We Should Embrace Confusion

The video below, from Yes to the Mess author Frank Barrett, touches on the idea of disruption of routine as a catalyst to innovation, that wimpiest of buzzwords.

Still, if your goal is to get folks – let’s say teachers and students – thinking differently and creatively about their learning, it’s an interesting line of thinking. More important than Barrett’s point about disruption, though, is the point he (mostly indirectly) makes about the role of confusion in helping people think differently.

It connected nicely with a passage from John Holt’s How Children Learn, which I’d re-visited for class this past week:

Bill Hull once said to me, “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” I thought at first he was joking. By now I realize that it was a very important truth. Suppose we decided that we had to “teach” children to speak. How would we go about it? First, some committee of experts would analyze speech and break it down into a number of separate “speech skills.” We would probably say that, since speech is made up of sounds, a child must be taught to make all the sounds of his language before he can be taught to speak the language itself. Doubtless we would list these sounds, easiest and commonest ones first, harder and rarer ones next. Then we would begin to teach infants these sounds, working our way down the list. Perhaps, in order not to “confuse” the child-“con- fuse” is an evil word to many educators-we would not let the child hear much ordinary speech, but would only expose him to the sounds we were trying to teach. (emphasis mine)

John Holt. How Children Learn (Classics in Child Development) (p. 84). Kindle Edition.

Perhaps we’re getting less and less out of teachers and students (and I’m not convinced that we are) because the systems in which they operate are working at top speed to make certain they avoid confusion at all levels. Teaching scripts, standardized test instructions, online learning platforms, google search – all are designed in ways that make it as difficult as possible to be confused.

If a teacher working from a pre-packaged lesson plan never has to wrestle with how to solve the problems of student engagement or differentiated instruction because the introductory set is included and the lesson’s been pre-leveled, there’s very little thinking to be done. If I’m not confused, I’m not likely be solving problems.

Similarly, if the directions to an assignment spend a few paragraphs explaining what information I should include in the heading, how many sentences constitute a paragraph, what I should include in each of said paragraphs, and the topics from which I’m allowed to choose, it’s unlikely I’ll risk the type of thinking that could perplex or confuse me as to what my exact position regarding my topic might be.

To be certain, obtuseness that renders teaching and learning inaccessible is not helpful. At the same time, clarity that renders the two unnecessary is harmful.

To Innovate, Disrupt Your Routine – Video – Harvard Business Review.

16 Proposals for Radically Changing Schools (for the better)

I was finally able to finish Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity yesterday. (What else was I supposed to do the day after graduating?) That I’d made it so long without encountering this text baffled me, but I’m willing to chalk it up to the right books coming into our lives at the right time.

Toward the end of the book, Postman and Weingartner list a group of proposals “that attempt to change radically the existing school system.”

I should like to learn and teach in a school that honors these proposals. In the case of a few of them, I’ve already done just that.

  1. Declare a five-year moratorium on the use of all textbooks.
  2. Have “English” teachers “teach” Math, Math teachers English, Social Studies teachers Science, Science teachers Art, and so on.
  3. Transfer all the elementary-school teachers to high school and vice versa.
  4. Require every teacher who thinks he knows his “subject” to write a book on it.
  5. Dissolve all “subjects,” “courses,” and especially “course requirements.”
  6. Limit each teacher to three declarative sentences per class, and 15 interrogative.
  7. Prohibit teachers from asking any questions they already know the answers to.
  8. Declare a moratorium on all tests and grades.
  9. Require all teachers to undergo some form of psycho-therapy as part of their in-service training.
  10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public.
  11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students on what the students know.
  12. Make every class an elective and withhold a teacher’s monthly check if his students do not show any interest in going to next month’s classes.
  13. Require every teacher to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some “field” other than education.
  14. Require each teacher to provide some sort of evidence that he or she has had a loving relationship with at least one human being.
  15. Require that all the graffiti accumulated in the school toilets be reproduced on large paper and be hung in the school halls.
  16. There should be a general prohibition against the use of the following words and phrases: teach, syllabus, covering ground, I.Q., makeup, text, disadvantaged, gifted, accelerated, enhanced, course, grade, score, human nature, dumb, college material, and administrative necessity.
I’ve not stopped thinking about how much the teachers in schools adopting this list of proposals would learn and how much more effectively they would begin to teach.
What else deserves to be on this list?
Citation: Postman, Neil, and Charles Weingartner. Teaching As a Subversive Activity. Delta, 1971.

