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Dec 21, 2012

12/21/12 A.D.

Driving through the rain, in a flash,
I suddenly saw myself looking at a Christmas present,
                                                    all wrapped and bowed,
intended for my child who cannot receive it anymore.
What do you do with all that?

Dec 14, 2012

Partnership markets

Rhode Island is a small state, but it is rich in various non-profit, academic organizations, government and businesses. The RI Foundation’s Directory lists 2743 non-profits. Very often they overlap in their activities, do not know who does what, and duplicate efforts. There are 35 school districts (about the same number as in Colorado which is three time bigger in population and 67 times bigger in size), and 12 colleges; their issues are the same – transparency, coordination, efficient use of resources. Like in any other state, RI has developed a slew of government agencies that often work in parallel, and trying to help the same populations. One unintended consequence of professionalization is that the different professions become incomprehensible to each other: social workers, teachers, nurses, psychologists, counselors, youth development workers, courts, police and non-profits may be working with the same families with little coordination and little synergy. None of this is bad news. In fact, this speaks of the rich civic tradition and a sophisticated system of social support (by American standards) that exist in RI.

The other side of this richness is that matching needs and coordination of efforts become a special new task, which no one has figured out yet how to do. Just in the last couple of weeks, I was involved in at least three very different conversations which essentially were trying to solve the same problem: how do you match potential partners?

In the mainstream monetized economy, the problem has been mainly solved. With the invention of money – the universal measure of value – and of efficient and regulated markets, people who need something can almost always find people who want to sell it. The progress is far from over, just think how eBay, Amazon, and now price checking apps on your smartphone continue to revolutionize the market of goods and services. But partnerships are different. For example, RIDE wants to put the identified turn-around schools in touch with potential partners. No one has much resource, but they are guessing correctly that more efficient matching between charitable organizations and schools can result in pulling together smaller pools of resources. Use of local groups with volunteer or semi-volunteer labor can be hundreds of times cheaper than using expensive out-of-state consultants. In a similar dilemma, the State needs to match potential providers of professional development with all schools. The Campus Compact is trying to match higher education institutions with community partners. We are constantly solving the problem of matching student teachers with cooperating teachers.

These are just a few examples of inefficient markets, where finding each other is difficult, transparency is hard to achieve, and most importantly, each transaction is not converted first in a common unit of value measurement – money. In a regular market of goods and services each transaction is only half the exchange – you exchange your labor or good for money. It needs the second half – exchange of money for something you want. The splitting of exchange into two makes transactions simpler.

A case of more complicated, non-monetized markets is marriage and/or dating. The matching is based on many criteria, each match is unique, for no too people are the same, and no money change hands. But still for these markets, there are solutions that improve efficiency. Matchmakers are people uniquely knowledgeable of market offerings, and able to make matches better than random. Newer computerized matchmakers like or solve the same problem by vastly improving transparency, enlarging market place, and creating sophisticated profiles.

So, here is a start-up idea for you, given away for free. Create a virtual space for non-monetary matchmaking outside of dating and marriage games. There will be hundreds of possible applications, one of the most obvious is matching charities and schools with each other, matching volunteers with people in need. If you figure out a way of matching student teachers with cooperating teachers that is better than the existing clumsy system, I will buy it.

Dec 7, 2012

Goofing off

At lunch, people complain about cold. That’s what we do, because Paula and Kim are trying to enforce the no-shoptalk rule during lunch. So, the temperature in the office is a topic of choice; the conversation is literally inexhaustible. In an older building, it is always either too cold or too hot.

Our Facilities friends have recently revealed the mystery of the heating system in Horace Mann. The thermostats in each room will start the heater fan when the temperature drops below 69. Well, the temperature at my feet level is close to freezing, while the thermostat is five feet up on the wall, and it is smugly enjoying its own micro-climate up there. Besides, it looks like an old thing to me, and may not feel much of anything.

I take a can of air - you know the thing for creating the disgusting storms of the bread crumbs and beard hair from keyboards – and blow it into the thermostat. It cools down, and the heater kicks on, to the general delight. It is unsettling to have a machine in your own room that does what it wants when it wants it. A modicum of control over the beast feels great. So we go around the offices blowing cold air into the thermostats. Their tiny insect brains are confused, and we all find it hilarious. Don’t judge us, it has been a long and difficult semester.

And then Liz suggests a great improvement. If you simply put an ice-pack on your thermostat, it will think the ice age just began, and give out the last drop of heat. However, I can’t quite let go of the canned air. If you squeeze its straw mouth and release some air, your fingers vibrate, and make a fleshly sound; not like a fart, but more like rodent squealing. If it is annoying to Paula it is good enough for me. Moreover, you can learn to modulate the sound by squeezing the straw opening more or less tight. In theory, you could play a tune on it.

That is what we do here all day, in case you are wondering.

Nov 30, 2012

Join the teaching profession, become a selfish bastard

TEIL, the Teacher Education Innovation Lab is one of my favorite parts of this job. It is very low-key; we just come and talk, but it always gives me an idea or two to ponder. Today, for example, we started with how to get across our messages in the overcrowded information space – to our students and to potential students. Then we somehow switched to the messages themselves. And then the idea of joy of teaching came back again – we discussed it before, more than a year ago. That is when we came up with the humorous tagline (we had a few others).

However, there is something very serious about it, too. The teaching profession is dominated by the hefty language of self-sacrifice and service, and it is just not healthy. The martyr squad is easy to respect, but its ranks are not easy to fill. The thing is – there is a lot of fun and stimulation, and novelty to teaching, especially if you know how to find it. It is never dull and boring, and it makes one’s brain work all the time. The kids are never the same, and there is energy that is coming from them. But the complication is – these joys are largely an acquired taste. We’re not born with many of them. But we do not teach our students to cultivate the taste for these little joys. There is nothing about it in our professional standards, no evidence of it in our instruments or statements of belief; we do not measure or recognize the importance of it. Our training is all about behavior, all about performance, but we rarely ask where the high performance comes from. What is the internal motivator for teachers? If it is not fame or money, then what is it exactly? The privilege of serving others is just not enough. Teachers have to actively look for opportunities to enjoy what they do; they should train themselves to be stimulated, entertained, and transformed by their jobs. For real connoisseurs, school is better than the movies, more interesting than fiction, more engaging than exotic vacations.

We’re still fairly fuzzy on the language here. Clearly, not all kinds of enjoyment are appropriate (“Oh, I had such an easy day today” clearly does not cut). Narcissism is not good for teaching. And yet we all agreed that the ability to see the non-monetary benefits of the profession brings is very important. Would it not make our Conceptual Framework distinctive and unique, if we included something like that? Even if we manage to turn our students’ gaze inward for at least some time, - would it not be great? It is just so important to know oneself, and to know what makes one tick. Imagine a conversation between a supervisor and a teacher candidate after a lesson observation:

“At what point did you feel stimulated, engaged, excited today? Why do you think it happened? How long did it last? Did it help you to perform better? Did children also benefit from it? Did you learn something about yourself, and what motivates you? Do you know how to replicate this?”

Nov 16, 2012

Yes, you can go home again

Strange things are brought back from trips home. I am not sure if Thomas Wolfe’s truism, you can't go home again, is really true. He implied that as we change, we can go home physically, but there is no way to return to the earlier state of being. One of my friends says nostalgia is about time, not place. Yes, OK, but it is only true if you think the point of going home is to go back into a happier state. I think past is a wild territory, full of treasures and dangers. It is an adventure, not a search for the paradise lost.

For example, I just realized this week that I really like dark, cold, snowy nights – not in any kind of a metaphorical or nostalgic sense. No, I just physically enjoy the cold on my face, and the squeaking dry snow of snow under my boots, and the peculiar sensation of gasping for air in the wind. Our minds are weird, weird machines. We can override the basic physiological distinction between pain and pleasure. We can learn to hate what must feel pleasant to others and love what should feel like discomfort. Old pains are new pleasures. I enjoyed the smell of cheap gasoline leaking through badly tuned engine of an old truck. Why? Because I remember riding in the cab of one of those trucks as a child, over an endless white road in the Siberian country side. Don’t remember why and with whom, but the smell brings me there. You are wrong, Thomas Wolfe, I still can find my Siberia; not all of it, but enough to know it’s there.

Moscow too has changed much. It became a sophisticated worldly metropolis, rivaling Paris, Berlin, and London. It is a city of $10 lattes and free WiFi in every café, of expensive cars stuck in traffic jams, and well-dressed multilingual crowds. And then suddenly a glimpse of subway tile teleports me somewhere else in an instant. From within the stranger’s face, familiar features emerge, of a much simpler city where we lived in the late 80-s. And I begin to recognize my Muscovites – their peculiar gait, their fast talk with certain vowels swallowed, and others unduly stretched. They talk to themselves on earpieces, but these are the same people.

I saw my father’s grave, found my old rasp, my mother’s wardrobe, talked to my teacher Nelli Petrovna; still sharp and curious. It is all still there, all of it. To find it, I just need to go home once in a while, and look.

Oct 26, 2012


They say men are better at it than women. They say we can put work into one compartment, life into another, and just keep them separately. I don’t know about that, but we all have to do it, and I don’t think any of us are really doing it well.

