Sunday, March 2, 2014

EduCon 2014 and Engagement

The Franklin Institute

The more conferences I go to, the less I find myself interested in discussions about specific tools. Instead, it's the new ideas that excite me, in that ideas have the power to outlast tools and make more of an impact on what we do in our classrooms. So, when I learned about EduCon in Philadelphia last December, a conference dedicated to innovation and building schools of the future around these ideas hosted by the rather impressive Science Leadership Academy, I immediately signed up.

EduCon is very similar to the EdCamp model, with "conversations" proposed by attendees, in place of invited speakers and vendor-driven content. I was pleasantly surprised at how little "tech talk" infiltrated the conversations. The sessions were all fantastic, as were the student hosts at SLA, who were impressive for their leadership and gratitude for being at the school. The Twitter buzz in advance of EduCon was as energized as I've ever seen, which was complemented by the conversations that were had while at the conference. All in all, I hope to make EduCon a regular part of my conference rotation, and I'd love to host a conversation of my own someday soon.

Love Park

In particular, I was drawn to a conversation on design thinking, run by +Trey Boden, James Campbell, TJ Edwards, and Jenny Novoselsky from the Mount Vernon Institute, one on mindfulness in education with Sarah Macdonald and Lydia Maier, and another on positive psychology, given by Alexa Dunn and her graduate students. Over the past year, I've found my own thinking to be heavily influenced by design thinking and mindfulness, and so I was eager to discuss these ideas with other educators in the open "unconference" forum at EduCon. They didn't disappoint (cf. my conference notes).

But there was so much more happening at the conference that I had the good fortune to participate in: David Jakes and Christian Long's inspiring session "Wonder, By Design" served as a call to action for the importance of wonder and creativity in schools, and Carey Pohanka introduced me to the concept of the "gemba" (cf. Deborah Adler's TED Talk) in her session "Going to the Gemba," which is the Japanese word meaning the "real place." Going to the gemba is basically making a direct observation of the process as it is happening, and fits in quite well with the empathy component of design thinking.

As I participated in what was one of the highest sustained levels of conference engagement I've seen (look back at the #educon Tweets and those that continue to come in), I started to think about what engagement really is. I've used the term quite often but never really though about what it is and how we measure it, until we had conversations about it at EduCon.

A few weeks ago, +Krista Moroder mentioned Philip Schlechty's book Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work in the ISTE Young Educator podcast #3, in which Schlechty defines engagement and argues convincingly that designing for engagement (rather than planning for outcomes) should be a top priority in schools. Without true engagement, in his hierarchy, students become compliant or worse (cf. the "Levels of Engagement"), and the ingredients necessary for intrinsic motivation to learn something that Daniel Pink discusses in Drivenamely autonomy, mastery, and purpose, won't be found.

With this in mind, the idea of engagement and the importance of designing learning environments to support it has become my new focus. Engagement encompasses the design thinking process, mindfulness, and everything else I've been working toward, I think, and it has direct application to both students and teachers. To my mind, it makes more sense to me than the often-used terms "student-centered" and "21st century," and it doesn't need to involve anything special (i.e., no tech guarantees engagement, nor does IdeaPaint, etc.). I intend on spending the spring and summer thinking about designing more engaging environments that encourage creativity and innovation for both faculty and students, and I'm very eager to hear what others think about engagement and how it's approached at your schools. #HMW design for more engagement?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Top #EdBlogs2013 Posts

2013 was a productive year that saw quite a bit of professional development and new thinking, highlighted by traveling, where I made new colleagues, and attending the Google Teacher Academy in Chicago. In reflecting on this year, +Eric Saibel has inspired colleagues who blog to share their most influential posts of 2013 for the #EdBlogs2013 series he's collecting, and I'm honored to participate (read his own post here). Taking a page from +David Theriault, who reworked the organization of the #EdBlog2013 idea (cf. his fantastic #EdBlogs2013 post), I'll reflect on 2013 thematically, organizing my post around some of the ideas that I've been interested in this year. And I'll keep the summaries of each post, so be sure to give them the love they deserve.

Innovation and Mindfulness

I've been very interested in creativity and innovation, along with the part that mindfulness plays, thanks to my PLN. I now believe that creativity is one of the most important skills that we should be teaching (alongside collaboration and empathy), and the following posts are just of the few of a growing body of literature that has helped me to think this way.

 Daniel Goleman, whose book Focus I enjoyed, has a couple of posts shared in LinkedIn on mindfulness and creativity that I enjoyed reading: Three Must-Haves for Team Creativity and Mindfulness: When Focus Means Single-Tasking.
New Pioneers blog

• Collisions of Creativity from the magazine Mindful is a good piece on the relationship between mindfulness and creativity.

