The Lure of Technology

Last week at the U, two adherents of The Maker Movement tried convincing an audience that letting young students create tech-based products is a panacea for improved schooling. Students are making small robots that can bowl they enthused and ties that light up when a room darkens. And someday, they intimated, they’ll build a frig that will notify you or the grocery store when you’re almost out of milk.

Like tele-evangelists, the two speakers said they weren’t advocating for technology for technology’s sake, but that’s exactly what I took away from their altogether uninspiring examples.

Seventy-five percent of what young and old technologists produce is unadulterated gimmickry. Another 24 percent makes life a tad more convenient, which shouldn’t necessarily be mistaken with “better”. When I opened my refrigerator this morning, I saw that I was out of milk. We sold our previous house without photos from overhead.

One percent of technological innovation fundamentally improves the quality of people’s lives. My friend who makes educational apps for autistic children is a one-percenter.

No one has made an app or device that helps me communicate better with my wife. Despite the Maker Movement and related Technological Revolution, I still say and do stupid things that upset her. More generally, where’s the technology that ameliorates gender, racial, political, economic, religious differences? The technology that creates improved interpersonal relationships, and kinder, more caring communities?

I’m not holding my breath.




Numbers to Ponder

3. Bethel School District schools I toured today.

500. Excess number of students at both comprehensive high schools.

0. Number of libraries and cafeterias at the alternative high school.

$273,700,000. Amount sought by the school district in a February 9, 2016 bond vote.

$148. Annual increase in property taxes for residents owning a $200,000 home in the district.

60%. “Yes” votes the district needs.

62%. U.S. citizens who can’t cover unexpected expenses.

7 out of 8. The number of district-area families that do not have any children attending district schools.

9%. The percentage of eligible district-area citizens who vote.






The Cold, Hard Reality of Teaching’s Artificiality

Yesterday a colleague said she thought about “just canceling everything” this week, the last of the semester before final exams. “I thought I’d just tell them we’re through. That’s it. That’s all there is.”

That brought “I feel you” laughter from others. So when I told another colleague that today was the last class session of the semester, she said, “I bet you’re happy about that.” “No,” I explained, “I’m going to miss this group.”

My thirteen first year writers this semester were amazing. They were from Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon, and different parts of Washington State. They were funny and kind and they listened to whomever was speaking. They thoughtfully embraced the questions inspired by the course theme, “The Art of Living”. They shared their differing perspectives on the need for a philosophy of life; on gratitude and empathy; on money’s relative importance; on friendship, family, and romantic love; and on spirituality’s relative importance. They liked one another, they liked the course content, they tolerated their teacher.

Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve had a group of randomly assigned students gel with one another and me in unexpected ways so I have a feel for what our future holds. I’ll see them in a few months or years somewhere on campus, probably walking across Red Square. And a fair number will pretend they don’t see me. I have a sophisticated phrase for this phenomenon, “That was then, this is now.”

I remember the Good Wife experiencing this her second or third September of teaching. Much to her dismay, her third graders whom she had poured her soul into, quickly bonded with their fourth grade teacher. She was lucky to get sheepish hand waves when she wanted hugs of continuous gratitude. Their subtle head nods conveyed “That was then, this is now”.

This semester I instituted a social psychology experiment of sorts. Mid-semester, after bonding with my thirteen writers, I explained the “That was then, this is now” phenomenon. Of course they didn’t need it explained, but my figuring them out brought smiles of appreciation.

Then, occasionally, I would begin class by reporting on brief interactions with former students elsewhere on campus. “Saw three students on my way to and from the pool at lunch yesterday, two made eye contact and said ‘hello’.” They enjoyed my scorekeeping.

So today, my parting words were a request, “When you see me on campus, don’t look past me, say ‘hello’.” They said they would, but I’ll settle for subtle head nods.





Why So Many Teachers Quit

That’s the title of this LA Times Op-Ed. I purposely haven’t read it so that you can compare Rizga’s reasoning and mine.

Conventional wisdom is that teachers quit because of the modest compensation, but every teacher enters the profession knowing that.

I hypothesize a lot quit because they fail to master classroom management. Absent positive relationships, classroom life is a complete drag. Also, nothing is more stressful than never truly having students’ attention. And absent attention, respect is elusive. Absent mutual respect, joy is inconceivable. What do those who struggle most with classroom management have in common? They usually aren’t comfortable with their authority.

That’s not all. When some teachers conclude they can’t teach as creatively as they want due to over standardization, they leave.

Another variable is true for everyone at whatever their workplace and for everyone in life more generally, teachers want to be appreciated. Teaching is among the most challenging and selfless endeavors a person can undertake, but no teacher that I know is perfectly intrinsically motivated. New teachers can master classroom management and commit long hours to crafting the most creative lessons possible, but if no one—students, families, colleagues, administrators, the “public”—ever truly acknowledges their efforts and demonstrates a modicum of appreciation, their enthusiasm inevitably wanes.

I suspect a significant proportion of teachers quit because of some combination of these three things.

How to fix it? Empower those teachers in each school that are most skilled in the art of classroom management to mentor those just starting out. Refuse to teach to standardized tests. Continually repeat that teaching excellence takes many forms. Show and tell teachers that you appreciate their efforts.

Can You Will Yourself to be More Humble?

Friday I found myself in a day long diversity training workshop. The first of six days spread throughout the academic year.

It was a good experience only in the sense it made me much more empathetic towards teachers who routinely complain about ill-conceived professional development.

Organized in small groups of four, we were repeatedly given two minutes to discuss complex questions and topics that required paragraph-long responses. But since there was only time for a sentence or two, I mentally checked-out. On top of that, the facilitators didn’t provide an overview for the day which proved frustrating.

