LATTICEWORK OF MULTIPLE MENTAL MODELS

I’m gathering a lot of wisdom while reading Poor Charlie’s Almanack, and one of the best concepts I’ve discovered is Charlie Munger’s multiple mental models. To summarize, Munger hangs his mental models on a figurative latticework, which he can then use to make sense of what he hears and reads. Here’s an excerpt from the book (page 222):

I’ve long believed that a certain system–which almost any intelligent person can learn–works way better than the systems that most people use. As I said at the U.S.C. Business School, what you need is a latticework of mental models in your head. And you hang your actual experience and your vicarious experience (that you get from reading and so forth) on this latticework of powerful models. And, with that system, things gradually get to fit together in a way that enhances cognition.

This latticework of mental models becomes an ecosystem Munger can visit whenever he has to analyze something. Here’s another excerpt expanding upon this idea (page 55):

The unassailable logic of Charlie’s ‘ecosystem’ approach to investment analysis: Just as multiple factors shape almost every system, multiple models from a variety of disciplines, applied with fluency, are needed to understand that system. As John Muir observed about the interconnectedness of nature, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’

One of the benefits mental models provide is a comprehensive perspective. With a latticework of multiple models, a semblance of understanding can be attained of a system. This works in creating a system, too.

I bring this up because while reading about Mungers mental models, I couldn’t stop thinking about teacher collaboration within a school site. If you’ve been an educator for at least the last ten years, you’ve seen a lot of ad hoc initiatives. One of my goals is to create a latticework of understanding regarding the role of professional collaboration. Essentially, all of the ad hoc policies would be placed on the latticework, and a connection would be made amongst them all, bringing coherence to a very muddled group of ideas. If something doesn’t fit within the latticework, then it’s removed. (We don’t want a Bed of Procrustes situation.) As Munger says, “If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form” (page 166).

So what are these ideas that must be combined in a usable form regarding teacher collaboration? The following list is a good start:

  • Definition of professional learning communities (PLC)
  • Unpacking standards
  • Learning intentions
  • Success criteria
  • Exemplars
  • Rubrics
  • Data Driven Instruction (DDI)
  • District interim assessments
  • Common Formative Assessments
  • General check-ins with the team
  • Instructional rounds

Finally, answers to these two questions are essential:

  • Where are we in a cycle?
  • How many cycles are we talking about?

Here’s another important question:

  • Which protocol(s) will be used to bring coherence to all of this?

So the goal is to place all of this (and possibly more… possibly less) on the latticework and  figure out how teachers can make all this work in an afternoon after he or she has taught a full day and a lot of emotional labor has already been expended.

THE LINDY EFFECT

[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). All feedback is welcome!]

We live in a world where many things are vying for our attention and money. I’m not just referring to the lure of streaming services, social media, tabloids, and other time devouring creations aimed for consumption during one’s personal life. Leaders within the field of education are inundated with requests by vendors to show them the newest shiny object, which could be for math, English, science and STEM related products, social studies, and a very large number of technology-related programs (i.e. coding, engineering, labs, etc.). Of course, none of these programs or curriculums are bad; if you had a million dollars lying around, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to purchase a few.

The problem is you probably don’t have a million dollars. Worse still, buying a program could very well add complexity to your organization. Questions arise such as: Who’s going to use it? How are they going to use it? Who’s going to train them? Who will set up the program? Further still, these programs could be ad hoc implementations that have been created with little thought as to how they fit into your school’s ecosystem. Sure, thought may have gone into how the program could be implemented at a generic school site, but no one is making products tailored exactly for you, your teachers, or your students. That’s why it’s so important you and your team vet the programs being sold by the salespeople banging on your door. Vetting includes asking the question, “Does this product provide educational value to our students?” The inquiry should also ask, “Does this program fit perfectly within our educational ecosystem?”

A phenomenon known in economics as the Lindy Effect can help educators determine the value of a potential implementation. Named after a famous restaurant in New York known for its cheesecake, Lindy is where Broadway actors came up with the heuristic that if a show lasted 100 days, it was likely to last 100 more. If it lasted 200 days, then it would be around another 200. In other words, every day the show’s building kept its lights on, the chances it would continue to last increased. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes:

“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and this is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years… Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy.”

