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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.


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.


Let’s Scrap the High School Diploma

This month, schools across the country are hard at work preparing auditoriums, printing programs, checking commencement speeches, and readying for the arrival of one of our society’s most cherished rites of passage – the high school graduation ceremony.

Perhaps by this time next year, we can do our students an even greater service and scrap the high school diploma altogether.

OK, maybe not next year, but soon. After all, almost every component of today’s traditional diploma reflects yesterday’s traditional thinking – if by yesterday we mean the 19th century.

It was 1893, to be precise. That’s when the first blue-ribbon commission was assembled to study the nation’s schools, which, at that point, were still largely decentralized. Among its findings, the ten-person committee recommended that “every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil.” Not long thereafter, the College Entrance Examination Board was established in order to create a common assessment and set uniform standards for each academic subject. Couple those developments with the rise of the Industrial Era, the exponential growth of immigration, and the need to move an unprecedented number of students through the system, and you have the seeds that slowly gave form to the public schools we have today.

Although these developments were clearly pivotal in fueling American growth in the 20th century, it’s equally clear that same system is ill-suited for the particular challenges and opportunities of the 21st. Which brings us back to the high school diploma – a document that still depends, in most places, on the same set of required courses, the same set amount of “seat time,” and the same set of curricular content that students have been studying since the end of the second World War.  No wonder that more than half our students have been classified as chronically disengaged – and that figure doesn’t even include absentees and dropouts!

We can do better. But first we need to shake free from the comforting familiarity of the pomp and circumstance of high school as we have come to know it.

The good news is that several schools across the country are already taking this courageous step. One such place is the Monadnock Community Connections School, or MC² for short (mc2school.org). A public school of choice in New Hampshire, MC² was founded to fulfill a distinctly 21st century mission: “Empowering each individual with the knowledge and skills to use his or her unique voice, effectively and with integrity, in co-creating our common public world.” As school founder Kim Carter explains, “Learning at MC² is personalized – so it can be tailored to each student’s learning needs; experiential – because students learn best by doing; negotiated – so that students can participate in decisions about what they will learn; and community-based – because learning takes place through a variety of community interactions.”

As you might expect, MC²’s goals and mission force it to look quite different from the typical high school. Instead of annually promoting kids from one grade to the next, students at MC² cannot progress until they have demonstrated mastery in a set of core competencies. Students spend as much time learning out of the school building as they do in it. Every student must write a 100-page autobiography in which they reflect on the people and events that have shaped the person they have become. And no one receives a diploma until they have successfully made a public presentation of their own personal growth and preparedness for adult life. (You can view a few of those presentations here).

In schools like this, the old adage is turned on its head: children are to be seen and heard. In schools like this, academic learning is balanced by an equal emphasis on emotional and vocational growth. And in schools like this, teachers and administrators have stopped relying on Industrial-Age benchmarks, and started identifying which Democratic-Age habits of mind and being will be most essential to their students’ future success as global citizens.

To create places like this for every child, we don’t need to sacrifice our desire for greater rigor, equity or accountability – but we do need to scrap many of our most time-tested symbols of schools, and of schooling. Redefining the requirements of a high school diploma is a great place to start.


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!


Is the Scientific Method Becoming Less . . . Scientific?

In my ongoing search to better understand how we reconcile the creative tension between subjective and objective measures of the world — including our ongoing (and thus far) elusive search for a better way of tracking how people learn — I took note of a recent New Yorker article that cast light on some emerging problems with the ostensible foundation of all objective research — the scientific method.

In the article, author Jonah Lehrer highlights a score of multiyear studies — ranging from the pharmaceutical to the psychological — in which core data changed dramatically over time. Drugs that were once hailed as breakthroughs demonstrated a dramatic decrease in effectiveness. Groundbreaking insights about memory and language ended up not being so replicable after all. And the emergence of a new truth in modern science — the “decline effect” — cast doubt on the purely objective foundation of modern science itself.

Without recounting the article in entire, there are several insights that have great relevance to those of us seeking to find a better way of helping children learn:

  • In the scientific community, publication bias has been revealed as a very real danger (in one study, 97% of psychology studies were proving their hypotheses, meaning either they were extraordinarily lucky or only publishing outcomes of successful experiments). The lesson seems clear: if we’re not careful, our well-intentioned search for the answers we seek may lead us to overvalue the data that tell us what we want to hear. In the education community, how does this insight impact our own efforts, which place great emphasis on greater accountability and measurement, and yet do so by glossing over a core issue — the individual learning process — that is notoriously mercurial, nonlinear, and discrete?
  • In the scientific community, a growing chorus of voices is worried about the current obsession with “replicability”, which, as one scientist put it, “distracts from the real problem, which is faulty design.” In the education community, are we doing something similar — is our obsession with replicability leading us to embrace “miracle cures” long before we have even fully diagnosed the problem we are trying to address?
  • In the scientific community, Lehrer writes, the “decline effect” is so gnawing “because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything.” If these sorts of challenges are confronting the scientific community, how will we in the education community respond? To what extent are we willing to acknowledge that weights and measures are both important — and insufficient? And to what extent are we willing to admit that when the reports are finished and the PowerPoint presentations conclude, we still have to choose what we believe?

