The Math(s) Fix by Conrad Wolfram: Book Review

Note: the publisher sent a copy for review but all opinions are my own.

“How this plays out affects us, our children and society profoundly. Allow maths education to continue in its current mould, and we will increasingly remove most students’ opportunities for success in a wide range of fields: the AI age requires more, different, computer-augmented computational thinking for human empowerment, not more of the same maths.”

Wolfram’s central message is one of change and empowerment. He reaches out to anyone who cares about math education or education in general—  not just teachers and policy makers, but parents, students, employers, and the educational community at large. This book is a powerful, passionate, and critical analysis of the current system and a vision of what math education should be. Central to math education is empowerment of the learner— and this consistent theme is present throughout Wolfram’s vision as he articulates the “fix” for math education. 

Having not known much about Conrad Wolfram before reading this book (come to find out he is arguably one of the most important thinkers and innovators in mathematics), I was pleased to see how closely his reimagining of math education aligned with other critical thinkers in the field as well as research, evidence, and effective educational practices and theory. I found many similarities with Jo Boaler’s essential work in math education, as well as Alfie Kohn’s insights

The fix that he proposes follows effective educational design (“backwards design”) where, after examining the purpose, he delves into outcomes or standards. Overall, the goals of transfer are apparent, as is the foundational belief that students need to be engaged in real-world math— this can happen through open-ended questioning and using real-world technology and not made-for-education technology. While only discussed briefly, it’s easy to see how this would result in much higher engagement from students— who in the current system question how math will help them in real life and rarely, if ever, find a satisfactory answer to that question as they stare down endless sets of decontextualized practice problems. He critically identifies, “This confusion between calculating as a means to a problem-solving end and as an end in itself is the central and fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of today’s math education crisis.” 

Instead, Wolfram argues for a constructionist approach, even a project-based one, where there are “actual problems solved by real people in the real world with today’s technology”, and where computational literacy is not solely the purview of math teachers. However, he doesn’t neglect the necessity of scaffolding, careful curation, and skill development that would give students the ability to do well in a problem-based setting. This is a critical point because many iterations of project-based learning fail students on this level. 

Those looking to affect change in the way that Wolfram describes will find solidarity in his struggle to develop and refine his ideas. Because he and his team went through the process of designing a computational subject curriculum, they can sympathize with teachers and recognize the ins and outs of curriculum design and pedagogy. However, he makes several important points that should not go unnoticed— for example, that much of the uses of technology in the classroom at present are computer assisted and not computer based— a very important distinction that educators and curriculum developers need to examine closely. 

Wolfram is particularly perceptive when it comes to assessment— the seemingly unavoidable determinant of modern education. “. . . [Yet] in the modern concept of exam legitimacy, questions set up for easy reproducibility of quantitative scoring trump questions that more accurately simulate real life, but are harder to mark . . . when in real life did you pick from 4 or 5 answers, one of which you knew “has to be” right?” Rather, Wolfram calls for more complex but better aligned assessment: “ . . . questions which need explanation and judgement calls can be much more representative and therefore legitimate and fairer tests of the student’s ability at the real-life subject, even if working out who did better and worse needs more complexity to achieve acceptable reproducibility.” This might make many in the education field uncomfortable with the task, but anyone who has suffered at the hands of standardized testing and recognizes the deleterious role that it plays will also recognize the validity of what he calls for. 

I found Wolfram to be particularly insightful and even motivational in his discussion of the profound implications of a computational subject— or lack of one— for individuals and society. His powerful, passionate expression communicates the urgency of a computational subject in today’s “post-truth” society. In his view, “Those poorly educated in the rich computational thinking I talk about more easily succumb to that megaphone [of misinformation or mis-understanding]. They can be blinded by quantitative certainties or bamboozled by the aura of computational complexity. They can confuse abstract representation with the reality it was supposed to be representing, even when the two have diverged.” He even goes so far as to say that most people are “easily misled” and perhaps even “no longer believe any logic.” The critical implication of the failure of our calculation-based math education upon society is continuously, powerfully, and necessarily reiterated. 

