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Blue (School) Skies Ahead

It was fifteen years ago, but I still remember the first time I saw Blue Man Group. Watching those bald blue aliens discover how to eat a Twinkie, or investigate the queasy vibrations of a giant Jello cake, or climb the walls of the theater to learn more about the people who were sitting there – well, anyone who’s seen the show knows there’s nothing quite like it.

Since that time, Blue Man Group has become an international phenomenon, and an unlikely aesthetic portal through which to vicariously experience the wonders of inquiry, discovery and mischief. And now, those same core ingredients are at the heart of a remarkable new school in New York City – a school I got to visit and see through the eyes of two of its founders, “Blue Man” Matt Goldman and his wife, Renee Rolleri.

“Blue Man Group started in the 1980s as this outrageous idea,” Matt explained, shortly after we entered the school’s kinetic entry hall on a recent Friday morning and placed our shoes amidst a beehive of cardboard storage tubes lining the walls. “Our goal was to inspire creativity in our audiences and ourselves. We wanted to speak ‘up’ to the intelligence of our audience members while reaching ‘in’ to their childlike innocence. We wanted to create a place where people continually learn and grow and treat each other with just a little more consideration than we typically find in the ‘real world.’ And we wanted to have fun doing it.”

By the mid-2000s, their oddball idea now a full-fledged, flowering franchise, Matt, fellow founding Blue Men Phil Stanton and Chris Wink, and their wives formed a parent-run playgroup. Soon thereafter, they realized the same principles that formed the foundation for a successful theatrical performance could also be at the center of a successful school. “Better still,” Renee added, “those principles might even help spur a re-imagining of education for a new era, and a restoration of some of what this recent era of test-driven accountability has cast aside.”

The school’s mission statement spells out the core ingredients such a re-imagining will require: “cultivating creative, joyful and compassionate inquirers who use courageous and innovative thinking to build a harmonious and sustainable world.” And all of these characteristics are visibly on display for anyone who visits the school’s building on Water Street, formerly the Seamen’s Church Institute, near the southern tip of Manhattan. Student artwork is ubiquitous, from paintings to sculptures to support beams that have been turned into trees. Every floor has a common space that the children are responsible for decorating. A construction lab features a treasure chest of wooden blocks of all sizes, and everyone likes to spend time in the “wonder room” – a black-lighted, fully padded playspace with a disco floor – yes, a disco floor. Otherwise-drab hallways are brought to life with pastel colors, feathers, and fabric. And each classroom is anchored by adults who are deeply skilled in progressive teaching practices that date back more than one hundred years.

In that sense, aside from its distinctive decorative flourishes, much of what the Blue School does is not new, and does not claim to be. After all, John Dewey knew a thing or two about how people learn, and as Renee pointed out, “Dewey’s Lab School was both a destination for learning and a base camp for cultivating culture. That’s what we want here as well.”

However, two components of the Blue School’s program are new – groundbreaking, even – and the rest of us would be wise to take notice.

The first is the school’s educational framework, which takes its organizing principles directly from the personality profile of the Blue Man himself. “When we were designing the show,” Matt explained, “we imagined the characters seeing and interacting with the world like children do. The Blue Man continually explores and researches the world around him. So we imagined him doing so via six different lenses:

  1. The Group Member – the lens of collaboration, connection, and global citizenship
  2. The Scientist – the lens of curiosity, critical thinking, experimentation and analysis
  3. The Hero – the lens of perseverance, commitment and leadership
  4. The Trickster – the lens of provocation, innovation, and play
  5. The Artist – the lens of imagination, instinct and creative expression
  6. The Innocent – the lens of emotional awareness and mindfulness

“These six lenses are mindsets or approaches children, teachers, and others in our community can assume to explore work, academic areas, an environment, and materials,” Matt shared while we watched a cluster of four-year-olds make mud in their airy, light-filled classroom. “We want to teach our kids how to surf in all of those different energies. And we want to help them develop critical life skills and practices along the way.”

An educational framework organized around archetypal personalities, each of which is mapped to different core attributes that combine to make up a creative, joyful and compassionate person? I have never seen another school organized in such a way, and the elegance of the design extends to which lenses are likely to be most compatible with which components of the curriculum (which, befitting a progressive school, is negotiated between children and adults, and which therefore largely unfolds in real time based on expressed student interests). This is what makes Renee proudest. “We’re still learning, but so far we’ve been able to create a healthy, warm, safe, nurturing environment where community is paramount and where children’s interactions between classes are just as important as what happens during classes. It’s the kind of educational program I wish I’d had for myself and which we all dreamed we’d have for our children – a place where people feel like there is genuinely no better place to learn and to grow.”

What makes the Blue School’s framework even more exciting is its commitment to explicitly link everything it does to the latest research about how the brain works, and about how people learn. As Renee explained, “we know there is a broad range of expectations within each age group and that the rate of development varies greatly between children. This is why we believe age doesn’t matter nearly as much as sequence. There are clear developmental progressions that children experience – physically, cognitively, emotionally, and linguistically – and no one experiences any of them at quite the same pace. Why, then, do we continue to educate children in a linear, grade-by-grade process, when the research clearly tells us that this is not how people learn?”

