Monthly Archives: September 2016

An Education Parable

When I reflect upon the high-stakes testing culture taking such hold of American education, I am often reminded of a story I read years ago about a spiritual teacher.

One day some centuries past, as the story goes, an acolyte found him on his hands and knees, searching about in the marketplace.

“What are you doing, Master?” he asked.

“Looking for my spectacles,” was the reply.

Helpfully, the student, too, got down on his hands and knees, looking about on the ground of the open-air market for a pair of misplaced glasses.

After a time, the novice perspicaciously asked, “Do you remember where you last saw them?”

“Oh, yes, very clearly. In my bedroom at home.”

Perplexed, the student naturally queried, “If you lost them in your bedroom, why, then, Master, do you look for them in the marketplace?”

“Well,” the Master pointedly stated, “there is more light out here.”

This sage was playing the holy fool, of course, to drive home a profound point about a human propensity that is evident in our approach to testing in America today.

We test what is testable, those techniques that are readily quantifiable and that can be easily graphed and tracked for comparative analysis. Less clear is how to assess what we actually seek in educational outcomes—qualities such as creativity, innovation, and leadership—which might require us to cast about in the semi-darkness for a time until we can determine a reasonable and consistent means of assessing educational progress in these areas.

As Ken Robinson has written in “Creative Schools,” the standards culture “can crush creativity and innovation, the very qualities on which today’s economies depend.”

So our educational systems continue to look where it is superficially easier to measure, even though we can never find there that which we truly seek and need.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI

A Conversation with Tony Wagner


Tony Wagner

Tony Wagner is Expert in Residence at Harvard’s Innovation Lab. His illustrious career as one of today’s prominent thought leaders on education includes authorship of such germinal books as “The Global Achievement Gap,” “Most Likely to Succeed,” and “Creating Innovators.” I have long considered Tony’s to be one of the pre-eminently clearest and most consistently insightful voices in educational discourse today. It had been a few years since we spoke, so I immensely appreciated the chance to catch up with him for this blog.

What do you make of our political climate and how that might relate to education?

Tony: Well, it’s “the best of times and the worst of times” scenario. There’s growing popular dissatisfaction with education policies. There are tremendous gaps between policy wonks and the public, particularly around the goal of education. For the public, the goal of education is not academic but about jobs and citizenship. Yet we continue to follow a paradigm from the past century focused on academic paths, a paradigm of knowledge transmission. Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge economy” in 1959. We no longer live in a knowledge economy. Knowledge workers today are largely obsolete. We live in the “innovation era,” in which knowledge has been commoditized.

That’s the longer-term trend. Google is my favorite example. Google used to hire only Ivy League alums, but it has since found that there is no correlation between those academic credentials and success at Google. Fifteen percent of Google’s hires now don’t even have college degrees. There’s no mention of college on Google’s website, and Google doesn’t ask for a transcript. This is the beginning of a trend being taken up by employers.

The short-term problem is the continuation of a failed theory of change. In the 1990s, Lou Gerstner of IBM and other business leaders organized a National Summit on education that led to a school reform movement. In fact, only five educators were invited to the meeting, and then only as observers. That’s why the business model of change has predominated. More free enterprise, no unions. But research doesn’t bear it out. There are not better outcomes in “right to work” states, for instance, where unions are not as strong. And there are as many underperforming charters as ones that get better results than comparable public schools. The other problem with this theory of change is the assumption that teachers don’t work hard enough, and more testing and high stakes accountability will solve the problem. The problem is, we are only testing what can be easily measured, while the most important outcomes for the 21st century are hard to quantify.

There is a slight crack of light potentially in new legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that creates opportunity for states to develop new performance-based accountability systems, where students perform real tasks over time to show their competence. This incents better teaching.

The other problem is that teacher preparation is totally broken.

What do you consider the proper metrics of assessment?

Tony: I go back to the Google story. They no longer use traditional indices. They use interviews. Collective human judgment informed by evidence. Most important decisions in life, in fact, are made by collective human judgment informed by evidence. But for some reason we don’t trust that in education. We should have a grid of skills such as curiosity and tenacity on which students are assessed. Now, individual teachers shouldn’t make those determinations alone, because individual teachers can be idiosyncratic, but collective human judgment can arrive at consistent assessments.

I’m not a fan of the AP, but there is a new two-year AP seminar course that, from what I’ve learned, holds promise for assessment of qualitative skills. In the first year, kids focus on research skills, working with a team, and making presentations from their work. It’s content agnostic and interdisciplinary; they’re learning skills, without content testing. In the second year, they produce a research paper. It appears the AP may finally have a model for training teachers to give quantitative scores to qualitative work. They may have split the atom: how to place a quantitative number on a qualitative skill.

One of the challenges school leaders face is the concern that students won’t place as well into top colleges unless very traditional metrics are followed.

Tony: There is always the need to consider the customer, which, in private schools, especially, is the parent. Parents also have a failed theory of change. They see a far more competitive world and they naturally want to give their kids a competitive advantage. But their model is outdated. They want to get their kids into the best brand-name preschool, elementary school, high school, and college. But it doesn’t work that way now. The world is more meritocratic today. Where you went as an undergraduate doesn’t matter. Where you go to graduate school does matter. I say to parents, “So, save your money. Go to a good state school as an undergraduate and then a top graduate program.”

Parents are too often Tiger Moms, trying to make perfect kids who will get into the perfect college. Kids end up feeling fearful of making a mistake. There’s a core contradiction between this approach and what is really needed to succeed today. In an innovation economy, people learn to innovate through iteration–trial and error. In fact, that’s how we learn. On top of that, the kids subjected to the Tiger Mom approach become tense, neurotic, never really learning who they are or discovering what they’re interested in.

As a leader of a school, I would start with conversations with parents. What really gives kids a competitive advantage? A kid who is curious, engaged, who knows who she is and has good internship experiences will have a competitive advantage over a straight-A kid from Harvard.

There is a larger conversation we need to have in our communities: What does it mean to be an educated adult in the 21st century? What is the portraiture of skills, qualities, and character? Perhaps engage faculty in a discussion about the new AP program and assessment tools in the school. Instead of strategic discussions feeding into revisions of the mission or vision statement, ask what kinds of teaching practice will get this result. And how will we know?

Ron Heifetz at the Kennedy School says the challenge of leadership today is “adaptive change.” Thomas Friedman says that we must first understand what world we’re living in now, then frame accountability and tools and resources to match. And then get out of the way, let the teachers and parents do the work.

Thank you, Tony. This has been inspiring. Is there anything else you would add?

Tony: I would encourage discussions about the nuts and bolts of our everyday work, as well. How do we continually get better at teaching? Teaching is collaborative; isolation is the enemy of improvement. We might do well to spend more time on the “lesson study process” as used in Japan. Ask a teacher, “Would you like to be evaluated?” and they’ll say, “No!” And they have good reason to not want to be evaluated in the traditional manner. But take another approach: Ask a teacher if they’ve ever taught a perfect lesson, and they’ll say no. So there is always room for growth. Collective, shared evaluation for improvement with and amongst peers is a better model, one in which teachers are together asking four questions:

  1. What can I/we get better at this year?
  2. Why choose this particular thing as the focus for improvement? What evidence did I use to choose this priority for improvement?
  3. How will I achieve the improvement? What help do I/we need?
  4. How will we know if it has been improved?

This is about creating the culture of continuous improvement of learning and teaching through collaborative inquiry.

The Head of School can model this, too. Videotape a faculty meeting and invite input as to how you can do it better.

[Before getting off the phone, I touched upon the decline of civility in contemporary culture.]

Tony: Yes, we need more civility, but I would take it further to empathy. Piaget said that the goal of education is to overcome egocentrism in two domains: learning to reason and reciprocity/empathy. The best civility arises from learning empathy.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI

Big Data and Education

Since about the year 2000, our relationship to information has passed a watershed, separating all of prior human history from our current era.

When I was a student some decades ago, I was taught to write a research paper by going to the library and scouring books until I had enough information to warrant a paper-length treatment of the topic at hand. In other words, if I were, say, to write a short paper about Saturn, I would pull relevant books off the shelves until I felt I could say something cogent and informed about the ringed planet for the span of ten pages. In effect, I was still being trained in the skills necessary for success in an information scarcity civilization; I was still culling from disparate sources to reach a critical mass.

Fast forward to today’s student, who can access, with the push of a few buttons, many thousands of sources, all of them instantly searchable. Information “hunting and gathering” is as irrelevant to this student as learning to use a cuneiform stylus would have been to me.  Today’s student has a vastly different relationship to information and consequently needs a  new set of skills to cope and to succeed.

As I wrote over ten years ago, for a student in the 21st century, information is ubiquitous in multiple dimensions –  including spatial, temporal, quantitative, and connective. Spatial, because the entire digital world can be accessed literally from virtually anywhere the student happens to be with a device; temporal, because it can be accessed with near instantaneity and is searchable in real time; quantitative, because the digital world is increasingly coterminal with the entirety of human knowledge and culture; connective, because students can share information or crowd source challenges instantly with anyone in the world at any time.

Students no longer need to know how to find information in books or other discrete data sources as their primary form of research and learning. So why do we persist in teaching them how to cope with the information delivery systems of last century?

Our students would be much better served by training them in the skills they need to navigate Big Data. Today, no one can know all of the information that is available; content is overwhelming but also searchable and readily accessible, so the value of knowing facts diminishes. The competitive value of knowledge in your head is that you are more likely to see connections between superficially unrelated topics.

The first businessperson to see the potential of RFID technology for just-in-time manufacturing assuredly had a genius for making such connections.

This is a shift, though, from a competitive advantage due to more data, per se, toward a competitive advantage due to interdisciplinary connectivity that only requires familiarity, not expertise, with other fields.

When a student types in “Saturn” and is presented with thousands of potential information sources, we need to teach that student how to best delineate optimal sources and key patterns in the data for a meaningful narrative to emerge. Students should also be taught how to distill the vast array of data available for a given task into a cogent and accessibly communicated info-graphic that summarizes the results of her or his work for others. Moreover, students need to learn how to present those results in a clear and compelling 10-15 minute spoken presentation; every student in the 21st century should be trained to give a TED Talk on any topic on which they have become knowledgeable.

Seeing patterns; making sense; communicating. These are perhaps the most salient skills to inculcate in our students in this age of Big Data.

These are certainly not entirely new skills, but they take on far greater centrality today.

So how are schools getting information wrong? Too often, we’re still teaching our students to be 18th- and 19th-century scholars; we’re teaching students to gather small amounts of information from discrete sources and provide a summary to the teacher once enough data points have been found.

What we instead need to teach students is to be intelligent consumers of information.  In his book, “Big Data,” Bernard Marr notes that most information fed to the internet now comes from other devices, not people. “Hunting and gathering” information is rapidly diminishing as a principally or meaningfully human endeavor.

Rather, what we need to teach with renewed vigor is pattern recognition in large, often unwieldy, data sets; how to make sense of those patterns; and how best to communicate that insight. Making sense of patterns also calls upon uniquely human creative ingenuity to innovate connections between apparently disparate topics to effect breakthroughs across disciplines and sources.

Teaching students to be innovative users of combined analytics would result in profoundly different classrooms, more engaged and creative students, and more successful outcomes on almost every metric of success that matters.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI

Everything I need to know about education I learned from Richard Feynman

While a young tenured professor at Cornell, Richard Feynman found himself suffering through a prolonged intellectual drought, during which he felt unmotivated and unable to initiate any productive research. As an academic wonder-kid who had played a prominent role in the Manhattan Project while still in his 20s, Feynman struggled with what to do for an encore; he was, in short, frozen because he was privileging others’ expectations of him, of what qualified as important work,  rather than  following his own inner muse.

Finally, in desperation, Feynman realized that he needed to recapture a sense of PLAY while doing physics. He made the courageous decision to do what interested him intrinsically, for its own sake, for the sheer fun of it. As he writes in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: “It didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with….So I got this new attitude….I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.”

A few days later, Feynman noticed a student spinning a plate on his finger in the dining room. Within a week, Feynman was working out the mathematics of plate spinning to his heart’s content. It was the first time in years he had enjoyed doing physics, and he found himself surprisingly  intrigued with the unanticipated complexities of plate spinning.

To others, the work seemed utterly frivolous, so much so that some colleagues petitioned the college to rescind Feynman’s tenure. Undaunted, Feynman pursued his new passion for plate spinning. Eventually, he saw that this work could be applied to a new mathematical description for the spins of electrons, which, in turn, rendered startlingly fresh perspectives on quantum mechanics.  These were ultimately the very insights that earned him the Nobel Prize in physics.

What’s particularly striking – and instructive – about Feynman’s epiphany is twofold: on one hand, he shed the encumbrance of expectations accreted through years of schooling and professional life, giving himself permission to return to a pluripotential state of childlike creativity; on the other hand, he was prepared to yield substantial new insights from that freedom precisely because he brought the requisite skills in math and physics to bear on his scientific serendipity. 

Optimally, the best learning is play at the highest possible level.  

As with play at the highest tier of athleticism, this requires a delicate balance between spontaneity and preparation, between freedom and acquired skill. (Think LeBron James on the basketball court.)

How do we get our students to play at the highest possible level? How do we design this crucial equipoise into our schools?  

As Sir Ken Robinson said in the most watched TED Talk ever, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”: “All kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them pretty ruthlessly….My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” Unfortunately, he points out, the bitter irony is that so many of our schools, as currently constituted, are actually actively “educating people out of their creative capacities.”

Tony Wagner, Expert in Residence at Harvard’s Innovation Lab, writes in Creating Innovators that today’s best schools, from kindergartens to MIT’s Media Lab, evince five prominent characteristics: collaboration, multidisciplinary learning, thoughtful risk-taking/trial and error, creating, and intrinsic motivation (play, passion, purpose).

When I was a keynote speaker for an educational conference in China, I was asked by the audience of prominent educators, “How do we get more of our students to graduate thinking like Steve Jobs?”

I responded rather boldly by stating categorically that their system was not geared to engender creative genius. Quite the contrary, that an educational system so heavily inclined toward rewarding rote learning could not possibly foster creativity via the mere addition of a course or program at the margins of the curriculum. 

Instead, I continued, creativity is most consistently inculcated within an encompassing cultural matrix that fosters, encourages, and rewards its students for taking imaginative risks and being inquisitively audacious.

Alexander Calandra has written of a precocious student in a university colleague’s physics class who had determined to answer questions completely and accurately  – just never in the way that the professor expected.

In response to the exam prompt, “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer,” this student avoided giving the answer, which he knew, from the assigned reading (i.e., using the barometer as an altimeter by comparing pressure readings taken at the base and the top of the building). Instead, the student suggested simply lowering the barometer on a rope from the roof of the building, then measuring the length of the rope to ascertain its height. The professor, in a quandary as to whether to credit this (admittedly accurate) answer, gave the student another chance at the question. Again, the student determinedly eschewed giving the expected answer, this time proffering several alternatives, including dropping the barometer off the roof and timing its fall,  comparing and extrapolating from the shadows cast respectively by the barometer and the building, measuring the height in “barometer units” by marking with the barometer on the wall while ascending the stairwell, and even offering a free barometer to the building’s janitor in return for being told the height. 

Once, while I was speaking to an audience of high school students and teachers in Guangzhou, China, a girl in the distant last row raised her hand immediately after I had cued up the beginning of this story and before I had given any of the student’s answers. “Did the student think to answer the question in any of these ways,” she excitedly began, and then proceeded to rattle off a series of innovative answers, some of which were actually used by the student in the story as well as others I had never heard but that were equally clever.

After the talk, I told the girl that, though I had shared this story in schools around the world, she was the only student who had ever generated her own creative answers before hearing the ending.

“You,” I said through a translator, “have a brilliant mind.” “That’s funny,” she replied, “because I have the lowest grades in my class, and my teachers think I’m a problem.”

I, in turn, shared this story at the educational conference in Dalian. “Until you build a school culture that rewards and empowers students like that girl,” I asserted, “you can never expect to produce alumni who think like Steve Jobs (or like Richard Feynman, for that matter.) That remains a hallmark and strength of American education, which is a key reason why people from around the world clamor to send their children to American schools.”

I confess I said this with no inconsiderable ambivalence, though, because I knew that, even as I spoke, the monolithic march of the standards/testing movement was threatening to suffocate creativity in many of America’s classrooms.   

But that is a topic for another blog.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI