the feed

How exactly do we become us?

“Watch your thoughts, they become your beliefs. Watch your beliefs, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character.”

– Vince Lombardi

We don’t do it alone. Other people give us models, ideas, and direct feedback that validates and challenges our thinking and behavior.

Think back on a time when you were a kid, and someone said something that really got to you – it might have been a compliment, or it might have been a criticism, or it might just have been something shitty to say, but it stuck. You remembered it. It worked on you. Coming back to it over and over did something for you. You kept it so close that the next time you made a decision, you considered that idea in the moment before you acted and it influenced your decision.

Back in the day, THAT was an influencer.

The word processor I’m using to type this blog post red-lined the word influencer (again) because there is no such word in the software’s database. It accepted the word blog – that’s a thing – but not influencer (third red line).

Until recently, there was no such word. We made it up to describe something new.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a theory of sociology that “sees society as the product of the everyday interactions of individuals.”

The everyday interactions of individuals today are different than they were even just a couple years ago, before the pandemic. They are way different than they were before everyone was glued to their phones.

Now, even in public spaces with lots of people, we experience the sensory isolation of earbuds and screens that are visible only to us.

The interactions are taking place online, and our society is changing as a result.

Acknowledging change is neither a cautionary tale nor a celebration – it’s just an observation. But it is an observation we ignore at our own peril, because the impact of technology on our interaction has fundamentally changed how we understand ourselves and each other.

You Am the Other

I love the fundamental concept of Ubuntu: “I am because we are.” A teacher without students is a person delivering a soliloquy at a bus stop. Parents are only parents because of their children. A teammate, a member, an employee, a neighbor… all of these senses of ourselves exist in social systems that inform our sense of ourselves.

“I am he as you are he, as you are me and we are all together.”

– John Lennon & Paul McCartney

In addition to Mental, Physical, and Technological Fitness, Open-Source Learning helps us develop our capacity to understand our desired roles in social systems and larger contexts through Civic and Spiritual Fitness.

We need each other. Beyond our physical needs, we need empathy and trust to build interdependence. I am an Other to someone. You are an Other to someone. Try and hold some empathy for those people who look at both of us today and wonder if they’re really OK.

As we grow through childhood into adolescence, and social acceptance becomes more important to our idea of who we are, the feeling of observed by The Other and wanting to fit in has a corrosive effect on our curiosity, wonder, risk, and creativity. We start to worry that people won’t accept or appreciate our individual talents and quirks. We start to wear matching socks and coordinated outfits that “say something” about us.

George Herbert Mead, one of the leading proponents of Symbolic Interactionism, was described by educator John Dewey as “a seminal mind of the very first order.” Mead understood that our physical fragility forces us to depend on each other in social systems to survive.

Mead also understood that our need for survival is not merely physical but social. We need positive regard from other people to maintain our places in social systems. Seeking that positive regard can lead us to change our stripes, compromise our integrity, and hide our light under a bushel.

Someone Might Not Like My Art

One of the places where The Other most savagely conquers our joy, sadly, is school.

In his book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie describes one effect of children becoming more aware of being observed by others as they age, when he visited schools to demonstrate how artists can sculpt steel into animals:

“I always began with the same introduction: ‘Hi My name is Gordon MacKenzie and, among other things, I am an artist… How many of you are artists?’

The pattern of responses never failed.

First grade: En mass the children leapt from their chairs, arms waving wildly, eager hands trying to reach the ceiling. Every child was an artist.

Second grade: About half the kids raised their hands, shoulder high, no higher. The raised hands were still.

Third grade: At best, 10 kids out of 30 would raise a hand. Tentatively. Self-consciously.

And so on up through the grades. The higher the grade, the fewer children raised their hands. By the time I reached sixth grade, no more than one or two did so and then only ever-so-slightly—guardedly—their eyes dancing from side to side uneasily, betraying a fear of being identified by the group as a ‘closet artist.’”

Why Kids Today Are Hurting

Our fear of The Other’s judgement now follows us everywhere. We used to be able to fake not being curious or smart just by not raising our hands in front of the class. Not anymore. Hiding in plain sight is no longer sufficient camouflage.

Past the shouting over the pandemic, the politics, the economy, the environment, and the trauma du jour, in a small corner of a child’s bedroom, the screen glows.

The screen glows all the time. It is a constant companion. The child gets uncomfortable when the screen is turned off or taken away. The child holds onto it under the pillow. Behind a backpack or a notebook during class.

Recently I told a classroom full of high school students: “I know exactly how it sounds when I say something like, ‘When I was your age…’ I remember sitting in your seats like it was yesterday. But do you know how I know that I’m older? Because I truly don’t give a shit whether you like what I’m going to say next.”

They roared with laughter and in that moment we became friendly. I was because they were. And there was relief in the room when I made it clear that whether they judged me or not, I would be just fine, and we could still coexist.

So: When I was their age, my friends and I had to figure it all out too. That is the job of the child, the adolescent, the teenager… and it never ends. I’m still working on it.

The difference was that we had quiet places in our lives where we had to turn inward and listen to ourselves.

The growing up game has changed. We used to tell the stories of our pictures; now our pictures tell our stories. Now, instead of feeling attracted to a particular sex or gender, young people identify with someone else’s words and experiences.

The screen glows. The screen knows.

It’s great to accept and celebrate diversity. We need to talk about things that need talking about. But that is not the only thing happening on the internet.

Instead of forming an identity, kids identify. The screen tells them stories, gives them archetypes. The screen’s algorithms intensify the effect and give the kids more, more of what it thinks they think they want.

