Riding Without a Chain
A few years ago, I watched this thrilling and inspiring video of Aaron Gwin winning a World Cup downhill mountain bike race without a chain. He won because he was able to conserve momentum and speed, braking just enough to stay upright.
Although this is not a strategy to pursue deliberately in competition, I’ve started something similar when I ride my bike on local trails and I like what that practice is doing for me off the bike.
Organizations fight hard to create and maintain momentum, just like on the trail. With the constraint of having gravity as your only source of propulsion on the bike, you think more about where you really have to slow down and where it’s simply more comfortable. You think more carefully about risk. You have to be a bit bolder, too. Those same attributes are useful in leadership.
When you don’t have the equivalent of pedaling to move your organization forward, you look for ways to reduce friction and turbulence in the team. You look for “free speed” by shouting out good behavior and strong performance. Friction within the organization feels more costly, too, and so the impulse to call out bad behavior is also strengthened, which is a good thing.
Obviously it would be unwise to push this analogy too far. Get a corner wrong on the trail and you step off your bike, no big deal. It’s usually a low-cost mistake. Mistakes in an organization can be more expensive, and faster.
In the end, this illustrates something designers have long known: that introducing constraints can support what’s best in a school or any organization that is trying to do good in the world with more boldness, vision, and impact.
As I enjoy some vacation time away from the Mountainside, I wanted to share this inspiring story about one how one student’s experience with a project-based learning curriculum in a small-school setting prepared her superbly for the competitive academics of an Ivy League college.
Darrow provides a similar type of hands-on, interdisciplinary, design-focused education in an engaged community of creative thinkers and global citizens. You can read more about Darrow’s active curriculum on our website. Be sure to watch the video, too!
I invite your comments and questions, and encourage you to share stories like these with anyone interested in discovering more about active learning. I hope you enjoy the rest of your summer and are as eager as I am to begin the new school year.
“Where would I find enough leather
to cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with leather soles beneath my feet,
it’s as if the whole world has been covered.”
This Buddhist saying crosses my mind often as I think about the things that need fixing in the world and how that might actually be done. One of those things that needs fixing is stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat is a phenomenon in which performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one is being prejudged by racial or gender stereotypes. For example, in research, women who were asked to note their gender prior to taking a standardized math test scored significantly lower in comparison to their male counterparts and to women taking the same test who were not asked to indicate their gender.
Stereotype threat is wide and deep and could be experienced by the majority of humanity, but it is not necessarily inevitable or immutable. Of course, the best world is one in which stereotype threat doesn’t exist but we don’t live there (yet) and probably won’t in my lifetime. I try to blunt its effects as I work with a wide range of people in my community. And yet it remains.
So what’s to be done?
Carol Dweck offers the “growth mindset” as a readily available antidote to stereotype threat. The growth mindset is an intervention that is free and durable. If people can see intellectual capabilities as mutable and improvable, that is their best available inoculation against stereotype threat. Other researchers question the validity of teaching that intelligence is malleable and workable.
Although stereotypes will always be with us, the most important step we can take now is to ensure that learning takes place in a zone that is as judgment-free, equitable, and unbiased as possible.
I’ve been reading a great deal lately about the unhealthy ingredients in our media diets. Customized and personalized algorithms have made it far too easy for us to select only the news and information that supports our preconceived beliefs and opinions. Few would limit themselves to just one source of nutrition, but when it comes to media we frequently do just that; restricting ourselves to a steady stream of homogenous content that reinforces (and re-reinforces) itself to the point where we eventually become wrapped in a media cocoon, a safe and comfortable echo chamber that is impervious to the marketplace of diverse ideas upon which democracy depends.
So, if you think the above might apply to you, what should you do? Here’s something I did that took three minutes and makes me happier every day. I signed up for a single morning email from both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Each day I get two divergent perspectives from journalists whose credentials and objectivity I trust; journalists and editors who, like all of us, have personal beliefs and opinions but also have a longstanding commitment to facts and truth.
In that way I poke my cocoon each day. It’s easy. Is it revolutionizing my world? No. Is it something that keeps me thinking more broadly each day? Absolutely. And that is the most important first step for all of us who care about the future of rational discourse.
I hope you will join me in poking that cocoon.
I think it’s safe to say that most Americans see education as an investment in the future. Although it has been argued that public education has not always delivered results commensurate with spending, particularly in relation to other countries, reducing that investment without targeting overall systemic improvements seems like a short-term gain for a long-term loss.
Economists tell us that productivity growth over time is what helps people rise from poverty, and is also what creates general economic health within a country. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the education plan released by the current administration doesn’t appear to be a strong investment in our future.
This is not to say the whole plan is bad. Simplifying the student loan repayment system, for example, seems logical and overdue. That the plan also wants to cut public service loan forgiveness will certainly reduce incentives for public-minded people to serve in that sector, and I’m not sure what good is served by that choice.
I’ll be interested to see what Congress does with the proposal.
The plan’s impact on independent schools seems unclear. It’s possible that with further erosion of public education, more people will stretch to make an independent education work financially. The “private school choice program” in the Trump plan has yet to provide details sufficient to predict its impact.
What is certain is that the qualities and strengths of independent schools will only become more important over the years. Truly student-centered teaching, real problem solving, and opportunities to expand creativity across multiple dimensions of one’s education are what many independent schools do best, and more and more of us are striving to make it affordable.
Darrow’s last four faculty meetings of the school year are focused on those students who have been nominated by their teachers for academic and leadership awards. The award criteria are shared in advance and teachers are encouraged to nominate students who they believe are most deserving. At the meetings, they are invited to speak in support of their nominees.
Each year, this springtime process leaves me feeling energized and amazed. My amazement comes from hearing dozens of anecdotes about students who are so much more in possession of their voices and bodies as athletes, scholars, and leaders than I ever was in high school; but overshadowing that amazement is realizing how far they have come in just a few short years.
This year’s crop of nominees included a number of students who, when they first arrived at Darrow, did not remotely seem like the people they would become:
- the intellectually gifted but deeply self-conscious student who found her voice and confidence on the stage and in the classroom;
- the reticent freshman who could barely make eye contact in her first weeks on the Mountainside, yet became an admired core leader, team captain, and familiar community presence;
- the student with a significant learning difference who, by force of will, set the standard at the top of her class (and is known to never grub a grade);
- the resentful boy who seemed lost in his first days and now models tolerance, openness, and a sense of self that shines through in every conversation.
Serving a school that truly transforms lives so deeply and consistently is, of course, thrilling [and frequently exhausting]. As the school year rolls on, it sometimes becomes easy to take those transformations for granted as they are happening. Then, as the lilacs and tulips are blossoming and we start thinking about Commencement, this gratifying tradition comes along.
There is a sense of joy in watching a specific combination of ingredients—academic challenge, genuine caring, leadership opportunities, and a healthy community culture—coalesce to build confident, engaged, young adults, no matter the challenges or odds they faced when they enrolled. Get the right adults, the right pedagogy, and the right culture and you take students beyond what they or their parents had imagined possible.
Schools are increasingly pursuing a wider range of learning goals for their students, which is a good thing (mostly). They are trying to bring more so-called “21st-century skills” into their curriculum, at a time when those skills are increasingly valued and rare in the world.
However, hours dedicated to learning 21st-century skills create a time crunch unless less one of two things happen: less time is spent somewhere else in the school’s schedule, or the traditional content delivery has 21st-century skills so seamlessly built into it that it doesn’t diminish the rate of knowledge acquisition of the traditional content. The latter option amounts to wishful thinking, for the most part, because it’s hard to focus on two cognitive operations or tasks at once. The dream of essentially doubling the value of instructional time (sidestepping the time tradeoff of traditional content and 21st-century skills) will go unrealized most of the time.
Schools will have to do what all of us have do with our limited time resource: make a deliberate, strategic, and hard choice about what will most influence future success. We need to look at our mission and our values and the promises we make to stakeholders. We need to allocate time bravely, putting it where it will have the most impact down the road. That’s going to be hard, especially for schools who have traditionally used “academic rigor” as the core of their value proposition.
If you know of a school that is navigating the content conundrum well, please let me know so I can learn from them.