Saturday, December 28, 2013

Amazon's Jeff Bezos on careful writing and close reading

In a recent interview, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reminds us that careful writing remains not only a powerful means of communication in the era of PowerPoint and Twitter but also an important way to clarify one's thinking.
Jeff Bezos likes to read. That's a dog-bites-man revelation if ever there was one, considering that Bezos is the cerebral founder and chief executive of a $100 billion empire built on books. More revealing is that the Amazon CEO's fondness for the written word drives one of his primary, and peculiar, tools for managing his company: Meetings of his "S-team" of senior executives begin with participants quietly absorbing the written word. Specifically, before any discussion begins, members of the team -- including Bezos -- consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes. (Yes, the e-ink purveyor prefers paper. Ironic, no?) They scribble notes in the margins while the authors of the memos wait for Bezos and his minions to finish reading.

Amazon executives call these documents "narratives," and even Bezos realizes that for the uninitiated -- and fans of the PowerPoint presentation -- the process is a bit odd. "For new employees, it's a strange initial experience," he tells Fortune. "They're just not accustomed to sitting silently in a room and doing study hall with a bunch of executives." Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group's undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. "Full sentences are harder to write," he says. "They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Universal Sound of Confusion

Another reason why linguistics is fascinating! From today's New York Times:
Are there words that are universally understood, across all countries and cultures? A team of linguists has proposed one: "huh."


In a paper published on Friday in the journal PLOS One, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands announced that they had found strikingly similar versions in languages scattered across five continents, suggesting that "Huh?" is a universal word.

The study, conducted by Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, closely examined variations of the word — defined as "a simple syllable with a low-front central vowel, glottal onset consonant, if any, and questioning intonation" — in 10 languages, including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African Siwu and the Australian aboriginal Murrinh-Patha.

The researchers also looked at other words and expressions used to elicit clarification during conversation, a function that linguists refer to as "other-initiated repair." But only "Huh?,' they write, occurs across languages whose phonetic patterns otherwise vary greatly.
The full article is here. And below is a video of the variations of "huh" from around the world.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

OESIS East 2013

Last week, I attended the second-ever Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools (OESIS) in Cambridge, MA, a two-day conference "focused exclusively on the opportunities and threats of online and blended learning for independent schools." The presenters and the participants wowed me with their passion and thoughtfulness. While I continue to digest the experience, here are five takeaways from the conference I hope to revisit in the coming months:

1. Every brick and mortar independent school should consider how best to embrace networked technologies in service of teaching and learning. During the opening plenary session, Howard Lurie, the former Vice President for Content Development and University Relations at edX, spoke about the forces driving the "un-bundling" of schools: unprecedented access to digital tools, platforms, and services; competency-based instructional and certification models that are challenging traditional time-based models; the erosion of institutional monopolies in education; and others. These forces are not going away. Independent schools should consider their impact carefully and take the lead in shaping the future of education.

2. Every brick and mortar independent school should continue to value and to defend the important and enduring relationships upon which successful teaching and learning rests. Independent schools know that the relationships between teacher and student and between student and student that develop on a physical campus and over many years help shape not only intellect but also character, attitude, and spirit. Relationship-centered learning can be enhanced with technology, but it cannot be replaced. As they evolve, brick and mortar independent schools should acknowledge what they have done well and will continue to do well.

3. The SAMR Model—Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition—provides a useful guide for infusing technology into the craft of teaching. In recent years, some schools have rushed to embrace technology for its own sake, resulting, at times, in waste and frustration. The SAMR Model, created by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, is a framework for guiding and evaluating technology integration. Here is a slide that explains the model and provides an example of how to apply it:

4. Embrace the backchannel. I had used Twitter only rarely before the conference, but during the event I became an active participant in the conference's Twitter backchannel. Over the course of two days, I published nearly 100 tweets and, as a result, engaged in virtual conversations that deepened my engagement with both the ideas offered by the presenters and my fellow participants—some of whom I may not have connected with but for Twitter. Additionally, during one session, the presenter shared how she uses TodaysMeet in her classes, and she allowed us experiment with this tool during her presentation. Having found so much value in the backchannel, I am going to consider how I might encourage backchannel discussions in my own classes.

5. Develop a Personal Learning Network. My experience using Twitter helped me realize the importance of developing a Personal Learning Network or PLN—a term introduced to me in one of the conference sessions. While Will Richardson spoke about this idea when he visited my school in the spring of 2011—in fact, I still remember the story he told about how his son had learned informally via Skype from someone thousands of miles away whom he had never met—I hadn't fully appreciated the value of developing my own PLN until the conference. I'm eager to continue to use Twitter and other resources to develop my network.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On Great Teachers

I finally made my way through this year's annual New York Time Magazine education issue, which is chock-full of articles on important and timely topics, including the teaching of emotional intelligence (an idea near to my heart as a TOK teacher) and the use of tablets to enable personalized learning environments (a technology which I hope to learn more about at the OESIS conference next month). Among the many great articles, I found one to be a particularly worthwhile read: "The Real-Life ‘Glee’ in Levittown, Pa." Ostensibly about the author's former theater teacher, Lou Volpe, the article is an emotionally gripping testament to the importance of arts education and to the enduring impact of great educators—those who expect the best from adolescents. An excerpt:
Even though he didn’t speak in the idiom of the movement, much of what I observed in Volpe’s theater program could fit comfortably within the muscular language of education reform — with its emphasis on problem solving, standards, “racing to the top” and accountability. Theater is part of the “arts,” an airy term, but the time his students spent with him was actually the least theoretical part of their day. With each production, they set an incredibly high goal and went about building something.

At a rehearsal one day, he told his cast, “You have become so good that every mistake you make has a spotlight on it.” That seemed to me such an economical yet elegant way of giving praise while making a demand.
Just as I finished reading the article, my father shared some good news with me about a great educator from my past, Rebecca Holcombe. Ms. Holcombe, as I called her when she taught me middle school science decades ago, has been appointed to the post of Vermont Secretary of Education. I doubt she would remember me, but I certainly remember her, as she inspired me with her passion for science and demanded the best from me.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Humanities at Newark Academy

This summer, I was asked to write a brief introduction to the Humanities Department, which I chair, for Newark Academy parents. Below is the text of my essay.

I am often asked what distinguishes Newark Academy’s department of Humanities from the departments of History one finds at many other schools. Names have power, and Humanities not only reflects the aspirations and intentions of my colleagues and me but also shapes our daily approach in the classroom. Surely, history maintains its proper role as an essential element of our Humanities program; helping students develop a deep knowledge of the human past is fundamental to our work. Our program, however, seeks to inspire an understanding of and appreciation for human civilization more broadly.

In our courses, both in the middle and upper schools, we seek to help students examine the human experience using the tools not only of the historian but also of the anthropologist, the sociologist, the political scientist, the economist, the geographer, and the philosopher. We encourage students to consider their own cultural heritage, to wrestle with universal questions, to grasp the importance of the arts, to examine political, social and moral issues, to articulate their ideas clearly in writing and in speech, and to develop the faculties of sense and of intellect that give richness and meaning to their lives. These modes of thinking and skills infuse our curriculum and are often more important than the particular content of any given course.

Last year, I witnessed a perfect illustration of this approach while visiting a 9th grade Ancient World class. The students had been studying Ancient Greece and had just read a translation of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, in which the great Athenian statesman remembers his fallen countrymen and their cause. During the class session, the students analyzed the speech in light of their study of Ancient Greece, observing how it reflected Greek thought during the classical period. Midway through the discussion, the teacher projected the text of the Gettysburg Address and asked the students to compare and contrast the content and structure of Lincoln’s speech with Pericles’. It was exciting to observe the conversation as students made thoughtful connections between these speeches and came to see both in a new light. The last part of the discussion focused on a question about the state of contemporary American political rhetoric, a provocative topic to which the students brought an erudite perspective.

