Saturday, September 15, 2018

Static vs. Dynamic Paradigms

In the last post, I was trying to make a case for the power of paradigms in shaping our world views, and how they might change and morph over time. When you are trying to design and execute transformation, and particularly when your goal is the cultivation of the ability to self-transform, then there are some paradigms that are more dynamic than others. What I want to explore in this post is what some of those effective paradigms might be, and which ones might not be as effective.

But first, remember what President Obama said in the last post, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." He then went on to say, "I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone." Obama is really picking up on one portion of the idea of American exceptionalism (see last blog post for a fuller explanation) that goes back to, among other people, Abraham Lincoln. 

Probably the most eloquent and powerful exegesis of this part of the American mission in world history was Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. In it, Lincoln offered that America existed in world history for one major reason--  the nation had been "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Lincoln understood-- like few other people-- the continual paradoxical tension of a country devoted to both liberty and equality, but also thought that it was the American mission to ensure that "government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth." In other words, can a country exist as an ever-increasing democratic republic consisting of a common civic culture amongst free and equal citizens? That is a vital part of the American experiment.

In this theory, America is held together not by ancestry or geography but by ideas and shared beliefs that form a common civic culture. Lincoln remains the only President to ever pass a federal law, on July 4th 1864, encouraging immigration. While Lincoln's motive was avowedly to bring a much needed labor force to a country embroiled in a Civil War, he had long believed that the the "electric cord" of the Declaration of Independence could link people from throughout the world. Therefore, in theory, anyone can become an American, or even a hyphenated American, if they subscribe to those ideals. In my own case, after Cromwell sent my ancestors packing out of Scotland in 1650, I have a choice to be American--or even Scottish-American, if I want. But my son who lives in Scotland could never become American-Scottish because the concept doesn't exist. So it is with all immigrants to America--except it isn't. 

There is, I think, one other reason that America exists in world history and it too defines what the country's legacy will be. America's greatness, I think, will be something decided in the future--not in the past and not in the present. As we noted, the first reason for America's experiment in actually applying the political tenets put forth in the Declaration of Independence. But the other half of the American experiment is the ongoing fight to see if people from every nation, every race, every religion, every ethnicity, etc. can actually live together in a single commonwealth. Part of what I have loved about exploring the significance of New York City for the past two decades has been exactly that E.B. White wrote about in his iconic essay Here is New York in 1948, "The collision and intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world. The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry." And New York's un official poet laureate, Walt Whitman, saw New York symbolizing this same tension when he wrote in Specimen Days late in his life in 1882, “New York gives the directest proof yet of…the solution of that paradox, the eligibility of the free and fully developed individual with the paramount aggregate.” New York City has been to the United States what America has been to the rest of the world, the great experiment in multicultural re-creation. It is, I would venture, the most important work that Americans will ever do. But the paradigms we choose to be the foundation of this work will be vital to its full success.

For the past fifty years or so independent schools have been consciously becoming more heterogeneous. Most of those schools have been using a diversity model that tries to admit students that will be racially, ethnically, religiously, geographically, and economically different from one another. The commitment often takes the form of "celebrating diversity" through various affirmations of different people's cultures and differences.

But “celebrating diversity” is really only a step along the way to trying to inculcate a truly multi-cultural attitude.  The difference between the two—a diversity model and a multi-cultural attitude—is significant.  Diversity is a static concept that is actually just the description of a condition that exists to a greater or lesser extent.  The schools I have worked at have had varying degrees of diversity and various commitments to increasing it. This commitment to diversity should not be an end in itself, however; it is only a foundation from which real learning can occur.

If diversity is like a noun, multiculturalism is like a verb.  It is dynamic, not static.  Multiculturalism depends on being willing to use higher order critical thinking skills—ferreting out premises and assumptions, imagining implications and monitoring inferences—in examining one’s own worldview as well as the worldview of people who are different than you are.  In a multicultural world it is not enough to teach tolerance or respect (as valuable those attitudes are), you are called upon to use empathy as a critical thinking technique to try and enter someone else’s understanding.

In a way, adopting this attitude is like going to a foreign country not as a tourist, but as a traveler who is willing to go native.  But this is precisely what the historian does when she visits the past.  To teach people to be historians is to give them the skills to empathically understand the psycho-emotional world of someone not like them.  In that sense, visiting the past and visiting a foreign country are very much the same. To be a good historian is to be a good traveler.

I remember one class in particular where I learned an enormous amount about how to try to use diversity as the jumping off point rather than the end game. In this particular United States History class eight of the students were from foreign countries (Turkey, Serbia, Korea, Taiwan, China, Thailand) another five were first generation immigrants (a combination of the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Israel, Puerto Rico, Germany, Rwanda, Montserrat) leaving only three students whose families have been in America for more than a generation.  It was the perfect crucible to be testing the inculcation of multiculturalism through the study of United States history.

One of our projects, for example, was to explore the conception of freedom as it has existed in different eras in American history.  We used the techniques of the historian to explore “relics” from the 1770’s (the American Declaration of Independence and the pamphlet Common Sense) and the 1960’s (the “I Have a Dream” speech and the film Easy Rider) to see what we could discover about how Americans view freedom at different times in their history.  But then we each picked two “relics” that inform our own personal conceptions of freedom. And while the three more "Americanized" students picked things that most of us would recognize, some of the other students were exploring their understandings of the writings of Ataturk, the Rwandan genocide and the "red shirt" protests in Bangkok. 

What was learned was that each of us constructs our world differently and that we can use critical thinking skills to come to understand those constructions.  We discovered what every historian already knows—that there are no such thing as facts, there are only inferences based on relics.  And while creating window into the American world of the 1770’s and the 1960’s, we also created a window into how other people from around the globe understand the concept of freedom.  At that point, we turned that window into a mirror and used those same critical thinking skills to see our own premises through new lenses.  We were using diversity as a base to really explore the multicultural views that existed in the room. This was not easy or comforting work necessarily.  Celebrating diversity can mean holding hands in a circle singing “Kumbaya.” But practicing multiculturalism is more like attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with people who have decided to stop kidding themselves.  We experienced some “expectation failure” where the mental models we had been using to explain our world to ourselves began to fail us. For the American students many of those models involved seeing that the American conception of freedom might not be so easily exported as many of our past statesmen have desired. For the majority of the class--the international students--it was a chance to see where the American conception of freedom had come from and how it had changed over time, and think about how (or whether) they wanted to engage with those ideas.

In my career, independent schools have gone from creating positions for Diversity Coordinators to Deans of Multiculturalism to Directors of Equity and Inclusion. There are schools that are talking about adding the concept of "Justice" to that equation which would add yet another dimension. I know there is much talk all over the world about the failure of multiculturalism in America, and even more so in Europe. Angela Merkel declared it a failed concept as far back as 2010. But note that what she says is that the "multicultural concept" has failed. I wonder if what has happened is that we have made multiculturalism a noun, when it must always be a verb or lose its dynamism.

Different schools seem to be in different places in terms of trying to figure out which paradigm they want to have be most prominent at a given time. I can see virtues, obviously, in all of them but I guess my experience tells me that I want to make sure we keep the transformational power of multicultural engagement as a process--with all the critical thinking (especially the ability to question assumptions), the use of texts as "windows and mirrors," the destruction and alteration of mental models,  the practice of empathy and self-implication, the mastery of dialogue instead of debate or discussion as means of discourse, and the individual, personal engagement--as something that isn't lost. The ability to affect one's own self-transformation seems to me to be one of the most valued objectives of learning, and a multicultural attitude--as a verb-- is a powerful paradigm for facilitating that growth.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Power of Paradigms

In the early 1980's I was asked to write the 20th century chapters for a new edition of an American History textbook for Harcourt Brace. The request came from one of my former high school history teachers (who gave me a D+ in his Russian History course--but that is another story) who did not have time to do the writing. My interest was piqued by two things--first, this was the book that was used by cadets at West Point and I would get the chance to write the Vietnam War chapters; in fact, my "audition essay" was about why 1968 would be seen as the pivotal year for a generation of Americans. Second, I had just discovered the concept of shifting paradigms. Thomas Kuhn in his landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions posited that it was the anomalies in science that triggered revolutions which took the form of the creation of entirely new paradigms or "maps" of our world view.  One of his primary examples was the "Copernican Revolution" that overturned the previously held Ptolemaic idea that the earth was at the center of the solar system. But if you have any doubt about how powerful even discredited paradigms can hold on, consider that you probably often check the weather report to see what time the sun is going to "rise" or "set." And, while I confess that as I look out at the sky it does appear to my eyes that the sun is setting or rising, the science just doesn't seem to back up my visual experience.

