Is this another example of doing the wrong thing?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently about the problems caused by the lack of  agreement about the real purpose of education.  It’s been a bit like my experience with YouTube when I get lost in following the suggested clips related to my original search and then wonder how I lost an hour or so of my day.  In the next week or two you may (or may not) see the fruits of this exploration. In the meantime…

I’ve been occupying myself and my need for learning with participation in a group (ChangeLeaders Community) organized and facilitated by Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon, Lyn Hilt, and Missy Emler as a part of the work they do as the founders of Modern Learners. BTW. I’d recommend joining.

This week, they posted a piece written by Will that I thought should be required reading for educators.  Here it is.  I made a choice in posting this.  While Will’s links work, they do not always return you to the post here.  Rather than eliminate the links which represent a lot of learning in themselves, I decided to offer this warning about the potential clumsiness of the linking process.  My bad.  Not theirs. Be well.

EdTech is Driving Me Crazy, Too

By Will Richardson

There’s a growing sense that we’ve reached a breaking point with technologies in the classroom. France is banning all mobile devices from middle and high school next fall. Privacy concerns continue to mount around Google Classroom and other school wide “solutions” that attempt to manage the daily interactions between teachers and students. And now, as AI and VR and AR begin to attach their tentacles to education, concerns about how to marry tech and teachers are reaching new heights.

Good times.

Yet, as someone who celebrated his 17-year blogging anniversary this week, I’m still in the camp that says humans and technologies can work together in powerful ways in classroom learning contexts.

The problem, however, is that most of what ed tech is selling us isn’t really about learning; it’s about teaching. I was reminded of that once again this week when I walked up to the booth of a big name vendor at a small regional conference and asked the rep what seems to be the toughest product-related question you can ask these days: “So, since you’ve plastered the word ‘learning’ all over your booth, I’m curious, how do you define that word?” (I tend to do that a lot just for fun.) The response was typical: a few stammering sounds followed by some mumblings about “deep understanding” and “applying knowledge” and other such figuring-it-out-on-the-spot phrases. I doubt that rep had ever been asked that question before. I doubt that company every really talks about what learning really is.

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 9.40.52 AM

More often than not, ed tech is something done to the student rather than done in service of the student. And there’s no better example of this than a new tool called “Emote” that preys on our current fears around the socio-emotional state of our students and sets a whole new bar for “helicopter educating” (which, I’m sorry to say, is not the first time that phrase has been uttered.) John Warner in Inside Higher Ed does a great job of teasing out the insidiousness of Emote, an app which makes it easier for the adults to record any time a particular student looks depressed or sad or anxious. As Warner notes:

When a child arrives in school, if they are observed to be angry or upset by a staff member, this is logged into the app. Later, a teacher may see additional evidence, creating another alert. The goal, according to Emote CEO Juilan Golder, is to prevent “escalation.” Student behavior can also be tracked longitudinally. Maybe a student is grumpy or sleepy every Monday, suggesting something is amiss at home. The app will know.

No one will be shocked, either, to hear that the CEO says “There’s more interest than we can handle at this point.”

Warner calls this a part of the “Problem with Surveillance” which “discusses the encroachment of real-time data collection and tools of surveillance – such as ‘parent portals’ or apps like ClassDojo – into student spaces. These are part and parcel of the ‘problem of atmosphere’ as students are tracked and monitored throughout the entire school day. These technologies are already doing damage.” And he adds, “There is simply no evidence that real-time data collection or instant feedback is conducive to learning.” There ya go.

I’ll save you the discussion of FaceMetrics, which will no doubt leave you shaking your head in despair. And if you’re really into self-abuse, scan down this Twitter thread from Benjamin Herrold, a writer from EdWeek who has been diving into this explosion of tracking and monitoring apps. (Note: There are so many compelling links in that thread that I probably should just thank you for stopping by at this point and wish you well on your journey onward.) I know I should just put the tl;dr version of all of this at the top of this post, but if you’ve made it this far, here it is: Purveyors of ed tech are jumping whole hog on the socio-emotional learning bandwagon, and we in education seem more than happy to focus on clicking and collecting our way to cataloguing  the symptoms rather than searching for the cause.

Thing is, we know the cause. As Warner writes:

There is mounting evidence that school is demonstrably bad for students’ mental health. The incidence of anxiety and depression are increasing. Each year, more students report being “actively disengaged” from schools.

And this post in Mindshift this week certainly makes that case, adding that parents pushing for “success” in the traditional school sense aren’t helping either.

