“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?


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. 


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.


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.


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.


[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.