Start of School 2018

The New York Times published a terrific Magazine this Sunday on education.  The cover reads: “Teachers just want to teach but the classroom has become a battleground.”  I’m not sure that’s exactly “news” this fall but it is absolutely true.

Two of the articles in particular were worth reading and reflecting on as we start our new school year.  The first, “Can Good Teaching be Taught?” by Sara Mosle, tells the story of a struggling school and its persistent, hard-working first-year principal Cynthia Gunner.  The reporter follows Gunner as she goes classroom-to-classroom to inspire, hold accountable, and assist the teachers in her school.  The answer to the opening question is “of course” but the finding is also that it’s much easier said than done.  It’s hard not to be fired up by the work of this principal and the importance of her efforts.

The second that caught my attention was “Watch What You Say,” about the (former?) Friends Seminary teacher Ben Frisch who made a Hitler joke last school year.  This story, told by Jonathan Mahler, is especially sensitive to Frisch’s position and that of his supporters; the voices of those who initially called for Frisch’s removal — other than that of the Head of School Bo Lauder — are essentially silent.  I wonder if those who initially were so upset about the remarks by Frisch have changed their minds, whether they were reluctant to go on the record at this stage, or whether another reason attaches. The hard over-arching question has to do with how to ensure free expression can thrive in schools while also supporting a diverse group of young learners effectively.

It is just these questions that I sought to address in a book last year, Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education (free, open access edition here.  I won’t second-guess here the decision of another school, where I don’t know all the facts, but acknowledge instead that these cases are never easy for students, teachers, administrators, and families in close-knit school communities.  We do need to get better at figuring out how to resolve them.  I was intrigued by the emphasis in the article on the Quaker process.

Both articles in the NYT Magazine demonstrate the importance of deep, long-form journalism to explore tricky issues in-depth.

Head of School Bookshelf: The Innovators Edition

On October 17, 2014, we are launching the Andover Institute at Phillips Academy.  The Institute will be a hub for innovation at PA, where our students, faculty, and others come together to explore new ideas in teaching and learning at the secondary school level.  The idea is to have a “Bell Labs” here at Andover that will help improve learning on our campus and beyond.  Congratulations to Caroline Nolan, Trish Russell, Eric Roland, and all those who have worked very hard to prepare this new initiative.

Inspired by this upcoming launch, I devote this fall’s Head of School Bookshelf to recent books on innovation and its application to how we learn.  As with previous versions of this list, it’s not meant to be exhaustive, but instead a series of pointers to books I’ve read recently and especially enjoyed.  (On campus, for faculty at PA, I make a stack of copies of each book available outside my office; also, we partner with our friends at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library to make multiple copies available to everyone in the community.  As ever, I encourage trips to your local independent bookstore to buy copies, too!)

We revere innovation.  And today, there’s great promise for innovations in teaching and learning.  But do we really know how it comes about?  These five authors take a crack at explaining how innovation works, from various angles.  Three of the books are about innovation, fairly broadly conceived (Isaacson, Gertner, and Shenk).  The other two are focused on learning and how the brain works (Carey and Brown et al.).

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2014).  There is no one writing today who understands the human side of the technology revolution better than Walter Isaacson (author of the epic, blockbuster Steve Jobs biography and president of the Aspen Institute, among many other accomplishments).  His sweeping history of the digital revolution is packed with insights about how we got to the digital present and who deserves the credit along the way.  For purposes of this list, Isaacson also reveals many lessons about how these innovations took place at such a break-neck speed, which continues unabated today.  To his credit, Isaacson also goes out of his way to unearth untold stories about the female pioneers of the too-often-male-dominated field of information and communications technologies (something I have not done well in assembling this list, I admit).

Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (Penguin, 2012).  Gertner’s book tells a story parallel to Isaacson’s, but its emphasis falls in an earlier era of innovation and on a limited set of actors within a single firm.  Bell Labs is often held out as the best example of industrial research and development in the United States during the 20th century; Gertner helps to make that case plain.  There are many interesting contrasts to Isaacson’s new book: consider how they each treat William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor and winner of the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).  The story of innovation, at least in the case of the digital revolution, has in the past often been reduced to the image of solo inventor in his or her garage, paradigmatically in Silicon Valley.  Shenk takes aim at this truism and highlights the power to be found in creative pairs working together toward breakthrough innovation.  Think Marie and Pierre Curie; Lennon and McCartney; Jobs and Wozniak and you get the idea.  (Not surprisingly, Walter Isaacson wrote one of the blurbs: “We sometimes think of creativity as coming from brilliant loners. In fact, it more often happens when bright people pair up and complement each other.  Shenk’s fascinating book shows how to spark the power of this phenomenon.” I agree.)

Benedict Carey, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens (Random House, 2014).  There is a great outpouring of research about education and how the brain works these days.  Carey, who has covered the topic for many years as a journalist, brings us some of the best of that research.  He is particularly struck by surprising findings about how to make learning more effective.  The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt recently, under the provocative title: “Why Flunking Exams is Actually a Good Thing.”  Carey refers here to the notion that taking an exam at the outset of a course that students are unprepared for can lead to better learning outcomes over the course of a term.  The book brings forward a series of similar findings in compelling ways.

Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Harvard University/Belknap Press, 2014).  In a similar vein, these three authors introduce a whole pile of interesting findings about how the brain works and how learners and teachers can put this science to work day-to-day.  I’ve long been a fan of the work of one of the authors — Roddy Roediger — who has been investigating the powers of frequent testing for the purpose of formative, rather than summative, assessment.  (Basic idea: it’s a good idea to quiz students frequently, to prompt recall and retention, rather than to rely upon heavyweight, high stakes tests at the end of the term or the year.)  This book build out findings of this sort in a highly readable style.  I think parents, students, and teachers all might find this book fun and worthwhile.

Though not formally on the list for this fall, a few other things — an eclectic bunch — from my summer reading that I loved and highly recommend:

Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick (Pantheon, 2012).  I loved this first-person account of an extraordinary life in science.  Mandelbrot’s many breakthrough concepts tended to fall between fields — mathematics, physics, biology, art.  His experience in academia, in and out of university settings and corporate R&D labs, points to the risks inherent in a purely discipline-based view of organizing intellectual inquiry.  Mandelbrot’s mode of innovation is somewhat in contrast to the team-based approach highlighted in the books above.  The New York Times published this review a few years ago, which provides the gist of the book, if you are tempted.  Kudos to Doron Weber at the Sloan Foundation who funded the book’s production.

Robert Darnton, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature (Norton, 2014).  Robert Darnton is one of the foremost historians working today.  He makes stories from the past come alive in extraordinary ways.  In his most recent books, he explores the history of the censor and how he and she has gone about his or her work.  Darnton employs the methodology of a comparative historian (easier said than done, as he points out in his introduction), going deep on three case studies of censorship regimes.  Darnton’s primary cases are Bourbon France; British India; and Communist East Germany.  He frames the entire work in bookends about the current censorship regimes of the Internet era.  (In full disclosure: I co-taught a seminar with Professor Darnton on this topic at Harvard University a few years ago.  I was far more a student than a teacher for that term, which was both a privilege and a wonderful treat.)

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2014).  I devoted several weeks of reading time this summer to Piketty’s huge book, and I’m glad I did.  Throughout the spring, it was hard to avoid the many reviews of Capital and the firestorm of debate it provoked.  I figured I should read it so that I could have an informed view on the debate.  I found myself agreeing much more than disagreeing with Piketty’s careful, serious look at the perils of the growing gap in income and capital assets in wealthy societies.  I am not yet convinced about his primary proposed fix — a global tax on wealth — but, even a few months after finishing the book, I am still trying to work out if I disagree because it’s impractical or because it would in fact be a bad idea for society at large.  We ignore the trends to which Piketty directs our attention at our peril.  (One clear lesson from his impressive volume of research: world wars matter, a lot.)  There’s a terrific Wikipedia entry already about the book.

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Little, Brown, 2013).  Also long, also quite wonderful.  It’s a beautiful story (one of two works of fiction on my list) of a familiar modern tragedy, a lost work of art, and the lives of a few young people growing up mostly on their own.  Worthy of all the attention and awards.  Once every ten years, Ms. Tartt seems to come out with a new book, and I’m always glad to see it.

Ian McEwan, The Children Act (Doubleday, 2014).  As in the case of Donna Tartt, I find myself reading everything McEwan writes as soon as it comes out, which I suppose I should admit before going further.  The Children Act, also a work of fiction, proved to be timely: it explores the journey that adolescents must travel with respect to their faith, something that we are discussing at great length at Phillips Academy.  The book touches on many other themes (the role and limits of the law; aging; sex and relationships), but the exploration of faith and its connection to life and death stood out for me.

Zephyr Teachout, Corruption in America (Harvard University Press, 2014).  Zephyr Teachout — a law professor and activist I much admire — just ran a spirited and important campaign for Governor of New York.  Though she came up short in the primary, she attracted enormous attention and raised central issues of institutional corruption in her run against incumbent Andrew Cuomo.  Her book echoes, and builds out, the themes she developed with such skill and resonance during the campaign.  One tiny excerpt: “I am trying to bring corruption back. Not as a societal ill.  As you have read, we have enough of that already.  But as an idea, something we fight and worry about.”  That’s how she starts Chapter 16, “The Anticorruption Principle,” p. 276.  One of the blurbs is from Lawrence Lessig, whose Republic, Lost is a crucial text in much the same spirit: “Teachout’s beautifully written and powerful book exposes a simple but profound error at the core of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision.  The originalists on the Court forgot their history.  This is that history — and eventually it will provide the basis for reversing the Court’s critical error.”  I’m thinking hard about how to introduce this concept and text into my History 300 course this year, US History for Andover students.

I hope one or more of these books might appeal.  (As an aside: as I reflect on this list, I note the several great books published recently by Harvard University Press — bravo!)

