Monthly Archives: November 2016

An Educator’s Thanksgiving

“He who cannot draw upon three thousand years is living from hand-to-mouth.” —Goethe

There are so many things about which I am grateful to be an educator. Foremost, of course, is the gift to work with and nurture wonderful children. Central to that, I feel privileged to participate in the intergenerational transfer of civilization. Every time I see the extraordinary Rocky Hill School teachers in their classrooms with our students, I marvel at this wonderful system we have developed by which elders transmit to the succeeding generation the accumulated wisdom of, as Goethe says, “three thousand years” (by which I assume he meant since roughly the dawn of high civilization in the Fertile Crescent).

We are weak primates of relatively short lifespan with three-pound brains designed to help us survive on the Serengeti. Given those limits, it is astoundingly remarkable that we have developed tools (language, symbology, libraries, computers, cultures, civilization) to aggregate our incremental contributions to a collective understanding about the world and to ensure the secure transmission and cumulative growth of that knowledge for each succeeding generation.

It is always possible that we shall fail in that transmission, and, so, educating remains a sacred undertaking. There can be no higher calling.

About two millennia ago, Virgil wrote in The Georgics:

Ye sacred muses! with whose beauty fired,
My soul is ravished, and my brain inspired
Whose priest I am, whose holy fillets wear
Would you your poet’s first petition hear;
Give me the ways of wandering stars to know,
The depths of heaven above, the earth below:
Teach me the various labors of the moon,
And whence proceed the eclipses of the sun;
Why flowing tides prevail upon the main,
And in what dark recess they shrink again;
What shakes the solid earth; what cause delays
The summer nights, and shortens winter days.

One of the most learned people on the planet at the height of learning in Occidental classical antiquity, Virgil most passionately wished to understand the scale of the earth and the cosmos, the reasons for lunar phases and solar eclipses, the causes of ocean tides, the nature of earthquakes and the seasons.

Today, every Rocky Hill student can provide a reasonably accurate explanation for all of these phenomena before leaving Lower School. That is the genius and import of education: to ensure that every child can “call upon three thousand years” of accumulated wisdom.

That is the sacred vocational endeavor in which I am so proud to participate with my splendid colleagues in this season for Thanksgiving.


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

A Conversation with Susan Fonseca

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Susan Fonseca

Susan Fonseca has been instrumental in launching Singularity University (based at NASA), Women@TheFrontier, and most recently “SheWorks!” She is one of the most brilliant and dynamic thinkers I have ever had the privilege to know. Susan is a founder, convener, and leader on a global scale. As you read this brief interview, I’m sure you will enjoy her passion and vision, as well as her remarkable capacity to celebrate and empower others—and be inspired by her vision for our children’s education.


Most recently, I came across a clip of you on stage with Bill Clinton at a Clinton Foundation event describing Singularity University. Can you tell me about that and about your role in the founding of Singularity University?

Susan: Yes, it was the Clinton Foundation’s “Future of the Americas” Summit, and President Clinton asked me two questions: First, What is Singularity University? (Which is the clip I believe you are referring to.) And second, Where do I see the future going for Latin America and what will be the biggest disruption in the next 20 years? And my answer to that question was: Women!

Women are 50% of the world’s population and account for over 80% of consumer decisions. As a market bloc, our impact is greater than the economies of China and India combined, with a global estimate of reaching $40 trillion by 2018. And yet, women are not equally represented at the decision-making tables or given equal recognition for inventions or innovations that have transformed the world. In the next decade, women and girls from regions like Latin America will be more empowered, digitally connected, and financially independent than ever. Their collective voices and their ability to generate exponential companies is about to reach a tipping point. So for me, the biggest disruption coming is women!

Susan, you were born in Honduras, correct?

Susan: I grew up in Honduras, but I was actually born in New York. My parents were in the Peace Corps and stationed in Honduras. So I’m a product of two worlds, two languages, two cultures. The Clinton Foundation wanted a speaker that could represent Honduras and Latin America, someone involved in exponential startups and socially good impact initiatives related to gender diversity. It was an incredible honor to be asked to join the conversation and to represent the country and region that gave me my start.

But I have to tell you, I received this honor partly because my friend and colleague Rebeca Hwang was supposed to keynote at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) a week before the event, but she had a conflict and submitted my name, instead. The Clinton Foundation saw me speak at the IDB and that’s how my name was added to the short list of candidates being vetted to join President Clinton, President Moreno (President of Colombia), and Carlos Slim (a Mexican billionaire) on stage for the Future of the Americas Summit. So I am truly grateful to Rebeca for “passing the mic” to me. The IDB event is also where I met Silvina Moschini, my Co-Founder at SheWorks! Women do pay it forward and support each other. Their sisterhood inspires me.

