All posts by admin

Motivation 2.0 – Comments on Daniel Pink’s “Drive.”

“Traditional notions of management are great if you want compliance but if you want engagement, self direction works better.” Daniel Pink discusses the science of motivation in the 21st Century.

I am most of the way through Dan Pink’s most recent book called Drive.  He summarizes some of the social scientific conclusions regarding human motivations in the video presented but none is more surprising or exciting than the conclusion (routinely arrived at from numerous directions) that extrinsic motivators are having an increasingly negative effect on creativity.

He discusses these findings in the context of commerce.  I hear what he’s saying and move that this information should be heeded also by forward-thinking educators since the very things that cause the 20th Century idea of “management” to now work against the best interests of business are the same things that work against the best interests of school.  Asking students to fall into single file and to color inside the lines are fine if we aim to graduate docile and risk-averse worker-bees; these are not as useful for producing the creative problem solvers that our economy increasingly requires.

Mr. Pink points out that many necessary but process-based tasks have been either automated or farmed out to huge foreign work pools elsewhere in the world (the economic impact of these practices is beyond the scope of this entry).  As such is the case, it stands to reason that, increasingly, the job market that exists for the graduates of our schools will primarily select for the best and the brightest creative thinkers and DOERS (barring any catastrophic collapse of our economy…again beyond the scope of this entry).  Sadly, even though this is the case, very few of the assessment systems we have actually assess practical, creative, and solution-oriented characteristics of students.  Our assessment systems do not reward creativity as well as they reward regurgitation and, very often, those who do the latter well are selected for advancement.

It’s not as unfair as it sounds.  Increasingly, the very best natural problem solvers locate niches that serve themselves and society well (and often result in them becoming obscenely wealthy – Steven Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, etc…).  It would be a great thing for education, though, to do a better job of providing learners with the opportunities for Pink’s “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” sooner and on a more regular basis.  Rather than going through years of hardship and isolation, those learners whose motivations lie outside of the regular stream of inquiry and study could find flow and, ultimately, continue to regard learning as a sea of possibility for much longer in their lives.

The freedom to discover is the best motivator there can be…for students; for business; for anyone, really (True Fact)!  So why don’t we match up what we know with what we do?

Shut Up, Fandom!

Oh no!  His lightsaber is cyan instead of cerulean!

Oh no! His lightsaber is cyan instead of cerulean!

I have to get this off my chest: Fandom, would you collectively stop hatin’ every time Superman’s costume is a little different than you remember it?  How about counting to ten when George Lucas inevitably changes something in a new cut of a Star Wars movie?  Breathe.  Relax.  Your memory will remain intact…as is evidenced by the fact that you can quote every episode of ST:TOS by heart!

Here’s the thing, Fandom: creative people create.  Creative people who own creative properties are as entitled to frak with these properties as much or as little as they desire.  If you would like to have new cool aspects of popular culture to enjoy, then leave these creative people be when they get creative rather than taking to the Tumblrs and the Twitters flaming because Batman has a toy you don’t like.  If, however, you would prefer that everything stay the same then just stop buying comics and going to movies.

I guarantee that, if you do that, everything will be JUST like you remember it.

School really SHOULD be all “fun and games!”

How many times have you heard someone working in a school say that the purpose of the organization “isn’t all fun and games?”  How many times have you heard an educator or administrator say something like, “it’s school, it’s not SUPPOSED to be fun!”?

I’ve said it.  You’ve said it.  We have all said it at some point or another.  It’s exciting to know, however, that it wasn’t always so.  Prior to the onset of industrialization in Europe, most cultural transmission took place via stories and games among small groups of people.  People learned what they needed to know in order to live in the environment they were born into (hunting, gathering, agriculture).  Periodically, as there emerged a more skill-based economy, some people were afforded the opportunity to apprentice with a “master” artisan in a particular discipline and would learn a certain set of skills by performing hands-on tasks that would ultimately result in the acolyte becoming a master in his own right.  As parts of the world began to industrialize, workers who could punctually perform repetitive tasks became necessary and schools were established to feed the need of a basically educated workforce.

