Field Notes 2/4/18: On Assessing What Matters

The outcomes we choose to measure, as well as the methods of assessment we use, signal to students, parents, and others what matters. If we claim to value critical thinking, creative problem solving, oral communication, and the ability to work effectively in groups, then we need to teach and assess those outcomes.

McTighe, Jay. Educational Leadership. Three Key Questions on Measuring Learning.

Field Notes 1/28/18: On Dignity and Mastery

It’s a gray day in New England, and winter across the northern hemisphere. Yet it’s the height of summer elsewhere, and therefore wedding season. One recent ceremony in New Zealand reminded me of Gann’s mission to build a better world where human dignity will flourish. May our students be as loving, and as generous, as those who planned this event.

What typically emerges from looking at kids, gifted and ordinary, is that, from the kids’ point of view, accomplishment, that is, the private sense of mastery, the hard thing suddenly made easy, counts for far more in their inner lives than does the achievement—the competition won, the reward secured. The mystery of mastery, felt in the child’s mind or muscles, is more compelling than the concreteness of achievement, the trophy pressed in her hands. 

Gopnik, Adam. The New Yorker. How to Raise a Prodigy.

Field Notes 1/21/18: The Autism Paradox

Is [autism] a disorder to be diagnosed, or an experience to be celebrated? How can autism be something that must be ‘treated’ at one level, but also praised and socially accommodated at another? Many people in the neurodiversity community say that autism is just a natural variant in the human condition. But should autistic individuals have the same legal rights as everyone else? Or are their needs different, and if so, how?

Bonnie Evans. Aeon. The Autism Paradox.

Boston Housing and Deeper Learning (Part Two of Two)


Last week I wrote about the misalignment between housing needs and housing realities in Boston. I suggested that the challenge of housing development in Boston in the future invites the sort of creativity and innovative problem-solving that we would like to see our students pursue. As a case study, one could see how creativity, collaboration, and ideation/iteration would be parts of an entrepreneurial process that students might adopt with such a project.

This sort of project, regardless of scale, also demands empathy. Before the solution-oriented brainstorming, students would have to understand the community’s needs through different lenses. In the case of housing, it would be necessary but insufficient for students to understand the housing report. Quantitative data is critical but not in and of itself, holistic. Were we to “do empathy right,” students would also be walking city streets, conducting interviews, and understanding community needs through a richer framework of culture and daily experiences.

Conceptualizing these empathy-oriented opportunities for students are well within our capacities as educators. Logistics are a major challenge, of course – projects of this sort require resources (time, money) that schools usually do not have in abundance. But there is also another hurdle – less obvious but critically important. For students to adopt an authentic stance of inquiry, they would first have to question many of their own assumptions about what constitutes a high-quality residential experience.

Let me offer two examples. First, consider the imputed benefits of the New England town. It is a reality, as I wrote earlier, that town-oriented politics are stronger in Massachusetts and New England than elsewhere. With that political culture comes with a somewhat well-worn bundle of beliefs in town-hall democracy and local civic pride. These ideas may give us some sense of common identity and purpose. Yet … they are also extraordinarily outdated. As a book reviewer wrote several years ago (prepare for the “ouch”):

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, Joan Didion reminded us. It seems obvious that no one—outside perhaps the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution]—is listening any longer to the stories that New England has preferred to tell about itself for the better part of three centuries. In this cultural free fall, when even nostalgia is no longer a particularly effective means of reconnecting with a shared past, what sort of stories do New Englanders, does New England, tell?

For our students to adopt a stance of inquiry, they would need first to question whatever assumptions they have about living in New England. How, exactly, does the image of the classic (quaint? exclusive?) New England town inform a conversation about housing in Mattapan or apartment buildings in the Seaport district – or even what a “poster” New England town itself needs in 2018?

On a larger scale, our students would need to question their assumptions about what people value as Bostonians (in the larger, metro area sense of the term). Imagine our students starting their empathy-oriented interviews in diverse communities by attempting facile connections on topics such as the Red Sox or the Boston Marathon. Consider how routines of school, work, and personal life, ones that our students take for granted, might unconsciously bias the questions they would ask. At a minimum, these assumptions might not be bridge-builders!

Done right, empathy-making is hard. It’s tough to dwell in a space where “you don’t know what you don’t know.” And it’s hard to relate to community members who do not share your sense of local identity, or all your assumptions of what it means to live a good life. But it would be a powerful experience for our students genuinely to engage in “empathy-making.”

Boston Housing and Deeper Learning (Part One of Two)


As I’m driving from neighborhood to neighborhood these days, I’ve been reflecting on The Greater Boston Housing Report Card 2017. The report chronicles the disjuncture between the Boston area’s current housing stock and our actual needs as a metropolitan community. I think this subject relates to the work we do at Gann in at least two ways; accordingly, I’m going to offer some thoughts both this week and in next week’s “Sunday Update.”

Almost all of us experience this misalignment within the housing sector, thanks to the high prices we pay to rent or own residential property in the greater Boston area. But identifying scarcity is only the first step at analyzing a very complicated issue. The report points out, for example, that

How we structure our local governance matters. Given that we organize ourselves substantially by town or city, our “political map” is a rather decentralized patchwork of zoning laws, school districts, and regulatory environments. Metro-wide action can therefore be a real challenge here in Massachusetts, unlike many other states that either have larger municipalities (in terms of geographic boundaries) or stronger governance at the county level (vs. towns).

Boston area Town Map

Image Source: Boston MPO

The kind of housing we build must be attuned to today’s social reality. Neither triple-deckers nor single family dwellings match today’s needs.

Triple Decker

Image Source: New England Historical Society

To wit:

The first demographic revolution brought families to the cities; the second brought them—at least white families—to the suburbs. But the third demographic revolution underway for at least the past two decades nationwide is less about the spatial distribution of the population and more about the structure of households … As of 2015, only slightly more than half of all households in Plymouth, Norfolk and Middlesex counties are composed of families with a married couple, and less than half in Essex County. In Suffolk County—essentially the City of Boston—only about 28 percent of all housing units are now occupied by a family with a married couple. The other 70 percent plus are occupied by either a single person or two or more unrelated roommates. And in each of the counties, at least 25 percent of all housing units have only a single occupant. In Suffolk County, more than one out of three units (36.3%) now house a single person.

  • Report Card 2017, p. 58

Clearly, anyone who is invested in the future of the Boston metro area needs to think creatively on how to cooperate across political boundaries to promote housing development that aligns with today’s Boston-area demographics. Simple, eh?

A large part of this challenge resonates and thrills me as an educator. This sort of research and design relates directly to Gann’s core values of strive and create. We want to prepare our students, when faced with this sort of contemporary problem, to

  • ask the right questions
  • seek multidisciplinary information
  • ideate collaboratively and creatively
  • iterate solutions

This challenge, in other words, speaks directly to the skill-building that we seek via our mastery learning initiative and the interdisciplinary projects that we dream of pursuing through our new hub/lab space (entering its final design phase this spring, by the way!).

Furthermore, I would argue that a topic like Boston-area housing is exactly a subject to which we can bring the creative energy of our students, not only in readiness but in action. Our learners are citizens of the Commonwealth – and they should be participating! When given the right tools and resources, they should be entering the public forum, debating ideas, and traveling down the road toward innovative solutions.

My point is not to privilege housing as a topic for Gann students, but rather to hold it up as an example of what is possible. Of course, there is much more to the recipe of entrepreneurship than creativity, collaboration, and ideation/iteration – but more on that next week.