Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Naughty or Nice?

Sometimes I worry about Santa Claus.  He might only work one day a year, but the scale of his task is immense and indeed most likely impossible.  And when I think about it, Santa does not just work one day a year; he spends the year evaluating the behavior of the world’s boys and girls.  Perhaps due to the large “class” size Santa exhibits the worst evaluation practices.  Let’s compare Santa’s approach of assessing students to Duke School’s, which follows best practice.

Understanding the Task:
Santa’s class knows they are trying to earn a grade of “nice” (rather than “naughty").  However, they do not know what they need to accomplish to earn a nice.  They do know that sometimes they are naughty and sometimes nice.  They wonder if one naughty erases all the nices.  They also wonder if being nice at the end of the year helps erase the naughtiness of last spring.  On the other hand, students should know what exactly is expected of them at the start of an assignment.  Hence Duke School teachers are clear about the parameters of a task and often distribute the final evaluation rubric at the lessons start. 

Guiding along the Way:
Santa’s students only know how they did at the end of the year—either when they get coal or a passel of presents.  On the other hand, Duke School teachers continually assess students and give them regular feedback.  More importantly, the feedback revolves around how students can improve—it is forwarding looking rather than backward looking on how they did. 

Nuances in Evaluation:
Students cannot be productively placed in only one of two categories—naughty or nice.  People and their performances are more nuanced.  We all have strengths and weaknesses and good evaluation should highlight both.  Santa is compelled to make a summary judgment with limited options.  At Duke School, our rubrics address many aspects of a task and the teacher often adds a comment, so students have a strong sense of what they did well and what they need to do better. 

Power Dynamic:
Santa may be portrayed as a jolly old elf but in his grading regime, he has all the power.  He is all knowing and the relationship with students is one of master and servant rather than partners in learning.  As Benjamin Zander, states in his wonderful book  The Art of Possibility, working in partnership with students “allows the teacher to line up with her students in their efforts to produce the outcome, rather than lining up with the standards against the student.  In the first instance the instructor and the student….become a team for accomplishing the extraordinary; in the second the disparity in power between them can become a distraction and an inhibitor…”   Santa focuses on the end product rather than the process.  Duke School focuses on the process of learning and knows skills and knowledge come from doing school right.

Locus of Control:
Santa tries to motivate his students through the use of carrots and sticks—presents vs. coal.  Even if this tactic motivates his students, they are working not for themselves but for an arbitrary reward. However, study after study, indicates the best work gets done when students are internally motivated.  That motivation comes, as Daniel Pink discusses in his book, Drive (see this great video about it), from improving mastery, feeling autonomous, and working not just for yourself.  Duke School allows students to fulfill these needs.  Further, Santa never asks his students to think about why they got coal or presents.  As a result students do not gain self-knowledge.  One of the hallmarks of Duke School is that we are regularly asking students to evaluate their own performance.  Self knowledge and motivation lead to better performance.

Grade Inflation:
Let’s be honest, no child gets coal.  Despite all his threats, Santa is a pushover and as a result, sends the message that you really need not work hard to get rewards.  His threat actually acts as to reduce motivation.  (See article about grade inflation at colleges particularly at elite schools.)  On the other hand, at Duke School, students tend to work to improve themselves and want to do the best job possible.  Comments and rubrics do not lead to grade inflation as they are grade free.  They do lead to accomplished students. 

Santa has a tough job and does it well, but he ought to leave the pedagogical aspects of his job to the experts. 

Have a great holiday season. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Let Your Children Fail


When he was younger, my son found a chrysalis in the backyard.  He took it inside and put it in a jelly jar where he observed it each evening for months.  Imagine his excitement the day the butterfly started hatching.  He spent many hours watching the brave butterfly trying to break free.  He worried that the butterfly would not make it and finally kindly helped him by breaking the chrysalis and letting the butterfly free.  The butterfly promptly fell to the bottom of the terrarium where he gasped a bit and went to the garden in the sky.  It turns out that the battle to escape the chrysalis is critical to the butterfly’s survival.  Without the fight, the butterfly does not develop the strength to pump liquid in its wings and live independently.

It is very hard to be a good parent these days—harder than a generation or two ago--at least so concludes Dr. Robert Evans, a clinical and organizational psychologist, who consults for independent schools across the nation.  Evans, who I just heard at the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools (NCAIS) conference, posits that parenting is easier when choices are few and the rate of change is slow.  Of course we now live in a world where choices are copious and change is lightning fast.  Such an environment breeds anxiety about whether we are parenting well and what our children need.

