The Language We Choose to Use with Students and Its Impact

Last week, as part of our parent speaker series, my school hosted Dr. McCurry. A clinical child psychologist, his talk was titled: The Anxiety Dance: A Parent’s Guide.  He spoke mainly about how we can either react or respond to behavior regardless of whether you were a parent or teacher. His talk provided us with several examples and strategies of how to help children who have anxiety whether or not it is clinically diagnosable.

A week before that, I attended part of Evergreen School’s speaker series’ presentation by Allison Master: Mindsets Revisited: Exploring the power of growth mindset and word choice in motivating children.

Every once in a while a book comes along that can be transformative. In terms of teaching, Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset was one of those for me. Master who has co-authored a few articles with Dweck, began with a quick introduction defining the two kinds of mindsets that have been researched, fixed and growth. The word “mindsets” is becoming overused and can describe a lot of things not related to Dweck’s theory, so if you’re unfamiliar with her work, search using the terms “fixed,” “growth,” and “mindset” and that should get you going in the right direction.

One of the most important things I’ve learned abo about helping students manage anxiety or fostering growth mindsets is the language we use with them. What we say as parents and educators can be so influential. The feedback we give can impact a child for years to come.

There’s a huge difference between saying to a child, “You’re a good drawer!” and “You put a lot of effort into that drawing.” The first places value on the ability. The latter places the value on the effort or process. Which one do you think privileges actual learning? The language we choose to use with our students influence mindsets profoundly. A healthy dose of anxiety is normal, but it too places value on the process rather than the event. You acknowledge the event and feelings with a timestamp, like, “I can right now that you’re frustrated…” Then give the child agency to make a decision to move away from a fixed idea of their frustration to one that will pass.

A great book our faculty is reading is called, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Minds by Peter Johnston. It cites Dweck’s work and goes on to show how powerful the language we use can affect the way children perceive themselves. He uses the terms “fixed” and “dynamic” to describe the way we think about ourselves. Basically, learning is something that we can change and knowing that our brains are plastic and adaptable is  important. When a child is having an, “I’m stupid,” moment, it’s imperative to help the child recognize that it’s just a moment, not a fixed idea. A child with a growth mindset is going to have less anxiety, learn throughout life, and develop resilience. As adults, it’s natural to want to rescue a child, but as an adult you have to know the difference between pushing a child out of the way of a speeding car and doing their homework for them.

Furthermore, both Master and Johnston show the evidence of how language influences social and moral agency. If we put a fixed label on ourselves, it becomes very different to find the value in others and develop the empathy needed to work with those with differing views.

This works for adults too. I can learn from my colleagues and they can learn from me, but only if we are willing to see that. The next time you’re giving feedback to a child (or a peer), instead of a simple, “Great Job!” be specific.  For example, “I really like the choice of words in this paragraph.” If you can’t think of anything specific right away, at least praise the effort. “Wow! I can see you put a lot of work into that!”

I haven’t read McCurry’s book yet, but I highly recommend the other two. They might just change a life.

How Can Kids Take Risks in a “Safe” Environment?

I’ve been guilty of telling parents of students in my class that we have a safe classroom environment where we encourage students to take risks. I’ve come to realize that risk and safety are are really oxymorons. What I mean to say when I use the word risk is that kids will try a lot of new things. They will get many of them wrong and fail, but when they succeed, the grit and resilience it took to get them there, will fuel them on to learn more.

In our traditional industrial age world, risk was not seen as something for the general public. Trying something new on an assembly line could mean getting fired. Many of these hierarchical structures exist, and schools are no exception. Because of this, teachers have to be fairly calculated when going out on a limb. Within our values statement at my school, we have the following:

Resourcefulness: We foster resilience and expect all to search and find, to fail and learn, to risk and succeed in a changing world.

It think it’s beautifully written, however, if we hold these values for our students, certainly we must hold these values for our teachers and other community members. Due to structures of schools (remnants of the 19th and 20th centuries), risks can be very costly.

Recently, Seattle teachers were suspended for boycotting a particular test. We teach our children to stand up, not to be bystanders, engage in politics and democracy, yet when teachers model these very things, the consequences can sometimes seem harsh. I guess it wouldn’t be that risky otherwise.

Before the NAIS conference, a colleague in California raised many questions about the NAIS’s boards decision on the new president-elect, John Chubb. While I am sure the board’s intentions are good, the announcement was a surprise. The letter, though written respectfully, asked hard and important questions. Yet, from what I heard at the conference, he was scolded for raising those questions.

Again I ask, don’t we want our students to be inquisitive, challenge the status quo, engage in the process (which can be amplified through social media), and think critically?

One of the reasons for academic tenure is so intellectuals can have debates and build support for those ideas publicly. They may end up being wrong, but at least they won’t be fired for it.

I’ve been known to ‘go rogue’  and ‘fight windmills’ but I’ve also been supported and guided as to how I might balance those things. Still, in a school with no tenure, challenging the status quo with a simple question, “why?” requires risk.

At the NAIS conference, there were calls to be revolutionaries, visionaries, rogues, vanguards, pioneers, mavericks, and change agents. Most of those kinds teachers were already at that conference. We were told to change paradigms and forge ahead.

Most other teachers, however, just want to love their kids and become excellent teachers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I met a first grade teacher who was only in her second year of teaching and was overwhelmed with the conference. “They’re asking me to be all those things, be culturally competent, employ project-based learning and design thinking, integrate sustainability in the classroom, use technology in ways I never thought possible, create a global teaching network, and that’s not even including just teaching 1st grade.

My advice to her, was that when I first started teaching almost two decades ago, all these things were foreign to me too. All she needed to do was think of her students first, know where to find support when she needed it, asked questions (lots of them), carry on when things don’t seem to be going well, and always be open to and willing to learn something. If she could do these things, she would find this career an incredibly rewarding one.

I’m not a big fan of words like revolutionary. They bring up different connotations depending on who you ask. George Washington was a revolutionary; so was Hugo Chavez.

How Do You Measure Success?

The London Olympic games are coming to a close, and I’ve noticed a few themes/issues throughout the games that seem to spill into the realm of education: 1) How do we measure success? 2) In 20 years, other sites may push twitter or Facebook aside, but I’m pretty confident social media is here to stay. How do we promote digital citizenry and prepare kids to use these tools productively and? 3) Privilege and equity – does every country have a fair shot at a sailing or equestrian medal? Does every child have access to a good education? 4) Standards: what are the standards for commentary on the Olympics? I know very little about gymnastics, but I don’t need someone to point out that a fall off an apparatus is not a good thing. Did the opening ceremony need a play-by-play? Can you imagine giving students the answers rather than providing opportunities to grapple with, discover, and construct their own knowledge? There are many more themes that have emerged from these games, but the first one I mentioned resonates with me the most. How do we measure our own success and the success of our students?

After Michael Phelp’s fourth place finish at his first event, the USA Today had a story titled: “Sluggish Michael Phelps is not swimmer we expected in London.” Since his first event, Phelps has become the most decorated Olympian in history, but I guess if you look just at the one fourth place finish, sluggish it must have been.

Why is it that some athletes cry for joy after winning a silver and other athletes are visibly disappointment, often with tears in their eyes for winning a silver medal.

The most emailed article in the New York Times over the past three days has been one titled: Raising Successful Children. It’s a parenting article about the importance of not over-parenting and allowing children to make mistakes and build resiliency on their way to success and confidence.

I’m not a parent, but I completely agree with the statement, “HANGING back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting.” It’s a challenge of teaching as well. Not all failures are equal. They need to be ones that lead to growth. So what kind of mistakes should parents and teachers let kids make?

“In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.”

Perhaps being called ‘sluggish’ and then coming back to win 4 gold and 2 silver medals can qualify as a good measure of success.

I just came back from a great three day summer planning inservice with my colleagues where we spent a lot of time looking at and practicing how we assess and give feedback to our students and to each other. I wish us all a successful school year that can be measured by the risks we take ourselves in that gray area just beyond the comfortable and by the resilience we develop in our students. 

 

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.


Continuing to Learn

“When it feels like your brain hurts, you know you’re learning,” is something I say to my students from time to time.

I want to reflect and immediately share more on NAISAC12 and EdCampIS, but honestly, my brain is hurting a little bit. I have learned an immense amount and met so many incredibly passionate educators that I think I simply need some time to take it all in and process what I’ve learned.

For now, I couldn’t be happier with the success and energy of EdCampIS which wouldn’t have been possible with all of the participants, many of whom spent an extra day in Seattle to make this happen.

Thanks to one of my colleagues who helped organize the event, Jac de Haan, you can get a quick summary of the day through photos and quotes by checking out the main page of the edcampis website.

What is a Tweet-Up?

I just got back from a ‘tweet-up’ tonight at the Pike Pub & Brewery. It was an interesting concept of gathering folks who use twitter to share and learn from each other. Many thanks to Greg Bamford for organizing this event tonight. I still consider myself a neophyte when it comes to twitter, but in the year that I started, I’ve met incredible people, had new opportunities, and learned a lot.


When I say that I’ve met people – I mean physically. And tonight was another opportunity to turn my virtual learning network into a more personal one. Using twitter, you often see a small thumbnail of someone’s face, but meeting them in person is so much better.

The only downside is that they live in Illinois, Arizona, North Carolina, and other states.

Where is the school with educators that are this engaged in leading the change efforts? I couldn’t help but think, wouldn’t it be great to have a school with all these educators working in the same place? I’m not ready to start my own school, but I’m ready to dream.

And if you think twitter is for the young, you are completely wrong. Twitter is for all ages and is simply a mindset. Sign up and try it for 21 days. I promise you, you will learn something.

Who Chooses What We Teach?

Another good ‘Room for Debate’ page in the NYTimes appeared again this week. This time the question is: Should Parents Control What Kids Learn at School?

My initial response would be that parents should know their child, how they learn best, what their strengths and challenges are, and work with the teachers in the development of the curriculum. Whatever it is that kids learn in school, there are basic fundamentals that children should learn like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Teachers and parents can certainly agree on those. What it is they read, however, may be up for debate. Social/emotional learning is very important too. I wonder, for example, if the social/emotional learning of the Italian captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia had more to with the tragedy than the engineering and ship operational training he received.

I think the most important part in this debate is that all stakeholders start first by agreeing on what fundamentals ought to be taught in schools. For early primary, the academics are obvious, but the delivery and pedagogical methods may not be. Minor philosophies on homework, etc. will always exist, but the overall goals are similar. For example, regardless when people think the correct age may be, they can all agree that kids should be able to read.

Customizing the curriculum has always been how I’ve worked (public, parochial, or private). Every year the range of abilities changes with a new set of students, so why wouldn’t you adapt your curriculum to those different needs. With the new law in New Hampshire (which I haven’t read), it seems like what bothers most is that parents can make any demands on the content. I’ve never had any issues with any parents. Even with ideological or religious differences. I can think of one family years ago, who for their own religious reasons, did not want to participate in Halloween activities at school. While the school respected that family’s ideas and suggested alternatives and modifications, Halloween would still be celebrated at school.

I think it becomes a problem when parents have a different mindset than you about what is age-appropriate content, or if the content seems too ideologically radical for some. In elementary school, it’s possible to see how a simple biography project might go awry if a parent disagreed with the teacher on whether a child’s choice were appropriate. Is a biography about Anne Frank is suitable for an eight-year old? While the biography may be, some of the events surrounding it may be considered too much for a second grader. This actually happened with a student of mine last year. She chose Anne Frank after perusing the biography section in the school library. I was just as tentative as her mother in her choice, but we both agreed that she was a child who was ready to read about those horrific events. Both me and her parents just wanted what was best for her. It would have been different if it were a different child which is why knowing your students (and their families) is so important.  If we are supposed to welcome diversity and embrace its benefits, than we cannot just go with the status quo, and we have to listen to everyone.

Will some abuse a law like New Hampshire’s? I’m sure some will try. Every once in a while, there will be a battle between the over-entitled parent and the extremely inflexible and obdurate teacher, and that is unfortunate. Like so many other things, there is often so much we have in common. A lot that we can come together and work with. If we start where our ideas and values overlap and recognize our differences as strengths to enhance those ideas and values, there is so much we can achieve.

Can an atheist enjoy Christmas carols and Islamic art?

Can someone who’s gay be a Republican?

Can someone working at Microsoft like the iPhone?

Can an epicure eat cereal for dinner one night and love it?

Of course they can, but too often lines are drawn in the sand instead of bridges being built.    Rather than objecting to the curriculum, as one of the writers in the opinion page mentions, parents should use those areas as teachable moments. Teachers should too. I remember a child years ago asking me about the existence of Santa Clause. He just couldn’t see the plausibility of it all. I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to break the news to an 8-year old. What I told him was to think critically about it (I’m sure I used different words) and make that decision for himself. I didn’t defer it to his parents nor did I subject him to my thoughts. That was an example where he could make up his own mind. He could grapple with his own dilemma and reach his own conclusions.

Currently, I’m teaching a unit on penguins. What would be objectionable is if a parent insisted that I teach about emus and ostriches instead. There’s no reason why I couldn’t, but there’s no reason why I should either. A follow up question to this debate on whether parents should control what kids learn at school is if teachers can control what their students do at home?

Two Experts Disagree

I like dissent (assuming there are good arguments made on both sides) because it helps in the way I think about things. What I don’t like is dissent with no reasonable argument or logic behind it. “I disagree because I have a gut feeling about it” isn’t good enough. Describe that feeling and tell me why. I may change my viewpoint. Even someone who tends to be skeptical about a lot of things, I can easily be swayed by the voices I already have a bias toward. That’s why I found an article over the Thanksgiving break rather interesting.

The article titled “Willpower, It’s in Your Head” was co-written by Carol Dweck. She wrote this article disagreeing with social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and the New York Times science writer John Tierney who conclude in their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, that willpower is biologically limited and relies on a replenishment of glucose. Dweck argues that you can develop willpower. Hmmm…I like both Dweck and Tierney’s writing, so who is correct? Both cite the marshmallow test in their research.

Perhaps both are right and that even though we may have genetic predispositions, there are many things we can become better at, including willpower. One neurologist I heard a few years ago said sometimes we have to develop new neural pathways. Old habits, impulses, and temptations will remain, but those new pathways will make it easier for us to resist those impulses. For now, here’s what I think: It is biology, but we have the capacity to change it.

What about Talent?

If you’ve taught long enough, I’m sure you’ve been able to recognize certain talents in your students. How much of that talent was nurtured so that your students were able to practice for over 10,000 hours? If you’ve read Sir Ken Robinson‘s books or seen him speak, you’ll know that his main message is to find the talents that lie within your students and then fuel them to ignite their passions. In Daniel Pink’s book Drive, he claims that passion is a key ingredient for intrinsic motivation and learning. The Harvard Business Review often has articles about hiring, inspiring, and retaining your talent. They often have entire issues dedicated to talent.

On the other hand, Carol Dweck’s Mindset, based on over a decade worth of analyzing research, says that it’s important to praise and focus on effort, not intellect. It builds resiliency and helps kids become life-long learners. In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell cites the 10,000 hours study and asserts that it is indeed effort, not IQ, that make a difference in becoming successful. And Dan Cole’s, The Talent Code, also looks at the 10,000 hours study, pushing the idea of talent to the side.

An article came out in today’s nytimes saying that we can’t dismiss IQ (or talent), and simply think effort alone will help us get from good to great. The title of the article, “Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters” doesn’t suggest that effort and practice doesn’t count. It just wants us to know that we cannot dismiss intellect and talent.

If you asked me which is more important, talent or effort? I’d say both, but both should allow for mistakes – something some kids are being deprived of in the name of ‘accountability.’

In any case, I’d like to end this post with a quote from Sir Ken Robinson.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

Are You a Life Long Learner?

If you ask any educator what one of their main objectives is for their students, you are more than likely going to hear the term “life-long learner.” In order to meet that objective, however, one also has to be a life-long learner.

So here I am in Massachusetts at a New and Aspiring School Leaders institute for four days, learning. It’s been a great start so far. There are many types of leadership styles ranging from the coercive to a coaching style. The important thing to note is having the wisdom to know which type to employ. According to research on these styles (Coleman, HBR March April 2000), the two most effective styles are authoritative (not to be confuse with authoritarian “do as I say” – this style represents “come with me”) and coaching (“Try this”). The first mobilizes everyone towards a common vision, the second develops people for the future.

The other styles are coercive (good only in crises), affiliative (a team builder), democratic (consensus builder), and pace setting (highly motivated, competent, and  results driven). Of course there are pros and cons to all the above and are context dependent. One has to realize though, that all styles have the intention of positive change. Unfortunately, if you choose the wrong style for a certain situation, things can go awry quickly. Of the two most effective styles they have one thing in common, they require you to have a high EQ (Emotional Intelligence).

Unlike IQ which is more or less genetic and fixed, EQ can be learned. Developing one’s EQ requires one to be self-aware, have self-regulation, be motivated, have empathy, and good social skills. As I learn to develop these myself, I also think about how I can develop these in the students I teach.

I know for me, I have all the above skills, but it varies with the context in which I’m placed. I have a lot of self-regulation with my students and peers, but not a lot with my administrators (it’s a growth area of mine). I am becoming more self-aware, but it takes time. Social skills are great in certain situations, horrible in others. I’m always motivated and my empathy for others deepens each day, but has a lot more room to grow.

Being this reflective as an adult is not an easy task, but an important one. If it’s not so easy for me, then how hard must it be for 7 and 8 year-olds. I always like watching the different leadership skills emerge from my students. Some are doers, others want to question and have a clear purpose, others want to make sure everyone is heard, and still others are interested in organizing all the details and having a well-thought-out plan.

Leadership is not easy, but the more aware you become of yourself (strengths and weaknesses), the more you become a better leader. There is a large amount one can learn from a book, but being able to adapt and inspire, those are the traits of our next leaders. If we as teachers can truly call ourselves life-long learners, hopefully we can inspire the next generation of true leaders.

A Few Things I Learned at the Fall PNAIS Conference

PNAIS11 Innovation and Change in the Classroom

This year’s PNAIS fall conference was an exciting one for me. As a member of the planning committee, a presenter, an attendee, and an exhibitor, it was quite the juggling act to wear all these hats. I did learn a lot and had a great time doing so. It was held at The Overlake School which has a beautiful campus in Redmond, WA.

