Thursday, December 6, 2012

Which of the Kids is doing their own thing?: Patterns and Anomolies

Not long ago the teachers I work with and I had a chance to read Doug Rushkoff's book, Program or be Programmed, and then to ask him questions at one of our monthly Park Cottage sessions where we explore different aspects of how and why learning becomes "deep" or transformative and not simply surface or "strategic." But there remained a foundational central idea that we never really got to, and it has been with me ever since.

Rushkoff's book is structured as "Ten Commands for a Digital Age," but the pivotal concept is the idea that technology itself has bias--"a leaning, a tendency to promote one set of behaviors over another." If you do not acknowledge and understand the bias, you are doomed to be controlled by the medium. As Rushkoff writes, "Only by understanding the biases of the media through which we engage with the world can we differentiate between what we intend, and what the machines we're using intend for us--whether they or their programmers even know it."

Ever since that session, I have been thinking about "school" as the "machine we're using," and trying to discern what its biases are. So, for example, in the blog post about "The Hedgehog and the Fox" (which generated a remarkable amount of interest), I was exploring the idea that we are biased toward (and unaware of it) "hedgehog" learners, and that we have constructed a world that leans toward people who exhibit that trait in schools. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but a bias nonetheless, and a bias that we might want to re-evaluate in view of how many "foxes" we have as learners.

Right now, I am wondering whether there is another "bias" that we have--we are much more inclined to favor patterns in student's thinking over anomalies. And, furthermore, we favor students who exhibit pattern recognition over those who are inclined toward identification of anomalies.

I am thinking about this, in part, because I am presently teaching someone who is one of the most adroit anomaly identifiers I have come across in recent years. For example, when we are reading a short story she immediately spots the place in the text that does not fit the pattern that has been established. However, she does not do it by seeing the pattern and then noting something is happening outside it.

Look at this video, and then let's talk about what you saw.

I actually remember sitting with my children and watching this segment of the show when it would come on and really loving it. But, notice the bias. It is called "Three of these Kids" and then after identifying how the three kids playing baseball form a pattern, only then do we establish which of these kids is "doing his own thing." My student, however, would be the person who not only would not identify the pattern first and THEN go to the anomalous football player, she would just possibly identify that one of the kids is left-handed (the upper left) and all the others are right handed. She is also extraordinarily good at making predictions when it comes to guessing what will come next based on what has come before. I cannot tell, however, if this is because of her skill with anomalies or because she also happens to work intuitively as well.

This has caused me to start to monitor how many times I ask questions that are patterned-based rather than anomaly-based. How often do I work inductively where I start with observations of data, record them and then look for patterns? How often do I ask questions about a text that are really about connecting different passages because I am trying to establish a pattern that I think will promote understanding? And it will promote understanding! But, I think I need to take a tip from Doug Rushkoff and be aware of the bias that I have--and I think most of us have--toward pattern recognition. How does that affect the way we run our classes? How does it affect the way we create tests and other forms of assessments? I am not saying we should stop teaching pattern recognition, only that it would be good to notice that we have that cognitive and epistemological bias (just as we favor analysis over intuition) and that it may give us a clue about some kids who are "doing their own thing" in our classrooms.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Flannery O'Connor and Andre DuBus: Two Parables about Writing and Reading

We have been reading the manuscript of Mira Jacob's (remember this name, she has a great book coming out) new novel that was just purchased by Random House, and getting ready for our last authorship seminar of the semester. By this point in the semester we have established that there are, at minimum, three acts of "authorship" happening when someone is reading any text.

It is when students are reading in all three of these ways simultaneously that it creates a different kind of relationship to the text--one that is more transformational and life-changing.

The first is that we are reading what the writer wrote and looking at the craft--the conscious choices that any writer makes in practicing their talent--through an analytic lens. In this sense, we are using all the close reading techniques we have practiced and trying not to "dead frog" the text (click to earlier blog post for an explanation). We are also practicing our intuitive reading (more on this is an upcoming blog post) and making some predictions and guesses about what the author's need might be in writing this piece. What is it that the writer set out to explore, and how can you discern that need from the text they created?

And we have realized that there is a way in which the writer is "listening" to the story they are telling and are not in complete control of what is being written. In other words, that there is an "unconscious" quality to writing that happens, and that sometimes it seems to the writer like the story has a life of its own and the writer is almost transcribing what they hear the characters saying. And we have practiced that kind of "deep listening" with Lee Stringer (click to earlier blog post for an explanation). This idea of the story being "alive" was something I never really truly understood until I was teaching Native American students in Albuquerque decades ago. For them, in a way that I had never been exposed to before, some stories were sacred because they created something in their actual telling. In a sense, these stories had their own "authorship" independent of the writer or the reader.

Finally, we have realized that "to read a book is to author it," and that has created an awesome sense of responsibility and a commitment to a dialogic relationship with the text. This is probably the most revolutionary idea for most students. They are so used to being taught that authors are in complete control of their writing, and that everything has an symbolic intention that they forget what Paul Auster said to us once in an earlier authorship seminar, "reading is the only place where two strangers can meet so immediately and so intimately. Together the reader and the writer come together to make the book. I don't think of what I write as a book; it's a text. What I call a book is created when the reader and writer meet in the text."

Or, as novelist Danzy Senna put it in our seminar with her, “Once I have said what I have to say, then it is not as if I own the text anymore; the meaning becomes a joint venture (between the writer and the reader).”

This reminds me of two parables that relate to the act of reading and writing. One comes from my friend Buddy who relates the scene at a reading by Flannery O'Connor at UNC. O'Connor had finished her reading and was taking questions when one student posed what is perhaps one of the ultimate "graduate school" questions:

"Ms. O'Connor, I was wondering if I could ask you about the the symbol of the marble cake in your story 'Everything Rises Must Converge?' I was wondering if the swirling of the black and white parts of the cake that lightly touch each other but also remain distinct and separate, that were distinct in their own right, yet each partaking of the other as each of those colors do, acting as a kind of complimentary yet contiguous entity, forcing each to form boundaries yet not being able to ultimately exist without the other in order to form a whole, whether that was a commentary on black/white relations in the South, and that was what you were trying symbolize with that cake."


To which Flannery looked down and said, "Actually, my mother used to make marble cake; and it was always my favorite."

The second story is from a time when Andre Dubus came to visit the English department of the school where I first started teaching. The English department had read a story of his and there was a character, Anna, who did this very out of character (it seemed) action at the end of the story. As I recall, I think she robbed a grocery store.
My friend Frank, a hard core analyst of the highest order, opens the discussion with the following question after laying out his understanding of Anna's character prior to this action using copious textual references,

"So, Mr. Dubus, it kind of surprised me when she robbed the store at the end."

