February 27, 2012

Looking Forward to #NAISAC12

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As I prepare to head west for the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference in Seattle, I am struck by the appropriateness and importance of Seth Godin's blog post this morning:  Stop Stealing Dreams.  You can download Godin's 98 page manifesto from that site. I look forward to reading all 30,000 words on the long flight from Memphis to Seattle.

What is school for?  Seth Godin says he gets asked this question more than any other.  As the world has changed, how must school change so that we are preparing our students for the world they live in now and will live in as adults?  To answer the questions about shifting schools, however, we must back up and address Seth's question of what is school for? It used to be that school were knowledge factories, literally knowledge assembly lines were we sent age-grouped batched of children through to accumulate knowledge.  Now that knowledge is an abundant resources, what are schools for?

Somewhere along the way, many of our schools became hyper-focused on college prep.  We staked our worth and value based to the colleges our graduates were accepted to? Really? is this what schools are for? To get kids into exclusive and statistically competitive colleges?  Is that how we are preparing our students to be the leaders and thinkers of the next generation? We must really trust the outcomes and influence of those four years in college.

I am expecting NAIS to be a great forum to take on and discuss Seth's Godin's question of what is school for?  I believe school is for these things and knowing this we can design from there.

School is for teaching students:

to think
to question
to reflect
to research
to discern
to collaborate
to cooperate
to fail and adjust
to persist
to learn
to know themselves
to dream
to be happy
to act

I believe these are the skills that make one capable of doing anything.  My beliefs are influenced by the work of Arthur Costa and Bena Killick.  You can delve further into their 16 Habits of Mind here at The Institute for Habits of Mind. Click on the Habits of Mind visual to download the .pdf of all 16 habits of mind.

To me, it is simple. If we create learning environments that help children develop and practice using all of these things like thinking, questioning, and persisting, etc.. as refined expertises and habits, what else do they need for successful, productive, happy lives? What else did we need?

What I hope to hear at NAIS that more schools are rethinking the factory model and envisioning the school experience as an enriched community that supported children in becoming the future.

Follow me Jamie Baker   @jamiereverb

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February 13, 2012

The Physics of Change

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I have never taken physics and my interest in it is limited because of my lack of knowledge about it. However, I enjoy reading this physics blog:

Quantum Progress by John Burk

John is a 9th grade physics teacher at Westminster Schools in Atlanta.  He joins others at his school in sharing openly his thinking about teaching and learning in a dynamic and ever changing world. They take up subjects of everyday life at school, the journey as teachers, as learners, as parents, as colleagues in a big school. They write about their subject areas.

One of the most interesting things that John has blogged about is developing the Global Physics Department and having departmental meetings.  This to me was a brilliant use of social media and the blog space to connect with colleagues everywhere. The Global Physics Department is a brilliant example of our ability to break down walls and reach through silos, if we have the momentum to do so.

I also enjoyed, as a closeted Angry Birds player, the physics discussions of that game.  Reading about the trajectories etc. actually helped my game a lot.

I have to admit that when the blog gets really deep into the details of physics, I read really fast, but I do read them through. And, I LOVE the post of February 12, one that I could easily have skipped because it was pretty detailed in the physics area:  Heat and the work done by Friction.  What I realized, however, was that in cultivating change in an organization, whether it is from within a group or from the boundaries of a group, change occurs only with new energy. Turning up the heat, and there are many political and strategic alternatives and choices, is the way to influence change in the culture. Friction is also an important and necessary ingredient.

Even though we tend to think of friction as negative, the type of friction chosen does not always have to be negative.  It can be neutral and it can be positive. Thinking about that, it might be that friction is neutral; it is our reaction to it that is either positive or negative, and our reactions are our choices. I will have to think more about that.

Friction might be the use of deadlines when work was never demanded at a certain time before. Friction might be more open and transparent debate in a meeting. Friction might be pushing in not so subtle ways at the status quo like extending the hours of the time that we are asked to be on campus. Friction may be assigning a project to someone other than the person who did it last time. Friction is certainly introducing professional evaluations and assessments when there were none before.  Heat, energy, friction are all important tools in creating a new form and a new culture.

