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The outdated "planetary model" of the atom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.

"I want to be a role model"

A struggling 3rd grader was successfully wrapping up two weeks of consistent homework completion, driven by her desire to eat lunch with her teacher.

A teacher asked her what was going to keep her doing her homework after she achieved the coveted lunch session.

The girl simply pointed to the button on her shirt--the one that said "I am a role model."

It's something new her teacher, Crystal King Adanti is trying. They started by listing the characteristics that make someone a role model: being helpful, kind, quiet in the halls, being on-task, etc. When they demonstrate these behaviors they get stars on their buttons, but that's not the best part. The best part is that they get to go out into the school and be official "role models" in other classes. Several teachers have been helping Crystal with her effort and allowing these "role models" into their classes to read to younger students or help teach them math, or to help out in art or PE class.

And the kids are eating it up. While I was there I caught two boys talking about how many stars they needed to be able to be a role model.

As I talked with Crystal afterwards, she mentioned that it was a "carrot" that seemed to be working, but then corrected herself: "But it's not really a carrot, because it's more intrinsic."

And I think she's right. In fact, I think by allowing the kids to go out and be leaders and helpers in the school, she's tapping into all three of Pink's drivers--the keys to human motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

They have autonomy when they leave their own class and get to do something somewhere else instead.

They experience the motivation of mastering the skills that get them that privilege and the leadership skills they gain as they play the role of role models in the school.

And they are motivated by the very real purpose of helping others.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What's my core message?

"No lesson plan survives contact with teenagers."

-Chip and Dan Heath, Made To Stick

The Heath Brothers derived this clever little saying from the classic military proverb, "No plan survives contact with the enemy," and their version is no less potent. As I said to a student teacher yesterday, "Teaching is a constant process of monitoring where the students are and adjusting your strategies." (Sort of life life, as a matter of fact: constantly adjusting your strategies.) That's why we need a core message.

Made To Stick promises to be chock full of gritty lessons for teaching: like their concept of a core message. They call it "Commmander's  intent" because military commanders use it. Knowing they can't dictate every move of every soldier in the battlefield, commanders communicate their core, key intent, like "protect the flank." This gives each soldier under that command a guiding principal that's always true no matter the circumstances--something she can fall back on if everything else about the plan falls apart, even if she's the last one standing. It's got to be a short, easy-to-remember and pithy statement of what's really important.

So what's my "core message" as a teacher and aspiring school leader?

I'm pretty sure it will look something like this:

"Every student engaged"

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Dealing with the human race's bad decisions

Did you ever make a decision that you regretted later, but could not undo?

I'm guessing we all have, and at that point we have to just adapt. It's no useshould-coulda-woulda-ing our way into depression. Time to accept the things we cannot change, as the old prayer says.

The more I study the history of our species, the more I am starting to feel like humanity made one of these bad decisions a long time ago--actually, a series of bad decisions that stretch right into the present.

And it all started with agriculture, a "decision" that Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel has called "The worst mistake in the history of the human race." It was the first step in a long series of unfortunate and irreversible events that have brought us far from our evolutionary heritage and left us out of sync with human nature.

For one thing, we are not well adapted to the high carbohydrate diet that agriculture introduced. And according to Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, authors of Sex at Dawn, the agricultural revolution led to fundamental shifts in the way we live and relate to each other. Hunter-gather societies are almost exclusively communal and egalitarian, and agriculture led to private property, which had ripple effects even into our sex lives (women as property, for example).

And the industrial revolution was the agricultural revolution on steroids. And now we find ourselves sedentary, isolated, stressed-out, war-like, competitive and possessive workaholics while our genes are better suited to an active yet relaxed communal existence.

And it's not like we can just turn back the clock and start over. Like a species of bird that finds itself blown to a new island without familiar food, we must adapt or die. Or in our case, adapt or die of stress-induced cariovascular disease or diet induced cancer.

We can either change ourselves (and this isn't possible--yet) or we change our circumstances to better fit our genes. A better fit is what I'm shooting for. Ideally, not some boring compromise, but a new, out-of-the-box, ideas-having-sex strategy for living that gets the primal/ancestral gene thing going in the modern world. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Whadda you wanna do with your life?

"I wanna rock."

