Can Prep Schools Fight the Class War?

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John Allman, head of school at Trinity, wrote of a sense of alienation among students at the school — regardless of race, class and privilege. CreditBebeto Matthews/Associated Press

Earlier this month Princeton University Press published a book called “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence,” by a sociologist, Rachel Sherman, who researched the spending habits of 50 well-to-do parents in New York City, and diagnosed a pervasive problem of reticence around wealth. Ms. Sherman uses her encounters with people who agreed to speak with her, in many cases about their fears of seeming showy, to conclude that there is too much silence around money and that all of this alleged hush and professed shame ultimately slow our efforts to mitigate inequality.

Given that we have segued from the era of the Rich Kids of Instagram to a moment in which the rich wives of cabinet secretaries use social media to tell us that they are wearing Hermès and that they are better, it is a difficult time to argue that modesty is really what is complicating things, or that a greater degree of honesty about renovation costs on Central Park West will lead us to a more just tax code. And yet Ms. Sherman’s book does take absorbing measure of what has become a corrosive reality in New York: the tendency among well-off people to regard their circumstances as entirely ordinary — “Manhattan poor’’ as others have put it — given that everywhere they chose to look they find someone who has a lot more money. Private schools emerge as dangerous incubators of this dynamic because they are the places in which the affluent receive the most intimate exposure to the obscenely rich — where your week in a rented condo in Sun Valley is a deprivation compared with the schoolmates flying from Teterboro to third houses in Vail.

In recent years, and most obviously since the rise of Black Lives Matter, private schools around the city have taken concerted care to recruit minority students, to introduce curriculums and conversation about racial understanding in lower grades, to seek diversity consultants and to promote inclusion around gender. At the same time, ostentatious displays of wealth and entitlement that can dominate a school’s ecosystem have gone too often unchallenged. At the end of last month, however, John Allman, head of school at Trinity, wrote a letter to the parent body meant to shake up the existing order.

Invoking the country’s current state of chaos, he wrote of a sense of alienation among students at the school — regardless of race, class and privilege — that stood apart from the larger political and social crises besieging us. He blamed, in large part, “consumerist families that treat teachers and the school in entirely instrumental ways, seeking to use us exclusively to advance their child’s narrow self-interest.” He called for a dismantling of “this default understanding of Trinity as a credentialing factory,” warning that without it, students would merely ascend to “a comfortable perch atop a cognitive elite that is self-serving, callous and spiritually barren.” Without a shift in ethos toward greater commitments to the common good, toward social justice and activism, he said in the letter, “I am afraid we are, for a majority of our students, just a very, very expensive finishing school.”

Even outside the bubble of Manhattan private schools, it’s a fairly blunt critique of privilege. That the statement came from Trinity, founded in 1709 and one of the most rigorous and prestigious schools in the country, made it all the more powerful. Board members at other Manhattan schools noted how astonishing the document was, given its potential to turn off donors who might have been completely at peace with the way the school had been doing business.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time, about infusing our program with a greater sense of redeeming purpose,’’ Mr. Allman told me, “and approaching it from a perspective of student well-being with a better sense of why students are going about this work.’’ Mr. Allman came to Trinity several years ago from prep schools in Texas and Georgia — he ran St. John’s in Houston when Elizabeth Holmes, the fallen Silicon Valley billionaire was a student — environments in which the parent bodies were no less intensely focused on ambition and achievement. Mr. Allman’s letter also explained the way that Trinity would go about transforming its approach to community service, integrating what students would do outside the classroom with what they were learning inside. Trinity is on the Upper West Side near several social service agencies and adjacent to a public housing complex, whose playground the school’s children have used over the years.

Radically rethinking a school’s culture involves not only getting parents and children to alter a deeply ingrained mind-set and executing pedagogical changes, huge projects in themselves, but also ensuring that the families admitted are in tune with these values. This requires an ability to determine what sort of parents seek admission to your school solely so that their children can sit atop a cognitive elite and suggest to them that they might be happier elsewhere. This is not easy, but it is important work for institutions that continue to groom the people who seem to keep running the world.

I asked Mr. Allman how he thought his letter had been received by parents in the school, some of whom I had spoken with who said they found it inspiring and soulful. “Parents get to see people up close who use us for purely instrumentalist purposes, and they are happy to see the school push back,’’ he said, “and give it to them.’’

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9 Great Movies for the Middle School Classroom

Try one of these thought-provoking documentaries to get kids thinking (and learning).

September 01, 2017

If you want to get kids’ attention, show them how an issue affects real people. From bullying to STEM to autism, the topics tackled in documentary movies can open kids’ eyes and encourage discussion. And when they’re shown as part of a lesson, teachers can help students understand and analyze what they’ve seen.

