Thursday, July 24, 2014

In Defense of Poetry…or: Metaphors Be With You

(originally published at

We’ve seen countless news stories and blog posts about the importance of improving science and mathematics instruction in our country. We’ve argued about the emphasis within the Common Core State Standards on complex, informational text. Here at Catapult Learning, we’ve built professional development programs to help teachers enhance literacy instruction in science and social studies. Everywhere you look, people are up in arms about our need to prepare students better for a complex, technological world.

I have no argument with any of this. I think it’s all correct, all on-target, and all necessary. And yet…

And yet, I think we’re missing something. We definitely need to help our students handle a wealth of concepts and content across all subject areas.  But the place where many students have trouble is the grey area where facts are contradictory or confusing—where meaning isn’t quite clear, or shifts from moment to moment—where the truth of the matter lies not in “this or that,” but in “both things at the same time.”   

Why do we have so much trouble with this? Because we don’t teach enough poetry.

I know, it’s a radical proposition. It’s ridiculous. Poetry barely makes an appearance in the Common Core standards. It’s laughable—it’s esoteric—it’s a relic of an earlier, gently humanistic world. You don’t need poetry to get an MBA, write a legal brief, develop the next generation of massively-multi-player games, or design a higher-capacity car battery. So who needs it?

We do.

Why Poetry Matters

Poetry lives and thrives in the grey area of ambiguity—the place of always becoming but never quite being. That’s what it does best. It hints; it suggests; it insinuates, often without resolving into anything concrete. Whether it rhymes or scans or just dumps words onto a page, what makes poetry poetry is its ability to hover in a place where things can be and not-be, both at the same time.

 Take a look at this stanza from E.E. Cummings:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

Look at lines 2, 3, and 4. Notice how they suggest two sentences without quite settling down into one or the other. If this were prose, it would say, “Who pays any attention to the syntax of things?” Or it would say, “The syntax of things will never wholly kiss you.” Cummings jams the two sentences together, with “the syntax of things” as the pivot of the seesaw. It’s both ideas at once; it’s neither idea absolutely. It lives in a weird limbo of thought that you can’t quite pin down. That’s what poetry can do.

If you don’t grow up with a facility for understanding how words can do this, you may find poetry irritating—as my 9th grade students did, years ago, when I tried to teach this poem. My students were maddeningly literal—and not just about poetry. No matter what we were discussing, they wanted to know: What does it mean? Is it this or that? It must be this or that! Everything had one meaning—one answer—only. And it was my job to hand it to them.

The inability to handle ambiguity carries over into prose, of course. Poetry is a great place to learn it, but great writers make use of it everywhere. I remember teaching a Ray Bradbury story called “The Dragon,” in which two knights in armor prepare to battle a terrible dragon. The dragon they describe breathes fire, has one horrible, yellow eye, is impervious to knives or spears, and travels the same path between two towns every night, mowing down anything in its path. In the final moment of the story (spoiler alert), as the knights attack the monster, the scene switches perspective, and we see two engineers on a train, mystified at the apparition they’ve just seen. Two knights in armor! They came out of nowhere. It happens every night. So weird.

“Ahhhh,” good readers say. The dragon is a train. The train is a dragon. Cool! But my students did not say, “Cool!” They didn’t get it. 

I read the story to them again. They still didn’t get it.

I listed the attributes of the dragon and the attributes of a train, side by side, on the board. Now they kind-of got it. But they wanted to know: “Was it really a dragon or was it really a train?”

My answer was, “Yes.” They were not amused.

They weren’t stupid kids; they just couldn’t process the idea that a thing could be two things at once—that it could exist in a strange netherworld of sort-of-being where both things (and neither thing) were true.  There may be different perspectives, different points of view, but one of them always had to be “true.”

I think that’s a very limiting way to see the world. And it’s not just a Humanities issue. Our inability to hold two contradictory ideas in our minds keeps us from grappling with the world in all of its confusing, ambiguous mess. Our belief that all things have clear explanations and definitions that are absolute and exclude all other explanations or definitions makes us partisans on every topic of discussion, from education to climate change to religion to science.  There are always two sides, and your side is always the right side, and the other side is always the enemy. It’s a terribly reductive and simple-minded way to see the world, which is infinitely complex and strange.

The push to bring more primary source text into our science and social studies classes—to rely less on textbook syntheses and summaries—is motivated by exactly this understanding that students need to analyze competing and contradictory points of view, to learn how to compare, assess, and, ultimately, deal with areas where a single, simple solution is not reachable. But if we, as their teachers, do not have a facility for dealing with ambiguity—if we are not comfortable living in the grey areas—then we are going to be ill-equipped to help our students navigate these texts. They will be saying, “But what’s the answer?” And we will feel compelled to give them one.

