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{ Rethinking Elite Education } “Fragile Thoroughbreds” and “Excellent Sheep”

Elite School Logo

Let’s talk about elite schools.

I went to one and taught at one. My husband, ditto. My husband’s current job has made it possible for our daughter to attend one too.

It’s hardly news that elite schools are often bastions of privilege and wealth, among other things. Nor is it news that a diploma from a top private high school — even more, a top university — is often seen as security for a life of access and comfort. That’s a seductive, and not incorrect, view.

Yet in Brooklyn where I live, this seems a good time to participate in public education. I may not be alone in this opinion: Not a single one of our daughter’s 18 pre-school classmates now attends private school — besides her, that is. So, as a native New Yorker who carries a certain amount of guilt that I never received a day of public education in my life, I’ve been observing somewhat wistfully the groundswell of our peers — few if any of them NYC public school graduates themselves — throwing in their lot with the NYCDOE.

Yes, my daughter enjoys a rich menu of academic and extra-curricular programs every day at her private school. Yes, she has the guidance of half a dozen excellent and well-supported teachers who sincerely want to be there. Yes, she is surrounded by peers who, like her, come to school well-fed and well-rested.

But is the comfortable, pampering environment of an elite school the best environment for growth in the long term?

I wonder about that. And I’m not alone.

rethinked...* logo

My reservations about elite education stopped feeling like the taboo-that-shall-not-be-named-around-public-school-parents in part because I stumbled upon two very insightful critiques — though not of elite education per se. Rather, these were critiques of the unintended consequences of elite education: “fragile thoroughbreds” and “excellent sheep.”

As noted here recently, Coursera now offers an online class on character education, led by KIPP founder Dave Levin. In one of the course’s videos, none other than Dominic Randolph, Rethinked founder and Character Lab co-founder (with Levin), speaks about the need for character education in elite schools. An excerpt of the video is available here. (To see the whole video, sign up for the May session of the MOOC!).

Dominic sees the elite school environment as giving rise to “fragile thoroughbreds,” top students who — through a combination of academic success and relatively affluent lives (my words) — experience few challenges.

[Fragile thoroughbreds are] the kids who are actually performing really well given our metrics at Riverdale. The kids who have the highest GPAs, who are going through this school, always succeeding. 

I worry that the message they get is, It’s all easy… The trouble is, they’re going to reach a point in their lives when it’s not easy. Those kids have a sort of Dweckian fixed mindset. And I think that’s a really dangerous thing to send kids out into the world with. 

[…] If you’ve got a life that’s pretty easy, and a lot of things are done for you, and you come to a place where you feel very comfortable, you get reinforced in that comfort. [Character education] is a way of disrupting that comfort level a bit….

Especially [parents] who can offer their kids a certain amount of ease or facility in their lives, they’re starting to think, Well, wait a minute, am I actually providing my kid with the type of capacities they’ll need to thrive and survive in the world…?

Dominic’s observation is that character education helps give “fragile thoroughbreds” an explicit understanding of skills and mindsets that would likely prove useful to them when faced with setbacks — such as grit and Dweck’s “growth mindset.”

The question is, how do you confound those kids? How do you create systems in a school that confound that easy belief — Everything’s perfect, everything’s fine, and I’m always going to be an A student — ? 

I think that’s an interesting question when you have the pressure of college admissions. The colleges are looking for these perfect transcripts… I’m interested in the delta, I’m interested in growth. And unfortunately the college admission system isn’t looking for growth right now. And that’s a big problem.

rethinked...* logo

Writer William Deresiewicz earned a B.A., an M.A., and Ph.D. at Columbia, and for ten years he taught writing at Yale, my alma mater. There, he observed students closely. In a fascinating essay first published in 2008 in The American Scholar (and which he has expanded in a forthcoming book), he coins the term “excellent sheep” — accomplished hoop-jumpers who aren’t necessarily interested in, or adept at, genuine intellectual inquiry. He argues that both the resume- and test-score-driven admission process and debatable intellectual climate at Yale and other elite colleges outweigh the advantages — as unpopular as that position may be. His assessment is unflinching.

