All posts by Matthew Piercy

MATTHEW PIERCY is a middle school social studies teacher at International School Bangkok. His experiences in the classroom include every grade from 3rd to 11th. He also enjoyed a stint as an instructional coach. Prior to living in Thailand, Matthew worked in international and boarding schools for over twenty years. Tunisia, Ecuador, Hungary, Hawaii, along with the states of Colorado and Georgia all at some point were called “home.” Matthew also enjoys leading summer expeditions for National Geographic, to destinations like Iceland and Cambodia. A diverse pathway in life has led to Matthew’s passion for global mindedness and he constantly is searching for ways to enhance learning, meaning, and transference. His blog explores interconnection and purpose.

Simplicity Revived: Embracing the Power of Action for Transformative Results

Separated by more than five thousand miles and living a thousand years apart, Confucius and Shakespeare envisioned living and learning with uncanny similarity. Each attested to the importance of doing.  

“Speak less than thou knowest, lend less than thou owest, ride more than thou goest, learn more than thou trowest, set less than thou throwest.” Upon closer examination of Shakespeare’s wise words we are counseled of the importance of humility, the fact that there is always more to know, and to never stop learning. Moreover, “ride more than thou goes,” encourages adventure and a willingness to embrace lives of exploration. This seems to be opposed to the default sit-and-get encrustation of “modern” education. 

The words of the tragic hero King Lear may not be as well known as Confucius, “I Hear and I Forget, I See and I Remember, I Do and I Understand.” However, both allude to the nature of learning. How “doing” leads to understanding but moreover, “doing” is paramount to living. 

Beyond Smiling

A renowned researcher in education, Professor John Hattie, introduced how teachers might help students become their own teachers. This in effect, is an absolutely natural process yet one which requires two elements. First, empathy and a willingness to see learning through the eyes (and arguably, minds and hearts!) of students. Second, for teachers to get out of the way of learning. One data of Hattie’s confirming this is how 89% of the talking that occurs in classrooms is done by the teacher, not the students. Even in Lin Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr offers a bit of a leadership lesson In the second track, “…let me offer you some free advice — talk less, smile more…”  This stirs a bit of wonder in me, what might happen if we teachers consciously began to talk less and smile more?

Teachers smiling more however is not a panacea, though it might be a great start. What begets much more deliberate attention is an understanding of how learning emerges. Repetition is a critical aspect. 

Tell-Show-Try-Do

A colleague recently shared how he often invites students to leap into “doing,” but then is not content with the quality of the results. My response was how this was ingenious, inverted from the norm, where students sat idly and likely feigned to listen to teachers “tell.” However, his contentment might grow if he dedicates more intention towards a process of learning where there is telling, showing, trying, and doing. The success of the four-step process is not determinant of any one entry point. Some educators may be more comfortable with beginning by “showing.” Some lessons and activities might best begin with “telling,” or just by taking a stab at “trying.”   

The reality is, learning is a process. Teling-Showing-Trying-Doing, a continuum blending science but also artistry. Learning often fails because so much time is spent on telling (“I Hear and I Forget…”). Or, maybe there is a demonstration. Yet, this “showing” (seeing) simply results in some students remembering. In telling and showing there is an abundance of learning which is “lost in translation.” Showers (teachers) might fool themselves that students are doing, yet they are not. Students are doing what they thought they heard, and what they interpreted from what they saw. Then, more often than not, there is a push to move on, with little or no time to practice. Simplified and imperfect “learning,” resembles more an act of teacher self-evaluation than actual student learning. Ultimately, because there was minimal guidance, the opportunity to ”try” and an assumption on both parties that purposeful learning was in process. In actuality, what transpired was actually the opposite. Bluntly put a perversion of learning. 

So, how might we intentionally disrupt these common practices? 

A Well-Trodden Path Is Already Laid Before Us

First, we cannot kid ourselves any longer to think that experience simply can be passed on. Experience must be just that. It is the “doing.” But not just doing. It is showing, trying, and doing. Then, trying again. Showing again. Trying again. Doing. Showing yet another time. Trying. Trying. Trying. Doing. Doing. Doing. The current reality is one where we consider success an experience with the first “doing.” Assuming we ever even moved beyond the telling, showing, and trying.

If ever we wished to rest on our laurels, we could because learning simply is natural. Sit back and watch a toddler learn to walk. They are not merely told, “put one foot in front of the other.” They observe. They try. Fall upon their rumps. Try again. Maybe are guided by the gripping of an adult’s forefinger. Try on their own. Fall again. Yet, we all learn how to walk. 

And so we walk, and learn, in the footsteps laid before us. The wisdom of Confucius, Shakespeare, King Lear, Lin Miranda, Hamilton, Burr, and Hattie!

###################

BRAKING UPHILL IS NOT SENSICAL

Kevin O’Leary of the hit TV show Shark Tank purports how compliance is the fastest-growing cost in American business. A close friend of mine recently was blindsided when his small business was threatened with a lawsuit. His website was not accessible to the blind. When he first told me this, I honestly wondered if I missed the punchline. It however was not a joke and according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, commercial websites must conform to specific web content accessibility guidelines. Brooks Johnson of Star Tribune reported, “An annual survey of the million most-visited websites found 96.3% do not meet accessibility requirements as of February, according to WebAIM, part of the Institute for Disability Research, Policy, and Practice at Utah State University.” However, ADA compliance lawsuits are on the rise, quadrupling since 2018, according to accessibility firm AccessiBe.

In no way, is this meant to discredit the importance of providing accessibility to the more than 285 million people who the World Health Organization reports as suffering from visual impairments. Yet, it seems like a very different approach could be taken to improve accessibility, instead of lawyers preying on struggling small business owners.