Against a Flat World

Of course, poetry and metaphor deal with much more than just contradiction or ambiguity. Metaphor is about association and resonance and connectivity. The snow is a blanket upon the earth. The blanket keeps me toasty warm. Toast is…well, maybe toast is just toast. But you get my point: metaphor creates connections and resonances among the things of the world. It catches us up in a net of relationships.  It makes the world vibrate: touch one string, and another hums along. Where there is no metaphor, though, nothing is like anything else, and nothing reverberates. The world just is—a jumble of discrete objects on a lonely plane of thing-ness.

When the world is reduced to discrete things, the only logical response to imagery is to accept it as factually true or reject it as nonsense.  Either the thing is a dragon, or it’s a train. End of story. And sorry, Ferdinand, those are not pearls that were his eyes. They’re just eyes. The “sea change into something rich and strange” is…not.

On the plane of thing-ness, this approach makes sense. But the third option, beyond true and false, is vitally important. There is truth in poetry that’s very different—of a completely different nature—than the factual truth of journalism or history. When we see the snow as a blanket upon the earth, we think of winter differently: we catch the importance of that period of the growing cycle; we feel what it means to slumber, to hibernate, to wait in the warm, dark place for spring to come. We know something that’s beyond mere facts.

Our inability to understand imagery and metaphor makes it difficult for us to use imagery and metaphor to construct meaning.  We risk losing the power of the stories that form the foundation of our culture. Modern monotheists will lose a lot if they simply dismiss ancient Greek mythology as nonsense.  You don’t have to believe in the literal truth of the pantheon of gods to learn something vital and true about the forces that drive human behavior.  Atheists and agnostics will lose a lot if they throw out the Bible as being “un-true.” There is profound truth and wisdom in the Exodus story, whether it happened historically or not. In fact, if you spend your days arguing about whether or not the Red Sea could have parted, you miss the whole point of the story.

To become free, the Israelites must cross a threshold that cannot be re-crossed. When the sea closes behind them, they are forever severed from Egypt. They can only move forward. Why is that important? Because almost immediately, the Israelites start whining about how hard it is to be free, and how much they’d like to go back. In fact, the entire slave generation has to wander in the desert and die out before their children can be considered “free” and worthy of entering the Promised Land.  There is wisdom in this imagery—wisdom that our political scientists and pundits could learn, whether they believed in the literal truth of the story of not. What might they discover? That overthrowing or escaping a despot does not, by itself, make a people free. That without time and safe distance to learn freedom, people return to despotism. That in all times of profound change, people yearn for the old things they knew and understood—even if they didn’t like them very much.  You can say all of that factually, but the image of the sea closing behind the Israelites and the desert opening before them says it so much more powerfully.

Sometimes poetry tells us that there is no answer. And that’s fine, too. Sometimes, describing the mess accurately is the best thing we can do.  “Describing the mess,” is how Samuel Beckett once defined his job, when asked what his strange plays were all about. But he described the mess in ways no one before or since has managed. There are moments in “Waiting for Godot” that speak truth to me far more profoundly than what I’ve found in philosophy books.

 So listen. I’m all for better math and science education. I’m all for historical literacy. But we live in a world that can be oppressively fact-filled. Knowing the structure and architecture of a thing is not fully knowing it. There are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, not just one. There is more to life than “the syntax of things,” as Cummings called it. It’s important to gather ye rosebuds while ye may. It’s important to hear your being dance from ear to ear. We’re not here for all that long, and there is so much—so much—to learn.
After all, as Cummings says at the end of his poem, “Life's not a paragraph / And death i think is no parenthesis.”

Friday, June 6, 2014

Allowing Ourselves to Learn

(originally published at

Among trial lawyers, it’s considered gospel that you should never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. When you have a witness on the stand in front of a jury, you don’t want any surprises. 

In the classroom, we often behave as though we were trying a case. We ask students questions to find out what they have learned, but we already know what they should have learned, and how they should answer our question. Unlike the lawyer, if we don’t get the answer we’re looking for, we just go to the next student and keep asking the question until we get the answer we want. What we don’t do, nearly enough, is stay with the first student and find out why he said what he did. And that’s interesting, because while we relentlessly repeat the question whose answer we already know, we ignore the real question in the room, whose answer is a mystery to us.