The kids are no longer cooking up their identities at home, from scratch – they are gorging at the algorithmic personality buffet. It has become more difficult for them to distinguish the reality on the screen from reality itself. They no longer differentiate their half-baked true selves from what they see on the screens.

Ask kids what they really love, what they really care about, and they shrug. They don’t have a core – at least not one that they understand well enough to articulate, or believe in enough to represent.

Everyone else doesn’t offer feedback. Even The Other is imagined. Students navigate the school hallways – the only physical public spaces they regularly inhabit – bowing to screens with earbuds jammed in. They take their cues from the feed.

If we want the next generation to learn, instead of merely being taught… if we want the next generation to grow identities, and not just identify… We are going to have them step away from the feed trough, look inward, experiment boldly, and hunt. Otherwise they’ll never eat.

They’ll just feed.

a tale of two teachers

This is a description of last week in the life of two teachers. The second teacher is the one to remember.

The first teacher is me

Last week I accepted Ash Kaluarachchi‘s kind annual invitation to serve as a “shark” for startup founders at EdTech Week in New York City. It’s always great to see so many bright, dedicated people trying to solve problems and improve learning with innovative ideas. As usual, among all of the entrepreneurs, executives, consultants, creatives, advisors, and investors, I was the only currently practicing teacher. I listened to founders’ pitches and I helped them understand the K12 environment.

It is often difficult for business people – even former teachers – to empathize with the experiences of teachers and students in classrooms today. The two environments and cultures are so different. It’s hard to teach. It’s even harder to teach and do other things at the same time, especially if those things require (a) a lot of mental bandwidth and (b) a deep desire to change the status quo.

This balance has defined the last 30 years of my career. I try to help both public servants and capitalists understand the implications of what we’re all doing to school. So I took a few days away from home, worked even more remotely than usual, and went to meet Ash and company.

Truth be told, it was a hell of a lot more fun than telling a 9th-grader for the 23rd time to put away her phone.

It was exciting to meet in person!

I flew on an airplane with lots of people.

I stayed at a hotel.

I reconnected with old friends I hadn’t seen in years.

And I had a really good sandwich.

Originally I planned to dedicate this week’s blog post to reporting on the people and ideas from the conference. But there is more than one reality here, and unless we address the conditions in which teachers are trying to teach, school will simply be a place where good ideas go to die.

The second teacher is not me

The day after I came back, I picked up a weight rack that I’d bought online from a really nice guy whose fiancée, it turns out, is a second-year teacher.

“How do you like teaching?” I asked her.

She shook her head and stared at the ground. “I think I’m going to quit.”

“Why?”

“I’ve wanted to teach my whole life. And my first year started off great. I was in a first grade classroom with 23 students and a really supportive supervising teacher. But when the school year ended I wasn’t offered a job. The principal told me it was because they couldn’t predict enrollment and they didn’t know if they’d have enough students.

”I had to apply to every district in the county. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to keep my apartment. I couldn’t even get an interview.

“Finally I got an interview and a job offer. At that point I had to take it even though it’s an hour and a half each way from my apartment. I stay with friends during the week. It’s too much driving and I can’t afford the gas anyway.  Now I only see my fiancé once every two weeks. It’s hard on our relationship. My salary is about thirty thousand a year, which is barely enough to pay bills. But we’re strong … he just got back from his second tour in the middle east so I know we’ll make it.

“Actually, I’m really not sure how long I can do this.

“The thing is, this year I have 38 fourth graders and they all have some sort of special need or trauma. And their parents. Last week a girl in my class forgot her water bottle on the playground. I couldn’t let her go back outside by herself – it was 105 degrees – but I planned ahead for moments like this. I bought water bottles for each student and kept them full, so I handed her the one with her name on it.

“Her father came to the school and cussed me out in front of all the students and their parents. He jabbed me in the chest with his finger and told me he was going to beat the shit out of me. Why? Just because I gave his 10-year-old a bottle of water I bought with my own money instead of letting her wander around unsupervised in 110 degree heat by herself?”

She wiped away a tear.

I asked, “Are you ok?”

She seemed surprised by my question. “It’s been a week since that happened and you are the first person to ask me that. Yeah, I guess I’m OK. But I have to park my car away from the public lot, around the back of the buildings so no one sees me walking to or from my classroom. I’m scared every day. I just don’t think I can do this anymore.”

Why this is a Dickens novel

Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities as the story of two protagonists who are in constant danger of being imprisoned or killed, against the backdrop of a civilization that was disintegrating in ways that would bring about the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

That’s us, right now.

Every teacher is at risk. We are all one misunderstanding away from being censored, fired, beaten, canceled, or worse.

So, while I am truly grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with innovative entrepreneurs for what I hope is the betterment of our education system and everyone in it, I stay mindful of all my colleagues in classrooms who must calmly and kindly fight for their lives every day.

For decades we’ve had the data that describes and analyzes teacher burnout. We know that teachers “must constantly navigate complicated interactions ‘charged with feelings of anger, embarrassment, fear or despair.'”

As many policy makers and school administrators like to say: “Data drives instruction.” All of the qualitative and quantitative data indicate that teachers are being abused.

There is no more standing by on the playground while the nice kid gets tortured.

Whoever you are, and whatever else you believe or do in life, it is your responsibility to protect and defend our teachers. Start by asking if they are OK.

I strongly believe that technology can improve our systems and practices in learning – but we need people and purpose much, much more. This is not a “yes and.” This is a “first we must.” If we fail our teachers, education technology will be worse than worthless.

 

we belong

The clerk at the 7-11 on Pacific Coast Highway smiled as I brought the coffee to the counter. “Where are you going at three o’ clock in the morning?”

To my very first triathlon.