That's what the kid in the Twisted Sister video said after the teacher screamed at him, "Whadda you wanna do with your life?." I wonder how many former 80's teens followed through with that "rocking" plan. Though I think there are a few musicians among us, most of my fellow Ellis Tech High School graduates became stonemasons, carpenters, auto mechanics, salesmen, computer engineers, and a I'm teacher. So what happened to our big dreams or rocking and rolling?

But I'm serious about the big dreams. Not that I care about being a rock star, but what if the Twisted Sister dream was just about having fun & enjoying life? What if it was about seeing our parents trapped in a boring rat race of work and hoping there was something more?

While I wouldn't go so far as to write "I wanna rock!" as my life's goal, I'm more hesitant these days to try to focus myself, my students and my children on goals that emphasize achievement or security and some ever retreating-into-the-distance-like-that-door-at-the-end-of-the-hallway-in-Poltergeist goal of "success."

One of my favorite songs at the Steve Aoki concert earlier this month was Back to Earth with Fall Out Boy. I love the chorus: "Are you living your life or just waiting to die?"

Maybe it's because I'm approaching middle-age that I'm wondering about all of this, trying to practice more mindfulness, flow, and find some balance between ambition and contentment. But in any case, I've been thinking that balance should have a bit more rocking and rolling than I've been tending to include.

Not that achievement can't be rocking. It certainly can, but what I'm shooting for here is not losing sight of the real end goal--a fulfilling life, and not letting it get cluttered up and clouded with confusing-the-end-with-the-means and missing out on what's really important because I was chasing what some ad or cultural norm or inner compulsion said I should. Achievement is great, as long as it's meaningful to you.

What I'm going for here is a better fit. A better fit between my life and what it means to be human. :-)

And I'm pretty sure having fun is part of that.

How to know it's time for a change

"For the last eight years, I've had an internal struggle: between wanting to improve myself, and wanting to be content." -Leo Babuta 

And so have I. And though I was pretty happy with my latest approximation of a solution--that contentment is appropriate in some circumstances but not in others (like when being chased by a lion), I realized I lacked an easy way to determine when to choose contentment and when to opt for change.

And this is key, because when I'm not sure whether I need to change or not, or I have a vague sense it's needed, but not sure how to do it or if it will work, then that causes anxiety. The feeling that I am not where I need to be causes anxiety. And it's not a good anxiety.

If it's clear that I need to change and I'm working on it, it's OK to be a bit anxious, like when I'm running from a lion. But if the anxiety is not necessary, then I want nothing to do with it.

So here's my first approximation at a change matrix: a strategy for determining when I should just sit tight and when I should start running.

Basically, I need to ask myself two questions:

1) How likely is it that this plan for change would succeed? Can I really pull it off? What are my chances for getting a new job, running a successful mastery-based classroom, getting six-pack abs, learning to keep bees, or learning to speak Chinese?

2) How certain am I that the benefits will outweigh the costs? And here I need to consider investment costs, opportunity costs, and collateral damage that the change may cause. I may have to put in some long weeks if I decide to pursue my administrators certificate (and I sure did), and I may miss out on time with my family (and I did), I may not be able to eat pasta and bread if I want six-pack abs (and I don't), and I may not get through the same amount of content if I switch to mastery-learning in biology. And the costs could get more serious than this.

And the oversimplified idea is this: If I can't be sure the benefits will outweigh the costs and that I have a decent likelihood of success, then I'm better off just forgetting about the idea and being content where I am--practice mindfulness and learn to enjoy the moment. If there's a high likelihood of success, it'll probably be worth doing more research to find out more about the costs and benefits. And if you are sure it would be a good thing, but it's just not likely right now, then start laying the groundwork for change in the future.

Just a start, but an important first step for a change addict who routinely defaults to "Change it now!"

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Cold comfort or change?

Every now and then I read or hear something that so lucidly expresses such a deep truth or so resonates with reality that it's like someone struck the gong of my mind. That's what happened when I came across this passage in Transforming School Culture by Anthony Muhammad in which he summarized the findings of Dan Lortie about teachers who resist change--teachers Muhammad calls "the fundamentalists" (emphasis mine):

1) Teachers have been socialized in the field where they have practiced since they were 5-year-old children and have not been removed from that context since entering kindergarten. Since age 5, educators observed others' practice in the field in which they would eventually practice themselves.