You hear about a friend‘s tragedy, and within 30 minutes you have to go back to doing the most mundane tasks, or answering simple, routine e-mails. The people on the other side of these e-mails do not know anything, and don’t care you’re upset. Your mind wants to think about the life and death; it wants to reach out, to connect. Yet PeopleSoft sends you reminders twice a day – “you have timesheets to approve.”

We all can do it; it is not an issue of capacity. It is just somehow feels wrong, no matter how you justify it. There is a dissonance, a gap here between the unevenness of simple human experiences, and the routine of our lives, especially of work lives. We cannot stop.

Sometimes, going back to the mundane offers solace. It helps to imagine that life is back to normal. I will never forget the story I recorded from F.F.Briukhovetski for my Russian dissertation in late 1980-s. The Southern city of Krasnodar was destroyed before and during its liberation in the winter of 1943. One of the few buildings still standing was the school #58. People thought, if only children can go back to school and sit behind their little desks – it would the best thing. And they did make it happened first, before there was water or food, or anything else. There was no ink, and they had to brew it from a local kind of thorny bush. There was no heat, and kids, teachers, and parents cut and split enough wood to keep the building warm till spring, when the rest of the city struggled to keep warm. It was not because they valued education; they craved normality. The city still loved that school with unusual devotion forty five years later, although very few of them remembered why, exactly. There is such a thing as elevated normality; we just need to find another meaning in it. The compartments in our minds do exist; we just need to learn to connect them.

Oct 19, 2012

Communications should cost more

As we are preparing for marketing campaign for our 2013 off-campus cohorts, I am worried and wondering about getting the word out. As the cost of communications got very low, the supply understandably increased. Anyone can communicate with anyone in the world for free. In the past, every piece of communications had cost: books were expensive to print, postage and paper used to cost real money. The labor of handwriting or typing something up was significant. Now it is all very cheap, which is good, right?

However, when distributing information used to cost more, the cost served as a barrier. You would not put up money to print a book if you did not believe it was important. Now anyone can self-publish, and we have no idea if it is even worth taking a look. More recently, it took some significant skill to put together a decent-looking website. Now with Work bench and Google Sites, it takes no skills at all. Anyone can s end an e-mail to thousands of people for free, so we are drowning in e-mail.

The information market, however, did not go away, because while the supply of information is limitless, the supply of human attention is not. People simply ignore most of the information they receive. This is why it is so frustratingly difficult to get anyone’s attention, even though it does not cost anything to send them a message. For example, we do not have teacher’s individual e-mails, but we do have principals’ emails. So when we have a program for teachers, we send it to principals. But a school principal’s inbox is a graveyard of information. I suspect they won’t even open most e-mails, not to mention trying to read it, consider, and forward.

Of course, we can call them on the phone and leave a message, but this would cost much in time. We could design a viral campaign, using the social media. But it requires an enormous creative input, because people won’t recommend their friends something that is boring. We would be competing with real marketers who can hire the best creative talent. You see the paradox – as information is getting cheaper, it actually becomes more expensive to communicate. The proposals for e-mail tax have been around for a while. Just try to Google for it. They have encountered much resistance, but I would welcome it any time. Just stopping the African scam alone would be worth it. Indeed, marketers like us should pay for the school principals’ attention and time. After all, it is taken away from running their schools. Of course, we’re not selling cologne, we’re selling better teachers, but they don’t know it when they see our e-mails. So I want to pay, if I knew how. Ideas?

Oct 12, 2012

Keeping still

Our species evolved to do something – run away from danger, find food, hunt, fight – to solve problems. Our languages evolved to help with doing: we have categories words for objects and for their qualities and actions. We are not very good at dealing with situations when there is nothing to do and nothing to solve; nothing important to say. Those include death of someone we love, despair, love, natural disasters, and many, many others. We live in an unpredictable and chaotic world, and we only learned to control a small part of it. We like to pretend that we can do more, but it is not true – the most important things like life and death, we cannot control.

In some traditions, meditation keeps the mind clear of all language-derived thought. In other traditions, including many Abrahamic prayer practices, the technique is to repeat the same words to the point where they lose literal meaning. Those are the things we do to overcome our propensity to always do and say something. The abilities to act and to speak are hindrances as much as they are assets. Humans are perpetually frustrated with their inability to solve problems – from love to death, from justice to beauty. Sometimes it is good, for it makes us move. However, it also causes us to suffer when no solutions can be found and none should be sought.

People’s experience with meditation and prayer are different from each other, but collectively different from those of every-day life of work, leisure, action and speaking. Otherwise, it would be difficult to explain the universal spread of spiritual practices among people of different religions or no religion. Keeping still and stopping our brains from the constant search for solutions is good for us. With some practice, we reach Bodhi (awakening) or are able to see the divine light/the Holy Spirit, which is essentially the same thing. How “real” that is depends on what you mean by reality and, even more importantly, why you need the concept of reality. The point of these practices is exactly to get pass the real/imagined dichotomy, so it would be unfair to measure something with what it is trying to overcome. People who ask if this is real miss the point. 

I can sometimes see the objects and people around me starting to disintegrate. It is as if the whole world is painted on glass, and someone from the other side of the glass is slowly hosing the paint down. The paint is very strong, but I can see some spots washed away, and white light shining through. I cannot see the light directly; I just know it is there. 

Oct 5, 2012

The autumnal light

The light is different. Even if it is just as warm, and when you find a completely green patch to look at, the light is undeniably autumnal. The sun is lower, the shadows are longer. The light is yellowish, and somehow a little more desperate. Even the air is somehow more transparent than in the summer; one can see further back and further forward.

And then there are leaves, the little yellow signaling flags: “It is time to think about the winter! Warm weather is not forever! You have been warned!” I was going to write about ideas, issues, solutions, and dilemmas – like always. Aha, but the light and the leaves can switch my brain gears easily. Their intrusive thrust of beauty and nostalgia makes the life of mind less important and less self-absorbed. A little tree in the distance has succumbed to the temptation; it is but a brief flash of the radiant red. I can see it through the row of those big trees that are still strong and green, and so sure. They disapprove of the little red tree – it is changing too early and too fast. “Everything in its own time,” they say. “I know, I know,” – says the blushing red tree, and “Too late, too late,” – it thinks, excited and dreading the inevitable. They really don’t care what I think, and it feels so great to know that.

Another giveaway is smell, even in the car with windows up; even in the office. Even when nothing is burning, I almost always sense the distant smell of burning leaves. It is the aroma of soil and pickled leaves, and of yesterday’s rain; of steps and worries dissolved in little puddles, of autumn. Take a chestful of fall air before sleep, every night. I guarantee activation of memories you forgot you had.

Sep 28, 2012

Stories we tell

Every week, I look back and try to find a story, somewhat entertaining, and hopefully not too narcissistic. Many a blogger succumbs to the temptation to justify themselves. And even in portrayal of own weaknesses, one is often secretly proud of one’s own repentant righteousness. But each of us is not really that interesting at navel-gazing. The other temptation is to present a history of one’s own thought rather than a story of oneself. We talk about ideas rather than our selves. This does not often work, because people want to read about well-considered, not half-baked ideas. Very few can improvise thought of good quality; one needs time to produce something of importance. Blogs and tweets suffer from low production value, which is basically, the volume of effort and time put into writing per unit of output. I have no illusions on how many genuinely new ideas appear in my 263 entries; probably not that many. Like many others, I also sermonize without a license. Let’s be that or this way, let’s do this and that; all of this is addressed to an audience that is pretty busy as is, and with fairly established beliefs and preferences.

Despite typos, ill-considered topics, and sloppy writing, my little writing exercise has received 51,206 page views since it started counting in June of 2008 (I actually started in July 2006). I am very grateful to those who look at this blog even briefly, for it keeps my only non-email writing discipline going. Thanks to Google’s relentless tracking, I know which entries drew the most views, although it is hard to know why.
This may be a case of graphomania, but I am not giving it up just yet. We all constantly construct narratives of our own lives. We stitch the chaotic flow of events together into quilts of memory and meaning. Those are not necessarily beautiful or profound stories, but they go beyond personal use. There is a point in sharing them with each other, because we live and work together.

Sep 21, 2012

The joys of curricular cooking

In the last couple of weeks, we held a series of meetings to check on the multiple curriculum projects we're undertaking this Fall; 18 projects to be exact, three of which are already completed (they all carried over from last year). These are some of the most enjoyable and intellectually stimulating thing in my job. First, I get to dream, to imagine things done in the right way, and to solve problems. Second, it is a lot of fun to think through each challenge with others. The synergy of thinking within a small group is always impressive to me. My colleagues all have remarkable knowledge of the nuances of their programs, which often cannot be formally represented. But it comes out in these conversations, where we imagine how a program may be changed. If set up properly, a brainstorming session by a small team can be very effective in seeing the unintended consequences, but also in finding creative solutions.