Things I Know 320 of 365: YouTube for Schools is here because schools couldn’t be bothered to learn

My first inclination is to praise the advent of YouTube for Schools. I want to say, “Finally, we can get the content to the classrooms.” And that is true. At least, it’s more likely.

I can’t say that without also pointing out it was easier for one of the world’s largest corporations to change content streams, test and market a new product, and launch it than it was for America’s schools to consider changing how they think about the Internet.

There’s a reason other nations are outperforming America in tests of thinking.

Things I Know 313 of 365: I was a bit of a jerk

In cleaning out my box.net contents I found a folder containing my slidedecks from the first day of school of my fourth year of teaching. All was well and good until I found the class rules slide below.

Day 1 Per 3

Who wrote those two rules? When was I Severus Snape? The thing is, I had a decent idea what I was doing when I made this slide. I’d been in the classroom 3 years and came out of a decent teacher prep experience. The kids I’d taught the year before had taken the school from 47 to 81 percent passing the state writing exam. I had strong relationships with my colleagues, kids and their families. I’d headed up a partner student screenwriting program between our school and the local film festival.

Yet, there I was declaring war on cell phones and gum as though it somehow secured my power as teacher overlord.

Not only that, these were the first two rules I posted. Somehow gum chewing and the sight of a cell phone presented clear and present danger in relation to learning.

This list shows me what I told my students I valued on that first day of school, and it reminds me of how much what I said I believed stood in contrast with the beliefs I enacted as a teacher.

We do that, we get better at what we do, at being people with kids. If I had to guess, I’d say this authoritarian stance was a remnant of teaching students who were quite close to me in age and appearance. It was a stab at drawing a line between who I was and who they were. While I needed that line then, in the years that followed, I worked hard to erase it. I realized the way to teach was to connect, to become a person who mattered that asked students to do work that mattered.

It was a difficult lesson.

One I’m still learning. I’m grateful to younger me for sticking this slidedeck in the cloud time capsule to remind me how I’ve grown.

Things I Know 245 of 365: I’ve been re-arranging the furniture in my head

A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.

– Mark Twain

I’ve been trying to change my mind over the last couple day. Lifehacker posted a blurb on a report from Science Daily suggesting runners should drink water when they are thirsty.

This information probably didn’t blow your mind the way it did mine.

Let me explain.

For over nine years, I’ve been a distance runner. Since that comical first go when I was sure I’d make 2 miles to my last marathon, I’ve been amassing pieces of running knowledge and sharing them as I meet other runners:

  • During morning runs, warm up with two easy miles and then stretch so as not to injure cold muscles and tendons.
  • Your metabolism is spiking for the first 45 minutes to an hour after you run.
  • About 20 minutes into a run is where the average person’s sugar supply is depleted and the fat burning process begins.
  • If you wait until you’re thirsty to drink water, you’re probably already dehydrated.

These are the pieces of who I am as a runner. They represent the framework of knowledge I carry with me that let me know I have some idea of what I’m doing.

Except, as Science Daily seems dedicated to pointing out, I don’t know what I’m doing.

This is the battle in which I’ve been engaged.

I’ve been grieving an idea.

Though it’s painfully simple – one sentence long – my flow chart of running is built around such conditional statements. If this is wrong, how do I know what is right?

I’ll be fine on the running front, I know.

I’ll do some research and figure out what makes the most sense.

It’s got me thinking, though, about what this means in the other systems in my life. I’ve started contemplating how receptive I am to new ideas and how receptive I expect others to be when I introduce a new idea or way of framing understanding.

New ideas aren’t easy. They require the shuffling around of the furniture in my head to make way for that new armoire. The thing is, collecting the new ideas requires losing some of the old ones. I can fit in the armoire, but I’ve got to lose the love seat.

And that’s the piece that’s probably been the most difficult in this instance. My best friend Katy, who taught me to run, educated me on when and when not to hydrate. That knowledge has emotional attachment.

I frequently ran into this problem on the other side when I’d tell students they could begin a sentence with “because” or they should avoid starting sentences with “There is…” or “There are…” To me, I was building a framework to help them succeed. To them, I was asking them to donate most of their mental furniture to the infinite.

