29906170001_4248494398001_video-still-for-video-4248484810001Last night I watched the finale of The Late Show With David Letterman. I have been a fan since 1980 when I was one of the (apparently) few people who witnessed his morning talk show on NBC. I was living in Florida, staying temporarily in my great-uncle’s double-wide mobile home in Pompano Beach until I found my own place. As the “new kid in town,” I didn’t know too many people, and pretty much my only source of entertainment was my trusty little black and white portable television, with the funky whip antenna that had to be positioned just right to get a clear picture.

I had a night shift job at a convenience store called Majic Market, so my mornings were free to just relax. One morning I discovered this goofy gap-toothed guy with a pronounced mid-western accent doing a sort of talk/variety show. It was The David Letterman Show and it was his first attempt at network television. It was definitely not your typical daytime talk show, which in those days was sort of defined by the likes of The Merv Griffin Show and The Mike Douglas Show—super tame (or is it lame?) and targeted to the blue-haired adult demographic. Letterman was young and edgy (as they say) and dared to go beyond the accepted boundaries of daytime television with gags and stunts you wouldn’t see elsewhere. And sometimes the “guests” were actually part of the show’s writing staff who appeared as characters. I particularly remember Edie McClurg, a wonderful character actor who would appear regularly as Mrs. Marv Mendenhall, giving “updates” on the most mundane topics. She was hilarious and underappreciated, in my book.

But I’m way off the subject I came here to write about, which was finales.

The Late Show With David Letterman finale was a memorable one, but it was just one of many that come to mind. After all, I already saw Letterman do a “final show” when he ended Late Night with David Letterman in the messy aftermath of an NBC contract dispute. The network had held out The Tonight Show as sort a carrot-on-a-stick to him for years, and there seemed to be no one better suited to replace Carson than Letterman. Even Carson thought so. But instead, NBC gave The Tonight Show to Jay Leno, and Letterman packed his bags for the more welcoming CBS. If you’re interested, there’s a fascinating book on the subject called The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno and the Network Battle for the Night.

In thinking back on these “final shows” I recall a number of other memorable finales that were momentous in their own right. These include, not in chronological order:

  • The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson—I grew up watching Carson almost every night, even when I was far too young to be up that late. I shed a tear when he did his finale.
  • Late Night with David Letterman—As mentioned above.
  • The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno—I have to confess I wasn’t a big Leno fan, partly because I thought Letterman should have originally gotten The Tonight Show instead of him, and partly because his show, in my opinion, just wasn’t very funny. I wasn’t alone. Leno drew lots of criticism from other comedians who said he had lost his edge and his comedy was lazy. It wasn’t until 2014, when Leno was a guest on Jimmy Fallon’s version of The Tonight Show that he showed what he was capable of. He was extremely funny—because he didn’t have to be “The Tonight Show Guy” anymore and could do and say what he wanted.
  • Late Night with Conan O’Brien—The relatively unknown ex-Simpsons and Saturday Night Live writer replaced Letterman, and after a rather shaky start, built a popular show. He couldn’t know what was in store when he was later named Leno’s successor on The Tonight Show. Ex-Saturday Night Live cast member Jimmy Fallon took over the Late Night desk, from O’Brien, until opportunity came a-knockin’.
  • The Tonight Show Starring Conan O’Brien—Conan got one of the rawest deals in television history when NBC didn’t give him the time needed for his unique brand of humor to catch on with a Tonight Show audience that was conditioned by Leno.  Leno weaseled his way back behind the Tonight Show desk after the spectacular failure of his Jay Leno Show at 10p.m. that lasted less than 5 months. Conan would get his own show on the TBS network, but more important, he got the time to build his audience.
  • The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno—Again. Finally. Jimmy Fallon is off to a good start as the newest host.
  • The Colbert Report—As Stephen Colbert prepares to take over Letterman’s seat on The Late Show (isn’t it funny that so many of these events involve two programs?), I am reminded that it will also soon be time to witness another finale: the end of Jon Stewart’s version of The Daily Show.
  • M*A*S*H—At one time the final show held the record for largest viewing audience.
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show—The last scene where she turned off the light in the WJM newsroom was very touching.
  • Newhart—With possibly the best last scene in the history of television.
  • Cheers—A long drawn-out affair but still good.
  • Roseanne—One of the stranger finales. I had lost touch with the show for several seasons, so the ending, in which Roseanne revealed that the events of previous eight seasons had been part of a story she was writing or something, came out of left field for me.
  • Seinfeld—I wasn’t a real fan of the show. In fact I’d only seen a handful of episodes. But it was a much-hyped event, so I watched. I think I could have found a better use for my time.
  • Friends—Again, I rarely watched the show and the finale was over-hyped. Oddly, I don’t remember what happened.
  • Breaking Bad—An amazing show and brilliant finale.
  • How I Met Your Mother—I discovered this show late in the game (thanks Netflix) but was in time to see and appreciate the end.

And while I’m at it, there have been a few non-television finales that I remember well.

  • Peanuts—This one was especially poignant because Peanuts creator Charles Schulz died in his sleep the day before that final strip, announcing his retirement, ran.
  • Calvin & Hobbes—One of my all-time favorite strips. We knew the end was coming, and even though the final strip was upbeat and positive—”It’s a magical world, Hobbes,ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!”—it was still sad to see.
  • For Better Or Worse—Unlike most strips where the characters are frozen in time, we watched the Patterson family grow up and grow old and sometimes die. Lynn Johnston explored new territory with what I think was the first “out” character in mainstream comics with Michael’s best friend Lawrence.

Finales that often get talked about but which I didn’t see include:

  • The Sopranos—I didn’t have HBO
  • Mad Men—I watched a couple episodes, but never got into the show.
  • Six Feet Under—Never saw it
  • Prison Break—Never saw it
  • Friday Night Lights—Never saw it
  • …you get the picture

Toward more responsive campus mental health care

SoodEight years ago this month, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on campus before committing suicide.
In the aftermath, Aradhana Bela Sood, senior professor for child mental health policy and professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, was named to an independent panel to recommend policy changes that might prevent future tragedies.
Sood’s new book, The Virginia Tech Massacre: Strategies and Challenges for Improving Mental Health Policy on Campus and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2015), highlights what can be done to better treat people who are struggling emotionally.
“Overall, the telltale signs of a mind unraveling were observed by students and faculty,” Sood says, “but there was no coherent action from the institution to provide to Seung-Hui much-needed psychiatric attention.”

Your book includes a remarkable chart of Seung-Hui Cho’s behavioral red flags and various people at Virginia Tech who were aware of individual incidents. Yet the connections were never made.
Here we have a situation where there were so many things that were said and done by the young man, as well as picked up by his professors. Some people did sit up and pay attention, but the ones who could have done something with this information did not respond to it.
So these are opportunities for us to look at a system failure. We have to be more aware when these red flags occur and develop a better strategy of addressing them.

Cho had written dark poetry and stories about death and murder. Young people often have a fascination with dark subjects. How do you distinguish art from illness?
That’s a major issue. We certainly don’t want to stifle creativity.
I see these kids even in my practice, where a teenager might come in and be very preoccupied by Goth stuff or they might be really dark in what they are writing about, which concerns parents. Sometimes it’s just an outside veneer and there’s nothing going on that is of concern.
But I think that also needs evaluation and assessment. What does this mean in context of the person’s life?