The advantages of an elite education are indeed undeniable. You learn to think, at least in certain ways, and you make the contacts needed to launch yourself into a life rich in all of society’s most cherished rewards. To consider that while some opportunities are being created, others are being cancelled and that while some abilities are being developed, others are being crippled is, within this context, not only outrageous, but inconceivable.

[…] If one of the disadvantages of an elite education is the temptation it offers to mediocrity, another is the temptation it offers to security. When parents explain why they work so hard to give their children the best possible education, they invariably say it is because of the opportunities it opens up. But what of the opportunities it shuts down? 

So how does elite education “shut down” opportunities and “cripple” students?  Deresiewicz spells this out unapologetically:

[Elite education] makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you…. [I]t inculcates a false sense of self-worth…. [I]t teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense.

Without calling for remedies, it seems Deresiewicz would reach much the same conclusion as Dominic Randolph: that students at elite schools need to broaden their skill sets beyond the skill they most excel in — analytical thinking.

[…] However much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic. While this is broadly true of all universities, elite schools, precisely because their students (and faculty, and administrators) possess this one form of intelligence to such a high degree, are more apt to ignore the value of others. One naturally prizes what one most possesses and what most makes for one’s advantages. But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite. The “best” are the brightest only in one narrow sense. One needs to wander away from the educational elite to begin to discover this. [emphasis mine]

In short, they need the kinds of experiences that, to borrow Dominic’s phrase, confound students’ sense that things will always be easy for them — experiences that will allow them to grow.

But students at elite high schools and colleges, these two would agree, are not typically getting those experiences. Indeed, Deresiewicz’s most damning assertion against elite colleges — and I suspect it’s one that is not widely known — may be that experiences outside of students’ comfort zones are precisely the experiences that many elite schools actually take pains to prevent.

An elite education not only ushers you into the upper classes; it trains you for the life you will lead once you get there. I didn’t understand this until I began comparing my experience, and even more, my students’ experience, with the experience of a friend of mine who went to Cleveland State. There are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no one takes them very seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. [As a Yale graduate myself, I can corroborate this.] In other words, students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland State. My friend once got a D in a class in which she’d been running an A because she was coming off a waitressing shift and had to hand in her term paper an hour late.

That may be an extreme example, but it is unthinkable at an elite school. Just as unthinkably, she had no one to appeal to. Students at places like Cleveland State, unlike those at places like Yale, don’t have a platoon of advisers and tutors and deans to write out excuses for late work, give them extra help when they need it, pick them up when they fall down. 

Dominic and Deresiewicz would agree: elite campuses ought to heed the guidelines put forward by today’s more sensible parenting experts — allow kids to skin their knees, hold them responsible for their actions, give them room to fail.

The challenge before us is how to transform the culture of a school so that growth and risk-taking are valued, recognized, and in some measure rewarded — in actual practice, not just in theory.

Stay tuned for several Rethinked…* initiatives that aim to achieve just that.

William Gibson on Learning to Induce Cognitive Dissonance In Texts & Life …*

William Gibson on Learning to Induce Cognitive Dissonance In Texts & Life ...* | - photograph: Elsa Fridman

“Coming up with a word like neuromancer is something that would earn you a really fine vacation if you worked in an ad agency. It was a kind of booby-trapped portmanteau that contained considerable potential for cognitive dissonance, that pleasurable buzz of feeling slightly unsettled.