Learning is tricky stuff.

I’m going running later today. I’m seriously considering not drinking water until I’m thirsty. Is that crazy?

Things I Know 224 of 365: Ownership matters

And I would argue the second greatest force in the universe is ownership.

– Chris Chocola

“He needs to get buy-in,” someone in class said today as we discussed a case study of a school where those in charge were failing to get all teachers swimming in the same pedagogical direction.

From there, the room was flooded with off-hand mentions of “buy-in.”

Some agreed, some advocated the opposite of buy-in and argued the use of administrative power instead.

I sat thinking for a while.

By the time I raised my hand, class was running short on time and many other voices needed heeding.

What I wanted to say was this:

If buy-in is your goal, if it is what you are shooting for as you advocate change, you are working toward something less shimmering, less amazing than what you imagine when you put your dreams to bed.

What I wanted to reference, as my access was sleeping in my bag, was the idea of ownership vs. buy-in.

I’m not certain when, but a few years ago, I started noticing buy-in as a main descriptor in conversations around project formation. Whether it was planning professional development or building units of study for students, people were worrying about buy-in.

“I like this project. I’m just worried about how I can create buy-in with my kids.”

“This is a great approach, and I’d love to take it to my faculty, I’m just not sure how I can get buy-in with my teachers.”

It came up so often that it started to permeate my thinking.

“A bunch of people are talking about ‘buy-in,’” my brain kept saying.

Enter ownership.

I honestly can’t remember who it was, that pointed out to me a distinction that has doused my thinking in intellectual kerosine ever since.

When making change, when starting the new, when shifting thinking; it is ownership toward which we should work, not buy-in.

Henri Lipmanowitz, former chairman of Merck International and board president of the Plexus Institute, draws a line between “buy-in” and “ownership.”

“Your implementation will inevitably be a pale imitation of what it could have been had you been an ‘owner’ instead of a ‘buyer-in’…” Lipmanowitz writes.

I have trouble disagreeing.

When thinking about larger educational policy or thinking about the workings of my classroom, ownership means more than buy-in.

If the system is working, we work toward ownership.

If ownership is established, I do not need to become a salesman.

If ownership is established, I do not need to worry about customer relations down the road.

If ownership is established, I am not in an idea alone.

If ownership is established, it will take more time.

For the latter, Lipmanowitz has a counter argument. To those who argue the involvement of all players at the inception will take time, he responds, “People that are affected will inevitably be involved.”

The difficulty for the classroom and for the shaping of policy or systemic norms is the paradigmatic norm of time allotment as incremental.

I’ll design the unit.

I’ll take time to show it to my peers.

I’ll explain it to the students.

I’ll teach it.

They’ll have questions.

I’ll answer them.

We’ll struggle as they work to buy my vision.

We’ll get to the learning…

Lipmanowitz’s believe (and mine) is based around the assumption that spending the chronological capital at the outset to insure ownership will smooth the road later on.

“In complex situations,” writes Lipmanowitz of the concept of ownership, “it is the only one that is likely to generate superior results. It requires giving people space and time for self-discovery.”

That’s tough.

That’s worth it.

Things I Know 148 of 365: I have an idea to save Philadelphia’s kindergarteners

Give a year. Change the world.

– City Year

How about we don’t cut full-day kindergarten?

Instead, what if we saved money, innovated the system and began a trend of civic responsibility for young adults in Philadelphia that could serve as the national model.

I’m as big a fan of scare tactics as the next person, but what if the School District of Philadelphia worked to look more like a leader in the time of fiscal crisis, rather than a college freshman signing up for every credit card offer to arrive in the mail?

Cutting half-day kindergarten is a bad idea. It sounds inherently bad when you say it aloud to those with no obvious ties to education.

Then add to that to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s report that we know full-day kindergarten is better:

Research has shown that children in full-day kindergarten demonstrated 40 percent greater proficiency in language skills than half-day kids, said Walter Gilliam, an expert on early-childhood education at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Combining clinical evidence with that feeling deep in your gut should be all you need to realize cutting full-day kindergarten is a bad idea.

This still leaves the shortfall of $51 million as a result of Gov. Corbett’s elimination of a $254 million blacken grant.

