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Archive for July, 2019

Green horse-s

This is the infamous green horse that I keep around to remind me that I’m not as great as I think I am.

In my last post, I talked about the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and how he resolves the false dichotomy of classic versus romantic ideals through the concept of quality. He also talks about what he calls the “gumption trap,” which has become all too clear to me working with students for over 28 years. We get into this trap of losing motivation and enthusiasm part way through a difficult project or challenge. This can be because of external setbacks or internal hang-ups. Much has been said recently about the importance of “grit” or “resilience” in students, of teaching them how to persist in the face of challenges and how to stay motivated when they hit the halfway slump.

As an example, my family and I have been watching a reality show that involves teams of two people racing across the country, meeting unknown relatives and solving challenges. I’ve noticed a pattern. Some of the teams have been Millennials who seem to have unusual difficulty with challenges. When they fail a few times, they tend to fall apart and give up trying. Of course, the stress factor is greatly increased by having cameras shoved in your face as you fail. Other teams (often older people) have shown persistence and problem-solving skills when faced by the same challenges and have ultimately succeeded even though their basic knowledge and skills were the same going in. Halfway through the 10-day race, the teams’ enthusiasm starts to slip and they have to start reaching for an inner quality of persistence.

Brain hemispheres-s

Most recent research contradicts the idea that our brain hemispheres are completely different, the left hemisphere good for logic and math, the right good for art and holistic viewpoints. Instead, both hemispheres are used for all types of activities and are not as differentiated.

I am at this point in the book project I am writing and illustrating. I made a great initial effort earlier this year and created twelve illustrations. I ran into some issues with mixing ink that I thought was waterproof (but wasn’t) with watercolors, and that stumped me for a while. Then I hurt my right hand playing racquetball and it is still healing; it hurts to hold writing or drawing pens. These setbacks have led to a slowdown of the entire project. I need to rise above the challenges and get going on the project again. At the very least, I can continue to type the text while my hand heals. I need to get motivated again and get over this midpoint slump.

Persistence and resilience are not easy to teach. We need to begin with developing students’ meta-cognitive problem-solving skills as part of their project-based learning education. For example, how to break a difficult task down into manageable daily chunks. If you’re going to drive from Minnesota to California on a motorcycle, you’d better plan your route, figure out where to stop for rests, meals, and sleep, and plan for the inevitable setbacks of bad weather or breakdowns. A certain mindset of flexibility, mindfulness, and growth are needed. People who are too rigid or who view the world in terms of black and white, success and failure (perfectionism, all or nothing, etc.) will be the most likely to give up part way through a project. Success is not immediate and may take several iterations, and it should be a learning process. It’s not about the destination but the journey.

Diagram-fixed vs growth mindset-s

A diagram comparing the types of thought processes and beliefs in people with fixed versus growth mindsets.

Dealing with Failure: The Growth Mindset

I have a goal to apply for one teacher grant or program each month, partly so that I am always sharpening my resume and collecting new letters of recommendation but also because I always need extra funds for projects. I usually fail; my success rate was at about 35% at one point in 2015 but is now down closer to 25%. I don’t know if this is because I’ve become too successful or too old or have merely entered a more rarified level of competition because I’ve already won the easy stuff. It means on average that I need to apply for at least 8-9 opportunities to get the two successes per year that I desire. I have failed more times than I can count, and some of those failures have meant a great deal of effort and wasted time. I collect rejection letters and put them in a Book of Rejection, not to discourage myself, but to remind me of the cost of my successes. Rejection is simply part of the process of eventual success.

One of the greatest opportunities I’ve had was to be an Educator Facilitator for the NASA Explorer Schools program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You could only apply once per year, and I was finally selected on my fourth try. Each year I worked to make myself more appealing through volunteer activities and the Solar System Educator Program until I finally reached their criteria for selection (or they got tired of reading my applications).

Green horse on steps-s

I am forced to conclude that no matter how I try to artistically pose the green horse, it is still ugly.

A Green Horse

When I was in middle school I took an art class with a unit on ceramics. I learned how to make different types of pots – a coil pot, a pinch pot, a slab pot. I tried and failed to throw a pot on a potter’s wheel. At the end, I decided to build a sculpture of my grandfather’s horse, which was named Sob (or SOB, which is what my grandfather always called it – only not as an acronym). I tried doing this without actually looking at a photo of a horse. The clay was too wet and slumped a bit in the legs, which were too straight and too thick. The nose looked more like a donkey or some kind of funky mule. Then I tried to find some brown glaze for it and came across an unlabeled pot of a nice reddish-brown color. When it came out of the kiln, the brown glaze had turned to a beautiful translucent green. Talk about a horse of a different color!

