Just as a footnote before I begin, I read Dale Rusakoff’s The Prize: Whose in Charge of America’s Schools on my kindle, an experience I usually avoid, given my preference for physically annotating texts, and coming back to key passages that strike me as interesting, relevant, or unclear. At the same time, the kindle experience helped me read the book as if I were reading a suspenseful story while flying cross country, concentrating more on the overarching narrative, rather than the minutiae of the reform regime Corey Booker sought to institute, with the support of Zuckerberg and a host of wealthy hedge fund managers and McKinsey Consultants. I should also add one more footnote. I can’t stand Corey Booker. He has always struck me as inauthentic and opportunistic, an orator with beautiful rhetorical flourishes but a depressing lack of progressive principle. So I was not surprised to see him so blind to the problems in Newark, or rather, so obsessed with solving educational problems using the techniques of neoliberalism, that he ignored the collective wisdom and ground level experience of teachers, students, and community members, for the resources and expertise of the top 1%.
We met with Bodie Brizendine yesterday, Head of School at Spence Academy, a prestigious all girls school on the Upper East Side. First, a quick note about location. The school is a stone’s throw from the Met and the Guggenheim, and right around the corner from 5th avenue. Bodie’s office has a stunning, uninterrupted view of Central Park; just outside of her office is an elegantly appointed sitting room, with framed pictures of Spence Graduates going back to 1892, when Clara Spence opened the school. The room was something out of Downton Abbey, minus the scheming footmen and delicious crumpets.
We came to Spence to ask Bodie some questions about her vision for the school, and how that vision informs her approach to leadership, education, and organizational planning. This topic could have easily produced cliche regurgitations of Spence’s mission, but Bodie was impressive, coherent, and consistently educational. She didn’t just stick to “strategic growth” in a narrow sense, but connected strategy to educational values in a manner that felt authentic, deliberate, and deeply informed. Bodie was quite obviously an educator; this much was clear when we walked into her office, and saw a tome of literary texts on the bookshelf. She mentioned at the outset that she makes it a point to teach an English class every year; this was her way of “getting in there.” By “getting in there,” I take her to mean getting involved in the actual life of the school, knowing its nature from the inside, a perspective you can only develop if you practice what you preach. She views teaching as a critical part of her leadership, and something she deeply enjoys.
There are lots of exciting things happening at Spence; too many to mention in fact. The school is clearly well resourced and well endowed. The grounds are gorgeous, the campus is growing, the teachers are excellent, and admission is competitive. Despite this pretty privileged position, Bodie seems genuinely progressive; she is devoted to using Spence’s resources to provide girls and young women a high quality education characterized by inclusivity, diversity, and citizenship (students of color comprise 33% of the student body). The school regularly holds community meetings focusing on issues of race, equity, identity, and social reform; students are represented in board meetings focusing on strategic planning; there is much greater effort to promote diversity in the faculty (through recruiting, hiring, and training), and there is no shying away from “real conversations” that involve the entire community (her phrase was “Shaking the Tree,” a phrase she borrowed from Cornell West). And Bodie at her core is devoted to empowering young women through education; this has been her purpose throughout her career, and she herself is a living testament to that empowerment.
Schools love to tout how many committees, clubs, and co-curricular activities they offer. The bigger and sexier the school, the more exotic and diverse the offerings. Philosophy club. Poetry club. Science club. Chess club. Feminist club. Finance club. PETA club. Social Justice club. And so on. Increasingly, grassroots committees provide support for marginalized groups, and students rallying attention to social or political causes. This is especially true on college campuses, where activist groups can find support, meaning, and fellowship among other students who share the same interests, concerns, and aspirations. This is all good; what’s not to like?
There’s nothing not to like. But there’s something missing. The exponential rise of committees and clubs have made schools more inclusive places, but this trend has also narrowed and isolated the forms of interaction available on campus. There are lots of conversations taking place among like minded people, but less engagement among those with differing views.