Here’s where the innovation comes in.

We cut Grade 12.

To those seniors who have earned enough credits to graduate and/or passed the state standardized test, we allow for the opting out of G12.

Though I couldn’t locate exact numbers by grade, the School District of Philadelphia reports 44,773 students in its high schools.

According to School Matters, SDP has a total per pupil expenditure of $12,738.

Now, if 5,000 of the roughly 45,000 high school students in Philadelphia opted out of their senior year, it would save the district $63,690,000 – almost $12.7 million more than the block grant cuts.

I get that the math is hypothetical, but bear with me.

Not every student is ready for college at the end of their senior year. Even fewer will be ready at the end of their junior years.

Enter the gap year.

Shown to provide students will helpful life experiences as well as a sense of direction once they enter college, a gap year between high school and college would benefit Philadelphia students.

Rather than setting students free to wander aimlessly for that year, the SDP could partner with AmeriCorps, City Year and other organizations to help place Philadelphia graduates around the city in jobs that will invest their time in improving Philadelphia.

The standard City Year stipend would apply, though I’m certain City Year hasn’t the budget for a sudden influx of volunteers.

The SDP would need to show a commitment to sustainable change and invest the money saved by the opt-out program into helping to pay for volunteer stipends.

Ideally, those same graduates would be placed in kindergarten classrooms around the city, helping to reduce student:teacher ratios, providing successful role models and perhaps inspiring more students to move into the teaching profession.

Once students completed their one-year commitment, they would be eligible for the AmeriCorp Education Award to help pay for college tuition.

The idea is admittedly imperfect.

It is not, however, impossible.

It could save full-day kindergarten, reduce costs to the school district, move graduates to invest their time in their city and help lessen the cost of college for Philadelphia graduates.

As an added benefit, such a move could turn the negative press the district’s received for proposing bad policies for children into positive press for creating positive, community-enriching change.

Things I Know 130 of 365: Professional development must be warts and all

Good design begins with honesty, asks tough questions, comes from collaboration and from trusting your intuition.

– Freeman Thomas

A group of teachers cam to visit SLA Tuesday. Particularly enterprising, their school is heading to a project-based model next year, and they’ve been using this year to experiment. While not fully project-based, their classes have featured a few projects throughout the year, and they wanted to talk shop.

When I sat down, they were talking to Tim Best about rubrics and expectations.

They wanted to adopt a similar approach next year, and I had a question.

I asked if they had a plan for getting the more hesitant members of their faculty on board.

No matter who comes to visit SLA, they never bring the most recalcitrant members of their faculty with them. Those who come to visit are of like minds.

This group had no plan.

They asked if we had any suggestions.

I had one.

Be vulnerable.

Whenever I’ve been part of a faculty or heard stories of a faculty that was adopting a new approach or program, there was never a sense of vulnerability.

Every launch, unveiling or introduction has been orchestrated with the promise of perfect like some sort of Kevlar-covered pedagogy.

Nothing ever is.

No matter what these teachers say next year as they start to shift the way their school approaches teaching and learning, it will not be perfect.

My suggestion was for each of them to sit down with a group of their peers and workshop a unit plan, project description or rubric they’ve built this year.

When new initiatives are launched, all many teachers hear is “We’ve figured out the problem with our school. You’re teaching the children wrong, and we’re hear to fix you.”

Asking their peers to sit down to a curricular discussion that values the knowledge and experience of everyone involved can be a way for their school to make thoughtful change.

Even better, those conversations will bring new eyes to the process in a structured way so that this beta group can refine their practice with the help of their peers rather than burning out mid-year next year because everyone is looking to them to keep pushing things along.

Some school initiatives fail because they are either bad initiatives or bad fits for the schools adopting them. Other initiatives fail because they’re thrust upon a faculty with pomp and circumstances, but lacking dialogue and reflection.

By inviting their faculty to the table as colleagues, these teachers could have a good shot at eliminating 50 percent of the reasons they might fail.

I like those odds.

Things I Know 77 of 365: What we read makes who we are and what we do

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

– Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

To mark AOL’s consumption of The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington announced Monday that “AOLers and HuffPosters (who are now AOLers!) will be volunteering in their local communities” as part of a 30-Day Service Challenge.

