Addicted to Distraction


The New York Times

ONE evening early this summer, I opened a book and found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, a half dozen times before concluding that it was hopeless to continue. I simply couldn’t marshal the necessary focus.

I was horrified. All my life, reading books has been a deep and consistent source of pleasure, learning and solace. Now the books I regularly purchased were piling up ever higher on my bedside table, staring at me in silent rebuke.

Instead of reading them, I was spending too many hours online, checking the traffic numbers for my company’s website, shopping for more colorful socks on Gilt and Rue La La, even though I had more than I needed, and even guiltily clicking through pictures with irresistible headlines such as “Awkward Child Stars Who Grew Up to Be Attractive.”

During the workday, I checked my email more times than I cared to acknowledge, and spent far too much time hungrily searching for tidbits of new information about the presidential campaign, with the election then still more than a year away.
“The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention,” Nicholas Carr explains in his book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” “We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”

Addiction is the relentless pull to a substance or an activity that becomes so compulsive it ultimately interferes with everyday life. By that definition, nearly everyone I know is addicted in some measure to the Internet. It has arguably replaced work itself as our most socially sanctioned addiction.

According to one recent survey, the average white-collar worker spends about six hours a day on email. That doesn’t count time online spent shopping, searching or keeping up with social media.

The brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation and immediate gratification creates something called a “compulsion loop.” Like lab rats and drug addicts, we need more and more to get the same effect.

Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out.

I’ve known all of this for a long time. I started writing about it 20 years ago. I teach it to clients every day. I just never really believed it could become so true of me.

Denial is any addict’s first defense. No obstacle to recovery is greater than the infinite capacity to rationalize our compulsive behaviors. After years of feeling I was managing myself reasonably well, I fell last winter into an intense period of travel while also trying to manage a growing consulting business. In early summer, it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t managing myself well at all, and I didn’t feel good about it.


Beyond spending too much time on the Internet and a diminishing attention span, I wasn’t eating the right foods. I drank way too much diet soda. I was having a second cocktail at night too frequently. I was no longer exercising every day, as I had nearly all my life.

In response, I created an irrationally ambitious plan. For the next 30 days, I would attempt to right these behaviors, and several others, all at once. It was a fit of grandiosity. I recommend precisely the opposite approach every day to clients. But I rationalized that no one is more committed to self-improvement than I am. These behaviors are all related. I can do it.

The problem is that we humans have a very limited reservoir of will and discipline. We’re far more likely to succeed by trying to change one behavior at a time, ideally at the same time each day, so that it becomes a habit, requiring less and less energy to sustain.

I did have some success over those 30 days. Despite great temptation, I stopped drinking diet soda and alcohol altogether. (Three months later I’m still off diet soda.) I also gave up sugar and carbohydrates like chips and pasta. I went back to exercising regularly.

I failed completely in just one behavior: cutting back my time on the Internet.

My initial commitment was to limit my online life to checking email just three times a day: When I woke up, at lunchtime and before I went home at the end of the day. On the first day, I succeeded until midmorning, and then completely broke down. I was like a sugar addict trying to resist a cupcake while working in a bakery.

What broke my resolve that first morning was the feeling that I absolutely had to send someone an email about an urgent issue. If I just wrote it and pushed “Send,” I told myself, then I wasn’t really going online.

What I failed to take into account was that new emails would download into my inbox while I wrote my own. None of them required an immediate reply, and yet I found it impossible to resist peeking at the first new message that carried an enticing subject line. And the second. And the third.

In a matter of moments, I was back in a self-reinforcing cycle. By the next day, I had given up trying to cut back my digital life. I turned instead to the simpler task of resisting diet soda, alcohol and sugar.

Even so, I was determined to revisit my Internet challenge. Several weeks after my 30-day experiment ended, I left town for a monthlong vacation. Here was an opportunity to focus my limited willpower on a single goal: liberating myself from the Internet in an attempt to regain control of my attention.

I had already taken the first step in my recovery: admitting my powerlessness to disconnect. Now it was time to detox. I interpreted the traditional second step — belief that a higher power could help restore my sanity — in a more secular way. The higher power became my 30-year-old daughter, who disconnected my phone and laptop from both my email and the Web. Unburdened by much technological knowledge, I had no idea how to reconnect either one.

I did leave myself reachable by text. In retrospect, I was holding on to a digital life raft. Only a handful of people in my life communicate with me by text. Because I was on vacation, they were largely members of my family, and the texts were mostly about where to meet up at various points during the day.

During those first few days, I did suffer withdrawal pangs, most of all the hunger to call up Google and search for an answer to some question that arose. But with each passing day offline, I felt more relaxed, less anxious, more able to focus and less hungry for the next shot of instant but short-lived stimulation. What happened to my brain is exactly what I hoped would happen: It began to quiet down.
I had brought more than a dozen books of varying difficulty and length on my vacation. I started with short nonfiction, and then moved to longer nonfiction as I began to feel calmer and my focus got stronger. I eventually worked my way up to “The Emperor of All Maladies,” Siddhartha Mukherjee’s brilliant but sometimes complex biography of cancer, which had sat on my bookshelf for nearly five years.

AS the weeks passed, I was able to let go of my need for more facts as a source of gratification. I shifted instead to novels, ending my vacation by binge-reading Jonathan Franzen’s 500-some-page novel, “Purity,” sometimes for hours at a time.

I am back at work now, and of course I am back online. The Internet isn’t going away, and it will continue to consume a lot of my attention. My aim now is to find the best possible balance between time online and time off.

I do feel more in control. I’m less reactive and more intentional about where I put my attention. When I’m online, I try to resist surfing myself into a stupor. As often as possible, I try to ask myself, “Is this really what I want to be doing?” If the answer is no, the next question is, “What could I be doing that would feel more productive, or satisfying, or relaxing?”

I also make it my business now to take on more fully absorbing activities as part of my days. Above all, I’ve kept up reading books, not just because I love them, but also as a continuing attention-building practice.

I’ve retained my longtime ritual of deciding the night before on the most important thing I can accomplish the next morning. That’s my first work activity most days, for 60 to 90 minutes without interruption. Afterward, I take a 10- to 15-minute break to quiet my mind and renew my energy.

If I have other work during the day that requires sustained focus, I go completely offline for designated periods, repeating my morning ritual. In the evening, when I go up to my bedroom, I nearly always leave my digital devices downstairs.

Finally, I feel committed now to taking at least one digital-free vacation a year. I have the rare freedom to take several weeks off at a time, but I have learned that even one week offline can be deeply restorative.

Occasionally, I find myself returning to a haunting image from the last day of my vacation. I was sitting in a restaurant with my family when a man in his early 40s came in and sat down with his daughter, perhaps 4 or 5 years old and adorable.

Almost immediately, the man turned his attention to his phone. Meanwhile, his daughter was a whirlwind of energy and restlessness, standing up on her seat, walking around the table, waving and making faces to get her father’s attention.

Except for brief moments, she didn’t succeed and after a while, she glumly gave up. The silence felt deafening.

Tony Schwartz is the chief executive of The Energy Project, a consulting firm, and the author, most recently, of “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working.”


The Hamlin School Embraces No Rescue Policy for Parents to Encourage Resilience in Children


“In an effort to promote independence and responsibility, the school encourages a policy based on the premise that choices have natural consequences both positive and negative. Students often learn best when they learn from their mistakes. If a student forgets an item at home or fails to complete an assignment, for example, parents are asked not to bring items to school. If a parent does bring an item for the student, it will be the teacher’s discretion whether or not to allow the student to have it. Allowing girls to work out solutions to their challenges on their own or with a caring adult at school builds confidence and resilience.”
–The No Rescue Policy, as articulated in The Hamlin School Parent-Student Handbook

Raising our children can often feel like groping in the dark, but some simple truths are as clear as the light of a California day: Children forget. Children fail. Children fret. Children fall down. Simply put, children mess up, sometimes in grand style, and it is absolutely painful for parents to watch the consequences unfold. As the mother of two young sons, I can say with certainty that allowing our children to experience disappointment, frustration, and sadness is very hard. Never mind that we have read 100 times that mistakes are the building blocks of learning, that we should use the word “yet” to ensure a growth mindset, and that acknowledging strong effort is far more important than praising outcomes. (Thank you, Carol Dweck.) Never mind that we have the “The Lesson of the Butterfly” pinned on our bulletin boards and bookmarked on our computers to remind us that the butterfly’s struggle to squeeze out of the tiny hole was nature’s way of strengthening its wings. (Thank you, Paulo Coelho.) Even though we know progress isn’t possible without struggle (thank you, Frederick Douglass), we quickly don our firefighter gear, grab a pick-ax and a hose, and run to the rescue as soon as we smell the smoke of impending failure.
Moreover, as the mother of sons and the head of a school for girls, I have a strong sense that we tend to rush in and save our girls far more quickly than our boys, thereby reinforcing the stereotypical image of the helpless girl who is unable to use her wits and grit to save herself. (Thank you, fairy tales and Saturday morning cartoons.) If her soccer cleats are left at home, we’ll carry them to practice later. If her lunch bag is still in the backseat of the car after morning drop-off, we’ll re-enter the carpool line and get it to her. Is the math homework still on the kitchen table? No problem we’ll ask a loving caregiver to bring it to school. Is rescuing our children from distress getting in the way of raising them to be responsible adults? At The Hamlin School (California), we think so. Thus, in order to create clear boundaries for parents and to help build confidence and resilience in our girls, Hamlin has had a long-standing No Rescue Policy, which we work diligently to enforce each day. It’s not easy to tell parents that they cannot get their own children out of a bind, but we need to draw the line somewhere.
In a perfect world, the No Rescue Policy would be unnecessary. Rather than schools devising rules and regulations to guide parental behavior, it would be best if adults were better able to govern themselves. When it comes to our children, how can we increase our pain tolerance, breathe deeply, and allow them to stumble on the very brick that we could have cleared from the path? I humbly offer three key messages to all parents, myself included, with an eye toward reclaiming our role as responsible adults, altering the habits that do not serve our girls and boys well, and controlling our natural instinct to protect our lion cubs.
  1. Detach your identity from your child’s. If my son forgets his piano music for the third time, I worry that his teacher will think that I am a disorganized mom, not that he is a disorganized student. I resist the urge to pack my son’s backpack with the necessary sheet music by reminding myself that his work habits are not a reflection of mine. Though we share a last name and certain physical features, I am not my children. I love them dearly and take pride in their accomplishments, but their successes and failures are theirs — not mine.

