Digging into Implicit Bias

Dear Colleagues,

The field of social psychology is a fascinating one. Many thoughtful psychological studies over the past few decades have demonstrated how easily our thoughts and actions can defy our own self-conception as neutral, rational, bias-free individuals. Researchers have discovered these “mind-tricks” through innovative psychological experiments in human behavior.

In my view, these studies are exciting (rather than intimidating) in part because they offer not simply challenges but solutions, both meta-cognitive and strategic, to overcome what researchers have long termed “implicit bias.” There are all sorts of benefits that accrue from exploration of this topic; as professionals, we can relate much more thoughtfully to current and prospective students, colleagues, and parents, not to mention other constituencies within our larger community. It’s no surprise to me that an increasing number of organizations, including K-12 schools and colleges, explore implicit bias as a key component of professional development.

We at Gann are in a particularly advantageous position to explore implicit bias. Not only does work on implicit bias strengthen our initiatives in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; it also comports very well with our character study groups. Soul-traits such as humility and compassion prepare us emotionally and psychologically for growth in our relationships with others. The daily practice of a soul-trait gives us a useful model for how routinely to incorporate these anti-bias tools into our professional work.

For these reasons, I invite all returning Gann professionals to read an introductory book on the topic: Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. I think that everyone will find the book an enjoyable summer read. At our August in-service, we will spend some time discussing the book’s themes and arguments, and then pivot into a deeper dive during the 2018-2019 academic year.


Field Notes

Phillips and Henderson, who previously taught in high schools, have been blown away by their pupils’ rave reviews. Students, without any solicitation, have been emailing them to praise the videos for their clarity and encouragement. “In our combined 25 years of experience,” Phillips says, “we never got responses like that.”

Daisy Yuhas. WQED/Mindshift (via Hechinger Report). How Giving Students Feedback Through Video Instead of Text Can Foster Better Understanding.


The Stories We Tell

Dear Colleagues,

It’s been a powerful stretch of storytelling. In the past three weeks, we remembered the Holocaust through the stories of survivors. Via “Natural Shocks” we heard the story of a woman threatened by physical violence. We listened as students shared their celebratory and challenging experiences with Jewish identity and practice.

I am proud of storytelling at Gann. We have a modality that we celebrate for what it offers both speakers and listeners. Through stories we share, in a truly captivating way, the diverse experiences of those about whom we care deeply.



Our expanding curriculum and our experiential learning initiatives offer the opportunity to hear from so many, on and off campus, in the United States and abroad. When we encounter their narratives, we understand their complexity. When we listen carefully, we recognize emotional threads. We begin to map the world through their eyes, we develop empathy, and we begin to think creatively about how to improve our community and the wider world around us.

I am now thinking about all the opportunities for storytelling that we might afford our students in the next academic year. What might we prioritize? What should we highlight?

Field Notes

Something has gone wrong with the flow of information. It’s not just that different people are drawing subtly different conclusions from the same evidence. It seems like different intellectual communities no longer share basic foundational beliefs. Maybe nobody cares about the truth anymore, as some have started to worry. Maybe political allegiance has replaced basic reasoning skills. Maybe we’ve all become trapped in echo chambers of our own making – wrapping ourselves in an intellectually impenetrable layer of likeminded friends and web pages and social media feeds.

But there are two very different phenomena at play here, each of which subvert the flow of information in very distinct ways. Let’s call them echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Both are social structures that systematically exclude sources of information. Both exaggerate their members’ confidence in their beliefs. But they work in entirely different ways, and they require very different modes of intervention. An epistemic bubble is when you don’t hear people from the other side. An echo chamber is what happens when you don’t trust people from the other side.

C Thi Nguyen. Aeon. Escape the Echo Chamber.


In July 2017, the Pew Research Center released the results of a national poll: A majority (58 percent) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believed that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up 13 percentage points from the previous year. The Pew survey is not the only recent sign of growing public distrust of higher education: This year’s percentage increase in state support for higher education is the lowest in five years; tenure is being attacked and in some cases eliminated; and we hear frequent expressions of doubt about a college degree’s “return on investment.”

Various explanations have been offered for this devaluation. In the early 1990s, state institutions began raising their tuition, and tuition rates at most colleges rose disproportionately to growth in middle-class incomes. The economic downturn of 2008 accelerated the disparity between family income and college tuition and fees, while simultaneously weakening the link between college degrees and high-paying jobs. Anti-intellectualism, always quietly present in the American zeitgeist, became noisier; suddenly, studying the humanities was “useless,” and religious beliefs became an accepted counterweight to critical thought. Wariness of “cognitive elites” paralleled a growing suspicion of immigrants; both seemed to be taking jobs away from working-class white men, who resented the loss of income, as well as their loss of status as the backbone of the American economy.

But there’s another reason for public distrust of higher education that few are talking about: the increased presence of women. Now that women enroll, succeed, and in many cases, surpass men in attaining college degrees, the value of those degrees is diminishing.

Nancy Niemi. Chronicle of Higher Education. Why Does the Public Distrust Higher Ed? Too Many Women.

Housing Inequality, continued

Dear Colleagues,

Briefly — given what I wrote in January on the PBL opportunity on housing in the Greater Boston area, I think it’s appropriate to share a recent article as a follow-up. In his piece “Is Housing Inequality the Main Driver of Economic Inequality?”, Richard Florida points to recent research by Matthew Rognlie that demonstrates how the housing crisis in cities like Boston is having far-reaching impact on American society (perhaps substantial political impact as well).

Since we live in the Boston area, we have known and perhaps become somewhat inured to this crisis. And yet, as I pointed out a couple of months ago, there are many creative strategies that researchers, policy-makers, and advocates have proposed to ameliorate it. Both the complexity of the problem, and the myriad trajectories toward possible improvement, speak to urban housing not only as an outstanding PBL opportunity, but as an important way in which our students can explore questions of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“A Lighthouse Reflective and Protective”

Dear Colleagues,

Over break, I visited family in Denver, and the local newspaper caught my attention. The Post, under hedge fund ownership, has suffered round after round of layoffs. The Pulitzer Prize–winning enterprise is now a shell of its former self. The paper, in an act of desperation and open rebellion, attacked its owners in its lead editorial without the owner’s prior knowledge. The Post demanded that its owners sell the paper to those who will continue to support decent journalism. You can read more about the situation here.

The news industry is suffering a “gale of creative destruction,” to quote Joseph Schumpeter. I hope that the Post survives; I also know that several new and valuable sources of information are emerging. Some traditional outlets are reinventing themselves; others are entirely new, often non-profit, and discovering how to thrive in an uncertain marketplace.

Will journalism, as a profession, survive? We have reason to wonder who will continue to uphold its five ethical principles:

  1. Truth and Accuracy
  2. Independence
  3. Fairness and Impartiality
  4. Humanity
  5. Accountability

I fear that without professional standards and principles, the public will not recover its trust in journalism. Confidence has diminished for good reason. Today we live with anonymous lead editorials and with nearly 200 local news anchors reading an identical script of corporate provenance, not to mention all the misrepresented material that floats through social media.

Here at Gann, we have been exploring frames of information literacy that are relevant to this crisis of public trust, including “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” and “Information Creation as a Process.” We have been identifying useful sub-skills through these frames, and we have been developing questions that we might raise with our students to help them understand, value, and critique the nature of authority and the act of putting together an “information product.”

How do we engage students in information literacy when sometimes we ourselves do not know who or what created the material we consume? There are no easy answers, but perhaps our best strategy is the promotion of ethical practices among students as content creators themselves. I hope that they will own and exercise their unique voices, and that they will practice civil debate with each other. From that foundation, they may be more inspired to uphold and defend quality content and authorship of all sorts — even if those voices are distant from their own experiences, stances, and beliefs.

How else should we support the skills and habits of mind that our students will need to withstand the gale of creative destruction and regenerate a vibrant and (yes) cacophonous public square?

Field Notes

Mary Murphy, an associate psychology professor and mindset researcher at Indiana University, was not involved with the article but agreed with its findings, noting that students of all ages can lose trust in adults who praise them for effort without specifying what was “effective” about their effort. Murphy suggested educators can give adolescents a better foundation for a growth mindset by, among other things:

  • Providing opportunities for students to reflect on their own learning. For example, instead of using assessments primarily for the teacher, let students assess themselves regularly and report back on how they have developed.
  • HIghlight mistakes in the everyday practice of learning. “Tell students, ‘I don’t want to know what you found easy, I want to know what you got wrong because that’s where the learning will be,'” Murphy said in an email. “This naturally gets students to think about how much they are learning and developing, and will get them to think about what other strategies they could try.”
  • Use group work where peers discuss what they each struggled with and explore individual strengths of different students.

Sarah Sparks. Education Week. For Teenagers, Praising ‘Effort’ May Not Promote a Growth Mindset.

…Unlike so many other education books written 15 years ago, “An Ethic of Excellence” feels more relevant today than ever before. At a time when modern education is considering whether and how to embrace new forms of transcripts, new approaches to school architecture and schedules, new ways to integrate technology, and new place-based experiences for students, Berger’s book cuts through the noise of innovation and insists that the singular representation of a school’s purpose is — and should be — the work its students produce. Any institutional effort that doesn’t enable students to produce interesting, authentic, rigorous work is effort wasted.

Eric Hudson. Global Online Academy. It’s Time for Educators to Revisit “An Ethic of Excellence.” Here’s Why.


Roots of a Moral Innovator

Dear Colleagues,

I’ve been thinking lately about the economist Amartya Sen. After I read a recent piece at Aeon about Sen, I reflected back on my graduate school days, when reading his work first inspired me. I found Sen’s understanding of poverty to be groundbreaking and compassionate. In his acceptance speech for the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economics, Sen explained his position by asking:

Is deprivation not ultimately a lack of opportunity to lead a minimally acceptable life, which can be influenced by a number of considerations, including of course personal income, but also physical and environmental characteristics, and other variables (such as the availability and costs of medical and other facilities)? The motivation behind such an exercise relates closely to seeing poverty as a serious deprivation of certain basic capabilities. (my italics)

Or, to put it more simply:


The Aeon article points out the distinctive interdisciplinary and moral approach that Sen brought to his work. The author notes that “This was no feat of lonely genius or freakish charisma. It was an effort of ordinary human innovation, putting old ideas together in new combinations to tackle emerging problems.”

What made Sen such an outstanding innovator? Sen says that his career began with his childhood education at the Visva Bharati school in West Bengal, India (now known part of the Patha Bhavana school, an institution that is both a K-12 school and a college). Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel Prize winning poet, founded the school in 1901.

Contemporary Patha Bhavana secondary students produced a video that captures Tagore’s ethos, still very much alive in the school today. According to the school’s website,

…unique features are open-air classes, personal contact between teachers and the taught, training in self-government. Besides curricular performance emphasis is given on co-curricular activities aiming to unfold a child’s personality through social, literary, artistic, musical and various other activities.


Patha Bhavana is fascinating on many levels. Here, I am intrigued by Tagore’s insistence that his teachers step down from their pedestals and interact personally with their students. Closeness to peers, to teachers, and to nature was essential for Tagore’s vision on how to grow curiosity and kindness. Tagore sought to recreate what he viewed as a long-lost experience of education. In Tagore’s own words:

[In] the ancient India the school was where life itself was. There the students were brought up, not in the academic atmosphere of scholarship and learning, or in the maimed life of monastic seclusion, but in the atmosphere of living aspiration. They took the cattle to pasture, collected firewood, gathered fruit, cultivated kindness to all creatures and grew in their spirit with their teachers’ own spiritual growth.

Tagore’s emphasis on relationships, shared spiritual growth, and the cultivation of kindness reminds me of our community at Gann. I wonder if the closeness of Sen’s peer and teacher relationships, combined with the empathy he felt toward those around him, moved the future economist toward such a strong stance of compassion in his career. At Gann, such intimacy and responsiveness would be well in keeping with the soul-trait of rachamim, or compassion, that we study together.

As educators, we offer much fertile ground in which our students can mature, morally and otherwise. Of course, we cannot know their futures; Tagore could not know the future of his students either. But Tagore knew that he was creating a special environment for his charges. Roughly a century ago he published this poem; it evokes, for me, both his school and ours:

The Gardener (85)

Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?

I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.

Open your doors and look abroad.

From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.

In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred years.


Field Notes

Student organizer Emma González created a Twitter account on Feb. 18— four days after the Parkland shooting. Now she has 1.2 million followers. She’s using Twitter to share messages of solidarity and to ridicule politicians about gun control.

“People always say, ‘Get off your phones,’ but social media is our weapon,” says student organizer Jaclyn Corin. “Without it, the movement wouldn’t have spread this fast.”

Errol Salamon. The Conversation. March for Our Lives Awakens the Spirit of Student and Media Activism of the 1960s.


In this article in Phi Delta Kappan, Guy Claxton (King’s College/London) uses the metaphor of a river to describe three levels of learning:

–   Knowledge and information on the surface, usually easy to see and describe (the Boston Tea Party, the periodic table);

–   Skills and literacies just below the surface, the expertise that enables students to use knowledge and information (reading, writing, solving a tricky new math problem, thinking in Spanish);

–   Attitudes and habits of mind deeper still; harder to see, these are the gradually developing processes that influence how students respond to difficulty, complexity, and frustration: Are they interested or threatened? Do they engage or wait to be directed? Are they willing to admit mistakes or do they try to cover up their fallibility?

Marshall Memo, March 19, 2018

The Perils of Boyhood

Dear Colleagues,

Lately I’ve been reflecting on what it means for our students to become young adults in an age of violence. By that I mean the verbal and sometimes physical violence that saturates our media and sometimes comes very close to us – too close. Elected leaders throw schoolyard taunts at their constituents. Violent language and imagery take over our social media. Some in power abuse others. And, yes, those with weapons threaten and sometimes commit horrible acts against crowds of people, including mass shootings in schools. As a rational educator and informed citizen, I know that the odds of physical violence occurring at Gann are vanishingly small. But I cannot dismiss the possibility. Like teachers everywhere, I now must train for that possible outcome.

I also know an important fact about interpersonal violence of all kinds: the perpetrators are usually men. To take the worst-case situation: close to 100% of mass killers over the past 35 years have been male. In a world where we have degendered a variety of nouns that describe what people do (e.g., fire fighters, flight attendants), no one seems to be in a hurry to rewrite “gunman” as “gun carrier.”

A recent article in the Atlantic reminded me of a quote from Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura: “People are not born with preformed repertoires of aggressive behavior. They must learn them.” This line of research on boys and men is now well-established (see here, here, and here, for starters). We know about the pressures boys and men face to live up to standards of modern masculinity; I think we all try to mitigate those factors. Yet, speaking as an educator, my concern for boys remains unabated. Both potential victims and perpetrators of violence, they are in a fragile moment of development. Of course, those of us who are parents hope that we are offering the right kind of support and modeling to our children. And yet … to whom else might boys turn for models of masculinity that embrace rather than repress emotion? What men do they see in positions of power and wealth (a.k.a. the American success story) who are demonstrating vulnerability?

Fortunately, there are options. At Gann, we are lucky to have many men on faculty who serve as positive role models for our students. Our colleagues are unafraid to share emotion, demonstrate vulnerability, and exercise kindness. They run a popular support group for boys; they inspire us through their active participation in our “soul trait” curriculum. They demonstrate openness and compassion in the classroom and beyond. I am grateful to know them; they encourage me to aim higher in my work.

I am also struck by the positive role models offered by many local peers, at Gann and elsewhere, who identify as boys (mental note: let’s thank them!). There are important examples of Parkland, FL teenage activists like David Hogg and Cameron Kasky. These students, clearly angry, are nonetheless transforming their intensity and adrenaline into positive, relationship-building efforts. Perhaps they are inspired by their own peers and co-activists, people like Emma Gonzalez who are leading the way for them. Regardless, I wonder if they may be revitalizing nonviolent activism for a new generation of boys.


Stoneham Douglas Students. Source: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/02/florida-school-shooting-survivors-will-lead-nationwide-march.html

Truly, all of us as educators can help our boys become strong and loving men – simply by inviting and encouraging them to live authentic lives. Patrick Howell, in a recent piece entitled “Freeing the Boy Who Wants the Man to Fly,” offers these words to men who are trying to move beyond their entrapment in “Fear [and] its motley crew: Insecurity, Rage, Depression, Self-Sabotage, Self-Loathing, and Loneliness.”

Try and be the summation of your greatest ambitions with the wanton abandonment of a child. Do not be the adult who is taught behaviors by others: the system, the society of men. Be gentle with yourself in your application of learning, and climb mountain tops, seek to fly to the stars, or bathe cosmic in the pool of light and gas that is the sun. Aspire to your highest dream by making a go at secret, long held ambitions. Or, by challenging a long held negative belief utilized for survival purposes, because the only thing consistent in this universe is love.

Hatred is all encompassing when you are in it, but fleeting nonetheless. The permanency of hatred occurs when we allow it into our souls without challenging it, without facing the devil disguised as ourselves. So, find your mountain and climb. For you will find freedom not in reaching the summit, but in the act of lifting one foot on top of another and repeating the process. The child in you is right. The boy or girl inside you is omnipotent and has been correct: you can do anything you set your mind to.


Patrick Howell. Source: https://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/freeing-the-boy-who-wants-the-man-to-fly-wcz/

As educators, we are in the unique position of being able to catalyze this reality for boys. Speaking for myself, I am recommitting today to being a warm and honest educator who does not shy away from personal authenticity or mentoring conversations. As I mentioned earlier, I’m so grateful to have so many colleagues model that behavior for me already, right here at Gann.


Field Notes

Scaffolding is critical to our inquiry journey. Too often teachers enter the inquiry pool in the deep end, heading straight to Free Inquiry…. We can’t blame them; the essential questions students ask and the demonstrations of learning students create are incredibly meaningful and resonate with their audience. But beginning your adoption of inquiry by diving right into Free Inquiry could result in overwhelmed and underprepared inquiry students. 

Trevor MacKenzie and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt. KQED Mind/Shift. How to Ease Students Into Independent Inquiry Projects.

The Framework for High Quality Project Based Learning is based on the accumulated experience, wisdom, and research of hundreds of educators who have graciously shared their ideas and critique. It describes six criteria, each of which must be at least minimally present in a project in order for it to be judged “high quality.” The presence of a criterion, however, is only a beginning. Each criterion can be judged in turn as to the quality of its implementation. Projects that are the most memorable, and that have the greatest impact on student learning and development, will be those with the highest quality implementation of each criterion. The Framework for High Quality Project Based Learning is intended to stimulate reflection and conversation about ways that projects can be improved and deepened.

Buck Institute for Education. High-Quality Project Based Learning (report).