I signed up for the Malibu Triathlon (1.5k ocean swim, 40k bike ride, and 10k run) as my first training event to prepare for the Indian Wells 70.3 Ironman in December.

I pulled into the parking lot at Zuma Beach on Saturday at 4:14am.

I asked around and found the check-in tent. Then I got my timing chip and race bib and made my way to the transition area, where I racked my bike and found a volunteer to write my race number in marker on my upper arms and left calf.

Sooner or later, I knew I’d have to have the Conversation.

The Conversation began when I was a freshman at UCLA. I remember looking around at orientation and thinking, “When is someone going to figure out that I don’t belong here?”

If it’s left unchecked, this irrational fear of being exposed as a fraud can become what psychologists call imposter syndrome.

Sure enough, the voices started:

You’re 52 years old.

You’ve had asthma your whole life. Multiple surgeries on your back, both shoulders, both knees.

You’re afraid of swimming in the ocean. Even the veteran Ironman competitors say this is the hardest event to swim. Today is big surf. Look at it. Listen to it. BOOM. You don’t know what you’re doing. The lifeguards will have to fish you out.

You don’t belong here.

These thoughts are invitations to a mental party I no longer attend.

One feature that distinguishes Open-Source Learning from traditional school is the concept of Mental Fitness. We practice mindfulness to understand and navigate our focus, memory, and emotional landscape.

I practice what I preach.

After I finished setting up my gear, I zipped up my wetsuit, headed back to my car, got in the driver’s seat, set the timer on my phone for 10 minutes, and closed my eyes. I sat still and listened to my breath.

Some people call this meditation. Some call it zazen.

I focused on my breathing. I allowed whatever thoughts passed through my mind to keep right on going. Every time I got distracted by a thought, I refocused on my breathing and listened to the sound of each inhale and exhale against the compression of my wetsuit.

I sat.

And then suddenly 10 minutes had gone by and the alarm on my phone went off.

When I opened my eyes it was daylight.

I headed to the beach and eyed the start.

I felt ready. At least, I felt as ready as I was going to get. It was time to get going. I took one last selfie and headed out.

Almost as soon as I ran into the waves, I got smacked in the head by another swimmer. The impact dislodged my goggles and they started leaking. The saltwater stung my eyes. I made it out to the first buoy but I still had over a kilometer to go and my eyes were really smarting.

“Hey do you need a hand?”

One of the lifeguards paddled over on her board. It’s legal to ask for help during a triathlon as long as it doesn’t give you an advantage, so I put my elbows on the board, took off my swim cap and goggles, dumped out the water, put them back on, snapped the cap back into place, and kept swimming.

The swim was rough but I finished, staggered out of the water, crushed the bike ride (that’s my favorite event), and survived the run.

I finished my first triathlon.

I am not fearless. For weeks before this event, just the idea of swimming in the ocean made me feel anxious every time I thought about it. I can’t avoid fear, but as Norman Schwarzkopf put it, “Courage is being afraid and going ahead and doing your job anyway.” That is something that I can test and prove to myself. And when I do, I feel stronger for the experience.

There were so many little moments that made my day. Every volunteer, lifeguard, law enforcement officer, and EMT at the event was kind. Athletes of all shapes, sizes, ages, and ability levels called out to encourage each other: “You got this!” “Way to go!” “You’re almost there!”

Yes. We are almost there. We’re also right where we belong.

 

madeleine moment

An average guy is having an average — no, make it a mediocre, even crappy day. He comes home and his mother gives him a little cake and tea.

The experience blows his mind. In his words:

“One day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.

“An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?”

That’s the “madeleine moment” from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (later translated as In Search of Lost Time). Proust was writing in a different language for an audience of a different era, but the theme of involuntary memory is still compelling. How can dipping a cookie in tea catalyze transcendence? What is it that tickles our senses, activates our hypothalamus, and suddenly gifts us the experience of deep insight?

Meanwhile, exactly how the fuck do we possessors of such magical capacities keep forgetting and ignoring the most basic information that may yet save us from ourselves?

How many times do we need to be told that going for a hike is a bad idea when it’s 114 degrees at the trailhead? Even doctors – like this neurologist (read: expert on the brain) – die on the trail when it’s too hot. Those examples are just from this past week. Each year from 2004-2018 about 700 Americans died from natural heat exposure. And every article that reports on every one of these incidents includes “Hot Weather Safety Tips” and “Signs of Heat Emergencies” and the like.

You’d think maybe everyone would get the message and learn. Nope. Every year, people still hit the trails in the heat, and they still die.

Memory Hurts Less Than Addiction

As George Santayana famously observed, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I first read that quote as the epigraph to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a book on my grandmother’s shelf with a terrifying cover and an even more terrifying cautionary tale within its pages.

But now that the last of the Holocaust survivors are dying, too many Americans act like it didn’t happen. Or that Nazi Germany didn’t see the Jim Crow south as a design worth imitating. Or that assholes like Henry Ford didn’t run around promoting lies like the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Worse, we are now doing some of the same things in America that Nazi Germany did before World War II.

In last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns wrote, “We seem unwilling, even uninterested, in nurturing from the tangled roots of our past a better future. How else can we describe a time when many Americans cling to blind and unexamined notions of the nation’s ‘greatness’ yet lash out at schools and teachers, fearing what a thoughtful look at our country’s history might uncover? The battles we are fighting today are battles about whether as a society we choose honest understanding of the past over willful blindness.”

I encourage you to read the whole piece.

This country was never perfect. It won’t ever be perfect. And unless we have the guts to face our imperfections so that we can improve upon them, we are damned.

Cheer up. This blog post is actually one of hope. Little things often remind me of big ideas. That’s why I teach.