As the definition of literacy continues to broaden — encompassing skills for analyzing not only text-based media, but also visual media, audio, and more — it’s important to include documentary films as part of the classroom content selection. Happily, lots of documentaries either about or targeted at middle school-age kids come with educator resources, so they’re easy to integrate into an existing unit or use in after-school programs.

These are nine of our favorite documentary picks for middle school classrooms. They’re not always easy to watch, but all will strike a chord with middle schoolers and are guaranteed to spark a great conversation.

Bully

It’s heartbreaking and difficult to watch, but this frank documentary is essential viewing for middle schoolers. Ultimately it encourages kids to stand up to bullies rather than stand by, and it reinforces the fact that everyone can make a difference.

Teacher tips: Because the movie addresses suicide and self-harm, it’s important to front-load and frame these intense topics carefully. Make sure you know which students could feel especially triggered by the movie and create a safe space for students to share their own experiences. Emphasize how kids can be empowered to help each other and what resources are available. Classes could even come up with action plans to address whatever bullying might exist in their school.

Available resources: Tools for Educators

Girl Rising 

The stories shared in this informative, intense film aren’t always easy to hear — it touches on topics ranging from inequality to human trafficking, child marriage, and more — but nothing graphic is shown, and kids who watch are guaranteed to want to talk about it.

Teacher tips: Before watching the movie, kids can create a timeline of their own childhood up to this point, highlighting the most important events. And what do they plan for the future? Since some kids will be shocked by what girls face in various places, make sure to prepare them for some of the more intense issues, like rape and trafficking. Then explore what their timelines might look like and how past events might affect the futures of the girls in the film. Focus on the resilience of the featured girls and how they see education as a path to a better future.

Available resources: Regional Ambassador Program

He Named Me Malala

Moving, intense, and also delightful, this film about Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai introduces viewers to the inspiring role model while simultaneously making her a relatable teen. Meet your students’ new BFF.

Teacher tips: One way to frame this one is through the idea of superheroes: Usually, something extraordinary happens to an ordinary person, and their lives change. How is this also true for real-life heroes? Some kids in your class have probably heard her name, so tap into their prior knowledge before watching the movie, then talk about how her path follows one similar to a superhero’s. What does it take to be a real-life hero? Have kids explore topics that are important to them, and document their steps to make a difference in that area.

Available resources: Students Stand with Malala

I Am Eleven

Powerful and poignant, this film follows 11-year-olds from around the world (Australia, Bulgaria, China, France, Germany, India, Morocco, Japan, Sweden, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) as they share their thoughts, triumphs, and challenges.

Teacher tips: Encourage kids to find connections between their own experiences and the ones in the movie, then explore the differences. What do they have in common with one or more of the kids in the film? What’s different from their own experiences? Consider having students become virtual ambassadors to a featured country and do research around school, family, and culture.

Available resources: Educational Screenings Kit

If You Build It

Want to show teens that they have the ability and the talent to make a difference? Then check out this empowering story of young people who learn the skills to create something (a new farmers’ market for their rural community) and actually get to do it.

Teacher tips: Seeing these teens and adults work together to solve a problem/provide a service in their community can be a jumping-off point for a similar project in your own community. Ideally, and depending on your resources, kids can identify a problem to solve or a service to provide. Then they can figure out the best ways to implement the plan (and hopefully do it!), which can be a great cross-curricular opportunity.

Available resources: Educational DVD Copies

Life, Animated 

This incredibly moving documentary beautifully captures the emotional story of a young man with autism and his lifelong love of Disney movies, which allow him to process the world and communicate with the people he loves. It’s sweet, funny, and relatable.

Teacher tips: Teachers can take this in a number of directions: You could talk about ASD and other learning differences that can affect how people interact with the world. Kids can then connect that to their own learning process and identify something — like the Disney movies in the film — that helps them in their process. Or you can focus on communication and the power of storytelling. Which stories serve as a window into your students’ world? They can create personal stories that might also help others.

Available resources: Curriculum for Educators

Right Footed

Kids are sure to be inspired by the story of Jessica Cox, a young woman born without arms who’s had a significant impact as a role model, motivational speaker, and activist for people with disabilities.

Teacher tips: Jessica’s story is a great example of overcoming what seems like a limitation and working with it in order to excel and thrive. Kids can identify their own strengths and challenges and create a visual representation of how they can overcome those struggles. In a museum-style exhibition, kids could display their artifacts with an artist’s explanation.

Available resources: Educational and Private Screenings

Underwater Dreams

Looking for a story to drive home the importance of STEM in schools? Try this feel-good true story about a group of low-income teens who beat groups from renowned universities (including MIT!) in a robotics competition.

