17 August 2018

Beyond the NCLB Act: Let's Get Off the Moral Path of Judgment

I read this report on the NCLB Act with an eye to discerning the moral perspective they brought to their task. 

"Although the Commission members came to the table from a variety of perspectives, we were united from the outset in our firm commitment to the goals of the law: to harness the power of standards, accountability and increased student options, so that every child becomes proficient in core subjects and to eliminate the achievement gaps that have left too many students behind."
p.20 Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation's Children by the Commission on NCLB
In other words, this commission reviewing the NCLB Act was united in it’s commitment to the delivery metaphor of education. 
They unquestioningly accepted that
  1. education is a matter of teacher’s delivering units of knowledge, skill and/or information into children’s heads,
  2. that those units can be counted, and
  3. therefore teachers can be held accountable (judged by the authorities) for the presence or absence of those units.

This is a perspective that appears to be fully consistent with the history of education and the story of school that put us on the moral path of judgment. 
The report on the NCLB Act does not matter that children are complex individuals with a diversity of needs that cannot be met in any standardized way. 
The logic of the industrial assumption that all the components must work together like a well oiled machine is much more important than something like the needs of specific children.
What would really be interesting is if a commission like this could be convened to start from the moral path of nurturance instead of the moral path of judgment
How would the law measure up to a bi-partisan commission investigating educational performance from the assumption that schools have an obligation to nurture children instead of judge their future economic worthiness? 
What if we expected schools to help children become good people, not just good test takers and workers?

The NCLB Act and "Accountability"

But then the question still arises about holding teachers and schools accountable for those results.
Here's what the authors of report on the NCLB Act had to say about holding teachers accountable:
"[Teachers] know what children need to learn and how to impart that knowledge, and they demonstrate their ability to raise student achievement through fair, credible and reliable measures of effectiveness.
Those teachers who are not able to demonstrate student learning gains and do not receive positive evaluations from principals or their peers would receive additional high-quality professional development designed to address their specific needs and on-site support in developing practical strategies to improve student learning. 
If teachers do not improve after they receive this support, they will no longer be eligible to teach students most in need of help."
p. 22 Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation's Children by the Commission on NCLB

The NCLB Commission expects there to be an all-knowing prophet (presumably the authors of standards) who can dictate the knowledge that all students will need to succeed in the future. 
Notice that they only define the needs of students in terms of knowledge. 
And if the teachers can't effectively deliver the knowledge dictated to them by the all knowing prophet then they are deemed ineligible to teach. 
This is a clear commitment to the moral path of judgment. 
The judgments of the system must be trusted to meet the needs of children, not the judgments of teachers who actually know and love the children.

Conclusions on Beyond NCLB
The vision that they present is misguided by their dependence on the industrial metaphor of education as a quasi-economic activity that can be managed using strict performance measures of academic skills like a business measures profits. 
In the presentation of their vision for the future of the NCLB Act in American schools they make no reference to meeting the real needs of children, only the needs of abstract economic and social systems on the dubious assumption that rigorous competition for academic test scores are a meaningful predictor of future national success.

There is no mention of the real human or natural communities children are embedded within and the role of those communities as important factors in the education of children. 
The closest this report on the NCLB Act comes to acknowledging community is to talk about business and the role that students will eventually play in the economy. 
If they use language that might suggest nurturance then it is used in the way an industrial agri-business CEO would talk about the plants they cultivate; as mere commodities. 
The authors of this report on the NCLB Act make no acknowledgment that there are larger systems in which learning is embedded. 
Schools are discussed as if they are isolated from the rest of the world.

To give credit where credit is due they took a good approach to investigating and reviewing the law. 
If it is indeed going to be reauthorized then their recommendations should probably be heeded.

Better Than Beyond NCLB

What would be more ideal, however, would be a plan to shift what the law assumes is worthy of measurement. 

What they should be looking at in elementary age student performance are measures of how well they can establish and maintain cognitive order, cognitive complexity, purpose, optimism, cooperation and agency under a variety of circumstances. 
More concretely they should look at how many opportunities children have for solving self-selected problems and pursuing their own chosen goals. 

What they should be looking at in terms of teacher skills is cooperative leadership and the implementation of increasingly democratic decision making processes. 
How well does the teacher transition students from Other directed activities to Self directed activities? 
How well does the teacher enable students to develop internal cognitive resources for planning, empathy and judgment to identify problems and goals that are meaningful to both the student and the communities in which they are embedded?

Both teachers and schools should be assessed based on the claims they make about what results they will achieve with their students. 
If claims are made about test scores and achievement gaps then that becomes a relevant measure of success, but if no such claim is made then those measures are irrelevant.
And the results that are measured need to be made part of the records of both the teacher and the school, not just the student. 

School performance should be measured by the level of integration with both the human and natural communities in which they are embedded. 
The more integrated the children are with their communities then the more ability to function in those communities they will develop.

My Teaching Practice

In my own early teaching with 6-12 year olds I did not make any claims because I did not have the ability to measure any specific outcomes.
Even today I would not make claims about reading and math, but my students improve their ability to establish and maintain positive states of mind (although I don't have access to measures of that outcome, yet). 
While I would not make claims about reading and math skills, I would welcome periodic assessments of those skills and have progress noted, if possible, since it would likely be substantial. 
The reason that my students would make progress in those two areas in particular is that those two activities are great sources of optimal states of mind. 
Reading is probably the most common access to optimal states of mind in literate cultures. 
Math has a bad reputation, but it is also pervasive in our society and when children learn it in the context of real human communities where it is a valued tool for getting things done, then it is quickly mastered.
The NCLB Act and its later iteration as the Race to the Top are fatally flawed for proceeding further down the moral path of judgment instead of directing the system to make a switch to the moral path of nurturance.

16 August 2018

Betsy DeVos and the Irony of Her "Innovation" Agenda

When my default inner liberal reads about the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Drumph's Secretary of Education, I see her as the devil in disguise because of her relentless use of the term "choice" as a code word for the privatization of schools without transparency or accountability. 
But, when I rein in that bias to allow my inner teacherpreneur to take hold, I appreciate her consistent rhetorical emphasis on innovation and specifically on the idea that we should enact policies that will overcome the bureaucratic stranglehold that prevents innovation in most schools. 
If I rein in that bias, as well, allowing my inner psychologist to have the floor, I continue to appreciate the need for innovation, but great concerns arise about the ways that both parties have ALWAYS consistently compromised learning through the policies they use to guide the bureaucracy. 

It is the values and perspective of my inner psychologist that I strive to live by as an education advocate. 
That is the perspective that I am confident will give me the deepest understanding of the situation in education and will best represent the long term interests that the education system must serve. 
The long term challenge is to figure out how to ensure that learning, not teaching, is valued and respected as the true essence of good education, regardless of partisan traditions and opinions about how to run schools.

Betsy DeVos On The Record

Taking that challenge as my lens, Betsy DeVos’ actual statements slap me in the face because she appears to have exactly the same mental model of schooling that has caused all the problems she rails against. 
Betsy DeVos' political maneuvering will come to naught as long as she continues to act as if schooling is essentially the process of teachers delivering content into students’ heads. 
In the following press quotes and in her own transcript of a speech she gave she repeatedly refers to our "education delivery system": 
If you claim you are for freedom…if you claim to be an innovator or you value innovation…if you claim to be an entrepreneur…if you claim to believe in equal opportunity…if you claim to embrace social justice…then you have to embrace educational choice, and you have to embrace opening up our closed education delivery system. 
Betsy DeVos on Forbes.com
“We must revolutionize our education delivery system in America,” [Betsy DeVos] says.
She also used the phrase in her remarks to the SXSW Education Forum as that speech was quoted in the Washington Post. In fact, she used the phrase six times, according to the written transcript posted on the website for the American Federation for Children (which Betsy DeVos is affiliated with). 

Delivery via Betsy DeVos

The delivery view is most destructive in public policy when the metaphor guides "accountability" measures. 
The idea is that as long as the delivery happens, which can allegedly be verified by measuring student regurgitation of content on tests, then there is no reason to be concerned with anything else. 
Betsy DeVos' version of "choice" appears to be just as myopically dedicated to a partisan ideological commitment to privatization as the liberal devotion to maintaining the "public school" monopoly does. 
Both ideologies assume teaching-as-delivery is the soul of schooling and they merely differ in the details of how to manage the delivery of academic content that is most easily measured by instructional bookkeeping (test scores, grades, completion rates, etc). The history of education shows that both learning and teaching are deeper and more interesting than mere instructional bookkeeping of delivery would suggest.

Learning has never been the central concern of any major political ideology because until recently it has been a vague and messy concept that cannot be used to anyone’s political advantage. 
That is going to change. 
There are key aspects of learning that are tractable to scientific study (and therefore more clearly defined and less messy in an institutional sense). 
Also, the science of learning is reaching a level of maturity so that it may finally become politically useful. 
The trendy use of research on things like mindsets, grit, mindfulness, and other scientifically informed concepts is evidence for the maturation of the field. 
What is currently missing for the politicos to make use of learning as the central commitment in schooling is a unifying narrative that can enable the differing political viewpoints to distinguish themselves from one another in a manner that still reinforces the scientific truth. 

Trans-Partisan Truth

In case you are skeptical that a scientific truth can be supported by both parties simultaneously, consider the status of germ theory in healthcare politics. 
We are currently struggling to figure out how to pay for the healthcare system, but neither side proposes to save money by cutting the features of programs or infrastructure investments that are inherently more expensive due to the dictates of germ theory. 

Here in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago we completed a multi-billion dollar infrastructure investment affectionately called "The Big Pipe," making sure that we better comply with the central dictate of germ theory which says that to prevent the transmission of communicable diseases like cholera, raw sewage should not mix with fresh water that people might drink or swim in. 
It would have been a lot cheaper to ignore that scientific dictate. 
But we have a large body of law and policy at both state and federal levels that ensure that dictate is not routinely violated. 
That body is so robust that it required us to build "The Big Pipe" even though our previous sewer system only violated that dictate a handful of times every year. 
But even once a year is too much when we consider the negative public health consequences predicted by germ theory. 

Trans-Partisan Truth in Education

Experts on learning have an implicit consensus that it is the growing of mental maps, cognitive cartography, to put it into $3 words. 
The consensus is only implicit because the experts routinely use that combination of metaphors (growing and map making) but have not formally acknowledged it as a theory. 
The mapmaking metaphor is commonly used by cognitive scientists, such as Antonio Damasio, Richard Ryan, Edward Deci, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran , and Daniel Kahneman. 
It is also used by influential education researchers such as Linda Darling-Hammond. 
The growth metaphor is widely used by educators. 
It turns out that the challenge of an education system is to create the conditions for the growth of mental maps. 
It also turns out that dictating instructional delivery for every student at all times is detrimental to creating those conditions. 
The very "soul of schooling" under the old way of thinking is itself the destroyer of what most experts agree are the proper conditions for learning. 

Taking the growing mental maps theory seriously requires a different kind of innovation; holding schools accountable for the learning conditions, not for instructional bookkeeping. 
There is a place for instructional bookkeeping, but not until after the conditions at a school meet with scientific standards for optimal learning. 
Those scientific standards follow from what are known as primary human needs. 
Schools can create the conditions for optimal learning by ensuring that the students have their primary human needs supported. 

Of particular note for schools are the psychological needs for autonomy and relatedness. 
(If you are interested in the precise theory I am referring to, it is the Basic Needs sub-theory within the meta-theory of motivation known as Self-Determination Theory.) 
Those are the needs with the most consistent evidence of being thwarted. 
They are also consistently depicted in books and movies as being thwarted in schools. 
If you can remember any of the most famous school movies of the last few decades like: Freedom Writers (2007), Dangerous Minds (1995), Lean On Me (1989), Stand and Deliver (1988), Teachers (1984), To Sir, With Love (1966), or Blackboard Jungle (1955),
then you may recall how alienated and resentful the kids (and often many of the teachers) were portrayed to be. 
Unless Hollywood was completely making it up, then it is common knowledge that schools are notoriously need thwarting places. 
The consistent scientific evidence for declines in engagement and motivation across the span of K-12 schooling further supports the notion that it is a widespread pattern that is not confined to those students who are dramatic enough to be portrayed in the movies. 
Most students have had their learning compromised by being disengaged in school by the time they leave. 

Innovation in Education Will Not Be Partisan

Shifting the perspective of education policy to psychological needs is a major change, so it will not come about quickly and easily. 
I have not yet seen any statements by nor attributed to Betsy DeVos that would suggest she has a clue about learning. 
To be fair, I am writing the book that will articulate the growing mental maps idea of learning as a theory for the first time, so she is not to blame for this oversight. 
My upcoming book on the growing mental maps idea of education and its implications for public policy is called Nurture: The Surprising Secret to Saving Our Schools, Ourselves, and Our Society
Given her public record as a private citizen with a lot of money to throw around, Betsy DeVos is effectively the devil in disguise, but not for the reasons that liberal ideologues suppose. 
Liberal ideologues are also devils in disguise as long as they continue to champion policies that undermine the primary human needs of students, teachers, and all the other humans in schools. 
The devils of education politics are all those who continue to construct policy based on the false delivery theory.

15 August 2018

A Nurturing Educational Policy to Solve Every Parent's Dilemma

Policy Creates Every Parent's Dilemma

Parents naturally want to put their children into schools that are familiar to them, but the familiar schools will diminish learning by failing to nurture their children. 
Familiar schools versus nurturing schools, these are the horns of the dilemma that typical mainstream parents are put on by the fact that 30 years of solid scientific studies show that mainstream schools fail to nurture their students (where nurturing consists of supporting them to meet their primary human needs). 

The foundation for effective and efficient learning is well-being, both physiological and psychological. 
Yet, existing policies fail to acknowledge these foundations of good learning, let alone require systemic support for students and teachers to meet the primary human needs that produce well-being.
The talk below illustrates the challenge more graphically. 

Bad News 

Children's psychological well-being in mainstream K-12 schools consistently diminishes, thus creating the dilemma all parents face, even when they do not realize it.

Good News

Children's psychological well-being is supported in K-12 schools that facilitate self-directed learning.

Silver Lining

The good news can transform the bad news if well-being is given top priority. 

Why do K-12 schools that facilitate self-directed learning serve less than 5% of all students in the USA despite over 100 years of good results?

The systematic growth of school models that support self-directed learning has been stunted by hidden barriers. 
The hidden barriers also prevent more mainstream schools from sustainably adapting their practices to become more nurturing. 
The barriers are based on a theory of education that is wrong. 
K-12 educational policy makers at every level can remove those barriers by making an explicit commitment to ensuring that the schools they oversee support well- being. 
Every Parent's Dilemma presents following educational policy resolution which you can take to your favorite policy makers to advocate for the well-being of all students.

Buy the book: Every Parent's Dilemma

My Intrinsic Motivation Research

Intrinsic Motivation Research

My intrinsic motivation research was focused on the patterns that are present in two schools in the Portland area of Oregon, USA.
The research was conducted as the culminating project for the Bachelor of Arts in Psychology that I was awarded from Reed College in 2012.
There are two versions of my motivational research 
  • my original thesis and 
  • the peer-reviewed Other Education journal article (2013 Vol. 2, No. 2, pp.42-66). 
My thesis is longer and presents more data.

Intrinsic Motivation Research Thesis

Other Education

Thesis Abstract

This study used Self-Determination Theory as a framework for examining the motivational consequences of non-mandatory instruction in the contexts of a home school resource center and a democratically organized school. 
A positive correlation between age and intrinsic motivation was hypothesized based on the finding of Apostoleris (2000) based on a sample of home schoolers using Harter’s (1981) measure of intrinsic/extrinsic motivation, which was in stark contrast to the well-replicated observation of a negative correlation between age and intrinsic motivation in traditional schools. 
Using the Academic Self Regulation Questionnaire in order to observe intrinsic motivation and three degrees of extrinsic motivation independently, no statistically significant correlations between age and any of the four motivation subscale scores were found. 
Three interpretations of this result are proposed and these particular contexts for non-mandatory instruction are further illuminated by interviews with seven teachers.

Journal Article Abstract

The present study used Self-Determination Theory as a framework for examining age-related changes in motivation for 57 students aged 7-17 years in the context of two alternative educational environments: a home school resource center and a democratically organized school.
Students completed the Academic Self-Regulation Questionnaire in order to assess their intrinsic motivation and three types of extrinsic motivation. 
In stark contrast to the well-replicated negative correlation between age and intrinsic motivation in traditional schools, there was no relationship between age and any of the four motivation subscale scores in the present study.
Interpretations and implications of these findings are discussed.

04 August 2018

Attitude Basics Video Series

This is the Attitude Basics video series to introduce you to the foundations of the philosophy of putting attitude before academics.
The series lays out only the most basic points, so for further depth of understanding you can read the variety of essays that are on this site. 

Above is the Attitude Basics YouTube Playlist which includes the three part series I filmed plus an additional three part Harvard lecture about how organizations can enable more compliance with rules and policies.

Script- Attitude Basics 1: Embrace The Learning Paradox

Good day, Today I am starting a series of short talks on the most basic principles of attitude first education. The first principle is to embrace the learning paradox. Learning is on the one hand automatic, unconscious, and impossible to avoid. But it is also deliberate, effortful and avoidable, exactly the opposite. Traditional classroom practice assumes that learning is exclusively deliberate, effortful and avoidable. The same paradoxical features are true of seeing, so let me demonstrate. 

Look at my face and keeping your eyes open and pointed at my face, seeing my eyes, seeing my chin, seeing my cheeks, seeing my mouth, Now, stop seeing my nose. Keeping sight of all the other features of my face use all your will power and self-discipline to stop seeing my nose. 

How about it? Of course, you can't. Your brain is hardwired to see all the parts of my face at once and so seeing my nose under those conditions is automatic, unconscious, and impossible to avoid. But with a slight tweak in the instructions I can demonstrate that seeing also has the opposite properties. Now, look at my face and in any way you can stop seeing my nose. Under these circumstances your will power and self discipline can be put to good effect because seeing my nose is now a deliberate, effortful and avoidable task. Learning has those same features. It is paradoxically both ways. No matter where you are or what you are doing you are automatically and unconsciously learning. 

What you are always learning are these three things: 1) how you are managing your own and other people's attention, 2) how you exchange resources with your environment to meet your needs, and 3) the patterns of consciousness that occur by being embedded in those attentional power structures and resource exchange processes. But, modern elementary schools do not take these as the most basic lessons to be learned. Elementary schools are charged with delivering academic skills. Mainstream elementary schools are charged with eliciting from children the symbol manipulation behaviors also known as the 3R's of readin' 'ritin' and 'rithmetic. And learning those specific skills IS a deliberate, effortful and avoidable task. 

Mainstream classrooms are a logical extension of the ancient academies from which they derive their primary purpose, so their methods assume that learning, in general, is also exclusively deliberate, effortful and avoidable, not paradoxical. Mainstream classrooms essentially ask kids to stop seeing the teacher's nose but they ask some kids in a way that enables them to comply while other kids are asked in a way that makes it impossible. Observers of those classrooms see how one set of kids simply did what they were asked while the other set of kids did not. The observers correctly conclude that there is a problem. 

But because they are embedded in the system that does not even consider the possibility that learning has a paradoxical nature, they pass around lots of blame and propose solutions that don't work because they only understand half of the paradox of learning. Mainstream classrooms implicitly assume that the properties of learning the specific skills of the 3R's are the properties of learning in general. This is not the case, and what I call the attitude first approach to learning means teaching kids to practice learning in general before making them narrow their learning to specifics. This confusion about the true nature of learning is like the confusion about the true nature of light. In physics, up until the twentieth century, the idea that light was, in fact, simultaneously both a wave and a particle was inconceivable. But, after we came to properly understand light it enabled us to develop the technology of lasers. Einstein himself laid the theoretical foundation for lasers and the technology followed. 

The assumption that learning is exclusively deliberate, effortful, and avoidable is dominant and the paradoxical alternative is mostly unthinkable. But in this case practice has lead the way, not theory. Dan Greenberg, one of the founders of Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, MA, teaches the entire Kindergaten through 6th grade math curriculum to his students in just 6 weeks. But he only does so when there is demand for the course. At Sudbury demonstrated desire to learn is required before courses are offered, which is just one of many ways to put attitude before academics. Mainstream classrooms set up situations in which they fight against the automatic, unconscious and impossible to avoid aspects of learning. 

Re-designing schools with the paradox of learning in mind means figuring out what methods of putting attitude before academics will work in each particular learning community. When we can make attitude the highest priority in every aspect of the school situation then we will get laser-like learning. 

Lasers are a natural extension of the inherent paradoxical properties of light and in the same way, with proper understanding, schools can be designed to embody natural extensions of the inherent paradoxical properties of learning. Once we embrace a proper understanding of learning then we will be better able to amplify the stimulation of human potential. But it's going to take some design changes to both schools and classrooms before that can happen. 

Thanks for watching.

Script- Attitude Basics 2: What's Educational?

Hi, I am Don Berg. This is the second in the Attitude Basics Series: What's Educational?

The dominant answer to that question is whatever the state declares to be educational via the standards they adopt under the thoughtful advice of legions of experts. The experts can presumably tell whether various activities, information, and materials have educational value, or not. For instance if you look at standards in all the English speaking countries of the world I would guess that you would find that reading Shakespeare is considered an obligatory educational activity in all those countries. 

I agree that reading Shakespeare MIGHT be educational, but what would make it so? 

One of the key assumptions behind adopting it as a universal standard activity that ALL students MUST engage in is that the expert consensus must mean there is something objectively educational about it. Simply by reading Shakespeare a person is better educated than they were before, right? When we examine the English speaking people that we take to be educated there IS a very high correlation between their having read Shakespeare and being highly educated. But correlation is not causation. 

I propose the alternative explanation that what makes something like Shakespeare's works educational is not any objective quality or feature of the works in themselves. Rather education arises out of some combination of the quality and quantity of attention invested in an experience of that content by the learning agent. 

So, when kids turn their attention to Shakespeare, if they merely skim over it and move on as quickly as possible then there was little educational value in the experience. Most kids encountering the old english as part of a school assignment will just skip right to the Cliff Notes in an attempt to pass the test and avoid as much actual reading of it as possible. They invest their attention in gaming the system, not learning the content. The fact that they can, and do, game their schooling in this way reinforcesmy point about the learning paradox in the first episode of this series. The kids are learning something from the experience, but it's not the lesson the teacher wrote down in the lesson plan.

Instead of allowing Shakespeare to remain a lesson in how to game the system we can take two steps to make it a more legitimately educational experience. The first step is enabling the learning agent to have their in-built reality simulator activated by the words of the Bard. 

The second step is to explore the world created by the Bard's words such that the learning agent gains insights into his or her own world based on how Shakespeare portrayed his. These two steps are necessary for making any experience more authentically educational. That is: 1) activate the learning agent's reality simulator, then 2) allow the learning agent's simulator to run simulations based on the learner's experience of the content. This is why direct experiential learning is the most effective educational method. Immersion in the activity itself as it occurs in the real world is the most reliable way to activate reality simulators and enable learning agents to test the accuracy of their simulations. To see how Shakespeare's work has been used in this way in school all the way down to Kindergarden I recommend the documentary film A Touch of Greatness about the teaching practice of Albert Cullum.

I suspect that the high correlation between highly educated individuals and their having read Shakespeare is mostly a coincidence. Shakespeare's works did not make them educated. What made them educated was, in the more likely scenario, being in a community that facilitated attentional investments of better quality and/or greater quantity in their experiences, or, in a less likely scenario, simply having the gumption and luck to make the right attentional investment choices on their own. 

Now, this way of thinking about education will make standards-based instruction more effective by providing a crucial pre-requisite to engaging learners in the pursuit of standards. Standards can be a wonderful tool, but only for those who have committed themselves to achieving those standards. I want Joe the Plumber who is fixing my toilet and my brain surgeon and the teenager flipping my burger to all meet minimum objective standards of competency to ensure my health and safety. But, in the absence of their individual, personal commitment to achieving objective competence then the standards cannot be consistently effective. 

Putting Attitude before Academics is all about ensuring that the people who show up are fully committed to becoming competent. Anything less than a full commitment is a waste of everyone's time and energy because what makes their experience educational is not any objective property of merely experiencing the content. What DOES make their experience of the content educational is the quality and quantity of attention they invest in that experience. 

Thanks for watching.

03 August 2018

Why Teach Attitude?

We tend to teach attitude to children unconsciously by coincidence but to be responsible adults we need to teach it consciously and deliberately.

If our job is to launch children into a life where they can carry out important work in the world, then we have to make sure they get the right stuff to do the job. 

Teach Attitude to Prevent
Motivational Amputation

Think of it this way, imagine your children are Space Shuttles and you are NASA. 
What makes the shuttle move is fuel. 
No fuel, no movement. 
Motivation is the fuel for people. 
But motivation has two parts that have to be mixed together to light the fires for focused learning; intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. 
When adults cut children out of the decision making and planning of their own activities by overpowering them with extrinsic motivators then they run the risk of amputating intrinsic motivations.
Motivational amputees have an attitude deficit that may not be evident, but can lead to hardships later in the journey of life.

All space shuttles have to withstand the stresses of launch and we all know that children today are being launched under especially challenging conditions. 
If today's children do not develop the resiliency to handle unpredictable challenges then they are being cheated with potentially tragic results.

NASA is responsible for designing and operating their program safely and they generally have a good record of success. 
But on January 28, 1986 disaster struck and the shuttle Challenger was destroyed along with all seven astronauts including Christa MacAuliffe who was going to be the first teacher in space. 
We can learn valuable lessons about how to teach attitude from this disaster.

A combination of circumstances caused this tragic loss. 
The immediate cause was the failure of an O-ring in the right solid rocket booster. 
The reason that the O-ring failed is because it became brittle under the freezing conditions (it was the coldest launch to date by over 10 degrees and ice was seen on the launch platform.) 
The reason that they chose to launch, even under extreme conditions, was that they had chosen to interpret the partial failures of the O-rings in previous launches to be a normal and expected feature instead of a warning sign of a serious problem with that crucial component. 
(The original specifications did not include tolerances for "partial failures" and over the previous 24 successful launches NASA engineers created tolerances for "partial failures" based on the observed deterioration of the O-rings after each launch.) 
So, ultimately the cause of the disaster was NASA's cultural tendency to keep things running rather than face the fact that they had serious problems that needed to be resolved. 

Teach Attitude To Address Real Problems
Since the children have already been born, the decision to launch under challenging conditions has already been made. 
Our society has many years of experience to show that most kids will survive school and so we have developed tolerances to partial failure rates. We accept as normal the following warning signs: 
  • many children hate school
  • children are isolated in age segregated groups, unlike the rest of society 
  • many children show the clinical symptoms of stress as early as third grade, and 
  • most classrooms are essentially dictatorships in a supposedly democratic society.
And we take as dire warning signs irrelevant information like international comparisons of unrelated test scores. 
We have a culture of schooling that prefers to keep things going in the usual way in spite of the signs of real problems that need to be resolved. 

If parents are NASA, then schools are Morton Thiokol, the supplier of the critically important O-rings. 
What schools supply is about a third to a half of every child's waking experiences from the ages of about 6 to 18. 

What specifications for this component of a child's life should guide the work of teachers? 
Currently under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation our federal government is demanding schools deliver better standardized test scores. 
The assumption is that teachers are responsible for delivering units of knowledge, skill, and information that are supposedly measured by those tests. 
But, are measurable units of knowledge, skill and information really needed? 
Eventually, yes, but those kinds of units are not the most basic elements of what children need to develop during childhood, test scores are not the right stuff for elementary age kids.

Teach Attitude for Survival
No amount of schooling or units of knowledge, skill or information as measured on standardized tests is going to help in the event of disasters or major accidents. 
What will make the difference is attitude. 
Psychologist Dr. Al Seibert found that there are no distinguishing demographic features of survivors of major accidents and disasters; no amount of schooling or academic skill is going to help if something goes majorly wrong. 
To prepare a child to survive a disaster you have to equip him/her with a variety of ways to achieve and maintain optimal states of mind. 
In plain terms this means that in order to survive a disaster your child has to be able to change their own mind from the naturally occurring state(s) of panic, anger, confusion, etc. to a state that allows them to focus on their immediate situation and act effectively to ensure their survival. 

As a teacher I do not want to be the one who looks back after one of my students has tragically died and realize that I was more concerned with their attendance, grades and delivering academic units rather than developing the kind of attitude that could have helped her to survive. 
Nor do I want have to be (nor face) the bereaved parent who valued obedience, test scores and academic performance more than their child's attitude towards life and learning. 

Teach Attitude for Thrival
Attitude is both the key to surviving adversity and the most basic foundation for building a good life. 
Attitude is more basic, more elementary, than academics. 
Elementary school needs to be about attitude, not academics. 
Academic knowledge, skills and information are important, but only after they can be acquired in the context of a good attitude towards life and learning. 
Attitude is the critical O-ring that elementary schools supply and if students leave elementary school with a bad attitude, or an O.K. attitude that is too brittle to withstand the challenges ahead, then they have been cheated. 

We, as a society, have discovered that we are headed towards a dead end and we need to launch ourselves and especially our children onto a sustainable course if we want humanity to survive. 
There is no reasonable doubt that difficulties are coming, the only question is who has the right stuff to survive and thrive through the transition period. 
We already have enough knowledge, skills and information so the only question is whether we have the right stuff, the right attitude, to survive. 
The job of parents and teachers today is to make sure that, even if our own elementary schooling was all about academics, our children's elementary school is all about attitude. 
Do we teach attitude by accident or on purpose?

02 August 2018

Attitude Can Save Your Life: Towards a Metaphorical Definition of Attitude for Teachers

We need a definition of attitude in order to teach it. 

There is an informal consensus that, "Attitude can be your best friend or your worst enemy." 
Attitude is the one factor that is universally acknowledged to be capable of overcoming every possible disadvantage. 
Attitude is also the one factor the can destroy the benefits of every possible advantage. 
But, why is that? 

In the 1990's I met Al Seibert, author of several books, who did a study about what distinguishes folks who survive tragedies and serious accidents of all kinds from those who don'’t. 
What he found was that regardless of schooling, net worth, role in society, or any other demographic feature, those who survive have access to particular states of mind even under the most trying of circumstances. 
It was their approach to the world or their way of thinking about the world or the ways that they manage their thoughts and feelings when the world presents them with unexpected situations, that distinguished survivors from those who died under similar circumstances. 

This finding was long preceded, and perhaps the study itself was inspired by, the observation of concentration camp survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl that attitude is the ultimate human freedom. 
No one can ever take away from anyone else the ability to choose their state of mind in the face of any circumstance that befalls them. 
In other words, no one can take away your ability to choose your attitude. 
Of course, there are a variety of dispositional factors (genetic and otherwise) that influence your ability to control your attitude and there are also a variety of social factors that influence the opportunities to develop the skills for conscious control of your own attitude, but there is nothing in either the realms within you or the realms outside of you that can ever make your choice of attitude totally predictable. 
In short, what distinguishes those who handle crisis well is what we call, in common everyday parlance, their attitude. 

According to the definition of attitude in Dictionary.com it is a noun meaning: 
  1. A position of the body or manner of carrying oneself. 
  2. A state of mind or a feeling, a disposition. 
  3. The orientation of an aircrafts axes relative to a reference line or plane such as the horizon. 
  4. The orientation of a spacecraft relative to the direction of motion. 
  5. A position similar to an arabesque in which a ballet dancer stands on one leg with the other raised either in front or in back and bent at the knee.

Literal Definition of Attitude

But we do not mean the literal aspects of the definition of attitude, that is, the position of something in space. 
There are five definitions for the word and three and a half of those definitions were talking literally about the position of objects in space; a ballet dancer, a spacecraft, an aircraft, or your body. 
I said three and a half because the first definition of attitude mentions "a position of the body," which is literal but also mentions the "manner of carrying oneself" which is ambiguous. 
The "self" can refer to the "body-as-self" or the "psychological self" and if it is referring to the psychological self then in this definition of attitude the term is being used metaphorically. 

Metaphorical Definition of Attitude

It is the metaphorical use in the second definition of attitude, in particular, where the idea is that attitude is "a state of mind" that is crucial.
This idea is central to understanding how important attitude is. 

There is no such thing as a literal state of mind. 
As philosopher Mark Johnson and Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff point out in their book Philosophy in the Flesh (Basic Books, 1999), "The mind is what thinks, perceives, believes, reasons, imagines, and wills. But as soon as we try to go beyond this [literal,] skeletal understanding of mind, as soon as we try to spell out what constitutes thinking, perceiving, and so on, metaphor enters. …[M]etaphors are necessary for any detailed reasoning about mental acts." 
Since most people are used to thinking of metaphors as fluffy literary flourishes rather than a very deep structural element of human understanding, as cognitive scientists have only recently discovered, do not be surprised if you have a hard time getting a handle on the idea.

So, the phrase "state of mind" is a metaphorical construction that suggests that the entity that thinks, perceives, believes, etc. is like a literal object that has distinct states, such as doors that can be open or closed, or switches that can be turned on or off. 
Attitude refers to the way in which your mind, that part of you that thinks, perceives, believes, reasons, imagines, and wills, is oriented relative to the circumstances both within you, as genetic and habitual dispositions, and outside of you, such as the organizational, cultural, social, and ecological roles that you play. 
The states referred to in the definition of attitude are different orientations of the thinker, perceiver, believer, etc. in relation to it’s circumstances. 

So let me break that down a little more so that it’s clearer. 

Mind as Space Shuttle 

First of all, there is you, or at least the part of you that thinks, perceives, believes, etc. 
Let’s use the space shuttle as a literal object to represent you. 

Second there are several kinds of things within you that you relate to. 
There are the things inside of you, like your genetic disposition, which are similar to the mechanical sub-systems that comprise what we know as the shuttle. 
There are also some things inside you that change as you grow and do things, your habits and other things you have learned, which we will pretend are the astronauts that fly the shuttle. 

Third there are things outside of you that you relate to. 
Such as the organization you work in, the society you belong to, and the ecologies that are affected by all those things. 
For our illustration here we will imagine that NASA is the organization and the United States is the society while the whole earth will represent the ecologies. 

So, believe it or not we now have a common sense way of understanding why some people will survive serious accidents and tragic events and others die. 
There are two especially risky times in the course of a Space Shuttle flight, launch and re-entry, and both shuttles that have been tragically lost were lost in one or the other of those times. 

So now I will show how the shuttle as mind metaphor is apt and how it helps us better understand the concept of attitude. 
First of all, remember what attitude is literally; the orientation of an object, normally the body, in space, often relative to some frame of reference such as the horizon, the direction of motion or to standard ballet poses. 

Under the extreme conditions of accidents or when tragedy strikes, what happens to the mind? 
According to studies on states of mind the most common result is cognitive chaos and the simplification of thought processes. 
Experientially they occur as negative states of mind such as confusion, panic, anger, depression, etc. 
What distinguishes those who survive accidents and tragedies is the ability to transition themselves from the negative states of mind that naturally occur into states that are less negative and more functional for meeting the direct needs of immediate survival. 

The survivor is able to create order in their consciousness and effectively prioritize what aspects of the situation need immediate attention. 
So, returning to the analogy of the space shuttle, when extreme conditions occur there are three predictions that we can make about the shuttle and by extension about the significance of attitude. 

Making Predictions

The first prediction is based on the basic design of the space shuttle. 
The prediction we can make is that all space shuttles that do not have the right attitude during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere will be destroyed. 
During the re-entry phase of the shuttle flight we know that extreme heat is generated by the friction of the atmosphere on whatever surfaces of the shuttle faces in the direction of the shuttles motion. 
Therefore, every single shuttle that does not take a "Tiles First" attitude by facing the black ceramic insulating tiles into the direction of motion during re-entry will be destroyed. 

The second prediction is based on the facts of the second shuttle disaster in which the black ceramic insulating tiles that protect the shuttle during re-entry were irreparably damaged during the launch phase. 
The second prediction is that every shuttle that suffers substantial irreparable damage to their insulating tiles will also be destroyed. 
The "Tiles First" attitude is not enough to guarantee the safe re-entry of every single shuttle flight, but it is the only attitude under those circumstances in which survival is even possible. 

Now let’s think about the application of these first two predictions to minds. The first prediction would be that during times of extreme duress all minds that do not have the right attitude will be destroyed. 
The data confirms this. 
People who panic, or otherwise cannot escape a negative state of mind, die when extreme life threatening circumstances occur. 
Second, every mind that has suffered damage that makes the attainment of positive states of mind impossible will also die under extreme life threatening conditions. 
This is basically obvious. 

The first two predictions we made about the shuttle and then by metaphoric extension about the mind are not difficult to understand and they are supported by either data or common sense. 
The third one is a little more challenging and I don’t know if there is data to substantiate it, though I do believe it is true. 
It is having a sense of this prediction that motivates me to work towards changing what we consider to be elementary in elementary education.

The third prediction is based on the first shuttle accident, so, in case you do not recall, the first shuttle accident was discovered to be the fault of a defective o-ring in one of the booster rockets. 
This defect was detected during the manufacturing process, but the culture of the organization, the organizational attitude, if you will, was such that the defect went unremedied and the shuttle along with it’s crew were tragically destroyed as a result. 
(The book, What Do You Care What Other People Think? includes the story of the shuttle disaster from the perspective of Richard Feynman who helped with the congressional investigation.) 
The resulting prediction is that if external conditions that influenced the current physical manifestation of the shuttle were unable to support the robust on-going correction of flaws, then the destruction of the shuttle is more likely. 

The third prediction applied to mind is, if the external conditions that influence minds during their development are unable to support the robust on-going correction of flaws then destruction is more likely during extreme events. 
This raises three important questions, what constitutes a flaw in the mind, what constitutes a correction of a mind flaw, and what are the most influential external conditions during human development. 

The Only Flaw That Matters

My work is based on promoting the idea that the only flaw that matters is not having access to optimal states of mind. 
Correcting that flaw is achieved by practicing a variety of ways to achieve optimal states of mind under normal conditions, so that if extreme conditions occur then the individual will be more likely to be able to access them. 
In other words, I put attitude first, before academics, before grades, before test scores, before everything else. 
Because when the snot hits the fan, it is my student’s attitude that is going to matter, not their obedience, not their attendance, not their grades, none of the stuff that is given undue importance in elementary education.

Teaching, parenting and peer culture are the primary external conditions that influence the development of human minds, at least in the first fifteen years or more. 
Since I do not envy the person who ignored or dismissed the flaw in the shuttle o-ring, I am not interested in being the teacher or parent who loses a child in some tragic turn of events only to realize that I valued that child’s obedience, attendance, or grades more than the cultivation of their ability to access the optimal states of mind that might have helped them survive. 

Thus I have made very deliberate choices about the kinds of teaching that I provide. 
I avoid situations that would have me herd kids like goats and manage their behavior without adequate opportunities to develop the kind of open-ended leadership practice that I honed during my years as a private teacher home schooling other people’s kids. 
Thus the mainstream choices of teaching in classrooms or in situations that occur around classroom schedules, like after school programs, are problematic for me. 
Other people are comfortable with more focus on specific instruction, so they can be good teachers within the classroom, or in out-of-school programs, but my personal disposition and style are not often well supported in typical mainstream classrooms. 

My goal now is to develop ways to teach teachers, rather than kids. 
I want to help teachers learn the value of putting attitude first, so they will know that they have provided their students with learning opportunities that make a real difference and also that they are providing themselves, personally, with the best possible quality of life. 

As John Dewey wrote in 1938, "We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything." 
The strategy of putting attitude first has the benefit of preparing a young mind for not only the worst that can happen, but also prepares them to take full advantage of the very next moment. 
To revise Dewey’s statement, I suggest that if we can achieve a good attitude in the present moment, then that is the best preparation for achieving good attitudes in every subsequent moment. 
Discovering how to achieve a good attitude is the only preparation that amounts to anything in the long run.