I do wish that Wolfram would have included a deeper discussion of how computation-based math improves equity for students, beyond just a selling point. He does point out that certain key aspects of math education, such as the qualitative experience of the concepts of cause versus correlation, usefulness and reliability of models and algorithms, or understanding bias, “cause a ‘computational divide’ between those who are empowered with computers and those who aren’t: having a computer and being able to work it doesn’t mean you can effectively apply computation or think computationally.” His comparison of the historical power of literacy to the power of computational literacy for the present and the future is important, however his discussion does not go much beyond these points. The bridge that computational thinking and education can provide for many students who are traditionally disadvantaged when it comes to calculation-based math is a critical— and one that Wolfram, while covering a great many other aspects— sort of skims over. 

In the end, Wolfram’s carefully thought out arguments show incredible amounts of hard work and dedication. His rare vision and clarity for where math education needs to go in order to empower and engage students and prepare them for the kinds of logical and computational thinking that is so necessary, both now and in the future, is perceptive and compelling.

Performance in ELA: Haunted by Hamlet and Performing Poetry

PART 1— “Though this be madness, yet there [should be] method in’t.”

The end of the semester was in sight— a mere two and a half weeks away, when a randomly scheduled PLC made me catch my breath. I came out of the library and headed down the hall to my classroom, my head spinning. How in the world can I teach Hamlet in two and a half weeks?!

I momentarily let the feeling of panic and anticipated exhaustion overwhelm me as I staggered down the hall, seeing double. While the other teachers on my grade level had been teaching Shakespeare’s longest play for the past 2 weeks and were about halfway into it, I had somehow missed the memo about this shared text. I had been reassured in the PLC that it was ok, I could take a little bit longer, that the shared CFA that was already in place could be pushed back a little bit. So after dwelling— or perhaps, moping—  for what felt like an appropriate amount of time on why, exactly, I should be teaching Hamlet during the junior year with the focus on American literature, I was able to come up with a few ideas.

This shouldn’t sound, even at this point, like a victory story— because it’s not. There were a few things that went well and a lot that was rushed or that flopped. As I encourage my students to do, reflecting on this brief experience with the Prince of Denmark and about 237 eleventh graders has pushed my thinking about teaching plays in the Language Arts classroom to places it hasn’t gone before.

First, why should we teach Shakespeare? I’ve found this discussion to be very helpful in thinking about this— one of my favorite English ed bloggers, Brian Sztabnik, looks at both sides of the issue. From my experience with students and Shakespeare, I believe he accurately identifies the “aura of luxury and ostentation” that often surrounds Shakespeare in classrooms. He dips into this debate that notably occurred in The Washington Postwhich points out that the time for a Eurocentric focus on texts is long over, and that we should challenge the notion that we should do something because it’s something that has always been done. There is a lot of value in challenging this notion, and in looking closely at the texts we teach through the lens of these views. Ultimately though, I— along with Brian— believe in teaching Shakespeare for many of the same reasons that he lists; among others, it is rich in content and is rigorous, and because I believe there is value in posing the same question to students that I asked myself: Why Shakespeare? Brian also links to a Harvard professor who teaches a whole course on this— it’s worth a look.

However, I also believed that Hamlet, being a play, could be a way to get students out of their seats— reading parts and doing something different.

This part didn’t actually turn out so great.

We started out pretty well— with Brian’s Shakespeare Musical Chairs activity, which I’ve effectively used before with other plays. Students get to interact with short pieces of the text and start working with the language in small, manageable parts. It’s also fun, and is something that comes up again as we read the play— so it’s great for building background knowledge and prior experience.

This was followed by a few stunning performances of some scenes from Hamlet in class— I don’t think anyone in my first period A day class will forget Luke’s flawless British accent employed in his ironic, desperate interpretation of Hamlet.  But, overwhelmingly the students’ interactions with the play, performing it and otherwise, were disengaged and distanced. They weren’t required to memorize their lines, or to do too much by way of performance— it was kept minimal and was really more of a way to get through the reading of Hamlet in a more interactive way.