Moments like this occur regularly in our Humanities courses. On any given day, you might find 6th grade students discussing the philosophy of Adam Smith, 7th grade students developing theses on the causes of the American Civil War, 8th grade students delivering oral presentations on Japanese aesthetics, 9th grade students learning about Islamic architecture and arabesque design in medieval Spain, 10th grade students analyzing Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, 11th grade students comparing historical interpretations of the Cold War, and 12th grade students evaluating Aristotelian ethics. Throughout, you would find students actively engaged in the learning process and outstanding teachers demonstrating passion for the subject and concern for individual student development.

If we have done our jobs well, when students leave Newark Academy they are well on their way to becoming young adults who have a deep appreciation for the complexities of the human experience, who can think critically about questions of pressing concern to humanity, and who can articulate their ideas in writing and in speech. While we can proudly measure our success by the graduates who report their personal accomplishments in college and beyond, a more significant yardstick is the role that Newark Academy alumni play in service to their communities and to society at large. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pedagogical Goal: Value Silence

Many years ago, I was meeting with a sohpomore advisee, a young woman who was generally very quiet, to discuss her mid-term narrative comments. All of her teachers had noted her quiet nature in their comments and encouraged her, some more forcefully than others, to speak more frequently in class—a message which she had received over and over again from an early age. When I raised this point with her, she looked down and said, "I'm sick of hearing about how quiet I am. They just don't get me."

Since then, I've thought a lot about that advisee and other students who are quiet. Last year, when I read Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, watched her TED Talk, and took part in a roundtable discussion on "quiet students" as part of a colleague's graduate school work, I gained a much more nuanced understanding of and appreciation for introversion. These experiences, along with an article that appeared this month in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Sanctioning Silence in the Classroom," have prompted me to make valuing silence one of my pedagogical goals for the 2013-14 school year. I aim to do this by using silence as a tool for contemplation and reflection and by appreciating the extent to which, for some of my students, quietness reflects not a shortcoming but a powerful trait that can enrich the totality of the classroom experience for all.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Trolley Problem

My students and I have just now begun our unit on Ethics as an Area of Knowledge. Below is the first electronic message board prompt to which I have asked my students to respond. I'm looking forward to reading their responses and, even more so, to the discussions in class that will follow.

One of ways that ethicists explore ethical thinking is by asking subjects to engage in thought experiments involving hypothetical people and situations. One of the classic thought experiments in ethics is called the trolley problem, and it involves a person in a difficult situation. As a subject, you must advise the person on the ethical course of action.

Watch these videos, each less than one-minute long:

Video #1

Video #2:

Now respond to these questions in ~250 words:

In Video #1: If Steve wishes to act in an ethical manner, should he pull the lever? Why? (Really... WHY? How do you *know*?)

In Video #2: If Steve wishes to act in an ethical manner, should he push the man off the bridge? Why? (Really... WHY? How do you *know*?)

Justify your responses!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Semester of Language

Several weeks ago, I had dinner with a friend who's a professor of literature and philosophy at a nearby university. We were discussing the teaching of grammar and, in particular, the difficulty students face when trying to understand grammatical rules (e.g. "never split an infinitive") that seem (and sometimes are) arbitrary. He tells his students that demonstrating a command of grammar is like wearing a tie: a tie serves no utilitarian function, yet in certain situations people expect you to wear one, and if you don't, they will look down on you. The same is true regarding the words you speak and write; you can often communicate effectively without following grammatical conventions, but some people will ignore you before you finish your first sentence. Of course, beyond impressing others, there are many good reasons to teach and to learn grammar—as well as to use it precisely. Still, his analogy rings true.

