Category Archives: School Leadership

It’s the End of the World as We Know It

… Or so it seemed this week as I encountered dire predictions around every corner. December 21, 2012 maybe didn’t bring the Mayan Apocalypse that so many had hyped, but it did bring a much needed break in the school calendar for a nation weary of tragedy. We all surely stumbled with heavy hearts into the holiday season this year.

Has there ever been a week more trying to work in education than this one? I began the very first week of my teaching career with 9/11, yet going in to school this past Monday seemed more difficult than even that in many ways. After the events of December 14th in Newtown, Connecticut, it was little surprise to find that the most important part of my week as an administrator was to be visible and present at the carline in the morning. More than ever, parents dropping off their children to school needed to see a reassuring presence outside welcoming everyone into the building. A simple smile and wave without a doubt accomplished more than any paper I pushed this week.

121217073604-01-newtown-reax-1217-horizontal-galleryLike so many in the field of education, for me it has been a week of sober reflection juxtaposed with the need to maintain routine. Holiday traditions seemed more important than ever; so many times this week I found people anxiously looking my way – hoping to find permission to celebrate the season in a smile from me. The struggle to express grief in a season of joy is very real and truly heart-rending.

Looking for Answers

Perhaps it’s due to the winter solstice and the switch from shortened days to lengthening amount of light, but so much of the symbolism of the season is fraught with visual imagery. And I was struck this week at how important it was just to see and be seen when you are an instructional leader. Teachers and students needed to see me walking the halls just as parents needed to see me outside waving my hand. I have never been so manifestly conscious of the effect of my mere presence than I have during the course of this week.

As I finally tried to relax on Friday afternoon, I happened to come across the hype of the Mayan calendar on television. That’s when it struck me. The narrator touched on the actual definition of the word “apocalypse.”

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Translated from Ancient Greek ἀποκάλυψις (apocálypsis) the term literally means “uncovering or lifting of the veil” – referring to a revelation or disclosure of knowledge. It doesn’t mean a thing about the end of the world!

Rather than Armageddon, an “apocalyptic vision” means being able to see through the present to the transition that is on the horizon. Seeing a future hidden by the minutiae of the present is not an easy task, yet it is the one expected of those who would lead our schools. This is especially true in an age dominated by sensationalism portrayed as fact. (Believe me, I got a lot of free advice this week!)

Every time we encounter another of these tragedies, it seems we lose another piece of our national innocence. Hope seems to become a commodity that we can no longer afford when we are confronted with the starkness of such senseless violence. But schools are no place for cynics – rather, they must be temples of hope that have faith in the future. The very act of teaching is one of hope that stems from a belief that we can affect change in the minds of the next generation.

Can that possibly be the lesson of this Christmas season? Even in a society of many faiths, might we dare to pull together as we pivot from the tragedy of death to the time of the year celebrating new birth and new light? Can we make our children the central focus of our culture? Can we learn from what Charles Dickens expressed in my favorite Christmas quote of all time?

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But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round–apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that–as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. ~ Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”

As communities like Newtown provide support for one another in the aftermath of violence, educators everywhere need to step up and provide continued voice to the true spirit of the season – that we are ultimately all in this together. If we can do this, and I believe we can and must, then we will truly mark a turning point – not only in our educational system, but in our entire society.

Perhaps the Mayans were right after all – if as Winston Churchill said, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

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God bless us, every one!

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5 Lessons for New Leaders

Finding a new routine following a job change can be extremely unsettling. Despite my best intentions, I found little time for posting online during my first four months in administration.

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However, the holidays approaching always seems to prompt self-reflection for me. Something about the close of the calendar year triggers part of our human character to look back and consider the ups and downs of the last year.

In that spirit of self-reflection, here are 5 things I’ve learned about administration since becoming an Assistant Principal:

1. Play chess instead of checkers.

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Chess is a game for thinkers, while checkers is a game for opportunists. Just because an avenue for movement opens up doesn’t always mean that it’s the best option. Slow down. Breathe. Take time to consider all of the angles.

Good administration doesn’t need to be reactionary in order to be effective. That does not in any way suggest that there is not a time and place for swift, decisive action. However, it does mean that you have to constantly keep in mind the long game. Pacing yourself and learning to see the whole board is crucial. Not everything needs to be a crisis, nor is “King Me!” the appropriate objective. Planning for achievement requires time and patience.