Some new textbook materials and classroom activities have gotten a lot of snide attention from critics of the Common Core State Standards lately, because they seek to explore how a student is thinking more than they seek a particular response.  Obviously, it’s good to hear a student say “four,” when you ask her what two plus two is. But the right answer isn’t necessarily proof that a child understands what she’s saying, or what it means. She could be guessing. She could have heard her friend whisper it. Or, more likely, she could have memorized the answer without really understanding how the numbers work.  Our students do a lot of math without really understanding it. When teachers say things like, “Ours is not to reason why; just reverse and multiply,” they are creating a generation of people who can do things, up to a point, but who don’t really know what it is they’re doing.

We all know, and complain about the fact, that the No Child Left Behind era gave us a world in which Tested Things matter more than anything else, where the purpose of the classroom is to prepare students to respond correctly and quickly to particularly phrased questions on explicitly defined Things.  I worked in one high school that suspended all classes, the month before the state assessment, and put students into large groups to drill sample test questions all day, every day. Unsurprisingly, the students did fairly well on the tests. But when I casually asked one of the kids a question about a Tested Thing in a slightly different way, from a slightly different perspective, she had no idea what I was talking about. She was only programmed to respond a particular way to a particular kind of input. She was a test-taking robot.

Do we really need to raise our children to be robots? Can’t we make robots just fine, out of non-human materials?

We’re all trying to move away from this kind of test-obsession mindset, and I applaud the efforts to find new and richer ways to assess student thinking. But the problem is much larger than standardized testing or “teaching to the test.” If our classroom assessment remains within the realm of narrowly-defined questions with ready-made answers, we will always be teaching to the test. Because every minute of every day ends up being a test, with a single, overhanging question from the teacher: Can you give me what I want?

In our desire to be meticulous (planning every lesson carefully) and our need to be accountable (to lesson templates or pacing plans), we end up structuring our curriculum as a tale that has already been told. Before anyone walks into the room, we’ve set objectives, listed content to be learned, plotted out final assessments, and even created sample papers that demonstrate what good performance looks like. We do all the work; we play all the parts.  What do we even need students for?

It seems to me that, outside of the courtroom, the questions that are really worth asking are precisely the ones we don’t know the answers to. Questions that lead to answers that might surprise us—because they come from minds not our own. That doesn’t mean that fact-based questions aren’t useful when trying to assess student learning. Of course they are. You can ask what two plus two is. Please do. But why not add a little, “why did you say that?” or “how do you know that’s true?” after you get your answer. Why not learn a little something, yourself?

This is not just a classroom problem. In our desire to shield ourselves from criticism, discomfort, or harm, we end up protecting ourselves from ever learning anything new. We are told what to think by our parents, then we are told what to think by our teachers and our friends, and then, once we leave school, we often just…stop. We tell Pandora what kinds of music we like, and it makes sure we never have to hear anything different. We tell Amazon what kinds of books we like, and it does likewise. We go see movies based on actors we’ve liked in the past, or stories we’ve seen told before, or genres we find reliably entertaining. Anything that feels too strange, we avoid. When we want to learn what’s going on in the world, we watch Fox News or MSNBC, but rarely both. We hear only the opinions we already know we’ll agree with, and sample only the culture that feels comfortable. Technology has made it possible for us to be safe from ever re-considering an opinion or developing a new taste. It’s not that we ignore or shun dark alleyways that might lead to new experiences; we don’t even see them. We are building a world in which we never have to see them.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, entitled, “When Music Was Strange,” the author recounts her teenage exploration and experimentation with different styles of music in the 1970s, under the tutelage of a Yoda-like friend who said things like, “People don’t know what they like; they only know what they know.” He would bring new albums to the author and say, “You have to check this out!” And sometimes the author loved the music, and sometimes the author hated it. But she tested out new things and learned what it was she truly liked. In her article, she ruminates on how rare that kind of experience is, these days.

As adults, how many of us are willing to give new things a try, when a friend brings something strange into our orbit and says, “You have to check this out?” (Assuming we cultivate friends who have different tastes, opinions, and backgrounds). As teachers, how many of us consider it part of our job to bring The Good Stuff (however we define it) to kids and say “Check this out!” to them?  Not just because it’s the next thing on the pacing plan, but because it’s a doorway to a world, and it might just be an important doorway for this student, or that student.

In a world of Wikipedia and Google and MOOCs, is our primary function really to deliver pre-selected facts and rehearse skills? Is that why we are necessary? When people looking to save money challenge us and say, “What do we need teachers and schools for, anymore?” what is it we’re going to offer as our defense?  That only a living, breathing teacher can bring a child to learn her times tables? Do we actually believe that? And is that all there is?

