Thanks for giving

It’s Thanksgiving week and many schools are closed until next Monday. It is good to take a break from the rhythm of work, and Thanksgiving offers the opportunity to be immersed in the love of a supportive family.

For many students, school is not just a place for work, it is the center of their social universe. It is the place where they learn how effort and diligence translates into rewards and satisfaction. Everyone complains about school (just as everyone complains about the weekends being too short, or the weather being too wet) but the truth is that for many students school is a place of promise and opportunity. Behind the complaints next Monday will be optimism and a refreshed spirit ready to return to school.

But for others, school is a place of frustration and discomfort. Instead of imparting the message of empowerment through learning, the institution seems to throw up walls that a child cannot cross. Rather than being a place for positive reinforcement, school is a daily reminder that the student does not measure up. For these children, Thanksgiving break is a desperately needed escape from an oppressive and debilitating environment.

Why the difference? There are differences between schools, to be sure. But why do some students thrive in a particular environment while others in the same school flounder? School environment is not the only factor.

Part of the answer is the vast difference in talent that exists within the human race. Some people are simply better at the tasks that schools require. Other individuals who may be capable of brilliance in other spheres are stymied by the narrow constraints of formal education. Schools should do a better job of cultivating human potential, and adapting the curriculum to meet the needs of the young people they serve.

But a large part of the answer lies at home. The biggest determinant of a child’s success in school is whether he or she brings an attitude of success from home. It is more than believing in oneself – it is taking joy in new experiences, seeing the connection between effort and reward, accepting setbacks as opportunities for learning and not as defeats. A child’s attitude towards life is largely determined by the attitudes of the people he or she looks to for inspiration and support.

This Thanksgiving week, I want to thank the many people – especially my parents – who gave me the support and inspired in me the confidence I have felt throughout my life in meeting the challenges and embracing the opportunities I have known. Thanks for giving me the love and support that have sustained me and allowed me to believe in myself. Every child deserves such love.

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The consumers’ choice in education

When I was young, I worked at a restaurant that served carbonated soft drinks. In those days, customers ordered their drinks from a waitress or over a counter. Full service, but few choices. Employees at this restaurant, however, were entitled to help themselves to soft drinks at no charge. I thought it was a real treat to be able to mix different flavors together from the six that were available from that soda fountain.

Yesterday I was in a restaurant that had a self-service soda fountain. Customers could choose from several dozen options of flavors, and of course could mix flavors to their heart’s content. Many of the flavors were already mixes of the standard beverage with cherry, vanilla, or lime. Marketing departments of food and beverage producers have discovered that they can sell variety – including some flavors that would never have occurred to that young man at the soda fountain years ago. Consumers are swimming in choices. Not long ago, I heard of a new line of flavors of potato chips, including cappuccino.

Today, choices are not limited to food items, or even to consumer products. We have come a long way from the kind of economy we had for thousands of years in which 90% or more of the population worked in agriculture. The vast potential of human talent can be matched far more closely to gainful employment than was ever possible before.

So in this environment of marketplace choices, why are we paying for schools that attempt to produce one kind of product – a young person who can pass a standardized test on a standardized curriculum? Why don’t American citizen-consumers demand more individualized outcomes from 12+ years of public education? We see that our children, like ourselves, have talents and potential that go far beyond the common denominator education they are getting. We as a society understand that in order for progress to occur, we need creative thinkers, innovators, risk-takers. Why are we investing in an educational enterprise that accepts incremental improvements in mediocre performance as progress?

The marketplace analogy may tempt some to think that I am arguing for privatization of education, and the virtues of capitalism in producing innovation as well as better goods at lower costs. I am not. The free market, for all its virtues, operates by punishing as well as rewarding risk-taking. We are talking about children here. We need to nurture talent, not just throw it in the river and see if it can swim.

But we as the purchasers of public education do need to demand a better product for our tax dollars. We should demand that our schools give us graduates with a wider range of skills, greater confidence in their individual abilities, and proficiency in creating new ideas. It is those new ideas that will drive progress, bring us more choices and efficiency, and fuel economic growth.

Think about it. Take a moment with the cool carbonated beverage of your choice if it helps you to gather your thoughts. Then get ready to make some noise. Change doesn’t happen by itself.

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The end of accountability

The student thought she had her teacher on the ropes. She said, “If we don’t pass the End-of-Course Test, you are going to be in serious trouble!”