And there’s a cost. As students develop stronger ties, they may also weaken affiliations to those outside a narrow cultural, political, or social category. When separation between groups and committees widen, campus life can devolve into a set of self reinforcing ideological cliques. Students may have more options to become members of a group, but this membership places few real demands on critical thinking and civic engagement. Group identity may intensify, but democratic community declines
21st century schooling, as imagined by the French artist Villemard in 1910.
Digital Portfolios aren’t the future. Everything that calls itself the future is never the future (see Crystal Pepsi). Like all forms of technology, the digital portfolio is a tool. And like all tools, it can be used to build, develop, construct, or communicate something new.
Deep, right? Not really.
Let’s get more specific. The digital portfolio is a particular kind of tool, one that allows students to reflect on their learning, while curating, archiving, and organizing learning artifacts. Digital portfolios allow students to see the unique threads connecting different subject areas; they’re able to narrate their own story of learning, and express their understanding in diverse and dynamic ways; through words, video, audio, images, and other expressive formats. Instead of keeping all learning private, the digital portfolio brings the learner out from the shadows, into a community of learners who enjoy reflecting on interesting experiences, and sharing those experiences with others (click here to learn more).
Of course, digital portfolios can also be a total fail. And usually failure is facilitated when digital portfolios devolve into a static repository of work; an online folder with discrepant learning artifacts mixed in with random iPhone pictures of field trips and report cards. Failure also is likely when there’s no audience for the portfolios, and no effort to constructively integrate them into the curriculum– so they capture unique and meaningful moments where reflection comes naturally. Failure is also likely if the portfolios are a high maintenance affair; i.e., they can’t be accessed easily, it’s hard to provide feedback, they’re difficult to navigate, and the technology is fussy and unreliable.
Our most profound values and ideals defy easy description, especially the closer you scrutinize them. Maybe this has something to do with the limitations of language; words can only go so far in conveying meaning. But maybe it’s also related to the nature of values and ideals; the most noble ones are meant to be expansive in meaning, but also principled enough to guide action. But we’ve all had the experience before. Someone asks us to define “truth,” and we wince. We offer a definition, but that definition might be too limiting, or too broad. We’re not practiced in defining and classifying the obvious. And this is true for seemingly simple questions, like “what is will” or “what is thought.” Each day another book comes out, trying to provide a coherent account of ideas we use everyday.
But let’s say we reach a consensus about the meaning of concepts like fairness, justice, and democracy. This consensus would only do the work of satisfying an intellectual enquiry, which could help up us engage with the issues represented by the concepts. But what happens when we put these concepts into practice? That is, what happens when we interact with them, socialize with them, and interpret their meaning through the veil of experience? Well, then a host of new challenges emerge. It doesn’t matter if we all agree on what fairness means, because any possible consensus will never predict what we actually accept as fair. That’s because fairness can never be decontextualized from background experience; i.e., our interests, desires, and needs. Fairness will always be contingent on circumstances, even as fairness directs moral action in ways that we can all commonly recognize.
If you believe that humans are innately good, than you will probably believe that we have an inborn sensitivity to fairness. And this certainly seems to be the case, when you look at how kids behave around each other from an early age. Take an easy case. There is an ice cream truck stationed at a local park. The ice cream vendor decides to distribute free bombpops to the children gathered around the truck. Except for one child. He gets nothing. This is clearly a fairness issue. Unless the child is allergic to bombpops (which is impossible), he will see the distribution of popsicles as lopsided and unfair. He deserves to be treated equally and justly, but he’s being excluded from the bombpop bonanza for no good reason. But it’s not just children; infants act this way.
Interesting article from the Harvard Business Review on the development of expertise. The article is a more empirical elaboration of Malcolm Gladwell’s argument that practice, rather than innate talent, is what perpetuates expertise. Yet the research makes clear that practice alone (the 10,000 hour rule) doesn’t lead to expertise. It’s deliberate practice, which Ericson defines as a “considerable, specific, sustained efforts at doing something you can’t do well–or even at all.” Further, the process of navigating challenging, unfamiliar situations enhances long term learning, and promotes greater self-efficacy.