This idea of a paradigm shift became the rage all over the academic world at this time, and my response to it was no exception. It was pretty clear to me what the "anomalies" were in the way American history was told then in any book:  women, African-Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants (more on that in a bit). Clearly what was needed in order to have the necessary revolution in the telling of American history was a re-imagining of the narrative to overturn the present paradigm.

The reigning paradigm was one that had gained huge traction from Louis Hartz' award-winning book The Liberal Tradition in America (1955) -- "American exceptionalism." Hartz created a story that posited that America was unlike any other country before it, and it had a superior place in world history because it was a special blend of liberty, the frontier experience, democratic republicanism, political liberalism, laissez-faire capitalist economics, and individualism. As a testament to the lasting power of paradigms, this is precisely what we are fighting over every night in 2018 on FOX news and MSNBC. Remember Obama's comment in 2009 about American exceptionalism? In an interview in Europe he responded to a journalist's question, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." He then went on to say, "I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone." Outrage followed from many circles! James Kirchick called him the Squanderer in Chief in the New Republic. Mitt Romney attacked full frontal in his tome, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, and you can tune into Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson almost any night and hear Mike Huckabee repeat what he said then, "He (Obama) grew up more as a globalist than an American," Huckabee said. "To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation." Old paradigms are very powerful. Have you ever noticed that we are the only country in the world with the greatest number of "We're #1" foam fingers (often made in China) that we wave constantly for every possible reason? As I travel the world I fail to see other countries waving these ubiquitous fingers.
Given the civil rights revolution of the late 60's and early 70's, however, it was clear that this paradigm of American exceptionalism did not include large segments of the "anomalous" population in the story. In fact, it was hard to find them in the books at all. In my father's United States History book from the 1920's by renowned Columbia University Professor David Saville Muzzey, all of these people-- women, African-Americans, Native Americans, immigrants and many other groups--are completely absent as the story is one of the relentless progress toward freedom and equality which ends with the American "making the world safe for democracy" in 1919. Muzzey's book (it should be noted that he was a Progressive for his time) was the coin of the realm from 1911 for the next fifty years. The best anyone was doing to change this narrative in the 1980's was putting a little added addendum on such topics as the Trail of Tears at the end of chapters on Andrew Jackson and the Rise of American Democracy or about Manzanar at the end of the World War II chapter about the vanquishing of Hitler and his racist policies. We could not figure out how to actually be Copernicus, we were just doing the equivalent of what Ptolemy did to further his theory by creating a "retrograde motion of Mars" to cover the deep faults. We were essentially re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

But this was not just a problem for historians. Sociologists used to say that American immigration could be summarized in a non-scatological version of the old bumper sticker that could read, "Assimilation Happens." The theory was that ALL groups will eventually assimilate. Robert Park, a colleague of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute, developed a widely accepted paradigm for sociology (see illustration of his theory below) at the University of Chicago that paralleled Louis Hartz's consensus view of American political history. However, sociologists have recently been looking at the data and finding anomalies that have challenged Park, and led to concepts such as the "segmented assimilation" of second generation immigrants (especially in New York City) and even to the idea of people developing a "transnational identity" rather than assimilating. New paradigms are just now being developed to explain new data and to question old assumptions. 

Obviously, my book did not pioneer the new paradigm either, but I did get the to explore some new metaphors that might replace the old one of the "melting pot" first created by J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur in his Letters from an American Farmer in1782.  de Crevecoeur had seen the process of becoming American as the new immigrant "leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world." You can clearly see in his thinking part of what will eventually become American exceptionalism. 

Carl Degler saw America as a "salad bowl," New York City mayor David Dinkins as "a grand mosaic," and some people as a "chocolate fondue with various fruits for dipping." John F. Kennedy in his 1958 book A Nation Of Immigrants had also joined the food metaphor club when he wrote, “...a ‘typical American menu’ might include some of the following dishes: ‘Irish stew, chop suey, goulash, chile con carne, ravioli, knockwurst mit sauerkraut, Yorkshire pudding, Welsh rarebit, borscht, gefilte fish, Spanish omelette, caviar, mayonnaise, antipasto, baumkuchen, English muffins, gruy√®re cheese, Danish pastry, Canadian bacon, hot tamales, wienerschnitzel, petit fours, spumoni, bouillabaisse, mate, scones, Turkish coffee, minestrone, filet mignon.’ ”

Appetizing as many of these new paradigms might be, they do not capture the central paradox of the unofficial motto of the United States, E Pluribus Unum--Out of Many, One." In the next blogpost I want to explore some paradigms that are central to the way we tell our national story and how they have been adopted in schools.