A have kept that sorry horse all my life as a reminder that I’m not nearly as great as I think I am. It is a constant reminder to rise above failure. Whenever I get down on myself after many rejections in a row, I look at that horse and say to myself, “I may be a sorry horse of a different color, but I’m still standing just like that green horse. I haven’t been accepted to this program yet, but I probably came close. Maybe next time I’ll do better.”

I have tried for the Einstein Fellowship twice now, and failed both times. But I did make it to the semi-finalist round both times, which meant free trips to Washington D.C. to meet the other semi-finalists (36 of us interviewing for 12 positions). It took a lot of effort to write the essays, get the letters of recommendation, travel to D.C., and do the interviews. And I failed. Twice. Each time we were told to keep our phones with us and they would call us if we were the first choice of the agency, or if we were the second choice and the first choice declined. We had to keep the phone with us for an entire week, but each day the probability of being chosen dropped dramatically and my hope died with it. I tried willing my phone to ring: “Ring, darn you, ring!” Finally, a rejection e-mail was sent to the 24 of us who failed.

Growth mindset self-talk

The types of self-talk carried on by people with growth versus fixed mindsets. My challenge is to provide opportunities for my students to build success and to start changing their self-talk.

But if I look at this with a growth mindset, I see that I made it to a rarified position each time. I was a semi-finalist, one of only 36 out of hundreds who applied. I got a free trip to Washington D.C. and stayed in a hotel just two blocks from the National Air and Space Museum, one of my favorite places. I got the chance to learn more about the Noyce Scholarship program, and I got to meet and talk with 35 amazing teachers. I heard about other programs to apply for from them, and I learned about myself in the process. I did my best, I made it far, and I can always try again.

Some Characteristics of a Growth Mindset

I received an e-mail from another teacher last fall that included a link to an article about the characteristics of a growth mindset. The site included a series of mini-posters that you can print out with various motivational lists, including how to foster creativity, be more optimistic or happy, and reduce stress. I have twelve of them posted in my room now. The site is: https://www.innerdrive.co.uk/resources/

Here is their list of attributes for someone who has a growth mindset:

  1. Effort: Achieving quality on a project takes effort – not infinite effort, but you certainly can’t do a quick or sloppy job and expect quality as a result. Students have to put in the time and thought needed to achieve quality.
  2. Courage: Some students fear success, or have anxiety over ever achieving it. Quality means stretching oneself, and that takes courage and the ability to take risks.
  3. Learning: Quality is a learning process, not a destination or a fixed bar to jump over. It takes time and requires changing one’s mind about things.
  4. Curiosity: You have to have some enthusiasm for the topic to be willing to put in the effort to dig deeply enough to develop a high quality result. If you don’t care, or are apathetic, you won’t achieve quality.
  5. Feedback: Since quality is a process, it requires receiving feedback and frequent formative assessment and re-direction. If you don’t get feedback from reliable experts, you won’t know if you have achieved quality or not. This is why science conferences with poster sessions and concurrent presentations are so important – to receive feedback from knowledgeable peers.
  6. Challenge: Doing something that is easy isn’t going to teach you anything. Projects should stretch students’ abilities, help them develop new skills as well as content knowledge, and be authentic and engaging. I’ve seen high school students do amazingly difficult things, such as presenting a scientific poster at a conference of professional astronomers. If properly engaged, students can achieve quality beyond your wildest expectations.
  7. Persistence: This means resilience in the face of setbacks and failures, grit, being willing to revise and fix problems, and keeping with a project even when you hit that midpoint slump. It means putting in the final 80% to get that 20% of shine on a project.
  8. High Standards: You don’t do students a favor by making the projects too easy or accepting anything less than excellence. As long as they have the opportunity for revisions and the time to do them, you should expect professional quality.

Another poster has five self-talk suggestions to help maintain a growth mindset:

  1. Don’t say, “I can’t do it” because with the proper resources, time, and motivation, everyone can.
  2. The Power of Yet: If you fail, look at it as temporary and part of the road to eventual success by saying, “I didn’t succeed – yet!”
  3. Ask yourself, “What could I have done differently?” Don’t just accept the failure and forget about it. Learn from it. Decide how you could have done it better. But don’t dwell on it overmuch. Resolve to do differently, then try again.
  4. Failing better or failing up: Sometimes setbacks are not really failures but opportunities for course corrections and better eventual success. The Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts was a terrible failure for NASA and almost destroyed the Moon program. Fortunately, instead of giving up, NASA resolved to learn from the accident. They fixed the problems and built a much better Apollo capsule as a result. This redesign probably saved the lives of the Apollo 13 crew.
  5. Try new things: If you fail doing things a certain way, try a different way or approach. If you keep failing at the same task, try a different task. If you continue to do the same thing the same way but expect different results, then you’re not accepting reality (this is a clinical definition of insanity).
Einstein quote

Persistence is a better predictor of success than intelligence.

Out of the Slump

As to my own persistence and resilience, I applied for nine awards or programs this year. One was an award from the Space Club that went to a teacher whom I am familiar with who is much more qualified than I, so I can’t feel badly. Others were outright rejections without explanations other than “We had many qualified teachers apply.” But out of the nine, four were successes. I applied to present at a chemistry teacher’s conference in Naperville, IL and was accepted. I applied to present at the STEM Forum and Expo of NSTA in San Francisco and was accepted. I applied for the EdD program in Innovation and School Reform through the University of Northern Colorado and was accepted. And I applied for a second time for the Teacher Innovator Institute at the National Air and Space Museum, revising my video application, and this time got accepted. I will be flying to Washington, D.C. a week from tomorrow and will be there during the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 landing, and will possibly get to meet some Apollo astronauts and work with museum personnel through a generous grant.

Unfortunately, all four of these opportunities are happening on the same day: July 25th. I had to turn down the presentations in Naperville and San Francisco (I would have had to pay my own way, anyway) and will have to fly directly from Washington, D.C. to Denver to make the mandatory orientation class for my doctorate program, then drive home in a rental car from there.

These successes have come after about 18 months of no success at all, one of the worst slumps of my career that included an unanticipated change in jobs. But I kept trying, even though it was very discouraging. If my career can teach anything, it is that persistence pays off. I try to be open with my students about the programs I am applying for, as well as my successes and failures (or not-yet-successes). I hope they can learn from it, and see that if I can do it, so can they. I may be getting old, but I’ve got some life left in me and a long buckle list of future successes to tackle.

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Zen and the Art cover

The cover to my edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, which I first read as a freshman at BYU in an Honors Colloquium class.

As a freshman at Brigham Young University forty years ago I had the privilege of taking an interdisciplinary class called Honors Colloquium. It was taught by three professors and a graduate student, including Dr. Eugene England (literature and writing), Dr. Larry Knight (physics), and Pro. Omar Kadar (political science). Our theme for the two-semester class was the intersection between Classical and Romantic modes of thought in various disciplines. We had frequent guest professors teach units on everything from international politics to science fiction to Russian literature.

Alto Computer

An Alto computer, the first to truly be a personal computer with the capability for digital drawing, music, and other forms of art. It was developed by the Palo Alto Research Center of Xerox Corporation but was never sold commercially. An article on this system written by Alan Kay titled “Microelectronics and the Personal Computer” was in the back of the Sept. 1977 edition of Scientific American, but I never found it for my paper because there was no Internet back then to do a comprehensive search by keyword. There was only the old printed periodical index . . . I do not miss those days. The article would have proven my point that computers were already beginning to become a tool for artistic expression.

One of the most influential papers I ever wrote was for this class, where I reported on how computers (the ultimate expression of Classical thought) might someday be used to create art or literature or music. When I presented my paper to the class, the professors almost laughed me to scorn. “How could a computer ever be used to do art or write great literature?” they asked. They were wrong; that paper predicted a major part of what I teach now: digital media. I am using a computer to write and distribute this very essay.

The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance

Despite the poor reception of my prophetic paper, I did learn some useful things from that class that have defined my life as an educator. One of our first reading assignments was the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This book sets out the dichotomy between Classical and Romantic ideals through a motorcycle trip across the American northwest, a kind of mobile philosophical Chautauqua. Pirsig defines the Romantic mode of thought through his friend John Sutherland’s approach to his Honda motorcycle: John is after the gestalt feeling of the open road, the experience of riding the motorcycle and living in the moment, and doesn’t know much about the nuts and bolts of keeping the bike maintained. If something goes wrong, he’ll hire a mechanic to solve it.

No Zen on a mountain top

Pirsig’s narrator, calling himself Phaedrus, was searching for the answers on his road trip through the Rocky Mountains. But the book concludes that there is no answer, no Zen to be found at the top of the mountain (the destination) but instead is found on the journey. It is the sides of the mountain as you climb, not the top, that sustain life. 

The Narrator, on the other hand, exemplifies the Classical mode. He drives an older Harley that he knows well and can troubleshoot. During the trip, while driving through Montana, he recognizes that his engine is running a bit rough, analyzes his spark plugs (which are sooty), and realizes that the high altitude is making the engine run too rich, which he easily corrects. The classical mode, therefore, gets into the nuts and bolts and mechanics of a process instead of appreciating the gestalt of the moment.

As we discussed this book in Colloquium, I came to see that it explained the two warring sides of my own personality. I had always considered myself a logical, rational, scientific kind of person (I identified the most with Spock on Star Trek) and had discounted my emotional side, yet I was continually drawn to art and music and theater, which are all romantic modes of expression. Later in the year I got myself into an embarrassing situation by not seeing the irrationality of questionable actions, which were brought on by sleep deprivation. I was a bit surprised to find out I had strong emotions after all.

Pattern of life

I have always been pulled in two directions: towards the logic and reason of science and toward the creativity and self-expression inherent in the arts. I can see these two forces clearly as I look back on my life.

I am still pulled in both directions, and this is why computer art appeals to me – both classical and romantic at the same time. I can tell you how the Color Picker in Adobe Photoshop uses 24 bit graphics, meaning each primary additive color (red, green, or blue) can have 2^8 or 256 colors, or 2^24 total colors in an image. It is all very logical, digital, rational. But I can also tell you how to blend photos seamlessly, create any image desired as a form of self-expression, and visualize what has never been conceived before. This is all very romantic and artistic. Whenever I go for too long focusing on science, I start longing to work on a nice hand-drawn art project. I’m working on a mixed media painting of Utah’s Delicate Arch right now as an illustration for a book I’m writing.

Delicate Arch-s

This is a preliminary scan of my Delicate Arch illustration for a book series I am working on. It turned out fairly well, but I need to get myself re-motivated on this project.

Another way of looking at this that is more relevant to my career: the Romantics are the Apple Macintosh people – they are after the experience and the creativity and what they can do with the computer. I am very much this way, and love my Mac. The Classicists are the Windows people that custom build their own computers and know all the components and technical details such as how to overclock the CPU, etc. This is my oldest son, who is a technical expert on video cameras and audio systems for a camera rental house in California.

Now, after more years than I care to think about, I realize that the dichotomy between Classical and Romantic is false. I find that I can both love the technical/classical aspects of a subject (such as the process of doing science, analyzing data, working with numbers, and rational reasoning) and the artistic or romantic side of education, the satisfaction of a well-taught lesson where students are moved. This is why I am a major proponent of STEAM education – to bring the arts, history, and humanities into STEM fields to ignite the creative spark and provide the context or gestalt viewpoint necessary for STEM. It is possible to be both classical and romantic at the same time; therefore, it is not really a dichotomy.

The Resolution: Quality

The Narrator of Zen and the Art, calling himself Phaedrus, tried to reconcile the two sides of this dichotomy through the concept of Quality. I never understood, at that time, exactly what he meant by Quality. I realize now that he deliberately left it undefined, except to compare it with the ancient Greek concept of arête (the Good or the Truth). The needs of the situation define what Quality must be and how to measure it. However, it must blend the technical requirements of a project (the mechanics or nuts and bolts emplaced by the grading rubric or teacher expectations) and the romantic aspects: What did the students learn, how deeply, and how have they applied their knowledge or skills? What are their overall feelings about the project, including their enthusiasm for it? What level of professionalism was achieved? These aspects are not measurable and can’t be tested at the end of the school year, but are every bit as important as the technical knowledge component. As teachers, we tend to do well at teaching the mechanics but not well at the gestalt, or overall quality of a project.

Blue-orange Jupiter-s

A sample from my current STEAM class. My students have marbled paper using oil paints diluted with mineral spirits and floated on water. These colors are swirled, then lifted off the water on paper and dried.

An Example

Let’s look at the idea of quality through an example that my STEAM students are currently completing. I will describe this course in more detail in my next post and the types of art-infused science we are attempting, but for now I will describe the central project. Each student has chosen a topic related to the history of science and the science of art, including dyes and pigments, the iron age, weaving, Native American petroglyphs, Chinese pottery, iatrochemistry (alchemical medicine), and more. It is a five-week course during this summer, and they are writing a 1500-2000 word essay on their chosen topic. This essay will become a chapter for a book we are putting together and will add to in subsequent years and perhaps even publish through an online print-on-demand service. I will publish the essays on this blogsite.

In addition to the basic essays, they are creating illustrations on their topics using a variety of art forms including pen and ink drawings using homemade iron-tannate ink, watercolors using pigments we created ourselves (we finally managed to made good red out of cochineal), copper etchings, marbled paper, tie dye, and batik. I will pick each student’s three best illustrations for the final book. They are also writing at least three sidebar articles.