Program development is a special kind of thinking, which I am only beginning to really dig; I don’t think anyone has a firm and scientific grip on it. We always operate within a set of multiple constraints. Some of them have to do with the limited fundamental options. What I mean is, there is only a certain number of ways you can slice a teacher prep program, or a masters’ program. You will probably need a student teaching at the end, and a few other practicum experiences before that. You probably need some methods course, and ed. psych, and a social foundations course. Of course, it is also a lot of fun to think of more radical changes (we have TEIL for that).

Then there is the political landscape within the College – how would this be perceived by faculty within and outside our School? There are economic considerations – if we design a program that is too scary to students to come into, - that would be a mistake. We need to think how program design affects student schedules, and how that schedule fits into their lives. How would they register, how does it affect their financial aid, etc., etc., etc.

One remarkable quality of human brain is that it can tell a holistic story of something that did not happen yet. We can imagine alternative realities. And that allows for a fairly quick modeling of available options. In most cases, we can quickly identify dead ends in our thinking, then go back and try another route. It will probably take computers a very long time to catch up with us in that capacity to imagine.

This process is somewhat similar to cooking – you throw in well-known ingredients, and a couple of new ones, and think about how they fit together, and how they interact. There is an element of accident to it, an element of traditions – we know what works and what does not, - and an element of creativity to it. I highly recommend it.

Sep 14, 2012

Selling experience

It is not clear what higher education is all about. For centuries, people believed it was about wisdom or virtue. For a few centuries after that, they believed it was about knowledge. Now all of it is in question once again. Knowledge seems to be abundant and cheap, and expensive teaching services seem to be replaceable. What are we selling then? It increasingly looks like we’re hawking credentials rather than actual knowledge. This is probably an overstatement, but it is plausible that we’re selling knowledge at a higher price than market is willing to bear. We cornered the market through the peculiar regime rooted in three things: academic credentials, accreditation, and professional licensure laws. Yet the cozy arrangement may not be as stable as we may think. There may be an unlikely coalition forming to shake the system up: social conservatives suspect we’re pushing an ideology on students; fiscal conservatives think we may be wasteful; and the creative Left thinks we’re too conservative and not innovative enough. All of them are looking for a technology that makes higher education less expensive if not obsolete. Literally, hundreds and thousands of very smart entrepreneurs and engineers are working on ending higher education as we know it (and as we learned to value the paychecks coming from it). No one yet came up with a plausible technological miracle. Although the media, TED talks, gurus and other such exulted things make it feel as if the Messiah is already here. No, he, or rather it – the revolutionary technology - is not here yet.

However, it would be foolish to ignore our precarious position. The fundamental ritual of college – a lecture – can be cheaply broadcasted. It is not clear why thousands of professors should deliver a similar lecture across the country. The other fundamental interactions – a discussion, even a lab – can be reproduced online, and become potentially less expensive to deliver. We can circle our wagons, but the monopoly may not hold anyway; not because of the technological threat, but because of the massification of higher education (I published a paper about that very phenomenon recently).

What we could do is the same thing other industries have done, when their goods became less expensive and more widely available: we should sell experience. The essence of human life is experience; it’s the adventure, the challenge, the struggle and triumph, the making of memories, and writing one’s own life story. You can buy a pair of shorts for cheap online with minimal effort. Or you can dress up, go to the mall with your significant other, do some people watching, check out what’s new in the stores, see some colors, eat some ice cream, catch a movie, and, by the way, buy the same pair of shorts at twice the price. Although there is an element of unpredictability here, like in any game – you may run into a sale, and feel even better. What did you just buy, shorts or the experience? Are shorts merely an excuse, a byproduct, an extra benefit to what is the real commodity here – your experience, your life.

It is the same for college. It can either go to the inexpensive no-frills Wal-Mart-like transaction, or become experience-rich, experience-centered enterprise with knowledge as a bonus. How this can be done is not yet clear.

Sep 7, 2012

Decision-making is a contact sport

I teach a doctoral class on organizational theory, leadership and educational policy. This is my sermon to them for the next week (double-dipping here).

Here is how decisions of managers – mine and others’ – often go wrong. You get a report on an issue or a problem from someone who does not have the direct involvement with it. No one normally has the time to go and talk to the people directly involved, or to the other side of the conflict or issue. You weigh the options within the context of my horizon of the organizational knowledge. It becomes very clear which options are unacceptable and which we can live with. Because your view of usually broader (that’s the reason people came to you with the issue in the first place), you simply assume that the priorities you see outweigh whatever priorities of the parties involved in the issue. So, you ask/direct people to solve the problem in particular way, and figure out the details on how to get there. You’re done and move on to bigger and more important things. And it often goes wrong; more often than not. Why? Because it is a contactless decision.

First, the solution you see – oh, so clearly! – as a correct one, may turn out to be completely unattainable. Your particular view of the organization just does not allow seeing what could go wrong. There is simply too much context that easily escapes the view of a manager; some of it may be irrelevant, but some may be critical – you just never know. Now, asking people to perform impossible things is not a good management strategy. They will either fail or do something that makes sense to them, and won’t tell you. Either outcome is not good for a long-tern health of the organization.

Second, a fair decision must be based on hearing both (or all) sides of a story. We tend to trust people who we work with every day, and it feels weird to reach out for an alternative opinion. But the problem is not in the intentional misrepresentation. We all tend to remember and highlight facts that support our version of events, and forget or demote facts that do not. Again, time crunches tend to make this problem worse, for there is no time to look for alternative narratives. We then end up with an unfair decision. Most people will not get upset if they had a chance to state their case, and are overruled nevertheless, especially if they understand the reasons. They will inevitably get upset if given no chance to present their case.

And third, if you keep making all the decisions, you short-circuit all responsibility on yourself. As a result, you get overwhelmed with a constant stream of problems to be addressed. You train your people not to make decisions, but always defer to you. So they feel less responsible for the overall well-being of the organization. You also spread the word that none of the other people in the organization matter; unless it is you say yes or no, everything else is not important.

Decision-making is a contact sport. You need to be in touch with people who are actually involved in the issues you’re trying to solve. But because you in your position cannot be in touch with that many people, you should not make that many decisions. You should be there to listen and to mediate relationships with those above you or outside organization, but people closest to the issue should be making most of the decisions, and figuring out most of their own solutions. Only when and if they fail or ask for help you should step in. And once you delegate responsibility, you cannot constantly yank it and give it back – this discourages everyone and makes it impossible to take one’s responsibility seriously.

And the last point – just because I know this in theory does not mean I always do it. The instinct to make a quick call is very hard to suppress.

Aug 31, 2012

The many species of time

We’ve been saying “Happy New Year!” to each other. Yes, our year starts in late August. That is when we wipe our slates clean, make the New Year resolutions, and try to set things in motion. For me, the first few weeks of a Fall semester is a sensitive time with its own temper and its own wonderful mood. Over the years, I learned to treat it with special respect.

The start of classes hits like a ton of bricks, manifesting mainly in the oversized inbox. It is not about glitches necessarily; faculty and students just need to figure out many things at the beginning of a semester. But this is also the best time to set in motions certain processes (which is why we have to think about which projects to commit to in the summer). If you wait until October, sometimes it is too late. For example, if we are thinking about an off-campus cohort to start a year from now, and it is for a program that needs some revisions, the timeline is like this: to recruit students, we learned to start in November; it is hard to get teachers in December, and in February it may be too late. Why? - Because we need time to admit students, and before that, they need some time to take a GRE exam. Also, despite the instant information transfer, it takes at least four-to-eight weeks for our message to penetrate the teacher’s consciousness. In order to take an email from a stranger seriously, people need validation from someone they trust. OK, back to November: to start recruiting, we need to have a very clear understanding of the program for ourselves, we need to schedule information meetings, and before that, we need a web page with program description, and copy for advertisement. It does not have to be fully approved by curriculum committee until Spring, but we at least need to agree internally on what it needs to look like. To get to that point, we need some time to meet and figure it out. To set up meetings in September, it is better to start now, because calendars get full quickly, and people start grading, and engaged in other hundreds of projects. Time is uneven; some months are denser than others, some months and weeks are more suitable for specific purposes than others.

We get in trouble when we assume time to be all even and homogeneous. But it has texture and fibers, and different viscosity. Here is one example I probably already have written about (I have 257 posts, not including those I had to take down; it is easy to forget). Our use of committees for curriculum design is often wrong. It takes a long time to agree on a meeting time. A one hour meeting is really a 30 minutes meeting, because 15 minutes go into trying to remember what the last meeting was about (it could be a month or more ago), and another 15 minutes for trying to set up the next one. It is simply too short for a substantive discussion. Plus people need to catch up, chat, etc. So almost every program revision takes a year or two, and it is before other departments get involved. Now, this is not how the rest of the world moves, and we simply cannot afford to continue working like this.

In my view, the best schedule to fit the task may look like this: a very small core team of people gets together for a brainstorm, figures out the problems, and possible solutions; just the options available (a 1.5 hour meeting). Then one person creates a draft, or a set of alternative drafts. Assemble a panel (or just make a few phone calls or emails) from the practitioners in the field for their feedback; rewrite. This would be also the best point to work with administrators and other departments if they are affected. Then a larger group of people who have the stake and know the program gets together for a retreat (at least 2 hours, better 3 or 4), and discusses/critiques, offers alternative solutions, imagines unintended consequences. Then one person takes the consensus and the ideas into consideration and writes the final version. Send it out for the larger group’s review and consent; include external audiences, and anyone who may have an objection; incorporate all good ideas. Push the proposal through the curriculum approval process. It is done – in 4-5 hours of meeting times, and in only two scheduled meetings. Remember, the scheduling itself takes a long time, and is an unproductive activity. Forgetting and failure to follow up on assigned tasks are the two major contributors to inefficiency. Our regular way of doing things like this would involve 6-10 meetings stretched over the period of one year or more.

Of course, the task at hand determines the time configuration. Policy-making committees will probably need more meetings, with people doing specific research in between. Curriculum alignment among several existing courses may also take a combination of individual work with committee-based fact-finding, and consensus-building. Wherever context of a conversation may not be shared, more face-to-face interactions will help reduce misunderstanding and build trust. A large portion of our tasks can be more efficiently accomplished by one person alone, with others involved as needed; we all need to work on the art of soliciting feedback from right people at the right time.

One should learn to recognize the different species of time.

Aug 17, 2012

In the woods

Breaking with the bad habit of eating over keyboard, I went out for a walk on campus. We are about to dive head on into the new school year. Many are trying to do something to clear their heads a little, to reset the emotional clock. So I ended up on a dirt utility road behind the Anchorman field. Someone has made a little path that starts at the back entrance to the Field. I am pretty sure some adventurous students did, because right now it is overgrown and thorny. There is some trash, but not much at all. I did walk through though, and met a young family of wild turkeys: a graceful mom and four awkward adolescent chicks. They were not particularly scared, but neither did they want to talk. We nodded and went our separate ways. It was so quiet, I could hear their footsteps.

I like forests, always have. It gives me this particular sense of solitude without the self-absorption. The forest is a whole world. It will let you in, but is too busy to care about you. The forest can be counted on to quiet down the noisy lists of things to worry about.

This little wooded patch could be a lovely little reprieve space for our campus; just imagine a short walk through the woods in the middle of a day. I am not sure who the land belongs to – not to RIC, judging from the maps. But I just wonder if people who live on Fruit Hill and on Belcourt Avenues would like to share with us a few paths through the woods in their backyards.

As I stare at the list of projects, THAT would be a fun project to add on. All it would take is a truckload of wood chips, and a few volunteers with hand tools. And we would need one person who understands water flows and walking paths. I image a warm September Saturday, a few faculty and students show up with shovels, saws, and wheelbarrows. We cut some bushes, throw some wood chips on the ground, rake them, and voila, we have our own little forest path! Not a park, not anything formal, no ribbon cuttings, please! - just a little path through the woods. Of course, we’d need to start with finding the owner, getting RIC and neighbors on board…

Any one wants to do this with me? A FSEHD Woods exploratory committee? Something tells me this is perhaps what we need the most.

Aug 5, 2012

The six tricks everyone should know

Many simple time-saving technologies are underused in the academia – by staff and/or by faculty. This results in hundreds of thousands of wasted work hours, not to mention the frustration of tedious work. Here are the six technologies everyone should learn to be a little less tired, and to save time and energy for more creative, more fulfilling and meaningful work. The first five are at least 20 years old, the sixth one is a little newer.
  1. Mail merge is extremely useful in communication with students, especially if you teach larger classes. The essential tension of teaching is between the need to provide personal attention to each student and the lack of time to do so. The mail merge provides a small but effective way of addressing it. You can write 60 individualized emails to your students in a few minutes. Imagine something like this: “Dear …, thank you for sending me your paper titled ….; I enjoyed reading it. Your strength are … However, you still need to work on ….. Here is the break-down of your grade: Mechanics … out of 10, clarity … out of 10, insight … out of 10; total … out of 30. I am looking forward to reading your next paper. If you have any questions regarding your grade, please do not hesitate to write me back. However, if you think I made an error grading, please send me a detailed explanation with specific references to your text.” It is virtually impossible to write these emails individually; no one has the kind of time. However, with Mail Merge, all you need is a table with brief comments that fit into the fields. It creates a bit of an illusion for students, but there is nothing unethical about appearing a little more personal and attentive than you actually can afford to be. 
  2. AutoText is an equivalent of old rubber stamps some professors used to have. If you grade many papers it could be a life-saver. For example, I used to type dm, and then F3. In the text of the student paper, the following entry would instantly appear: "THIS IS A DANGLING MODIFIER (DM), A WORD OR PHRASE THAT MODIFIES (DESCRIBES, CLARIFIES, OR GIVES MORE DETAIL ABOUT) A WORD NOT CLEARLY STATED IN THE SENTENCE. DON’T WORRY, IT IS A VERY COMMON MISTAKE, BUT YOU NEED TO LEARN TO AVOID MAKING IT IN THE FUTURE. READ MORE ABOUT DANGLING MODIFIERS HERE. There is no need to copy and paste, AutoText will remember this entry for as long as you own the computer (it is stored in the Normal template). It requires a minimal initial investment of time, but save much time subsequently, and provides better service to students. 
  3. Tables of Content. Anyone who writes longer documents – books, dissertations, reports – should learn this thing. If you consistently apply styles to your headings, go to References, and Insert Table of contents. It’s kind of magic. 
  4. Online surveys. Any time you’re asking several people a series of questions, you probably want to end up with a spreadsheet rather than with a stack of index cards. The reason is obvious – it takes less time to process: you can sort, filter those, and use for Mail Merge to communicate back. When to use online survey-like forms? The answer is – ALWAYS, unless there is a legal reason to collect original signature. This covers 99.9% of all office paperwork, and many cases in teaching. Any time you are receiving an email from each student to get a particular piece of information, you are wasting your time, and should instead use a survey. Several commercial providers have been around for a long time; most will let you do a small survey for free. Google Forms is completely free and you can publish the result link. 
  5. Pivot Tables. Anyone who works with large sets of data in Excel should invest a little time in learning Pivot Tables. If you find yourself constantly sorting, filtering, cutting and pasting, “stacking” columns on top of each other, you probably will be better off with pivoting. Just select the data you are trying to make a sense of, go to Insert, Pivot Table. Persist for a few minutes playing with it, and your life will never be the same. 
  6. Google Docs and Google Sites (now also the Google Drive). This is the only “newer” piece of underused technology, that started in about 2007. Any time you catch yourself sending a document for review, then receiving comments, and incorporating them back into the original document, you should feel a pinch of guilt and think of docs. A large part of our work is collaborative, and it results in a document being published online. This technology allows to skip most of the steps in between. If you end up with a website anyway, why go through all the preliminary drafts? Just create a blank site or document, let many people contribute their pieces, read, critique and review – all at the same time.

Jul 26, 2012

Learning with TFA

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague and I went to NYC to attend Teach for America’s Summer Institute. We are starting a collaborative program with them and this was an attempt to learn about the experiences the Corps Members have before they will come to our classes.

The relationship between TFA and the teacher education community is anything but easy. We sometimes end up on the opposite sides of educational debates. At the same time, in many states colleges collaborate with TFA and help their members to obtain state certification.

Some in our field perceive TFA to be the main existential threat. I never thought this to be the case. Their model of teacher preparation cannot be scaled up significantly because of its cost, and the high level of idealism it requires of Corps Members. Yet it would be completely foolish to ignore the organization’s success in recruiting people who would not have consider teaching as a career, and in creating a large following amongst a large segment of school principals and superintendents. When we started working with them, part of me was just very curious about what it is they do, and what we can learn from them. So, if you think they are our friends, you agree we should learn from them. If you think they are our sworn enemies, well, it is even more important to learn from them, right?

We have been working with a local TFA in various ways for almost two years now, and I already knew quite a bit about them. Still, I was going in a bit skeptical. What can you do in five weeks training? The very phrase “five weeks training” is often repeated in our circles with sarcasm. Of course, we spent decades our lives in teacher preparation, and just know a thing or two about what goes into training a decent teacher. Well, I had to admit that I was wrong. One can actually do a lot in five weeks, and evidence was pretty undeniable.

The secret is very simple: when what you lack is time, you compensate by the intensity of the experience and by strong organization. In other words, if you make the experience super-charged, and eliminate the waste, you can achieve good results.

Yes, TFA members teach only about 20 lessons over the course of the 5 weeks to small classes of 6-15 children. But every single lesson plan is critiqued ahead of time, and every lesson is observed by at least one experienced teacher; often by two or three. Every lesson observed by a TFA mentor is analyzed and critiqued in an hour-long one-on-one session. It is a hard drill on a certain kind of thinking, not on behavior. TFA uses the Teaching as Leadership rubric. It is not that superior to what we use, but they stick to it for years, and of course, learn how to use it. Corp Members also attend seminars, right in the schools where they teach, lead by curriculum specialists. They are expected to apply directly what they learned in their classrooms within the next couple of days. The whole thing has a feel of a boot camp, and it is not just a superficial comparison. The military discovered the value of short and intensive experiences a very long time ago.

We observed a few lessons taught by the corps members. Were they perfect? Not at all, but they were darn good for someone in the second week of one’s teaching career; definitely better than my first few weeks of teaching. We could see how the Corps Members struggle, and where they need help. In this sense, there are no miracles; it takes a lot of effort to learn the craft. But it can be done faster under the right conditions.

