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.

Where’s the Math

After doing my taxes this past weekend, I realized that I did so without doing any math. I just put numbers into various boxes and trusted the software to do the rest. Perhaps the only math involved was having a sense whether those numbers I was entering seemed reasonable. This made me start to wonder about the math most adults do in their daily lives. How many people use the quadratic formula in their daily lives? Yet, when they learned it, did they learn it in a valuable enough way, that with that new knowledge, they can think in a particular way? How many know that when there are six people dining and you split the bill evenly, leaving a 20% tip, all you have to do is just divide the bill by five and have the sixth person cover the tip? If your student is working on 3-digit by 3-digit subtraction and on a post-test makes many errors, can you tell what directly caused those errors?

I ask that last question because as a school we’ve been examining several math curricula. One of them has an incredible technology component that includes computer based assessments. It’s amazing how quickly you get data back and the teacher doesn’t even have to grade the paper. Easy, right? Upon further reflection though, a child who might still get about half the questions directly involving 3-digit by 3-digit subtraction wrong, the data would simply just indicate that. Without examining the scratch piece of paper, interviewing your student, or observing the child in action, you wouldn’t be able to isolate whether or not the error was a simple fact error, errors with regrouping, inversion, or even adding instead of subtracting. If you were able to isolate what that error was, though, imagine how quickly you could help that child develop.

This month’s issue of the journal, Teaching Children Mathematics, contains a few great articles. One is called, “Action Research Improves Math Instruction,” which features elementary school teachers who, as part of a course they’re taking, embark on a “practitioner-based” research process in their classrooms. One of them, a 3rd grade teacher, looked carefully at 3-digit subtraction, read about the kinds of common errors children make on questions like these and decided to make her students ‘subtraction detectives.’ They had equations that were already solved, some with errors, and they had to practice finding and describing the error. The improvement in her students’ assessments improved greatly. The teacher didn’t know whether this was a ‘best-practice’ but it made solid sense to her and she gave it a try. The article mentions that “Action research addresses specific student needs, targets classroom issues, keeps teachers current, and discourages ineffectual methods.”

This year, our school has been examining several different math curricula with one of its objectives being a common scope and sequence. Today, we had a faculty meeting discussing the pros and cons of the different curricula, and I found the discussion rich and robust. We also asked ourselves some very important questions. We didn’t come up with any immediate answers, but I was really impressed when colleagues disagreed with each other, how the discourse remained passionate, but civil, and everyone made extremely insightful and thoughtful comments. Everyone seemed to be aware of their own biases as they spoke. I wondered, leaving that meeting though, and re-reading this article, if we needed not only to think of a common set of expectations, but if we could also find ways to examine student progress even more carefully and identify where gaps lie, or how their learning can be enriched.

Another article in the same issue called, “Professional Development Delivered Right to Your Door.” It listed the following as Best Practices of Professional Development: Professional Development must be -

  1. grounded in participant-driven inquiry, reflection, and experimentation;
  2. collaborative, involving a sharing of knowledge among educators and a focus on teachers’ communities of practice rather than on individual teachers;
  3. connected to and derived from teachers’ work with their students;
  4. sustained, ongoing, intensive, and supported by modeling, coaching, and the collective solving of specific problems of practice;
  5. related to other aspects of school change; and
  6. engaging, involving teachers in concrete tasks of teaching, assessment, observation, and reflections that illuminate the processes of learning and development (Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin 1995).

Regardless what direction we go in math, I feel like we met all those goals. I think the process was, and will continue to be an ongoing one. I feel very fortunate to work at a school with such caring and passionate teachers.


Why I Teach

Our head asked if any of us would like to write something with the title “Why I Teach” for our school’s weekly newsletter “The Sunshine” which went out earlier today. Of course, there are a number of reasons why I teach, but here’s what I wrote:

The date was 9/11/2001, and I was awoken by a phone call. Bleary eyed, I was instructed to turn on the news. To my horror, I watched the twin towers fall. Many thoughts rang through my head that morning. What would I say to the children? How would they react? It was my first week at Epiphany. I arrived at school, and prepared for the day. Parents, faces pale, dropped off their children. I rang a bell signaling the students to gather around me on the floor. I told the children that something terrible had happened, but we would have a normal day of school. I also assured the class that, no matter what, they would be safe.

The backdrop of this tragedy made the importance of what I do clearer than ever. In the rhythm of the classroom, emotionally devastating news gave way to the ordinary business of learning. Creating age-appropriate teachable moments gave me a renewed sense of purpose in teaching. It reminded me that learning never ceases, and that every day I too could learn something new from my students. It also gave me hope that these children had the opportunity to shape the future of the world.

In order to learn, we all must feel safe. That day taught me that creating a safe environment, not only for the children’s physical needs, but also for their social and emotional needs had to come first. It is only after those needs are met that children can feel safe to ask questions, challenge the status quo, and possess the freedom to think for themselves. I teach because I want my students to feel safe enough to voice and assert their ideas and opinions while being able to defend them respectfully.

I teach in hopes that I can foster and develop my students’ empathy, so that they feel secure in themselves to recognize when they make mistakes and to understand the point of view of others. It’s often the ability to grapple with conflicting ideas that allow students to come up with novel ones. I also strive to foster collaboration, have students learn to work well with others, engage in civil discourse, and respect that diverse ideas and cultures enrich our own lives.

Jean Piaget once said, “The principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done – men who are creative, inventive, and discoverers.” I work towards inspiring all of my students to be innovators in the spirit of Piaget.

Teaching is where my heart is. When I hear the phrase, “Those who can’t, teach,” I shake my head, because I think of all the talented and caring colleagues who chose to spend their days in the classroom. I prefer another saying that begins, “It takes a village….” I am humbled by our own community, and the caring environment they provide for these children. It is clear where all of our hearts lie.

I teach because it gives me hope – hope that these young minds will lead us toward a better world.


Keeping Time: Music Is a Core Subject | Edutopia

Keeping Time: Music Is a Core Subject | Edutopia.

You could click above to get to Edutopia, but I just have to post Wynton Marsalis’ entire article below because I am so proud of my students who successfully put on a great winter show yesterday and today. Kudos to their music teachers too.

Anyway, here’s what Mr. Marsalis’ had to say:

School administrators facing budget cuts often look to eliminate what they consider “nonessential” programs. Invariably, their red pen lands on the same line item: music class.

It strikes me as strange that music is considered nonessential. More than simply being a source of cultural pride and listening pleasure, music represents a core ingredient in the education of our children.

Music, in its purest form, encompasses the very ideals that we want to impart to our children. Let us consider a few. Because music makes abstract thought concrete, it forces us to develop several important cognitive functions.

The first is memory. Musicians must memorize not only the melody of a piece but also the individual notes that make it up. Within that, music teaches us the language of expression. You and I and Martin Luther King Jr. could read the exact same speech and it wouldn’t sound the same. The words are the same, of course, but why is it that Dr. King’s voice and tone carried something beyond the words? It’s the expressiveness of the performance. Similarly, three people playing a trumpet don’t sound the same. They can play the same note or melody, but only some trumpet players have a feeling that touches our heart.

Music also teaches us how to get along with others. Consider the music I love: jazz. Each member of the group can improvise, but none of it works — for a soloist or an ensemble — if the musicians do not play in balance. If the drummer, who plays the loudest instrument, decides he wants to be much louder than the bassist, who has the softest instrument, you’re going to have discord. This group dynamic teaches the importance of choice, and many choices require some form of sacrifice. You must listen. You must have a conversation. The group must work together to achieve its goals.

Jazz, in many ways, embodies our core democratic principles. The motto of the United States is “E Pluribus Unum” — Out of Many, One. Likewise, in music we celebrate the skills of the individual, as well as the strength of the group. Playing music also allows us to interact with some of our greatest artistic minds. When you perform the music of Charlie Parker or Leonard Bernstein, you understand their world. With each song, we get a glimpse of the intellectual life contained within the artistic statement.

Today, I still get special joy from instructing children. I try to show them the many lessons of good musical craftsmanship, particularly because I feel that so little good music is available to them. The music our children hear on the radio may feel good, like a candy bar feels good, but it has no nutrition. We exploit their budding sexuality. We exploit their lack of sophistication. We equate decadence with hipness. We give them cleavage and the same beat on every song, almost as if we were going back to the plantation. We treat our children as a marketing segment, and it’s embarrassing. But it is not our children who are at fault. We are.

Music must remain a core part of the teaching curriculum. Every school should have an orchestra, and it should play the music of this country — Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, William Grant Still. We should have jazz ensembles in our middle schools and blues bands in our high schools. As adults, we need to say, “This is the America we know and love.” Education works on many levels. It must inform and excite the mind, as well as nourish the spirit. Music is a key part of that education.

I couldn’t agree with him more. We always talk of performance when it comes to standards and test taking, but sometimes we need to take that literally and watch them “perform”. The children memorized poems from Sendak’s Chicken Soup With Rice (a la Carole King) to Clement Moore’s ‘Twas the Night and even did a little nostalgic barbershop number called In the Good Old Summer Time.  Will it increase their test scores? Of course it will. There was extremely rich vocabulary in the poems and lyrics of the songs. Any musician knows that there is a strong relationship between math and music.

But what I love about school performances is that every child regardless of ability shines. They help each other reach what is possible. It reminds me of the lyrics from a favorite Stephen Sondheim song: Anyone Can Whistle


Anyone can whistle,

That’s what they say –



Anyone can whistle,

Any old day –



It’s all so simple

Relax, let go, let fly.

So someone tell me, why can’t I?


I can dance a tango,

I can read Greek –



I can slay a dragon

Any old week–



What’s hard is simple.

What’s natural come hard.

Maybe you could show me

How to let go,

Lower my guard,

Learn to be free.

Maybe if you whistle,

Whistle for me.


Those kids were definitely whistling for each other.

I can dance a tango, I can read Greek Easy. I can slay a dragon, any old week– Easy.
What’s hard is simple.
What’s natural come hard.
Maybe you could show me
how to let go,
Lower my gaurd,
Learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.