Growth Mindset Research – Sigh.

It seems like the hottest trend in “hard” science academic research is to find the sacred cows of social science academic research, qualitative or quantitative, and slaughter them. Amy Cuddy likely stands as the poster child for this wave, but any research that suggests implicit bias, like the stereotype threat research, has been caught in the cross-fire of culture war battle that academia, and the rest of us, seems intent on waging (on itself).

Next up? Stanford’s Carol Dweck and her acolytes, like David Yeager at the University of Texas, are having their research challenged for its validity via meta-analysis, but on the basis of what appears to be one of the current threads of attack on social science research: publication bias.  In the metastudy from Michigan State, researchers contacted other academics whose growth mindset intervention failed to show results and was not published.

The researchers found a weak correlation between growth mindset interventions and academic achievement, terms they no doubt operationalized somehow. Interventions for children and adolescents had a larger effect than for adults, according to the study, but found that “students with low socioeconomic status or who are academically at risk might benefit from mind-set interventions.”

So, ok. I, too, doubt the depth of effect of short reading and writing interventions on long term implicit belief frameworks and self-concept. However, all of this – all of it – seems to miss the point of growth vs. fixed or entity mindset as a conceptual framework. The deep DNA of schooling in the English speaking world is to sort the children into ability groups largely predetermined by the social power of the group a child is born into. The concept

Works. Every. Time.

of a fixed, largely predetermined, innate level of inherited ability is old, but not dead (of course). Sir Ken Robinson’s famous “19th century factory model” analogy resonates, and the bell curve undergirds most testing and assessment. Leading reactionary asshole Jordan Peterson makes a pretty Brave New Argument about the sorts of jobs people can handle by IQ. Fixed mindset, originally termed entity mindset to denote ability as something born within us all, is paradigmatic within and beyond education, so much so that Peterson and his ilk view ability with Joseph Campbell-like depth, woven into reality and expressed by it. But lots of us believe it. Just ask anyone if they are a “math person.”

But as controversial as much of the above might be, what is uncontroversial is expectancy effects, commonly referred to as the Pygmalion Effect, a much replicated reality in which expectations drive outcomes. Rosenthal produced a study in the early 1960’s in which researchers were asked to measure the times of rats through a maze, and some were told their rats were bred for exceptional intelligence – high fixed ability, one might say – others were told nothing, and yet others were told their rats were of low intelligence. The rats were all just rats, like us all, really. “Smart” rats were the fastest, etc. Labeling – the labeling effect – matters, and drives outcomes. This works in the classroom in the exact same way.

Growth mindset is an important implicit belief for teachers to hold, truly, as a north star. Without it, they will implicitly lower their expectations for kids, particularly if those children arrive in the classroom with labels that suggest ability. Everyone can learn, and of course, for certain kinds of learning, some kids come with innate strengths thanks to biology, nutrition, the number of books in their home, and so on. I don’t believe any metastudy has operationalized the implicit beliefs of teachers through a growth mindset lens, and I won’t hold my breath until they do. Truthfully, most people’s experiences with school echo those of Peterson – the infallibility of the Sorting Hat effect. They’ve internalized the fixed mindset communicated by the very structure and purpose of school.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can build for growth, and teach for growth relative only to more growth, to paraphrase Dewey. This is harder to measure than brief interventions, but does and will prove the deep conceptual importance of Dweck’s work.


The Child & The Curriculum – Everything Old is New Again, Again

“Extreme depreciations of the child morally and intellectually, and sentimental idealizations of him, have their root in a common fallacy. Both spring from taking stages of a growth or movement as something cut off and fixed. The first fails to see the promise contained in feelings and deeds which, taken by themselves, are uncompromising and repellent; the second fails to see that even the most pleasing and beautiful exhibitions are but signs, and that they begin to spoil and rot the moment they are treated as achievements. What we need is something which will enable us to interpret, to appraise, the elements in the child’s present puttings forth and fallings away, his exhibitions of power and weakness, in the light of some larger growth-process in which they have their place. Only in this way can we discriminate.” John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum, p 13-14

So in my latest reminder that nothing is new, reading John Dewey’s 1902 The Child and the Curriculum exposed that Dewey defined fixed and growth mindsets in educators more than a century before these concepts exploded into TED talks and Twitter. Dewey begins the text by examining the “old education,” which views children as unformed adults in need of improvement, and the “new education,” which views children as complete beings capable of revealing the world to themselves through open, unstructured inquiry. This, distressingly, sounds familiar, as well.