P.S.: Pointers to a couple of previous lists in the Head of School Bookshelf: Adolescence, Technology and Sexuality and a set geared toward Secondary School Teachers interested in Learning and Technology.

The Web at 25: Looking Ahead to What Might Be

The Web turns 25 years old this year. What has changed since Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at CERN in Switzerland, released this gift to the world in 1989? The easier question to answer might be to ask what hasn’t changed. The widespread use of the Web in communities all around the world has touched virtually every aspect of human existence, mostly for good and sometimes for ill. The way that we operate our businesses, the functioning of our democracies, how we relate to other human beings – fundamental aspects of society and welfare are different than they were a quarter-century ago for those people who have access to the Web. To create an exhaustive list of these changes would be nearly impossible – a testament to the extraordinary power of this invention.

Before we go any further, let’s clarify one thing: the “Web” is not the same as the “Internet.” Allow me please to retreat a few decades in time, to share a bit of history. Communications networks long predate the advent of the World Wide Web. One could begin the story in many places; the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs in 1947 is a plausible starting point. The development of packet-switching networks in the late 1950s led to breakthrough work by the academic and government researchers who developed ARPANET and related designs in the late 1960s and 1970s. These networks led to the Internet as we know it. On this firm technical foundation, Berners-Lee developed the Web: a system to link hypertext documents that can in turn be accessed via the Internet.

There are many ways the invention of the Web could have gone. Those who worked with it early on might have imagined the Web merely as a way to organize and share information within an organization, an advanced document management system. Or, the invention of the Web might have been patented, with a goal toward creating a massive business and long-term revenue stream for Berners-Lee and perhaps for CERN.

Neither of these things happened. In the spirit of a true scientist, Berners-Lee described and released his work publicly. He did not seek intellectual property protection for his ideas with a goal of monetizing whatever came next. He – and others who helped to promote the Web early on, including Robert Cailliau – recognized it as an invention that could help connect people well beyond the researchers at CERN. A global system of hypertext links could connect people as well as information in the form of text, video, audio, and plausibly any other format we might dream up. This open, public conception of the Web, as opposed to a narrow and proprietary view, has had enormous consequences

The impact of the Web is felt so broadly today because of the capacious, open vision that Berners-Lee brought to his work — and to the way he released the invention to the world. Its impact is a consequence of the brilliance of the design, how it builds upon other networks, and how it allows for others to build on top of it through new ideas.

As we celebrate twenty five years of the Web and what it has meant to societies around the world, we ought also to consider what we might accomplish in the next twenty-five years. Consider three institutions that have already been changed by the Web and which will no doubt change more in the coming two and a half decades: education, libraries, and journalism. Each of these institutions is essential to healthy democracies and relies upon a web that remains free, open, and interoperable. In an increasingly digital world, the importance of these institutions is going up, not down. And yet, in each case, the Web is too often perceived as a threat, rather than as an opportunity, to these institutions and those who work in them. And if the Web itself becomes closed down, controlled by private parties or by government censorship, we will curtail opportunities for extraordinarily positive social change. With great imagination, compelling design, sound policy, and effective implementation, each of these institutions might emerge stronger and better able to serve democracies than before the advent of the Web.

Learning.

In many countries around the world – certainly in the United States – to bring up “the current state of education” is to bring on a conversation characterized by a lot of sighing and hand-wringing. If you mention the Web in this context, it tends to grow more negative still. We fear declension: this generation of students is “dumber” than previous generations, if Emory professor Mark Bauerlein is to be believed. We tend to fear that students have shorter attention spans than they did when they tended to read longer-format works (mostly, books, but perhaps even essays such as this one that go on for more than a page or two). If the Web comes up in such a conversation, it is commonly blamed for one or more of these problems.

Certainly, we do need to teach students to sustain their attention beyond Tweets and Facebook status posts; certainly, we need to do a better job of helping them to learn to discern credible information from less credible information on the Web. But instead of just worrying about what we are losing, we ought to consider what is newly possible. In a world characterized by the Web, there is no shortage of interesting, important, and fun things that we can do to improve education.

The future of education will come about through the application of new technologies to the very old art of teaching and learning. Since the days of Socrates and Plato, teachers have debated the best way to convey ideas and skills to the next generation. What, in a way, could be more important than a society’s ability to prepare its young people to create a bright future for themselves and for the world at large?

As a field, education has not been especially threatened by technology so far. Nor has it been transformed radically. Consider what has happened to the business of recorded entertainment such as music and movies, and most recently the field of book publishing, book stores, and libraries in the era of the Web. The change in related fields is coming on fast and furious. Education is about to get its share of this kind of transformative change.

The easiest place to see this transformation is in higher education. The Web is today often associated with the explosion of free, online courses being offered by top-tier universities. Call this phenomenon “MOOC Mania.” MOOC stands for Massive, Open, Online Courses. The most famous of these initiatives are spin-outs from Stanford – Coursera and Udacity – which are for-profits, funded by venture capitalists, and edX, a project started by MIT and Harvard, as a non-profit. These ventures offer hundreds of courses to millions of students around the world – so far, largely for free – via the Web. Just to be clear, there is no way that interactive courses of this sort could be made so freely available, at relatively little cost, without the advent of the Web.

