The Myth of Average

Todd Rose’s brilliant talk at TEDxSonoma expands on a startlingly simple point:

When you design for the average, you design for no-one. He suggests instead we to need design for the extremes.

For anyone who has worked with students, it is an intuitive enough concept, in theory. Yet in application, it has proven challenging, especially in a climate fixated on norm reference test scores, where average is king (or queen). How do we design and deliver for the wide variability of students’ learning profiles when there is so much pressure to get all students to the same level in all subjects?  The default has become education policies that claim to race to the top, but instead stagger for the middle, effectively limiting the extremes.

As Rose so eloquently demonstrates with a story from military history, in trying to target the average, we invariably isolate everyone.

What makes him an expert in this topic? He was a high school dropout with a 0.9 GPA who is now an author of “Square Peg” and a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

He says,

I’ve been to the very bottom of our educational system. I’ve been to the very top. I’m here to tell you that we are wasting so much talent at every single level. And the thing is, because for every single person like me, there are millions who worked as hard, who had the ability, but who were unable to overcome the drag of a educational environment designed on average. And their talent is forever lost to us.

Watch his talk above for more. We guarantee you will be even more inspired to cultivate that which makes your students unique, wonderful, and valuable to the well being of our communities.

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The Toll of High Stakes Tests on Non-Traditional Learners

This guest post by Bobbi Snow, co-founder of The Community Public Charter School in Charlottesville, VA, exposes the impact high stakes testing has her school’s neuro-diverse students and the teachers who work with them. It was originally published on Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog

Exam

He was already exhausted and had 58 questions to go. On the second problem of the 8th grade math exam he was stuck for almost 30 minutes.  This is the state standardized test given to all 8th graders in Virginia. Jim is a visual learner and needed to draw the answers for each possible option. Pausing a moment Jim reached into his snack bag and announced “Help me out here Pringles.”  Turning to me he commented, “I hear salt helps the brain.” I smiled.

I was drained watching Jim’s agony, as he thought out every problem and bounced from question to question.  But if I was drained, Jim was miserable.  He wanted to do well.  He stayed at it for five hours. The computer doesn’t fit Jim’s style of learning or showing what he knows. He is a hands-on, multitasking young man who likes to verbalize aloud what he thinks and figure out multiple solutions. He is an outside-the-box big thinker.

Melissa had a similar experience taking her SOL test.  Melissa thinks like an artist and has the kinds of skills we will need in this  century.  She asks questions that connect to other questions and has trouble with information that is separated into decompartmentalized chunks.  She just kept drifting off the test into some other world more interesting to Melissa.  She tried to engage me in pondering some of these bigger interesting questions but I am a seasoned proctor and I gave my Buddha look and reminded her I could not have discussions during the testing.  I brought my sewing in to establish a calm environment and stitched away.  In the middle of the test Melissa said in a panic, “What if I fail this?”  My heart felt touched knowing how scared she was at that moment. She returned to the test muttering, “This is a disaster.”

These are two students who do their work, have good analytical skills, and an intense desire to do well in school.  Their families support them to use their minds well. Teachers did adequate review and they were well prepared for the tests. They both felt like terrible failures. So many of their peers felt the same.

And so did I.  I know as a charter school we are being judged by the outside world to do well on high stakes testing.  The mission of our school is to help students who have been unsuccessful in their previous schools become thinkers and creative problem solvers.  Our goal is to prepare young people for the real world and as a public school we also accept the responsibility of preparing students for their testing lives.

But there are so many consequences that come with this acceptance.  One of our first year teachers reviewed the results of the writing tests and felt devastated by a few of her student’s scores. She felt that she had let them down by not preparing them well enough to pass. She sunk into her own feelings of failure as a teacher and considered shoring up the curriculum to be more aligned to the test.  This was because three perfectly wonderful students who are able thinkers and creative beyond what most adults we know could ever contribute to a conversation much less a class were deemed not worthy of scoring the necessary 400 points to pass the essay test. They were close. But no cigar. Was their prompt they were given too off target for their life experience?  Was it their anxiety that day that kept them from a good sequencing of ideas?  What exactly was their issue?