Further, we live in a world where opportunity is ubiquitous.  In this meritocracy (which is a good thing) any child with the right grades and standardized test scores can get into Harvard.  However, many students with the right grades and standardized test scores will be rejected by Harvard.  As a result, predictability is down.  Uncertainty leads to anxiety. And according to Evans, anxiety is contagious.  One anxious parent leads to another and to another until there is an epidemic of anxious parents. 

So it is understandable (even rational) that parents are anxious and less certain of their parenting today—many choices, fast changes, great opportunity, little certainty and a zeitgeist of anxiety. 

In this age, we parents do what parents have always done.  We strive to do what is best for our children.  However, we sometimes inadvertently let our good intentions hurt our children.  Because the world seems so uncertain, we try to make it predictable for our children by removing obstacles from their path.   Yet, the understandable instinct to step in and help your child navigate the shoals of life may end up leaving them stranded on the rocks.  As Evans commented, some parents work too hard preparing the path for their child rather than preparing their child for the path. 

So what is a parent to do?  Here are four ideas. 

One Head of School of a highly regarded independent school starts Parent Night with this audacious statement: “The faculty and I hope that during the course of the year each of your children fail.”  “We will not try to have them fail,” he continues.  “But we hope they will each have that opportunity, and we hope that you as parents will give them the gift of allowing them to deal with and remedy the failure."  

That Head of School is asking parents to realize that most children are amazingly resilient, and we should trust their resilience.  It is okay if your child fails sometimes, academically or socially.  By letting them pick themselves up and move forward you are sending them an empowering message—we understand your strength and respect your skills.  We trust you can do this independently and will support you as you do the work.  The risk, then, is not in the failure but in either not allowing your child to fail or swooping in to fix the failure before allowing your child to do so. 

Study after study indicates that the greatest predictor of success, professional and personal, is perseverance.  And perseverance, like any other quality, must be practiced.  It must be allowed to develop.  Wendy Mogel makes this point in her two best sellers, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B-(The former aimed at younger children, the later for adolescents.)  Mogel is echoing the famous aphorism—if at first you do not succeed, try, try again.  In order to try, try again our children must struggle at a task at least twice.  
Parents should also realize that success is much wider and broader than going to the most prestigious colleges.  Studies show those students who went to the most prestigious colleges did not out-earn or have a happier life than those who went to less prestigious schools.  (See the Atlantic article, Who Needs Harvard?)   By pushing our children too hard, we are doing our children a great disservice. The trailer for a soon to be released movie, Race to Nowhere, makes this point very well.

Related to the above, parents should encourage their children to enjoy today.  As Harry Chapin sang, “It’s got to be the going, not the getting there that’s good.”  We need to see the blessings in our everyday life rather than constantly aiming for tomorrow. 

Finally, let your child make real contributions to the family and to the greater community.  Self-reliance derives from understanding one’s own value.  Making authentic contributions allows a child to understand their abilities and their potential.  Insist your child participates in chores and makes life better for others.  (The best discussion I have seen of this point is in How to Raise Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent Age.

My son stepped in when he should not have to rescue his butterfly.  Let’s work together to ensure that all the butterflies at Duke School are strong enough to take flight when they leave based on the power of their own wings.  It is the greatest gift we can give them. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Center Of The Universe

Recently, I glanced at an article that I think was in the New York Times business section. The article was contemplating the changes that technology are making to the way we view the world. Anyway, what I started to think about was the following: Cosmological discoveries since Galileo have continued to indicate that humans are less significant than it appears when looking at the night sky. Ptolemy had the planets and star revolve in perfect circles around the center of the universe, a stable Earth. Copernicus and Galileo proved that the Earth actually revolved around the sun. Soon it became clear that that our solar system was part of a larger galaxy, which was part of a bigger universe, which may be part of the multiverse. We now know that many planets exist around many stars and many Earth-like planets revolve around many sun-like stars. The scientific consensus now allows that life is not unique to Earth but exists throughout the cosmos.

What is the consequence of these discoveries on the human psyche? Well, we should be more humble that we are not the center of the universe. Drawing an analogy to the preadolescent who often thinks he is the center of the universe might be helpful. The typical 6th, 7th and 8th grader rarely is grateful for the act of others (especially parents), often expects that others (especially parents) will clean up their literal and figurative messes, and can be seen as relatively selfish. As this child grows and matures, they become more aware of their actions and their effect on others. They work to improve their own and other people’s lots. I hope a similar evolution is happening to our species. We have become more aware of the effect our actions have on the ecosystem, we are working to clean up our messes (the BP oil spill to the contrary) and have more empathy for the suffering of others.

