Cutler Speaks On Blogging, Education

David Cutler gave the follow remarks to the Palmer Trinity School faculty and staff on Friday, April 18.

I began my blogging journey about six months ago, after having been separated from journalism long enough. After college, I had wanted to become a news reporter, and I earned my MA in history from Brandeis University—mostly because my favorite journalist, Thomas Friedman, who graduated from Brandeis in 1975 and now sits on that School’s board, earned an Oxford master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies before becoming a three-time Pulitzer-Prize winner. I dream big.

Now, in my fifth year at Palmer Trinity, I decided to follow my brother’s advice and connect my two passions: journalism and teaching. Jeff works for an elite marketing firm in New York, showing big companies how to make effective use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media. I’ve learned a lot from him, and it seems that the pace of journalism is evolving as fast as technology—or faster.

In the first few weeks of my blogging journey, I found dozens of education sites run by well-meaning edtech specialists and self-professed 21st century teachers—and some had truly great content to share. But too few of those bloggers could really write well. Most of their stories lacked depth, analysis and insight, as well as any sense of journalistic integrity. I actually blog about this issue in an early post, ““Where have all the good blogs gone?

I started blogging on Squarespace, the same platform that powers The Falconer. It’s easy to use, ideal for teaching beginner students about how to build and maintain a Web site. Gone are the days where you need to know HTML or CSS to build your own site. Now, everything is fully automated and easily customizable—so long as you know how to use some simple tools. But Jeff, who dreams even bigger than I, wanted to create for me what he calls “a big-boy site.”

He set me up with a WordPress account, replete with all of the bells and whistles. As a change of pace since our high school days, instead of me teaching him how to construct a coherent essay, he is now teaching me how to write an effective blog and maintain the site.

It turns out that not many people are interested in reading over 800 words, and even that limit is much too long for some. I’m still trying to balance my desire for in-depth, quality reporting with tweaking my posts to drive more traffic to the site, which Jeff named SpinEdu.

“It’s all about synergy,” Jeff told me. “Good journalism isn’t just about good writing any more. That’s important, but you need to utilize other forms of media, too. Look at the New York Times. They’re using podcasts, video, and a whole bunch of multimedia to stay relevant. For them, it might be too late. But for you, it’s the right way to go.”

Other than Jeff, I’ve had a lot of help along the way. In my short journalism career, I’ve had lots of great editors, but none compares to Bruce Musgrave, whose keen eye would make legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee envious. I’ve also had terrific conversations with many of you here today, and some of you have even written great articles for the site. I hope you continue to do so, or even start your own blogs.

To date, I’ve posted over 60 stories and interviewed dozens of authors, educational technology pioneers, psychologists, parents, teachers, students and administrators, covering everything and anything to do with effective education in the 21st century. I have another dozen podcast interviews collecting dust on my hard drive, waiting for me to write an accompanying story.

I’m by no means an expert, but I wish to share with you a few rays of the illumination I’ve received while reporting about education and progressive movements, and I’ll leave it to you to decide where our profession could or should be heading in the next 5-20 years.

In so doing, let me be clear: I don’t at all mean to suggest that we here at Palmer Trinity aren’t engaged in an abundance of awesome, cutting-edge initiatives, or that we aren’t fully open to new ways of thinking, teaching and learning.

From incredible exchange program, a massively successful Nicaragua mission trip, a terrific coral lab, outstanding sustainability programs, great outdoor education offerings, new and wonderful courses like “Women in Developing Countries” and “Peace and Justice,” to how we engage with students on a daily basis, let’s give ourselves a big round of applause. Palmer Trinity is doing an amazing job, and I am honored to work alongside such enthusiastic and open-minded colleagues.

But I want to offer a glimpse of what like-minded educators are thinking and doing beyond our walls—all in an effort to prepare students to succeed in the 21st century.