This term, I spent a lot of time thinking about language. In November and earlier this month, I had the joy of participating in a two-day seminar on the English language offered by Princeton University's Teachers as Scholars program. The seminar brought together 30 or so educators from across central New Jersey to learn from Professor Joshua Katz, a linguistic polymath whose wit and energy matched his knowledge. Together, we examined English synchronically, considering, for example, varieties in contemporary spelling, pronunciation, and syntax. And we studied English diachronically, using an Indo-European dictionary and texts from Old and Middle English in order to understand how English has evolved.

Today, I was reminded of my conversation with my friend and of the seminar when I read a review of three books on the history of English in the Financial Times. Here's how the review begins:
Employers have told David Crystal that if they receive a job application with a spelling mistake, it goes straight in the bin. I am not sure I believe that. Who throws anything, apart from food wrappers and empty coffee cups, in the bin these days? I imagine the misspelling applicants get an email saying “We are afraid your application has been unsuccessful” and never discover why.

Misspelling is not a modern malady. In Spell it Out, Crystal reproduces a 1910 cartoon from Punch magazine in which a boss berates his secretary for typing "income" as "incum". "Good Heavens!" exclaims the secretary. "How did I come to leave out the 'b'?" And in 1750 Lord Chesterfield, the statesman, advising his son to brush up on his spelling, warned: "I know a man of quality, who never recovered the ridicule of having spelled 'wholesome' without the 'w'."

You would not get either "incum" or "holesome" today. As soon as I typed them, Microsoft Word inserted wavy red lines beneath telling me I had made a mistake. But, as Crystal points out, electronic spellcheckers are less helpful when you misspell a word in such a way as to spell another, as in a poem by Mark Eckman and Jerrold H. Zar:
I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.
Why, for centuries, have people struggled to spell? Because English spelling is horribly hard. It is not just that we have "for" and "four", "stake", "steak" and "mistake". We also have "peak", "peek" and "pique". "Horrid" has a double consonant in the middle, "timid" a single one. "Prefer" has one "f", "proffer" two.
The review continues and is well worth the read, as is an article from the most recent edition of The New Yorker about Ithkuil, an artificial language designed to be more precise and concise than any natural language. I look forward to sharing these articles with students when we next examine the function and development of language.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Presentation on the 2012 Presidential Election

Several weeks ago, the Head of my school asked me to address the entire school community on the topic of the 2012 Presidential Election, to share some non-partisan insights accessible to 6th graders and engaging for 12th graders—all in 12 minutes or less. While crafting my presentation, I decided to offer students a brief primer on the types of issues the candidates are debating and on the principles that underlie the candidates' positions. More importantly, I encouraged students to ask two questions over and over again when studying the election; these questions reflect the open-minded approach I hope they take when engaged in the hard work of becoming informed citizens.

I delivered the presentation this past Thursday, and below are my remarks. I refer to images and charts, which appeared on slides behind me, but do not, in general, appear here.

Good morning.

Consider, for a moment, the images we’ve seen over the past few years that speak to the desire of peoples around to be free. In 2009, students in Iran took to the streets to demand free elections; state police quickly suppressed them. In 2010, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace prize for his efforts to end one-party rule in China. He wasn’t able to receive the prize—this was the chair he would have occupied during the awards ceremony—as he remains in a Chinese prison. And in 2011, protests in Egypt led to the ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak and, perhaps, to the emergence of a democracy there.

Indeed, in most of the world, people cannot freely choose their leaders. Billions live without the ability to learn about democratic rights, let alone exercise them. Of course, such is not the case here in the United States, where we have a vibrant democracy; and politics—especially Presidential politics—are a national pastime. It is in light of our good fortune, then, that this morning I’d like to talk with you about this year’s Presidential election—a topic about which we here at Newark Academy are wonderfully passionate, as the IB Theater class’s presentation several weeks ago demonstrated.

You already know the basics: On Tuesday, November 6th, Americans will head to the polls in cities and towns across the nation and cast their ballots for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. If the election proceeds smoothly, we should know by the following morning who will sit in the Oval Office for the next four years, that is, who will serve as head of state and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces.