There is raging, global debate about whether these MOOCs are a good idea. Some think that these courses can solve the vexing problem of rising tuitions – making education much more affordable for students in the process. All of us who run educational institutions know that the rate of increase in tuitions outstrips inflation each year. Why? We are essentially businesses comprised of people. Even if we increase pay in line with inflation, the rate of increase in benefits is much higher than the ordinary rate of inflation. (Other problems, including bad management decisions, contribute to rising costs of tuition, too, to be sure.) Some people think a world in which MOOCs proliferate can help us to reset our models in a more sustainable manner. It’s possible – but it won’t happen without reducing the number of people we employ or how much we pay them. Hence, the controversy.

In some fields, MOOCs offer enormous potential for improving the quality of education. Set aside the business model implications for education for a moment. If we can replace less-good lectures with better, more engaging lectures; if we can replace less good text books with better, more engaging, interactive ones; and if we can put classroom time to better use, the net effect for learning can be fantastic. Here, data can be our friend: we can use analytics to understand better what’s working and what isn’t. Student mastery can rise as teaching methods improve across the board. These gains are much easier to see in some fields – such as math, science, computer science, statistics, and economics – than it is in others, like the visual arts, performing arts, and much of the humanities. But there is very interesting work underway across the academy to understand how we can improve our work as teachers and learners through these models.

There’s another model of online education that holds special promise, which involves an extraordinary teacher named Sal Khan and his web-based service, Khan Academy. Sal Khan is without a doubt the most popular educator in the world right now. Every month, he and his team of a few dozen people reach many millions of students, of all ages, from around the world. Through online videos on a wide array of topics, from computer science to history to art, Sal Khan has reached hundreds of millions of people. These learners have completed over a billion exercises at Khan Academy, on the Web, to test their mastery. They can practice what they learned on the videos, often over and over again. Khan Academy is free and open to anyone.

There’s a big difference between the kind of education someone can get free, online, from the Khan Academy (or on Wikipedia, for that matter), and the kind of education one can get at a great public or private residential school. There are enormous benefits to residential education and to face-to-face encounters with teachers. But there is also a benefit to the ability to watch a well-taught lesson over and over again when you didn’t really understand what your algebra teacher was explaining to you. There’s great value in having exercises to check yourself as you do your homework or as a class is proceeding on a hard topic.

What’s exciting to me is the connection between the experimental, innovative online teaching and learning work being done at places like Khan Academy and the classic, time-proven approaches at our traditional schools. A successful approach to education reform, I believe, will bring together the best of the “classical” with the best of the new “jazz” in education.

One of the knock-on effects of this change is the development of new systems, some technological, that offer a way to understand much better what is working and what is not working well in education. It is exciting to see projects that bring technology into the classroom that can collect a great deal more data about how kids learn and allow us to test various approaches, refining them over time. Think of it as the concept of “big data” supporting education in a promising way. One of the things that education can learn from the Web is the spirit of innovation and experimentation. Through the growing field of educational assessment, we are better able to test approaches, improve upon those that seem to be working, discard those that are a failure, and scale the best of them.

The connection between what young people are learning in formal educational settings and outside the classroom holds enormous untapped potential. Consider a student who can benefit from the energy and enthusiasm of a great teacher, both in the classroom and when they are at home doing their homework. Think of the possibilities of figuring out which forms of teaching work the best for that student in any given course and being able to personalize her education. Think about our ability to connect her passion with the resources that we have all around us – in libraries, museums, and cultural centers of all types, all around the world, some of which are increasingly digitizing their holdings for anyone to use, anywhere, for free.

Students are increasingly exposed to interdisciplinary courses and projects during their schooling and are asked to combine the things that they have been learning. Sometimes these activities take place at a young age, (say 6 or 8); other times, these activities take the form of a capstone experience at the end of high school (age 17 or 18). These experiences teach problem-solving, deep research, teamwork, presentation skills, the building of lateral connections between and among ideas, and the ability to think creatively. Think of courses not called Biology but focused instead on water resources or the ecology of the city or town in which the student lives; think of courses not in just one aspect of the arts but on the importance of cities as cultural centers; think of experiences that bring students into settings where they can hone skills as entrepreneurs and as community servants. These learning experiences are deeply connected to the classroom, but they extend far beyond them – into communities, museums, libraries, businesses, into the “real world.” These ways of teaching and learning mirror the hypertext quality of the Web itself.

Put another way: think of what we could do if we were to apply to the world of education the same energy, the same innovative spirit, and the positive collaboration that we’ve brought to creating the Web and all that rides on top of it, from Google and YouTube to Twitter and Facebook. We should bring together the people, the science, and the expertise from the private sector with the public sector to improve our systems, our methods, and our results. We should hold ourselves to the standards that we have for the highest performing enterprises in our country. The possibilities for schools at all levels could be astonishing. Our children and grandchildren deserve no less.

Libraries.