    As Kahlil Gibran writes in On Children: “They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.”

  2. Remember that parental love should be more about doing things with your children rather than doing things for your children. As busy parents, we often assuage our guilt by searching for evidence in our daily lives that proves that we are active and attentive parents. Creating a mental list of all the tasks we have completed for our children makes us feel at peace, needed, and “on the job.” Rescuing them from chores and hard work and checking things off of their to-do lists feel good, even if we don’t readily acknowledge the endorphin rush. The problem with this kind of “parental productivity” is that we are doing tasks that our children are able to do independently. Sadly, we rob our children of a sense of efficacy and affirmation because we need it for ourselves.
  3. Slow down. I am far more likely to rescue my children and fix problems for them if I am in a rush. It’s far more efficient for a parent to tie a first grader’s sneakers rather than wait for the endless trial and error that comes with learning to loop the laces. You will certainly move faster throughout the day (and the airport, too) if you zip the jackets, pull the roller suitcases, and pass all four boarding passes to the agent. However, what will your child do when he or she is traveling solo? We never want to send our children the message that they are incapable of living without us.
If we want to lead schools of excellence and guide children into lives of purpose, we must build a close and mutually respectful partnership with parents. It is one thing to create policies and procedures and publish them in handbooks; it is quite another thing to empathize, link arms, and offer strategies and tools. Parenting is not for the faint of heart, and we must do our unpaid job with great intention and skill. As Gibran concludes in On Children, “We are the bows from which our children as living arrows are sent forth.” I’m ditching my firefighter gear, picking up my bow, and shooting for the stars.

Suggested Reading

How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Permission to Parent by Robin Berman
The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey

15-1124-WandaHollandGreene-sm.jpgWanda M. Holland Greene is head of school at The Hamlin School (California), serving 400 girls in grades K8. She is also a member of the NAIS board of trustees.

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Digital Portfolios

“Who owns the learning?” #DigitalPortfolios

Today, very little of the work we give students in school provides them with a sense that they are making a contribution to anything other than their own educational progress toward graduation.

In Alan November’s 2012 book titled, “Who Owns the Learning?“, he states the following:

Today, very little of the work we give students in school provides them with a sense that they are making a contribution to anything other than their own educational progress toward graduation. Indeed, once the grade is recorded, a huge amount of student work is thrown away. It has no more value. Now that we have powerful, easy-to-use design tools and a capacity for worldwide publishing, we have an opportunity to restore the dignity and integrity of a work ethic with redefining the role of the learner as a contributor to the learning culture.

This thinking was evident in my development of our digital portfolio project. As more and more educational technology companies try to break into the “portfolio” market, they seem to be more concerned with where the data is stored, then the students actually having access to keep their information.  Both should be considerations, but we often are more concerned on how we report to parents than we are about students developing and contributing learning that we have ownership over.

As we thought about helping staff feel safe with students putting their thoughts out there, while also ensuring students would have ownership over their learning, we decided to go with a blogging platform (specifically Edublogs but this will work for any WordPress hosted domain).  I have written extensively on the use of blogs as digital portfolios (please feel free to click to learn more about this process), but one of the considerations I haven’t share was how students would be able to take everything they have done in this space and create their own domain at any point, either during of after their time in learning.

What the hope of the project is a student will be able to share their learning their entire time in school, so you can see them (and they can see themselves) develop over time.  At the end of their time with their portfolio in school, they can go into their blog and do the following.

  1. Go to your WordPress Dashboard.
  2. Under “Tools”, select “Export”. It will then download an XML file.
  3. Open your own domain.
  4. Go to the WordPress Dashboard and under “Tools”, select “Import”.
  5. Upload the XML file.
  6. Done.

The point of this post is not to “sell” you on Edublogs or WordPress, but more focused on a few questions:

  1. How do you create a space where if something goes wrong educators feel comfortable that they have “control” and can intervene if necessary?
  2. Are your “digital portfolios” something that are created simply for school, or something more meaningful that the world could have access to see if the student chooses?
  3. Is the process of moving from one space to another, something simple enough and can be done by the students themselves?

As you move forward with your own projects, these are questions we should be asking to be proactive, not have students create years of work, only to delete or have under the control of the school.  If that is the case, the learning was never theirs in the first place.

