Reform without Community

“For four years, the reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark. Their target audience was always somewhere else, beyond the people whose children and grandchildren desperately needed to learn and compete for a future. Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg set out to create a natural “proof point” in Newark. There was less focus on Newark as its own complex ecosystem that reformers needed to understand before trying to save it.

—Dale Russakoff, The Prize

Classroom Observation Significantly Influenced by Context

“Despite the intense focus on the use of student test scores to gauge teacher performance, the majority of our nation’s teachers receive annual evaluation ratings based primarily on classroom observations (Steinberg & Donaldson, in press). These observation-based performance measures aim to capture teachers’ instructional practice and their ability to structure and maintain high-functioning classroom environments. However, little is known about the ways that classroom context—the settings in which teachers work and the students that they teach—shapes measures of teacher effectiveness based on classroom observations. Given the widespread adoption of high-stakes evaluation systems that rely heavily on classroom observations, it is critical that we have a clearer understanding of how the composition of teachers’ classrooms influences their observation scores.

. . . We find that teacher performance, based on classroom observation, is significantly influenced by the context in which teachers work. In particular, students’ prior year (i.e., incoming) achievement is positively related to a teacher’s measured performance captured by the FFT.” [Bold added]

—Matthew Steinberg, University of Pennsylvania and Rachel Garrett, American Institutes for Research, “Panel Paper: Classroom Context and Measured Teacher Performance: What Do Teacher Observation Scores Really Measure?

How Can We Mitigate the Errors in Our Minds?

Text Analysis: “The Bugs in Our Minds,” written by Richard E. Nisbett for Nautilus.

Relevance to Schools & Ecosystems: an exploration of socio-ecological constructs, the impact of context on perception, and the mitigating power of knowledge, humility, and self-awareness

In this article, author Richard Nisbett explores the fallibility of our puny human minds. He outlines the power and import of schemas, alongside the dangers and pitfalls in an over-reliance on often faulty stereotypes and heuristics.

The Power of Schemas

Schemas “refers to cognitive frameworks, templates, or rule systems that we apply to the world to make sense of it.” They “affect our behavior as well as 
our judgments.”

Schemas organize and simplify our understanding of the world around us, providing us with models and maps we can be guided unconsciously by. As further explained on a website, Changing Minds, “Schemas help us fill in the gaps. When we classify something we have observed, the schema will tell us much about its meaning and how it will behave, hence enabling threat assessment and other forecasting.”

The Allure of Stereotypes

While schemas are necessary for us to operate and interact successfully in a complex world without being overwhelmed at every moment, there are inherent dangers in the use and application of schemas, such as in the form of stereotypes.

According to Nisbett, there are “two problems with stereotypes: They can be mistaken in some or all respects, and they can exert undue influence on our judgments about people.”

And as most educators know so well, stereotypes can exert a tremendous psychological burden on children. The stereotype effect is well-documented by research in its impact on African American children and females in STEM subjects, for example, and I have witnessed the impact of labels such as “special education” or the impact of placement such as “12:1” on student behavior and mindset.

Schemas and stereotypes are easily triggered without our conscious awareness. “A serious problem with our reliance on schemas and stereotypes is that they can get triggered by incidental facts that are irrelevant or misleading. The stimulus radiates from the initially activated concept to the concepts that are linked to it in memory.”

The Dangers of Context, Environment, and Incidental Stimuli

“Incidental stimuli that drift into the cognitive stream can affect what we think and what we do, including even stimuli that are completely unrelated to the cognitive task at hand. Words, sights, sounds, feelings, and even smells can influence our understanding of objects and direct our behavior toward them. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending.”

By Ernest Martin (Fotofundus Ernest Martin) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
This influence of context and environment has been a recurrent and major theme on this blog for this reason. We significantly underestimate the impact of seemingly irrelevant factors such as where a school is located, the acoustic environment created by the floor tiling, the structure of its hallways, or the color of paint on its walls, despite a growth in research demonstrating the tremendous power such factors can wield over performance and behavior. We overestimate, instead, the influence of abstract political decisions rendered at the state-level or the very visible and direct influence of what teacher happens to be placed in front of students.