2) On average, teachers were very good students and occupied the highest levels of the organization. As teachers, they bring that experience to the classroom and seek to preserve the same system that they enjoyed and benefited from as students.

Lortie concluded that it is irrational to expect people who benefited from a system to be the catalyst for changing that system. In fact, we should expect them to try and preserve a personally beneficial system.


That's it. That's why this is so hard. That's why changing the system from a filter and gateway and sorting system into something that actually aims to help every student succeed is like pulling teeth.

But isn't this true for all of us. Change--admitting we've been wrong, or that the system that benefited us is wrong, or is not what's best for everyone, is hard. Breaking out of our comfort zone is hard. It's risky.

But reality is risky. Being human is risky. but we have to choose. Cold comfort or change. Personal security at the expense of humanity, or exposure and vulnerability with increased humanness.

That's what I'm going for here.

Humanness. Openness. Change. Not for changes sake, but in a constant quest for something better: A sort of infinite flexibility, an evolvingness that is willing to be daily deconstructed in response to new data--a worldview that sees wrongness and failure as a springboard to rightness and success.

To be wrong, to see it, own it, then turn around and change, and realize you may still be wrong. To realize that the cold comfort of pseudo-security that comes from fundamentalism can't compare with the vibrancy of running right into reality and and the warmth of real humanity.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Against authority

This might seem strange coming from an aspiring school leader, but I'm really not much for hierarchical authority structures and top-down leadership.

And I think I'm in good company. I've been reading Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha's powerful book, Sex at Dawn, which lays out their theory of our ancestral heritage. It's a fascinating book, and has been playing a key role in my thinking as I think about a better fit between modern life and human nature.

Hierarchical leadership structures were non-existent in the world of our palaeolithic ancestors. Instead, Palaeolithic societies were decidedly egalitarian:
"When you can't block people's access to food and shelter, and you can't stop them from leaving, then how can you control them? The ubiquitous political egalitarianism of foraging people is rooted in this simple reality. Having no coercive power, leaders are simply those who are followed--individuals who have earned the respect of their companions. Such "leaders" do not--cannot--demand anyone's obedience."
They quote Adam Smith, of all people, who wrote similarly, "In a nation of hunters there is properly no government at all... [They] have agreed among themselves to keep together for their mutual safety, but they have no authority one over another."

In fact, Ryan and Jetha say that, according to primatologist Christopher Boehm, "foragers are downright feline in refusing to follow orders... 'universally--and all but obsessively--concerned with being free of the authority of others.'"

If this is the way we evolved--if it's in our DNA, then it sheds some light on the way we humans tend to behave. (Funny that my former boss, veteran science teacher Julia Sherman, used to say trying to get all of us on the same page was like "herding cats.")

And if this is the way we evolved, let's tap into it. Let's make our schools and classrooms less hierarchical, less coercive, less authoritarian, and more egalitarian and democratic, less about about control, and more about relationships and organic, self-organizing growth.

At the school-level, we might start with strategies like empowerment evaluation, distributed leadership, Hargreaves and Fullan's concept of collective autonomy, and in general, more collaborative decision-making.

At the classroom level, let's start by treating students less as subjects or subordinates and more like equals and collaborators in their own learning.

Still working on this, but I think this is key. Any time we can make our structures fit better with human nature, it's like like letting rocks roll downhill.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Digital whitewater and teens

At a school climate committee meeting the other day, someone mentioned that they thought the emergence of social media has dramatically increased the complexity of the lives of teens.

I think this is kind of profound, and I think it's not just teens whose lives have been complicated, but what's it all about? A few thoughts:

1) Powerful distractions are ALWAYS just a click away. I was talking with student a couple of weeks ago about his playing games on his cell phone while he worked on his assignment. He said, "Yeah.. I kind of wish there weren't so many distractions in life."

2) And social distractions are among the most powerful, if not the most powerful. We are, after all, hypersocial animals. I used to think that was just the ants, bees, wasps and termites, but the more I learn about humans, the more we look similar. And cell phone social media puts all of this just a tap away, any time, anywhere.

3) The size of social circles this puts us in blows Dunbar's number out of the water. We left 150 in the dust 10,000 years ago, but texting, FB, Twitter, Snapchat, have vastly accelerated this effect.