The world of the digital – often characterized by the existence of the Web itself – exacerbates a sense of uncertainty that hangs over libraries. Why do we need libraries, many people ask, when we have the Web? What good is a librarian when we can just ask Google or Apple’s Siri from our handheld device?

For a child born today, the first experience of a broader world of knowledge than she has known before, is increasingly likely to be mediated by a screen of some kind. Over the past two and a half decades, access to the Web, mobile devices, and digital media has increased at a rate far more rapid than the spread of any major information or communications technology in the history of the world. While it took centuries for Gutenberg’s books to reach masses of Europeans, the spread of the Internet and digital media has taken only a few short decades to spread across the globe. Nearly two billion of the world’s 6.8 billion people have access to the Internet. Through mobile devices, well over three billion people can connect to the World Wide Web.

The expansion of the mind can be experienced by a child through a computer screen or through the tiny interface of a mobile phone or in a game, now that we have the Web. But she may also walk into that same library that her mother entered and gain insight and special memories in an inspiring physical space. In today’s world, these digitally-mediated experiences are interwoven with experiences in physical space that complement, confirm, and sometimes challenge what they are learning online. The Web is not a competitor to libraries; it is a complement. The Web should be part and parcel of the future of libraries, not the killer of libraries.

The spread of the Web brings with it many wonderful possibilities for library patrons of all ages. Unprecedented access to knowledge and written material is perhaps the most important benefit. For the first time in human history, people anywhere in the world—including those without access to physical libraries—can access an extraordinary array of knowledge virtually without cost. Schools and universities can make available knowledge and information to their students in ways that were not possible just a few decades ago. The world can open up to children through new interfaces and experiences that will expand their minds, connect them to people elsewhere around the world, and offer them a chance to participate in the making and sharing of knowledge.

Via their patrons, libraries can be drivers of economic development and social innovation. The benefits of far-reaching digital technologies extend beyond learning to aspects of life like creativity, entrepreneurship, and activism. In communities around the world, children are using Web-based technologies to create identities, videos, audio recordings, games, and media of all stripes as they learn and express themselves. As they become teens and young adults, some create inspiring political movements, watchdog groups, and new modes of organizing, and others invent new businesses and technologies that create jobs and opportunities. They teach one another as they build out into the global environment made possible by the Web. Libraries are central to each of these activities, in small towns and large cities. Without libraries as access points and educational settings, these positive aspects of the digital age are unavailable to many kids whose parents cannot afford broadband or personal computers, even in the richest parts of the world.

The Web also makes possible new kinds of libraries. One major new direction for the Web has been advanced by Berners-Lee himself: the notion of the semantic web. In countries around the world, communities are building national digital libraries. In Europe, the collaborative project Europeana is making digitized collections from dozens of nations available freely online. In the United States, the Digital Public Library of America is making the scientific, historical, and cultural record available, free to all, via the Web. In the era of the Web, libraries can take the form of platforms, on which all manner of innovation and learning can flourish.

Journalism.

Alongside education and libraries, journalism is a field in crisis in the world of the Web. The driving forces behind the crisis in journalism are not precisely the same as those in the library environment, but they are related. The increase in readers who come by their news and information on the Web has led to a challenging environment for journalists across the board. The advertising revenue that has made print newspapers and magazines good businesses to own in the past has been declining as attention shifts to the web and to mobile environments. It might seem easy just to switch over to a digital publishing environment, but it isn’t. First, the skills required of journalists are different online than they are offline, in respects that parallel the shifts in skills needed for librarians. More troubling, the “analog dollars” that paid for advertising in the print world are being traded for “digital pennies.” Put another way, the amounts that can be charged for advertising by a digital publication are lower, so far, than the amounts that can be charged for similar exposure online.

The culprits for these threats to journalism will sound familiar: they are services built upon the Web. Many of those advertising dollars have gone not to competing journalism outfits, but to the new intermediaries of the Web. In classified ads, much of the revenue has flowed to start-ups like Craig’s List. In the world of news, Google has found ways to profit from highly targeted advertisements to people who begin their searches online or via a mobile device. Social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, are getting a growing cut of the revenues that once sustained newsrooms, foreign bureaus, and the many expenses associated with running first-rate journalism outfits.

A comparison of the crises facing schools, libraries and journalism in a digital age makes for an interesting analogy, but it’s more than that. Yes, journalists, like teachers and librarians, are figuring out what it means to operate in a networked environment. Each of these institutions needs to answer the question of the role that they serve in a world where the Web – often, Google – is a first port of call for those seeking to become informed about something.

The more important connection among them is that schools, journalism and libraries are bedrock institutions in democracies. We need to support these institutions more in an era of the Web, not less, than we did before. We rely upon journalists to unearth and to contextualize stories that matter to our lives in a free and open society.  High quality journalism is essential to our ability to choose those who represent us or to vote on a direct referendum. The work of journalists helps to inform social movements, protest actions, and groundbreaking research. The work of the beat reporter covering City Hall keeps those in power (at least somewhat) honest. The months and months that an investigative reporter devotes to an in-depth story on the impact of fracking is as important as the months and months that a policy-maker might spend wrangling over an energy bill.