I don’t want hikers to die in the heat. I don’t want our country to disintegrate.

So, please… if you do nothing else, at least consider this: the hiker who ignores heat warnings kills only himself. The racist xenophobe who ignores our country’s past kills everything good about the word American.

Learn about our past so that together we can build a better future.

 

 

 

 

make change

Open-Source Learning represents a significant change in education. Gone are the syllabi. Gone are the textbooks. Gone are the days when teachers had to act like all-knowing content experts and sergeants-at-arms.

Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river. -Plato

One of my favorite things about working as a management consultant was that it gave me professional license to act like a five-year-old. No matter what a client said or did, I always got to ask: “Why?”

The most common examples occurred when executives explained their routines and meetings.

Client: “Our team meets every Thursday morning at 10.”

Me: “Why?”

Almost every single time, the answer was, “Because that’s what we’ve always done.”

Why?

Is the practice important to someone? Does the routine serve a purpose? Do participants get the same meaning and value from the experience as they once did?

When the ‘why’ question is received as an information-seeking expression of genuine curiosity, the ensuing conversation can become informative and even collaborative. But when a person interprets ‘why’ as a challenge to authority, defensiveness can escalate into conflict.

I think that’s fantastic. Conflict can be very productive, especially when it’s a catalyst for change.

The Illusion of Comfort

Everything is changing. Some things are growing. Others are falling apart.

Things that seem permanent are, in point of fact, not. Institutions, cultural norms, and even natural resources require diligent stewardship. Just a few years ago, Americans thought very differently about things previous generations took for granted: school, religion, the Supreme Court, and the Office of the President. Just a few years ago, every American city had enough potable water.

Given the facts facing us today – especially the ones threatening our survival – you’d think that more people would be interested in honest conversations about facts. Our democracy is being tested. Our planet is becoming less habitable.

So why do so many of us still consider the truth inconvenient?

Because changing our minds and habits offends the part of our brain that loves efficiency.

The same mechanism that makes our brain efficient at achieving short-term outcomes (“I’m really good at brushing my teeth!”) can create long-term deficiencies (“I practice brushing my teeth every day with my dominant hand. When I try to brush my teeth with my non-dominant hand, I look like I should be wearing a helmet in my own bathroom.”).

Demanding more from our brains is actually good for us. Challenging our minds and bodies sharpens our thinking skills.

But most of us don’t seek out opportunities to sharpen our thinking skills on our own. Many of us avoid it. We’d rather maintain the illusion of comfort. We indulge in confirmation bias and we take every opportunity to stay the same, even as the world around us changes. We rationalize. We procrastinate. We say stupid shit like, “I can quit at any time,” or, “Man, I really need to lose 15 pounds” while driving around the parking lot eight times, spending an extra $3.92 on gasoline, and arguing with motorists to get a spot closer to the entrance of the gym.

Right now there is something in your life worth doing differently to improve. Will change be comfortable? Who cares? You’re going to feel a whole lot more comfortable when you’ve done something worth doing.

Scaling Change

Sometimes change is easier when it’s implemented at a systemic level (i.e., when someone else tells you to).

On September 3, 1967, Högertrafikomläggningen Day, Sweden switched from driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right. Just ten years before that, 83% of the population voted against the change. But the facts were in: other nearby countries all drove on the right, and most of Sweden’s cars were designed to drive on the right.

So, at 5:00 on September 3, all the traffic in Sweden was ordered to stop and move to the opposite side of the road. The signs had been posted, the traffic lights reversed, and – this is important – the expectation had been set.

It worked.

Traffic resumed, and for the next two years there were actually less accidents on the roads.

My doctoral research focused on change in organizations. I studied how schools and learning communities considered changing traditional agrarian school calendars (the ones you’re used to, with summer vacations) to year-round calendars. Year-round calendars offered higher compensation, more efficient use of campus resources, and a variety of other benefits. But teachers and parents rejected every proposal.

Make Change

Don’t let the game come to you. The Earth will not open and swallow you whole if you do something different today.

Newton’s first law also applies to the psychology of change. It takes force. Force can come in the form of gentle nudges or pandemics, but they are always a call to adventure.

Yoda was right: Use the Force. Start a habit. Break a habit. Take a different route home. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Wear a helmet in your bathroom.

And when you create change in an organization, expect a ripple – maybe even a backlash. This isn’t worth fearing, but it’s important to account for. Interdependence doesn’t require conformity. You may not get everyone on the right side of the road, but at least you’ll know where you’re going.

The difference between leadership and management is that leaders are going somewhere. Somewhere new, somewhere else.

Take a look around. We can’t stay here.

Make change.

 

 

 

 

 

it’s too hot and this kitchen sucks

You’ve probably heard the old saying: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

That idea was popularized by Harry S. Truman, who may have gotten it from a general or a judge. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect a president, general, or judge to say. It’s a challenge. A dare to rise to the occasion. Toughen up. That’s what it means to be an American. A man. An adult.

It’s easy to see why the saying has endured. It’s a brief, powerful metaphor that effectively conveys assumptions about shared values and expected behaviors.

BUT…

What if the kitchen sucks?

And what if there is no alternative? Our entire planet is getting hotter. Deadly heat waves will be 3-10 times more likely by 2100. Exactly what are you going to do about it? Pack up your spaceship?

Global Warming in Education

Low pay, lack of respect, and poor working conditions are just a few of the reasons that the teacher shortage in America has hit crisis levels.

Many states and school districts cannot fill positions. Unqualified people are standing in front of classrooms full of students.

And the teachers who haven’t already quit or retired early? In addition to their teaching duties, they have to fight for basic resources.

Consider for example the teachers who are on strike in Columbus, Ohio.

They’re not looking for Lebron money, or even enough money to buy houses near the schools where they teach.

How about just not freezing or suffering from heat exhaustion in the classroom?

As one teacher put it, “(Students) should be able to come to a safe place where there’s not rats and roaches and hot conditions… As an adult, if you go to work and it’s freezing or 98 degrees or you forgot your lunch, you’re not going to be a productive employee. And school is the same way. We can’t have kids continuing to come to buildings and not have these basic needs, and we can’t expect teachers to come work in these conditions, either.”

I Sweat From Experience

In 2006 I taught a summer school class at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The class was held in one of those portables that never moved. The temperatures outside hovered around 105. Inside was hotter. The air was stifling. The sweat trickled down your back. The flies died of heat exhaustion. I watched one stop buzzing, walk a couple steps on my desk, and keel over.

The room had an air conditioner, but the thermostat was covered by a plastic housing that was locked and could only be opened with a key. I called maintenance to ask for help. No one answered. I called the front office. They told me air conditioning costs money.

I picked the lock with a paper clip, opened the plastic cover, and turned down the air conditioning.

The next day, I arrived to find the thermostat cover closed and locked, this time with a padlock. I shattered the cover with my elbow and turned the thermostat down as far as it would go.

Learning to Survive

At that time, Monroe was one of the biggest schools in the country. 5000+ students attended on a three-track, year-round calendar. When I returned for the next track, my classroom had been moved to one of the old buildings.

Instead of a local HVAC unit with a mechanical thermostat, now I had a wall unit with an electronic thermostat that was wired into the building’s ventilation system.

I read the manufacturing labels and starting surfing the internet.

The schematics were hard to understand. I don’t know much about heating and cooling systems, and less about electronic security. But I know how to read a phone number, and I called the company’s headquarters in South Los Angeles. I spoke with a representative named Celia who taught me how to defeat the electronic thermostat lock code, reset the DIP switch, and turn my classroom into the freezer aisle at the supermarket.

Outside it was sweltering. Mind-melting. But in that room, we could now relax. Talk. Think.

In Conclusion

If you can’t stand the heat, remodel the kitchen.

We have to change the conditions that require people to fight for a livable, learnable environment.

Then, once we manage our heating and cooling for the school year, maybe we can start stewarding our off-campus environment so the Class of 2100 has somewhere to live.

 

mistaks were maid

Last Tuesday, like most Tuesdays, I wrote my “Taste of Tuesday” email newsletter. I mentioned the attack on Salman Rushdie, whose book The Satanic Verses was published during my senior year of high school.

Reading Rushdie’s work over the years made an impression on me. The attack made an even bigger impression. I don’t like the fact that America is an intolerant and violent country.

When I wrote about Rushdie I made a mistake. I typed the year of Rushdie’s publication (and my own high school graduation) as 1998 (NINETY eight), instead of 1988 (EIGHTY eight).

It was a minor thing – it’s not like I taped over the original recordings of the moon landing – but my mistake did not go unnoticed. Readers called me on it. “I thought we were the same age!” “That’s not when Rushdie wrote the book!” “Are you trying to act younger than you are?” “Hey, we graduated together, dipshit!” (That last one is a direct quote from a good friend who is a highly regarded professional with a well-known podcast.)

It’s nice to know that people are paying attention.

Since I did actually graduate high school in 1988, and I am actually 52 (and a half!) years old, I don’t mind making mistakes in front of people as much as I did when I was younger. Sure, it bugged me a little at first – how could I hit the wrong key and not notice when I proofread? – but making mistakes is a big part of life, and a bigger part of learning.

As Hall of Fame UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden put it, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything.”

Stupid Mistakes

Before anyone mistakes this for a Mistake Sanctuary, I’d like to point out that some mistakes are genuinely stupid. Makers of stupid mistakes are not themselves necessarily resistant to new or dissonant information (i.e., we shouldn’t automatically assume that they are as stupid as what they just did), but their actions are definitely attention-getters.

In a 2015 study entitled, “What is stupid?: People’s conception of unintelligent behavior,” Balazs Aczel and colleagues identified three categories of behavior that are commonly called “stupid mistakes”:

  1. Things people do when they have more confidence than skill. This phenomenon is also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it accounts for some of the most spectacular examples of stupidity, such as the man who robbed a bank without a disguise because he believed that he was invisible. Poor performers often simply don’t know any better. They can’t tell the difference between high and low quality, so they overrate themselves and drive the rest of us nuts.
  2. Things people do when they act on impulse. You don’t need to buy anything on display at the checkout stand. Congressman, you don’t need to text that picture of your genitals. Whenever you do something that indicates a lack of control over your impulses, you are buying a ticket to Stupidmistakesville.
  3. Things people do when they stop paying attention. I personally believe that mindlessness is a bigger problem than Covid, Monkeypox, Polio, and today’s GOP put together, but lapses in attention are not all created equally. If you’re a pilot who forgets to lower the landing gear, or a surgeon who forgets to remove the forceps before closing, yeah, you’re making a high-stakes stupid mistake. That is very different than looking for the eyeglasses that you left on your forehead or rereading a sentence because you realize you don’t remember reading it the first time.

Do I Care?

Spoiler: Yes, I do. I care a lot. About arguably way too many people and issues.

When it comes to mistakes, I care mostly about two things.

First, I care about doing things with quality. I like knowing what I’m talking about and I like doing things well. I can’t stand the phrase “good job” – what does that even mean? – but I really like it when someone I respect compliments the quality of my work. I extend this care to everyone with whom I work – students, clients, colleagues… even my own family. I sincerely believe that excellence is a habit, even though it would be a mistake to continue attributing the idea to Aristotle, and I do my best to make quality contagious.

Second, I care about taking the kind of risk that helps me grow. Watch a beginner learn how to walk or learn how to ski. If they’re not falling, they’re not pushing themselves far enough to improve.

Living the second principle enables us to develop the understanding and skill that brings us to the first. It’s the ERROR part of trial and error that teaches us the most.

Don’t Be Too Careful

Too often, young people learn to act like they’re perfect. We don’t like admitting we don’t know something, or that we’re flat out wrong. That is a problem when it becomes a habit. Covering up mistakes may not seem like a big deal on a fourth grade math worksheet, but the child who doesn’t admit forgetting multiplication tables grows into the adult who doesn’t admit administering the wrong medication or forgetting the memo about the terrorist threat.

Feeling like it’s OK to make mistakes gives us the opportunity to explore and reflect. Plus, the process of making mistakes actually enhances our ability to learn. In a wonderful blog post entitled “How Making Mistakes Can Accelerate Learning,” performance psychologist and Julliard faculty member Noa Koyegama points to the findings of University of Sheffield professors Stafford and Dewar (2013): “Greater initial variation is linked to higher subsequent performance.” That’s a diplomatic way of saying, “Screwing up in practice is the best way to win when it counts.” So much for perfect practice – better to take chances, get something wrong, figure out why, and correct your own work.

One of my favorite things about Open-Source Learning and the public internet in general is the opportunity it gives us all to improve through feedback. When I first encouraged high school students to start websites and curate their learning online, everyone thought I was nuts: “Aren’t you worried someone will post something inappropriate?”

Nope. Thousands of students and millions (billions?) of posts, comments, videos, and all sorts of digital artifacts later, there has been exactly one instance of a student posting something that another student found inappropriate. And what was the response?

“Hey, did you mean to post that?”

“Gah! No. Thanks for telling me – my mistake.”

Go Make New Mistakes

Whatever I do in life, I will always remain grateful for those people who give me honest feedback. My people are hard on ideas and soft on each other – if they seem like a tough crowd when it comes to evaluating quality, it’s because they care. What kind of friend doesn’t tell you about the spinach between your teeth or the toilet paper on your shoe?

I used to have a sign in my classroom: “You don’t have to be sick to get better.” It’s true for me. I did OK today. But it’s never perfect. At the end of each day I reflect on what I got wrong, forgot, didn’t finish, etc.

Those moments are dear to me. Tomorrow I’ll make different mistakes. But not the same ones I made today.

So, thank you in advance. Please feel free to Contact Me and let me know how I can do better.

 

 

 

civil liberty

Recently a teenager told me that he wanted to skip college and work as a journeyman electrician. His reason: “I just want to live my life and not have to answer to anyone.”

I get it.

But at some point he’ll realize, as Bob Dylan put it, that “You gotta serve somebody.”

Or maybe he’ll see it more like Bill Withers: “We all need somebody to lean on.”

400 years ago John Donne said it best in a poem (from which Ernest Hemingway borrowed a line for a book title): “No man is an island.”

We don’t operate well in isolation – examples abound, from the cruelty of solitary confinement to the loneliness fallout from the pandemic. We depend on each other for everything, from goods and services to relationships and positive self-regard.

Our connections and feelings of affection and belongings are no small matter. We are social animals. That’s why the older, fight and flight parts of our brains are not nearly as well-developed as the thinking, responding, executive functioning frontal cortex that enables us to do things like empathize, reason with each other, and occasionally collaborate on projects or even resolving our differences..

So, civilization may be on the verge of collapse, but that’s no reason to be rude or give up on each other. More than ever, we need to learn how to operate in systems: families, communities, schools, organizations, teams. Countries. Earth.* (*No joke on that last one. Seen the weather reports lately? Are you composting yet?)

CIVICS 101

The word civic originally comes from the Latin corona civica, a crown of oak leaves awarded to one who saved the life of a fellow citizen in battle.

It may be useful to think of civics in the context of fellowship in the face of adversity. Even if we’re not fighting an actual battle against a common enemy in a war, we need to identify anything that may divide us and pit us against one another.

Here are some civic issues I see that create conflict between coworkers, friends, and even family members:

  • Money
  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Morality

You don’t have to agree with everyone you know, but you do have to understand their reasoning, and you have to make the commitment to stay in connection with them – if you are going to maintain the strength of the relationship and the system you’re in.

Civil Liberty

Civil liberties are freedoms and guarantees that governments commit not to abridge (i.e., limit or mess with in any other way, such as making laws, or interpreting right and wrong, etc. etc.).

One commonly cited example is the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights consists of the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America. In my experience, it’s important to spell this out in precise language, since most Americans seem very comfortable slinging pieces of these phrases without having any real idea what they’re talking about.

For example, many people mistakenly assume that the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. It does no such thing. Here is what is says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Read that again. The First Amendment says nothing about what you are free or not free to express. It only says that Congress is not allowed to make a law limiting freedom of religion, speech, the press, or our right to assemble.

Clearly, we don’t have unlimited freedom. We can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater or cause immediate or irreparable harm to the nation or its people; we can’t engage in obscenity that serves no artistic, democratic, or scientific purpose; minors on campuses where educators are charged with the responsibility of acting in loco parentis routinely run into challenges. The list goes on.

We don’t necessarily have to agree on everything, but we do have to negotiate understandings that support our coexistence and interdependence. The first step is becoming knowledgeable about the issues.

Civic Fitness

Civic Fitness is the third of Open-Source Learning’s Five Fitnesses. Unlike Mental Fitness and Physical Fitness, which begin as purely individual, everyday practices, Civic Fitness is something we consciously and intentionally practice in full view of other people.