I believed that this could be induced at a number of levels in a text—at the microlevel with neologisms and portmanteaus, or using a familiar word in completely unfamiliar ways. There are a number of well-known techniques for doing this—all of the classic surrealist techniques, for instance, especially the game called exquisite corpse, where you pass a folded piece of paper around the room and write a line of poetry or a single word and fold it again and then the next person blindly adds to it. Sometimes it produces total gibberish, but it can be spookily apt. A lot of what I had to learn to do was play a game of exquisite corpse solitaire.” – William Gibson

Yesterday, as I was reading an interview with William Gibson to celebrate his birthday, I was struck by the quote above. Just last week, I was writing about the importance of making the familiar unknown. As someone who attempts to do that daily, I can attest to the difficulties of bypassing automation and designing one’s day to be infused with the “pleasurable buzz of feeling slightly unsettled.” I found the way in which Gibson summed up attempting to infuse cognitive dissonance in his texts so salient and similar to what we must all strive to do in life if our goal is to lead lives filled with wonder, awe and possibility: “A lot of what I had to learn to do was play a game of exquisite corpse solitaire.”

rethink & unsettle …

Source: William Gibson, The Art of Fiction No. 211 via Paris Review, published Summer 2011.

loneliness & education: the importance of { social belonging }

I want to talk about loneliness today. One of the most important aspects of a learning environment is the social context, and it often goes unmeasured or unmentioned. Certainly, as educators or students, we know from experience the benefits of social cohesion and collaboration. Many schools and classrooms pride themselves on fostering a sense of community and there has been increased attention towards remedying bullying across the country. Yet I’ll be honest: it took reading the two papers I’m going to summarize and synthesize today for me to really recognize the huge impact that social belonging has on not just education, but health and happiness on both global and biological levels.

This first article entitled The Social Life of Genes deserves a better synopsis (it’s LONG but worth the read!), but to be brief: through a series of studies, the author demonstrate that loneliness changes gene expression, therefore having impacts on your health at a fundamental biological level. Genes actually function as if on “dimmer switches” and at a given time, different tiny amounts of your 22,000 genes are active in a given cell. One’s social environment has a powerful effect: “…who you hung out with and how they behaved, in short, could dramatically affect which of your genes spoke up and which stayed quiet—and thus change who you were.” In fact, social isolation is perhaps the strongest influence on one’s immune system. For example, closeted gay men, with or without HIV, get sick more than openly gay men. Women’s social stress can predict their gene expression 6 months later.


But importantly, we each live in a subjective reality. Studies of poverty-stricken children show that they have weaker immune responses than well-off kids. However, their perceptions of threat in social situations accounted for almost all of the influence of poverty. The main driver of these children’s poor immune responses was not poverty, but “whether the child saw the social world as scary.” In fact, the take-home that this article provides is:

That’s a really important part of this: To an extent that immunologists and psychologists rarely appreciate, we are architects of our own experience. Your subjective experience carries more power than your objective situation. If you feel like you’re alone even when you’re in a room filled with the people closest to you, you’re going to have problems. If you feel like you’re well supported even though there’s nobody else in sight; if you carry relationships in your head; if you come at the world with a sense that people care about you, that you’re valuable, that you’re okay; then your body is going to act as if you’re okay—even if you’re wrong about all that.

Now how does this translate to education?

In a 2011 article published in SCIENCE (a very prestigious journal), the authors were interesting in how “social belonging” – the feeling of having positive relationships with others – could impact both academic and health outcomes, specifically for African-American students. First year college students participated in an ONE HOUR intervention program where they were taught that social adversity at college is a shared experience that is short-lived. They internalized the message by writing essays and then reading them aloud to video cameras as speeches for future students (this sort of method is done a lot and is shown to deeply affect people’s beliefs and attitudes). The intervention was designed to teach students to attribute loneliness and adversity as part of adjusting to college rather than to blame themselves, and to position themselves as “benefactors” rather than “beneficiaries”. Importantly, when asked in later years, subjects remembered very little about the intervention and only 14% thought it had any effect on their college experience.

The results of this one-hour intervention are astounding. Academically, there is a “minority gap” seen between African American and White students in college. Yet in this study, while the GPAs of African Americans in the control group flatlined across college, the GPAs of African Americans in the intervention increased over time. In fact, for African Americans in the intervention, the gap between them and their White counterparts closed by 79% by senior year. The intervention also TRIPLED the percentage of African American students in the top 25% of the class.

