The power of small actions

We’ve not asked anyone’s permission to do this; we’re just doing it. And we are certainly not waiting for that cheque to drop through the letterbox before the letterbox before we start. And most importantly of all, we are not daunted by the sophisticated arguments that say that these small actions are meaningless in the face of tomorrow’s problems because I have seen the power of small actions and it is awesome.

Pam Warhurst, discussing how Todmorden used propaganda gardening to transform their market town into an edible oasis, complete with “vegetable tourists.”

Like Project H in Bertie County, this is an amazing local project that helps not only to revitalise and give confidence to a small community, but to help build “a different and a kinder future.” The project has since spread, radicant-like to other towns all over the world.

We want them to be active

A lot of students gain a tremendous amount of their learning from the other students in the class. Variability is the is the way you get more of that kind of learning from other students.

As you’re learning something and you’re starting to get a grasp of something, when a fellow peer says it correctly you’re more likely to learn it than when a teacher says it or your read it again. Unfortunately, in a lot of our class rooms by age 8 if you child hasn’t learned what to be passive and listen, they get in trouble. We actually want the opposite: we want them to be active and knowing what to do when they don’t know what to do. That’s what great teaching can do.

John Hattie, whose work on improving education I discussed yesterday, appeared recently on BBC Radio 4’s The Educators.

It’s worth a listen. I was surprised by the things that don’t actually make a difference: class size, homework, uniforms and “streaming” (which I’d never heard of before).

What struck me, though, was his recommendation that kids learn better when they can learn from each other. This isn’t surprising given my interest in collaboration

I also have a very active son, who definitely learns well through active exploration, but not so well through listening to boring old me (though I often find he listens better than I give him credit for). What I fear most is that school is going to extinguish that curiosity (and rebelliousness). What I most hope for are brilliant teachers who will encourage his active curiosity, rather than sit him down and prepare him for a test.

This also seems to align with what I’ve been reading and listening to from various educators who try to encourage collaborative learning.

The single most effective way to improve education

The single most effective way to improve education is to raise the quality of the feedback pupils get and their interaction with teachers. It is pupils’ ability to assess their own performance and to discuss how they can improve with the teacher that makes the most difference.

John Hattie, discussing what actually makes a difference in the classroom.

John Hattie reviewed more than 800 meta-analyses, which included a total of over 50,000 studies, analysing the experiences of more than 80 million school-aged pupils. The result, Visible Learning, has been called the “holy grail” of teaching. It lists 136 classroom interventions in order of effectiveness.

His conclusion that the single most important intervention is a more supportive relationship between the student and teacher aligns with my belief that at the end of the day, it’s teachers that matter.

Hattie goes on to say that teachers should work together to improve their teaching.

Too many teachers believe the essence of their profession is autonomy. We hardly ever get together and look at each other’s teaching. That is a major hindrance to working collectively. I can’t imagine many other professions where that happens.

(As a side note, I’d argue that this is independence, not autonomy.) But the collaboration that he recommends me of one of Elizabeth Green’s discussion of jugyokenyku.

Both of these recommendations—improving student-teacher relationships and improving teacher-teacher collaboration—align with my belief that collaboration is the best way to experience a breakthrough and create something amazing. I would be a very happy parent if my son was able to experience as much of this as possible while he’s in school.


In Japan, teachers had always depended on jugyokenkyu, which translates literally as “lesson study,” a set of practices that Japanese teachers use to hone their craft. A teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. Each public lesson poses a hypothesis, a new idea about how to help children learn. And each discussion offers a chance to determine whether it worked.

Another fascinating observation of the differences between American and Japanese teaching from Elizabeth Green’s Why Do American’s Stink at Math?.

Jugyokenkyu reminds me very much of some of the tenants of lean production, in particular the testing of hypotheses and the five whys. It also brings to mind the enlightened trial and error of design thinking.

Autonomy is different from independence

Autonomy… is different from independence. It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice – which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others. And while the idea of independence has national and political reverberations, autonomy appears to be a human concept rather than a western one. Researchers have found a link between autonomy and overall well-being not only in North America and Wester Europe, but also in Russia, Turkey and South Korea. Even in high-poverty non-Wester locales like Bangladesh, social scientists have found that autonomy is something that people seek and that improves their lives.

Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, p. 90

I’ve written about the Dan Pink’s research into motivation twice before: once to highlight the idea of intrinsic motivation and once to discuss the importance of having a purpose.

A few months ago, I finally got around to reading Drive. The idea that stuck with this time was the importance of autonomy in ensuring people are motivated. Not surprisingly, people are not very motivated when they feel that they’re working on something they have no control over.

What really struck me, though, is the distinction between autonomy and independence: that having autonomy is not the same as working entirely on your own. I’ve certainly found that I work better with other people than on my own. It’s not just me, at Pixar managed collaboration is prized over genius design and Steven Johnson has written about how breakthroughs often come about through the collision of different ideas.

What has also occurred to me is that the distinction between interdependent autonomy and independence is very much at the heart of the distinction that Lewis Hyde makes between civic republicanism and commercial republicanism. The more I think about it, the more I’m firmly convinced that I am a civic republican. It’s a model that provides better exposure to other ideas and helps people learn the habit of compromise.

Use your words

I had been suffering a sense of disconnection within my online communities prior to swearing off Facebook likes. It seemed that there were fewer conversations, more empty platitudes and praise, and a slew of political and religious pageantry. It was tiring and depressing. After swearing off the Facebook Like, though, all of this changed. I became more present and more engaged, because I had to use my words rather than an unnuanced Like function. I took the time to tell people what I thought and felt, to acknowledge friend’s lives, to share both joys and pains with other human beings.

Elan Morgan stopped using Facebook’s Like feature. According to her, it improved her experience of Facebook for the better. I’ve been doing it for a week now, and while I don’t think my news feed has significantly changed, it is definitely encouraging me to comment rather than using the diminished substitute of the Like function. This means more conversations with the people that matter to me.

What I haven’t done yet is to comment on posts I disagree with or question the validity of. It’s something I’m trying to find a way of doing: having meaningful, respectful conversation with people I don’t necessarily agree with.

Reading isn’t magical

I have assembled a great list, from actual live experience, of what not to do to engage a kid in reading:

- Do not tell them reading is magical
or good for them
or important
or something they better do for an hour before bedtime or goddammit they will end up like shiftless Uncle Dave who is always asking to borrow money.

- Do not denigrate kids’ other activities – video games, texting, talking to friends, watching TV, sleeping… as stupid in comparison to reading.
– Do not insist they read “classics” because you had to.
– Do not refuse to get a book for them because it isn’t up to their reading level.
– Do not tell them (or me, or anyone) that they are “reluctant readers.”

Jon Scieszka has a fantastic list of things that are likely to make kids dislike reading. It’s a good reminder that there is no such thing as a bad book when it comes to children.

I’m not a huge Ben Ten fan, but I recently bought my son a Ben Ten comic. He can’t read yet, but he sat by himself with it for a good thirty minutes going through it, page by page. When I finally read it to him, he already knew the outlines of the story and asked for specific parts. “I want to read until he flips off the boat.”

I’m better at reserving judgement at my son’s choices of books, music and movies than I thought I’d be, but I still try to be careful.

Before I was a parent, I was the master of the snarky comment when it came to things that were not to my taste. I do that less now. To my surprise, I’ve learned that much of my snobbery was misguided. I’ve spent more mornings dancing to Happy than I can count. I would have dismissed it as crap before, but I’ve found that I love it.

In the end, suspending judgement (or at least keeping my mouth shut) so my son can discover the things he likes (rather than trying to force my tastes on him) has meant that I actually enjoy more of than I ever did before. To be honest, I think I was a pretty miserable snob (and probably still am to some extent).