Is Michelle Rhee putting Students First?

Like everyone else who does education for a living, I read that Michelle Rhee is launching a new national advocacy organization, Students First. And after checking out the site and hearing how she articulates its purpose, I see some reasons to feel hopeful — and many more reasons to feel deeply concerned.

First, the good news: It’s hard to argue with Rhee’s four “we believe” statements for the organization. Who doesn’t believe all children deserve great teachers? Who would argue with the idea that students should not need luck to get a good education? Why not start allocating public dollars where they can make the biggest difference? And who would deny the need for more parental involvement and increased efforts to engage the entire community? So let’s all hop on the Rhee express, right? Well, maybe.

Click here to keep reading.


Why We Measure Things

To conclude my recent bender on the “data craziness” that is plaguing our national education reform efforts, and once again in an effort to highlight a more thoughtful approach that resists either extreme — i.e., “all data all the time or no data none of the time” — I want to share, courtesy of my friend Lisa Kensler, this wonderful 1999 (read: pre-NCLB!) article by Meg Wheatley.

See what you think, and please share your thoughts and reactions.


“Data Craziness” (aka The Other Education: Part Deux)

Earlier this week, I responded to a column by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who constructed an artificial divide between our “formal education” (aka school) — which he indifferently described as linear, objective and ordinary — and our “emotional curriculum” (aka life) — which he approvingly described as nonlinear, subjective and transformational.

In fairness to Brooks, he’s hardly alone in this misconception — in fact, it’s probably inaccurate to call it a misconception, since this is how it works for too many of us: formal schooling is what you endure, and informal schooling is what helps you discover what really matters to you, what your personal strengths and weaknesses are, etc. But just because that’s the way things have been doesn’t mean that’s the way they should continue to be — a particularly relevant point for folks like Brooks, who are supposed to help light a better path, and for reform-minded cities like Washington, DC, where I now live. And yesterday I read something that gives me hope our city may be slowly adjusting its course to a more fruitful strategy for school improvement.

The event was a radio appearance by interim schools chancellor Kaya Henderson, a former deputy to Michelle Rhee, and a person who, depending on whom you ask, is either a constructive bridge between the Rhee era and the Gray administration, or a destructive reminder of the past four years. In the interview, Henderson artfully addressed the source of this artificial divide between formal and informal schooling, and suggested, to me at least, a nuanced understanding of what needs to happen going forward — in short, exactly what I want to hear from the top education official of my city.

“I think we’ve gotten something wrong,” she began. “Previously there was no measure of student achievement. We just sent kids to school and hoped for the best. And then the standards and accountability movement came along and said what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done, so we have to test. And I think testing is incredibly important. But I also think that we have to help people understand that tests are a benchmark, not the goal. The goal is to educate children. And I think the swing of the pendulum from absolutely no accountability to what I might call data craziness is starting to hurt.”

Henderson ceded that, currently, test scores remain the most objective available indicator of academic growth across the school system. “But I feel like we have to make people understand that test scores are not the only thing happening in our classrooms,” she said.

Imagine if more of our education policies were being constructed to address this vital insight? Imagine if more of our public leaders urged us all to end our obsession with either side of the pendulum extreme  — and charted a course to let that pendulum settle in the middle, where we value both measures and meaning, and where our schools are incentivized to create environments that nurture the academic, emotional and spiritual needs of our children (and communities)? And imagine if the Gray administration, under Kaya Henderson’s leadership, set out to establish three conditions that are not being met today:

  1. To measure all things worth measuring in the context of providing children the most meaningful education possible (aka Brooks’s “informal curriculum”).
  2. To ensure we know how to measure what we set out to measure.
  3. To attach no more importance to measurable things than we attach to things equally or more valuable that elude our instruments.

I like what I’m hearing.


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 X Factor of School Reform

In case you missed it, there was a great piece in yesterday’s New York Times, the core message of which has a lot of relevance for those of us who, barely a week removed from not one but two major reports of misleading test data being used to evaluate schools and school districts, continue to search for the simplest way of evaluating what may be the most complex undertaking in the professional world — creating a challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive and experiential learning environment in which all children can learn.

The Times article had nothing to say about school reform — it was about the Fed’s inability to decide whether to stimulate the economy now or later. And it was about how even in a social science flush with quantitative data, the “social” aspect of the science — i.e., human behavior — is sufficiently complex and nonlinear to make certainty a chimera. “One point I always make to my graduate students,” said Robert Solow, a Noel Prize winner and MIT professor, “is never sound more certain than you are.”

Would that such caution were commonplace in our current conversations about education reform!

Of course, the message is not that economics is a boundless free-for-all discipline that uses numbers to hide its own guesswork — charges that are sometimes made to rebut the growing push in education circles to embrace a greater use of student information to guide adult decision-making — but one message seems clear: beware the worship of “data” in your search for certainty, as long as human beings are part of the equation. “The entire question of how emotion will change people’s behavior is pretty much outside the standard model of economics,” said Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke. “Pride is not in the model. Fear is not in the model. Revenge is not in the model. Even simple things like disenchantment of people who are fired from their jobs — the model doesn’t account for how devastating that experience can be.”

Reform leaders, are you listening?


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 . . .

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