As to your question of my role in the founding of Singularity University (SU), it was a journey that I could not have scripted or thought about while growing up. When I met Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamonds, I was a Washington, DC attorney helping to negotiate an international free trade agreement called CAFTA-DR (between the United States and Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and The Dominican Republic). The presidents of Central America had formed a coalition and the Honduran president was its Chair. He asked me to lead their diplomatic agenda and organize their formal visit to the United States.

While in DC, and because of my background in law, I met Ray Kurzweil at a Colloquium event hosted by friends Martine and Bina Rothblatt. The event centered around a mock trial, and I was asked to defend the Constitutional rights of an Artificial Intelligence. Martine Rothblatt, who also started United Therapeutics, Geostar, and Sirius Radio, would represent the rights of the corporation wanting to “shut down” the AI. Ray was part of the panel of subject matter experts. It was a wonderful experience! Martine and Bina are amazing at bringing together incredibly diverse thinkers and innovators for open and creative discussions on future trends and topics of great impact and significance. And thanks to them, I met Ray. When Singularity University was being conceived, Ray Kurzweil (and Peter Diamandis) called me to ask if I would help them launch and establish the organization.

I am considered “SU’s Founding Architect” for putting together the initial pieces that would eventually become the DNA of Singularity University. Our goal for SU was to engage the world’s next generation leaders and design solutions to impact one billion people! Google was a supporter from the get-go. That was in September of 2008, and at that point we only had three months to get ready, because we decided to unveil our company at TED 2009.

It is a testament to these men (Ray and Peter) that they asked a young Latina woman to help shape the initiative. And I had to also step up and have the courage to say “yes” to something unknown. Even the students/participants would be taking risks because they had to collaborate, and in 10-weeks, launch team projects that would make a difference in the world.

Our first program started in 2009. My goal was to bring together the founding individuals, because something that I have always enjoyed doing is bringing different perspectives, backgrounds and cultures together. It was also important to me that the participants were from different parts of the world, had different experiences, economic backgrounds, and gender. Central was to include women as part of this exponential conversation. Technology, science, and high level leadership are key to SU, but also team spirit, collegiality, and building solutions while maintaining respect for different opinions.

How did Women@TheFrontier come about?

Susan: I was always asking myself: Where are the women presidents? Where are the women leaders in technology? Who are the Einsteins that are women? Why so few female voices at the decision-making tables? This led me to launch Woman@TheFrontier. I wanted to identify the trailblazers and disrupters who were inventing the future. Originally the idea was just to find them and convene them as a pipeline for Singularity University and NASA. But, because of the demand, it quickly became its own thing. We were creating a pipeline around the world. The goal is to find, fuel, and fund these women. We wanted to create visibility in order to show the variety of women and voices as science and tech role models in the world.

You also recently launched your latest venture, SheWorks! Can you share a bit about that?

Susan: SheWorks! is a cloud-based platform that matches talented professional women with job opportunities. I helped launch it because models of employment are rigid and the world of work today doesn’t effectively support or include women who are mothers and caretakers. That’s why almost half of all mothers leave their professional career! (43% of women in the US leave the workforce because they cannot balance their job with caring for their family.) Closing the gender employment gap could add between $2-4 trillion in US GDP and $12 trillion back into the global economy.

And the trend is not rigid office hours; it’s mobile, remote, flexible work with contingent workers projected to reach 50% by 2020. Reward systems and promotions based on how long you spend at the office—or how late you can stay at an after-hours networking event—do not support diversity and inclusion or the way women and moms do business. So for SheWorks!, we decided to help accelerate the shift by building the talent pipeline and helping them and companies re-engage a new world of work that is more transparent, rewards excellence, and allows for win-win scenarios both professionally and personally.

Reflecting on your journey, what connects it all?

Susan: When I look back, I think the one unifying theme across my career is to provide access and opportunity for individuals whose voices are not heard. And women are the ones who’ve usually been left out. Maybe not actively discriminated against, but the model hasn’t really been opportune for us either. We need to recreate the model, build new structures, change policy, and increase the pipeline of women leaders so we all have an opportunity to access resources, capital, and networks. As women, we’re also accountable to remove barriers by sharing knowledge, money, experiences.

After your launch from that founding meeting at Singularity University, you had hundreds of articles written about you. Financial Times, Business News, you name it. I reached out to connect but you were getting so inundated with inquiries that I couldn’t get through to you, so I contacted the Jim Martin institute at Oxford on a Sunday morning in February of 2009. Within 15 minutes, they sent me your private email. Once I reached out to you, within 15 minutes you asked, “Can you meet here in California at noon tomorrow?” I thought, wow, they move fast! I caught a red-eye, met with you and a few others, and I thought, “these are some of the most extraordinary people I have ever met.”

