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?

Monday, August 12, 2013


I just participated in my first EdCamp at #edcampsfbay this past Saturday, and I'm still feeling the adrenaline from it. The "unconference" was one of the single best experiences I've experienced of sitting in a room and having a conversation with other people who share interests and passions of mine. I left Hillsdale High School on Saturday afternoon believing that I could do anything and that there is an army of people who also believe this and are available to help.

The session discussions were amazing (cf. below), but the best part of events like this is the face-to-face interaction: I finally had the opportunity to meet in person some of the brilliant educators with whom I've been having great conversations on Twitter. Steven Johnson is certainly correct in believing that "the most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop" (Good Ideas 61).

If unfamiliar with EdCamp's "unconference" model, it's very simple: show up at the appointed time and talk with people, while ideas for sessions are posted on the board. The ideas can be on anything, and one need not be an expert on a given idea in order to propose a session. Then, once the sessions are set, you can go to any of them you choose, including leaving a session for another, should it not be what you anticipated. Within the sessions, formal presentations (e.g. slides or handouts) are strictly forbidden. Finally, a demo slam at the end of the day gives everyone a chance to share something they've learned.

In the morning, +Alice Keeler set the tone for the day by exclaiming that EdCamps are not "tech" conferences, which is absolutely true. Aside from taking notes in each session (found here), we spent the entire session in conversation that was always open and helpful.

20% Time Projects

The first session I attended was on 20% Time or "Genius Hour" (cf. an introduction to the idea), which I'm considering offering to my 9th-grade Latin III course next year, focusing on Classical reception. We spent some time discussing how "creativity loves constraint" and that it's critical to help students develop specific questions to explore, when working on #20time projects. Moreover, it's important to work with students throughout the process of the project, rather than simply assessing the final product.

One participant shared the positive effect that mentors can have in doing #20time work with students, and I'm going to suggest to colleagues that they consider working with our alumni office to find volunteers who could help them with #20time projects. We have a rather large alumni base that would be more than happy to work with students to do creative work, I'm sure, and I imagine that our students would love to work with them too. I'm not sure that our community includes many Classicists, but we have plenty of other fields to work with.

It was also suggested that #20time projects be connected to field trips, in that students could explore a
physical space and develop the kinds of specific questions that are perfect for #20time work. For instance, one class explored a historic site of importance for California history, and her class then developed #20time projects around the questions they wanted to investigate in relation to the site.

#20time projects are then shared with each other through blogs, TED Talks, or other interactive methods that promote students learning from each other and generate excitement that rewards the hard work put in by the students.

The final board 

I've become deeply interested in gamification, and so I was happy to see a session devoted to it. Despite thinking about gamification for the better part of the summer, this session added a new dimension to my ideas. In particular, I'm considering using badges within Latin IA game modules to a greater extent than I thought I would by connecting them more closely to our class standards, e.g. offering levels 1-5 (or perhaps even "Servus", "Libertus", "Civis", "Senator" levels, etc.) for verb master and adding even more levels as we meet subsequent tenses. Doing something like this could, in principle, allow for more differentiated learning by letting students move at their own pace.

I'd also like to offer students the possibility to earn their own unique badges, and I think that #20time projects could be a great way to accomplish this. In other words, if a student wanted to learn more about Roman culinary practices, the "Roman Foodie" badge could be the reward. Likewise, the "Consul" badge could be awarded to students who investigate Roman politics. I don't know of any good way to create and store badges for students yet, and so I enthusiastically welcome any input or advice.

Even though I find gamification very exciting, I'm very concerned about connecting badges to grades on account of the potential backlash.  I'll have to think on this and test out some ideas this fall.

Reorganizing Physical Space

In many ways, +Alice Keeler's proposed session on "Rethinking the Classroom" was the most interesting of all. Though I'd been thinking about ways to transform pedagogy for quite some time, I haven't yet put much thought into reorganizing my classrooms' physical spaces. The point that " physical environment can affect relationship between teachers and students" was made repeatedly, and now is the time to change (or at least shift ) school culture toward an improved awareness of classroom organization, considering what we want our learning to actually look like.

It's true that we have too many traditional desks at our school that reinforce the lecture model of learning. Several, if not the majority, of our classroom spaces could be significantly improved by the addition of more tables, couches, and even movable beanbags, in place of the desks. And after seeing entire walls at Google Chicago covered with IdeaPaint, I have it in mind to remove the whiteboards from classrooms and cover walls with it. Imagine classroom space with no clear front or back, where students and teachers mingle freely and put work right on the walls as needed. Going even further, imagine a similar space for teachers and administrators to work together. I believe more than ever now that rigid physical space imposes rigid intellectual thought.


