No one expects you to work miracles. No one, that is, except you.

5. It’s OK if you don’t feel passion all the time. Maybe what is called for is just dogged determination and focus.

6. It’s OK if you fail. As Conor McGregor said, “I never lose. I win, or I learn.”

7. There’s value in the work, even if you don’t get the results you want. Not only are you learning, you’re making money, you’re supporting your family, you’re expressing love and honor and doing what life is asking of you.

8. There will be successes. There always are. There will be smiles. There will be rewards. You will help people, even if they don’t realize it.

9. There will be breaks. There will be rest. It won’t be a non-stop grind.

10. Make sure that it’s not a non-stop grind. Plan in plenty of rest and fun. Burnout is a very real thing.

11. Don't be an island. Don't be a hero. Lean on your supports.
12. Allow whatever is to be enough. Not that there is no need for improvement, but there is no NEED for improvement. The universe will be just fine without it.

13. Enjoy yourself. Every day. Find the pleasure in every moment. It will be tough, but have fun with it.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Give it your best shot. Assess. Repeat (Project Block v. 2.0)

Tracking student progress in Project Block
"It stings. It stings bad, but this is the fight business. I've been on the end of many defeats in my life and I've rose back, so I will not shy away from it. I will not make excuses for it. I will assess it and come back."

-Conor McGregor


It’s easy to get caught in the trap of evaluating your success in terms of actual results.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for data and evaluation, but what do you do when the data don’t show the success you want?

Option 1: Despair. You suck. Your job sucks. Your life sucks. Lay on the couch and give up.

Option 2: Roll with it. Regroup. Rebound. Reassess your efforts, and adjust. Hey, this is a fight, right? You are in a battle against entropy and gravity and whatever other frictions and fictions are trying to drag you and your clientele down.

For me, I’ll take Option 2. I’ll let that despair roll over me like water off a duck's back. I’ll acknowledge the failure and pain, but then I'll get right back in there for another round. I never thought this would be easy. I always knew it would be a fight. From they day I struggled through the birth canal, I knew this world was a tough place. So let’s go, shall we?

Case in point: Project Block. Our whole school program was founded on the idea that autonomy and independence are keys to motivation and learning. My first year here, students were given several hours per week to work on whatever they wanted to, but the lack of productivity and success I saw changed my mind on motivation and led me to create a more structured approach called Project Block.

In Project Block, students worked through a series of structured science projects of increasing complexity, each of which focused on different aspects of the project process, and then graduated to fully independent projects about midway through the year.

That was the idea, anyway. 

Well, the results are in. While almost all students (88%) finished the 8 structured projects and earned 0.5 science credits, fewer succeeded in completing their first fully independent project (71%), and even fewer succeeded in completing additional independent projects and/or meeting their own deadlines for key milestones after the first 9 projects. Of 19 additional independent projects begun:

8 completed the research step on time (42%),
6 completed their Trello/Bullet Journal planning assignment on time (32%),
2 completed their projects (11%), and
1 completed it on time (5%).

Not exactly the results we had hoped for. My current hypothesis is that these students, many of whom struggle with ADD and related issues, are simply not ready for independent work like this. 

We could give up. Roll over. Play dead.

But it's worth another shot.

We had a whole-school deliberative discussion at the end of last year to talk about how we could regroup and improve Project Block. The students came up with the following idea: Split the school up into groups by credit needs (science, social studies, English) and maintain structured projects throughout the whole year (unless students demonstrate the ability to work independently). 

We will also build in lots of explicit instruction in project planning and execution, and the whole thing will be guided by daily checklists.

Maybe we'll never have a successful independent project program, but we'll learn in the process, and as Marcus Aurelius wrote: 
"The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way."

The obstacle becomes the way we hadn't looked for--the way to new strengths and new paths.

Give it your best shot. Assess. Repeat. Advance.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

It's good to be wrong

Depot students having a blast during fitness block.
"I feel like you treat us like delinquents. I feel like we're always being watched with suspicion."

We were sitting around the table, having a little conference. I had been sensing some negative vibes lately between the students and me, and so I called some of them together. The student who just spoke had been quiet, but he drummed up his courage and got right to the heart of the matter.

I was glad he did, because it's good to be wrong. That is, it's good to know you're wrong, because then you can change.

There had been several recent disciplinary incidents, and I had responded by taking away some privileges. On top of that, this year we've vastly increased accountability at the Depot. We added the CHIPS incentive system, ALEKS math block, competency ratings and progress tracking, and careful credit accounting. All this came together to generate lots of stress and negativity. The kids in the meeting had also complained about the Chips and how some students may not be able to go on the outing to Lake Compounce.

As I listened to what they had to say that day, I knew they were right. I knew the importance of focusing on support--that accountability is a poor driver of improvement, but I had lost focus. We had increased support along with the increased standards, but it wasn't enough, and according to our recent school climate survey, compared to last year at this time, more students felt like we don't care.

Time for a course correction. As Brian Tracy says, an airliner is almost never heading straight for it's destination. It's constantly correcting its course. It's constantly wrong, but the pilots know it, and they constantly adjust.

So I reinstated the privileges I had taken away. I reduced the Chips requirement for the latest reward outing, and finally, I made it easier to get math credit through the ALEKS system.

This last adjustment was the result of me looking more closely, after that little conference, at the sources of stress on the kids. I suspected that a few of the behavioral incidents and the slow accumulation of reward Chips were actually due to kids struggling with their math. They were nearing the end of their courses, and only the most difficult topics were left.

It may be coincidence, but since I adjusted the ALEKS requirements, there has been a notable change in behavior and attitude among a few of the students I had been concerned about, and spirits, in general, have been higher since the changes.

Lesson learned.

Being wrong is good stuff.