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.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Implications of Seminar Teaching: Part II

In the last blog post, I was trying to get at some of the basic premises underlying seminar style teaching. What follows is the second half of that memo to the Admissions Director where I am trying to imagine some of the most potent implications of that style.

I am always reminded of one of the goals of my own teaching when I come across the following line from Walt Whitman's  Leaves of Grass, “he who most honors my style learns to destroy the teacher.”  While at the Masters School the teacher might not be literally  “destroyed,” Whitman did capture one of the truths about life-long learning; all teachers should strive to reach a point of planned obsolescence (like automobiles) and eventually, usually each June, the real test of education occurs with one simple question: “Does the student keep embracing learning during the summer and for the rest of their life?”

This may be what Albert Einstein meant when he said, "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school." Real education is what has been internalized, not memorized. Life-long learning is something that is done without a traditional teacher; it relies on what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “self-reliance.”  And how can one become a life-long learner, if one does not learn how to teach oneself? Learning has its own sustainability that has to be cultivated during the school year, if it is to be internalized. Each student learning how they learn as an individual is one of the keys to making learning more fascinating as well as increasing that person's intrinsic motivation and drive.


Therefore, teachers must prepare students to become their own teachers.  How can they do that without focusing primarily on the student’s learning rather than solely on their own transmission of educational information or knowledge?  Seminar teaching has this dedication to life-long learning at its core in ways that other methods do not.  It is about the empowerment of the student’s learning, not only the sanctioning of the knowledge.

Harkness is a more flexible system than a traditional classroom because it allows for the student to perfect a methodology for finding information and creating meaning.  Students can learn not only what they think, but also why they think what they do.  Seminar teaching allows for a student to cultivate a meta-cognitive view (if the teacher promotes it) that embraces not only what is being learned but also how the individual student is learning it.  To bring a student into this dialogue is to allow them to be truly in control of their own learning; it is one of the keys to giving students a feeling of authorship of their own learning.  Simultaneously, dynamic veteran teachers virtually always make the transition from focusing on the craft of their teaching to an addictive wondering about how and when learning occurs. Seminar teaching benefits not only the student, therefore, but prolongs the vitality and vibrancy of teacher’s growth as well.

In short, Harkness has a special pedagogical place because it addresses the HOW students learn every bit as much as the WHAT they are learning.  This epistemological focus brings forth a particular opportunity for a school to embrace the diversity of its population and move it toward a multi-cultural, pluralistic attitude and ethos.  Diversity (a model that most private schools have mistakenly adopted as the Holy Grail) is simply the description of a condition that exists to a greater or lesser degree. And in the Masters School population the level of diversity is quite high; it is a profound opportunity to make the learning at the school truly experiential.  Multi-culturalism (though I think we need a new word to describe the process/attitude that I am suggesting), however, involves students and faculty challenging the premises that are the foundation of deeply held tribal truths and exposing the ones that are, in fact, unwarranted assumptions.  In this case, it invokes the essence of “critical thinking" because it makes one's assumptive world transparent. It is in those moments that experience-based learning thrives and grows. 

Robert Penn Warren has suggested that America is at its best when it exhibits a willingness for tough self-assessment that is unafraid of self-critique.  A school that can use seminar teaching to engage in that self-assessment on an individual, group and institutional level, participates in a very American activity and embraces the particular multi-cultural experiment that is embodied both in the very nature of America and its flagship city in that endeavor, New York City.

Postscript: The next level of Harkness involves investigating the individual student's relationship to the creative process--what sometimes goes under the rubric of “dialogue."  However, the next level also involves a radical re-thinking of what "leadership" is in those moments of creative collaboration. Leadership where you have cultivated an ethic of "collective responsibility" is different than some discussion classes where the primary objective is "voice your opinion." More on that later, OK?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Explaining Seminar Teaching to a New Teacher

Later this week I am helping with a workshop for teachers who are new to the school, and I came across a memo I wrote to the Director of Admissions a decade ago when she asked me to try to explain why teaching around tables (sometimes called Harkness or seminar teaching) is of a great benefit to the school, and how to explain that concept to people who are unfamiliar with that way of teaching and learning.  What follows is an attempt to try to explain how that teaching and learning might happen when this style of teaching is practiced.