Teaching World Religions at an Independent School


Fall 2015
Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not. — Mark C. Taylor1
When I ask students why they signed up for my World Religions elective class, they offer a variety of reasons. Some want to learn more about their own faith traditions; others want to learn more about other faith traditions (Islam is often cited here because students realize that what they are “learning” about Islam through the media is badly skewed); still others consider themselves agnostics or atheists but enjoy thinking about the large questions a good religions class will raise. And many students realize that learning more about the world’s religions is becoming indispensable to understanding the dynamics and conflicts of the 21st century world.
You can’t teach about religions over a long period of time without a significant evolution in what you think, what you believe, and what you teach. It can be a tricky business. Teachers of World Religions courses must never be seen as undermining students’ belief in the faith traditions in which they were raised. At the same time, exposing students to the highest, best aspects of these various faith traditions can lead them to question some of the beliefs and practices they see in organized religions today, including their own. What follows is some of what I’ve learned in 20 years of trying to teach this course with integrity toward both the subject matter and my students.2
The first thing to be said about teaching World Religions is: Don’t spend much time on religious history. Though this course may be situated in a History or Social Studies Department curriculum, don’t focus on what organized religions have actually done in history. To do so would mean a lot of talk about divinely ordained violence, manipulative superstitions, lethal misogyny, and centuries of scandals from caliphal assassinations to pedophilic priests. This will only dismay the conscience of sensitive students or even turn them off religion altogether. And don’t spend much time teaching the institutional character or structure of world religions for much the same reason. From the over-the-top materialism of religious sites and prominent evangelists to cozy relationships religious hierarchies have had with repressive regimes around the world to institutional self-interests that divert believers from their own spiritual journeys, sensitive students can become alienated from organized religions when they perceive too great a gap between word and deed, between authenticity and hypocrisy.
Finally, be sure to teach more than the various liturgies, rituals, and observances religious believers practice. Yes, it’s important for students to know why the Hindu family in their neighborhood constructed an altar in their home or what Catholicism teaches about the Eucharist. This is especially important when teaching Judaism and Islam, which do a particularly good job of transmitting their faith to the next generations through numerous family observances and celebrations throughout the year. But although all of these practices can contain interior elements if done maturely, they remain at some level external, visible dimensions of religious faith. Helping students better understand world religions means looking for something deeper.
The way I do that is to examine with students how each religion answers four basic questions: creation (Where do we come from?), theodicy (If God is good, why is there evil in the world?), ethics (How ought we to live?), and destiny (What happens after we die?). The “textbooks” I use to do this are the sacred scriptures as well as some noncanonical texts from the various faiths, presented both from an anthology of world scripture excerpts and separate handouts I select on my own.3
Needless to say, this curriculum doesn’t fit well with traditional assessments. I do give a vocabulary quiz near the start of each unit because we need a common lexicon for each religion we study, but with most of my regular homework assignments coming from scriptural texts, it’s best to relinquish familiar summarizing or question-answering in favor of something more meditative. In my case, I ask students to read the text, think about it for 20 minutes, and then write one or two thoughtful, discussable, open-ended non-“right-or-wrong” questions. It takes a while to get beyond factual “yes-or-no” queries, but soon enough they are writing interesting questions that often can be used in class the next day in place of what I was going to do. Because they submit these assignments into an online “drop box,” I can look them over before class and perhaps pick some for class discussion.
The major assessments for this course are six detailed concept map-type charts (replacing traditional tests) that depict how each religion answers the four questions and 12 reflective journals on various assigned and student-selected topics. These should include the more challenging concepts each religion has to offer — Hinduism’s ahimsa (non-injury), Buddhism’s anatta (no self/soul), and Christianity’s Sermon on the Mount are three good examples. The hard part for students writing journals is to offer original reflections on larger questions, not write down the “correct answer” (what the concepts mean) when there is no one “right answer.”
The culminating activity for each religion comes on the days students’ charts and journals are due. We all sit in a circle on the floor, and the students carry on a conversation about what they learned, what they wrote about in their journals, what they liked and didn’t like about the religion we studied, and so on. After one or two such classes, I am able to remain silent; they conduct a conversation on their own for the full class period. At the end of these classes, students almost always remark on how much they learned, and I get to tell them how wonderful and gratifying it is to see a group of 17-year-olds hold a mature, meaningful conversation about such large, transcendent ideas completely on their own. I love the idea that I do my best teaching by not saying a word.
Part of the challenge of getting students toward a deeper understanding of the world’s major religions is helping them see that both Eastern and Western ways of thinking underlie their respective religions and are profoundly different. One way I enjoy doing this, as an introduction to Daoism, is to hold up for the class an empty coffee cup and ask students to name the most important part of the cup. Typically, they debate the sides, the base, the handle … as Westerners, we see the tangible and material as what is real. A Daoist answer would be “the empty space inside.” What cannot be seen is actually more real than the illusory world that can be seen. It’s a fascinating new layer of diversity for students to encounter — diversity in thought, in understanding what is real.
Indeed, diversity and multiculturalism should underlie virtually every class period throughout the semester. To broaden the number and range of “voices” students hear besides my own, I frequently use short 3- to 10-minute videos drawn from YouTube and elsewhere. These might show highlights of a Muslim wedding in London, a Taiwanese bhikkuni (Buddhist nun) describing her Mother Theresa-like mission, or an Orthodox rabbi on Long Island explaining his take on the meaning of a Seder meal.
But the outside voices students always respond to most enthusiastically are the guest speakers who visit my classroom and serve as tour guides at their houses of worship. These are parents of former students or people I’ve met through them. Representing each religion we study, they can share themselves effectively with students and are open-hearted to faiths other than their own. Some have been doing this with me for 20 years, others for just five or six, but you find the best ones over time, and they become, at least for me, a community of friends and co-teachers. For their part, my students love the novelty of seeing new faces teaching the class, but these co-teachers are also clearly and unostentatiously spiritually grounded human beings. They show the best of what religion can look like in our local community, and students, be they religious or not, pick up on that.
Maybe the most important part of teaching a World Religions course is for the teacher to be clear on who he or she is and what he or she is doing — understanding the ethics of teaching a course on religions, if you will. Each major world religion contains some core genius, some font of meaning and wisdom that satisfies deep human needs. This explains, in part, why these religions have lasted so long. In a class genuinely studying world religions, the teacher’s job is to present that timeless essential core for each religion with equal respect, energy, and conviction.
The teacher is not an evangelist to students in a World Religions class. The teacher’s job is not to persuade students to one religious viewpoint or another or even to persuade students to a religious worldview as opposed to a nonreligious one. The substance and goals of this course should be different from youth education programs in church, temple, synagogue, or mosque.
To borrow a phrase from Christian scripture, teachers of World Religions class are “in but not of” the religions they teach. You are “in” the religions you teach because you speak from within the language and faith perspective of each religion. Terms like God, goddess, creation, soul, reincarnation, and so on are natural parts of your lexicon. You are not presenting yourself as the “objective” social scientist, an “outsider” observing a social phenomenon called “religion” — that’s for a sociology class.
At the same time, you are “not of” the religions you teach. You aren’t teaching any one religion as if it were the only one out there, the only claim on truth. Throughout the course you are identifying similarities and contrasts among the religions. You don’t say, “Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead” or “The Prophet was taken on a Night Journey to Jerusalem and heaven” as if these were statements of fact. These are statements of belief, so you more appropriately say: “Christian scripture says Jesus raised Lazarus” or “Muslims believe Muhammad was taken on a Night Journey.” You are neither denying the actuality of these events nor making them into universally accepted beliefs — you are simply saying what is true: “Christian texts say …” and “Muslims believe …”
Being “in but not of” these religions also means neither denying nor avoiding the problems to be found in their scriptures. Students will notice that avoidance and not respect it. The fact is that sacred texts from most major faith traditions contain passages that offend modern moral sensibilities. God really told “His” followers to utterly destroy their enemies, slaughtering every man, woman, child, and animal? God really created one gender to be by nature inferior and subordinate to the other? God is really okay with slavery? The Universal, Eternal One who made all things seen and unseen really likes one nation, one people, or one particular dogma or creed the best?
Teaching in an academic (as opposed to a faith-based) setting may not be moral suasion, but it is a moral enterprise. In this case, and given all the divisiveness, ignorance, intolerance, and even violence perpetrated by religiously motivated people today, a World Religions course faces some obligation to teach an ethical God and ethical religion. Religion is good for good people and bad for bad people. I should think we want our students to grasp the difference.
Being a citizen who is religious in today’s world should mean putting a primary value not on certainty but on spiritual humility. As writer Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”4 This is the problem with bad religion today, be it fundamentalist or otherwise — people make God small enough to suit their own purposes and then ascribe universal validity to the little god they’ve made. It’s an unconscious idolatry, and they’ve shrunk their scriptures in the same way. The world we train our students for needs good religion, and it needs believers in every religion with enough consciousness to include a new principle in their core creed, namely: “There are many diverse paths to God besides my own because the Infinite One is far too vast and mysterious for human comprehension.”
It’s a spiritual message that is neither liberal nor conservative; nor does it affirm or critique any one religion. The point is larger and deeper than any of that, and when it’s time to make it, I like to do so without really saying very much. I show students successive pictures of Earth taken from space — from the Apollo moon mission pictures where our planet is a large blue jewel against the black backdrop of space to photographs taken by Voyager 1 from 11 billion miles away, where Earth is a tiny white dot barely discernible amid a solar system that itself is but a miniscule part of the universe.
There are beautiful, similar expressions in other religious texts, but the Judeo-Christian scripture offers a summation well-known in the Western world of what good religion means: “He has told you what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Tanakh, Micah 6:8). If students come away from their World Religions course taking this to heart, that’s a pretty good pedagogical outcome.
Erskine White, M.Div., Ed.D. (, teaches American History, Comparative Religions, Ethics, Western Civilization, and Understanding the Middle East at the University School of Nashville.

1 Mark C. Taylor, “The Devoted Student,” New York Times, December 21, 2006.
2 I teach this course at a secular independent school, but with careful planning, negotiation, and institutional support, the central goals and methods of the World Religions class described here can be made compatible with other independent schools that are identified with various religions or denominations.
3 The basic texts I use are excerpts from the Rg Veda, Upanishads, Sri Ramakrishna and the Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism); the Dhammapada, Zen koans, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Buddhism); the Analects of Confucius, Mencius, Xunxi, and the Dao de Jing (Chinese Religions/Philosophies); the Tanakh and Mishnah (Judaism); the New Testament and Gnostic gospels (Christianity); and the Qur’an and Hadith Qudsi (Islam). Other sacred texts are also used, including some from “other” religions such as Wicca and Native American traditions as well as an occasional article on topics of interest, e.g., Buddhism and modern science.
4 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999).

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Please, no more brainstorm sessions. This is how innovation really works.

Please, no more brainstorm sessions. This is how innovation really works.
Matthew Syed

Writer & Broadcaster

Linked in

Progress is often driven not by the accumulation of small steps, but by dramatic leaps. The television wasn’t an iteration of a previous device, it was a new technology altogether. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity didn’t tinker with Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, it replaced it in almost every detail. Likewise Dyson’s dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner was not a marginal improvement on the conventional Hoover that existed at the time, it represented a shift that altered the way insiders think about the very problem of removing dust and hair from household floors.

James Dyson is an evangelist for the creative process of change, not least because he believes it is fundamentally misconceived in the world today. As we talk in his office, he darts around picking up papers, patents, textbooks, and his own designs to illustrate his argument. He says:

Dyson’s journey into the nature of creativity started while vacuuming his own home, a small farmhouse in the west of England, on a Saturday morning in his mid-twenties. Like everyone else he was struck by just how quickly his cleaner lost suction.