The computer revolution threatens to psychically put humans back at the center of the universe. Think of all the time we spend alone in front of screen doing what we want, when we want. (I can take a break anytime I want from writing to play Scramble on Facebook, either solitaire, against strangers or against my friends.) Speaking of being able to do what I want, when I want--I can now control my personal environment in ways I could not five years ago. I watch any television show whenever I desire, either on my DVR or my computer. (And I can fast forward through the commercials!) Further, through Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare I can advertise to my friends, real and virtual, my thoughts, my whereabouts and my activities, no matter how trivial at any time and all the time. I wonder what effects this person-centrism causes. Might it not decrease empathy? Might it not delay autonomy? Will it further delay the onset of adulthood? (See the New York Times Magazine article that identifies a new developmental stage—emerging adulthood. It must add to an unwarranted feeling of self-importance which cannot be to the good.

At Duke School, where we are striving to prepare the next generation of problem solvers, we must help our students realize they are not the center of the universe and the world does not revolve around them. We need them to understand that other people’s problems are their problems and making the world better for others is a greater good. We need to teach them to use new technologies without becoming a captive of them. We want them to see their place in the cosmos and the contributions they can make to their universe. It is a tough task.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Critical Thinking?

The first days of school are upon us, and starting my fifth year, I remain amazingly excited about being associated with Duke School. And I remain so for the exact reasons that attracted me in the first place—our commitment to preparing the next generation of problem solvers and the methods we use to meet our commitments.

One of the most important things that Duke School focuses on is engendering critical thinking skills. Much of my summer reading has reinforced my belief that critical thinking is both in short supply and (well) critical.

Most of us agree that the best decisions are reached by objectively surveying relevant facts and letting them lead to a rational decision. However, most of us do not make decisions this way most of the time. Indeed, we are hard-wired not to think critically and objectively but instead be influenced by lots of other factors.

Duke’s very own Dan Ariely, in Predictably Irrational , discusses many ways the mind is not only irrational but consistently irrational. He notes that people place a higher monetary value on items they own than ones they don’t. This helps explain why the current owner of home thinks it is worth more than an interested buyer or why the possessors of Duke final four tickets (who camped out to enter the lottery) thought the their tickets were worth 1300% more than those who also camped out and did not get the tickets. Ariely also talks about the fact that an aspirin “known” to cost 1¢ will be less effective than one “known” to cost $1.00 even if they are chemically identical. Clearly these folks are not thinking critically—they are not relying on objective facts to reach decisions.

Another interesting book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz explores why people make errors. She mentions that not only are people often wrong, they are quite poor at “knowing what we don’t know.” She talks of folks who listen only to those who agree with them falling prey to “confirmation bias.” She talks about the power of like-minded communities to bolster “our convictions that we are right and shielding us from the possibility that we are wrong.”

The need to seek other perspectives on our views was highlighted by David Brooks in his Op Ed piece in the New York Times on August 24. Brooks states we have a “metacognition deficit.” He claims that “very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate.” Again, he is bemoaning that not enough of us engage in critical thinking.

Finally a couple of TED videos make the same point. (If you are not aware of TED, you should become so. They produce short videos by brilliant people on lots of cool topics.) Two speakers, David McCandless, , and Hans Rosling, , talk about the effective and ineffective use of data. (This might sound dry but these are fascinating, particularly Rosling who insists that his data set should change your mindset). Both speakers claim that we must be able to judge data to see if the point being made is understandable, rational, and relevant. Without critical thinking skills, that cannot be done.

When you visit a Duke School classroom, you often see the hard work of promoting critical thinking. Students are in small groups discussing how did the building of the Durham Freeway affect race relations in Durham. Others are timing the length of a pendulum swing trying to discover what variables effect swing frequency. Preschoolers are investigating wheels trying to understand why some vehicles have two wheels, some three and some four. Others are involved in debates struggling to understand both sides of an issue. This is the kind of work that makes me most proud.

So, a new school year embarks. And we want to make sure our learners know their math facts, understand how to use a comma correctly and know the accurate dates of when events happened. More importantly though, we want to make sure they can read, listen, and see with care and wisdom. We want them to be able to garner relevant facts and draw logical conclusions from them. We want them to be able to avoid the pitfalls associated with group think. We want and need them to be critical thinkers. For only critical thinkers will help make our world a better place.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Take Time to Recharge

My daughter graduated from Vassar a few weekends ago, and I took the following Monday off to drive her and four years of stuff home. (Ok, I will stop here to brag on my daughter; she graduated with college honors and Phi Beta Kappa. How lucky she is that both her brains and looks came from her mother!) Anyway, I arrived back in Durham exhausted from the eleven hour drive from Poughkeepsie and started thinking of returning to work on Tuesday. So I turned on my computer to start planning.