Of course in this model one has to sacrifice something. There is no time for reading much theory, or for in-depth discussions about the dynamics of learning and relationships in classroom. There is no time to search for great creative ideas in lessons design. This is where we hopefully come in with four RIC classes, a part of the RIC-TFA collaborative program ( But I got an impression that TFA people are fully aware of what they are sacrificing, and what they are gaining.

The operational side of thing is remarkable – as an administrator, I appreciated the enormous challenge that comes with bringing 600 young people to New York City for five weeks, and trying to make teaches out of them. They also need to be fed, housed, observed, evaluated, taught, briefed, etc., etc. Because TFA has many more applicants than spots, they can afford to select candidates carefully. It helps to have bright and dedicated young people. TFA is also not skimpy on providing human resources – about 150 “adults” work to support the institute of 600 new Corps Members; it is a 1:4 ratio. It is very expensive (although TFA recruit their alums to help for relatively cheaply). The economy of scale and years of previous experience help, too. But here is my point again – if they did it for three months, the cost would become prohibitive. So the choice of the 5 weeks is not random; it is the only way to keep the cost under control. And if you have to do this, you may as well squeeze everything out of this short experience.

The lesson for me is that it is too easy to see our way of doing things as the only way. This applies to everyone, not just teacher educators. It is helpful to see alternatives, just to shake off these self-imposed blinders. It is like going to another country – you recognize the same things, but are surprised by how they can be so different. We are not going to become like TFA, for our constrains and resources are very different. But nothing prevents us from looking at shorter but more intensive field experiences – in addition to what we are doing already. I wish we learned to be less tolerant to waste and fluff, and more focused on what we believe is important.

Jul 17, 2012

The Peace House

In the Summer of 1992, we were leaving the Peace House, which is a big name for a small dorm in the Columbia Hall at the University of Notre Dame. We are: Aixa, Nepo, Jasmin, Bishu, Mike, Katy, Yousef, Ingrida, Marianna, Hong, Xiao Yun, Njubi, Cristian, and Sasha. We came from 10 different countries to spend a year in the International Peace Studies Program and. We were leaving citizens of 12 different countries, because the Soviet Union broke up within the first couple of weeks of our stay. Yesterday, some of the same people were leaving Providence after our 20 year reunion.

Surprising to me was how easily we could start where we left off, as if the 20 years were just a dream. We could skip the small talk and go straight to what is important – our children, families, truth, justice, faith, love, life, peace. People become friends when they share some history together. Friendship is literally a stock of stories held in common property. We struggle, work, learn together, make errors and fix them. Each scar on one’s psyche matches to other people’s scars. This makes us close.

And we had a plenty of scars that year; some from pain some from joy; after time passes they are the same. A human life does not have even density; some periods are much more significant than others. Well, that year was certainly very dense. With the exception of two Americans, we all were new to this country. All of us were new to graduate school. We built a community, got on each other’s nerves, argued endlessly and threw great parties. People fell in love and broke each other’s hearts, except for just a couple of us whose hearts already belonged to someone else. To balance that out, I spoke almost no English, and wrestled with the language more than anyone else. The frustration of speechlessness was perhaps the best learning experience that happened to me. I recommend it to everyone.

We remembered very few readings and classes, but we did remember the relational side of things – who were close, who had a crush on whom, and who did not get along and why. It made me think of a silly theory popular just two decades ago – that our brains have this tremendous reserve capacity we can tap and use. The theory was inspired by savants who able to crunch big numbers in their heads. However, it is because they do not have to use their brains for the high calculus of human relationships. Most people’s brains, however, work at full capacity to just keep track of other people in their lives. It probably takes up most of our brain power, because it has always been so critical to our survival. We live in the world crowded by humans, and little space allotted for everything else – from stars to algebra to big ideas.

As we become individuals of “certain age,” our lives’ narratives gradually appear out of the fog of forgetfulness and the confines of confusion. One does need friends to make some sense of it all, and I am just grateful to have many. It was a very good weekend.

Jun 28, 2012

The theory of the other

Research is not about helping us to develop theories. To the contrary, research is a way of preventing our minds from generating too many theories too quickly. Our brains are just pattern-seeking machines, and they will find patterns where there are none. For example, billions of people on this planet believe that you can catch cold by being cold, which it is simply untrue. But everyone has the experience of catching a draft, and then coming down with a sore throat – we remember it, because our culture reinforces this opinion. However we completely forget hundreds of times when it was just as cold, but no influenza followed. It is the same with premonitions – we all forget those that did not materialize, but remember the one in the life-time that did, by chance. Scientists learn to check their hunches and hypotheses against evidence; in other words, they learned to rain in their own minds, rather than release them.

This works in relationships, too. We develop theories about each other. Each person we know eventually becomes represented in our mind as a set of assumptions about him or her. She is helpless, he is careless, that one is funny, and this one is clever. Once those mental images are formed, they self-reinforce. We tend to forget and suppress facts that undermine the theory, and notice what supports it. Once we have developed a theory of someone, the natural flow of facts will support it.

Sometimes the theory of the other is formed on the basis of one event. For example, someone was late for your first meeting, and it was so memorable that you’re unable to shake the negative impression even if the same person was early 100 other times. The human mind is not designed to deal with statistics; it is incapable of treating different events as identical in some respect.

When the evidence becomes overwhelming, we cannot ignore it any longer, and the mind will revise the theory with what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” However, when we become angry and frustrated about something else, those safety mechanisms stop working. The negative theories tend to become self-sustaining and unmoving. In a group situation, people tend to appoint someone to be the problem, and then reinforce their theories each other. Just like with the flu – repeating the same thing tends to make the observer’s bias stronger. This simple mechanism feeds most of organizational conflicts.

How do we avoid turning each other into theories? It appears to be important to not over-interpret, or to keep our theory-making capacities in check. In qualitative research, one of the first rules is to avoid over-interpreting. We learn to suspend judgment and let more unfiltered evidence to come in. It is very important to recognize that every person is an unfinished story, not reducible to whatever little we know about him or her. Let us celebrate our ignorance, limit our imagination, and forget what we have learned.

Jun 21, 2012

Reinventing email

Email is like oxygen – it is essential to sustain life on this planet, and yet too much of it makes one dizzy. Many people are trying to “reinvent email.” Here is my little contribution.

The problem with email is that senders do not have a way of organizing their thoughts in a systematic and predictable fashion. We process information better and quicker when it follows a pattern. However, in half emails I struggle to determine what exactly the sender wants me to do, if anything. It is not because they are poorly written; not at all. After all, most emails I get are from faculty and other administrators. Those are all highly educated people with great writing skills. I do not miss struggling through undergrads’ messages! Still, in longer e-mails, it is especially difficult to grasp the genre of every message, because there are several. It would be so cool to know in advance, which is that – an artful epistolary piece, or a rambling manifesto, or a dry request for funding.

We all practice speed reading, which does not work so well. I miss important nuances because they were buried in the middle of the third paragraph. As every reading professor knows, you can only fake comprehension so far. As many others, I am also guilty of not identifying the genre of my messages clearly.

To make more time for reading emails, we recruited our smart phones. As a result, millions of emails are now read over urinals. I am thinking it is time to install phone holders on the walls just above every urinal, to keep hands free and the whole affair a little more hygienic. I don’t know what women do, but I am sure there is a business opportunity there, too. This is not good, of course. You cannot cheat time by slicing it into smaller pieces. Other people just do not read and respond. This is a symptom of a serious condition, an admission of defeat. It is also very disruptive to the organization to have people who habitually ignore correspondence. (Of course, sometimes a non-answer is the intended answer, but how would you know?). The real solution is to do less reading, more thinking. We all want those who send emails to do the work of editing, and organizing information for us. But we do not want to do the same when we’re the senders. Email onto others as you would like emailed onto you.

The real solution it is about nudging senders to organize their information. Companies figured it out a long time ago, and on most websites, you cannot just send an e-mail without answering some screening questions first. They will at least force you to choose among several pre-defined subjects: do you have login issues? Do you have a technical problem? Do you want a refund? At the extreme, corporate monsters like Facebook, Google, or Microsoft do not want any emails from you at all. It is too expensive to read. If you want help, you will be sent to forums, in search for people who already had the same problem, and it was resolved. You are forced to meander across the corpses of dead conversations in search for a morsel of useful information. I think Microsoft had invented this many years ago – there was the Microsoft/kb – knowledge base…

I don’t want that. I don’t want people to stop writing to me. Most of things I know are from faculty and staff, and the generous information flow is essential for me. I don’t want to appear to be less approachable. I don’t mind reading e-mails; just want to do it a little more efficiently. So, I am inviting everyone to pilot this new little tool at Let me know if this is annoying, or useful. If it helps to clarify the intent of a message, or makes it more obscure. Do you see a good way of improving it? How do you make the options fit the message better, without creating a huge list? This is strictly voluntary; feel free to use the regular email!

If this works, we can perhaps think of ways of dealing with student email intended for faculty. They often strike us as both impolite and poorly written. Perhaps a little training tool could make them both easier to digest and more valuable (in the educational sense) to write?

Jun 13, 2012

Alice and Wonderland

Alice, our first granddaughter, was born in the early morning of 6/8/12. Babies cannot tell stories, but they certainly know some. What else would explain their dreams? Alice smiles in her dream, remembering something. It seems like there is nothing to remember yet, but she does. We try to figure out whose genes are responsible for this particular mouth, nose, and for that interesting expression. Of course, the real conversation is: what is she going to be like? Who are we getting to know? Who is this person coming into our families?

Looking at your grandchild is a separate experience altogether. There is nothing quite like it. Many grandparent friends tried to explain it to me before, but it is sort of hard to explain. I now understand why. The distance in one generation puts the whole affair of human life in a different light. You’re not really afraid to drop her every second, and you’re not sleep-deprived, and you’re not afraid to be a horrible parent. This time around, you see what you’re supposed to see, because your senses are not as excited. You see how little effect parenting actually has on children, and how much is already inside. You see their growth as unfolding of what’s already in them, as well as exercising their own choices. As long as parents stay in the good-enough zone, provide, protect, and love, they are all OK, and all are fairly inconsequential. Parents are often trying to make something out of their children; grandparents are mostly curious to know how the kid is going to turn out. It’s discovery rather than creation.

I suppose this is because we are a species of makers. Anything that is complex,- we expect to spend a lot of effort working on it. Nothing comes easy. Yet the most complex thing – another human being – is a different story. It is certainly easier to make a baby than to write a book, but a baby is so much more interesting, more complex, more unexpected, and smells better than a book. This is what people used to call Grace – a gift that we neither deserve nor understand.

Now I get Lewis Carroll; he meant to say that Alice IS the Wonderland; she carries all of this inside her, the Rabbit with white gloves, and the Caterpillar, the March Hare and the Hatter. How interesting. Curiouser and curiouser.

Jun 1, 2012

The other education

Yesterday, I saw the Providence AFTERZONE end-of-the-year celebration. There was an Aikido club, a soccer club, a few art and crafts groups, a noisy group of kids wearing monster masks, a guitar studio, a dance group, the Save the Bay, the natural history museum, and so many others – I cannot list them all. And of course, a few hundred kids were bussed in to showcase their work, and to play in the inflatable obstacle course. In education, I am more impressed by things that appear normal, by the phenomena that feels “as things should be.” Let me call this the sense of elated normality. We all have a sense of good life in us, a certain instinct to recognize when things go right. But there is a narrower subset of the same sense as applied to the world of childhood and learning; you know a good educational experience when you see it.

Coincidentally, I am trying to work on a paper for a new journal called Other Education that is going to cover forms of education outside traditional schooling. This made me think about a profound damage to American education that was done and is continued to be done by the Back-to-basics thinking. In business, if you want to improve the quality and efficiency, you concentrate on your core production process, and let go of all extraneous things. Well, this is not exactly true even for business, but alas education was influenced not by real business people, but by business gurus. So the thinking went – if you want kids to learn more math, then spend more time and money on learning math, and less time on fluff like dance groups and a bead jewelry clubs. And while we are at it, let’s also cut recess to only a few minutes, and oh, let the junior high band go, too, for it is very expensive and we have another round of cuts.

But this is not how education works. If you are after the core skills such as literacy and numeracy, the road to them is indirect. For certain developmental reasons, it is especially so in the middle school. The road goes through relationships. You need first to latch on children’s interests, then build a relationship with students, and only then can you ask – oh, why don’t we also learn some algebra. One of the core problem affecting education is, unfortunately, the democracy itself. Most educational professionals will recognize the need for afterschool and summer programming immediately. If you want to be a hard-nosed pragmatic, you need to see the “fluff” as the educational infrastructure and the hard skills as a product. Unfortunately, the lay boards and politicians that run education in this country find that reasoning hard to understand. I have to admit that even within our profession, some people with experiences limited to just schools and classrooms do not understand it either. Hence the generation of partially blind educational reformers hammering away at accountability solutions.

An economic analogy would be this: you can invest all you want in food production, but if you don’t have any roads to get food from growers to consumers, you cause both food shortages and waste. In education, the path through children’s interests to relations IS the only road to deliver learning to them. We neglect, defund, and actively destroy the road, and pump all resources we can muster into the production. But if children or their minds are not in the classroom, they won’t learn no matter how hard the teacher tries and how skillful she or he is.

This is why I experienced the sense of elated normality yesterday. Our state has one of the most innovative and organized afterschool communities in the country, and this is one achievement we can be proud of. PASA wants to sign every middle-schooler in the city who wants it to a Summer day camp, for free. This is how things should be. This society absolutely can afford it, even if school budgets must be cut to do that.

May 25, 2012

Lost in transmission

What people tell you directly is always different from how others would relate that message. Any important and somewhat complex message you receive indirectly, through a third person, is bound to be incorrect. This is especially true when the subject matter is not neutral, when the conveyer has an agenda or an interest, or is under stress. Basically, one should never completely believe anyone representing a third person’s opinion. With two people in between, I often cannot recognize my initial message if it comes back to me. Many times, people to whom I convey what someone told me they said have the same reaction. 

Why is this? - Certainly not because people lie. In fact, very few people lie. There are not many good natural liars, and the ability to lie flawlessly usually speaks of neurosis or mental problems. For a regular person, it is very difficult to lie effectively, and takes an enormous effort and incredible memory. Because information is shared so freely and so often, a deliberate lie will come to surface, with embarrassing consequences. We all know that.

Nor do people often misrepresent other’s words intentionally. This happens more often than direct lies, but it still cannot account for the amount of errors in transmission. But any informational transaction involves an act of interpretation. And that act is not neutral to what we want, what we afraid of, and what we already know and believe. You will literally hear what you hear differently depending on who is speaking, and what opinion you have of the speaker. If you built a theory of the other person that deems his or her incompetent, and that person reports on a problem, you will automatically assume it is his or her own fault. If you do not trust the other person’s intentions, almost anything she or he says will be perceived - and transmitted to others – as deceitful or ill-intentioned.

It also depends on what you want from this interaction. For example, if you ask for a permission, and the answer is “no”, your mind will go into a process of looking for a ways of not hearing the “no,” and finding any possible “maybe’s.” Let it go for a while, and the subconscious mind will do the trick by literally re-arranging your memories of the conversation. And of course, the transmitter almost never says “no” in a way that leaves no room for interpretation. It would be impolite and offensive. So the room for more interpretation is always there.

The speakers are also attuned to what the receiver of the message hopes to hear. So we all edit our message just a little to please whoever is the listener right now. Therefore the same exact message conveyed to another person will sound slightly different. We have the instant editing machine in our brain that will alter our words an instance they leave the mouth.

There are many of these small corrections, which accumulate over the number of transmissions, and which actually become larger with the passage of time, as we rearrange and re-organize our memories. None of us can remember verbatim what the other person had said, so we need to re-tell the story in our own words; this very act introduces more errors. Thus a message “but this is the kind of reasoning the Nazi were using to justify their policies” becomes “oh, she compared you to the Nazi.”

We all need to avoid indirect transmissions of sensitive messages to the extent possible. “Why don’t you ask him?” or “It is better if she explains this to you” are phrases we should use more often. When in doubt, go to the source, and verify. And never act on a message you did not receive directly from the sender. “He said, she said” is a red alert cue. A n utterance that begins with one of these qualifiers can never be trusted for anything other than simple, factual messages. In conflict, always hear both or all sides directly. It is not easy to achieve, but there is little choice.

May 18, 2012

Blind leading the blind

One place where the “blind leading the blind” system works well is anonymous peer review. Introduced first in 1665 by Hendy Oldenburg, the editor of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, this remarkably successful invention advanced the quality of scholarship. It is partly responsible for the establishment of the scientific method and the rise of the European civilization. I know the Russian academic scene fairly well; it can boast both talent and ideas, but no true blind peer review process. This little deficiency has very large consequences. The Russian educational discourse is much more arbitrary, much more ego-driven than the English-speaking one. It takes much longer for good ideas to rise to the top; it breads corruption and discourages truthfulness. Both junk and good scholarship can be found both in Russia and in the West, of course, but I can assure you, the proportions are very different. The anonymous peer review provides a significant nudge, over time shaping the academic discourse. It has its drawbacks in the times of paradigm shifts, but no one argues that its overall effects are negative or insignificant.

When I review a paper, don’t know who wrote it, so I am not beholden to assumptions, biases, and expectations. The judgment is between me and the Truth. I never know if it is a he or she, a high school student or a distinguished silverback. When I was younger, peer review-inspired rejections seemed to me arbitrary and unfair (I did not feel that way about reviewers who liked my work). With age, I came to treasure those anonymous interactions, even when they end in rejection. When we do not know each other, the Truth can be indeed invited to the table. I don’t care if the author’s feelings get hurt, and won’t pay a price of souring relationships with him. We always lie and flatter those next to us because we are constantly working on reinforcing good relationships. Those seem more important than the abstract truth. We can only be truly honest with strangers. Honesty and friendship are incompatible, contrary to the naïve belief in the opposite. Relationships get in a way of being truthful – they have to! People with very deep connections (“real friends”) can sometimes afford to tell the truth on important matters, but it is rather an exception than the rule.

I have written about the need for blind peer review in teaching. As many of you know, some of us have been working on Syllabus, the first journal to publish peer-reviewed syllabi (hopefully, the first issue will appear in June). The more I think about it, the more I like the idea. Why don’t we blindly review many more things - syllabi, assignments, tests, assessment instruments, rubrics, reports, tenure and promotion materials? We do need honest, unbiased, anonymous feedback from people we can trust.

In teaching, we need to know our students, their stories, their needs and strength to guide them. And yet we also need a moment of truth when someone who we know is competent, but also removed, dispassionate, and nameless, tells us how we both did. Did the student really learned what I hoped to teach her? Or am I projecting my own pride, my insecurities, and my own time investment onto him? I worked so hard, and poor thing, she worked so hard, - it just got to be an A. I would like to pass the ultimate judgment of his competence onto someone else – the next class’ instructor, a future employer, or an independent testing company. Does my involvement make me blind to her weaknesses? Of course, it does. We are biased because we are human. We cannot be trusted with evaluating our own work.

Nor do we compete with each other. For example, when a group of faculty redesigns curriculum, there is never a competing team whose final project may actually be selected, not yours. You are always, automatically producing the best work! You’re on the winning team from the start! is this healthy? Would a little competition make us a more creative, more demanding of each other, and less likely to succumb to groupthink? Private businesses are at least subjected to the discipline of the market – those who care too much about being nice to each other at the expense of truth – those will go belly up, eventually. But we are not in that world. What will compel us to tell the truth rather than always being nice to each other? We do need to think of a way to erect a barrier between our relationships and our professional judgment.

May 10, 2012

Prying into practice

My week began with a visit to Mike Convery, the Superintendent of Coventry Public Schools. His is one of the most interesting districts in the State, and here is what I learned this time. The district has developed a functioning RTI-based system they call SWAT: School Work Armed with Timer. I know, a silly acronym, but just wait to hear what this us. I also suspect the silly name is intentional – to bring the whole conversation about data use and RTI closer home somewhat.

Three released teachers (which they call the RTI PD coordinators) – go around schools and assess student progress three times a year. Each student may get up to 15 scores in different areas of reading, math, etc. This is already somewhat revolutionary, for assessment has always been in the hands of instructors. It always struck me as odd, because of the inherent conflict of interest. To my knowledge, only the Western Governors University and Coventry Public Schools have actually done something about it; not without a struggle. A software system called RTImDirect is fed the data, and it produces color-coded lists of students which identify the specific risks they may have. Then principals and teachers hold the grade-level data meetings (yes, they are in the contract!) where they figure out strategies to bring targeted children up to speed. Coventry is already a few years into the implementation of this, so the initial conversations about whether or not this whole thing is right or wrong are over. Mike says that the influence of targeted interventions is so obvious that it became completely undeniable. It took them a while from merely paying lip service to differentiated instruction to actually believing it can work.

My worry is how to insinuate our students into those conversations. How do we get our students into some of the best work that is being done in the State and outside? How can we teach them to be the teachers or tomorrow, not of yesterday? We do send students out to schools – a lot. Moreover, most programs try to select cooperating teachers carefully, including personality matching. On the other hand, there are not many places in the state where one can witness a mature conversation about formative assessment. We make so much emphasis on learning the craft and art of teaching that those other activities are relatively easy to miss. Teacher training is not about the quantity of field experiences. The game has now shifted into providing much focused, targeted field experiences, where we are sure students see exactly what we want them to see, and link it directly to what they have learned in class. It is also true about all education – the density of learning can and should be higher, not its extent. We all are used to use the length of learning (credit hour, contact hours) with its results. The assumption served us well for many years, but no longer does.

Consider practicalities. Coventry is 30 minutes away. SWAT days happen three times a year; the grade-level data meetings – more often, but still easy to miss. They will probably balk at 50 RIC students hanging around, even if we could bring them. And yet we need to be actively prying into practice – not all practice, the best practice, the still rare practice. Teaching changes faster than we can keep up with it. But our ultimate goal should be that our recent graduates can fit in quickly into any advanced district, and can become agents of change in any school that is behind. With all of our faculty experiences, in schools, it is very difficult to count on the past. Many us when we were classroom teachers have not experienced anything like the Coventry-style data conversations. None of us lived through the new teacher evaluation system. We rely heavily on cooperating teachers, who are in classrooms right now, but as I said, not all of them are working at a district where something cutting-edge is going on. Our students get a lot of wisdom, but not always skills needed tomorrow. It is just very difficult for us all to keep up with the field that is so dynamic, and I am not convinced it is a worthy goal. After all, we have different jobs,, and have to keep up with our own research literature. We’re not classroom teachers.

So we need to see the best kinds of practice. And I don’t mean just Coventry; this was more of an example. Many districts and schools are doing many other cool things I’d love our students to see, and I know we cannot replicate in-house. I’d love them all to get the Restorative Practices training by Julia Steiny. It would be fantastic to send them all to some of the best PASA youth groups. I would love every one of them to spend a day in Blackstone Valley or in the Learning Community charter schools. It would really be great to get our students through the series of PD that RIDE is rolling out throughout the State. What I would love the best is for us to have a way of collecting and sharing these kinds of gems, and a way for our students to access them.

If I had a lot of money, I would send a camera crew to film all the gems we can find; not the You-tube random stuff, but something we know and can weave back into our coursework. Or I wish a college instructor could flip a switch and see the actual SWAT process going on in real time, and then have a class of students ask questions – just for 15 minutes, so we’re not too intrusive. But this is not just a dream – we can do it now, with existing technologies. I have to admit, it is still fairly expensive on the human side – to have someone drive, film, edit; to have someone coordinate the schedules, talk to both parties. Then the gems should be incorporated into existing courses, work their way into assignments, earn points… I don’t have a good solution; this is just an invitation to discussion. How do we pry into practice, how do we look deeper than just field experiences?

May 4, 2012

The Sowing Season

This year is still winding down, with its ceremonies, with the Pomp and Circumstance, with faculty tired over grading, and red-eyed students storming the computer lab. It is the best time in our calendar, when we look at our graduates and think: - it was all worth it, every minute of it. We read their papers and think – at least sometimes – well, I did not waste my time on this one; look at how much she is grown. I keep coming back to the running list of our projects, and try to discern what we have learned; which ones failed and why, which ones worked, and why. My mind wonders into the next year immediately. What can be realistically achieved? What should we push for, even though the chances are not clear? Remember, in certain kinds of work learning from it is more important than whether the actual goal is accomplished. And finally, what do we absolutely have to clean up, resolve, and get over with? I started to build another list for the next year; this time a little more manageable (people complained that the 11/12 list was hard to navigate; it is absolutely correct). Of course, I always invite others to contribute, knowing perfectly well this is the worst of time for most faculty and chairs to help out. Their seasons are not exactly like mine.

I love this part of my job – planning, imagining, and trying to see the future. And yes, I know I have written about it last August; called it the planting season. Oh, well, how unoriginal, repeating myself. But in August I was worried about the risks; this time I am reflecting on the joys of planning, so there.

The big picture is fairly clear. In the next year, we need to continue reshaping our programs to make them more competitive, more unique, and more applicable. We will keep pushing off-campus offerings, and perhaps investigate hybrid or online programs. To do that, we must continue to innovate – small and big. We should find ways of expanding our various partnerships throughout the state. Another big goal for us is to improve the quality of experiences for our students, staff and faculty. So, those are the goals – it is fairly simple to come up with them. Now, what specific, manageable projects can we turn them into? Who is going to do them? How and when things should be moving? Who can watch over them, help and nudge, ask and offer help? That’s the puzzle we will be playing in this office over the summer. We also need t allow for contingencies, for something unexpected – good or bad – to happen. So some reserve capacity should be around, and that does not mean “OK, I can do this over the weekend.” It is especially interesting to find synergies – ways in which separate projects can sometimes benefit each other.

But in a way, each of us should do something like that. Every faculty member should have a realistic plan. These are things I will be doing, and these are things I am going to say “No” to. The nature of contemporary work changes –from just doing it, it shifts more and more to thinking about how, when, and with whom to do it. So we start with a common template, which should also have the right links. Do you want to try to help ? If many people contribute just a little bit, we all gain something.

Apr 28, 2012

The Hunger Games

The movie reminds us how much of Rome is still with us. Not a great film by any means, the anti-utopia it shows is oddly plausible. Why? – Because we recognize all of those elements in our own society: clever technology that fails to feed all, the entertainment industry edging on gladiatorial games, the warehousing of the poor. Romans have shown how cultural sophistication can live along with barbarism and how the rule of law can exist alongside cruelty. The only thing that prevents us sliding into the world of the hunger games is the thin layer of ideas: liberalism, democracy, human dignity. There is nothing hard, or objective, or economic about them; all fragile, all living in our imagination only. This is how anti-utopias work: they show us where we do not want to go, and force us think how to avoid getting there.

