Smorgasbord: Differences, and Teaching for All

“1960s Ann Arbor Town Club smorgasbord — advertising postcard.” by Wystan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

People raised in different contexts think differently

Western and Eastern societies see the world differently. “If we are what we see, and we are attending to different stuff, then we are living in different worlds.” It may even come down to the difference between a historical context of growing wheat vs. growing rice. BBC

Rich people and poor people see the world differently. Poor people pay much more attention to other people around them. Science of Us

Risk-taking is an adaptive strategy when raised in chaotic environments. “Given that fast life-history strategies are triggered in uncertain situations, a stable environment can work wonders.Nautilus

So you want to become rich in the United States? The best way is to become rich is to be born into the right set of parents. The second best way is to find a rich spouse. The Economist

And the rich are more likely to become entrepreneurs. The Guardian

How we self-classify our own race is problematic for assertions based on race. There’s a tendency for those of mixed descent to self-classify as white. American Prospect

And maybe instead of classifying animals into species, we’d do better to identify them by their key traits and characteristics. RealClearScience

Men’s brains are bigger than women’s. Mindhacks

But there are few differences in cognitive ability between men and women.

Men and women require different types of check-ins to keep long-distance relationships going. Men need face-to-face check-ins, while a phone call is enough for women. The Guardian

Therefore, promoting diversity is key

Once trees in the rainforest are connected with vines, they don’t function as individual trees anymore—at least from the perspective of ant diversity. The Atlantic

Highways may have contributed to rural and urban division in American politics, as revealed by maps. National Geographic

School choice may lead to more segregation. CityLab

As demonstrated by Denver, a much lauded exemplar of school choice. NPR Ed

“The Waltons would have a more dramatic impact on the well-being of children by paying their workers a minimum wage of $15 an hour than they do by opening charter schools and enfeebling community public schools.” The NY Review of Books

Though the use of vouchers may possibly reduce some racial stratification, in a convoluted sort of way. The Atlantic

But vouchers are viewed as problematic even by many of those within the “school choice” charter community. “I’ve worked in charter schools nationally for two decades, and the vast majority of people I know who work in and support charters are deeply troubled by vouchers.” Ascend Learning blog:

Ben Carson could undo past efforts at housing desegregation. The New York Times

A challenge to previous research that suggested that greater diversity generates distrust. The distrust may simply stem from good old prejudice. Scientific American

Unfortunately, training may not be enough to remove racial bias. “There’s no good proof that implicit bias can be permanently unlearned, and little evidence about the best way to unlearn it.” Nautilus

“Having a shared sense of identity, norms, and history generally promotes trust.” The American Interest

“Americans can do better. Remember: America doesn’t just have arguments; America is an argument—between Federalist and Anti-Federalist world views, strong national government and local control, liberty and equality, individual rights and collective responsibility, color-blindness and color-consciousness, Pluribus and Unum.” The Atlantic

And teach everyone well

A project-based learning critique: “if we’re designing schools and syllabus for the real word, that means teaching everyone well, not just a fraction of the lucky sperm club.” Tom Bennett’s blog:

The JUMP Math curriculum speaks to just that type of whole-class design, and is showing strong signs of success. “Our data shows that if you teach to the whole class, the whole class does better.” Quartz

Along the same lines, I argue for a focus on an inclusive, rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students as the best way to support students with disabilities, rather than focusing on abstract, idealized models. Schools & Ecosystems

Acquiring knowledge and then thinking about how it fits into what we already know helps boost our attention. PsyBlog

Here’s 20 observable characteristics of effective teaching. TeachThought

For faster learning, interleave studying with sleep. BPS Research Digest

Napping, after all, is just as effective as cramming. BigThink

And if you want to grow new brain cells, go running instead of lifting weights: PsyBlog

“a well-targeted tree campaign could be of the smartest investments a hot, polluted city can make.” And those plantings should be well-targeted to improve air quality for schools. Vox

Another smart investment? The buildings we house students in. “People know that their physician plays an important role in their health, but sometimes building managers can play a nearly equal role,” says Allen. “The janitor of a school, for example, has a big impact on the health of those kids.” National Geographic



On Venture Capital and Education

By Jim Gordon [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.

There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.

In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.

Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”

Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.

. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?

Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .

. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”

This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.

But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:

. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”

A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.

A more sustainable model can be seen in an article in the NY Times about MailChimp.

…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.

Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.

But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach.  Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:

Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.

. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.

So the solution? Software!

Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!

But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:

We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.

I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.

The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.

And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.

Smörgåsbord: The Chaos Begins. The Work of Education Continues

What is there to say about the rude awakening that shook cosmopolitan, progressive minded Americans and the world?

Well, here’s a few positive spins on it:

  1. Trump is a chaos monkey that will assist us in building a better democracy by forcing us to re-establish the original balance of power our founders intended. (This would require the Republican party to pull up their Big Boy pants and actually govern.)
  2. The one thing that united Clinton and Trump campaigns was a commitment to investing in infrastructure — and it is the one thing Democrats are already reaching across the aisle to work on.

What does it mean for education politics and policy?

  1. Rick Hess: Who the heck knows?
  2. Chad Aldeman: NCLB will suddenly look really good to Democrats, on hindsight. And you can kiss any education related investment goodbye.
  3. Elizabeth Green: Education reformers will pivot their attention to long-neglected rural and rust-belt communities.
  4. Neerav Kingsland: Charter proponents need to recognize the populist appeal of local, traditional public schools and thus address fears that public schools will be harmed by charter expansion.
  5. Matt Barnum: If Trump actually wants to follow through on his anti-Common Core rhetoric, he’d paradoxically have to wield federal power.

What relation does this election have to knowledge or the lack thereof?

  1. Rick Kahlenberg: Civics and democratic values need to be explicitly taught. (But Andrew Rotherham and Doug Lemov are angry about the anti-choice aspect of his piece)
  2. Problems with our democracy are due to lack of knowledge. For that, we can blame schools.
  3. George Thomas: In our shift to populism, we’ve lost the educative purpose of a representative democracy as envisioned by Madison.
  4. “Trump was not elected on a platform of decency, fairness, moderation, compromise, and the rule of law; he was elected, in the main, on a platform of resentment.”
  5. An additional bonus of a knowledge-rich curriculum is that it can help kids do better on tests.
  6. Some are blaming Facebook and social media for the segregation of our attention from those who could challenge our “crony beliefs”.
  7. Three reasons to teach a knowledge-rich curriculum: cognitive, socio-cultural, and economic.

Smörgåsbord: American Stupidity, Fracturing Communities, and Integrating Minds

I’m no longer calling this the “Sunday” Smorgasbord. Because I’m releasing this one on Saturday. Just because.

American Stupidity

Sol Stern is concerned about how dumb America has become. He blames curricular incoherence.

The incoherence of economic and political policy isn’t helping, either. According to a Harvard Business School report:

“Divisive political rhetoric and an uninformed national debate have confused the average American about what the country needs to do to restore the economy. . . .

“There is almost a complete disconnect between the national discourse and the reality of what is causing our problems and what to do about them. This misunderstanding of facts and reality is dangerous, and the resulting divisions make an already challenging agenda for America even more daunting.”

Our organizational systems are also pretty stupid.

And physical context can have a big impact: students become more stupid when it’s too hot in their schools. Heat “erases nearly three quarters of the impact of a highly effective teacher.”

Yet we still argue about whether global warming is even a thing.

Meanwhile, young men who could be working (and thinking) are playing video games, and the happier for it, so long as they can stave off reality while living at their parent’s house.

Fracturing Communities

But what kind of jobs are out there for many? Trickle-down ain’t working, and the incentives are for the rich to take all the money they can and horde it from the have-nots.

And they will do all they can to ensure the children of the have-nots keep out of the schools where they have stake in property, as the residents of Lincoln Towers on the Upper West Side demonstrate.

NY Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal and state Senator Brad Hoylman, eager to show their support for affluent parents, claim that rezoning the school district would “fracture the community“—which is ironic, since the proposed rezoning would increase neighborhood integration across race and class. One would think that would actually be fostering greater community. . . but, you know.

Conor Williams warns that while millenial parents are less tied to geographic stakes, and thus interested in open enrollment systems, without policies that promote equity, such parents will find “ways to massage these systems into protecting their privilege.”