But just to give you a final example of the power of paradigms to shape our thinking, E Pluribus Unum was never the official motto of the United States and it refers not to the inhabitants of the country but to the joining together of the thirteen separate colonies to form one country. The official motto of the United States you can find in your pocket on any piece of currency--In God We Trust. The fact that we put it on our money probably matters as well.

When was that motto adopted?  1956. The year after Louis Hartz's book was published championing American exceptionalism. Always respect the power of paradigms to shape your thinking.

Coda Below: a visual paradigm mash-up of how we constantly create and re-create our own personal and national histories--

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Fractals: One Way Students Learn to Author Their Own Learning

The other day a participant from this summer's Teaching for Experience workshop wrote to ask about some comments I had made about the use of fractals as a structure for learning. I realized that while I design learning experiences with fractals in mind all the time, I had never written anything down about why...or how.  So, here goes. 

It was 1975, I was a first year teacher and Benoit Mandelbrot had just coined a word for some mathematical thinking that had been going on for centuries--"fractals."  All of my math teacher friends were raving about it. A few years later the "Mandelbrot set" was created (check out that link if you want to get a sense of the simplicity involved in complexity). When I first encountered this, it was being called "the geometry of which smaller and smaller copies of a pattern are successively nested inside each other, so that the same intricate shapes appear no matter how much you zoom in to the whole."
For example-- ferns or Romanesco broccoli.

Now I confess that I have long been a structure freak who loves seeing the way structure can be adapted to create and induce meaning. Doesn't matter if it is poetry or soccer. Or teaching and learning. Teaching that inspires transformational learning almost always is a battle between a series of tensions and two of those are chaos/order and complexity/simplicity. Fractals are a structure that allows that tension to be held and explored.

The origins of applying the idea of "fractal learning" come from an opening-day professional- development presentation that was given my first or second year of teaching at Deerfield in the mid-70’s. We had someone from Harvard Education School (I can’t remember the name) who spoke to the faculty about the importance of the first class of the year.

The Harvard professor had just posited this powerful idea that everything the student is going to deeply retain from your class will be contained in this opening class. Bold claim, right?  But it is true in a number of ways. For example, there is something about “voice” that we internalize about memorable teachers and memorable teaching (  

Perhaps it is related to Maya Angelou’s quote, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The point is that structures are a way of making people FEEL a certain way. I think that the structure of fractals produces and induces certain feelings that are hugely helpful in trying to get people to learn. (So is framing- but more on that at the end of this essay.)

This subsequently led to another more fully developed idea for a workshop that incorporated a backward design experiment starting with a teacher asking the following question, “Your student walks into their home at the end of the first day of school and their mother/father asks, ‘How was school today?'”  Thinking just about the class you had with that student, write out exactly what you want that student to say in response. Now, design your class so that you end with the desired response you just wrote out. It is a really fun workshop, and the results have been both eye-opening and terrifying on different occasions.

If this professor was right then the first day of class was “high stakes testing,” for the teacher, and I took it as an interesting challenge to see what I could create. The other impetus for this exploration came from a University of Michigan professor named Ken Lockridge who claimed that in order for someone to learn something you had to present the information or concept in three different contexts in three different periods of time.  He was, to say the least, intuitively understanding interleaving and retrieval practice that is all the rage now in cognitive psychology.

I went looking for structures that would be sophisticated enough to make my students feel intrigued, comforted, confused, and challenged. Quite the paradox there, but it is a great formula for growth and development. And then I came upon fractals as an opening structure (after trying many other structures such as immersion, spatial disorientation, expeditions, mysteries, picaresque novels and many, many others.)

Fractals have certain principles—they are heavily detailed, they are recursive, they are infinitely self-similar, they can invoke microcosms and macrocosms so that their scale can be very small or very big, they are patterned in their self-similarity and they can expand and evolve in their symmetry. Those sounded like ideal characteristics for being introduced to something, internalizing them and then perhaps even having them make the learning more transferable (one of the gold standards of this kind of learning) to other domains. Thank you, Benoit Mandelbrot!