Maria Schweitzer


So how did this work? From survey data, African Americans in the intervention group looked very similar to White students in both the intervention or control groups. Their feelings of belonging were robust; they were able to handle day-to-day adversity without it affecting them. They felt more stability and certainty about belonging at school and experienced less self-doubt and perception of racial stereotyping than their African American counterparts who did not receive the intervention. Even further, African American students who had this one hour intervention reported being healthier and visiting the doctor less than those who didn’t have the intervention, and they scored higher on a scale of happiness. This all came out of one hour that most of these students barely remembered.

For me, the take-homes are these: 1) subjective feelings of belonging can be strengthened through teaching and 2) even a short lesson can have wide-reaching deeply-impactful effects. When we talk about character education, we should be thinking about studies like this these. Look at how important one’s perception of their social world is. Look at how malleable it is. Look at what one hour could potentially do to strengthen minority or marginalized students’ character skills. Look at how these skills translate into very measurable and real differences in their lives. Look at how important the feeling of belonging to a community can truly be.



Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science,331(6023), 1447-1451.

Dobbs, D. (2013, September 03). The Social Life of Genes. Retrieved March 17, 2014 from

{ Question Day 2014 & Vuja De } Making the Ordinary Unknown To Rethink Anything …*

{ Question Day 2014 & Vuja De } Making the Ordinary Unknown To Rethink Anything ...* |

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.” -Albert Einstein

Break out your party hats because today we’re celebrating Albert Einstein’s 135th birthday and one of my all time favorites– questions! That’s right, inquiry now has its own day of celebration, Question Day, thanks to author of the new book: A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, Warren Berger, and the nonprofit The Right Question Institute who partnered to sponsor a one-day event designed to increase appreciation of the importance of questioning.

The day will be marked by an extensive social media campaign encouraging people across the Internet to share their stories and thoughts about the importance of curiosity and questioning in their lives, or to share their own meaningful questions—all designed to create a national conversation around questioning. We are also inviting teachers in schools to set aside time that day to tell students about the importance of questioning, encouraging kids to ask “beautiful questions” of their own.

To learn more about Question Day 2014 and discover ways to get involved, head over to the microsite QuestionDay2014.

Speaking of Warren Berger, he had a fantastic article in the Harvard Business Review a couple days ago about the power of reframing to spark innovation. Through his article I learned a new term–vuja de–which expresses something I hold extremely dear: making the ordinary unknown. As you may know, a core principle of our team is the belief that rethinking is greater than inventing. We’re not trying to reinvent the proverbial wheel, we’re trying to see and experience it with fresh eyes and open minds to broaden its landscape of possibilities { shoshin }; hence our motto: making the ordinary unknown to rethink * anything. And that’s precisely what late comedian’ George Carlin’s term: vuja de means. In his article, Can You See The Opportunity Right In Front of You? Warren Berger describes Carlin’s vuja de:

That term was made up by Carlin, in a bit of wordplay that put a twist on the familiar concept of déjà vu, that sensation of being in a strange circumstance yet feeling as if you’ve been there before. Imagine the reverse of that: you’re in a situation that is very familiar, something you’ve seen or done countless times before, but you feel as if you’re experiencing something completely new. This is vuja de, Carlin told his audience: “the strange feeling that, somehow, none of this has ever happened before.”

[ … ]

Of course, vuja de isn’t just a way of looking at things; it involves a certain mindset that questions assumptions and refuses to accept things as they are.

Berger goes on to describe the rich history between vuja de and innovation:

Stanford University professor Bob Sutton, author of the new book Scaling Up for Excellence, was among the first to make a connection, more than a decade ago, between the Carlin vuja de perspective and innovation. Sutton, and later Tom Kelley of IDEO, pointed out that innovators could potentially spark new ideas and insights if they could somehow manage to look at the familiar—their own products, their customers, their work processes—as if seeing it for the first time. Adopting this view, business leaders and managers might be more apt to notice inconsistencies and outdated methods, as well as untapped opportunities.

Read the rest of Berger’s article and learn more about combining vuja de observation with entrepreneurial action to yield big impact.

“When the familiar becomes this sort of alien world and you can see it fresh, then it’s like you’ve gone into a whole other section of the file folder in your brain. And now you have access to this other perspective that most people don’t have.” – Kelly Carlin

question, rethink & take action …* 

Source Can You See the Opportunity Right In Front Of You? via Harvard Business Review, published March 12, 2014.

How Is It Possible That As A Society We’re Not Asking Schools To Develop A Growth Mindset In Children?

How Is It Possible That As A Society We're Not Asking Schools To Develop A Growth Mindset In Children? |

Screen Shot from Eduardo Briceño’s Talk at TEDxManahattanBeach, 2012.


“The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability, we will be brittle in the face of adversity.” – Josh Waitzkin

In his TEDx talk, Eduardo Briceño, co-founder and CEO of Mindset Works, highlights the power of beliefs and mindset to shape performance. After reviewing several of Carol Dweck‘s findings on the power of a growth mindset— the belief that various capacities can be improved through effort over time–to facilitate success and mastery, Briceño asks:

How is it possible that as a society we’re not asking schools to develop a growth mindset in children? Our myopic efforts to teach them facts, concepts and even critical thinking skills is likely to fail if we don’t also deliberately teach them the essential beliefs that will allow them to succeed–no only in school, but also beyond.

Briceño ends his talk by sharing three things that we can all do to instill a growth mindset in ourselves and those around us:

1. Recognize that the growth mindset is not only beneficial but it’s also supported by science. Neuroscience shows that the brain changes and becomes more capable when we work hard to improve ourselves.

2. Learn and teach others about how to develop our abilities. Learn about deliberate practice and what makes for effective effort. When we understand how to develop our abilities, we strengthen our conviction that we’re in charge of them.

3. Listen for your fixed mindset voice and when you hear it, talk back with a growth mindset voice. If you hear, “I can’t do it,” add, “…yet.”

The Power of Belief – Mindset and Success: Eduardo Briceno at TEDxManhattanBeach, published November 18, 2012

{ Rethinking Form + Content in the Classroom, Part II } Shaking Off Comfortable Assumptions [h/t Postmodernism]

Don't assume — it makes an ass out of you and me

Don’t assume. You know what they say about assumptions.

{ Read Part I }

Dubbing myself “Queen of the Question Sheet” in Part I of this post, I may have created a false impression.

In truth, back when I was an English teacher, I did vary my students’ daily activities. We did class-wide work, small-group work, and solo work. We rewrote endings, enacted scenes, and played wickedly competitive games of Grammar Bowl. I knew I couldn’t approach the material the same way, day in and day out, and I didn’t.

But looking back, I imagine my students perceived these activities as departures from the norm. And what was the norm? A devotion to a content-above-form, teacher-knows-best approach, one exemplified by those infamous question sheets.

Now I see that my devotion to content was perhaps the kind of devotion only an English teacher can feel. I came to the classroom with a built-in passion for Salesman, Huck Finn, and Othello. I didn’t need any enhancements of the content to still be moved by it.

But how many students come to the classroom as enamored of the content as the teacher is? rethinked...* logo

In what’s becoming a theme in my posts, it took an MFA in design for me to detect and deconstruct the blind spot in my teaching practice.

The first thing that chipped away at this blind spot was being among designers who were more at home in form than I. They explored “formal explorations” inexhaustibly. This is design-school jargon meaning that they designed the same content (often quite slight content) three dozen different ways, for the sake of it. I didn’t always share their enthusiasm for formal variations, nor the variations themselves, but I had to take notice of their devotion to form — which, if I was honest with myself, I just didn’t share.

The second thing that chipped away at my devotion to content was studying Postmodernism, the second major movement in design history.

While Modernism is often considered The Reign of Form, I argue in Part I that Modernism’s fundamental conformism disqualifies it. In my view, a one-size-fits-all approach to form is no way to exalt form.

