Sunday, November 30, 2014

Memorization and a well-ordered mind

"I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind."

-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4:3

I was really challenged this morning by Csikszentmihalyi's ideas on the usefulness of memorization. 

"A person who can remember stories, poems, lyrics of songs, baseball statistics, chemical formulas, mathematical operations, historical dates, biblical passages, and wise quotations has many advantages over one who has not cultivated such a skill. The consciousness of such a person is independent of the order that may or may not be provided by the environment. She can always amuse herself, and find meaning in the contents of the mind. While others need external stimulation--television, reading, conversation, or drugs--to keep their minds from drifting into chaos, the person whose memory is stocked with patterns of information is autonomous and self-contained. Additionally, such a person is also a much more cherished companion, because she can share the information in her mind, and thus help bring order into the consciousness of those with whom she interacts."

And he bemoans the effects of educational reform that eliminated rote memorization from schools:

"But for a person who has nothing to remember, life can become severely impoverished. This possibility was completely overlooked by educational reformers early in this century, who, armed with research results, proved that "rote learning" was not an efficient way to store and acquire information... The reformers would have had justification, if the point of remembering was simply to solve practical problems. But if the control of consciousness is judged to be at least as important as the ability to get things done, then learning complex patterns of information by heart is by no means a waste of effort."
In previous posts, I've argued like these early reformers, that with the internet so widely available, memorization of facts can be replaced by the web, and we will have more mental energy and time for higher order thinking. And it's true--technology builds on itself. If we still had students memorize the Iliad, we wouldn't have the time to teach them to use Google, which they can use to access the Iliad and much more.

But his point is well taken. We have to provide order to our minds. The internet can't do that for us (yet). Rote memorization is one way to do this. (Other ways include the various flow activities, from sports to culinary arts to meditation). It also serves as practice for controlling our consciousness and makes life more enjoyable.

So what to memorize? Csikszentmihalyi suggests starting with something you are intensely interested in, whether it be sports statistics, songs or poetry. The goal here, after all, is enjoyment.

But there's a higher level as well, that of order. In the next section of the book he is beginning to discuss the flow-producing effects of language, mathematics, science, and philosophy. It seems we could kill two birds with one stone if our rote memorization is part of a system of thought that could help provide order to our consciousness in general. We'll see...

BTW, here's the full passage from Meditations 4:
"Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind."

Saturday, November 29, 2014

It's all in the approach

"Like all other sources of flow related to bodily skills--like sport, sex, and aesthetic visual experiences--the cultivation of taste only leads to enjoyment if one takes control of the activity. As long as one strives to become a gourmet or a connoisseur of wines because it is the 'in' thing to do, striving to master an externally imposed challenge, then taste may easily turn sour. But a cultivated palate provides many opportunities for flow if one approaches eating--and cooking--in a spirit of adventure and curiosity, exploring the potentials of food for the sake of the experience rather than as a showcase for one's expertise."  - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

And so it is with everything. It's in the approach, the perspective. Work. Leisure. Life. Approach it as an obligation, and it becomes a struggle, but let it sit in your mind as something to be explored, mastered, enjoyed, and it is transformed.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Even this thought is already in the past

Even this thought is already in the past.

Writing a blog post is not about fixing some eternal truth in the  stone of time.

I needn't worry about being perfect or complete.

Each post is a record of a point in time, and an imperfect one at that. It's one of Emerson's cannonballs:

"Else if you would be a man speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today."

So why write?

  1. Writing changes me. Today I have to think about what I am thinking. Tomorrow I see what I thought today. Hopefully, I see myself growing.
  2. Writing is fun. Sometimes it's even flow-inducing. In fact, that's how I know if I'm doing it right. 
  3. Who knows but that someone out there may benefit from what I write. I hope so. But even if no one see it, the first two still apply.

Life is like an effervescence on a sea of possibility. This post is a tiny popping bubble.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thankful for the wilderness of minds
What makes teaching so interesting is that every year I have 60+ new human beings to get to know, try to relate to and understand, and teach.

That's a tall order. Getting to understand my own mind and how it works is hard enough, and I still don't fully know and understand my wife of 23 years, my teenage children or my own parents. Nor will I ever. A human mind is like a vast wilderness, a world in and of itself, only more than that, because it's always changing--the product of unimaginably complex networks of neurons interacting with tangled histories, genetics, environments and other minds.