"That surprised you too, eh?" replies Dubus.

"What?" answers Frank.

"That surprised you, too, that she robbed the store?"

"Wait, what are you saying? You WROTE the story."

"Well, what are YOU saying, you READ the story. I was just listening, and she said she was going to rob the store."

And what ensued was a conflict about reading and writing that split the department concerning the act of reading between the "pro-Frank" and the "pro-Andre" teachers for the rest of the time I was there.

Now, I look back at them as two fabulous parables about teaching and learning.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Teaching Experience-based Reading: How to Resurrect a "Dead Frog"

A few years ago I was on the phone with one of the authors, Junot Diaz, who we have come to CITYterm to explore with students the idea of what it means to "author your own learning" in the context of writing and creativity. The students have read something the author has written, but there is no lecture or presentation; it is just students and the author asking each other questions. The trick is to get the students to have a experience-based relationship with the author's work, and "dead frogging" it--no matter how sophisticated or literary--doesn't get you very far with these authors. The reason is that they didn't write the book so that a bunch of high school teachers and students could analyze their work. However, given the way most of us were taught to teach literature, you wouldn't know that was the case walking into our classes.

On this particular occasion I was asking Junot whether he had finished the piece that he was working on. We had read Oscar Wao as a novella, but Junot had realized that it was really a full novel, and he was engaged in the painstaking process of making that happen.

He replied, "Oh, yes I am just about done. All I have to do is go back and put in the symbols."

This is Junot's way of giving me a hard time about teaching literature--so I found it hysterically funny. But if you tell that story to students, most of them will look at you quizzically as if to say, "Really? That is how they (authors) do it?" But his comment does not surprise most of them. And the fact that it does not is a  damning indicator that we do not teach literature the way authors write it. In fact, we invert the process. We talk about "author's intention," but we do it so that we can do literary-critical analysis on the text.

We do not teach literature in a way that allows students to understand what a story is saying to its author as well as its reader. We teach students how to perform sophisticated, incisive dissections on literary bodies that increasingly come to be seen as cadavers. We teach them how to perform operations on  a text. What I am wondering is whether we are so busy teaching them how to "talk" to a story - that we don't teach them how to "listen" to it. 

The other night another of our authors, Lee Stringer, and I tried an experiment with an activity that was based almost entirely on deep listening. He had students pick a word, and then after a brief introduction to the assignment had them write continuously for twelve minutes without taking the pen up from the paper. Then, he had people read what they had written while the listeners closed their eyes and, after the person was done, they called out specific words that had a deep impact on them when they had heard them. After that we spent some time with the author figuring out what the piece was about.

The trick is that the student/author realizes that they don't control the piece they wrote--twelve minutes is too long a time for the unconscious not to make its appearance. What the result of our experiment was that the group of thirty started to talk about the written text itself as though it were a living thing. And the student/author was right at the center because they wanted to know what it was about too--even though they had written it!

Vivian Gornick talks about this division by separating a text into the situation:  the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot or setting, or major characters -- and the story:  "the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer; the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say." The situation you can analyze; the story requires intense and deep listening.

Literary criticism certainly has a place as a technique of reading, but deep listening will get the reader to the place where they can resurrect any "dead frogs" they might have created by performing those more detached operations.

Early that day in class we had explored James Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues." As I read this story, I think it gives us some clues about what really listening feels like. In the final  scene of the story the analytic, mathematics teacher/narrator describes Sonny playing with Creole's band, "And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny's face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn't with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for hm, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized it was Creole who held them all back. He had them on short rein.

Up there, keeping beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for deep water. He was Sonny's witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing--he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water."

The great thing about the Lee Stringer evening writing was that we began to sound like Creole and Sonny's band. We were really listening to each other and, in some cases, we were learning that deep water is not drowning. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Problem with the Way We Teach Reading: "Dead Frogging" The Great Gatsby

One day I was walking to soccer practice with one of my Advanced Placement English Literature students who was also a crafty left-sided player on the soccer team. His name was Martin, and he had come from Switzerland. I think that gave him a kind of maturity in American eyes because he always seemed so calm, so above the fray, so, well--Swiss. And, for precisely that reason, he was a great person to approach, as young teachers often do, to get feedback on how a class was going--and to fish for compliments. It is something I find myself rarely doing now, but back when I first started there was nothing quite like the affirmation of a student like Martin to make you feel like you knew what you were doing. And that is precisely what I found myself surreptitiously doing with Martin as we walked to practice together.

We had just finished reading The Great Gatsby, and when I say read, I mean every phrase and every word and every syntactical construction. It was, after all, A.P. literature, and I was determined to have mined every piece of secondary literature on the novel, and to have read Fitzgerald biographies and letters. In short, I was prepared to spend over a month going page by page over what Fitzgerald had called his "masterpiece."

So, as we walked, I fished.

"So, Martin, I thought we really had some amazing stuff come out today in class."

"Definitely. Some really good connections."

Not enough. That was it? Really good connections? I needed more....

"I was impressed that we got the reference to the fresh green breast of the new world on the last page, and saw that it was a reverse of Myrtle's breast flapping after the accident. Fitzgerald's editor, Maxwell Perkins, told Fitzgerald he thought he should take that out because it was racy, but Fitzgerald said no, it was essential."

"Yeah, that was pretty cool to see how he worked that in as a symbol."

This was not exactly the feeling I wanted from what had been a two month minute analysis.

"So, what do think about the novel in the end?"

A long pause as we get ready to enter the gym and head to different locker rooms.

"I guess I sort of feel like I do about my frog in A.P. Bio. I mean, I can tell you anything about the pieces of that frog. I have spent days dissecting that thing; I know everything there is to know about frogs, I think. But then I looked down at it the other day when we were done and I thought-- it was just a dead frog."

What ensued was yet another of my dark nights of the soul. Oh my god, I thought, I have "dead-frogged" The Great Gatsby.

But how had that happened? I was just doing the great literary-critical read of a book that rewards that kind of reading perhaps more than any other book I know. And wouldn't that, by the way, guarantee a "5" on the A.P. test?

Wasn't that what I was supposed to be doing? be continued.....

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

An Interesting Connection Between Posts?

Someone just pointed out to me that the most recent post on Success and Failure is really informed by and develops a previous post from two years ago on Stories and Anecdotes.

It is an interesting connection, and I can see how my thinking has moved in terms of adding "dialectical" thinking when addressing why "dichotomous thinking" is so dangerous for experience-based learning.

Thank you. for pointing out this connection.

