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How to Balance the Art & Science of Teaching

Recently, I gave a TED talk outlining why I think we’re in the midst of the most exciting and difficult time to be a teacher in American history. These sorts of talks are always imperfect (and timed) efforts to inject new ideas into the stratosphere, but I received lots of nice comments and feedback, including some observations that only a mom – my mom, actually – would share (“Your posture was very relaxed, and you never even said ‘um’!”).

It was another thing my mother said that struck me, though. “Do you feel sure that your audience knows what to do with all you’ve said?” she wrote.

Great point, and I’m not sure. So here, as simply as I can say it, are three specific things – some big, some small – we need to do to help teachers get better at helping children learn and grow.

1. Follow the Med School Model – As any M.D. knows, different medical schools have different strengths and weaknesses. But one thing every medical school shares is the belief that a strong medical training is built on a dual foundation of two courses: anatomy and physiology.

In education, no similar consensus exists. Worse still, most programs – whether they’re traditional schools of education or alternative certification programs – give short shrift to one of the most important things a teacher needs to know: child and adolescent development.

Think about that for a second. Our country’s teacher training programs, by and large, pay little attention to how well prospective teachers understand the emotional and developmental needs of the children they propose to teach.

So let’s start there by urging all teacher-training programs to adapt the Med School model and establish a similar two-course foundation for all prospective educators: Learning Sciences and Developmental Sciences.

I realize that won’t happen anytime soon (if at all). But the good news is we don’t need to wait; we can just start establishing online and/or in-person courses anywhere and everywhere, for anyone that’s interested in acquiring a deeper understanding of this new knowledge base. These courses would provide recommended reading, a forum for people to communicate with some guided facilitation, and a space for learners to self-organize with each other based on their areas of interest. And while it would be great if some accrediting body offered participants credit toward a degree or certification, we don’t need to wait for that to happen, either. What matters is identifying what we need to learn to be more effective at what we do, and then learning it. Period.

2. Study the Brain – In the same way educators need a solid foundation in how people develop, we should be equally aware of how people learn. That’s why schools and districts should incentivize any efforts on the part of their teachers to better understand the brain – regardless of whether it’s a book club or an accredited course. And once again, we can start right away in any community, alone or in groups. There are scores of recently written books that translate the latest insights in neuroscience for a lay audience. So we don’t need to wait for the schools of education to catch up. But we do need to do our homework and make sure we’re creating classroom environments that are highly tuned to our students’ strengths and weaknesses and how they see the world.

3. Craft Evaluation Programs That Honor Art & Science – One thing all sides seem to agree on is that teacher evaluation systems are in need of an extreme makeover; for too long, they’ve been little more than pro forma stamps of approval, and they’ve done little to nothing to help teachers get better.

In too many places, however, efforts are already underway to craft systems that disregard the art of teaching in favor of the (misunderstood) science of measurement. These sorts of systems are more about pushing people out than lifting them up. That’s why we should blow them all up and start over.

A prerequisite of any new evaluation system should be its effort to help teachers improve the quality of their practice via shared inquiry into what is and isn’t working in their classrooms. These new systems shouldn’t be afraid of quantitative measures, just as they shouldn’t devalue qualitative measures. And we should be sure to pay attention to the illustrative efforts already underway. If you’re a policymaker, for example, take a close look at what they’re doing in Montgomery County. And if you’re a teacher, consider getting certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

It will always be true, in teaching and in the natural world, that not everything can be measured, just as it’s true that there are ways to measure aspects of teaching and learning that go a lot deeper than test scores. The challenge is to find the balance between the elusive but evergreen art of teaching, and the emerging but illustrative science of the brain.

We can do both. And we can start today.


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.


It’s the Development, Stupid

(This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.)

Two years ago, my wife and I signed up to receive monthly emails charting our son’s development. When he was still in utero, the emails began with visual markers of his growth – he was the size of a grape at one stage, the size of a kumquat at another. Now, as he toddles his way through the world, the information is more focused on his behavior, reassuring us, for example, that a recent rise in meltdowns actually means that his development is “right on track.”

Across that same period, I’ve been part of a founding group that will, in August 2011, open a new public school here in DC (a school my son will one day attend). And what I’ve learned is that, for reasons I can’t fully understand, most of our country’s pre-schools maintain this evaluative focus on child development – and most middle and high schools abandon it altogether.

Why is this? If we know that up to two-year spans in development are normal in any area of a child’s overall growth, why do we recognize the value of flexible, developmentally-based evaluations when children are smaller, and then shift almost exclusively to inflexible, time-based evaluations when they are bigger? How might our schools be different if we valued all children’s social and emotional development as much as we revered their academic growth?

Luckily, this is not purely an abstract question. Since 1968, renowned Yale University child psychiatrist James Comer has administered the School Development Program (SDP), a research-based, comprehensive K-12 initiative grounded in principles of child, adolescent, and adult development. As Comer explains, “SDP is not an add-on program. It’s an operating system for the school, based on the recognition that development and learning are inextricably linked. Both are needed to adequately prepare young people to be successful in school and in modern life. And schools are the only organizations strategically located to help all children grow and compensate for the difficult conditions that interfere with the growth of many.”

Despite the clear logic – and sound research – supporting the Comer model, most people outside the innermost education circles have probably never heard of it. Dr. Comer is rarely mentioned amid the media’s infatuation with the newer generation of education reformers. Yet ask any group of parents what they want their children to know, feel, and be able to do as adults, and you will hear talk of not just academic goals (and test scores), but also physical, psychological, verbal, social, and ethical development – the very things the Comer model is designed to help educators tend to, monitor, and support.

I don’t know why the current national conversation about education reform is so mute on the developmental needs of children – regardless of whether they’re 5 or 15. I do know our school will listen to what the experts are telling us. And the good news is I see signs elsewhere that people are creating more flexible structures in which all children and adolescents can learn and grow. This year in Kansas City, for example, school officials will begin switching 17,000 students to a new system where, instead of simply moving kids from one grade to the next as they get older, schools will begin grouping students by ability. And despite its lack of media attention, the SDP continues to work effectively with schools across the country and throughout the world.

Of course, before shifting from a narrow focus on academic content to a broader focus on developmental processes, we must require a different, more finely attuned skill set in our teachers. This is something the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which just released a new report on the importance of development in teacher preparation, clearly understands. As NCATE puts it, “The essential task of any educator is to combine a depth of knowledge about subjects with a thorough understanding of the subject under study and to bridge the two with appropriate instructional plans and pedagogical tools. Indispensable to that process is the knowledge that human development displays complex patterns and variation, and effective teachers are able to draw upon that knowledge in service of the growth and learning of their students.”

We can create this sort of system – our teachers and students require this sort of system – but we won’t get there unless we’re willing to invest in the necessary structures and supports that can create a long-term teaching profession in this country, not just a short-term teaching force. Learning and development is not a simple, linear march into the future; it is a complex, nonlinear circling of ourselves and our places in the world. Understood that way, perhaps more Americans will start to pay more attention to how children and adolescents develop – and start to think differently about exactly who can, and who can’t, teach.


The Fake Revolution

If you spent any time in front of the TV last week, you may believe a revolution is underway in America’s classrooms. NBC dedicated a week of its programming to seed in-depth conversations about how to improve our schools. A new documentary about public education opened across the country to sold-out audiences. And a young billionaire – Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – pledged $100 million of his own money (on Oprah no less!) to help the city of Newark transform its public schools.

I wish I could participate fully in the optimism, yet I keep thinking of the old adage that says there are three types of reform efforts:  traditional, transitional, or transformational. And despite the high-powered pomp and circumstance of last week, two moments in particular convinced me that our current path is likely, at best, to yield cosmetic changes to a system in dire need of an extreme makeover.

Continue reading . . .


Education Nation & Finland

I’m playing catch up with all the programming NBC is producing this week as part of its Education Nation series, but I want to highly recommend one of those videos, an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Finland’s Minister of Education, Pasi Sahlberg.

See for yourself on the video below, but here are a few highlights worth underscoring:

  • Finland’s focus has always been on “building a system which is attractive to young people, and morally purposeful.”
  • In Finland, teachers “enjoy a certain prestige.”
  • In Finland, “poor performance is not punished,” and teachers are entrusted with the authority — and provided with the training and support — to administer all assessments locally.

In short, Finland recognized a generation ago that if it wanted to create a world-class education system, it needed to invest deeply in the long-term creation of a highly competitive and well-trained teaching profession, not the short-term acceptance of a highly-volatile and rapidly-trained teaching force. As Linda Darling-Hammond writes in her newest book, The Flat World & Education, “Finland shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around very lean national standards. The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes.”

Couldn’t have said it any better myself . . .

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How ‘Bout A Little Respect?

I realize the only work-related issue in K-12 education that anyone wants to talk about today is the rumored jobs bill making its way through Congress — a bill that could, depending on whom you ask, either save thousands of essential teacher jobs or simply delay the need to trim excess positions out of a bloated bunch of state budgets — but I can’t stop thinking about a conversation I had last night with my brother-in-law, a recent graduate of the NYC Teaching Fellows program and a prospective Special Education teacher in a city that sorely needs them.

Now, without bragging, I can objectively say that my brother-in-law is an ideal candidate for someone so new to the profession — he’s smart, dedicated, talented, well-schooled, astute, and also well-aware of the reality of the situation he’s entering. He’d make a great hire, and it sounds like plenty of NYC principals agree — except they can’t hire him yet, and they may not be able to until the last week of this month, just a few days before the start of the school year. That’s because a huge slew of jobs won’t technically become available until then, resulting in a now-annual mad dash at the end of the summer, and a rather disorienting (and stressful) point of entry into an already-challenging gig.

I remember that feeling of disorientation well. Over a decade ago, I began one school year as an 11th grade English teacher in Manhattan. Then, over a month into the school year, I was given my walking papers when another teacher with more experience who had been let go from somewhere else in the city was “assigned” to my school — leaving my department chair with no choice but to tearfully let me go, moments after the final bell on a Friday afternoon.

I was stunned. I had just started to establish meaningful connections with my kids. Now I would never even have an opportunity to tell them what had happened. I would simply disappear.

I spent the weekend frantically calling around to see if other opportunities existed at such a late date. Amazingly (and disconcertingly), they did, and by Sunday evening I was on the verge of accepting a new position. Then my department chair called to say there was an opening in the History department. I could stay at my old school as long as I switched the students, grade and subject I taught. And so, over the course of two days, I swapped out a complete set of kids and lesson plans for another classroom and subject — five full weeks into the school year.

My point in all this?

As I’ve written before, we will not have meaningful change in this country until we invest deeply and over the long-term in the establishment of a true long-term teaching profession, and not a short-term teaching force. There are a number of key policy levers that need to be pulled for this to happen — and a few ideas we must avoid at all costs. But how about we get started right away by ensuring that teachers don’t have to wait until a week before the school year to find out where they’ll be working?

Teaching is the most difficult and rewarding job a person can do. Under the sorts of conditions I just described, it becomes almost impossible. Deep and sustained investments in teacher preparation will take a generation to truly develop. But letting teachers know ahead of time where they’ll work is an easy, and important, self-correction that needs to be made ASAP.


Using Rewards in the Classroom: Short-Term Crutch or Long-Term Strategy?

Today is the last day of Center for Inspired Teaching’s two-week Institute, and as the rest of the country talks about the merits and shortcomings of the Obama administration’s education plan – particularly its belief that external systems of accountability and extrinsic motivators like performance pay are an essential ingredient in reforming public education – I’m watching the same debate unfold here, on the ground, as a small group of DC teachers prepares for the coming school year.

The debate was seeded by the Institute’s two lead facilitators, Aleta Margolis and Jenna Fournel, who began one morning by asking teachers to place themselves along a continuum – in the form of a blue line that stretched from one side of the room to the other, and identified strongly agree and strongly disagree as the two poles. “I’m going to read off some prompts,” Jenna explained, “and when I do please place yourself along the continuum using your two feet.”

Before the exercise began, Jenna provided two definitions – tangible rewards (“By this we mean things like stickers, free time, extra privileges, and the like.), and punishment (“By which we mean the loss or denial or something of value.”)

  • It is more effective to reward students for good behavior than to punish them for bad behavior.
  • Tangible rewards make school more interesting for students.
  • Tangible rewards are effective teaching tools.
  • Tangible rewards motivate students to work harder.
  • Tangible rewards motivate students to behave better.
  • Tangible rewards are bribes.
  • I am motivated professionally by tangible rewards.
  • I am motivated personally by tangible rewards.
  • When a teacher offers a tangible reward for completing schoolwork the teacher is sending the message that the work itself is not important.
  • When a teacher offers a tangible reward the teacher is sending the message that doing the right thing is valuable.
  • Tangible rewards are copouts for teachers because teachers can offer rewards instead of making the curriculum interesting.

After everyone had had a chance to plot his or her own thinking on the subject, Jenna explained what was coming next: a good old-fashioned debate. “And I invite you to choose the side you don’t personally agree with,” she added. “Let’s imagine we’re creating our own new school in DC. And you the teachers must be the ones to decide whether or not we use extrinsic rewards.”

After 20 minutes of time to prepare their arguments and a ceremonial coin flip, the group in charge of arguing against tangible rewards went first:

“We’d like to start with quote from Alfie Kohn,” the group spokesperson began. “’At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for a task do not perform as well as someone expecting nothing.’”

“The first thing we need to do is decide what we’re trying to do? Our argument is that there is no tangible long-term benefit to using tangible rewards. It’s a short-term fix. Often rewards are not for the kids’ benefit, but for our own. It’s about control, and making our jobs easier. A large part of why teachers use tangible rewards is because they lack the skills to identify good alternatives. Additionally, tangible rewards can distract from the love of learning. Every time you give a tangible reward, you’re indirectly punishing all students who don’t receive them.

“This does not mean we’re discounting celebrations in the classroom,” she concluded. “We are saying that a child promised a treat for learning has been given every reason to stop doing so as soon as the reward goes away.”

Applause broke out in the room, a short shuffling of papers followed, and then group two took the stage.

“I would challenge you by saying that the adults referred to in your argument have chosen a profession where they’re motivated to help children. It’s vital we assist adults in being successful. We can’t only focus on kids who already have intrinsic motivation. If there are twenty kids and some of them would benefit from extrinsic motivations, we shouldn’t deny those kids the chance to become more engaged. We need to have all the tools for people in order to facilitate inclusion. There are different levels of rewards, and our goal must be to try and bring kids to a different level of functioning. We also believe rewards can trigger behavior. The first day children may need something that can feel and touch that makes them feel good. That initial feeling can then snowball in a positive way. It’s showing that we value them and their families, and are preparing them to be successful in the real world they will enter when they graduate.”

As the debate concluded (not surprisingly, no winner was named), it was clear to me that this was an issue over which there was little consensus. For some, the power of extrinsic rewards could not be denied. They have seen the changes in kids that have struggled for so long. For others, the use of tangible rewards is a crutch that only delays the deeper transformation that a powerful learning environment tries to surface.

Over lunch that day, I continued the conversation under umbrellas and a round table on the school’s rooftop balcony. “I just finished my third year teaching,” said one young woman named Heather, “and the way I motivate kids is through extrinsic awards. It’s the easiest thing to do when classroom behavior is a challenge.”

Another young woman named Lee agrees. “When you’re in a challenging environment, and you don’t have the support to create a more holistic learning environment that would support an intrinsic classroom. I feel like this is a big personal challenge, too, as a novice teacher. I‘m not sure I’m capable yet of being intentional enough day after day to provide a more purely intrinsic learning experience for my kids.”

Lee’s admission prompted another teacher at the table, a woman named Michelle, to join in. “I’ve used extrinsic awards, but not consistently. What ends up happening as a result is I have kids occasionally ask me if they’re getting a reward for what they’re doing. So I’m wondering how my inconsistency has impacted them when it comes to motivation overall. And whether or not my use of rewards has delayed their own deeper appreciation for the work they do.”

Ben, the lone male participant in the Institute, talked about the “token economy” of extrinsic awards his school uses. “I don’t really use them in my own class, but I think it’s most useful, and most used, in the non-classroom setting. In the cafeteria, for example, where the adults are less likely to know the kids they’re supervising, I think it’s extremely useful. And I’ve seen in my own kids how motivated some of them can become when they have something concrete to strive for. But I feel torn.”

What do YOU think? Are there some occasions where the use of extrinsic motivators is a sound teaching and behavioral strategy? Or must we as educators challenge ourselves to focus exclusively on building the capacity for intrinsic motivation?


The Inspired Mindset — Starting a School, Part III

This morning, over orange juice, coffee and red grapes in the theater room of the Capital City Public Charter School, a small group of interested educators, scholars and citizens listened as Center for Inspired Teaching’s Director of Teaching and Learning, Julie Sweetland, explained what makes the Center’s work so powerful.

Inspired Teaching is the entity most responsible for the new charter school (scheduled opening Fall 2011) for which I currently serve as Board Chair. And the event allowed Sweetland, an articulate and charismatic spokesperson, to clarify what distinguishes her organization from other alternative certification programs in the city, and nationwide. “Over the past 15 years,” she explained, “our work with thousands of educators has helped us learn more about what it takes to be an inspired teacher. That works begins with our search for people with an inspired mindset — we want builders, and people who are excited by confronting new challenges in their work, not blockers, or people who would rather do what they’ve always done.”

Sweetland went on to define the three central tensions Inspired Teaching wants its teachers, and staff, to be aware of. “The first is balancing the tension between radical creativity and structured execution,” she said. “The second is balancing the need to be both nurturing and impact-driven. And the third is maintaining an approach that allows for both decentralization and integration.”

One of the participants asked her to elaborate. “We believe that a healthy learning environment must have all of the following: Autonomy (for both the teachers and, occasionally, the students as well); Belonging; Connectedness; Developmentally-appropriate activities; and Engaging learning opportunities. And all of our work is geared towards helping teachers do each of those things at the highest level.”

I urge all of you to learn more about Center for Inspired Teaching. Check out their web site, and let me know what you think of their philosophy. Our hope is that, beginning in 2011, the Inspired Teaching School can begin serving as a catalytic force of change in the city, and spur other schools to invest in the capacity of teachers to keep placing a high priority on student achievement and mastery of challenging material — and stop doing so at the expense of sharpening students’ creativity and intellectual curiosity.

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