Developing expertise also requires deliberate thinking, i.e., honing your powers of concentration, and focusing on quality over quantity of practice time. As Ericson notes, the emphasis on quality explains why very few experts “appear to be able to engage in more than four to five hours of high concentration and deliberate practice.“ Cognitive load theory also supports the importance of quality practice time; when the mind is flooded with discrepant learning tasks, its processing capacity diminishes, and task completion suffers.
Ericson also focuses focuses on the problems and perils of automaticity. Here we see the clearest challenge to the notion that experience alone guarantees expertise:
Experts who reach a high level of performance often find themselves responding automatically to specific situations and may come to rely exclusively on their intuition. This leads to difficulties when they deal with atypical or rare cases, because they’ve lost the ability to analyze a situation and work through the right response.
The solution to the problem of automaticity is engaging in practice that moves you outside your comfort zone, and demands fresh, flexible, resourceful thinking. This type of deliberate practice may offset what some call “the curse of knowledge,” or losing the capacity to understand knowledge in new ways. The “curse of knowledge” is why so many intellects and scholars exercise poor judgment, despite years of learning.
The research also shows that starting at an early age is beneficial to the development of expertise. The fewer opportunities someone has to develop mastery, the less likely he or she will be to reap the rewards of sustained, deliberate practice over time. But research demonstrates that the development of expertise is not the exclusive domain of the young:
Research has shown that musicians over 60 years old who continue deliberate practice for about ten hours a week can match the speed and technical skills of 20-year-old ex- pert musicians when tested on their ability to play a piece of unfamiliar music.
Just listen to David Gilmour practice the guitar and perform in his 70s; I’m not sure the younger Gilmour (who of course was unbelievable) is any better than this version of Gilmour, who still works on his craft as if he were an aspiring amateur trying out for a band.
The article also points to the importance of coaching, which can provide constructive feedback on performance, identifying what needs to be improved upon, and what methods can accelerate learning. Coaching also provides discipline and structure, which allows a performer to practice in a targeted fashion–goals, benchmarks, etc.–while spurring motivation, of course. Yet its also true that coaching may impede the development and accuracy of independent judgment, especially in diagnostic situations:
Relying on a coach has its limits, however. Statistics show that radiologists correctly diagnose breast cancer from X-rays about 70% of the time. Typically, young radiologists learn the skill of interpreting X-rays by working alongside an “expert.” So it’s hardly surprising that the success rate has stuck at 70% for a long time. Imagine how much better radiology might get if radiologists practiced instead by making diagnostic judgments using X-rays in a library of old verified cases, where they could immediately determine their accuracy.
Coaching doesn’t need to be cold blooded, given the importance of developing self-efficacy, confidence, etc. But unsentimental approaches to coaching may also focus attention on skill development, and exposing learners to the appropriate level of challenge.
Then there’s the case Benjamin Franklin, whose intelligence extends across a stunning array of subjects and disciplines. Was he naturally talented? It’s hard to argue that innate capacities didn’t influence some of his insane contributions to democracy, science, and literature. But he was also a creative thinker who practiced in a deliberate and non automatized fashion:
When he wanted to learn to write eloquently and persuasively, he began to study his favorite articles from a popular British publication, the Spectator. Days after he read an article he particularly enjoyed, he would try to reconstruct it from memory in his own words. Then he would compare it with the original, so he could discover and correct his faults. He also worked to improve his sense of language by translating the articles into rhyming verse and then from verse back into prose.
This anecdote is also an inspiring example of the benefits of self-coaching. It’s just hard to believe Franklin conceived of this habit by himself; he was either naturally creative, or deeply aware (through exposure to other thinkers, scientists, etc.) of how true intelligence and expertise developed. Either way, the nation is grateful!
I love a good lecture. My favorite teacher, a Professor of Literature at UCI, was a prolific lecturer. Actually, she didn’t really lecture, because she didn’t use a podium or a miniature microphone or a red laser beam pointing at lifeless PowerPoint slides. Nor was she ever standing, or delivering information from an elevated stage. But she lectured in other ways. She took a seat at the front of the classroom, opened up a giant, yellowing tome of literature–the New Testament, Shakespeare, the Analects of Confucius, the Bahgavad Gita–and started leading us through the text, as we listened in rapt silence. It was the most amount of deep, engaged listening I’ve ever done, outside of listening to Chick Hearn call Laker games in the mid 80s.