Lindsey Russo, the school’s director of curriculum documentation and research, agrees. “Schools were not applying this new neurological science out there to how we teach children,” she said in a recent article profiling the school in the New York Times. “Our aim is to take those research tools and adapt them to what we do in the school.”

Consequently, children at the Blue School learn directly about the different regions of their brains, and what thoughts and behaviors they control. Adults speak daily about the importance of meta-cognition and helping children develop “supported autonomy.” And school leaders seek advice and feedback from leading scholars like UCLA neuro-psychiatrist Dan Siegel and NeuroLeadership Institute co-founder David Rock.

“Teaching and learning are reciprocal processes that depend upon and affect one another,” Renee said, smiling, as a phalanx of strollers and parents surrounded her. “We just hope our school can be one of the places to help us understand, as a country, how to support those processes in ways that help as many people as possible unleash their wildest, most beautiful selves on the world we all share.”

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Occupy Third Grade?

On a crisp fall morning in the nation’s capital, 3rd grade teacher Rebecca Lebowitz gathered her 29 public school students on their familiar giant multicolored carpet, and reminded them how to make sense of the characters whose worlds they would soon enter during independent reading time.

“What are the four things we want to look for when we meet a new character?” Ms. Lebowitz asked from her chair at the foot of the rug. Several hands shot up before nine-year-old Monica spoke confidently over the steady hum of the classroom’s antiquated radiator. “We want to pay attention to what they do, what they say, how they feel, and what their body language tells us.” “That’s right,” her teacher said cheerily. “When we look for those four things, we have a much better sense of who a person really is.”

As the calendar shifts to the eleventh month of 2011 – a year of near-constant revolution and upheaval, from the Arab Spring to the Wisconsin statehouse to the global effort to Occupy Wall Street – what might the rest of us learn from students like Monica? If, in short, we were as smart as a third-grader, what would we observe about the character of this year’s global protests, and what might we decide to do next?

1. It is not about “democracy” – As much as we glorify and value the principles and practices of our democratic system of government, it’s not democracy per se that is at the root of this unleashed global yearning. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently pointed out, what motivated the protesters in Tahrir Square – and what most animates those who continue to brave the wintry weather in public squares around the world – is a deeper quest for what lies at the root of a genuinely democratic society: justice.

The people protesting around the world are not just looking to be seen; they’re demanding to be heard. And what they’re saying is that from Egypt to the United States, essential social contracts have been broken – contracts that require at least a modicum of fairness and balance. If anything, therefore, these movements are about highlighting an uncomfortable truth: merely having a democracy does not guarantee a just society, and the tendencies of democracy and capitalism, left untended, tend to flow in different directions.

2. It is about unsustainable social orders – Across the Middle East, citizens have been risking their lives for months to protest the injustice of their daily lives. And yet the absence of social justice is a cancer that has already spread well beyond the borders of the Arab world. According to a recent analysis of the 31 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), nearly 11% of all people in OECD countries live in poverty. Worse still, 22% of American children are affected by poverty, yet the United States spends only 0.33% of its GDP on pre-primary education.

When these data are combined with other indicators like income inequality, access to health care, and the percentage of elderly citizens living in poverty, the United States gets a social justice rating that trails all but four of the OECD’s 31 countries. Add to that the now-well-known fact that the top 1% of Americans now control 40% of the total wealth, and you have an unsustainable social system, plain and simple. Clearly, people are angry, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

3. It does require a reboot of public education – History has shown us that to sustain a movement for transformational social change, anger is both necessary and insufficient. To sustain our energy, we are best fueled by an empathetic regard for the needs of others, not just our own. As Gandhi put it, “I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion.”

If what we seek, then, is a more sustainable and just social order, how should we recalibrate our public schools – the institutions most responsible for equipping children with the skills and self-confidence they need to become effective and justice-oriented change agents as adults?

We might start by evaluating each other the same way Ms. Lebowitz’s students evaluate new characters in a book. To fulfill the egalitarian vision of 2011, children must grow up in learning environments that are sensitive not just to what they do and say, but also to how they feel and what their body language tells us about the larger world they inhabit. This, too, is a central insight of those who study systemic change. “We need to learn to attend to both dimensions simultaneously,” says M.I.T management professor Otto Scharmer. “What we say, see, and do (our visible realm), and the inner place from which we operate (the invisible realm, in which our sources of attention reside and from which they operate).”

Recent events have underscored just how essential it is to acknowledge our global interdependence; after all, it was the financial subterfuge of the few that affected the personal wellbeing of the many. That’s why a healthy democracy is more than just policies and practices – and a healthy school is more than just test scores and teacher policies. That’s why the American activists of tomorrow need more than just the occasional lesson about Gandhi or King; they need consistent opportunities to actively apply their own developing compassion for others in the service of creating a better world. And that’s why students like Monica need to grow up in a society willing to heed the rising voices of the protesters and recommit to our nation’s founding promise:  “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice.”

That’s the sustaining vision of an equitable society. Now it’s time for a mission capable of fulfilling it.

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E Pluribus Pluribus?

It’s not even Noon, and nine-year-old Harvey is already back on the floor.