On the one hand, this is nothing new. When Plato wrote The Republic nearly 2500 years ago, he included a section in which Socrates describes the qualities that a citizen must have in order to function effectively.

More recently, Nelson Mandela famously observed that, “The time has come to accept in our hearts and minds that freedom comes with responsibility.”

Schools don’t teach Civic Fitness the way I’m describing it here. What does it mean to be of sound mind and body? And further, when did we forget that reading and math are necessary, foundational skills for voting on public policy, entering into contracts, and managing our financial resources so as to be an interdependent participant in shared value, rather than a burden on society or a predator?

We can demonstrate Civic Fitness through acts as as simple as picking up litter in a neighbor’s yard. Volunteering. Voting. Making sure we have enough money to cover our payments. Understanding our system of government and our economy well enough to contribute good ideas and make good choices.

The One Thing We Can’t Do

We can no longer afford to act like we don’t need each other, or like we don’t owe each other our best.

At some point, that teenager who told me he doesn’t want to answer to anyone may very well become a journeyman electrician. But he will fail if no one hires him. So he will need customers and clients. And it’s highly likely that some homeowner or general contractor will frustrate him at some point.

He will also need friendship and love. His relationships will challenge him too.

He should be so lucky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

learning about longevity

Open-Source Learning leverages the idea that we learn best from an expansive network of resources beyond the classroom. It’s a straightforward principle: If you want to fly, find a pilot and a plane.

Open-Source Learning also helps us meet a variety of needs through learning. In order to make the most of this life, we must optimize our mental, physical, civic, spiritual, and technical fitness. Living a good life is about more than mastering subjects or getting good grades.

Without Open-Source Learning, school is a tough place to build a quality of life that will sustain us for the long haul. Where in school can you learn how to prepare for awesomeness in middle age and beyond?

Take physical fitness for example. You’d think that the institution responsible for young people’s learning would teach us how to develop the strength, energy, and endurance we need to survive. And think.

Nope. No one learns jack shit in P.E. Or health class. I didn’t figure out how to eat until I was in my early thirties.  I’m still trying to get more and better sleep.

I did play basketball at competitive levels in high school and college, but as an adult, I learned that a lot of what my coaches taught (like running sprints and bleachers in hot SoCal summer gyms with no water until we puked) was actually harmful.

Finally, just before the pandemic – as the Lead Learner in an Open-Source Learning network – I sought out an expert and leveled up my physical workouts.

Sometimes you have to get out of town to see the forest for the trees.

Thriving over the long term engages every OSL fitness:

  • Mental fitness to sharpen our focus, manage our stress levels, enhance memory, and navigate emotion;
  • Physical fitness to maintain our energy as we rise to occasions and endure over time;
  • Civic fitness to steward our relationships, financial resources, and information we share in community;
  • Spiritual fitness that keeps us connected to the big picture; and
  • Technical fitness that helps us identify and use the tools we need to our greatest advantage.

If school’s not the best place for you to learn and practice this stuff, where do you go?

Getting back to nature is the best way for me to supercharge my fitness.

So last week I packed up the car and headed north on 395 toward the Eastern Sierras. I panicked a little when I saw the smoke from the latest California wildfire.

Then I got inspired. Just past Big Pine I turned around and took a second look at the turnoff sign:

 

Bristlecone pine trees are the oldest living things on Earth. Some have been around for more than 4800 years – these trees are hundreds of years older than the Great Pyramids of Egypt! How had I never seen them? I turned east and followed my curiosity into the White Mountains.

The Journey is the Destination

The Bristlecone pine forest is on the way to exactly nothing. The highway is the destination. I lost count of the twists and turns. I drove slowly and honked at the blind curves and the one-lane stretch, but on the way up I didn’t meet a single car coming the other direction. As the road climbed, I popped my ears and quietly focused on the sun-baked asphalt instead of the dizzying drop offs beyond.

My reward was a 4.5 mile hike on the Methuselah Trail at the Schulman Grove. About halfway through, I realized I was standing near the highest point in the lower 48 states (I had just driven past Mount Whitney), in the presence of – I’ll say it again – THE OLDEST LIVING THINGS ON EARTH, staring out at the lowest point in North America, a valley with death right there in its name.

I know I saw Methuselah, the oldest of the old, but I don’t know exactly which tree it is because the Forest Service can’t trust us with nice things. I’ll verify my guess with my Uncle Mark, who worked for the Forest Service in the Sierras for 40+ years. It doesn’t really matter if I’m right – every single one of these ancients has a powerful presence.

I felt it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Takeaway

Survival and success require resilience. My childhood mentor Coach John Wooden talked a lot about handling adversity, and every motivational poster quotes Nietzche and Hemingway, but I always thought those ideas were just admirable responses to the challenges that find us. The Bristlecones teach that seeking out circumstantial hardship is literally a growth opportunity.

Check out the plaque at the entrance to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center at Schulman Grove. Shakespeare. Dude.

Bristlecone pines live where other things can’t. They don’t have to compete, because no one else plays their game or even survives on their field. They eat bad weather and hard soil for lunch. Ever seen a root dominate a dolomite? It’s badass:

 

Leaving the Bristlecones for the relative comforts of hiking and mountain biking, I asked myself: What are the harsh conditions in your life, or at your school? How are you adapting to survive and grow stronger? What can you do today – right now – to improve your mental, physical, civic, spiritual, and technical fitness?

As we begin another school year, I hope your learning gives you more than a paycheck or a GPA. Strengthen your roots. Seek out the challenges that test your mettle. Let your continued existence and perseverance tell your story and inspire your community.

Be the Bristlecone.

