Thursday, April 30, 2015

The school with the "no rules" playground

What happens when you take away all the rules?

This principal has found out.

Caught this vid shared by Michelle Boyce (@boycem3) this morning on the #BFC530 (Breakfast Club, 5:30) chat on Twitter. And it's amazing and encouraging.

And it's backed by science. Kids need risk to learn to manage risk, says one researcher.

I'd add, they also need adventure. I love the part about them not having time for video games. That's what happens when real life actually becomes fun.

And then they return to school calm and "ready to learn." Though I'd add they were doing a whole lot of that outside.

I'd love to visit and find out what else is happening. I like how the bigger kids breaking up fights, and I'd love to see what other sorts of social rules are naturally showing up out there. 

But I'd also add some modelling by adults. Need a few teachers walking slacklines and climbing trees, socializing, playing, etc.

Has a lot to say about parenting, as well.

What do you think?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Make it personal. Make it purposeful.

If you really want to motivate humans, you need to do these two things: make it personal and make it purposeful.

Personal: When radiologists were shown a picture of the patient along side every CT scan they interpreted, they were much more likely to notice things that were wrong with the patient.

Purposeful: When hand-washing stations in hospitals had signs reading "Washing your hands keeps patients from getting sick," they were more likely to wash their hands than if the signs read, "Washing your hands keeps you from getting sick."

The more I read, and the more I compare it to reality, the more I'm beginning to see the centrality of relationships to humanness.

I used to see life as competition, and that the most powerful motivator was self-interest. And I thought this was good--that it made us stronger, more creative, harder working.

But as Daniel Pink Pointed out in Drive, and as he pointed out in different ways in To Sell Is Human,the opposite is true.

If you really want to optimize human motivation and performance, you need to tap our pro-social instincts.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Less competition, more improvisation

I was talking with a classmate last week about how easy it is to start feeling like our administrator prep program is a competition, with all of us competing for a limited number of positions as we start our job searches.

So this principle from Pink (To Sell Is Human) hit home today:

Always make the other guy look good.

The principle comes form improvisational acting. When you're an improvisational actor, the strategy is to listen carefully to what your counterpart says, and then build on it in such a way as to make your partner look as good as possible. Rather than making you look worse, you'll both look better, and the whole thing looks like it was planned, like a dance.

And that's how life should be, right? Not a competitive, zero-sum, win-lose struggle for supremacy, but a cooperative dance of mutual benefit.

One practical strategy Pink suggests is called "Yes, and.." Too often we get caught in battles of "Yes, but.." Contradicting and questioning each other in an endless competitive circle. What if, instead, we always said, "Yes, and..." and then built on each other's suggestions instead of tearing them down.

I'm anxious to try this out in the classroom. When a student answers a question inaccurately during a class discussion, I usually try to emphasize what he or she got right. But Pink's strategy is more powerful. You listen carefully, say "Yes," and and then build on what the student says. The result is that instead of the usual competitive game of right and wrong, the whole thing becomes a dance.

I've posted before about Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jetha's awesome book, Sex at Dawn. One of the coolest things about their book is the picture they paint of a human nature that is basically cooperative and hypersocial, rather than competitive and aggressive. Being human is all about this kind of dance of mutual benefit. And this isn't some kind of pie-in-the-sky mystical idealism. It's what makes us tick. It's how we work.

If we want workplaces, classes and classrooms that fit better with human nature, we need less competition and more cooperation, less contradiction, and more collaboration.

Monday, April 27, 2015

What's your Twitter pitch?

Can you condense your resume into 140 characters?

In Dan Pink's latest book, To Sell Is Human, he talks about the successors to the elevator pitch in the information age.

In these days of disappearing attention spans and information deluge, not only will your elevator pitch get lost, it may not even get read unless it is short and really hits home.

Pink suggests writing a one word pitch.

Or a "Twitter pitch"--140 characters.

This seems like a great idea. Something you could leave with interviewers when they ask if you have anything else to say, or as they escort you to the door. It's also a great exercise in clarifying your own thoughts, goals, and persona.

As someone who is currently in the market for an administrative job, I couldn't wait to to try it out. So here are mine.

One word:


140 characters:

You won't find anyone with my combination of vision for innovation and collaborative change, technological expertise, and relational skills.

What's yours?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A "theory of action"

A theory of action is basically a summary of your philosophy of how to do something. In my case, how to run a school, because that's what I hope to do some day, though I never expect to actually run a school by myself. In fact, the heart of my current theory of action is collaborative leadership and an approach called empowerment evaluation.

I believe that there are four things that really motivate humans (adding one to Pink's list of three): Autonomy, mastery, purpose, and relationships. This last one, relationships, comes from my own experience and recent readings, like this article about the work of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson (I was introduced to Fredrickson's work by Pink's book, To Sell Is Human).

And this theory of action is built on this foundation. It's also built on the work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Childern's Zone ("Whatever It Takes") and all the stuff I've gleaned from readings and discussions over the past two years as part of UCONN's Administrator Preparation Program (UCAPP).