Katie weaving illustration-s

This is a student’s illustration of a Navajo lady weaving a blanket, drawn using homemade iron-tannate inks. The brown ink was made using normal brown tea for the source of tannins and the black ink was made using green tea. This is a good example of the type of quality these students are achieving.

This is a high expectation for a five-week class, and to turn these essays into a professional quality book that we can publish is by no means an easy task. Many of my students have never written an essay of this length before. To ensure quality, I have set up a series of strict deadlines and checkpoints with frequent feedback and revisions. Most of the students have just turned in their rough drafts. Some will lose points for being late. These drafts were copied for two peers to go through this weekend and proofread (I’ve taught them how to use proofreading symbols) and assess for interest level and readability. Our history teacher and I are also going through the rough drafts looking for scientific and historic accuracy. The students will receive the rough drafts back next week and will make revisions. Ideally they will then be reviewed by other students who are not in our class and final revisions will be written, but that will have to happen during our second summer term when we have English classes. By the time I include the final essays in the book, they will have been reviewed by three or more people and revised twice.

This process of formative assessment and revision is essential for any quality work, be it in school or in professional life. Engineers create prototypes and test and revise them until design specifications are exceeded. School work should follow the same process. Instead of school assignments that are done once, given a final grade, and forgotten, student work should go through formative assessments, revisions, and reworking until a desired outcome of quality is reached. Perhaps not every assignment, but at least one major project per unit or at least per term should require this level of quality. This means fewer assignments but deeper learning. There should also be a public outcome – a blog post, a book, a performance or presentation before parents and peers, etc. that emphasizes the level of professionalism required.

Jazmine Canopic Jar painting-s

A painting of an Egyptian canopic jar using homemade watercolor pigments. The gray is made from soot, the red-brown from cochineal and gray mixed, the blue is Prussian blue, and the purple is a cobalt compound.

To gain professional excellence in student work, they must understand that the amount of effort needed to gain excellent quality is not a linear function.

The Quality Curve

As my diagram shows, the relationship between quality and effort is not linear. It’s exponential. Doubling the effort does not double the quality – it takes twice as much effort to get a project from good quality to excellence as it does to get it to good in the first place, but excellence is not twice as much quality as good. Achieving excellence may require a quadrupling of effort. There is a rule in business called the 80-20 Rule: it takes 80% of the effort to achieve the last 20% of quality, to get a project from good to excellent. In the real world, good isn’t good enough, only professionalism and excellence are acceptable and get your ideas noticed. But that extra bit of polish comes at a high cost in effort and time.

Quality Curve-s

This diagram represents that the relationship between effort and quality is not linear. It takes twice as much effort to get from good to excellent quality than it does to get to good quality in the first place, and perfection takes infinite effort.

At the same time, some people can be perfectionists and not know when to let go of a project and say, “It is done!” As my diagram shows, put into mathematical terms, effort is asymptotic to perfection; perfection can only be reached through infinite effort (meaning never in this mortal world). As teachers we should expect excellence, but not perfection.

I’ve seen too much of the negative side of perfectionism. In fact, is there even a positive side? I’ve seen students who show high levels of stress and anxiety because they expect (or their parents expect) too much of them; students who refuse to try anything hard because they fear to fail, or who give up after even a small setback. People who can’t let go of any mistakes but have to relive them over and over instead of moving on and learning.

As teachers, we need to build revisions into our projects, or, in other words, embrace and plan for the probability of initial failure (although failure is too strong of a word – I prefer to refer to it as “partial success” or “emerging excellence”). We should encourage students to make every project an iterative learning experience through frequent formative feedback with plenty of time for fixing mistakes. We need to help them build, test, and revise prototypes of their projects, always returning to the specifications/rubric until all expectations are met.

Mucker illustration color-s

An illustration of a mucker, a machine used to “muck” or dig up shattered rock after the face of the mine has been blasted. I started this illustration using what I thought was waterproof ink for the lines, then adding watercolor washes over the top, but the dark lines bled all over the place. I had scanned the non-colored version, so I layered the clean lines over the color image, set the blending mode to darken, and used the Clone tool to clean up the mess. I also fixed a few crooked lines. Hopefully it doesn’t look too digitized.

There is more that can be said about teaching quality, but this post is already overlong. This will be a major part of my doctoral program, which I am starting in three weeks. I will come back to this idea in future posts. In the meantime, I think its time to re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m old enough and have enough experience now that I can finally understand what Phaedrus was trying to say.

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