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!