• Lee-Anne Gray (@DrLeeAnneG) wrote a great post on the need for mindfulness in education as a source of innovation titled Why Mindfulness is Needed For Education Innovation.

• I love the idea of starting a "life hacker" club build around the modern world, as outlined in Start a Life Hacker Club at Your School by Adam Renfro in the +Getting Smart blog.

• Stephanie Harrison's (@cultivaceThis will make you happier at work is a great post on bringing mindfulness into the workplace, offering several suggestions for doing so. Creating a mindful culture within the workplace is one of my long-term goals, assuming that, if teachers are generally more mindful and happy, we can also help students to be more mindful and happy.

• Finally, this academic year I began to realize the importance of the relationship between pedagogy and physical space and never fully appreciated it, until +Alice Keeler led a revelatory session at #edcampSFBay last August on the topic. The conversation was inspiring, and +Kevin Ashworth followed it up with his own room redesign in a 2-part blog post on his work (Part 1 | Part 2). We're undertaking our own room redesigns of History, Visual Arts, and World Languages classrooms, and Kevin's work will serve as a source of inspiration for us to craft true collaborative space for our students in a mindful manner.

Design Thinking

Mindfulness and design thinking are very similar in a number of ways; to my mind, mindfulness is an internal application of the external principles of design thinking, and they're both critically dependent on problem definition and system awareness. In designing new forms of pedagogy, especially around technology, I've tried to keep a number of basic principles in mind, and the following posts.

• Last winter/spring's #etmooc was the first digital experience that opened me up to the value of taking risks and the importance of building a PLN. In particular, +Christina Hendricks wrote a post Etmooc: Rhizomatic Learning In Philosophy Courses on the concept of "rhizomatic learning." which was one of the first blog posts I read that challenged the way I thought about learning and pedagogy.
Creative Confidence

• Eric Saibel wrote a great piece The Art of Coaching: Or, Disrupting the Echo Chamber that has helped to give me a framework to apply design thinking at our school, particularly the concept of the disruption and the "echo chamber," or the repetitiveness of thinking that we can find ourselves stuck in as a group that too often prevents us from identifying the core of a problem.

• Grant Wiggins, in his post Beyond teacher egocentrism: design thinking, has some great thoughts on what design thinking means in education, and he share some of the same ideas I have about the ways that the ego gets in the way of creating this type of environment.

• In an important discussion about transparency in education, Brad Ovenell-Carter (@Braddo) asks the question Can a radical transparency replace grading?. It's short but asks a great question that opens up discussion of standards-based grading and general openness, of which we still have far too little.

• Though not published in 2013, Cathy Davidson's (@CathyNDavidson) idea of crowdsourced grading in How to Crowdsource Grading grabbed my attention. I haven't yet put this idea to use in this form, but I love the approach to empowering students in this way.


2013 was the year of gamification for me. I got to know the concept in the spring, though through some ideas of the summer, and now I'm working toward creating a gamified Latin IA course around our new 1:1 BYOL program. Fortunately, a number of excellent blog posts have helped me with the work.

• Tanya Sasser's (@TanyaSasser) post 3 Things I Wish Everyone Knew about Gamification corrects some common misconceptions about the role of game-based learning and gamification in education.

• +Rory Newcomb has a fantastic blog series on gamification, starting with Gamification 101: Why Gamify? Part I. It's a minefield of great ideas for anyone interested in game-based learning.

• +Jennifer Roberts has some helpful words of advice on the importance of good game design  in her post Broken Games.

• And last but certainly not least, IDEO founders Tom and David Kelley have a great post on the real-world value that games have for learning with How Daydreams and Videogames Can Make Us Confident In Real Life (Yes).


I'll close with some random yet influential posts on professional development, the MOOC, language study and the humanities in general.

+David Theriault's The Magnificent 60: Introducing Your #gtachi Participants is brilliant for so many reasons, mostly because it paints such a colorful picture of all the amazing people who participated in the #gtachi last July.

• At the beginning of last summer, +Jennifer Peyrot shared her Summer Learning Fun on her blog, which helped me to rethink how I approach the summer. In particular, it's a good idea to plan out some activities to ensure a fairly high level of productivity, lest it go by too quickly.

• In August, I had the opportunity to help +Nancy Minicozzi organize and run the PlaydateLA conference. Her reflections in Playdate L.A. capture the excitement I also felt for providing PD to over 100 people, rather than receiving it at an event. It was such a positive experience that the PlaydateLA team is already looking forward to doing it again next August.

