Where Should We Be Putting Our Armor?

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 12.52.32 PMI was recently reading a piece from Fast Company about the mathematician Abraham Wald.  In the article, it explains how Wald was hired by the Navy during WWII to help them figure out where planes needed more armor to avoid being shot down. Prior to Wald, many people thought that it was the wings, nose and tail which needed the extra armor since that is where the planes showed damage. Wald instead turned this logic around and said that it was precisely the spots where there was no damage that needed to be reinforced. By Wald’s logic, you could not figure out where planes needed armor by looking at the ones that made it back, you needed to account for the ones that didn’t return. In other words, if a plane made it back to be analyzed, those bullet holes only told you the plane could survive being shot there.  The important point here is that Wald showed “the results revealed the opposite of the obvious conclusion.”

This got me thinking about education. Much like the fighter planes of WWII many would argue that modern day education is flawed.  Along these lines, there are no shortage of solutions to fix this problem. But are we jumping to the obvious conclusion? If we think of student achievement as our plane what are we trying to protect it against?

Now you might ask, what do WWII fighter planes have to do with education? Well, if you think about it, WWII fighter planes were a design problem much the same way education is. If you are trying to armor a plane, the simple solution would be to add armor everywhere. The problem with that is that armor is heavy and the plane won’t fly. You need to be selective about where the armor is added so as to create a plane that can both fly and have armor in all of the right places. Much like education, Wald was looking for the weak spots. In education, we ask about the standards, the content, the teaching method and all sorts of other variables that we think will help students succeed. But are we looking in the wrong place? Just as those before Wald were jumping to the obvious conclusion, are we simply looking for a solution based on the ones who have “survived?”

 

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On Writing and the Elephant in the Room

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 8.46.40 PMDuring class this week one of my students voiced a problem that nearly everyone in the class agreed with.

“Blogging is hard and it seems to get harder every week.”

As more voices chimed in and heads began to nod in agreement, it became clear that we needed to have a conversation about writing. In all honesty, I had to agree with the statement even though it is me who gives the assignment. Writing every week is hard and with each successful (or unsuccessful) blog post the pressure begins to mount. Wrote a post you loved last week? Good luck trying to replicate that flow. Hated what you wrote last week? Best of luck trying to shake that feeling that every word you type seems to make less and less sense.

The whole thing with writing and school is that school makes writing seem so easy, so mechanical and so formulaic that when we start to struggle with it, we get worried. What we need to do instead is acknowledge the elephant in the room. Creating writing, good writing, writing that makes you feel and writing which other people want to read is hard. Along with that, there is no easy formula to teach writing. Sure, there are many methods we use to make students fear writing less, be it the 6 traits of writing or the “sandwich method of paragraph writing.” While these methods provide structure they fail to acknowledge that writing is hard, real hard. In fact, the one thing we never talk about in school is the struggle of writing. We read and re-read the classics while analyzing them to death, but never do we stop and ask, “what was the struggle behind this piece.”

Sometimes we get so lost in what we think writing is that we strip it of what it really should be. Peer revision after peer revision often turns what should be an enjoyable process into the duty of crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s. Writing though, much like life, does not happen like this. I was reminded of this over the past week as I read an interview with Jack Kerouac in the Paris Review where he says:

” By not revising what you’ve already written you simply give the reader the actual workings of your mind during the writing itself: you confess your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way … Well, look, did you ever hear a guy telling a long wild tale to a bunch of men in a bar and all are listening and smiling, did you ever hear that guy stop to revise himself, go back to a previous sentence to improve it, to defray its rhythmic thought impact. …”

As I thought about the comments my students made on Monday and read over this quote it all started to come together. Writing is hard, really hard, and part of that struggle comes from the way schools teach writing. When we try to take an experience and mash it into 5 neat paragraphs, or we crush the original intent of our thoughts with endless revision, the act of writing becomes a chore. As well, when we fail to acknowledge the anxiety and struggle that often precedes good writing we do students a disservice.

So what’s the solution? I wish I had the answer, but after thinking it over here is what I am going to try. I am going to do my best to honor the struggle, talk about it and give it a place in the classroom. While we will still read great writing, we are also going to read writers who talk about their writing (the interviews on the Paris Review are a great place to start) and others who think about writing in different ways. Also, while we still take time to revise and go over writing, I want to encourage my students to get their writing out there and heed the advice of Kerouac when he says, “confess your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way.” My hope is that by acknowledging the elephant in the room we can also start to tame it. This may not make writing easy, but it may just make it more fun.

On Being Lost: What a cafe in Brazil taught me about learning

“…the little insight at the end might have had something to do with letting go and with opening oneself up to new possibilities, of seeing the world not as one thing, or one place, that has primary value, but as something of many possibilities, many places, all potentially as illuminating as the next, so that there is in going out into the world not a loss…but a creative transformation of one’s relationship with it.” –From Excursions by Dr. Michael D. Jackson

 

As I approached the counter to order breakfast I was at a loss for words. I knew exactly what I wanted, but I could not express it. The problem was not some mysterious condition, it was merely that I had just landed in Sao Paulo and I had forgotten the few basic phrases of Portuguese I had tried to learn on the plane. As I resorted to pointing, smiling and attempting to turn my Spanish miraculously into Portuguese I had one of those “aha” moments. I was suddenly lost, very lost, and it felt uncomfortable. Without a working cell phone to pull up Google Translate I felt like a child must feel as it first begins to communicate. It was that feeling of knowing what you want, but having no way of expressing it through language. This “lostness” hit me hard and made me reflect on what it means to be a “learner.”

The reason that this feeling hit me so hard was that travel had become comfortable to me after learning a fair amount of Spanish and traveling mostly in Spanish speaking countries.This ease of communication and understanding became my default and it was difficult for me to understand what it was like to feel lost in a foreign country. This was highlighted to me just a few weeks ago when my parents were visiting me in Peru. As I helped them translate menus, communicate with cab drivers, or respond to questions I thought it all seemed so easy.  That was until I was the one standing at the coffee shop in Brazil wondering what in the world I should say. Suddenly, I had a full understanding of what my parents had felt just a short time ago. The point being that when something becomes so second nature to us, we forget that others may struggle with what we consider to be easy. I guess you could call it a lack of empathy for feeling lost.

Feeling lost is not something that we as teachers are supposed to feel (or at least admit to feeling) very often.  Teachers are looked upon as experts, and they should be, but how can being lost help us understand learning from a student perspective? For me, it made me realize how helpless you are when you feel like you do not understand anything. Often times the lessons we lead as teachers are things that we have taught and modified through the years. In our minds, the message is so clear that we fail to see how a student might feel totally confused by a lesson which to us seems second nature. By getting lost in our comfort zone of understanding, we lose both the ability to empathize and deconstruct the ways in which a learner new to the subject might struggle.

So what is the solution? To me, there are two lessons to be had from this. First, get lost. We as teachers need to get lost more often. Whether this means traveling to a new place and having to learn a language or simply reading an article or study that is outside our normal area of expertise. We need to be confused and puzzled more often. Getting lost in new material provides the metacognitive framework to understand how knowledge is constructed and what it feels like to struggle with new information. By watching and observing how we learn, we can then apply this to how we help students learn. Also, when we are forced to struggle, it humbles us and revives the empathy that we should all have towards students. If we could share with our students all of the times we have struggled in a new situation or didn’t know something, it would take us down from the pedestal where students often hold their teachers.  Then we could all relish, rather than avoid, the feeling of being lost.

Second, we need to remember that “lostness” (I just learned that this is, in fact, a word) is just temporary. Just as soon as we think that there is no way we will “get it,” something happens where it all clicks. And sometimes it doesn’t click, but this is alright too. As we explore our way around to “find” ourselves again, we see things in a whole new light. Although I may not be able to have a full on conversation in Portuguese by the end of this week, I am also no longer afraid of what will happen if I don’t know how to say something. This morning, as the cashier and I both smiled at the humor in our exchange, I realized it’s alright to not know. No one is going to judge you because we have all been there. Whether it is taking a plane to a whole new place or studying a new idea for the first time, knowing that you will come out “alive” is a great feeling. When we are comfortable with feeling lost, we are finally free to explore, and that’s when we begin to live.

 

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