His three tablemates, their efforts at independent reading on hold, watch and wait for Ms. Serber to arrive and restore order. Harvey’s pear-shaped body writhes on the floor, animated by neither malice nor mischief. He chews absent-mindedly on his silver necklace and gazes at the ceiling until she arrives.

“Let’s get up and get back into it,” Ms. Serber implores, her hand gently rubbing his back to coax him up to the table. After a few minutes, Harvey picks his book back up, and Ms. Serber resumes scanning the faces of her other twenty-eight 3rd graders to assess their needs. Mid-morning light cuts across her eighty-year-old classroom from the large windows that line the west wall, casting strips of shadow on the homemade plates to which each child attaches a clothespin to register his or her daily mood: sad, angry, worried, frustrated, frightened, excited, bored, happy. This morning – most mornings – most pins clasp the same plate: sleepy.

Nearby, a reed-thin boy named Elliott keeps working. Pale and quiet, his hair still bearing the shape of last night’s sleep, Elliott is an avid reader; this summer alone, he finished more than twenty books, from The Hobbit to The Trumpet of the Swan. Ms. Serber observes him working quietly, and then transfers her attention to a different table where her presence is more sorely needed.

Elliott’s reading list is among the many things displayed proudly on the back wall of room 121, where each student has identified what he or she hopes to learn about in third grade. Some of the preferences are predictable: Harvey, for example, wants to “lrn abto sharks”; others wish “to learn about weather systems,” or “go to the Baltimore museum and see the dolfin show.”  Taken together, the children’s goals reflect just how varied their levels of engagement and readiness are. One student outlines an admirable goal with nearly unintelligible spelling: “I hope to lun to slpel wrs because a m ging to go te colejig.” Another merely outlines something unintelligible. “Matlattrusala is big. You like Matlatirusla.”

At 12:30pm, Serber and her co-teacher, Ms. Creagh – whose shared first name has led them to be known as “The Two Sarahs” – get their first break in five hours. In that time, they’ve taught the students about reading the date and time; reading content for mood and rhythm; differentiating between fiction and non-fiction; writing reflectively and creatively; sounding out phonics; practicing addition and subtraction; and solving mathematical word problems. As their students head for the lunchroom and descend the school’s weathered marble stairs in a winding line of spasmodic energy, their teachers take their first bathroom break, unpack their homemade lunches, and use the quiet time to fine-tune their afternoon lessons.

A few miles away, at a different school, Cassie Hurst is contemplating her own classroom’s eclectic set of needs. A first-year kindergarten teacher in a first-year charter school, Cassie is tall, slender and kinetic. When she speaks, whether it’s to a five-year-old or an adult, she uses her long limbs expressively – and often – to animate her words. Her intelligent eyes jump out from behind her black Jill Stuart glasses.

The school year is barely a month old, yet Cassie already feels energized professionally – and exhausted personally. “I think we’re doing a really good job of reaching different kids and differentiating our instruction,” she explained on a sunny October afternoon. “At the same time, I’m worn out. I hadn’t expected to feel this strained this early in the year. But I’m with my kids every day from 8:30 to 3:30, without any breaks; that’s a long time to be “on” every day. And the needs of my kids are so varied. For example, a lot of our students came to us from the same play-based preschool; they are the sweetest boys, but they didn’t spend a lot of time on academics so they don’t know their letters at all. Then there are other kids who bring with them such complicated family and emotional issues. We assess everyone every four weeks to make sure we’re keeping track of their progress, and we’re grouping kids by ability in different “learning teams” within each classroom – but even within those groups, the highest-achieving kids have such different strengths and weaknesses, and for so many reasons, and the same is true for the lowest-achieving ones. It’s a lot, and it’s a constant challenge, and I work in a team of three. Thinking about trying to do that work on my own gives me chills at night. I just don’t think it would be possible.”

*  *  *

Is it possible? Can one, two or even three teachers in a classroom of twenty to thirty children not just diagnose the needs of each child, but also meet those needs, consistently and measurably?

In theory, such a goal has always directed America’s efforts to improve its public schools; after all, the first major federal legislation affecting public education was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s equity-oriented “War on Poverty.” But the goal was never explicitly stated – and incentivized – until 2002, when the 107th U.S. Congress rechristened Johnson’s legislation as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, and President George W. Bush heralded the dawn of “a new time in public education in our country.  As of this hour,” he said, just before signing the bill at a public high school in Ohio, “America’s schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results.”

Under Bush’s new path, schools receiving federal funding were now required to annually test every child in certain grades in both reading and math. The students’ scores would be broken down and reported by subgroups – both as a way to highlight the progress of historically under-served groups of children, and to ensure that no single group’s performance could be concealed amidst a single, all-encompassing number. “The story of children being just shuffled through the system is one of the saddest stories of America,” said Bush. “The first step to making sure that a child is not shuffled through is to test that child as to whether or not he or she can read and write, or add and subtract . . . We need to know whether or not children have got the basic education . . . And now it’s up to you, the local citizens of our great land, the compassionate, decent citizens of America, to stand up and demand high standards, and to demand that no child – not one single child in America – is left behind.”