2. It’s all about the relationships.

One of the reasons change takes the patience of a chess player is because relationships are at the core of school culture. Nothing is going to rankle everyone more than a new leader who barges in trying to change everything all at once. Transitional periods in educational leadership need to be about learning how the pieces move on the board and building the relationships needed to move those pieces. Very few important administrative accomplishments will be achieved in the front of the room at a faculty meeting. The groundwork needs to be laid in a thousand small conversations and built up until it acquires critical mass.images

Of course, this means developing a lot of skill in time management so you can get out of the office! Getting out there helps you build the relationships and develop a better sense of how the community operates. If you move the needle on public opinion first, then actions you take will be perceived as an appropriate response rather than hasty and disconnected from the school culture.

3. Find a mentor.

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When you first arrive to a new leadership role, you are effectively walking into an active minefield with no ideas where the mines are located. Without some guidance and support, you are virtually guaranteed to accidentally step into trouble and lack a proper response when you do. Having a mentor is probably one of the most mature and responsible things you can do as a new leader. We all need someone to talk to about the issues we face. Someone who can provide objective input can help light the way for your to navigate difficult situations.

A word of caution. Please note the word “objective” relative to input. It is hard and nearly impossible for co-workers, bosses, or spouses/significant others, or family members to be objective. Some of my best mentors are former bosses from past jobs. They know me well enough to point out my areas of growth and challenge without feeling the pressure to evaluate my performance relative to the good of the school. Most of them have been where I’ve am today and run into the exact situations I am encountering now.

4. Leave it at the office.

Having a mentor frees up your family and friends to actually be the support network they ought to be for you. Spouses and children don’t need to be witnesses to the effect job stress has on you. Finding an outlet for that stress (hobbies, exercise, spirituality, chores, etc.) should be considered a required part of the job for administrators. Poor stress management can be a real killer for your personal relationships.

I also make some rules for myself about doing work from home. There will always be occasions where a need might arise to do work from home, but I try to avoid it. Likewise, not every email is an emergency demanding an instant response. Some people work well writing late-night or weekend emails, but if that isn’t you then you need to set some limitations for yourself! When you receive a weekend or evening email that doesn’t require an immediate response, consider leaving it for your next morning at the office computer.

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If you are seen to be constantly available, then you start to set an expectation in the mind of those with whom you communicate that a response from you will always come on-demand 24-7-365.

It’s not about ignoring the job, it’s about balance. Making time for your home life is critical to long-term happiness and success.

5. Make time for reflection.

Once more – slow down. Breathe. Even a few minutes a day reflecting and reviewing immediate past action is a tremendously beneficial practice for leaders at all levels. Find a regular time that is best for you and stick to it.

For me, I have found getting to the office early (when it is quiet) is good for catching up on emails, but I also take a few minutes to just close the door and enjoy the silence. It doesn’t last too long, but it does help center me for the day ahead. Morning workouts and spiritual exercises can also fill this need. I highly suggest that you also fit in some collaborative social media when you can so you can take advantage of your PLN!

rear-view-mirrorThe last has definitely been an area of challenge for me these past few months and I have started reorganizing my new routine to bring this back into my life. It is a major goal in the year ahead to routinely take a step back just reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. Whenever I do, I always return to my work refreshed and more focused on our ongoing mission of boosting student achievement!

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Clownin’ Around

“That’s a clown question, bro.” And with that, 19-year old Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper was a viral internet sensation. The follow-up article from Slate by Katy Waldman made the decidedly unclownlike inquiry, “What exactly is a clown question?” She offers that “Clown questions get on people’s nerves because they raise topics that no one cares about.” She goes on to add three key components, that clown questions are 1) irrelevant, 2) irreverent, and 3) “gotcha” in nature. They are, in other words, designed to trip you up – as was the alcohol-related question posed to the underage Harper.

So is this B-roll material for ESPN between SportsCenter reruns, or can we learn from this instantly meme-worthy moment? What kind of questions do we as educators ask in our classroom instruction? Are they clown questions? Hopefully not! As we strive for authentic assessment through inquiry-based learning, the prompts and questions we use should never be “gotcha” in nature. Our goal is not to make our students wriggle and squirm like they’ve been caught in a trap!

Neither should our questions – whether they are spoken or on a test/quiz – ever be anything other than relevant and reverent. By relevant, I mean that our assessment needs to be grounded in what it is important and valuable for the growth, development, and achievement of our students. We must connect to real-life scenarios whenever possible, and use constructivist-influenced lessons to make problem-solving link to our students’ experience sets – past, present, and future.

Reverent questions are important too, by which I mean we need to have respect for our students. They of course deserve nothing less than us at our best, and our professionalism counts for something. Save the whoopee cushions and pie-in-the-face antics for another time… We’re busy building the future here!

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Quo Vadis?

I am returning to my blog after a somewhat extended absence.  Neglecting the blog was not something with which I had hoped to contend, but it became a necessity in the last couple of months as I went through a career change.  After ten years of teaching, I am making the move into administration and leaving my school for a new job.

I am excited and also a bit nervous about the changes I am experiencing, and all of that is probably appropriate.  I have been reflecting a good bit over the past several weeks, and the moments my life has given me to do that have been ample.  My last graduating class, my last class period of students, parting ways with colleagues, packing up my classroom – all of these events have put me in quite the reflective mood of late.  It has been a good exercise, to think back on the last ten years and contemplate all of the work that has been done.  What have I accomplished?  What would I do differently if given the chance?

Then there’s the forward-looking question… Quo Vadis?  For those without a taste for Latin – “Where are you going?”  This phrase is traditionally attributed by Christians to St. Peter.  The story goes that Peter was struggling in his early days as a missionary in Rome.  The issues he found himself dealing with in the capital city were so overwhelming that he had begun to doubt whether or not he was up to the task.  At a given point, anticipating not only resistance but the possibility of death, he resolved to give up the entire enterprise and he was on the road leaving the city when he had an amazing vision.  Jesus, whom in the Gospels Peter had last seen not only resurrected but also ascending bodily into heaven, was walking on the road INTO Rome, just as Peter was fleeing the same.  Knowing that he would find only suffering and probably crucifixion in Rome, the question was posed by Peter to Christ – Quo Vadis?  Where are you going?  Christ’s response was that he was headed to Rome to be crucified again.  Tradition tells us that this response gave Peter the courage he needed to turn around, return to Rome, and ultimately embrace the uncertain future that awaited him.

Changing career paths has been an extraordinary opportunity for me to reconsider my purpose in life and to rededicate myself to a personal sense of mission, much as the vision on the road leaving Rome was for Peter.  I have wondered aloud and silently about the implications of changing something about my life that is so intertwined with my sense of identity.  After all, if I am not a teacher, then who am I??  My conclusion is that I may have traded my classroom for an office, but I remain an educator.  I also remain committed to a vision of facilitating the growth and achievement of young people.  I have not always succeeded in that mission, and will likely have future stumbles, but the power of reflective moments like these are important sources of strength to muster up the courage to soldier on in the face of difficulty.

I would suggest that the question to the entire field of education is the same – Quo Vadis?  Where are you going?  Teachers and professional educators have struggled of late in the face of growing scrutiny and morphing trends, as well as shifting budget priorities.  What will be the response of our profession to the challenges that we face?  Will it be Peter’s initial impulse to retreat from the mission ahead, or will it be to renew and redouble our focus, using this moment to propel us forward into what awaits?

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Flipping Without Flopping

Without question, the most talked-about educational innovation to go mainstream recently has been the “flipped” classroom. For the uninitiated, this term broadly refers to the practice of delivering content to students electronically for independent consumption, while the classroom becomes a place for completing assignments and getting help. The surging popularity of the Khan Academy has been the most notable examples of this method.

The benefits are clear – students get more opportunities for guidance and help during the class periods, and the videos they watch are typically more engaging than a textbook. Yet, there have been some problems identified with the approach as well – especially when the application has varied from classroom to classroom. One major criticism of the flipped classroom (also known as reverse instruction) is that it highlights the digital divide. [I’ve mentioned this topic in a previous post.]  Students without independent access to the Internet from home could find themselves at a severe disadvantage when a classroom completely flips. Additionally, many see the method as a way for teachers to avoid having to actually teach the whole class. The pros and cons of flipped teaching (taken from the pro side) are summarized nicely here.

There are many valid points on both sides of this debate, although I tend to take the conversation at-large as being a good thing. When was the last time we had educators this passionate about methodology? Surely this is net positive!

I recently conducted my first major experiment in flipping my classroom, to see for myself whether or not this method was worth trying on a larger scale. I had my opportunity because the technology in my school had finally caught up to providing me the necessary tools, and a week-long professional opportunity out-of-town gave me the excuse to implement the plan. I conducted my flipped classroom roll-out in two phases:

Phase One: Introduction

I think a CMS (course-management system) is a good idea for a flipped classroom. Having a communication hub to center everything around becomes pretty essential. Prensky was right in his assessment of Digital Natives – yes, today’s students process their thinking about technology differently than those of us from the print age do. However, many of us overlearned the lessons of Prensky and assume too much out of students today. Just because they are more wired when they get to us doesn’t mean that they automatically know how to operate every web tool that we throw at them! They still need to get introduced to new tool and be given time to work with it a bit before deploying it fully. A CMS provides an easy “sandbox” for students to get acclimated to the tech before accountability kicks in.

I settled on Edmodo as a CMS due to its pricetag (free!) and its design, which is stylistically similar to Facebook and therefore appealing to most students. The seamless integration with Google Docs is another huge bonus! I took my classes in the computer lab for a day and rolled them through the sign-up process and a tutorial on how to use the various features. Fortunately, we have been using a lot of Web 2.0 tools in class all year so it was not too laborious getting the students all signed up. I also made it a point to contact parents and send home a form letter with the parent Edmodo code included. Once I was done, I had created an instructional space outside of my classroom where content could be shared.

Phase Two: Implementation

Developing the habits of mind when it comes to sharing took a few weeks! I slowly started rolling out links and Google Docs through Edmodo, and encouraging students to use the digital dropbox feature for turning in assignments. Once we got Edmodo down, I started to experiment with YouTube. Now I recognize many schools block YouTube, but there are many other sites out there for sharing video content, so don’t fret! The bottom line is that by sharing an RSS feed through your CMS, it’s a snap to start podcasting your direct instruction content to students! I started creating “learning modules” for student consumption at home and it was a great success! Edmodo provides easy sharing of attachments, and combining a reading, a video of yours truly, and a written assignment as a package was beyond simple. Check out this example on William Blake where I blended a documentary film, a VoiceThread, and a YouTube clip. The writing assignment extended into the next day where I was able to provide help in person.

The final test came when I was absent from class for a week while conducting an evaluation of another school. I flipped my sub plans for the week and let the proctor run the learning modules in the class. After years of trying, I finally learned how to bi-locate! Pre-recording my lessons and flipping the sub plans was probably the most ambitious tech move I’ve ever attempted. There were a lot of bugs in the system, but the overall benefits to my students, and the impact that it had on my professional development were more than worth the effort it took to orchestrate the whole plan. I have never had a better return rate on my assignments, and the scores on those assessments showed a significant bump! Take it from someone who has been a skeptic – flipping your classroom doesn’t have to be a total flop! Give it a try!

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Keepin’ the Faith

I firmly believe that when the history of this age is written, that this time will be considered pivotal in the course of American education.  A host of political, technological, and societal forces are all converging to reshape the entire landscape of what happens in schools across this country.  In turbulent times such as these, it’s critical for those of us who believe in the value of education to reflect on why we are in this business.  What are your non-negotiables in education?  What drives you to keep heading back to the classroom or the office every day?  And, more than anything else, what do you hold onto in the midst of the maelstrom?  Does your reason inform your decision-making or are you a creature of faith?

Or perhaps you find yourself somewhere in the middle.  I know I do.  Most of us got into this job out of some sense of idealism.  We were going to change the world, right?  And then, after you realized that your teacher training didn’t prepare you, you went into survival mode and fumbled your way into a routine that worked for you.  If you got past the “crisis” period of years 1-5, maybe you started getting into more professional development and learning from some colleagues in the field.  Usually, this is when an educator often hits “the wall.”  You begin to realize that the variables affecting your classroom practice are not limited to you and the students.  Of course there’s parents and administrators as well, but the larger context starts to creep into your view in years 6 through 10 and the dawning realization comes to you that the variables with the greatest impact on your day to day are often completely beyond your influence and control.

This can be a moment of severe disillusionment for a young educator, when your ideals and your reality have a head-on collision. It’s not surprising that economic factors start to become paramount at this time in the lives of many teachers, because they are really just reevaluating the whole package.  “Is all of this worth it?” becomes a popular refrain, and for schools that have a large population of teachers in this mental space, morale can a major, major issue.  Your faith and hope in “the system” are being challenged by your cognitive reason that perceives obstacles in your way to getting the job done “right.”  How many fights have you gotten into with peers or superiors over what you believed was best for the students, only to come away disheartened by the result of the confrontation?  And do you let your heart or your head guide you in the perception of the outcome?

The idea that education and the pursuit of knowledge might not be a religion, but it is an article of faith.  And faith can be tested!  These are the days that try educators’ faith – and we respond to the challenge of this moment in history will have massive repercussions that will echo for generations to come.  Policy is getting written on testing, assessment, teacher evaluation, textbooks, charter schools, vouchers, balancing technology with curricular content, NCLB, Common Core, and the very role of government in public square.  And so much more.

Too often we as educators disengage from the conversation or settle for a defensive posture.  We as a profession need to do more.  We need to provide real policy alternatives to the ones getting thrown around that we see as a mismatch for our ideals.  Maybe your faith has been challenged by what you’ve seen and encountered so far.  Yet this moment of crisis is also one of great promise!  Square your shoulders and muster your willpower – figuring out the best way to handle the issues of the day will require all of us to be at the top of our game.  And we still need you with us.

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Bloom, Revisited: Towards a Digital Taxonomy

Once you gain support in your school/district for the development and promotion of 21st Century skills in your curriculum, you begin the real work in training the staff.  When you direct the PD, don’t forget to highlight the fact that there exists a spectrum of skills.  Far too often in the rush to share the advantages of 21st Century skills in a student’s development, we leave out the fact that we have effectively carved out a new domain in Bloom’s Taxonomy.  And not all 21st Century skills are created equal!  This new domain for a new age of pedagogy emphasizes the hierarchy of skills needed to be successful in the information economy:

  • Curate – Students need to show facility in navigating a vast array of resources and discerning which are valuable and which are irrelevant to the needs of the moment.
  • Share – Students need to demonstrate judgment in calibrating how much is shared with an audience and by what method.
  • Collaborate – Students need to show they can engage with their peers in a collective effort, and act as both leader and follower as appropriate.
  • Cull – Students refine their thinking by gleaning the best of the collaborative process to produce informed decision-making.
  • Publish – Students express themselves confidently and creatively in a manner that shows full participation in the cycle of learning.
  • Reflect – Students can effectively and thoroughly consider the process of learning on a metacognitive level.
How will you best prepare your students for the world they will inherit?

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The Dickensian Element

The literary world celebrated the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens this week to much fanfare.  But what would Mr. Dickens think if he were still with us today?

My contention is that Dickens would be very active in the public sphere.  It was always a trademark of his during his lifetime.  Dickens was well-known for engagement with his readership, even going so far as to alter episodes of his serial manuscripts based on audience feedback.  He traveled to promote his work as well, and conducted dramatic readings of his work that paved the way for the literary book tour.  The field of literary scholarship would soon grow as well as public conversations about his works ensued.

For all of his contributions to the fields of literary business, literary scholarship, and the development of the novel itself as an art form, Dickens stands head and shoulders above other studied authors.  Yet these are not even among his most lasting accomplishments.  Charles Dickens changed the culture of Western society in unexpected ways.  His A Christmas Carol is credited with prompting the evolution of that holiday into the public consciousness.  Meanwhile, his countless works chronicling the poverty and social iniquity present in Victorian society helped to evolve the public conscience as well.

With his identity as an author so wrapped up in the age which he lived, can Dickens still be considered relevant today?  Of course, is the straightforward answer to an obviously leading question.  I would argue that a writer captivated by the social effects of the Industrial Revolution would be equally enamored of capturing the spirit of the Digital Age.  He would clearly relish new ways of interacting with his audience such as e-readers and iBooks.  The idea of putting more text in the hands of more readers would be viewed by Dickens as a tremendous positive for society.  I’m certain that Dickens would be on sites like Twitter and Facebook, and that he would use these social media platforms to garner feedback from his audiences.  I have no doubt that were Dickens alive today, he would quickly alert readers through Foursquare that he was at the local bookstore signing copies of the long-awaited conclusion to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  [He might even confirm to anxious readers that, yes, it was Jasper all along!]

Yet I believe that the “Inimitable” Charles Dickens would have plenty of social criticism to dispense to that dynamic audience.  Dickens, who grew up in poverty, would have grave concerns about the Digital Divide present in today’s Western culture.  The idea that the ever-widening gap between rich and poor enables some schools to have 1:1 classrooms and others scrape by with chalk and outdated textbooks would be anathema to Dickens.

I can see in my mind’s eye a new 2012 novel from Mr. Dickens:  A young man grows up at the turn of the century (the 21st) and goes through his schooling at a poor urban school.  He and his street urchin friends would provide indirect commentary from the author on a society that has turned education into a test-score factory.  Perhaps this young man would have an unexpected turn of fortune that would land him in the midst of wealthy society.  Just as deftly, Dickens would then skewer the positions of those who argue that technology would be the salvation of these issues.  Reimagined characters like Superintendent M’Choakumchild and Associate Superintendent Thomas Gradgrind [they’ve been promoted since their appearances in Hard Times] would thrive in today’s NCLB environment!  Then Dickens would make his emotional appeal… Unless the stratification of society is made more flexible – and unless the disadvantaged from birth are provided more opportunities to become upwardly mobile – we remain a “tale of two classes.”

We sure could use a little of that Dickensian element today… Happy birthday, Chuck.

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Cycle of Learning, Part IV: Groupthink? Guess Again!

As I write this, the biggest education event of the weekend – Philadelphia’s #Educon 2.4 – is concluding. The conversations that began this weekend were stimulating and provocative. Overall, I must say that it was an experience that left me hopeful for my profession and the field of education in general – a too-rare feeling these days! Now imagine how I would feel if I attended! You see, I only connected remotely from home through the Twitter feed that was running the whole weekend. I am already making plans to attend next year’s convention on January 25-27, 2013.

In my last post, I stressed the importance of collaboration in the Cycle of Learning. I am a strong advocate of 21st Century Skills and the need for them to have a prominent place in the classroom. Yet, I am also on record as favoring a balanced approach. The idea of throwing out everything good about the educational system and replacing it with “all-collaboration, all-the-time” just doesn’t strike me as a good notion.

Enter Susan Cain’s New York Times article on The Rise of the New Groupthink. It spread like wildfire through the convention this morning, which I was attending remotely from my laptop at home in Baltimore. It seemed almost perfectly timed to take the wind out of the sails for the #educon #edchat crowd and the article talks pretty tough about a few things:

SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature. […]

Culturally, we’re often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process. Consider Apple. In the wake of Steve Jobs’s death, we’ve seen a profusion of myths about the company’s success. Most focus on Mr. Jobs’s supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple’s creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.

I am still wondering about the presuppositions present in Cain’s thinking. She seems to argue, at least in the first half of the article, that the advocates for 21st Century skills, like myself, are pushing for a revolution in education that replaces the tradition from Dewey to Danielson with a whole new way of thinking. Sure, there are some who would argue for that – I saw many tweets this weekend comparing the conference rooms of SLA to Independence Hall – but I don’t feel that it’s the majority. I believe that the blogs that arrived Saturday night into Sunday afternoon individually reflecting on the convention spoke to the power of collaboration as a crucible for shaping ideas. Revolution isn’t what we are after – rather, it’s evolution! The field of education needs to adapt, not get scrapped and reinvented.

Brainstorming via Twitter and “unconferences” doesn’t breed Groupthink, nor is it an echochamber as some would contend. At least, it won’t as long as we maintain the all-important fourth part of the Cycle of Learning in mind – Integration. Integration is the phase of learning where we use the 21st Century skill of reflection to refine the collaborative process into manageable pieces. As the #educon attendees have commented, getting a whole lot of quality PD in a very small amount of time can be an overwhelming experience. You leave with a headache, but the good kind that makes you think for a long time afterwards. It is during reflection that you come to the individual conclusions that stay with you beyond the learning. You also come to decide what you want to learn more about, which leads to new Discovery, and the Cycle of Learning starts anew.