• If you're not yet a regular reader of the digital journal Hybrid Pedagogy, run in part by +Jesse Stommel, I highly recommend having a look. His post The March of the MOOCs: Monstrous Open Online Courses, along with the #moocmooc event last summer, helped me to see the larger possibilities of connectivism and constructivism that the MOOC can bring to education.

• Language teachers are always concerned with promoting language programs, especially as STEM disciplines grow in popularity. +Dana Ariss wrote a great post Learning Languages: Who Says You Can't? that underscores the value that language study has for resilience and taking control of learning. I'm now interested in promoting an "Hour of Language" in a way similar to December's Hour of Code event.

• Along with the diminishing interest in language study, the Humanities have also been suffering (cf. what's happening at the university level). Ben Stern understands Why Humanities Still Matter In 2013, however, and argues a strong case for the importance of the Humanities in understanding the world we interact with.


That wraps up my 2013, more or less. In addition to blogs, I've also been reading a fair number of books that have all shaped my thinking to a large degree, and I've share some thoughts here on a few of them. But as we begin 2014 (and now that my coding streak has finished!), I plan on carving time to read more blogs, and I'll be looking forward to the ideas that develop from them in this year.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Sunshine Gratitude

I owe +Megan Valois (@msvalois) and +Karl Lindgren-Streicher (@LS_Karl) some gratitude for sharing their Sunshine posts with me a few weeks ago, and I'm happy to finally respond with my first post of 2014.

Here's how Sunshine posts work:
  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger
  2. Share 11 random facts about myself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for me.
  4. List 11 bloggers that I believe deserve some recognition and a little blogging love! (These people can't include the blogger who nominated me.)
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers I nominate.

Part 1. Nominators  I got to know Megan on Twitter, and even though we were both at QC GAFE in Montreal last month, I never got a chance to say hi to her in person. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to meet her in person soon. She's one of the mods of #cdnedchat happening Monday nights at 5pm PST, which is chock-full of great educators north of the boarder.

Karl and I got to know each other last summer on Twitter, and we met in person at the amazing #edcampSFBay last August. He's become one of my closest allies within my PLN, and I consider myself fortunate to count him among my colleagues and friends (even though he lives in the Bay Area and doesn't bleed Giants orange!). Make an effort to get to know this guy.

Part 2. 11 Facts About Me
  1. My real name is "Maurice." In England, it ends up as Morris, but in Ireland it's pronounced more like "Marce," which then ends up as "Moss" colloquially. The name has been in my family for generations, and if not for my grandfather on my dad's side, I'd have been a Moss, V or something along those lines.
  2. I was born and raised in Las Vegas, NV. Spent the first 18 years of my life there, before going to college and I'm apparently one of the few natives.
  3. I wear flip-flops year-around and I don't think it's odd. Others do, however, especially those back East. It's one of the perks of living in Southern CA.
  4. My undergraduate degree is in Applied and Engineering Physics, but in my junior year, I instead decided to pursue Classics (MA) and linguistics (PhD) in graduate school.
  5. Thanks to all that time in graduate school, I now think that PB&J is just about the best food ever.
  6. I'm a huge craft beer geek (a trait I share with Karl!). I love West-Coast IPAs most and will drink anything with Columbus hops.
  7. I'm a rabid sports fan, with baseball placed above and beyond everything else. Growing up in the desert, I was drawn to cool, open grass fields. As I hinted above, I'm a diehard San Francisco Giants fan and have made a tradition out of seeing a few spring training games in AZ each year. College football comes second (UCLA Bruins!), and I'm a big fan of Cornell University hockey (my alma mater).
  8. I'm a music snob, with a proclivity toward guitar-based music. I love post-metal and post-rock, including bands like Converge, ISIS, Jesu, Explosions in the Sky, to cite just a few. 80s pop and 90s grunge, though, will always have a place in my heart, and it goes without saying that Spotify is still my favorite "gadget."
  9. I'm an avid yogi and a second-series ashtangi. Though I've moved away from my beloved ashtanga studio, I try to practice as much as possible.
  10. I love reading. Until last spring, I read almost exclusively fiction, including anything by Pynchon and Bolaño. Lately, though, I've been reading mostly nonfiction, with a tendency toward cognitive science and positive psychology.
  11. I coded on every day in 2013, with a streak of 367 days. Now, I think I'll move on to