I wish you the best and I look forward to re/connecting with you here and elsewhere.

calling all teaching wolves by your name

Last week I wrote about interdependence over independence, and this week I am launching the online Open-Source Learning community.

Join the online Open-Source Learning community HERE.

More than ever, I want everyone to understand that Open-Source Learning is a “we” thing – it is definitely not a “me” thing. I gave the name Open-Source Learning to a framework of ideas, strategies, and tactics that many, many people have used over thousands of years to help each other learn.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

As Juliet points out in Act II, “It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part…”

True to Shakespeare’s point: Open-Source Learning is an idea, not a thing.

To paraphrase the Bard, Open-Source Learning would, were it not Open-Source Learning call’d, retain that dear perfection which it owes without that title.

Open-Source Learning by any other name would work just as well and be just as amazing.

So why did I give Open-Source Learning a name? And why “Open-Source Learning”? Why not call it “Tao 2.0 (or Tao3/DAO3),” or give it some education-style acronym like The Simple Heuristic for Information Teaching* (*The SHIT) – or maybe just call it Fred, your AI-friendly learning bot?

In Academy of One I describe how my approach to teaching was inspired by the thinking behind open systems in thermodynamics and open source software development. For example:

  • Open-Source Learning integrates all our capacities with our key interests in ways that help us curate our progress.
  • We learn more and better when we share our thinking and get feedback from people who have experience in the realms we want to explore.
  • Someone has already done what we want to do. The fastest way to make progress is to learn about their work, imitate it, and expand on it. This is the art of the remix. It’s what Hunter S. Thompson was doing when he retyped Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It’s what I’m doing right now when I invoke ideas from Newton and some pre-Medieval guy named Bernard: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
  • Life is interdisciplinary, technology is transformative, and school sucks.

Now there is an even more important reason to fly the Open-Source Learning flag.

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re destroying our culture at least as fast as we’re destroying our physical world. Pick your issue. Pick your community. The most prosperous, powerful nation in human history is disintegrating into a monkey shitfight at the zoo. We can’t seem to agree on anything, even though we need to improve everything. In this context, every educator is at risk.

Therefore, every educator needs the validation and support we don’t get in faculty lounges, unions, or professional associations. We need a way of explaining – and occasionally defending – innovative practices when they’re challenged by parents, site administrators, or local / district officials.

Here’s the good news: We have the solution. We are the solution.

As Rudyard Kipling put it in The Jungle Book, “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”

WE LIVE AMONG US

There is at least one teacher on every campus who doesn’t speak up at faculty meetings or sit on committees. You know who they (you?) are. They don’t want to make a spectacle of themselves or put a target on their back. But they know that teaching obsolete standards-based test prep from a textbook sucks ass. So, year after year, they quietly go about the business of shutting their classroom door and making magic with their students.

The Open-Source Learning community is for people who want to develop their learning practices out loud in a place where they don’t have to look over their shoulder.

In every course I’ve taught, my practices were (a) effective in engaging learners who produced more and better work than before, and (b) very different than what learners experienced in other courses. As my students became more visible online, they became more successful. They dominated scholarship competitions, gained admission to highly selective universities, and secured elite internships and jobs.

As a result, over the years I’ve been interviewed by quite a few academic researchers and popular journalists, and every single one of them asked me two questions:

  1. How do you do it?
  2. Aren’t you afraid of being fired?

It’s time to sunset question #2. Every effective educator deserves the security, time, and space they need to focus on the work, without worrying that they’ll  become the next tall poppy or the nail that sticks out and gets hammered.

MAKE A CHOICE

If you’re even dreaming of doing good work as a teacher and somehow simultaneously remaining invisible, it’s time to wake up.

We’re all visible. And how we’re seen isn’t always up to us. To some, I’m a TED talking consultant thought leader person. To others, I’m a life-hacking guinea pig or a middle-aged white guy who calls out racism and “fascist, loofa-faced shitgibbons” when I see them.

“Oh my,” I can hear the kind-hearted, gentle people say, “I don’t know about that. Teachers are supposed to be apolitical. Neutral.”

Bullshit. Paolo Friere and many others have written about the danger of neutrality because it is an act. An illusion, nothing more than a rhetorical convenience. There is no neutral for teachers. There never was.

Open-Source Learning begins with integrity. Pull off your mask and identify yourself. Being our best authentic selves is the foundation of connection. Creating interdisciplinary learning adventures that begin with students’ interests and end with online awesomeness depends on our abilities to connect – with our own passionate curiosity, with informational resources, and with each other.

Beyond the obvious Mental, Physical, and Spiritual Fitness benefits, The Civic Fitness component of Open-Source Learning invites us to actively engage with our society. Practice. Exercise your First Amendment rights and tell us who you are.

I’ve made my choice. Anyone who knows me or reads stuff like this knows exactly where I stand on learning, education, and schooling. I’m always happy to have a good argument, and I’m always willing to listen and change my mind.

What about you? Are you OK with how everything is going in our country? Do you think every person in your community deserves a measure of respect, autonomy, and opportunity? (Or life, liberty, and happiness?) How about it then? Are you a sheep, or a wolf?

CALLING ALL TEACHING WOLVES

If you’re a sheep, you can stop reading here.

If you’re a wolf, your pack is waiting for you.

Join us over at the Open-Source Learning online community, where “I am because we are” (Ubuntu was a philosophy before it was software).

That last sentence is more than just a nice turn of phrase. I started thinking about wolves for this post because of Open-Source Learning community charter member Jeremy Harder, an amazing teacher in Montana and part-time wolf researcher, who taught me a few things that are so profound I’m still sorting them out. You can join me, Jeremy, and the rest of the Open-Source Learning community by clicking here.