4) The result: Social-emotional singularity, a point beyond which we can't predict the future. The effects of these changes rippling through our minds and society are unpredicatable.

5) This causes stress. Ours has been called a "whitewater" world, and with good reason. We are riding the wave of massive change, and teens are right at the front, right at the time in their lives when social factors seem most important, and when hormones and mental development are screaming for adventure and excitement.

6) Take home message: None of us really have this mastered, and we're all in it together. This calls for understanding, and it calls for intentionality in exploring these issues and working on dealing with these changes together. Need teach first ourselves, then our students how to adapt.

Just thinking.

It's really kind of amazing when you think about it

This week my student teacher's evaluator was in my biology classroom. He was there for the second period of a double block on Friday--not prime engagement time for my class. Most were working on their projects--just a few really off-task. But as I sat with he and the student teacher after and we discussed this model of instruction, a thought occurred to me, and I said;

"You know it's really amazing that they are doing as much work as they are. there are no late penalties in this class, and they know that. They can always redo all of their assignments for a better grade, and they know that. Yet here they are working on their projects."

No threats necessary.

And I typically see the lowest levels of engagement during that second Friday period, when the kids are all tired from a full school week and anticipating the weekend. I've said this before and I probably say it more in the future: autonomy, mastery and purpose works.

This really should surprise me. This is how human beings work. But it's still amazing.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A digital Dunbar

As we work towards creating a world more in sync with human nature, one of the obstacles we are going to run into is Dunbar's Number. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar and others have suggested that humans work best when they live in bands no larger 150, the limit on the number of social relationships a human mind can manage at one time.

According to Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, authors of Sex at Dawn, with groups sizes smaller than this, there is no anonymity: everyone knows everyone else, and our behavior changes--for the better. We treat each other better. We share everything. Over this number, anonymity kicks in, and with it, all sorts of anti-social behaviors and dysfunction.

Below this number, in primitive societies, hypersocial communal living was the norm. Communism fails, say Ryan and Jetha, because of this factor. The tragedy of the commons only happens in resources with large-scale, anonymous access (overfishing, air pollution, not on the colonial greens and in the forests of primeval man, where social relationships held everyone in check.

Below this number, egalitarian, democratic governance rules. Above it, governments and power become more and more concentrated and centralized. (I seem to remember Ghandi saying something about the ideal government being at the village level.)

We've long since passed Dunbar's Number in most human settlements, and I was wondering how this problem of discord could ever be solved. Then it occurred to me: if anonymity is the problem, what if we could eliminate anonymity altogether?

I think it's happening already. Digital and online technologies are quickly making anonymity a thing of the past. Witness Justine Sacco's unfortunate Tweet in 2013. Even the brilliant Dread Pirate Roberts couldn't hide forever in the digital world.

Anonymity from oppressive, centralized governments may be a good thing, but in the modern "tribe" of society, it's really not. In a primal tribe, there was nowhere to hide, and no choice but to treat people well or be cast out. And maybe there was more trust. Maybe more kindness. More humanity. And maybe that sort of thing is not outside the realm of possibility in the modern world.

Just thinking.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bringing order from chaos in the classroom

"Leadership is about bringing order to chaos, fighting ambiguity and staying true to your company’s—and your own—principles." -Ray Hennessey, Entrepreneur Magazine

Chaos. It's not hard to find in a high school classroom.

I spotted this article this morning, and I've spotted chaos in my classroom a couple of times this past week. It didn't look like anarchy or total disarray. In fact, it might have been hard for an outsider to spot.

Last week in bio, it revealed itself in the feedback my students gave me on some survey questions I embedded in their last test. The class is mastery-based, and I have different students in the class working on different assignments at any given time. Lately I had started writing a list of all the assignments on the board at the beginning of each class to remind them (some typically need to go back and revise a previous assignment). Two students mentioned this in their feedback, writing, "there are too many assignments at once" and "since we are doing more than one assignment at once it is overwhelming." And I started noticing the ways in which the students were confused and overwhelmed by what seemed to them to be a constant barrage of things to keep track of. Now I've stopped listing all the assignments on the board, but I'm still working on how I can streamline the system better to reduce the number of things the students have to keep track of.