It seems to me that our most important role, no matter what technology may come along, is to serve as Mentor Learners—role models of restless, insatiable curiosity, demonstrators of persistent and careful exploration. We don’t have to be the keepers of the answers anymore—the simple answers are out there, readily available. We need to be the keepers of the questions—the tough questions—questions like, “what is justice?” or “how can you know something is true?” or “what does a flower mean?” Those questions are the eternal flame of civilization, and it’s our job to pass that flame along—to light new wicks with every generation—and to nurture those little flames into roaring health by giving them the intellectual tools they need to chase after questions from childhood through adulthood.

But if we, ourselves, are not curious enough—and brave enough—to question our own preconceptions, prejudices, and tastes—if we are not willing to wonder and wander down strange by-ways to discover hidden magic (even, perhaps, some interesting magic offered to us by our students, who may, themselves, feel like saying “Check it out!”)—then how can we be role models of anything other than drudgery? 

I’m sure that in my more desperate and exhausted moments, I snarl at wide-eyed optimists and say that “college and career readiness” just requires a silent obedience to the agendas and directives set by other people. But deep down, even on my worst days, I know that’s not all there is to life.  I know I can’t let it be all there is.

“People don’t know what they like; they only know what they know.”  Those words need to be put on a poster that we can point to whenever a child complains that he doesn’t like something (whether it’s Algebra in school or Chicken Vindaloo at home). We only know what we know. And we don’t know enough.

In or out of school, it seems to me that the most important question is not, “What do I know?” It is, “What can I learn?”

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Teaching for Transfer: Take Your Learning Out For a Drive

(originally published at

Once upon a time, I worked as a secretary at a New York investment bank. There were two types of people who seemed to hold that job: Lifers—the middle-aged women who had been working as secretaries forever; and Dilettantes—the youngish painters and writers and musicians who needed a paycheck to support their art. I was one of the Dilettantes.

I started on the job a few months after the company had provided PCs to all of the bankers and all of the secretaries for the first time. The Lifers treated these machines as if they had been dusted with a fine coating of bubonic plague. They wanted nothing to do with them. They learned how to do a handful of required tasks on the computer, but they relied on their old typewriters for everything else. We Dilettantes, however, tended to play with our computers. They were new and shiny, and we were bored. So we experimented with functionality, we tested capacity, and we learned how to do all sorts of non-work-related things with them. We goofed off, in other words. But as a result, we became proficient and confident users of the new machines, and were able to serve the company and our bankers pretty efficiently. It was a great education for someone like me, who had never done anything with computers beyond some very rudimentary word processing.

Here’s another story: I was shopping for a new car (this is also some time ago) and was interested in getting a Mini Cooper. I researched it online, then went to the dealership and learned all I could about the car. Then I was taken out for a test drive. As we neared a sharp turn, the sales agent turned to me, grinned, and said, “Gun it!”

 “What?” I said.

 “Gun it. Take the turn too fast. Go on.”

So I did. I slammed on the accelerator and the little car whipped around the corner like a go-kart. The sales agent laughed. I laughed.

“You gotta find out what the machine can do,” she said.  “You can’t really know it, otherwise.”

Two anecdotes, one lesson: information is useful, but we learn best by playing.  Life teaches us this lesson so often that we don’t even notice it. But those of us who care about lessons for a living—do we notice? Do we incorporate this learning when we teach? If we’re good, we build structured lessons that lead students towards te independent and competent practice of skills and use of knowledge. But do we give students a chance to play with what they’ve learned—to see what it can do? I doubt many of us do. How can we? Once the kids have learned X, it’s time to move on to Y. Play time is wasted time, we’ve been told.

When I use the word “play,” here, I’m not talking about educational gaming, or playing-a-game-in-order-to-learn. I’m talking about playing around—playing with your learning—using your learning as the raw material of your play. Exactly the kind of thing that many people feel is a waste of time. 

Think about what it means to play with something—what it means at the most elemental level. When a child gets a new toy (even if it’s just a cardboard box), she immediately starts to experiment with it, to test its limits. Will it bend? Will it stretch? Can I turn it inside out? What happens if I throw it off the porch? They aren’t doing this to destroy whatever little thing we’ve bought for them; they’re doing this to find out what the thing is. Only by manipulating it and testing both its capacity and its limits can they really understand what it is they have in their hands. Sadly, far too often, our response is to grab the toy away from the child and tell her to behave. “It’s a fire engine. All right? The ladder goes up and down, like this. See? Now just leave it alone.”

Or we teach a child a new word, like “dinosaur,” and he starts saying, “dinosaur, minosour, flynosaur, cry-no-more, die-so-sore” and so on, until we lose our minds and beg him to shut up.