As I watch the great American political theater playing its presidential show, I wonder why it does not include more conversation about the big ideas and ideals. After all, if a Hollywood blockbuster can make us think about the future, why not people running for the highest office? All arguments and counterarguments are fairly predictable, and none are terribly complex. The only element of drama is in unexpected twists of human behavior – a scandal, an error, a gaffe. It is a pity, for people involved in it certainly have original thoughts. I remember how Clinton was forced to dumb down his speeches in his first election. All of the presidents sound more intelligent once they leave the office, even George Bush, Jr. Obama and Romney both play it safe, sticking to proven rhetorical cliché’s, and taking shots at each other whenever the opponent deviates from the script. Thus the mutually enforced discipline of blandness rules. Aren’t we all afraid to say something stupid a little too much?

I wonder if we could have them watch a movie, for example the Hunger Games, and comment on it. Or should they have a debate on the Federalist Papers? How about a discussion on the constitutionality of the health care law? Basically, I want to know what they think about the future past November 2012.

Apr 20, 2012

Playing an expert

We used to administer the technology test to our students. It was a good test, especially when it was designed some 15 years ago. Our students still do need to know how to create new files, save files, format in Word, calculate simple formulas in Excel, etc. Most come to us with this knowledge, but some do not. How do we catch them and help to gain these basic skills? That was the logic behind the test. Unfortunately, it is expensive to administer, because we needed a full time faculty member to oversee and update it, a graduate assistant to run the tests. It was also very hard to keep track of compliance, and it was very inconvenient for students. You can inconvenience students all you want, but only when they see the benefit, and learn something. In this case, as I said, most did not learn much. So, with heavy heart, I had to push for suspending it.

However, there is a different solution now. Just this morning I took an online test on Excel proficiency with a startup company called smarterer. It took me only about 20 minutes, and I have to say most questions were very good. According to them I am an Expert (not yet a Master) in Excel. And I can prove it to you, which is definitely better than a line in one’s resume– “I am proficient in Excel.” For our students, I believe the Familiar level would be enough, Proficient (below the Master) would be ideal. Note, the record can be linked to my Fb profile, put on a web site and is public. All I need to do is to put on my online resume Excel, Expert level, and send it to Feinstein School for admission. I can also pull a badge; anyone clicking on it will see the proof. The site also has tests on Word, basic math, PowerPoint English for Business, etc. I would argue we need to have all students take a test on Social Media, which tests one’s knowledge of Facebook, Twitter. It would cost us almost nothing, and monitoring compliance can be either fully automated or largely delegated to administrative assistants.

Then we could allocate resources in a more focused way, to those few students that actually need help, and cannot learn on their own. They would need to either get resources for self-study (tier-1 intervention), get tutoring help from OASIS or peers (tier-2 intervention), or take a class (tier-3 intervention). They should still pass the test in the end.

An interesting part of this site is crowd-sourcing. People who are proficient users get annoyed when the questions are just not right. Also, many people share an innate desire to share what they know with others. So once you become a master, you can comment on questions, edit questions, introduce your own questions, etc. You can build your own tests, and avoid the hassle of copying blackboard shelves. I must admit I wasted about 30 minutes playing with the Word test for that very reason. It is mildly addictive, which is how crowd sourcing works. It helps to solve a key issue: good assessments are very expensive to build, validate, and update.

Of course, this raises the question of cheating. We do not quite know who is taking the test – the student or a friend. However, if there are enough of these, red flags will come up with someone who cheats, and we can ask them to repeat the test in a proctored situation. Again, most students would not cheat, and suspecting everyone is a waste of resources. Cheating increases only when there is a single test with very high consequences.

This is how we can both improve the quality of preparation, and free up some time for more meaningful, more in-depth experiential learning. I am convinced every course can have some granular material that can be presented as a simple testing module, so we have more time for really in-depth discussion and collective inquiry.

Apr 13, 2012

The bronchitis diary

I was fighting bronchitis most of this and a part of the last week. With the right drugs, it is not a big deal. Like any other minor or major ailment, it does make you think about your own body. We all live so much through our minds that the illusion of independence from the body becomes strong. Until that it, something goes wrong and the mind runs back to the body like a little scared child to its parent, asking for help and protection, refusing to work, denouncing its own independence.

It is good for all of us to get sick once in a while. It makes us a little more compassionate to all those people who have much more serious conditions, sometimes life-threatening, sometimes painful and sometimes debilitating. It makes us remember that people’s minds are situated in their bodies, which may or may not be good hosts. We don’t see each other much anymore – a lot of business is conducted through email. What a great and efficient way of doing business! However, what we see less and less is when someone looks pale, or is limping, or is short of breath. We just don’t notice these things as much anymore, because you may become a message in my inbox. We communicate more, but see each other less.

Illness and getting older are key human conditions. We like to pretend to be forever young and immortal, but I dread the world where it actually becomes true. We are better off frail and sick, because the ability to feel pain, and be tired is what we all have in common. Once we lose that ability, we become something less. Love is inextricably related to pain and life - to death. Forgiveness is rooted in compassion, and compassion depends on the common biological limitations.

I guess codeine can also make one overly philosophical or pathetic. But I am over it now; thanks for asking. Now, how do you feel?

Apr 6, 2012

Badges, buckets, and bugles

The idea of the week is “badges.” This week, PASA has announced its "Pathways for Lifelong Learning" entry was named as a winner in the national competition Digital Media and Learning, sponsored by the MacArthur and Mozilla Foundations. (The other winners include Microsoft, NOAA, NASA, PBS, Department of Veteran Affairs, Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy, The Walt Disney – not too shabby a company!) Their work builds on a Mozilla project to create an open infrastructure for awarding badges. PASA will develop a program where students will earn digital badges, which in some cases will be converted in high school credits. The difference between a badge and a college credit (or a continuing education credit) is that to earn the former, one needs to demonstrate some specific skill, or show an accomplishment. While credit is basically the seat time, a badge is like a mini-certificate. It is similar to Boy and Girl Scout badges – you show you can play bugle, you get a bugling badge. Only now this can be done electronically, and one click will drill down and show which authority awarded the badge, and what was involved in demonstrating the skill or knowledge.

This idea finely completes our TEIL session last week. OK, basically the dilemma is this. To compete with low-cost quality online degrees, we should emphasize what we do better than they do. Namely, we need to provide our students with quality experiences and the quality relations with faculty and peers. Imagine something like a residency with either an Arts and Sciences professor, or a teacher preparation experiential learning community. But to do that well, we need to free up time and resources, and therefore we must cut something out. To do that, we must embrace our enemy, and borrow its weapons. In other words, we should shift some learning to on-line or self-paced modular kind of experience. That’s the paradox – to distinguish ourselves from them, we have no choice but become partially like them. It took us a while to realize, actually’ about two months.

The next thing we did was try to brainstorm how student knowledge could be put into two buckets – one that requires longer, intense interactions, and carefully constructed meaningful experience (the Experience Bucket), and the second that includes knowledge and skills that can be learned in a relative isolation, independently, perhaps on-line, or tested out of (we called this the Sacrificial Bucket, although we realize it is as important as that in the first bucket). We also realized that our version of the buckets is heavily biased towards pedagogy, because no FAS faculty were amongst us. Oh, well, but the idea still stands – you need to compress something in order to expand something else.

The next problem is that there is no open market of these modules, and we have very little means of distinguishing which ones are good, and which are not. It would take many millions of dollars to invest in building rigorous content and quality assessments. RIC alone simply does not have these kinds of resources, and neither does any other single institution. So, of course, when I heard about the badges idea, I realized that they can be used to fill our sacrificial bucket, because presumably, they will create a global market of those relatively narrow, although very important skills, which could be learned for free or at low cost. Interestingly, this is perhaps third or fourth time I hear about badges. The first few times I was just skeptical or laughing, like you’re laughing right now. Funny how when you don’t need it, it is trash, and when you do, it becomes treasure.

What I am saying, basically, that we have figured out the salvation plan for higher education. Yep, no less and no more. Many details are still vague, but I can imagine how we can gradually turn some of our courses into badges – fully or partially, and how we can eventually build high quality, life-changing experiences for our students; the experiences they absolutely cannot get anywhere else but here. This would be a great opportunity to re-think our curriculum in view of two buckets, and how they interact. The badge infrastructure is promising to be flexible and simple; it will allow to keep track of student progress (it may be even better than PeopleSoft), and to both create our own badges and borrow/buy someone else’s. We can also use the same badge for both our students and for teachers’ professional development (which some people from Providence Public Schools already indicated). They can signify both online or face to face learning, as long as there is a rigorous assessment or a convincing demonstration of a skill. A lesson plan writing badge, anyone? We already have a number of badges under different names: writing requirement, service learning requirement, health education workshops, licensure tests.

The low-cost high quality online degrees are probably between 5 to 10 years away. The New Charter University or the Western Governors, or someone else with enough money and brains will figure it out. There is no intrinsic limit to the model, even though most of the existing online degrees are still pretty poor. And once this happens, change can be sudden and catastrophic, for students will vote with their purses. Some colleges will capitalize on their prestige; others will learn how to provide unique experiences and communities, while still others will close their doors. I am convinced RIC should be in the second group. There is no choice, really.