What follows is a recent example of how that developed in some classes at CITYterm. One of the great things about fractals is that you can expand and contract them. One example of a fractal class from Day One of CITYterm is an exploration of Learning Theory. But this class moves from practice to theory, and not from theory to practice. The focus is on the student’s exploring the concept of surface, strategic and deep learning in their own past. It is mining the student’s own experience to uncover something that caused a paradigm shift or the destruction and re-creation of a mental model previously held. Expectation failure becomes part of the vocabulary of every deep learner. Tag lines include things like:

- “Your primary obligation is to let me know when my teaching is getting in the way of your learning.”
- "The confusion of the DKDK zone ( is what you are trying to engage.”
- “Ambiguity is misunderstood to be vague, it is not; it is multi-layered and every text you will encounter here will be ambiguous—embrace it.”  

All of these are central concepts to CITYterm.

Structurally, this class puts students through every form of learning they will be doing during the course of the class—a mindfulness meditation of sounds, individual writing to discover and record, paired sharing, group thinking through a problem, the teachers leaving the room for an extended period of time while students are working, students writing on the board more than the teacher, and more. The chunking of time (a key ingredient in temporal experience) is fast with distinct pauses that signal transitions. The feeling is that we are introducing unfamiliar concepts but they are actually rooted in the student’s own personal experience, but the student has had no language to explore them previously. The beginning of a common language is implied in the class though not  usually explicitly stated.  Pause here to think about how different this format is from a student who goes to class and receives a cumbersome, intimidating “course expectation sheet” that includes extensive discussion of grading policies and rubrics and warnings about how plagiarism will get you kicked out of school. Now think about how that student who had THAT as an opening class would answer the question above, “How was school today?”  (No wonder, as cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has entitled one of his latest books, Why Student’s Don’t Like School?)

That first class is a microcosm of what will happen for the rest of the year. But remember, you can expand fractals. There are five separate classes that are interlinked and each of them together forms a still larger fractal. Paired with the Learning Theory class is one that utilizes a text by John Stilgoe from Outside Lies Magic. And that is just where students go, out of the room, out of the building, out of their comfort zone. Classrooms are everywhere being the subtext. The goal is the integration of learning in and out of the classroom and destruction of a fundamental dichotomy that defines adolescent life-- “school/NOT school.” Integrity over dichotomy—yet another key experience-based learning principle. What we have created is the intellectual kindergarten of sustained observation and questioning through “wondering and wandering.”

The second day has two other classes paired together that when put together make for a fractal of four individual classes. These two classes are based on first, Collaboration, Dialogue and Deep Listening and second, Writing in Place: exploring the relationship between our internal and external selves as they are grounded in the space we are inhabiting at any given moment. The first class has students in creative collaboration create board games based on the essay by E.B. White, Here is New York. Concepts such as: meta-cognition, being “in the balcony and on the dance floor” simultaneously and re-framing previous concepts of leadership are all the conceptual understandings that are involved in this group activity that will repeat not just three times, as Professor Lockridge suggested, but scores of times in vastly different contexts during the course of the fifteen weeks students are at CITYterm.

The second class seeks to undermine the paradigm--another example of expectation failure-- that writing is primarily for persuasion, and by introducing Barry Lopez’s genius article from Granta, “The Invitation.” Students do a piece of writing by the banks of the Hudson River (yet another form of a classroom) that asks them to be hyper-observant and mindful, to wonder and wander, to explore their observations through writing, as well as to detail the relationship between their interior life and the place they are inhabiting. There is a visceral component that relies on the concept of the “felt sense” based on the theory that what we know most deeply we know in our bodies.  In sum, all of these classes together form a fractal that asks them them to begin to understand that they are "the authors of their own learning."

And at that point, the students and faculty get on a train in Dobbs Ferry to engage in their first trip to New York City. To do what? A collaborative scavenger hunt/exploration that will ask everyone to apply all of the concepts they have been introduced to in the past two days in real time.

But before they go, students will be asked to draw their version of what they know about New York City on a piece of paper. That paper will be part of the frame for the semester that will bring both tears and laughter as they see that drawing again during the last class of the semester and realize how much their conception of place (and of themselves) has transformed. And now, perhaps, they will see "infinity" in themselves and their world because they know what it feels like and they have had a little practice in it.