Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The importance of oversimplification

The outdated "planetary model" of the atom
“This is how concreteness helps us understand—it helps us construct higher, more abstract insights on the building blocks of our existing knowledge and perceptions. Abstraction demands some concrete foundation. Trying to teach an abstract principle without concrete foundations is like trying to start a house by building a roof in the air.” ― Chip Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

I've been a science teacher for 14 years, but I never really understood this before.  Sure, I've always tried to use analogies, demonstrations, and to simplify things as much as I could, but I never really got the reason why. I guess I just always thought about it as simply making it easier to understand.

I never understood that it's about schema--those patterns of memories in our minds that form our understanding--the patterns we tap into when we try to make sense of the world.

I'm glad I usually tried to do it anyway, but I also know there have been many times I didn't. The agony of my chemistry students at times can attest to this. I think of how I assumed they should be able to grasp abstract concepts like atoms and elements and electron clouds and mole ratios without building these on top of some concrete schema they already have in their heads.

The real shape of electron "orbitals"

Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Made to Stick, point out that we're often scared of oversimplifying. But if we let this stop us from making it more concrete, we value accuracy above learning.

They actually use the example of the planetary model of the atom--the one many of us learned at one time, the one with electrons orbiting the nucleus like planets around the sun. Of course, it's dead wrong. Electrons are much more mysterious than that (they're more like patterns of waves with no definite trajectory).

But that's how I learned it. And that model made a connection with my existing schema of motion and physics--it put a picture in my head. And as I studied further, I was able to revise it. The initial, oversimplified model did not poison me for life. In fact, it was an essential stepping stone.

(Wow. It occurs to me now as I type this: This is the story of my life: A series of revisions, like stepping stones, each closer (I hope) to the truth.)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Rough sketch of a better balance

I used to think achievement and creativity were the key to human happiness. I justified this, I guess, because I figured that what made us human was mostly our creative potential--our ability to make the world whatever we wanted it to be, to break through the boundaries of the possible and explore the unknown.

And I still think this is an important aspect of human nature, but I'm realizing it is not the most important--it's just one facet of something a more complex.

For one thing, all this drive for creation, change and exploration and boundary breaking--this ambition--really needs to be interspersed with contentment.

And though we are definitely the most creative of animals, were also among the most social, and so I think I'd add community to creativity.

And closely related to community is compassion.

And then of course there's just pure enjoyment, hedonistic immersion in the moment, fun, and excitement--let's call it captivation.

A more balanced picture might look something like this:

So that's part of going for a better fit, I think--trying to hit all of those every day.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Hit the ground learning

Many leaders feel like thay have to hit the ground running when they come into a new position--change things, fix things, save the organization, prove themselves, etc. But this superman-style leader is obsolete, if he ever was anything more than  just a figment of our imaginations. More likely, he'll come in like a whirlwind and wind up alienating every stakeholder in the place and just making a mess.

A better approach, say Barry Jentz and Jerome Murphy, is to "Hit the ground learning, rather than running."

Their EntryPlan approach starts with a one to six month "no change" period in which the new leader just gathers information. Instead of changing things right off the bat, she makes a plan for interviewing stakeholders. She embraces the inherent confusion of coming into a new organization and embraces a collaborative model of leadership--prioritizing stakeholder voice. And she establishes trust and lays the groundwork for a collaborative culture.

She presents the info collected during the interviews back to the whole community and asks the question, "How can we make sense of this?" This leads to (hopefully) whole-community ownership of the problem, and better buy-in to collaborative solutions. As Ronald Heifetz and Donald wrote in their classic HBR article
"Jan Carlzon [the transformational CEO of the Scandinavian Airlines System] encouraged responsibility taking at SAS by trusting others and decentralizing authority. A leader has to let people bear the weight of responsibility. 'The key is to let them discover the problem,' he said. 'You won't be successful if people aren't carrying the recognition of the problem and the solution within themselves.' To that end, Carlzon sought widespread engagement."
I don't need much convincing to go along with Carlzon's decentralizing approach. I think that's where we need to head as a society. But there's no doubt it's radical. We're all so used to hierarchies and top-down authority, and we're all so not used to distributed, collaborative leadership in which everyone takes responsibility for decision-making and improvement. But the EntryPlan approach seems a great way to introduce the concept while beginning to build real capacity for collaboration. What a great way to hit the ground as a new leader!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Well, that performance didn't go so well. Now what?

The guitar playing got progressively worse as the song went on. I could tell when I glanced out at the faces in the audience, which I couldn't do too much, because I had to focus so hard on my playing and singing, which was going downhill fast.

I knew what was happening. The adrenaline was kicking in, and the fight-or-flight response was draining the fine motor control from my fingers. I was powerless to stop it. I also knew it didn't sound too good, so later I felt this sense of failure. Even a desire to quit and not try it ever again.

Then I realized that was just my fixed mindset talking--the belief that abilities are fixed. The fixed mindset makes us want to avoid situations in which we might fail, because that would mean we're no good. It's especially powerful when we believe we are good at something, because then that belief is threatened by failure. It's what's behind the common belief that effort is bad, because it means you're not naturally smart or talented enough. It believes that success should be instant. And breeds a fear of failure.

The growth mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that success always requires effort, failure is a necessary part of the process, and growth is always possible.

While I have a growth mindset in some areas, I  have fixed mindset in others, like my singing. I guess maybe it's because I grew up being told how good I was at singing, and so it became a part of my identity, and I guess failure threatens that.
But it's time to approach musical performance like any other challenge: failure is just the by-product of pushing the envelope.

So bring it on.  I'll keep working on the self-accompaniment as long as there are folks patient enough to put up with my failures.

Come to think of it, that's a big part of my role as a teacher--to put up with my students failures, and not just to put up with them, but encourage them, because failures are necessary stepping stones to success.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The desk of a poet

When I saw this desktop in a 3rd grade classroom this afternoon, I had to take a picture of it: the empty box of pretzels, the little teddy bear, the scattered pencils, erasers, and writing in progress.. the Husky pride button..

The young girl was gone at the time, out being an official "role model" in another class, I think.

And I was not surprised it was her desk, because a few minutes earlier, as I was reading the poems posted on a bulletin board, she walked over and pointed out hers.

"I love them," I said. Here's one of them:

Somehow her desk made sense after this.

And she was not the only poet in the class. This next poem was written by a little girl who lost her father not long ago:

Kids never cease to amaze me. human in general amaze me, but kids pack so much meaning and energy and creativity and wonder into this human frame that it just blows my mind.