But as Nisbett points out, “(1) The effect of incidental stimuli can be huge, and (2) you want to know as much as you possibly can about what kinds of stimuli produce what kinds of effects.” We should be doing everything we can to determine what kinds of school designs produce the outcomes we seek.

The Fault Often Lies in Our Heuristics

Similar to the problem with knee-jerk stereotypes, “we often arrive at judgments or solve problems by use of heuristics—rules of thumb that suggest a solution to a problem, and can introduce errors in judgment.”

One of the biggest errors in heuristics is what Nisbett terms “the representativeness heuristic”: “This rule of thumb leans heavily on judgments of similarity. Events are judged as more likely if they’re similar to the prototype of the event than if they’re less similar.”

Representativeness judgments can influence all kinds of estimates about probability.”

I also happen to be reading Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness at the moment, and one of his basic premises, as indicated by the title, is that most people—including supposed experts in their field—are taken in by the mere appearance of a short-term pattern in what is really chaotic noise on a cosmic scale.

As Nisbett states in his article,”Simply put, we see patterns in the world where there are none because we don’t understand just how un-random-looking random sequences can be.”

Nisbett suggests that the most reliable heuristic you can wield is the the following: “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” Teachers and principals, take note.

6 Ways to Mitigate the Limitations of Our Puny Minds

So, what can we do? We’re fallible human beings, subconsciously influenced by cosmic signals from in extremis stars. Even when we think we’re rational, intellectually driven experts, we’re being steered by the room we’re sitting in, the clothes we’re wearing, the framing engendered by our immediate and historic situations.

One thing in Nisbett’s testimony that stood out to me on this: “Whenever the direct evidence about a person or object is ambiguous, background knowledge in the form of a schema or stereotype can increase accuracy of judgments to the extent that the stereotype has some genuine basis in reality.”

1) BUILD WORLD KNOWLEDGE: In other words, accurate and broad world knowledge and understanding can better inform our mental models and schemas. We’ve discussed this here on this blog before, in terms of a need to better equip “children with the knowledge and understanding of the world necessary to buffer them from forces that seek to exploit their ignorance.” By building a broader understanding and knowledge of the world, we can better understand and dialogue with different people, rather than falling back on malformed prejudice.

2) DESIGN YOUR ENVIRONMENT FOR SUCCESS: Another lesson from Nisbett’s account, in regards to the power of environment and incidental stimuli, “is that you want to rig environments so that they include stimuli that will make you or your product or your policy goals attractive.” In considering schools, we want to “rig” and design them so that learning and positive life outcomes are attractive. Schools shouldn’t be places that children nor adults fear to step into—they should be places that inspire eagerness and joy.

3) DEVELOP JUDGMENTS OVER TIME BY EXPERIENCING DIVERSITY: “A less obvious implication of our susceptibility to “incidental” stimuli is the importance of encountering objects—and especially people—in a number of different settings if a judgment about them is to be of any consequence.” This implication is also interesting to consider in relation to a school. The segregation of our schools, both racially and socioeconomically, has further contributed to the increasingly polarized mental and geographical realms that our society lives segregated within. How can we create an accurate judgement of a wealthy or poor person if our only exposure has been through what we see on the news? By regulating and promoting diversity within our schools, we can cultivate opportunities for children to interact with and relate to many different perspectives. We need to build in time to engage with a diverse range of people and ideas.

4) BE HUMBLE: Nisbett’s other suggestions relate to having humility, and thus, open-mindedness. How can we ever be certain about our judgments in a world ruled by uncertainty? We should operate with the “recognition that the views of other people that differ from our own may have more validity than our intuitions tell us they do.”

5) CULTIVATE SELF-AWARENESS OF YOUR OWN BIASES: Furthermore, Nisbett advises that we develop our self-awareness, and know our own biases and schemas. “We can try to recognize our own stereotype-driven judgments as well as recognize those of others.”

6) RESIST SNAP JUDGMENTS BASED ON SUPERFICIAL FACTORS: Finally, Nisbett also suggests that we “Remember that the similarity of objects and events to their prototypes can be a misleading basis for judgments. Remember that causes need not resemble effects in any way. And remember that assessments of the likelihood or frequency of events can be influenced simply by the readiness with which they come to mind.”

Nisbett, Richard E. “The Bugs in Our Mindware – Issue 24: Error “Nautilus, 7 May 2015. <>.

How Marketers Exploit Addictiveness


As Cook notes in his book, the top 10 percent of drinkers account for well over half of the alcohol consumed in any given year. On the other hand, people in the bottom three deciles don’t drink at all, and even the median consumption among those who do drink is just three beverages per week.

The shape of this usage curve isn’t exactly unique. The Pareto Law states that “the top 20 percent of buyers for most any consumer product account for fully 80 percent of sales,” according to Cook. The rule can be applied to everything from hair care products to X-Boxes.

But the consequences of the Pareto Law are different when it comes to industries like alcohol, tobacco, and now marijuana. If you consume 10+drinks per day, for instance, you almost certainly have a drinking problem. But the beverage industry is heavily dependent on you for their profits.

One consequence is that the heaviest drinkers are of greatly disproportionate importance to the sales and profitability of the alcoholic-beverage industry,” he writes. “If the top decile somehow could be induced to curb their consumption level to that of the next lower group (the ninth decile), then total ethanol sales would fall by 60 percent.” [bold added]

— Christopher Ingraham, “Think you drink a lot? This chart will tell you.

This is a good reminder that it is the very nature of marketing and business to promote and exploit addictive behavior.

Much of the conversation around problems with social networking and smartphone technology concerns this exploitation. After all, if an app can keep you coming back repeatedly and often, then that app will better gain from your compulsive behavior.

Hence why many adults talk about “tech-free” vacations to try and go cold turkey from compulsive usage of Twitter or Facebook, or about utilizing “mindfulness” techniques to defragment their hyperconnected minds.

Our public schools need to strengthen the ability of our children to fight against the addictive and shallow pull of illusory and short-term compulsions. We must do this by equipping children with the knowledge and understanding of the world necessary to buffer them from forces that seek to exploit their ignorance.

This knowledge and understanding is best gained from reading. If you are going to be addicted to something, become addicted to reading.

Whenever I talk with students about my love for reading, I end up referencing Frederick Douglass, who deeply understood how the power of knowledge, derived from the written word, can provide opportunities never before imagined. And how this knowledge also brings pain, and loneliness.

It’s easier to allow ourselves to be exploited. Or to allow others to be exploited yet more. To allow our overriding concern to be our sneakers, or our latest love interest, or different angles of selfie shots.

How much harder to give oneself to a book, or any other pursuit of the mind, in which we are challenged to be something so much less, and so much more, than ourselves.

Why don’t I hate being an Adjunct?

Schools & Ecosystems introduces a new contributor to our blog, Dr. Michael Hicks. I first met Mike at an EWA conference back in 2011.* He struck me then and since with his unique ability to articulate a philosophical perspective with an urgent sense of wryness. Without further ado . . . –Mark Anderson


Shouldn’t I be angry, annoyed, and definitely starving by now?*

 My current twitter profile begins with this descriptive sentence: “Tyro Adjunct Prof.…”

 No one has said it, but I can feel the collective stares of virtual scholars and doc candidates throughout the twittersphere:

 “Why would he display his adjunct status?”

“What’s his REAL job? – there are only 16 full time adjuncts in the world!”

“What the heck is ‘tyro’?”

Well, I prayed for a teaching position and got one.  Thank you, Lord.  I am also fortunate enough to know some principals and superintendents who value and will pay for my expertise as a school climate and leadership consultant.  As for tyro, if you don’t know, you’ve got google, don’t you?”

 In the current arguments of adjunct/contingent instructors and the lack of benefits associated with part-time employment, “tyro” and “adjunct” just might describe the lowest of the low in terms of rank and experience –  and indeed, it does.

I’m not running from this description of who I am in relation to the university, in fact, I’m revelling in it.  I know that this is the special time that I will look back on throughout my career and remember what it felt like when everything about my new profession was, well, new.

 I’ve been to the IT department to get my logins’, passwords and email address.  I’ve had my photo taken and I’ve received my ID badge.  I’ve organized my teaching binder, marked up my class calendar, and appropriated post-its, highlighters and red pens to my Timbuk2 Commute bag.   I’ve set up shop in the local coffee shops and spent hours grinding out a stellar syllabus for my very first class as a professor.  Much like the 200th revision to my committee prior to my successful defense, I nervously, yet carefully checked and re-checked the dates, spelling and clarity of my production.

 I arose from my coffee shop seat with tall, triple-shot Americano in hand, and read the entire document line for line no less than thrice ensuring that the syllabus would even meet the inspection of my cruel major Professor.  [I also made sure not to include compound, flowery sentences like the one immediately prior.]

 In making the usual rounds between the administration building and the department building, walking the campus gave me an opportunity to see the busy undergraduates as “my students” for the first time.  That’s right, despite the majority of them probably never coming in contact with me or my classes, I looked out across the quad, and I saw “my students.”

 This is the same feeling that I know as a former middle school educator – looking out across the entire campus and seeing the entire student body as “my students.”  What is significantly different from my middle school experience, is the increased feeling of responsibility that I now have to give these, “my students” something real, something valuable that they they can use sooner, not later.

 I know I have made a difference in the lives of the middle school students I have been blessed to counsel, teach and advise.  Not from any recognition of my efficacy, which does exist, but from the choices being made now by students formerly under my charge as an educator.  They are beginning to mature and get careers and I am proud to have been in each of their lives.

I have spent the majority of my educational career teaching life lessons to 13 year olds, preparing them for the day when 21 reaches them and they will have to put these lessons to the test.

Well, now “my students” are 21-22 year olds and the established look of naivete that I recognize in their faces, makes the responsibility to give them something real and valuable NOW even more visceral and “real.”

 I am teaching an Introduction to Education course this semester.  My educational philosophy is grounded in counseling theory.  Simply stated, I see the therapeutic nature of learning and teaching and I came to advance that magical function.

 If I can’t give my students the thorough introduction to Education that they deserve, AND give them the support and encouragement they need to make the strong, sometimes tough decisions that this stage of their adolescence requires, then I don’t deserve the lowly titles of “tyro” nor “adjunct.”

 I defended my dissertation in July, was hooded in August, and by September I had an ID badge bearing the university seal and the coveted word “Faculty” imprinted on it.

 I received my first print copy of The Chronicle addressing me as “Dr.” and with Professor in the title line, so I guess it’s official.  Keys – check, water bottle – check, messenger bag – check, Chronicle subscription – check.  Look out Academy, prepare to be invaded!

 One month in, and I think I am doing well in my mission to provide high quality instruction AND to give my students something real and valuable.

 I am accomplishing this because of two main factors:  1) I am not allowing anyone but me to determine how I value myself as an adjunct, and 2) I am not going to start my career in the academy by focusing on the miserable aspects of my probationary status.

 I chose this career fully aware of the tenure track protocol, regimentation and paying of dues that are involved.  No one made me.

 Yes, it has become harder to make ends meet and yes, I do sometimes question the choices I have made.  Once my proposal was approved, I took a lower paying, less demanding job that allowed me to conduct my research, write it up and graduate, so I am used to the sacrificing part of this new life.

My colleagues within the department may be looking at me with pity and  confusion.  They may be perplexed as to why someone would begin a teaching career at my age and risk being an adjunct for most of their teaching career.  They may look at me and say to themselves that they will never allow me into their ranks.  Whatever they may think or see or even say to themselves is of absolutely no consequence to me.

 All the articles and comments in The Chronicle that detail the hellish experiences of other adjuncts don’t move me either.  I’m stoic to the rhetoric on both sides.

What I have decided to focus on is much more personal, much more important than any of that other stuff.  I’m focused on giving my students something real and valuable.

 That’s what I came to the Academy to do.


The Tyro Adjunct Prof



*Alternatively titled:  “Why don’t I hate being an Adjunct?” or “Being an Adjunct Professor sucks 60% less than what I had been led to believe!” (Of course, n = 1)


*From the intro by Mark: Looking back, that EWA conference was a pivotal experience: I met luminaries in the field of education such as Samuel Reed, Ariel Sacks, Mark Roberts, David Ginsburg, Jose VilsonStephen Lazar, Dan Brown, and Kenneth Bernstein, as well as luminaries in the field of education journalism, such as Peter Meyer, Stephen Sawchuck, Liz Bowie, and Claudio Sanchez. A few of the folks I met there have become friends with whom I maintain contact–one of whom is Mike.