Teacher tips: Talk about the students’ journey to success. What roadblocks did they encounter? How did they overcome them, what character strengths helped them, and how did others support them? With awareness around your classroom climate, you can also discuss the issue of documentation and what it means. If someone is undocumented, what are some of the potential challenges? Finally, talk about STEM and its importance. How do the students in the film show that STEM can go far beyond the classroom? Kids are bound to want to create something after watching, so capitalize on that inspiration and let them innovate!

Available resources: Including working with Title I Students, STEM, and the DREAM Act

Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines 

Holy girl power, Batman! This knockout film looks at the historical context of Wonder Woman origins and explains how she’s changed over the decades — yet how the need for girls and women to see powerful images of themselves really hasn’t.

Teacher tips: Kids can explore gender representations from different decades and determine what the messages are — and have been in the past — for girls and boys. How have things changed, if at all? Why does it matter? For a broader conversation, kids can talk about why representation matters in general and create their own superheroes to show which qualities and characteristics they’d include.

Available resources: Guides

When History’s Losers Write the Story

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A statue of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Va. CreditChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I visited a summer camp in western Russia in July 2015. Its theme was “military patriotism,” and it involved dozens of teenagers lounging around in tents, wrestling, carving wood and making garlands. They were also taking history classes. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader who killed millions of Soviet citizens, was remembered fondly.

“Whatever your view of Stalin, you can’t deny that he was a strong leader,” a counselor told me later over steaming bowls of cabbage soup. “Stalin won the war. He made it possible for us to go to space. You can’t just throw out a person like that from history.”

Russia has not faced the darker parts of its past, something I spent a lot of time thinking about as a correspondent there. But my own country has memory problems, too. Take the Civil War. Historians tell us it was fought over slavery. But an entirely different version unspooled last month at an Applebee’s in Delaware.

“It’s too simplified to say the war was over slavery,” said Jeffrey Plummer, head of a local chapter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. “That’s what’s been taught in the schools, but there’s more to it.”

Selective memory, it seems, is a global phenomenon. Think of Turkey and its blank spot where the Armenian genocide should be. Or Japan with its squeamishness about its aggression and mass murder in China. It starts as a basic human impulse to take the sting out of defeat or to avoid admitting some atrocity. But it’s also a way to help cope with a difficult present. And like a growth on a tree ring, it can keep the past off-kilter until some future generation is brave enough to right it.

“In most countries you are more likely to get evasion and nationalistic versions of history than tough grappling with the darker parts of your past, and the U.S. is no exception,” said Gary Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton.

In the United States, the Civil War remains “the most divisive and unresolved experience Americans have ever had,” according to David Blight, a historian at Yale. “The Civil War is like a sleeping dragon. If you poke it hard enough, it will raise its head and breathe fire.”

That is, in part, because the loser was allowed its own interpretation. The South, facing catastrophic loss of life and mass destruction on a European scale, wrote its own history of the war. It cast itself as an underdog overwhelmed by the North’s superior numbers, but whose cause — a noble fight for states’ rights — was just. The North looked the other way. Northern elites were more interested in re-establishing economic ties than in keeping their commitments to blacks’ constitutional rights. The political will to complete Reconstruction died.

“The whole notion of honoring the Confederacy and the sacrifice that your family made became part of what we taught in the schools,” said Charles Dew, a Williams College historian whose book “Apostles of Disunion” describes the white supremacist arguments that underpinned the South’s case for leaving the Union.

To correct the record, Mr. Dew gave talks about his book in the early 2000s, as part of the National Park Service’s efforts to clarify the causes of the war. Some audiences pushed back, saying, “My family did not own slaves, so how could they have been fighting for slavery?”

“I’m not trying to denigrate your ancestors,” Mr. Dew said he told those people. “I’m trying to explain why the war came and ask everyone to consider the issue with an open mind.”

In Russia, people choked on memory. As the Soviet Union was falling, the sins of the past flooded the present. Newspapers wrote about Soviet repressions. Researchers began documenting political killings. All this, as Russians were losing their jobs, their savings, their respect in the world and their dignity. They could not afford to lose their past. So Stalin became the man who led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II and industrialized a peasant nation.

Germany is the exception. It took a generation, but German society faced its Nazi past and has emerged as an exemplary democratic culture. That is partly because of the extreme nature of the Nationalist Socialist regime and the devastation of the war it brought. Germans had to come to terms with the Holocaust. The Nazi regime had perhaps overcome the depression, but its increasing brutality left no redeeming qualities.

“In the United States, slavery was embedded in a constitutional regime that at least verbally offered universalizing rights,” said Charles Maier, a professor of 20th-century history at Harvard. “The German cause had no equivalent.”

But while top Nazis were put on trial right after the war, with the world watching, mainstream German society did not fully grapple with the crimes until the 1960s. There was a political shift to the left that encouraged young Germans who posed hard questions about their parents’ past. Even today, there are no major memorials to the perhaps half a million Germans who died in Allied bombing campaigns in Hamburg, Dresden and other cities, as that would be seen an assertion of equivalence.

In the years immediately after the war, Japanese society was actually ahead of German society in terms of facing its past, said Ian Buruma, author of “The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan.” Leftists then had a strong voice in the media and universities, encouraged by liberals in the American occupation, and the history being taught was starting to grapple with Japan’s wartime atrocities against other Asian peoples. But that early reckoning got bogged down in politics: The United States, together with Japanese liberals, decided the problem was Japanese militarism and gave the country a pacifist Constitution. That alienated the right, causing a rift that persists to this day.

“In Japan, history became politicized,” Mr. Buruma said. “Whenever you hear a right-winger say, ‘It’s all a left-wing myth, we’re not as guilty as people are saying,’ what he’s really saying is, ‘We want to revise the Constitution and postwar order imposed by the United States.’ ”

The argument over Confederate monuments has surprised historians like Dr. Blight, who has studied the war for decades. It is a moment for public education like no other, but with risks. When history’s losers get to define the story, it can create rifts — with allies, with adversaries or even with our fellow citizens. But so can a sudden, emotional rush to rectify it. Historians say the Confederate statues should be removed slowly, with deliberation, not destroyed in the middle of the night.

“This sudden, almost rage to get rid of monuments kind of violates our instincts as historians,” he said. “Be careful, slow down. If they are taken down, let’s preserve and curate them. These are part of our historical landscape. To just destroy them is not educational.”

Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Northeastern president discusses his new book on how higher education can train students for careers where technology cannot make them redundant.

September 12, 2017

In the era of artificial intelligence, robots and more, higher education is arguably more important than ever. Academic researchers are producing the ideas that lead to technology after technology. On the other hand, a challenge exists for higher education: how to produce graduates whose careers won’t be derailed by all of these advances. Now that robots can pick stocks, this isn’t just about factory jobs, but the positions that college graduates have long assumed were theirs.

Northeastern University is involved in both sides of that equation. Its academic programs in engineering, computer science and other fields are producing these breakthroughs. And its students — at an institution known for close ties to employers — of course want good careers. Joseph E. Aoun, Northeastern’s president, explores these issues in Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (MIT Press). Aoun is a scholar in linguistics when he’s not focused on university administration. His book argues that changes in the college curriculum are needed to prepare students in this new era, but that doesn’t mean ignoring the humanities or general education.

Aoun, one of seven presidents honored today by the Carnegie Corporation for academic leadership, responded via email to questions about his new book.

Q: How worried should college graduates be about being replaced by technology? Is it likely that many jobs today held by those with college degrees will be replaced by robots or some form of technology?

A: Smart machines are getting smarter, and many of the jobs performed by people today are going to disappear. Some studies predict that half of all U.S. jobs are at risk within the next 20 years. And it’s not just blue-collar jobs; today intelligent machines are picking stocks, doing legal research and even writing news articles. Simply put, if a job can be automated in the future, it will be.

For higher education to meet this challenge — for us to make people robot-proof — we need to change. In my book, I offer a blueprint for how we can accomplish this. We will need to re-envision the curriculum, invest in experiential education and put lifelong learning at the heart of what we do. It will not be easy, but we have a responsibility — to the students of today and tomorrow — to change the way we do business.

Q: In an era of adaptive learning and online learning, should faculty members be worried about their jobs in the future?

A: We’re seeing educational content become commoditized. Therefore, the job of faculty members has to go beyond simply transmitting knowledge. More than ever, the priority for faculty is to create new knowledge and act as the catalysts to make their students robot-proof. The personal connection between student and teacher cannot be replaced by a machine.

But, like students, faculty members must act to meet the challenge of today’s world and should embrace the transformation of higher education that I describe in my book.

Q: What is “humanics,” and what are the three kinds of literacy that you want colleges to teach?

A: Humanics is the curriculum for a robot-proof education. It is based on the purposeful integration of technical literacies, such as coding and data analytics, with uniquely human literacies, such as creativity, entrepreneurship, ethics, cultural agility and the ability to work with others.

The key is integration. We need to break down the academic silos that separate historians from engineers.

When I talk to employers, they tell me that they would give their right arm for more systems thinkers — quarterbacks who can see across disciplines and analyze them in an integrated way. And every student should be culturally agile, able to communicate across boundaries, and to think ethically. By integrating technology, data and humanities, we can help students become robot-proof.

Q: In your vision for the future of higher education, is this about embedding these skills into existing programs or starting from scratch?

A: Higher education has the elements for a robot-proof model, but we need to be much more intentional about how we integrate them. As I’ve mentioned, our curriculum needs to change so that technical and human literacies are unified.

We need to deliver this curriculum in an experiential way. This means recognizing that learning happens beyond the classroom through co-ops and meaningful internships. I truly believe that experiential education is the most powerful way to learn.

Still, no one is going to be set for life. We need to commit to lifelong learning in a way that we haven’t done in the past. Universities have been engaged in lifelong learning for many years, but it is usually treated as a second-class operation. We need to bring lifelong learning to the core of our mission.

This will require us to rethink the way we deliver education, particularly to working professionals who don’t have time to be on campus every day. Online and hybrid delivery modes will be essential. We have to meet learners wherever they are — in their careers and around the world.

Credentials will need to be unbundled so that learners don’t have to commit to long-term degree programs. Stackable certificates, badges and boot camps will become the norm.

These changes won’t happen by themselves. Institutions should establish authentic partnerships with employers, redesign courses to fill gaps that employers actually need and connect them with students through co-ops and internships.

Q: How is Northeastern getting ready for these changes?

A: Northeastern has designed its academic plan to meet the challenges — and opportunities — presented by smart machines. Beyond the curricular changes required by humanics, and our leadership in experiential learning, we are building a multicampus network spanning different cities, regions and countries. Learners will be able to gain access to this network wherever they are and whenever it’s convenient for them.

Throughout its history, higher education has adapted to changes in the world. Knowing what we know about the revolution of smart machines, we have a responsibility to remain relevant and an opportunity to make our learners robot-proof.

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Girls in Western Australia Gain Right to Wear Pants and Shorts to School

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Students at a private school in Sydney, Australia. It is unclear how many schools across Australia require girls to wear skirts. CreditMichele Mossop/Fairfax Media

SYDNEY, Australia — Girls at public schools across the state of Western Australia will be allowed to wear pants and shorts to class, no longer restricted to only dresses, skirts or skorts.

The Education Department, in response to a complaint from an 11-year-old student, announced last week that it would amend a statewide dress code to offer girls more uniform options.

Students and parents have long voiced complaints about the policy, but the pushback has gained renewed momentum.

After Krystina Myhre, of Perth, discovered that her 11-year-old, Sofia, could not wear shorts to school, they wrote to the state’s education minister, Sue Ellery, calling for a change.

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Sofia Myhre, 11, wrote to the education minister of her state asking for girls to be allowed to wear shorts or pants to class. CreditKrystina Myhre

“My daughter and her friends have been quite unhappy about it for some time,” said Ms. Myhre, who is also a representative of Girls’ Uniform Agenda, a group that campaigns for girls to have the option of wearing shorts and pants. The rule restricted their movement, she said, making them worry about their body and space.

The dress code made it difficult to participate in athletic activities, Sofia said.

“I think it’s really unfair that my brothers have been allowed to wear shorts, and all through primary school I haven’t been allowed to except when I have sport,” she wrote in her letter. “I really love kicking the footy, netball and doing handstands at recess and lunch. It is annoying doing these things in a skirt.”

Ms. Ellery said that after meeting with the Myhres, she asked her department to ensure the policy was nondiscriminatory.

The change does not apply to private schools, but a number of private schools in Perth said this week that they planned to follow suit. “We are introducing trousers for girls next year, but it’s very much an option,” said Robert Henderson, principal of John XXIII College, a Catholic private school. “It’s certainly not throwing out the traditional uniform.” The decision came after consulting with employees, students and parents.

It is unclear how many schools across Australia require girls to wear skirts.

Girls’ Uniform Agenda is still compiling data. So far, about 70 percent of public high schools and all private high schools in Brisbane, Queensland, mandate wearing a skirt, said Amanda Mergler, a co-founder of the group, but a handful of private schools allow exceptions in the winter. That percentage is likely similar in other states, too.

Such a requisite, Dr. Mergler said, can perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes, leaving girls to believe that they should sit and look pretty, while boys may be perceived as active explorers. Dr. Mergler said she pulled her 6-year-old daughter from one school after a classmate told her she could not use the girls’ bathroom because she was wearing pants. “You look around schoolyards and where girls have had to wear dresses and skirts,” Dr. Mergler said. “They’re sitting down on the sidelines and watching boys run around and playing in shorts.”

One study in 2012 found that when 10-year-old girls wore sports uniforms over skirts, they were significantly more active during recess.

Most education departments let individual schools determine dress code, though they usually have a provision that the guidelines must comply with anti-discrimination policies. In New South Wales, for example, the department states that rules should accommodate the “diverse nature of the student population in the school and not disadvantage any student.” In Queensland, principals are urged to offer a “gender neutral” option.

Because of the ambiguity in language, Dr. Mergler said, schools can claim they are complying with the code by simply providing boys and girls uniforms. Parents in Queensland continue to lobby for an amended policy after an effort to allow girls to wear pants was rejected in May.

In Victoria, a petition to change the policy has drawn more than 20,000 signatures.

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Sofia’s letter pleading for change to the dress code in Western Australia.

Most arguments seem to rest on tradition.

“I think tradition plays a strong part in our schools, and we often want to honor those traditions,” Mr. Henderson said. His school will provide the option to wear pants, he said, but that should be for schools to determine on an individual basis.

“Certainly in private schools, there’s an element of longstanding traditions and parents sometimes thinking, ‘I went to that school and I wore that dress, and I want my daughter to wear that dress,’” Dr. Mergler said. “And the uniform is quite symbolic.”

When she first broached the idea of amending the dress code at her daughter’s school, some parents defended skirts as a way to accustom girls to wearing dresses in the workplace.

“In the real world, women get to choose,” Dr. Mergler said. “I choose today whether I put on pants or skirts, and we want girls to have the same choice at schools.”

As for Sofia Myhre, her mother said that the exercise was a good lesson in effecting change. “I think she yelped in joy actually and jumped up and down,” she said of her daughter’s reaction upon learning the policy would be amended. “She was really excited.”

To Boost Higher-Order Thinking, Try Curation

APRIL 15, 2017


JENNIFER GONZALEZ

Curation-Pin

If no one has ever encouraged, pushed, or insisted that you build more higher-order thinking into your students’ learning, it’s possible you’ve been teaching in a cave.

Higher-level thinking has been a core value of educators for decades. We learned about it in college. We hear about it in PD. We’re even evaluated on whether we’re cultivating it in our classrooms: Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, a widely used instrument to measure teacher effectiveness, describes a distinguished teacher as one whose “lesson activities require high-level student thinking” (Domain 3, Component 3c).

All that aside, most teachers would say they want their students to be thinking on higher levels, that if our teaching kept students at the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy—simply recalling information—we wouldn’t be doing a very good job as teachers.

And yet, when it’s time to plan the learning experiences that would have our students operating on higher levels, some of us come up short. We may not have a huge arsenal of ready-to-use, high-level tasks to give our students. Instead, we often default to having students identify and define terms, label things, or answer basic recall questions. It’s what we know. And we have so much content to cover, many of us might feel that there really isn’t time for the higher-level stuff anyway.

If this sounds anything like you, I have a suggestion: Try a curation assignment.

WHAT IS CURATION?

When a museum director curates, she collects artifacts, organizes them into groups, sifts out everything but the most interesting or highest-quality items, and shares those collections with the world. When an editor curates poems for an anthology, he does the same thing.

The process can be applied to all kinds of content: A person could curate a collection of articles, images, videos, audio clips, essays, or a mixture of items that all share some common attribute or theme. When we are presented with a list of the “Top 10” anything or the “Best of” something else, what we’re looking at is a curated list. Those playlists we find on Spotify and Pandora? Curation. “Recommended for You” videos on Netflix? Curation. The news? Yep, it’s curated. In an age where information is ubiquitous and impossible to consume all at once, we rely on the curation skills of others to help us process it all.

In an educational setting, curation has a ton of potential as an academic task. Sure, we’re used to assigning research projects, where students have to gather resources, pull out information, and synthesize that information into a cohesive piece of informational or argumentative writing. This kind of work is challenging and important, and it should remain as a core assignment throughout school, but how often do we make the collection of resources itself a stand-alone assignment?

That’s what I’m proposing we do. Curation projects have the potential to put our students to work at three different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy:

  • Understand, where we exemplify and classify information
  • Analyze, where we distinguish relevant from irrelevant information and organize it in a way that makes sense
  • Evaluate, where we judge the quality of an item based on a set of criteria

If we go beyond Bloom’s and consider the Framework for 21st Century Learning put out by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, we’ll see that critical thinking is one of the 4C’s listed as an essential skill for students in the modern age (along with communication, creativity, and collaboration) and a well-designed curation project requires a ton of critical thinking.

So what would a curation project look like?

A SAMPLE CURATION TASK

Suppose you’re teaching U.S. history, and you want students to understand that our constitution is designed to be interpreted by the courts, and that many people interpret it differently. So you create a curation assignment that focuses on the first amendment.

The task: Students must choose ONE of the rights given to us by the first amendment. To illustrate the different ways people interpret that right, students must curate a collection of online articles, images, or videos that represent a range of beliefs about how far that right extends. For each example they include, they must summarize the point of view being presented and include a direct quote where the author or speaker’s biases or beliefs can be inferred.

Here is what one submission might look like, created on a platform called eLink (click here to view the whole thing).

Because they are finding examples of a given concept and doing some summarizing, students in this task are working at the Understand level of Bloom’s. But they are also identifying where the author or speaker is showing bias or purpose, which is on the Analyze level.

MORE PROJECT IDEAS

Ranked Collection: Students collect a set of articles, images, videos, or even whole websites based on a set of criteria (the most “literary” song lyrics of the year, or the world’s weirdest animal adaptations) and rank them in some kind of order, justifying their rankings with a written explanation or even a student-created scoring system. Each student could be tasked with creating their own collection or the whole class could be given a pre-selected collection to rank. This would be followed by a discussion where students could compare and justify their rankings with those of other students. (Bloom’s Level: Evaluate)

Shared Trait Collection: This would house items that have one thing in common. This kind of task would work in so many different subject areas. Students could collect articles where our government’s system of checks and balances are illustrated, images of paintings in the impressionist style, videos that play songs whose titles use metaphors. It could even be used as part of a lesson using the concept attainment strategy, where students develop an understanding of a complex idea by studying “yes” and “no” examples of it. By curating their own examples after studying the concept, they will further developing their understanding of it. (Bloom’s Level: Understand).

Literature Review: As the first step of a research project, students could collect relevant resources and provide a brief summary of each one, explaining how it contributes to the current understanding of their topic. As high school students prepare for college, having a basic understanding of what a literature review is and the purpose it serves—even if they are only doing it with articles written outside of academia—will help them take on the real thing with confidence when that time comes. (Bloom’s Levels: Understand for the summarization, Analyze for the sorting and selecting of relevant material)

Video Playlist: YouTube is bursting at the seams with videos, but how much of it is actually good? Have students take chunks of your content and curate the best videos out there to help other students understand those concepts. In the item’s description, have students explain why they chose it and what other students will get out of it. (Bloom’s Levels: Understand for summarization, Evaluate for judging the quality of the videos)

Museum Exhibit: Task students with curating a digital “exhibit” around a given theme. The more complex the theme, the more challenging the task. For example, they might be asked to assume the role of a museum owner who hates bees, and wants to create a museum exhibit that teaches visitors all about the dangers of bees. This kind of work would help students understand that even institutions that might not own up to any particular bias, like museums, news agencies, or tv stations, will still be influenced by their own biases in how they curate their material. (Bloom’s Level: Understand if it’s just a collection of representative elements, Create if they are truly creating a new “whole” with their collection, such as representing a particular point of view with their choices)

Real World Examples: Take any content you’re teaching (geometry principles, grammar errors, science or social studies concepts) and have students find images or articles that illustrate that concept in the real world. (Bloom’s level: Understand).

Favorites: Have students pull together a personal collection of favorite articles, videos, or other resources for a Genius Hour, advisory, or other more personalized project: A collection of items to cheer you up, stuff to boost your confidence, etc. Although this could easily slide outside the realm of academic work, it would make a nice activity to help students get to know each other at the start of a school year or give them practice with the process of curation before applying it to more content-related topics.

FOR BEST RESULTS, ADD WRITING

Most of the above activities would not be very academically challenging if students merely had to assemble the collection. Adding a thoughtfully designed written component is what will make students do their best thinking in a curation assignment.

The simplest way to do this is to require a written commentary with each item in the collection. Think about those little signs that accompany every item at a museum: Usually when you walk into an exhibit, you find a sign or display that explains the exhibit as a whole, then smaller individual placards that help visitors understand the significance of each piece in the collection. When students put their own collections together, they should do the same thing.

Be specific about what you’d like to see in these short writing pieces, and include those requirements in your rubric. Then go a step further and create a model of your own, so students have a very clear picture of how the final product should look. Because this is a genre they have probably not done any work in before, they will do much better with this kind of scaffolding. Doing the assignment yourself first—a practice I like to call dogfooding—will also help you identify flaws in the assignment that can be tweaked before you hand it over to students.

DIGITAL CURATION TOOLS

It’s certainly possible for students to collect resources through non-digital means, by reading books in the library or curating physical artifacts or objects, but doing a curation project digitally allows for media-rich collections that can be found and assembled in a fraction of the time. And if you have students curating in groups, using digital tools will allow them to collaborate from home without having to meet in person.

Here are a few curation tools that would work beautifully for this kind of project:

  • Elink is the tool featured in the sample project above. Of all the tools suggested here, this one is the simplest. You collect your links, write descriptions, and end up with a single unique web page that you can share with anyone.
  • Pinterest is probably the most popular curation tool out there. If your students are already using Pinterest, or you’re willing to get them started, you could have them create a Pinterest board as a curation assignment.
  • Symbaloo allows users to create “webmixes,” boards of icons that each lead to different URLs. Although it would be possible to create a curated collection with Symbaloo, it doesn’t allow for the same amount of writing that some other tools do, so you would need to have students do their writing on a separate document.
  • Diigo is a good choice for a more text-driven project, like a literature review or a general collection of resources at the beginning stages of a research project, where images aren’t necessarily required. Diigo offers lots of space to take notes about every item in a collection, but it doesn’t have user-friendly supports for images or other media.

SHARE YOUR CURATION IDEAS

I’m so excited about all the different ways we can use curation in the classroom, and I would love to hear your ideas as well. Please share them in the comments below. If you have links to student samples, share those, too! ♦


WANT TO LEARN DIGITAL CURATION?

Curation is just one of the modules in JumpStart, my new online technology course created especially for educators. I thought carefully about what specific skills teachers need to make the most of classroom tech, chose 9 of them, and designed hands-on projects that will show you exactly how to use them.

If you’re ready to take your tech skills from so-so to rock solid, this course will change everything for you.

 

 

Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus

The ability to focus is an important driver of excellence. Focused techniques such as to-do lists, timetables, and calendar reminders all help people to stay on task. Few would argue with that, and even if they did, there is evidence to support the idea that resisting distraction and staying present have benefits: practicing mindfulness for 10 minutes a day, for example, can enhance leadership effectiveness by helping you become more able to regulate your emotions and make sense of past experiences. Yet as helpful as focus can be, there’s also a downside to focus as it is commonly viewed.

The problem is that excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought-out, and you become less collaborative.

So what do we do then? Focus or unfocus?

In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.

When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.” Abbreviated as the DMN, we used to think of this circuit as the Do Mostly Nothing circuit because it only came on when you stopped focusing effortfully. Yet, when “at rest”, this circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy (compared to the comparatively small 5% that any effort will require).

The DMN needs this energy because it is doing anything but resting. Under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memoriesgoes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas. Using this new and previously inaccessible data, you develop enhanced self-awareness and a sense of personal relevance. And you can imagine creative solutions or predict the future, thereby leading to better decision-making too. The DMN also helps you tune into other people’s thinking, thereby improving team understanding and cohesion.

There are many simple and effective ways to activate this circuit in the course of a day.

Using positive constructive daydreaming (PCD): PCD is a type of mind-wandering different from slipping into a daydream or guiltily rehashing worries. When you build it into your day deliberately, it can boost your creativity, strengthen your leadership ability, and also-re-energize the brain. To start PCD, you choose a low-key activity such as knitting, gardening or casual reading, then wander into the recesses of your mind. But unlike slipping into a daydream or guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, you might first imagine something playful and wishful—like running through the woods, or lying on a yacht. Then you swivel your attention from the external world to the internal space of your mind with this image in mind while still doing the low-key activity.

Studied for decades by Jerome Singer, PCD activates the DMN and metaphorically changes the silverware that your brain uses to find information. While focused attention is like a fork—picking up obvious conscious thoughtsthat you have, PCD commissions a different set of silverware—a spoon for scooping up the delicious mélange of flavors of your identity (the scent of your grandmother, the feeling of satisfaction with the first bite of apple-pie on a crisp fall day), chopsticks for connecting ideas across your brain (to enhance innovation), and a marrow spoon for getting into the nooks and crannies of your brain to pick up long-lost memories that are a vital part of your identity. In this state, your sense of “self” is enhanced—which, according to Warren Bennis, is the essence of leadership. I call this the psychological center of gravity, a grounding mechanism (part of your mental “six-pack”) that helps you enhance your agility and manage change more effectively too.

Taking a nap: In addition to building in time for PCD, leaders can also consider authorized napping. Not all naps are the same. When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and more alert. But if it’s a creative taskyou have in front of you, you will likely need a full 90 minutes for more complete brain refreshing. Your brain requires this longer time to make more associations, and dredge up ideas that are in the nooks and crannies of your memory network.

Pretending to be someone else: When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality. In 2016, educational psychologists, Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. Given a test in which they have to come up with as many uses as possible for any object (e.g. a brick) those who behave like eccentric poets have superior creative performance. This finding holds even if the same person takes on a different identity.

When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this psychological halloweenism.

For years, focus has been the venerated ability amongst all abilities. Since we spend 46.9% of our days with our minds wandering away from a task at hand, we crave the ability to keep it fixed and on task. Yet, if we built PCD, 10- and 90- minute naps, and psychological halloweenism into our days, we would likely preserve focus for when we need it, and use it much more efficiently too. More importantly, unfocus will allow us to update information in the brain, giving us access to deeper parts of ourselves and enhancing our agility, creativity and decision-making too.


Srini Pillay, M.D. is an executive coach and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group. He is also a technology innovator and entrepreneur in the health and leadership development sectors, and an award-winning author. His latest book is Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. He is also a part-time Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education, and is on internationally recognized think tanks.