What is the role of faculty here?
Two of Cho’s English professors were concerned enough that they weren’t really just viewing it as creative expression. They were also concerned about his ancillary behavior.
He accused classmates of being “low-life barbarians” and “despicable human beings.” He took covert photos of other students with his cell phone, among other things, which the professors were picking up correctly. One of the professors had him removed from her class.
But the role of the faculty has always been confused by the fact that educators think their job is limited to education, and that even if they identify problems, they don’t know what the university does in response to it. The information goes into a black hole and they are left wondering, “What do I do? How much should I push this with the student or the behavior?”

How do we rectify that situation?
One of the strongest outcomes of the Virginia Tech massacre has been alerting universities about threat assessment and how they can handle these issues. Virginia Commonwealth University, where I am a professor, did the same thing. I was one of the consultants to the university. We came up with multiple strategies.
One approach was to set up a code of conduct for everyone—students, faculty and staff—of what is expected behavior on a university campus. If there are aberrant behaviors occurring, there should be a mechanism wherein that is picked up and the dean of student affairs is alerted.
That student should be evaluated. It can vary from a threat assessment situation, to counseling, to seeing a psychiatrist, to seeing a substance abuse counselor—something gets done when that behavior is noticed. This way, when faculty bring up an issue, they can be assured it doesn’t go into a black hole where they have no idea what is happening.
They don’t need to know the granular details of what is happening with the student, but they should know and feel comfortable that the dean of students is responding.
We are not making the faculty counselors or therapists or interventionists. We are merely making them aware of the expected behavior. We are setting up the structure so that when these things are identified there is an appropriate intervention plan for them. That takes faculty out of the equation of making a judgment call for which they don’t feel qualified.
Of course, anyone can recognize aberrant and weird behavior. But they may think it is a private matter in which they can’t intervene.

There’s a lot of confusion over FERPA and HIPAA privacy laws.
Clearly, one of the things that is misunderstood when it comes to FERPA and HIPAA rules is that anything that is observed—that is, not written down on paper—can be communicated with peers, or with others in faculty and the administration.
You are not prohibited from doing that. Anytime there is an issue where you are worried about safety, you can immediately communicate that to anyone without danger of reprisal.

Cho’s parents were not notified that he had been hospitalized earlier for making suicidal threats.
I interviewed his folks. They took him for therapy weekly because they were concerned about him. That was one of the reasons, given his problems, he had been doing relatively well to that point.
So, there is no reason to think that, had they been told he was hospitalized or was expressing these behaviors, they wouldn’t have removed him from school. They clearly understood the need for mental health treatment.

A record number of college students are struggling with depression and anxiety. Do we know why?
I can list multiple reasons. Number one is the stigma around mental health. I see this all the time—when you are losing your seat of reason, which is the brain, it is very scary. That’s a tough place to be for young adults. Sadly, people don’t realize that these are eminently treatable conditions.
Second is that young men and women who transition to college are suddenly taken from highly sheltered environments and put into campus life. It’s very different from the highly supervised arena they had in high school.
They have to think for themselves and be responsible for their own well-being. Stress and insomnia are major problems. There is substance abuse, which is rife within college campuses. You have the first precipitation of psychotic illness, which occurs in late adolescence.
The third thing is access. Even when these problems are identified, there are often very few providers to help a person in crisis. These kids are on waiting lists and they can’t get in to see anyone.
If they do get in to see someone, it is often a student counselor who may not be as well trained and may not be very helpful.

After a tragedy like Virginia Tech, the response is often reactive—more guards, more guns—rather than proactive.
Yes, and that doesn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t you want to know what is making these people unhappy? Unhappiness is not something that can be totally obliterated, but you can begin to look at the foundations of where it’s coming from.
You can help those people by asking, “Why is this happening? What could we do to reduce the stress so people don’t end up with these kinds of events?”

Where does that job begin at the university?
It is very important to involve key leadership. They have to empower the people below them. They have to initiate open, progressive policies around mental health. If the president or the provost doesn’t see a value in it, it’s not going to go very far.
Another problem is that many counseling centers are good at things like adjustment problems, but they often will have little experience with severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia and major depression. Counseling centers need to be able to access care for these students.
Statistically, one in five people have some sort of mental health issue that requires intervention. It’s not an uncommon thing. We need to embrace that.
Schools have generally done a very good job at the threat assessment piece, because that is low-hanging fruit. It’s the least aggressive approach when someone is exhibiting weird behavior. But the mental health piece of it still has a lot of room for improvement.
Change starts small, but you have to keep pounding away at it, just like cancer. Mental health is where cancer was 50 years ago. The more we talk openly about it the more we will remove that stigma, but we have to start that conversation.

Confronting a low-income crisis in U.S. schools

ssuitts2The number of U.S. students who come from low-income families has long been the metaphorical elephant in the room when it comes to education funding. But, according to a new report by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, it’s a problem that can no longer be ignored.
For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of our public school students fall into that low-income category. For Steve Suitts, vice president of the foundation, the alarming trend is that the increase of low-income students is now occurring in regions where it had not been before.
“While found in large proportions throughout the United States, the numbers of low-income students attending public schools in the South and in the West are extraordinarily high,” Suitts wrote in the report. “Thirteen of the 21 states with a majority of low-income students in 2013 were located in the South, and six of the other 21 states were in the West.

Let’s begin with a definition of low-income. That doesn’t necessarily mean poverty does it?
That’s right. We found that 51 percent of students in 2013 were receiving free and reduced lunch. Now, the reduced lunch part of that means that the folks are eligible up to 185 percent of the poverty level. Those who receive free lunch are about 135 percent of the poverty level.
So, we say that these are students in and near poverty. That’s the most accurate way of expressing who these low-income students are.

The economy has improved since the 2008 recession. Are you surprised your numbers show an increase in low-income students?
The slow improvements in the economy haven’t slowed this growth. So far it doesn’t seem to have had a great deal of impact. That’s probably understandable given the fact that we’ve seen little growth or a decline in growth in lower-income job and wage earnings.

Do you expect it to get better, worse or remain stagnant?
Until we see a major increase in the wages or the other income of families and households in the bottom quartile of the economy, I don’t think we are going to see these numbers change. And there has been no real change in those numbers either from the Department of Labor or from the Census Bureau’s reports so far.
So I think this is a reflection of the economy, and also a reflection of the particular households that are in that lower quartile of the economy. These are increasingly single-parent households. They are increasingly households that are with children of color. And these are households whose incomes are just stagnant, if not declining.
That’s where it compounds the problem, generally speaking, that the students with the greatest need, these low-income students, are the ones that are provided the least resources.

When it comes to school funding, there’s a growing influence from the so-called school choice movement, but your report indicates that school choice doesn’t seem to play a role in closing learning gaps.
It really is a stunning fact in many ways. Most proposals for adopting public funding of private schools argue that it’s going to give low-income students a chance to get a better education by moving them out of “failing public schools” to successful private schools.
The best current data we have in the country—the NAEP report on student achievement—just doesn’t show that private schools do any better job at closing the gap than public schools are doing. It’s a big challenge for all schools.
So simply giving a low-income student a choice to go to private school is not going to improve their performance in relationship to higher-income students.
School choice is not about low-income students performing at higher levels. It’s about someone who wants to reshape and redefine education. School choice proponents operate on the theory that private entities can provide better education than public entities. That’s a philosophical doctrine position, not a point of evidence.