I cannot help but think back to when I read Gulliver’s Travels in high school. One memorable theme is how humans cannot possibly know everything. Further, all understanding has a natural limit, and a world bound by litigation makes our existence even more shrunken. Instead of a non-compliant website, we see the protagonist Gulliver himself, putting out a fire. Only to do so, he does it with his urine and is charged with treason. Convicted, he ironically is sentenced to be blinded. 

Again, this litigation approach is likely not going to contribute to the world we or our children wish to live in. 

So, what connections can be made within the field of education? For starters, we might consider whether we are more focused on compliance or its antipode, defiance. Whatever the response, the movement must be away from extreme devotion to tedium. In layman’s terms, are we still having our students memorize each other’s phone numbers?

Not Making Ourselves Redundant

It is highly likely many students have not even memorized their phone number. Ask them. And this is perfectly okay because memorizing phone numbers is a bogus task. Arguably, not very different from cramming for a history or biology exam. 

Over the past two-plus decades we have repeatedly heard and maybe even said,” Twenty-first-century skills… twenty-first-century learning, twenty-first blah blah blah.” As if the more we say it, the more it becomes a reality, and yet I would argue the opposite. We approach the end of the first of four laps around the twenty-first-century track and yet there is a dogged determination to hold on to the functionless forms of the last century. As if to throw some plaster and puddy on the caving walls of the knowledge economy. Whether we can face reality or not, the teens of today will be living in the 22nd century! As digital natives, they without even efforting, moved beyond a fixation on knowing the day they were born. Life today is all about skill development and transfer. 

Twenty-six years ago, May 11 to be exact, remains an infamous date. Commentators remarked how Garry Kasparov, a world chess champion, “can’t believe it,” as he remained speechless after having lost in a six-game match against IBM’s computer Deep Blue. This was not to say that computers became smarter than humans. Rather, it was a signpost or flashing yellow warning light to the fact that memorization no longer is sufficient. Since the late 1990s, machine learning has quickened the pace leaving many of us unable to grasp what computers, algorithms, and artificial intelligence are now capable of “knowing.” Yet, this hopefully inspires more than it causes one to tremble. For the mundane can now be programmed. Leaving more time for the humane. Such skills as collaboration, attentive listening, critical thinking, and problem-solving, but also creativity, adaptability, and even initiative. 

Something Less Lilliputian

When I think of school as a “system,” the first faculty to kick in, is my sense of hearing. Though not a Star Wars fan, I hear the low, raspy breath of Darth Vader. As if a last gasping breath is slowly being exhaled. It is the exhale of schools ensnared in the crusty ways of bygone knowledge-based days. For secondary teachers, it is entirely likely that May and June reflected uncreative traditions. On default mode, “We just always do this.” Final exams, memorization, and regurgitation. Even in the face of the ChatGPT rage and the automated intelligence craze, students are asked to simply be information processors. Where this happened, an opportunity was missed. 

Yet, there is always next year! The climb may feel uphill, so squeezing the brakes even a bit, is not sensical. As we reflect over the summer, now is the perfect time to plan for something different. Something less Lilliputian. Might we possibly prioritize defiance over compliance, as we intentionally create opportunities to ready learners for the 22nd century!

#########################

A Return to Authenticity

I don’t remember anyone ever using the word “authentic” back in the 1990s. Now, we hear about being authentic in how we lead, traveling to experience the authentic, and even how to cook authentic pasta. The push towards greater automation and artificial intelligence possibly propels us further toward falsity and maybe has us yearning for authenticity even more.  

Brené Brown, researcher and storyteller says, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” Maybe this infers a need to increase human levels of consciousness, from an approach of a concentric circle, starting with oneself. The choice to take a step back and authentically “audit” our lives. Releasing ourselves from the stranglehold of technology is a fantastic starting point. Thankfully, we are already beginning to see a march toward an inevitable tipping point. An evolution of sorts, where an invitation to remove the tethering to a phone, computer, tablet, or wearables, is accepted with greater willingness and alacrity.

First, rewind. In the summer of 2017, I was leading a two-week student expedition in Iceland. As a part of orientation, we proposed a tech fast for a day. “Give yourself a break. A chance to fully be present. Instead of rushing to take a photo or send a Snapchat (mind you, this was a year before TikTok merged with Musical.ly and became available in the U.S.).” To see 15 pairs of teenage eyes bulging and turned upwards in disbelief is a site to see. It was further compounded by one bold student’s “authentic” quip, “Why?” With an added emphasis on fully drawing out the “iiiiiiiii.” Needless to say, it was a tough sale.  

Not Entirely Connected

Fast forward six years and the expectation on these same expeditions is a tech-free first seven days. Further, it is something students and families agree to. The statement being made is one centering on being intentional about technology, so students can fully engage in the experience, build a stronger sense of community in their group, and strengthen skills in creating interpersonal relationships. All are critical to an increasing need for connection. The irony is that in a hyper-connected world, digitally, there are many signs on the wall that we are feeling less sense of human connection. Of belonging.

Senior writer of the New York Times, David Leonhardt, imparts how academic research provides evidence for how digital technology is leading to less happiness, especially for teenagers. Yet, despite the magnitude of findings, “Sometimes, the totality of the evidence is stronger than the average correlation across a group of artificial experiments.” 

