My Letter to the Fashion-Challenged Class of 2017

I woke up this morning feeling very reflective and flooded with a host of emotions. Today will be the last time I witness the graduation of my babies at the American School of Bombay. My last class. Earlier this week, the honey badger (Miel) shoved a camera in my face and asked me to deliver a message on the spot about what I will remember about this class.  For some reason this was a much harder thing to do than in years past. Typically, it was relatively simple for me to boil down my reflection into a simple phrase or even a word. Three years ago, the "Dream Team" graduated. For better or worse, this was the class that was literally stuck with me as a teacher from 9th grade to 12th grade. They were my dream team because they were entirely a product of my efforts in science from beginning to end. They were also my first class of 9th graders at ASB. On the day of their graduation they presented me with a book that they had all signed.

It was quite fitting as they were my babies and they were all leaving me to begin their lives. The separation anxiety was palpable.

For my next group I was able to boil it down to the word "nice". In excerpt from my graduation speech that year, I said:

Every class seems to have a collective character. Ask any one of your teachers and they will give you a few adjectives that describe each class... not all of them are flattering. For the last two years, one word has always come to mind first when I describe the class of 2015 and that word is nice. You have no idea what a great compliment this is. Every year I have a pile of letters of recommendation to write. Each one has to be unique and embody the true character and potential of a student in the best possible light. This can be tricky. One thing that we are always asked to do on rec forms is to list a few words that describe each applicant. What words would come to mind when people describe you? Are they accurate? Do they reflect how you want to be seen by others? If not, now is the time to change perceptions. Every year after I finish all of my recs, I like to make a word cloud of my rec letters to see what words pop up the most. This year, in particular, I am happy to say that empathy was a top contender.

The class of 2017 was much more difficult. I struggled with this as I read through my news feed this morning rife with recent posts of commencement speeches that delivered tears with my morning coffee. Finally, while watching Lauren Duca from Teen Vogue deliver a commencement speech to Simon's Rock college at Bard, it hit me. It wasn't what she said in her speech, it was who she is and what she has accomplished that finally helped me to find the words I have been searching for. Back in December Teen Vogue showed up in my feed numerous times because of an article about the gaslighting of Donald Trump. Now these posts weren't coming from Teen Vogue directly. Give me a break. I pride myself in my carefully cultivated news feed. I focus on reading pieces from journalists on the front line exposing truths often at a cost, a disruption of the public narrative...sources that force humanity to ask the hard questions. Why then were people shining a flashlight on Teen Vogue of all sources. Over the next several months I found myself sharing posts from Teen Vogue, apologetically at first, until I stopped apologizing and Teen Vogue became part of my cultivated feed.

So what does this have to do with the Class of 2017 you ask? Bear with me. This is my blog post after all. When I received my new crop of IB students two years ago, there was a lot of buzz. "This is one of the strongest classes academically." Now, I had taught many of you in 10th grade, and that might not have been the first descriptor that came to mind. Not to say that you weren't strong students, it just wasn't the first word I would use to characterize you all :-) There was however, a palpable confidence brewing in my new group of 11th graders, most likely due to this reputation that you had all become accustomed to hearing. What I can say is that for many, this was a false sense of confidence that in the end it became your greatest challenge moving forward through the IB program. At this stage you are all probably thinking, "I can't believe Nukes is going to lecture us on our last day of high school!". I am not. You see the two words that characterize this class on your last day of high school are transformation and confidence, and I am not talking about the confidence that gained from your parents or teachers telling you that you are great. I am talking about the confidence you gained from facing your challenges head on and having the grit and determination to transform yourselves into the people that you are today. This is far more noteworthy. You had to work hard to transform, and it is more likely to stick with you for a lifetime. During the senior recognition ceremony, this was evident as each and every one of you crossed that stage and shared your takeaways from ASB. You have developed as a class into adults that have the skill sets to pursue your dreams and hopefully enhance the lives of others with all that you have to offer the world. Your confidence reaffirmed my confidence, and I know that you are all ready to face whatever the world throws at you.

I remember being struck by this when asked to choose one person from each class to give a science award to about a month back. I have always struggled with this on a personal level, but this year was even more of a struggle. An impossible task really. First of all, at some level, the majority of you experienced significant transformations as learners and human beings over the past two years in my course, each equally critical, important, and noteworthy. Each eliciting a deep sense of pride in me that cannot be measured by a piece of paper or a public nod. Like Lauren Duca, I feel these "trophies" are meaningless when compared to your own self-awareness and sense of personal accomplishment, growth and achievement. This should not be defined by that piece of paper. In my speech to you on Wednesday, I made reference to a book called "I'm OK, You're OK". To me an award sends the message that one person is OK while 17 others are not. This could not be further from the truth, and it is the last message that I would want to deliver as I send you off to your next destination. I hope that I have articulated to each and every one of you just how much of an impact you have made on me as your teacher, mentor and friend.

In her speech, Lauren advised:

Stop waiting for someone to tell you you can, and do the thing you want to be doing. Beyond that, the practicality: You can’t plan for opportunities, you can only be sure you’ll be ready when they happen to show up. Steve Jobs nailed this part in his commencement: The dots can’t be connected before they appear. What I’d like to give you today, is a renewed focus for thinking about the process of getting between them. The future is full of landmines, so stop wasting time trying to avoid them, and focus on running head first into the good stuff. Promise yourself you’ll power through the bull shit.
This can be done by following three simple guidelines:
Number 1: Never let anyone tell you who you are.
Number 2: Embrace the greatest version of the person you know you were meant to be.
And, Number 3: Work your goddamn ass off.
...Living with intention ... capitalizes on the moments of greatness, unlocking your ultimate potential, and leaving little room for regret, no matter how many boxes get crossed off that checklist. You decide how you define yourself, and that definition doesn’t need to include reference points from LinkedIn.

Over the past two years, many of you have experienced such significant transformations, I hardly recognize that 10th grader I met three years ago. This is something unique to this class. It is also the most admirable. I know. It didn't happen to me until much later in life, so this gives the class of 2017 an advantage over most as you diverge off to your new adventures. Having said that you are all still working on your masterpiece. As I send you off with this newfound confidence, I ask only that you write down Lauren's second piece of advice and post it somewhere as a reminder:

Embrace the greatest version of the person you know you were meant to be

...and forge ahead into the unknown with your new, well-deserved sense of confidence. Just don't forget that from time to time you need to "sit down and be humble" so that you can hear what the world has to say to you as you continue working on your masterpieces. I promise, you will get there a lot faster if you do.

Thank you for making the final part of my journey at ASB one that I will treasure for a lifetime.

All the best...

NUKES!

How Smart are SMART goals?

In every school I have ever worked at, the following happens:

August/September: All teachers set their professional goals for the year, submit them in writing and most meet with their supervisor to discuss.

May: All teachers meet with their supervisor to go over their evaluation which includes a discussion on their goals to close the loop.

Now how many of you "know someone" who has to ask their supervisor to send them a copy of their goals so that they can prepare for the meeting? How many of you "know someone" who has been either pleasantly surprised by all that they accomplished towards their goals that they forgot about as soon as they hit send on their PD goal setting doc back in August; OR were frantically trying to come up with a reasonable explanation for the fact that they did nothing to work towards their stated goals as they don't remember making them in the first place? 

This artificial dance, regardless of how ineffective it is, continues to dominate teacher evaluation cycles around the world. Now I am not saying that goals are a bad thing, but when the goal setting is forced into an unnatural, artificial timeline it is bound to fail. Let's consider one example:

Teacher A: Just arrived in India for her first year at an international school known for its technology integration. On day one she is introduced to a host of unfamiliar systems that she has never heard of that she will have to use on day 1. Veracross, Haiku, Google Drive, Hapsara, EVB, etc. Panic sets in. Not to mention, INDIA. She just manages to keep her head above water for the first month wondering if it will ever make sense. Then she has to set her professional goals for the year. All she can think about is mastering the virtual grade book system. So she puts that down as her goal. Now we all know that Teacher A doesn't really want to focus on posting grades as her professional development goals this year, but in August/ September it is all she can think of. By October the grade book system is a muscle memory and she discovers PBL. This gets her excited. She wants to explore how this might enhance the learning in her classroom so she throws herself into it. Awesome. Then comes her meeting in May. What were my goals? Oh ya! Great talk...but can I tell you about something that I am really excited about?

We do the same thing to our students. First week of school during advisory. What are we doing? SMART goals. Those 9th graders don't even know what is about to hit them. Neither do those juniors who are just starting IB. A month in their realities are going to start to change drastically as they start to get feedback from their teachers. Along with this change in reality comes a change in direction. Those goals they set during the first week under artificial parameters will likely no longer apply.

Enter my latest obsession, Michael Phelps.

I chose this picture for a reason. I am a biology teacher, and I could actually use his body to teach muscle anatomy. Look at his hand alone. Someone like this does not achieve this level of fitness without dealing with goals from time to time. So why is he successful? What makes a simple boy from Maryland, the most decorated Olympian in the world? Now I admit there are some oddities in the way his body is formed that might contribute to his success, but not without an insane amount of grit and determination...and maybe some goal setting.

This article arrived in my news feed just in time. 

Big Goals Can Backfire. Olympians Show Us What to Focus on Instead.

A take-away from this article:

...a team of researchers from Harvard, Northwestern, and the University of Pennsylvania set out to explore the potential downfalls of goal-setting. They found that overemphasizing goals — and especially those that are based on measurable outcomes — often leads to reduced intrinsic motivation, irrational risk-taking, and unethical behavior.

Their answer to this dilemma? Focus on the process. A process mindset as opposed to a goal mindset. but how? 

First, set a goal. Next, figure out the steps to achieving that goal that are within your control. Then — (mostly) forget about the goal, and focus on nailing the steps instead.

This has always been my advice to my IB students. If a student comes to me and tells me their goal this year is to get a 7. My question is how will you go about achieving this. If their answer is study more, I know they will not be able to achieve that goal. You see the key is is to help the students nail down the process and focus on the little victories. With a little (actually a lot) of reflection, this will help them to work towards the forgotten goal.

Goal setting should be a dynamic process. It should not have artificial deadlines. How is it possible that every goal set by every teacher in the world spans 8-9 months? Bizarre ;-)

In the classroom this is very real. When students become too achievement focused, they tend to cheat the process. Just the other day, a student in my class messaged me at night to clear up a misunderstanding before class the next day. This misunderstanding involved a process that he mastered first semester of last year and scored a borderline 6/7 on the test. Not only was it obvious in this chat that he hadn't mastered the concept, at times it was like he had never heard of it. His goal for my class is to achieve a 7. As a result he has mastered achieving a 6/7 on short term assessments by cramming the night before. Unfortunately, none of this sticks. He focused on the goal of a MEASURABLE score rather than the process to alter his approaches to learning so that he can crack the 7 ceiling in the end. While he might be able to get close to a 7 on unit tests, in the end the amount of material he will have to relearn or rather re-memorize for the exam will be too much for the amount of time he will have and he will not achieve his goal.

My students are always asking if they can improve their predicted scores before applications are sent off. My answer to them is SHOW me that you have changed your process. Demonstrate consistently that your victories are not fleeting and superficial. To do this, we as teachers need to help them focus on the process. Identify the target, prescribe the pathway, then forget the target and focus on the process.

I am a member of the Research and Development team at my current school. A couple of years ago, we formed a task force to re-imagine professional development in our current climate of professional sharing and learning through social media, MOOC's and global conferences. One of my tasks was to research and develop an alternative model to what we currently have in place in most schools that I have worked at.  In terms of professional goal setting and professional learning cycles, here is my proposal to solve the issues with current models of teacher evaluation cycles.

If Mikey likes it... maybe we should all take a page from his book and, be like Mike. Phelps that is.

The Impending Technological Singularity: Implications for Education

The new school year is finally here. My seniors have returned ready for year two of our journey together through IB Biology, and along with them come a new crop of 9th graders that bring with them the unfamiliar. Every class is different and over time they develop a reputation that will stay with them throughout their four years whether evidence continues to support these labels or not.

In my first class with the 9th graders this year, something peculiar happened that cannot be ignored. In an effort to establish a baseline of my student's understanding of investigative techniques in the laboratory, we began with an introductory activity that for the past two years has taken our students the full period and then some to complete. This was different. This year half of them finished with time left to cause trouble. The kind of trouble that 9th graders inevitably find themselves involved in with they don't have structures and routines controlling their every move. Again. This was different. I noticed a group of them were deeply involved in whatever was happening on one of the student's computer screens and my imagination went wild. Much to my relief, they were watching him code a game that they all played together. I asked how many of them liked to code, and almost half of them raised their hands and they were competing with each other to explain how this "Choose Your Own Adventure" game worked that they were all involved in. It was clear to me that they were able to speak and communicate in the language of code with the same level of comfort and proficiency that you would see in a person who was fluent in a second language. I am predicting this class will be known as the challenging "Techy" group. I say challenging because I would argue that most teachers will not be able to speak the same language that this group of kids prefers to converse in.

In the past 5 years, we have incorporated some problem-based learning units into the Integrated Science 9 and 10 curricula. What always amazes me the most is the ease with which students access and integrate various technologies to communicate their learning. Websites, infographics, programs, novel presentation platforms, video/multimedia creation platforms. You name it. Their learning curve is steep and fast.

Student infographic from a genetics project.

Student infographic from a genetics project.

 This got me thinking of Moore's law.

Back in the 1960's Gordon Moore of Intel predicted that the number of transistors per integrated circuit would double every 18 months. This was of course based on prior trends, but it has held true for an additional 50 years...so much so that industry has been driven by this predictive metric.

Click on the image to read about the approaching technological singularity.

Click on the image to read about the approaching technological singularity.

In an article in Co.Design, Mark Zucherberg applied Moore's law to the culture of sharing:

We talk about the Moore’s law of sharing, but we never meant that all this will happen on Facebook—it will happen in the world. Our challenge is to make that happen on Facebook. I draw an analogy to Intel. Moore’s law was great for them, because they could point at the world and say, "Okay, in 18 months, someone’s going to fit this many transistors on a circuit board—we’d better be the ones to do it or else someone is gonna eat our lunch!" I look at this the same way. Three years from now, people are going to be sharing eight to 10 times as much stuff. We’d better be there, because if we’re not, some other service will be.

I would argue that there should be a Moore's law of education as well.

The evolution of artificial intelligence and the impending technological singularity has been an obsession of mine for quite some time. In short, the idea is that in developed nations the evolution of human intelligence has begun to plateau and technology is in a position to overtake human intelligence. By combining the two, humans stand to kick start an unimaginable increase in human intelligence which would trigger a technological singularity. Even more alarming is that the predicted dates of this merger between human and machine seem to focus on the decade between 2020 and 2030. My 9th graders will be graduating from high school in 2020.

As an educator, I have to ask myself, "How am I preparing my students for THIS future?". Even more importantly, Educators should be asking, "How are we preparing ourselves to prepare our students for THIS future?"

I encourage you to check out this video, entitle Humans Need Not Apply: 

 

I have been a Technology Integration Coach at ASB for the past three years. This has given me a unique opportunity to observe learning from many perspectives. The teachers at ASB are some of the best that I have ever worked with. They work tirelessly to understand their students needs through collaboration and data-informed decision making in an effort to personalize the education of each and every student. The problem is not in the teachers efforts but in our systemic metrics. Our school is an IB school. For seniors the focus is on IB scores and college admissions. To prepare them to achieve their goals it takes 25 hours a day. As a result, education as an institution is focused on the slow-to-change systems (IBO, College Admissions processes, SAT, etc.). This does not leave room for a great deal of forward thinking beyond the general trends of higher education. Another unfortunate consequence is that educators in general are much slower at learning and integrating new technologies into their practices than our students. This is the conundrum. If advances in technology are increasing at a pace predicted by Moore's Law, and our students, despite a lack of instruction in this acquisition of knowledge are gaining at a much faster pace than those in charge of educating them, at what point does the gap become too large? At what point does our current educational model become irrelevant? 

As a biology teacher, I often find that biological systems serve as perfect metaphors for any wicked problem we face as a society. The one that best fits this wicked problem is climate change. For years we have been contributing to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the name of progress and innovation. The human species was launched into relevance by the agricultural and more importantly the industrial revolution. The system was huge, the rewards were inconceivable and numerous, and the risks of environmental impact were considered negligible if they were considered at all. Now it is rumored that climate change is real (have you read about the floods in Louisiana this week?) :-) We are on a pathway to destruction and people are still in denial. Scientists all over the world are desperately searching for solutions while the populace continues to ignore the threats in the face of economic hardship. A plea published by the Economist leads with the subheading: 

Global warming cannot be dealt with using today’s tools and mindsets. So create some new ones.

Has climate change gotten too out of hand for us to find a solution in time? Is it too late to change the system?

Let this be a warning to educators around the world. If we don't do something to prepare ourselves to prepare this next generation for a technologically advanced society, will the gap between our level of integration and our students level of integration become too wide? Will we become irrelevant? We owe it to our students to look beyond college admissions and IB exams. It is time for education to change our curve before it is too late.