Dyson strode into his garden and opened up the device. Inside he could see the basic engineering proposition of the conventional vacuum cleaner: a motor, a bag (which also doubled as a filter), and a tube. The logic was simple: dust and air is sucked into the bag, the air escapes through the small holes in the lining of the bag and into the motor, and the dust (thicker than the air) stays in the bag.

He says:

This realization triggered a new thought: what if there were no bag?

This idea percolated in Dyson’s mind for the next three years. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, he was already a qualified engineer and was helping to run a local company in Bath. He enjoyed pulling things apart and seeing how they worked. He was curious, inquisitive, and willing to engage with a difficulty rather than just accepting it. But now he had a live problem, one that intrigued him.

It wasn’t until he went to a lumberyard that the solution powered into his mind like a thunderbolt.

 Dyson rushed home. This was his moment of insight. “I vaguely knew about cyclones, but not really the detail. But I was fascinated to see if it would work in miniature form. I got an old cardboard box and made a replica of what I had seen with gaffer tape and cardboard. I then connected it via a bit of hose to an upright vacuum cleaner. And I had my cardboard cyclone.”

His heart was beating fast as he pushed it around the house. Would it work? “It seemed absolutely fine,” he says. “It seemed to be picking up dust, but the dust didn’t seem to be coming out of the chimney. I went to my boss and said: ‘I think I have an interesting idea.’ ”

This simple idea, this moment of insight, would ultimately make Dyson a personal fortune in excess of £3 billion.

A number of things jump out about the Dyson story. The first is that the solution seems rather obvious in hindsight. This is often the case with innovation, and it’s something we will come back to.

But now consider a couple of other aspects of the story. The first is that the creative process started with a problem, what you might even call a failure, in the existing technology. The vacuum cleaner kept blocking. It let out a screaming noise. Dyson had to keep bending down to pick up bits of trash by hand.

Had everything been going smoothly Dyson would have had no motivation to change things. Moreover, he would have had no intellectual challenge to sink his teeth into. It was the very nature of the engineering problem that sparked a possible solution (a bag less vacuum cleaner).

And this turns out to be an almost perfect metaphor for the creative process, whether it involves vacuum cleaners, a quest for a new brand name, or a new scientific theory. Creativity is, in many respects, a response.

Relativity was a response to the failure of Newtonian mechanics to make accurate predictions when objects were moving at fast speeds.

Masking tape was a response to the failure of existing adhesive tape, which would rip the paint off when it was removed from cars and walls.

Dropbox, as we have seen, was a response to the problem of forgetting your flash drive and thus not having access to important files.

This aspect of the creative process, the fact that it emerges in response to a particular difficulty, has spawned its own terminology. It is called the “problem phase” of innovation. “The damn thing had been bugging me for years,” Dyson says of the conventional vacuum cleaner. “I couldn’t bear the inefficiency of the technology. It wasn’t so much a ‘problem phase’ as a ‘hatred phase.’ ”

Creativity is, in many respects, a response.

We often leave this aspect of the creative process out of the picture. We focus on the moment of epiphany, the detonation of insight that happened when Newton was hit by the apple or Archimedes was taking a bath. That is perhaps why creativity seems so ethereal. The idea is that such insights could happen anytime, anywhere. It is just a matter of sitting back and letting them flow.

But this leaves out an indispensable feature of creativity. Without a problem, without a failure, without a flaw, without a frustration, innovation has nothing to latch on to. It loses its pivot. As Dyson puts it: “Creativity should be thought of as a dialogue. You have to have a problem before you can have the game-changing riposte.”

Perhaps the most graphic way to glimpse the responsive nature of creativity is to consider an experiment by Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues. She took 265 female undergraduates and randomly divided them into five-person teams. Each team was given the same task: to come up with ideas about how to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area. These five-person teams were then assigned to one of three ways of working.

The first group were given the instruction to brainstorm. This is one of the most influential creativity techniques in history, and it is based on the mystical conception of how creativity happens: through contemplation and the free flow of ideas. In brainstorming the entire approach is to remove obstacles. It is to minimize challenges. People are warned not to criticize each other, or point out the difficulties in each other’s suggestions. Blockages are bad. Negative feedback is a sin.

The second group were given no guidelines at all: they were allowed to come up with ideas in any way they thought best.

But the third group were actively encouraged to point out the flaws in each other’s ideas. Their instructions read: “Most research and advice suggests that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Free-wheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas [my italics].”

The results were remarkable. The groups with the dissent and criticize guidelines generated 25 percent more ideas than those who were brainstorming (or who had no instructions). Just as striking, when individuals were later asked to come up with more solutions for the traffic problem, those with the dissent guidelines generated twice as many new ideas as the brainstormers.

Further studies have shown that those who dissent rather than brainstorm produce not just more ideas, but more productive and imaginative ideas. As Nemeth put it: “The basic finding is that the encouragement of debate— and even criticism if warranted— appears to stimulate more creative ideas. And cultures that permit and even encourage such expression of differing viewpoints may stimulate the most innovation.”

The reason is not difficult to identify. The problem with brainstorming is not its insistence on free-wheeling or quick association. Rather, it is that when these ideas are not checked by the feedback of criticism, they have nothing to respond to. Criticism surfaces problems. It brings difficulties to light. This forces us to think afresh. When our assumptions are violated we are nudged into a new relationship with reality. Removing failure from innovation is like removing oxygen from a fire.

Think back to Dyson and his Hoover. It was the flaw in the existing technology that forced Dyson to think about cleaning in a new way. The blockage in the filter wasn’t something to hide away from or pretend wasn’t there. Rather, the blockage, the failure, was a gilt-edged invitation to reimagine vacuum-cleaning.

Imagination is not fragile. It feeds off flaws, difficulties, and problems. Insulating ourselves from failuresis to rob one of our most valuable mental faculties of fuel.

“It always starts with a problem,” Dyson says. “I hated vacuum cleaners for twenty years, but I hated hand dryers for even longer. If they had worked perfectly, I would have had no motivation to come up with a new solution. But more important, I would not have had the context to offer a creative solution. Failures feed the imagination. You cannot have the one without the other.”

This post has been adapted from BLACK BOX THINKING: Why Most People Never Learn From Their Mistakes—But Some Do by Matthew Syed (Portfolio/Penguin Random House), on-sale now. 

The common experience of math trauma

The Brilliant Blog

By Annie Murphy Paul

A note to Brilliant readers: I’m continuing my confessional streak here (last week I wrote about my experiences of belonging in college). In the piece below, I’ve chosen to share a memory from my own life because I think it is likely to be similar to memories you have as well.

In writing about “math trauma,” I don’t in any way mean to trivialize trauma or its devastating effects. But I think mathematics expert Jo Boaler is right that the humiliation and shame that many of us have experienced in regard to school math does constitute a kind of trauma, one that often produces a lifelong aversion to and avoidance of the subject.

As always, I’d love to hear your perspective.—Annie

There was a math genius in my first-grade class. His name was Hank, and we all knew he had a gift for numbers and we did not. When we filled out our daily timed math quizzes, he was always done first, after which he idly tapped the eraser end of his pencil on his desk and whistled under his breath, waiting for the rest of us to be done. When the teacher called him up to the front of the classroom to demonstrate how he would solve a series of addition or subtraction problems, the chalk in his hand became a white blur, moving faster than we could follow it.

Early one Friday afternoon our teacher introduced a new activity: speed math competitions, in which pairs of students would vie to be the first to answer correctly all the math problems on one’s own half of the blackboard. My stomach tightened and my heart beat faster at the prospect of it; I shrunk down in my seat, trying to make myself invisible, but as if in a monstrously foreordained nightmare I heard the teacher call out the first two contestants: Hank, and me.

I slowly approached the blackboard and with a trembling hand picked up the chalk. The rows of problems rippled before my eyes: I couldn’t see or think about them clearly, even though I was perfectly capable of answering such questions when left alone to work at my desk. Just then I heard a knock on the window overlooking the playground; my mother and sister stood outside, smiling and waving. For a moment my heart lifted with the idea that they’d come to take me home; then I remembered that my sister, younger than me by a year, had a half-day of kindergarten on Fridays. They weren’t going to help me escape, and in fact were going to be additional witnesses to my humiliation.

“And ready . . . set . . . go!” Hank got down to work, his chalk clacking furiously against the blackboard. He moved as smoothly as a typewriter carriage, working his way through the problems left to right, left to right. Meanwhile I stood frozen, only turning my head to glance at my mother and sister, still smiling encouragingly, and then to look at the board again, still swimming with incomprehensible symbols.

“And . . . stop!” The teacher patted the shoulder of Hank, who had finished his final problem with seconds to spare. I tried to hide my tears from my mother and sister, who mercifully slipped out of sight.

Jo Boaler has heard many, many stories like this one. She is a professor of education at Stanford University and the author of a new book, Mathematical Mindsets. I heard Jo speak at Stanford last week and was so impressed, and even moved, by what she had to say about the destructive way we teach math and the harm it wreaks on students.

Here, I highlight several of my favorite passages from the book’s early chapters. I can’t recommend Mathematical Mindsets highly enough; read it, and tell others about it! They likely experienced math trauma too.

• “A high level of intensity of negative emotion around mathematics is not uncommon. Mathematics, more than any other subject, has the power to crush students’ spirits, and many adults do not move on from mathematics experiences in school if they are negative. When students get the idea they cannot do math, they often maintain a negative relationship with mathematics throughout the rest of their lives.”

• “[The negative experiences that many people have with math flow] from one idea, which is very strong, permeates many societies, and is at the root of math failure and underachievement: that only some people can be good at math. That single belief—that math is a “gift” some people have and others don’t—is responsible for much of the widespread math failure in the world.”

• “Math is special in this way, and people have ideas about math that they don’t have about any other subject. Many people will say that math is different because it is a subject of right and wrong answers, but this is incorrect, and part of the change we need to see in mathematics is acknowledgement of the creative and interpretive nature of mathematics.”

• “Mathematics is a very broad and multidimensional subject that requires reasoning, creativity, connection making, and interpretation of methods; it is a set of ideas that helps illuminate the world; and it is constantly changing. Math problems should encourage and acknowledge the different ways in which people see mathematics and the different pathways they take to solve problems. When these changes happen, students engage with math more deeply and well.”