Susan: If you remember, we did not plan to have high school students our first year. Really, because we were not even prepared for the volume of adults who would apply. Our website crashed within hours of Ray’s TED Talk. We didn’t even have dorm rooms, meal plans, or classrooms ready. The idea of bringing in young high school students was not in our scope. But you really presented a great reason why we should include young kids. Because of you, we said yes to including Cushing Academy students our very first summer. And they were not just setting up tables and building part of the infrastructure, they were witnessing the collaborative process of a startup. It was great for them to see that what was important was the conversations that would happen, not if our AV was working. Thank you for that red-eye to California, making a great argument for why we should include these kids, and believing in us. There wasn’t even proof of concept yet!

When these kids came from my school, you imbedded them fully with you and with the people who were the first cohort of Singularity University. They got to see both the behind the scenes start up and the perspective of the cohort. I remember you were wondering if you would get enough people to fill a 40-person cohort and then you got 1,200 qualified applicants. When our students came back to Cushing, they were fully energized and were powerful change agents at Cushing. They wanted to transform the school so that it looked like Singularity University. What has been paradigmatic for me since that time has been, “What would a school look like if it were more like Singularity University?”

Susan: Jim, you’ve been the biggest champion in creating an ecosystem and educational environment that allows for exploration; a place kids don’t just dream big but also mold themselves into change agents.

What does the first step look like? For the school, the parents, the faculty, the board members, the kids: surround yourself with people who are not constrained in a single mindset, but where the group welcomes trying new things, taking time to practice and vet ideas. It’s about conversations that are inspirational and where teachers and mentors act as guides in the process and say, “let’s follow through on that thought.” That is what education can be and should be.

It would be an active place, forward looking and thinking about the future, especially for these kids. Singularity University was conceived not by looking at other institutions of learning. None of us were academics. We had a blank canvas mindset. The core team hadn’t built something like this, so in a way there were no constraints. So with SU we built the initial curriculum by asking ourselves: What would we like to hear today? What would transform our minds? Who would we want to talk to? If this were a peer-to-peer horizontal framework, not a hierarchy defined by age, pedigree, or background, what would we want to learn, and from whom?

To some extent, we need to let our kids also guide us when creating curriculum. They have a voice and they can help us re-engineer better educational systems if we give them a chance to participate in the framework.

How can we foster and encourage curiosity and freedom of structure for all education? How can we create an experience where participants are not just being talked down to or told information, but are presented with tools like Google Glass, or a 3D printer and allowed to experiment with the parts, to assemble them into something else? Because technology is just a tool. The value is to unlock ideas and fresh perspectives. So we should have confidence in these young minds, let them bring us ideas. As adults we should try to defer more to our students and “pass the mic,” to be guides to help them secure the resources they need to launch initiatives and design solutions.

With the Cushing kids at SU, we presented the same grand challenge that we posed to our adult students: we asked them, “If you could impact one billion people across nations, cultures, or different languages, what would you do?” We also asked them to provide us with their needs, including experts they wanted to talk to or technology or tools. Their solution was to invent a type of paint with nanotechnology that could use be used inside and outside a home, to keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter, free of lead or poison or toxic materials. It could change per day to take care of you. And the wonderful thing about their idea is that it can be done! It is just an engineering problem. It was a very clever idea presented in 2009.

I think as adults we should also be open to learning with our students. Even if we haven’t used the technology or platforms or software, that’s okay. It’s not about being embarrassed; it is about a shared opportunity to learn and be together. We should at times be the students ourselves. That is where I see the future of education.


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

Connecting with Pat Bassett

Pat Bassett was President of the National Association of Independent Schools from 2001 to 2013, representing over 1,400 schools. Since 2013, he has been a Principal at Heads Up Educational Consulting.


What do you think is the ideal school that you could conceive of today? Let’s focus on an upper school to make it simple.