Instead, Postmodernism is the true Reign of Form. Which I also think of as, Form Goes Bonkers:

Examples of Postmodernism in Graphic Design

The significance of all of this form-driven work wasn’t that I suddenly wanted to emulate the aesthetics of my classmates’ formal explorations or of Postmodernism per se. To the contrary.

The significance of this form-driven work was that it opened my eyes to the fact that form is simply more exciting, more meaningful, and more motivating for many, many people than it is for me.

Recall that, even after working as a designer for several years, I considered myself a liberal-artsy, left-brain, content-focused critical thinker. And candidly, there was a smidge of self-satisfaction, of superiority, in identifying myself that way. Furthermore, I had sought out, and been surrounded by, similarly content-focused people my whole intellectual and professional life. I was at home in that camp.

The designers I was newly encountering in grad school represented a very different camp: they were lovers of form for form’s sake. For people in this camp, form — in and of itself — is deeply engaging and motivating, maybe more than content.

That camp represented a whole motivation, a whole mode of perceiving and operating in the world, that I had never much considered, much less given a fair shake.

I think of it this way: Whereas I would run through traffic to understand or express a compelling idea (aka, compelling content), they would run through traffic to admire or create a compelling artifact (aka, a compelling example of form).

Or another way: I’d rather read about advances in textile manufacturing than spend time putting together a cool outfit. But lots and lots of people prefer the latter option. And it’s a valid option. It’s an option that deserves my attention and respect. 

I’m sure there were many of “those people” in my English class. In any class.

For them, form — ie, the shape the content comes in — can’t be treated as an add-on, a once-a-week departure from the norm. Form is everything.

And the less interested a student is in the particular content of a class, the more form carries the burden of capturing and holding her attention. In other words, if the idea of English class leaves her cold, the only way to “get” her (at least at first) is through the delivery.

I think this is true for every learner, irrespective of what side they fall on in the form-versus-content debate. Really compelling form can make just about anything interesting to just about anyone.

rethinked...* logo

For me, the foregoing account captures the seeds of a profound transformation in my perspectives on teaching. As a result, I’m getting better at recognizing my own preferences as just that — preferences — not empirically superior viewpoints. I’m getting better at recognizing the values, interests, and perspectives that motivate other people (but not me). More importantly, I want to be the kind of communicator and educator who engages those other values, interests, and perspectives from the outset.

As for you, I can’t say whether this essay will seem like much more than a[nother] reminder that one size does not fit all.

In spite of that, I’m moved to share this account because I believe — perhaps controversially — that we teachers are particularly susceptible to one-size-fits-all thinking, despite our efforts to the contrary. I think we’re more insulated from the kinds of confrontations, realignments, and deference that are inevitable in professional interactions that occur exclusively among grown-ups.

Consider the fact that we have chosen as our profession the one environment we’ve been exposed to our entire intellectual lives. Even teachers who work in schools very different from those they attended, it’s fair to say they’ve chosen a familiar environment with familiar challenges.

And for many teachers if not a majority, the school environment is one in which we thrived as students: our formulas worked in this environment. What discourages us from resorting to those formulas as teachers? What encourages us to take risks and inhabit unfamiliar spaces?

Also consider the fact that, as teachers of kids, our daily work takes places among people whom we objectively outmeasure in terms of experience, knowledge, and authority. While that context may not normalize or reify our subjective assumptions, what situations do we face that have the potential to destabilize them?

I leave you with those questions, and two more:

How might one-size-fits-all assumptions be unconsciously informing your teaching decisions? And how might you seek out, or create for yourself, constructive opportunities that will destabilize them… make the familiar unfamiliar… help you rethink…*?

What At Your Age Is Called Fantasy & Imagination Is Called Creative Thinking Later On, Don’t Lose It …*

What At Your Age Is Called Fantasy & Imagination Is Called Creative Thinking Later On, Don't Lose It ...*  |

In the past few months, there has been much focus in education circles on the issue of creative confidence. There seems to be a general consensus that the ways in which mainstream traditional education processes and systems are set up strip students of their natural capacity for creative thinking by undermining their creative confidence. Core77 is running an ongoing series with Moa Dickmark, an architect and designer, on working with kids. I was particularly grateful to read Dickmark’s advice to remind students to hold on to their natural capacity for fantasy and imagination as it is a skill that they will need for the rest of their lives. While it is important to find ways to ‘rehabilitate’ those who have been robbed of their natural creative capacity and confidence, we may save future generations a lot of time and unlearning, if we warn kids to hold on to their natural abilities, no matter what demands the system puts on them.

Another thing that is good to think about is to tell the students when you start working with them that:

There’s no right or wrong! If you want to write down your idea, write, we don’t care about the spelling, or grammar for that matter. If you want to draw down your idea, draw. If you want to build your idea, we are going to do that too! 


What at your age is called Fantasy and Imagination is called Creative Thinking later on, and is something older people go to university to learn more about. So don’t lose it, you will need it now and for the rest of your life! 

Source: Co-Creative Processes In Education: The Small Things That Make A Big Difference, via Core77, published March 10, 2014.

Thinking Broadly and Deeply: How to Cultivate T-Shaped Skills

Among my colleagues at rethinkED…*, we like to pride ourselves on having “T-shaped skills”, capable of thinking both broadly across disciplines and in depth about a variety of issues in specific fields. Lately I’ve been thinking about what is the underlying goal of our education system and what should the underlying goal of our education system be. As educators, are we aiming to produce T-shaped skills? Should we be stressing breadth or depth?

Due to the pressures of standardized testing and assessment, I’d argue that today’s K-12 classrooms largely focus on breadth of knowledge, often at the detriment to depth of knowledge. It is difficult to truly delve into the intricacies of the Revolutionary War or provide time for children to fully understand all potential outcomes of a science experiment when the social studies or biology curriculum still has 10 more units that teachers must get through by June. However, inert knowledge is hard to remember and even harder to apply.

There has been a large movement towards the importance of depth of learning. The Information Age (also known as the Digital Age), that began to change modern society in the early 1990s is currently in full swing. With access to so much knowledge now at our fingertips, there has been a call in the education world for a paradigm shift to teaching fewer topics in depth rather than superficial coverage of many topics, requiring teacher knowledge of topics in depth, and changing assessments to test deep knowledge rather than surface knowledge.

In Grant Wiggins’ blog post “Thinking about a lack of thinking,” he asks teachers to be more thoughtful about what they do and to cultivate thoughtfulness and higher level thinking in their classroom. Furthermore, he argues that many current pedagogical strategies and practices do the exact opposite- they stifle thoughtfulness. He talks about thoughtlessness built into the design of curriculums when they rely on textbooks and memorization of inert facts. There exists this fallacy that teachers should be teaching “stuff”, rather than processes and skills. Our pedagogical objective should be to convey ideas and not definitions. Yet teachers are boggled down by the need to teach content that leave students with a superficial understanding of many things and true comprehension of nothing.

Additionally, in the creativity course I took last fall, much of the literature on cultivating creativity also prescribes a “depth over breadth” approach. It is largely heralded that domain-changing creativity can only come after expertise, and expertise takes approximately 10 years to develop (Weisberg, 2006). In fact, some educational researchers specifically urge gifted students to specialize as early as possible and to not be concerned with having many skills (Stokes, 2005).

Ideally, we would produce students with T-shaped skills, individuals who are knowledgeable about a general set of common knowledge but specialized in a few specific things. How can we do this? I’d argue that in the classroom, teaching depth and teaching “how to learn” are far more important in today’s society than breadth. One major affordance of technology is that the breadth is widely accessible outside of the classroom (or within a virtual classroom).  In the spirit of the “give a man a fish/teach a man to fish” proverb, providing students with the tools to learn broadly as well as specific in-depth knowledge of the topics that most interest them may result in more fruitful educational outcomes than trying to cover the entire textbook in 10 months. With the combination of technology and new pedagogies, the T-shaped skillset is well within reach.


Stokes, P. D. (2005). Creativity from constraints: The psychology of breakthrough. Springer  Publishing Company.

