Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My proposal to the board and community

Tonight the BOD meets to commence the process of determining of we should close a school. What follows is a handout I have prepared, followed by some remarks I will make.

The "Third Option"

from Lisa Cooley, MSAD 3 Board Member from Jackson

Tonight's meeting is being held begin the discussion of something that is unpleasant to all here: the possibility that MSAD 3 will have to close a school. We all know that schools are the heart of any community; it can never be agreeable do to such a thing. Financial constraints have dictated that we must have this discussion.

I would like to propose that we change the debate from, "Should we reconfigure our elementary schools?" to "how can we change the education we offer to something that is both more efficient and more effective?" If we have a building that is being underused and therefore bears a per-pupil cost that is becoming unsustainable, let's create something that uses our money more productively.

Traditional schooling has been handed down to us from educational philosophies many decades old. The world we are sending our kids into is very different. While our ideas on education have changed with the times, the basic school model is the same. It is not possible to be as effective as we can be in responding to the new needs of our children in the traditional model. So let's change it.

The world of education innovation has been generating school models that are exciting, have proven themselves to be effective in terms of an increase in student engagement and a high level of achievement, and are thoroughly attainable here in MSAD 3.

Let's decide not to close a school. Let's decide to open a pilot school that draws students from the whole district, created from one of these new models. Central to the school's structure would be the authentic learning experiences made possible through project-based learning. Also embedded in the structure could be online learning opportunities; "standards-based" measures of achievement; opportunities for a collaborative and rewarding environment for teachers; and based on a thorough respect for the needs and wishes of children.

In addition, a couple of the promising models I have researched have incorporated cost-savings into their structure, by utilizing flexible (and very imaginative) scheduling and incorporating online learning into the individualized learning plans for all students. (Online learning is effective, even at the elementary school level, not only in preparing kids for the online world, but making available many different forms of learning and new ways of exploring subject matter.)

All I ask tonight is that we consider this option as we move forward.

There are as many obstacles to doing this as there are reasons to take the plunge, but I believe in the collective intelligence and ability to innovate and create solutions that we have here in this district. I hope this will be the start of many discussions, arguments, collective chair-throwing.
and group hugs.

Thanks for coming tonight.

Further remarks:

The fact is that none of us in this room know the true costs of educating the students of MSAD 3. We do know that for the amount of money the state and our towns are pouring into it, this traditional model of schooling is yielding far greater failures than we should be comfortable with. I also believe that there are few school districts willing to face this head-on.

Here is the concept I'd like us all to consider: that by responding to the needs of today's kids by overlaying new educational necessities on top of this old, outmoded model, we are not only failing to serve our kids, but it is very likely that we are spending too much money.

I've been a student of the PBL model for almost ten years, and I'm a little mystified at how we can do PBL in an environment where the day is still divided into 42-minute periods segregated by content area. But we have to; we acknowledge the efficacy of PBL in engaging students and providing a rigorous learning experience, so we squeeze it into our model. The current model was designed for a teacher standing in front of the class delivering content to children like a mama bird feeds chicks -- disgorging her stored food and poking it into the anxious mouths of her babies. Certainly this is not true of some of our classrooms now, but that is the mode of education for which the traditional model was designed.

The more we distort the old model with needed innovations and necessary alterations, the farther from we get from a true idea of how much the education of children costs.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Middle school schedule

I haven't posted in awhile...I'll just note today that the MS has changed its schedule. The periods are now 40 minutes long -- slightly shorter than last year -- to make room for "pride time." I'm not sure what "pride time" is. It just seems ridiculous to me. What the schedule needs is not "pride time" at the expense of class time. Not that I'm so enamoured of how the classes are run that I regret the cutting of a couple of minutes, but "pride time?" You want kids to have pride in their school? Engage them. Give them a voice. Don't tell them to be proud -- make them proud of themselves and others through their own accomplishments.

In the movie Good Will Hunting, Will gazes at the fruits of traditional education -- a shelf full of scholarly books -- and says, "You people fucking baffle me."

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Teach kids how the brain works and learns? What an idea! When I had my 13-year-old read Talent Code, he changed the way he practiced drums, and his teacher was impressed. I have thought since that if kids knew about how deep practice works, how the brain processes and remembers facts and skills, they'd function much better in school. If they weren't learning something, they could figure out why. If they really, really wanted to learn or master something, they could figure out how.

So I just found out about Brainology, a program available to schools by subscription that teaches just that. It was developed by Carol Dweck, an author whose name often comes up when looking into new brain research and pursuit of achievement, along with Daniel Coyle (Talent Code), Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) and Geoff Colvin (Talent Is Overrated).

I just viewed the sample section and found it cartooney and annoying...but then again, I'm an adult, so what do I know? If it effectively teaches and follows up on kids' application of the lessons, I will discount the annoyance factor.

I think it's a great idea. How can having a greater knowledge fail?

"Hybrid" education

I found a statement on a blog recently that sounded so ridiculously overblown that I set about looking into it. If it could be proved true, I'd be all over it. If it was just a bit of overstated hubris, then I'm back where I started, ready to find someone else making a similar statement, or think up the solution myself. Here was the statement, in my own words:

"If project-based learning is done school-wide, then it costs less than traditional education."


I asked for clarification of the blogger, but didn't really receive any details. My own view has always been that if you teach kids what they want to know, it's more efficiently done. Project-based learning originally appealed to me, as described by observers of the Reggio Emilia model, to be a kind of group way of Unschooling. Give kids an environment rich in ideas, follow where their interest takes them, and skillfully hone projects, as it were, organically.

How could this be cheaper? Well, I don't know yet. But we're always seeing the word "efficiency" bandied about; if something could be done more efficiently, maybe it'd take fewer staff to do it. Something like that. At any rate, I got rather excited by the statement above, but it still stands as something that is unjustified.

The line of inquiry, however, led me to something else. "Hybrid" education; the amalgam of classroom activity and online learning. An organization called Rocketship Education has produced a elementary charter school model that claims to have saved a ton of money by making on 100-minute block each day a "Learning Lab" where kids use all manner of online or software interaction to personalize learning.

I like the idea of saving money, obviously, and I like the idea of personalizing learning, but the online model has heretofore escaped my understanding. Since then I've discussed it a lot with a friend who has been teaching online courses in a number of different models for years and is quite devoted to it. I hate the idea of losing the classroom as a civilization governed and dominated by children, but I have committed myself to learning more about it, even just because those organizations who I look to for leadership in PBL and the new classroom model have also championed online learning.

The thing that saves money in the Rocketship model is that the "Learning Lab" is not overseen by a certified teacher. There are two Literacy/Social Studies blocks, and one Science/Math block, which I imagine would accommodate PBL as well as individualized learning. But each child has an opportunity to address his or her particular challenges and goals in the Learning Lab.

I'm not sure how this can affect my school district, but I think it's worth looking into. What if we take one of the schools we need to close this year and turn it into a Rocketship model school? Could it be done? Would it really save money? Would it show, as it has in the two original charter schools in California, a marked increase in achievement by its students?

Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why don't kids' opinions matter?

It is almost as though children are a different species of being -- one that has strong opinions, but none that should be at all regarded, noted, entered into any serious discussion. Schools can seem like battle grounds between teachers and kids. Teachers generally win, backed as they are by books, principals, demerits, detentions, retentions, and good old fashioned discipline. In a battle of wills between teachers and students, teachers might have the power position and therefore win, but something is lost. Something big.

The needs and desires of kids is so completely disregarded that I give myself this thought experiment: what would happen if the feelings of kids was to be elevated above adults? Who has the more uncorrupted mind?

An eight-year-old does not know the complexities of many situations, and therefore must defer to parents, I grant you. But he or she always knows what he likes, dislikes and hates. So do six-year-olds, and so do ten-year-olds. Kids may not always be able to articulate their feelings, or may not always take the risk of saying how they feel because they think they might "get in trouble" for it, but they always know how they feel, and those feelings are just as strong as an adult's.

Our school systems have been built on the adult's conception of what is good for children. Teachers and school administrators will always make a case for their understanding of what children need; but I would ask: How much of this understanding comes from books written by adults, conversations between parents and other teachers, or even great conferences dedicated to what children need -- and how much from talking to children?

Children are so used to their feelings being disregarded that they may not even know how to respond to a direct query: how do you feel about school? What would you want school to look like if you did it the way you wanted? I've asked a few kids this question and they either give me a funny look, shrug, say, "Ahdunno," or quip, "I'd fire all the teachers!"

What we have now is an institutional disregard for what children really want. Kids know perfectly well that in big issues, they have no say. We deny that, as adults; we defend ourselves, saying that all we do is for kids' own good! And yet we can't seem to rearrange the schedule at the middle school so that kids have more time to talk to each other, laugh, let off steam, maybe even run after a football. Why? Oh, all sorts of reasons. Because the literacy numbers are so bad that we have to add a class in Literacy, on top of the Language Arts class. Because the school did not make AYP last year and we have to use that time to cover material. All good reasons, real-life, adult problems. But kids really couldn't care less -- and they are the ones it is happening to. And when we make decisions because of outside forces like the need for Federal money, we need to be aware when it's running directly against what children want.

Children are born with a joyous desire to learn; it takes 12 years of public school for adults to beat it out of them.

When I ask people why we shouldn't lower the voting age to 12, often the reaction is laughter, a wrinkled brow, or a wave of the hand: that's just ridiculous. Kids don't have the emotional or intellectual maturity to vote. There it is again: kids do not count. Adults are the ones that manage the world, and they are the ones that make the rules. Kids can get all sentimental about stuff like endangered species, but they don't understand about jobs and the economy and the march of progress.

Could it be that the shorter the time you have lived, the fewer the complications that you've experienced, the more we should listen?

Someone is going to bring up Lord of the Flies, here. Obviously, kids can't run their own society without reference to adults. But....I never suggested they should. I am suggesting that when it comes to institutions dedicated to them, at least, that we sit and listen while they talk. Maybe even take notes. And at the first opportunity, change something about that institution, just because kids wanted it that way.

To get respect, you have to give respect.

Here is Sir Ken Robinson on kids' creativity. It's a funny speech and ties into the above post really well.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The "Standards-Based" System

I want to talk a little bit about standards-based education, and the idea of basing the evaluation of a student's progress on whether or not they have achieved understanding or mastery of certain concepts and skills, rather than testing or seat-time. It's confusing at first because it seems so intuitive that one might say, "But isn't that what we do now?" It generally isn't what we do now. We teach in a certain way, at a certain time; kids either learn or they don't; they take tests or evaluate progress by whatever means; then they move on. If you fail a class, you don't get the credit, and you're behind. In our local high school, kids are struggling as they move ahead by grade, but carry a credit deficit that often drives them to drop out.

I have come to understand the standards-based system means in terms of the Suzuki method of education. In Suzuki, skills are mastered one small step at a time, and when one is learned, we add another, very small one, on top of that. We tell young children to do finger exercises to build their muscles and get the fingers used to the motions they will use on the violin. We call them Fairy Hops, Finger Wiggles and Bow Bunnies. You introduce them to the exercises and have them practice them and get used to them before you progress to the holding of the bow. At that point, their thumbs are over the frog, instead of inside it as adults do. When their hands are strong enough, you move the thumb to the inside of the frog. You master one before you move to the next.

That is how standards are supposed to work. I believe most states now have standards -- in Maine they're called the Learning Results. I've read a little bit of them; they seem logical and thoughtful. I'm happy, as I've said before, that I'm not the one who has to come up with these things, and equally happy that I don't have to read them through. But it does provide a decent framework for the introduction to concepts, covering of information, and mastery of skills.

Mostly what I like about a standards-based system is that it provides a legitimate context to start talking about a completely different way for kids to learn. In discussing a standards-based system we can make those happy who believe what children learn is important, and bring forward what we (I) regard as the real issue, which is how children learn.

(I do think the what is important. The difference between me and most educational professionals is that I want kids to be given a lot more choice. If we treat students' ideas with respect, give them space and time to learn what they want to know, master what they want to do, then they will give us the respect of agreeing to learn what we regard as important. The respect that kids need and deserve is rarely part of the debate, but that's one of the things I'd like to push the hardest, but more on that at another time.)

Progress by a student in any area is measured by whether the standard has been achieved. If it hasn't, the teacher has to figure out why, and discuss with the student how to proceed.

What this opens up to us is a completely different way to structure schools. Classrooms can be filled not with kids of the same age or grade level, but with those students working on certain standards. The way they learn becomes much more flexible. If an entire classroom is working on determining the definition of life, group discussions on characteristics of life take place, possible projects research directions can be discussed, out-of-school investigations open up.

This is the article that gave me a much clearer picture of how a standards-based system is linked to project-based learning. At first those of you who are, like me, allergic to tracking and "ability grouping" will look askance at this, but if the model for how kids learn is changed, then there is no need to resort to tracking in order to manage education and keep kids interested and engaged.

Some schools grouping students by skill, not grade level

Now, because I feel compelled to tie it all together, it's in the achievement of these standards that the potential for deep practice takes place. If our systems are based in the step-by-step building of skills and mastering of concepts, then just as a Suzuki student is taught to hold the bow, kids will move forward as they learn; each mastery giving them confidence and motivation for taking the next step.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tear down that wall?

What a task, to unite related ideas and get support for a whole new way of doing school. There is, for example, a deep connection between Project-Based Learning and talent education, two great ideas that taste great together. But we need to connect the dots, make it look like something that could happen.

Project-based Learning is the foundation of a good educational system, and the skill-building part of education gathers around it, and feeds it. It's the skill-building that can draw much from what we know about talent -- see my first two posts. Expose kids to ideas like treats at a buffet table, let them choose and taste and consider. Give them the freedom to feel the spark of motivation, then let them fly at a course of inquiry with all the resources they could possibly need.

What kids learn doesn't matter. What matters is how they learn it. Let other people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on education doctorates so they can learn how to make a curriculum. Let educational administrators write and rewrite standards like the Maine Learning Results. That seems like a big yawner to me. When you start a conversation about how kids learn, you're on your way to creating a better school system.

But it's awful to contemplate how to do this. I'm not equipped to envision whole new systems. I cringe at the idea of trying to design it, and wish to heck one of those people who went to school for this stuff could do it for me.

Ah. Therein lies the rub. No good.

There is nothing that stands as the enemy of change quite like the comfort of even the most dysfunctional system. Even that system has the comfort of complaints. Common ground is enjoyable, even if it's entirely negative. Every dysfunctional system squeezes out some small number of kids who adapted and thrived, and are held up as proof that the system can work. It's wonderful how a very small bit of success is enough to teach us to be proud of a failing system.

We don't have anything to lose if we simply tear down the walls of the existing educational structures. Has anyone tried to build a house while living in it? I've done it a couple of times. It's a mess. Stacks of sheetrock on the floor of the kitchen. Sawdust in the cornflakes. Build an empty structure instead, and have kids and adults move into it, decide for themselves what furniture and accoutrements they need. To continue to need the current bathroom while moving in new fixtures is to create a deadlock wherein nothing gets done.

So is it the amateurs who will rebuild these systems in such a way that kids, who have loved learning since they first hit daylight, continue to love it all through childhood, into their teen years and beyond it? Possibly not every amateur; and to be fair, there are a lot of educational professionals who can foster change. Whoever they are, we look to those who consider first the minds of kids, and begin the new design from there.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Gifted and Talented?

Proponents of "gifted and talented" programs often tend to sound like they represent an oppressed minority. While they say that they don't deny the need for "remedial" programing for struggling students, you might hear the occasional lament that "gifted" kids are being given short shrift. On the other side, you see what seems almost like a mad panic at the news, especially here in Maine, about lagging literacy and numeracy among students. This justifies beefing up the low end of education, so to speak. And what about the "middle class" of students, those who do their homework, make average grades, neither the best students nor the worst? Don't they deserve special attention (and funding) as well? And round we go.

It is my contention that science has led us beyond the point where the various views of this issue are even relevant. We have to redefine the issues completely, given what we know now about talent development -- and our new friend and great equalizer, myelin. Myelin, that wonderful insulator of our neurons, that wraps as we practice a skill, that strengthens our circuits, making them fire faster and better, resulting in what certainly looks like giftedness.

You know that old chestnut, "all children are gifted?" You either believe it, give it lip service because it sounds good, or you dismiss it, saying, "yeah, but what about Mozart?" Big news: Mozart's genius has been debunked. He was great, yes. The fact that he had the best violin teacher in history for a father -- did that have anything to do with it? Mozart spent his very earliest years "deep practicing" and according to the commonly-accepted formula that 10,000 hours of deep practicing equals mastery, it's no wonder he is known as a unequaled genius at a very early age.

Are all children gifted? As we currently define the word, certainly not. But giftedness does not strike like lightning some lucky individuals. Talent is developed because of very specific neurological functions. (I've heard parents say they "just know" their kids were born gifted. I have not the background nor desire to argue with this. My ideas about talent development mean we find and nurture it in each child, and I don't make an exception for those whose "giftedness" has been obvious to their parents from birth. They count, too.) Nor is giftedness passed from parent to child like blue eyes or left-handedness. Giftedness is grown, and everyone has the equipment to grow it.

Once we comprehend the research breakthrough which has told us that we are all born with an equal ability to grow and wrap myelin through deep practice, we reach a crossroads. If we do the right thing, we abandon all gifted and talented programming, and make our entire school systems into talent development centers. How can we accept taxpayer dollars under any other circumstances? How can we in good conscience advance the educational opportunities for those children who have already developed a talent, leaving behind those who have the same potential but have not, for whatever reason, developed it?

We might think that "talent development" and "talent education" is somewhat beside the point in a discussion of public education. Talent applies to music, dance, theater, sports: those "extras" in the education curriculum, right? What if I told you that the brain of Einstein contained nice, fat, well-wrapped neurons indicating a lifetime of deep practice?

It's not just for "extras," if the arts should be given such a heinous appelation. It's for everything. Writing, reading, mathematics, science. Everything that we as a society believe deserve more money and attention, and everything that doesn't. In short, great achievement in any area involves deep practice. But do our great educators understand what it is? Do they understand the conditions in which it thrives? Do we give students the opportunity to discover it in their daily lives at school?

We have to consider what "deep practice" actually means in action, and then consider what it looks like in our public schools right now -- indeed, if it exists at all. Deep practice takes place when anyone, of any age, in any area of study, pushes themselves to the very edge of their capabilities. If you've ever watched your child struggle in a class full of older students -- I've seen it when my daughter advanced to the next level of ballet skill, surrounded by kids who've been at that level for a year, or when my son moved into the teen fencing class -- you have noticed that if they can cope with the struggle, they learn fast and well. My daughter came to me after one of her first classes at the next ballet level, laughing, "I didn't know what I was doing half the time." Ah, watch that myelin wrap! Or my son: "How were your bouts?" "Oh, lost them all, but it was great." Not that my kids always react well to the struggle of deep practice. Like everyone else, it often results in frustration, even tears. In public schools right now, I don't believe we have the proper understanding of that struggle. The kids don't like it, the teachers don't have the resources to cope with it. The myelin sits still, lonely and ignored.

What are the conditions in which deep practice can take place? You can't just assign a teacher to a class and get them to do it. For a student to go through that struggle, they need a lot of motivation. It's often called the trigger, or ignition, or spark. Something has clicked in a student's mind. They see someone doing something that looks incredibly cool and impossibly hard, and something has led them to think, "I can do that, too." But the spark isn't enough -- it doesn't happen without master coaching. Once a kid has caught the fever of motivation, a teacher has to understand the special techniques that can foster the kind of practice that works. Then we have to create the conditions optimal for deep practice to take place.

The model of public schooling needs to change in order to foster this kind of education. But what of it? The model needs to change anyway.

Stay tuned to The Minds of Kids for more stuff like this. Please argue and yell and throw chairs at me for my audacity. As Julia Roberts said in Mona Lisa Smile, "You're not required to like it. You are required to consider it."

Suzuki and the Talent Code

There should be dancing in the streets when an old idea is crushed under the weight of science and reason. If this old idea puts limitations on what we can achieve, what we can learn, what we can do, then let's laugh as it fizzles out under the brightness of a new one. Let's leave it behind us and not look back!

We have that new idea. It's about how we teach our kids.

There is a book that came out last year called The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle. The facts that he puts forward are simple: there is no such thing as inborn talent. Once you accept that the above is true, you see how liberating this idea is. Anyone can do it. But can we handle it? Can we shoulder the burden of responsibility once we know that the kids that go through our schools are all capable of great things?

All you need to develop great talent are for certain factors to be in place. You need a spark of ignition, something to light a child up with the desire to be able to be or do something. You need a master coach, a teacher who gets you, gets the thing you want to learn, and is able to bring the two of you together. And you need what Coyle calls deep practice.

Deep practice is the hard part. It's the act of pushing yourself against the limit of your abilities. By doing this you build a substance called myelin, which literally wraps itself around neurons like paper towels on a roll. The more you engage in deep practice, the more you wrap myelin, the faster the electrical circuits in your brain fire. To develop talent is simply to wrap myelin. Scratch the surface of anyone who appears impossibly talented and you will find someone who has spent most of his or her life wrapping myelin.

Deep practice can be broken into three components, ways to manage the struggle of dancing at the edge of your capacity. When we do music and we come upon a passage cannot even imagine ever mastering, we do three things: we chunk it up. We slow it down. And we repeat it.

There are many people who instinctively understand this process, but I want to talk about one particular group. We have been brought together by the ideas of a man who voiced the above surprising claim over 50 years ago, in another country. In the late 1940s, Shinichi Suzuki said that every single child can become a great violinist. Those of us influenced by him, those of us practicing his ideas, teaching kids in the method he has given us, have clamored about this book, devouring it in one gulp and handing it out like party favors.

Once we discard the idea that only those born with certain abilities can become hugely talented, where are we? Lots of people say, "any child can do whatever they set their mind to," but do we really believe it? Do we understand what it means?

I think sometimes that our world of conventional education teaches kids their limitations rather than their possibilities. It is, by its nature and execution, negative. Kids sit in class doing math not learning of the glories of numbers that lay before them, but squashed by the fact that they feel -- they know -- they can't do it. They sit drawing diagrams of cells waiting for the moment that they can stop and do something else. Even in our so-called "gifted and talented" programs, what do we teach but that those of us not invited are neither gifted nor talented? But here is well-documented research saying that we are all equal under the sun. We all have neurons, we all wrap myelin. Every one of us can follow our dreams and see them become real.

We can turn education on its head and start all over. Teach kids that struggle is only the beginning. Frustration with stuff we only half understand and are convinced we can't master leads to mastery and understanding. Sometimes when my daughter is practicing the violin, she is in tears because she can't master something. Then she masters it. But why the tears? Maybe we need to model and teach that struggle is good, struggle is what works -- and struggle is manageable. Push it! Keep going! And then move on to the next impossibly hard thing.

Suzuki didn't voice his ideas in terms of neuroscience. His method came from his study of how children learn their native language. He took apart that process and applied it to learning the violin. Listen to those around you. Repeat what you hear. Start slowly and build in baby steps. Enjoy yourself, celebrate each new word. Suzuki students chunk, slow and repeat every day. They've been managing deep practice since they were toddlers. Their struggle to learn is shared, praised and encouraged by parents.

Most of all, what Suzuki knew and what he taught came from love. Every child was dear to him. Every parent was taught to see the limitless ability of their children. How to teach with love. How to love with teaching. What is education but the belief in the hearts, minds, hands of every child? The Talent Code gives us nothing but the knowledge that we are right who teach with love and faith in all children.