If you’ve watched the debates, you are well aware of the major issues in this year’s election—jobs, health care, immigration, the Middle East, social security, taxes, and so many more. To help you think about these issues, you might consider how they fall into three common categories: economic, social, and foreign policy. Economic issues are those that relate to the revenues and expenditures of the Federal government as well as to jobs and the regulation of businesses. Social issues are those that relate to the personal lives of citizens and to their interactions with each other, including laws regulating abortion and marriage. Foreign policy issues relate to how the US defends itself and interacts with other nations.

Let’s now take a look at a few of the principles that tend to underlie the positions that Obama and Romney hold in these three areas. I also want to highlight some of the principles they hold in common.

On economic issues, both candidates value the importance of a robust market economy wherein individuals are able to support and better themselves and their families. Obama tends to favor more regulation of economic activity in the interest of protecting workers and the environment, while Romney tends to favor less regulation of economic activity in the interest of economic growth and job creation.

On social issues, both candidates value protecting citizens’ civil rights and ensuring that all children have access to good schools. Obama tends to champion a more active government that directly supports the needs of the citizenry, while Romney tends to champion a smaller government that allows the citizenry to act without as much support or restraint.

On foreign policy issues, both candidates value the role that America plays in the world community and seek to employ the tools of foreign policy in the interest of peace and national security. Obama tends to favor negotiation with other nations and cooperation with international bodies such as the United Nations, while Romney tends to favor international action in which the United States takes a leadership role in defending American interests abroad.

These charts, of course, are oversimplifications. Each candidate holds many more principles than I could share this morning. And both candidates have complex positions that do not always flow from these principles. Additionally, both candidates subscribe to still other principles that I did not mention—for example, principles that relate to their interpretations of the US Constitution and, thus, to the types of people they might appoint to the Supreme Court.

To truly understand which candidate shares your principles and will pursue the policies you favor, you will need to continue to engage in the hard work of becoming an informed citizen. To do this, you might study the candidates’ platforms, view their debates, and look into their backgrounds and characters. And as you read, watch, and listen, I encourage you to ask yourself two questions over and over again.

The first is this: What are the best arguments in favor of the position with which I currently disagree? This question might, at first, seem counter-intuitive? Why, you might wonder, should you spend time looking for and considering the best arguments of your opponents?

My answer is simple: We may have a lot to learn from those with whom we disagree. Our political culture encourages us to reduce complex issues to “sound bites,” to maximize differences between candidates rather than to identify shared values. As a result of this, we miss opportunities to discover the complexity in issues and the importance of multiple perspectives in developing solutions. Asking ourselves to consider the best arguments from those with whom we disagree forces us to confront, and perhaps to learn from, a plurality of ideas.

As you know, many good, smart people on both sides of the political aisle have compelling arguments in defense of their principles and the policies that flow from them. Yes, people do disagree on the proper role of the Federal government in the lives of the nation’s citizens and on the proper role of the United States in the world today. But it would be unwise to dismiss the ideas of those who disagree with us—be they Liberals or Conservatives—because we are too proud or simply disinclined.

The second question is this: How does the presentation of an idea influence my opinion of it?

To illustrate how the presentation of an idea can shape one’s opinion, I’d like to share two 30-second advertisements from this year’s election, both on the topic of the economy. The commercials demonstrate how campaigns manipulate the presentation of information to persuade the viewer.

The first commercial was produced by the Obama campaign:

And the second commercial was produced by the Romney campaign:

As you likely noticed, in Obama’s ad, the natural frequency and reverberation of Romney’s voice are changed so that he sounds hollow. And in Romney’s ad, ominous music plays as the viewer is confronted with facts and video designed to make the President appear out of touch.

Viewing campaign commercials back-to-back, as we just did, magnifies the types of manipulations commonly used in political advertisements. Oftentimes in political discourse, however, persuasive language is used much more subtly. Consider, for example, the chart I displayed earlier. You may have noticed that I wrote that Obama tends to champion an “active” government and Romney a “smaller” government. I used those words because, I believe, they cast each candidate’s position in its best light. Instead of “active” had I written “inefficient” to describe Obama’s vision, I would have negatively skewed your opinion of it. And instead of “smaller” had I written “uncaring” to describe Romney’s vision, I would have done the same.

By being aware of how we and others—candidates, commentators, experts, and even friends—use language when talking about political issues, we can recognize emotional appeals and linguistic obfuscations. And, as a result, we can focus on ideas and issues.

Finally, before I finish my presentation, I’d like to share two important details to keep in mind as you study the election.

First, remember that the President is elected not by the majority of voters but instead by the Electoral College—a body of 538 individuals, or electors, who represent the states and who formally chose the President and Vice-President. Here’s a map that shows the number of electors each state chooses. As you can see, populous states, like Texas and California, choose more electors than states with smaller populations, like Vermont or North Dakota.

This is all pretty straightforward. What’s interesting about the Electoral College, however, is that in all but two states the candidate who receives the majority of the votes in a state will win all of that state’s Electoral votes. For example, if Obama receives 51% of the votes in Florida and Romney receives 49%, Obama will win all of Florida’s 29 Electoral votes. States in which the race is close are called swing states, as winning them can easily “swing” an election. You see, a candidate needs 270 Electoral Votes in order to win the contest; winning Florida, then, would provide a candidate with more than 10% of the Electoral Votes needed to become President. That’s why you hear a lot about Florida and other swing states in the news; and it’s why neither Obama nor Romney have come through New Jersey recently. Polls predict that Obama will receive a majority of the votes in New Jersey, and thus gain all 14 of our state’s Electoral votes. New Jersey isn’t a swing state, and, as a result, it’s of little interest to the candidates.

The second detail is a bit simpler: We spend a lot of our time and energy talking about the Presidential election, but the President is only one part of the Federal government. Moreover, the Presidential race is only one of thousands of races that will be decided in November. In addition to the Presidential election, Americans will determine who will fill 33 of 100 seats in the US Senate and all 435 seats in the US House of Representatives. Additionally, thousands of races for positions on state and local legislatures, councils, and boards will be decided. Simply put, the outcome of the Presidential election matters a lot, but it’s hardly the only political game in town; for many of us, the outcome of local and state elections will have a greater impact on our daily lives than the outcome of the Presidential race.

To conclude: As you continue to study the election in your Humanities classes and learn from friends, parents, the news media, and the candidates themselves, I hope you find the ideas I’ve shared this morning useful—particularly the questions I encourage you to ask yourself this election season:
What are the best arguments in favor of the position with which I currently disagree? and
How does the presentation of an idea influence my opinion of it?

If you are eligible to vote—as some of you seniors are—please exercise your right. And even if you aren’t eligible to vote just yet, you should feel awfully lucky that you reside in a country in which, thanks to the efforts of generations past, you can speak freely, debate openly, and, ultimately, join with your fellow citizens to create your future together.

Thank you.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Thinking Logarithmically

One of my students recently pointed me to an article about a newly published study on a cognitive trait I had never before considered—the scale we employ to represent and store sense perception data. The article begins thus:
Ask adults from the industrialized world what number is halfway between 1 and 9, and most will say 5. But pose the same question to small children, or people living in some traditional societies, and they're likely to answer 3.

Cognitive scientists theorize that that's because it's actually more natural for humans to think logarithmically than linearly: 30 is 1, and 32 is 9, so logarithmically, the number halfway between them is 31, or 3. Neural circuits seem to bear out that theory. For instance, psychological experiments suggest that multiplying the intensity of some sensory stimuli causes a linear increase in perceived intensity.
The MIT researchers who conducted the study suggest an evolutionary basis for our tendency to employ a logarithmic scale when storing sensory data. I wonder how this study might inform the design of instruments that traditionally rely on arithmetic scales (e.g. scales in social science questionnaires). Should social science instrument designers employ logarithmic scales instead?