While this is a gross glossing-over of the history of human psycho-social development, the point is that “School” as we know it is only about 250 years old whereas our predisposition to learn by playing is at least 10, 000 years developed.  As a species, we have spent about 40 times longer learning through play than through any other means.

So why aren’t schools more playful?

Immediately following this statement, I caution myself to mention two things:

  1. Some schools certainly are playful and, on the whole, I applaud the progressive efforts of the ranks of early-childhood and elementary teachers in creating wonderful and engaging programs.
  2. Much playful impetus in secondary schooling is crushed under the perceived weight of assessment standards that can seem to corral instructional creativity.  I don’t think they necessarily have to, but you’ll find I’m optimistic like that.

On the whole, though, as a person comes out of middle school and into secondary education, it seems like all the fun of school somehow gets sucked into the black hole of this grim spectre of “growing up.”  This has, in my experience, always been equated with being kind of stuffy and without room for play.  Happily, science is starting to shine some happy light on all these fun and games!

In the video I share below, Stuart Brown makes just one compelling case for the importance of play in human development.  As an educator of high-risk youth, I am delighted to hear some of the things that this researcher has discovered about play deprivation and it’s ensuing impacts on humans.  It greatly supports years of “hunches” I have had that, basically, we are all children with steadily-increasing vocabularies.  The thinkers I have come to respect in my exploration on the topic all seem to rally behind one thing: “the child’s mind is the enlightened mind.”

It is important to create opportunities for students to tackle prescribed curriculum in such a way that their own playfulness is engaged as an integral part of the learning.  With this in the forefront of my mind, I can’t wait to get started with this new school year of “fun and games.”  I am willing to bet that the more of this we all have, the more satisfied we all will be!

Here is the video:

Also, here are some great links:

The State of Flow

Clayton Christensen – Author of “Disrupting Class.”

Tim Brown – TED talk about Creativity and Play

The Power of Posing Problems

This TED video is the jumping-off point for this entry:

This video prompted the following comment on the TED website:

  • John Burrell 2 hours ago: The teaching profession are falling over themselves to embrace the ‘new paradigms’ advocated by this teacher, repeated by amongst Ken Livingston and written about by Steven Johnson + the endless retweets on Edchat. Each and everyone of these individuals places a greater value on ‘creative thinking’ than on content to the extent that they wish to see content abandoned. Yet the process of producing a new synthesis requires that the student be able to connect their new ideas to the old, this is to give the new idea value to others. Content is still king! It allow the connections to be made, it is the basis of synthesis and the bed rock of creativity. Unconnected thinking with no reference point has no value and would perhaps be better characterised as madness. Content still matters. Gardner covered all this in ‘Five Minds for the Future’ (sic)

The reason I share this video and particular comment (there are many other comments as well) is because it nicely (and, some may argue, too simply) illustrates the shift taking place in North American schools right now.  The shift is one where the traditional emphasis on content is moving to an emphasis on conceptualization and problem solving.  Content is cheap (Wikipedia); a problem solver is worth millions.

I take issue with this video’s comment.  The issue I take with the comment is not because I feel that content is unimportant but because it values content incorrectly.  Content in our current economy performs the function that bricks and mortar play in the construction of a home; they are fundamental tools required for the proper completion of the task at hand.  Like content, however, they themselves are not the task at hand.

I was once asked which World War was “…the one with the Nazis” by a high school graduate.  Being a person who sees this kind of thing as important, I was surprised that someone would have to ask.  It was, however, an honest question and I answered it as such.  This example says a lot about exactly what can go wrong in instruction.  This person knew that there was more than one World War and he was aware that there was a group of people named Nazis involved in one of them.  These bits of important content were floating about in his mind like remnants of flotsam following a U-Boat attack.

Why?  He had no reason to put them in the correct place.  The problems of his life did not require him to know which war the Nazis were in so he didn’t know it.  I knew it because it was my job to know it.  If I would have asked him to properly seat a restaurant during the dinner rush hour, though, he would have been like Ike on D-Day plus 1.   Being able to do this would be arguably more profitable in his immediate life than would be knowledge about a relatively distant international conflict.