Integrating Minds

We can share, reinforce, and supplement our memories with our friends and build a “transactive memory system.”

And within our own brains, the more integrated the different parts of our brain are, the better we do on complex tasks.

Gardening is good for your health. So something to be said for all those school gardens.

And if you want kids to get creative, give them simple toys and let them be bored with them.

Sunday Smorgasbord

By Ernst Vikne (originally posted to Flickr as Lots of good food) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
I read a lot of random stuff over the course of a week, and I tweet out many of them (follow me @mandercorn), but I also know that roundups of links, ala Chalkbeat NY, Vox, Eduwonk, Marginal Revolution, and many others, are a really useful way to sharing items that are interesting.

I’m going to begin posting a weekly roundup of items that bear a connection to the themes and ideas that we explore on Schools & Ecosystems.

Please let me know if there’s a format I should consider that will make these more easily digestible and useful to you.

Schools that teach in two languages foster integration — so how come so many families can’t find programs?

There has been a long overdue discussion of integration and increasing diversity in our public schools. While those discussions typically refer to racial and socioeconomic diversity, and the subsequent resistance from well-off white parents, Catherine Brown and Conor Williams are forwarding a refreshing vision for increasing diversity: expanding Dual Language Immersion programs.

While no integration effort is ever simple —especially one that requires schools to implement a new instructional model — today’s conditions are encouraging. Schools have increasing numbers of linguistically diverse students, and greater flexibility for deciding how to meet their needs. Furthermore, families of varied backgrounds increasingly expect schools to offer unique academic themes that help students succeed. Dual immersion programs recognize and celebrate their diverse backgrounds, not as a side benefit, but as a core element of the model’s effectiveness. That’s an extraordinary opportunity for policymakers — and well worth their attention.

Hospitals Realize Their Own Noise Is a Health Issue All By Itself

Quartz reports on a study which found that ambient noise in hospitals is LOUD, which is unsurprising to anyone who has stayed in a hospital.

Hospital stays can be an ordeal all by themselves beyond the condition you’re there being treated for. As medicine becomes more holistic in its perspective, it only makes sense that hospitals are realizing what an important role sound can play in effective healthcare.

On Average

A podcast episode from 99% Invisible describes the tremendous influence that the science of averages, promulgated by Belgian astronomer and mathematician Adolphe Quetelet, has had on design.

Did you know that clothing sizes of Large, Medium, and Small were first created by the mass production for soldier uniforms required by the Civil War? Lincoln drew from the science of averages.

There’s a common discourse in the education world: we standardize tests and our education systems, but children aren’t standardized. It might sound trite, but it’s scientifically accurate, according to research by Gilbert S. Daniels. He discovered that there was a discrepancy between the averages of all soldier measurements and the actual individual sizes of each soldier. In other words, very few individual soldiers actually conformed to the average.

This problem manifested in the design of cockpits, which were based on average measurements of soldiers in the 1920s. By WWII, those averages no longer applied, and resulted not only in the exclusion and subsequent shortage of many pilots during a time of high need, but even many avoidable deaths.

It was again our military which then pioneered the concept of adjustment in its design to meet individual needs. That’s why we can adjust our car seats now.

Whether it’s the equipment, or the whole work environment, design must accommodate more people who are outside the average … because in reality no one is actually average.

Trudging the fields at Gettysburg to teach leadership in hospitals

Speaking of hospitals and the Civil War . . . Stat reports on a leadership program for hospital staff which brings them to the battlefield of Gettysburg and prompts them to consider the decision-making challenges that people working within large organizations can make while under stress.

“Communication can break down at every single level,” said David Ottati, chief executive of Florida Hospital Waterman. “As leaders, we need to make sure we understand the objectives and each others’ personalities and motivations.”

In the Age of De Blasio, A Bloomberg Era Small School Reunion

Andrea Gabor writes a thoughtful piece on an innovative small school, Global Technology Preparatory, that was created as part of Bloomberg/Klein’s “iZone” initiative. By explaining what makes this school a success, and examining how that success has been hampered by politics and bureaucracy, Gabor brings a critical lens to the new administration.

One of the buried ledes in this story is that an educator, David Baiz, had been rated Unsatisfactory in his first school in the South Bronx, but after moving to Global Tech, he became a “nationally recognized math teacher.”

New York City educators loved to hate the Bloomberg/Klein administration, with its penchant for serial reorganizations and its army of MBAs. At the same time, some of the city’s best principals conceded that the businessman-mayor’s school administration had made their lives easier. For principals who survived the New York City iZone’s many incarnations, or who had inherited the small-school mantel from Meier and Alvarado, the Bloomberg years were an opportunity to experiment with some relief from bureaucratic control.

When our dream school had no space for my son, I panicked. Then I confronted prejudice I didn’t know I had

A mother and educator describes how the experience of choosing a school for her son confronted her with her own prejudice and that of others.

The more I dug into my soul, the more I come back to the idea that choosing a school is essentially about choosing the class you want to belong to and not about education at all. The truth that nobody wants to talk about is they want their white child to go to a white school. They want to go to a school where everyone eats Pirate Booty instead of Cheetos, where parents send their kids to New York Kids Club instead of Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Success can’t be measured by one or two numbers

“Whenever you make huge decisions about complex situations based on one or two numbers, you’re headed for disaster — especially when those numbers can be gamed.”

—Mark Palko and Andrew Gelman, “How schools that obsess about standardized tests ruin them as measures of success” on Vox

We’ve questioned Success Academy’s “success” on this blog before. These statisticians bring a new lens to that question.

I don’t want to denigrate the good work that Success Academy teachers and students are doing. There are practices and systems well worth replicating and investigating in these schools. But Eva Moskowitz’s political framing and marketing of her schools as the solution to poverty is problematic.

School Climate Matters

A classroom in Guipuscoa

Chalk up more research confirming what-we’ve-been-saying-all-along here at Schools & Ecosystems: a school’s learning environment impacts student learning.

In case you don’t know, NYC has been collecting what folks call “school climate” data via surveys administered to teachers, parents, and students since 2007. It’s important information to have about a school–arguably more important, to my mind, than test scores (I believe both should be considered).

Last July, I had quoted Match Education’s Mike Goldstein asking an important question about all this data:

Is anyone aware of scholars and reporters digging deep into this data set?  Is there any other data set in the USA just as good?

I think it’d be hugely productive to identify NYC schools which have made progress in “Total Climate” — and then study why.

Well, Mike, you’ve got your answer.

NYU’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools published a study using NYC’s school climate information that demonstrates that a school’s learning environment not only impacts student learning, but furthermore teacher retention. As Chalkbeat NY’s Alex Zimmerman reports:

Each measure, the report found, is independently linked to decreases in teacher turnover. And gains on two of those measures, high academic expectations and school safety, were directly connected to better scores on state math exams.

The study found that if a school improved from the 50th percentile across the study’s four measures of school climate (leadership, expectations, relationships, and safety) to the 84th percentile, teacher turnover would decline by 25 percent, or 3.8 percentage points.

A similar percentile increase in measures of school safety and high academic expectations alone boosted math scores enough to account for an extra month and a half of instruction. (Improvements in school climate also boosted language arts scores on state tests, but those gains weren’t statistically significant.)

It’s important to note that this study confined its focus to the following aspects of school climate:

  • safety and order
  • leadership and professional development
  • high academic expectations
  • teacher relationships and collaboration

Missing in such an examination (and mostly from these surveys themselves) is a focus on the physical environment of a school. There are questions pertaining to cleanliness and conditions of a school, but as we’ve also been arguing on this blog, the actual design, and the incorporation (or absence) of access to natural light and greenery, colors, furniture, etcetera (all largely subconscious factors), all have an impact on learning and relationships in a school.

If your school is interested in collecting school climate data, the US Department of Education is sharing free surveys and information for collection of data similar to NYC’s. Check it out and share.

Responsible Regulation, Not Ideology

“it’s time for school choice advocates to dispense with ideology, engage regulators, and get serious about a policy environment that promotes measurable quality, scale, and access.”

—John White, “America’s most disadvantaged students need real accountability, not ideology” on Flypaper

Will Losing Friedrichs Result in Better Unions?

Facsimile of an IWW stickerette with artwork by Ralph Chaplin. March 1916

So, as you know, I’m pessimistic about the outlook of the pending Friedrich’s case (what probability would you assign to Friedrich winning the case? Vote here!) It’s not the outcome I want–but I’m afraid that it’s likely the outcome we will get. Meaning that teacher’s unions will lose a large source of funding and thus, power.

If you pay any attention to the history of US public education, or of labor in general, then you most likely have some understanding of why unions matter. Unfortunately, however, there are a newer generation of workers and teachers who may not see this.

Increasing disengagement presents a large problem for unions, especially as our economy and workforce undergoes increasingly volatile shifts. And let’s be honest–most unions haven’t demonstrated the greatest sense of urgency in trying to adapt to changing conditions. My local union, the UFT, for example, has more than half of its voting during elections come from retirees. And the union leadership seems to think that simply asking teachers to promote or comment on policies and proposals they’ve already created is somehow democratically elevating teacher voice.

Speaking personally, I rarely engage with my union because I’ve found other avenues to have my skills and voice applied in ways that can further my profession. But I at least understand the need for professional solidarity when it comes to collective bargaining for decent wages and working conditions. Without solidarity and collective bargaining, individual workers have little sway in gaining concessions from either governments (such as the mayor or superintendent) nor private interests. I am therefore supportive of my union, at the very least, for providing a necessary counterbalance to government and private financial interests.*

But maybe losing the Friedrichs case might prove to be the tough medicine that will force unions to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions of our times, like Peter Cunningham suggests.

Or perhaps there may come a day of reckoning, when the future labor force has been Uberized completely, and all jobs made temporary and contracted-by-the-hour, that a few teachers will awaken to discover their previous rights have been sundered, that they are working (even more) inhumane hours, in inhumane conditions, with few protections. And they may then gather together to hold a discussion about how they might leverage their collective power to gain concessions from those who hold the cards. And they thus may relearn the meaning behind the word “solidarity.”

We will see. In the meantime, if my state, NY, the birthplace of collective bargaining and Al Shanker, becomes a “right-to-work” state, I will choose to continue to give my “agency fees” to my union.


*It seems to me like both unions and government have increasingly ceded power to private interests. But to be clear, I’m not anti-privatization. I believe in public-private partnerships.

Obliquity, Zen, and a Cultural Science of Schools


Dominic Randolph, the head of Riverdale Country Schools, and Max Ventilla, the founder of AltSchool, have written a thought provoking series of letters on Medium, on the topic of “What’s the Point of School?

Randolph’s final letter, “Reimagining School,” contained two great concepts I wanted to especially highlight:

If schools took learning more seriously and aimed indirectly but intentionally, like a Zen archer, then I think they might be in quite different places.

This is an interesting way to phrase the principle of obliquity and pair it with the concept of social-psychological interventions! I agree strongly with Randolph on this. I tire of hearing leaders in education harp on shallow and direct sources of targets, such as test scores or standards or compliance rates, as if these are the ultimate drive or purpose in our work. Data and standards are only powerful when contextualized and analyzed from multiple perspectives, in consideration of the needs and interests of students and the curricular focus of the department and school. Compliance rates . . . well, that’s a baseline, not a target. Yet the messages I and other educators too often receive is that our focus should lie on such desultory targets.

How can we bring “applied anthropology” into schools so we can learn about how to more effectively construct the right culture of engaged and deep learning for our students, teachers, and parents?

People talk about the effect of a leader on a school environment or the way a particular class is difficult, but where is the science of the culture of schools?

Matt Candler’s ideas about “Tiny Schools,” in which small schools are begun as prototypical experiments, then brought to scale as they experience success, seems to be a great opportunity for such an expansion of “applied” science, most especially if the learnings from the failures of these experiments are shared transparently and openly.

I certainly hope there’s more thirst out there for such an education-specific science! I know I have this thirst myself. It’s hopeful that schools are pairing more often with academic researchers or design firms like IDEO, though I fear that such pairings end up focusing on schools and communities, like Randolph’s, that are already set up for success.

I’d perhaps be more interested in those pairings if they sought to expand the concepts of design thinking and character education to their broader community in the Bronx. How can school learning experiences build connections between students and schools of varying skills and backgrounds? And how can those connections be leveraged to actively overcome the physical and mental silos of our city and nation?