Logging onto my e-mail account I saw that I had received over 110 e-mails—in a day. It took me a few hours to respond, delete and organize them. My planning time evaporated. And perhaps more discouragingly, not one of the e-mail pieces was even mildly important, no less critical, despite the red exclamation points accompanying ten of them. Once again, e-mail made me its servant; I felt the need to respond to nearly every email. As a result, I am serving information; it is not serving me. I remember when e-mail and the internet were hyped as a way to increase leisure time; instead it has transformed any time into work time. It has become an unquenchable monster. And e-mail is just one example of a sea change.

In the last twenty years the information game has transformed. The game is no longer finding information; it is now sifting through and synthesizing information. Not long ago, research was a hide ‘n seek game of finding the right article in the right journal and being able to obtain it. Those that held the key to finding information had the power. Today, a Google search will provide more information on a topic than a person can use. Now those who can analyze, synthesize and prioritize information hold the power.

So it is with e-mail. It flows and flows in, and I must learn to manage it. More importantly, we must teach our children to manage and make information work for them; not they for it. Being addicted to Facebook is no better than being a crackberry addict. So, what can we do to get in control again?

Well I, for one, am going to take at least one week off the grid. I need the peace and quiet. I need time to ponder and wonder and perhaps by removing myself from the stream of information, I will be able to better analyze how to manage it. At the very least, that week will let me recharge.

And that is my summer wish for all of you—take some time to recharge. Take time to enjoy the old fashioned pleasures--cool lemonade, chatting on a porch, reading a potboiler (not as an e-book), swimming, napping and enjoying a juicy slice of watermelon. The world will continue to function even if you do not add your voice to the cacophony for a week or so. And that time to recharge will allow you to better face the challenges of the world.

And in my quiet reverie, a great idea on how to manage the flow of information may pop in my head unbidden but most appreciated.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Wind Behind Their Backs

Last week I was at a conference in Chicago. Taking advantage of the hour time difference, I got up early for a run. I left my hotel and jogged (I never go faster than a jog) up Monroe Street toward Lake Michigan. When I arrived at the lake, I decided to run toward the west. The weather was unseemly warm for Chicago in April—about 55 at 6:30 a.m., and the sky was a clear blue. Watching other runners, seeing the sunlight reflect off the lake and guessing the value of the harbored boats helped pass the time. I must admit this was an easy run, and I was feeling good.

However, when I turned around and started back home, I noticed a strong headwind. No longer was the run so easy. I had to battle the wind which winded me. The way back was much slower and much more painful. My enthusiasm for a Lake Michigan run faded some.

Upon my return to the hotel, I realized I never noticed the wind when it was helping me, just when I had to fight it. And that led me to contemplate all my blessings that act as the wind behind my back. I am healthy; I have a great job, and all my material needs are met. I have resources saved for a rainy day. Perhaps most importantly, I come from a loving family who ensured I had an excellent education and provided me with the opportunity to gain the skills and habits of mind that have allowed me to have a secure and happy life. And on most days, like the wind behind my back at the start of my run, I never notice these blessings. When I think of what I accomplish, I think of the hard work I put in. I do not give credit to my life circumstances.

Likewise, Duke School students do not realize how their education will forever act as the wind behind their backs. The skills, habits and relationships our students are currently developing will support them as they move forward in their education, through high school, college and graduate school. They will also help them as they enter the workforce and strive to live a happy, fulfilling life. Those of you who make this education possible are acting as wind machine providing a tailwind for life. What a wonderful, if often unnoticed, blessing.

Realizing our blessings should also make us more cognizant and empathetic to those who are continually running against the wind. Just as I should not define my success only by my hard work, I should refrain from judging others whose life circumstances make their journeys much harder than mine. This is another important lesson we must impart to our children. Realizing that others must work harder to achieve should lead them to be kind people and just and fair leaders who will help solve tomorrow’s problems. What could be more important?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Core Values

In 1995, Neil Postman, a Columbia University Professor of Communication and well-known cultural critic,, wrote The End Of Education. Postman posited that schools have lost their raison d’etre; they have become factories churning out test takers that have no higher purpose than moving on to the next step, no matter what that may be. If schools are "without a transcendent and honorable purpose, [then students believe] the sooner we are done with it, the better." Our students, however, are committed to Duke School. Do you ever wonder why?

Our new core documents ask and answer the following question:

Why Do We Do It?
To prepare the next generation of problem solvers for our complex world.

Duke School’s transcendent and honorable purpose is to prepare our students, your children, to help solve the legion of intractable problems facing the United States and the world today. No more lofty or important goal exists.