And yet we humans are more alike than we are different. There seem to be common rules that govern the way our amazing minds work. We all have similar dreams and desires and, I think, similar sources of motivation and happiness. But science has really only given us a hint of these common rules at this point.

And that's the challenge, not only do we have only a fuzzy idea of the basic rules, every mind is uniquely nuanced and quirky. The result is like exploring a vast wilderness of minds, sometimes climbing mountains and negotiating precipitous crags, sometimes taking in mind-blowing vistas, feeling refreshing wind on your face, drawing sustenance from the land, and diving into crisp, clear pools. But it's more than that, because this vast wilderness is made of people, every one unique and beautiful, interesting, and powerful in their own way.

It's either scary and stressful (if you're focused on yourself) or exhilarating and fulfilling (if you're focused on others).

Today I'm thankful for all of the people in my life, the challenges they present and the beauty they represent, the interesting perspectives they provide and the support they give.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Today I gave them the answer

Today I gave my honors chemistry students the answer.

Today was a half day, with shorter periods. We'd just tested on Unit 3 yesterday, so starting the new unit right before Thanksgiving break didn't make much sense.

Besides, formal lab reports are due Monday, so I figured I'd spend our 36 minutes going over the lab. I decided to make copies of parts of the same report written by one of my students last year. He had done a particularly fine job on the data section, and his explanation section would provide lots of fodder for discussion.

Then I hesitated. "Wait, what am I doing?," I thought, "I can't show them a perfect example of data tables! Isn't that part of the assessment, to see if they can figure out how to set them up? If they model theirs after his, how will I know if they could have done it on their own? It's like giving them the answer."

But then I asked myself, "Is that what this is all about, finding out what they can do? Is this some twisted game of hide-and-seek, or is it about helping them master the skills?"

I opted for helping them master the skills, and gave them the table. I realized that, too often, I have this warped attitude about assessment, too much focus on measuring students' ability and performance, as if my primary job were to provide ratings, scores, and measurements, to be a sort of gatekeeper.

Granted, potential employers and colleges will want to see a GPA or SAT so they can try to judge whether or not the student will be successful, and I suppose I help provide that "rating." But my job is really more about enhancing performance than measuring it. It's less about pronouncing judgement, and more about providing assistance, less about acting as a filter or gateway, and more about providing footholds and ladders.
So today I gave them the answer, but only because I thought they needed a better foothold, and what's really important is not assessing their ability to make a beautiful data table, but enhancing their ability to produce a beautiful data table.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Our obligation to change things

“Not too far from us, a few blocks away, there are kids without enough to eat and without parents who care. A little farther away, hours by plane, are people unable to reach their goals because they live in a community that just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support them. A bit farther away are people being brutally persecuted by their governments. And the world is filled with people who can’t go to high school, never mind college, and who certainly can’t spend their time focused on whether or not they get a good parking space at work.

And so, the obligation: don’t settle.

To have all these advantages, all this momentum, all these opportunities and then settle for mediocre and then defend the status quo and then worry about corporate politics – what a waste.

Flynn Berry wrote that you should never use the word “opportunity.” It’s not an opportunity, it’s an obligation.

I don’t think we have any choice. I think we have an obligation to change the rules, to raise the bar, to play a different game, and to play it better than anyone has any right to believe is possible.”

And that's how I feel about education. As long as there are students who are failing, who are struggling, I have an obligation. This would be true even if they were half way around the world, but they're right here in my own classroom and school.

*Thanks to for the quote!

Monday, November 24, 2014

A flat classroom

I want my classroom to be flat.

Not flat as in boring or bland, but flat in terms of hierarchy and structure. I want to treat my students as young adults, as equals, as human beings. We're on the same level. I am their coach, not their master.

Seth Godin talks about a big corporation where plant workers were forbidden from using the same bathroom the executives used. This sort of hierarchical caste structure kills motivation and misses out on the benefits of collaboration and the synergy that can result when everyone contributes as equals. What's true for corporations is true for any organization, even a classroom or school.

In recent years, I've been starting my courses in September by telling my students, "Please do not ask to go to the bathroom--just go." I think it's dehumanizing for young adults to have to ask permission to relieve themselves. I forgot to tell them that this year. We'll fix that this week.

I'm aiming to do less talking at them and more talking with them, more sitting by them and less presiding over them, more getting to know them and less getting them to do what I want.

This year, my goal is to stop trying to motivate my students with threats of consequences, or even with grades, and instead provide autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In other words, motivate them the way I would try to motivate adults-- the way I would like to be motivated.

A flat organization can't rely on threats and punishments. Those things are for  hierarchies, and they are destroyers of real, intrinsic motivation (and happiness).

A flat classroom is my goal because what works in life should work in school.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why it all starts with good standards

According to Daniel Pink, author of Drive, we humans are motivated by three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

As I mentioned last week, this is why I'm drawn to the mastery model of education. If we give kids a chance to really master skills and concepts, that in and of itself will motivate them to do it.

But that assumes something else--that the objectives are clear. If they aren't clear on what they are expected to master, then I can't be surprised when they lack motivation to master it. As Chip and Dan Heath wrote in Switch, what looks like resistance is often lack of clarity.

And how much more powerful will this whole process be if the goals are not only clear, but meaningful to the students? Clear, meaningful standards will not only tap into our innate drive for mastery, but they can also tap into our desire for a purpose bigger than ourselves.

So this whole education thing should start with purpose. From these, we derive the "standards," which become the goals for mastery. Instead of starting with the biology textbook and trying to connect it once in a while with meaningful, big picture standards, we start with the big stuff, and use the text, vocab, and worksheets only if they prove useful.

Biology, after all, is supposed to be about living things. This has purpose written all over it: Improving human health and nutrition, conserving natural resources, dealing with climate change, curing diseases, improving fitness, and cleaning up the environment, for example. I can think of a slough of meaningful skills and concepts that would enable students to address these issues: use a microscope to study cells, making a bacteria culture, design an exercise experiment, analyze the impact of fossil fuels on the global carbon cycle, compare the virtues of various diets. These become the standards and indicators, and then the activities and assessments fall into place.

Choose meaningless, boring standards and the whole thing falls apart, and you're back to lecture, worksheet,  memorization, and detentions. Choose hard-hitting, real-world standards, and provide real opportunity (and time) for mastery, and natural human motivation kicks in.

Ideally, anyway.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Convo with my former self: Failing students

What follows is a brief conversation with my former self about teaching and students who fail.

Bill (2014): Your standard level biology class looked pretty good last year. Average around 75, a few As. But you also had a few Fs and Ds in that one class.

Bill (2010): Yeah, that one is tough. Many of those students are unmotivated or too distracted by social issues, iPhones, or video games. Some lack the self-discipline or perseverance to do their homework, lab reports, or study for exams. Maybe their histories or home lives are just not conducive to doing well in school. Some are carrying so much baggage that school was just too much.

Bill (2014): How do you feel about that? I mean, do you feel like it is your responsibility to help those kids--the ones who have Fs, Ds, and Cs, to do better? Do you feel like you've failed with those students?

Bill (2010): Well, of course it's my responsibility to teach all of my students, but I guess I don't feel like a failure because I did the best I could. At some point it's just the student's responsibility to put the effort in to learn.

Bill (2014): But if, as you mentioned, some of them either lack the skills or support to do that, then how can you expect them to?

Bill (2010): Well, what's my alternative? I'm supposed to teach biology, and some do want to learn. I don't have the time to teach study skills, self-control, and responsibility.

Bill (2014): So what's the point of "teaching" those struggling kids at all? What are we doing to these kids if we force them to attend four years of high school, knowing they will likely fail because of factors they can't control, and the whole time reinforcing those factors by repeatedly reminding them of their failure?

Bill (2010): Hopefully some will learn responsibility before it's too late, or discover their motivation. But I think that's a systemic problem. I'm just trying to do the best I can in a flawed system.

Bill (2014): So you're OK with that? Doing the best you can in a flawed system and watching several students per year continue their school-enhanced downward spiral, accelerated by your teaching?

Bill (2010): Not really, but what's my alternative?

Bill (2014): What if you made it a priority simply to help every one of them to succeed? What if you shifted your expectations from a 75% average and a few As and Fs to 100% mastery of essential skills? What if you shifted your priority from "teaching" a fixed set of concepts, skills and facts to actually helping your students succeed in life?

Bill (2010): What would that look like?

Bill (2014): That's a good question. It's not likely to be easy, but isn't it worth a try?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Math, music, and life

This stunning visual/auditory bombshell by Nigel John Stanford combines art, science, and electronic music in way I've never seen, and the quote midway through may not be convincing, but it is thought provoking:
"Everything owes its existence solely and completely to sound."