Then it happened this week in chemistry. having a student teacher necessarily introduces a bit of confusion, but we made it worse when we rushed them through the first section of thermochemistry. They hadn't had time to finish their first problem set on the first day before we introduced a lab activity and a second problem set on the second day. To make matters even worse, I gave them another problem set to replace the first, which hadn't been sufficiently complex for this honors level class. The result was three problem sets and a lab on their desks, confusion, struggles with the concepts and calculations, and more off-task behavior than normal.

Take home message: Any time there is lack of clarity, any time you introduce confusion into the situation, you're breeding chaos.

Time to step back, regroup, and take time to bring more clarity and order to the situation.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Top 5 things I learned in collaborative PD

Kudos to our professional development committee for planning collaborative round table discussions for our PD day today. I got to facilitate one on the topic of differentiated instruction: 16 teachers, mostly veterans, many of us having taught together for years, sitting around a cluster of desks discussing a topic that none of us are experts in, but all of us want to know more about. I presented what I do, other's shared what they did, and we all asked questions of each other, not always agreeing, but hopefully all  coming away with something.

I did, anyway. Here are my top five takeaways:

5) A new idea: differentiated semester and final exams. (Hey, if we should be differentiating assignments, why not summative assessments?)

4) A challenge. By presenting my own strategies, I was forced to question them. they didn't sound quite so watertight as they normally do in my head or on paper. And that's good. I need to be always challenging my own ideas and exposing them to others. That's the only way I'll improve them.

3) New knowledge. I feel like I know my colleagues a little better--got a peak inside their classrooms and their heads and hearts.

2) Encouragement. I came away refreshed by the honest dialogue and encouraged by the obvious passion of my colleagues for improving their practice and helping students succeed. (My favorite part was a spontaneous discussion of risk-taking.) And encouraged the camaraderie of colleagues engaged in a common struggle.

1)  Confirmation. Our time together was further confirmation of the power of the collaborative approach to PD. My colleagues a source of tons of ideas, insight and experience, and we are literally all part of the same team, working toward the same goal, and it's only going to be through this kind of honest discussion  that the whole school will improve. This is where the real fears, difficulties, and visions emerge, get ironed out, refined, hashed out, and grow.

Teamwork. Synergy. Collaboration. Whatever you want to call it. It's how humans work best.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

What happened when I got a C

"Did he grade your essay yet?" my classmate asked me.

I hadn't, so I immediately logged onto the website to check...and my heart sank:


Hmmm.. let's just say it's been a while since I've gotten a "C."

Rapidly cycling through the stages of grief, denial, anger, etc., I quickly pulled out of it and decided to ask the instructor for clarification later.

The next day in school I told the story to my honors chemistry students:

"Now you know how we feel!," said one young lady.

Funny... that's exactly what I thought when I saw the grade the night before. I thought about my students and how lightly I sometimes issue grades, and how I'd better be more mindful when I'm grading.

And it reminded me how inhumane grades are--a cold and crude reward and punishment system. Though I quickly recovered, and though I ended up contacting my instructor and revising the paper, when I first saw that C, it's effect was to make me discouraged and doubt myself. I felt the pang of being branded like a substandard cut of meat. And if I hadn't been allowed to revise it, what good would that grade have done?

I'd simply have a label, a brand, and a little more self doubt, and a little less excitement about the course and maybe even learning in general.

If I were some of my students, I may decide to just "play the game," working for points and grades and not worrying about what I was learning, just trying like heck to avoid the punishments and score the points. Or I might just give up.

As it turns out, I was able to dig back into the assignment, learn more, clarify my thoughts, and hopefully increase my mastery in the process. (Haven't gotten a final grade yet, but I feel good about my revision.)

My guess is I'm no different from my students.

I'd love to throw out grades altogether and opt for a 100% mastery-based approach. Grades are motivate to a certain extent, like electric shocks motivate mice, but what really motivates humans to learn is mastery, autonomy, and purpose, and that's where I'd like to see education go.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Making differentiation practical

I feel like differentiation is often viewed by teachers as pie-in-the-sky fantasy. Sure, it sounds great that we would tailor instruction to individual students based on pre-assessed readiness, interests, and motivation, but how does that really work when you're trying to get 20+ kids in one room through the common core in time for the SBAC?

But I feel like I've cracked the code in my biology class,or at least I'm close to it.