But most importantly, I'd like to think it's founded on a sound scientific understanding of learning and human nature, and so it really will be effective in getting every student engaged and helping every student succeed.

Friday, April 24, 2015

An engaging experiment
One of my goals for my differentiated, mastery-based biology class is to increase student engagement. It doesn't look much like a traditional high school science classroom. And this unfamiliar picture often makes me question this strategy and whether it allows too much idle time. 

This week, it occurred to me that it would be very easy to get a rough measure  of engagement, or at least "on-task behavior" (I hate that phrase). I'd just walk around the room at regular intervals and make a check mark for each student who was actively engaged in working on his or her assignment, then divide that number by the total students. This should approximate the percentage of time they are "engaged."

My data so far, base on three separate measurements per class period:

Wednesday:  53%
Thursday: 57%
Friday (a double period): 62%

Today I started getting worried when I was getting ready to do my last count and it looked like I had about 30%, but then realized class was over in 5 minutes, and they'd been working for two hours.

50-60% may not seem to good, until you consider Microsoft's survey of 38,000 people that revealed that "people work an average of 45 hours a week," but "they consider about 17 of those hours to be unproductive." People estimate they're only productive for 63% of the time.

And I wonder what you'd find if you could measure "engagement" in the typical whole-class-instruction setting. You'd have a hard time measuring it, because looking at the teacher is hardly a reliable indicator of engagement. But my guess is you wouldn't get any more than 50%. And even if they're listening, according to Hattie and Yates, "there is no such things as passive learning,"so we have to ask whether they're learning at all in an environment like that.

The expectation of the quiet, docile, passive, teacher-directed classroom, assumes that having 80% of the students looking toward the front is better engagement than 50% working on projects.

I doubt it.

But neither am I satisfied with 50%. (I'm planning to do some experiments with the effect of various motivation efforts. I'll keep you posted.)

And neither am I satisfied with my measure of engagement. I need something that will tell me if they are really engaged, not just typing, looking at their books, or drawing on a poster. Though I think these are better indicators than looking toward the front, they're obviously not foolproof.

I need a better way to gauge it. Maybe by including a rating from my "Depth of Engagement" scale. Let me know if you have any tips.

In any case, I can't fault my students for an engagement level that approximates that of the American workforce, but I can certainly encourage them to aim higher. And I think we can get it higher by using sounder principles of motivation than are used in the typical American workplace (or school)--by using autonomy, mastery, and purpose instead of penalties and rewards.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Positivity ratios for buoyancy on a sea of rejection

I checked today, and my positivity ratio was 0.50. According to Daniel Pink and Barbara Fredrickson, the ratio of positive feelings to negative feelings has to get to at least 3.0 (3 positive feelings for every negative feeling) in order to get real emotional well-being.

I'm going to try tracking it over the next week and see if I can get it up there. Thankfully, Pink suggests a practical strategy for boosting your ratio: Strategically seek out experiences, encounters, conversations, people, etc. that will boost it.

It's a few chapters into his book, To Sell Is Human, in the section on buoyancy, the attribute we all need to be good movers of people. He says we are all confronted every day with an "ocean of rejection," and Pink suggests three general strategies for staying buoyant:

1) Before we attempt to move people (before class, before I apply for that job): replace negative self-talk AND positive self-talk with questions: Will I be able to move these people? And how?

2) During the process, while we're trying to persuade, stay buoyant by staying positive. That's where the ratio comes in.

3) Afterwards, if you're rejected, ask yourself three questions: Is it permanent? Is it pervasive? Is it personal? The answer is probably "No" to all three. "The more you explain bad events as temporary, specific, and external, the more likely you are to persist even in the face of adversity." Dispute and "de-catastrophize" your knee-jerk negative explanations.

He even suggests writing yourself rejection letters (this site will do it for you) to stay buoyant, and tells the story of one entrepreneur who kept all of his, and framed them when he became successful. Or try keeping track of every time someone doesn't "buy what you're selling" for a day or week. Pink says you'll be surprised by the sheer volume of small failures you actually survive.

Reminds me of what I was thinking last week when I wrote "Failures aren't failures, they're fuel." In fact, I guess as soon as I wrote it I wondered what I was thinking. But there's truth to it. It's all in the attitude. You just have to stay buoyant--see those failures as external.

For me, I think I'm starting to get to that place... some days. Not that I want failures, but maybe I don't fear them as much. They're like the water I'm swimming through, pushing off of, gaining strength from.

But I can see that this kind of Sisyphean perspective is not going to be enough. That's why what I liked best about this section in Pink was this practical plan: make it a priority every day to seek out positive interactions.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Key issues in making mastery learning a reality

I've been working towards a mastery-based learning model in a few of my classes over the past few years, and it's a daunting task. Here's why:

First, my effort is based on several premises:

  1. Any scores or grades should clearly measure a learning outcome so that a student or parent or school can look at the scores and know what the students are learning, so that they can adjust and improve their strategies. If we take this to its logical conclusion, we end up with standards-based grading, rather than averages and percentages.
  2. Anything we measure (grade/score) we should also explicitly teach. For example, we shouldn't be penalizing kids for things like late homework is we're not teaching them the skills required to manage their time and tasks.
  3. Scores and grades are part of an external reward and punishment system, and if we want to motivate students towards real learning and creative productivity, we need to motivate them with autonomy, mastery, and purpose (A.M.P.), rather than threats and penalties and competition with their peers.
  4. Zeros are bad. Not only do they skew averages and have a devastating effect on a students average, but they don't actually measure learning at all. They are really just missing data points.
  5. The same goes for late penalties. They obscure the measurement of the students' mastery of a concept or skill.
  6. If mastery of the skill or concept is the goal, then there is no reason not to allowing multiple attempts on assignments. In fact, this could help teach perseverance and quality.
  7. There is no reason we couldn't measure things like responsibility, punctuality, and good social skills, as long as we intentionally and explicitly teach them and keep them separate from content mastery scores. And simply doling out penalties does not teach them.

So here are the key issues that have arisen:
  1. We don't have a standards-based grading system, so the student's grades are just "averages of their mastery," at best.
  2. Without zeros and without a standards-based system, our only recourse when a student is falling behind is an "incomplete," which has implications for things like honor roll and sports eligibility.
  3. Without late penalties and other external incentives for quick work, we run the risk of falling behind the curriculum, too relaxed of an atmosphere in class, and too much off-task behavior unless we do a good job with autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Solutions I'm working on:

  1. Selling students on the idea of mastering the art of learning quickly and producing quality work--a key life skill.
  2. Providing a complete course of assignments that must be mastered before credit is earned, so the students can see how their pace is affecting their progress toward credit. Working on this today.
  3. Providing more meaningful and interesting assignments, to tap into the "purpose" aspect of A.M.P.
And why I care:
  1. I don't teach just for the kids who already know how to learn, turn things in on time, and behave appropriately in school setting. I teach for all students.
  2. My goal is not to be a filter, measuring students and judging whether or not they are fit for a diploma, college or career. My job is to actually get them ready.
  3. No it's more than that, it's to help them learn how to learn.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Problem, probe, product, pronto

My biology class this year is designed around the thesis Daniel Pink outlined in his book, Drive: That the best way to motivate people is not with carrots and sticks, but with autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

I'm trying not to use threats of poor grades and penalties to keep my students working. Instead, I'm focusing on giving them as much choice as possible, allowing multiple attempts for mastery, and making assignments as meaningful and interesting as possible.

So how's it working?

I've been pleased with the quality of their work, and with their desire to revise it for a better score. And I'm hoping they are learning about quality and perseverance. But their motivation and engagement levels vary. There are really good days, some pretty good, not so good. And we've fallen behind the curriculum.

I'm convinced I can get a higher and more consistent level of engagement, and do it without threats and penalties, if I can just keep the levels of autonomy, mastery and purpose high enough.

Maybe this is too idealistic, but 1) I'm not sure the traditional model is any better, and 2) Pink's book was pretty convincing, and I'm figuring if there's a problem here, it's not with Pink, but with my implementation.

So here's my latest tweak:

I started thinking about the mastery part of motivation and what exactly I could hope they would want to master.

Here's what I came up with: Our goal is to master the process of researching a problem, learning about it, and then producing a product, and doing it quickly.

it to produce a high quality product. If they can master the skill of researching a concept or problem, learning quickly, and then producing a quality product, they will have a killer skill for the future.

I'm hoping this is something they can sink their minds into.

Let's see.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Why we're so distracted by our phones just saw this wild photo on Instagram today (which my daughter says I'm too old to be on, by the way), and the first thing I thought was:

"Wow. That explains a lot."

A lot about why I personally find high-tech gadgets, the internet, and social media  so distracting.

It lets me know I'm not alone. My primate cousins are the same way.

We're curious. We're social. We're... something.

Whatever it is, we all have it. So there's no need to bemoan our constant distractibility and fascination with this stuff--the pull that draws into whatever it is. It's basic human... err primate tendency.

Not that we just give in to it all the time, but it's a mistake to deny it or look at it it as a flaw of some sort.

Just watched the wordless but visually striking movie, Baraka, last night, and it opens with one of these macaques relaxing in one of these hot springs. Amazing how "human" he/she looked, eyes closing slightly, then looking off into the distance, up to his/her neck in the hot spring.

Then they switched to a night sky scene, as if the monkey was thinking about it--meditating, even.

Probably not the same monkey that played with the phone, but it could have been. We're complex, we higher primates--hypersocial, hyperintelligent, hypercreative, hypercurious animals.

My goal is to better understand what it means to be human, partly so I can better understand myself, like why I'm so distracted by the computer, and partly so I can forge a better fit between my classroom, my life, and human nature.

Understanding is always better. It's not always more comfortable at first. Sometimes it shatters cherished illusions. But if we use the understanding--adjust our live based on it, we end up better off.

But I think the power of that image of the macaque engrossed in the iPhone went deeper than this. It meant a connection--a connection with something that extends beyond time and body and place and connects us all together. And that kind of empathy...


That kind of empathy is probably one of the key facets of what it means to be "human."