Aside from being a good public relations move, it’s also good work. No matter one’s political leanings, jumping in and helping the rest of humanity is a good idea.

I used to teach with a science teacher who had completed a fellowship during which she attempted a different job each week for 52 weeks. At the end of the year, she’d done it all – including her personal favorite, learning to drive an 18-wheeler.

She walked through life with a different and deeper understanding of the people with whom she interacted.

She had taken Atticus Finch’s advice and walked in the skin of others.

This gets toward the heart of why I want so badly for my students to connect with books and be more thoughtful about what they view. These stories, mostly fictitious, provide moments of connection and portrayed experiences that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. I want my students digging deeply into texts because the more they read, the more they will archive. Their brains will become rife with archives of the “what ifs” of all the plots and characters they encounter. And this, this will prepare them for those moments when they are up against odds unknown or come face-to-face with someone diametrically contrary to who they are.

I grew up in a small town of 250 people. My school was in the next town over and educated just under 400 students. While each of us was an individual, the world our interactions created was nothing compared to the complexity of life for my students in Philadelphia or Sarasota.

While I can’t deny thoughtful parenting was the largest preparation I received for the world beyond Cantrall, IL, it was the books, television shows and movies I read that picked up where my family’s experiences left off.

Nothing can replace the actual experience of mucking in as the “AOLers and HuffPosters” are and my former colleague did. Reading, though, can serve as the primer in the absence of the physical experience – the original virtual reality.

Starting next week, my students will be spending dedicated class time on change.org. Launched in 2007, the site both raises awareness of acts of injustice and calls on readers to take action as well by signing petitions or contacting government leaders. I cannot provide my students with exactly what they will need for every possible eventuality they might face. Absent that ability, I can help them build connections with texts, read those texts closely and then ask questions about how what they can do in relation to what they’ve just read.

My mom likes to tell the story of the first time she read me a children’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m not sure of my age, but know I was still in the realm of footy pajamas. As my mother tells it, we’d finished reading the section explaining racism and it affected me deeply.

“You were pacing back and forth yelling, ‘That’s wrong, mommy! That’s just wrong!’”

Though the texts my students or I encounter may not always draw on themes as clearly unjust as racism, both they and I are missing the story if we’re not looking at how the characters are treating one another and how we see ourselves in the pages or scenes of what we’re reading.

It’s Game Time

If anyone follows me on twitter and was paying attention last night, they’ll know I schlepped my way to NYC last night for the opening event of the New York Public Library’s Live series. I’ll write more about what Lawrence Lessig and Shepard Fairey had to say as they were moderated by Steven Johnson later. This post is about something else.

As I watch Lessig’s opposition to Prop 8 or read about his newest effort to end corruption, something strikes me. He’s got a system. It’s what’s lacking in the discussion of what people are looking for, as far as I can see.

In wanting to change Congress, Lessig calls on candidates to do three things:

  • Abolish earmarks
  • Refuse lobbyist/PAC contributions
  • Promote publicly financed campaigns

Many get close. But let’s get closer. Will writes of the use of stimulus money in education:

But if you really want to use that money to improve learning, use it to help the teachers in the schools understand how to help the kids in the classrooms become the readers and writers and mathematicians and scientists that will flourish in a networked world.

Yes, agreed. All for it. Now, let’s talk about how. Not standards or targets or the like. Ideas. Steps. We don’t need a report or a study. We know what we’re unhappy about. Let’s move on.

Here’s the charge, blog or comment with the three shifts, changes, movements we should demand at the national level to move education somewhere. These should be basic, actionable, transparent steps that are taken or not taken. Don’t just blog it, though, talk about it. Bring it up in department meetings, faculty meetings, podcasts, dinner table discussions, the dog park. Take the conversation outside of the echo chamber. Talk about it with people inside and outside of education (we’re all inside, btw). If you put it online, tag it 3steps4ed. If you like, re-post this to your online space, do that.

Follow the tag, write about what feeds your reader. From there, we’ll move forward. If you’ve already written your three down, go back and re-tag it.


  • Think of the three actionable steps that need to be taken at the national level to move education.
  • Talk about them with others. Ask for others’ thoughts first.
  • Post, tweet – heck – even photograph you thoughts and tag them 3steps4ed.

More later.