I call it a differentiated, mastery-based approach. In a previous post, I described the whole framework, but right now I just want to focus on the way I think this approach makes the goal of differentiation actually attainable by real people.

For every sub-unit the students choose among assignment options according to their readiness and interests and work individually or in small groups at their own pace. The assignment options are learning activities that require the students to read their text, watch posted videos, or do online research to answer the essential question. As they work, I am constantly circulating from student to student, group to group, asking questions, monitoring progress, and delivering individualized direct instruction as needed.

It's a sort of "divide and conquer" approach, I suppose, though there's no conquering involved. Set the students out to learn on their own and then walk around and deliver personalized instruction.

And by using student choice rather than teacher decision to differentiate, it saves a boatload of teacher time and effort while at the same time boosting student autonomy, which is a huge motivator.

Friday, March 6, 2015

What if you don't like what the students tell you?

"What would you do if we were all overwhelmingly against it? Would you keep doing it this way?"

That's what a student said today after I summarized the results of the online feedback they gave me about the class. I use a flipped learning model, and most students either preferred it or at least appreciated the benefits of it--more in-class time to work problems and get one-on-one attention.

That's when this one student asked his key question: What would I have done if it hadn't come back that way, if all of them hated the flipped model?

I had to think for a minute. I said I'd make sure the data supported the same conclusion, grades, etc., and if so, then I'd have to change it.

As it turns out, my classes' scores are similar to those of the other teachers, and if anything, better than previous years (though we've changed other variables, so it's hard to tell).

But his question is so important. Student voice is really about involving them in the decision-making process, not just gathering feedback. And it's more than that: What do we do when the evidence is against our strategies or beliefs? Do we ignore the evidence, or follow it wherever it leads.

It's hard to face failure or admit we've been wrong, but it's also tremendously freeing somehow, like breaking out of a cocoon. Our delusions, masks, misconceptions and denials are like weights that keep us from something better.

So bring on the error. Bring on the failure. Bring on the evidence that shatters my pet projects, favorite notions, and cherished beliefs. Bring on change. And improvement.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Students interpreting the beauty of DNA

Bio class, you were on fire today! Thank you for the cool work you're doing! I felt like an art teacher and a science teacher at the same time, watching you interpret the the beauty of DNA.

Top ten reasons to be a school principal

Thought I'd follow up on the ten things I like most about being high school chem teacher with the top ten reasons I'd like to be a school principal:

10) The heart of the school is the classroom, and change has to start there, but a principal can facilitate it by finding, encouraging, supporting, and empowering innovative and growth-minded teachers.

9) Revolutionizing education is going to require radical changes in school structures. This is going to require school leaders who are bold willing to be first adopters.

8) The key to school improvement is in a truly collaborative model of school governance. Only school leaders can make this a reality.

7) As a teacher with a passion for innovation, experimentation and improvement, the approval, encouragement, and support of my own Principal has been a key component of my success.

6) I have a passion for hacking education--for making a system that is more human, a better fit with our DNA. As a teacher I can do it at the classroom level. As a school leader I can do it at the whole school level.

5) In the classroom, I believe the most important thing is to design and foster a structure and culture in which autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the motivators instead of grades, rewards and punishments. The same is true at the school level.

4) The other day, I saw a student who succeeded in my differentiated, mastery-based geology class last year. He couldn't make it in his other classes. So even though I was able to help him, he still failed to succeed in the school in general. As a Principal, I'd look for ways to make his success universal.

3) As a Principal, I would have the chance to have a profound impact at key moments in the lives of struggling and at-risk students.

2) As teacher, my influence is limited to 40-60 students per year.

1) As a principal, I could help a thousand... per year.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Letter to a new teacher

Working with a student teacher this winter has reminded me how hard it is to be a beginning teacher, and how our trial-by-fire approach leaves much to be desired.

Being a beginning teacher is tremendously challenging. One can't really understand that without experiencing it. Starting out, we may envision something like a TED talk, with our own dynamic personality and the fascinating subject matter automatically enthralling and inspiring our students.

And then there's reality. A room full or real young people, with the struggles, energy, variety, exhaustion, and diversity of youth, craving independence, wondering what life is all about, identities tied up with their social lives in a way we can't imagine, worried about the present and future, and jaded by 10+ years of an educational system that cares not for such things. A system that's more of a filter than a fire-starter.