Hadrian's Wall

Part 3. 11+ Questions for Me (merging Megan and Karl's questions)
  • What’s your favorite thing about blogging or tweeting? 
Connecting with other educators who think in similar ways as me but still push my thinking in new directions. I love the reflection process in putting my ideas down on a page for others to read. Tweeting and especially blogging has made me think of myself as more of a professional educator.
  • Favorite hobby?
Tough one. It could be yoga or reading.
  • Favorite movie of all time?
Have to go with Heat, followed closely by Real Genius. Heat is so "Iliadic" it pitting two single-minded people against each other. It's a great example of storytelling driven by art and character, including Los Angeles itself.
  • Favorite place you have traveled?
The most amazing travel experience I've had was in Northern England a few years ago, when I drove along Hadrian's Wall in exploration of Roman Britain.
  • Favorite Twitter chat? 
Easy; #caedchat, thanks both to all the amazing people participating in it every Sunday night, as well as to the fact that I've had the good fortune to meet many of them in person.
  • Favorite educational website - person or product? 
I have to go with Google Drive, if that counts. I use it more than everything else combined.
  • If you had a superpower, what would it be? 
I'd choose to control time, whether it's stopping it or traveling back to the past. I'd love to see ancient Greece, Rome, and India in action.
  • Favorite book you’ve read in 2013? 
Looking back at what I've read in 2013, I'm not sure which was the favorite. I loved Drive, and Thinking, Fast and Slow, but I might pick Reality is Broken, thanks to the fact that it opened my eyes to gamification and positive psychology. For fiction, I'll go with Pynchon's Bleeding Edge.
  • Why teaching?
I love the dynamic and intellectual interaction of learning and exchanging ideas with both students and other teachers. And I love sharing things I have a passion for with others, with the hopes that they'll do the same for me. It's incredible to have an opportunity to get to show people why the Latin language (and ancient languages in general) can be so interesting.
  • If you could make one change to the educational system in the US or Canada, what would it be?
I'd get rid of standardized testing, including SATs and APs. More and more, I see how little they contribute toward student growth and teacher innovation and I don't want to participate in this kind of system.
  • What is the most important characteristic you look for in your friends?
Empathy and an awareness of what's going on around them, including the ability and willingness to listen.
  • What teacher had the biggest impact on your life? How did they impact you? Does this teacher know the impact they had on you?
My AP Language teacher Bobbie Cartwright. She was the first teacher who pushed me to really think through an idea and organize it on a page. She went far beyond the "textbook" and had us talking about real-world issues, like education. I still remember her prefacing the education unit by saying that it'd be the most controversial and heated one of the year, which no one believed. But sure enough, she was right, and I think about her often every time I find myself in such a discussion today.

She was diagnosed with lung cancer the spring before my junior year, but she kept teaching into the following spring, until her treatment forced her to leave teaching. When we said our goodbyes to her, she grabbed me by the shoulders and said, "Maurice, you have a good brain. Use it." Until now, I've only told this story to a handful of people.
  • What is the biggest risk you've ever taken in your life? How did it work out?
I left a career in engineering behind for Classics, and I'm quite happy I did!
  • I'll let you off the hook with an easy one: when are you coming to the Bay Area next so we can hang out and I can steal all your best ideas? (With attribution of course!)
As soon as possible, and hopefully before the 2014 MLB season starts! Keep me posted on any and all Bay-Area education meetings.

Part 4. My 11 Nominations  I'm going with some hometown favorites, #gtachi colleagues, and PlaydateLA collaborators below who are great people and great educators. I've met them all in person, other than Eric whom I'll meet very soon I hope, and always look forward to spending face-to-face time with them. I've known Jen Carey for more than 12 years, when we were Classics and archaeology in grad school, and as luck would have it, we're now both in education. If you're not yet following any of them, now's the time to start!

Part 5. My 11 Questions Mixing and matching a few questions from others, while adding a few of my own.
  1. If you weren't teaching, what would you be doing?
  2. What do you like best about teaching?
  3. How do you deal with the stress of the teaching schedule?
  4. What was your favorite class you've taken and why?
  5. How do you like to spend your summers?
  6. Name one place you'd drop everything to visit right now.
  7. List your 3 most influential reads.
  8. You've just found a time machine. Do you go forward or backward and why?
  9. Name one conference you're geeked about attending this year.
  10. What's a passion project or 20%-time activity you'd like to work on this year?
  11. Share one of your bucket-list activities.

Thanks again to Megan and Karl for including me in their Sunshine posts! I'm looking forward to continuing our conversations in the future, and I'm excited to read the responses to my nominations (when you have the time, of course!).

Thursday, December 5, 2013

What happens if we don't...?

