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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.

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This is How Youth (& YOU) Learn

Imagine if we acted on these insights?

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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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Fellow Parents — Time to Stop Playing Favorites With Our Children

The other night over dinner, hours after my mother-in-law had returned home to New York, I casually asked my son Leo: “What was your favorite part of the weekend?”

As I watched him stare blankly back at me, struggling to find an answer, I found myself wishing I could have a parental do-over. Why do we ask children this question so often? Would it make a difference if we asked it a different way?

Anyone who’s a parent knows what I’m talking about: we’re always asking kids to tell us their favorite color, pick their favorite TV show, or select their favorite relative. And our intentions are in the right place; after all, we’re trying to learn about how they see themselves and others, and to give them a chance to reflect on what feels good and pleasing.

But here’s the problem: children don’t see the world as a set of isolatable favorites; we make them see it this way.  Watching Leo’s face, I realized that for him, there was no single favorite memory – just a pastiche of happy experiences that blended together to make up a general feeling I’ll call “Weekend with Nana.” It wasn’t until I asked the “favorite” question that it even occurred to him he should decide which of his experiences with her was the best of all.

This distinction is not exclusive to Leo. All of us benefit greatly when we develop metacognition – or the skill to reflect on our own thoughts and feelings, see ourselves interacting with the environment and people around us, and become familiar with our own preferences and the preferences of others. Recent research even suggests this may be the most important skill of all when it comes to learning how to learn, both in school and in life. Yet the reality is that asking kids to pick favorites isn’t an optimal path toward helping them become more holistically self-aware; it’s an emotional short cut that teaches them to artificially divide their memories into preferred parts.

How might Leo have responded differently if I had asked this question instead: “What made you feel happy this weekend?”

The difference between the two questions is subtle but significant. With one, we’re asking children to rank the world. With the other, we’re inviting them to reflect on it.

Only one of those questions will actually help build the muscle memory of metacognition, and allow for a fuller understanding of the multiplicity of experiences that shape how we think and feel. And that’s not playing favorites.

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Are We Putting the (Knowledge) Cart Before the (Emotional) Horse?

What would you say if I told you that all of our current national efforts to improve public education were blind to the actual way people learned and interacted with the world?

Depressing, right? But it’s true. To prove it, watch this short video — just 100 seconds long — and be prepared to describe to yourself what you see:

You just watched a short film about bullying, didn’t you? The larger triangle was harassing the smaller triangle, until the two smaller shapes banded together and outwitted their aggressor. Except that’s not really what happened; all you saw were shapes and lines moving around on a piece of paper. And although it’s true the subject is in the air thanks to this month’s release of the new feature film Bully, I can assure you that what you saw had nothing to do with the zeitgeist. In fact, people have been seeing that same story in that video now for more than 60 years.

Why?

According to Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner and the author of the current bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, we all see the same story because our brains seek instant explanations, and the quickest way to do that is by linking what we see to our available cache of memories and emotions. We see the world, in other words, through stories of cause and effect that we instantly (and unconsciously) create, and the stories we create are informed by our constant search for emotional coherence.

But it’s more than that. As Kahneman and others have shown, our minds are effectively run by two different systems — the “fast” system, which operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and with no conscious sense of control; and the “slow” system, which gets activated for more complex forms of thinking, and which gives us the conscious impression of choice, agency, and concentration.

These insights into how the mind operates are essential for anyone who cares about teaching and learning, because they make us more aware of the mental filters through which we see the world. And when it comes to education reform, we’ve fallen in love with the wrong central character. As Kahneman explains:

When we think of ourselves, we identify with [the slow system], the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although this system believes itself to be where the action is, the [fast system] is the hero of the book . . . by effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of [the slow system].

We elevate the wrong hero in school reform every day: we dramatically overvalue the importance of academic learning, and assume that merely focusing on better curricula and clearer standards will carry the day. Yet the research suggests otherwise, affirming what sociologist Pedro Noguera and others have said repeatedly: “unmet social needs become unmet academic needs.”

If this is true — and the evidence from a range of fields overwhelmingly suggests that it is — then what we are doing is the strategic equivalent of putting the knowledge cart before the emotional horse. That doesn’t mean efforts to improve content or clarify standards are useless; merely that they are necessary and insufficient if they are not considered in direct concert with a greater attention to the mind and how our emotions and memories shape — directly, powerfully, and immediately — the way we see the world, and each other, and whatever it is we are trying to learn about.

What if we gathered a different set of data for our decision-making? And what if this data could actually zero in on the part of the brain that is most responsible for ensuring our emotional growth?

As it turns out, we can do this because we now know which neurons in the brain are most responsible for this sort of development in people. They’re called mirror neurons, and they’re what help us interpret, understand, and empathize with the thoughts and feelings of other people. As Dr. Marco Iacoboni explains in the book Mirroring People, “Mirror neurons undoubtedly provide, for the first time in history, a plausible neurophysiological explanation for complex forms of social cognition and interaction. By helping us recognize the actions of other people, mirror neurons also help us to recognize and understand the deepest motives behind those actions, the intentions of other individuals.”

Pretty cool, right? Imagine how cool it would be if we had a national effort to help schools do a better job of cultivating the capacity of young people to become more empathetic — and not as a replacement for academic learning, but as a fully integrated companion to the daily learning process? And better still, there’s already a great tool available for assessing the dispositional empathy of young people. It’s called the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, and it’s been used by scientists for years.

I think I just found a great new use for the Gates Foundation’s money.

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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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The Many Faces of Thea

It wasn’t until the end of her tragically short life that Thea Leopoulos first discovered the depth of her talent as an artist.

A buoyant, beautiful girl with dark eyebrows and sharp brown eyes, Thea spent her childhood believing the experts who first told her, back in third grade, she was unworthy of acceptance to the local program for “gifted and talented” children. Since then, Thea had struggled in her coursework and felt uninspired by a stream of classes that focused too much on academics, and not enough on other forms of learning, like the arts.

Then, in her junior year of high school, she produced a finger-painted portrait of B.B. King and removed any doubt of whether or not she was talented. Soon after, her capacity to excel in every area of her life changed dramatically. She had discovered a new source of confidence and calm. She had found her path.

A few months later, she was killed by a drunk driver.

Along with 400 others last week, I learned about Thea’s story at a statewide conference of Oklahoma educators titled Faces of Learning: The Power and Impact of Engaging Curious Minds. On hand was Thea’s father, Paul, who shortly after his daughter’s death established the Thea Foundation and adopted the mission of carrying her legacy forward by advocating for the importance of art in the development of young people. “There are too many children today who, like Thea was, are either mislabeled or under-engaged by a system of schooling that pays insufficient attention to the whole child. It is equally true that every child, as Thea did, can discover their own inner sources of strength, passion, and purpose in school. But that won’t happen until we restore a balance to what we teach children, how we teach them, and how we go about evaluating our efforts.”

Jean Hendrickson, the conference’s chief architect and the executive director of a statewide network called A+ Oklahoma Schools, hopes that sort of change is afoot in Oklahoma. “I see this conference as the latest effort on our part to encourage each other to start to see our work differently,” she said. “Learning has lost its face – it has become an impersonal pursuit of metrics, not people. Yet we all know that the locus of learning begins and ends with the human being, and with the soul, spirit and mind. So my hope was to use the metaphor – faces – in a more intentional and multidimensional way: How are we thinking about this word when we describe our work as educators? Do we imagine it as a noun or a verb? And how can we help people grapple with this word and make their own work more grounded in the personal needs and aspirations of the children we serve?”

Hendrickson’s frame for the conference was a way for her to link Oklahoma’s efforts to a nascent national effort called Faces of Learning, in which local communities are encouraged to mobilize themselves by asking – and answering – four essential questions:

  1. How do people learn best?
  2. How do I learn best?
  3. What does the ideal learning environment look like?
  4. How can we create more of them?

“In Oklahoma,” Hendrickson explained, “the schools in our network adhere to a set of commitments that include daily arts instruction, experiential learning and enriched assessment. The schools collaborate around curriculum, mapping the instruction so that interdisciplinary concepts emerge that encourage cross-curricular integration, and the use of multiple intelligences to structure learning opportunities for students. And the infrastructure in A+ schools supports common planning time, shared vision, and faculty commitment to the goal of schools that work for everyone.”

Do you belong to a like-minded network of schools, or want to create one? Do you have a personal story to tell about your own most powerful learning experience? Are you ready to see America restore a balance to how, and what, we teach young people in our schools? Please join with Jean, and Paul, and many others across the country, and add your voice to the chorus of stories at facesoflearning.net.

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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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What DC Can Teach Us About New Teacher Policies

This weekend, an article in my local paper crystallized three things we need to stop doing if we want to transform American public education for the long haul – and three things we should start doing instead.

1. STOP having a national debate about labor law; START having a national conversation about how people learn.

The article I’m referring to was written in response to the July 15, 2011 announcement that 206 teachers in the D.C. public school system had been fired for poor performance, “a rarity in a big city school system and an extension of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s aggressive drive to upgrade classroom instruction in the nation’s capital.”

Indeed. For the past four years, ever since Ms. Rhee first took the helm of the D.C. public school system (DCPS), the tenor of our national conversation (and my local one) has been squarely fixed on teachers, on teacher evaluations, and on the role teachers unions have played in our ongoing efforts to guarantee each child an equal opportunity to a high-quality public education.

On one level, this makes sense: teachers are clearly the most significant in-school factor to a healthy learning environment for kids; teacher evaluations are clearly in need of an extreme makeover; and teacher unions have clearly been occasional obstacles to some of the larger efforts to remake our public schools. In that regard, any and all efforts to “upgrade classroom instruction” are exactly what the doctor ordered.

And yet, the reality is that the past four years have been more of a national debate about labor law – and less of a national investigation about how people learn. And the problem is not that labor law doesn’t need fixing; it does. But when things like “last in, first out” (LIFO) firing policies, collective bargaining rights, and teacher pensions crowd out our capacity to identify what highly effective teaching and learning really looks like – and requires – what we get are cover stories about personnel dismissals and litmus tests on national personalities, not evaluation tools that are designed to help the vast majority of teachers get better. Which leads to the second thing . . .

2. STOP spending so much time talking about the best and worst teachers; START focusing on everyone else.

Although mass firings of the sort DCPS reported last week are rare, the number of personnel affected was still quite small – just 5% of the total workforce. In fact, very few teachers were rated as either great or horrible; the vast majority – nearly 70% — were simply rated “effective.”

This underscores a rather obvious point: the only way to transform the teaching profession is by crafting policies that help the vast majority of educators improve the quality of their practice over time – not by lionizing the master teachers or demonizing the ones that should find a new line of work.

Is that what’s happening in DC? I believe our new schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, when she says that IMPACT, the city’s new teacher evaluation system, is designed to build capacity, not just weed out the unwanted. Perhaps over time IMPACT will even become a useful national model for a different sort of evaluation tool that can provide feedback, reinforce high standards, and help ensure a high-quality teacher in every classroom. However, based on a recent in-depth review of IMPACT, we’re not there yet – and we’re still way too focused in our public rhetoric on the best and the worst teachers. It would be nice to see the rhetoric and the reality get more in line with each other. And it would be nice to imagine that some worthy educators won’t recklessly lose their jobs along the way.

3. STOP viewing poverty and education as an either/or; START viewing them as a both/and.

Anyone who lives and works in education knows that an ongoing argument has been occurring between some who feel you can’t fix education until you fix poverty, and others who feel you can’t fix poverty until you fix education.

The reality is that both sides – and neither side – are right. Poverty and education are inextricably linked, and the ecosystem each child inhabits – from his home and community to his health and his school – has a massive, complicated impact on that child’s capacity to learn and grow. Therefore, any new policies that fail to account for that complexity aren’t just poorly designed; they’re patently unfair.

This point was reinforced in the article about the DC firings and the IMPACT evaluation system. As Washington Post reporter Bill Turque wrote, “a breakdown by ward confirms, as it did last year, that the overwhelming majority of highly effective teachers work in schools with lower rates of poverty and other social problems.”

This news shouldn’t surprise anyone – how could it be otherwise? – and yet too many of us are still suggesting the path forward must be lit by signs saying either “It’s The Poverty, Stupid,” or “No Excuses Means No Excuses.”

We can do better. We have the capacity for greater nuance in our understanding of something as complex as teaching and learning. And as we spend the summer months preparing for a new school year, we would be wise to be more mindful of what we must stop, start and keep doing in the months and years ahead.

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A Signature Shift?

Last week, I was asked by CNN to comment on the news that most states will soon phase out cursive writing in order to give students more time to hone their digital skills. Initially, I wondered why the issue was receiving national coverage – there are bigger fish to fry, after all – so I posed a Facebook query to that effect.  A torrent of comments followed, and I received several long emails from viewers who saw the segment and felt compelled to share their thoughts. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion, and a strong one at that. Why were so many people so upset about this seemingly small development on the gigantic landscape of K-12 education reform?

This morning, as I watched my two-year old son make distinctive colorful swirls on his drawing paper, I realized what was going on: not only were we inching toward a new understanding about what each child must learn; we were also moving away from a deeply held belief about what makes each of us unique – the distinctive imprint of our handwritten signature.

The first issue is the one I tried to address last week – the powerful influence that memes have on our collective capacity to imagine new ways of addressing old problems or institutions. Ideas or memories that are shared among people in a given culture, memes are powerful obstacles to change – and they are ubiquitous in the American public school system. As Geoffrey and Renate Caine make clear in Natural Learning for a Connected World: “Traditional education is driven by a powerful meme that keeps replicating itself. One simply has to imagine several people gathering to talk about education to recognize how powerfully the meme is embedded. Individuals will visualize desks and books and a teacher in the front of the classroom. Grades, tests, discipline, and hard work will bind together the beliefs that everyone automatically subscribes to. These beliefs linger as foundational ideas that are rarely, if ever, questioned.”

Because we have such a strong shared sense of what schooling is (and isn’t), even small-scale changes to the way we think about elementary school — such as, say, phasing out cursive — will be likely to spark large-scale resistance.  And yet rarely, if ever, do you hear a discussion of memes make its way into the national debate about school reform. It’s the equivalent of trying to help a garden grow by removing all the visible weeds – and ignoring all the invisible root structures.

In other words, arguments for or against the educational benefits of cursive only represent one part of the picture. Far more influential are the social and emotional memories we bring to the idea of elementary school itself, or the level of individuality we ascribe to our own handwriting, or the extent to which we fear the prospect of replacing something so familiar with something so unknown.

What do you think?  How important, in the end, is handwriting to our own sense of individuality and self-expression? As we shift to a world where script is slowly giving way to e-signatures, and where the artfully crafted letter is crowded out by the cursorily crafted email, are we losing something irreplaceable? Or is the significance we attach to handwriting merely a reflection of our humanness that will, in time, easily migrate with us to new forms of communication and technology?

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