But this is exactly how children learn—from the time they’re born. They play with objects. They play with sounds. They put things in their mouths so that they can know them with all of their senses. They tear things apart. They stack large things on top of small things, over and over again, until they learn that they have to stack smaller things on larger things in order to build a tower. Children are born knowing how to learn this way. And then they come to us, and we make them stop. Unless they are artists, in which case, somehow, against all odds, they continue learning about the world by testing it and stretching it and playing with it. I’ve seen a twenty-something Bob Dylan take a phrase he’s just seen on a storefront and play with it just the way the child above did with “dinosaur,” and the look of joy on his face (and in his entire body), as he drives the words into absurdity and towards poetry, is wonderful to behold. He doesn’t have a pre-set idea about the words; he just plays with the words and discovers what they can do for him.

We want to build some level of expertise in our students, but author Daniel Willingham points out that building expertise is exceedingly difficult, because true experts think abstractly. They don’t simply access pieces or lists information; they think in patterns and shapes. Donald Schon talks about how expert practitioners, faced with a new challenge, draw upon on a repertoire of prior experiences and responses, and do it without consciously thinking about it at all. He talks about the “tacit knowledge” that experts have—the things they know without knowing how they know it. This is how they can see patterns within the structure of a problem, and identify a solution that will make the best sense, because it made sense in a similar situation some other time—and the similarity often lies hidden in the deep structure of the problem, not in the surface details.  In fact, similarities in surface details are what can often sidetrack and confuse novices, sending them towards the wrong solution (this may be why that old adage tells us that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing). Doctors see this happen with medical students all the time.

Thus, for Willingham, there is no easy route to expertise, or the “transfer of learning” from one context (the curriculum) to another (a state test, or a real-life problem). The only way to develop expertise is through patience, persistence, and a variety of experiences.

Variety seems like the key, to me. If we reach the Independent Practice stage of our lesson and give students a worksheet of, say, 20 math problems, how much variety is likely to be included? More often than not, we’ll be asking students to practice the one or two things we’ve taught them, in two or three different ways (if it’s a decent worksheet; sometimes it’s all just one way). But in a practice set, kids don’t get to play; they simply respond and react to what we’ve given them. They answer….but they don’t ask. They don’t take the car out for a test drive.

When you play with the content—randomly, without agenda or pre-determined goal—you have a chance to stumble upon the patterns that lie within it—the things that make it tick. You engage in a dialogue with yourself about what you’re doing:  “If I do this, then that happens…but now, if I do that, this other thing happens. That’s interesting…”

There have always been educators who have advocated something like a play-centered curriculum or structure of schooling. A.S. Neill, who founded the Summerhill school in the early part of the 20th century, believed that learning should never be forced on children—that they should be free to stumble upon an interest organically and then have teachers and other adults on hand to feed them what they need to satisfy their curiosity.  Neill found that his students often came to skills like reading later than their non-Summerhill peers, since they weren’t forced into it, but once they started learning, they learned quickly, catching up to and then overtaking their peers.

Rudolf Steiner’s Waldorf Schools took a somewhat similar, if more structured approach, using creative play as the driver of learning. There are probably many more examples, in all sorts of alternative schools. But what if you’re in a more traditionally-structured school and classroom? What role can “play” play in a more old-fashioned lesson?

I think it can play an important role, even if done in small doses. Any chance a student has to stretch and twist and play with what he’s learned is a chance to understand things better. For example, let’s say you’re teaching young students about digraphs, pairs of letters like th, sh, and ph that create a single sound.  A traditional, old-fashioned lesson would teach these letters and sounds, provide examples of their use (perhaps writing words on a whiteboard and underlining the digraphs), then have students find the digraphs is a set of words on a whiteboard or a worksheet—first working in pairs or groups, then working independently.  And that’s fine: by the end of the lesson, I know that when I give you the word, you can find the digraph. You’ve learned something—but in a fairly narrow and limited context.

How can a little bit of play help? What if I asked kids to tell me some words that use the digraphs, rather than just responding to the words I give them? What if I asked them to give me three words that use sh at the start of the word, and three others that use it at the end---plus a bonus for anyone who can think of a word with sh in the middle? What if I asked them to try to think of a word that used one digraph twice (“shush”)—or two or more of digraphs together (“thrush”). Maybe if they can’t come up with a real word, they can invent a word and provide a cool definition for it.  Maybe if they can’t come up with a real word, you can point out that some letter combinations don’t seem to occur much in English (is there a word that uses both ph and sh, other than the new computer term “phishing?” I’m not sure). Maybe they can try to write a song or a poem using as many digraphs as possible.