One test, one day of a test, made this gifted teacher second-guess her whole year of teaching.  How will it affect her next year when she has to make decisions about our arts infused project-based activities?  Will she want to reduce the class to worksheets and drill to review concepts and skills?

I believe in accountability and knowing what works for students to be successful. There are better ways than this one-size-fits-all testing to assess and record what students know.

As educators, are we seen as so limited that we cannot be trusted to create our own rigorous assessment tools and be judged by them?  Let us become the agents of our own work and design how to define mastery and be held accountable to our standards.  We will invest ourselves to figure out the mysteries of what a quality education means and can provide.  Until then we are held hostage to a system that is archaic, harmful for many students and teachers and missing an opportunity to involve local stakeholders in addressing the crisis in education.

For now we will just have to hope that Pringles can help.

Photo Credit: albertogp123 via Compfight cc

The Mind Matters Show: Study Tip — The Format Shift

Here is the latest video from Dr. Craig Pohlman’s “The Mind Matters Show.” Ben Berg describes the video on this blog post as such,

When it comes to studying for a test, some methods give you a better chance for success. On this episode of the Mind Matters Show, Dr. Craig Pohlman explains the difference between active and passive studying (and how a strategy called the “format shift” can help):

  • Passive Studiers –simply go over the material and let it skim across their minds
  • Active Studiers – engage with the information, such as by transforming it so it embeds into long term memory

This is where the format shift comes in. An active studier would take information they are studying and re-organize it. For example, they would take the content from a textbook paragraph and create a schematic diagram, pictorial diagram, or a compare/contrast table.

The key to the format shift is the process. The act of transforming the information from one format to another embeds the information much more deeply. The multiple formats are more compelling than a plain paragraph in a textbook, so this also makes studying more interesting!

The next time you have to study for a test, consider the format shift in order to get the most out of your study session.

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Paradox of Students’ “Deficits” As Society’s Strengths

179897674_ee402474d9_bThe Economist article, “In praise of misfits,” lays out the business-related benefits of what the author  calls “creatives,” “anti-social geeks,” “oddball quants,” and “rule-breaking entrepreneurs.” While the entire article is well worth the read, we have pulled out a few quotes to help frame the idea that we should work tirelessly to help our school system to support these “misfits.”

Rather than treat their uniquenesses as deficits, we would do well to build on their actionable strengths and affinities — qualities that are proving to shape our present, and will surely impact our future.

From the article:

Recruiters have noticed that the mental qualities that make a good computer programmer resemble those that might get you diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome: an obsessive interest in narrow subjects; a passion for numbers, patterns and machines; an addiction to repetitive tasks; and a lack of sensitivity to social cues.

Additionally,

Similar traits are common in the upper reaches of finance. The quants have taken over from the preppies. The hero of Michael Lewis’s book “The Big Short”, Michael Burry, a hedge-fund manager, is a loner who wrote a stockmarket blog as a hobby while he was studying to be a doctor. He attracted so much attention from money managers that he quit medicine to start his own hedge fund, Scion Capital.

The article goes on,

Entrepreneurs also display a striking number of mental oddities. Julie Login of Cass Business School surveyed a group of entrepreneurs and found that 35% of them said that they suffered from dyslexia, compared with 10% of the population as a whole and 1% of professional managers. Prominent dyslexics include the founders of Ford, General Electric, IBM and IKEA, not to mention more recent successes such as Charles Schwab (the founder of a stockbroker), Richard Branson (the Virgin Group), John Chambers (Cisco) and Steve Jobs (Apple).