What are we teaching kids in school these days?

I happen to think holding people accountable for their own work is a great idea. But all too often the message kids get is that their goal is to achieve conformity to some state-mandated standard. And since they have no say in shaping their own education, their effort is understandably lackadaisical. Why should they feel personal ownership of their test results? If they fail to perform up to someone else’s standard, surely it is someone else’s fault.

After 20 years of working in education, the most troubling development I have seen is the shift in responsibility for learning away from those who have the greatest self-interest – the students – and onto the backs of those who are still poorly compensated for their outstanding work as teachers, and under the threat of punishment if their numbers don’t add up. This change is not just an alteration in the terms of employment for teachers, it is a change in the nature of the job itself – one that I take very personally.

I guess conventional wisdom would hold that I got into education for the wrong reasons. The right reason is the altruistic desire to educate and set a good example for the young – and I had that too. But the real attraction for me was something different, something in the dynamics of the workplace itself.

I was always attracted to positions where I could do my work with no interference from others – where my goals were clear, but the way I achieved them was up to me. Working this way not only appealed to my independent streak, but also unleashed my creative side. I always seemed to do my best work when I did it my way.

Teaching used to be like that. Administrators were too busy to pay much attention to what went on in classrooms. Actually, they still are, but new mandates from the state, driven by the desire for federal funding, has forced enormous investment in time and paperwork to make sure that teachers are compliant with an elaborate protocol of standard practices.

Working with kids, I was always very much aware of the fact that any success that was going to happen in school needed to belong to the students. I got my satisfaction from setting things up for their efforts, and then giving them the guidance they needed to reach their objectives. I tried not to rein them in any more than necessary. They needed creative freedom as much as I did, and I wanted my students to feel the responsibility for their own learning and to enjoy all the credit they could get for their results (no matter how much heavy lifting on my part went into the mix). It was their education. My credo was there is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.[1]

After working this way for a number of years, it was difficult to shift gears to make sure that the school administrators who visited my classroom knew I was checking off everything on the to-do list they had for me. Not impossible, but certainly more difficult. Of far greater concern, it felt like the focus of attention was shifting in the wrong direction. I was the old dog who had to show off some new tricks. Meanwhile, the kids were being asked to refine their ability to perform one old and very simple trick – pass a multiple choice test so that their school could be ranked.

I left teaching a few years ago, just before Teacher Keys Effectiveness System (TKES) was brought on line to replace the older, more subjective checklist. I returned to teaching in 2013-2014 in a school system that had fully implemented it. I like the new checklist. At the very least, here is nothing it requires teachers to do that I would judge to be contrary to the best interests of students. In fact it is a great inventory of strategies and ideals – a reminder of many of the things good teachers already know.

But there is no objective measure of good teaching that applies to all teachers in all situations. As valuable as the objectives in TKES may be, neglect of one or two items on the list does not mean that a teacher is not doing outstanding work. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t require teachers to conform to the list.   And I wouldn’t ask them to take a minute away from the time they devote to actually being good teachers in order to prove that they are doing their jobs. The proof of that can’t be reduced to a list.

It was my own student who told me that if she failed the End-of-Course Test I would be in trouble. What she didn’t know was that I honestly didn’t care whether or not she could perform well on a test of rote memorization. I had higher expectations for her than that.


[1] I learned some things checking into the origin of this saying. I remember reading that it was something Harry Truman said. A lot of people attribute it to Ronald Reagan. Apparently its origin is much older.

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The beginning of the end (death by standards)

I care about the results of my work. The main reason I am no longer working as a classroom teacher is that my ability to guide students towards being confident, independent, life-long learners has been severely compromised by state mandates that stress uniformity over individual achievement and reward performance at a disgracefully low level of intellectual engagement.

When I first taught in public schools in Georgia, the curriculum was the QCC, the “quality core curriculum.” I basically ignored it. Not that I didn’t teach it. I did cover most of the many topics included in the long and detailed list. But I didn’t feel married to the list.

My task was to teach a survey course in U.S. history, and the goals I had for my students included three key components: [1] a basic knowledge of the timeline of U.S. history – the general sequence of events, and a sense of cause-and-effect where applicable, [2] an understanding of the nature of American society including an appreciation for the diversity of values and the vocabulary for framing the major issues this country has faced over the course of its history, and [3] the confidence and skills necessary to develop some expertise in a particular area – learning not just a set of facts, but also how to be a scholar.