Friday, April 17, 2015

Failures aren't failures, they're fuel
Ever feel like you're on a roll...

with failures?

Like you're "in the zone"...

with rejections?

Like they're becoming your special area of expertise?

Then you're in luck, and not just because you can keep me company down here. Failure's good.

Didn't feel good today, though.


When I read that feedback this morning.

And when that phone call didn't come this afternoon.

Didn't feel good two weeks ago when I realized how far behind I was.

Or a few weeks ago when that show didn't go so well.

Oh, and don't forget all of the micro-failures interspersed in among the bigger, more noticeable ones.

The accumulated effect can be bad, if you let it--if you brood on it, let it get inside of you, let it define who you are.

That was me today.

But then I remembered, "Failure is a by-product of pushing the envelope."

Just one of the awesome lines in probably the most important video I've ever watched: Honda on failure.

I'm tempted to quote the whole thing right here--it's that powerful.

And then I think of Elon Musk and SpaceX and their hard-core, bring-it-on attitude about their failed rocket landings, and the title to Katie Palmer's article on their latest try: "Look it's hard to land a rocket on a boat, OK?"

After all, Palmer, writes, "Today’s failure is still another step toward the ultimate goal of landing, and then reusing, rockets for SpaceX’s space delivery service."

In short, failures aren't failures at all. Each one is a barrier we're breaking through.

And not just that. They can be more than that. They can be fuel. We can feed off of them, knowing they're making us stronger--knowing they mean we're pushing the envelope, and confident that it's moving outward, maybe imperceptibly, but still moving, and who knows when it will blow wide open.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A model for collaborative leadership: Empowerment evaluation

I'm beginning to feel like a broken record (is that idiom out of date?) in my administrator prep classes because I keep coming back to the same strategies and principals in every discussion and on every paper or project. One of them is Michael Fullan's concept of the wrong drivers for education reform, but an even bigger one is empowerment evaluation.

Empowerment evaluation is a strategy for evaluating programs and organizations that involves all (buzzword alert!) stakeholders in the process. I first read about in Glickman, Gordon, & Ross-Gordon's text, SuperVision. The idea is that by including all stakeholders as part of the process, you get  widespread buy-in while tapping into the power of collaborative problem solving. Basically, it's a kind of democratization of leadership.

My own vision of this process has gone through several iterations, but here's my latest:

You start by forming small representative groups (like focus groups or committees) of stakeholders: students, parents, teachers (PLCs would work well here), staff, business people from the community, senior citizens, etc. You provide some training to each on how to look at data, then provide each with an appropriate summary of some data and a problem to be solved--the recent school climate survey results and the question of how we can improve the climate of the school.

Each group looks over the data, individually and as a group, and comes up with a summary and recommendations and/or further questions for the administration.

Each summary goes to a central "committee," also made up of representatives from each group, which then reviews all of the summaries and recommendations and condenses them into their own summary, which it sends to the stakeholder groups and the administrative team.

The administrative team reviews the report and either develops a preliminary plan or a new set of data and questions, which they send to the stakeholder groups for feedback. This cycle continues until the administrative team is ready to move forward with implementation.

This process is leaves enough control in the hands of the administration to prevent gridlock, while at the same time giving everyone a real voice. It goes beyond just evaluation to real collaborative governance. And it should also go a long way toward breaking down barriers between stakeholder groups and opening everyone's eyes to the perspectives of the others. And this is the real power of empowerment evaluation.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

My paleo/primal experiment

Time for a more personal post. Thought I'd share my health and fitness regime*, not because I'm anything special, but just for kicks and posterity's sake (my own records), or for any who might be interested in how a weird high school science teacher tries to apply science to his own health and lifestyle, or even just because it's important to me.

A few years ago, I stumbled on a guy named Mark Sisson and his awesome book, The Primal Blueprint. I won't go into all the details here (his website is a treasure trove of info.), but the basic premise of the primal/paleo approach is this: Try to find out how our evolutionary ancestors lived, in terms of lifestyle and nutrition, and mimic it as much as possible. (He actually gets into the concept of gene switches--turning on genes that kick us into optimal health, but even if his reference to cutting edge tech is not accurate, most of his stuff is well-referenced.)

In practical terms, this means a low-carb diet rich in meats, fats (yes, fats--they're not to blame for clogged arteries) and vegetables. The paleo diet is often misrepresented as being all meat, but it really includes at least as much vegetables. I've been eating a lot more vegetables since I've been working off of Sisson's blueprint. And I lost a bunch of weight (30 lbs. over a year or so), got into probably the best shape of my life, and felt better than ever. Since I started a couple of years ago, I've hybridized it a bit with legumes (peanuts are a snacking staple) and a weekly carb-heavy (tortilla chips, potatoes and/or rice) cheat day, and both of these modifications were based on Tim Ferriss' 4-Hour Body approach. The bread was hard to give up, but I rarely miss it any more. 
A few favorite recipes at my house:

Bacon, chicken and avocado salad
Curry meatballs (serve with zoodles or spaghetti squash instead of rice or pasta)
Bacon and guacamole sammies (make you the instant star of any party)
Mandrik's amazing paleo muffins (you will not be disappointed)
Primal smoothie 1 (from a Primal Blueprint reader created cookbook I got free on Kindle: can of coconut milk, 2 raw eggs, tablespoon almond butter, handful frozen berries, 1/4 tsp. vanilla, 1 tsp honey)
Primal smoothie 2 (my own concoction: 1/2 avocado (see a trend here?), 1/4 to 1/2 mango, 1.5 cup almond milk, 1 raw egg, 2 tsp. honey, 1/4 tsp vanilla)
BTW, maybe you're wondering what my wife and kids thought of dumping grains (bread and pasta) from the menu? Well, Silvana is loving it along with me, and the kids have adapted pretty well. We often make different versions of dishes (pasta and zoodles, for example), and they'll sometimes order pizza or KFC.

I've also thrown in one 19-5 fast per week (fasting from supper to supper), per Ferriss' recommendation, hopefully simulating the longevity effects of caloric restriction.

And I enjoy an occasional cricket bar.

In terms of exercise, my regime is another hybrid of Sisson's Blueprint with Tim Ferriss 4-Hour Body approach: a few short and one longer strength training session per week, one "all out" hormesis-inducing session per week (sprints or burpees for me), cold showers in the warmer months (also for hormesis purposes), plus several hours low intensity sessions, like hiking or walking (or dancing).

And then there are other lifestyle practices, like mindfulness, barefoot shoes, more play (that's partly what was behind the slackline and gym ring purchases), and some things I've been slipping with a bit lately, like staying off the computer for a couple hours before bed. 

And finally, for what it's worth, here's my supplement regime, assembled from various sources, including Ray Kurzweil (the inventor and singulatarian), Mark Sisson, Tim Ferriss, and a bit of my own research. I'm always open to tweaking it**:
Vitamin C - 1000 mg - antioxidant, protects against heart disease, some cancers
Coenzyme Q10 - 100 mg - antioxidant, cancer prevention
Phosphatidyl choline - 420mg - fights arterial plaque, skin health
Resveratrol - 100 mg - major antioxidant with life extension potential
Vitamin D3 -  2000IU but prob. need to reduce this - mood, anti-cancer
Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols) - 400IU - antioxidant
Glucosamine & chondroitin -  Joint health
Tyrosine - 750 mg - mood, emotional health
EPA/DHA complex - 600 mg - active ingredients in fish oil, anti-inflammatory
B Complex - anti-cancer (maybe--may need to dump this as well)
Rhodiola rosea - 250 mg - possible longevity effects
Acidophilus/bifidus 8 Billion - gut health
Men's multivitamin - for selenium - testosterone, cancer prevention

Is it possible this just makes for "really expensive pee"?

Possible. But worth a chance. Unless it turns out they're actually more harm than good.

But they're def. not as important as diet and lifestyle. Definitely not as important as a better fit with out genes, which is what this is all about.

*NOTE: I am not a healthcare professional. My degrees are in soil science, not medicine, so don't try any of this crazy stuff before talking to your doctor.

**UPDATE, 5/4/2015: Definitely considering dumping this whole supplement regime after doing some more research, for example, this article.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Theory Y teaching

More confirmation for the autonomy, mastery, and purpose based classroom today while reviewing Bolman and Deal's classic, Reframing Organizations for an assignment.

Doesn't sound like an exciting read, I know, but it's probably the most important book I've read in my program. And today, in a chapter on the "human resources frame" I noticed how the Theory X vs. Theory Y leadership concept relates to my biology class.

Theory X believes that people are basically lazy and naturally resist change. Leaders in this case either opt for control, rewards, punishments, and authoritarianism, or else they just try to avoid conflict. But Theory Y leaders believe their job is basically to provide the kind of structure people can naturally thrive in, and let them do the rest. In short, they believe people naturally want to hit the high levels of Maslow's hierarchy: mastery and self-actualization. 

Theory X sounds a lot like the traditional approach to school.
Theory Y sounds a lot like Pink's view on motivation: people are naturally motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

I'd certainly rather work in a Theory Y environment. I'm guessing my students would, too.

Bolman and Deal go on to lay out the typical response of workers under a Theory X-type environment:

1) withdrawl, absenteeism, quitting
2) apathy, indifference
3) resistance and sabotage
4) escape to higher positions in the hierarchy

Sounds spookily like traditional school, to me.

And not only does Theory Y lead to better performance, but by reducing conflict, it leads to better relationships. And this, I was reminded by Hattie and Yates yesterday, is super powerful in the lives of kids.

Negative teacher student relationships produce school avoidance and anti-social behavior. Positive teacher-student relationships predict reduced levels of anti-social behavior, buffer at-risk students from adverse home-lives, and can change the whole trajectory of a students life. (They also make teaching a whole lot more enjoyable for teachers.)

So I'll opt for a Theory Y approach.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Before Bloom's, Maslow's

Love this little meme posted by @MsUin302 yesterday on Twitter. It says, in a few words, what I tried to say in too many in my last post on lighting fires.

I may be reading it differently than Mr. beck meant it, but to me it helps answer the question of whether it's better to emphasize support, second chances, and sparking interest, or to emphasize challenge, rigor, high standards, and natural consequences?

The answer is, it depends. It depends on where the student is in their development. (It reminds me of the question of what's better, ambition or contentment.) And it may even depend on the day, because I don't really think it's a hierarchy: It's more like a wheel, where the spokes are all of our needs as humans. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are three of them, but there are more.

The challenge is, of course, that this requires individualized instruction. In fact, that's exactly why we need individualized instruction.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Are we lighting fires or quenching them?

Jim (not his real name) was an at-risk student in my general science class two years ago. When he started the class, he talked very little, was totally unmotivated, had frequent run-ins with classmates, and generally had a very resistant, almost intimidating air about him. He had little interest in work.

A couple of months later, the whole class was sitting family style around a cluster of desks, passing around the "ingredients" for esters that smelled like wintergreen and bananas, and Jim was starting to like science. He started showing up early for class, asking what we were doing that day. By the time we were passing around the ingredients for (really cool) silvered holiday ornaments, Jim was making extras for his classmates who couldn't make their own.

I saw Jim a few weeks ago and asked how he was doing. "I wish I could take more science," he said, "but it didn't fit in my schedule."

Jim's on track for graduation in June.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm just being too easy on students like Jim: when I de-escalate rather than punish, when I encourage but don't pressure them to do their work, when I allow multiple attempts and revisions, or don't penalize for lateness or allow zeros, when I try to motivate with interest and autonomy rather than penalties and threats and grades.

In my biology class right now, most of my students are doing better in my class than in any of their other classes. As a few of them discussed how well they were doing, I said, "Do you think this class is too easy? Do you think I'm too easy on you?"

"This is my favorite class," said one girl with Cs and Ds in all of her other classes. "Your the best teacher I have ever had."

"That won't earn you any points," I replied with a smile.

Though I've been concerned about the pace at which we're moving through the curriculum, I was excited about how they did on the test they took this week. And I don't think I've been too easy. I think it's like Maslow's Hierarchy. It's hard to value learning when "learning" seems hostile to you, or when it seems to be saying you're incapable--a failure. Self-efficacy, confidence, and connections (relationships) are prerequisites to higher interests, like learning.

How do you get confidence if every time you turn around there's another F? But once you start liking class--once you see that learning is fun, and that your good at it... 

It's a delicate balance: between pushing and supporting, but one things for sure, we need to stop seeing school as a filter whose only job is to push and see who can make it. "Education," said Yeats, "is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

What are we doing as teachers? Testing the strength of fires, and quenching them if they're not strong enough? Or are we starting them and stoking them?

Learning isn't linear

Shared this with my standard-college-prep level biology students the other day.

I started by asking how many were planning on going to college (most raised their hands). Told them they should all plan on at least a two year program after high school.

Then I pulled up this visual, and asked if they thought learning was linear.

I said if we think it's linear we may feel discouraged about how far we have to go.

But then I told them I think it's not linear, but every new skill we learn makes a whole new array of learning possible.

"If kids are ahead of you now in school, it's just because they learned some skills earlier," I said.

"So if you think college seems unattainable, it may be a lot closer than you think, you just need some new skills."

Don't know if they bought it, but I hope so, because I think it's true.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Inter-district pollination

One of the tough things about winter is the feeling of isolation. Isolation is one of our worst enemies, as humans, and this is just as true for educators--isolation of teachers in their rooms, and isolation of schools in their districts.

That's why I'm excited about what happened today, when three educators from Ellington (@ErinKMcGurk @nash_michaeld came to our after-school PLC at E. O. Smith to discuss the challenges and promise of standards- and mastery-based learning.

Eleven of us sat around the table and shared stories, data, concerns and questions:

Dave's continued success with some of our school's most at-risk students in his mastery-based flipped algebra 2 classroom, and his feeling that, when he's not  "crunched" by the curriculum, the mastery approach is "really good."

Gary's story of how he gave up on mastery in advanced physics because it slowed him down too much and he had to cover the curriculum.

Klara's stairway visual she used with her Spanish students in a mastery approach to a benchmark project.

Erin, Liz, and Mike's story of how the mastery model spread virally from a few teachers to the whole middle school, and only after that had already happened did the school made it official policy.

Mike's story of how the Middle School teaches and tracks student growth in non-cognitive skills--"Personal Responsibility for Individual Daily Effort," and the kids get excited about the highly coveted "PRIDE"  bracelets.

The Ellington folks' stories of the challenges they'd faced, like the desire of parents for letter grades, and our discussion of how these challenges will be even greater at the high school level.

And our brief, but telling discussion of the need to cut back on the curriculum when using a mastery-based approach, since it takes more time, but that it's probably worth it if the students are learning the material better.

Discussions like these on Twitter and with my cohort in my administrative prep classes have been absolutely invaluable over the past couple of years in shaping my vision and building my capacity (I hope) for improvement. So I'm excited about the possibility of developing more face-to-face, inter-district opportunities like this in Connecticut.