As I reflect on why my attempts to teach performance in the classroom didn’t work, I’d also like to suggest some things that would work much better. I came to these improved ideas on teaching performance in a Language Arts classroom after Hamlet didn’t play out so well, prompting my own investigation into how performance could be used in the classroom in successful and less traditional ways.

Honestly, I was about to give up. I have no theater training or experience, and aside from reading some plays in my undergraduate English classes, I haven’t had any structured way to approach this. So, I’d like to ask not necessarily, Why Shakespeare? but rather, Why performance in a Language Arts classroom? And how?

Some of my initial approaches to performance with Hamlet were setting us up to not be successful. But could it be successful? How could I view performance in Language Arts differently? Michael LoMonico, in an article about performance in the English Language Arts classroom, explains, “I have a theory about why educators talk with such enthusiasm about teaching literature through performance: It works. Performance works because it gets students excited about literature. It works because it helps students truly understand the literature. It works because students cannot get enough of it” (p. 116). While this isn’t how performance worked in my classroom, I’m still willing to believe that it does do these things. However, LoMonico goes on, discussing in a more fundamental way why it works by discussing what it is, or is not: “Perhaps the best way to define teaching through performance is to say what it is not: It is not the students sitting at their desks reading assigned parts of a play out loud.” (p. 116).


So if students aren’t sitting at their desks reading it out loud from the book, and they’re not standing in front of the class reading it out loud from the book, what is performance? LoMonico conceives of it in a way that can be immensely helpful: as “Close reading on your feet.” He continues to explain that, “There are innumerable ways to incorporate performance methods into an English language arts class, and those methods are all variations of close reading on one’s feet. Performance happens when students look closely at a piece of text and use their voices and bodies to explore the subtleties of the author’s words” (p. 116). This implies a much more active process than merely sitting or standing and reading the text in front of the class. Students are exploring what in the text evokes emotion or movement and trying to express that. While students ultimately make the text their own as they embody the character or the speaker, they are also closely examining the text in this process.

A few ways to incorporate this “close reading on your feet” with Hamlet— instead of having students simply read the play out loud— could be instead to focus on smaller sections of the text to promote this deeper, closer reading and possible performance. Students could focus in on a soliloquy or chunk of text of their choice and work with that text in a variety of different ways, like writing character objectives, rewriting the text using your own language, and also “Crafting the Moment Before— ” writing that students do that describe what the character was doing, thinking, and feeling in the moments before they gave their speech.  

Another conception of performance in the Language Arts classroom can help to extend beyond the student and what they are embodying to the social and cultural contexts that they live in. Allison Downey’s discussion on drama in the English language arts classroom brings another dimension that I had not previously considered: that of social change and critical inquiry.

She begins by making an important point that I feel is so necessary I have to long-form quote it:

One of the great difficulties in teaching about horrific periods of history, the underbelly of human experience, is addressing how to help students comprehend the incomprehensible . . . One of my goals then, has been to sensitize students to the realities of injustice. I am not suggesting that students dramatize someone else’s hell. Nor do I assert that in doing so they will understand “what it’s like to be a slave,” for example. I do not believe that we can ever understand the horror of the Holocaust by representing the events through drama. Rather, the intent is to use drama as a tool to explore the general themes and serve as a catalyst for critical inquiry (p. 33).

This is a critical distinction— that students won’t know “what it’s like to be someone else,” something I think that could lead to stereotyping in a classroom of secondary students, rather they will explore the text and use drama to make the often challenging move into critical inquiry.

In this process, students first read a text and then represent the major events in tableau. Then,  reflecting on the tableau can happen in a variety of ways— Downey focuses on asking questions of the observers and participants of the tableau. This can be extended through written response to prompts, and developing characters that the students embodied more fully by answering questions from the audience, by making a different choice in how to represent that character in the tableau, and more.

The critical move comes when Downey describes taking advantage of the moment in the classroom to move students to identify “the moments when different actions could be taken that would result in a more positive outcome” than the text originally had. The teacher would then ask questions about the choices students had made. This resulted in the students, “becom[ing] agents of change. They better recognize the complexity of the issues, the challenges and dangers of actively addressing injustice head-on, and the necessity to do so. Once they have developed this sensitivity, they are better equipped to face historical and current social injustices” (p. 38). After this, moving into other texts is a natural extension in which students could extend this model of learning. In fact, Downey states that, “I believe that students were so motivated to learn about the actual historical events because of their initial exploration of the themes through poetry and drama” (p. 38).

There are many ways to use performance in the classroom. Another particularly notable way is the focus of Ann Frkovich and Annie Thomas’ article, “The Monologue Project for Creating Vital Drama in Secondary Schools.” They discuss a project in which students interview members of the community and write monologues focused on specific issues. They go through multiple drafts, peer reviews, examining samples, and work through rehearsals and performance options. The results are powerful monologues written by students that represent the collective voices of a community, one in which stories are shared and students participate in “an exercise bearing witness.”

Thinking of performance in the Language Arts classroom as close reading, as a way to explore social change and critical inquiry, and as a way to generate writing and a voice for others in the community are all powerful ways to think of performance that in and of themselves, are ways how and reasons why performance should be used.


PART 2— “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go”

As the above ways of approaching drama in the classroom show, performance in the Language Arts classroom doesn’t always have to be centered around a play. Poetry is a natural fit.

In an article, Steven Athanases explains why poetry can be a good choice: “For performance activity in full language arts curricula, I typically select poetry. Because poems often are short, they enable the student to go deep in a single work while gaining broad exposure to many works in class workshops. Also, a poem invites the student to assume the role of a single speaker, without needing to perform multiple characters” (p. 88).

Additionally, Athanases discusses a poetry performance unit and the effect it had on students— “His experience and that of his peers provided further evidence for what I have found about performance of literature: Students report that they learn more from intensified study, rehearsal, and class performance of a piece of literature, even a single poem, than they learn from months of more conventional literature study” (p. 88).

As poems themselves are this intensified use of language, it makes sense that the study and performance of a poem would also yield a deep, intensified learning experience.

Athanses details a workshop based approach. Student choice of the poem is vital, as is rehearsal and reflection. He describes this process:

Central to this model of literature study through performance is viewing the rehearsal process as a site for discoveries and learning. Rehearsals and performances are accompanied by reflection, generally in written and spoken journal entries. This model differs from those that treat performance as a fun, add-on activity by viewing performance as a creative but deliberate process interwoven with other literacy events. Close reading and writing precede the act of performing, which, in turn, prompts further writing (p. 88-89).

As these activities show, there is more than just performance involved. Rather, multiple “literacy events” occur throughout the process that work to improve the quality of the performance and the learning.

One of these literacy events is rehearsal, which Athanases describes in a way that is very similar to aesthetic and literary theory, “These are evocations of the literary work— a series of texts created and lived through” (p. 93). Each evocation, he notes, “provides students with rich data for reflection,” which in turn informs following performances.

But, poetry can be difficult, can’t it? Working through performance can be a natural way to work through the difficulties of the language. In any case, as Athanases notes, “Even if students at first do not grasp the language of their selected poems, planning and rehearsing make it more difficult for the reader to ignore lines and phrases with seemingly cryptic meanings” (p. 95). Students must confront these unknown parts of the text as they work in performance— a process that the teacher can help support when needed.

Part of the failure of my approach to performance with Hamlet was that it was performance just to perform. However, this workshop approach seems to get away from that, instead promoting a higher concentration on the part of the performer— more of a commitment to the poem than there would have been without performance” (Athanases, 2005, p. 95).

Finally, there is an aspect to the performance of poetry that might make some teachers nervous— memorization. I must admit, I am fascinated with the idea of memorizing poetry. People have been memorizing poems for centuries— it’s a practice that is not frequently done in schools today, though. Do we avoid doing this because it is hard? Memorizing can be very difficult for some students, but there are many reasons that it can also be worthwhile. Memorizing poetry can be good for you in many ways, Not just because you might be stuck on a stopped subway train, but because it is a challenge, and because it is also expressive, among other reasons. A poem, once memorized, is something that you can carry with you throughout life.

