Spontaneous Order

Even the deepest-seeming change – to the grammar – never destroys the language system. Some distinctions can disappear: classical Arabic has singular, dual and plural number; the modern dialects mostly use just singular and plural, like English. Latin was full of cases; its daughter languages – French, Spanish and so on – lack them, but their speakers get on with life just the same. Sometimes languages get more complex: the Romance languages also pressed freestanding Latin words into service until they wore down and became mere endings on verbs. That turned out OK, too.

Spontaneous order doesn’t sit well with people. We are all tempted to think that complex systems need management, a benign but firm hand. But just as market economies turn out better than command economies, languages are too complex, and used by too many people, to submit to command management. Individual decisions can be bad ones, and merit correction, but we can be optimistic that, in the long run, change is inevitable and it will turn out all right. Broadly trusting the distributed intelligence of your fellow humans to keep things in order can be hard to do, but it’s the only way to go. Language is self-regulating. It’s a genius system – with no genius.

Lane Greene. Aeon. Who Decides What Words Mean.


A Visual Ode to Water


In Massachusetts, it’s been a wet weekend so far. If you’re in a meditative mindset this morning, consider taking a few minutes to watch part of a 12 minute “cinepoem” from 90 years ago. “H₂O (1929), [Ralph Steiner’s] debut short and one of the earliest US art films, is a meditative, visual ode to water in its many forms, focused on the liquid’s various textures and shape-distorting reflective qualities.”

What could possibly be more innovative…?

Alanna Kotler. eJewishPhilanthropy. College Admissions and “Measuring” Students: A Different Approach for Day Schools.

As the pressures of college admission weigh on teachers and students alike, the way we teach at the upper levels becomes more about students’ transcripts than the real-world, relevant work students could be doing, or perhaps already are. As I have written before about innovation in schools, what could possibly be more innovative than changing how we define success and actual learning for our students? Admittedly, college admission has not quite caught up to the changing and improving trends in education, but day schools can join a movement that has.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) is working to answer the (right) question: How can high schools show a student’s “unique skills, strengths and interests?” Its goal is to provide colleges with a holistic understanding of a student, while also allowing schools to provide “a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum that will best prepare our students for a complex and interconnected world.” To-date, out of the approximate 200 independent schools that are part of the Consortium, there is only one Jewish Day School participating – Gann Academy in Boston, MA. What would it take for more Jewish day schools to join the movement? There is no doubt that this type of change would be extremely hard and time-intensive, but this would offer a radical improvement for our students: interdisciplinary, real-world learning environments and curricula.

It’s All About Reputation Now.

Taking Info Literacy to a whole new level in high schools.

There is an underappreciated paradox of knowledge that plays a pivotal role in our advanced hyper-connected liberal democracies: the greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it. What makes this paradoxical is that the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.

Info Literacy + Positive Group Dynamics = Optimal Collaboration

We build a new theory here that the mobile device – which gives equal access to information– does not necessarily lead to effective reasonable fact-based discussions in small groups. Group interactions and informal roles are stronger than information equality, meaning that group dynamics outweigh information access, and thus impact discussion and decision-making more than the fact itself, even in such situations where all participants had equal information at hand. Simply put, it is not the information that makes a group work or perform better than others, even if all have same information available, the group dynamics and interactions are the major factors that decides about the group performance.

For education, it means, when teachers want to support cooperation among students, access to information is not enough, rather instructional guidelines are needed, e.g., supporting Group contracts clarifying input by each member. Also, not all group tasks need equal cooperation levels to be successful, however, for those where equality matters, access to information is necessary but not sufficient to support group performance.


Isa Jhanke and Michele Meinke Kroll. Heliyon. Exploring students’ use of online sources in small groups with an augmented reality-based activity – group dynamics negatively affect identification of authentic online information. (hat tip: NAIS Independent School Magazine Winter 2019).

The First

The ChoiceHappy January 1st!

What does it mean for something or someone to be the first? I’ve been thinking about this question ever since I watched Hulu’s production “The First” this fall. It’s a drama about a manned mission to Mars, but the mission is itself only the framing device for the show. In fact, almost the entire eight-episode season takes place on Earth prior to lift-off. The show itself is sometimes philosophical and metaphorical to the point of abstraction. It’s bound to frustrate some viewers who find it too counterintuitive and confounding. But I believe that it takes a deep look at raw family/social relations and the evolution of our emotional selves. It includes honest, hard moments of inequity and exclusion; it showcases humans in all their flaws and all their aspirations. It got mixed reviews, but I like how this critic summarized his take on the show:

It’s a bit strange knowing you can’t wholeheartedly recommend a show to people who you’d think would be its ideal audience — fans of technically realistic space adventures that are either drawn from history or set so close to the present day that they barely qualify as science fiction — but congrats to The First for being, well, the first series to create such a conundrum. It’s not what I thought it was going to be, and I have no idea how it’ll be received or whether it’ll get additional seasons. But it moved and impressed me to the point where I didn’t particularly care if a given scene or story line was “working” or not. It has a pioneering spirit.

“Firsts” are often framed in our heads as those “moon-shot” moments tailor-made for PR releases and radio/TV pieces. We’ve had a good share of those moments at Gann – elements of our program and practice that gleam in the sunlight – and we should be proud of them and continue to foster them. But I also think about our individual “firsts” – how we encounter ourselves and grow in our work as professionals. I think about the “firsts” for our students – how they come to understand themselves and evolve in non-linear, unexpected fashions. Those moments are individualized, bumpy, and rather non-cinematic. They are often unheralded – and I think that’s a shame.

I wonder if we might shine a warm light on this ragged edge of human growth. If I have a New Year’s resolution, it is to celebrate the scattershot nature of human evolution, both within myself and in others. After all, a mundane move for one person is a risky moon shot for someone else.

Flipping the Sequence

Today, on the day of Gann Academy’s Open House, I’m thinking back to my opening-of-school remarks at the start of September. I believe they speak authentically to our community culture and our aspirations. I’m proud to share them.

Gann exterior

“I’m flipping the sequence today – I’m going to do something that I am not supposed to do. You see, when you go to “Assistant Head of School” School, you learn what you are supposed to say at the start of the year, and what you are supposed to say at the end of the year. At the start of the year, I am supposed to tell you that are supposed to study hard, to put the pedal to the metal, to hunch over your desk and burn the midnight oil. At the end of the year, I’m supposed to tell you that you are now ready to go out to change the world, to make a difference, to do things.

But I’m going to flip the sequence today, because we’re Gann and that’s not how we work. I’m going to tell you, right now, that your job is to take action now – to make change now. It’s not to say that Gann students do not study hard. We do! But we do so with an immediate purpose.

The words in the lobby read “ready for tomorrow.” They don’t say “ready in four years.” They don’t say “ready after college and when I’ve got my first real job.” They say “ready for tomorrow.” Well, tomorrow is in 24 hours. (But don’t worry: it’s Friday, and tomorrow is Shabbat, and this is Gann, so you get an extra 24 hours’ reprieve!). That means that the change we need must start now, here, in this place, in this room.

Now, I have no question but that the Gann students of 2018-2019 are up to the task. After all, you win soccer games, climb mountains (literally), perform magnificent music, and publish op/ed pieces in the New York Times. And that, my friends, was in the first week of school. Mic drop!

But we also know that what’s facing us is something very serious. There’s a lot going on outside these walls. We can’t escape the headlines: climate change, divisive politics and fundamental failure of trust. When violence, hatred, racism in our world are hard reality, we know that there’s a lot of work to do.

So we better be sure that we know what it is about Gann Academy that is so special, because we need to keep it going; we need to keep drawing from that well of strength. In short, what makes this place tick?

When I ask a question like this one, I think of our four core values. These are so important to us that we post them in giant letters in the dining hall: Care. Connect. Strive. Create. Today I’m going to zoom in on “Connect.”

At Gann, we practice connection and collaboration and we never stand alone. We win games – as a team. We climb mountains – each looking after the other. We perform music together. And I dare you to find any recent New York Times op/ed piece with five co-authors. That’s how we do things at Gann.

As Rabbi Berkman said, we are imperfect and we grow, and we change, and we build our strengths – and we do so as a community. And, as our student presenters just pointed out, it is through community that we discover our individual passions.

Connecting with others starts right here, right now, at the start of the year.

So I offer you three challenges – I know that you know these things, but I am going to name them anyway!

First – a message not just to new students but to those who think they know this place … I challenge you to find someone you don’t know at all and establish a connection before the end of the day today.

Second – remember that the deeper connections are the ones in which you are asking at least as many questions as you are offering answers. Not judgment in the guise of a question. Not snarky questions. Open, honest, wondering, vulnerable questions. Yes, it’s risky. Yes, you’re up to it.

And “Level Three Connection” —  focus on listening. Good, hard, reflective listening. If you don’t know how to do it, don’t worry – you’ll learn here. It takes practice. It’s not just using your ears. You have to open up your eyes. You have to open up your heart. You have to open your spirit. I think the listening is actually the hard part, a lot of the time.

BUT you know this. You the striving artist, the caring athlete, the creative robotics leader, the hard-working scholar – you know this. We connect at the deepest level, we strengthen each other, and that’s how we create art that changes lives, we win league and state championships, we conduct the research that matters, and, I promise you, we bring human dignity to a world that desperately needs it. And yes, we might even build a national museum.

The change starts here. In this room. ALL OF US.

Happy New Year. Shana Tova.”