There was a lot of discussion over the keynote: Sal Khan. His TED talk is at the bottom of this post. Some were intrigued, others inspired, some puzzled, and others were left shaking their heads.

  • I learned that when educators leave having to grapple with many questions, rich discussions often emerge.
  • I learned that I can continue to meet people face to face that I’ve only tweeted with before and make new virtual colleagues that I will no doubt meet in the near future.
  • I learned that many people have never heard of an edcamp or ‘unconference’ before which is going to make co-organizing it a lot of fun (I’ll post more on that in a few weeks).
  • I learned a lot about change.
  • Teachers were validated by the closing keynote, TJ Vasser, one of the first African Americans to attend the same high school Bill Gates attended, talk about social change – And that social change happens because of teachers.
  • I learned I could get over my fear of public speaking.
  • I learned I could adapt.
  • I started out preparing a presentation about using social media to network and learn, and instead realized that in order to learn one really has to embrace uncertainty.
  • I learned that in order to inspire ‘life long learners’ you have to be one yourself.
  • I learned that starting to serve on an accreditation team the Sunday after the fall conference on a week that ends with parent conferences may have been a bit ambitious.
Learning can be rejuvenating and inspiring. I am looking forward to more opportunities to learn this year.

Start With Simple Purposeful Tech Tools

One problem of web-based or other tech resources for teachers or students isn’t really how to use them, but that there are often too many tools. There is no way to really keep up with them, nor should one. If you subscribe to a few websites or twitter feeds, the lists resources can be overwhelming. Some of the tools are amazing, but may be start-ups that will be gone just when you get comfortable using them. Still, it’s great to know so many people are thinking of innovative ways to make the web more kid friendly. Two of the three tools below I got from Tech & Learning. Warning: most will be overwhelmed with that site.

Take youtube for example. There are amazing, short videos that are great for launching units, independent study, and other kinds of learning. Unfortunately, for every great video posted, there are hundreds of terrible ones. If a child simply uses the youtube search window, there’s no guarantee what they’re going to get (teaching kids how to search better is also a key).

If you have a specific youtube video in mind that you want a young student to visit, try safeshare.tv. It allows you to enter the youtube URL, and then gets rid of all the unwanted ads, and additional clutter.

There are also some great websites out there, but they are just too cluttered with ads that get in the way of the real content you want your students to view. Thankfully, most browsers have settings you can turn on to block banner adds and content that may be too irresistible for a second grader. “Click Here to Win an iPod,” for example. Yes, you want to teach kids how to avoid ads, but especially when they are working independently, a little help goes a long way. Along with the browser settings, there are some third party tools such as adout.org which is a website where you can enter a url and have it come back ad free. There is also the software you can download, like AdBlock which is also a browser ad-on to help eliminate those ads. I know many websites rely on ads to survive, and I know most adults can live with them. For very young kids, though, sometimes, it’s just nice to remove clutter.

It’s often because the web is so overwhelming that many don’t even want to think about it. But, as much I overuse this word, it’s a mindset. Think of your goal or purpose, find a tool, and start.

Got Character?

Cover of Today's New York Times Magazine

Today’s NYTimes Magazine is the Education Issue. Our Head of School forwarded one of the magazine’s featured articles to the faculty earlier this week: What if the Secret to Success is Failure? A Radical Re-thinking of how Students Should be Taught and Evaluated. It’s a thought provoking article, but if you’ve been following some of the changes in education over the past few years, it doesn’t seem all that radical.

Daniel Pink has explored zest, grit, and optimism in his work Drive along with empathy (social intelligence), play (curiosity) in his book A Whole New Mind.

Carol Dweck, in her book Mindsets discusses self-control as an important factor in developing growth mindsets.

Nel Noddings has been writing about the ethic of care for years.

I was able to catch a few of the TEDxLondon talks that were live-streamed this weekend, and there was definitely a call to spark curiosity in our students. Hopefully, the videos will air soon, but Ewan McIntosh posted the transcript of his talk about creating a generation of ‘problem finders’ on his blog. I encourage you to read his post.

Character Ed. isn’t new, but what I found compelling about the article was how they broke down the list of character traits into two categories ‘moral character’ and ‘performance character.’ I also liked how the article mentioned many of these character traits can backfire. “Too much grit…you start to lose your ability to have empathy for other people.”

I also liked the Head of Riverdale’s “philosophical issue with quantifying character.” It’s true that the last thing we need are people trying to game the system with test prep on character traits. Also, if too much of a certain trait can backfire, how would you measure what is best?

Another great question brought up in the article is: How do you teach these traits? I don’t know the answer, but it’s definitely one worth exploring. I know you can’t do it with carrots and sticks and you can’t do it simply by putting quotes around your school. You can start by modeling these traits (I’m 41 and I’m still learning how to grow some of these traits and moderate others), getting to know your students, and creating supportive relationships with their families. I suppose what’s radical is that more an more people and schools are thinking about these questions. It’s exciting to see some start to try new things.

I’m looking forward to hear what others at my school think, as our Mission and Values have both the moral and performance character traits we strive towards.

Do We Really Need Technology To Learn?

When I first picked up this Sunday’s New York Times, I was delighted to see a photo of kids standing in front of an interactive whiteboard. A whiteboard which was mounted to a wall with the children’s height in mind (Many of my students have to use a stool. It’s unfortunate, but at least I’m lucky enough to have an interactive whiteboard in my classroom). Then I read the article that accompanied the picture which questioned the necessity of technology in schools, and how districts are spending a lot of money on state-of-the-art equipment with very little effect in terms of higher test scores and student results.

Unfortunately, the question shouldn’t really be whether technology is needed to learn. The question should be “Are you teaching kids to use technology to learn?” I am a huge proponent of technology, but it is merely a tool. It’s not about the ‘state-of-the-art stuff’ one has in a classroom, but how the kids are using it. Technology is a mindset and until teachers start to understand that, technology just takes away time from other curricular activities. Rather than see technology as a separate subject or skill, it should be integrated into what you are already doing.

I had kids head to our computer lab yesterday, our first day of school. Of course there were certain things I had to show them, like how to save a file to a particular folder, but the idea was to engage the kids in the writing process. Earlier in the day, we had generated ideas for our poems. Then the kids wrote a draft using pencil and paper. As they were doing this, I provided feedback, and gave them suggestions to help them revise their work. It was only then that we headed to create our good copies. Many of my students have not had a lot of exposure to computers, but its the questions the generate that excite me. “How do I move the cursor to the next line?” “Can I change the size of the letters?” “What does that red squiggly line mean?” It’s then that you start to give individualized instruction to each child. Another great thing that happens is the dialogue that happens between kids. “How did you do that?” “Oh, let me show you.”

We don’t use a lot of tech in my class, but when we do, the kids need to see a purpose to it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a mindset. It’s not about whether or not the computer is running Apple or Windows 7 (I’m actually writing this on an Apple running Windows 7). It’s not a question of Google vs. Bing. It’s not about whether they are using MS Word, PowerPoint, or Google Docs. Twitter is an amazing tool, but who knows if it will even be around in 5 years. Technology should support what the kids are trying to do. And in the case of my class this week, completing the writing process by editing and typing their poem was the task. When kids want to learn how to do something, they will.

So, do we need technology to learn? YES! But we also know how to make it meaningful, and how to use it to enhance learning.

Autonomy vs. Collaboration: Are they Exclusive of Each Other?

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that I’m a huge fan of Daniel Pink, and his book Drive. If you haven’t read it yet, I repost a great animated summary at the end of this post. Using a lot of current research, Pink makes a case for autonomy being an integral part of motivation. The other two parts: mastery, and purpose.

I’m also a big fan of collaboration, and in todays world of sharing everything openly, its also really important. The summer issue of the Harvard Business Review is all about collaboration. In the book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Stephen Johnson, he makes a very clear point that great individual a-ha moments are rare and that it’s often the confluence of two or more ideas that lead to game changing innovations. There’s a great quick animation of this as well (posted below).

My personal answer to the question posed in the title of this post is, NO!

A large percentage of our faculty just finished a summer institute at our school that was organized by our school leaders. I can truly say, that I left feeling more excited, motivated, and inspired of the potential that our school has to continue growing. If the aim was to begin cultivating a community of professional learners with growth mindsets who are both autonomous AND collaborative, the institute was an incredible success. Another underlying principle is that everything we do promotes the same kind of purpose, relevance, and collaboration for students.

How was this done? By finding the strengths within each individual, yet creating a safe, trusting environment to share these. By making the purpose a clear and shared one. And by promoting mastery. It was hard work, but work everyone was so eager to do because it had meaning. It wasn’t busy work. Aside from that, the institute was run using a variety of effective models of instruction. That kind of modeling is key for inspiration and the transfer of effective teaching practices into the classroom.

If you’ve read the book Switch: How to Change Things When Things are Hard by the Heath Brothers, the way to do this is to find a way to motivate both our emotional and rational minds, and set a clear path for how this will be done. I sense the beginning of purposeful changes happening at our school this year, and I couldn’t be more excited.

A New Culture of Teaching

I recently finished a book called A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown. The book, was recommended by the independent schools Special Interest Group at the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference. It’s a fairly quick read that had several themes resonate with me.

As the title of the book suggests, the culture of learning is changing, and as teachers we have to think about teaching differently. Apple computers coined the term ‘Think Different.’ and over a decade later, teachers are starting to make those changes. Great teachers have always been those that teach kids to learn, but according to the authors, the context of in which learning takes place has changed due to technology. The authors use the ‘teach a man to fish’ phrase as an example of that shifting context: What if fishing is unsustainable and the supply of fish is depleted? What if the water’s polluted? We need to know how to ask those kinds of questions, grapple with them, share, collaborate, and try to come up with solutions.

Vinnie Vrotney, who hosted a book club twitter chat tonight of A New Culture of Learning has a great post on his blog reflecting about delving into blogs 5 years ago, and how five of his colleagues are now sharing their summer reflections via blogs.

I only began fooling around with twitter in February to try to follow a couple of colleagues and others attending the NAIS conference in D.C. I had no idea what hashtags were, or what @ signs meant. I had attended the conference the prior year, when I started this blog, and was eager to participate (albeit remotely), and was beginning to learn how twitter fit into all of this.

Did I take a class or read a manual about twitter? Nope. I’m still learning how to use it: I even failed tonight, forgetting to put #isedchat in one of my tweets. I also had to leave the chat early as I had other plans, but a transcript of the chat was posted afterwards. For those who want to reflect a little longer and deeper, each week, Vinnie Vrotney will post a prompt on the Independent School NING in order to continue the conversation asynchronously. The book talk will also include a synchronous web conference with one of the authors of the book: John Seely Brown.

What do some of those things in the previous paragraph mean? NING? #isedchat? I could explain in another post, or you could be resourceful and find out. I think one of my jobs as an educator is not only to inspire my students to be resourceful, but to encourage my colleagues to do the same. It’s a mindset.

This mindset is cultivated by learning through others, sharing, asking questions, knowing, making, playing, taking risks and learning to fail.

Some may wonder what kind of ‘deep learning’ can happen from an hour long chat where participants can only use 140 characters or less per tweet. Aren’t those just soundbites from like-minded people? Well remember, we did read a book, tonights tweets included polite counterpoints, and also led me to read an interesting blog post on Scientific America called, “The Educational Value of Creative Disobedience.” There will be further reflection each week on the book, a web conference with one of the authors, and one can read transcripts of interviews of the authors like one by Steve Denning from a Forbes column on leadership named ‘Rethink.’

I hope to post more thoughts on this book, but want to end with this: Vinnie Vrotney, the person I mentioned earlier who led the chat tonight is not just a random educator I follow, but an inspiring educator I’ve actually met face to face. That meeting wouldn’t likely have occurred if I didn’t have a twitter account.

Quote of the Day

Quote

I just stumbled across this today and really liked it.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Alvin Toffler

When Toffler published FutureShock in 1970, he predicted that change would accelerate in way that would leave most in some sort of culture shock. If you think back to 1970 (my birth year), things have indeed changed, and that change continues to accelerate. Many of us, however, aren’t really facing that culture shock. Why not? It’s because most of us who can learn, unlearn, and relearn, can adapt to that change. Just think about how home video has changed in that time: From the introduction of Betamax in ’75 and VHS in ’76 to Blue Ray DVDs in the mid 2000s to digital streaming from the cloud. There are some VCRs that have been flashing 12:00 since they were first plugged in. Nonetheless, the advancements are pretty amazing for less than 40 years, and great if we can all learn how to adapt to the new technology. It’s also important to teach kids of all kinds how to adapt.

What Exactly is Culture?

I was very lucky years ago when I attended my first symphony. I was taught beforehand not to applaud between movements. It’s just not done. During the performance, however, a few poor souls clapped in between movements. Rather than use that opportunity to teach them something I had only learned earlier that day, I swear a hundred heads shot backwards and fired daggers out of their eyes. The first time I went to a jazz club, I had no idea what the expected culture would be, but the people I was with encouraged me to participate and interact where appropriate. There are many different cultures in this world. Many whose manners would seem opposite to what we were taught. I’ve noticed that there are cultures that are inclusive and those, usually originating from societies with class-systems built in, that are exclusive. What then, is the culture of your school?

Cover of the summer issue of Independent School

In the summer issue of Independent School, Hugh Jebson and Carlo Delito write in an article titled ‘Trust, Accountability, Autonomy: Building a Teacher Driven Professional Development Model’

“We believe the strongest and most effective models — those that promote professional growth and outstanding teaching and learning — are found in schools where there is a shared sense of ownership for student outcomes. The culture in these schools is one of trust among the various constituents, where accountability is embraced and autonomy supported.”

Another article from the same issue discusses the culture of collaboration. Alexis Wiggins writes,

“I think we can — and must — do better. Independent schools pride themselves on providing a top-notch education, but the dirty secret is that they often produce smart, interesting, capable students because they admit smart, interesting, capable students. It isn’t enough to be a passionate, knowledgeable teacher. There are very knowledgeable and passionate teachers who aren’t actually effective at helping students learn. We need to constantly think about the quality of education we’re providing overall, not just what we are each doing in our classrooms.”

So what’s the culture in my school? Is it an inclusive or exclusive one? Is it one that fosters collaboration? Our constituents include students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators, and the greater community. Can we define that culture and make everyone feel included? Do we teach someone how to eat rice with chopsticks or laugh at them trying?

 

 

8 More Things I Learned at ISTE

I’ve only been to a couple of really large conferences. At these, it seems that keynotes are usually preceded by a local group of performers. Today’s keynote had a great local dance group, but that group was preceded by dancing robots. They even bowed at the end. Anyway, it was another fun filled day of learning. I’m exhausted and while I know my way around the convention center in Philadelphia now, it’s still overwhelming. Anyway, here are 8 more things I learned today.

Bring on the Dancing Robots

8 ) The keynote speaker today was Steven Covey author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People from a gazillion years ago. He was here to talk about leadership, especially in kids. On the website for his book The Leader in Me, Covey has the phrase – “Leadership is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” During the keynote, he defined leadership as the communication of other people’s worth and potential. He then started to incorporate his 7 steps and use the terms skill sets, tool sets, and mindsets (of which the first two lead to incremental changes and mindsets lead to quantum leaps). Perhaps I’m too cynical, but hasn’t Covey written about these “7 habits” over and over again. This time he just melds Dweck’s work (without giving her credit) and uses the term mindset as the underlying foundation of his 7 habits. Don’t get me wrong. I think his habits are really applicable and relevant to both teachers and students; it’s just not exactly new and innovative. Nonetheless, I left with some great quotes and a good reminder of these seven habits:

“The best way to change the future is to create it.”

“Live life in crecsendo.”

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

He also mentioned how test scores are the “worst form of identity theft we can give [kids].”

7) I met some great teachers (one who is an NAIS teacher of the future), who are planning on putting on an EdCamp in May in Seattle. I’m diving head first into volunteering to organize. I actually only learned what an EdCamp is today for the first time and look forward to being part of the team. The video below explains it. A very cool way for teachers to share.

6) I learned of a math fact fluency program that is adaptive and individualized, can be used anywhere (classroom, lab, home), is easy for teachers to monitor progress and will save countless hours of photocopying fact sheets, correcting, and keeping track of something that should be an automated mindless task these days freeing up the teacher to analyze where the gaps are in the students’ memory of math facts. Reflex is the name of that program.

5) I learned about a free QR code generator at qrcode.kaywa.com. QR codes are those square barcode like symbols seen on this sidebar, that can be read with your camera on your mobile device. That one just takes you to this blog. There are some very cool applications for this.

4) Hitachi has a product to help simulate an interactive white board on your pre-exsisting one. Unlike ebeam, however, you don’t need a stylus (just your finger will do), you can have three kids up there simultaneously, and the multi-fingured and whole hand gestures are pretty cool. Priced at $750 it’s a fraction of the cost of SMART boards.  I also saw some great portable systems that help lower the interactive whiteboards so kids can use it – both the white board and the projector is mounted onto the cart. The interactive whiteboard wars are starting to shape up and there aren’t just two major players anymore. That’s good for everyone as long as people don’t get to set on each company’s proprietary software. It’s funny how most of the whiteboard demos, elementary, middle, or high, were designed with the teacher standing in front of the class and the class sitting and responding. I get that teachers will use that tool frequently, but I hope students actually get up there and are the ones interacting with the board. Below is a page from Samsung’s brochure. Notice the desks in rows and the students all sitting passively?

3) I learned that I still don’t know how so many companies are selling single use devices for outrageous sums when a $9.99 app on an ipad will do the same thing.

2) I went to an incredible session on how to develop global empathy in children. Some examples: Grandparents in Ireland reading to the class via skype or podcast. Using twitter hashtags, a middle school teacher found a few adult directors who were tweeting about various scenes. The kids who were directing their version of the play tweeted their directions and got feedback from adult directors in England.

1) The steps Rocky ran up to the Philadelphia Art Museum aren’t that arduous but make for a great scene in a movie. By the way, why is it that almost all attractions shut down the same time each day the conference is over?

View of the city from the top of the steps to the Philadelphia Art Museum

Being Reflective with Ralph Waldo Emerson: Pt. 1

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last week, as part of our school’s way of looking at teacher growth, I sent in a written reflection of my goals. This coming week, I will be asking my students to reflect on their progress this year, assess how they perceive their growth, and perhaps even set new goals for the summer.

There’s a little online initiative going on right now to celebrate Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 250th birthday @ http://ralphwaldoemerson.me/

Each day starting May 31 a writing prompt will appear that is meant to help you be more self-reflective.’

The first prompt:

If we live truly, we shall see truly. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not everyone wants to travel the world, but most people can identify at least one place in the world they’d like to visit before they die. Where is that place for you, and what will you do to make sure you get there?

I feel fortunate as the place I wanted to visit most before I died was the place I was born and left 30 years ago. I had a chance to do that this Spring Break: Hong Kong, China. What did it take to get there? A former friend, colleague, and mother of a child I taught moved to teach at the HK International School. Aside from wanting to visit, I now also had someone to visit. I enjoyed every bit of that week.

View from the Star Ferry looking at Hong Kong across Victoria Harbour

The second prompt:

That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? . . . Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Identify one of your biggest challenges at the moment (ie I don’t feel passionate about my work) and turn it into a question (ie How can I do work I’m passionate about?) Write it on a post-it and put it up on your bathroom mirror or the back of your front door. After 48-hours, journal what answers came up for you and be sure to evaluate them.

How can I change the homework policy at school?

What have I done:

  1. I’ve produced the research showing that it doesn’t make a difference in lower elementary school.
  2. I’ve looked for the “research” that says it does – there is none! (not for second grade and below) The studies that have been done show that there is no benefit of homework in the lower elementary grades. Many of the researchers may add on, “Homework should help them develop good study habits, foster positive attitudes toward school, and communicate to students the idea that learning takes work.” Cooper (1989)  - Ok Mr. Cooper, so you’ve looked at all the research and find that “it should not be expected to improve test scores,” but you recommend it anyway for reasons that have nothing to do with the research you looked at. Then there’s the research regarding practice of a skill. It’s pretty obvious that practice makes a difference. But practice and homework are two different things. There is no guarantee that your student is learning anything if they don’t see the purpose behind the practice and don’t get immediate feedback. If there is one kind of homework I would assign, it would be that a student should read each night or be read to. That is something that many researchers have found to be effective.
  3. I’ve asked the school to change the policy and will do so again.
  4. I wrote an article that got published last week about this issue.
  5. Some folks say, the research is out there. The only thing I’ve found is that reading to your child and practicing a skill makes a difference. If there is no one there to coach them while they are practicing, though, what good is the assignment? I have yet to have one of those folks bring me a piece of research that concludes homework in second grade and lower makes any difference. I’ve asked to see this research.
  6. I’ve chosen not to dwell on the past (the policy hasn’t changed) – I may the only person who has this belief (I’m not…just the most vocal one), but I can still have faith in my conviction and, while change didn’t happen, I can continue to try and influence change in the future. I don’t believe in ‘feelings’. If the evidence shows there’s no noticeable effect, I will keep asking the question, why do we do this? Because some parents ‘feel’ its important is not a good reason.
  7. I applied for an administrative role (one who could change a policy), but that didn’t happen. Oh well. There are more pressing issues at school, but just because teachers have close to no influence over matters like policy changes
  8. I will keep persisting on this matter.
The third prompt:

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

The world is powered by passionate people, powerful ideas, and fearless action. What’s one strong belief you possess that isn’t shared by your closest friends or family? What inspires this belief, and what have you done to actively live it?

I believe that if we ask our students to take risks, we (teachers, parents, staff) have to do the same. I can safely say, I’ve taken several risks this year – these included successes and failures (learning opportunities sounds better though).

The fourth prompt:

Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. The force of character is cumulative. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

If ‘the voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks,’ then it is more genuine to be present today than to recount yesterdays. How would you describe today using only one sentence? Tell today’s sentence to one other person. Repeat each day.

It was a breathtaking day on Lake Washington spent with people I care about.

Mt. Rainier in the background

Being a reflective practitioner is something I need to get better at. Can I keep up with one prompt per day? We’ll see. June is shaping up to be another very busy month.

Blogging Heads 15 Tips

Recently, my head of school suggested that he was almost ready to take a leap and start blogging. He just needed a little nudge. Hopefully this post will help.

Here are just a few tips:

1) Decide on purpose: to share what you’ve read both to teachers and parents, to share resources, to highlight your school, to be reflective and tell stories about the realities of school life, for personal professional development, to take a risk, to learn, etc.

2) Keep it related to education. – I’ve heard that nobody wants to read about what you had for lunch (unless of course it somehow relates to school).

3) Not everyone will like what you have to say (or care) – that’s okay, some will.

4) Keep it professional: don’t name anyone unless they don’t mind; I’ve learned that “transparency” is not the same thing as “say anything”; if you mention another school, do so because you like what they’re doing;

5) It’s okay to comment on issues and write your opinions: some issues are going to cause disagreement – that’s good, as long as the discourse is civil

6) First, read some other blogs written by Heads and Principals: Here are a few suggestions of Independent School Heads to start (there are other independent school blogging Heads and plenty of great public school ones that I’ll share another time):

21k12 (I like palindromes) – by Jonathan Martin: Head of School at St. Gregory’s in Tuscon
Peak Experiences - by Michael Ebling: Head of PK to 9th grade Summit School in Winston-Salem
Compass Point - by Josie Holford: Head of Poughkeepskie Day School

These three hosted a session called “Blogging Heads” at the last NAIS conference in DC, which I followed remotely. You can read a summary of their panel discussion here.

7) You don’t have to write every day.

8. It’s a way to responsibly model an authentic medium that many of our students will or already use.

9) You may reach people well beyond our own school community.

10) Think of it as a discipline that motivates you: for some that’s running, gardening, knitting, volunteering – do it because you want to

11) Like those other disciplines mentioned above, don’t do it for extrinsic rewards. The intrinsic rewards should be good enough.

12) Don’t always expect comments or replies.

13) Don’t expect all your teachers to blog. Do encourage them to be reflective about their practice – whatever form that may be. Blogging is not part of a teacher’s job. It’s just one of many ways to share.

14) Realize that sometimes, you have to stop, and even though you set out to write 15 tips, sometimes 14 will do.

A nudge was asked for. The  book Nudge is a book about the psychology of choices.

The philosophy called libertarian paternalism is what the authors of the book say works best in designing choice architecture.
I’m just a teacher who likes to think about education and share what I’m thinking: I’m not a philosopher, psychologist, or even a Head of School. To blog or not to blog? I’ll keep you posted.

Persistance to Mastery (Using Skateboarding as an Analogy for Learning)

I attended an incredible event at TEDxEastsidePrep today. The topic was: Evolution of Instruction: Inquiry, Innovation, Identity and it exceeded my expectations.  I tweeted a couple of nuggets I got from each presenter and I wonder if that will encourage teachers to take a risk with twitter as a learning tool.

There’s an overwhelming amount of great things to share, and perhaps I’ll write about all of it.  One speaker, Dr. Tae was off the charts. A physics professor and avid skateboarder, he talked about what has been a common theme at our school: Learning by making mistakes. He walked through a trick he wanted to learn by showing us a shortened video of his progression. He got it on his 58th try. That meant he FAILED 57 times. There was no physical incentive for this trick other than the accomplishment of the act itself. There were no letter grades (an F for his first attempt, maybe a C+ near the middle). He only had a clear goal, persistance, practice and hard work. How are our children learning? Are their learning tasks as relavent, engaging, and clear to them? Do they persist or do they give up easily? All extremely good questions to ask oneself and their students.

Here’s a video on Dr. Tae’s blog that gives you an idea of what he means when he says we need to build a new culture of teaching and learning. The end of the school year is upon us and it’s a fairly busy time, but I hope to share one nugget from all the speakers.

Learning from New Teachers

When I was asked several years ago to serve on one of the boards at the College of Education at Seattle University, there was only one possible response I could give, “Of course!” While the courses varied when I went to grad school there several years ago, one thing that the college stayed true to was their commitment to service, diversity, and social justice.

I just returned from one of my favorite meetings there, because I have the privilege to be part of a team with other board members and professors to assess the portfolios of graduate candidates. It’s one of my favorite evenings because I get to see other passionate teachers who take their scholarship and learning seriously, I get to see others go through a very rigorous and reflective process, but most of all I get to learn from all these educators who are committed to growth, learning, and becoming better at their craft.

I’m about half-way through my career as an educator, but there is so much to learn from new teachers. The world they have grown up in is significantly different from the one I grew up in, and they have expertise in areas that I don’t. Sure, experience counts for a lot, but only if you’re still willing to learn and grow.

A fire was lit anew a few years ago when I read the books, Mindset by Carol Dweck and Drive by Daniel Pink. Perhaps my motivation to grow as a teacher has been a little intense at times, but it is who I am. Having worked tonight with such talented, committed, and passionate new teachers, I have a renewed sense of urgency to learn from the expertise of our young and able teachers.

It’s a tough economic time to be a young teacher, but listening to these teachers talk about what they will take away from grad school and bring back to their students and classrooms reignites my optimism in education.

Learning From Mistakes

Following up on my last post, I wrote that as adults, in order to learn, we too must take risks, fail, and then learn from them. There’s no point in fearing the risks, nor in failing without learning.

Well, this week included several risks for me as well as blunders. Hopefully, I will learn from these and move forward stronger and more resolved. Making mistakes or failure is difficult for most adults, and I am no exception, but I put myself out there, and know there are lessons to be learned. Let’s hope I learn them quickly. As mentioned in my last post, there’s value in being wrong sometimes, you just have to recognize it and move forward with your next iteration.

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation don’t care if a project of theirs fails, so long as they have some sort of data that they can learn from. Obviously, they’d like the project to succeed, but it’s clear they have a culture of learning embedded into their organization and that’s what’s important.

Apple computers had the Newton – remember that? If you don’t, it was because it was, in short, a failure. That didn’t stop them, did it. Below’s another one. I think they learned from this.

Failure is not an F word

The word “failure” has such an awful ring to it. It is, however, how we learn. In order to do so, though, one needs to take risks. It’s something that I ask my students to do every day, and I am often in awe at their willingness to put themselves out on a limb and try new things. And if I’m asking my students to do this, am I modeling it for them?

There’s a beautiful sentence in my school’s values statement: “We foster resilience and expect all to search and find, to fail and learn, to risk and succeed in a changing world.”

As adults, risking and failing can be difficult to do, but we must. The important thing, though, is that we do it fast, and learn quickly.

Last week, at a suggestion of a friend in celebration of poetry month, I introduced my kids to Clerihews. They’re short four line poems that have no particular rhythm or meter. They do have an aabb rhyme scheme, and the subject of the poem just has to be about a person (real or fictional). We decided to write them using powerpoint. We focused the instruction and questions on the poem and then headed to the computers to create our slides. What amazed me was how quickly kids took risks, clicking buttons and trying new things to add elements to their slide. When some had questions like, “how do you change the font?” I simply replied, “Look at all the buttons and tools and see if you can figure it out for yourself.” Of course, they did.

The risks they had to take – first with the poetry, playing with words and rhyme, and second with a tech tool they had very little practice using, didn’t faze them one bit. The only ‘failure’ was a child who didn’t save his work to his file, but he learned something valuable and he learned it quickly.

How often do teachers take risks, and whether they fail or succeed, are they learning from those risks? We can learn so much from our mistakes. If we allow ourselves.

I was thrilled to hear our that we secured Sal Khan for the keynote at the fall conference for PNAIS (a committee I’m proud to be on). I’m excited not because of his product  (I’ve actually experimented with Khan Academy a little bit with my students and it has its shortcomings), but I’m excited because of he brings the innovative message of flipping the classroom. I’m excited about the risk involved in bringing on a speaker like that to a group of teachers. I’m excited at the potential learning, discourse, and discussions we are sure to have.

April’s issue of the Harvard Business Review was all about failure. And the TED talk below from Kathryn Shulz on being wrong really highlights the importance of learning from mistakes.