• “Another misconception about mathematics that is pervasive and damaging—and wrong—is the idea that people who can do math are the smartest or cleverest people. This makes math failure particularly crushing for students, as they interpret it as meaning that they are not smart. We need to dispel this myth. The combined weight of all the different wrong ideas about math that prevail in society is devastating for many children—they believe that mathematics ability is a sign of intelligence and that math is a gift, and if they don’t have that gift then they are not only bad at math but they are unintelligent and unlikely ever to do well in life.”

• “My work [on the growth mindset, originally developed by Boaler’s Stanford colleague Carol Dweck] over recent years has helped me develop a deep appreciation of the need to teach students about mindset inside mathematics, rather than in general. Students have such strong and often negative ideas about math that they can develop a growth mindset about everything else in their life but still believe that you can either achieve highly in math or you can’t. To change these damaging beliefs, students need to develop mathematical mindsets, and this book will teach you ways to encourage them.”

• “Growth mindset ideas [can be] infused through all of mathematics. Teachers of mathematics, and parents working with their students at home, can transform students’ ideas, experiences, and life chances through a growth mindset approach to math. General mindset interventions can be helpful for shifting students’ mindsets, but if students return to mathematics classrooms and math work at home working in the same ways they always have, that growth mindset about math slowly erodes away. The ideas that I share with teachers and parents and set out in this book include paying attention to the math questions and tasks that students work on, the ways teachers and parents encourage or grade students, the forms of grouping used in classrooms, the ways mistakes are dealt with, the norms developed in classrooms, the math messages we can give to students, and the strategies they learn to approach math—really, the whole of the mathematics teaching and learning experience.”

Mathematical Mindsets includes many more such insights, as well as fun, hands-on exercises you can do with your child or students. If you read it, please share the ways in which it changes your thinking and your practices on my blog, here.

And send questions and comments to me at—I look forward to hearing from you!

Explaining the News to Our Kids

Kids get their news from many sources — and they’re not always correct. How to talk about the news — and listen, too.

Caroline Knorr Parenting Editor | Mom of one 

Parenting Editor | Mom of one

Shootings, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, end-of-the-world predictions — even local news reports of missing kids and area shootings — all of this can be upsetting news even for adults, much less kids. In our 24/7 news world, it’s become nearly impossible to shield kids from distressing current events.

Today, kids get news from everywhere. This constant stream of information shows up in sharable videos, posts, blogs, feeds, and alerts. And since much of this content comes from sites that are designed for adult audiences, what your kids see, hear, or read might not always be age appropriate. Making things even more challenging is the fact that many kids are getting this information directly on their phones and laptops. Often parents aren’t around to immediately help their children make sense of horrendous situations.

The bottom line is that young kids simply don’t have the ability to understand news events in context, much less know whether or not a source of information is credible. And while older teens are better able to understand current events, even they face challenges when it comes to sifting fact from opinion — or misinformation.

No matter how old your kid is, threatening or upsetting news can affect them emotionally. Many can feel worried, frightened, angry — even guilty. And these anxious feelings can last long after the news event is over. So what can you do as a parent to help your kids deal with all of this information?

Tips for all kids

Reassure your children that they’re safe. Tell your kids that even though a story is getting a lot of attention, it was just one event and was most likely a very rare occurrence. And remember that your kids will look to the way you handle your reactions to determine their own approach. If you stay calm and considered, they will, too.

Tips for kids under 7

Keep the news away. Turn off the TV and radio news at the top of the hour and half hour. Read the newspaper out of range of young eyes that can be frightened by the pictures. Preschool children don’t need to see or hear about something that will only scare them silly, especially because they can easily confuse facts with fantasies or fears.

At this age, kids are most concerned with your safety and separation from you. They’ll also respond strongly to pictures of other young children in jeopardy. Try not to minimize or discount their concerns and fears, but reassure them by explaining all the protective measures that exist to keep them safe. If you’re flying somewhere with them, explain that extra security is a good thing.

Tips for kids 8-12

Carefully consider your child’s maturity and temperament. Many kids can handle a discussion of threatening events, but if your children tend toward the sensitive side, be sure to keep them away from the TV news; repetitive images and stories can make dangers appear greater, more prevalent, and closer to home.

At this age, many kids will see the morality of events in stark black-and-white terms and are in the process of developing their moral beliefs. You may have to explain the basics of prejudice, bias, and civil and religious strife. But be careful about making generalizations, since kids will take what you say to the bank. This is a good time to ask them what they know, since they’ll probably have gotten their information from friends, and you may have to correct facts.

You might explain that even news programs compete for viewers, which sometimes affects content decisions. If you let your kids use the Internet, go online with them. Some of the pictures posted are simply grisly. Monitor where your kids are going, and set your URLs to open to non-news-based portals.

Tips for teens

Check in. Since, in many instances, teens will have absorbed the news independently of you, talking with them can offer great insights into their developing politics and their senses of justice and morality. It will also give you the opportunity to throw your own insights into the mix (just don’t dismiss theirs, since that will shut down the conversation immediately).

Many teens will feel passionately about events and may even personalize them if someone they know has been directly affected. They’ll also probably be aware that their own lives could be impacted by terrorist tactics. Try to address their concerns without dismissing or minimizing them. If you disagree with media portrayals, explain why so that your teens can separate the mediums through which they absorb news from the messages conveyed.

Additional resources

For more information on how to talk to your kids about a recent tragedy please visit the National Association of School Psychologists or the American Psychological Association.