I left #edcampsfbay with all sorts of ideas to work on for the coming year, in addition to those outlined here. Thanks to the experience, I'm even more excited for PlaydateLA this coming Saturday, 8/17, which will be more of a hands-on technology conference, and I'm already looking forward to #edcampps on Saturday, 9/14 in Palm Springs.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Liquid Networks and the Adjacent Possible

At ISTE this past June, I picked up Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From (reading notes here) and, after his fantastic keynote address, looked forward to reading it. After just finishing it, the book didn't disappoint, leaving me with quite a bit to think about on the verge of beginning a new academic year.

Using parallels from evolutionary biology, Johnson discusses how innovation happens and great ideas are formed, dispelling the myth of the "eureka moment" in the formation of ideas. He outlines 7 patterns that they typically fall into, and I'll outline a few of the patterns that I intend to focus on in the coming academic year. Johnson's TED talk on the topic gives a great introduction to his ideas, if unable to read the book.

Stuart Kauffman's concept of the adjacent possible, which he used to describe all of the combinatory possibilities of the molecular soup of early Earth, plays a prominent role in Johnson's arguments. The adjacent possible presents us with a "map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself" (31), and new combinations serve to expand the adjacent possible. Using this idea, Johnson argues that "[g]ood ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and, occasionally, contracts) over time" (35).

Johnson stresses that "to make your mind more innovative, you have to place it inside environments that share the same network signature: networks of ideas or people that mimic the neural networks of a mind exploring the boundaries of the adjacent possible" (47). He calls this a liquid network, where ideas can freely flow from one node to another to build upon each other, and it's precisely this kind of environment that allows us to explore the adjacent possible. Importantly, "the individuals get smarter because they're connected to the network" (58) and the diversity that it brings to our thinking.

The "long zoom" that allows to
identify patterns within ideas (20)
Good ideas don't simply happen; rather, they must be cultivated over time, which Johnson names the slow hunch (81). As was the case with some of the most revolutionary ideas in our intellectual history (e.g. Darwin's theory of evolution), it's most often the case that a good idea comes into form as little more than a hunch. These hunches, in order to grow into something more, must interact with other hunches through the liquid network to open up the adjacent possible.

Finally, Johnson shows that error is an inherent part of innovation. According to the British economist William Stanley Jevons, "[i]n all probability the errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one" (137). That is to say, most brilliant ideas are founded upon failed efforts. Fear of failure is so pervasive in the edusphere today, though, that it's become a serious hindrance to creativity and the construction of liquid networks. Contrary to what many of us in academia were trained to believe, it's ok to fail, when working on a new idea.


"Chance favors the connected mind." (174)

The experiences I had at InstConISTE, and GTACHI were so profound that I'm still having difficulty putting them into material form. The networks that have grown on account of these PD opportunities have already paid dividends for my own thinking about how I want to change my teaching and how I want to approach PD in the future. So after a productive summer of professional development, it's now more clear to me than ever that we need to emphasize the construction of environments that facilitate good ideas by building more and larger "liquid networks".
A 17th-century commonplace book
It was practice in Europe in the Enlightenment Era to keep a "commonplace book" (cf. Johnson 84) with notes, quotations, and other ideas that allowed for reflection, which is critical for nurturing the slow hunch. Today, though, we're also able to share our reflections to a wider audience (i.e., our PLN, or Personal Learning Network) than ever, thanks to Twitter, blogs, and other social media tools. It's important to us that, within our liquid networks, we emphasize both reflection and sharing with regularity, while dispelling as much fear of failure as we can.

Despite our collective emphasis on using technology, we must also understand that "the most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop," as Johnson reminds us (61). That's why face-to-face conversations of the sort that happen at EdCamps and #CoffeeCUE meetings are so valuable. Twitter, etc. are amazing tools, but I'm now ready to create a stronger face-to-face network on campus.

As we know all too well, however, there simply isn't enough time for us to do everything that our jobs require of us, while adding enough reflection time onto the pile of administrative tasks. For us to even have the chance to build a stronger liquid network, we need to rethink how we handle some of our administrative duties by exploring the adjacent possible within the educational structure.

The ideas of "20% time" and passion-based learning have grown very popular of late, as they indeed should, but I haven't yet seen many discussions about giving teachers and administrators similar blocked time devoted to reflection. For instance, why not create an occasional "unconference" forum for interested faculty to gather during the workday (not on our own time!) to talk about what's on our mind and share some of the ideas that we've been thinking through (e.g. readings, project ideas, PD experiences, etc.). Shouldn't this our standard model for faculty meetings, rather than the usual "sit and get"? If we had this kind of regular opportunity built into our schedule, perhaps we could encourage more creative thinking and 20% time work from faculty, in addition to students.

How else can we construct liquid networks within our schools? I greatly enjoyed reading this book and look forward to future discussions about how we can build a stronger liquid network. Feel free to share ideas either below or on Twitter on how we can build stronger liquid networks.