Listening, Rather than Speaking

“We can try to identify meta-rational people through their cognitive and conversational styles. Someone who is really seeking the truth should be eager to collect new information through listening rather than speaking, construe opposing perspectives in their most favorable light, and offer information of which the other parties are not aware, instead of simply repeating arguments the other side has already heard.”

Eli Dourado, “Paul Krugman Is Brilliant, but Is He Meta-Rational?” on The Umlaut

District Stewards, Rather Than District Leaders?

“If a key challenge facing New Zealand’s education system is the lack of trust between ‘the Ministry’ and ‘the Sector’, then rebuilding trust is paramount. No single initiative or programme can do this of course, and progress will be measured over years, not months. But after spending seven months asking educators what support they most wanted from the Ministry, the most common response was to be understood and supported. As one principal put it, “It’d be nice to have someone from the Ministry ask the questions you’re asking, and then serve as a resource to connect us with others who can help”. . . .

“Toward that end, I propose the Ministry create new Sector Stewardships . . . [to] build a bridge between policy and practice.  . . .


“Both schools and Stewards would understand that the only deliverable item in the programme would be this: Stewards should return to their Ministry offices with exactly one issue or question that they observed the school grappling with. Stewards would then endeavour to help the school think through the issue, and perhaps connect educators from their host schools to Ministry resources that might help the educators in some way. This would be done in collaborative fashion with the aim of building a human relationship between the Ministry and the sector, one school and one employee at a time.”

–Benjamin Riley, “Science, Data and Decisions in New Zealand’s Education System

How a Lack of Natural Resources Can Affect a Child’s Education

By Matthew Hoelscher (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
An interesting article in the New Yorker, “Spare the Rod, School the Child” by Michelle Nijhuis, gives us urgent lessons with implications not only to our swiftly changing ecological environments, but also may bear lessons for our educational environments as well.

Possible lessons we can derive from the article:

In Ghana, it was discovered that a decline in fish populations could be directly correlated to a rise in children kept at home from school. Why? Because baboons were causing so much damage that “many Ghanaians were keeping their young children out of school to help guard family farms.”  Why were baboons destroying farms? Because their populations had grown since their competitors were becoming bushmeat. Why were people increasingly eating bushmeat? Because fish populations were declining.

The native Ghanians knew that fish were the cause of this. The researcher who ended up verifying their knowledge with his research at first dismissed their perceptions. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, but these uninformed people aren’t aware of some bigger dynamic.’”

In the world of education, it’s very easy to get caught up in big idea debates at the level of policy, politics, and research. An important lesson from this article is the reminder that we always need to find a way to ground and center our discussions around those whose lives are impacted the most. In the case of education: students and their parents. How can we do that? By asking them!

As Melinda D. Anderson so very neatly put it on Twitter:

Scarcity of fish can be traced to other causes of social ills across the globe: “indentured servitude and child slavery” and “fishing militias” in Thailand, HIV positive women in Kenya exchanging sex for fish, and in West Africa, “child labor and child slavery are increasing.”

Yet “these linkages are rarely discussed in academic circles, or even in the popular press. ” Why is that?

“The science side is very focused on natural-resource trends and not really thinking about social consequences, while the policy side is looking at Somali pirates or elephant ivory, and totally disconnected from the root causes.

Again, there are obvious parallels to the world of education policy and research here. As biologist Justin Brashares puts it in the article, “Our whole research and policy response system is really poorly equipped for the future.”

Why are our institutions of education failing? Ask the students. Ask their parents. Take a walk in their communities. It might be something as starkly simple as a scarcity of a natural resource.

Leadership and Listening

I’m excited to welcome Will Johnson back to the blog. He posted last week about his big shift from public education to private education, and I’m eager to learn more about the differences between those two realms, and how those differences might illuminate the lens of viewing a school as an ecosystem.

I’m onto year two in the public middle school I moved to last year, after leaving the elementary school I taught in for three years. It’s a great school, and every day that I ascend into its bright interior I try to retain a sense of gratitude. I am fortunate to work with an amazing and diverse set of students, a professional and hardworking staff, steered by attentive and empathetic leadership.

This year, I’m engaged in two different leadership programs, which means that I won’t have much time for blogging. But I will write when I am able to.

Leadership is a strange thing to be in a program for. Leadership is something perhaps best coaxed simultaneously from within while catalyzed by external circumstance. By that I mean that you may only really find leadership within yourself when you are thrust into a position requiring leadership. And maybe being a leader just really means being an authentic human being that just so happens to be in a position of authority. False leaders are the ones, after all, that ride in on all the hype and bravado, steering themselves towards their own vision of glory. Real leaders come in with humility and turn other people into leaders while quietly going about and changing the world.

This is the kind of leader I’d like to be, but know that I am nowhere near. I’m pretty good at putting my own self on a platform, but much less adept at elevating others.

In any training I’ve been to that involves service to others or leadership, a fundamental component of that training has been around some form of “active listening.” I’ve received this training when I volunteered as a hotline crisis counselor, when I worked as a grocery store manager, in Therapeutic Crisis Counseling for working with students exhibiting challenging behaviors, and most recently in my current involvement in education leadership programs.

You would think that I might be a really good active listener by this point. Yet each time I am reminded of the importance of active listening (here’s a really good summation of the steps involved in the active listening process in this post on negotiation tactics), I am amazed at just how hard it is to maintain as a daily practice. Immediately after any training, when I remember to consciously apply it, I discover just how powerful it can be; yet days later, I am back in the daily grind of petty reactions to others and headlong pursuance of blind ambition.

The reality is that the work of being a truly alive human being is truly difficult to turn into a daily practice. And that’s probably the real work of any kind of “leader” worth their salt.

Three Steps to Transform Our Classrooms and Schools

In my last post on the conference I attended on What Works in Urban Education, I discussed the insights on positive psychology and teaching well-being that I gained from Martin Seligman and how a focus on character strengths and positive thinking is fundamental to nurturing a sustainable community in schools. But in KIPP’s Dave Levin’s words, the question remains, how do we “operationalize” these things?

The steps I’ve outlined below are not direct lessons I obtained from the conference, but grew out of pieces of insights I began to put together on further reflection. In more posts to follow, I’ll continue to bring forth some of the direct lessons and insights I gained from that conference.

1) Knowledge of self through self-reflection

This probably sounds circuitous, but the fact remains that unless a teacher is able to authentically model and communicate what she is to teach, her teaching will remain ineffective. One of the great crimes of the teaching profession in the United States is that space and time for professional planning, collaboration, and reflection is nearly completely neglected, and a general afterthought when it is implemented.

Through reflection, one gains an awareness of one’s strengths and values. The most direct way to get started is to take a survey that will spit out your character strengths, like the one I mentioned in my last post on Surveys like this are also used in the business world. When I was a manager at Trader Joe’s, part of our leadership training was to take a survey that identified our particular styles of leadership. It’s no doubt superficial to gain knowledge of self in such a manner, but even these measures have value in promoting reflection and building self-awareness. Other methods are journaling, blogging, supping on a good whiskey, or just good ol’ conversatin’ and meditatin’. Whatever floats your boat–suffice it to say, however, that it needs be done. And it needs to be done continuously.

2) Knowledge of others through active listening

It is the primary role of a leader and a teacher to listen, and to listen well. As a special education teacher who deals with children in crisis frequently, I can tell you that how you listen and speak to a child can often be far more important than what you actually say. Teachers have some notion that they have to tell a kid what to do at every step of the way. Most of the time, kids just need someone to hear them out and nudge them towards their own insight.

But it’s not only kids who need this. After moving to NYC from California and without a job, I volunteered at the GMHC downtown and underwent training as a crisis hotline counselor. I was just about to enter the stage of taking live calls with support from an experienced counselor, when I suddenly got the job at TJ’s. This took away every last scrap of free time I had, so I was unable to continue. But the leadership training I received at Trader Joe’s eerily–and wonderfully–paralleled the crisis counseling training I had just been undergoing. Adults, whether customers or employees, need leaders who can listen and empathize.

And the training I subsequently underwent as a NYC Teaching Fellow in a self-contained classroom in the South Bronx eerily–and terribly–and wonderfully–paralleled all the training I had had up to that point.

Ever worked in a high needs public school? Everyone–adults and children, leaders and staff–desperately requires a warm listening ear.

Being an effective teacher, leader, and counselor are all rooted in the same fundamental necessity for active listening. Body language, reflective statements (repeating back what the speaker said), summarizing what the speaker has said, and guiding the speaker through their own problem-solving process are all critically important components in achieving positive communication, building productive relationships, and establishing motivation.

3) Finally, the transformative leap is to render content and contexts personally meaningful to all involved

In order for the content and contexts of schools to be personally meaningful, they must build upon the personal strengths and interests of those who inhabit them. Finding out about these strengths and interests, of course, must first be achieved through the steps outlined above.

When the community and ecosystem of a school is personally meaningful, and the content is personally meaningful, then there is nothing left to hold back the achievement of the students nor the adults.

Operationalizing positive and meaningful thinking, communication, and relationships is the real work of education.