I’m not saying school is 100% to blame for the mental health issues so many of our kids are experiencing these days. But if you listened to my podcast interview with David Gleason from a couple of months ago, you know that we’re not helping matters much. We’re putting tons of pressure on kids to stay on an increasingly narrow path to “success” because if they don’t, our own self worth as institutions are put at risk.

Read that again. In many ways, we’re choosing ourselves over our kids.

At that same conference I referenced earlier, I listened in on a session that was about improving the mental health of students. It was standing room only, overflow crowds in the hallways craning their necks to hear. The very well-meaning and concerned superintendent talked extensively about how to bring on board more counselors and therapists, how to increase the interventions, and how to monitor students’ mental health more closely. I don’t want to in any way suggest that he didn’t care deeply for his kids. He did. We all do.

But how many therapists or prescriptions or apps could we get away without if we attacked the mental health issues our kids are experiencing through a different lens, one that starts with the premise that we’re the ones that are broken, not the kids? What if we rewrote the script and put mental health above “achievement” or “success” as measured by grade point averages, the number of AP classes we offer, college acceptances, and other “narrow path” measures?

And if you really want to get crazy, why don’t we create an app for students so they can track every time our “narrow path” narrative makes them anxious or stressed, or every time we deny them the agency to pursue learning that matters to them, or hint at their value as humans by the test scores or GPAs they get, or whenever we deny them fundamental democratic rights, or refuse to act in ways that suggest that we are the problem and not them? We could call it “Ed-mote” or some other silly Silicon Valley play on words, and the software would send DMs to superintendents and principals when an intervention is required, like an immediate two-hour play period for everyone in the school. (We could also, by the way, encourage them to track the many positives about their school experience as well.)

Who wants to build that out?

So, yeah, the current crop of ed tech “solutions” is driving me a bit mad because they’re not solutions at all. They’re masking the problem. Which unfortunately seems to be what we want. Because treating the real problem is “more than we can handle at this point.”

Five More to Read This Week:

Children, Learning, and the ‘Evaluative Gaze’ of School – A must read essay from Carol Black on the problem with assessing our kids.

Stackable Degrees Could be the Future of Higher Education, Experts Say – Keeping track of the trends in credentialing.

A Shakeup in Elite Admissions: U-Chicago Drops SAT/ACT Testing Requirement – Big news.

What Teens Really Say About Sex, Drugs, and Sadness – New research has good and bad results.

Critically Thinking About Critical Thinking – It’s not a new skill, but it’s an important skill

The Killing Fields… why not a Department of Peace?

I was in Houston last week at the time of the recent shooting in nearby Santa Fe.  In the aftermath of this event, the chief of police posted on Facebook that he had reached his point of no return… that, in spite of his upbringing and his feelings about gun ownership, he could no longer support the notion that the Second Amendment was somehow an expression of God’s permission to own a gun.  It was, in Texas, a pretty startling statement and was quickly followed by a statement by the state’s Lieutenant Governor that the problem was not guns but the lack of “hardened” schools.

Observing the aftermath of the tragedy at close quarters, having the opportunity to discuss the situation with a Texas state trooper who will soon be a member of the family, combined with a 4 hour plane ride gave me a lot of thinking time and a lot to think about.

It seems we’ve reached a point in positional thinking about guns in which each side has so refined its thinking, talking points and commitment to its deeply held beliefs, that no compromise is possible.  With each positional justification, the language gets harsher and the response by those holding the opposing position increasingly visceral. In a conclusion that will not shock regular readers of this blog, I found myself considering the Russell Ackoff theory… i.e., the difference between trying to do things right and doing the right thing.

What if the debate about who should own guns, which guns, and how many is a just a distraction from a much larger issue… one that may be more frightening than a school shooting? What if our inability to arrive at acceptable regulation of gun ownership is based on a faulty analysis of the problem? What if the problem is much deeper and much harder to accept? What if the problem is more related to our historical and persistent reliance on violence as a solution?

I recalled piece about the then recent Parkland shooting by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone.  It was entitled “If We Want Kids to Stop Killing, the Adults Have to Stop Too”.  I decided to revisit the piece and wanted to share the basic ideas offered by Taibbi and some very serious implications for education/educators. I think you will find it equally interesting and troubling.  More important, however, are the possible conclusions and implications that we might need to consider as we help our students learn how to be in their world.

In introducing his thinking, Taibbi offers

Nikolas Cruz, the 19 year-old just arrested for shooting and killing 17 people in Parkland, Florida, supposedly … There will be lots of hand-wringing in the coming days about gun control, and rightfully so – it’s probably easier to get a semi-automatic rifle in this country than it is to get some flavors of Pop Tarts – but with each of these shootings, we seem to talk less and less about where the rage-sickness causing these massacres comes from.

On the rare occasions when we do talk about it, the popular explanation now is that guns themselves cause gun violence. As the New York Times put itafter the Vegas massacre, “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.”

This makes sense. It would be interesting to see what would happen if we tried real gun control as a solution (we won’tof course).

Taibbi describes the variety of explanations for the violence that lies behind these tragic events… deep seated racism, violent video games, music lyrics, movies, etc.  While each of t hese likely plays a role in the growing acceptance of violent solutions, Taibbi notes that in offering such explanations, we continue to show off “our amazing incapacity for introspection”.  The story of our land is filled with violent conflict. So deeply ingrained is this thinking that we declare “war” on problems such as poverty, drugs, illiteracy, etc.

Taibbi continues…

OK, sure. But what about the fact that we’re an institutionally violent society whose entire economy has historically been dependent upon the production of weapons?

And how about the fact that we wantonly (and probably illegally) murder civilians in numerous countries as a matter of routine? Could that maybe be more of a problem than 50 Cent’s lyrics? No? Really?

In an era of incredible division and political polarization, military killing is the most thoroughly bipartisan of all policy initiatives. Drone murders spiked tenfold under Obama, and Trump has supposedly already upped the Obama rate by a factor of eight. The new president apparently killed more civilians in his first seven months in office than Obama did overall, making use of our growing capacity for mechanized murder.

Taibbi acknowledges that his observations about the relationship between societal endorsement of military killings and societal violence among civilians might be considered “hippie-ish whining”, but when we look for why violence is so prevalent how can we not at least entertain the possibility of a deep relationship.  Our steadfast refusal to examine such a relationship is captured in the response to a proposal by Congressman Dennis Kucinich in 2001 to create a “Department of Peace”.

Although he never said we shouldn’t have a defense department … “He just happened to believe we should make nonviolent conflict resolution a organizing principle in our society”.

The corresponding Peace Department’s goals were to be aimed at transforming the way we look at the world, and would: “…promote justice and democratic principles to expand human rights; strengthen nonmilitary means of peacemaking; promote the development of human potential; work to create peace, prevent violence, divert from armed conflict and develop new structures in nonviolent dispute resolution…”

The bill languished in “legislative purgatory” until Kucinich’s retirement in 2012.

It is here that Taibbi offers the point of entry for us as educators.

We’retrained(italics mine) to accept that early use of violence is frequently heroic and necessary…We just don’t believe in peace. We don’t believe in nonviolence. The organizing principle we’re going with instead involves using technological mastery to achieve order by killing exactly the right people.

This is despite the fact that “precision” killing turns out to be less than precisein reality, whenever anyone bothers to check. And we don’t dwell on the misses, like those millions of Indochinese men, women and children we once massacred with bombs and chemicals and evil little pellet-mines. It’s always the enemy who doesn’t value human life, who thinks “life is not important,” as General William Westmoreland – one of the early users of the term “body count” – once said about “the Oriental.”

The point of entry for us…

Do we as educators believe in violence as a problem solving strategy?  Do we believe in Kucinich’s non-violent conflict resolution as an organizing principle for our school “societies” ? What do we believe?  What policies and practices are intentional/accidental in our school cultures that reinforce our beliefs? What policies and practices should we change to focus on doing the right thing?  How might Gleason’s research on what he called “the bind”** affect our thinking, our actions?  What fears might be keeping is from creating cultures of non-violence in our schools? What experiences do our kids have in our schools that reinforce physical or emotional violence as the default response to conflict, to hurt, to disappointment?  What experiences might we provide for kids to make non-violent response their default reaction to these things?

** David Gleason’s research, based on the recent UCLA study about dramatic increases in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety and depression, indicates that we, as parents and educators find ourselves in “the bind” – the realization that the stories we have helped to transmit to our children no longer work but our fears cause us to continue to adhere to them and, further, to continue to transmit them to our children.

Final thoughts from Taibbi…

Gun control? I’m all for it. But this madness won’t stop until we stop believing that killing makes us strong, or that we can kill without guilt or consequence just by being “precise.” What beliefs like that actually make us is insane and damaged, and it’s no surprise that our kids, too, are beginning to become collateral damage.

A Eulogy for a Leader

img_1182-1A while back I shared what I consider to be the key components of leadership.  My reflection stemmed from a conversation I had a long time ago with Tom Sergiovanni who suggested that “leadership was the capacity to build followership”. In piecing together my own experiences in various leadership positions and the lessons learned from my work as an executive coach, I identified both what I considered the key components of leadership as well as the process by which prospective leaders moved the  “capacity to build followership” into actual followership.

The “journey” begins with honest, sometimes “fierce” conversation, builds these into deep, caring, trusting relationships and creates what Simon Sinek calls “circles of safety”… places where the presence of such caring, trusting relationships help us overcome our fears of change, of risk-taking, of ‘following’ to places that might be unfamiliar.

This week I had the opportunity to read in a local paper a tribute to a superintendent who had died suddenly in tragic circumstances.  I’ve included the link to the piece  here and I urge you to read it. It is more than the story of one very talented and highly respected educator.  It is a course description of leadership… of the skills and dispositions that resulted in a kind of “holy” followership.

The author, Rob Anthes writes…

Two years have passed since a car driven by a Robbinsville High School student struck and killed the Robbinsville Schools superintendent and his dog, Gertie, April 19, 2016. That day and the days that followed changed Robbinsville forever.

But it quickly became clear that [Steve] Mayer wouldn’t be defined by how he died. He had long been mindful of his reputation and the path he led, and the school district followed suit.

This could be applied to practical things, such as the way the school district looks for alternative revenue sources, the cultivating of the Robbinsville Extended Day program, the creation of an energy savings improvement plan and the hiring of a school resource officer.

It could be seen in the way he approached education, believing in opportunities and access for all students. He felt strongly that students needed to learn how to be citizens and to have a voice, which is why he encouraged involving students in discussions. The district continues to hold student focus groups so the education in Robbinsville Schools reflects those the district serves.

It’s seen in Robbinsville’s curriculum, which prioritizes research and communication skills thanks to Mayer’s push.

…But, on the surface, these are things every superintendent does. So why does Mayer continue to serve as a guide for the Robbinsville community?

The district’s current superintendent, Kathie Foster, explained…

“He made so many deep, abiding and personal connections,” Foster said. “That’s why we talk about him. He was such a genuine person. His heart was so big and so visible. He shared with everyone. You talk with people, and they say that he was such a close friend of theirs. You hear that from so many people. Part of that is the openness to love everyone. That’s who he was. He was not afraid to love and accept.”

This has been made apparent to every person who walks through the front doors of a Robbinsville school. In the vestibule of each of the district’s three schools, there’s a plaque. On it is Mayer with his trademark smile and the phrase, “Make someone’s day today.”

Anthes continues…

The district has worked so its students learn these attributes, the ones that made Mayer so special—empathy, compassion, resilience. The corporate world calls these “soft skills,” but people who crossed paths with Mayer know better than most there’s nothing soft about them. Foster suggested a more suitable term would be “human.” For it was with those skills, Mayer changed countless lives—merely by embracing others’ humanity. It’s also what those same people miss most about him.

Anthes concludes his piece with an excerpt from a description written by Dr. Mayer’s administrative assistant.

Steve Mayer…Boss. Friend. Seeker. Good Steward. Family Man. Scholar. Sports Fan. Nature Lover. Teacher. Leader. Champion of Justice. Inspiration.

An open minded enthusiast for children, families and the Robbinsville community, Steve had a passion for new ideas and loved the process—and the challenge—of helping people to see the world in new and different ways. He had a quick mind and was rarely at a loss for words. My friend was as smart as he was fun. He was committed to excellence and couldn’t help but look to uncover the quiet hero in every individual that crossed his path. By nature, he was an optimist who fostered independence in others by encouraging them to fly. He provided me, and countless others, with wings to soar and a soft place to fall in the event of a crash landing. I am just one of many whose lives are richer and more meaningful for having had the good fortune to have known him.

I recall a story written about Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln, in the throes of the Civil War did not grant interviews.  He did, however, invite a reporter to spend the day with him as he went about his work.  At one point the reporter was ushered into a room in the White House which had been converted into a miniature battlefield. The reporter asked Lincoln, if he was, as Commander-in- Chief, trying to plan a victorious battle. Lincoln replied. “No. I’m trying to save lives. For if too many soldiers die in this war, it will be impossible to reunite the country.”  The reporter wrote a short article praising Lincoln and asking readers if all wouldn’t want a leader whose goal was to save lives.

When Lincoln was assassinated, in his pockets were a few dollars and a dog-eared, folded piece of paper.  People then recalled that in times of stress, Lincoln frequently pulled a small piece of folded paper from his pocket and read it.  It was a copy of the article.

In our work as leaders here are a few words to carry with us…

He was committed to excellence and couldn’t help but look to uncover the quiet hero in every individual that crossed his path. By nature, he was an optimist who fostered independence in others by encouraging them to fly. He provided me, and countless others, with wings to soar and a soft place to fall in the event of a crash landing.


Beating “The Bind”…

Recognizing and stopping our contribution to the rise of childhood stress, anxiety and depression.

Hello again,

I know it’s been a while.  Although some of my colleagues might dispute this, I’ve never been particularly good at writing simply to fill up space. As I’ve noted previously, this has been a time of reflection… a time to immerse myself in the thinking of others and to see where I might find connections or patterns that might be useful.

As was reflected by my last post, I’ve been touched by the increasingly persuasive data that tell us that our young people are suffering. What struck me about the situation was the description offered by psychologist Dr. David Gleason about our role as educators in the process.  He uses the word “bind” to describe the conflict facing parents and educators… We are relying on a narrative of hard work, good grades, college entrance and completion to insure our kids of a future that we quietly fear may not be as possible for them as it was for us. We know that this increases stress but know no other path.  We fear that if we take another path we might fail and fail them. So, with the help counselors, psychologists and outside resources, we do our best to identify and provide help for those in most obvious need, while at the same time we continue to resist making changes to the systems which are, at least partially, causal in the increases in stress, anxiety, and depression.

I want to call your attention to the work of Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon and their team in not only highlighting this problem but also offering a guide to what can be done and how. My hope is that you will find in this post, and in their work, a growing recognition of our unintentional role in contributing to the dilemma facing our kids, their parents, and their teachers and see the possibilities/steps offered by Bruce and Will as a viable alternative.


For the past few months I’ve been participating in an on-line professional growth group, Change Leaders Community, that is focused on supporting folks who are interesting in, or who working on, bringing new learning opportunities to our students and change to our system of schooling.  The group was begun and is moderated by Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon and their very talented team at Modern Learners.  Bruce and Will bring an incredible depth and range of experiences and have founded the community in recognition of the need for those involved in the change process to have access to others attempting the same work. Participants come from a variety of countries and bring a wealth of experience and experiences to our discussions.

This week’s call was focused on the sharing of a recently published eBook, 7 Strategies to Win the War on Learning, written by Bruce and Will.   This is a very practical work (I believe there is more to come) and, as a concrete sign of their commitment to change, they have generously offered it under a Creative Commons license allowing for the free sharing of the material.

Note: The link provided above will take you to a free download page which also serves as a bit of an introduction to their work.  While there is a fee attached to participating in the Change Leaders Community, this is a “no strings” download.

And so…

The book focuses on what Bruce and Will consider one of the largest areas of need for change… assessment.  There is a growing understanding of the failure of our current system of assessment and large-scale state testing to provide any kind of reliable information about the learning of our students or the effectiveness of our teachers.  Perhaps of even greater importance is the growing recognition of the role that our current assessment systems play in adding to the stress on our students. When we look seriously about how schools contribute to the rising levels of stress, anxiety and depression among youth, our system of assessments ranks as one of the top factors.  It is in recognition of these two issues, that Bruce and Will decided to focus on assessment as a critical aspect of school change.

Another Note: I’ll be looking at the issues of grading and the growing interest in mastery transcripts in my next post. 

There are three pieces of the book that struck me.

The first of these is a superbly organized (and well researched) section about the origins, development, and misuse of testing.  What I found fascinating about these chapters was the recognition of the need to help parents, students, and other educators (who have had some form of testing a part of their schooling for as long as any of us have been alive) understand that their initial distaste for tests was well founded.   Not too many of us sat there breathlessly and excitedly anticipating our next big test! Bruce and Will handle this insightfully and usefully. I consider this the “WHY” of the book.

The second piece that captured my attention was the “WHAT” section… the 7 Strategies that they identified. They entitle these: 7 Strategies to Support Assessment That Supports Learning.

  1. Beliefs must drive assessment.
  2. Challenge assumptions, biases, and orthodoxies that influence assessment practice.
  3. Communication beats compliance.
  4. Explore status-quo busting assessment solutions to provide more authentic and real-world choices.
  5. Let students learn about how they learn.
  6. Measure what matters.
  7. Invest in TRUST.

Moving people way from their long-held beliefs involves a lot of “unlearning”.  This is no less true when we think about assessment.  Note that their focus is not to eliminate assessment but to design, select and utilize assessment practices that support learning.  The strategies they describe and explore represent steps that, while they may differ in sequence and depth from school to school, are critical to the success of any change plan.

The third piece that interested me was the way in which they had formatted each section of the “7 Strategies” descriptions.  Each strategy contains an expansion of key aspects of deep explorations: Why This Matters, From Strategy to Action, Questions to Further the Conversation, and Resources.  For me this was the “HOW” of the book.  It is less a concrete action plan that a guide for engaging stakeholders in the kinds of conversations/explorations that encourage ownership of the conclusions rather than and expectation for compliance with a new orthodoxy.  Having facilitated such change processes in school as a consultant (often with mixed results), I appreciated the guidance they offer.

Your turn

I hope you’ll take the time to read 7 Strategies and share your thoughts with us.

“Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch” –  Garrison Keillor

If We Know This Stuff Why Aren’t We Changing More?


Note: My thanks to Will Richardson and the team at change for the inspiration for this post. If you’re interested in exploring and collaborating with like-minded educators about the why and how of school change, I strongly recommend checking out the change leaders community. Their work has added considerable richness to the reflections during my self-imposed retreat and leads me to a further exploration of a couple of themes that have occupied my thinking and writing, leadership, and change. 

“Dylan Bueno is buried. Did pressure from school contribute to his apparent suicide?”

This the headline from a blog post on March 14th by Bob Braun, a retired education editor/writer for a major NJ newspaper. Mr. Braun continued:

Dylan Bueno–at 14, not quite a child and still not yet a young man–was buried Wednesday by his family. Five days earlier, he apparently committed suicide not long after he learned he would not be able to participate in his eighth-grade graduation from Newark’s Ann Street School

Just hours before I read this story, I had finished listening to a podcast/interview which featured a conversation between Will Richardson and David Gleason. Gleason is a psychologist whose book,  At What Cost on the growing problem of student stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide is generating significant questions about the role of school in this alarming trend.

It was no accident that I found my way to this podcast. A few days ago, I revisited a piece written by (here’s that name again) Will Richardson, entitled “Our Moral Imperative”. In this  article Will shared his experience meeting David Gleason and encountering his notion of “immunity to change”. More about that in a bit.  As I read and listened I heard two distinct threads. They represent what Gleason refers to as the “current bind”… the dissonance between our public and open commitments and what our behaviors reveal about less public commitments.

The first thread involves the evolution of our culture. From a cultural perspective the school children of this generation are living at a time when their parents have lost considerable faith in the likelihood that their children will have a better life than they did. Furthermore, they have accepted (and contributed to) a conventional wisdom that defines what path is most likely to present their children with the best chances for “beating the odds” – study hard, do well in school, get above average SAT, ACT scores, submit great college applications, get into the best possible college, be the first in our family to attend college, etc.

In his book, Gleason describes the bind that we find ourselves grappling with

Behold the bind. For years and years, we have been encouraging parents to send their young adolescent children to rigorous and high-achieving secondary schools. Once they’re admitted, we instill our students with hope, and we promise them challenging academics, close student-teacher relationships, and a nurturing and supportive environment—and we mean it. Further, with their admission, we extend a seemingly equitable opportunity for a diploma, itself an implied “passport to a better life.” This is the parents’ and students’ aspiration, and it’s the aspiration for which we, as overseers of these schools, have pledged our support and have dedicated our careers. However, when our young students actually enroll, against our best intentions but driven by our own fears, we overschedule, overwork, and sometimes overwhelm them. We set them up for frustration and failure when we expect them to think and act like adults long before they have actually developed those capacities. We reward high achievement over effort, and most of all, we overfocus on the college process almost from the moment they arrive (38-39).

Schools are seen as the primary means by which the fears of parents (transmitted very effectively to their kids) can be addressed. We, as educators, in responding to these expectations and to the pressures imposed by state and federal requirements have been complicit in the creation of a culture of high expectations, imposed at increasingly earlier grades, with the promise of dire consequences for both students and educators when expectations are not/cannot be met.

The second thread that I found in my explorations of the Richardson/Gleason resource is a part of Gleason’s work identifying why we find change so hard. Gleason’s explanation for our reluctance to change makes a comparison between the body’s systems for rejecting threats to our health (our immune systems) and the idea that we also possess an emotional defense mechanism which he terms our “immunity to change”. The system helps us reject change that might threaten our sense of self or our personal comfort. You can read about his study and the details of his interview protocol here

The thread that Gleason highlights in describing the current bind we are facing is not surprising… it is fear. As educators, while we recognize that our focus on trying to insure a successful future for our students has resulted in unhealthy pressures and is contributing to the historically high anxiety levels of students, we have done little to address this.

In October of last year, the NY Times reported on this problem as follows:

In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.

“Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety”, NY Times, October 11, 2017

Here is Richardson’s description of what Gleason has learned:

“…we say without hesitation that we want authentic engagement with our students, that we want to promote a healthy school culture, and we want to produce happy learners (and much more).

But when you ask teachers and leaders what they are doing (or not doing) that actually gets in the way of achieving those goals, they readily respond that they over schedule kids, they focus too much on college admissions, that they emphasize grades too much, and that they assign too much homework (and much more). Nor surprisingly these admissions make us feel uncomfortable.”

In their conversation Gleason (in the podcast) and Richardson (in the article) point out it is the next step in the protocol that gets interesting. Participants are asked to identify what fears they would have if they did the opposite of their negative practices. Here are a few of the fears that Gleason got when conducting the protocol around the issues of excessive focus on college, over-emphasis on grades, homework assignments, etc. I’ve paraphrased a few of his findings from his interviews.

If the teachers didn’t continue with the current practices…

  • They would be perceived as intellectually ‘soft.’
  • Their students wouldn’t get in to good colleges, and they would eventually lose our jobs.
  • We might find out that ‘maybe we’ve been wrong all along.’
  • If they actually tried to implement developmentally appropriate practices, they fear that they might try and fail … They do what they’re comfortable doing.
  • If they did commit to a more developmentally healthy culture… they’d have to face making adjustments in their program, which could have an impact on their jobs.

As the convergence of events and ideas continued, it struck me that my exposure to these resources during my time of “retreat” was no accident. Rounding out this I’d like to offer the following for consideration.

What Gleason has described is a real and complex bind… a combination of forces have conspired to create a condition which has significantly increased the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression in our young people. Our current solution to this situation is to get better at identifying young people who are exhibiting signs of such distress and to provide support resources to heal or “fix” them. Once again, relying on the wisdom of Russell Ackoff, this is a classic example of trying to do the wrong thing better. We know what the right thing to do is… it is to fix the system that is causing the stress, the anxiety, the depression and placing the lives of too many children at risk. It is to stop over-scheduling our kids. It is to stop the overemphasis on grades and college admission. It is to stop the madness of hours of time devoted to test –prep and high stakes assessments. It is time to stop transferring our fears about the future of kids to our kids.   It is our fear that allows the bind to continue. The cost of this fear is too high. Just ask Dylan Bueno’s mom.

Be well






Stupidity May Be Contagious

.Just when you think you’ve begun to understand the almost daily dose of zaniness emanating from Washington and suffer from the momentary delusion that the stupidity is confined to our nation’s capital, we are confronted with the possibility that stupidity may, in fact, be contagious.

I’m fairly certain that readers of this blog may hold differing positions on the issues relating to gun control. My intent is not to enter that debate in this forum.

A recent article in Ed Week highlights the need for a much larger set of questions. The article addresses responses to a 17-minute nationwide walkout that is planned for March 14, and another protest planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine, Colo., school shooting, which left 13 dead.

In the Needville Independent School district in Texas, the superintendent has said that the district will not allow students to protest during school hours and warned students that they will face a three-day suspension if they chose to do so.

(Although not one of the questions I wanted to offer in this blog, can anyone else not wonder about the irony of the community’s name?)

Obviously, the folks in Illinois are a bit more subtle than their colleagues in Needville. As also reported in the Ed Week article, the superintendent of Peoria

…wrote on the district’s website that teachers and students in Peoria, will not be participating in the upcoming walkouts and protests against gun violence.  There were other ways to show support for the victims of gun violence without disrupting school, she said.

This isn’t a disruption for scheduled brain surgery. It’s a few hours out of a school day in which, if Peoria is represented in the recent Gallup polls about student engagement, less that 50% of the upper class students are engaged in what’s going on anyway.   In all likelihood, however, the protests also represent a disruption in the routines and schedules that adults find so comforting and which are so important to cultures of compliance and control.

Regardless of your interpretation of the 2nd Amendment or the status of your NRA membership, this situation is filled with teachable/learnable moments for both adults and kids alike.

I believe with increasing conviction, that we have lost our way with our current iteration of education as it is reflected in our commitment to schooling. I believe that, borrowing from Clark Aldrich and his book, Unschooling Rules, education should focus on three core principles: a commitment to help kids learn how to know; a commitment to help kids learn how to do; and, finally, a commitment to help kids learn how to be.

With a request for forgiveness from any math teachers who are reading this, can you imagine a universe in which a deeper understanding of parallelograms would be more important than helping kids explore what and how they can/should should Know about issues relating to school safety, gun control, political actions groups, and the 1st and 2nd Amendments? What about how to Do a peaceful and thoughtful demonstration of concerns about their own safety? What about helping young people learn how they want to Be in the world they see around them?

Oh, but wait. I forgot. We can’t disrupt the school day.

Why Is There Wrongness?


Pixabay – 2012

Hello. It’s been a while.  It’s interesting that I feel guilty and a need to apologize for not keeping to a schedule I never really set.  I’m thinking that a significant part of life might be a series of agreements that we don’t recall making.

As I found myself struggling to maintain “my schedule”, I decided to take stock of why I’m writing.  I find that I write for two reasons.

Often my writing is driven by a need to pass along some insights that have been shared with me. I use “that have been shared with me” deliberately because they come to me from a variety of sources most of which I can’t remember. I can recall only that they are rarely original and frequently reflect a clarity of insight that I continue to find elusive. It would be wrong to claim ownership. I have learned, however, that the clarity of such insights comes to best in stillness. In such times I sense both clarity and an obligation to share it. This has not been a “still” time.

My second reason for writing is more selfish. I write to bring order to the thoughts that I encounter. Most times it works.  But in the past several weeks I’ve begun 4 pieces. They didn’t actually begin as separate pieces; however, in each case new thoughts intruded, demanded attention, and added not clarity, but further complication. They apparently paid no heed to my pursuit of clarity. They reminded me that I don’t find clarity. Clarity finds me.

All this us by way of saying that I’m going to take a week or two to do some reading and find stillness. Retirement afford me that luxury. During that time, I’ll be revisiting some authors I’ve previously read and adding some that I’ve recently encountered and want to experience more deeply.

Here’s a short annotated list in case you’d like to join me in the explorations.

I’ve referred elsewhere to the writing and thinking of Charles Eisenstein. Eisenstein had me with the following, taken from the “About” page on his website.

Eisenstein writes…

”There is a tide of separation (separation from one another, from our planet, from our institutions) that is generating a convergence of crises – ecological, medical, educational, political, etc. …Why does money seem to be a force for injustice and destruction? …It’s just a system of agreements, a story. … What would a new story, a new system of agreements look like that were aligned with a healing planet?”

Can Eisenstein offer insight into our education crisis? What would a new series of agreements, a new story, look like if we were to remove the story of separation from our thinking?

Russell Ackoff – I’ve referred to Ackoff frequently, referencing his distinction between doing things right and doing the right thing.

He describes better than I could why I want spend more time with his thinking in an essay he wrote in 1999 for The System Thinker, published by Pegasus Communications entitled “A Lifetime of Systems Thinking”.

Most large social systems are pursuing objectives other than the ones they proclaim, and the ones they proclaim are wrong.

Example: The educational system is not dedicated to produce learning by students, but teaching by teachers – and teaching is a major obstruction to learning. Whoa!

In discussing Ackoff’s work and thinking, Will Richardson suggested that I read one of Ackoff’s books… Turning Learning RightSide Up : Putting Education Back on Track. It’s on my list.

Peter Gray, PhD, “The Joy and Sorrow of Rereading Holt’s “How Children Learn”. In Psychology Today, December 26, 2017.

Gray’s article stems from his rereading of Holt’s book on the publication of the 50th anniversary edition of that work. He addresses what he terms the sad reality that so little of Holt’s insights have made their way into contemporary education practice in our schools. He offers what he considers to be Holt’s major insights and contributions and begins with what most consider to be Holt’s most significant observation.

Schools try to teach children skills and knowledge that may benefit them at some unknown time in the future.  But children are interested in now, not the future.  They want to do real things now.  By doing what they want to do they also prepare themselves wonderfully for the future, but that is a side effect.

In taking license with a recent post recent post by Will Richardson in which he describes the commitment and capacity to turn this “now” oriented learning approach into a desire to learn more as “the artistry of teaching”, I combine this with Aldrich’s 3 purposes. For me it seems that the artistry of teaching is the commitment and capacity to turn the student’s “now” orientation into the desire to learn how to know, to learn how to do, and, of ever increasing importance in our current “story”, to learn how to be.

If you have the time and inclination to join me in this exploration of stillness and clarity, I hope you will add your own thoughts and experiences in the comment section. In the meantime…

“Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch” – Garrison Keillor