MS and US Parents’ Day Speech-September 2010

[ September 25, 2010 ]

I have thought seriously these last three years about the identity of the school we are becoming. Riverdale is a great place, but, in some ways, communities and cultures have to develop like people—it takes a while for one to be sure about what distinguishes you from others. It is the same here. I think many of us are starting to feel what makes this school special, what makes it unique. We develop minds in certain ways—getting young people to use their brains to think deeply and broadly while connecting ideas that may not seem immediately connected. We appreciate passion—the adolescent spirit of incredible curiosity, wide-ranging interest and enthusiasm is still raging in many of the adults who act as role models for your kids. We believe in community and the hard bargain that goes along with that—you have to give up some of one’s own freedom and self-determination to be part of this community—but it is a good bargain. I have talked about this emerging identity and have recently posted an essay about this on my blog. I will send out the link to you this week if you are interested in reading this. What I would like to talk to you today about is more specific and fairly easy to be handled in about the 10 remaining minutes I have talking to you. How to lead meaningful and purposeful lives and how to get your children to do the same? No problem.

Before I move on, we are all trying to do more to foster more of a sense of school community. Sometimes it is as simple as just saying hello and introducing oneself. I hope that as you move through this day that you will, in addition to meeting your sons’ and daughter’s teachers, you will also meet fellow parents by greeting them and getting to know each other.

Now for the denser part of today’s talk. I would like you to think about a moment. A moment when you learnt something that was challenging—a moment that was an a-ha moment for you. Think about it. Relive it. OK. Take a step away from that moment. What was it like? What characterized that moment for you? Think of three-five things that helped make that a good learning moment for you?

Fine. Keep those 3-5 things in your head. Now, think about a moment when you felt that you demonstrated character. When you lived by a principle. When you felt righteous. OK. Relive that moment. Now take a step away from that moment. What was it like? What characterized that moment for you? Think of three to five aspects regarding that situation that made it a moment of character growth for you?

Keep those characteristics in your head. Compare and contrast the character moment and the learning moment in your head. Is there anything in common? Remember that answer.

NOW-Here is a process I would like you to consider:
We face challenges.
We stumble and make mistakes.
We are motivated to be successful, though.
We recover and reflect on things.
We adapt and now do things slightly or significantly differently.
We are then successful, and yet, we remain humble.

Now—this process is about learning, about developing our minds, and it is also the way we develop our character. We are challenged in math. We are challenged in our belief in honesty. We make mistakes in math and in life. We want to be successful, we want to be better people. We change the way we approach the problem or the situation with our friends and do things differently. We end up being successful in our math class and also in our quest to develop ethically.

Now, another question—what capacities do you need to be ultimately successful in this learning process?

Yes—we need some intelligence. That is true, but since we cannot really increase our IQ significantly in itself we need to also develop capacities that we can shift—capacities that leverage the intelligence that we have. What are those capacities? Here are some: curiosity, zest, optimism, gratitude, self-control, social intelligence, grit.

How well do we do in teaching to and supporting the development of these capacities in our homes and our schools? Well—it is difficult because we do not always agree on what we are aiming to develop in young people. So I am going to share with you a hypothesis in a moment that brings together many thoughts and research. It brings together Stoic philosophy, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. It combines some cognitive psychology and educational research. It combines a bit of Plato with John Stuart Mill. Some Freud with Mischel. Perhaps bit of Bach and Beethoven.

A few moments ago, I asked you to think back to a learning moment of note and a moment when your character crystallized around a certain act. I asked you to relive those moments, reflect upon them and then see if there were any commonalities to those moments. Think about your sense of overlap between those moments and compare it to my hypothesis.

So I believe that true learning, learning that develops both our minds and character is characterized by these three things:


Let me talk about each of one of these for a few minutes.

We do not learn in isolation. It is true that some learning does happen when one is chained to a desk late at night, but in some ways that is more preparation for learning than actual learning. Learning takes place in the alchemy of a moment spent with others, in debate and discussion, in the moment of feedback from a peer or an expert. That is where one understands that there is a difference between my conception of something and someone else’s conception. When one apprehends the difference, then one seeks to resolve it, either by changing one’s mind—by learning something, or by reconciling the two views. Therefore, we having to learn together, and it is true that the best learning happens in communities.

At the same time, good learning or character development is highly emotionally charged. Positive emotion helps learning and helps us become more characterful. Why is it that one learns well when one appreciates one’s teacher’s sense of humor, his or her knowledge, or just the way they dress. It is because good development is linked entirely to our emotions. We remember more when we can tie skills or knowledge to concrete emotions. When someone makes you happy, you will remember that moment and what happened.

Like social networking, good learning is also connective. Good learners link past learning to future learning. They link ideas across disciplines. That is why we are so firmly an interdisciplinary school and are moving significantly in that direction for our future. We need to support the idea that learning in a discrete subject is only valuable if it can be linked and supported by learning in other areas and subjects.

