Monday, September 21, 2015

The Road to Character by David Brooks

George Marshal
Frances Perkins
Achievement is highly exalted in our fast paced, brash culture.  Winners are celebrated.  The wealthy, successful, physically fit, and beautiful are often the role models that occupy our longings and strivings in this modern age.   David Brooks, New York Times writer and author, in his most recent book, The Road to Character, to offer a different path for success.

His premise is based on two aspects of our nature.  He characterizes them as Adam I and Adam II, or the resume virtues (Adam I) versus the eulogy virtues (Adam II).  Though we might be pressed to acknowledge that the eulogy virtues are more important, we often spend much more of our life focused on the resume virtues.  His book is an antidote to that problem.

Mr. Brooks tells this story through the lives of several prominent artists, politicians, and public figures.  I appreciated getting to know some characters for whom I wasn't very familiar such as Frances Perkins and George Marshal, and coming to know better some that I did know like Samuel Johnson and Augustine.  He tells the story of their life's achievements through the struggles that they overcame and the character that they developed by facing their struggles and conquering them through honest reflection, struggle, acceptance, and ultimately humility.

Mr. Brooks notes that schools are focused on the virtues that strengthen Adam I, also known as the resume virtues and this is definitely true.  In recent  years, schools have been developing grit and a growth mindset, yet almost always in the context of creating better students, life long learners who are ready for college and career success.  We rarely articulate the goal of developing the deep character of servant leadership, honest self reflection, grace, love, and humility.  The challenge of Mr. Brook's book for schools is this:

How do we develop the character traits that transcend the work of college and career to develop children who are better family members, great friends, and good neighbors?

In contrast to Marcus Buckingham's work, Now Discover Your Strengths and Tom Rath's StrengthFinders, Brooks' book might be better titled, "Now Explore Your Weaknesses".  In so doing you will gain something more valuable than knowledge, you will gain wisdom, the wisdom that is hard earned through admitting failure and imperfection and struggling through the other side to deep character.  This indeed is a road less traveled that individuals and schools should consider when they develop their goals for character development.

David Brooks' book makes me wonder, what would happen if our schools and society pumped out students and adults who were Adam II exemplars?  Mr. Brooks answers that for us.

Sometimes you don't even notice these people, because while they seem kind and cheerful they are also reserved.  They possess the self effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don't need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline.

They radiate a sort of moral joy.  They answer softly when challenged harshly. They are silent when unfairly abused. They are dignified when others try to humiliate them, restrained when others try to provoke them.  But they get things done. They perform acts of sacrificial service with the same modest every day spirit they would display if they were just getting the groceries. They are not thinking about what impressive work they are doing.  They are not thinking about themselves at all. They just seem delighted by the flawed people around them. They just recognize what needs doing and they do it.

They make you feel funnier and smarter when you speak with them.  They move through different social classes not even aware, it seems, that they are doing so.  After you've known them for a while it occurs to you that you've never heard them boast, you've never seen them self-righteous or doggedly certain. They aren't dropping little hings of their own distinctiveness and accomplishments.

As I read that list, I realize I fall very short of that ideal and have met precious few people who embody that ethos, however I'm encouraged to pursue depth of character in myself and eager to weave this focus into our school's character education program as well.  David Brook's book will give you pause to think about what you value and the best road to follow to accomplish your objectives.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Building Quality

W Edward Demings is the guru of Total Quality Managent. Here is one of his 14 points of Managementnt:

Cease depending on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.

What are the implications for supervision of teachers and school wide implementation of best practices?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

10 Great Quotes from "Building A Better Teacher" by Elizabeth Green

1.  “Things came together in that moment because I was thinking about the subject, listening to the students and trying to  make sense of what they were saying,” she wrote, “ and then I acted.”  Discussions wouldn’t work if she simply let the students talk on their own.  The best exchanges actually happened when she figured out what the students needed to understand and guided their conversation to a place where she could teach it to them.

2. Together, the group met regularly to discuss their plans for teaching differently, a Japanese version of TKOT; at the end of a discussion, they’d usually invite each other to their classrooms to study the results.  In  retrospect this was the most important lesson Matsuyama taught Akihiko; not how to teach a lesson, but how to study teaching, using the cycle of jugyokenkyu to put his work under a microscope and improve it.''

3. ... choosing 13-9 as the perfect subtraction problem because it forces the learner to use one of two methods; either the subtraction subtraction method or the subtraction addition method.  “Knowing two methods would come in handy when students encountered new problems that worked better with one or the other.  And, in general, seeing two paths to a solution helped students understand just how subtraction worked.

4. Reform’s next frontier, they wrote was teaching - the way students and teachers worked together in school. Standards set the course, and assessments provide the benchmarks, but it is teaching that must be improved to push us along the path to success.

5. We have this idea that if you discover something quantitatively in a research study, and then you tell everybody about it, that’ll improve teaching, Stigler says.  The truth is, with teaching 10 percent of it is the technology or the idea of the innovation.  Ninety percent of it is figuring out how to actually make it work to achieve our goals for students.

6. The takeaway message was not that conceptual understanding is more important than memorization; it was that the two are inextricably enmeshed.  Any supposed dichotomy between them was false. Magdalene summarized the lesson in a single phrase.  children, she said, were “sense makers.”  …. Educators who imagined otherwise - assuming, for instance, that memorization took place outside the context of concepts and principles, or that repeated rewards and punishments were enough to help a person learn - did so at their own peril.  Children would try to make sense of rules, even rules that made no sense.

7.  Because the definitions were not all the same, neither was the teaching they argued for.  In math, for instance, the “You, Y’all, We” lesson pattern popularized in Japan (as well as in Magdalene and Deborah’s math classrooms) made sense for structuring investigations of big ideas, like the meaning of fractions or negative numbers.  In English, meanwhile, where students needed to learn specific reading and writing strategies - how to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word, for example, or how to build ideas for an essay - the “I, We, You” pattern of modeling followed by guided practices was more appropriate.  And within each subject, different topics could call for different structures.

8. They taught by helping students see the world differently, pushing their intuitive knowledge closer to the bank of understandings and rules of operation that mathematicians (and scientists, historians, literary theorists, and so on) have arrived at over centuries.  Teaching, in this view, began with listening.  “Part of interacting with kids, “ Magdalene says “is assessing where they are and thinking about what experiences you can give them that will challenge their way of seeing the world.”

9. If teaching really was the most important of all the educational interventions, then the only logical conclusion was that American educators ought to build a coherent infrastructure - clear goals, accurate tests, trained instructors - to teach teaching.

10. We have a moment when we could do something different, “Deborah said one day, sitting in a coffee shop in Ann Arbor. “But if everybody does it their own way, forget it.  It’s going to be the same thing again.”

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Make Learning Harder, not Easier

I was in a class this week where students were reviewing addition of fractions  They had recently learned multiplication of fractions and several students confused those solutions by adding across numerators and denominators (like you would for multiplication) instead of finding the common denominator and adding the numerators.

This common error underscores a learning principle outlined in Make it Stick, the Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel.   They note that many learning environments are designed to produce the familiarity trap.

Beware of the familiarity trap: the feeling that you know something and no longer need to practice it.

The students who knew how to add fractions months ago are now tripped up by that very skill because they have now been taught to multiply fractions and they are confusing the two solutions.

Many teachers tell me that students need to stay focused on one thing until they master it.  The familiarity trap tells us this is not the case.  When we stay with one thing until mastery (a luxury not afforded often in the real world) we will gain a false sense of knowing when we receive a similar problem that requires a different solution.

The solution is interleaving, which is practicing two or more subjects interchangeably so that they not only see the underlying differences between the problems, but will be able to discriminate between the problems and solutions when they face them outside of the sanitized and carefully organized classroom setting.

Let's go back to that fraction conundrum.  Teachers and learners would be better off practicing addition and subtraction of fractions side by side (which is exactly what was happening in those classrooms I saw this week) so they can see the different solutions that are required and be able to choose the proper path.

This  learning structure slows down and seems to frustrate the learner --- and the teacher --- however, it turns out, that it has one overarching, hidden quality - it produces deeper learning.


Thursday, April 09, 2015

Mark Twain, the Losada Line, and School Culture

This past week I received a compliment.  This person had nothing to gain by giving me this compliment and it wasn't one of those compliments that one fishes for.  You know how that goes...

"I'm the worst Principal on the face of the earth."

"No, Dan, you are an amazing Principal.  Everyone has a bad day now and then, but you're the best."

No, this compliment was not sought after.  It was a sincere expression of gratitude for my efforts at the school .... and it felt great.  There was definitely a  spring in my step and I'm sure my next few interactions with others was more positive and productive.  Not sure if the effect will last the two months that Mark Twain promises, but I'll take it nonetheless.

In the field of positive psychology Marcial Losada contends that just under 3 positive comments, experiences, or expressions are needed to counteract 1 negative experience.  This phenomenon came to be known as the Loads Line, though there is substantial doubt as to his mathematical proofs for this ratio of 2.9 to1, and it appears that we will need a ratio between 3 and 6 to 1 to turn the tide on a negative experience. The result is still the same - we need to intentionally share encouragement with those close to us.

After receiving the aforementioned compliment, and feeling that positive effect, I decided to head out and share some of that goodness.  I have focused my current teacher observations  by noting positive aspect that I could notice as quickly as possible.  No surprise that the feedback has been instantaneous and, alas, positive.  I'm encouraged to continue to look for those positive aspects of our school culture to foster their diffusion through the simple act of recognizing them more often.

For anyone in a school environment, I encourage you to take the same approach to building up your colleagues all around you. Here are three steps that I feel are crucial to this equation.

1. Know Yourself - Self awareness is one of the greatest obstacles to leading and encouraging others.  We all get so hung up on receiving the proper recognition or attention that we are often incapable of even noticing what others are bringing to the table.  The easiest way to cloud  your eyesight and miss the amazing work of others is to be focused on your own needs all the time.   Which brings me to ...

2. Observe - The power of careful observation can't be underestimated.  In order to give a compliment, you must first begin by opening your eyes to the contributions and impact of those who surround.  Great work is happening all around you every day waiting for you to discover it.

3. Communicate - Be specific. Be direct. Express impact.  Lately I've been switching to sending quick feedback to teachers as a text.  They get that encouragement sometimes while right in the middle of the lesson and early returns are that the immediacy of the feedback is appreciated.  It's also helpful to express the impact that this quality work is having on students and families.  Educators need to be reminded that their toils impact lives in a significant way.

Actually, what have you got to lose?  Maybe you're afraid that your reputation as a serious and tough minded leader will be compromised.  That couldn't be further than the truth.  You will gain a new found respect and apprciation for the amazing climate that you have jointly created.

A Gift Granted on Reading Comprehension

Grant Wiggins is on fire - sharing his thoughts on reading research and instruction over at his excellent blog.  Check out the entire series (He's not done yet) and don't stop until you've read the comments for some great example of arguing with evidence.

Part 1 Maybe we Really Don't Understand What Readers Do - And Why it Matters
Part 2  What the Research Really Reveals
Part 3 My 200th Post on Literacy
Part 4 Research on the Comprehension Strategies - a Closer Look
Part 5 A Key Flaw in Using the Gradual Release of Responsibility
Part 6 My First Cut at Recommendations

I especially appreciate his 8th suggestion on this last post.

Am I doing enough ongoing formal assessment of student comprehension, strategy use, and tolerance of ambiguity?

Just the fact that an educator acknowledges that we need to teach and measure something like tolerance for ambiguity is satisfying.  Mr. Wiggins is not settling for superficial teaching of basic skills.  He wants students who understand the purpose of reading, monitor their own comprehension and take ownership of the strategies they need to use to overcome that ambiguity.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Overcoming Discouragement

Weniger, aber besser (Less But Better)

Do you ever sit down with a stack of tasks to accomplish and can't decide where to start?

Do you quickly agree to take on another task when you know your calendar is already bloated?

Are you floating from one commitment to the next without finishing anything to satisfaction?

Then, Greg McKeown has written a book that could be a lifeline.  Essentialism is subtitled "The Disciplined Pursuit of Less".  This is an idea that warrants reflection and action for anyone who wants their life to be meaningful and avoid the pitfall of pursuing non-essential goals through non-essential tasks.   

The first step in creating that essentialist mindset is to ask yourself three questions.

What do I feel deeply inspired by?

What am I particularly talented at?

What is a particular need in the world?

Furthermore,"To discern what is essential we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make".  

This book has many more practical suggestions for living life as an essentialist and reaping the benefits of focused energy and effort toward that unique work that can be your finest contribution.  I highly encourage educators and leaders to not only get the book, but take the time to apply the concepts for your own benefit and the benefit of the schools where you invest your time, treasure, and talent.

In this podcast with Michael Hyatt, Greg discusses his book and offers an additional idea  - the personal 90 day offsite, which is a quarterly retreat to refocus on the essential goals in a systematic and regular fashion.

Here is an excellent review by pastor Tim Challies.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Evidence of Students Ownership of Learning

What's your evidence that students are taking ownership of their learning?

Are you looking for students who are reflective about the quality of their work and can articulate their areas of strength and next steps?

Do you want students to demonstrate curiosity about academic content?

Are you looking for students who show perseverance and utilize various strategies in solving problems?

I would agree with all of these and yet I recently found some less formal evidence of student ownership of learning that bears noting.  

The first student I came across, during Independent Reading time, was reading on Wattpad.  Of course, the 6th grader had to explain to this neophyte that Wattpad was an organic community of readers and writers who submit stories and read stories form other self publishers.  While the nature of this social literary community requires monitoring and guidance so students use discretion and engage safely, I was surprised to find that this student (I later found a few others) had discovered a literary community where they could read stories of interest and submit their own for the eyes of a wider audience.  This same student indicated that she had some writing she wanted to share but hadn't gotten the courage to publish quite yet.  Her classmate then chimed in and encouraged her to take the plunge.

My second discovery that same day was in another 6th grade class where I found a young man writing a narrative in Google Docs.  I figured he was working on an assigned piece from his teacher, but soon discovered that  he was writing a story of his own choosing collaboratively with a classmate (who waved at me from across the room). They had taken this collaborative tool and repurposed it for their own personal writing project.

I can think of no better evidence for students who have taken ownership of their learning then to see them choosing literacy activities, with enthusiasm, outside the school curriculum.   Of course, we will continue to look for formal evidence of student ownership of learning, but these anecdotal and personal examples are evidence just as surely, and should be encouraged and celebrated in your school, as they will be in ours.