But this is exciting. What makes it difficult is the huge learning curve.
There's really a tremendous amount to keep track of when teaching a
class. It's not just about the content you have to communicate clearly and accurately (though for a new teacher, that's enough, especially at the high school level). You need to carefully watch how the students respond, constantly monitor understanding, paty attention to your own words, actions, and demeanor, and all of this on the fly, real-time. I've never surfed, but I imagine it's harder. And for the new teacher who is unsure of all of these things, it's quite a ride.

So if you're a new teacher, hear this: Don't expect perfection, and remember that this is really all about the kids. We don't fail unless we fail to see that.

The rest comes with time.

Top ten reasons to be a high school chemistry teacher

Top ten coolest things about teaching high school chemistry:

10) You get to amass a collection of chemicals that would otherwise be impossible.

9) You get to "play" with the chemicals (designing labs and demonstrations, of course). My favorite is making a white phosphorus mini-flamethrower from a book of matches and a glass pipette.

8) And in the words of Kvothe, the main character in Patrick Rothfuss' awesome new Kingkiller Chronicle, "There is something primal in chemistry, something that defies explication. Either you feel it or you don't."

7) You get paid for learning about cool things like quantum mechanics and for coming up with cool ways to explain things like quantum mechanics.

6) You get paid to come up with cool ways to demonstrate cool things like quantum mechanics

5) You get to be a motivational speaker, trying to inspire young people to get started on their dreams now.

4) You get to be a designer, constantly trying to create new and more effective learning systems and activities.

3) You get to be a hacker, trying to hack education and the human mind.

2) You get to work with others trying to do the same thing.

1) You get to work with teenagers. Simply put, if humans are amazing, teens are 10X so. They're like little fire coals bursting with unpredictable energy, imagination, excitement and potential to set the world ablaze. It really is a privilege to be a part of their lives.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Are we more concerned with assessing mastery or producing it?

Sometime in the last few years, I underwent a paradigm shift in my thinking about teaching and learning. I've been trying to put my finger on exactly what the difference in my thinking is, and I think I've finally boiled it down:

It was a shift from an emphasis on assessing mastery to producing mastery.

When presented the mastery-model and the concept of allow students multiple attempts at mastery, one of the primary objections is that this will not distinguish between the students who master it quickly and those who take a longer amount of time to master it. The emphasis here is on assessing or evaluating mastery, as if our job is about identifying the "strongest" or best students. But is it really?

Another objection that often comes up is that the mastery model will not teach them responsibility. But this objection assumes that punishing students with grade penalties teaches responsibility, which I doubt. As I've mentioned here before, all F's do, all zeros do is slam self-efficacy, further destroy confidence, squash any last glimmer of interest in learning, and send kids further down the doom spiral.

If you want to teach responsibility, then teach it. Don't imagine that simply slapping kids with poor grades will accomplish that.

So how can you teach it? How can we teach students to set goals, work hard to meet them, and produce quality work?

The mastery model. That's exactly what it is designed to do--teach grit and perseverance and attention to quality.

Providing students with multiple cycles of feedback and revisions until they master a skill or concept is not teaching them laziness and irresponsibility, it's teaching the opposite. If you want to teach kids to focus on just passing, or worse, if you want to crush their motivation altogether, keep slamming them with Fs, and let the beatings continue until morale improves.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

By letting go of control, control remains.

Finishing up Deal and Peterson's book on school culture today, I was particularly impressed by their Taoist list paradoxical leadership principals:

Do what you are told; do what you are not told

Mistakes are expected; do it right.

People don't work for rewards. Reward people.
Plans must always be revised. Plan carefully.

Proud to be the best. We aren't good enough.

By letting go of control, control remains

The leader is in control. The leader does not control.

Those last two are my favorites. They remind me of Hargreaves and Fullan's concept of collective autonomy.

And they remind me of my favorite animals (after humans): ants and bees.

Lot's of people think the queen is in charge of the colony or hive, but she's really not. No one is.

A simple set of "rules" is built into their DNA, and as thousands of individual ants or bees interact with each other within this framework of hardwired rules and order emerges from chaos.

Humans are no different, really. So what is the role of the human leader?

Find those rules, and tap into them with carefully planned structures and actions, and then stand back.