So for two hours, it was basically Dr. Silver opening up our minds to a fascinating and endlessly diverse landscape of literary mysteries and secrets; she dove headlong into canonical texts, exposing us to ideas, concepts, and symbols that we could only dimly apprehend, at least initially. While examining biblical imagery in William Blake’s poetry, she would suddenly transport us into Hamlet’s mind, and then connect his despair to Wittgenstein’s frustrations with language. Every so often, a courageous student would ask a question, but I don’t remember any group discussions, visual guides, formative assessments, or differentiated instruction. For long spells, I think many of us were completely disoriented. Yet we remained fixated. I can only compare the experience to being lost in the middle of the Rockies, but being awestruck by the stunning views. In Dr. Silver’s class, I was never sure where I was, but I never wanted to be anywhere else.
That’s a snapshot of Malala getting chummy with the Foreign Minister of Norway, in all his Anglo-Saxon glory. Malala spoke as part of a panel at the UN’s #educationfirst conference, which focused on global education initiatives, and the importance of universal primary education for girls and boys. Universal education is a core priority (and target) of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), and a primary mechanism for eradicating poverty, achieving equal rights, and improving health outcomes in developing countries.
Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban, as she tried to board a bus to attend school in the Khyber province of Pakistan. She could have easily dominated the proceedings with her inspiring story, and her unflinching commitment to education for girls (especially in countries beset by political and religious repression, terrorism, etc). Yet she shared the stage with other dignitaries; Gordon Brown, UN special envoy for global education, the Director General of UNESCO (Irina Bokova), the First Lady of China (Peng Uyuan), and the President of Korea (Park Geun–Hye). With the exception of Malala, Gordon Brown spoke the most passionately and forcefully. As a former head of state, perhaps Brown had less pressure to trumpet the educational triumphs of his home country, and more incentive to focus on international humanitarian concerns, such as the vital importance of securing education for the many thousands of refugees fleeing civil war and political strife throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Labour in the UK would be proud of Brown’s advocacy, especially when viewed against David Cameron’s pathetically inept response to the refugee issue.
The First Lady of China spoke about China’s commitment to leveraging education to lift many millions of Chinese out of poverty (she only spoke anecdotally, and very gracefully skipped over China’s human rights abuses), and the President of Korea highlighted her country’s domestic expenditures on education, and its commitment to constructing and subsidizing first rate schools throughout the country.
Malala, wearing a beautiful and garish pink sash around her head, spoke in personal terms, but she did not draw attention to herself. She kept her focus on universal education for girls, but not simply that. She emphasized the importance of quality universal education, so that schooling is not merely associated with the development of literacy skills, or the simple fact that girls attend a school. She argued that girls should have stimulating, challenging, inspiring learning experiences extending from primary school, to the University level, and that schools should empower girls to fulfill their creative and intellectual talents.
It’s easy to leave the UN feeling warm and fuzzy, because politicians speak in such enlightened, cozy, and
charismatic terms about education as a human right. What they actually do to change the reality in developing countries is less certain, because policy very often fails to serve (or secure) democratic and human rights. As long as we have nation-states, countries will always spend more money on arms than schools. That’s a given. And Malala may very well be a symbolic tool the UN uses for less than noble purposes; she is given celebrity treatment, she is ushered about to take place in symposia, seminars, and press conferences, etc, and she is feted by every foreign delegation, even ones that support stoning for adultery. But there’s no debating her importance, because education, on some level, has to be rooted in symbols and stories. And she serves a crucial purpose, even if that purpose is to draw attention to universal education. Finally, there’s also much reassurance to be found in the UN’s commitment to the MDG, and the common cause many countries find (throughout Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa) when it comes to the value of education. Cheers to that.