Patrick Bassett

Patrick Bassett

Pat: My comments actually apply across all divisions. I’m replying on the basis that I’ve spent 40 years walking into schools. So, I have seen what has been happening in improving practices in teaching and learning. If I walked into the ideal school, here’s what I would see, and I have seen every example I will give you. There’s a six-year-old first grader in tears because the bell rang and he wasn’t “done learning.” He was coming out of a STEM class, a maker lab; it was completely hands-on with first graders, and this boy didn’t want a bell to interrupt his deep engagement. In another school’s first grade class I found the students huddled around a big table working on a recent class project. They couldn’t wait to explain what they were learning to me. These first graders had some ownership of what they would study, and they chose an urban study unit. It started with an expedition into the city. They recorded what they found in the city, investigating which part the municipality itself owned, what functions the citizens required and expected the municipality to operate. This was higher level assessment and observation that got them out from behind their desks. Then they took what they had learned and built their own ideal city out of LEGO blocks. They created every piece of the city, private and public, including the transportation system. They were interested in waste removal, the dump trucks. They were so eager to explain to me that they were programming the dump trucks, and they showed me how the dump trucks would move through the city and where they would stop, the centralized places for trash disposal. These were six-year-old kids, coding, building, and conceptualizing an ideal city. This was way ahead of what everyone else was doing in first grade in most schools I’ve seen.

Here is the second element: There are many NAIS member independent schools that are creating centers of innovative teaching and learning. They want to become the destination point for training current and future teachers, and moving from the old paradigm to a new paradigm. The paradigm shifts in education have been identified by the MacArthur Foundation as “The Big Shifts” in education, pre-school through graduate school (and everywhere in between): i.e., moving from teacher centered to student centered, from knowing to doing, from individual effort to collaborative effort, from schools to networks, from single sourcing to crowdsourcing of information and knowledge.

The combination of these shifts moves the locus of interest and ownership in learning from the teacher to the learner, raising engagement dramatically. Whose enthusiasm is most important? In the 21st century, it’s the students’.

These big shifts as well challenge the current practice of teachers and schools working in isolation. Many if not most teachers are stuck in sandboxes of their own making. Psychologists have long noted that teachers conduct parallel play just like kindergarteners and first graders in the sandbox: i.e., they don’t play together, they don’t network, or connect; they aren’t affiliated with other schools or networks. This should not be true of 21st century schools. Especially schools that want to be destinations in innovation, that should be networking in their locales and around the world.

Another big shift is from knowing to doing. As far as I can tell, for 600 years, the focus has been on knowing, and access to knowledge has been, up until the last 20 years, restricted to the elite. Until about 200 years ago, most people didn’t have access to free, public education, so only the rich had access to expensive private education. Until the internet, there really was no democracy of access to information and knowledge. Now there is; anyone has access, a highly transformative change in the status quo. Schools are leveraging that opportunity and not just in STEM classes where the students are “makers” but also outside of class, where our students are creating their own learning experiences by interviewing, for example, Americans in different walks of life, interviewing holocaust survivors in their locale, and the like. The Smithsonian now accepts any oral history that an American creates. So instead of memorizing for a test and forgetting it in 10 days, students are now makers of information, curators of knowledge. That kid’s video of his boomer grandparents’ recollections from the early civil rights marches or anti-war marches in the 1960s, some professor will surface 100 years from now and teach from it.

That shift from learning to doing echoes some of Marc Prensky’s thinking. Can you speak to that?

Pat: There are a couple different angles. There is a population that is underserved by education across the board. That is boys, in terms of college preparation and learning in general. There are developmental issues at play not fully addressed at the lower level. We continue to think boys will thrive sitting at their desks 6 hours a day. Only a tiny percentage does. Boys more than ever need an environment where they are engaged. They need to take pro-social and intellectual risks. We now see that 60% of matriculation in college is female. This is true of professional and graduate school, as well. And a large reason for the disengagement of boys is that they need to engage their minds by engaging their hands, by making and fixing things. The boys in boys’ school do that, and they thrive.

Technology is going to help us differentiate in assessment and in delivery of skills training. There are varying and wide degrees of disparity in learning styles, and yet there still is, especially in secondary school and college, one primary style of delivery, lecture-focused teaching. This doesn’t work for a growing portion of the population. We have technology that can help us differentiate. Teaching of skills will increasingly become customized and promotion through a curriculum that is competency based instead of seat-time based. We will eventually all use computer-adaptive formative assessments that provide immediate and sophisticated feedback that is useful to the teacher and the learner, as opposed to standardized, summative tests (end of year) that are too late to leave time for corrective learning. Just as students are motivated in the gaming environment to improve their skills and earn higher status badges, they’ll be so in academic gaming sets as well. Once we capitalize on technology to customize assessment and differentiate instruction, our schools can be doing what independent schools have always promised but too seldom delivered, teaching to the needs of the specific child.

I was at a colloquium dinner and discussion at Boston University recently, and one of the things that came up among this group of educators was that we have some compelling (albeit not perfect) models for what the schools you’re describing should look like, such as High Tech High, and there is a growing consensus that these are the skill sets that are needed today. So, why are we not seeing a critical mass of scaling up these paradigms to large scale educational delivery?

Pat: There are so many reasons. First of all, there are, in fact, scores of public, charter, and independent schools becoming more project based, so this progressive movement is finally gaining traction. That being said, there is resistance. Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan of Harvard wrote a book called Immunity to Change. Their general theme is that we know what we should do—for example, quitting smoking. We know we will have a higher risk of dying from lung cancer, and yet people keep smoking. There must be unconscious factors that override that most elemental instinct to survive. Smokers are all pariahs in the public’s eye (“second-hand smoke”), but the network of pariahs is very strong.

So, too, in education: We know there is a prevailing wind to make changes but there are also powerful counter-winds preventing it. The current model has worked for 600 years. It is hard to throw out something that has worked pretty well for a lot of people for 600 years. But it has worked best for teachers. Teachers prosper in the way we have delivered teaching. We teach the way we have been taught. Until we have a generation of teachers that have been taught differently, there is built-in conscious and unconscious resistance. Teachers have a high fear of failure. Why would I experiment with a model when it seems to work pretty well? They ask: “Do you expect me to change the tires while the vehicle is moving?” Yes, you must change the tires while the kids are in the class, even though it produces disequilibrium. That’s too much to ask for some people. Finally, who is resistant most to project based learning? It’s the best students, with the highest grades and on the honor roll; they often hate it, because now they have to collaborate with their classmates. They know how to memorize better than anyone else. And their parents are often hugely resistant to new methodologies that challenge their children’s equilibrium and success. It is human nature to prefer predictability over change. People don’t want disruptive change from leadership. This is why people don’t want to sit with Teachers of the Year. People don’t want to be Teachers of the Year because their peers will repudiate them. They are challenging what works well for teachers. It’s no surprise that the traction is hard to get.

No doubt in my mind that we will, over time, convert to much more the delivery system we are talking about because it works better for kids. It’s not just High Tech High. The Illinois Math and Science Academy has been doing it for 30 years. They have some of the best test scores in the country for math and science. Theirs is entirely project based. This is not a radically new idea; it’s the conversion that’s slow. What’s the pathway forward? How about a toe in the water such as signature events that are project based? Each grade has one event for three days. It’s not a project where you are in a cubby by yourself. This is meaningful—hands on, go someplace, interview people—and it works. Kids look forward to such variety and find it exhilarating You can start small. In Jim Collins’ Great by Choice, his research validates the wisdom of initiating small experiments until they gain traction and become systemic changes.

One thing that strikes me, not just looking back 30 years to models, but there are many commonalities in what we are promulgating with John Dewey and the Kindergarten Movement in the late 1800s, Maria Montessori, John-Jacques Rousseau. It just never became the common modality.

Pat: Yes, and yet it did appear and take hold in other venues. Look at the Boy Scouts. That experience is all hands-on project-based, team-focused expeditionary learning. There are a hundred years of experience with progressive movements in education. You’re right, this isn’t newfangled, it’s been in place for 100 years or more in various manifestations. John Dewey’s Lab School. Waldorf Schools. Reggio Emilia and Montessori schools. These models can reassure minds of the current practitioners who resist change, because they have been working well for literally scores of years.

What would you add to educators, parents, or interested general public readers of this blog?

Pat: Be pushy. An NAIS study concluded that 20% of the parent population is what it called “pushy parents.” They challenge the school. They ask, “Why are we doing it this way?” They want the school to try something else. The best way forward is not coercive, where everyone needs to follow the same pathway. Even the smallest school can have two sections of algebra one; if you have two sections, you can give kids, teachers, parents a choice. It’s not just at the Illinois Math and Science Academy. Why don’t you take the teacher who is creative and innovative and knows kids and is raising interest in learning geometry a different way, take that teacher and give him or her the option of doing what the teacher wants. This could be competency-based, project-based Algebra I. I saw a class where the students were throwing a ball at a basketball hoop and using stop motion cameras to figure out if it would go in the hoop. This might be a small class. Everyone else who wants traditional Algebra I, that’s your second option. From my 46 years in the business, seeing schools doing what I’m talking about, I would tell kids take the experimental class. Even if it’s one out of six classes that you take, take it.

We all have experienced a loss since we haven’t gotten to read any of your writing recently. Do you have any current writing projects?

Pat: Yes, we just sent one from my firm, Heads Up Ed Educational Consulting. We have created a registry for people who aspire to leadership roles in education; Heads of School, second level leadership, and anyone who signs up gets a monthly blog article. The first one was sent out today. It is about an interesting topic, the intersection of leadership style with school culture. If your readers are interested, they can read the article here.


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