Without collaboration, we really limit ourselves. It's so easy to get comfortable, or discouraged, in our little corner of the world. The perspectives of others are like additional eyes with which we can see the world, and ourselves, and the way to improvement. Their ideas are like pollination to our minds.

As Matt Ridley, wrote, one of the keys to human progress has been the recombination of ideas, what he called "Ideas having sex."

And it's always encouraging to be with people who are passionate about creating a system that serves kids better.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Genes are just apps our cells run

Been thinking through ways to make DNA and genetics understandable to my high school biology students.

Simple is important, and oversimplification is often necessary.

Thursday, we move into genetic engineering and the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a controversial topic these days, with all the calls for labelling GMO foods, protesting against Monsanto, etc.

And I've been listening to Made To Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, and their S.U.C.C.E.S.S. check-list for making ideas stick--make them:


With technical concepts like the way that "information" in DNA is used to make proteins in your cells which then are used for all sorts of things in your body, and eventually create traits like eye color and who knows what else. It's hard to make a SUCCESSful message.

I wasn't able to hit all 6 criteria on the Heath brother's check-list, but here's what I came up with:

Genes are the apps our cells run.

I like it, but will they? We'll see.

It has lots of cool extensions: genetic engineering--making Glo Fish with jellyfish genes or making corn that can survive Round-Up herbicide--is just like downloading a new app into the cells of teh the fish or plants.

And just imagine what sorts of "apps" we might download into our own cells in the future?

Behind the curriculum, but...

If you read my last post, you either:

1) Think the mastery-based system is an abject failure (if your priority is coverage of the curriculum), or

2) Still hold out hope, if not.

But I thought I should balance that last post with some additional info. that suggests another reason to "hold out hope."

1) I forgot to mention that, while I'm several weeks behind where I was last time I taught the course (2 years ago), I am only a week or two behind my colleagues teaching the same course (with traditional methods) this year.

2) More importantly, I thought I'd compare student performance across the years, and threw in a previous year for good measure. First, there's the grade distribution:

Note the blue line is this year: mastery-based, project-based, and differentiated, with a no zero policy.

In 2013, I had begun the project-based, differentiated approach, but without the mastery and no zero components.

In 2012, I ran it as a traditional course.


Maybe it's obvious--give kids second (and third) chances, more interesting work, and more time, and they succeed at a higher rate. But keep in mind: the mastery, "no zero" model also includes the requirement that they must do all of the assignments and meet a minimum standard on each one. There are no opt-outs (zeros) allowed.

In the first semester this year, my students completed a total of 8 projects, each taking several days, 14 video quizzes and shorter assignments, 8 labs, plus tests, quizzes, and other assorted tasks.

So is the bar lower or higher?

And what's the point of the "bar" anyway? Isn't the point to see them learn how to learn, master the material, and value hard work and quality and perseverance?

Is school just some sort of filter--a gateway or obstacle designed to keep certain kids from passing through to a productive and happy life, or is it a springboard to make sure they all do?

Monday, April 6, 2015

Falling behind the curriculum with the mastery model

So here I am at the end of the third quarter and I figure I am 5-6 weeks behind where I was when I taught the same course 2 years ago.

I know it's crazy, but I just realized this yesterday, when I took a close look at my gradebooks and Moodle site.  I might have noticed earlier, but we switched around some topics in the curriculum, so it made it hard to compare years.

As I started scratching dates and topics into my Bullet Journal and it began to dawn on me just how far behind, I started to get anxious.

This is the course I've been experimenting with--the one I'm differentiating and using the mastery-based approach with.  This is the one with no zeros, no late penalties--the one of been trying to motivate with autonomy, mastery, and purpose (my mantra).

Maybe it's failed.

That's what I was thinking, anyway.

Then I got practical and came up with a plan for paring down the remaining content so I could cover the required breadth of material in the remaining 8 weeks of the year.

But still, today in class, I felt the need to pressure them: "OK. So you need to get done x, y, and z by tomorrow or you're going to end up with an incomplete on your report card."

...which is exactly what I don't want to resort to--the carrot and stick method, the cattle prod method, the authoritarian method, the "beatings will continue until morale improves" method .

Because Pink's "autonomy, mastery, and purpose" approach has evidence to back it up. It works better than external motivation. So though I'm open to being wrong, first I'll look for the problem elsewhere. I can think of a few places off the top of my head:

1) The curriculum is just too broad. And it turns out I added 3 new projects this year that I didn't use two years ago, including one on cancer prevention. These projects that took the place of faster, easier worksheets and other traditional activities I used to cover the same material two years ago.

2) It's been a rough 3rd quarter, with tons of snow days, multiple sophomore extend field trips, and a student teacher.

3) "What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity... What looks like laziness is often exhaustion...What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem." This quote from Chip & Dan Heath's book, Switch, is my other mantra.

4) I started using the mastery approach this year, which allows the students multiple attempts at every assignment. This has obvious potential implications for time.

5) I also implemented a "no zero" policy, which includes a "no late penalty" policy, which together with #2 tends to stretch out the time-line of projects a bit.

