Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Teacher's Place in the Radically Creative Classroom

What would a truly creative classroom look like? I don't mean what would a classroom with more colorful posters or student-made art look like. I mean a classroom where students create useful projects and learn from their successes and failures.

Reading an article on the creation of the game The Oregon Trail (the link to which I cannot find...), I couldn't help but think of the Digital Aristotle. Basically, there is so much content available online, there is no reason an open source system cannot be made that combines all the world's educational resources together, creating lessons and assessments that adapt to the particular student. Think of the way Google knows your searches by the second word and apply that kind of personalized adaptation to education. Think of Kahn Academy mixed with a digital, personalized tutor that assesses you at just the right time and gives you immediate feedback.
reminded me the idea for the

But as the video linked above makes clear, there will be many fewer teachers in the radically creative classroom. What exactly will be the job of a teacher should this Digital Aristotle come to pass? Enter the analog Socrates.

Long philosophical digression short, in Meno, Socrates demonstrates that knowledge is already inside the soul of the learner when he elicits a geometrical truth from a slave boy with no prior mathematical training. And here's my idea: if the digital Aristotle--think Skynet powering a digital-textbook-iPad--allows access to the world's knowledge, the teacher's job is to pull from the student--elicit--the skills and self knowledge that one needs to complete a project.

What might this look like? What if a student used a generic template that started form the end, what the student wanted to create. It could be a video documentary of how a dog's smelling works, what cosmetics are made of, or a song, or a small app for their mobile phone, or plan a dinner/charity event, whatever floats their boat! Then they would work backwards and find out what skills they will need to use, what knowledge they need to know, likely sources for research, and a checklist/timeline to keep on track. Basically, the student would take over the traditional duties of the teacher-as-curriculum-planner.

With some obvious assumptions out of the way, including developmentally appropriate goals, an adequate budget, appropriate supplies, and significant scaffolding of motivation, this method of project-based-learning would meld well with the Digital Aristotle. The teacher's job would become less (pardon the cliches) sage-on-the-stage and more guide-on-the-side. Like Socrates, the teacher would become an expert in eliciting from the student the knowledge and motivation needed to carry out the project. Questions for eliciting might include:

  • How will you accomplish this particular goal/milestone?
  • What sources of information will best suit your current research?
  • What hurdles can you anticipate?
  • How do you know that this is challenging enough to promote real learning? Not too challenging to make you want to give up?
  • Why is this a worthwhile project?
  • What larger goals or plans does the project fit into? 
  • How does this improve the lives of the people around you?


Where is the place of the teacher in the project-based-curriculum? Maybe it's more that of coach, counselor, and philosopher. The teacher has to provide timely feedback, know a bit of human psychology (especially developmental progress and motivation) and has to be an expert in asking the right questions at the right time--and then getting out of the way and letting the student take over when ready. Like the NYC programmer who taught a homeless man to write code, in the project-based class, the student and his or her goals are paramount. The student has to be given choice, resources, guidance, and the expertise of someone who can guide them. But the student, like in the example above, has to do the heavy lifting.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Why Smart People End Up in the Same Frustrating Loops (part 2)

"You always cut me off when I'm speaking," Jack yells.
"Well, if you'd get to the point, I wouldn't be able to," Jill yells back.
"How can I when you never listen?'
"I never listen? I never listen?

 The dialogue above may sound familiar. Jack and Jill are both smart, successful, motivated adults in a serious relationship. But they frequently seem to be stuck in arguments like the above. In the last post, we looked at the reasons smart people often end up in the same cyclical problems. Why do smart people play out dumb problems?

To recap, smart people are excellent at navigating external variables, checklists, systems with clear objectives and feedback. But in more ambiguous problems, smart people often become victim of their own success by not evaluating the larger picture--the larger objective of the project--and their place in creating additional stress/complications. And because smart people are often very driven to success, the threat of failure prompts them to search for people and circumstances to blame, robbing them of the chance to take part in some of the most powerful learning.

But moving forward, how can an individual move beyond the cycle of problem, failure avoidance, frustration (the saga of Jack and Jill, for instance)? Argyris suggests applying the tools of strategic analysis. The process:

1. Define the problem/desired outcome
2. Collect valid data;
3. Careful analysis
4. Test inferences (educated guesses) and conclusions.

In other words, instead of the defensive witch hunt after realizing there is a problem, the individual pauses and defines the problem and the preferred outcome, parses the situation to find important details, carefully selects the most relevant data and discover which information is most important to explain the problem, and, finally, asks questions of how things could have been different or alternative solutions/responses. These alternative responses are tested against the data to see if the  conclusions hold up.

How might this look when applied to an interpersonal relationship? Back to Jack and Jill's argument:

As Jack's voice is raising in ever higher decibels, Jill, in a moment of frustration can;t take it anymore, realizing they have had this type of argument before. She curtly excuses herself, huffing and indignant. A few minutes later, however, she's calmed down. Jack, robbed of his sparring partner, calms as well. When they come back together, Jill asks if they can talk about what happened, not to rehash, but to find what went wrong so as to avoid this type of miscommunication in the future.

How they could apply the steps of strategic analysis to this cycle of argument:
1. Both participants would need to agree that the larger goal is that their relationship flow smoothly and that they would like to fight less. The goal is to prevent fighting, not to find the culprit.
2. To find relevant details, they have to both agree that they will talk about what made them most angry, when they went off the rails, but to not let that feeling reanimate so as to take over the conversation again.
3. Each would have to calmly ask of themselves and the other what responses particular statements caused in the other. Here, each partner will need to be reminded that this process can only work with calm, honest interaction. And each partner must be willing to listen without anger, pity, or other destructive responses.

Possible questions for this phase:
What if I had said this instead?
What would have been another way to approach that point?
I was trying to communicate X, but I'm not sure the point got across; how could I have said that to best get the point across?
How can I best identify--or ask you later--what you really want?

By defining the problem, looking for the triggers, asking honest questions, and exploring alternatives with the goal of preventing future problems, the individuals arrest the cycle. Through calm reflection, they are also drawn closer, and by admitting their own culpability in the miscommunication, they are learning.

Two final thoughts:

Though this strategic analysis cannot necessarily save your relationship, or a fragile ego, it can save your relationship and yourself from repeating the same dumb mistakes over and over again.

And, as Christina H. at Cracked put it:


... there's not such a clean division between "the smart" and "the dumb," since intelligence is so multidimensional. There's a more obvious division between people who can look at their own flaws and people who can only look at others'. Ironically, the latter group, whether smart or dumb to begin with, are never going to get any smarter.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why Smart People End Up in the Same Frustrating Loops

What can a thermostat tell you about your relationships and your projects and to-do list and why they sometimes spiral into the same lame problem cycles over and over (and over!) again?

Teaching Smart People, by Chris Argyris, written for managers in large commercial organizations sheds some light on how the participants in any project or relationship focus enormous amounts of energy in blaming, leaving unexamined their own culpability in creating problems. Consequently, they do not learn from their mistakes, even though failure is probably the best teacher of all. And the real surprise: it's the "smartest" people with the hardest time learning.

Why are the swiftest minds the most hard headed? Two reasons: First, being smart--and specifically successful--these people are great at navigating what Argyris calls "single loop" problems. Like a thermostat which kicks on the heat when the temperature gets below 68 degrees, these people can easily navigate well-defined external variables. In fact, it's this ability which makes them successful in the eyes of the larger world. (Get good grades. Navigate an interview. Satisfy clients and complete contracts. Check, check, and check.) However, when it comes to more complicated problems--"double loop" situations--these  successful people become stuck. They don't respond to more complex problems with the proper amount of sophistication: they don't ask questions beyond the scope of the task at hand, don't reexamine the larger goals and procedures involved in successfully completing these more complicated projects, and--especially--their part in producing the problem at hand.

The second reason is purely psychological: being smart and successful, these individuals hate to be wrong. Their fear of failure and embarrassment in particular causes them to find outside factors to blame when things go wrong. Instead of looking at their place in contributing to the problem--which is to admit some degree of culpability--they embark on a witch hunt, with all the nasty emotional and relationship-damaging results that come with blame seeking.

These two factors, not examining the larger goal of a project/relationship and one's place in it, and the defensive hunt for blame, help explain why smart people in particular .often stink at learning from their mistakes. And though Argyris created this framework for organizational and managerial decisions, it has much to say about interpersonal relationships and personal projects which often lead to frustration.

Have you ever been involved in either of the following situation? You set up a worthwhile personal goal, perhaps learning French, losing weight, cleaning out the garage. And being a smart person, you break it down into manageable bites and you start hacking away. For a while you maintain your goal. But a week or two later you are angry and embarrassed with yourself when you try to respond with a verb you meant to study and can't remember, or you step on the scale, or see the garage is now overflowing with junk?  

How about this scenario: You are in the middle of a heated argument with your partner, friend, or family member, and you realize you have been here before. And you're angry and distressed. Not sure about this one? A sure sign is you used phrases like "you always" or "you never."

Another of the author's coinages, "the "doom zoom" and "doom loop" are particularly relevant to interpersonal relationships and help explain why our failures become so emotionally distressing. The consultants he interviewed said that when projects went awry, they would enter a doom loop and fall into a mood of deep despair over the failure or the lack of positive feedback from their manager. And this process was not slow; it was a zoom--rapid, violent, and destructive. And here’s another kicker: learning—in other words, changing your responses to these situations—is often seen as a motivational issue. In your heart you know it’s your fault for not being motivated enough but outwardly you seek for the usual suspects to blame. Neither of these responses is effective at teaching you how to avoid these types of problems in the future.


What is the solution to the doom loop/zoom and repeating these same cycles? Argyris says that it’s basically the same as how a business conducts a “strategic” analysis, which we’ll walk through next post.

My annotation for this article is available here.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Thoughts on An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy by John Mansley Robinson

Is reality unchanging or constant change? Can all the things in our world be reduced to some single atomic substance? Is time an illusion? What can our beliefs on the physical world tell us about how to live our lives?

John Mansley Robinson's An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy tracks through four sections how Greek thought at the moment that natural explanations of the world begin to replace the influence of the gods and before Plato would write responses that would reverberate for millennia.


An attempt at a brief synopsis, risking, of course, gross oversimplification:

Beginning the book and part one, Hesiod explains the origins of the gods and the universe, demonstrating a belief that the universe indeed has an origin--an assumption often overlooked (2).
Anaximander finds that the infinite at one point separated out from the finite, and from there into separate elements. Natural events begin to have reasonable explanations.
Anaximenes finds that the infinite is air, the beginning of seeing the universe as made up of a single substance that itself exists in the universe.
Pythagoras introduces an obsession with mathematics while also finding that men and animals are biologically similar and belong to a single web of life. He also formulates an idea of the immortal soul.

In part two, the question of change comes to the forefront.
Heraclitus famously remarks that one cannot enter the same stream twice, as it changes moment to moment. He rejects traditional religion and finds that wisdom is simply understanding all as flux.
Parmenides takes the exact ppiste route as Hereclitus and finds that all is infact changeless. If the universe is unified, it must be one, indistinguishable, and indivisible.

Part three tackles the attempts at solving the problems posed by Hereclitus and Parmenedis.
Anaxagoras finds that all things must in fact be in all other things. So, for instance, particles of blood are in all other matter. In what we call blood in our everyday lives, the blood particles exist in a much higher ratio. The same is true for any basic substance. (Like corn!)
 Democritus explains that there is a nothing or void, and it is what separates his "atoms" or smallest, indivisible particles.
The developments in natural explanations lead to a plethora of suggestions on how men should love their lives--ways that contradict the conservative Greek religious values. Inquiry becomes paramount and balance and moderation. The body, mind, and city should reflect the balance of nature that keeps the world in existence.

Finally, part four explores the ramifications of all these thoughts on parochial, patriarchal Greek society. Plato's punching bags, the sophists, appear here to exclaim that man is the measure of all things and that they can teach men--for a price--how to persuade public opinion. Here are the first mentions of moral relativism. What is best and highest is natural law, and survival is natural law. Thus, what allows the
individual and the city to survive is what one should study. Might, for the Sophists, makes right.

The last chapter of the book concerns the response of Plato. By finding the nature of nature itself, he is able to give a moral philosophy that counters the sophists and points to what he calls "the good."

In the next few posts, I'll try to outline in more detail each section.