There a number of books that have come out recently such as Multipliers or Linked by Albert Laszlo-Barabasi that talk about a “social multiplier” effect. Basically, it means that we are smarter as groups rather than separate individuals. Put a group of collaborative and smart people together and you will have a group IQ that will outmatch the individual. This is important for us. We are not a bunch of individual strivers here, it is important that all students realize here realize that we are stronger as a community that we can be individually and that there is immense amounts to learn from others. We are starting to ask a few students to blog and share their thoughts with a few of us on a regular basis. As an adult community, we need to learn from our charges. During this next year and in the future, we are going to learn more from the students and understand their experiences in this community. We want to multiply our intelligence as a community.

As Anders Ericcson has determined through his research, research that Gladwell has referred to in his recent book, Outliers, it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberative practice to become really good at something. Ericcson has famously said that genius does not exist, that Mozart had 10,000 hours of deliberative practice. The critical word in these last two sentences is “deliberative”. A good teacher does not just get you to practice, but to practice strategically. Busywork is useless, but intentional repetition is important. However, this work needs to be thoughtful practice. This is why one does not learn much if one is constantly supported in one’s practice. Everyone needs to learn how to do things and learn for themselves. I worry that we put a premium in getting the right answer—we all want that—rather than the process, and focusing on the process that will help us finally arrive at the right answer. Someone said to me one time, well, we don’t want a civil engineer to concentrate on the process when he or she is building a bridge. That engineer needs the right answer. Of course, but we are dealing with apprentices, not the adult engineer. We want these students to understand and love the process that will get them to their own right answers.

What this process of independent and group learning entails is failure. How willing are we to see our children fail? Not very, if you are me, and yet, I know, in my heart of hearts that this desire to have Elsa, my daughter, to experience success all the time is at odds with effective learning. In order to learn, one has to fail in one’s learning. At that point, one is forced to take a step back and consider truly one’s learning process. This act of “thinking about one’s own thinking”, of metacognition is an essential part of a good learning process. Nonetheless positive failure depends on the way that failure is responded to by the community. Either there is a tolerance and permission to fail or there is not. In an interesting book called Start-Up Nation that a person in this community suggested to me, it talks about the economic miracle in Israel and how that has been fostered by a cultural acceptance of failure as a way to find eventual success. We need to let everyone here have the room to fail positively.

The other thing one gains from failure is resilience, grit, or, one of my favorite words, gumption that all refer to a personal quality that is a necessary strength for future success. Gumption is required when you do not succeed in order to bounce back and try again. This learned strength that I have referred to often in my speeches as I have talked about Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow test, is incredibly important to ensure future success in one’s life. Intelligence can get you so far, but it cannot guarantee success. Grit or gumption is critical in helping someone be successful.

What I mean by this is that the best learning is never one-dimensional. You can learn a scientific theory in a textbook, but until you actually do a lab experiment, it is never really learned completely. You can read Shakespeare’s plays, but you will never truly understand his writing unless you act his words out loud. I can understand how the rules of composition can make for a balanced composition, but until I paint on a canvas, I will never truly understand those rules. You can understand a language, but you will not master the language unless you speak it.

We need to keep learning from books, keep learning from lectures, but we also need to get up out of our chairs and feel the learning. We need to create pictures of learning. We need to dance to learn. I learned about Brownian motion, the seemingly random jig that particles do when suspended in a fluid, by dancing Brownian motion jig with my classmates. I learned about music from playing instruments. This experiential and sensory aspect of good learning also refers to building character. We cannot learn about ethics without putting our ideals to the test. It is not enough to say that you believe something if you do not feel that you can actually live that belief. We cannot really understand loyalty unless we demonstrate loyalty to our friends. We cannot understand honesty unless we concretely feel how hard it is to be truly honest.

So—here is my final message to you all for this year.

Support your children’s social and emotional well-being. Make your children confident by being a confidence coach. This does not mean artificially boosting self-esteem. It means praising hard work instead of talent and ensuring that students feel strong in their potential capacities. Get them to make connections with people in and outside the school that can help them learn. Coach them to be good collaborators in their work at school.

Support the idea that learning is hard and that it demands resilience and resilience has to be built by practice—that means that young people have to feel fine with failure. We have to normalize failure for them and try to lessen the stakes for work that they will do. If a parent gets overly upset about a subpar grade this will not help the student develop as a strong learner. If we help our children cope with disappointment rather than merely react to disappointment, we will make them develop more grit and more strength.

Support the idea that learning and development of character demands varied approaches and experiences. Don’t let your sons and daughters just become commuter students—force them to appreciate the richness of the school activities that we offer and that the world we live in offers by breaking the routines and the norms that we are happy reverting to. Have them visit the city, do a community service project together with them, travel somewhere and get lost, eat odd foods, allow them the possibility of decorating their rooms as they wish. We want our young people to be constantly surprised by the world we live in, not jaded or cynical. We can do that by continually keeping them amazed.

I hope that this year is filled with wonder, with failure and success, with delight and a small amount of dismay. It is only in contrast that we truly understand the joy of our human experience. Live it yourselves and have them live it as well.


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One Comment on “MS and US Parents’ Day Speech-September 2010”

  1. headofschool

Hi Stranger, reply with your thoughts:

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