Returning to Taleb’s idea of fragility, robustness, and antifragility, it’s important to note that things that have lasted many years are well suited in times of chaos. Ancient scriptures, trade and barter, marriage–these are ideas, practices, or institutions that have survived far back into recorded history, and they’ll be around after we’re all gone. Humans have practiced them through times of peace and war. As a matter of fact, chaotic times may even increase the reading of scriptures, the commerce of trade, and the likelihood that two people will marry. This is the epitome of antifragility.

Conversely, the vase my wife purchased from Pottery Barn sitting in front of me as I type does not like chaos. It wants to remain on the shelf unbothered by my children, the dog’s wagging tail, or my clumsiness while dusting. The vase is much more perishable than scriptures, trade, and marriage. As Taleb writes, “For the perishable, every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy. For the nonperishable, every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy.” The vase it fragile, and it will most likely not be around 100 years from now. I can be certain that the institution of marriage, on the other hand, will still be kicking in 100 years–even if it looks a little different.

How does the Lindy Effect apply to education? I’m sure you can see many parallels, but let’s illuminate a couple. First, leaders should make decisions with the past in mind. For example, a flashy new program being sold by a salesperson that has no history of engaging students and encouraging them to learn is probably not a wise use of funds. It’s important to examine how long a potential implementation has been around. If it has been in existence for ten years, a good rule of thumb is that it will stick around for another ten years.

Second, instructional practices should be examined under a Lindy Effect lens. Direct instruction and inquiry have been around since the days of Socrates, so one can safely assume these strategies will be kicking for thousands of years to come. Other robust-antifragile practices include a “learn by doing” approach, studying what naturally interests a person, and the effectiveness of an instructor. On the other hand, many of the programs schools are purchasing today will not be around ten years from now–let alone next fall when school starts again. For a number of reasons, teachers and administrators like brand new things that promise student engagement, but what they fail to realize is that doubling down on the “tried and true” practices that Socrates used will pay the biggest dividends in student learning.

Before we move on, I’d like to address a point the reader may be thinking: the Lindy Effect is not always correct. You may want to say to me right now, “What about Google, Steve? It has been around for approximately 20 years. Are you telling me it will only be around for another 20 years?” The only answer I can give you is the Lindy Effect is a heuristic–a rule of thumb we can use in order to make sense of the world. I believe Google will still be a powerful company many decades from the time of this writing, and I also believe that just because something has been around for 100 years does not mean it will be around for exactly another 100 years. I do, however, believe the Lindy Effect is a useful tool for gauging the robustness of an idea, teaching strategy, and any implementation a school or district is eyeing.

THE POWER OF THE MARGIN

“Take from the margin to rethink the whole.”
–Lani Guinier

Over a month ago I met with a group of educators for the purpose of planning English Language Development (ELD) professional learning sessions. As we discussed the importance of good instruction during designated ELD, I was reminded of a post I wrote a while back entitled Macro from the Micro. Here’s an excerpt:

In Tim Ferriss’s book Tools of Titans, he explains a principle used by chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin called “learning the macro from the micro.” This approach avoids the common way of learning by focusing on a single component (the micro) in order to learn and understand the whole (macro).

The ELD planning group discussed how refining one’s practice for designated ELD has the potential for producing a better teacher in all content areas. The eventual title of the ELD session would become Get Good at ELD to Get Good at Everything.

I was reminded of this planning session as I recently finished reading Martin N. Davidson’s excellent book The End of Diversity As We Know It in which he writes:

The marginal voice is the one that holds the seed of the next great idea, the next powerful invention. We can’t create and innovate without the voice and vision that challenge our familiar and comfortable way of thinking and operating.

Davidson then gives two examples that show how the “marginal voice is the one that holds the seed of the next great idea.” First, he describes how a company named MedTown installed touch screens at a new distribution center because the technology was more advantageous for individuals with developmental disabilities. Turned out the touch screens, once installed, helped workflow for all employees, so all the old keyboards were replaced with the touch screen technology.

Second, sidewalk ramps were built across the country as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. These ramps allowed people in wheelchairs easy access to curbs. Today, almost all walkways have ramps, but you’ll notice not just people in wheelchairs use the ramps. Skaters, bikers, parents pushing strollers, and many other people use the ramps to access walkways.

As the quote at the top of this post states, the margin was used to rethink the whole in the examples Davidson provides. For those of us in the field of education, it’s important we ponder two things:

  1. How can building my own personal capacity in ELD instruction make me a better teacher overall?

  2. How can we take from the margin to rethink the whole so all students benefit?

10 THINGS I LEARNED AT UVA

I recently visited the Darden School of Business associated with the University of Virginia (UVA), and it was an amazing time of learning. The trip was for the Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE), which helps build leadership capacity in order to successfully turn around low performing schools.

Since I had the privilege of visiting UVA, I wanted to share some of the things I learned.* Below you’ll find a list of ten strategies, ideas, or people with whom I had the pleasure of meeting.

1. The importance of feedback. A principal who attended UVA with me had a great epiphany: creating a protocol, agenda, etc. and then asking for feedback isn’t as powerful as receiving feedback from people who are helping you create the product in real time. Too often we ask for feedback when it’s too late.

2. Creating urgency. Everyone talks about the importance of communication, which is absolutely true. What isn’t discussed as often is the importance of urgency. To create positive change, leaders must first explain why the change is imperative.

3. Asking “Why?” over and over (and over again). The great consultants deftly facilitate understanding by asking “why?” many times.

  • Consultant: The students in subgroup X didn’t do well on this common formative assessment question. Why?
  • Teacher: Because they weren’t listening.
  • C: Why?
  • T: Because they didn’t care about what I was teaching.
  • C: Why?
  • T: Because they’re not interested.
  • C: Why?
  • T: (Pause.) Because the lesson wasn’t interesting to them.
  • C: Why?
  • T: (Pause again.) Because I didn’t make it interesting.
  • C: How could you make it more interesting?
  • T: I suppose I could include information in my instruction that applies directly to their lives.
  • C: Is there anything else you could do?
  • T: I could talk less during the input portion of my lesson and provide the students with something more engaging during the structured and guided practice portions. 

Asking “why? over and over is necessary if you’re going to get anywhere close to the root cause of an issue.

4. The 25 Cent Rule. This is from Tonya Kales. Imagine you have two quarters, three dimes, four nickels, and five pennies. Now take no more than five minutes to write the top ten to fifteen things you can do at your school to increase student learning. Now take your two quarters and place them by the two top things on your list. Then take your three dimes and place them beside the next three most important items. Do the same thing for the four nickels and five pennies. The quarters represent your “big rocks,” the things that give you the biggest bang for your buck regarding student learning. The pennies are placed next to the lower priority tasks, and unfortunately those tasks are where we often spend the most time.

5. Clarity regarding measurement of data. This is also from Tonya Kales. Let’s say you want to lose weight; what’s the best way to measure success? A scale? Clothing size? BMI? Food journal? Pictures? Exercise journal? Calories? What if you’re heavier on the scale due to muscle gain, but you look better? What if you’re cutting the calories, but the food you’re eating isn’t healthy? What if you have an impeccable food journal, but you’re not seeing any results? And what if a group of people are trying to lose weight, but they’re using all these different metrics to determine success? This would make success difficult to determine, huh?

6. Martin N. Davidson. I want to be this guy when I grow up. I ordered his book on Amazon after attending a few of his sessions. You can find the book here.

7. The Consultancy Protocol. You have a presenter, timer, and consultant(s). The presenter shares a problem of practice, and the consultant(s) ask questions or make statements that help the presenter arrive at her or his own conclusion. Answers and opinions are not provided to the presenter. It’s pretty powerful. Some of the effective questions or statements that could be said are:

  • Tell are more about…
  • Have you considered…?
  • What do you think (a person) would say about…?
  • It appears you are operating with an assumption that…
  • This leadership challenge raises a couple of questions for me…

8. The importance of everyone getting good at the same thing (or at least pulling in the right direction). Oftentimes, we think we need to be perfect in order to be effective. All we really need is a team moving (ever so slightly) in the right direction. Of course, having only a few initiatives that everyone does well is the goal, and when a district has coherence and alignment, it’s easier for the central office to provide support because everyone’s doing the same high leverage things. It makes things simple, and simple is beautiful. However, it all starts with pulling in the right direction.

9. The importance of one’s environment while learning. The UVA campus is inspiring. Location can be an important factor in student success.

10. Chalkboards are awesome and are undervalued in K-12 education. Long live the chalkboards! The UVA classrooms had at least three chalkboards at the front of each room, which had the ability to be moved up and down by the presenters. This definitely added to an aesthetically pleasing learning experience.

*When educators attend conferences, academies, or encounter unique people or experiences, it’s important they share what they learned with others. 

THE MOST IMPORTANT GIFT WE CAN GIVE STUDENTS

Reading Walter Isaacson’s biographies on Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci underscores the most important trait a place of learning must develop within students. Before naming what the trait is, let’s examine some excerpts from the books.

Franklin excelled in writing but failed math, a scholastic deficit he never fully remedied and that, combined with his lack of academic training in the field, would eventually condemn him to be merely the most ingenious scientist of his era rather than transcending into the pantheon of truly profound theorists such as Newton. — Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin

Franklin created stoves, musical inventions, charted the Gulf Stream, produced America’s first political cartoon, and drew electricity from the sky. He accomplished all of this (and much more) despite the fact he had a math deficit he “never fully remedied.” The most important question that arises in my mind is this: how can a person excel in so many intellectual pursuits without remedying a deficiency in such an important subject? 

Leonardo da Vinci had a similar intellectual experience.

In fact, Leonardo’s genius was a human one, wrought by his own will and ambition. It did not come from being the divine recipient, like Newton or Einstein, of a mind with so much processing power that we mere mortals cannot fathom it. Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation. — Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci

Notice how Isaac Newton is mentioned in both books. This is to drive home the fact Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci weren’t blessed with minds the other 99.999% of the population could never comprehend. Both men were geniuses–no question, but their genius was not a mystery based upon perfect minds bestowed upon them. Instead, the success of their scientific and artistic pursuits can be summed up in one word that comes toward the end of the excerpt above.

Curiosity.

The job of an educator is to promote the curiosity of learning. Curiosity is the rocket fuel for any worthwhile pursuit, and the most precious gift that can be given to a student is multiple opportunities to investigate the aspects of the world he or she finds interesting.

We often think a student’s deficiency in a subject is detrimental to future success. Franklin and da Vinci show us these perceived failings are inconsequential when a person encounters interesting problems to investigate and solve. Franklin and da Vinci had weaknesses, but their curiosity helped them overcome these deficiencies. This is because their interests spurred them toward difficult pursuits despite their lack of God-given abilities. Leonardo da Vinci may have barely been able to do long division, but he still designed a tiburio for Milan’s Cathedral, the Vitruvian Man, and a rhombicuboctahedron. Despite failing at math, Benjamin Franklin is now remembered for inventing the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove.

To our modern minds this sounds just plain wrong. We focus each day on how we can “fix” students’ deficiencies. Instead, perhaps we should teach them the very basics and then allow opportunities to pursue what feels natural to them. As so often happens, learning one thing leads to learning another, which then leads to another–and another. The teacher helps facilitate this continual cycle of learning, pursuing, and creating. That’s why the job of an educator is so important.

The most important gift we can give students is curiosity.

THE INTERSECTION OF FIDELITY AND INNOVATION

I recently attended a conference where keynote speakers and session presenters shared their definitions of good educational practices. I heard many wonderful things, but the shared information reminded me of the glaring contradiction educators are facing: administrators and teachers alike tout the importance of innovation within classrooms while at the same time stressing the importance of following pacing guides and keeping “fidelity” with all adopted curriculum and programs.

So how can both students and teachers be innovative while at the same time traveling lockstep through the school year?

That’s the million dollar question (literally). In trying to discuss it, we can easily get lost within a maze of opinions. Talking about what we think is the correct response works out OK at first, but talk too much, and eventually even the most knowledgeable people reach a point where they throw up their hands and say, “I don’t know.” (Try writing about how innovation and fidelity go together–it’s hard.) The resulting cognitive dissonance is extremely frustrating.

I’ve been thinking about this the last couple days, and as the thoughts have been marinating, the books I’ve recently read have mixed with what I witnessed at the conference. Skin in the Game is one of the best books I’ve read over the last couple years, and in it author Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains the importance of the Latin phrase via negativiaVia negativia is the practice of describing something by stating what it is not. Taleb illuminates this idea by comparing the Golden Rule and the Silver Rule.

The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The Silver Rule: Do not treat others the way you would not like them to treat you.