To Do What is Right by Children

So, what might schools and parents do? Instead of what appears a happenstance default to, if a phone can be afforded, and a child wants it, put it in their hands. Critical is for adults to step up. To educate themselves on the advantages and pitfalls of a world being overrun by technology. A world where “typical” American teens supposedly spend half their waking hours on smartphones. A component of stepping up is taking back ownership of the decision-making process. This need not be contested by children as more often than not, it is the adult responsible for shelling out the hundreds of dollars for the device(s) and monthly internet charges. In essence, “children’s phones” are simply on loan. So, it is the adult who rightly can, and arguably should, make such decisions as how much screen time is “right.” When Lisa Damour, psychologist and author, began to implement tech use in her home, the response of her children mirrored a sentiment I recently witnessed on recent outdoor outings with teens. Not only did they not put up a fight but the response resembled a sense of relief.  Damour elaborated how “it did wonders for our family to limit screen time. They are coming back to life. They are more social. They talk instead of shrug and when they get home from school they don’t run up the stairs and close themselves in their rooms. They seem happier and aren’t in such a rush to get back to their phones…and my thirteen and fourteen-year-olds actually went outside. To play. I know, I couldn’t believe it either.”

Similar results were found at Chatelech Secondary School in British Columbia after a 5- month revamping of cell phone use at school, “We are seeing improved mental health, we’re seeing decreased bullying, we’re seeing more engagement in class, we’re seeing more social interaction, kids are playing again instead of being on their phones and we’re seeing increased academic success.” The response when the policy was introduced was also similar. Some students were angry and upset, while others, “were extremely relieved.”

Awakening to What Truly is Authentic

If these examples are not enough to build credence, it may prove beneficial to examine the paradox happening in Silicon Valley where for the last few years, more than a handful of billionaires have said no to screen time for children. A few quotes to ponder include the likes of Melinda Gates and Steve Jobs.

“Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning how to be kind, coping with feelings of exclusion, taking advantage of freedom while exercising self-control.” ~Melinda Gates

“It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” ~Steve Jobs

The dawning days are behind us. We need not be confused by the likes of ChatGPT and popular media proposing all things artificial intelligence. Rather, there is an awakening, a return to authenticity. A world of purpose. Of balance and intention. A world of far greater connection. Connected with our surroundings, with each other, and to ourselves. Free from the complexities that technology often presents. Lives of “authenticity.”

########################

Laugh Like the Whole World is Watching

Might May 11 mark a new path forward? For the past several years society has seemingly carried the Sisyphean rock, Covid. The date marks the official close of “Emergency Declarations” in the United States. In effect, this is the end of both the COVID-19 national emergency and the COVID-19 public health emergency. 

Emergency, emergency, emergency.

We need not continue to live and learn in such a state. 

And this is something to certainly celebrate.

Immersed in Crumbling Models

The month of May bears witness to other forms of celebration, with commencements across the nation and abroad. Speeches will soon be scribed and just how many center on the power and importance of transition is left to be determined. Few, however, likely will focus on the importance of humor. In a world quickly becoming more conscious of the crumbling models all around us. Political, economic, religious, economic, even educational model! Resiliency will increasingly be more important. A component of such resiliency is humor.

You may ask yourself, how many times did I laugh today? If you are able to take this inventory, whether 3 or even 17 times, then a more apt answer probably is, “not enough!” Carol Whipple published of University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension published how on average, a child laughs 300 times a day while an adult laughs only 17 times a day.  In “Big Think,” a multimedia web portal which “challenges common sense assumptions and gives people permission to think in new ways,” Matt Davis contributed an article titled,  “Why a good sense of humor is an essential life skill.”  Davis indicates how research has shown that humor can improve the physical immune system as well as cardiovascular health.  “Aside from improving your health, laughter can also lead to greater creativity and productivity as well.”  

So, if we know laughing is good for us, then why are we not doing it more?

Probably for the same reasons that few philosophers ever have given laughter much thought. Nigel Warburton summed it up well when he wrote, “Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes, who believed that we laugh because we feel superior; Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer who argued that comedy stems from a sense of incongruity…”

Anyone who spends a considerable amount of time in or at schools, probably can attest to the fact that it would not hurt to have a bit more laughter in our classrooms and hallways.

Thriving as Opposed to Surviving

We seem to be enmeshed in seriousness. In the field of education, administrators concentrated on whatever “fires” need putting out. Educators focus on curriculum coverage and lesson plans, and hopefully student well being!  Students often center their attention on achievement and grades. And all too common, parents operate from a narrowly defined notion of what success might look like for their child. That same overplayed recording of, “get into a good college.” Each in effect, seemingly playing the part of pawn. Fixated on the tree before them and not the glorious forest. Or, in a world of Covid, simply surviving.

Yet, we are on the precipices of thriving. It is right within grasp. A ripe fruit ready for the picking. And not only because the “emergencies” are nearly over.

It is refreshing to see how momentum is being gained as we transition away from knowledge and into competency. America Succeeds, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit is committed to improving equity, access, and opportunity in education. To do this, their focus is upon Durable Skills, a combination of how you use what you know along with character skills.  Yet, I am hopeful they may begin to consider the role humor will play in the days to come because nowhere listed in the 36-page Durable Skills report, does humor appear. Ultimately laughter is essential to success but also especially necessary as “function” dissolves the archaic “forms” in which we have been living. Victor Frankl alluded to humor when he wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), “another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.”  Author and educator May Kay Morrison asserts to the power of humor, even coining a term she calls, “humergy.” Humergy  as she defines it, is the energy that emerges from joy and optimism of our inner spirit. 

A sense of humor is an essential life skill. Brain research backs the power but also importance of humor. Laughter is surely within each of us, yet simply may require a bit more space and time to express. As May 11 marks the terminus of Covid and the end of a state of emergency, we might just want to challenge ourselves to step forward with even greater joy, lightness, and laughter. 

TRY IT YOURSELF:  Jim Paterson shares these few ideas for how you might attempt to use humor.

Get back to work. A bit of humor gets attention and provides a break, but teachers should have it relate to the work somehow, should keep it brief (even if they let students participate) and have a path back to more serious information and a method to bring their students along.

A simple surprise. Just having on an odd hat or projecting a cartoon at the start of a class can get students energized. A simple surprise is also a way that a teacher who doesn’t think they are funny can easily bring some lightheartedness to the classroom.

Let them at it. Have time when students can tell a joke (with guidance about the humor being appropriate) and you will find that even the most introverted ones might be willing to participate. Give them a chance to write about a funny incident.

Game time. Give students a quiz with the right answers mixed in with outlandish wrong ones. Have a game show where the answers are on topic, but the game is humorous and fun.

############################## 

Balance and Rigor, Not a Paradox

“Eighty-five percent of all performance problems are not people problems, they are process problems.” I heard this two decades ago from the most competent person I ever worked with. He spoke from experience but had borrowed this teaching from William Deming, one of the acclaimed Founding Fathers of Total Quality Management. It is fitting to consider how this relates to education.

Systems are not only curriculum based but tie into the overall structure. Schools routinely reflect on schedules. Conventional or rotating bell schedule? 4×4 or A/B schedule? Multiple Period Flex Block or Traditional 6 or 7 Period Day Schedule? These are just some of the possibilities to consider. The choice largely dictates how time is prioritized. A significant decision, as schedules have the potential to create balance. Or not. Everyone is surely pining for the former.

A schedule that allows students to chew their food and pass casually between classes. For teachers to run to the washroom. Built-in breaks are not only proven to improve productivity but also well-being. This balance that is created falls under what Deming would stamp as a “process.” So, if balance truly can be controlled in schools, what about rigor? 

Radical Simplification

Rigor ultimately is contained in the people, that other 15%. But can schools be both balanced and rigorous? As I reflect on this question, I harken back to thoughts of radical simplification and of what learning looks, sounds, and feels like for a toddler. According to Emma Elsworthy of the Independent, “Children ask a staggering 73 questions every day … half of which parents struggle to answer, according to a study.” In an answer-driven world, seemingly bent on a default to Google everything, the key to rigor is actually not turning to Google. Instead of seeking the answer at the tips of our fingers, maybe it is more about the joyful and honest discovery of the unknown. 

Rigor Anchored by Curiosity

Understanding how the roots of the word rigor are rigidity, cold, and stiffness, 20th-century novelist, David Foster Wallace, shared a revised definition of rigor. Brian Sztabnik alluded to this in an Edutopia article sharing, “Rigor is the result of work that challenges students’ thinking in new and interesting ways. It occurs when they are encouraged toward a sophisticated understanding of fundamental ideas and are driven by curiosity to discover what they don’t know.”

Again, rigor is anchored by curiosity. Understanding this, I am left asking, what are the questions my students are wondering most? Questions not necessarily with answers. Questions that are unGoogleable because, to Google, is not to be engaged in the rigorous. Yet, at seventeen and eighteen years of age, most students likely have been conditioned out of rigor. And out of child-like wonder. It however remains within them I know and I would argue, wonder has a role in being human, not just in being a child.

Our Imagination Sets Us Apart

Akin to the chicken or the egg causality dilemma, is the question, which came first curiosity or imagination? If asking questions denotes curiosity and a desire to know, this then will ignite the imagination. Or, does one’s imagination spur the desire to know? Whichever the case, causal or not, best-selling author, intellectual, historian, and professor Yuval Noah Harari maintains that our imagination is what sets us apart. “Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money, and human rights.”

Education as we have known it is a system steadfast on compliance and test scores. Where teachers traditionally have held the questions and in effect, did the rigor. Neither curiosity nor imagination was necessarily prized. If it is balance we are after, students should be coming up with the questions. Yet, how commonplace the inverse is, students often are simply responsible for the answers. Teachers ask the questions and students answer. This seems like an easy enough shift. One that we can all begin today.  

A Transition to Invitation

So, a more invitational path and approach to learning is to be paved. This likely will take time. Time for the education system as a whole; teachers, and even students to catch up. Or, dare I say, go BACK to! Where there is a realization of how learning is a natural and joyous process. Not something to feel forced to do. Nor a passive process of downloading. Rather a rigorous and active upload. Where learning equates to doing. I like to think that with such consciousness being developed, more and more students will wish to follow this age-old “new” path. At some point, there will be a critical mass of students and schools, though not likely contained within four walls, which will result in a transformation back to what learning always was.

The people and process can will it so!

############################

KNOW THY SCHOOL, DESIGN FOR EXCELLENCE

“People are status-seeking monkeys,” purports Eugen Wei, former product leader at Amazon, Hulu, and Oculus. This status-seeking links with an understanding that identity is a fundamental aspect of our very human nature. An evolution of identity all around that begets a moment of preponderance for those in the world of education.

How well do schools know themselves?” 

Sensibly, we expect to find shoes sold in a shoe store, not bananas. Many models, brands, and sizes of shoes and yet all still in the shape of a shoe. However, schools often seem to brand themselves as flea markets. Everything to all people. The ethics of this approach might be questionable, and one might also be left to wonder if programs become diluted as a result of being out of focus. Further, some wondering might be whether there is any intersection between a school’s strengths, attributes, values, mission, and vision? And their website, what might it suggest and is it truly aligned?

As a school are we athletics focused?  Sustainability driven? Place-based? International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB) Programme or Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum focused?  Interdisciplinary project-based?  

We Can Have It All

As of late, I’ve given a bit of thought to “yes/and,” as opposed to “either/or.” Though there is something certainly to be said for a school having a clear identity, they need not pigeonhole themselves into one single initiative or monocular focus. Especially if interests are not competing. Sustainability can funnel down and through everything in a school. Athletics too can be tied to sustainability and individual health. While interdisciplinary projects can be place-based. Advanced Placement or the International Baccalaureate can be an opt-in for students. None of this is a stretch. In fact, it attests to flexibility and opportunity. A multiple pathway approach.