All that said, however, there must be balance between the “creatives” and what the article refers to as, “The Organisation Man,” or the “‘well-rounded’ executives.” The writer goes on to explain,

Where does that leave the old-fashioned organisation man? He will do just fine. The more companies hire brilliant mavericks, the more they need sensible managers to keep the company grounded. Someone has to ensure that dull but necessary tasks are done. Someone has to charm customers (and perhaps lawmakers). This task is best done by those who don’t give the impression that they think normal people are stupid.

All of this hints at the need for the real career-ready skill of knowing simply how to get along — to not just tolerate differences, but to appreciate and leverage these differences as opportunities to innovate and become more than the sum of our parts. Our learning communities can be (and already are) incubators of the social relationships that, in part, define a student’s path beyond graduations, for better or for worse.

What if we were so bold as to decide that each student is a learner, learning changes lives,  learning happens in different ways, and learning empowers, and therefore we need to ensure that each student feels the work of schooling matters to them and that their strengths and affinities are not only valued, but embraced and employed as essential to the success of the community?

Do we need to wait until these “misfits” graduate and enter the workforce to change the following?

Those square pegs may not have an easy time in school. They may be mocked by jocks and ignored at parties.

Because, after all,

. . . these days no serious organisation can prosper without them. As Kiran Malhotra, a Silicon Valley networker, puts it: “It’s actually cool to be a geek.”

We, as educators and advocates of all students, have the power to change this trend. There is no need for students to wait until adulthood to find that their strengths matter, and no research suggests this is in the best interest of students, especially those “creatives, oddballs, and/or square pegs among us.

Photo Credit: BrittneyBush via Compfight cc

Brief Review of L. Todd Rose’s “Square Peg”

“Behavior isn’t something someone ‘has.’ Rather, it emerges from the interaction of a person’s biology, past experiences, and immediate context.”

L. Todd Rose, from his book, Square Peg

6301560117_fa8f4c16b9_bFor students with learning differences schools can be (and often are) incredibly trying places. Imagine being a kid who wants to do well — motivated, eager to please, and enjoys interacting with other students — but struggles with attention and working memory. Rather than reep the joys of learning, the student finds herself labeled, removed from her classmates and made to do the things she struggles with for a significant portion of the day. Other subjects, like PE, Art, the Humanities, are sidelined, even though they may be areas of strength for her. Her resulting behavioral expression of the dissonance between her and her learning environment is seen as misbehavior and disciplinary actions follow.

At the end of a day, month, year, or decade, what has she concluded about her “smarts” or her potential as a student? More importantly, what is her assessment of her value as a human? What does she see when she looks at herself through the lens of a school experience that focused, almost solely, on her deficits?

w_2115_smallerL. Todd Rose, co-founder and president of Project Variability, offers a glimpse of a similar experience in his part-memoir part-neuro-education book, Square Peg. His story goes something like this:

  • Classic case of boy with ADHD
  • Struggles in school — discipline, academics, friends
  • Suspended, fails, becomes wholly disenfranchised
  • Drops out
  • Works minimum wage job to support wife and baby
  • Ends up on the faculty at Harvard (after a lot of hard work)

In the telling of this incredible journey, he shares insights from his experiences and from research into the needs, challenges, and value of the “Square Pegs” in our lives. The anecdotally academic weaving together of personal tales and studies from the field of neuro-education (he teaches Educational Neuroscience at Harvard Graduate School of Education) creates numerous access points for a compelling narrative arc as well as enlightening examples of applied theory. In short, it is a book that is hard to put down.

squarepeg-8-8-VER-8While he maintains a child’s sense of wonder and fascination about his own turnaround throughout the book, he also plays the role of scholar, unpacking the theories and ideas that became leverage points for capitalizing on his strengths and accommodating for his challenges. In the prologue he suggests the field of complex systems offers the best possible explanation for his story, and by proxy, the story of many others. He describes his application of complex systems as such:

To put it simply, the study of complex systems looks at how different parts of a system influence each other collectively to produce various outcomes. Nowadays, scientists have been holding up this lens to a range of traditional disciplines, from physics to biology–and, most recently, in centers like the one in which I work: Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program–to the study of human learning. As this effort matures, it is offering a radically new and useful way for parents and teachers to understand the often bewildering behavior of children in their charge.