The exercise here isn’t about building vocabulary or learning how to spell; it’s about playing with sounds and figuring out what works and how it works. It’s about working something until you feel like you own it. It’s about treating learning like silly putty—pulling at it, stretching it, seeing what it can do. It’s about allowing time for some semi-structured goofiness to see what sparks might fly, what a-ha moments might occur. It’s about letting students take their learning out for a little test drive, and maybe letting them take the turn a bit too quickly, just to see what happens.

With older students, one area where I always saw a lack of play was in the teaching of metaphor and simile. Students rarely understood the difference between those terms, other than the fact that similes used “like” or “as.” That’s about all the teacher would ever tell them—possibly because the teacher didn’t understand the difference very well herself. But the difference is crucial; it’s the difference between whole-to-whole comparison (“he’s a pig,” or “the snow blanketed the earth”) and part-to-part comparison (“he eats like a pig,” or “the snow warmed the earth like a blanket”).  Letting students play with imagery is a great way to help them nail down this difference. Throw an image at them and ask them to use it as a metaphor. Now as a simile. Now can you use it to represent something completely different? How far can you stretch it? What has more “give” to it, a metaphor or a simile?  Can you come up with an extended metaphor—one that works at such a large scale that it can rule over an entire poem or story, like E.E. Cummings does here? (perhaps a tad inappropriate for school, but you should see what happens when teenage boys figure out what the poem is actually about.) We ask students to write poems for us (sometimes), but we rarely ask them to dig into what they’ve written and play with their own language, re-writing it and twisting it this way and that way, as Dylan does in the video clip.

How about mathematics?  Teachers like Dan Meyer have been advocating for removing some of the support and scaffolding from our math questions to engage students in genuine problem-solving, which requires some inquiry, some experimentation, and some play. Instead of giving kids the measurements of a picture frame and asking them to solve for the area, why not give them a sum total of wood and tell them they can cut it up any way they want to, to create their own picture frame, as long as they’ve used up all the wood.  Now, what size picture can it hold? What if you cut it up differently? How many different ways can you do it, and how large a picture can you manage to hold? What does that tell you?

It’s that stretch, that plasticity, that manipulation of academic material as though it were silly putty, that leads students away from responding and reacting and leads them towards the possibility of a spark—an a-ha—a moment where they might discover something important, deeper than the factual answer to a particular question. This kind of play can help push students deeper than the surface details of one particular situation, down towards the underlying patterns and what Aristotle called the first principles—the nature of a thing; what it is and why it is and how it works.

And yes, I did just use “silly putty” and “Aristotle” in the same paragraph, claiming they were somehow related. I stand by it.  

We learn the world by playing with it.  Are we willing to let some play into our classrooms and let our students get their hands dirty…figuratively or literally?






Monday, March 3, 2014

A Tale of Two Cabbies: Optimism and Grit in Action

(originally published at

Good teachers know how to make use of “teachable moments,” but all of us could probably do a better job of acting on “learnable moments.” I had two such moments recently—and, amazingly, I was aware of both of them while they were happening.
The morning had been crazy—schools had been delayed for two hours because of freezing rain, which meant that my two boys were hanging around the house later than usual, begging for rides to their bus stops. I was trying to get myself ready to jump into a cab and go to the airport for a flight to Dallas.  The cab was due to come right when my younger son had to meet his bus, so I had to race back home from dropping off to avoid having the driver give up on me and leave. I ran inside, grabbed my suitcase, and got in the cab. I closed my eyes, caught my breath, and tried to relax, but right away, the driver started talking.

Now, I like to think of myself as an open, compassionate, empathetic person, someone willing to listen, eager to share, ready to help, and so on. And sometimes, I really am that person. But other times—far too often—I’m stuck inside an endless internal dialogue and I just can’t pay attention to the yammering of other people who are inconveniently located outside of my skull. My older son seems to share this trait with me, but being a child, he’s more open and expressive about it. When his little brother is driving him crazy, he’ll just turn to him and say, “I’m trying to think.”
With the cab driver yesterday, I wasn’t trying to think, exactly, but I didn’t want to hear all about his problems. I had my own stuff going on. He kept talking, though, and eventually he broke through my callousness and self-absorption, and he engaged me in conversation. And I’m grateful that he did.