Harkness method (if it is, in fact, a method or really more of an ethos) works from a premise that the architecture of the classroom is of greater and more subtle significance than is generally recognized.  Rather than treating the student as a vessel to be filled up with knowledge, or even as a miner in search of a hidden piece of gnosis that the teacher already possesses, Harkness teachers believe that knowledge is created and constructed by the student as much as it is transmitted from teacher to student.  Learning is as much about uncovering skills and aptitudes that were already there but untapped in the student as it is about covering material for a test. I remember when a former student, Nate, looked up one day and said, "So we are un-covering things? I am just used to covering stuff. That certainly sounds more exciting." And it is more fun and more effective precisely because it is dynamic and not passive.

As a result, the student must be placed at the center of the educational process.  A teacher teaches students as much as she teaches courses.  In order for this to happen, and for it to happen in a democratic manner, the architecture of the classroom requires a significant restructuring from rows or even a circle of independent, unconnected desks.  Teacher and student are engaged and committed in a mutually supportive endeavor that the table symbolizes, supports and reinforces.  This means that learning can no longer be simply from the top down, from the teacher to the student; it must be generated and cultivated by a class as a whole, not by the individual. At the highest level of seminar teaching, I think there exists a sense of "collective responsibility" that is actually quite rare and difficult to achieve. When you walk into any room where this sense of challenge and support exists the feeling is palpable; classrooms where it does not exist can feel just like one student, Stevie, said to me once about his school, "we are just a bunch of smart people being smart; that's what we do all day--be smart."

In the most successful forms of Harkness teaching, students and teacher work like a pit crew at a NASCAR race, everyone knowing their strengths and limitations and working with lightening-like precision to transfer a text that was a puzzle into something accessible to everyone.  Or think of a class like a theater troupe that must work in unison to put on the best performance it can in a short amount of time.  Or think of it as “intellectual Outward Bound” where a team of individuals must work together with a high degree of synchronicity in unfamiliar waters in order to bring a boat back to shore.  What is different in those situations is that they are times when you can learn as much about yourself and the people around you as you do about the topic you are “studying.”  This is the added dimension that makes Harkness, in its most sophisticated forms, such a powerful methodology. Harkness allows this to happen in a way that other forms do not. It embraces a ”both/and” stance toward the dichotomy of skills vs. content rather than an “either/or” position. To tease out the skill that will open a given text to exploration is part of the challenge of becoming a good seminar teacher.

Harkness teaching takes as a central premise that learning is more than mere training, that it is a process of discovery not only of what one can be trained to do as a thinker but also what one can discover about oneself in the process.  In order for that to happen, however, teachers engaged in a Harkness ethos believe that there must be a central authority given to the student as learner - not just the student as vessel to be filled up with information or the teacher as expert lecturer, no matter how entertaining or enlightening that teacher may be.  The student becomes the primary authority in her learning and the teacher takes on the role of trusted guide, coach, editor, or advisor. Learning is an act of "authorship," and each person must be their own author.

It is this simple dictum-- "You are the author of your own learning."--that helps transform surface or strategic learning into experience-based learning that can become life-long. It also makes a school something more than just "smart people being smart."

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Balancing Mindful and Connected: Origins of the DKDK

The end of the summer has long been, for me, the place where I need to get back to the origins of things. Increasingly, I find copies of old plan books from the late 70's and early 80's that have kernels of thoughts that I swear only occurred to me last year. But there is no better place for me to engage in this act of remembering than kayaking with loons.  Time slows, and you have to just sit and watch and let thoughts come and go as they please.  It is an act of simultaneous mindfulness and connection. If I can get that balance right, I am ready to get on with the next school year.

So, this past week I posed myself some questions about basic concepts that I believe are crucial to creating experiences. One of those, and the title of this blog, is the DKDK zone. And, since the world often speaks if you listen carefully, I arrived home to a New York Times article from my friend Lisa about the "veil of opulence." It is an interesting article well worth reading, but, for me, it conjured up one of the origins of what would eventually become the DKDK zone--John Rawls' A Theory of Justice.