Democracies can’t afford to lose substantial numbers of journalists, teachers, and librarians. In an information-rich world, we as citizens need trusted guides and interpreters of the extraordinary array of facts and opinions that we can access digitally via the Web. Journalists, teachers, and librarians have every reason to make common cause – between and among themselves, but also with the next generation of technologists – during this transition to a digital age.

* * *

At its twenty-fifth anniversary, it might be tempting sit back and celebrate what the Web has given the world. The answer would be much, indeed, and it is worthwhile to acknowledge all that. I am deeply thankful for what it has made possible in terms of economic growth, human interconnectedness, and the development of new knowledge.

I prefer, though, to look ahead, in the spirit of the invention itself, to the challenges that lie before us. Those challenges include preserving the openness and the interoperability of the Web and the essential networks on which it rides. Those challenges are to use this tremendous gift to improve core democratic institutions, such as education, libraries, and journalism, in the public interest. In so doing, we will be creating institutions that will enable our youth – coming to age in a digital era – to build a brighter future for those who will follow.

The effect of our good decisions today could be to launch a generation of young people who use the Web to accomplish positive social change. The Web is a tool that can be used for ends that are pro-social or ends that are destructive. As we build out the next iteration of the Web and the institutions that rely on it, we ought to aim to inspire and enable young people to be innovative, creative, and engaged in civic life around them. In its best form, the Web can be a tool that conveys a sense of agency and possibility to those who have come to learn its ways and are facile with its use. The benefits for economic growth, cross-cultural understanding, and vibrant democratic institutions could be a powerful force for good, world-wide.

[This essay was published in Spanish in Politica Exterior (Foreign Policy) No. 161, September-October 2014.]

Master Class with Chris Hughes, Phillips Academy ’02 on Hannah Arendt’s “Responsibility and Judgment”

We have the great privilege today of Chris Hughes‘ visit to Andover.  Chris graduated from Phillips Academy in 2002.  He returns today to teach a master-class with me, to give the All School Meeting address, and to meet with various groups on campus.  The master class takes as its starting point a text: Hannah Arendt’s lecture entitled “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” published in the book “Responsibility and Judgment.”  In this lecture, delivered in 1964, Arendt responded to criticism of things she previously wrote about the trial of the Nazi leader Eichmann.  The students in the room today come from two classes, one in our Religion and Philosophy department (taught by Tom Hodgson) and one on bioethics (team-taught by Vincent Avery and Christine Marshall-Walker).

Chris starts the class by asking a student to read aloud a section from near the end of Arendt’s lecture: “The total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something.”  Chris asks the group if norms can be changed as quickly as table manners.

The class also focuses for most of the discussion on the role of non-participants in societies.  Arendt says that “the nonparticipants; called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves.”  Does opting-out of a society enable you to preserve your values?  What does it mean, in fact, to “opt out” of a society?  The class debates whether it is different to opt out of Nazi Germany; America during the McCarthy era; Apartheid South Africa (was Albie Sachs right that only a few hundred whites took any personal risk in resisting the Apartheid regime?); and today, in the “consumerist” society prevalent in most countries in Western Europe and North America, for instance.

Chris stresses the difficulty of total opting out: it is almost impossible not to be ensconced in a body politic.  It is extremely hard not to pay some taxes to support a system; to be, at a minimum, a bystander to important events in the lives of others; to have a voice in the society, whether in public or in private.

We explored the distinction between non-participation and non-obedience.  The students are not sold on the extent to which Arendt praises the non-participants, seeing non-obedience — more actively opposing a system — as essential to positive change.  The text splices the difference between “supporting” a regime and “obeying” it.  The exposure of this tension, which comes in at the end of the essay, may be the most important point.

One of our core jobs as teachers at Phillips Academy, as stated in our school’s constitution from 1778, is to help develop not just the minds but also the morals of the students in our care.  Conversations, such as the one led by Chris today and others led by our faculty on every day on campus, are essential aspects of this kind of an education.

What I’m Looking For in a Short Paper: Hacking Class 2013-2014

I am teaching a winter-term seminar course at Phillips Academy to ten seniors entitled “Hacking: A Course in Experiments.”  I had a great time teaching it last year as well with ten students (I miss them!), and now have the privilege of repeating it for a new group of students.  We are starting today.  The class takes place in our home on campus, called Phelps House.  As I write this draft, the students are arriving at our home momentarily.

One of the several purposes of this course is to give our high school seniors an opportunity to think and to write about topics that cross disciplinary boundaries.  For some, this course is the first interdisciplinary seminar, of the style that is customary in universities, that they will take.  For those who have already taken an interdisciplinary course — and there are several wonderful ones at PA — I intend for this course to include extra doses of creativity, case-based work, digital literacy skill development, and problem-solving.  We explore themes of ethics and computer science through the lens of cases such as WikiLeaks and Khan Academy, among others.

One strength of the education at Phillips Academy is the number of times and ways that students are required to write, especially if they spend three or four years here.  Students are asked to write short, analytical essays; creative works; lab reports; long research papers; and other types of assignment.  I am a big believer in many chances to write and lots of specific, detailed feedback.  (To be clear, I agree with those who think our students need to write more in form of longer, research-based papers than they tend to do.  A long paper is an option for the final project in this course, and there are other chances at PA to write longer pieces.)  With students in this seminar in mind, I am writing to them about what I am expect in a fine, short essay.  Guidelines follow.  I’d be interested in seeing what other high school teachers share with their seniors in terms of expectations for similar writing assignments.

* * *

The length I expect for the short papers in the Hacking seminar is roughly a page or two.  The sweet-spot is 750 words, give-or-take a few hundred.  I have in mind pieces of the scope of a New York Times op-ed or a briefing paper to a high-level public or corporate official who has limited time to read in advance of a crucial meeting.  Here are some things I expect in a strong essay of this length:

Frame a great question.  I don’t expect you to find a “right answer” in these short essays you are writing.  It is, however, essential that you frame a great question.  A big part of your job is to find a hard problem lurking in the topic for the day; expose it for me and for your fellow students, who ideally will have a chance to read your essay before class (or at least to hear about it from you when we meet).

Make an argument.  Please say something in your essay.  Answer your own great question in a way that is thought-provoking.  I am much more interested in seeing that you’ve engaged deeply with the material than that you’ve gotten the answer “right.”  I am interested in what you think, not so much what you read about the thoughts of others.

Marshal facts to make your case.  It’s necessary, but not sufficient, to present a novel, provocative argument.  You need to employ persuasive evidence to support your claim.  Yes, the essays are short, but they can’t be vapid; bring a few compelling facts or theories into play that convince your reader of your point of view.

Be honest.  These essays are not meant to be group projects; they must be your own work.  When in doubt, drop a footnote.  If you have any questions as to whether to cite to something, please refer to the academic honesty policy in the syllabus or write to me directly.

Be concise.  Part of the reason I want you to write short pieces is so that you’ll get multiple “reps” over the course of the term and we can work together on your writing.  But another reason for short pieces is to require you to be concise.  (I am fan of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  Their principle of composition #17: “Omit Needless Words.”  One wit improved on the principle: “eschew superfluage.”  Students: if you’d promise to read and consider it, I’d be glad to give you a copy of Strunk and White as a gift.)

There’s much more I could say, but that would violate my own advice, so I won’t.  I know we as teachers don’t always have time to provide as much detailed feedback as we’d like — I can recall times when I’ve fallen down on that score — but it’s such an important part of the teaching and learning process, often best carried out in the context of a course not explicitly about writing, and I’m going to do my part.  If my feedback on your work doesn’t make sense or if I can help you figure out how to improve a subsequent essay, let’s talk about it.  I much look forward to receiving your papers and to being inspired by what you have to say.

Khan Academy meets Phillips Academy

Sal KhanSal Khan and his traveling team of six teachers and developers from Khan Academy are on campus at Phillips Academy this morning.  We are delighted to welcome them to a special faculty meeting.  We are pleased to welcome friends from the Andover public schools ( Superintendent Marinel McGrath and AHS Principal Christopher Lord), the Lawrence public schools, and the Pike School as well.

Sal tells the story of being a hedge fund analyst who began by making short videos to help teach a young family member, a cousin in Louisiana who was having a hard time with unit conversions (gallons to ounces).  They worked together on mathematics tutoring by speakerphone and Yahoo! Instant Messenger.  That grew into videos and exercises.  Today, there have been 85 million users to date.  Each month, there are 6 million unique users on the Khan Academy site.  In total, there have been 260 million lessons delivered and over 1 billion problems answered on the related exercises.

This year, we have been exploring the professional development theme of Connected Learning at Phillips Academy.  We’ve heard from Mimi Ito, Katie Salen, a group working on the Amplify tablet, and others.  Sal Khan has already been most generous with us, joining a class I taught in winter (on hacking) by Skype and also Skyping with a group of faculty and administrators in preparation for this visit.  Sal and his team are here at a special faculty meeting, the last in this series for the year, and then will be with a class of students in chemistry and a class of students in math.  The day will end with what I expect may be a mob of students in the Mural Room of our dining hall, Paresky Commons.

At a minimum, it is fascinating to hear his story first hand.  The narrative of Ann Doerr sending first a $10,000 check, then meeting him at an Indian buffet, then sending a $100,000 wire is a great Silicon Valley tale of entrepreneurship and the importance of foresight and angel capital.  There’s then the chapter of Bill Gates and Walter Isaacson on stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival talking about “this new site” Khan Academy.  I am a fan of Sal’s new book, The One World School House, and have used his videos and exercises in classes that I’ve taught and with my own kids to help explain topics that I don’t know much about.

We are exploring more than the minimum.  Could we imagine what would happen if Phillips Academy teachers and students were working in real partnership with Khan Academy?  As they develop the interactive side of Khan Academy, and especially assessments in fields like math and science (and many more), we might be able to help.  As Sal tells us, the videos are helpful, but they are not the focal point — that should be the problem-solving, the exercises, the interaction.  At Phillips Academy, our faculty has been at this teaching-and-learning thing for 235 years; the faculty members are not that old, but as a group, are deeply experienced and at the top of their game.  They teach in a range of fields that is much broader than what is currently offered, well anyway, through the web — mostly, in the arts and humanities, which have not been the focus in the digitally-mediated education world (yet). The faculty at Phillips Academy (and, I suspect, our peer schools here in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts) also know that we don’t know everything.  And there’s a very positive sense that we need to keep learning and exploring new modes of teaching.  Sal Khan and his team certainly know some things we don’t about reaching lots of people through their digital teaching methods.

Questions from the faculty and students ranged from math and science teachers asking hard questions about what the implications of these forms of teaching might be to humanities and arts teachers asking if there is any implication of this type of learning for their fields.  It’s plain that a great, rich education — at any level — is about many different forms of learning in many different fields, including language, culture, music, visual arts, athletics, and so forth.  A great education has a lot to do with the face-to-face experience of students and adults in the same physical spaces.

We are talking today about what truly blended and connected learning might look like — taking advantage of the best of residential education and the best of digitally-mediated experiences, and mitigating the problems/limitations associated with both.  Even those of us who are the most enthusiastic about the reach and implications of the digital revolution for education — and I count myself in that number — should recognize the value of the residential, the social-emotional, the expressive, the experiential, and many other aspects of learning that are (today, anyway) experienced in the analog world.

Sal also offers advice for students in what he calls “big brother” mode.  We are discussing what impresses Sal and his colleagues when they are hiring new staff: they are impressed by what students have *made*.  “The more artifacts that you can create over the course of your life,” Sal said, “the better off you’ll be when it comes to getting hired.”  The idea of building a digital portfolio, badging, and other artifact-creation (how about a painting?) is one way to respond to this challenge.  Another bit of advice from Sal: don’t think of “test prep” as a dirty word.  Consider it a chance to master the skills and information that matter in the course of your education.

It’s an exciting moment in education.  At Phillips Academy, we are devoted to seizing it.  This session in our auditorium and classrooms this morning is a great starting point.  It’s an electric morning here in Andover.

Harvard Initiative on Learning and Teaching: Kick-Off

Today is the kick-off for the brand-new Harvard Initiative on Learning and Teaching (HILT).  This is an extraordinary day at Harvard, part symposium and part working session to get HILT underway in earnest.  The background: President Drew Faust and two of the university’s most loyal friends, Rita and Gustave Hauser, dreamed up a major new university-wide initiative to focus on the science and practice of learning and teaching.  The Hausers gave $40 million to make the initiative’s launch possible.

The symposium opens with a welcome from President Faust and Erin Driver-Linn, the director of HILT, who describe the ideas behind HILT and its early activities, including a new grant program for novel learning and teaching projects.  The first keynote session is on the science of learning.  The speakers are extraordinary: the moderator is Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard professor of psychology with a deep interest in learning), and the presenters are Carl Wieman (a prof in the past, and now in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and a Nobel Prize winner), Roddy Roediger (one of the giants of understanding learning and measuring learning), and Steve Pinker (Harvard College Professor in psychology and best-selling author, of The Language Instinct and many other wonderful books).  The presenters have been saying much too much to blog here effectively, so I’ll just go with one insight I took away from each speaker’s remarks:

– Banaji: many of our broadly-held myths about learning and teaching are wrong.  Before we lurch ahead with innovative teaching activities, we need to “unlearn” our mistaken assumptions and ground new efforts in the increasingly helpful science of learning.

– Wieman: experimental modes of teaching in science, even by less experienced teachers, are demonstrably more effective at teaching material to undergraduates than the classic lecture format, even when taught by a more senior professor with positive student evaluations;

– Roediger: testing helps with learning.  It’s much better to have students write, present, and take tests than to have them read and re-read material.  Performance (measured, say, as recall a few days later) is greatly improved based on the amount of testing (practicing retrieval of material) done previously.  This dynamic is known as the retrieval practice effect.  (Also: news alert for students: cramming works!  It is possible to improve recall over short periods by intense studying right before an exam.  But that won’t mean you can retrieve the information later; you won’t, unless you’ve been repeatedly tested.)

– Pinker: we know that students may not remember the particular substance that we teach them in universities, but we do expect that they will learn certain analytical skills.  We also hope they might have learned to write.  As wonderful as The Elements of Style is, it should not be the basis for teaching writing today, Pinker argues.  It is a charming book, but it is hard to come away with much useful advice (other than “omit needless words,” which Pinker agrees is highly worthy).  Grammar is in fact cool, Pinker says, involving brain-work.  We should teach writing as “convert[…] a network of ideas into a linear string of words,” which can mean sometimes selecting the passive voice instead of the active, for instance.  “It’s hard to know what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.”  This is the primary contributor both to bad writing and bad teaching.

(I am moderating the second session, soon to begin.)