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly good at it at when I first started. I was very clear on why I wanted to teach. I had become a pretty capable scholar through my years in college and grad school, and I wanted to share this wisdom. I didn’t count on the fact that my own background, motives, and skills were not the same as every other student I would encounter. It took me years to see how I could reach and motivate students whose orientation in life was sharply different from my own.

The deeper my understanding of the diverse needs and myriad talents of my students became, the better I was at guiding them to achieving the goals I had set for them, and the less concerned I was about how they managed to achieve these goals. Their creativity, their self-discipline, their confidence in their own ability to learn became the most important things. I paid less and less attention to what was on that state-mandated list, and ever more attention to the quality of the learning experience for my students.

And then about a decade ago the list changed. With the new list – the Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) – came a new emphasis on outcomes – on the new End-of-Course Tests (EOCTs). My students would be required to demonstrate their proficiency in guessing the preferred answers on multiple choice test questions, and this test would constitute a major part of their grade for the course. The EOCT required no analysis or even understanding of the factual information addressed in the questions, merely recall of enough memorized phrases to enable students to pick out the most likely correct answer.

The new slogan was “standards-based instruction,” but it was really just teaching to the test. And because these tests were used to measure not just student performance, but also performance by their schools, and comparative performance by different school systems, the results of these assessments assumed an importance that overshadowed any other goals of the course. If I didn’t cover every one of the list items on the GPS, I risked handicapping my students. If I spent “too much time” on material that was not on the list, I opened myself up to criticism that I was not doing my job.

The idea of helping young people learn how to be scholars was now off the menu. The idea that the students themselves bore responsibility for their own learning was about to come under attack.

To be continued ….

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15 minutes of your time

“May I have your attention? Get ready to take notes because this will be on your test.”

A few years ago in the school where I taught, teachers were ordered by the administration not to lecture for longer than 15 minutes because, we were informed, students stop listening after 15 minutes. Although somewhat simplistic, this statement does have a ring of truth that is supported by the evidence of repeated experience. All of us who have listened to a speaker have felt our attention lag after a while, even when we were truly interested in what we were hearing. But 15 minutes?

It has been an article of faith for many years in the field of education, that there is a natural limit to a person’s attention span. An often-cited 1985 study documented a measured decline in engagement over the course of a 20-minute lecture.[i] A conservative 15-minute cut-off time has become a mantra in some circles, a reflexive justification for condemning traditional teaching methods. But more recent studies have brought the 15-minute rule into question, as well as the very methodology used to measure attention.[ii]

Academic debates aside, however, the real world evidence of this internal process of learning is apparent to anyone who, well, pays attention. Let’s consider this from the perspective of everyday experience.

Is there anyone who has listened to a long speech and has not felt his or her attention lag in less than 15 minutes? Is there anyone who has not had the experience of being truly engaged with a speaker’s talk, and attended to most of it for far longer than 15 minutes, but who also drifted off occasionally, only to come back in a few moments?

Is there anyone who has spoken to a group (of students or any collection of people sharing some interest) and not observed individuals in the group appear to have different levels of engagement – and then come to discover that some individuals heard a piece of information that others will swear was never communicated?

Lecturing, like any form of teaching, is subject to human individuality. It should not be seen as a mass production, imprinting students with identical sets of facts to add to their knowledge base.

Lecturing in class is an interactive experience. The speaker must be attuned to the engagement level of his or her audience, and make adjustments to his or her presentation depending on what is going on in the room. A capable lecturer must assume that some of the information provided will not be received – and adjust for that reality in his or her presentation. A good teacher will know before beginning to speak that some students will come away with different learning outcomes from the same instructor input.

It is an interactive experience, which means that it cannot be understood in terms of a teacher actively dispensing information to a crowd of passive recipients. Just as teachers must make the effort to engage their students, students must make some effort to remain focused, regardless of interest or motivation. It is human nature for attention to drift – but this is not necessarily a bad thing. In my own experience as a student (including in professional learning sessions for teachers), it is often when I am engaged with the information being presented that I am most likely to drift. If I hear something that I can apply to another area of learning, I immediately am drawn into thinking about how to integrate the new information into the existing paradigm. I sometimes need to force myself back to the real world to make sure I don’t miss too much more new information.