On Wednesday, I had the honor of chatting with Tony Wagner, among our nation’s most celebrated education authors. In his most recent work, Creating Innovators, Wagner argues that “one problem with [our] traditional approach to learning is the way in which academic content is taught: It is too often merely a process of transferring information through rote memorization, with few opportunities for students to ask questions or discover things on their own—the essential practices of innovation. As a result, students’ inherent curiosity is often undermined.”

If you think Tony Wagner is a radical, and that with each book he pumps out he gets more and more progressive, he would probably say that you’re right—and he would embrace the title warmly. But Wagner is in good company.

In late March, I also spoke with outgoing National Association of Independent Schools President Patrick F. Bassett.  Since 2001, Bassett has led the nation’s premier membership organization of more than 1,400 independent schools. To join and remain active, schools submit to a comprehensive accreditation process every five years. Without NAIS membership, independent schools lack substantial credibility. Most struggle to keep their doors open. We are going through the process of reaccreditation next year.

I ask Bassett how well educators are doing at cultivating creativity, and here is how he responds:

“I have a saying that I’d like to share, which is, ‘School is where creativity goes to die,’ because kids come to us as four‑year‑olds and five‑year‑olds, incredibly divergent in their thinking, incredibly imaginative and creative, and by the fourth grade, we kill it.”

Those are powerful words, from arguably the most powerful person in independent school education. But what do students say?

Several months ago, I read an amazing book by seventeen-year-old Nikhil Goyal, One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School. Goyal attends a public school in New York.

“School is really screwed up,” Goyal writes. “Thirteen years of being in the system annihilated my creative potential. When I was younger, I loved to learn. I was fascinated with the world around me. I loved reading. I read hundreds of books a year from the Magic Tree House series to the Harry Potter classics. Those were the glory days.”

If you accept that there is a creativity gap, then the question is how do we close it? The work is well underway.

As a math and science teacher at a Philadelphia high school in the early 1990s, Simon Hauger grew increasingly frustrated. After some time, he had come to a painful realization: the traditional education process divorces students from their passions and creative energies.

Hauger says, “Very seldom, especially as we get older, [do] you see the natural curiosity little kids have, and, for the most part, the education system squishes that out of them. They become much more proficient at giving the teacher what he or she wants, which is a shame. That clearly minimalizes our ability as human beings, all the great and wonderful things our minds are capable of, and the great feelings of satisfaction we get when we are using our minds in those ways.”

Eventually, Hauger had enough. To help reverse this trend, in 2001 he launched an after-school program for students to express their creativity through project-based learning. Things started small at first.

Hauger taught inquisitive minds about energy and how energy works. Students applied this knowledge to building electric go-karts. Then more kids came, and Hauger entered them in national science competitions. One thing was certain—a fundamental shift had occurred in how those students perceived themselves and their abilities.

Suddenly, students involved in the after-school program were more engaged during the school day. Many even took the time to develop and practice new skills on their own. All of these developments speak to what Hauger is really trying to accomplish.

Hauger tells me, “We need to be cranking out innovators, problem solvers, and creative thinkers, people that aren’t afraid to take risks, people that don’t want to just regurgitate answers, and people that are finding their passions in life. When you’re working in an area that you’re passionate about, you do your best work.”

In 2011, Hauger took his efforts to the next level. He worked with various school districts to launch The Sustainability Project, a pilot program that draws seniors from three local high schools. This is not just some cute, naïve attempt to make a difference. Hauger’s students aren’t just succeeding—they’re flourishing.

I also learn of Brightworks, another alternative, forward-thinking school in San Francisco, California, which opened in 2011. In this entirely project-based environment, students of varying ages work in teams, not grade levels, to explore a theme—or what Brightworks calls an “arc.”

First, students learn from outside experts about a particular topic. Afterward, each enjoys tremendous freedom in finding an effective way to express understanding. In the final phase, students present their work and engage in self-reflection on their learning.

I was able to chat with Program Coordinator Justine McCauley, and I ask her if something is being lost. After all, without a traditional classroom, how can students learn relevant content?

“You have to be on your toes a lot and be very creative in your approach to teaching and following a group’s interest,” McCauley says. “Maybe there’s a math problem that a group is exploring but butting up against, and that’s when you have to have a teaching moment and say, ‘OK, so here’s how we do probability.’”

In other words, McCauley means that students really learn content only in so far as they are motivated to do so in order to excel on project arcs.

From McCauley and others I’ve spoken with, I sense that there is a strong consensus that now more than ever, students need to see the relevance of what they learn—and they want to see tangible and immediate results of their labor. Much of this, I believe, has to do with the immediacy that the Internet provides, or the culture of instant gratification we live in. But for whatever the reason, I’m getting the impression that more and more students are feeling embittered with the current system.

Goyal’s prestige has skyrocketed since the September release of One Size Does Not Fit All. He has since appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NBC Nightly News, NPR, MSNBC, FOX, and Huffington Post—to name a few. His message boards and Twitter-feeds are filled with students, young people and even educators supporting his views.

Goyal says, “After being assimilated into the Syosset High School ecosystem, I noticed that I was bored as hell in class and absolutely nothing I was taught was relevant to real life. I was trained to be a drone. Outside of school, I was engaged with fascinating projects, having conversations with brilliant people, and enjoying life.”

I also speak with Stefon Gonzalez, a recent graduate of The Sustainability Workshop. Gonzalez garnered national recognition by leading a team of high school students that built hybrid racecars, outperforming those of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology team. I ask Gonzalez what he thinks of his ability to learn in a traditional classroom setting.

Gonzales says, “I was in Algebra II one day, learning something difficult. I stayed after class to get extra help, and I found the courage to ask my teacher, ‘What type of person uses this math everyday in their line of work?’ She didn’t have an answer for me. A few weeks later, I asked Mr. Hauger the same question. I said, ‘Mr. Hauger, this is what I’m learning in math class. Do you have any idea what person uses this in their everyday line of work?’ He immediately answered me and said, ‘Sure, a math teacher does!’ From that point on, I felt that the public school system needed restructuring. Every year, students are taught the same curriculum, and teachers teach the same way they did 100 years ago. Times have changed, and so has the way students learn.”

This bears repeating: “Times have changed, and so has the way students learn.” Perhaps nothing displays this reality better than the Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

I watched this video in awe of the motivated and self-directed students involved in this endeavor, dubbed “The Independent Project” by Samuel Levin—who, in 2008 as a junior at Monument, originally proposed this endeavor.

The individual initiative fits perfectly with Levin’s philosophy that skills trump content.

Levin tells me, “Once you know the skills, you can go out and get the content on your own.”

Levin is also concerned with how public schools teach science, focusing on “teaching content rather than teaching people to think like scientists.” He was eager to discuss with me a misplaced emphasis on content-based assessment.

Levin says, “Unfortunately, the things that matter most to be measured—things like being curious, being able to master something, having drive—are the hardest things to measure.” Or, as Albert Einstein famously put it, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

If students are learning or want to learn differently, here is what Wagner has to say about assessment:

He writes, “I am frankly appalled at the idea, now widely held, that the best measure of teachers’ effectiveness is students’ performance on standardized, multiple-choice tests. I am not a fan of teacher tenure, and I believe strongly in accountability for improved student learning. However, most policy makers— and many school administrators— have absolutely no idea what kind of instruction is required to produce students who can think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, and collaborate versus merely score well on a test. They are also clueless about what kind of teaching best motivates this generation to learn. And the tests that policy makers continue to use as an indication of educational progress do not measure any of the skills that matter most today.”

I ask Bassett what he thinks about the AP curriculum, mostly because he too seems so adamant about inspiring creativity. I admit my personal bias in that more than anything else we teach, AP restricts the amount of creativity we can elicit in the classroom.