-Peter Guy Manners
I'm not inclined to believe it's all about sound, but I do wonder about waves, or more precisely, equations. Chladni plates have always been one of my favorite links between the world of mathematics and the physical world of the senses, and my absolute favorite demonstration to get students thinking about the connection. Students see the patterns of sand change abruptly as I increase the frequency, and I tell them that atoms and electrons are like this, and that it can all be described by equations.

I think it was Hawking who referred to the universe as a "dance of geometry," and I am inclined to believe that. But is everything really reducible to equations?  Isn't that a low view of life and love and being human?

Is it? I was listening to Protoculture's hard-hitting new track, Music is More Than Mathematics yesterday, and had this thought: Maybe the problem is that we have too low a view of math. Maybe we have too low a view of equations. We see them as hard and cold, inflexible and limited. But maybe we don't see how they can be or could become so much richer than we imagine, that they could contain all of the richness of life and the universe.

What if the richness of music, which after all is just sound waves, were our hint that it really is all about math, but that math is much more than what we think--much more than numbers and letters and symbols and drills and tables and lists? What if math is all about order and beauty and wonder and power and change and vibrancy and life and potential?

And as science and math progress, and our paradigms and pictures of the world shift again and again, and the richness of the picture deepens, and the equations shift from Ptolemy's to Newton's to Einstein's and Schrodinger's and Dirac's, the symphony of nature and life is not silenced, not even just magnified or amplified or clarified, but renewed, transformed, and reborn, every time.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Encouragement from Seth Godin

“How was your day? If your answer was "fine," then I don't think you were leading.”

― Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us 

Well, that's a good sign, I guess. Maybe I am leading.

Godin said this in the midst of a powerhouse section on criticism. The gist of it is that if you're not being criticized, you're doing it wrong--you're probably not doing anything remarkable.

Make it your goal to do something worth criticizing--something remarkable enough, different enough, status quo-challenging enough, to be noticed by the critics.

I sometimes worry that I'm a change addict, a sort of compulsive status-quo challenger.

But Seth G. encourages me.

The status quo is boring, after all. Especially in education. :-)

Change for change's sake is fun (though maybe a bit stressful at times). But that's not (I hope) why (or the only reason) I'm all for it. We need it (as far as I can tell). Until every single student gets whatever they need to succeed, change is needed.

And after all, ours is not a static universe. Our species has had to change again and again and again. What makes us think we've arrived?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Grit and Mastery

What's more important, that my students learn skills like perseverance, self-control, and reflection, or that they learn the names and functions of the cell organelles? The answer seems obvious to me, which is why I am excited about the mastery model of education, which allows students as many attempts and as much time as they need to master a concept or skill.

It seems to me this is the ideal way to teach grit, and according to Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, grit is one of the keys to success.

It seems to me that just handing out zeros when students fail to turn work in, or Fs when they do poorly on tests, is not the best way to teach perseverance. Those are just punishments, and I don't think punishment is a very good teacher or motivator.

In fact, according to Daniel Pink, author of Drive, the best motivators of human beings are these:




Interesting how that works.

The way I'm seeing it right now, give a student the chance to master the material, and that in itself will motivate him or her. And in the process, how can he or she not learn perseverance? Isn't that how we all learn it, by trying again and again until we finally master a skill or achieve our goal? But how can you learn that if you are not given the chance.

And if sports are mastery based, why not academics? Michael Jordan said in his awesome Nike commercial, "I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." Unfortunately, the way we run academics right now, it doesn't work that way. Fail again and again in school, and you just fail, period. Unless, that is, you are in a mastery-based  (or competency-based) system. As Forbes writer Michael Horn says, "A competency-based learning system on the other hand literally embeds grit—sticking with things until you master them—in its DNA."

No, my guess is many of us don't remember what the endoplasmic reticulum or lysosomes do for the cell (unless we are biology teachers or professional biologists), but we're all motivated by the desire for mastery of skills, and we all need grit every day.

Students are no different.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Change and Moodle at E. O.

Moodle. It evokes diverse reactions among the staff at E. O. Smith High School. As a learning management system and online educational platform, you can't beat it, for the price (it's open source and "free"). It's not the most user friendly system, and if all you want to do is post a few links or homework assignments online, it's sort of like buying a car factory when all you need is an occasional ride. But the adoption of Moodle at E. O. Smith is good practice for what's in store for all of us as we move up the exponential curve of change that is the 21st century.

A little history: In 2012, Jon Swanson and I received a grant from the E. O. Smith Foundation to run two online science enrichment courses over the summer. We set them up using the Moodle learning management system hosted at The next year, we both began using Moodle to help us "flip" our biology and chemistry classes. Promising results led E. O. Smith to adopt the Moodle platform for their official teacher webpages.