Students who do not make sufficient effort to maintain attention to what is going on in class will have a great deal of difficulty succeeding on their own. In fact, my own experience in the classroom tells me that there is nothing a teacher can do to overcome the powerful force of a student’s disinterest.

A decade ago, the school where I worked fell under a mandate to limit class time devoted to lectures. Administrators began to visit classrooms with stopwatches. I was deeply interested in student engagement, but I had serious doubts about whether time was the crucial factor. I created my own case study of a group of students who were performing at various levels of success in graded assignments, exhibiting different types of classroom behavior, and demonstrating different levels of intellectual engagement with their world – whether or not they were engaged specifically with the material presented in my class.

I found that the greatest indicator of success in school was the belief on the part of students that education was something they needed to work actively to acquire. Successful students attended to their responsibilities, whether or not they attended to every minute of my lectures.

The students who were not performing well in school, on the other hand, seemed to believe that education was something that was being done to them. One student in particular seemed completely content to fail my class because in his mind, the school’s credit recovery program, learning center, and counseling department would ultimately guarantee that he would get credit for the class. He had given himself permission to do nothing in my class. I was never going to get the 15 minutes of attention I was theoretically entitled to from him.

Teaching in a classroom is, at its core, human relations. Teachers need to be aware of the circumstances in front of them, and be aware that there are things going on within our students’ lives that we will never know, and cannot learn through studies conducted by statisticians from universities and think tanks. My own research conducted over nearly 20 years in the classroom suggests strongly that there in no one formula for teaching that will work for every student and for every group of students. It is clear to me that many of the strategies enforced in classrooms today fail to embrace the fundamental humanity of the task we are involved in. A mechanistic approach will ultimately fail, unless tempered with large doses of creative improvisation and a willingness to make allowances for the tremendous variations inherent in human nature.


[i] Ralph A. Burns, “Information Impact and Factors Affecting Recall.” Paper presented the the Annual National Conference on Teaching Excellence and Conference of Administrators, Austin, Tex., 1895 (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 258 639).

[ii] See for example


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Communicating in many languages

“Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7, KJV)

Genesis tells the story of the Tower of Babel, which ends with the Lord scattering the people across the world and giving them different languages. Maybe that’s where it began, but the process of creating new languages is ongoing.

The lifeblood of human society is communication. It is what holds us together. It is what enables us to move forward together. It gives us the power to name the things in the world in which we live, to define the roles we play in life, to share traditions as well as newly conceived ideas, to express devotion and fear, and attempt to capture the mystic.

Communication is not limited to speech, or writing. People can communicate through non-verbal sounds, through gestures, through music, through dance. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. We have developed a universal language for saying “no,” by using a circle with a diagonal line through it. We have devised a language that is capable of describing with precision quantities, volume, shapes, movement through space, and degrees of force – the language of mathematics.

The languages we use are in a constant state of change. New words appear, old words change their meaning. “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” Juliet asked, as Romeo hid beneath her balcony. Modern readers assume she was inquiring as to his location, but none of them actually use the word “wherefore” in their daily speech as people in Shakespeare’s time did. It meant why, not where, and Juliet is asking why the boy she just developed a crush on had to turn out to be a member of a rival family. Her next line is “Deny thy father and refuse thy name. Or if thou wilt not … I’ll no longer be a Capulet.” She is questioning fate, not her GPS.

Within each language, dialects appear with words that may or may not ever enter the standard version of the language. At any given time there might be a multitude of these variants from the standard, which may be perfectly suitable for communication for their users, but which could be confusing and seem “incorrect” to non-users.

Dialects can arise in ethnic communities and be nurtured in relatively closed environments. Dialects can sweep across the land borne by mass media targeted at specific audiences. Specialized versions of the language can develop along with technology – a whole vocabulary that is transparent to the tech-savvy, but opaque to most others. And there can be a specialized language that develops for use in a particular medium – KWIM?

Recently, a school administrator shared with me an insight that he seemed to find particularly encouraging. He told me that kids are actually writing more today than they did 10 years ago – because of all the texting they are doing. I had to fight the urge to LOL. Could he really be suggesting equivalence between texting and, say, writing a persuasive essay? Is the quantity of writing the relevant measure here?

The fact is that we all communicate, all the time. Many of us are fluent in more than one language. Most of us are fluent in more than one dialect. Almost all of us, whether we are conscious of it or not, practice code-switching – alternating between two languages or dialects – on a regular basis. The key is to use the appropriate language for the setting in which it is used.

