Learning by the Riverbank

This summer I planned and enjoyed some wonderful learning opportunities. I worked closely with a group of colleagues on how to translate findings on neuroscience and behavioral psychology into best support practices at our school. I attended a wonderful teachers’ conference on Korea sponsored by the SPICE Institute at Stanford. I read some excellent literature on keeping school, and spent some quality time with friends and family.

However, I have to say that my single most memorable learning experience took me completely by surprise. I am talking about a three-hour introduction to fly fishing. I never had any previous interest in the sport. I only went to the lesson to accompany my daughter. But it was an extraordinary learning experience.

What made it so phenomenal? In no particular order:

  1. The setting — Rocky Mountain scenery, cool and dry on a perfect morning. Meeting our physical needs and inviting a positive emotional response.
  2. The size of the group — five of us total, which offered plenty of focused interaction and collaboration.
  3. Our teacher — a park ranger and master fly fisherman whose 30-year knowledge was only exceeded by his enthusiasm for bringing newcomers into the fold. He was a science teacher who combined the physics of casting with the biology of river trout. He was also genuine, generous, and passionate, an instructor whom we trusted.
  4. His presentation — informal lecture, equipment demonstration, and Q & A. His talk was well-honed and well-timed, but he was completely kind and responsive to our rambling questions. He gave us confidence and cued our positive mindset.
  5. Our performance — fly casting on the river. We made a lot of mistakes, but we trusted and respected each other. We worked through moments of failure together.
  6. The sport itself — an unexpected combination of high focus and low stress. We worked with nature, not against it. It was mindfulness and Daoism at the riverbank.
  7. The novelty– I had no preconceptions of the event, no idea what to expect. Hello, dopamine release!
  8. The bargain cost — part of our $20 per week national park pass, as were the other half-dozen programs we enjoyed and the countless unstructured hours we spent in the park.
  9. Seeing my daughter so enthralled — priceless.

That’s my take on the experience. You might be wondering what my child thought was extraordinary about the morning.

Feeling the rod in my hand. Watching the arc of my line when I cast. Seeing the river take my line downstream.

Learning by doing. That about sums it up.

The Non-Cognitive Traits of Entrepreneurs

Over at The Atlantic, Jordan Weissman looks at an economic study that uses longitudinal data to discern distinctive factors in the adolescent backgrounds of current entrepreneurs (defined as self-employed adults with incorporated businesses). The study finds that a current entrepreneur is more likely than the average full-time worker to be white, male, well-educated, and come from relatively wealthy, two parent families. For educators, this is regrettable but perhaps expected data. However, what caught Weissman’s attention were the non-cognitive youthful traits of these entrepreneurs. From the working paper:

…As teenagers, the incorporated tend to have higher learning aptitude and self-esteem scores and engage in more aggressive/risky behaviors than salaried employees. But, apparently it takes more to be a successful entrepreneur than having these strong labor market skills: the incorporated self-employed also tend to engage in more illicit activities as youths than other people who succeed as salaried  workers. It is a particular mixture of traits that seems to matter for both becoming an entrepreneur and succeeding as an entrepreneur. It is the high ability (as measured by learning aptitude and success as a salaried worker) person who tends to “break-the-rules” (as measured by the degree to which the person engaged in illicit activities before the age of 22) who is especially likely to become a successful entrepreneur. (41-42)

What do we mean by illicit? Again, from the study:

The [illicit activity] index is based on 23 questions, covering themes associated with skipping school, use of alcohol and marijuana, vandalism, shoplifting, drug dealing, robbery, assault, and gambling. (19)

Interesting. Weissman takes the conversation in a counterfactual direction by asking whether future entrepreneurs of color might be derailed from their promising futures by the greater likelihood that they will be arrested and punished as teens for their illicit activity. It is an argument that is almost impossible to prove, partly due to the number of variables predisposing adolescents toward future entrepreneurship, but it is certainly thought-provoking. Hundreds have commented on the article at The Atlantic‘s website.

Here’s another question: what kinds of schools did these budding entrepreneurs attend?

Let me dig deeper. Did these schools support their out-of-the-box thinking? Did the faculty cultivate positive mindsets and develop students’ self-esteem? Did administrators engage in positive and deep learning when their creative youth occasionally broke the rules?

Alternatively, did these future entrepreneurs become successful irrespective of, or in spite of, their formal education?  Did they sometimes break rules because they found little meaning at school?

I do not know if we will ever have the aggregate data to answer these questions. However, after reading the study I am newly energized as an administrator to reach out to my creative rabble-rousers. Can we create positive educational environments for them? Absolutely.


  • classrooms where future entrepreneurs are leading student-driven, project-based learning.
  • schools where these students are given the license to create, innovate, fail, and try again.
  • moments when the formal consequences for rule-breaking are outweighed by the personal growth that emerges from the disciplinary process.
  • communities where future entrepreneurs demonstrate the value of grit and resilience to their peers.

Many of us work in these schools already. Many more of us should foster these kinds of learning environments for all our entrepreneurs-in-training.

School starts shortly!

Two extraordinary resources on learning and the brain

This summer I am pleased to be working with a group of colleagues to evaluate some of the recent literature in neuroscience and behavioral psychology. Our goal has been to glean from the research what we might translate into practical strategies to support students who are struggling. More on that soon! For now, I highly recommend two “studies of studies” that are goldmines of information for all educators:

1. A University of Chicago report on non-cognitive factors affecting student performance.
2. A multi-authored article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest evaluating effective learning strategies for students.

Thanks to both sets of authors for evaluating seemingly inexhaustible realms of research. Food — no, a banquet — for thought.

You earned it, kid

At the suggestion of former NAIS President Pat Bassett, who signed off his blog in June with several recommendations for summer reads, I picked up “On Grades and Grading” by Timothy Quinn. I was not disappointed. Quinn, Assistant Head of the Upper School at the University School of Milwaukee, has produced a tidy volume of 121 pages that strives to create a single conversation out of some cacophony.

We educators certainly have many arguments to make about grades. We also have many opinions — usually negative — about grading itself. As Quinn pointed out in a post related to the book, the problem may stem from fundamental disagreement about what we are trying to accomplish:

Consider all the things grades can do: They can quantify, they can symbolize, they can describe, they can evaluate, and they can rank. Those are all transitive verbs, so they need objects. Here are some options: a student’s learning, a student’s skill level, a student’s performance, and a student’s progress. (Keep in mind that most of these can be measured either at a given time or over a period of time.) What’s more, is that each of these potential definitions of a grade need some sort of context — are they relative to a standard, to a student’s peers in a class, school, or grade level, or to all other possible outcomes?

Ultimately, grades will only begin to have meaning when teachers and schools define their grades clearly by answering these questions.

Quinn’s work offers a path for educators. He begins by asking why we grade at all (a question he raises repeatedly). In the introduction, he posits three essential reasons:

1. Grades can provide data upon which to base decisions.
2. Grades can have a tremendous impact on student motivation.
3. Grades can provide students with important feedback on their work. (xiii)

Notably absent from this list is the use of grades to rank and sort students for non-pedagogical purposes — namely, college admissions. Quinn states matter-of-factly that our purpose as teachers is to educate, not act as intelligence agents for higher ed (my phrasing). However, he also acknowledges that we cannot simply ignore what happens to our college-bound students. To resolve this problem, he argues that we must ensure fairness in our grading, for pedagogical reasons but also because we know that people other than students and parents read our students’ transcripts.

As Quinn picks his way through a laundry list of grading issues that teachers face, he raises many good questions. Here are just a few:

  • When we say that students “earn” their grades, what do we really mean?
  • Can we square belief in brain plasticity and promotion of a growth mindset with the vague expectation of a bell curve for students’ aggregate grades? In other words, do we believe somehow that a certain statistically significant portion of the student body should be struggling and failing even at the end of the year, or at graduation? If so, why? Are we implicitly sending mixed signals to ourselves, and by extension to our students?
  • In the working world, one’s performance is judged by one’s final draft. Why, then, do we sometimes average “originals” with “rewrites”?
  • Is grade book transparency throughout the term (as opposed to copious written/oral feedback) actually a good idea?

A work as short as this one cannot offer many answers. Quinn treads lightly on some topics, and I imagine that my more quantitatively-minded colleagues will take issue with parts of his argument. But Quinn does a fine job framing the conversation, and that is a gift in and of itself. I enjoyed the book and recommend it highly. I will resist the temptation to grade it.

A beginning …

… and a word of thanks to everyone who has inspired me to write this blog. Being an educator is really a lifestyle choice involving a strong relationship between the professional and the personal. On this blog, I hope to offer some thoughts and receive feedback on matters of educational practice, but not at the neglect of sharing the emotional experience of working in a school. I love what I do!