The Value Function
I've been reading about cognitive psychology and design thinking with great interest lately, and some ideas have been swirling around in my head. In particular, I (finally!) finished Daniel Kahneman's fantastic book Thinking, Fast and Slow on Prospect Theory (reading notes here) and the decision-making processes that are at work in our minds (cf. a previous post on some of its ideas). Design Thinking (DT) has also caught my attention (cf. another previous post), and while sitting on a plane last week, I had the chance to reflect on how prospect theory and DT work with each other.

In particular, I've been very interested in Carol Dweck's idea of the growth mindset, with its emphasis on resilience and the reframing of failure as an opportunity, which is a pillar of DT. But I haven't see much concrete thinking on how we actually develop this in people. More and more of us are telling our students that they shouldn't fear failure but rather embrace it; though, it's been my experience that simply telling them that failure isn't a bad thing isn't very effective, especially if this thinking isn't reinforced elsewhere. As one of my students recently put it, after all, "School wouldn't be fun without grades!" So, how do we help students to be more "growth" focused and innovative? How do we actually teach them to take risks and feel rewarded for doing so?

Kahneman's Prospect Theory, which was developed as an economic theory of decision making, has direct application to education, I think, and it has helped me think through this problem. In his book, Kahneman discusses risk aversion as a feature that's deeply embedded into our cognitive thinking, in that "[t]he aversion to the failure of not reaching a goal is much stronger than the desire to reach it" (303), and that "[a]nimals, including people, fight harder to prevent losses than to achieve gains." (305) Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, and Vohs, in their paper "The Bad Is Stronger Than Good" (323), sum it up nicely:
"Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones."
The Fourfold Pattern
The Fourfold Pattern (316ff.) in Prospect Theory states that, despite the probabilities, when people stand to gain something, we avoid risk; but when we stand to loose something, we embrace risk. For instance, consider which option in the following two scenarios is preferable to you:
  • Get $900 for sure or a 90% chance to get $1000
  • Lose $900 for sure or a 90% chance to lose $1000
The overwhelming majority of people, according to Kahneman (279-280), find the first option of the first scenario preferable (i.e. getting $900) vis–à–vis taking the risk in the second option and not getting any money. Conversely, we'd rather take the risk of not losing anything, even if the risk is large, than give up a sure $900. The observed behavioral patterns are nicely summed up in the "Fourfold Pattern" chart.

I think that the current educational system can be placed in the upper-left box, where students and teachers believe that we stand to gain, provided we play it "safe" and do what we're supposed to do. According to tradition, "sure things" are the cognitive skills that are reflected by grades, AP scores, etc. But tradition too frequently prevents us from taking risks by innovating and developing the essential non-cognitive skills (or "soft skills") like resilience, empathy, and creativity, since we're resistant to missing out on the measurable rewards, and this is where our fears of failure are forged.

Interestingly, Kahneman found discrepancies to the predicted behaviors, though, when the commodities in question were "for use" (intrinsic) in comparison to "for exchange" (extrinsic) goods like money. "Selling goods that one would normally use activates regions of the brain that are associated with disgust and pain" (296) by changing the reference point for which we make decisions, he argues, and we therefore treat "for use" goods differently, allowing for more mobility within the Fourfold Pattern. This so-called endowment effect (293) is an important discovery that may have potential ramifications for how we think about learning.

With this framework in mind, I've been considering some applications of Prospect Theory to DT, mindsets, and education. When we treat education and content as a commodity to be traded (i.e. lecturing, mechanically testing on content, emphasizing grades, etc.) and when we have deep beliefs that we will gain something valuable from doing these things, it makes sense, thanks to Kahneman's work, that we will be "risk averse" and "fixed" with respect to our mindsets. We're afraid to miss out because that's how our brains are wired to react, and we thus protect ourselves be being risk averse (i.e. taking the sure $900).

But if we treat education and the learning process as something with "utility" and ideas that we actually use, focusing on innovation and creativity, rather than content to be simply traded with others, we can learn to be risk-seeking, even when the probability of traditional "success" is low. In other words, we can move from the upper left to the lower left of the Fourfold Pattern above, which means, surprisingly, that we may need to start believing that we stand to lose something for certain if we don't take the risk. Taking risks doesn't necessarily lead to embracing failure within DT framework, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.

In order to produce growth mindsets in students, we need to ask them to use their education ("for use" commodities), rather than simply repeat it back to us ("for exchange" commodities). This is what DT is all about: ideation, iteration, and innovation. In Prospect Theory, the possibility effect is the observed pattern whereby highly unlikely outcomes are given disproportionately more weight (311), but in education I see it as the hope that students have when they think big, believe in themselves, and take risks that they otherwise wouldn't take. What we all lose when we don't take risks, then, is personalization of learning, creativity, and the opportunity to innovate and do something new. That's to say, we lose the chance to escape from tradition.

