cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Monday, June 30, 2014

Models of exploratory talk from my youth — the NeXT years

In planning the group work morning session, I keep asking myself what I want group work to look like — and more importantly, to feel like — for my students. So far, the best description I have found in the literature comes from Douglas Barnes, by way of Neil Mercer (of Cambridge University) and Malcolm Swan and the Thinking Together project in the UK.

So far, Barnes’ conception of exploratory talk, as fleshed out by Mercer and Swan in their research, has come closer than anything else to what I first experienced in the most creative and effective engineering cultures in my adult life.

Lately I have come to the realization that what I really want to prepare my students for is the kind of passionate, creative, and incredibly effective exploratory talk culture that first electrified me during the three years I worked for Steve Jobs at NeXT.

Steve was a master of exploratory talk skills, though he was definitely stronger on the concept development side of things than he was on the social and emotional skills. But more than anybody else I have ever known, Steve valued exploratory talk. In many ways large and small, he worshipped it. And so did we. That was a big part of how I — and many others of us — justified putting up with the craziness we endured while working for him during that period. In search of the “insanely great,” Steve was open to crossing over into the extreme. You had to really want to be there.

Steve’s primary mode of exploratory talk was what could best be described as “gladiatorial.” You had to be willing to die in the arena — and die over, and over, and over again over weeks or months or even years. If you knew what you were talking about — and were prepared to defend your ideas to the death — then you were equipped to step into the arena. However, you also had to be prepared to get bloodied. The emotional toll was tremendous, and many of the most brilliant thinkers I knew at NeXT were simply not willing or able to go into the ring. They stayed as long as they could and made amazing contributions to the experience while still preserving their souls and their sanity. As I grew up, I began to understand that the price of Steve’s mode of exploratory talk was exclusion. Like him, most of the people who were willing to engage in that exchange were white men. I was unusual in that regard because I was not. Most of the leaders of Apple are still primarily white men.

One of the most powerful things about Steve’s engagement in exploratory talk was they when you were right about something, he would eventually come back and give credit (or take credit himself while in proximity to you). As many others have said, he did not do this with a tremendous amount of grace. He could be awkward and blunt and cruel and manipulative. But he could also be deeply and sincerely celebratory of your best work, and a big part of his genius was in being able to bring together some of the brightest, most intensely creative people in the business — the ones with the best ideas and the most flexible skills and the ability to get shit done. And he was a genius at launching us all into combat.

When I joined NeXT, I knew that I was going there to connect with the people I would be starting other companies with and working with for the rest of my life. That belief proved to be true. To this day, the ex-NeXT network remains my most active and cherished alumni group. I started other software companies with exNeXTers, and I worked with some of those who later took over Apple. We shared (and continue to share) a common framework — a common way of engaging in exploratory talk that is recognizable by us all. It’s a sixth sense about a kind of passionate and engaged exploratory talk in which the participants are fully present, and totally bringing their ‘A game’ to the conversation.

In the years after leaving NeXT, most of us refined our processes of exploratory talk in ways that made the process gentler and more generous, more nurturing. Steve’s way was just too damaging. It also left too many brilliant minds and voices out of too many conversations — conversations that would have benefited from the contributions of people who were less combat-averse than the rest of us.

For my own part, I found that mindfulness, restorative practices and good therapy really helped.

But none of us were ever willing to give up the electric quality of those product development conversations. They were incandescent. They left you hungry for more. After the meetings ended, we would all crawl back to our offices, drained and exhausted. But under the surface, we were all making notes, sketching ideas, and plotting our next pitches.

Hours or days later, somebody would pull you into their office to show you something they’d hacked together on their own time, working through some unresolved part of the central idea. That was how you prepared for combat in the arena — you tested your ideas against the best minds you knew. You forged alliances.

Some parts of this process were hilarious. My friend Henry hacked together a UI (user interface) component out of the AppKit to demonstrate some point he’d been trying to convey. In the last piece of his model, there was a pulldown menu of possible actions this one modal dialog allowed you to select. The last of the possible action options in the menu was often, “Drive an 18-inch spike through my brain.” The standard buttons at the bottom right of the dialog window were ‘Cancel’ and “OK.”

For me, this is the ideal of the kind of exploratory talk conversation I want my students to taste in my classroom. I want them to experience that process of brainstorming that takes you out of your own skin — and even out of your own mind — into a kind of magical space that Neil Mercer has termed “interthinking.” It’s that experience of being part of a Bigger Mind than your own individual, cognitive awareness. Brainstorming your way into truly great ideas takes a lot more commitment to flow and to “allowing” than most cognitive psychologists and theorists are comfortable talking about.

But that’s where all the payoff is.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

TMC #14 Group Work Working Group Morning Session – Annotated References & Framework

I'm having a lot of fun planning the Group Work Working Group morning session for Twitter Math Camp 2014, and it's time to start sharing.

Here is the background material I'm using for developing the group work morning sessions. Please note that this is NOT required reading!  Recreational reading only! So please don't freak out!  :)

I wanted to give people a sense of the framework and background I'd like us to start from so attendees can decide whether this morning session will be right for them. I also wanted to provide links and titles to valuable materials.

These are listed in order of relevance to the Group Work Working Group morning session — they are not in formal bibliographical form.

National Academies Press, How People Learn (downloadable PDF here)
This amazing free book provides the framework within which we'll consider the use of group work. I am especially keen for us to explore how we can develop and implement tasks that fit within their (approximately) four-stage cycle for optimizing learning with understanding while also fitting with our own individual school and district requirements. In a nutshell, the four stages are as follows:
STAGE 1 - a hands-on introductory task designed to uncover & organize prior knowledge (in which collaboration cultivates exploratory talk to uncover and organize existing knowledge)
STAGE 2 - initial provision of a new expert model (with scaffolding & metacognitive practices) to help students organize, scaffold, & develop new knowledge (in which collaboration provides a setting to externalize mental processes and to negotiate understanding)
STAGE 3 - what HPL refers to as "'deliberate practice' with metacognitive self-monitoring" (in which collaboration provides a context for advancing through the 3 stages of fluency with metacognitive practices)
STAGE 4 - transfer tasks to extend and apply this new knowledge & understanding in new and unfamiliar non-routine contexts
Malcolm Swan, "Collaborative Learning in Mathematics" (downloadable PDF here)
A short and highly readable summary of Swan's instructional design strategy for collaborative tasks, including notes on his five types of mathematical activities that constitute the bulk of the Shell Centre's formative assessment MAP tasks and lessons.

Malcolm Swan, Improving learning in mathematics: challenges and strategies (downloadable PDF here)
An in-depth introduction to Swan's approach to designing and using the kind of rich tasks offered by the Shell Centre and the MARS and MAP tasks.

Chris Bills, Liz Bills, Anne Watson, & John Mason, Thinkers (can be purchased from ATM here)
The richest source book imaginable for ideas for activities to stimulate mathematical thinking. Often credited by Malcolm Swan and Dylan Wiliam.

Anne Watson & John Mason, Questions and Prompts for Mathematical Thinking (can be purchased from ATM here)
The richest source book imaginable for variations on questioning and prompting strategies.

Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment
This book is a gold mine. Don't leave home without it.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Growth Mindset Quote of the Week

Many of you have asked about my growth mindset quotes of the week. I have a spot on my board where I write the Quote of the Week. I date it and there are written instructions on the board to say that I offer extra credit on INB checks if a student copies the quote of the week onto the inside front cover of their INB, along with the date.

I don't tell them this, but this is part of my cultivation of a growth mindset.

I never announce the quote of the week program, I never mention the phrase "growth mindset" with regard to these quotes, and I never explicitly draw attention to that section of the white board.

It is there to encourage students to pay attention to everything and to constantly ask themselves what is in their own best interests.


I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.  — Thomas Edison (American inventor)

There is no shortcut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation — veneer isn't worth anything. — George Washington Carver

It's not that I'm so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. — Albert Einstein

Everything is simpler than you think and at the same time more complex than you imagine.  — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

There is no such thing as defeat in non-violence. — Cesar Chavez

I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.
 — Rosa Parks

I want to put a dent in the universe. — Steve Jobs

I intend to live forever, or die trying. — Groucho Marx

If you're trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I've had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it. — Michael Jordan

I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying. — Michael Jordan

Nothing will work unless you do. — Maya Angelou

If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. — Maya Angelou

Everybody sooner or later has to drop the luggage and the baggage of illusions. — Carlos Santana

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. — Margaret Mead (American anthropologist & explorer)

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside a dog, it's too dark to read. — Groucho Marx (American comedian)

Inequality is the cause of all local movements. — Leonardo da Vinci

You can't learn to swim on a piano bench. — Milton Erickson (American psychologist)

I believe the destiny of your generation — and your nation —is a rendezvous with excellence.  — Lyndon B. Johnson (36th President of the U.S.)

Since new developments are the products of a creative mind, we must therefore stimulate and encourage that type of mind in every way possible. — George Washington Carver

I learned the value of hard work by working hard. — Margaret Mead

We won't have a society if we destroy the environment. — Margaret Mead

Hell, there are no rules here — we're trying to accomplish something.  — Thomas Edison

Preservation of one's own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures. — Cesar Chavez

EDITED 06/12/14: Some other favorites, including three from Winston Churchill and some others, used much earlier in the school year.

Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. — Sir Winston Churchill

If you're going through hell, keep going. — Sir Winston Churchill

Never give in -- never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. — Sir Winston Churchil

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.  — Gloria Steinem

We have a habit in writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or describe how you had the wrong idea first, and so on.  —Richard Feynman, Nobel Lecture, 1966

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Writing apologies for racist classroom actions

About a month before the end of school, I wrote my first apology note for colluding with racism in the classroom. I know this note will not be my last.

I used what I have learned from restorative practices over the years: Speak from the heart. Listen from the heart. Say just enough. Respect the talking piece.

The first thing I did was to listen from the heart. My student had yelled very loudly, "You're being racist!" I had been sure, even in that moment, that there was a level at which he'd been right. I needed to inquire into his perspective and into my own to understand as much as I could about how and why this had been true.

After meditating and reflecting and journaling about what had happened, I wrote him a letter.
Dear ___,
I owe you an apology.
I have been treating you unfairly. I have been calling you out for being disruptive in class more than I have called out others, and I agree with you that that is wrong. I need to not do that, and I pledge to be mindful of that from now on. 
I also realized that I have been pushing you harder than I push some of the other students in our class, and I realize that that is wrong too. My intentions were good ones: I see your brilliance and, as a citizen, I want to recruit people like you into leadership. Our leaders are lost, and my generation has really messed things up. I came back to teaching because teachers are the talent scouts of the future, and our country needs people like you in leadership.
But that is my stuff — not necessarily yours.
After you pointed out my biased treatment of you, I realized that you are right. I have been treating you differently, and that is wrong. It was wrong of me to try to impose my agenda onto you. It is also inconsistent with my own values because it is important to me that you be empowered and respected to choose your own goals and make your own decisions about how to lead your life.
So this letter is my attempt to clean up my own side of the street. From now on, I am going to do a better job of respecting your boundaries and keeping my personal agenda on my own side of the street.
I hope you can accept my apology.
With great respect and affection,
Dr. X
I asked his favorite teacher to give him the letter, knowing that, if I had tried to give it to him myself, he would have simply torn it up without reading it. I am a little ashamed about this part.

But if I am going to be an impeccable warrior in this fight, I need to accept that part too and be ruthlessly honest about moving beyond my own personal likes and dislikes. Everything I do needs to reflect the values I am trying to convey into this world.

My student and I never discussed the letter, but afterwards, I noticed a change in our relationship. For my part, I stayed focused on being as mindful as I could in my efforts to treat him and all students equitably. But I noticed a change in him too. He seemed to start showing up — really showing up —every single day in class after that. He left his earphones and his cell phone in his pocket and he was much more fully present in class than he had been all year. He advocated for his own learning and persevered in ways I had not seen before.

He was not perfect and neither was I. But we became a lot more relaxed around each other, and I got a felt sense that we understood each other a little better. We were both less defended and more porous and receptive to life. We could receive each other's humor better and learn from each other. All in all, we seemed to be moving together more harmoniously toward the goal of learning together. And that was what I truly wanted.

This is the compelling thing about restorative practices for me. They give us a way to continue forward together. I am pretty sure this is why Archbishop Desmond Tutu's memoir is titled, No Future Without Forgiveness. Rage won't heal the world. And an overly defended student cannot adopt an optimal learning posture. Since that is my deepest hope for all students in my classroom, I need to do everything in my power to make it an equitable place for every student so that can happen as often as possible.