Emerging from my principal gestation

Pop quiz: When does learning begin? Answer: Before we are born. Science writer Annie Murphy Paul talks through new research that shows how much we learn in the womb — from the lilt of our native language to our soon-to-be-favorite foods. (“About this talk” description at TED.com, http://www.ted.com/talks/annie_murphy_paul_what_we_learn_before_we_re_born.html)

In her talk, Annie Murphy Paul discusses fetal origins and the idea that “our health and well-being throughout our lives is crucially affected by the nine months we spend in the womb” (Paul, near 1:45 in talk). She is not talking about the “Baby Einstein” movement. She is talking about gestation affecting our learning about the environment to which we are soon to be born.

At the literal surface, Paul’s TED talk is a powerful listen for educators, as we work to better understand the diversity of inputs responsible for any individual’s lifelong learning. As Paul spoke, I wondered quite a bit about the “nature vs. nurture” debates. But Paul’s TED talk has me wondering on an entirely different level, as well.

As I complete this, my ninth, year as principal, I am curious if a year of being principal is analogous to a month of gestation. If the metaphor works at all, then I am even more excited about what my next phase of life in education will be like, for I am soon to be born into a profound period of development as an educator. And I am eternally grateful for the care that Westminster’s womb has provided me. My gestation has provided deep learning about the educational environment into which I next will emerge, and learn, and grow. I wonder what that world will look like, smell like, sound like, and taste like. What an adventure.

“Fallor ergo sum” – St. Augustine, 1200 years prior to Descartes

Do we structure school in such a way that we truly promote and achieve that intricate balance between: 1) wanting to know and to understand and 2) keeping perspective that we have to be wrong quite a bit in order to gain deep knowledge and understanding?

By the time you are 9 years old, you have already learned, first of all, that people who get stuff wrong are lazy, irresponsible dimwits, and, second of all, that the way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes. We learn these really bad lessons really well. And a lot of us…deal with them by just becoming perfect little A students…perfectionists…overachievers. – Kathryn Schulz, On being wrong TED Talk, near 7:00 mark, March 2011 (emphasis added)

Is the secret to great success never to be wrong? Of course not! I cannot imagine that even one teacher of children (or adults, for that matter) truly believes that we define “the successful” as those people who always get the right answer, or even as those who tend to get the right answer. Or do we? How do we view our “A students” versus our “C students? Perhaps I have my head in the sand. I don’t think so, though. Yet, I wonder if we people who help to structure the workings of school are ensuring that the fundamental pillars of school reflect this basic principle:

I thought this one thing was going to happen, and then something else happened instead. – Kathryn Schulz quoting Ira Glass of This American Life, On being wrong TED Talk, near 14:00 mark, March 2011

Do we overly penalize learners for their mistakes? Does the traditional, typical school currency – grades – serve best those at the core of the instructional-learning exchange? Do we allow for “returns” to be made after a transaction, or are “all sales final?” Do we allow for enough “do overs,” prototypes, iterative attempts, and second chances? Do we model our classrooms and learning spaces on the real-life tendency for all of us humans to be great mistake makers as we risk to know and to understand our world? Do we facilitate learners growing from “white belts” to “black belts” by awarding them with an average – “a grey belt?” As educators, do we understand the 10,000 hour theory? Are our scope and sequences reflectively cognizant of the 10,000 hour theory? Do we tend to sort and label, or do we tend to recognize that mistakes come with regret that should be embraced if we hope to grow from our errors?

If we have goals and dreams and we want to do our best and if we love people and we don’t want to hurt them or loose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong. The point isn’t to live without any regrets…the point it to not hate ourselves for having them….We need to learn to love the flawed imperfect things that we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly; it reminds us that we know we can do better. – Kathryn Schulz, Don’t regret regret TED Talk, near 16:00 mark, November 2011

An Intro at the Conclusion

This morning, I had planned to work on my resume. It needs some updating, and I need a job, so I thought this morning would provide me a good opportunity to revise and edit my curriculum vitae. As I awoke from sleep, I even seemed to have some revision ideas on my mind. But then another thing happened instead.

As I sat to enjoy those first sips of morning coffee, I decided to check my Feeddler app – my way of organizing and reading my Google RSS Reader. In the queue was a new TED talk from Kathryn Schulz, the “wrongologist.” I love her work, so I thought I would watch her latest published talk while waking up with my coffee. Then, I would get to “work” on my resume. But then another thing happened instead. I was reminded of this powerful blog post by friend, colleague, and former student Peyten Dobbs. And I remembered the This American Life episode that I listened to during my Saturday afternoon walk with my dog Lucy.

I felt I had important threads dangling loosely in the wind of my thinking. I wondered if writing a bit would help me ground and weave some of those threads together. I puzzled over Peyten’s feelings expressed in her blog post, and I empathized about my own similar feelings from being a perfectionist-bent student of old.

So…do I now have all of these mysteries about grades and being wrong “all figured out?” No. But I am further down the path than I was when I awoke. Do I have revisions completed for my resume? No. If I were to need to “turn in” my resume to a teacher for grading, I fear I would receive an F or an incomplete. Yet, I engaged in some lifelong learning this morning about the nature of being wrong, the nature of regrets, and the structure of schools. I learned. But for that I will receive no formal grade. I may later regret that I don’t have a revised copy of my resume ready on Sunday, December 4. That’s okay. My regrets remind me that I can do better. And I tend to engage in super efforts to learn and grow and get better. Where does that go on my resume?

Kindezi – PBL – CFT

Today, Jill Gough and I are partnering with The Kindezi School to forward PBL (project-based learning, problem-based learning, place-based learning, passion-based learning,…). Bob Ryshke, the executive director of The Center for Teaching, matched-up Jill and me with Dean Leeper and Kindezi. While Jill and I technically are providing the facilitated professional learning around the area of PBL, we really view the opportunity as a mutual-learning possibility. Just to peruse Kindezi’s website makes me excited for the partnership.

On Friday of last week, Jill and I ventured to Kindezi for a scouting session. We met with Dr. Leeper, and we toured the facilities and classrooms. Students and teachers were highly engaged, and there was a hum of intentional, active learning. We learned of endangered turtle projects, school protests over a cancelled recycling program (the students won back recycling!), and fund-raising efforts to support service men and women whom a class had adopted as pen pals.

Today, we are using a modified “Show-and-Tell” gamestorm session to 1) communicate about current practice, 2) calibrate current practice with research, 3) coordinate current practice, and 4) collaborate on future practice. Post-it notes and lesson study will be whirling and swirling!

To bridge today’s session with an upcoming follow-up session, we will be using this video provocation:

We are very excited about what we can build together!

Jill Gough’s follow-up blog post at Experiments in Learning by Doing

Synergy 8 Beginnings – Day 1 and Day 2 Recap

As a student for many years, I can remember the general trend of the first day of classes. As a whole, most of my teachers distributed a handout with numerous rules and expectations. We were told what kind of notebook to carry, how to organize it, how much quizzes and tests counted in our averages, what not to do in class, etc.

As a counselor at Camp Sea Gull, we learned that first impressions are powerful. Captain Lloyd used to say that it takes only minutes to form a first impression but days and weeks to change or alter that first impression.


In Synergy, Jill Gough and I wanted to facilitate a careful and thoughtful first impression of what the course would be focused on. Our first class period is only 15 minutes long because of the orientation design of our first days of school. In that quarter hour, we hoped to inspire our 24 teammates – all 8th graders – to know that Synergy was about empowering us to be the change we wish to see in the world. So…we began with Kiran Bir Sethi’s 9 minute TED talk:

In the minutes that remained, we asked the student learners to reflect on why we would begin the course with such a video “act 1.” Several piped up and said, “Because we can do things to make a difference.” “This class is about applying our subjects to making a difference in the world.” “We are just kids, but we can act to change things that we see need changing.”

A successful beginning!


On day 2, we began with the Marshmallow Challenge (see Tom Wujec TED talk). Shortly after the class, we cut this 5 minute video:

The student learners wrote some responses in a mediated journal, and the focus centered on the importance of prototyping and engaging in an iterative process of trial, error, success, improvement, revision, retrial.

Next, we explained that our team would engage in a common practice and habit of observation journaling. To kick off this tool-explanation session, we employed Jonathan Klein’s TED talk:

Students briefly reacted to the power of visual imagery and using images (text, sketch, or picture images) to drum up awareness, reaction, and discussion. This was our jumping off point for beginning the powerful habit of recording our observations in a kind of regular diary about what we see and what causes us to question.

Jill and I then demonstrated a method that we both use to keep our observation journals – a great e-mail based blogging system called Posterous. Jill “postered” an observation journal of me postering” an observation journal: http://jplgough.posterous.com/observations-synergy

Finally, before we had to depart, we provided the students with the private access code to our class Schoology site – our primary means of digital communication and archiving for the Synergy community.

From my seat, it was a great beginning with a team of 26 people full of the “I Can” bug…ready to engage the iterative process of prototyping…so that we can take charge and use our images and voices to make a difference in this world. I still don’t know what kind of binder we should use, but that seems relatively insignificant. And we have weeks to overcome that first impression about notebooks and binders!

Big Rocks First!

I love the classic camp devotional (that’s where I saw it first, at least) involving someone trying to fill a glass jar with sand, small rocks, and big rocks.

During round #1, the person pours the sand in the jar. Then he tries to get the small rocks and big rocks to fit. They don’t fit!

During round #2, the person puts in the big rocks first, then the small rocks, then the sand. IT ALL FITS!

Here…watch for yourself…

For the last few years, I have committed to putting in the big rocks first…for my typical weekly schedule. As a principal, so many different tasks and needs arise. My day can get filled with sand, and the big rocks get crowded out. However, if I schedule in the big rocks, then the sand – which is still important stuff – can fill in around the big rocks. Here’s what my “glass jar” looks like…

Of course, life requires some flexibility and adaptability. But first loading the big rocks helps ensure that major tasks get tended to and accomplished!

What are the big rocks in your work? Are you scheduling guaranteed space for them?