A decade after its passage, President Barack Obama and members of the 112th Congress were aggressively pursuing a re-write of NCLB before the end of the year – and opinions remained split about whether it had been more helpful or hurtful to American schools. On one side, critics decry that the bill’s narrow focus on reading and math scores has had the unintended effects of squeezing other subjects out of the curriculum, and stifling the creative capacity of teachers to engage their kids in different ways. On the other side, advocates celebrate the ways NCLB has forced America to publicly confront just how poorly some students have been served in the past. No Child Left Behind shone a data-drenched light on the actual academic differences between kids, they argue, and sunshine is a powerful disinfectant with the potential to highlight the most necessary reforms.

Across the same general time frame, an equally seismic policy shift had occurred: the virtual disappearance of “tracking” – or the process of assigning students to classes based on categorizations of their perceived academic potential. In its place, today’s teachers are increasingly expected to “differentiate” their lessons – and not merely to each class, but to each child, every day, all year.

By the start of the 2011-2012 school year, this constellation of forces – the dawn of high-stakes testing, the death of tracking, and the desirability of differentiated instruction – had resulted in a perfect storm of reform that had dramatically recast the daily experiences and expectations of teachers like Cassie and the Two Sarahs. And once again, education experts remained split over whether the forces at play were ultimately for the better.

“We are shortchanging America’s brightest students,” argues education scholar Frederick Hess, “and we’re doing it reflexively and furtively. A big part of the problem is our desire to duck hard choices when it comes to kids and schooling. Differentiated instruction — the notion that any teacher can simultaneously instruct children of wildly different levels of ability in a single classroom — is appealing precisely because it seemingly allows us to avoid having to decide where to focus finite time, energy and resources. Truth is, few teachers have the extraordinary skill and stamina to constantly fine-tune instruction to the needs of 20- or 30-odd students, six hours a day, 180 days a year. What happens instead is that teachers tend to focus on the middle of the pack. Or, more typically of late, on the least proficient students.

“Focusing on the neediest students, even at the expense of their peers, is not unreasonable,” Hess explains. “After all, we can’t do everything. But self-interest and a proper respect for all children demand that we wrestle with such decisions and pay more than lip service to the needs of advanced students.”

Carol Ann Tomlinson, a nationally-known expert on issues of differentiation, defines the core issue differently: “Is the primary goal a separate room for students with particular needs, or should our primary goal be high-quality learning experiences wherever a student is taught? The range of students in schools indicates the need for a range of services. Since most students have always received most of their instruction in general education classrooms, it’s quite important that differentiation in that setting be robust. There are some very bright students whose academic needs are quite well addressed in some “regular” classrooms, some who require extended instruction in a specific subject, some whose need for challenge suggests specialized instruction in all content areas — perhaps even outside the student’s school. Effective differentiation would serve the student in each of those situations.”

*  *  *

Of course, there are theoretical conversations about school reform that take place at 30,000 feet. And then there’s the daily reality teachers must experience and negotiate on the ground.

One afternoon after school, over the din of the few remaining students’ voices still bouncing off the room’s ten-foot-high brick walls, the Two Sarahs pause to reflect on the question, and their work.

Sarah Serber speaks first. Her face is expressive and illustrative – the sort of visage her students rely on to gauge how she feels at any given time. Small and compact, Serber has the gait of a gymnast, more powerful than delicate: one imagines her approaching a pommel horse like the young Mary Lou Retton – focused, confident, fearless. “I don’t think it would be possible for me not to teach in this way,” she says. “Before, in my first and second years of teaching, I did a lot more whole-group lessons, and although they took less time to plan, they ended up taking much more total time because of all the follow-up work I had to do with different kids. So I’ve adjusted my own sense of where my time is best invested. And now we know that those late nights of breaking down not just the different activities, but also the different goals for the different students within each activity, is the only way we can realistically do our job.”

Sarah Creagh agrees. Tall and blonde and in her fifth year of teaching, Creagh has a quieter, softer air about her. She also shares her co-teacher’s passion about both her decision to teach in a public school, and her conviction that it’s possible, even in a class as big as theirs, to identify and meet every child’s needs.  “I feel a social justice calling in this work – or, maybe that’s too corny, but I feel very personally a need to contribute to our larger commitment to equity and equality.”

Creagh’s own conversion occurred one summer, when, after graduating from college with a major in psychology and women’s studies, she followed her parents to DC and haphazardly got a job with a reading research company. Up to that point, Creagh had never seriously considered teaching. “But then I found myself working intensively with children who simply could not read, and watching them make phenomenal progress. It was amazing to see that power – and it occurred to me that the real place this needed to be happening was not in some summer program, but in their full-time, yearlong classroom, day in and day out.”

After their last remaining students exit the school’s red front doors to head home down different leafy streets, past houses and housing projects, the Sarahs spend the last minutes of their work day examining the latest iteration of the DCPS report card to assess which standards they will address before the first quarter comes to a close.

The form reflects the efforts of city administrators to provide greater clarity about what all students are expected to learn. Most of the standards are in the two tested subjects – reading and math – but other categories exist for science, social studies, music, art, health, and work habits. To review their efforts, Creagh and Serber check the standards they have addressed thus far, from “comparing and recognizing that plants and animals have predictable life cycles” to “speaking in complete sentences when appropriate to task and situation.”