As Dweck’s growth mindset gets battered about in the social sciences research wars, I’ve been considering what makes growth vs. fixed/entity mindset so powerful for me as an educator. As a social constructivist, I am sure that we learn from one another, and that the deeply implicit belief that others around me are learning and can learn, even if it’s not what I wish them to be learning, creates the conditions for growth. By believing in growth as a process, adults can “get rid of the prejudicial notion that there is some gap in kind (as distinct from degree) between the child’s experience and the various forms of subject-matter that make up the course of study” (Dewey 11).

Degree presents a key concept for the educator in this regard. In the top quote, Dewey emphasizes discrimination of the child’s progress toward an end, a place on a continuum between novice and expert, not-knowing and knowing, a near infinite series of degrees of capacity. Discrimination places an onus on the educator to at once know what mastery of a given subject looks like and to know the child’s mind. Understanding mastery allows the teacher “to know in what direction the present experience is moving, provided it move normally and soundly… defining a present direction of movement” (Dewey 13). Again, Dewey anticipates Understanding by Design and contemporary curriculum methodology, probably because those authors, brilliant as they are, read Dewey closely.

In this light, Dewey defines teaching as “continuous reconstruction” between the present state of the child and expertise in a subject area (11). The curriculum sets a frame for defining mastery, especially when teachers are asked to serve as a “More Knowledgeable Other” across multiple disciplines daily. Believing in growth as a natural process and the experience of the child as “fluid” exposes for Dewey that “the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process” (11).

The process, of course, is growth. The adult guides the growth; however, Dewey, in characteristic prose, points out that “Guidance is not external imposition. It is freeing the life-process for its own most adequate fulfilment” (17). Dewey defines three levels of a child’s fluid experiences as they dabble in and explore their world: “waning tendencies, ” “prophetic” experiences that suggest future courses of growth, and “signs of a culminating power and interest” which “selected, utilized, emphasized, they may mark a turning-point for good in the child’s whole career; neglected, an opportunity goes, never to be recalled” (14). That’s a great parsing of the teachable moment.

Dewey cautions the educator not to overvalue or celebrate the waning tendency, lest a child become stuck, or to ignore the prophetic in favor of conforming to a different task, lest a child start a million short journeys, always tasting and never eating. Character education, all the rage, suffers from periodicity in this manner – not so much a framework for addressing teachable moments on character in light of a school’s stated values, but more often a means for either judging developmentally appropriate behaviors too harshly as they might wane, thereby fixing them, or dabbling in brief lessons, apropos of nothing, and suggesting that the entire concept of character is mutable and lame.

Clearly, within subject area study, skill and knowledge outcomes, core concepts, and areas for examination must be deeply understood by teachers to allow them to react. Dewey writes that “What new experiences are desirable, and thus what stimuli are needed, it is impossible to tell except as there is some comprehension of the development which is aimed at” (19). Reflective, engaged practices connect the teachable moments to a chain of inquiry leading to more and more growth for the child.

The same is true for adults honing their craft. Without a vision for and models of exceptional teaching practice, how can anyone be expected to improve? Some will reach out in the absence of vision or models, particularly with socially networked PLCs or in professional coursework, but left to our own devices or applauded for minor victories, “nothing can be developed from nothing,” Dewey warns us (18). We need a framework.