For those who may at this point fear that I am merely suggesting that all education be vocational, I propose caution.  This is where I will return to what I believe to be the message of Ms. Laufenberg’s talk: traditional content is more effectively communicated and better understood by teachers posing problems to their students in a way that forces them to create something larger than the sum of its parts.  Teachers must ask their students what they can do with content in the same way that most of their future employers or clients will ask them to do.  I would wager that if you think back to one of your favorite times in school, it would involve the agency and excitement with being entrusted to pull something off.  I would further wager that you would remember exactly which order you’d do things in and what you’d do differently if you had to do it again.  Building a volcano, making an infographic, organizing a volleyball tournament, and writing an opinion paper all require a person to summon a variety of skills and knowledge into one time and place in a way rote memorization of which war had the Nazis never can.  How would I get this person to remember which war had the Nazis?

I’d ask him how he would have prevented their rise to power and see what he comes up with.  That’s a problem worth solving.

The Critical Inch

I apologize for the long writing absence.  I have been spending a great deal of time adjusting to the realities of my role as Principal.  I am blessed to work with one of the most dedicated group of professionals I have known.  I am also blessed to serve such a delightfully creative and inspiring group of youth.  It is in respect to these two groups that I write today.

In my short time in the office, I have learned that, before anything else, I must determine the “Critical Inch” of any situation.  This term, first encountered by me in the words of late inspirational author Richard Carlson, refers to the one thing or process that is most important to any project’s success.  Without the determination of this critical person, process, item, or activity, the entire matter at hand may fail.

To put it into personal terms, many people come into my office with something that is bothering them.  This would be fairly simple to deal with if everyone always knew or was willing to admit exactly what was bothering them.  More often than not, however, what a person reports is not ultimately the matter that is bothering them.  In order to best aid the person in my midst, my job is one of determining that “Critical Inch” that is holding the person back from miles of harmony.

I raise this issue not because I am exhausted by the sussing-out process, but because I have to remember that whole organizations have Critical Inches with regards to their missions.  Our school’s mission is, simply, to inspire and enable the educational success of high-risk youth.  These youth may have had many interruptions to their formal learning for a variety of reasons.  Because the needs of the youth and the staff that work with them are often so great and so many, it is often difficult to determine what, exactly, the critical process in our path to successfully achieving our goals.

After some watery thought (I often think better when I am swimming, in the sauna, or in the shower), I have determined that our school’s “critical inch” is student engagement through relationships.  The students we serve have not been adequately served in other educational spaces.  For whatever reason, when they come to us, they come with the basic understanding that education is a necessary means to some other end but not something that is intrinsically fulfilling or meaningful.  Why would they?  Schools have been places of hardship, ridicule, embarrassment, isolation and, in some cases, violence.  While our school should definitely be appropriately challenging to our youth, creating an environment where they are heard through their experiences of hardship and violence should be our most critical step.  The school itself should ensure a safe, stable, and relevant place to explore ideas and opportunities.

Are we all the way there, yet?  No, we aren’t.  Are we well along the road?  Yes we are.  We have wonderful student services in place and an unparalleled process of determining individualized program plans for each student.  We have strong staff dedication to professional development and great relationships in the community to draw upon for relevant student experiences.

And now, in the Socratic tradition of knowing oneself, I know our “Critical Inch!”


What is a PLC? Why are we talking about this?

In Alberta, Professional Learning Communities are the recommended method of delivering learning to students in K-12 schools.  What this means has been subject to a lot of interpretation, but below are some of the best and most useful descriptions of the practice.  Our school is currently in the process of re-organizing itself to reflect this recommendation and, thus far, the progress is promising.  I think one of the most important things to remember when shifting to a PLC model for your school environment is that much of the stuff PLCs are developed for already happen every day.  The difference between your particular school and a functioning PLC is that, in the PLC environment, nothing happens by accident.  Instead, all of the people who have a stake in the success of the youth take a critical look at what they do well and make systematic efforts to do them on purpose.
View more presentations from Mike Parent.