Weisberg, R. W. (2006). Creativity: Understanding innovation in problem solving, science, invention, and the arts. John Wiley & Sons.


Two Challenges To Enhance Learning, Gratitude & Happiness …*

Two Challenges To Enhance Learning, Gratitude & Happiness ...*  |


I don’t know about you, but I am feeling drained by this interminable winter and I find myself on travel sites, more often than I care to admit, checking out airfare to warmer climes. Unfortunately a trip to a warm sandy beach is not really in my immediate future so I’m turning to the next best (also, free and local) thing: CHALLENGES. As a child, whenever I was bored or disengaged, I would ask my father for a “project”. Basically, he would give me a challenge, a set of guidelines and constraints, and I would go off and build or make something, thrilled with the task of navigating the constraints he gave me. These projects never failed to reinvigorate me so here are two challenges for March that I will be trying out. Join me?


The other night, I was having dinner with some friends and we were talking about the injustice of growing out of kindergarten and how great life was when 90% of our days revolved around arts and crafts (I told you, I’ve been feeling quite grumpy lately.) My friend remarked that back in those days, “you drew a picture of everything you learned,” and wondered why that ends once we graduate to middle school. Good question, why do we stop? Especially when we know what a tremendous thinking tool drawing can be. So for the next month, I will draw a picture of something that I have learned every day.

– #100HAPPYDAYS – 

The next challenge is something that I’ve noticed popping up all over my social media channels lately: #100HappyDays. The premise couldn’t be simpler, note the sources of joy and happiness in your day, every day for 100 days, and document these sparks of happy with a daily picture. Nothing like focusing one’s attention on the positive to experience increased gratitude (and its many social, emotional and cognitive benefits) and happiness.

Every day submit a picture of what made you happy! It can be anything from a meet-up with a friend to a very tasty cake in the nearby coffee place, from a feeling of being at home after a hard day to a favor you did to a stranger. 

So first you register in the challenge, then choose your favorite platform for submitting pictures. Here you can decide yourself on the privacy of your participation and happy moments. 

  • Share your picture via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with a public hashtag #100HappyDays; 
  • Come up with your own hashtag to share your pictures with to limit publicity. (Don’t forget to tell us how to find your pictures though)
  • Simply send your pictures to MYHAPPY(AT)100HAPPYDAYS.COM to avoid any publicity. 

People Successfully Completing the Challenge Claimed To: 

  • Start noticing what makes them happy every day;
  • Be in a better mood every day;
  • Start receiving more compliments from other people
  • Realize how lucky they are to have the life they have;
  • Become more optimistic;
  • Fall in love during the challenge. 

Sounds like exactly what I’m looking for! Who’s in?


Delve – A New Platform To Inspire Your Curiosity & Learn Something Unexpected …*

Delve - A New Platform To Inspire Your Curiosity & Learn Something New & Unexpected ...*  |

Screen Shot of Delve’s Instagram Page


Knowmads rejoice, here is a cool new new platform to inspire your curiosity–Delve–which was started by Adam Westbrook in January 2014.

Delve is a project with a simple aim: to inspire your curiosity by making complex ideas fascinating through our video essays. Each month we publish a long-form video essay exploring history, philosophy and other humanities in an unexpected way. We also publish more regular videos on Instagram.

I love how they are leveraging Instagram to inspire curiosity with bits and pieces of fascinating stories and ideas. From time travel to the origins of the word OK, passing by the ‘greatest escape of WWII,’ Delve’s Instagram feed is sure to be an instant hit with the curious and lovers of learning.

Here are the first two of Delve’s video essays, which focus on debunking the myth of the creative genius who succeeds thanks to innate talent. Both videos highlight the patience, grit and growth mindset that precede all great achievements.

The Long Game Part 1: Why Leonardo DaVinci was no genius from Delve on Vimeo.

The Long Game Part 2: the missing chapter from Delve on Vimeo.

Hat Tip: Instagram History Lessons Are More Engaging Than Traditional Textbooks via PSFK, published March 4, 2014.

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