The Omnipotence of Culture

Identity includes culture and this culture is a bit like breathing. It just happens. For better or worse. I like to think, for the better. However, because of this, it behooves us to intentionally design cultures. So learning is optimal. And so, as schools we are ethical, ultimately doing that which we claim. Conscious and deliberate creation as opposed to letting culture just happen. Schools mustn’t play the reactive “game” of Whac-A-Mole, where the “gophers” (dealing with parent and teacher concerns, managing budgets and resources, hiring personnel as a result of high attrition, etc.) take precedence over engaging in work that improves teaching and student learning. The development of culture requires vision and the wisdom to leverage knowledge and experience. A consideration but also a plan for where a school wants to be in 5, 10 years, or even the turn of the 22nd century!

I would argue schools are wise to intentionally design learning for multiple pathways. Equally, I caution that we do not kid ourselves. With several foci, not everything is likely to be done well by all students. This realistic notion is one of balance but also acceptance of perfection in process. Contrary to this, however, is the importance of a school’s due diligence to create cultures of excellence. Defining what excellence looks and sounds like should be at the foundation. Following this, students must have explicit opportunities to see this “bar,” and then be encouraged to push the bar, setting new and higher standards of excellence.  

Not Sacrificing Excellence for Authenticity

Though there may be many pathways, the destination of a high school student is graduation and preparation for the world beyond. A Senior level thesis or capstone course can serve as a sort of rite of passage, an important stage in a young person’s life. An invitation to engage in a year-long process, to create something meaningful. To demonstrate competency, reflect throughout a process, and then showcase what is known but also what is able to be done.  

This is powerful.

Authenticity could appear at odds with excellence. Failure is an authentic and simply sometimes can be a difficult reality. However, a student should not fail in putting the “crowning jewel” upon their high school career. To ensure this does not happen, sincere consideration must be given to competencies. Competencies are defined as the knowledge, behaviors, attitudes, and skills which lead to a student being able to do something successfully. Schools will serve learners well when these competencies are clearly articulated horizontally and vertically throughout the curriculum. Such conversations are the kindling of culture and are hopefully guided by two questions: 

~What competencies get assessed?

~How and when might these competencies be demonstrated best?

Inherent in these conversations is one single driver, PURPOSE. School is to prepare students for a future we do know not yet. 

So when “school’s out,” teachers let more than “status-seeking monkeys” out!

###############################

WHOLESOMENESS IN REDUCTION

Before biting into a protein bar the other day, I contemplated how the very thing I was about to eat was analogous to schools. The front of the wrapper was not the image of an athlete. Nor full of color or fancy font.  Rather it was simple.  A list.  The ingredients I was about to eat: 3 egg whites, 6 almonds, 4 cashews, 2 dates, and no B.S. “We tell you what’s on the inside on the outside,” is their tagline. What if schools were as transparent? 

Some readers may have played the game, “Shop for School.” Either for your own children or possibly as an educator. I know I have played various times over the years, keen to note the long list of “ingredients” on school “wrappers.” Websites and promotional materials touting ideals and maybe even unknowingly a bit unethical and deceptive.  Surely, however, with the best of intentions. The modus operandi tends to lend itself to “we can be everything to everyone.” A lack of focus and where more, very likely results in less. Such simplicity four ingredients, and “no B.S.” seemingly doesn’t exist in the educational world. Rather, it is common for schools to have mission and vision statements, values, attributes, and sometimes even definitions of learning. One precursory search resulted in the following, and what’s scary, is that this “story” is not unique to this district or school. It is the norm. Further, the reality is, this example is far more streamlined than many others. 

At _________(fill in the blank), a students’ educational experience focuses upon:

  • 21st Century Skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity/ innovation), global citizenship, and cultural competency.
  • Athletics, extra-curricular activities, leadership, and community service 
  • External & Internal Values: Culturally Competent Citizens
  • Healthy in Mind & Body

The school’s mission and vision are purposefully not added to this list for a few reasons. Chief amongst these is the sheer irony. Though there might be nobility in genuinely attempting to create environments of care, the long laundry lists of “who we are,” “what we are about,” and “what we impress upon children” inevitable creates pressure cookers.  

Following and Fulfilling Mission Statements 

Truly creating “Cultures of Care” will be most evident when we throw up our hands and say, “enough is enough.” Only so much food can be piled up on a plate before it spilleth over! Further, I would argue, it is hard to cultivate a love of learning if we are instead fashioning stress-filled experiences filled under the guise of preparedness. This very real pressure students are feeling is nothing new. In 2013 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a poll that resulted in nearly 40 percent of parents sharing that their high school student experienced a lot of stress from school. Another survey even a few years earlier, of students themselves, conducted by the American Psychological Association, found that nearly half of all teens — 45 percent — said they were stressed by school pressures.

And it isn’t like the pandemic alleviated any stress. 

The CDC reported how more than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what is it going to take to truly create school communities of care? A more streamlined and focused approach surely would not hurt. This does not mean that values, attributes, skills, etc. fall by the wayside. Rather, simplify. For the sake of following and fulfilling mission statements where students are at the center.

Fancy infographics sometimes seek to do this work of simplification and yet, ultimately there is no easy way to disentangle the fabricated mess. Smiling faces from a diversity of backgrounds also might beguile when in effect, if the schools were protein bars, their ingredients would more resemble this:  

Do we even know what these ingredients are? And if so, are we willing to put synthetically created ingredients, passed off as food, into our bodies?  

What about our children? Are we okay with them marching off (or us sending them!) to schools where there is a nonsensical, juggling act of 99 balls in the air? Even if 90 balls stayed afloat in the air, the environment would be imbued by insincere complexity and a constant rush to catch the next ball.  

A situation not unlike what our students feel in schools across the globe. Tails chasing dogs. An answer? Or, maybe THE answer?

Simply begin to focus!

