On “The Paradox of Tolerance”

August 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

How should schools respond to the horrific spasm of violence and hatred that took place this past weekend in Charlottesville?  I am freshly aware of my responsibility to speak against the aggressive racism and intolerance that marched in the streets last Saturday, and am hopeful that others in schools are exploring similar questions for themselves.

As others have already wisely observed, the flashpoint of Neo-Nazi and white supremacist sentiment on the campus of the University of Virginia is an emboldened public face of bigoted vitriol that has been present in the country’s shadow discourse — and certainly in its systemic prejudices — for some time.  As with other moments of rising populism throughout the history of this country and others, intolerant nativist sentiments have found their way to the mainstream, operating under cover of more mainstream conversations — free speech, equity, globalism, immigration, economic health and security.

These conversations lie at the core of the curriculum and purpose of schools that seek to prepare students for citizenship.  They are bedeviled, however, by the better angels of our nature — voices that affirm principles of free and open discourse, and create safe space for each student as a pretext for learning.  Put simply: are there views so extreme that we cannot allow them space and fair hearing in a learning community?  If so, where do we draw this line?

As our school community sought to affirm our principles in the wake of the 2016 US Presidential election, I found a strong compass in the wisdom of Phillips Academy Head of School John Palfrey, who calibrated his remarks around the “Paradox of Tolerance”:

“The very hardest problem at the heart of this election, for me, is the paradox of tolerance. Please forgive me this short foray into political philosophy, but I think you will get what I mean in a moment. At Andover, we teach tolerance. I doubt anyone here would disagree with that – I hope and trust that no one here would disagree with that. It is extremely easy to be a tolerant person when everyone around you is tolerant. It is easy to tolerate the tolerant, if you get what I mean. If we all commit to this principle, things go well. I hope at Andover we can indeed all commit to a deep, abiding sense of tolerance.

The problem with tolerance is when it comes to the intolerant. To the extent that some people in society are intolerant of other people – and we know that to be true – there becomes, all of a sudden, a problem with tolerance. The tolerant are called upon to tolerate the intolerant (who, in turn, are not asked to tolerate anyone). And to some degree, in a democracy, we must – that is part of the deal. We do not just give votes to the tolerant. And it is true that we grow and learn when we tolerate the views of others with whom we disagree.

What I believe is that there must be a point at which the tolerant are allowed to be intolerant of those who are intolerant. Our study of history points to many examples when it was a terrible mistake to tolerate intolerance for too long. This is the paradox of tolerance – and it is much on my mind today. Each one of us must find for ourselves that point. For me, that point is here, where I insist that we value all our students and their well-being equally.

As a school, I believe we must do everything we can to focus on building tolerance and love for one another so we do not find ourselves faced with this very paradox – a true paradox in the sense that it cannot be resolved when it gets to that point. As a leader of this community, I will give a very wide berth to the conversations we need to have about politics and difference. But intolerance of one another is something that we must resist.”

Here’s hoping that schools take their charge seriously in remaining intolerant of intolerance in the new school year.  If the tragedy of the weekend is any illustration, we need our schools and this rising generation– now more than ever — to repair our badly broken civil discourse and to strive more purposefully for the free and just society promised in this country’s founding principles.

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It’s Not About Time

February 3, 2016 § Leave a comment

Anyone who has lived and worked in a boarding school will be familiar with this refrain: “We don’t have enough time.”  Some variant of this mantra animates my daily rounds at school —

“We need more time”
“If only we could devote time to [name the lapsed priority]”
“This is a waste of time”
“If you want me to do that, you’ll need to create some time”

Teachers know the wonders that we can work each day, but are well aware that they are miracles in minature– frustrating, incremental steps towards progress in our students and our systems that we will mark in years, not days.  Who better to deeply understand the longer time scales of institutional change?  Who better to reckon with the boundaries that precious few minutes can create in our work?

So why are we so bound and determined to make time our master?  Instead of waiting for someone else to create the space in which to do our best work, what if we looked within?

Let’s start by accepting the proposition that there just isn’t enough time.  Especially in the boarding school world, we live with the constant tension of home and work, our families and our students, our grading and our restorative intellectual (or decidedly non-intellectual) pursuits.  The challenge of living is to make peace with the fact that our time is finite — that in devoting time to one enterprise, we ultimately end up shortchanging another.  We never have enough time.  So it goes with mortality.

I created time to sit and write this morning.  The space to sit is not an outgrowth of my mastery of the quantum bounds of the universe, but rather a conscious decision to marshal my morning pool of creative energy into reflection, rather than my email inbox.  In reality, this reflective act is not a decision of how to use my time, but rather, how to distribute my attention.  I’d argue that taking 15 minutes to write reflectively each day is actually one of the best uses of our attention on behalf of ourselves and others.  I’m not the first person to articulate the powerful difference between time and attention, but I’m struck by how often I hear time cited incorrectly as the obstacle to being our best selves. 

In a real way, adopting the lens of time leads to a kind of willing powerlessness.  “I don’t have enough time” is a statement that implies that we have ceded control over the distribution of our efforts to someone else.  Sure, for those of us who have to get up each morning and go to work, this is true to some extent.   If we looked deeply at the ways in which we distributed our attention while at work, however, we might find that opportunities do exist to use it in more productive and fulfilling ways.  By focusing on our investments of attention, rather than our allocation of time, we make an empowering declaration of control in a world that seems all too out of control otherwise.  To get there, we need to take a hard look at ourselves, and keep a more careful accounting of our attention. 

School leaders (and I don’t mean “administrators” when I use this term … about this topic more later) can empower others by adopting the paradigm of attention in their decision making, asking:

How does this project I’m working on make use of my colleagues’ attention?
Is there some other way to harness or consolidate attention on this project and others?
Are my behaviors unintentionally draining attention that could be better directed elsewhere?  [see: our broad misuse of email]

Creating time for someone, or for oneself, is no guarantee that it will be time spent wisely.

Choosing a different way to distribute our attention may actually be the solution we’ve been searching for the whole time. 

John McPhee on “Omission”

September 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

“Writing is selection. From the first word of the first sentence in an actual composition, the writer is choosing, selecting, and deciding (most importantly) what to leave out.”

from “Omission” The New Yorker Magazine. 14 Sept. 2015

Oliver Sacks and the Stories Behind the Science

September 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

“Never forget: beneath the statistics, there are stories.” 

My students and I stumbled onto this essential, but often forgotten truth yesterday in my ninth grade Global Seminar course.   It was one of those rare moments where a conversation turns and creates language for something that one has sensed but not previously had the perception, power, or capacity to express in any kind of coherent shape.

The wisdom emerged from a lesson on the European migrant crisis.  As we frame up our work in the course for the year, this topic connects us to so many important conversations that will unfold in the months to come.

  • Are our traditional ideas about nationhood adequate for understanding the current geopolitical landscape? 
  • How does an impact in one area of a global system produce intended and unintended consequences in another?  
  • As global citizens, what responsibilities do we have to each other? 

We struggled through the conversation.  The issue is complex, frustrating the simple cause and effect thinking that schooling may have required of many in the room prior to their arrival in high school.  Along the way, we surfaced some uncomfortable opinions, including talking points culled from the debate on US immigration policy that has dominated the early portions of the current US election cycle.  

When confronted with rhetoric like this that too easily reduces complex debates to simple platitudes, I tend, by training, to turn to stories.   In this case, we were able to draw on our all school read, Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat.  In the novel, readers meet the Hatian protagonist Sophie, whose mother has immigrated to the US prior to the opening of the narrative, and sends for Sophie to join her in New York in the opening pages.   In the summary/synthesis exercise that closed the class, I prodded the students to draw the threads of the European migrant crisis together with Sophie’s lived experience of arrival and integration in New York.  Slowly, the insights emerged, moving beyond the rhetoric to consider the human scale of the problem.

While reading the New Yorker later that evening, I happened upon Atul Gawande’s remembrance of the late Oliver Sacks — a meditation on Sacks’ singular gifts, but also on what narrative storytelling has to offer to the field of scientific writing:

“‘Studies, yes,’ he wrote in the preface, but ‘why stories, or cases?’ Because, he explained, the understanding of disease cannot be separated from the understanding of the person. They are interwoven, and this has been forgotten in our era of scans, tests, genetics, and procedures. He compared the modern clinical practitioner to the man who mistook his wife for a hat—able to register many details yet still miss the person entirely. ‘To restore the human subject at the centre—the suffering, afflicted, fighting, human subject—we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale.;”

While the conventional wisdom in schools silos the fields of English, History and Science, there is “real-world” richness in the areas of elision between them.   In order to go about answering some of the biggest questions we can ask in our classrooms, we need to think beyond our artificial structures. We are drawn to narrative — the arc from mystery, to conflict, and perhaps, to resolution.  How healthy and freeing to to inhabit the perspective of another, no matter how brief the stay.  The “stickiness” of narrative in the human consciousness suggests that teachers are well served to consider the following questions in the design of our course units and activities:

  • How do we learn to see the texture of a human life? 
  •  Which methods of inquiry and analysis allow us to best capture the complexity of a real-world situation? 
  •  How to the decisions we make each day impact someone a world away?

Beneath the statistics, there are stories.  “Suffering, afflicted, fighting,” but also laughing, celebrating, and healing.  The trick is learning how to hear them. 

Toward better technology integration: Introducing trudacot

August 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

As we plan for the year ahead, and work to “infuse” our classrooms with new technologies, some powerful questions about technology integration via Dangerously Irrelevant. There’s power and provocation to conversation in asking, “Technology for the purpose of what?” A worthy reminder that all new approaches are not automatically the best approaches, but, to inflect the Bard, “Thinking [deep, meaningful thinking] makes them so.”

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Toward better technology integration: Introducing trudacot
// Dangerously Irrelevant

Leadershipday2014

[My Leadership Day post this year introduces a new tool, trudacot, that we have been using to facilitate productive conversations with educators about technology-infused learning and teaching…]

We’ve got a lot of technology floating around our schools and classrooms these days. And while that can and should be a good thing given the digital age in which we now live, we often find that our technology-related efforts aren’t paying off for us as we had hoped. There are many reasons why this is true, but a main one is that we don’t have great ways to think about what’s occurring when we see students and teachers using technology for learning and teaching purposes.

TPACK and SAMR are the two main technology integration frameworks being used right now. While conceptually useful, both of them have their limitations. Neither are very specific when it comes to helping teachers think about what to change to make their technology integration better. The SAMR levels have the additional challenge of apparently meaning very different things to different people (I have witnessed on numerous occasions a particular usage of technology placed in all four SAMR levels by educator audiences). Resources like the TPACK activity types help with some of this, but my colleague, Julie Graber, and I were looking for something different. Failing to find what we wanted, we decided to make our own…

Starting with purpose

Technology integration should be purposeful. That very simple statement is at the heart of the trudacot template. When we use digital technologies for learning and teaching, those uses should be intentional and targeted and not simply ‘tech for tech’s sake.’ My team continually asks the question, ‘Technology for the purpose of what?’ With that in mind, Julie and I set out to create a template of questions that would allow educators to think critically – and purposefully – about their technology integration.

For example, if a class activity was using learning technologies for the purpose(s) of enhancing personalization or enabling greater student agency and choice, the types of questions that we would ask to see if those purposes were being accomplished might include:

  • Learning Goals. Who selected what is being learned?
  • Learning Activity. Who selected how it is being learned?
  • Assessment of Learning. Who selected how students demonstrate their knowledge and skills and how that will be assessed?
  • Work Time. During the lesson/unit, who is the primary driver of the work time?
  • Technology Usage. Who is the primary user of the technology?

In contrast, if a lesson pulled in digital tools for the purpose(s) of enhancing student communication / connection, and perhaps even facilitating collaboration across locations, we would ask very different questions. The types of questions that we would ask to see if those purposes were being accomplished might include:

  • Audience. How are students communicating? If with others, with whom? [students in this school / students in another school / adults in this school / adults outside of this school]
  • Communication Technologies. Are digital technologies being used to facilitate the communication processes? [writing / photos and images / charts and graphs / infographics / audio / video / multimedia / transmedia]
  • Collaborators. How are students working? If with others, who is managing collaborative processes (planning, management, monitoring, etc.)
  • Collaborative Technologies. Are digital technologies being used to facilitate collaborative processes? If yes, in which ways? [online office suites, email, texting, wikis, blogs, videoconferencing, mindmapping, curation tools, project planning tools, other]

Similarly, if teachers wanted students to use technology for the purpose(s) of enabling them to do more authentic, real world work, the types of questions that we would ask to see if those purposes were being accomplished would be different from those previous and might include:

  • Real or Fake. Is student work authentic and reflective of that done by real people outside of school?
  • Domain Knowledge. Are students learning discipline-specific and -appropriate content and procedural knowledge? If yes, is student work focused around big, important concepts central to the discipline? [not just minutiae]
  • Domain Practices. Are students utilizing discipline-specific and -appropriate practices and processes?
  • Domain Technologies. Are students utilizing discipline-specific and -appropriate tools and technologies?

And if a lesson or unit integrated learning technologies for the purpose(s) of facilitating students’ deeper thinking, creativity, or metacognition, the types of questions that we would ask to see if those purposes were being accomplished might include:

  • Deeper Thinking. Do student learning activities and assessments go beyond facts, procedures, and/or previously-provided ways of thinking? [e.g., ‘syntheses’ or ‘analyses’ that actually are just regurgitations]
  • Creativity. Do students have the opportunity to design, create, make, or otherwise add value that is unique to them?
  • Initiative. Do students have the opportunity to initiate, be entrepreneurial, be self-directed, and/or go beyond given parameters of the learning task or environment?
  • Metacognition. Do students have the opportunity to reflect on their planning, thinking, work, and/or progress? If yes, can students identify what they’re learning, not just what they’re doing?

As I hope is evident, trudacot tries to get at some specific, concrete ‘look-fors’ that can help educators think about what they might change. In other words, we are attempting with trudacot to make explicit the kinds of questions we might ask when considering which intersection of TPACK – or level of SAMR – a particular instance of technology integration may be inhabiting (and how to shift it toward more robustness).

Using trudacot

The complete, annotated, first version of trudacot is now available and includes some tips for usage. First and foremost is the suggestion to focus on just one or two sections of the template. Unless we’re designing a big, multi-week project, we need to pick and choose a few focal areas rather than trying to cover the entire template. Let me be clear: the trudacot template should NOT be used as a massive checklist of things that should be present in a teacher’s lesson or unit. A second suggestion is to answer a question or two from trudacot about a lesson or unit – preferably in small groups, not just individually – and then ask, ‘If we wanted the answer(s) to the question(s) to be different, how could we redesign this to make that desired answer happen instead?’ THIS is where the powerful conversations occur; THIS is the work we should be doing with educators. Finally, we are finding trudacot to have the most power as an up-front brainstorming, idea-generating, and design tool, not an after-the-fact evaluative tool. We want educators thinking about lesson and unit (re)design in ways that are safe and generative, not worrying about being judged.

In addition to the trudacot itself, you’re welcome to see the resources that we considered when creating the template and/or sign up on our mailing list for updates. Soon I will post some examples of how we have been introducing and using trudacot in our pilot activities this past spring and summer. Until then, I hope that you find trudacot useful to your own technology integration efforts and that it helps you foster rich discussions about lesson and unit (re)design with your educators. Please stay in touch as you have questions, ideas, and suggestions. The trudacot template is very much a work in progress – help us #makeitbetter! The more people that we have looking at and working with trudacot, the more useful it can become. Julie and I would love to hear how you’ve been using trudacot yourself so let us know!

Happy Leadership Day 2014, everyone. Thanks to all of you for helping me celebrate my blog birthday!

Related Posts

Supporting effective technology integration and implementation: 2012 ISTE Leadership Forum #isteLF12 How should communities evaluate their schools’ tech integration? [HELP WANTED] Memorial Day (and technology integration) tokenism What does “technology integration” mean? Hiring a technology integration team YARPP

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"This is Water": David Foster Wallace on Education, Freedom, and Paying Attention

April 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

One of the ways I’m working to grow professionally is in my ability to model and support effective digital storytelling.   The combination of engaging story-craft and compelling digital media transforms a traditional mode of discourse into something even richer and multi-layered for the audience, multiplying meaning and impact.


When I roll out projects of this kind in the future, I plan to use a video remix of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Commencement Speech, “This is Water.”  On its own, the speech conveys powerful and simple truths about the nature of consciousness and experience, opening out to consider the ways in which education sharpens our ability to pay attention, and thus to transform the way we think about the“boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life.” Ordinarily considered interstitial filler, these humdrum slogs become powerful moments of revelation, and surprisingly apt subjects for the august occasion of the commencement speech.

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”

This, Wallace submits, is the true power of an education — the sharpening of attention and awareness.  Put another way, education– with storytelling at its core– is the critical equipment that allows a student to make a wise choice about the narratives unfolding in his or her environment, and,  as a matter of considered practice, to configure meaning where others may fail to grasp it.  

Defining Global Citizenship: The SGS View

April 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Global Citizenship, as defined by the Salzburg Global Seminar: 

“Global citizens are people who have developed the knowledge, skills, tools, values, and commitment to:

  • Understand the nature of globalization, including its positive and negative impacts around the world, and realize how it is transforming human society
  • Appreciate the diversity of humanity in all of its manifestations, from local to global, and interact with different groups of people to address common concerns
  • Recognize the critical global challenges that are compromising humanity’s future and see how their complexity and interconnections make solutions increasingly difficult
  • Collaborate with different sets of stakeholders, by thinking globally and acting locally, to resolve these critical challenges and build a more equitably sustainable world

Broadly speaking, global citizens are consciously prepared to live and work in the complex interdependent society of the 21st century and contribute to improving the common global welfare of our planet and its inhabitants.”