Much to my delight, Bassett makes plain that he doesn’t encourage schools to adopt the AP curriculum. But I ask how independent schools could cope, especially with increasing pressure from parents, educators, and college admissions officers for students to take those courses.

“That’s exactly the right question to ask,” Bassett says. “That’s exactly the anxiety that the progressive and experimentally inclined teachers fear. It’s entirely wrong, and here’s why: it’s based on assumption.”

Before Bassett utters another word, I know what he means by “assumption.” Too many independent schools fear that if they don’t offer AP courses, students will transfer out to someplace that does, or colleges won’t admit as many graduates.

I appreciate the tremendously competitive environment that heads of school and college counseling offices find themselves in—especially in that only around 2% of students attend independent schools in an increasingly uncertain economic era.

All the same, Bassett says that this is an entirely misplaced fear. Recently, he found around 50 NAIS-member schools that decided to abandon the AP curriculum in at least some courses.

How did they do it?

“They just asked the colleges,” Bassett says.

He points to an interesting trend. Year after year, seniors at most schools apply to the same 20 colleges and universities.

Bassett says, “Why don’t you just write to those 20 colleges? That’s what these other independent schools did. Here’s what all the colleges said to them. The Dean of Admissions wrote back and said these two things, ‘One, you should do what the faculty thinks is best because we trust your faculty. Two, we trust your faculty because we track all your graduates, and they all do exceptionally well here. We know you know what you’re doing.’”

To me, this makes perfect sense. All the same, even if schools are willing to embrace change, I’m dubious about what parents might think about sticking it to the College Board.

I think too many parents want their kids to take AP courses, less because of how the curriculum fosters critical thinking and creativity—which it fails at miserably—and more because of how a “5” and an “A” in those classes looks on a high school transcript.

Bassett informs me of how parents from the Chapin School, among New York’s most celebrated independent schools, conveyed strong disapproval of a decision to move away from the AP-program.

In response to mounting criticism, Head of School Patricia Hayot gathered parents in the auditorium to show example questions from the AP United States History exam.

Bassett says. “One was, what was the Taft‑Hartley Act? You had five choices. So you’re talking about the best‑educated people in the world sitting in that audience, right? Not one of them got the answer right. Not one of them got the multiple-choice answer right. Do you know why? Because, who cares?”

If you do care, The Taft-Hurley Act was a pro-business measure passed by Congress in 1947 that President Truman vetoed as a “slave-labor” bill.

Students are also expected to know excruciating minutia, which, according to John J. Newman and John M. Schmalbach’s United States History: Preparing for the Advanced Placement Examination, includes provisions “outlawing secondary boycotts (the practice by several unions of giving support to a striking union by joining a boycott of a company’s products).” The authors mention three additional provisions of the law, which students are expected to know.

Parents at the Chapin School were then asked to respond to a creative essay, asking them to choose from one of three epochs during the colonial period, and to create a fictional persona of a woman during this time. It just so happens that Chapin School is an all-girls school.

“The parents got it immediately,” Bassett says. “They said, ‘Oh, my God, yes. We want our teachers to teach this way.’”

But doing away with the AP curriculum doesn’t seem to be the only trend in helping to foster innovative and successful minds. Let’s turn to the Flipped Classroom model, which I know many of you here today are interested about learning more of.

Multiple approaches exist, but teachers use or make vodcasts for students to watch at home—replacing the traditional “sage-on-the-stage” lecture. In class, kids benefit from enhanced face-to-face time with instructors, while working on labs, problem-sets, reports and other skills-based activities.

In 2006, high school science teachers Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann began pioneering this approach.

I spoke with Bergmann via Skype before he traveled to England—where our neighbors across the pond are just as eager to learn about his work. Bergmann told me of another interesting way that the Flipped method can be applied to assessment.

I’m interested to learn more about “flipped mastery,” an asynchronous model where students work with teachers to move through content at their own pace. Right away, Bergmann says that this model is better suited to math or science, where it’s crucial to understand one concept before grasping another.

For example, Bergmann explains that it’s not vital to understand the War of 1812 to fully grasp the Civil War—and that while one might have some bearing on the other, both events can be studied in isolation. I teach American history, and I couldn’t agree more. For better or worse, I know I’m not alone in giving this or that event short thrift.

“It wouldn’t be horrible if you didn’t master the war of 1812,” Bergmann says. “But if you’re in algebra, if you don’t master unit 2, unit 3 is going to get really hard because you’ve got to know how to solve for ‘x’ before you add extra variables.”

Bergmann provides an example where a student fails an important math test on Friday, but on Monday his teacher still moves ahead with the next chapter.

Bergmann says, “you are now lost, and you don’t know what to do because you didn’t really understand the last subject, and now you are on the next subject. Our classes have become laboratories of learning where the entire focus of the classroom is on what students have or have not learned. No longer do we present material, provide a few extra learning opportunities, give a test, and then hope for the best. Instead, students come to class with the express purpose of learning. We provide them with all the tools and materials to learn, and we support them by helping them develop a plan for how and when they will learn. The rest is up to the students.”

Bergmann currently serves as Lead Technology Facilitator at the Joseph Sears School in Illinois. But when he taught chemistry, students needed to earn a “C” or better to move on. Bergmann would help struggling students, while others learned from vodcasts and progressed at their own pace.

I like this idea, but I ask Bergmann how many times he allows students to retake a test.

“This is a bit of a rub,” he says, adding that it’s important for no one student to fall too far behind.

“There are sort of two reasons why that happens,” Bergmann says. “Number one, the kids are really not applying themselves. Or number two, they’re struggling. The kid who’s not applying himself, I don’t have a whole lot of patience for that child. But if the kid is truly struggling, I kind of make adjustments.”

Bergmann tells me that he’s working on another book. This time, he and Sams are investigating how teachers from around the world effectively utilize classroom flipping.

When I was a kid all I was flipping over was Star Trek. Growing-up, I was a huge fan of the original series, with William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk.

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

I loved that opening sequence. It showed a bright-eyed 8-year-old kid that anything was possible, that the future was full of hope and endless wonder.  I marveled at the amazing new worlds that Captain Kirk and his crew visited. Most of all, I loved how Captain Kirk refused to accept defeat, even in the face of impossible odds. Just watch Start Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. How did Kirk do it? Two words: creativity and adaptability.

Make no mistake about it. As educators, we face serious challenges in the years ahead. In a March 30 New York Times op-ed, Thomas Friedman writes: “My generation had it easy. We got to ‘find’ a job. But, more than ever, our kids will have to ‘invent a job.”

When I showed my close friend and mentor Adrianna Truby a copy of my talk, she asked me to share one way in which my reporting has changed my own teaching philosophy.

In an age when information is cheap, accurate, and instantaneous, we need to put an even heavier emphasis on teaching skills and fostering creativity. With technology and Web 2.0, gone are the days where teachers are the sole sources of knowledge. We need to transform the role of teacher into coach, guiding students to use 21st century skills to create new and awesome opportunities for themselves. I don’t have a roadmap to success and I have no definitive idea what the ideal course of action is—nor does Hauger, Wagner, Goyal or Gonzalzes. But one thing is clear: project-based learning, where students create things with their hands and see positive, tangible results, is leading the way.

We must be cautious of embracing too much change too quickly, but we must adapt. We must not be afraid of failure or protest in doing what we know is right. We must not remain complacent, resisting change because we have grown too comfortable with the status quo.

If we do nothing but mourn the death of a bygone age, when students seemed more interested or the system itself more effective, our way of life—as difficult as it is for so many now—will only worsen dramatically.

Right now, what’s the best thing we can do as teachers in this new frontier?

We need to continue to show students that we care about them, and that we want nothing more than to see them succeed. If we do this, no matter how we proceed, we can’t fail.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

1 Comment

  • Reply April 19, 2013


    This is well over 800 words. Just saying.

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