So here’s my thing: so many of the outcomes of a modern curriculum point to externally examined courses as culminating events – those minor achievements that Dewey warns about in the top quote – or “college & career readiness,” which smacks of dispositional or personality tracking. Often, well-meaning educators fall into prediction and judgement based on some narrow evidence of performance from a subject area in a given time frame. As Dewey writes:

“The child’s present experience is in no way self-explanatory. It is not final, but transitional. It is nothing complete in itself, but just a sign or index of certain growth tendencies. As long as we confine our gaze to what the child here and now puts forth, we are confused and misled. We cannot read its meaning.” (13)

A growth mindset requires that we hold one another, adults and children alike, as works-in-progress in our learning communities, which demands a tremendous amount of grace on the parts of us all. Ours is not to narrow a child’s experience or to communicate limiting judgments to the child, locking her into what Jo Boaler terms “psychological imprisonment.

Growth mindset at once asks the educator to believe in growth, to recognize degrees, and to remain fluid oneself, not fixating on a single moment in the child’s development as a way to understand, once and for all, who the child is, now and forever. A living curriculum creates a framework for learning in which the teacher can make meaning of performances and behavior to suggest and guide future growth toward ever more useful, powerful knowledge and expertise. In this sense, a curriculum provides an epistemological framework for teachers to build a knowledge of learning founded on growth.

Silly Adults, Assessment is for Kids!

Sometimes, we just want to know, objectively, how things are – their current state of being, general direction, gist, and so on. My kid won’t mix red and tan foods. Every time Junior misses a basket, he screams an obscenity. Can Suzy divide fractions? Stuff is complex. Confusing.

What makes everything clearer is a number; ideally, a number associated with a ranking against peers. A score. A percentile. Normed. Benchmarked. Clear.

And so, there are numerous providers willing to sell us objective measurement and ranking for a fee (and an investment of time). Often, these assessments come bundled with instructional materials to address trouble spots highlighted by the assessment (for an additional fee).

These tests will tell us something, and it is easy to imagine that that something is an objective truth. What is instead true is that the testing industry (and its “personalized” online instruction twin sister) provides nothing of real-time value to teachers that they can’t learn themselves from examining evidence of student learning with colleagues. Add-on tests from outside the learning context dilute instructional program coherence. Which is bad.

So, why do it? Oh, right. We want to know something. We need feedback on learning. We want accountability. And we, for sure, are the adults. 

But assessment is not FOR adults. If assessment is for any adults, it is for the adults doing the instructing, planning, and assessment. Few of those adults are asking for more standardized testing.

So, which adults? Probably politicians, parents, and administrators, in that order.

In a recent (and otherwise blase & forgettable) article in IB World magazine entitled “Big Data, Big Problems?”, Bettina Berendt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Leuven argued that “a normalization of surveillance” is going on “that will ultimately weaken democratic learning and consciousness.” Data of the sort produced by these spurious tests serve economic interests first (of the companies themselves, to start), as Berendt points out, and this reality is frightening both for its implications for society and its effect on kids and teachers.

Berendt argues that big data and algorithms “cause labelling which can negatively effect development,” which is spot-on. Why? “They create an atmosphere where students and teachers feel under surveillance, where they feel under pressure to perform all the time. Traditionally, learning environments have a protected and safe nature. This absence of fear and competitive pressure, at least in phases, is really crucial for learning.”


Assessment for adults creates a false sense of security, of managing learning and the learning environment, or perhaps comfort in the selection of a school that works. Instead, especially when wed to an ecosystem of online gradebooks and invasive “learning management systems” that report to parents on a daily (or immediate) basis like Google Classroom, schools erect a surveillance system that produces social pressure and stress that runs counter to the mindset and culture demanded for optimal learning.

Then the educators probably tweet something pithy about the value of failure. Guilty as charged right here.

Assessment for kids provides feedback on learning – holistically or against specific benchmarks – and prioritizes growth. Assessment for adults seeks to control somebody. Educator should reject totalitarian education, no matter how well intended it seems.

As schools seek answers in the complex world, adopting easy tools that fill a need to know, or to appear good, or to measure what is knowable through far more valid means, we should, to paraphrase Albert Schweitzer, spare a moment’s thought for the suffering of children which we spare ourselves the sight in the process.


Rethinking Passion Projects, Genius Hour

At some grade levels in our school, students are offered time to pursue passion projects in “genius hour” flexible time, often quite generous chunks of time over a number of weeks. Often, this time is presented as preparing kids for self-guided inquiry or the like. Several years ago, at ASB Unplugged, students gave inspiring TED-ish talks about the fruits of genius hour labor in a high school math class, including a smart trash can that separated recyclables from garbage, as I remember. The creativity and service embodied by such projects were awe-inspiring.