Throughout the book he uses complex systems and neuroscience to flesh out four ideas to help us be “much more understanding and effective parent(s) and teacher(s)” for the square pegs in our lives. But in reality, the ideas apply to myriad human systems. They are:

  1. Variability is the rule: As humans, our ways of perceiving the world and reacting to what we perceive are much more diverse and dynamic than we might ever have imagined.
  2. Emotions are serious stuff: Contrary to what we’ve long believed, modern neuroscience has shown that there is no such thing as purely rational thought or behavior. Parents and teachers need to learn to tune in to children’s emotional states to help them make the most of their education.
  3. Context is key: People often behave in dramatically different ways, depending on the circumstances. Among other things, this suggests that we unfairly prejudice children by labeling them with a disorder, when they’d be perfectly fine in a different environment.
  4. Feedback loops determine long-term success or failure: Remember those flapping butterfly wings, and keep in mind that small changes in your child’s life today can make an enormous difference tomorrow.

Taken together, these four ideas create a mosaic of factors playing into students’ lives, influencing and affecting their choices, decisions, and behavioral outcomes. They demonstrate that the only silver bullet is in not accepting there there is a silver bullet. No juggernaut exists for all people in all situations. Rather, we must be champions of the individual, unwavering advocates for the well being of each child, and Loraxes who speak for the square pegs.

We highly recommend this book to parents, educators, and clinicians working with square, triangular, and / or round pegs. Not only will you glimpse what the world may look like through their eyes, you will learn a bit about yourself, the science of learning, and, ultimately, the anecdotal and neurological value of caring.

Photo Credit: Mario Inoportuno via Compfight cc
Todd Rose portrait: HGSE
Square Peg Book Image: Hyperion

John Cleese Explains the Brain

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Below is a video from John Cleese’s very “informative” brain podcast (actual content begins around 35 seconds). You’ll notice, of course, that nearly every sentence is almost entirely gibberish.

It is humorous to us in large part because . . .

  1. John Cleese is a masterful humorist who can make gobbledygook sound sensical, and . . .
  2. It is a low stakes environment. None of us will be held accountable for his 1.5 minutes worth of “content.” We’ll watch, marvel and share it, and then go on with our lives.

However, the video offers an instructive peek into the daily experience of scores of students who struggle to decipher language — either because of receptive language challenges or immersion in a new language such as English. We know that stress inhibits learning, so the question becomes, how can we alleviate/manage our content delivery to minimize student stress so as to best capitalize on their learning potential?

If we needed to truly understand this information, how might Mr. Cleese revise his methods? How would you deliver this “content” to ensure students understood it?

 

 Photo Credit: Adrian J Wallace via Compfight cc

One Story About Embracing Diversity and Empowering Students

In this powerful and inspiring TEDxManhattan talk, teacher Stephen Ritz shares a program he started with his students called Green Bronx Machine. More important than the program itself, though, is how the experiences have transformed and empowered his students — their present and their future.

Jackie Gerstein describes his work in her post “Learners as Entrepreneurs,”

Stephen Ritz’s Bronx classroom features the first indoor edible wall in NYC DOE which routinely generates enough produce to feed 450 students healthy meals and trains the youngest nationally certified workforce in America. His students, traveling from Boston to Rockefeller Center to the Hamptons, earn living wage en route to graduation.

One of the things that makes his talk so incredible, besides the breakneck pace of it and his constant stream of witticisms, is how the program embraces the diversity — of mind, body, class, and culture — of his students. The student variation becomes a proof point for the validity and integrity of the program. Take a look and see for yourself.

What other projects / programs do you know of that support diverse student profiles and bring about good in a community? Share in the comments.