Back in the day when I was thinking of going to law school (I wanted to be a judge actually, but discovered that you had to be a lawyer before that could happen), I took a number of political science courses and Rawls' theory was a like lightening bolt to the discipline in the early 1970's. But there was one concept in particular--the "veil of ignorance"--that has never really left me for very long. Rawls posited that anyone's conception of justice was warped by the position they held in society; the only way to achieve fairness, therefore was to strip away that knowledge.  Rawls' thought experiment is essentially for people to assume that "no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance."

In other words, in order to achieve a deep understanding you had to shed what you knew because your position in society was actually clouding your ability to see clearly. It was a difficult act of imagination because the objective was  NOT to look at something from our own personal vantage point. At a time when I thought the idea behind college was to accumulate more and more knowledge, here was someone saying I needed to strip away things that were the basis of my point of view, if I were to really have original thoughts.

At virtually the same time, Shunryu Suzuki published a very different kind of book that seemed to me to be wonderfully connected--Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.  Beginner's mind is, however, not exactly what you might think. I still remember the first line of that volume, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." It was a book that challenged me, someone who had only recently begun to understand how to be a good student, to be wary of too much knowledge and of intellectualism. One of Suzuki's koan-like questions was oddly reminiscent of Rawl's thought experiments: "When you are sitting in the middle of your problem, which is more real to you: your problem or you yourself?"

And then there was my subsequent discovery of Thomas Kuhn's ideas about paradigm shifts and revolutionary thought. His book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, led me to realize that what I thought was objective knowledge was always based in an implicit paradigm. In Kuhn's eyes, to see anomalies was the great gift because they forced you to change the worldview that you thought was true. And there were anomalies for all paradigms, so one could always be in a constant state of discovery.

Finally, since I was thinking about soccer as much as I was about anything else, that was where I could have the fullest physical feeling of all these ideas. One of my favorite parts of any game was the preparation-- the walking out to the field from the gym and cultivating the mindset that would allow me to connect fully to the game I was about to play.

So, as my Marxist teammate Gary and I walked out to the field before games he would be singing "You Gotta Go Down and Join the Union." And the crock pot that is my mind would be combining Rawl's "veil of ignorance," with Suzuki's "beginner's mind," with Kuhn's "paradigm shifts" to achieve a world view that was open to the wonder of what might happen in the next ninety minutes. It was an attempt to achieve a state that allowed for maximum creativity with a group. It was, I think, the beginning of accepting the DKDK zone as a good place to be.

And that is the same mindset that I try to get back to while I am cruising around the lake with the loons. If I can enter each school year with the approach of being truly mindful to what is happening around me and being available to the surprise and the possibility of what we all might create together, then I am ready to start again. But, as Gary's song (well, Pete Seeger's) says "ain't nobody here gonna do it for you, you gotta go down and do it by yourself."

Monday, August 6, 2012

Swing Dance, Creative Collaboration and Leadership

Today's post goes back to a conversation I had when I first met CITYterm's swing dance teacher, Evita. If you follow this blog, you will recognize her from an earlier post entitled "Dialogue and the Paradox of Experience-based Learning."  Click this link and it will refresh your memory and you can watch Evita and her partner Michael in the finals of the Strictly Lindy Competition Finals in Harlem at the Alhambra Ballroom in May 2011. In that post, I was looking for examples of "dialogue" as it related to some of the ideas of quantum physicist David Bohm.

My friend Erik and I are working on a book on what we have learned about creative collaboration and leadership at CITYterm (actually, he is writing it; I am just helping), and we are including a section on how we are using swing dance as a way to get students to reconsider the idea of what it means to "lead in creative collaboration." I thought I would take a break from thinking about "hedgehogs and foxes" to writing about algorithms of leadership as they apply to swing dance.

The idea for using swing dance as a vehicle for teaching creative collaboration was actually hatched one early morning in Harlem when David, a former CITYterm student and teacher, took me and my son Walker to a swing joint called Lucy's on 124th street. It is gone now (I was looking for it the other day), but at that time it opened around midnight for a early morning reverie of dance. I still cannot believe what I saw that night. The Harlem Renaissance Orchestra was playing, and there was a relatively small dance floor that was packed. Needless to say, there were flat tins of all kinds of food--ribs, brisket, collard greens, black-eyed peas--lined up along the wall. But I could not keep my eyes off of one dancer--Frankie Manning (watch this tribute video; it will make your day, I promise).  He was well into his eighties at that point, but he was magical in the way he danced. But what was most fascinating was that no matter who he danced with, it was unique and distinct. And I wanted to know why that was happening.

So, David told me he had just the person to help me unpack this problem and that is how I met Evita. We first met at a coffee shop and spent hours drawing diagrams on napkins and talking about how swing dance worked as a form of creative collaboration.

And, after trying to break down the relationship that exists between dancers as they create a dance, we arrived at an acronym that we thought captured this process of creative collaboration and the kind of leadership it requires. The acronym was SISS-- Suggest, Initiate, Structure and Support.

Leadership in creative collaboration differs fundamentally from other contexts and, as a result,  more dominant forms of leadership are actually detrimental to being able to induce creativity. Think about the common metaphors used to describe leadership. They are spatial (leading from the front), hierarchical (leading from the top), biological (physical attributes) or military (command and control). None of those conditions are going to be useful when you are creating something with a group of people-- even if that group is two people swing dancing. Frankie Manning was applying none of these forms of leadership as he created the different dances he did with each partner.

When I coached soccer I used to tell players trying out to make the team that they had two ways to make the team and get onto the field regularly--they could be "really good" and/or "they could make the other people around them play better than they thought they could." And the people who could do the second way were probably going to play more even though they were not as "good" as another player. This stunned some of the "better" players, but it made for some really excellent teams. Frankie Manning, however, was one of those superstars who could be both. But what he did, I think, was to apply the SISS model. Though frankly, Frankie had internalized this so long ago, it was just a part of who he was. I think what I saw that night at Lucy's was a model for leadership when you are in creative collaboration.

First, the leader introduces a Suggestion. In swing dance this is a physical cue that is an invitation but also a notice. This step has actually been the one that has intrigued Evita the most because she has come to realize that the suggestion is actually the result of the leader "listening" to the music and then forming a suggestion. In short, if the leader is not a good "reader" of the music or a good "listener," then the quality of the suggestion may be limited or unimaginative.

Second, the leader Initiates a move. Having prepared their partner, the leader then actually makes the move he had suggested based on his understanding of the music at that moment.

Now, here is where leadership in creative collaboration starts to differ radically from other forms of leadership.

Third, the leader now provides a Structure for their partner to respond. The structure is there because in Evita's words, "if there isn't a structure, then there is a paralysis of infinite possibility. It is easier to chunk things and be fully present in the moment. The length of Michael's (her partner) arm can be enough of a structure to allow me to know the parameters I have to play in. It also makes the connection between us so much stronger."

Fourth, the leader also provides Support for the response of their partner. Now that Evita is "playing" with what Michael has initiated, suggested and provided a structure for, he needs to provide support for her to complete her idea. But, at the same time, he is "listening" to her response to his initial suggestion (and simultaneously still listening to the music) and ready to suggest the next move.

At this point, the leadership cycle is complete in its first rotation, but this is where the creativity has just begun. As Evita puts it, "Because Michael doesn't know what he will get as a response to his suggestion, it will come as a beautiful surprise to him. But my response will generate (along with the music) another suggestion. At this point, it can become really humbling because you start this cycle of creativity and you can't tell whose idea was whose--and it doesn't matter. At that point, you are creating something you could never do alone or with choreography; you could only achieve that result together. And then, the dance takes on a life of its own--neither one of us controls it--and, if it continues, you just might get Mojo. That is indescribable."

What we have tried to do at CITYterm is to use swing dance as a model for how leadership might work  in classrooms and when students are working on projects. One benefit of this has been that because swing dance is physical and, therefore, when you "know" something, you know it in your body, not just in your head, then the power of what you now know is remarkably deep. For some students, this feeling becomes something they can actually recognize when they are "dancing" in the classroom. It also gives them a completely different way of looking at leadership as an activity.

Here is a last video of Michael and Evita (sorry it is so dark), but you can watch and see if you pick out the the four different parts of creative collaboration that are happening, and when the dance takes over as its own entity, and whether you think they have some moments of Mojo.