By the same token, I once heard a description from a parent of her student’s passion project focused on perfecting the bacon weave. When I delivered the graduation address for my cohort at Western New Mexico University’s Gallup Graduate Studies Center, I spoke eloquently (gorgeously, even?) about my drive to perfect an omelette, so far be it for me to critique this student’s passion. My speech about making an omelette made the point that it doesn’t really matter what we learn to do (within reason), but that we keep learning. In this vein, weave your bacon.

In another vein, school provides a time and place for more focused learning, and decisions are made, ideally by children and adults, about what to learn, when, and for how long. Passion projects implicitly teach that following our passions is a highest purpose, but that feels pretty wrong, fairly narcissistic. Maybe, we should teach something else instead. In fact, one needn’t search long before finding quite strong evidence that perceived success and well-being arises from a sense of being needed and useful to others. Indeed, the folks at 80,000 Hours suggest “you can develop passion by doing work that you find enjoyable and meaningful. The key is to get good at something that helps other people.”

That’s been my impulse for decades, and it’s nice to see it spelled out so succinctly. My confirmation bias is assuaged.

What, then, might a genius hour look like with young kids who, for the most part, have yet to develop professional-level competency in any areas from which others might benefit? How about a “Strengths for Service” hour? Kids could consider what they do well, thinking liberally and creatively about their strengths. Next, a crash course in design thinking like this one from Stanford University’s could equip students with tools they can use to learn something real about people, places, or situations.

If kids used their Strengths for Service time to engage intentionally with their world, they may well find passions beyond football or creative meats that could begin making a difference today. The minor tweak to genius hour here is an outward focus, seeking to do well for others in a way the others need or want. Serving the needs or desires of others is as much altruism as entrepreneurialism, so this seems like a way to develop skills for life.

On Innovation vs. Regeneration

Innovation – we want some. Let’s do the new stuff, re-envisioning the old to make something better! I saw a graphical version of this blog post recently, an argument centered on torquing Dweck’s “growth” vs. “fixed” or (my preference) “entity” mindset concepts past their core purpose in order to “go beyond” to an innovator’s mindset. This argument means well, but sort of misses Dweck (imo) and focuses on an implicit value in new! shiny! that has some flaws.

From Juicero’s failed $400 juicer (expensive juice packets not included) to this little gem that popped up this week in my feed – Teamosa (#innovationnamingconventions) – a $399 tea kettle (early bird just $239!!!) that uses “ultrasonic extraction” to amp up antioxidant… oh, never mind, you get it: Innovation is often underwhelming and focused on selling us something we already have at a new, improved, higher price.

Recently, I worked with a colleague to refine an existing rubric for an essay to include specifics about the modes of exposition and rhetorical strategies that students would be expected to use. I realized that this process of reworking the rubric, refining for specificity and clarity of outcomes, was an inquiry for the teacher himself. We were digging into what good looks like on this sort of essay in response to a specific unit of inquiry into text and personal beliefs. We discussed lining up exemplars, as well, to really nail down the rubric and expose the expectations for the assessment.

None of this was new, really. But it was better. Better for student learning, better for teacher learning, so therefore better for instruction, better for assessment. By engaging in a process of regeneration, we built together on the good that existed in this rubric and this unit of study, standing on the shoulder of giants like Grant Wiggins in the process. I don’t think this is innovation, because we’ve got nothing to sell to anyone at the end of the process, and we aren’t done at the end of the process. We reflect, refine, and start again at the beginning of the process, which is a lousy product and a precious learning experience.

Regeneration guides authentic teacher learning by doing and, ideally, inquiry into learning evidence. Just as schools teach content – so out of fashion – like texts or mitosis or Reconstruction, schools teach teachers how to best guide learning through working on the work, regenerating and refining what is already good to be better. Just as students can’t think deeply without rich, relevant facts and content to dig into, neither can teachers build ever more effective skills, practices, strategies, approaches, skills, or theories on what’s best in all of the above without something real to work on and improve.