I like to summarize the Cycle of Learning as a dialectic. Beginning with Discovery, the instructor facilitates the curating of new information to develop a THESIS. After using Expression to share that thesis, the learner engages an audience in the process. As a group focused on Collaboration, the learners practice culling by exposing the thesis to alternate views. These alternate views constitute an ANTITHESIS. Afterwards, the learner needs to find a way to promote Integration. By using the tool of reflection, the learner blends the best elements of the thesis and its antithesis into a SYNTHESIS. This fully vetted and thoroughly studied idea now becomes the basis for new knowledge and further Discovery. A dialectic built on the 21st Century skills of curating, sharing, culling, and reflection – this is the Cycle of Learning as I see it, and it is the post-collaborative reflection which separates this model from all others.

This reflection is important for all learners, whether it is a teacher or administrator seeking PD, or a student processing new material after a inquiry-based group project. As an instructor or supervisor, our job is to direct that reflection – to facilitate and guide it to a place where it will do the most good. This is the proper role of a critical friend. The post-#educon blogs prove to me that we are not in danger of Groupthink. It’s collaboration writ large that demonstrates a truly organic moment in the evolution of our educational system. Now is the moment to capitalize on our learning and engage our collective will into making action plans for the future. The critics are waiting for us to prove them wrong, and the students can’t wait any longer for the important work of proving ourselves right.

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Cycle of Learning, Part III: Beyond Thunderdome

The Marketplace of Ideas

All schools, in the final analysis, are a Thunderdome.  Of course, I mean that metaphorically, although on some of the worst days marauding bands of children and Tina Turner ruthlessly arranging death matches may sound accurate.  No, my view is rather one that makes the classroom a marketplace of ideas, where concepts compete for student attention. To discern between competing ideas is the skill of culling, yet another essential 21st Century skill.  “Two ideas enter – one idea leaves.”

Culling is where a student learns the ability to refine the ideas that have been curated from the learning process.  Collaboration is the arena in which this culling of ideas occurs; where both teachers and students can challenge ideas and be challenged in turn.  Fundamentally, collaboration of this nature is a Darwinian process. Students engaged in group work and inquiry-based project learning share all ideas, and through the facilitation of the instructor, the best adapt and grow stronger.  Weak ideas appropriately die. Strong ideas get tougher.

While this “only the strong survive,” “wheat from chaff,” “men from boys” talk might sound rough, remember that we are talking about the mental concepts and skills that are competing for our students’ attention here.  There is already a lot of competition for that narrow bandwidth of attention as it is – if teachers aren’t willing to roll up their sleeves and throw a couple of elbows to engage the students in the learning process, then we’ve already lost the fight before we begin.  We must be willing to compete for our students’ attention!

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

If we truly want to move beyond the Thunderdome to a place where our students are fully engaged of their own volition, then we need to fully appreciate Marshall McLuhan’s predictions once again.  The man was born 100 years ago yet predicted the Internet long before it happened – so with its rise as the dominant medium of the age, his works bear serious reexamination.

McLuhan’s vision was of a “global village” – that the advent of new technology will serve as prelude to a return of the collaborative society that used to found in tribal communities.  He predicted a social order where communication is both universal and instantaneous.  With the evolution of the internet into not only Web 2.0 sharing but Web 3.0 collaboration, we have finally seen the fulfillment of McLuhan’s vision.

Yet, for all the talk of Prensky’s “digital natives” that has finally gotten some traction and been applied to the Millennial Generation, we seem to have completely overlooked the rise of the post-Millennial generation right behind them.  They’re like Millennials, only more so.  The independence of Millennials has yielded to the groupthink of the new generation, born between 9/11/01 and today.  Much in the way the “Silent Generation” lived in the shadow of the “Greatest Generation” of WWII, this iGeneration (iGens) very often demonstrate a hive mind.  Some of the common social patterns involve VOIP to chat and group gaming via Xbox.  Many iGens read Reddit obsessively, and they gravitate in hordes to Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr-type social media… collaboration of this sort is purely intuitive for them.

As an English teacher I’ve seen it in iGen writing as well.  Their inability to divorce argumentation from mere opinion is reflective of the collaborative aspect of their socialization.  The iGens have been trained very well to accept everyone’s opinion is valid, and so that creeps into their self-expression.  They already know very well how to collaborate – what the role of the educator needs to be in this new landscape is to help train the iGens how to harness the raw power of their collaborative skills to refine their learning and make their ideas even stronger.  Using technology to engage students on their terms is the way to help the iGeneration reach its fullest potential.

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