Now this conclusion is likely not too surprising to educators who have been investing themselves in to project-based learning philosophies like "20% time" or "genius hour" projects, but it reinforces these ideas and gives us (or at least me!) a concrete framework to stand on, as we rework our curricula and begin to transform our schools from the traditional "factory" model. Putting some of this theory to practice and playing around with using loss to motivate risk taking, I want to try asking more "What happens if we don't...?" and "What do we lose by not doing...?" questions that frame our work in terms of losses of intrinsic goals, rather than focusing on the grade-based extrinsic "gains."


As I keep thinking through these ideas, I'm going to make heavy use of Kahneman's term theory-inducing blindness, which means that "once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws." (277) We've been induced to blindness by our allegiance to the AP curriculum, GPAs and "Honors" courses, advanced degrees, and our teacher-centric lecture models. We won't take risks, as long as we see consider these our goals. And we can't innovate, if we don't take risks. To get our students to take them and learn to reframe failure, we have change our own mindsets first and take those risks ourselves.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Gladwell's David and Goliath and Design Thinking

Malcolm Gladwell's new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants discusses perceived advantages and disadvantages and how appearances may not always be what the seem. The book has been received with some justifiable criticism (e.g. Christopher Chabris' "The Trouble with Malcolm Gladwell"), but I've still found it interesting and thought-provocative for its potential applications in education, as we're on the cusp of some radical and profound changes.

Basically, Gladwell argues that "being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable" (6). He then examines a number of cases in various contexts, where the "underdog," based on the lack of clear advantages, has actually outperformed or beaten the supposed favorite, starting with the famous battle of David vs. Goliath.

Design Thinking (Thomas Lockwood)
At the #oesis Symposium in Boston this past week (cf. my conference notes), I attended an interesting session on design thinking (DT) by Matthew Cavellier and Hannah Sobol from Shattuck-St. Mary's School, since I've been very interested in the cognitive processes that underlie creativity and innovation. From Wikipedia, DT "is generally considered the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context," and it has become very popular in certain industries and business over the past half decade. I've been drawn to DT, in that it seems to offer a healthy analytical methodology to approach some of the problems we're facing in changing the way we approach education (cf. the DT Wiki above for more info on the process).

With this in mind, I'm curious to re-examine some of our own long-held assumptions about relative strengths and weaknesses in our schools, especially within the context of independent-school culture, using the principles of DT. In particular, I fear that some of our problems may be suffering from a lack of clear definition, which is one of the foundations of the DT process. Daniel Kahneman has shown that we tend to substitute an easier "heuristic" question for the target question without noticing (Thinking, Fast and Slow 97), and I see this process of substitution happening all too often, which is why certain problems get recycled over and over again. With an inability to clearly frame our problems with the right questions, we can neither understand them nor work toward effective solutions to them.

A few problems immediately come to mind that are worthy of further thought:
  • As Gladwell discusses (cf. Ch. 3), we often preach that smaller classes are better, especially within independent schools, where class sizes of 12 are not abnormal. But is this really always the case? It's true that smaller classes are easier to manage from the perspective of the teacher, but are they really better places for students to learn within the technological age? To my mind, the collaboration and diversity that we've been so busy promoting only benefits from larger classes. Given that traditional lecture methods are less effective in large classes, though, we necessarily need to transform how we teach. How do we transform our teaching methods considering what's best for our students?
  • We often think that, for a number of reasons, schools with more money are better off. Money can buy access to a variety of tech tools and devices, but it's much easier and quicker to put a tool in the hands of a teacher or a student than it is to train them to use it, overlooking the training. The problem, then, is time, which is our most valuable resource. As Cathy Davidson writes in Now You See It, "Time is the new currency—and many young people will gladly trade money to get more time" (223). Rather than looking for money to throw at problems, how can we give our teachers more time for collaboration and exploration, instead of asking them to do these sorts of things on their own time?
  • I heard the idea of "independent-school culture" used often at #oesis last week. Schools, and especially independent schools, take great pride in the culture promoted to students, parents, and staff, and this inherited culture is seen as a great advantage and justification for a school's given goals. But in my experience, culture in the sense of "tradition" can often stagnate innovation, when we believe that we have to keep doing things they way they were done in the past. The idea that we want students experience education in the same ways that we did just can't be maintained any longer; it won't help students to thrive in a world that's become very different from the one that produced this tradition. If culture is more than simply "tradition," what is it and why is it so important for us to cling to it? And how can we promote a growth mindset within our communities, while maintaining our culture?
I'm excited to have conversations about using DT to help us frame questions more accurately and rethink our "disadvantages" to create the new opportunities in which Gladwell believes. What other problems do we need to solve, as we continue to incorporate technology into curricula and transform pedagogy? What disadvantages exist that can actually help us to become better in the long run? If there is interest in exploring any these ideas in greater depth, I'd love to host a Twitter chat on them.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Innovation and Growth