We did lots of activities, but too often the purposes of each weren’t clear enough. Even more confounding was the fact that the sum of the activities did not equal more than the individual parts.

The whole experience was repeatedly described as a “training”. “Training” works well when talking about labradoodles learning to stop at street corners, but when it comes to human beings and human diversity, it masks the subject’s inherent complexity. In frustration I wrote to myself, “I don’t want to be trained. I would like to be more aware, more understanding, more caring when it comes to colleague’s and students’ whose life experiences are markedly different than my own.”

My biggest problem was thinking I knew more about the subject than the facilitators because I’ve been teaching in culturally diverse settings for most of three decades, I’ve read extensively on multiculturalism, taught multicultural education courses several times, and published essays on the challenges and rewards of multiculturalism.

Of course I have a lot more to learn, but the facilitator’s assumptions about how adults learn made it nearly impossible for me to benefit from their efforts. In short, they seemed to think adults learn through small group activity after small group activity.

I would have liked to have learned more about diversity and equity through extended, open, and honest conversation with people different than myself. As in a graduate seminar. I don’t know whether my fellow participants felt similarly. Or whether you would have. Maybe I’m an outlier, in which case, never mind.

Retrain Your Brain to Be Grateful Part Two

Ledgerwood’s and the others research applies most poignantly to teaching. Consider this hypothetical. A teacher has 25 students, four whom really like her, 19 who don’t have strong feelings one way or the other, and two who really dislike her class. The two act out regularly and are highly skilled at getting under her skin. Even though they represent 8% of the classroom total, they occupy 80% of the teacher’s thinking. Consequently, they teacher wrongly concludes that most of the students are unhappy and thinks negatively about their work more generally.

This phenomenon, which Ledgerwood describes as “getting stuck in the loss frame” applies to school administrators too. More often than not, administrators’ thinking is disproportionately influenced by a few especially adversarial faculty.

Maybe the same applies to doctors working with lots of patients or ministers interacting with numerous parishioners. Or anyone whose work is characterized by continuous personal interactions.

Ledgerwood ends her talk by sharing the personal example of being pressed by her husband to “think of the good things” that happened during her day. And she’s quick to describe two positive memories. But what if you’re work or life situation is so difficult that when it comes to cultivating gratitude, you can’t gain any traction or develop positive momentum?

If I was to take the baton from Ledgerwood at the end of her talk, I’d pivot from psychology to sociology. Meaning you greatly increase your odds of being more positive if you consciously surround yourself with “gain framers”. The inverse of this, you greatly increase your odds of being more grateful if you assiduously avoid people who are “stuck in the loss frame”.

Ledgerwood contends we have to work really hard at retraining our brains. The sociological corollary is we have to be more intentional about who we seek out to partner with—whether in our work lives or our personal lives.

The Problem With Direct Democracy

Let’s start the new year off with some heresy.

Education, medicine, policing, journalism, fill in the cross-section of the work world, every work collective is attempting to reinvent themselves; to save money; to work smarter, not harder; and ultimately, to meet people’s needs more effectively. Thoughtful reformers across the gamut repeatedly cite the importance of public participation in reform efforts.

A friend of mine, a transportation engineer, shared a story with me recently about an award his office received for a particularly successful redesign of a small downtown in Central Washington state. What stood out in the write-up was how thoroughly his team sought citizen’s input on what improvements they most valued before ever picking up a shovel.

Another friend is in the State Highway Patrol. Last week I shared a lengthy article with him about changes afoot in the Seattle Police Department. Here’s his insightful reply:

I’m all for a new approach to policing and public safety, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives and new laws not local prosecutors deciding what to file based on what they think is important. I don’t agree with a lot of the prostitution laws, but it is still illegal. Just like I didn’t agree with the marijuana laws, but it was still illegal. The citizens determine what laws we live by not selective prosecutors and politicians.

That makes imminent sense. The education parallel is we need new approaches to K-12 schooling and teacher education, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives not middle managers at the Office of Public Instruction.

But I have to believe, given the notion of connoisseurship, or specialized expertise, that there are limits to direct democracy. When it comes to reforming our medical system, I trust Atul Gawande way more than I trust myself. Why? Because from reading him I know he has patients’ best interests in mind. Plus, he has highly specialized expertise.

Like everyone, I have some thoughts on how to improve medicine–I’d like my doctors to work more closely together, I’d love to see a dermatologist sometime before I die, and it would be nice if rising costs were in line with the Consumer Price Index–but I have no idea how to get from here to there. I don’t need a seat at the table, I trust the Atul Gawande’s of the world to reinvent medicine. I’m content, if in the end, I get to vote for what he and his doc friends propose.

For the last three decades education reform has been largely ineffectual because nearly every change has been imposed on teachers from well-intentioned people outside of schools—whether Presidents, Secretaries of Education, Governors, Superintendents of Public Instruction, CEO’s, wealthy philanthropists, and academics. When it comes to revitalizing K-12 schooling, I trust teacher leaders in those schools way more than I trust President Obama, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, Bill Gates, Randy Dorn, or myself.

Here’s the most bold education proposal imaginable—let’s empower teacher leaders to reinvent their profession. Let them decide themselves what to teach; how to teach; and how to evaluate, promote, and reward one another. I’ll be content if, in the end, I get to vote up or down for what the teacher leaders propose for the schools in my community.

When it comes to redesigning a small town’s downtown, I trust my transportation engineer friend. When it comes to reinventing policing, I trust my State Trooper friend. Because they have citizens’ best interests in mind and they are far more expert than me in their respective fields. That’s why I’m more a fan of representative democracy than direct.