I was struck as I struggled to read about the formulas of energy and friction how what I do when I tour a school for the very first time is that I am getting a read on the energy and the momentum. Is it high or low? Is it purposeful or scattered? Is it shared? As I read about the physics of friction, I was thinking about the types of conversations I put myself in a position to hear and participate in when I am getting to know a new school. Do I hear debate? Do I hear inquiry? Do I hear and feel a sense of momentum, energy towards purpose? Do I feel energy being expended in defensive and guarding ways?

I loved making this connection re: the physics of change.  Without a influencer or change in energy, there is not change in a system.  I hear lots of leaders talk about their belief that change will just occur naturally, organically.  I just don't think that belief squares with the physics of organizational change.

Am I saying turning up the heat?  I think I probably am. The challenge, however, is to learn to think of the heat in positive, purposeful, professional and mission-driven ways and not as always a negative.  Heat, energy, movement. Action, reaction. Change. The problem is helping frame people's reactions and perceptions of heat and friction.  Lots to continue thinking about.

February 9, 2012

Encounter of the 6th Grade Kind: Ban Boring

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Remember this great scene from Ferris Buehler's Day Off?  Ben Stein droning on, "anyone? anyone?" about "Voodoo Economics. Voodoo Economics."  I think it was such a funny scene because who has not been there! Bored to death and under the gun to capture and remember all the boring stuff spewing from the teacher blah, blah, blah, blah. 


That was school. A thing to be endured. A necessary evil for success in this world. A large pursuit of mass memorizing and regurgitating.

I just don't understand why learning, of all things, has to be so boring. Learning should be an opening, a pursuit and journey that lead to more and more. Learning should be stimulating and exciting.

I had the great pleasure of visiting a 6th grade class this week to observe a chemical reaction experiment. The thing was, however, that I got detained and was late for all of the action.

So, when I arrived, the teacher asked a student to take me aside and "re-do the lesson. Walk Ms. Baker through the learning objectives and the thinking routine."  Huh?  This 6th student was going to be able to tell me the objectives of the learning and knew the thinking routine?  Well, the student didn't miss a beat and did exactly as his teacher asked.  He knew the purpose of the experiment. The larger ideas that it was illustrating. He knew the thinking routine by name: I saw, I think, I wonder.  He was able to show me all of the thoughts of the students in the class as they were all posted on a shared virtual bulletin board. He had looked at everyone else's work and was able to point out to me the patterns of belief and the points at which students have "diverging" thoughts.

In asking my host about learning this way, I was shocked at the depth of his understanding about the purpose of the thinking routines that his teacher used in order "to help us develop a conceptual understanding that is bigger than just this experiment."  He told me in no short order that being asked to record what he saw, thought, and wondered helped him remember and to think in a more deep way about the activity. And, he wanted me to know and felt no qualms in telling me, that being asked to think and reason makes learning so much more exciting and interesting.  "Before," he explained, "class was just so boring. I mean, the teacher is nice but it was just lecture, lecture, lecture, and my mind would just go other places." He went on to say that now he is able to connect to the learning better and because he is asked to think about and share his ideas about the material the teacher is presenting that "his mind doesn't wander so much."

Why does learning have to be so boring when there are a plethora of design options for presenting, engaging, and assessing the material?  What operating belief or assumption are we working on such that learning ends up boring?  What new operating belief or philosophical underpinning would lead us to learning that is stimulating and invigorating?

If class is boring, whose responsibility is that?  the students to endure or the adults to cure?

I think these questions are so fundamental and so important to the future of learning that every division and department of every school should engage them seriously, systematically, and deeply.  I am tired of hearing teachers say there is no way around being bored and boring in class because "that is just part of it."  I don't really believe in any subject at any time it has to be boring.  It just doesn't.