Are there any states or regions where the numbers of low-income students have grown dramatically?
In most cases it’s pretty much a steady march. What surprises me from our analysis of our earlier report is how widespread this trend is in all parts of every state.
Clearly, low-income students are more concentrated in the central cities. But if you look at our data from 2011, you also see that 40 percent of the students in the suburbs are low-income and 52 percent in the smaller towns.
What I think is pretty evident is that this whole problem within states cannot be simply dismissed as a big city problem or an isolated rural problem. Those are places where it often is the most striking. But when you have two out of five of your students in suburban schools who are low-income, you have a problem which is everybody’s problem.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, one could have said that the problem was something that only parts of different states—and the school districts in those areas—would have to deal with. But if you look at the numbers in Georgia, for example, we now have two-thirds of the schools across the state with a majority of low-income students.
That pretty well means that it’s an issue that every part of the education community and every community in a state is going to have to address if it wants to be successful.

What does this mean for our economy and how we compete globally?
We can no longer look at low-income students as being a part of our student body whose performance is unfortunate for them, but is also not a major factor in where this nation will go in coming years and in future generations.
When a majority of your students are low income, and when low-income students are performing at the lower levels by almost all indicators, then what you have is a situation where a majority of the students will not perform at higher levels until low-income students become a great focus of education.
The nation is simply not going to have a well-educated citizenry for performing the kind of work that a high tech, high education economy requires. And we’re not going to have the quality of life that we want, that we want our children to have. And we’re not going to have an improvement in the standards of living either.
Unless Americans are willing to compete on the basis of cheap labor— uneducated cheap labor—then the United States has to figure out how low-income students can perform at higher levels for the national interest.

Are you optimistic about how candidates might address this in the 2016 election?
Education gets a lot of lip service but not a lot of focused attention in the electoral process at the federal and the state levels. The kind of positions that are taken and the kind of questions that are asked of candidates about education simply are uninformative in terms of the problems that schools face.
Our political system simply hasn’t yet focused on how important this issue is for the future of the country. Until it does, I don’t know that we’re going to get the kind of policies that we need.

Do you see a way that this trend can reverse?
There are two ways we can deal with this situation if we are willing to—and they probably need to be done in combination.
One is we can figure out ways in which parents can earn more money and provide their kids the kind of educational experiences in and out of school that we know that higher-income families provide for their children. Those kids are doing very well in public schools in the United States—those upper-middle-class kids.
We need to find ways to improve the income of low-income families so that they can begin to provide those kind of resources to their children’s education.
And we can try to have schools and communities provide low-income kids the kind of educational experiences that upper- middle-class kids receive. We know the advantages of early childhood education. We know that exposure to books and language—and to the kind of early learning experiences that parents and communities can provide—will help low-income kids not be so far behind.
And I think we can find ways in which to provide that to low-income kids—if we have the policies and national commitment to do so.

Teaching as it should be

OTrodriguezVanessa Rodriguez knew there was more to teaching than producing test-ready students. Feeling constricted by a system that evaluated teachers not on personal performance but on student outcomes, she had enough. In pursuing her doctoral degree, she wanted to know exactly what teaching is and how it relates to learning. The existing research, she found, was lacking. In The Teaching Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education (The New Press, 2014), Rodriguez and co-author Michelle Fitzpatrick go to the intersection of education, neuroscience and daily experience to explore how the mind of a teacher works, and more important, how it can be made more effective. “No one has ever truly bothered to understand specifically how the teaching process and its corollary, the teaching brain, are separate and distinct from the learning process and the learning brain,” she says. “It’s time for that to change.”

You say commonly accepted definitions of teaching don’t match the actual practice of teaching.
Right. We’ve never actually studied it this way. I started the doctoral program thinking I’d learn the language of what teaching is. Instead, what I found is that we really haven’t explored teaching in the way we have learning.
We understand learning as a practice of cognitive development that we’re all born with. But we don’t actually understand teaching in that way. The literature on teaching is actually grounded in an understanding of learning. That means we’re actually considering teaching a tool for learning. On the surface, that seems to make sense—the whole purpose of teaching is to help someone learn. But where it falls short is that the tool that we’re using is a human being.
Unlike learning, teaching absolutely must be an interaction. When you study teaching like an interaction, it suddenly shifts everything we understand about it and have done research on.

We have all kinds of technology to help kids learn on their own, so why do we even need teachers?
Right now we are trying to replace the human model of teaching with computers. It’s not the first time that this has been attempted. B.F. Skinner came up with a teaching machine in the 1950s and argued that it helped students learn more efficiently. It used reward and punishment to influence behaviors and learning. There are many things that machines can do more efficiently than humans, but no machine to date is able understand the complexity of the mind. It is forever changing, and it’s different for every individual. Humans are best at understanding other humans. But the way that we’ve designed the school system is not to take that into account. If we shift how we define teaching, then we find there is a completely different way of understanding that process of development. We can design ways to better prepare teachers in a classroom to help learners—who are also human, That’s different from being effective at helping children score high on exams that we don’t even know matter in the end.

Give us an overview of what the teaching brain is.
It’s a way to understand other people and to interact more effectively in relationships. The teaching brain is something we all have, but it’s not something we’re born with, which is fascinating. We’re not born with the ability to understand that other people have different minds than our own. We are born believing that everyone knows exactly what we know.
Somewhere around the age of 1 or 2 we realize, “I think one thing, but the people around me have different knowledge bases.” That’s where we’re then able to begin teaching. It starts simply and then develops various other cognitive skills. But there is a point at which that natural development stops. That’s the shift into professional intentional teaching.

Much of your focus is on five “awarenesses”—awareness of context, of the learner, of yourself as teacher, interaction, and of teaching practice.
You may be doing some of these things, but if you aren’t aware you are doing them, you can’t really affect how you are changing. For example, an awareness of my learner means I understand that the learner has a cultural background that affects the way they learn. They have a certain capacity for memory. They have certain emotions and their own cognition, how they process information. All of that is how I understand that learner.
But if I’m not aware that I’m forming this theory about who my learner is, then I’m not going to recognize it as a theory. Instead, I’m going to teach as if that is who that child is. But we never know who a person is. We only have our perspective of who that person is. If I form the incorrect theory, then I’m continually teaching to a misguided notion of who my learner is.
That’s where you start to get frustrated and feel like the child is not trying. But then you realize, “I must have formed an incorrect theory of who this learner is. Let me reevaluate that theory and let me shift it until I find the one that works.”
To be able to do that, you need to have an awareness that you’ve even formed a theory of that learner. And you also need to have an awareness of yourself. Because in a sense, it’s your fault that you formed the theory in the first place. To illustrate, I always had trouble with shy students. One of my “ah-ha” moments was when a student told me, “I’m not shy. I’m actually very outgoing.” I thought, “Wow. In my definition she’s shy. But in her view of herself, she’s not.”

You studied a group of master teachers in your research, some of whom experienced revelations about themselves in the process. Can you give an example?
We did a specific type of interview. For instance, we asked them to talk about how important culture is to their process of teaching. Oftentimes they’d say, “It’s extremely important to understand where my children come from, what families they have.”
I’d remind them that the interview was about themselves, not about their students. I was trying to find out more about what was happening in the mind of teachers when they are teaching.
And they’d say, “My culture? That doesn’t matter.”
Later, when the study was over I’d ask them if they really thought their culture didn’t matter. They’d say, “It does. I just never had anyone ask me about myself when I’ve been asked to talk about teaching. They want me to talk about my learners, not about myself.”
That’s an interesting phenomenon that doesn’t happen in other professions. When you talk about how you do your work, you talk about yourself. But in teaching, we really have been trained that we don’t exist. You don’t bring who you are into the classroom. You don’t bring your politics or your culture into the classroom. You are just there to serve the learners.
We need to recognize that both the teacher and the student have perspective. And it’s the teacher’s responsibility to be thoughtful about how their perspective affects everything that occurs in the classroom.

What practical applications can an administrator draw from this? Does it impact the hiring process?
Yes. At the university level, we need to help prepare teachers to understand just as much about teaching development as they do learning development. At the school level, principals can begin to evaluate teachers on a scale that really is about teaching and not just about learning. A school administrator could work with teachers in breaking down where they are and where they need to be in these areas of awareness. Then a teacher would know what areas they need to work on.

Not to sound flippant, but can you teach an old dog new tricks? Many teachers are just concerned with keeping their jobs.
That’s a tough one. I had this conversation not long ago. Someone asked, “What do you do with teachers who just want to keep their job and wants to bring home their paycheck and is terrified to change?”
I said, “What’s unfortunate is that we’re talking about several decades of teachers being blamed for absolutely everything that’s wrong in education. That’s turned into real consequences where their paychecks are tied to measures that every researcher and most of the public understands are not a measure of teaching, but of the learner answering questions right.”
Inevitably, what we’ve done is threatened teachers by threatening their families, because once you tie it to a paycheck that means you’re tying it to whether I can feed my children at home, and whether I can keep paying my mortgage, and whether my children have shelter.
I think anyone would argue that while teachers are supposed to care about the learners in the classroom, their first priority is their children over your children.
So I am honestly not sure how to change that. I think that is a level of trust that just has been broken. Rebuilding trust takes a long time, and it has to be intentional.

My Jackson Pollock experience

Pollock’s “One: November 31, 1950”

 I’ve told this story before and I’m sure it means nothing to anyone but me. It’s about an amazing moment I had in college.

My art class was on a trip to the MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in case you’ve somehow never heard of this world landmark. That day I could feel a migraine coming. If you’ve ever had a migraine, you know the signs of one coming on, and you dread it. But I couldn’t get out of this trip, so I popped some aspirin and soldiered on.

While I still could, I enjoyed the museum. I love going to museums of all kinds, and I really enjoy art museums. But, try as I might, I couldn’t avoid the migraine. It came on full force, including pale skin and cold sweats. I told my classmates to go without me and I’d see them later on the bus. I sat down in one gallery room of abstract works. One I remember was a large portrait shape rectangle that was painted a solid blue. That’s it. It had a title card, but I don’t recall what it said. Let’s just say in my current condition I really didn’t care.

The room was pretty empty, so I sat down on a bench and stared into nothingness, focusing neither near nor far. After a few moments I became aware of the large landscape rectangle mounted on the wall across from me. As my eyes began to focus, it filled my distorted field of vision. I knew it was a Jackson Pollock work because no one did what he did. What he did, exactly, I have no idea. I always joked that his works looked like painters’ drop cloths. Splatters and swirls and drips. Really? That’s art? So this painting (which I’ve since learned is titled One: Number 31, 1950) gradually absorbed my consciousness. Or my consciousness absorbed the painting. One of those things, or maybe both of them.

My head was pounding, my vision blurred. I wanted nothing else at that moment but to crawl into a dark hole and sleep. I was focused on this damned painting. How long had I stared at it? No idea. But at some point–FLASH! ZAP!–it happened.

I got it.

That sounds odd doesn’t it? But in that moment, I understood what Pollock was doing. I could see the depth and the movement of the painting. I understood its construction. The colorful overlapping paint drips and swirls gave it dimension. I could see into the painting through its many layers. “FLASH! ZAP!” is no exaggeration. Something literally happened in my head–an intense pain and a brief flash. My head “buzzed” for lack of a better term. It was as much a physical experience as a psychological experience. I “felt it” on multiple levels. Like a light bulb flashed in my head. Without putting too fine a point on it, I can only call it a moment of enlightenment.

Coincidentally–or not–my migraine began to lift. I say “or not” because some part of me believes that the “moment of enlightenment” experience triggered a chemical or electrical reaction in my brain that made the headache subside. I have no proof of this, of course, only my personal experience of what happened in conjunction with my Pollock moment.

I eventually got up and headed off to find my classmates. I don’t remember much more of the day, except getting on the bus and riding home, feeling dazed and foggy after the migraine, but overall much improved. The Pollock experience stayed with me during this time.

But then, after I had some rest and felt back to normal, the feeling of enlightenment left me. I found the painting in an art book at the library (pre-internet, so there was no Google images or anything to rely on). It looked, once again, like a painter’s drop cloth. I couldn’t reconnect to the feeling at all. That bothered me–I had a brief transformative moment that I’ve never had before–that I couldn’t get back.

Some years later, my wife and I were browsing in Borders books one evening and I came across a coffee table book of abstract art. The painting was in there, and I showed it to my wife. I tried to explain, not very well I’m afraid, the experience I had that day. I told her about the migraine and the experience of seeing the painting, and feeling a “connection” to it. It sounded as crazy to me then as I’m sure it did to her.

Nearby was a guy who was also browsing. He came over and said, “I couldn’t help overhearing your story. Do you know anything about Jackson Pollock?”  I told him I didn’t. “If you read about his life, it might help you understand why you had that experience,” he said, knowingly. Then he left.

What was it about Pollock’s life that would give me answers? Was he insane? Did the migraine open up, for a brief moment, a window into my own insanity? Is that why I understood him? I think most of us, especially in times of stress, think we might be “losing our minds” when things go out of control. I know a bunch of migraine sufferers who would likely agree that an attack makes them feel they are not in their right minds.

I don’t have the answers. I have not read up on Pollock, as suggested, other than a few superficial encyclopedia entries that didn’t reveal much of anything. Certainly the man had problems. He was said to have a volatile temper that was compounded by alcoholism–two things that don’t apply to me. So what was it? To this day, I don’t know, and it just might be better left unexplored and unexplained.

Trying to answer the unanswerable

Laurie Leshin

Laurie Leshin

A self-described “space nerd,” Laurie Leshin brings an infectious sense of wonderment and discovery to almost everything she does.
Leshin will share that enthusiasm as a keynote speaker at UBTech in Orlando (June 15 to 17), discussing “How innovation is unleashed by asking unanswerable questions.”
As president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (and the first female president in the institution’s 149-year history), she is committed to elevating WPI’s impact in communities worldwide. Before joining WPI, Leshin served as dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.
Leshin has also served as the deputy director of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and as a professor of geological sciences at Arizona State University.

I have to start by asking about your Twitter handle, @LaurieofMars.
The science work I participate in when I’m not being a president is largely focused on Mars and its environment and its history—was it once a habitable planet and could it still have life on it? The name is just a bit of fun.
We all work hard and we all care deeply about training the next generation of professionals and explorers, if you will. If you can’t have fun while you are doing it, then what’s the point?

Your UBTech keynote is titled “How innovation is unleashed by asking unanswerable questions.”
Basically it’s about the inspiration and wonder and motivation that comes from trying to discover things that seem unknowable, or trying to solve problems that seem intractable. I think those are inspiring and motivating approaches, especially in the STEM fields.
In 1961, President Kennedy told Congress, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
I think a lot of people today don’t realize that we had absolutely no idea how we were going to do that. We hadn’t even orbited the earth with a human at that point, and the guys at NASA were wondering how we would do this on Kennedy’s timeline.
But the amount of innovation that it unleashed, and the amount of economic prosperity and technological advancement that came from that massive, seemingly impossible task positioned our country for the success that we see today. I have always been inspired by that.

Kennedy’s challenge sparked all kinds of new discoveries. Do you get the sense that could happen today?
Absolutely. But what are the driving questions that might enable us to innovate today’s challenges? Certainly the space program is still an exciting place to think about this and I think the “Are we alone?” question is a really compelling one to ask.
All of us, as kids, looked up at the stars in the night sky and wondered whether some kids on another planet were looking at our sun and asking the same question. I think we are currently living in a time when we can answer that question, yet it is a huge technological challenge—and an inspiring one.
But there are other ones too. Eradicating disease and really understanding how to dramatically increase lifespan. How to harness the energy sources of our world without endangering it. How to unleash the potential of every person on this planet to make it better.
There are some great challenges out there that I see motivating our students, and that’s what drives me.
Freshmen at Worcester Polytechnic Institute participate in something called “The Great Problem Seminar,” where we challenge them to take on today’s problems and find solutions. We’re not talking about just thinking about them, but actually proposing ways to solve them.
I see the impact it has on their motivation to learn the fundamentals of science and engineering that they need. They are doing it from this perspective of, “Wow, there’s this massive problem, but I can get in there and help solve it.” It’s quite exciting to see.

I would imagine that in the process of looking for answers, other unconnected ideas reveal themselves, leading to new discovery.
Yes. There is a serendipitous aspect to virtually all exploration and discovery that is also very motivating.
The best way to make that happen is to ask really big, open-ended questions and let that exploration drive students to define the questions in a way that is self-motivating. They can actually see themselves making an impact in that way.

Give me an example of an unanswerable question that motivates you to go further?
As I mentioned, I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions about life on Mars and that has been a quest for me over the course of my career, but I still don’t have the answer. And I’ve come at this from trying to understand the role of water on Mars and whether there were happy aqueous environments where a bug or a microscopic organism would have survived. I do think we’ve reached the point where we are pretty confident that that answer is yes.
Now the question is, with water and all the raw materials that make up living things, is it enough to make the primordial soup on Mars? We don’t know that yet, so that’s the reason I stay involved with the Curiosity Mars rover team.
It’s the reason I push for samples to be brought back from Mars. I think that’s how we’ll have the best shot at answering those unanswerable questions in the near term. It will have an impact on how we care for our own environment here and on how we think about ourselves as residents of this planet.

How is innovation unleashed?
Innovation is unleashed when talent meets opportunity. When smart, motivated, well-trained people meet and confront challenging concepts, they can think about ways to solve them. That, of course, is what universities are all about, right?
When we talk about innovation, I think about impact. How do we take these great ideas and discoveries and turn them into true, demonstrable change for good in the world? That is an interesting piece of the puzzle as well. I think it’s something a lot of scientific fields—and universities, for that matter—struggle with.
We all say we train our students so they can go out and change the world. But then I ask, did you teach them how to change the world?
I think we are really trying to embrace this concept of not only training them to have the potential to change the world, but also trying to give them the tools that translate their great ideas and innovations to the marketplace or to communities to have the greatest possible impact.
Our students work at about 40 project centers around the world. Every student does basically three major projects during their time at WPI. About two-thirds of them travel with faculty to places like Namibia, New Zealand, Panama, Bangkok, Switzerland and elsewhere to work in real communities on problems that sit at the intersection of technology and society.
They have to think, for example, about how the way a community in Namibia might deal with waste disposal is probably not the same way a community in Washington, D.C., deals with the same issue.
So, as they are thinking about how to make the most impact with the solutions they come up with, they also have to make sure that they are doing so in a way that is compatible and sustainable to the community or location they are in.

What can other university leaders do to create those opportunities?
I like to say—and I can say—it ain’t rocket science to be doing this. Of course it’s the right thing to be doing. That’s not really the question.
But conferences like UBTech present an incredible opportunity to share ideas. I would love to be able to have conversations with other leaders at UBTech about what they are doing and how they are doing it. How can we make sure that, as we are teaching these students, they are really learning how to make the most impact in the world that they can?
At WPI, we do that through project-based learning. We’ve been doing it that way for 40 years. We send students out in the world to actually apply what they are learning to solve problems.
Other universities probably have other ways to do it, and I would love to have those conversations with them.

Higher ed is a tough world, but it’s a world we made

Donald Farish

Donald Farish

People often go to college for the wrong reasons, with assumptions about how it’s going to benefit them, says Donald Farish.
“When it doesn’t come out the way they imagined it would be, then, of course, it’s everybody else’s fault.” Farish, president of Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, will be the inaugural speaker at the new UBThrive program, part of UBTech in Orlando this June. An outspoken proponent of access and affordability, Farish says colleges—and students—need to be more realistic about what to expect.
“Increasingly, prospective college students are asking institutions how they are responding to the challenges facing young professionals who find themselves thrust into a stalled economy with prospects for employment not nearly as rosy as just a few years ago,” he notes. “While we can’t solve the country’s economic challenges, we can equip our graduates to succeed in spite of them.”

Your keynote presentation has this working title: “Why higher education is under attack and what we must do about it.”
Yes. When it comes to criticism, higher education tends to look for how we can make the smallest possible adjustments in our thinking to mollify our critics. I think that’s absolutely wrong in terms of how to respond. It’s a much bigger issue that requires us to rethink what we’re doing.
We’re in danger of waiting too long to respond and then having ourselves be overwhelmed with legislative mandates from Washington or from the states. Then we simply become training factories and give up on the idea that we have any role to play other than helping people get jobs. Everything has been reduced to the question of return on investment.

Shouldn’t you be able to demonstrate that your graduates land good jobs?
The problem is that looking at first-year salaries is a terrible predictor of lifetime earnings, especially with a liberal arts graduate. In the first year many of them are earning very little money, so it looks as if spending all that money on college was a terrible waste.
But 10 years out there’s a very different picture in place. You have to look at career earnings, or earnings at age 40—something other than just that first job. In the great majority of cases, they end up with a job they enjoy and a salary they find adequate for their needs, and earn about as much as graduates in professional programs.
To say it’s all about getting a job is throwing in the towel on all the things liberal arts have always aspired to. Many faculty in the liberal arts are horrified about the idea that we’ve been turned into a jobs training program.

You wrote, “Higher education has been its own worst enemy on this issue, having totally muddied public understanding regarding the actual cost of a college degree.”
I was referring to our pricing policy. There’s list price and net price.
The list price is what everybody can see because it’s there on the website. It’s the number that they keep beating us up over because it has been increasing for the last 20 years at rates much higher than inflation. People look at those numbers and say, “You’ve got to be kidding!”
The way we respond is to say, “No, no. You don’t understand. That list number has nothing to do with our actual numbers. Our actual number is dependent on a highly complex formulation, individually based, and we really can’t tell you what that number is until you apply.”
It’s going to be based partly on need, and partly on merit, and partly on what a different campus can afford to put into its financial aid budget, and partly on how much we redirect full payer’s money to partial payers.

It’s like the airline industry. Everyone pays a different price for their seat, and they’re convinced they’ve paid more than everyone else on the plane.
Right, and almost no one is a full payer anymore. Last year, nationally, almost 87 percent of the students in private schools paid something other than the full price. Once everybody is getting something other than full price, what’s the point of full price if no one is paying it?
But since there are so few full pays, we’ve had to raise the full price to drive any dollars at all back to the students who don’t have as much money. So people see the gross price going up, while what the campus sees is net revenue going down in many instances.

Where did it go wrong?
When colleges began giving merit awards is when they got in trouble. We need to pay attention to what the family has in its pocketbook. We had a recession in 2008 where families took a tremendous hit on their net worth, and many of them have not recovered to this day.
Higher education has raised its sticker prices substantially since 2008. At a time when the worth of individual families was going down, our prices were going up.

Yet people are still willing to pay the high prices.
That is what’s known as the Chivas Regal Syndrome, that somehow your sticker price is indicative of your relative worth, and the more you charge the better you are.
So we have this paradox: “I’m going to an expensive school. It wouldn’t be expensive unless it was good because otherwise no one would go there. But I also want a huge discount off that number so that I can go.”
That’s what a lot of colleges are trying to accomplish, but they end up battling with each other in a shrinking market. The number of high school graduates is going down, and it’s chaos.
I know several schools that woke up on May 1 and said, “Well, the good news is we got all the students we were looking for. The bad news is we blew the lid off the financial aid budget and now we are $9 million in the hole.” People lose their jobs when that happens.
Conversely, the danger is holding back on financial aid and hoping it all works out. Then it becomes, “The good news is we kept our discount rate under control. The bad news is we didn’t make our class. We’re still $9 million in the hole and we could lose our jobs for a different set of reasons.”
But that’s the world that presidents and especially admissions officers find themselves in today. It’s a tough world, but it’s a world we made.

Is there a way to turn it around?
Yes. That’s what we’re trying to do at Roger Williams. We did not wait until we got ourselves into a hole we had to dig our way out of, from the standpoint of enrollments.
We are seeing how long we can go without increasing tuition and without dropping our numbers. It’s tough, because the same number of schools is looking for the same number of students they’ve always had, and the pool itself is getting smaller.

How will you continue to get the number of students you need?
We start by putting ourselves on a path to where we become slightly more affordable every year to a slightly larger population, because we won’t increase our price. Meanwhile, as the economy improves and family incomes rise a bit, we’ll find ourselves on the right side of the action.
We’ll also lock in that price so that people don’t worry about bait and switch. We want to give you a very clear sense of what your financial obligations are going to be over those four years. Other colleges won’t.

What specifically adds value to a student’s education?
We need to link what your kids are studying to the world they are going to enter and make sure they are as well prepared for that world as they can be. And because we happen to have a robust program in the liberal arts coupled with a diverse program of professional majors, we are urging students to major in what they love and minor in something that is practical and supports that.
I was talking to a family whose daughter is graduating as a dance major—her first love. But she double majored in business because, if she doesn’t make it as a performer, that will help her open her own dance studio. She stays doing something that she loves.
We do the same things with engineers. We say, “You are going to get a good job out of college, but if you want to rise in the ranks and become management at some point, think about taking a minor in business or in one of the liberal arts so that you’ve got that balance.”
I don’t think there’s anything that we’re doing that many campuses in this country couldn’t do if they set their mind to it. But if they wait too long, until they’re already in a financial hole, then it becomes difficult. They’ll have lost any investment money that they might have had, because they spent every nickel they had just to keep themselves afloat.

Technology demands a delicate balance in higher ed

Gerry McCartney

Gerry McCartney

Gerry McCartney embraces technology as much as he rejects it.
As CIO of the Purdue University system, as well as vice president for information technology, he knows that bringing technology to teaching requires a delicate balance. While it can simplify some processes, it still can’t replace what he calls “the learning moment.”
Educators, he says, would do well to learn from history and understand that technology is not a panacea for all that ails education.
“If you look back through history, and I’m talking hundreds of years,” he says, “there are patterns in the way markets develop that you should be aware of if you are going to invest in those markets—not because it guarantees that you’ll always be right, but you can avoid at least the more egregious errors if you are aware of them.”
McCartney will be a keynote speaker at UBTech 2015, June 15 to 17 at the Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando.

You’ve been quoted saying, “Somewhere in our past, there is a belief that IT can actually make things better through change.” What did you mean?
I was recently listening to the CIO of the Hilton hotel chain. He was talking about how the hospitality industry hadn’t change for hundreds of years. If you had a room available, you hung a sign outside saying so. But by the 1970s, they launched centralized reservations where you could call a number and book a room at any Hilton.
In the last 30 years, though, there has been an escalating series of changes. You can book online. You can check in using your smartphone. And when you check in, you download an app that contains your room-key information. You just go up to the door and it detects your device and unlocks itself.
Higher education is just beginning to embrace some of those possibilities. The early stages of any technology adoption are merely automation of existing processes. There’s no reengineering of processes. You use a $1,600 laptop to replace a $100 book by putting a book on the laptop, which is kind of an absurd thing to do.

Maybe technology has changed faster than education can keep up.
Honestly, I don’t think education has changed all that much. I think we’re still in that early stage. There is a sense that we haven’t really begun the reinvention of higher education.
Just to go back to my hotel example—Hilton doing all these things to automate its processes are exact examples of early-stage technology impacts where they simply automate existing processes. They still have a building with the word Hilton on it and they still have a concierge and a check-in person and a restaurant on the ground floor.
What does that mean for higher education? If it’s just a university with a whole pile of technology in it, well, nothing has actually changed.
You can make a reasonable argument that we already automated a lot of the instructional stuff when we allowed textbooks to come on. That happened a long time ago, I know, but somebody else wrote the books.
As a teacher, all I’m doing is regurgitating the material that’s in the book. Someone else created all this information that I’m giving you, not me. I’m just the weather person. I didn’t think up these meteorological reports. I just read them to you.

You still encourage your team to make these technologies available—not just in research, but also in the humanities and social sciences.
Right. And the people we go to—and this is important—aren’t people that necessarily want technology. We approach the faculty and say, “What can we do to help make your teaching even better? Blank check—what would you like us to do?”
But oftentimes what happens is IT people—who don’t teach—think of something and then try to sell it to faculty.
Then there are faculty that just like to fiddle with technology. They are not particularly good at technology, but they kind of like it.
I think these are both bad test cases. I’d rather have the person who is an excellent teacher, and ask them, “Is there anything…?”
And we get crazy ideas from them. That’s really the beauty of it. Then colleagues take a look at the technology and say, “Well, it must be pretty good if Mary is using it, because we know Mary is a great teacher.”
Whereas if Tom is using it and Tom is just widely known to be this guy that’s got to have the latest everything but maybe isn’t a very good teacher, then, frankly, that sways nobody.
But teaching is a hard thing to move because it’s a tradecraft. You learn how to get good at it over a long time. So you are not going to be terribly responsive to people who are going to do it for you or do it better for you—especially if they are not teachers themselves.

What is IT’s place in decision-making? You have a collaborative relationship with your president, but that’s not the case everywhere.
No, it isn’t. And the executives and the IT people can both be at fault. On the executive side, there may be no acknowledgment that there’s any change under way, which would be a problem right from the get-go. And there may be no real awareness of what IT might be able to do.
On the IT side, there’s lots of people who call themselves CIO who would much rather be directors of computing. In other words, they love hardware and stuff. And they are really uncomfortable in this space of trying to imagine what the future might look like and how they might participate in the general business model, not just in the IT part of it.
I was at an event not long ago where they shared some statistics that I thought were fascinating. A large number of CEOs of all shapes and sizes of companies were asked, “Should the CIO be a strategic partner for you?” More than 70 percent said yes, absolutely.
Then they asked them, “Do you think your CIO is a strategic partner?” Only about 20 percent said yes. I thought that was very interesting. I remember going to a CEO event years ago where the CEOs compared CIOs to the air-conditioning guy—like it’s a necessary evil. They say, “I’ve got to have it. Just keep it cheap and keep it reliable.”
The savvier ones now realize that if they don’t have a digital business, they have no business. They are trying to figure out how you make a business work in a digital environment. It’s likely that some whole classes of profession will disappear as a result. But then whole sets of new ones hopefully will emerge. And that’s true in education as well.

They’re waking up to the idea that we have the technology, but we still have to figure out what to do with it.
Right. In the late 70s, Daniel Bell coined the term “information society.” He observed that everybody was going to become an information worker, and the people who couldn’t do that weren’t going to have jobs, because everything else would just be automated.
Now, of course, we have a more sophisticated view of it than that, but in truth it certainly is playing out. You can even fine-tune his statement a bit by saying everyone will have an information job or a personal-service job.

When it comes to technology, do you ever find yourself saying, “Stop. We don’t need to go down this route right now.”
Oh yes, all the time. I was doing it this morning—and then people get very upset with me. People try to use technology to defeat culture. They say, “If we put this system in, we’ll make them all change.” No, that’s not the way it works. All that will happen is we will spend a whole pile of money on this system and no one will use it.
There are ways to implement technology to make change, but you can’t do it with this kind of passive-aggressive approach—“We’ll get people to change without them even noticing it.” Oh, they’ll notice it, believe me.
So, in fact, you have to say no to a lot of things, because people want to automate all kinds of things.
Too often, we use technology as a hammer. We use it to automate things that shouldn’t be automated. We use it very little to experiment and to change things—but when we do, we call those people entrepreneurs.
But not every shot is guaranteed to hit the target. In fact, very few do. But what can we do? How do we, as educators, participate? How do we take a step here?
It’s still something that needs to be discussed and explored at places like UBTech. Otherwise, everybody just says, “Well, that was a load of guff. I just want to know why my Oracle server won’t stay up.”

Inside the science of learning

Benedict Carey

Benedict Carey

Benedict Carey was, by his own admission, not a good student. It wasn’t that he didn’t study. He did. But he didn’t retain enough of what he studied to do more than get by. If that sounds like a familiar scenario, then join the club.
In his book
How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, Carey, a New York Times science reporter, examines well-worn advice about learning, only to find much of it misguided or outdated.
Instead, recent research shows that sometimes contradictory study techniques may actually lead to greater success in the classroom. “If the brain is a learning machine, then it’s an eccentric one,” Carey says. “And it performs best when its quirks are exploited.”

It’s interesting that even as you research how learning happens, others are studying more effective ways to teach.
Yes, and they are totally different things. Education is one thing where classrooms and teachers aren’t usually studied as individual learning. Only recently are they trying to integrate the things learned in studying individuals into classrooms to see what works. Not all of it will work.

Not everyone learns the same way, as your book shows.
We know from experience that we learn better in some contexts than in others. We learn better with certain teachers. We connect with a certain textbook or graphic representation.
Those intuitions are the way we’ve formed a lot of our own theories about learning, which turned out to be not so accurate. Those are the assumptions about learning styles people make—I’m an audio learner. I’m a visual learner. I’m an intuitive learner. I’m a right brain learner.
Those things seem natural but they really don’t hold up when you study them directly. No one has shown convincingly that there are those differences.

So rather than focusing on differences, we should look more at what they have in common?
Right. For example, some people split their study time and actually remember more. They can separate study sessions by a day or so and the information lasts longer. But others have a hard time doing that because their schedule is too messed up already.
We’ve always been told to pick a quiet place to study, but the science suggests mixing up your environment. Trying a new place or new music on your earphones actually has more benefit than always holing up in a library carrel. Changing context and changing environment aids retention.
It’s a matter of adapting the individual findings to what you can do and what you need to learn. The idea is you see what the evidence looks like and then try to apply it in individual techniques and see if they work for you.

Have you come across any schools that are taking these various individual methods and trying to scale them?
Yes, I know of several, but it is something of a haphazard approach. In other words, they are trying to incorporate “neuroscience” or brain science to improve the teaching in learning.
One is St. Andrews in Potomac, Maryland. They are trying to use what has been learned by cognitive scientists, as I describe in the book, and see if it is applicable.
One very simple thing they do is to start their days later. They’ve picked up on the idea that sleep actually enhances learning. St. Andrews gives students more sleeping time and encourages them to take it.
St. Andrews also uses testing as a studying technique. That’s a powerful tool because it’s not a graded test. It’s basically an extra powerful way to drive home the material that you’ve already studied.
Another school, Indian Creek, which is also in the D.C. area, is doing some similar things. Those two schools have explicit programs where they are trying to integrate academic-like findings into the teaching, into the school and into the school schedule.
Now, teachers instinctively know a lot of this stuff. Some of them have hit on these techniques in a piecemeal way in trying to encourage students. But most of them don’t have the full picture. They don’t have all the findings and how they fit together. They are not applying learning science, so to speak, in a systematic way—like St. Andrews is trying to do.

You mentioned testing as a study technique. What do you say to people who argue that there is too much testing already?
Testing is one of those flashpoint debate things. A lot of people in education circles hate it. It seems that, at least in some school districts, there is more and more of it. You feel like you are always preparing for a test.
But testing is a technique. It’s a preparation technique, whether it’s reciting or even making outlines with the book closed. A lot of things that don’t feel like testing the way we normally think about it turn out to be fairly powerful learning techniques.
So to the extent that schools or teachers can use testing to inoculate against testing, they should do it. It involves finding clever ways of self-examination that you can incorporate into the preparation period to deepen learning.
The result is a stronger learning experience in the same amount of studying time. Then, when the standardized test comes around, it’s not as big a deal. The actual assessment doesn’t feel as scary and you’ll do better, presumably.

That’s not just regurgitating material rather than learning?
Not really. For example, if you read an American history chapter that’s describing the settling of the West, there’s all sorts of varying theories about that and different ways of telling the story.
Well, if you close the book and outline what you’ve read, that’s a kind of self-examination. It’s a kind of testing, although it’s not what we would normally think of as testing.
But it’s not regurgitation either. It’s you organizing the material according to the way you remember it and the hierarchy that you think is appropriate. You are not taking it from the teacher and you are not getting it from the book.
If the course is taught well, you are not regurgitating any one single historian’s view. What you are doing is organizing the material in a way that makes sense to you and that you can easily recall.
Regurgitating would be more like reading it out of the book or even restudying what you just studied. That helps you a little bit, but not as much as the other.

Our education system increasingly relies on tests. But are we actually tracking learning from those tests?
That’s a policy question, but my suspicion is no. Not because testing is inherently bad or misleading, but because it warps the preparation.
I suspect that increased testing leads to a lot more cramming. And that doesn’t help learning. It’s a very superficial and short-lived kind of learning that happens. It’s here and then gone.