Another section of the report card addresses “personal and social development” – fitting, since on most days it’s this sort of attention most 3rd graders most acutely need.  Of the section’s five benchmarks, four place a value on children following the rules; the other is about self-regulating emotions and behavior. It’s ironic, since even a casual visitor to room 121 would quickly see that in order for Serber and Creagh to create the sort of environment that can support the desired intellectual growth of their students, they must first construct a complex web of interpersonal trust, expectations, and empathy.

What would happen if such skills were weighted equally, and identified more specifically? Would teachers’ daily efforts at differentiating their instruction become more or less difficult?

The next morning, Harvey enters the classroom, hangs up his jacket, and sits down at his table to eat the breakfast provided by his city to its schoolchildren – an egg burrito, banana, and milk. He finishes, lumbers up to a visitor stationed near the back wall of the room, and points to his personal goals for the year, which feature a colorful drawing of the sharks he hopes to study. “That’s my name there!” he reports excitedly. Moments later, Ms. Creagh asks the class to help clean up the trash from breakfast. Harvey returns to his seat, and resumes gazing out the large windows in front of him.

It’s a new day.

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How Many Sacred Cows Does It Take to Sustain A Movement?

How do we transform the quality of teaching and learning in America?

Like a lot of people, I’ve been wrestling with that riddle for the bulk of my career. And this month, three separate events are making me wonder in a new way about how to bring about such a shift – and sustain such a movement.

The first two were meetings that represented parallel, powerful constituencies and ideas – an Imagination Summit hosted by the Lincoln Center Institute in New York City; and an Empathy in Action working group, hosted by Ashoka in Washington, DC. At each gathering, I heard stories and insights from some of the world’s most influential thinkers – from Sir Ken Robinson to Deepak Chopra to Kiran Bir Sethi. I heard compelling cases for helping our education system become more effective at ensuring that all children become empathetic, and develop the ability to think imaginatively, act creatively, and behave innovatively. And I left feeling impressed by the energy and the motivation that was driving each group to push its work forward.

In a few days, I’ll also be attending the Save Our Schools (SOS) March, a grassroots-led movement of teachers and parents from across the country that disagree with the Obama administration’s current reform path – and plan to peaceably assemble in DC to indicate their displeasure. Since I’ll also be covering the march for CNN, I’ve been reflecting on the goals of those private meetings, the goals of this public march, and the essential questions that must be answered for any movement to be successful: Who or what is the movement’s opponent? What is its core idea, and how can that idea be expressed as simply and compellingly as possible? And how can a complex network of individuals, organizations and alliances come together to forge a common agenda?

Our own history tells us just how possible, and difficult, it is to turn ideas and energy into transformational change. That’s because reforming a system requires not just the capacity to know your enemy and forge a compelling narrative, but also a systemic approach to the problem – an articulation of the whole. Too often, what happens instead is we lose sight of the whole out of our preference for a specific piece of the puzzle – I call it the sacred cow syndrome. Instead of a unified movement, we get a cacophony of parallel efforts. And instead of paradigm shifts, we get Groundhog Day.

If you’re a principal, you know this all too well. In addition to everything else you do, you have to regularly sort through the literature from a range of school-improvement approaches and programs that, to your eyes, seem to have similar objectives and research bases: is it a service-learning focus you want to adopt, or a character education program? Is civic education where you will choose to hang your hat, or will you double down on social and emotional learning?

To be certain, each of these field’s approaches to learning is distinct, and each field has its own unique advantages. Each would also clearly benefit from a larger movement that brings about a shift from our Industrial Age model of schooling to one that is suited for the Democratic Age. And yet for years the different leaders of these different fields have sought, genuinely, to unite their efforts – only to fall back, eventually, on their respective sacred cows.

Which returns us to the present. What will the future hold for these nascent Imagination and Empathy networks, and for this weekend’s DC protest? Since all three tribes talk of movement building, will one be able to craft a big-enough umbrella to unite the aspirations of the many? Will we develop the capacity to understand the whole? And is it possible to sustain a movement of sacred cows that, by definition, no one is willing to eat?

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Faces of Learning San Diego — High Tech High

A little over a month ago, I spent a few days on the campus of High Tech High (HTH), a remarkable network of schools in San Diego that are, simply, among the best examples of public education our country has to offer.

As you can see from the video, what distinguishes HTH is its ability to think differently about what a public education should look like — and accomplish. The schools are all housed in former Navy barracks, giving the school and its hallways an airy, open, almost half-finished sort of feel. Student artwork is EVERYWHERE, as are engineering and design projects, from robots to a whole wall of bicycle wheels, all connected via a long, single chain. It’s impossible not to feel creative — or at least to want to try something new.

Beyond the aesthetics, I asked Ben Daley, HTH’s Chief Operating Officer, to help me understand the keys to their special sauce. “We make sure our teachers have time to plan with each other,” he began. “Their day always starts earlier than the students, so there’s built-in time for teachers to coordinate what they’re doing and provide the kids a more integrated learning experience. We’re also doing a lot with videos of our own teaching, so we can study our own practices and find better ways to improve our teaching. And of course we have our own graduate school of education, so the overall learning culture for adults is of such a quality that it can’t help but be passed down to our kids.”