Taleb writes that we know with much more clarity what is bad than what is good. The Golden Rule is nebulous because we aren’t always sure how we want people to “do unto us.” On the other hand, the Silver Rule is crystal clear because we definitely know the ways we don’t want people to treat us. In other words, it’s easier to say what we don’t like than what we do like.

In Skin in the Game’s Glossary, Taleb writes via negativia is “a recipe for what to avoid, what not to do–subtraction, not addition, works better in domains with multiplicative and unpredictable side effects.” This addition through subtraction can go a long way–especially in the complex system of a school or district standing at the intersection of innovation and fidelity.

Instead of saying what we should do when grappling with the cognitive dissonance of a pacing guide and innovative lesson plan, we should be stating what we shouldn’t do (à la via negativia style).

  • We shouldn’t disengage our students from their learning through ineffective lesson design.
  • We shouldn’t teach concepts that aren’t connected to the students’ lives.
  • We shouldn’t plan lessons in isolation.
  • We shouldn’t assess just to assess.
  • We shouldn’t be afraid to learn new things we can incorporate into the classroom.
  • We shouldn’t neglect to stay up-to-date on the latest effective educational practices.

Does this provide the reader with a clear guideline of how to rectify innovation and fidelity? NO. If I could do that, I’d be a millionaire. But I think the idea of via negativia can help guide educators as they teach in this messy 21st Century.

BANDING TOGETHER FOR PURPOSE

[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). All feedback is welcome!]

“Being a mature being means living with a purpose, your own purpose: it’s about welcoming responsibility as the nourishment a big life needs; it’s about behaving as a good citizen – finding ways to add value to the community in which you live; it’s about wrestling with your weaknesses and developing heart, mind, and spirit.” — John Taylor Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction

It’s important to begin our journey rising and converging by focusing on why we do what we do. This is because we all need a purpose in order to do great work, and it’s of course helpful to receive assurance that we’re making a difference in the universe and participating in something important. The majority of people enter the field of education because they want to make children’s lives better, and it’s this purpose that provides meaning to their lives. Because of this, people need a cause in which they believe in order to buy into change.

When a new strategy, protocol, or program is implemented, leaders must understand the importance of focusing on how it fits into fulfilling the team’s purpose. To go through the motions doing something in which there’s no buy-in because it doesn’t connect to one’s purpose makes a person feel hollow inside. People require a cause in which they believe in order to have a purpose. This is why some teachers end up being miserable: they don’t see a connection between why they became an educator and what’s being implemented at their school sites.

Sebastian Junger, author of the excellent book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, writes how oftentimes people are happier during war than peacetime. He cites the Blitz during World War II when the Germans bombed England in 1940 and 1941. These mass air attacks targeted not just British industrial targets, but also towns and cities. This was a frightening time for England, and no one in his or her right mind would want this devastation to happen anywhere. Even so, Britons came together and displayed a level of heroism that’s truly inspiring. Later, there would be accounts of people who lived through the Blitz who looked back at that time of their lives fondly Why is this? Because they banded together and had a purpose.

The Britons definitely had a reason for existence; it was to stay alive and help others stay alive. This laser like focus was something everyone could buy into, and in hindsight the people of England remembered this purpose, and the solidarity it formed, with a sense of nostalgia.

When you have a reason for living, there are tasks you want to accomplish in order to support what you love.

So why don’t many teachers and administrators look back at the past decade (or two decades, or three decades) of their work and feel the same solidarity and fulfillment of purpose when it comes to their school or district? It isn’t simply because they’ve experienced conflict over the course of their careers. As we read earlier, there will always be conflict and chaos at school sites. In fact, you can have a significant amount of conflict within an organization, and it can continue thriving.

In the incredible book Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl writes, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” There is always a web of tension in every situation. Sometimes the web is barely perceptible, and other times it’s as if Metallica is rocking out in the room. Teachers who are unhappy at work don’t hate their jobs simply because there’s tension; the problem is they didn’t believe the focus and decisions of their leaders were right for the students.

Britons clearly understood the focus: survive! Likewise, educational leaders must have a strong and simple focus on what’s important at school sites, and then this focused message must be communicated in both actions and words on a daily basis to students, staff, and all stakeholders. The purpose must be communicated 24/7–there is no downtime in the 21st Century.