Dialectics is a hard way to think but I believe it is what Baldwin was getting at in the last paragraph of Notes of a Native Son when he writes,

“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one's own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one's strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair."

Not only is this one of my favorite essays ever by one of my favorite writers ever, he arrives at that "dialectical" conclusion in such a heart-breaking manner that it is breath-taking.
Or perhaps it is what Fitzgerald means in the oftquoted line, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

Monday, October 8, 2012

She Knows There's No Success Like Failure.....But Failure's No Success At All: From Dichotomy to Dialectic

My friend Jason said I should start writing some shorter blogs, so here is my first attempt. We shall see how this goes; short may be hard.

Teachers always say that they learn things from their students, and that is one reason why they teach. To be honest, I find that when I actually ask teachers what was the last thing they learned from a student, many are tongue-tied. But what I have noticed in some teachers, and it's certainly true for me, is that when they DO learn things from students, it is because the students have learned something about themselves. This is the kind of learning that often occurs with experience-based teaching, and it leads to some of the most insightful moments I have with students. For example, having just finished a weekend of writing cognitive profiles of CITYterm students for mid-semester narratives, I find that the self-assessments the students produce lead me to some of the most interesting strategies for cognitive growth.

Here is a line from the end of a student's college essay that I have been pondering for some time, and is an example of what I mean.

She writes at the end of her essay, "What I have learned at CITYterm is that true failure is what inhibits you from experiencing the serendipitous moments that reunite you with your imagination and redirect you toward your purpose."

What was so impressive to me was that she had arranged so many different  experience-based learning principles into a unique combination that was original-- failure, serendipity, reuniting as integration, imagination and purpose.

Of course, what is also so remarkable is that her statement is, in fact, precisely what this student needed to learn:  she was petrified of failure (she had never really failed before in school) and deftly avoided experiences she thought could trigger her sense of failure when she arrived at CITYterm. But she did a lot of work on herself during the semester and came out with something remarkable and memorable. I have found myself often thinking about what those "inhibitions" are; how many forms do they take?

My own thinking about failure was first informed by Bob Dylan when I was a freshman in high school with the release of "Love Minus Zero/ No Limit"--"she knows there's no success like failure, but that failure's no success at all." It took me a long time to really have this as a feeling, but to live that paradox deeply means that you come to understand a new way of approaching learning. (It is worth noting here that there are few statements that I have come across that generate as much debate and strong feelings as this one. So, for whatever reason, this seems to be a hot button issue in the world I inhabit. I would be curious to see what you think about Dylan's proposal.)

Failure, for people who are not experience-based learners, is the opposite of success. The two concepts--success and failure--represent a dichotomy that cannot be reconciled.  Most of the students I am around who are high achievers have not yet understood the wisdom of what Dylan was proposing. But as we have seen in earlier posts, dichotomies are dangerous territory for experience-based learning because they often frame the issue in overly simplistic ways.

I think that what Dylan is proposing is not a dichotomy but a dialectic. The difference is profound. Success and failure as a dialectic sees these two concepts as a yin and yang--forever intertwined in a whole entity that is dynamic, like a journey. People who "enter the paradox" through dialectical thinking are more effective in navigating the vicissitudes of life that we actually do not completely control--whether it is at home, or in school or on the basketball court. What a dialectical way of thinking does is give you an intentionality to aim yourself toward a goal, do your best to maintain focus and allow yourself to accept the outcome of your efforts--whatever they may be. I sometimes wonder whether there is a correlation between people who think in dichotomies and people who want to control the outcome of things.

So speaking of basketball,

Larry Bird, Boston Celtics legend, was probably the person who most exemplified the ability to embrace the dialectic of success and failure when I was a young teacher. (Not that Larry Legend would have described it this way, but click the link to watch Larry in the fourth quarter in the 1988 game 7 of the NBA semifinals and you will get a sense of what I mean.) Even though he was someone who was one of the best passers of the ball ever to live, he was always unafraid to take the crucial shot. It always seemed like he was on a journey that thrilled and excited him. He didn't get caught up in any fears about failure that interfered with his ability to just do his best at playing the game.

What I have come to realize is that turning the dichotomy of success and failure into a dialectic is one of the keys to becoming an advanced experience-based learner. I sometimes wish schools would think more in dialectics and less in dichotomies. This may be one reason that the schools I am most familiar with are dedicated to success and quite afraid of failure. Perhaps we should establish a top award for "dialectics in success and failure?" Or would that be too much "guerrilla irony?"

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A List of Criteria to Tell Whether My Feedback is Experience-based

When I was in graduate school doing philosophy courses, we used to pose these "thought experiments" as a way of opening one's thinking about a problem.

In the past, I have done experiments such as "Imagine a student you teach arrives home from the first day of school. His parent(s) meet him at the door and say, "How was school today?' How do you want her to answer then they ask about your individual class? Write out your answer on a piece of paper. Now, how are you going to design your class so that she says those words?"

Or, "Imagine that the state has outlawed grades as a mechanism for giving feedback because of the research showing that grading retards development and growth. You have to design a new form of feedback. What would it look like?"

So, what follows (and I apologize if this gets dense or boring--sometimes doing these experiments results in this happening but it is part of the process. Sorry. My advice,  if that happens?  Skip to what you find interesting) is an experiment answering this question, "How many statements can you make that you think are true about experience-based feedback?"

So, here are a couple of premises that I think are true about feedback that is transformational followed by a list of statements that I think are true.  You can tell me which ones you agree with or not. Please feel free to comment, the feedback would be fun.

The Purpose of Feedback

     The main purpose of feedback is to support learning.  Learning, however, is not just about technical skill development and product enhancement - it is also about making people engaged, motivated and empowered in their learning.  Feedback, therefore, focuses not only on what has been learned but also on how people learn.  In short, feedback helps learners know how to improve and it develops the capacity for self-assessment.  Feedback should encourage intrinsic motivation, give learners a sense of authorship and control, build learner’s confidence in their own learning, and enhance their strategic awareness of how improve.  Feedback that achieves those goals is truly “experience-based.”

The following are criteria to determine whether feedback is experience-based or not:

            Feedback must be timely—late feedback is virtually worthless.
            Feedback on assessments (papers, tests, quizzes, presentations) has an emotionally charged feature that is critical to developing intrinsic motivation. To not take that into account when giving feedback is negligent, short-sighted and harmful.
            Feedback significantly affects peoples’ motivation and engagement. If your students are not motivated and are disengaged, look immediately at the feedback you are giving them rather than at them.
            Feedback should foster “care” and respond to a “need” on the part of the author.
            Feedback should be used to support learning, not competition.
            Feedback is best used to promote learning, not to measure it.
            Feedback is the single dominating factor in motivation.  Motivation comes in four major forms 1) task driven (intrinsic) 2) ego (competition) 3) social (fitting in and pleasing people) and 4) as means to an end (extrinsic).  Only the first is “harm-free” and developmentally sound.  Feedback should focus on the task not on the student. 
            Students faced with continued negative feedback develop “learned helplessness” in order to protect their self-esteem.