He was a young man, born in France and raised in Tunisia. He had a wife and two children about the same ages as my children. He had worked in finance for a number of companies, all the way to the level of vice president, but had been laid off more than a year ago. His wife had found a full-time job at another bank, and now he was driving a cab to bring in some extra income.  He had moved his family to a new town to lower their expenses, and he was worried about the quality of the schools. Life was hardly a bowl of cherries.
Many people in his position would have been angry and bitter, railing at politicians, business owners, or someone else for ruining their lives. I probably would have been angry and bitter, myself. But this man was not. He was as upbeat, positive, and optimistic as anyone I had ever met. He had no doubt that things would get better for him, and he felt like, all things considered, things weren’t really all that bad. “I set my own hours, I don’t have to shave, I can wear jeans, I can talk to nice people—what’s bad about that?” he said. When I said something about his great attitude, he told me that his father had always taught him that a customer never deserved a sour demeanor from someone providing a service—and that a positive attitude always paid off. It was his subtle way of letting me know that I could call him directly, the next time I needed a cab, instead of calling the dispatcher. Which I will absolutely do—because his burst of sunshine on a cloudy morning changed the whole day for me.

When I got to Dallas, I had the same experience all over again. It took a while for a taxi to show up, and when I got in and asked why there were no cabs at the airport, I learned from my driver that about 50 cabbies had walked off the job after one of their colleagues had gotten suspended for getting into a fight with their dispatcher and then yelling at a policeman. The young woman driving me shrugged and said, “I don’t like the new rules, either, but that’s no way to fix them. Meantime, I’m going to make some money.”
Her story was very similar to my morning driver’s. She had been laid off from a corporate job and had decided to drive a cab to make some money while she tried to build up a small tax-advice business. She, too, was relentlessly upbeat about the hand that life had dealt her. She had faced setbacks, sure, but that was just life. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but the game isn’t over until it’s over. She wasn’t going to let anything keep her down for long. She had things to do. She had plans. She was dusting herself off and getting ready for the next move. And meanwhile, at this job, she was going to talk to management about changing the work rules people didn’t like. And if that didn’t work, she was going to think about joining Uber and driving for them. Nothing was going to stop her.

And that was my learnable moment for the day. “Nothing’s going to stop me” is a choice.  It’s a decision you make, and it has more to do with who you are than the situation you’re in. Some people endure epic, historical horrors and manage to stand back up and re-make their lives. Some people stub their toe and then lie down to take a nap. You may not be able to control the things that happen to you in life, but you are absolutely in control of how you respond to those things.  And while I know I’ve heard that message from many people, real (my father, for one) and imaginary (Gandalf, for one), it doesn’t hurt to hear it again. And again and again.
I’ve written in previous blog posts about the emerging research on character traits like grit, perseverance, and optimism, and how much those traits affect academic, career, and life success. And while statistical research should be convincing, nothing compares to having a living, breathing exemplar right in front of you. Besides Frodo Baggins, I mean.

Were my two cab drivers simply born with traits of resilience and optimism, or did they learn them somewhere?  If they learned them, who were their teachers? Parents? Clergy? Schoolteachers? If the traits are more innate than learned, are there things we can do to cultivate, support, and strengthen what students come to us with? What do you think? Where did you learn your lessons in resilience and perseverance?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Back-Mapping from Success: What I Wish I Had Known

(originally published at 

My wife and I were talking to one of her cousins over the holidays—a gangly, lanky kid of 20 who has floundered and flopped through schools with little purpose or success, but who is trying to tackle college in small bites. He took two classes last semester and failed both. Everyone was frustrated with him. Two classes! That’s all you had! You didn’t even have a job on the side! How could you fail?
But the attacks were a little unfair. How could he not fail, if he’d never really tasted success? What else could he do but fail? That’s all he knew. He went through the motions of going-to-school—showing up, taking notes, reading the textbook—but he didn’t know how to do any of it well, and he didn’t really know why he was doing any of it, except that he knew it’s what he was supposed to do.

It occurred to me, while we were talking, that taking a backwards-design approach to being a student might make a lot of sense.  After all, when Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe wrote Understanding by Design, it was exactly this kind of thoughtless, “this is just the way it’s done,” going-through-the-motions behavior that they were trying to combat—for teachers. “Don’t just do something because you’ve always done it; do it because you know it’s going to lead to an outcome you’ve decided upon. And do it in a particular way that will help lead to an outcome.” Well, why wouldn’t that work for students, too?
Now, this was new thinking for me. I never approached school like that as a student. It never even occurred to me. I took notes because I was supposed to. I never thought about why I was taking notes, what they were for, and what the best way of taking notes might be. I was a friendly, well-behaved cow, walking down the chute towards college with all the other friendly, well-behaved cows. I didn’t know where I was going; I just did what I was told.