There are many resources that can help teachers with the memorization and performance of poetry in the classroom. Poetry Out Loud is a great place for this— it includes some excellent videos of students performing poems they have memorized.

Finally, in an NPR interview with Caroline Kennedy, she explains,  

‘By rote’ has sort of a negative connotation. I don’t even know why. But I think what you’re really doing is you’re just sort of absorbing these feelings, these emotions, these experiences of someone else’s and being able to understand them because they become part of you. And you realize that these are universal feelings and we may all put them into words in different ways. But sometimes … you have a poem that you feel captures exactly what you’re feeling, but you haven’t been able to put it into the words that the poet has, and so I think that that’s what makes it so … that … it becomes part of you in a way.

8 Habits of Dialogical Teachers



“A dialogical classroom is one in which literacy is used to immerse teacher and students in an ongoing reflective conversation with the texts of their lives.” -Bob Fecho

Because a dialogical classroom is #goals. Dialogical, Dialogic, Dialogue: Conversation.

  1. Answer each question with a question.
  2. Read lots and lots of theory. Because there is nothing more practical than good theory*. Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Csikszentmihayl, Rosenblatt, Dewey, etc., etc.
  3. Read lots of other books too.
  4. Structure class activities to allow for plenty of discussion and talking.  You know that the sound of students talking about ideas is the sound of learning.
  5. Teach students how to question validity and sources behind texts. Because you are teaching critical thinking through questioning, like a boss.
  6. Teach students to question pretty much everything.
  7. Have an essential question. The kind that can’t be answered in a day. You don’t already know the answer to this question, either.
  8. Don’t just teach one way of doing things. Dialogue with students on what works best for them & try different ways.
*Quote Attribution: Bob Fecho. 

Beginnings & Engaging with Works of Art: My Week with Lincoln Center Education & Teachers College, Columbia University

Beginnings & Engaging with Works of Art

I cannot even begin to unpack all the things I learned in my week with Lincoln Center Education—my first week this summer in the MA English Education program at Teachers College. Each day after class I would go home to the small apartment I rented with a few other girls from the program, and just collapse from mental exhaustion. To write about everything I learned would take a novel-like production! So, instead I just want to touch on a few big ideas that I took away from the brilliant program and teachers they have there at LCE: engaging with ideas of a work of art, line of inquiry, questioning, some activities, and the Capacities for Imaginative Thinking. Really, I’m just glossing over the information, but talking about even the basic idea of these concepts allows me to remember, and might spark someone else’s interest and possible investigation of these truly brilliant instructional approaches.

With classes at Juilliard, the Met, Central Park, and of course historic Teachers College, there was no shortage of wonder. My grad school classmates & I saw an unforgettable performance by Urban Bush Women, and closely examined the music of Coltrane, some classical sculpture, modern painting, and Mid-Eastern architecture. LCE partners with schools and educators so that students can have the kind of experiences and “encounters with art” that we were able to have. Of course, none of our students will go into these encounters having actually studied art, literary, and pedagogy theory. Early on LCE realized that the encounters with art were not having the kind of indelible impression on students, nor were they able to produce and sustain a depth of discussion that was needed or that an encounter with a work of art deserves. Their next move was to incorporate into the curriculum a series of lessons where students would engage with parts of the idea or ideas surrounding the work of art before they encountered it.

I wondered, how many times as English teachers do we just jump into concepts and ideas? Or jumping right into a work of art (text) without engaging students in any of the ideas that surround that particular piece? And, how much better would our instruction and student engagement be if we got students involved and interested in the ideas before hitting them with the key text?

Why This Approach?

To do understand this approach better as learners as well as teachers, we were led through some LCE workshops in which we engaged with ideas and concepts surrounding the work of art before, during, and after we actually encountered it. As I mentioned before, one of the effects of this was that by the time we came to the central work of art—painting, poem, essay, novel, music, dance, etc.— we were much more engaged and even excited to discuss and examine the ideas, artist’s choices and craft, and implications of the work of art. Discussions following the experience were also much richer, had greater depth, and not anything we will soon forget.

We also developed lasting knowledge and critical thinking because of our engagement with the central ideas. This is a huge plus, because engagement with these ideas can lead students to be more thoughtful people, more involved citizens, and lifelong learners.

Here’s an example: in a series of lessons we created, students would—through various activities—engage with the idea of borders and boundaries before their encounter with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Making a Fist, in which physical and abstract borders play a central role. They had the opportunity to examine and develop critical thinking skills about borders— how they work in society and their personal relationship to borders. This experience can then refine and inform their future actions and thoughts as they engage with literal or abstract borders they encounter.

As an English teacher, this is what I’m after! Critical thinking and engaging with ideas to help students become active citizens and thoughtful people. Additionally, lessons that involve different modes of learning, activities, or art often appeal to a wider range of students and can be an entry into the ideas and work of art being studied.

How to Do It
Line of Inquiry
So what are the practicalities of accomplishing this? How do we plan lessons to this result? One essential element to lesson planning—the essential question— is not unfamiliar to most teachers, but LCE has a slightly different take on it. Called the “line of inquiry”, it is a question specific to a work of art, but that addresses ideas that can be examined outside of the context of that particular work. It spawns other questions that can be used on a more daily basis in class. For me, the biggest realization of using a line of inquiry (or essential question) is that the teacher should not have an overwhelming sense of the answer. This is good for a number of reasons, but primarily because it allows for student directed learning— authentic learning— and for students to have more ownership over what they are learning.

Here is an example of the line of inquiry—developed with a group of teachers in the LCE workshop—based on the poem mentioned above by Naomi Shihab Nye: How does Naomi Shihab Nye in “Making a Fist” use motifs of movement and location in time and space to explore the idea of borders?

A lot of time could be spent analyzing and discussing what makes a good line of inquiry, but for the sake of brevity, this and other good lines of inquiry are specific to a work of art, address writer’s craft and choices, doesn’t lead to a specific interpretation, and allows for students to arrive at the “So What” by themselves; all important things to consider when designing an essential question.

Importance of Questioning
When ready to move past the starting point of choosing a work of art and designing a line of inquiry, consider the instructional strategies you use in encountering the work and working with the line of inquiry. Perhaps the most crucial strategy that I learned about in greater depth with LCE and at Teachers College, was questioning— it’s absolutely vital! Teachers should use questioning in every capacity: as an instructional strategy, for discussion, and as an affective goal for your students to turn into critical thinkers by questioning what they see, read, and experience. Questioning and dialogue have an essential place in teaching. So, when examining a work of art, having a discussion, doing an activity, etc., use questions to help students notice, explore, and analyze a work of art.

Some Activities
Still on the practical side of things, I was introduced to some activities— maybe some teachers already use these— that are conducive to engaging with ideas and encountering works of art. There are of course many more activities that allow students to engage with ideas of a work of art, but these are a few of my favorites:
 Students in groups create a frozen scene that depicts a concept, idea, character, or anything else the teacher thinks is something that needs to be explored. Students are given time to figure out how they are going to embody that idea and why, after which they perform for a class (and hold that position) while others observe, ask questions, and analyze. It can be useful to first analyze as a class before asking the participants of the tableau what they did and why. Check out this video from Teaching Channel that shows this activity, along with a few other good ones, “Wall of Silence” and a small group discussion:

Teacher hangs pictures around the room that illustrate an idea, concept, etc.; could be abstract or more concrete visualizations of the idea. Students then walk around the room and take time at each picture to look, notice, and write down something that stands out to them about that picture. They write this on a sticky note or a piece of paper/poster hanging next to the picture. Allow students the chance to view most or all of the pictures before beginning a discussion about what they noticed. Often students will begin to connect the content of the individual pictures to a larger concept, but teachers can prompt students to do this as well with questions like, “What do these have in common?” The gallery walk is a great way for students to be introduced to ideas in a work of art before they encounter it; they can also start to think critically about those ideas.