            Peoples’ persistence is related to how successful they think they expect to be. How successful they expect to be is largely determined by the feedback they get.        
            Developmentally sound feedback recognizes that intelligence is “flexible” not “fixed.” (You have to read Carol Dweck's book, Mindset, for a fuller explanation of these ideas)
            Self-efficacy precedes, and is the foundation of, self-esteem.
            Formative feedback is more important for development than summative feedback.
            Feedback that feels like judgment will undermine development.
            Feedback should always be designed to increase confidence.
            Feedback should always have a meta-cognitive feature to it.
            Feedback should always be designed to increase the feeling of autonomy of the learner not dependence.
            Learning is a social activity that benefits from collaboration.
            Feedback should be based on the Vygotsky model of 1) performance assisted by teachers 2) performance is self-assisted 3) performance has become internalized and almost automatic 4) performance seeks out the DKDK zone and copes with uncertainty.
            Feedback should be seen as part of a “dialogue” between author and responder.
            Developmentally sound feedback fosters a relationship between the author and their work as well as between the author and the responder.
            Feedback has the greatest developmental impact when it does not compare work to other students work but focuses on specific ways the work can be improved and on improvements from earlier work.
            Feedback that is developmentally sound assumes that students have a clear understanding of the assessment criteria. This is often a bad assumption, and has to be re-visited by both student and teacher.
            Feedback that is purely technical is less effective than feedback that has cathartic, catalytic and coaching value that inspires hope and confidence.
            Feedback that focuses on the process of learning (“sustainable feedback”) rather than only the outcome or performance will improve learning and subsequent performance. (I like this idea of feedback that is sustainable because it links so nicely to the idea of meta-cognition and self-knowledge on the part of the student.)
            Developmentally sound feedback must be separated from grading in order to be effective.

            Feedback in the form of “reflective assessment” with peers has a positive impact.
            Self-assessment feedback encourages students to think about the criteria that should be used in judging their work rather than relying solely on teachers to determine that criteria. (Therefore, each piece of student work should have an "author's page" attached in which the student explains to the teacher what they want feedback on and what questions remain in their minds about their work.)
            Students can get better at a task not only by doing the task but by increasing their capacity to give developmentally sound feedback.
            Feedback must be put to use after it is given.
            Feedback is most effective when students are responsible for the organization of their work, keep a record of their activities and make their own decisions about future actions.
            Feedback is for the teacher as much as it is for the student.

So, this is my list so far. Please feel free to add to it. It is what I have come to look at whenever I begin to think I am not really giving feedback that will foster transformation.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

"I and Thou" Relationships: The Origins of Experience-based feedback

The last blog post explored grading as a form of feedback, and the nature of its insufficiency's.

But that post has led me to think about two questions--one, where did I first get my understanding of what really good feedback was supposed to look like? and two, what do I think experience-based feedback should look like?

In my first years of teaching I remember walking into the wood-paneled English office with its huge bay windows looking out onto the main campus, and, more times than not, there would be Joe, the veteran teacher chatting with a colleague while his pen flew across a piece of paper. Joe was late to secondary school teaching, but he had been a renowned college professor and seemed to embody the idea of the consummate old pro. What was most remarkable to me, however, was that he could carry on a conversation while correcting a student's essay. Not only that, the sheer volume of feedback he supplied was staggering. Perhaps fittingly, he called them "strafing runs," and the red ink certainly flowed freely on every page. To say the least I and the other young teachers were envious, and in subsequent conversations I came to learn that he had been a newspaper editor in his early days, and this was where he had learned how to perform these "runs." It had been out of necessity, the paper needed to get out, and the corrections had to be made.

But it wasn't just Joe who was engaged in this activity; we all had a mentality that we were "correcting" a set of papers. This was the way we described what we were doing. I am not sure I ever heard the words feedback or assessment in those days; you graded papers and gave tests. By definition, we were framing the issue of feedback as being defined by pointing out failures and creating competitive, comparative, hierarchical rankings. And in our own hierarchical world of teachers, Joe was our king of feedback.

The other day we had one of our monthly teacher workshop sessions where people get together and present something they have been working on or just pondering. This past Thursday's session was two English teachers presenting a literature review of the research on feedback that they had done over the summer; it was assiduously researched and  beautifully delivered. Feedback has been a hot topic for researchers in the last decade or so, and there is a great deal written about it; the ASCD even devoted their last magazine issue to the topic. Formative assessment with "dollops of feedback" , as John Hattie puts it, has been shown to be one of the most highly effective measures in increasing student performance.

Composition Chronicle cartoon
There is so much in these feedback studies, and yet they often address only strategic considerations. I am interested in how and why feedback becomes "transformational" for the student AND for the teacher; that would give me a clue as to how to create experience-based feedback.

The person who gave me my first hint in this quest was Austrian born, Israeli philosopher named Martin Buber. In 1923 Buber published a famous essay on human relationships called "Ich and Du." In this piece, Buber posited that here were two main choices we make in defining our existence. The first he called "I-It." When we make this choice we see everything as an object to be used. Literally, we objectify the world. Jean Paul Sartre made a similar point in his famous dictum, "never treat people like things." When we do that we create an inauthentic relationship that is only utilitarian; we are using people. (This, by the way, is why Sartre hated Manhattan which he called the "Great American Desert.")

But in an "I-Thou" choice we enter into a "living relationship." Buber (and Sartre) hoped that we would choose to do that with all people, but he thought they we could engage in this relationship with everything. "I- It" relationships are all about barriers because they are characterized by distance and engage solely in the act of examining and measuring. An "I-Thou" relationship, I realized, was characterized by dialogue and empathy where the objective was to truly understand what someone else was saying and to engage them in an act of sharing.

If I could think of feedback not as "correcting and grading" (a quintessential "I-It" relationship that evokes paralyzing feelings of judgment), but instead as a form of "creative collaboration," then the feedback that I gave would be potentially transformational both for the student and for me because we would be in dialogue. And this is where I came to see the paradox of experience-based feedback--it fosters the feeling of independence in students by putting them in relationship with others. Freedom is no longer defined as independence, but rather as inter-dependence.