How do we prepare our students to be such problem solvers? Once again, look to the core documents:

What We Do
Inspire learners to boldly and creatively shape their future

Our children will create a brighter tomorrow only if they realize they are capable. Part of the Duke School experience is to present difficult, messy problems. Then we allow students the autonomy and self-awareness to approach them from a number of avenues and to persevere if the journey seems challenging. I want our students to emulate Thomas Edison who commented, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Once they achieve something difficult, they will feel capable, leading to the realization that they can be what they want to be and do what they want to do. In one of my favorite poems, Eldorado by Edgar Allen Poe, the poet advises “ride boldly ride….if you seek for Eldorado.” We empower our students to boldly pursue and arrive at their own Eldorados.

Not every academic approach inspires engaged students. Memorizing and regurgitating information (even if it earns you an “A”) develops passive thinkers looking for the “one answer.” Duke School’s program approaches learning from a different angle. Again, I refer to our core documents.

Look at Ideas We Live By:


Learners are the center of a dynamic and collaborative learning,inquiry, and discovery process.

Active Inquiry

Intellectual curiosity through project-based learning propels learners to explore multiple paths to creative solutions.

Bold Thinkers

A deep love of learning and respect for our community forms bold, critical thinkers for life.

All of these ideas talk of active learning. Problem solving is an active process; a process in which we massage ideas and look to be creative. Duke School encourages learners to “explore multiple paths” to answers. The world is complicated and one approach, one answer is almost never sufficient. Our students will be prepared for such a world.

The Board’s approval of these new core documents solidified Duke School’s special approach to learning. They ensured that Duke School students will not only be prepared for the 21st century but also that they will help craft solutions to a better tomorrow. I could not be more proud of a school’s direction or to be part of such an exciting community.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Real Snow Storm

As I sit trying to determine if I should cancel or delay school tomorrow, four days after a winter storm, I am reminded that there are so many things I enjoy about being Head of Duke School. I love being with children; I love the rhythm of the school day. I enjoy seeing faculty grow and deliver a great lesson. Project culminations excite me, and the pace of the year is great. I have even made peace with the downsides--long hours, evening meetings, overseeing carlines. However, there is one part of my job with which I cannot abide.

I hate (even though my mother told me never to use that word) having to decide whether to call off or delay school because of a winter storm. Never is it lonelier, or colder, at the top than when wintery weather is on the way. The night of the impending “winter event,” I do not sleep well. I awake every hour and peek out my window, trying to pierce the darkness and see tomorrow’s weather. Then, at 5:00 am, I stumble from bed knowing I need to make a no-win decision. And what is worse, I need to make the decision with little expertise and knowing I carry a Northeastern bias.

For I am from the Northeast, where you go to school when it snows an inch or even 6. Indeed, when I first moved to the Southeast, before I was a Head of School, I appeared at my school’s parking lot more than once to learn that school had been closed because of an anticipated event or because of a flurry or two. I did not and do not understand that state of mind. However, I now work hard to realize that I am in an area that is not equipped nor experienced with snow. Where Wake County thinks fifty snow plows at the call is being “totally prepared” for a storm, I know the game has changed. Yet, I do not want to overreact and I do think that attending school is important, a good quality for a school person, I think.

So, I try to collect data at 5:00 am in the morning. I listen to the television weather reporter, who wants to oversell the storm because that draws in viewers and ad revenue. I look to see what other schools are doing, knowing the public systems must consider a myriad of factors, I do not—student drivers, buses on the road at 6:00 am and the memory of having students stuck in school overnight, not so long ago. I then look at other independent schools, knowing many of them also have student drivers. I, then, often take to the roads in my car. I try to ascertain how bad the roads are, looking for evidence of the dreaded black ice. Of course, many times the storm is predicted to hit at 7:55 am, right at drop off and my drive is for naught.

And then the loneliness hits. I know the clock is ticking. I must make a decision before 6:15 am and I know I cannot win. Students, and dare I say, teachers would love a delay or a cancellation. Two working parents need to get to work and want school opening on time. If school is open and a real storm hits, I have endangered a whole community. If I delay or call off school for a few flakes, I am a snow wimp, taken in by the Triangle snow panic. Most of these mornings I just want to go back to bed and let someone else make the decision.

However, a decision must be made and make it I will. But just once, I would love a real storm, a storm that drops a foot of snow; a snow that starts Sunday night at 8:00 pm and by the time I go to bed has dropped six inches on the ground and is going strong. Then I could make the decision that night and enjoy a restful sleep. I doubt it will happen.
-Thanks to Paul Bianchi, Head of Paideia School whose laments on snow days inspired my own.