6) Though I've seen some success, I haven't mastered the art of motivation in this mastery-based approach.

Excuses? Maybe. But why should the traditional mile-wide curriculum/traditional instruction model be the default, anyway. Seems to me, the system is crying out for change. As long as there are failing students, it's failing them.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Testing what really matters

Measurement is good, as long as what you're measuring is meaningful.

Thanks to @kburiano
for the link to this great article that beautifully explains the importance of measurement and the importance of non-cognitive skills. There's been a lot of talk about these so-called "soft skills" lately in the business press, and for good reason. But they're generally neglected in schools (especially high schools), where we focus on content knowledge and skills. This is probably  because many educators don't think it's the job of the school to teach these things, but it could also be due in part to the difficulty in measuring them.

We struggled with this when we were working on our new graduations standards at the high school. Some of us wanted something about community and making a global contribution to be part of the standards, but we dropped it in part because of concerns about how we would measure it.

Maybe this is why typical standardized tests focus on easily measurable things like memory of facts, vocabulary, and mathematical techniques. But it's more likely we just haven't really decided, as schools and as a society, to really value the things that really matter.

Measurement is an essential factor in improvement, and measuring the things that matter really is possible. I believe that everything is inherently measurable, and as I've read books like Mindset, Flow, and the Happiness Hypothesis, I've often been excited by clever ways psychologists come up with for quantifying human psychology. This piece by Susan Engel just confirmed it all. She outlines a set of 6 attributes we should and could measure in schools, attributes that are much more important than a set of SAT vocab words or factoring a polynomial:
  1. Reading
  2. Inquiry
  3. Flexible Thinking and the Use of Evidence
  4. Conversation
  5. Collaboration
  6. Engagement
I'd add a more to the list: maybe perseverance, self-control, creativity, compassion, mindfulness, to name a few, but I don't have metrics handy (though I'm sure we could come up with some).

So let's get going. It's time to focus on what's really important, and we can develop the tools.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Pushing the envelope, and loving it

I know I'm late to this party, but my instructor showed this vid in class the other day and I keep thinking about it.

I know it focuses on the first follower, and that's important, but I feel like the "shirtless guys" need the most encouragement. Isn't their role the scariest? And isn't that partly why the first follower is so key?

And I think that's why watching this video is encouraging.

If you've ever been on the front lines, on the edge, risking things and trying things and making yourself vulnerable and open to criticism and failure and pushing the envelope of your abilities and maybe even the envelope of what people expect or think is possible, then you can probably can relate to this guy, too.

Of course, he's just having fun. It's pretty low-stakes to dance at a concert. But then again, most of what we're usually worried about is actually not as high-stakes as we think.

And isn't it pretty cool even before everyone joins in? In fact, isn't that the coolest part of the video, before everyone else joins in? When he's out there alone, "making a fool of himself," and then when the second guy comes out (the first follower).

Of course it's exciting when everyone joins in the party, but the coolest part is clearly the beginning.

What if it had died out after the first few? 

No party, but still pretty cool.

What if the first follower had not come out?

Not quite as cool, but I would still love it, just because this gutsy and fun-loving shirtless honey badger of a guy is throwing it our there.

So what are you afraid of? What am I afraid of? The fear, the challenge, the rush, like you're about to crash... that's what it's all about, isn't it?

It's not just about success. It's about the process of pushing that envelope.

And that's what leadership is about, too, at least a big part of it: Vision, and overcoming that fear of change and criticism and failure and having the guts to be that shirtless guy.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

How to not suck the life out of your lessons

The central dogma of biology.

Now that sounds exciting, doesn't it.


Sure, it's fascinating to me--the concept that the information stored in DNA is copied into RNA and read by ribosome "codereaders" to make proteins, which then make pretty much everything else we're made of.

But then, I've been doing "science" for 30 years. I have tons of schema in my head about these things and so I can "relate" to it. Weird, I know.

So why do I expect my students to respond like me?

They need something they can latch on to.

The latest section of Chip and Dan Heath's book, Made to Stick, is about using emotion to help draw people in.

Not a lot of emotion in that central dogma thing.

Had me wondering about our next unit on genetically modified organisms, and how I can tap this for their next assignment. Maybe a real story about GMOs--something close to home?

Then I was wondering how this fits with my mantra: autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and I figured it was about the purpose part.

It's about making it real, immediate, and relevant to them.

Interesting: The Heath brothers told the story of a study in which they told people all these horrible statistics about Africa and then asked them to donate money. then to the second group, they told the story of one impoverished African girl and that their donation would go to her. The group that heard the story of the girl gave twice as much, on average.

And here's the real kicker: They took a third group and told them the statistics and then the story of the girl. This third group gave half as much as the group that just heard the story of the girl.

Statistics--analytical details, kill emotion and motivation.

Well, maybe that wasn't exactly their message, but it's pretty much it. Get us in an analytical frame of mind and our emotions die.

I wonder if that happens in school? I wonder if we get kids in an analytical frame of mind that sucks the life right out of them.

No, I don't wonder. I know we do.