Buber also taught me why I had never really thought "constructive criticism" was effective transformational feedback--it inherently creates an "I-It" relationship because it prejudices the responder with primary power rather than the author. Any kind of criticism always has to do with value; effective experience-based feedback has to do with choices made and meaning created. The value of something has to be secondary when the goal is growth and development.

Experience-based feedback has a hidden value as well, however, in that I now see feedback not as something that I am giving to students, but also something that students are giving to me. Every time I sit down to engage with a set of essays, they telling me so much about what they understand and what they don't, what misconceptions they have and ultimately, what mistakes I have made in designing the assignment. And the effect of this is to change my relationship to them as people as well; we are in this together in dialogue and they are not running for cover from a strafing run.

Coda: In one recent study students, parents, administrators and teachers were asked to name the major influences on student achievement. Ever group, except teachers, said relationships between teachers and students. Teachers cited the child's attitude, home background, school working conditions and student deficiencies. How we define the problem will give some answers, but we better be careful how we define the problem.

However, by getting our feedback to be experience-based we might have the effect of making those student-teacher relationships more what Sartre called "good faith" relationships.

Next blog post?  I think I need to think through the characteristics of experience-based feedback.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Feedback: How Do Teachers Arrive at Grades?

Last month an writer friend of mine gave me a 600 page (well, 599 pages) manuscript of her new novel to comment on. And as we talked on the phone she rattled off a whole series of questions that she wanted me to address--describe my feelings about certain characters, what did I think the structure was and did it work, were there problems with the rhythm in certain sections?

What struck me most immediately was how similar these questions and concerns were to the way I would talk with my soccer players at halftime of each game. Because I could not tell what the game felt like from the sideline (as a spectator or coach you never really completely understand the feeling of what is happening on the field), I had to listen to my players talk for awhile before I could really say anything helpful. As a parallel note, I think we as teachers do not understand what it feels like to be a student--particularly an adolescent student. But we often falsely assume that, because we may understand what it feels like intellectually, we understand it psycho-emotionally.

And then I realized that my players needed to be the first people to set the terms of the dialogue about what had just happened in the first half. Furthermore, if I could train them to ask the right questions about the game, then the quality and effectiveness of my feedback and their play on the field would soar astronomically. As time went on the questions they asked were surprisingly similar to my author friend--what did I think about certain choices they had made at different junctures, did the shape and structure of the team formation hold in the desired way, was there a flow to certain sections of the half?

The key, I realized, was that they had to feel like the authors of the game they were playing, and my job was primarily to make them feel like expert authors. Once that happened, then we could take the field for the second half.

The issue here is feedback, and it is one of the most fundamental and perplexing parts of being a teacher and human being. Just as a way of confirming how important feedback is, it was ranked in the top three "most effective things that matter" in learning development by John Hattie's synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement in education. That book is, by the way, a fascinating compilation of data.

The nature of feedback is usually on my mind, but this week it is Parent's Night and I have to present my "grading policy." Because, in many places, that is the currency of the realm in terms of feedback. We can explore how this currency came to be adopted in a later post; in this post I want you to think about how YOU arrive at grades. (This is obviously directed more specifically at people who are teachers, but I think it has other applications as well.)

Decades ago I decided that I would ask all the master teachers in the school I was teaching in (two different schools actually and countless friends who are teachers across the country) how they arrived at the grades they did. What follows below is the compendium of what they come up with as answers. The document below is the one I give out to my students to get their feedback on this process and to open the dialogue about grades and what they are good for and what they are decidedly not good for:

I can tell you what I did discover, and this has held true for every workshop in every school I have ever done this with--no teacher has exactly the same grading policy. Furthermore, it is the rare teacher who is completely transparent to students about all of the factors that go into grading. Finally, there is significant disagreement amongst teachers and schools about what "ought" to be considered when grading. Not surprisingly, my own students never agree on how to arrive at grades for the class. Put yourself through this little exercise and see if anything surprises you.

To: My students
Re: Grading                                                                                                      
How do Teachers Arrive at Grades?

     What follows is an experiment you can run that is based on data that I have been collecting about all of the factors that different teachers use to arrive at the grade you receive.  All of these categories are ones that teachers have told me they use to determine what grade to give to a student.  Or, as some like to say, “the grade the student earned.”

     You can do this yourself and “play teacher.”  Here is how to play—first, you need to assign a percentage weight to each of the following ten (10) categories.  The total has to add up to 100%.  Obviously, different teachers use different percentage weights for different categories.  After you have done that, you need to assign a number to each of the categories indicating the score in each category.  (Example:  Say a teacher decided PERFORMANCE is 50 % and EFFORT is 50 %.  You score a 100 for effort and a 50 for performance; you would receive a 75 for your grade.)

     Now, obviously, this can get a lot more complicated when you have different percentages in six or seven categories.  But, do the best you can.

                        1)   Performance
Both written and oral. Homework and in-class work. Projects, etc.

2) Talent
Reading, writing, thinking, oral communication
                  3)   Development
How much progress has there been?
                  4) Past Experience
What has your experience been relative to past classes you have taught in this subject?
                  5) Comparison
Rank in relation to other people in this class
Rank in relation to the rest of the school
Rank in relation to other people you have taught in other schools

6) Effort
                 Have you done everything assiduously and in “good faith?” Do you put in lots of time?
                  7) What have you learned?
                 Consider what has been “internalized" or gained in “personal experience”
                  8) Motivational Factor
What grade would motivate you best in the future?
                  9) Self-Assessment
How well can you self-assess your own learning?
                  10) Subjective Factor
                   Any other factor that you think should count

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had given feedback to my soccer players at half-time the way I used to give feedback to my students. I envision myself standing in the center of circle of players and spinning around pointing at individual players saying, "A, C, D, B+, C-, B-, D+....." and then "OK, we ready for the second half?" I think I might have been fired for incompetence, and I can't even imagine what Parent's Night would have looked like.

Compare your answers to how you compute grades with your colleagues; I would be interested to see what you discover.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Judgment is the Enemy of Experience: Final Thoughts

I thought I was done with the last blog post, but then a couple of ideas and questions popped into my head that seemed to warrant a follow up post on the topic of "judgment being the enemy of experience." I am going to pick up from where the last blog left off...

So, why do we love dichotomies and especially the "like / dislike" formulation? I remember we had an authorship seminar a couple of years ago with Gary Shteyngart discussing his novel, Super Sad True Love Story. One of the ideas the novel explores is a futuristic dystopia where technology has taken on an insidious role in everyone's life. The "apparats" (see cartoon below) that everyone wears around their necks are geared to not only connect everyone to everyone else but to display information about the person wearing the device--especially information that compares them to other people in the same room. As Gary said that day, "I am not sure this is actually futuristic..."