Using a variety of mediums to make art that illustrates a central idea or concept is a great way for students to begin engaging in that idea and thinking critically about it. Students can create drawings with crayons, markers, pastels, scissors and paper, and more. After students are done creating is the time to begin questioning and examining what they created. If the teacher wants to take that a step further, changing the art by combining it in some way, for example a collage, then examining that can help students to come up with new observations or ways to think about the idea.


There are a variety of ways to do this, but the basic idea is that students share a sentence or two— either from a text or from their own writing in response to a work of art— and then share it out loud. It can be done “Quaker Meeting” style, where one person starts and everyone shares at the time that they feel like they want to, or going around in a circle, in small groups, etc. Doing this allows students to think about ideas and artist’s craft as they are entering discussion or preparing to encounter another work of art. Noticing commonalities or often repeated ideas or lines is a good place to begin discussion.

At The Core of LCE: The Capacities for Imaginative Thinking
Finally, when talking about Lincoln Center Education, I have to mention the Capacities for Imaginative Thinking, the core of LCE’s approach to aesthetic education. Each capacity, and the accompanying questions, help students approach and encounter a work of art with greater critical thinking, perception, and understanding. Using these capacities as I think about how to plan lessons where students transact with a work of art has been transformational to my teaching. See also a printable PDF of the capacities.
Thinking About . . .
I plan to think and write more about what I learned at LCE and in my first year at Teachers College. Specifically, questioning and the role it plays in learning and instruction. Also, imagination— as described by Maxine Greene, the founder of LCE— and the dynamic between student choice, empowerment, imagination, literature and other text. I am an English teacher after all, and the power of literature when seen through the lens of imagination and empowerment underlies just about everything we do in the Language Arts classroom and in aesthetic education.

How Google Works (and how it can work for teaching)

Do you ever read books, not entirely or even not at all related to education, and your mind just spins with the possibilities and implications it has for teaching? It’s one of the reasons I love to read nonfiction, especially from disciplines other than my own. It broadens your perspectives and gives you fresh ideas that revitalize your approach to teaching (in addition to being entertaining). My husband is in the business world, and once I sampled a little of this book about the successful ideologies of Google written by the people behind Google, I stole it away to finish–and was thrilled at multiple points with thinking how it could relate so well to teaching . . .

From How Google Works by Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg:

One of the concepts that most resonated with me was the idea of the “smart creative”. Isn’t this really what a teacher must be? Isn’t it what we want to be–autonomous and highly effective in our own classrooms? Their description of a smart creative brings new ideas on how a teacher can function effectively in this day and age of education. In order to not violate fair trade guidelines by quoting entire chapters of this book to you, I’ll settle for summarizing and listing just a few of the things they say about smart creatives:

  • Have a deep technical knowledge
  • Comfortable with data, understanding “its fallacies and is wary of endless analysis. Let data decide, she believes, but don’t let it take over.”
  • Innovative, and not always just during the hours they are being paid for
  • a “power user” who “understands her product from the user or consumer’s perspective.”
  • a “firehose of new ideas” who has her own perspective but can see things from other perspectives too
  • “always questioning, never satisfied with the status quo . . .”
  • an “open creative” who collaborates and “judges ideas and analyses on their merits and not their provenance”
  • “communicative creative”–communicates with flair and possibly charisma to diverse  audiences

The authors are fair in also mentioning how not every smart creative possesses all of the characteristics that they discuss. Smart creatives are diverse but can also be found in all places. They are “the ambitious ones of all ages who are eager (and able) to use the tools of technology to do a lot more. Their common characteristic is that they work hard and are willing to question the status quo and attack things differently. This is why they can have such an impact.” (page 18-20)

Isn’t it exciting to think of teachers as smart creatives? People with deep subject knowledge, who are innovative and curious? It almost goes without saying that teachers are hard working–doing the work even beyond the normal hours. A “smart creative” teacher can combine those things with technology and the many digital and other literacies demanded by students these days and achieve amazing results. As a teacher, do you think of yourself like this–as a smart creative?

