How Rational Are Our Choices?

A rational person might take a few light reads when they go on vacation, but instead I chose to read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. One downside to a Kindle is you don’t really get a sense of the physicality of a book. Kahneman, a cognitive psychologist, won the Nobel for economics in 2002. His book delves into his life’s research.

First, he describes the two different systems at play in our brains: 1) Fast thinking, which is automatic, subconscious, emotional, and requires very little effort. 2) Slow thinking which is conscious, requires much effort, is more logical, and is deliberate. He provides plenty of evidence of why we might overestimate human judgement, and in general, we do not make very rational choices. In test after test, human subjects mostly fail to think statistically and don’t do the math. The final part of his book discusses his research on happiness. Our minds on that topic are also divided. We can measure our happiness by our experiences, but what dominates our own perception of happiness is how we remember the peak and valleys of the pain and pleasures.

It’s not a light read like one of Malcolm Gladwell’s book that pieces together research of other people. Rather, it’s an intriguing account (and sometimes memoir) of his own research on how we think. I highly recommend it. Thinking Fast and Slow is a difficult book to summarize or review, so I’ll simply link to a couple of of them:

Here is the WSJ’s review and the NYTimes review.

There’s one simple math question in his book used as an example that I like:

A ball and a bat together cost $1.10. The bat cost a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Over 50% of Harvard and M.I.T. students got this wrong. Why? They did not bother to check. They relied on their intuition that happened to deceive them.

After writing about our divided brains with two systems, Kahneman says that these systems of thinking aren’t really separate but it’s important to be aware of those two systems. It’s amazing how irrational some of our own decisions are. Kahneman suggests that we approach our thoughts as an outsider at times. It will help us lower our overconfidence and reduce many of our own invisible biases. As we become more aware of how we think and when we should tap into deeper thinking, I hope we can help our students to do the same. 

Here’s a TED talk he gave a couple of years ago.

Are Disruptive Questions Necessary for Innovation?

“I don’t really see any innovative teaching around here.” That was something a parent said four years ago during a meeting regarding our school’s mission. Given that our school’s mission statement begins with, “Through innovative teaching…,” the comment made by that parent stuck with me, and innovation in education has been one of the areas that has become an interest of mine. I keep reading and hearing about the necessity of schools to change. Not just in terms big reform movements that we’re seeing across the nation, but in terms of fundamentally changing the way we teach to adapt to the way children learn today. Yet, the culture of schools is so deep – from the expectations of parents to the way we teach; from the way policies are set to the way schools are run – there is so much resistance to change. So often books are read and conferences are attended by teachers and school leaders, they come back excited and say, “…yeah I got some great nuggets out of that. I can’t wait to share them.” The new ideas are usually shared briefly if at all, and then everyone returns to the way things used to be done.

I just finished reading  The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators by Dyer, Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen (author of Disrupting Class). 

The book’s introduction claims that “a recent IBM poll of fifteen hundred CEOs identified creativity as the number-one ‘leadership competency’ of the future.”

The book emphasizes that to innovate, it requires courage. First, courage to challenge the status quo, and second, courage to take risks. It also states that innovators “have a passion for inquiry.” They are always asking questions. Asking why once isn’t enough. Continuing to probe until a novel (usually efficient and well-designed) solution emerges is what innovators do. Asking insightful ‘what if’ questions is just as important.

This book’s main claim is that innovation is not genetic. It can be developed. If so, how do we develop these in our students (challenging every child to be courageous and curious are part of my school’s mission). If most of the stakeholders in a child’s education aren’t developing these innovation skills themselves, then what chance do our students have? Without going into too much detail, the 5 skills according to this book are:

  1. Associating
  2. Questioning
  3. Observing
  4. Networking
  5. Experimenting

I’ve heard from educational leaders and teachers from schools of all shapes and sizes that school culture is deep, and those who have challenge the status quo continue face an uphill climb. Most prefer to do what they’ve always done. I’m glad I work with colleagues that continue to ask good questions and have the courage to ask why. In the end it’s best for our students.

My favorite quote comes from the chapter on experimenting.

” I haven’t failed…I’ve just found 10,000 ways that do not work.”

– Thomas Edison

I asked earlier in this post about how to develop these skills in students. In a couple of week’s, Tony Wagner has a new book that comes out: Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. I can’t wait.


Our All-School Service Learning Day

One of my favorite days of the school year is our all-school service learning day. For the past four years, our school has gone back to the same section of a park in Seattle (Seward Park) as stewards and spent the day pulling weeds, planting trees, learning about nature, and having fun.

Let me begin by saying: being in the cold unrelenting rain for four hours is not my idea of fun (some kids, though, had a blast!). Our service learning day is one of my favorite days because all the students work together with faculty, staff, and parents to make a small positive impact in our community. It requires hard work and team work. You only have to watch a second grade student trying to dig a hole with an adult-sized shovel to know whether or not effort was involved. Service learning is about connecting the learning that occurs in the classroom with real-world issues in the community.

My students define a community as a place where people live, work, play, and solve problems. In my class, we’ve explored a neighborhood community, colonial communities, scientific communities, and currently we’re looking at ancient Egyptian communities. Regardless of the structure or time period, that simple definition of a community holds true and what a great way to participate both as a school community and as members of our wonderful city.

There are a works of children’s fiction that are great for this day. The Lorax by Dr. Suess is an obvious one. Miss. Rumphius by Barbara Cooney is another. My favorite, though, and the one I chose today is called The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. Inspired by those who advocated for the High Line in Manhattan to be reused as a park instead of demolition, the story tells of a little boy whose curiosity leads him to a little patch of garden on an elevated railroad track. He carefully tends to his garden realizing that his efforts inspire others to join him.

It’s always hard to know what kinds of learning spark passions in certain kids. If this school-wide project helps to ignite only one student to become a leader and make a positive impact on their community later in life, what’s a little cold rain? We live in Seattle after all.

Are Innovative Breakthroughs Accidental or Do They Require Hard Work?

What do you think of when you hear the term, “Slam Poetry.” My early experiences with slam poetry were not very memorable and usually consisted of overwrought and angry performances. The point they were trying to make was lost on me.

Then, last year, Sarah Kay, a spoken word poet, presented at TED. I was immediately captivated by the words she wrote, the way she organized them, and the way she delivered them. In an instant, my preconceptions about spoken poetry had changed.

Those attending the Thursday session of the NAIS conference were lucky enough to hear her as the closing speaker of the day. Speaking to educators she began with a poem about learning and growing up in New York (it was much more than that).

After her poem, she addressed school leaders about the theme of the conference: innovation. Innovation wasn’t simply bringing something new to the class each day. Innovation required breakthroughs. She described that there were basically two types of breakthroughs. The first kind is one that is accidental. They’re breakthroughs that happen in a moment, or occur when you have an epiphany. Something that fundementally changes they way you thought – a breakthrough that alters a paradigm you once held on to strongly. The other kind of breakthrough she talked about is the kind that requires an incredible amount of effort and time – something you work very hard towards before reaching that breakthrough. Once you get there, these breakthroughs can change your life. Sarah also talked about how children tend to have much of the first kind of breakthroughs, those aha moments. Adults, however, start to forget about accidental breakthroughs and begin to value only those breakthroughs that require hard work. We value that we’ve made on our own because we recognize the hard work to get there. We also tend to dismiss a lot of our own outside-the-box ideas or those that are brought to us by others. Though we embrace children who ask “What if…” questions, we are quick to discredit adults who ask the same or have differing ideas. Rather than be open to a potential breakthrough, adults tend to shut those ideas down and move on with the paradigm they are already comfortable with. Schools across the country are notorious for this, making education reform very difficult. I am not naive. I don’t believe that every new idea warrants merit. But a willingness to listen to them before dismissing them is extremely important.

Sarah Kay also talked about her very first teaching experiences, and how she began from stumbling, falling, and failing to realizing how to deconstruct something that was second nature to her into smaller bits. She claims that whether they are breakthroughs that come through rigorous work, or are accidental, we as educators need to find the balance. We need to

“equip our students  with the skills they will need to overcome obstacles and meet challenges – and we do that through innovation. Through teaching them new ways to approach old problems and old questions. But it’s incredibly important that in doing that, we also make sure to teach them to stay open to the idea of accidental breakthrough – things that they cannot prepare for – only keeping themselves open to the possibility. And so, to do that, we have to live that ourselves.”

She talked about being flexible and the learning that happens in-between. A teacher may have spent hours preparing the best lesson, but if a student steers the class down a meaningful “rabbit hole,” you just might want to go there. For the learning that occurs during those teachable moments are some of the best.

Sarah Kay then ended with a poem about the first person who taught her what it meant to be an educator: her elementary school principal. It’s an incredible 7 minute performance and I highly recommend viewing it.

It’s amazing how the culture of sharing is catching on. For those who were not available to attend the conference that day, so many of these resources are made available. By clicking on the image below, you can view her entire 25 minute keynote.

My Take-Aways from the Tiger Mom

The closing keynote at the NAIS conference was Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A year ago, the press used this book to paint a portrait of a villainous mother. The media generalized the differing parenting styles of Chinese and Americans making inflammatory statements in their headlines such as the Wall St. Journal’s “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.”

I haven’t shared my thoughts on whether or not I found value to her talk, as my opinions about Ms. Chua’s memoire continue to vacillate. Though cynical about her keynote address, I wanted to approach it with an open mind. As she began speaking, she started with a great story about how the press storm caught her by surprise. I even started feeling for her when she described being on the Today Show and the first thing Meredith Viera asked was, “Are you a monster?”

Unfortunately she followed that story with one about a trip to DAVOS that seemed more about name dropping than it did about teaching or parenting. And so even though she may have ended up with more negative press than she initially bargained for, it certainly helped her sell her book and my sympathies began to wane. Interestingly, one of the names she dropped was Larry Summers who disagreed with her by saying,

“In a world where things that require discipline and steadiness can be done increasingly by computers, is the traditional educational emphasis on discipline, accuracy and successful performance and regularity really what we want?”

Mr. Summers went on to note two prominent Harvard ‘drop-outs’ Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg may not have had that much support from the kind of strict parenting to which Ms. Chua refers.

Ms. Chua said her book was meant to be a ‘funny’ memoir rather than a parenting guide and it was a way to reflect on how her strict parenting didn’t exactly work out when her second child turned thirteen.

Overall, while somewhat charming and engaging, I wasn’t too impressed by her talk. It was still validating to come away with these few thoughts.

1) Have high expectations for your children/students.

2) All children are different and we need to recognize this.

3) Self-Esteem must be earned.

One thing I enjoyed from the conference were the illustrators that were engaged in live visual note-taking for each of the main speakers. Below is an example of Ms. Chua’s.

Bill Gate’s Keynote at the 2012 NAISAC Annual Conference

Below is that video of Bill Gates’ Keynote Address at the NAIS Annual Conference on Thursday, March 1, 2012. You can read the transcript here.

Bill Gates talks about four main trends in his speech:

1) Creating engaging and interactive ways of learning rather than using the traditional text book.

2) Using the internet to find, use, and share resources among teachers. A new way to collaborate between and among teachers.

3) Using social networks in positive ways both to enhance the learning of teachers and students.

4) Using technology, game play, etc. to provide immediate feedback for teachers and students.

Bill Gates mentions that these are the things he hopes he’ll be seeing in 10 years across the country.However, according to Mr. Gates, it is already happening at leading schools. How much of a leader in these areas are your teachers and your schools?

Having a network and being connected can be a great thing. I was teaching on the day Bill Gates gave his keynote, but  was able to follow some of the conversation via twitter and recently alerted that the video and transcript of his speech were now available, something Mr. Gates had promised to share.

How do You Learn Best?

I often like to think about how my students learn best, and I don’t believe there is one correct way. I personally learn a lot from the stand-and-deliver lecture format, from reading, from small group discussions, from doing, from writing, reflecting, and through collaboration. This was true for me this past week when I attended the National Association of Independent School’s Annual Conference and participated in edcampis. I learned many things in a wide variety of formats.

Some liken what we know about the brain and learning to what Galileo and his contemporaries knew about our solar system: significant, but in its infancy. Most experts claim that our brains are all wired differently.

My goal isn’t then to find the one best practice to teach students, but to learn and provide them with a variety of best practices, so that they can be empowered to learn about anything, anytime, anywhere, and in any format.

TED talks are a format that fascinate me. Some have argued that they are simply a modern secular version of a 20 minute sermon (delivered to most over the internet). While independent school folk were gathering in Seattle for the annual conference, this year’s annual TED talks were taking place in Long Beach, CA. The first two talks released were polar opposites of each other. One talk warned us about of our excess waste and the economic, environmental, and democratic catastrophes that are happening right now (the secular version of fire and brimstone). The other talk was full of optimism, hope, and abundance. I enjoy thinking about and grappling with this kind of discourse. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle and we all have biases that lean one way or the other. My bias in this case is towards optimism. As an educator, I believe it’s not only us, but our students that will have to solve many of these complex problems.

Boolean choices are often thrust in front of us:

  • You’re either with us or against us.
  • The best ideas happen in isolation or they happen through collaboration.
  • Phonics vs. Whole Language (if you’re old enough to remember that)
  • Boys play with guns. Girls play with dolls.
  • VHS or Beta
  • Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

The TED talk below explores and celebrates introversion, but acknowledges that there is a spectrum between introversion and extroversion. People that lie somewhere in the middle of this spectrum are called ambiverts (a term I had never heard before). Where on this spectrum do our students lie, and are we supporting both their current needs and providing opportunities for them to stretch and grow outside their comfort zone?