From the BigHeads Network
In a recent conversation on growth and professional development, I was surprised by some of the defensive ideas that came up in the discussion, namely, rejecting potentially valuable feedback, hiding failure, and playing it safe when setting goals. These are the same ideas that have been recycled in education for years that are preventing growth. To be fair, what "growth" means in education can be hard to pin down, given that the definition is often personal and isn't always shared with others. Most basically, I think, growth means getting better at the craft of teaching, but what does mean to be "better?"

To my mind, growth involves a large component of innovation, especially as more and more schools are moving toward blended-learning 1:1 programs. Innovation, of course, is often based on using technology in the classroom to a greater extent; but it more importantly requires us to change the way we think about solving problems. Innovation isn't simply putting homework assignments online. And so, I can't help but believe that these often-held assumptions about what growth is are preventing us from the kind of innovation that's possible right now. In order to move forward with our professional growth goals and innovate, we need to rethink these assumptions and change our culture toward one that promotes growth over fear, since within a culture of fear, growth and innovation are almost impossible. Though there are certainly other behaviors that promote growth and innovation, I'll list here a few specific ones that I have been thinking on, inspired in part by Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From.

Involve Students in the Process

It makes no sense to me to ignore students in the feedback process we use to evaluate ourselves and "grow." We're designing new curriculum around them, after all, using phrases like "collaborative work," "student centered," and "personalized" for the curricular changes we intend to make. Ideas thrive when they're not only shared between teachers, but also when they're shared with the students who will be subjected to them, and in order to innovate, we need to listen to their feedback.

Embrace Failure and the Attempt at Innovation

It also makes no sense for us to hide our failures and avoid trying new things, lest they don't work out. There's nothing that's more "fixed growth" (cf. Dweck's Mindset) than being afraid to try something new because you don't want others to learn that it didn't work. That's no way to grow, and it shouldn't be a model for students to learn.

Think Big

I learned at #gtachi this summer that we need to think big if we want to innovateit's the Google way. No one has ever changed the world by thinking small, and we're certainly not going to teach the next generation how to solve the significant problems that threaten the world by thinking like this. The bigger the goals we set, the greater the number of people involved, typically, which can help lead a school down a more innovative path.

Reflect as Often as Possible

Growth and innovation require constant reflection and refining, rather than thinking about personal and/or departmental goals once a year. This is where failure is actually advantageous and critical for the process of innovation, since it helps us to constantly refine our goals, as we move closer toward them.

Open Your Mind

Finally, innovation and growth require us to embrace diversity and welcome new ideas into our own frame of thinking (cf. more on this below). Albert Einstein, who is the source of several famous quotations on innovation, said that "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them," and this is precisely why we need to think openly, not defensively, and embrace diversity for the benefit that it can bring to our own ways of thinking. More connections within our Personal Learning Network (PLN) hinders stale thinking and increases our exposure to new ideas that may help us to innovate and facilitates reflection on these ideas.


I've been reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow on cognitive processes underlying how we think, which has proven to be quite fascinating. In particular, it's interesting to consider the differences between our "System 1" and "System 2" processes. System 1 is "automatic and quick, with little voluntary control," basically providing us with our first-impression thoughts. System 2, on the other hand, gives our attention to "effortful mental activity" and is "associated with subjective agency and choice" (20). System 2 is what we use to ask and think through questions that aren't intuitively obvious to System 1. But System 2 is lazy and often defers to System 1, especially when it's tired or overworked.

Kahneman introduces the pertinent idea of WYSIATI ("What You See Is All There Is") that, thanks to the way System 1 works, has us "jumping to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence" in experiment after experiment. Moreover, WYSIATI facilitates coherence of events (i.e. seeing relationships between things), even when there is none, and leads to cognitive ease, which causes us to give too much weight our first impressions, rather than carefully evaluating the evidence presented to us (86-87). Importantly, WYSIATI is based on our experiences and current collection of ideas in our heads.

I don't know many teachers, if any, who have plenty of free time and need extra work. Because we're so mentally drained, all too frequently, I think that we let System 2 give way to System 1 too often and fall back on what we already know, which is why innovation in education has been painfully slow. It's precisely why these old ideas have been kept around for so long. To pursue growth in whatever way that it is meaningful to us, we need a good measure of innovation, and to innovate, we need to explore new ideas so that we don't fall back on old patterns, just because they're all too comfortable and familiar.

McGonigal, in her fantastic book Reality is Broken, wrote that it's "easier to change minds than behaviors" (186), and I think she's right. With that, how do we change our culture toward a model that openly encourages growth and innovation? After an inspiring discussion on innovation last night on #caedchat, I'm also curious to know how people define growth an innovation. Feel free to share your thoughts here or with me on Twitter at @mosspike.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Change and the Giving up the Ego
Someone recently mentioned to me that "change requires giving something up." At the time, I wasn't sure how much I believed it, but after thinking about it for a week, I do now. Depending on what kind of change is being proposed, there's a variety of answers to the question of what should be given up; but in more cases than not in education, based on what the conversations I've had, it's the ego that's at the center of this discussion.

Early in graduate school, I was giving a paper at a conference, with Joshua Katz, a brilliant Classicist and Indo-Europeanist from Princeton, in attendance. Afterward, we chatted about it, and he told me that he liked the paper right before he asked me, "Do you believe it?" I was shocked at first, but I quickly realized that he wasn't being critical. Instead, Katz was telling me indirectly that research wasn't always about being right; rather, it's about the exploration of ideas and the fact that it's not necessary to believe in an idea 100%, before sharing it.

Later, I had the great fortune to work with Calvert Watkins, who also reinforced this way of doing research. Despite being one of the most prolific and greatly respected Indo-European linguists in the field, he openly encouraged colleagues to criticize his work, with the hope that our understanding would only grow. He never put his ego before the ideas.

Team Geek and and the Ego

"If you spend all your time working alone, you're increasing the risk of failure and cheating your potential for growth" (Team Geek 5).

Thanks to Brian Fitzpatrick's great presentation at GTACHI about the principles that govern how software teams work well together, I've picked up his book Team Geek (co-authored with Ben Collins-Sussman). It's about good leadership practices, including the role that the ego plays in being a leader, namely, its destructive power (Team Geek 66-67). Reading through Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman's experience with ego, I'm more certain than ever that the changes that need to happen to build stronger learning environments in our schools requires us to give up our egos, as Katz and Watkins taught me.

During some recent professional development work, in which we were talking about the power of a backchannel, some complaints were offered about the students' ability to focus on the teacher and the lecture, if their attention was directed to the backchannel. Basically, I heard several questions of the sort "If students are not listening to me, then how can they be learning?", which sheds much light on the lecture-centered culture that continues to pervade education.

I can't help but interpret this attitude as driven by ego that stands in the way of change toward a more student-centered structure. As Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman argue, ego gets in the way of the kind of trust that gives a team (or students, in this case) a sense of accountability and ownership of their work. I fully agree and will add two other points that I blame on ego:

  • A lack of trust within a team engenders a fear of failure, when then creates a closed community, rather than an open environment, where team members feel welcome to share ideas.
  • Egos also create defensive cultures, where change and new ideas are too frequently met with judgment and second-guessing, instead of curiosity and enthusiasm. Cf. Daniel Pink's concept of "buoyancy" (discussed here) and responding to ideas with "Yes and...", rather than "No" or "But..." (To Sell 193).

Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, discusses the "cognitive ease" (59) that dulls our otherwise rational logic. When our minds are strained, we are prone to suspicion and are less intuitive and creative (59), so, based on this fact, systematically being on the defensive during conversations and meetings prevents us from being innovative by finding new and creative ways to solve our problems.


I learned from Katz, Watkins, and several others, including, above all, my advisor, Brent Vine, that it's ok to be wrong, and, moreover, that it's important to take ownership of failure. It's the attempt and the process that's more important for learning than the results. In many way, then, my experience in graduate school can be seen as a sort of extended #20time project (however tortuous!), since it teaches that exploration and failure go together. Of course, that kind of positive experience depends critically on the quality of the mentoring. I was fortunate to have mentors who relished in the role, and they have set bar for my own expectations in dealing with colleagues and students.

With that, I'm looking forward to giving up any ego and any expectation of control this year. I hope to participate in creating the type of environment where we work together, feeling comfortable and even excited to try new things, and one one that believes "if you're not failing now and then, you're not being innovative enough or taking enough risks" (Team Geek 18).

What are you giving up and why?