During the course of that dialogue, Gary began to talk about how much he was obsessed with Facebook because he could post something, "and people will like it. I post pictures of every 'wiener dog' (dachshund) I see on the street and immediately lots of people will 'like" what I have put up; it makes me feel good." Because he is such a thoughtful and reflective person, he was able to self-implicate and express why he wanted to do that. Though this fall there was a controversy in the literary world over Gary's blurbing of author's books, so perhaps those have replaced wiener dogs.

Later I would come across a Zadie Smith review of David Fincher's film "The Social Network" in the New York Review of Books. In this piece she explores her own use of Facebook and offers that "for our self-conscious generation (and in this I, and Zuckerberg, and everyone else raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked (her italics) is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment."

So, if Zuckerberg has tapped the unconscious dichotomy of his generation--the instantaneous feel good judgment achieved with the one click of the mouse on a "like" button, the un-learning needed to create genuine, authentic experience may require more attention than we think.

My wife is a social worker who has worked with clients diagnosed with "Borderline Personality Disorder." She has used a treatment developed by Marsha Linehan called "Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)." What interests me most is that it is a technique that combines cognitive behavioral techniques with Buddhist mindfulness practice. From an experience-based learning point of view, this combination allows for a cognitive, spiritual approach whose effectiveness can be tested in the real world time. While I am in no way claiming that the people I work with have borderline personalities, DBT provides penetrating insights into the world of emotion regulation and how we might combat the "like / dislike" problem of premature judgment that seems to be so prevalent.

Truth be told, the mindfulness training from DBT is probably what I strive to do with my students in class almost every day. You increase the chances of a moment becoming an experience if you can pay attention, non-judgmentally, to the present moment where you are fully present, but with a perspective on yourself at the same time. But how to achieve this double-consciousness? How do we be both on the dance floor fully engaged and in the balcony watching ourselves dance simultaneously?

In DBT there are mindfulness "What" skills--observation, description and participation--that are the content techniques for being fully present. One key is to practice observation and description that are non-judgmental and to focus your participation on the thing one is doing. Last week, my co-teacher did a fabulous exercise where each student got a lemon to "explore" for five minutes. Then we put all the lemons back in the bag and mixed them up. How many people do you think could identify their particular lemon? When I first heard about this experiment, I guessed about half would be able to. But everyone identified their own lemon-- everyone! Would that we could go through everyday seeing every "lemon" so acutely.

But there are also mindfulness "How" skills-- non-judgmentally, one-mindfully and effectively--that are about the communication of what you are observing and describing. I think what DBT achieves with people who chronically struggle with emotional dysregulation might be a lot closer to what we need than we might think. To be sure, there are differences between the populations, but we, as teachers striving to be experience-based, might have much to learn from Linehan's work.

The concept of judgment has a potential to be dangerous territory for anyone, whether it's someone living with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), an experience-based learner, or whoever strives to experience life in all its richness for a number of reasons:

1) We sometimes consider a judgment to be a statement of fact.

2) Judgment is often just a shorthand for a preference (when we label something as "bad" it cuts us off from the dialectical/dialogic part of our experience - which allows us to participate more fully in our experiences).

3) Statements of judgment encourage debate over dialogue (and as we have seen in earlier posts, dialogue is far more likely to enhance experiential learning than debate)

The other day I was looking up a former student on Facebook when someone looked over my shoulder and remarked, "Hey, you haven't 'liked" that photo!" It actually had never occurred to me to click on the "like" button at all, I was just looking intently at the picture. May I be able to keep it that way!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Judgment is the Enemy of Experience

"Judgment is the enemy of experience," I would intone as we started talking about what experience-based feedback might look like, "Jot that down in your notebooks, and let's unpack that idea." And I could see my friend and CITYterm colleague squirming in agony out of the corner of my eye as we began class. Later she would say, "You drive me nuts. How can you say that? Judgment is what we are striving for; it is what we want them to achieve. How can you say that it is the 'enemy of experience?'"

And she is right, judgment IS what we are trying to get students to have. After all, if they don't have judgment, then is there any way to judge quality, depth, sophistication? We want them to form opinions objectively, authoritatively and wisely; we want them to be judges. Books like The Primal Teen explore  (in interesting ways) the underdevelopment of the prefrontal cortex in adolescents as being the root of poor decision making and, therefore, judgment. There is a strong case to be made that judgment is precisely what students need more than anything else.

But in the world of experience-based learning, judgment is a bit like the idea of discrimination. We want want people to be discriminating, to make fine distinctions, but being discriminatory has obvious connotations that exhibit a darker side as well. Judgment is a nuanced idea with double meanings. So how is judgment the enemy of experience?

Some of the difficulty lies in the way we are inclined to set up problems. Before we make a judgment, we have almost always created a structure that will determine, in large part, how the judgment wll be made. The point is this, how you set up the problem will determine the range of answers you will get. As Einstein is often quoted as saying, "If I had an hour to save the world I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding the solutions."

I remember listening in a junior American Studies seminar in college to the lists of thesis titles that were coming out that year. What I was struck by was the number of titles that created dichotomies-- "John D. Rockefeller: Robber Baron or Christian Saint?" or "Wounded Knee: Military Necessity or Genocide?
They sounded a little like country-western titles- "I Don't Know Whether to Kill Myself or Go Bowling" or "I'd Rather have a Bottle in Front of me than a Frontal Lobotomy." In a truly disconcerting way, it sounds a bit like the way Democrats and Republicans are defining the issues (and each other) right now. The problem from an experience-based point of view is that you get caught in an "either /or" set-up that provokes debate rather than exploration or dialogue.

And this is where we start each semester at CITYterm (and in my history class at the Masters School) trying to figure out how to "un-learn" the most common ways that problems are set up in our culture. Look around, see how many choices you are given in a day that are either/or choices. There seems to be a preternatural need for some people to set up issues as dichotomies; I sometimes wonder if part of the heritage of Western culture is binary. The other day on a CITYexpedition we ended up in a Hindu temple in Flushing, Queens and got ourselves into a wonderful dialogue about religion.  One student asked the priest, "What about the evil? Who plays the role of the devil in Hinduism?" The priest looked blankly at him and replied that he didn't really understand the question, but that perhaps the student "was trying to describe the cycle that contains both creation and destruction. And, in that case, we should talk about Shiva." The priest was framing the issue as one of exploration of a process, we were reducing the problem to a dichotomous set of categories that would, we thought, grant clarity.