Does any of what you learned while writing the book run counter to what you thought going in?

My assumptions were the same as everyone’s for most of my learning life, certainly all my life as a student. You think of learning as an act of discipline where it’s you and the book hidden away in a quiet room, and you are pushing this information into your head.
A lot of it is isolated from the rest of your life. You set aside an hour to study math or French, and then you close the book and you are done. You have a routine and that routine kind of lets you know when it’s time to work.
All these things seem to make sense. The problem is they’re just not true. The things we learn best are the things we carry with us, that we think about and incorporate into our lives.

What can school leaders take from your book and apply right now?
The learning methods in the book can be taught directly to students—real study skills that can be applied very specifically to the courses kids have.
Let the Harvard professors continue with their studies to figure out which of these techniques could one day be applied to a whole classroom or school. For now, there’s no reason to wait around to find out if, for example, interleaving really raises math scores across an entire school. I think it will, but the studies are going to take some years.
But really, we don’t need Department of Education-funded double-blind research studies designed by academics. We already have the material, we just need to use it to the best advantage.
So to the extent that you can bring those techniques into your daily routine—the testing, moving study spaces, outlining, and so on—the better off you are. Right now you can teach a brain science course which has practical applications that any sixth grader could try.

A field guide for implementing blended learning

 Michael Horn and Heather Staker

Michael Horn and Heather Staker

Blended learning is poised to transform education as we know it. We know the what and the why, but it’s not often we learn how. In their book, Blended, Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools (Jossey-Bass 2014), Michael Horn and Heather Staker lay out the components of successful blended learning programs, and challenge readers to create a culture that can make these innovations succeed.
“The power of culture is that as members of an organization reach a shared paradigm about how to work together to be successful, ultimately they don’t have to stop to ask each other what to do,” says Staker. “They just assume that they should keep doing what they’re doing because it works.”
Horn is co-founder and executive director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Staker is a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute and recognized expert on blended learning.

Let’s start with a definition of an often misused term that is central to your book—“disruptive innovation.”
Horn: Disruption is used in popular lexicon today to mean a wide variety of things. But we mean something very specific. It’s the process that transforms sectors that are characterized by things that are complicated, expensive, deeply centralized and can only be accessed by a limited few, into things that are far more affordable, convenient, accessible and customizable, so that they can serve many more people with their benefits. They typically start as simple innovations in areas where the alternative is nothing. And then they improve over time, which is how they have that transformational effect.

Staker: It seems that anything that’s innovation is called a disruptive innovation. In fact, that’s not the case.
One thing we attack in the book is the idea that all use of online learning in classrooms or in schools is disruptive innovation. Instead, what we find is that, in some cases, schools are blending online learning to sustain the traditional classrooms—and in ways that are actually very exciting, and that can improve the traditional classroom.
But in other cases we are seeing districts that are using online learning in schools to replace classrooms with a really different way of thinking about educating children, and those are the more disruptive examples of online learning blending into the schools.

You studied more than 150 blended programs while researching the book. Did any stand out as best examples of what you are talking about?
Horn: Early on, before we even decided there was a book here, Heather came across Acton Academy in Austin, Texas. It’s one of the biggest breaths of fresh air we’ve ever experienced in education.

Staker: That’s true. I became so immersed in the research and so dazzled by some of the examples that I literally moved my family to Texas so they could attend one of these blended schools.
But blended learning is a big category. You see special education students at places like the Carpe Diem charter school in Yuma, Ariz., who need more of an individualized playlist and customized pacing. And then you see another student who is a professional surfer in Hawaii who needed to be able take online courses to fit his schedule. And you see students in the KIPP program who needed more individual time with their teachers. So this is making a big difference for them.
Because of the variety and the creativity with which educators are using the new tools, we’re unlocking a breadth of solutions that weren’t available in the past.

Horn: The other exciting thing is the continued pace of innovation in the field. We’ll revisit a school we first visited two years ago, and it looks quite different. They are learning what works, the software is improving, and the way that teachers use those tools and analyze the data is improving.
We see a flowering of many different models to meet many different circumstances. But we’re still really early. It’s kind of scary to imagine what this could look like in 10 years, because I’m sure we’ll be wrong in predicting how exciting this could get.

The book is a call to action. You tell readers, “You are the change driver.”
Staker: That was intentional for a couple of reasons. One is that we think the country is ready for it.
We have enough examples of schools that are finding release and opportunity by using technology strategically that we no longer can afford to sit back and wait. The second reason is that Michael’s earlier book, Disrupting Class (McGraw Hill, 2008), was the 50,000-foot view of how online learning is emerging as a disruptive innovation that will change the world.
And it felt like people were hungry for the more practical design book to help them take those high-level concepts and apply them at the 5,000-foot level. So this book was intended to ground blended learning now in actual practical step-by-step recommendations for how to move forward.

Throughout the book, QR codes launch illustrative video clips. One of them says: “Technology has revolutionized our world. Nothing in our modern lives remains untouched by this powerful transformation, except education.” That may come as a shock to people who say, “Well, we already have computers in school.”
Staker: Literally every other industry in the world is embracing the digital era, and schools have yet to truly transform. We have seen computers in classrooms—in fact, we spent over $100 billion on technology over the past few decades—yet they seemed to be crammed on top of the current system as opposed to truly transforming it. We showcase schools that are changing that and shining a path forward that others can follow.

Horn: But technology, by itself, won’t transform practice. What’s been so striking in education is that a lot of those efforts have been just layered on without asking what teaching and learning should look like in this new paradigm.
Don’t try to adapt technology or software to your current business processes, because it won’t work. Instead, you really ought to change your practices to meet what the software can now allow you to do.

You talk about creating a culture that will allow these things to bloom.
Staker: Culture is a critical piece to glue together the experience. When we say culture, we mean those tasks that are repeated over and over again until they become embedded into a common, shared way of doing things.
One problem that can beset these organizations is that they create their teams and they do the design and implementation, but they don’t retain those teams to be the masterminds of the culture. So while we’re talking about the topic of culture, I think that’s one key strategic decision that the leaders can make—keep the teams on-site and on hand to think about culture issues and getting those right over the long term, even after the implementation is well underway.

You say blended learning works, but you acknowledge there can be roadblocks along the way.
Horn: There are a lot of people who write education books and say, “This is the panacea for what ails.” I think two things: First, our credibility comes from being honest that there isn’t a silver bullet out there, but we’re giving people the best advice we can based on solid research. Second, we say just because we’re using technology doesn’t mean that it’s automatically going to be good.

Many more schools are experimenting with blended learning. Are we approaching a tipping point where it becomes part of the fabric of education?
Horn: It’s difficult to know. The problem is the Department of Education doesn’t collect great data on this. We do know, talking to the leaders of a lot of the major education technology companies, that at least 8 million students are being served in blended learning environments in K12. And that doesn’t even factor in the teachers we don’t know about who have independently decided to flip their classrooms, use a variety of resources out on the web to create station rotations, and so on.
So if that tipping point hasn’t exactly been hit, it’s just around the corner. And I think it’s accelerating a lot faster than conventional wisdom often gives it credit for.

Staker: America’s teachers work incredibly hard. We hope these innovations can help channel their efforts for the highest impact. The teaching role can become more satisfying and these innovations can be a springboard to offering more for students than we’ve been able to offer in the past.