Innovation can look like anything, really, and can certainly be good, at least for a while. One of my mentors, the inimitable Julie Horowitz, told me once that kids are not experiments, which is right. We needn’t be stuck repeating the follies of old to play it safe, though, but should lean on expert teachers and well-founded evidence of what works. Teachers, like students, need the “more knowledgeable other” of Vygostky to guide their continued growth as practitioners across the multiple axes of good teaching. Happily, that can be anyone with expertise and care enough to share – that degree of “more” knowledge or skill in a given area.

Regeneration honors what is good and old – Dewey, dialogue, Duvel – by re-conceptualizing, reinvigorating what works in order to know and be able to do it. Students coming to a deep conceptual understanding of how and why the quadratic equation works aren’t inventing anything, but are at once learning real content and becoming experts in the process of gaining expertise itself – the learning process. Teachers inquiring into their work and refining it to become demonstrably more useful for students in the process of learning themselves are learning by regenerating.


Innovation Kickoff!

Today, in fact right now, our Upper School faculty are engaged in the classic Marshmallow Challenge to kick off a year of innovation. The always-modeling-best-practices Elizabeth Wargo (@wargoelizabeth on Twitter) organized this mini-project to get people moving in the morning, excited about the day, and working together from the get-go. // I was tasked with using hashtags and social media, as well as WordPress blogging to later share as a PBL option for archiving and sharing. I used #zispbl and #marshmallowchallenge through Instagram linked to my Twitter account, adding in Twitter usernames of colleagues featured in photos and videos.

What do I love about this? As mentioned above, modeling best practices. This is a kick off, and will lead into a Speed Geeking session in which we share the various methods in which faculty recorded, archived, and shared this session. Perhaps obviously, this is an initial reflection – time has just been called! People are very into their towers. Jason Welker (@jasonwelker on Twitter) is measuring the towers, logging group numbers, tower heights, and time to completion into a Google form to track and graph data. Alison Callaghan has photos and notes in Microsoft OneNote, Geoff Peake has video and photos, Christine Jordan has audio going onto SoundCloud via her phone.  All are options, depending on the desired outcome, and can be mixed and matched.

Liz Wargo also retweeted one of my videos, sharing with Suzie Boss, PBL expert and all around great person who will be joining us in October for 10 days of workshopping on PBL. The same tweet was retweeted by an #edtech robot because I slapped that common hashtag on one video, which is an interesting example of how hashtags work, extending the conversation and aggregating information. Additionally, Carmen Crenshaw-Hovey, one of our do-it-all folks around the Upper School, liked and commented on my Instagram posts. Once again, social media has the potential to share learning experiences in ways we may not anticipate and to involve more of the community beyond the classroom.

Liz is debriefing now and launching into the rest of the day while linking to our summer reading, Bringing Innovation to Schools by the aforementioned Suzie Boss. Now break, then Speed Geeking. Soon, I will share this post with colleagues and discuss how blogging for reflection and blog-as-digital portfolio for archiving might work for teachers and students. One final learning piece for me: if a Twitter username is used in Instagram posts shared to Twitter, those posts drop the @ and are not usable in Twitter. Weird. Play nicely!

Ok. For now, The End…



Reconstructing Legacy: A Visit to a “Steve Jobs School” in Sneek, Netherlands


Maurice de Hond gets attention – in conversation, at a dinner table, and in national and international media. After a few minutes in de Hond’s company, the forces of both his personality and intellect assert themselves.

Steve Jobs School, Sneek
Steve Jobs School, Sneek

No wonder then that de Hond has taken on nothing short of the structure of public education in the Netherlands as a project in founding “Steve Jobs Schools” throughout his country.

Steve Jobs Schools have ambitious plans to change the structure of the school day and year, allowing students to meet required curricular outcomes via virtual school spaces, apps, and coaching from a team of teachers in and out of school. Currently, the schools must adhere to Dutch regulations requiring a uniform length for the school day,  but they have been able to consider 10% of the school year “virtual”, according to de Hond, ostensibly reducing the amount of time students are required to attend school in person.

We visited one of several Steve Jobs schools operating since August, 2013. A full day trip, a group of international school teachers traveled from Amsterdam to Sneek by bus, regaled with Dutch history and geography, and informed about the history of this project by de Hond as we went.

Kids still work in analog at the Steve Jobs School
Kids still work in analog at the Steve Jobs School

Once we arrived at the school in Sneek, a small, nicely designed school in what appeared to be an economically diverse area, we were free to wander and speak with anyone we wished. I witnessed lots of normal behavior for any school: students read books, filled out worksheets, had conversations, played on and off the iPad, got shushed by teachers, got coached by teachers, and gawked a bit at their visitors.

I also saw plenty that was interesting. Students have an individualized learning plan with goals created by the teacher, parent, and student working in concert. Students learn language, math, and science in classrooms during 20 minute blocks, then retire to a central common area to work. In these classrooms, kids of all ages appear to be learning together. Students come and go independently, reminded by their iPad’s calendar when to move. This was all pretty impressive.

In the common room, the teacher in charge worked with two assistants to keep kids on task and to help out when needed. This teacher reported enjoying his new job a great deal, stating that it was both more fun and fulfilling than his prior position because he could help each student individually via their “Learning Talks” and goal setting.

Rainy day recess turned into a little Despicable Me viewing.
Rainy day recess turned into a little Despicable Me viewing, which gave me pause.

Clearly, the Steve Jobs Schools are a response to the current lockstep curriculum of the Netherlands, in which inspectors enter a certain class on a certain day, expecting to see everyone working on the same page of the same book. EDIT: Maurice de Hond shared via email that these inspections are less rigid than I described here, stating that ” of course the tests are forcing many in a rigid system.” As an option to what could be a stifling academic environment for some learners, de Hond’s project makes good sense.

But these schools are fledglings, with a palpable sense of running on enthusiasm inherent to such a new, attention-grabbing enterprise. Teachers are working long hours compared to their previous jobs, and the personalization level they hope to reach is not currently in operation – eventually, they plan to have each child’s iPad set up around her goals. Currently, the set-up is the same for all the kids. Ever greater personalization will lead to more hours, I imagine, particularly if the school is responsible for organizing such a set-up, rather than transferring responsibility to the child.

Additionally, succumbing to the fantasy that being busy is the same thing as learning can be intoxicating, at least as alluring as the classic teacher fantasy of controlling learning. Watching a child swipe randomly minute after minute across number and mathematical operator symbols to arrive at an answer was unnerving. I saw many abacus apps, and a good deal of app jumping. However, I also saw kids using blocks and good old analog manipulatives, sand tables and books. In this quick, drop-in tour, my biggest take-away was that this was a school, working like a school, with a good deal of learning and some healthy mucking about taking place simultaneously.

11th Century Learning.
11th 17th Century Learning. Thanks to Maurice for the correction!

At lunch following the visit and on the ride home, de Hond shared his vision of education freely and his hopes for his organization, O4NT (Education for a New Era). We visited the Sneek school because it is currently the most compete realization of the organization’s vision for Steve Jobs Schools, but a handful of others exist, employing recommended strategies to varying degrees. De Hond didn’t express an interest to force schools to conform to a standardized approach, but he can see a time in the future when some adherence to basic norms – once more well-established than they are now – is necessary.

I went into the Steve Jobs Schools fairly skeptical of what I might see – personalization as a playlist of worksheets or more old things done in new ways. However, this iteration of Dutch schooling as an innovation on the past and on existing regulations has potential to offer variety for students turned off by traditional schooling.

Future challenges exist. Is this model exciting enough to help teachers and students maintain their energy and enthusiasm long term? Can O4NT keep personalization and community relevance at the fore while demanding some sort of brand standardization for Steve Jobs Schools, or will this lead to stronger echoes of the existing system of education? Once finely-tuned, what relationship will the O4NT suite of virtual school apps have with Steve Jobs Schools, and to what degree will such apps drive educational, curricular, or pedagogical decision making?

New approaches in education are few and far between, with much that is new or reform-minded providing little more than a fresh glaze over last century’s progressive-isms (many of which featured great ideas). De Hond and his Steve Jobs Schools are executing some thoughtful concepts and forging a clearly welcome path through the community of Sneek, engaging kids in the process. And de Hond seems to bring enough energy to the project to keep it steaming along for some time.

The Tale of My Blankie – from “Gears of My Childhood”

For whatever reason new, first time parents make decisions that seem, in retrospect, hilarious, my parents bought for me a white baby blanket, waffle fabric like old fashioned long underwear with a synthetic silken border. A melange of vomit and other bodily fluids, dirt, foodstuffs of all kinds, pet hair, and Play Dough slowly, almost generationally melded into a gray Earth tone no bleach could penetrate. White was their choice, but experience turned the blanket into the color of a November Ohio sky.

I have no actual memory of the synthetic silken portion of the blanket. According to my parents, I immediately set about tearing it off, so the frayed, soft edges of cotton are what I recall. I’m not surprised I hated the snaggy, slick feel of polyester silk; I hate synthetic fabrics still. Once altered and mine, the blanket became a constant companion and the basis of a narrative that still shapes not only how I learn, but how I interact with the world.

Somehow, the blanket became wedded to an imaginary, invisible friend named “Ghost.” Today, I can see that Ghost allowed me to weaves stories through my daily activities, processing in words and imagining worlds within worlds. When I first read Seymour Papert’s “Gears of My Childhood” essay introducing Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, I thought “Oh, it’s books for me.” Books and stories have been at the center of my life for as long as I can remember, but of course the stories came first – those read to me and invented by me.

Even today, watching my 4 1/2 year old daughter spin stories of play and possibility, I see the power of narrative to hammer experience into something comprehensible. In learning anything, I try, observe, reflect, and revise reflexively. Experience teaches, and narrative contextualizes the teaching intellectually and emotionally, in the way that we feel stories.

As I grew older, the blanket and I curled up on heating grates, couches, into corners, and in bed, endlessly reading. I read early, and continued reading. I’ve never really stopped. Growing up soaked in fiction led to an internalizing of narrative structures, and for better or worse, I recognize narratives unfurling in the world around me as a result. I explain ideas through stories. I see the inner narratives of people around me and their effects. I write stories. I am insufferable at the movies, often identifying the entire plot arc before the ice melts in my Coke and usually explaining my prediction to the groans of my wife.

Like Papert explains in his essay, the affective nature of narratives for me is anchoring and positive. Like Papert, nobody told me to read or love reading; in fact, people often begged me to stop or read less. When I write, I disappear somehow, absorbed. I still love imagining worlds, people, situations, reactions, causes and effects. The love that I have for narratives is engrossing. When I can build a narrative around an experience or through an experience of classroom learning, I succeed. When I can’t, I fail.

Through history, biological sciences, and some mathematics, I connected and made relationships with the subject matter, internalizing, revising, and building interpersonal narratives. When this process failed or was broken for me by teachers, I disconnected from the material intellectually and emotionally.

Beyond school and more importantly for my life today, my early experiences in the outdoors were regular and intense, leading to a very close relationship with the natural world. When I get to choose my leisure activities, they are outdoors or creative, like photography. Through these activities, I dream stories. I sit at night, quietly imagining the next time I run a rapid or snowboard through a tightly wooded glade, visualizing. Outside, I relax and my mind whirs through stories. Inside, like Wordsworth and his daffodils, I often drift off to a Colorado mountainside or a Slovenian river.

So why a blanket? Attachment to a material object is an attachment to memory, and my memory is story, image, and a marriage of the two. Imagining a friend based somehow on the blanket is my earliest memory of making stories, constructing narratives. The stories we tell ourselves are the foundation of our identity. I process the world through stories and conceptualize of complex relationships between ideas, objects, and people as narratives. Further, I see narratives in my mind’s eye, experiencing them, feeling them. The blanket is the genetic object behind my relationship to narratives.

Papert claims “Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models. If you can’t, anything can be painfully difficult.” My experience as a teacher and a learner supports this claim. I feel lucky to have a diverse and useful set of mental models for learning, but each gets processed reflectively through an internal narrative. From my earliest important material object to my career as an English teacher building literacy and writing skills with children, roots from this genesis of learning through narratives spread broadly, connecting it all into a (mostly) coherent whole.

Badges for Student Choice – Not Revolutionary (Yet), But Positive

One informed risk I’ve taken this year is the introduction of badges in my AP Literature and Composition classes. After a semester,  the reviews are positive – many students appreciated the opportunity to branch out and try something a bit different.

These badges replaced an outside reading requirement and allowed for student choice of both material and assessment type, something difficult to accomplish in an externally moderated course like the AP or IB. While the badges may not have provided whee-fun! responses per se, the respect afforded by choice improved the classroom environment in what can sometimes be a bit of a slog through content and repetitive writing types.

Less than five students chose to read outside of class for their badge. Far and away the most popular badge was the Internet Enlightenment badge, and it led to great discussions with students about their social media presences. As an “edtech” wonk, the depth and breadth of these conversations was surprising; I couldn’t predict student responses. Kids obviously chose this badge for its ease, which is perfect, because it made them change their behavior online, or at least change their privacy settings.

One concept that repeated through the conversations was the idea of “parking” social media personas for later use in life. If a kid isn’t using Google+ today, she sees that she may in two years, so she wants to keep that space “clean.” Pretty informative perspective, really. Spaces like Facebook are useful in the same way that my daughters’ playroom is useful for containing the mess in our flat, but the girls will outgrow this space someday.

The coolest badge was clearly the Starving Artist. I received beautiful digital art from a student on one of my favorite novels, Siddartha by Herman Hesse. Students made paintings and drawings based on all sorts of novels, including Kafka on the Shore, which impressed me. One student even made a dress of white chiffon with a belt made of real chains spray-painted gold on the basis of her outstanding reading of “The Lady of Shallott” by Tennyson. This young lady arranged a model and blew my mind with the rigor and specificity of her analytic argument, connecting throughout to the text specifically. Her rationale is a stellar example of literary argument.

While she wasn’t happy with the final result of the dress, she made it, and it was cool. Additionally, she reflected specifically on what she would do differently next time. All of this made my day, but it’s the display of fine literary argumentation produced through the pursuit of the badge that makes me so happy. Self-selected, this assignment rang true and captured the student, leading to excellent, meaningful practice. This didn’t happen for every student, but it will in other assessment contexts. When it happens once, I’m stoked.

Other students extended the classroom into other directions, resulting in learning that I value, and that many of them valued. If the badges doesn’t advance toward our AP Lit goals, I’m okay with that. In terms of the partially successful requirement that these badges replaced, I’m happier with the greater proportion of success created by the badges so far.



Student Centered Grading

This is a work in progress, building off of my work over the past eight years with students writing rubrics for performance tasks, but I’m examining student-set goals and measurement of progress this year in my Digital Journalism 2 course. So far, these kids have done incredible work in the first six weeks of school. Together, the students have made inroads into a variety of social media – check out Instagram #zispeaceday – and published a vastly improved, though still quite flawed, student newspaper. In a small class of seven, each is following individual interests, asking me questions I’ve never heard in 12 years of teaching English: Hey, Mr. Hoke, I was thinking of writing a piece on mobile phone use in school. Is that okay? Is it okay to write? 


Of course, we’ve created rubrics for features, but there’s other stuff: managing social media arms, formulating marketing campaigns, managing peers, publishing photo essays. This week we’ll sit down individually, and students will share what they want to be graded on, and how. I already know they’re learning and that they are making improvements to the products they are creating, but we need to make the learning transparent via their blog-based portfolios and get some reflection going, leading to future goal setting. However, I want the students to feel flexible, able to respond to needs as they arrive, which makes goal setting a tricky prospect. As long as time frames are loose, this should be no big deal.

We’ll see. I’m sure there’s plenty I can’t anticipate right now, but I’m not cynical about the possibilities. This won’t get gamed because the students care about the product, the outcomes. I will have to push them toward professional-quality work by sharing models found online, but together I hope we can spiral up toward better and better products sensibly.