And a word on passion (cause obviously we’re not in it for the money):
“Passionate people don’t wear their passion on their sleeves; they have it in their hearts. They live it. Passion is more than resume-deep, because it’s hallmarks–persistance, grit, seriousness, all-encompassing absorption–cannot be gauged from a checklist. “ (page 101)

I can’t think of a better way to describe a teacher. Deeply passionate about what they do, of course. But also possessing those things that we are coming to realize make a big difference for students when they are young and in our classrooms, and also when they are people out there in the real world: persistence, grit.

Lastly, I thought these ideas on the “learning animal” are particularly prescient for the teaching profession:
We know plenty of very bright people who, when faced with the roller coaster of change, will choose the familiar spinning-teacups ride instead. They would rather avoid all those gut-wrenching lurches; in other words, reality. Henry Ford said that “anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Our ideal candidates are the ones who prefer roller coasters, the ones who keep learning. These “learning animals” have the smarts to handle massive change and the character to love it.” (page 102-103)

As educators, we know that this business is a roller coaster ride. From changes in policy and curriculum to the changing dynamics of the students that come in and out of our classrooms, change is something we must accept. But embracing it, and even taking it a step further; as teachers we must always be learning and growing, particularly in this time of widely available information and technology. Keep up with the times and teach your students the things that will help them be successful for the world today. How can we expect our students to be lifelong learners if we don’t make the effort to learn and grow with the times we live in? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less important. I love thinking of teachers as intelligent people who make the best of the change they are constantly faced with.

teaching for creativity: demand calls for reversing the downward trend

I read a fascinating article this week that briefly discusses one of my favorite undercurrent topics in education: creativity.

The article in Forbes, “How Kids Lose Their Creativity As They Age (And How to Prevent It)” points out that creativity scores, measured yearly since the 1950’s by what is called the Torrance Test, have been dropping in American children since the 1990’s. It was this bit of evidence that initially pulled me in; while dropping test scores in any area aren’t exactly fresh news, it’s that this article’s subtexts link this sad fact strongly to the nature of the workplace. A modern workplace that is constantly changing, and greatly values creativity and innovation– as seen in countless successful companies and organizations.

Which leads me to ask . . . Is creativity rising among  the valued workplace skills, even as evidence shows creativity is falling among American children? This Forbes article would have you believe that it is, and that we need to do something about it.

While praising teachers and offering preventative measures against creativity loss, the Forbes article also makes some interesting claims: that the “school factory system”, “teaching to the test”, and teaching essentially with one goal or to form one type of student is destructive when it comes to creativity. This line of thinking reminds me of some of the things that one of my education heroes, Sir Ken Robinson, has been saying for a while now:

“I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.” (Sir Ken Robinson, “How Schools Kill Creativity“, TED February 2006.)

On the plus side, by acknowledging multiple intelligences and cultivating creativity like Sir Ken Robinson promotes, we are better able to engage students in learning. I’ve found this to be true for my students on both ends of the spectrum–the advanced and the remedial. So how to do this? The recommendations that the Forbes article makes aren’t anything new, but rather a compilation of ideas and research that have been developed before. For example, two of the five recommendations:

  • Teach kids to challenge assumptions instead of accepting things as is (also a basic concept of the critical literacy theory)
  • Teach that mistakes are not evil and should not be feared (an idea central to the concept of the growth mindset and also involved in the idea of “grit” and how that helps children succeed)

It’s worthwhile to think about creativity and education, especially in light of the modern workplace and culture they are a part of. A final quote from the Forbes article, “creativity has become the currency of success for us all” makes me think that now is a particularly good time to think how we as teachers can help students develop their own unique type of intelligence and creativity to prepare them for careers and life.


P.S. If you haven’t watched SKR’s TED talks, you need to. Here’s a link: