Friday, March 31, 2006

Crazy Busy

It’s over before you know it: childhood, young love, the kids’ early years, life in general. We’re just moving too fast: the Internet, cell phones, blackberries, instant messages, TiVo. We’re hearing these comments more and more, from elders, peers, and sometimes even from children. Yes, even the Herculean speed-demon kids are saying, “Whoa! I don’t want to rush from thing to thing today, I just want to play.” We’ve moved from a world that “creeps in this petty pace” to what too often feels like an existence percolating with panicky persistent partial attention.

The Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and leader of the Hallowell Center, Edward Hallowell, has long been one of my favorite authors and speakers on this subject. His books on Connections and Human Moments are fantastic journeys into this timely topic. In his speeches, he points out the irony of the information age: that we have more connection capacity than ever before, more technology to reach out and touch someone than you can imagine, but the most common reason for visiting a psychologist or psychiatrist tends to be depression related to feelings of loneliness, disconnection, and lack of inclusion. We are knee deep in water, dying of thirst it seems.

A friend just sent me the link to Hallowell's newly released book, CrazyBusy - Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD, which promises to be another of his thoughtful explorations on these issues. Upon hearing about this book, however, Steven Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College, joked, “Sounds like a great book, I just don’t have time to read it!”

What I look forward to in Hallowell’s Crazy Busy is that he’s not one of these, “let’s throw the technology out and go back to a ‘better time’ folks.” He’s much more thoughtful, practical, and human. It’s clear to me that the key issue isn’t how we throw technology away, but how we make sure that we are using it, not being used by it. We should not be responding like Pavlovian dogs to the e-mail chime or taking a cell phone call from a public restroom. But we should be thoughtfully integrating these powerful new tools into our own framework for quality interactions and meaningful relationships.

For example, anyone who teaches and leverages e-mail to connect with students knows that the challenge is that they sometimes think you’re always on. They’ll wonder why you haven’t responded to their 3:00 a.m. e-mail by the next morning. I, for one, think it’s a GREAT thing to help set the expectation about when you’re likely to be online and not likely to be anywhere near a computer. We’re all living through this adjustment period of the rapid adoption of Internet technologies and your boundaries are a good model. However, teachers who use e-mail with their students have likely also found that some students, usually the ones who never talk in class, suddenly open up and share online. This new form interaction gives them time to collect their thoughts, reflect, and interact at their pace—something that fast-paced, in-class interactions do not. To return to a ‘better time’ when e-mail, threaded discussions, or e-portfolios didn’t exist, would, in many ways, re-marginalize these students.

Yes, it’s time to slow down, look around, and take control of the technology to serve our ends. We can use the cell-phone off buttons a little more, turn off monitors or close laptop lids when people walk in our office, turn off the automatic e-mail check function in Outlook, and turn off the ‘white noise’ television. But polemic attacks on tools that literally save lives (e.g., stranded on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and using the cell to call for help) or change lives for the better (e.g., a working mother who could never have gone back to school if not for online learning) aren’t the dialogue to be had. It’s about balance, mindfulness, and intention.

So, in a truly balanced move, I’m going to sign off here so I can order Crazy Busy online and read it this weekend. You see, I’m traveling, and way to busy to get to a book store in the next two days. :)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Education in the Ether

Just in the last few weeks, Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer-prize winning columnist for the NY Times and author of the best-selling The World is Flat (which is an absolute must read for anyone interested in learning, leadership, economic development, and global affairs) has been ringing the education bell. First he noted the key role that education is playing in the future plans and rapidly expanding economies of India and China. The article was titled Worried About India' s and China' s Booms? So Are They. The main point: we’re worried about them, they’re worried about education—much more than we seem to be. In particular, they are interested in expanding their educational systems to allow for more creative thinking, innovation, and broader literacy skills. Then yesterday, he released a columned entitled Facts and Folly, noting that the Bush administration’s consistent belief that we will “always be a rich country” is belied by the fact that our educational system is in disarray, full of underpaid and overstretched teachers. He noted the work of the Teaching Commission, an organization that has sounded the clarion call for more and more qualified teachers. Without the foundation of a quality education system—highly motivated, innovative, quality teachers—we are not likely to remain the richest of countries.

This comes on the heels of a panel I had the pleasure of moderating at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University. The Friday Institute hosts a quarterly Friday Forum that brings key thought leaders in to meet with educators, community members, and corporate leaders. This event featured Richard Florida, the award-winning author, economist, and idea champion behind The Rise of the Creative Class and The Flight of the Creative Class. Richard gave a spirited talk about how we’ve come through the industrial economy into a creative economy—where everyone reaching their creative potential is key in economic development. In short, communities that inspire, welcome, and catalyze creativity through things like quality, innovative education will continue to thrive. Those that neglect creativity and education, do so at their own peril. After his talk, we convened a panel with Richard, Dr. Jim Goodnight, CEO and founder of SAS, and co-author with Richard of the article Managing for Creativity in HBR, and June Atkinson, Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of North Carolina. The panel pounced on Richard’s ideas and really challenged education leaders to drive change in how we teach, reach, and engage our students. June in particular was right there with Florida and Goodnight advocating for change, innovation, and focus—focus on the need for and needs of education in the modern economy. She wasn’t defensive at all, as some educators become during these dialogues. She was laser focused on how we drive change.

It just strikes me that when award winning columnists for the NY Times and leading economists are jumping into the education debate, and practicing educators sing in harmony, we should take note. Education is in the ether; more so because in the creative/knowledge economy we can no longer suffer a sloppy Darwinian education system. We MUST do better. And that imperative will keep education and creativity, and the leadership necessary to power education and creativity, on the front page.

Moving from Blame to Wonder

If you’re interested in college access and success, take the time to visit a new site that just launched called It’s an interesting look at the stratification of higher education that is occurring based on income. As college becomes increasingly expensive, with tuition increasing much faster than the rate of inflation, this is going to be a necessary conversation for policy makers, institutional leaders, community members, and parents. The institutional profile section is quite good, and the comparison tools allow you to do some benchmarking. Kudos to the Hewlett Foundation for once again driving the dialogue in education.

EconomicDiversity.og reminds me of others like EdWatch Online and, which were launched by the Education Trust. EdWatch allows you to dive deep into public data about public schools. College Results allows you to break down public data about colleges, in particular their success with women and minorities. Then you can rate them against a peer group of institutions that fit their same profile. The Gates Foundation Transforming High Schools site has an interactive state by state profile of college readiness. Click on their interactive map on their front page and look up your own state’s performance.

One of my favorite “put the data out there” sites is the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE). These data aren’t drawn from public data sets, but from actual institutional student engagement surveys that the institutions have allowed to be made public in an effort to create benchmarks, catalyze conversations about student engagement, and to learn from models of successful student outreach. Kay McClenney and her team at the University of Texas at Autsin have done an amazing job of pulling this national community of practice together.

The long and the short of these services and sites is that there are more data available for education dialogues than ever before. This is a VERY good thing. Facing the brutal facts and celebrating the successes are both made easier by opening data to exploration. The challenge is that often these data don’t tell the whole story—there are real qualitative contingencies that just don’t show up in the neat charts and graphs. Moreover, some of these public datasets have REAL problems with missing data and other inconsistencies. Still, contingencies and conditions notwithstanding, without this first step – putting it out there--we’ll never begin to address what Steve Gilbert from the TLT Group calls “Dangerous Discussions.” I just hope we take a deep breath and as Steve Mittlestet, President of Richland College—a college that recently became the first educational institution to win the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award—argues, “we turn to wonder, not blame.” Steve and his team argue that wonder makes you dive deep into root causes and solutions; blame gets you on the defensive immediately. We need wonder these days, coupled with doing the hard work of asking next-level questions and piloting solutions. The blame game just isn’t getting us anywhere.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Learning at Poway and the Extreme Kindness Tour

I had the pleasure of sitting in on some education sessions at the SAS Users Group International meeting in San Francisco over the last few days. SUGI is a coming together of more than 4,000 advanced analytic minds from all sorts of industries, from to the World Wildlife Fund. The folks in this presentation, however, were laser focused on education. John Collins is the Deputy Superintendent from Poway Unified School District, just outside of San Diego. He and his colleague Ray Wilson did an amazing job of talking about how they have worked to bring a culture of evidence to the learning process of their school district. The best thing about their presentation was the “reality therapy” about how the technology may be powerful, the dashboards may be dazzling, but it’s working to create a culture where everyone actually USES the information you put at their fingertips to change how they teach and reach students. For example, they made the case that standardized test scores are sometimes so general as to be useless beyond the broad tracking of kids. Poway tries to bring much more powerful diagnostics right to teachers—daily!—so that when they work with kids they know more about specific challenges and possible strategies to help. Most interesting, however, is the way they have used data to link learning to the budget. Their comment was “the way to get budget in this district is to document that what you are doing, or want to do, will somehow improve learning.” It’s not just about headcount and “fair” allocations; it’s about what will impact the kids. Great stuff from Poway!

SUGI also featured the Extreme Kindness tour. These four guys have worked with Fortune 500 companies, local communities, and non profits with the goal of educating, inspiring, and motivating. I had the good fortune to talk with them for a bit before their presentation—which is a hilarious and humanistic ride on a kindness express. They are the real deal. They are fully engaged in what their doing and loving every minute of it. They certainly make you want to wake up and take on your challenges. The most interesting thing was watching them relate to conference attendees who are mostly IT folks—i.e., a whole lot of introverts. It was almost like watching and extroverted aunt hug an introverted nephew. Still all seemed to have a good time, and connected well with the message. Check out their manifesto, and choose your act of kindness!

The Courage to Learn

A few years ago, I wrote an open letter to adult learners called The Courage to Learn. This simple little article spurred more interesting conversations with people all around the world than any previous work I’d produced. It’s been reprinted in a number of places, leading to even more interesting interactions. The conversations with students of all ages and stages, taking on their various challenges, and the leaders and teachers trying to reach them, were engaging, inspiring, and fun. At other times they were deep dives into very serious and difficlut issues. These are the kinds of dialogues I hope to catalyze here: real conversations about the good, the bad, and the day to day of learning, leadership, creativity, and health. In addition, I hope we can turn this into a resource-sharing vehicle for those of us keenly interested in how we can make a difference with our work in these arenas. Here's to the road ahead!