The Puppet Master

“How foolish I was when I was a puppet.” These wise and likely not unfamiliar words were spoken by the 19th-century fictional protagonist, Pinocchio. Some could argue that our current system of education has us similarly by the strings (note: our 21st-century education is not much different than Pinocchio’s days!), Caught up in busyness. Happy to add one thing more. And one thing more. And yet another thing. Strings.

Strings that then control us.

Whilst adding and adding, little consideration is given to what might be substituted. Something needs to give. Might we possibly begin to discuss what could be refined?  

An End to “Busyness as Usual”

Schools are a bit like improper fractions.  

36/9

What if we simplified and reduced it?

36/9=4

Imagine, instead of 36 things to focus upon, schools radically reduced themselves. Say, to four ingredients and no B.S. This entails “cutting” some strings. Possibly from the puppet master him/herself and “busyness as usual”.

Not everything can nor should be a priority. 

###################

A New Era of “Reading”

How fast does a person think?

Read?

More than a decade before President John F. Kennedy was touted to read the entire New York Times newspaper in 10 minutes flat, a school teacher named Evelyn Wood would develop speed reading techniques to improve the lives of troubled girls. Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Speed Reading courses would set the stage for what today is considered the largest and most trusted provider of speed-reading training, a company called Iris. Their trademark is, “Reading at the speed of thought.” The average person can read about 200-250 words per minute (wpm). With proper training, it is not uncommon for individuals to engage in super speed reading, 3x faster than the norm (1000wpm).  

But what about listening?

How fast might a person be able to listen with accuracy? According to research by B.J Kemp, an auditory stimulus takes only 8–10 ms to reach the brain, whereas a visual stimulus takes 20-40 ms. This in effect means we can listen more than twice as fast as we can read. 

But just how fast?

Demand for Listening Continues to Grow

Many university students during the pandemic grew accustomed to speeding up the lectures of their professors. In a new paper published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, researchers concluded that some asynchronous learning formats, like recorded lectures, prove to be much more efficient. Further, there was no major difference in performance between students who watched a lecture at normal speed versus those who watched a lecture at 1.5X or 2X speed. However, a recoil back to in-person lectures may have students twiddling their thumbs. Like waiting for that endless joke’s punchline. 

Audiobooks are the fastest-growing format in publishing and are predicted to become a $19 billion industry by 2027. January likely will be the 11th straight year, the Audio Publishers Association reports a double-digit increase in audiobook sales. Further, consider the out-of-orbit escalation of podcasts. It is hard to believe podcasts were an enigma a mere twenty years ago. In June 2022, Daniel Ruby’s analytics reported the existence of over 2.4 million podcasts. If you are reading this, you have likely listened to a podcast, book, or maybe both. Possibly even the speed was accelerated 1.5x, or even 2x for more efficiency, or if the narrator possibly read too deliberately.  You may have also selected “Intelligent Speed,” which in effect shortens silences!

You Can Argue With History…but You’ll Probably Lose

Yuval Noah Harari, the bestselling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, claims that history is ultimately a complex network of stories. Stories which were not dependent on the written word, but instead passed through oral history. Some  likely told with intent to entertain, whereas others were of a more critical nature.  Stories which passed on the knowledge and wisdom necessary for survival. Stories which in effect activated sensory centers in the brains of our ancestors. Neuroscientists at Princeton University continue to uncover the connections, literally the neurological connections in our brains, demonstrating how stories play a pivotal role in the development of such emotions as  compassion and empathy.

Marvin Harris author of Our Kind and Merlin Donald author of Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition believe Homo sapiens fully developed speech and a complex oral culture by at least 45,000 years ago. That means we have been telling stories for some time. Besides having an unequal ratio of ear to mouth, two to one, the printed word is a much more recent invention than the tens of thousands of years we have practiced speaking and listening. “When we’re reading, we’re using parts of the brain that evolved for other purposes, and we’re MacGyvering them so they can be applied to the cognitive task of reading,” explains Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Raising Kids Who Read

Fantastically, according to the Human Journey, “About 6,000 sounds represent the spoken languages around the world and babies can recognize all of them.” In effect, some might claim that we are hard-wired to listen. Contrast this with learning to read, an ability that is not innate. Unesco details “despite the steady rise in literacy rates over the past 50 years, there are still 773 million illiterate adults around the world, most of whom are women.” That is close to a billion human beings without access to the written word! 

Where Might We Go From Here?

In a world seemingly built on acceleration, it is hard to imagine doing anything at 10x speed. However, meet the podfasters, a subset of podcast obsessives who listen to upward of 50 episodes a week. For $2.99 an app first released in 2016, called Rightspeed allows one to train their brain to listen to podcasts and audiobooks at speeds as high as 10x. For this to sound any different than chipmunks on amphetamines, requires dedicated training. A training regime to rival that of Evelyn Wood. Wood reportedly could read at a rate of 2700 wpm which means she would have turned the pages of Melville’s classic “Moby Dick” (209,117 words) in approximately 77 minutes. Or, take YOU. A future you who could “read” this article in 30 seconds!

############

Realizing the Powers of Optimism and Responsibility in 2023

A handful of years have passed since I set ablaze an effigy. Tis’ the season of Año Viejo in Ecuador, a cremation ceremony meant to signify purification and a goodbye to the past.  An opportunity to allow for regeneration in the coming year. Though undetermined exactly when this tradition began, the origins are likely a combination of religious, political, and sanitary factors. Here in the middle of the world along city sidewalks, three monigotes (rag dolls) dominate as representatives of 2022.  

A politician, a professional athlete, and a pandemic.

President Lasso, Lionel Messi, and the Coronavirus.

If I had my choice, we would be burning something to signify industrialization. More specifically, a schoolhouse to symbolize a quick goodbye to the crumbling educational systems of disempowerment we have accepted for far too long. However, as the broken system seemingly slowly decays, I consider the critical importance of optimism and responsibility.

A Vision of the Future

Joe Dispenza, a neuroscientist, researcher, and New York Times bestselling author imparts, “We are either defined by a vision of the future or the memories of the past.”  Though the close of a year results in reflection of the past 365 days, it is our “visioning” of the future that holds the greatest of powers.  What do we want? Accepting that the world is a very different place than when “school” was designed, it seems logical that learning is not the same as it was two hundred years ago.  Part of education’s “overhaul” must be empowerment and responsibility.  

The Phoenix awaits, as the old schoolhouses turn to ash. Yet, even if new beginnings are exciting, they are not always easy. Author Nicole Sobon’s advice is fitting, “Sometimes the hardest part isn’t letting go but rather learning to start over.” I think to myself how letting go, surely would be a lot easier, if the thing we were letting go of was in a heap of ashes, especially considering how our species seemingly has a knack of rebounding back to old forms.  And 2023 requires more than a “form” focus. To reform or even transform may just not be sufficient. Instead, might we direct our energies towards the formation of new and creative pathways.  Paths laid down by learners themselves.  To do so, requires the empowerment, trust, and agency of students.  An approach unlike the traditional passive, inflexible, and hierarchical approach towards learning.

A Future Up For Grabs

This past semester I heard an array of excuses but documented six, indiscriminate of validity.

  1. “I was at  a swimming competition last weekend and was sick last week and this Monday.”
  2. “I was unwell this last week with a throat infection that paralyzed me in the neck. I was on antibiotics and I was unwell. I didn’t see the assignment.”
  3. “I might fall behind on some of the work. There is a family emergency and we’ve been quite busy traveling.” 
  4. “I was sick for 4 days and missed an additional day for an out of school activity.”
  5. I don’t know if you heard but there’s a tropical storm passing through and slowly turning into Category 1.”
  6. “I’m not sure what happened but I didn’t see any reply from my Zoom partner. We now have an issue with wifi and electricity in my neighborhood because one of the power stations was hit by lightning or something.”

Besides being enamored by the creativity, especially the one about “paralysis,” I found myself pondering the need to address one core competency in 2023 and beyond.  “Reflect on and take responsibility for your learning and that of others.”

Jared Diamond, a geographer, historian, anthropologist, and best-selling author maintains optimism, regarding our human abilities to solve the problems we have caused. Diamond cites how we should balance hope for the future with a need to be careful and in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed writes, “The future is up for grabs, lying in our own hands.” World-renowned historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari shares a sentiment similar to Diamond’s. Optimism is evident in the dedication of his most recent book,  Unstoppable Us, Volume 1: How Humans Took Over the World, penned for middle school students.  “To all beings — those gone, those living and those still to come. Our ancestors made the world what it is. We can decide what the world will become.”   

Stop Making Excuses

Books like Harari’s have a message students need to hear. Tightly woven into the very fabric is a challenge for ingenuity and also an appeal to assume responsibility. No one speaks with greater passion about the urgency of responsibility than Jocko Willink, retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer and co-author of a #1 New York Times bestseller. A comment on Jocko’s YouTube TEDx video reads, “Jocko wasn’t born, he was tactically deployed.” Further, author Blake Stilwill described Willink’s intensity as an understatement. “Like calling Mount Everest “big” or Antarctica “cold.” Whatever the case, Jocko emboldens a new mindset. Ultimately centered on what he refers to as “extreme ownership.” “Once people stop making excuses. Stop blaming others and take ownership of everything in their lives, they are compelled to take action to solve their problems.” 

Seeing the Light Always

Simon Sinek’s outlook on optimism is not unlike Diamond or Harari’s. Sinek, a famed author and inspirational speaker has created a business out of optimism. He shares  how great leaders are optimists. “This is not the same as being positive. Positive is finding the light in the now; optimists see the light always,” says Sinek. Educators and parents alike surely see this light daily in children. Remaining optimistic ultimately is a choice, akin to making the choice to stop making excuses. Both require strident action. 

This is more exciting than enthralling. Almost alchemical!  To think of the power that might be realized in 2023, if we choose a path of greater responsibility and optimism.  

Leaping into 2023

Though a bit rainy this New Year’s eve, effigies still burn on many a street corner. Where I stand, the fully clothed rag doll packed with sawdust glows. The firelight however lessens as I stand transfixed by the flame.  Before being reduced to a pile of ash, I contemplate all that the new year may bring, but also what I may be able to bring to it!  Cognizant of responsibility and optimism’s omnipotence.

Tradition in Ecuador dictates how you can ensure happiness and prosperity in the coming year if you jump over the fire twelve times. For good measure I leap thirteen times.

#############

Why to Listen Like a Bird Watcher

What if we approached each day like a bird watcher? Poised, observant, and listening attentively. Such a sagacious approach might translate into a clear differentiation between a “digitally” connected world and what it means to truly be connected. Amidst the increasing prevalence of decomposing communities and growing isolation, it might do humanity well, or even just ourselves. Pause is necessary, as is examining the choices we make. Computers and cell phones, not unlike firearms, cannot and should not entirely shoulder the blame. Rather, it behooves us to closely examine whether we are using the technology, or if it is “using” us.  

Countless bowed heads stare at 5-inch screens, drowning humanity in ubiquitous distraction. A relatively recent “dependence” now is considered “normal.” An addictive habit arguably acts as interference in our ability to relate one human to another. Though not entirely true because one must consider how tech is utilized. Still, vying for our attention is very real. One recent report cites how our brain consumes 11 million bits of information every second.  Trapped in such a hurricane, might we return to center? Where possibly at the eye of such a storm is suspended madness; poise and high regard for the art of conversation.

A world of opportunity circulates all around us. If only we will look up in stillness. Like a bird watcher.

If only we will listen.

Like a bird watcher.

Listening is Difficult

One of the beauties about listening is that is free, and yet so rare. An equalizer of sorts, as listening, cannot be correlated with socio-economics, race, or politics. Though there are listening “skills,” to listen is more a question of willingness than technique. Seth Godin maintains that listening is difficult. “The hardest step in better listening is the first one: do it on purpose. Make the effort to actually be good at it.”

Five years ago I likely would have scoffed at the idea of relationships being forged in an online setting. Students would share how they had “friends” online that they gamed with, talked/chatted with, etc. An inkling of intrigue often led to my asking an array of questions, a desire to understand this “phenomenon” better. Yet, I always grew a little more than disbelieving. The start of a COVID school year online, however, offered my own experience and a window into what it was like to develop relationships online. At the time there was a disagreement about whether or not students should be required to show their faces. Forced as it was, sometimes coaching students to appear on screen was required. All the while, it was interesting to consider how much we might value seeing a person if we are speaking with them. Did it have something to do with visual cues provided to indicate whether students were truly listening?

A Sense of Belonging is Embedded in Re-Imagining Learning 

Fast forward a few years as I dove deeper into the “waters” of what it might be like to develop relationships in an online setting. One big difference was that students elected to enroll in the online course. Of equal importance was that Global Online Academy (GOA) was not “just another” online educational platform. Behind GOA was a vision for a new educational system eager to adapt to students, rather than asking students to adapt to educational systems in decay. Their mission is to reimagine learning to empower students and educators to thrive in a globally networked society. A component of this reimagining learning includes teacher competency to build collaborative communities. Students should not feel isolated but instead, invited into communities that are built on trust, care, collaboration, and high expectations. A place where students feel connected but also empowered. More equitable systems and structures are embedded in such a design, in an effort to create a more socially just world. Learning to listen is a cornerstone and one strategy employed throughout GOA courses are routine opportunities for students and teachers to connect via Zoom meetings. Never under the auspices of a lectured approach, synchronous time is regarded as “gold.” Student and teacher locations span the globe, and such collaboration allows for new perspectives, as conversations are infused with differing cultural and life experiences. Wellsprings waiting to be tapped, however wholly hinged on a willingness to listen. 

Video Use as a Medium to Build Relationships

A routine assignment employed in the GOA course I facilitated was video reflection at the end of a module. The power of these 2-dimensional recordings can not nor should be underestimated. After the second video, I felt like I knew some students better than I sometimes knew students in an in-person setting after a year. Why? A degree of the power could come down to a distilled approach, the essence being conveyed. But also a greater degree of willingness to be vulnerable as students just looked at the camera and talked. Without the worry of what the listener might be thinking or might say. 

Surely we all have found ourselves at one time or another, thinking about what we are going to say in a conversation and not really listening. Wanting to take OUR turn. However, in this case, it’s a talking head approach. Linear, from A to M (or maybe Z!), with no stops or interjections of the listening. 

To truly experience relationship building requires an honest willingness to listen to students talk for, 5-minutes at a time. Simon Sinek asserts the need for change so the focus is on input and not the customary output. Maybe a bit of an investor mentality is what is required. To listen to a 5-minute video is not much. However, multiplied by twenty students, suddenly requires nearly two hours. And how often do we just listen for two hours? 

Understanding that conversations, like relationships, are not one-way, meant I often responded in video form. This too takes time but has the potential to pay huge dividends. To build relationships but also provide the necessary quality of feedback students can learn from. Often congratulatory but also balanced and encouraging growth. For example feedback on the important role of feedback, “Abigail I understand how you do not want to come off as critiquing someone and I appreciate this. However, you have so much to offer and what might help is if you are intentional about separating the individual from the work/art/assignment. We each have our perspective and I’ve seen how you can offer truly valuable feedback.”

This video exchange approach spurs the conditions ripe for developing a community and a sense of belonging. These relationships developed out of conversations follow a different rhythm, however, are incredibly rich. Possible because we truly are listening to each other. How many students have a chance to share with a teacher for five uninterrupted minutes? And how many receive five minutes of personal and specific feedback?    

This is special. A reimagining of methods of learning which truly create belonging and empowerment. Methods aligned with the acumen of Brene Brown, “We have to listen to understand in the same way we want to be understood.”

A Difference Between Hearing and Listening

I wonder sometimes if certain students listen just so they can speak. The beginning of each school year requires a bit of time to develop a community unwilling to tolerate speakers interrupting each other. This is similar in Zoom and yet the presence of lag seemingly builds in a tendency to be more patient and wait for your turn to speak. To listen with true intent requires slowing down.  Simone Buitendijk, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leeds shares, “We need to practice the art of talking with intent and, more importantly, the art of listening with intent.” Adding earnest in our lives, as we trade an ounce of narcism for a pound of that which extends beyond ourselves. This does not mean abandoning the likes of Instagram, nor must we be hard-pressed to develop listening habits overnight. Instead, a growing consciousness of the power of being present is required. As well, equal parts intentionality and habit, as we move beyond mere hearing. In Dr. Kristen Fuller’s “The Difference Between Hearing and Listening,” she emphasizes how “Listening requires empathy, curiosity, and motivation.” 

Tis’ the Season to Give the Gift of Our Time and Attention

One might hear the morning bird song out the window.

Then, make a conscious choice to slow down, remove distractions (yes, that cell phone!), and listen. 

If only we will listen.

Like a bird watcher.

To truly listen to the birds may just result in a calming of the nervous system, as well as a greater sense of connection. Such a choice need not cease with the birds. Think what might result when we begin to listen with intention to each other! The choice is ours. 

Why not slow down, be present and give the gift of our time and attention?

#########