Schools should not deny the validity of dialects, especially those that are in vibrant use by students. In fact, they should embrace and even celebrate the fact that students can communicate effectively in different modes.

But schools should not ignore their responsibility to teach effective means of communicating that the students may not be picking up on their own. Students should leave high school able to use standard English in verbal discourse. They should be comfortable with the conventions of public speaking. They should be able to write a business letter, a persuasive essay, a research paper with proper citations. Students should be cognizant of their own code-switching, understand its utility, and should not be trained to think that one form of communication is per se inferior to another.

The lifeblood of human society is communication. We can’t allow ourselves to be confounded by the many forms it takes, or distracted by the mistaken idea that there is only one style of communication that is always appropriate and correct. Form is dictated by content, by audience, and by purpose. It is only incorrect when the intended message does not get through. We need to be able to communicate effectively in all of the many languages that are spoken in the different areas of our lives.

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Creating …

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

This quotation, attributed to Charles Holland Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office from 1898 to 1901, has often been used to ridicule the notion that the product of human inventiveness was finite – and that we had reached its point of exhaustion. A pretty short-sighted perspective from anyone living in the modern era, and particularly coming from the man responsible for the registry of new inventions. But did Mr. Duell actually utter these words?

The quote was traced by researcher Samuel Sass to a book that had been published in 1981, long after Mr. Duell had died. In 2011, law professor Dennis Crouch conducted a Google search for mention of the phrase “everything that can be invented” and essentially corroborated Sass’s finding. Google found no mentions of that phrase from prior to 1981. But Crouch did discover another possible origin – a 1899 edition of Punch Magazine. Neither researcher found a contemporary attribution of the quote to Mr. Duell.[1]

Consider for a moment the idea that a person living at the dawn of the 20th century could think that technological advancement had run its course at the end of the 19th. Now consider how much easier it was for Professor Crouch to do his research circa 2011, than it had been for Mr. Sass circa 1989, before the internet had come into widespread usage. Even the process of debunking the erroneous attribution was affected by new inventions.

One invention opens the door for another invention. Information technology facilitates the exchange of information, and leads to the generation of new ideas. We keep trying to make our lives easier by turning what used to be laborious and time-consuming into a simple operation that might require just a few keystrokes. Progress is measured by how much work we can turn over to the machines we have made.

We have disassembled the old order in which we used our natural skill at problem solving to devise better ways to do things by hand, and replaced it with one in which we interact with machines that do these things for us. Freed from labor, we are now infinitely more free … but to do what, exactly?

In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink points out that manufacturing technology has eliminated much of the role of skilled craftsmen in our economy. Furthermore, information technology has led to the creation of machines that can solve problems by evaluating far more information than a human mind could. So what is left after machines have taken over the jobs making things, and taken over the jobs figuring out how to do things?

According to Pink, it is creativity and empathy – the ability to generate new concepts and the ability to operate on the level of our shared humanity. Medical schools are now teaching students how to understand patient histories through narratives rather than simply through questionnaires. Corporate recruiters are now seeking applicants with Master of Fine Arts degrees, not just the usual crop of MBAs. [2]

Recognizing the importance of creativity and empathy requires a significant paradigm shift. We have spent generations creating tools that can do what we can do, better, cheaper, and faster. But by living among the machines that are supposed to free us from the rote and the mundane, we have to some extent made ourselves more machine-like and less free.

This is not some science fiction story in which the hapless humans become servants to their own machines. But there is a reason stories like those have some resonance in our collective consciousness. When our school systems invest enormous energy into preparing students for multiple-choice tests to generate data and measure progress, one must wonder – is this what we really need our schools to do – to train students to feed information to a computer? Is it in anyone’s best interest that we reward only the kind of intellectual achievement that can be demonstrated with a No. 2 pencil on an answer sheet?

Fortunately, some decision-makers on the leading edge of economic growth have recognized the importance of creative thinking. The medical schools and corporate leaders sited above understand the vast potential in individual human expression. Even more encouraging are the growing possibilities for small start-up business using the internet for those who have imagination and faith in their creative powers.

But public schools are not contributing to this growth the way that they should. We need to encourage creativity and empathy. We must recognize the danger in standardized curriculums and standardized testing that are robbing us of our individuality and our ability to imagine the unimagined.



[2] Pink, Daniel. A Whole New Mind. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.

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