So, at the beginning of each year, we try to move away from the dichotomous ideas of "like and dislike" as responses to a text, and move toward the more unifying idea of "engagement." The expression of "like and dislike" is a "#gamechanger" because it terminates any exploration and declares for one side of the other. If one's opening response to any text is framed in a dichotomous like/dislike framework then you have short circuited the opening process of making that text an experience. This is why this framework is an expression of a judgment and, therefore, the enemy of experience. Cultivating the spirit of exploration must be the opening gambit for generating experiences; the ability to "wonder and wander" is essential to being open to finding oneself in the DKDK zone.

But my friend is right, we do want to strive to arrive at good judgment--but in its time. I have the feeling there is more to say here--maybe another blog post later is in order.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Mature and Immature Teaching: The Self

This is the third of three blog posts exploring the layers of teaching that are involved in an experience-based classroom. I often get comments about how wonderful it must be to have New York City as a classroom and laboratory becasue we can practice experience-based learning. However, when CITYterm is working at its best it is not as if classes are solely preparation for the city experience, rather the teacher is striving to build bridges between the classes and the city trips. It is those bridges where the experience is often found or created. Oftentimes that bridge is the relationship between the teacher and the learner.

One of the reasons that experience-based teaching is dynamic and transformative is precisely because it is working on multiple layers. The last two posts discussed the first four of the "S's"  that make up what  experience-based teachers are looking for when they are teaching-- (S)ubject, (S)kills, (S)trategies, (S)tudents. This post explores the last of those (S's)--the (S)elf.

I remember sitting in the department office one late winter afternoon in my third or fourth year of teaching with my friend and colleague, Buddy, trying to figure out what we were actually teaching that was of lasting value. That evening, we decided that what was really most enduring was simply "tone." We arrived at this conclusion because we both acknowledged that we could hear our most formative teachers and coaches in our heads; we literally heard "voices" in our heads when we taught or coached.

Today, if I were to modify what Buddy and I discovered I would say that it was not only "tone" but a fuller, richer idea - "voice" - that was memorable, and that tone was only part of that. These voices were the omnipresent ghost - like Hamlet's father - that were omnipresent and recognizable. You could see McFeeley in my class design, hear O'Connell in my responses to students in class, discern Arkes in the feedback I gave on essays, and easily conjure up Gooding in every soccer practice. I had internalized these voices, and they popped out constantly.

At the time, I was reading and teaching a lot of T.S. Eliot poetry and came across the following comment about different kinds of poets, "One of the surest tests (of the superiority or inferiority of a poet) is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole feeling which is unique, utterly different from which it is torn..." I still remember the complex feeling that night. First, that being a teacher might be like being a poet--a lovely idea, I thought. Second, that I was simply an imitator, an immature teacher; at worst, a fraud.

In fact, I had not internalized these voices, I had simply recorded them. My teaching was like what my painter friends called " basic rendering;" it wasn't art. It was what my theater friends called "learning the lines;" it wasn't acting. What to do? Well, if Eliot were right, I would have to start "stealing." And so began a lifetime career of outright, brazen theft. Of course, theft in the educational world is legitimate as long as you footnote, so I was generous in attributions to sources.

Theft requires courage because you think you are doing something wrong, something inauthentic. But along the way, I realized that having stolen so completely, I could alter, modify, or destroy what was now mine. In fact, I couldn't help but do it. And, as a result, I began to sound more like me. The paradox of genuine theft is that, if you do it right, you increase the potential of being authentic--of having a "voice." This, you realize, is how the people you were imitating must have created the "self" that they were teaching.

But the most unexpected gift that can then occur at that point is what my wife, a social worker, says is called "transference" and the "parallel process" in psychology. She describes it this way in terms of  describing a social work colleague: "Janet, you're a person who has five cats, and you're trying to help your client who is about to be evicted because she has pets. How could this be affecting your effectiveness as a social worker (positively as in she has the drive and motivation to move mountains for the client - or negatively as she gets stuck and righteous and combative in a way that the landlord becomes even more unwilling to negotiate with the client)?" If you are astute, you can see yourself in your client.

In the world of experience-based teaching and learning it is the ability to turn what has been a window into a mirror.  Having crafted a voice as a teacher, if you begin listen more and talk less, you hear yourself in your students. Not that this always reveals your best self, however. For example, you begin to realize that the student who drives you crazy is actually in your class, in part, to teach you about some Jungian shadow trait that you actually dislike about or disown in yourself. And so the teacher/student relationship becomes about learning for both parties. But for the teacher it is a second way of teaching your "self."

So, how to begin the journey towards "mature" teaching?  I guess it is partly theft and partly looking in the mirror.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Five "S's" of Experience-Based Teaching: Part II

The last post explored two of the five "S's" that are the layers an experience-based teacher works with during any given class. Here are the final three of those "S's" and some reminders to myself of how I got to where I am as a teacher.


I had realized that I was teaching a nuanced (S)ubject, but I also had realized that I had to be teaching a wide variety of precisely defined (S)kills in combination with that subject. However, I could also tell as I team taught with master teachers each spring that they had a lot more going on in their classrooms than just that.

The biggest difference between my students and their students was that my students now had a deeper knowledge base that called upon a wider range of skills than just short term memory, but they didn't really have what I would have called understanding. They knew things, but they didn't understand them.

One of the more curious remarks I remember when I started asking older teachers about "knowing versus understanding" came from a high-powered Advanced Placement teacher whose students always got 4's or 5's on their tests, "I wouldn't worry about it; you don't have to understand anything in high school, you just have to know a lot of stuff. In fact, if you start to understand it, your performance might go down." I have always wondered whether, in fact, he was correct, but I have never been able to subscribe to the ideal behind it.

Part of the difference between knowing and understanding something seemed to be being the difference between being skilled and being strategic. Certainly, I had people on my soccer teams who were skilled but were not what my own British coaches referred to simply as "players." To be only highly skilled was not enough to understand the game or how to play it. But what did being a "player" look like in the classroom? It was not, obviously, to be good at simply being a student, it was to be good at being a learner.

There seemed to be two major elements that were missing from achieving understanding and from learning how to learn--choice and design. Choice provided motivation and dynamism; design provided creativity and direction. And as I looked around it became apparent that my students got to make very few choices and they rarely designed something. The other day at an opening CITYterm advisee meeting with parents and students, I was trying to explain what was different about experience-based learning and asked, "When was the last time you designed something in your school?" The answer was a kind of embarrassed silence. But that is the response I get all the time from students at schools all over the country. Design is one of the essential parts of creativity; it is why teachers love making up paper topics, but hate grading papers. But it is not something in the daily cognitive diet of high school students in classrooms. Ironically, it is something that does exist in what are often mistakenly labeled "extra-curricular activities."

To be able to make choices and to craft a design for something is to have a strategy. But if I am only teaching subject matter and skills, I will miss this crucial element. What those master teachers were doing was providing protocols, offering methodologies and suggesting algorithms (all classic strategic concepts) but all within the realm of playing with material.  It looked a lot like my soccer and lacrosse teams--players making choices and creating a flow to a game. And having more fun while generating a deeper understanding of what they were doing at the same time.


The idea of being a good learner struck with me in a way that has never left. So much of what I was doing was about learning how to learn--about anything and everything. That was, in fact, the single most important skill of a sustainable education. But in order to be able to do that you had to have two other skills--being meta-cognitive and being able to self-assess.

I could know my subject, tease out the embedded skills, and develop strategies, but my students were too reliant upon me in a way that my players were not. But I had made them that way in one dramatic way--I rarely allowed them to assess their own work. I had generated a dependency, and with it, a severe blow to their confidence. The players on my teams had attitude; they had confidence tempered with humility. My students did not.

Once my students started thinking about their own thinking (meta-cognition) and self-assessing their own work, then they could create their own cognitive profiles. This was a dramatic change to the tone of class. But it ramped up the challenge of teaching immeasurably. Now I had to be watching myself teach; I had to be in the "balcony" while participating on the "dance floor" at the same time. Every student was now definably individual because they processed with radically different cognitive processes. If I were going to teach each individual I had to listen to WHAT they were saying, but then I had to infer HOW they had arrived at that understanding. This added a layer to the classroom that I do not think I will ever exhaust.


The move to being both in the balcony and on the dance floor unearthed a truth that I had long suspected, but now stared glaringly back at me--I was teaching "myself" as well. But that needed to be understood in a couple of different ways, and will need a fuller development in a different blog post.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Mortality and Morbidity: Getting Better Part I

In the fall of 1975 after finishing college, I was quite unsure I wanted to go into teaching as a profession; four years earlier I would have told you it was the ONE job I would never, never do.  But a summer internship teaching and coaching had hooked me because it seemed such a mystery as to why some people learned and some didn't. But there was still one major impediment  in my mind--there were too many older teachers who looked and felt stagnant, and that was perhaps my biggest professional fear at that moment. So I told myself I would try this but only if, at the end of every year, I could clearly articulate how I had gotten better at being a teacher.

A few years ago I came across a book by Atul Guwande entitled simply, Better.  It is a lovely, easy read where Guwande takes on a number of different issues in the field of medicine and describes how the profession, and the individuals in it, have gotten better at what they do. I have found myself attracted to books like this because I have this sneaking feeling that my own profession doesn't actually HAVE to get better; there is no compelling impetus. In the private school world you can simply accept "statistically smart" kids and they will still be smart four (or more) years later. What evidence do we have that we, as teachers, actually were important in growth? And then what about the students who don't really "make it" can be removed from the institution as if it was something wrong with them that impelled the separation.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like for a school to regularly engage in what doctors call an "M and M" session- Morbidity and Mortality. In these sessions doctors look over a specific cases that are matters of life and death and figure out what happened. The best sessions engage in a self-implication on the role of the hospital and the individual doctors in what happened. But it is all in the name of getting better. I sometimes wonder what might be an equivalent activity in education; certainly the traditional Disciplinary Committee report is not it.

But one Guwande's other ideas struck me as being something that resonated with my own career--being a "positive deviant." For Guwande there are five activities you can engage in that will help you get better--"ask an unscripted question, count something, write something, don't complain and embrace change." This list reminded me of what I have come to consider the five layers of teaching ("the 5 S's") that I have learned over the decades; it also gives me a chance to reflect on where those came from and why I stayed in teaching.  Teaching in a way that is experience-based means you are operating simultaneously on five different layers while class is happening; the more you can accomplish this, I think, the better you get as a teacher.


Before I walked into my first classroom as a teacher I knew that I didn't know enough about what I was teaching. It does not take long to realize that being a history major in college doesn't equip you with enough content to teach a high school history course. So, for ten years I would take a period in American history and overemphasize it in my curriculum design. At the end of the decade, I had a pretty good grasp of the historiography of one course I was teaching.

But trouble had occurred way before the end of that decade. I began to wonder if my students retained anything I was teaching--or, exactly what did they retain a few months later? So I asked a class of seniors whom I had taught the previous year to take the final exam again half way through their senior year. The results caused the first of many dark nights of the soul in my teaching life. The new results were terrible, in some cases failing. Here was the way I framed my dilemma, "Am I going to spend the next thirty years of my life teaching people how to pass a test in June that they may not be able to pass in December of the same year? Clearly, something had to change, or it was time to try a new profession.


Luckily, two things happened so that I did not join the hordes of teachers who left for law school or business school after three years or so because they just could not see teaching the same thing for forty more years. First, I truly believed in what I was teaching. History, Literature, Philosophy, Humanities, American Studies, Religion helped shape one's life, I thought. And each year I could team-teach them with other teachers in interdisciplinary courses in the spring.

Second, the people I was coaching in soccer and lacrosse were exactly the same people I was teaching in History and English, and this led to the next realization and the second "S"--skills. What I could not help but notice was that those same students developed rapidly on my teams and nowhere near as quickly or as deeply in my classes. Why, I wondered?  I started asking and people would tell me that it was the nature of the activity; they "liked" soccer, they didn't like "English." Perhaps true, but what if I were also culpable? Perhaps it was time for an "M and M session?"

And so I set myself an experiment, I would teach the way I coached and see what happened. What was different? Well, as the title of this section indicates, I realized that my coaching was as much skills based as it was content based. But, if I were honest, the dominant skill that was tested in my classes was short term memory. When I said practice "critical thinking" I didn't have anywhere near the precision in my explanation that I did when I said "pass the ball." In the latter, I had multiple techniques; I had algorithms: I had options. And we had practice sessions solely devoted to mastering those skills. Not so for the amorphous command-- "think critically."

And so I began to think about what skills were embedded in what content, and how could I tease those skills out, name them, and then present them in an organized fashion that mimicked what I did as a coach? This provided a second layer to my teaching that was not only more complicated, but vastly more successful. And the students not only came away with a more varied skill set, but they seemed to have a marginally better grasp on the subject.

But best of all, I realized, I had changed the tone of the classroom from a noun to a verb.  We were DOING things, not just studying them. They weren't just studying history, they were becoming historians.

But as I team-taught with master teachers, I knew that there was more going on in their classrooms than in mine, and that was what I needed to figure out. The next blog post will suss out three more "S's" that have taught me to make the transition from learning how to teach to being fascinated with how people learn.