Today, most of our teachers are using E. O. Smith's Moodle site at least as an online point of reference for their classes, and a bunch of us are using it as an integral part of our courses. 14 teachers have had over 1,000 views or posts in the past month, and 5 courses have received over 3,800 posts/views over the same period. School-wide, our site had almost 150,000 views and posts during the month of October.

While I think this represents a serious accomplishment for E. O. Smith, and while I think the Moodle platform is essential for the kind of flipping I do in chemistry, and while I LOVE the open source model and ethic that Moodle embodies, I am under no illusions that it is the end of the story.

For one thing, Moodle pales in comparison to Google Drive for file sharing and collaboration. And more importantly, It will probably pale in comparison with the next innovation that may be right around the corner. That's the exponential nature of our era.

What will that new thing be? Google Classroom? Quite possibly.

Something we haven't even seen. Just as possible.

One thing's for sure. Moodle, and all of us, must adapt to survive.

One thing's for sure. Change is the only constant.

But let's just remember, it's not about change for the sake of change (as exciting and interesting) as that is for change-addicts like me. It's about continuous improvement. Online tech is useful only inasmuch as it is a facilitator of learning.

But its potential in that regard is amazing. So much so that its impact is likely to be exponential.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Becoming indifferent to myself

"Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to centre my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection." -Bertrand Russell

I came upon this quote in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book, Flow, and I think it may be the key element in reducing stress while increasing happiness and success. It ties together other books I've been reading, like Mindfulness, How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Joy of Living, Why Zebras Don't get Ulcers, The Happiness Hypothesis, Who Moved My Cheese, Switch, and Drive, and distils out one of the key elements of them all:

The more I can forget myself and really focus my attention on other people, greater purposes, tasks I can master, sounds, tastes, smells, images, experiences around me, the happier I'll be, and the more successful I'll be at teaching, leading, and everything else.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The work hole

"That's fine. You just go in your little work hole."

That was my wife's response.

She had told me about her plan to take Sundays off from classes and just relax. I don't know how to relax, I told her. I have to work.

Her characterization of my habits was (unfortunately) accurate. I'm either at school, night class, or entrenched at my home workstation. A year and a half of a rigorous administrative preparation program on top of full-time teaching, and I've dug in... and developed bad habits. Leisure? What's that?

But Humans need leisure as much as they need useful work. I know that. It just hasn't made it into my life lately. The question is, what to do about it.

Not sure I can answer that definitively in a quick (Sunday) blog post, but here's an idea: If I can't eliminate the big items that crowd my to-do list, maybe I can change my approach to them--not be such a perfectionist about them.

I'm committed to my students at school. I'm committed to becoming a school leader. But I don't need to be committed to perfection on either front.

And the reality is, success in both of these arenas is really about relationships, not how many items I've checked off in my Bullet Journal (as much as I love that thing). Reality is, none of it will be any good without my emotional and social health, and without healthy relationships at home and work. And in fact, if I start there, the rest will probably fall into place.

So, time to crawl out of my little work hole and see the world again.

Let's see if I can succeed at that.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

An experiment in collaboration

We started a new interdisciplinary PLC at E. O. Smith High School, and I feel like we're on the cusp of something big.

Several of us had been experimenting with tech-facilitated differentiation and mastery-based learning, so we started to get together regularly after school to share stories, challenges, and ideas. We use a show-and-tell format, with a different teacher presenting each month. They share what they've been doing. The rest of us listen, then ask questions.

It's been exciting, encouraging, and refreshing. The things these teachers are doing are bold and progressive. The effects of new strategies on students are always hard to predict. We've seen lots of promising results. We've also faced lots of challenges. That's why we need each other.

Thanks to the work of Andy Hargreaves and others, this kind of collaborative culture is growing in schools nationwide, and the power of collaboration is in this:

1) We get new perspectives. It's easy to walk around blinded to what's really going on by confirmation bias, etc. By opening yourself up to other, you get fresh, clearer perspectives on the situation.

2)  We get moral support and encouragement. Change is hard. Teaching is hard. Put them together, and you need moral support and encouragement.

3) We get synergy of ideas. It's what author Matt Ridley calls "when ideas have sex." The recombination of ideas that occurs through cooperation and collaboration is what Ridley says gave birth to civilization. Just imagine what's in store for education!