Indeed, HTH is the first school I’ve ever visited that literally houses its own graduate program on site. (Could anything be more logical?) As Ben and I talked, we ran into Stacy Caillier, who runs the program. Smiling as she spoke, Stacy explained what makes the program distinct. “For over 75 years, the average American High School has followed three critical assumptions that have become deeply ingrained in our understanding of what school needs to look like: segregate students by class, race, gender, or perceived academic ability; separate academic from technical learning; and separate adolescents from the adult world they are about to enter. Here, we try to overturn all of these tenets — we group students heterogeneously; we integrate our curriculum; and we embed students in the adult world of work and learning. By extension, our graduate program is designed to prepare educators to both design and assume leadership in this sort of learning environment, and to do so in a learning community that is collaborative, challenging, and very much grounded in the day-to-day world of the classroom.”

As part of its missionary spirit, HTH had spent the previous months building an impressive and eclectic local coalition of individuals and organizations, as the San Diego manifestation of the Faces of Learning campaign. I was in town to bear witness to its first public gathering, an impressive evening of storytelling and strategic planning.

Interested in learning more? Check out this short video of the event — and join us in imagining the possibilities of a movement of adults and young people — in search of better places to work and learn.

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What’s Your Declaration of Education?

Those pesky EduCon folks are at it again.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a small, networked, eclectic tribe of educators who attended a conference at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, and who, with great energy and determination, pledged their shared commitment to bring about a different type of public school system by agreeing to the following core values:

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members.
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen.
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around.
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate.
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked.

For me, EduCon was a Come to Jesus moment – a time when I found adults who shared my fidelity to a language of possibility that was solution-oriented, relationship-driven, and future-focused. And now I see that they/we are at it again, this time via a drive “to remind ourselves and our students that citizenship means asking questions, finding answers and standing up for what you believe in . . . and that education must mean that too.”

The vehicle for this lofty goal is something known as The Great American Teach-In and, if it works, the result will be, on May 10, thousands of classrooms, students, and schools drafting their own Declarations of Education.

The Teach-In website has useful resources for anyone who wants to structure a conversation that results in an actionable set of aspirational goals toward the creation of healthier, higher-functioning learning environments. And the conversations will all be framed by a core set of essential questions:

1.     When and where do I learn best?

2.     What does an ideal learning environment look like?

3.     How closely do our current places of learning resemble our ideal learning environment?

4.     What barriers to learning/growth exist within our current learning environments?

5.     What will we do to make our current learning environments more perfect places to work and learn?

What I love about this idea is it assumes the best people to change the landscape of public education are those closest to the day-to-day workings of our nation’s schools – educators and students. After all, although there is much to dispirit us with the state of our school system, it does educators no good to assume these ills have merely been “imposed upon them”, and that they have no choice but to keep hoping, as passive victims, that better days lie ahead.

As the great quantum physicist David Bohm once said, “Thought creates the world and then says, ‘I didn’t do it.’” So, too, is it with the current state of public education in America – and all of us have a choice: remain complicit, and passive, in the acceptance of a system that denies us the ability to create truly transformational learning environments; or become active agents in solving our own most intractable problems – and creating spaces for people to reflect on their ideal learning environments, and then think together about how to create those environments as soon as possible.

Sound like a good use of your time? Check out http://declarationofeducation.com/ to learn more and get involved. We can do better – and it is up to us to make sure that we do so.

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What If Learning — Not Fighting — Were the Focus?

As accusations fly back and forth over the reported DC cheating scandal – the latest in a series of battles between America’s two dominant Edu-Tribes – I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we stopped spending so much time focusing on what is broken or who is to blame, and started focusing instead on how people learn, and how we can create better learning environments for everyone.

This week, as part of an effort to spur such a conversation, a coalition of individuals and organizations is doing just that — envisioning a movement of adults and young people in search of better places to work and learn, and highlighting powerful learning experiences to make a larger statement about how and when transformational learning occurs.

I am proud to be a part of the campaign, which is called Faces of Learning, and which aspires to help people understand we are all effective learners, with differing strengths and challenges. Kim Carter, executive director of the Q.E.D. Foundation, a non-profit organization that is a member of the coalition, explains: “We want to elevate four essential questions that are, alarmingly, almost completely absent from the current national conversation about school improvement: How do people learn? How do I learn? What does the ideal learning environment look like? And how can we create more of them?”

To help provide the answers people need, Faces of Learning is asking people to share personal stories of their most powerful learning experiences; attend and/or organize public events at which people think together about how to improve the local conditions in which people learn; and use a new interactive tool called the Learner Sketch, which invites users to explore their own strengths and challenges among the various mental processes that influence learning. Rather than just categorize the user as a certain “type” of learner, the Learner Sketch feedback actually suggests strategies users can try to help them become even more effective learners. Users can also explore what research is teaching us about how we learn, and find resources that help improve the overall learning conditions for children (and adults).

Ideally, of course, a campaign like this would be unnecessary. And yet, when one looks back at the last 15 months – a period in which school reform has been at the forefront of American life, from “Race to the Top” to Waiting for Superman to the endless coverage of Michelle Rhee or the union fight in Wisconsin – what becomes clear is that we haven’t been having a national debate about learning; we’ve been having a national debate about labor law. And while that issue is important, it is a dangerous stand-in for the true business of public education – helping young people learn how to use their minds well.

What if our efforts were squarely focused on the true goal of a high-quality education, instead of the hidden goal of a well-funded few?

What if each of us could identify our own strengths and weaknesses as a learner?

What if each of us had the chance to discover – and contribute – our full worth and potential to the world?

What if all of us came to both expect and demand high-quality learning environments throughout our lives?

It’s a great and worthy vision. And before any of those things can happen, we all need to work together to see more clearly what powerful learning actually looks like — and requires.

Join our efforts – and share your voice – at www.facesoflearning.net.

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NYC Learners — Go On a School Innovation Tour!

Those of you living in the NYC area have a cool opportunity worth taking advantage of this coming April.

IDEA, aka the Institute for Democratic Education in America, is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure that all young people can engaged meaningfully with their education and gain the tools to build a just, democratic, and sustainable world.

IDEA helps transform education by showcasing what works in education and equipping others to learn from it. And this April 3rd-5th, IDEA will shepherd a group of people through an “innovation tour,” during which participants will explore four exemplary NYC schools, with opportunities to see and experience classroom and school culture, discuss instruction, and meet with school leaders.

IDEA’s Innovation Tours offer an in-depth opportunity to really see and engage with the most innovative schools in the U.S.  The NYC tour will take participants through the NYC iSchool, Urban Academy, Calhoun School, and The Green School.

Tours are designed to offer participants a chance to see dynamic schools in action, to learn from school leaders about the challenges and evolution of their culture and instructional program, and finally, to discuss ideas and applications with other teachers, students, parents, school board members, business leaders, and policy-makers involved in the tour.

Tour participants will also attend Columbia University’s Seminar on Innovation featuring IDEA leaders Kirsten Olson, Scott Nine, and Dana Bennis on Monday evening, April 4th. Tour costs average $300 per person or $150 without housing.
Registration details, itinerary and further information can be found at www.democraticeducation.org/tours/newyork.

Check it out. And if you do, report back on what you discover!

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Education Inception

(This article also appeared on the Huffington Post.)

I just watched Christopher Nolan’s remarkable new movie Inception, a futuristic film about a group of people who, through a variety of means, plant a thought so deeply in the mind of one man that it grows naturally and becomes seen as his own. In the opening scene of the movie, protagonist Peter Cobb rhetorically asks the audience: “What’s the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? No. An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea’s taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, or ignore it – but it stays there.”

Cobb’s movie-based challenge is not unlike the reality-based one being faced by today’s advocates for public education reform – how to seed an idea so simple and powerful that it can mobilize public opinion, inspire policymakers, and improve the overall learning conditions for children. And yet after reading Michelle Rhee’s two newest efforts to launch her own form of “inception” – an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal and her organization’s inaugural policy agenda – I see further evidence of both her well-intentioned vision for massive educational reform, and her fundamental misunderstanding about the power of ideas.

Repeatedly, Ms. Rhee has shown she believes that the best way to mobilize people is through conflict, oppositional language and negative emotion. In the Journal, she speaks encouragingly about the fact that “public support is building for a frontal attack on the educational status quo.” And in the introductory paragraph of her policy agenda, she seems encouraged by the fact that her actions will “trigger controversy.” This sort of language extends the tenor of her brief tenure as DC Schools Chancellor, when Rhee made enough inflammatory statements to become the single most polarizing education figure in country. Love me or hate me, she seemed to be telling us – but pick one you must.

In some respects, Ms. Rhee’s approach to idea-generation, much like her approach to management, is deeply rooted in 20th-century paradigms of mobilization and leadership. Our culture has nurtured numerous shared archetypes of strong, authoritarian leaders – people who can make the tough decisions, go it alone, and refuse to give an inch. To compromise or collaborate is to be soft and exceedingly conciliatory, not to mention a weak-kneed guarantee that nothing will get done. Get with the program or get out. You’re either with us or against us. Don’t tread on me.

Of course, like all archetypes, these characterizations contain partial truths. To be all about compromise and not at all about principle is a poor model for leadership, and we do need leaders who have the fortitude to make tough decisions, hold people accountable, and speak simply and clearly. Similarly, we all should share Ms. Rhee’s sense of outrage. And in the end, several of her policies make good sense. But in terms of the overall effort at inception – at seeding the foundational idea – one thing seems equally clear: a national movement that is based primarily on negative emotion will not deliver us the long-term changes we need in public education.

Christopher Nolan certainly feels this way – it’s the core message of his movie. “How do you translate a strategy into an emotion?” Cobb wonders. A colleague suggests that an idea fueled by negative emotion will work best – something that would grow and fester in the mind of an individual, building both anger and discontent until it could be turned into action. But Cobb disagrees. “Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We yearn for people to be reconciled, for catharsis. We need positive emotional logic.”

I agree, and I wish Michelle Rhee would, too. She has a national platform, a vital issue in need of being addressed, millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of followers. Now she just needs the right idea.

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Robots in Classrooms?

You know you’re a little obsessed with an issue when a news story about artificial intelligence in the prisons of today gets you thinking about robots in the classrooms of tomorrow.

But there it was — a weekend piece in the New York Times about a training exercise at a penitentiary in West Virginia, at which artificial intelligence (AI) software was being used to recognize faces, gestures and patterns of group behavior. “When two groups of inmates moved toward each other,” we learn, “the experimental computer system sent an alert — a text message — to a corrections officer that warned of a potential incident and gave the location.” Then I read the lines that concerned me: “The computers cannot do anything more than officers who constantly watch surveillance monitors under ideal conditions. But in practice, officers are often distracted. When shifts change, an observation that is worth passing along may be forgotten. But machines do not blink or forget. They are tireless assistants. . . At work or school, the technology opens the door to a computerized supervisor that is always watching. Are you paying attention, goofing off or daydreaming?”

On one level, what’s not to like, right? Why not improve our efficiency if we can, and make sure we are even more safe and secure in our prisons? And why not extend this technology wherever it can be useful? Bring on the Society of Tomorrow!

On the other hand, I just finished Harvard professor Steven Pinker’s great 2009 book How the Mind Works, and his observations about the limits of AI — and how people learn — make me wonder if we’re making the same mistake in AI that we’re doing in education reform: getting carried away by an illusory short cut and ignoring one-half of the equation we need to solve.

More specifically, Pinker talks about why we don’t yet have those cool robot butlers from Sleeper — the human brain is (spoiler alert!) really, really complicated, and programming it to account for all we encounter on a daily basis is next to impossible. In short, we may not sweat the small stuff, but our efforts to make fancy robots derail because they can’t get past the small stuff.

For example, Pinker writes, “for a robot brain – or a human brain – to recognize objects and not bump into them, it must crunch these numbers and guess what kinds of objects in the world reflected the light that gave rise to them. The problem is humblingly difficult. . . But there’s nothing common about common sense. And an intelligent system cannot be stuffed with trillions of facts. It must be equipped with a smaller list of core truths and a set of rules to deduce their implications.”

Later, Pinker talks about how we do this by clarifying the distinction between intelligence (“the ability to attain goals in the faces of obstacles by means of decisions based on rational, truth-obeying, rules”) and consciousness (“the capacity for self-knowledge and sentience”). We can’t make Hollywood-worthy robots, he explains, because what makes us unique is that we possess both intelligence and consciousness. We can read people’s faces and interpret sounds and smells and colors and emotions and apply past experiences and decide what’s relevant information at that moment and connect it to our belief system and do it all seamlessly and instantaneously. Robots can do the intelligent number-crunching, but since we still don’t even understand sentience ourselves — except to say that it exists — how the hell could we hope to instill it in a machine?

This is not an insignificant point, and it doesn’t render AI worthless, but it does underscore the need for AI to serve in a complementary fashion, and to recognize that there are still some aspects of the human brain (and mind, which is, of course, what the brain does) that can’t be replaced. Use cameras to augment the work of your prison guards; don’t replace the guards altogether.

The problem, one can clearly see, is if the combination of budget cuts and a misunderstanding of what AI can and can’t do vis a vis human employees leads to 21st-century prisons being guarded by video cameras. I see a similar issue emerging in education, where our well-founded emphasis on improving the quality of teaching and learning is leading us to overvalue one side of the equation (intelligence, or, more specifically in a school context, technique) and ignore the other (consciousness, or, more specifically, the identity and integrity of the individual who is doing the teaching).

It is a technocratic illusion that all we need to improve American education is a set of useful techniques that can unlock the magic of the teaching craft. Technique is important, and many recent breakthroughs have made immeasurable contributions to the field. But when we embrace technique as the answer for our troubles, we deny the deeply relational aspect of teaching and learning. We also set ourselves up for believing, one day, that all we need are systems with the right set of pre-programmed techniques and, Voila! No achievement gap!

The scary thing is that that is not as ridiculous a statement as it should be. And yet if we say nothing in our public discourse or policy debates to suggest a recognition — let alone a valuing — of the teacher as person and relational conduit for learning, why not just get rid of them and run it on auto-pilot?

To really transform our schools, of course, we must do the opposite. As the great Parker Palmer says in his classic book The Courage to Teach, “We must enter, not evade, the tangle of teaching so we can understand them better and negotiate them with more grace, not only to guard our own spirits but to serve our students well. . . Good teaching requires self-knowledge: it is a secret hidden in plain sight.” In explaining how the mind works, Pinker makes a similar claim: “Our mental life is a noisy parliament of competing factions. In dealing with others, we assume they are as complicated as we are, and we guess what they are guessing we are guessing they are guessing.”

Parker’s and Pinker’s insights may lead to a messier equation, but it’s how the mind works, and it’s what good teaching requires. So why not make 2011 a year when we start to acknowledge both sides of this coin? When it comes to understanding the human brain, we must study both intelligence and consciousness. And when it comes to producing a world-class profession of teachers, we must help individuals acquire both top-flight technique and a deep understanding of the self that teaches.

Absent both, we are left with nothing more than science fiction.

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