Backwards design means starting with the end in mind and planning for it, step by step. So: what would backward design look like from a student’s point of view?  Obviously, if you’re a student, you want an “A” in the course (maybe you don’t think you can get that “A,” but if you don’t deliberately plan for it, you’re certainly not going to get it). So what does it take to get an “A?” That’s the first important question. How are grades calculated in the class? Is it a simple average or a weighted average? Is it all exam-based, or are their papers and projects involved? I started thinking about those things in college, but why shouldn’t we encourage students to start taking ownership of their learning earlier?
Next step: Now that you know how the grades will be calculated overall, figure out what excellence looks like. If it’s a test you have to master, what would you have to do to get an “A?” Is it simply memorization of facts? Is it timed essay-writing? Is it timed computation?  How well will you have to perform? If you’re looking at papers or projects, what would constitute “A” work there? Are there scoring rubrics that can tell you? Are there past papers you can look at as models?

Once you get a clear picture of what “A” work looks like, the next step becomes the most vital one, and the one where most of us fall apart: figuring out what you need to do, day by day and week by week, to ensure that “A” level work happens. This is how you stop going through the motions of school, where school is something that is done to you, and start becoming the do-er of school yourself.  This where you get to say (with real confidence), “If I do X, Y, and Z every day, I will get the grades I want.” (Outside of school, we fall apart in exactly the same place: we know how many pounds we should lose in order to be healthier, for example, and we know, in general, what changes we should be making…but when it comes to what we should be doing meal by meal, day by day, we don’t take the right actions.)
Again, this is something I did not think about—never in high school; barely in college. By the time I went to graduate school, after having been out of school for a few years, I saw things differently. Now I was going to school for a reason of my choosing. I was going because I had chosen to go. And that changed the way I thought about things. It made me purposeful and active. And a purposeful, active student is going to beat out a thoughtless, passive student every time.

So—what does it mean for a student to be purposeful and active on a daily and weekly basis? Well, if I’ve figured out that to get an “A” on a math test, I have to be able to do 60 math problems in 60 minutes, then I should be practicing shorter timed drills at home—all semester—whether anyone has assigned that task as homework or not. If I know I’ll have to answer questions covering hundreds of years of history, I should be taking clear notes that give me conceptual anchors for every term I learn (things that will help me remember the meaning of each term, so that whenever I hear or see the term, I think of two or three key things). I should probably also revise or re-write my notes at particular intervals, and perhaps quiz myself at particular intervals, to make sure I’m slowly building up a storehouse of knowledge. If understanding complex processes and systems is more important than remembering a hundred facts, I should be taking notes differently—maybe more visually, with lots of diagrams that show how aspects and elements interrelate.
Here’s another thing I never thought about: if the teacher makes reference to something I don’t know, but everyone else in class seems to understand what he’s talking about, I should make sure to go look up that information after class. That’s my job—my problem to fix.  Who knew? I had a friend, years ago, who told me that when he was a freshman at Harvard, he decided that the opportunity to be at an Ivy League school would be wasted by taking freshman-level, introductory classes. He finagled his way into taking higher-level classes exclusively. Every day, he took two sets of notes: one set that kept track of what was being taught in the class, and one set that kept track of every reference he found obscure and every bit of pre-requisite content knowledge that he didn’t have. Every night, he took that second set of notes and he taught himself what he needed to know—what he should have already known—in order to be successful in that class. And he did that in the days before Google. That, my friends, is what it means to own your education.

In an ideal world, grades would never be a surprise to a student. Tests would never be “gotcha” exercises. Students would walk into assessments (of any kind) being fully aware of what they knew and could do. They would be able to look at their eventual grade and nod their heads, saying, “yes—that’s how I thought I would do.” But that’s not what happens in our world, is it? Most students don’t react to their grades that way, because most students live blindly day to day, doing what they’re told but never quite sure why they’re doing it, whether they’re doing it well, or what it’s going to lead to. This is why so many of them feel that school is done to them. It’s why they say things like, “Why’d you give me a C?” as though the grade had been a choice or an arbitrary decision—a gift or punishment to bestow, rather than a thing that was earned. If we want students to think differently, more actively, about school, we need to teach them to think that way.  It’s not going to happen by itself.
If there are days when I wish I could be a student again, knowing what I now know about learning, there are definitely days when I wish I could be a teacher again. After that holiday conversation with my wife’s cousin, I wished I could be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, standing on a desk in front of legions of disaffected, passive students and yelling, “Seize the Day!”

But it’s easy to be a movie-character teacher. Anyone can tell young people to make the most of their time in school. Anyone can stand on a desk and make a speech (or write a blog post). It’s so much harder to help kids learn how to do it—day by day, week by week, and year by year.