The next task, I suppose, is to figure out how to adapt this algorithm in non-swing dance situations. How many different activities do you think this "leadership cycle" applies to in daily life?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Hedgehog and the Fox

I remember reading an essay by Isaiah Berlin while I was in a college history class entitled, "The Hedgehog and the Fox." It is a famous essay for historians because in it Berlin explored Tolstoy's view of history in a way that unpacked Archilochus' phrase, "The fox knows many, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Berlin had fun, I think, placing intellectual and artistic personalities into these classifications--Dante, Plato, Nietzsche were some of the hedgehogs, Shakespeare, Goethe, Aristotle represented the foxes. And there is always an attractive quality to dichotomous thinking that allows us to understand things in dualities. And, having just come back from watching Woody Allen's new movie, To Rome with Love, I am also reminded of the hilarious scene from an earlier film of his, Husbands and Wives, where Judy Davis is sorting her friends into hedgehogs and foxes while having sex with Liam Neeson.

About a decade ago, business leadership guru Jim Collins utilized Berlin's idea in his book, Good to Great, and his video, the Art of Money,  but with a little twist--"all good to great leaders, it turns out, are hedgehogs." Whereas Berlin was trying to make a fine distinction amongst a group of thinkers, Collins was looking for a principle that could guide business decisions. Collins posits that "hedgehogs know how to simplify a complex world into a single, organizing idea--the kind of basic principle that unifies, organizes and guides all decisions. You want to lock onto a Hedgehog Concept that works." (As an aside, notice how the hedgehog in the graphic above seems so happy with her one, big idea while the fox is either confused, anxious, angry or sneaky with her many--much smaller-- ideas.)

But one of the central principles of experience-based learning is that you need to be wary of something that is presented as an "either/or" and see if it is, in fact, a "both/and."  After I was out of college and was teaching, I began to look at my students from the point of view of epistemology rather than just as students of History, or English, or Philosophy or whatever interdisciplinary course I was teaching. Epistemology is the philosophical discipline that studies "how we know what we know," and it is a way of adding a layer onto teaching that is endlessly fascinating because it adds the focus how something is being learned as well and what is being taught.

I began to notice that some of my students gained understanding through analysis. They were very good, in other words, at taking things apart. Many of them were gifted at the level of precision they could achieve by looking at a text and breaking it down into component parts that they could attach labels to. And I noticed that my Advanced Placement English curriculum was very analytical. As was Advanced Placement American History. And, as I looked around at other departments, I saw that the whole school was really very weighted in favor of analysis. I wondered whether or not we were teaching people to be very good at digging into things and burrowing around; we were training epistemological hedgehogs! (Much later I realized that there were reasons for this, but that will the subject of a later blog post. )

But what of the students who were more inclined to be be "epistemological foxes?" Well, to begin with, their primary way of understanding something was not to tear it apart but to connect it to something else. They tended to work through analogy in history, with metaphor in English and often through comparison and contrast of whole texts rather than with smaller parts of texts.

Then, I had the idea to pick up tests and quizzes from the faculty xerox room and look at them to see if they could give me clues about which particular cognitive skills would be most useful in "acing" any given exercise. As you might imagine--leaving aside the fact that "short term memory recall" was, by far, the most important cognitive skill that would determine success--the hedgehogs were at a distinct advantage in every discipline.

So, I began an experiment to see if I could manipulate the performance of my students in ways that would be completely legitimate from the point of view of anyone teaching in the discipline. Every discipline, obviously, requires being both a hedgehog AND a fox, but each of us tends to have a leaning toward one or the other either through training or disposition. I would create tests that were based on a student's ability to create meaning through analysis, and then switch it around on the next test to favor the foxes. And I began to explore whether if I asked questions in an analytic way, certain students would respond more immediately. Then would switch the nature of my questions to be more connective and comparative the next time, to see if that brought out more of the foxes.

And what I found was that I could, in fact, manipulate student's performance (and grades) based on even a subtle emphasizing of one cognitive skill or the other. This was an invigorating, but disturbing, development, and one whose implications we will probe in future blog posts. In the meantime, enjoy the cartoon below that one of my students sent me this year with a note--"is this what you are talking about?" Yes, yes it is.