The Antifragile Teacher

The term antifragile, coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, has slowly begun dominating my outlook on everything–including how I invest, whether I should take statins for high cholesterol, and the efficacy of US foreign policy. I’ve written about antifragility before, but in this post I’d like to focus on ten ways a teacher can become antifragile.

1. Learn as many skills as possible. Becoming well-versed in Direct Interactive Instruction (DII), knowing how to embed formative assessments continually throughout the school day, and successfully blending technology into your teaching are just some of the valuable strategies that can help your students and strengthen yourself for whatever is thrown your way. Skills equal value, and valuable teachers become antifragile because they’re desperately needed at school sites and within districts–especially in stressful times.

2. Read, read, and then read some more. Reading fiction can help promote empathy, and nonfiction will help build your skill set, which needs to continually grow to remain antifragile. Caution: If you’re reading good books, your brain will be brimming with ideas, many of which you’ll want to implement in the classroom. Avoid this temptation; you should deploy only a small fraction of what you know when teaching. Throw too much information at kids (or even adults), and you’ll slide down the spectrum toward fragility.

3. Avoid negative talk and complaining, especially in the teachers’ lounge. Your words can trap and weaken you, thus making you fragile and susceptible to worry, broken relationships, and a pessimistic outlook that can corrode your will to help students. It might sound corny, but cultivating a generous spirit is the only way to sustain a lifelong career when teaching kids. It will also make you antifragile in the face of pink slips, textbook adoptions, admin changes, and general uncertainty.

4. Don’t continually introduce new technology to students. Less is more. Let them master programs and apps so that they can then dig into the actual content they should be learning. Teaching students algebra is much more important than throwing the newest math website at them. Put only the best educational software products in your tool belt and discard the rest.

5. Build intervention into your instruction. Intervention blocks created within a bell schedule can waste a lot of time and effect student learning. Intervention embedded in a lesson is powerful because you as the teacher know your students better than anyone else at the school site. It’s important to remember that intervening within systems can weaken organizations and introduce fragility; this needs to be considered when altering a school’s schedule in order to provide safety nets for students. Reteaching is important, but intervention blocks may not be the answer.

6. Don’t rely on things you can’t control, like wifi. If your students need to write in Google Docs and the internet is down, adapt and have them type in a word processor that’s installed on the computer. Full reliance on technology can expose you to fragility. Because of this, all lessons with a heavy dependance on technology must be backed up with a non-tech version. Pencils, paper, and books will not suddenly disappear on you. When the wifi drops, and from time to time it most certainly will, revert to your tried-and-true teaching methods. Remember, antifragility means that you become stronger when calamity strikes. This means an antifragile teacher becomes better when uncertainty and chaos are injected within the school day. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but when you start to consider how failing technology can make you stronger, you’ll come up with some interesting ideas.

7. Keep a perspective on the whole child, and don’t drill and kill him or her because of one low number on a test. This will just frustrate you and the student.

8. Learn to work well with what you’ve got. Remember the movie Apollo 13 when NASA had to build an air filter with only the items on the ship? Here’s an excerpt from a previous post:

NASA had to solve a problem with a limited number of resources in order to bring the astronauts home. Failing this objective was not an option because the stakes were too high. They did everything they could to fix a seemingly insurmountable problem. It wasn’t easy, but through hard work they figured it out.

So your student has a tough home life, large gaps in his learning, and is absent half the time? If astronauts can make a filter out of a bunch of random items, you can provide effective instruction when the student is with you.

9. Begin recognizing antifragility around you. Governments, companies, and people make unwise decisions that will weaken them when tension, confusion, or catastrophe strike. Sometimes, doing the opposite of what pundits say on TV will make you stronger. Take this page from Warren Buffett’s playbook:

Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.

Yes, antifragility will not only help you in the classroom, but also in all areas of life, such as investing.

10. Read the book Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He’s much smarter than I am, and his ideas can change your perspective on the world.

And isn’t that what good books are supposed to do?

Professional development

If I never have to hear “find your 12 o’clock partner” again, I’ll die a happy teacher. 

Teaching is an art. A good teacher is like every other craftsperson. Imagine someone who creates surfboards: she knows the correct materials and dimensions. She knows how to shape the board. New tools may come along that help complete a task a little more efficiently, but there’s nothing a veteran surfboard maker can be told that will revolutionize her creating process.

At professional development (PD) sessions, there may not be a lot of information that will revolutionize a person’s teaching strategies; especially if the teacher is a 10, 20, or 30 year veteran. Teachers don’t need a ton of new tricks doled out, they only need one–maybe two–at each training opportunity.

It’s unfortunate, but PD can go south very quickly. Here’s a way this happens: The PD speaker introduces himself or herself and then for the duration of the session poses questions, allows the participants to talk about those questions, and then asks for answers to be shared in front of the whole group. This sounds like what Socrates did, so you may be wondering why I’m not praising the speaker’s method. The problem is that the audience may not be well-versed in the topic of the presentation and will therefore not have an effective conversation. Collaborating for 5-10 minutes about a subject with which you’re not familiar with someone who’s also not familiar isn’t the most productive use of time. The world in which we live is super-specialized, which means we can’t expect audience conversation to be as valuable as a PD presenters’ sharing of research and best practices. We need data, not opinions.

Which leads me to the crux of the issue: If your presentation can be done via a Google Hangout, don’t hold the PD session. In other words, if the bulk of your presentation involves the participants discussing various questions, have them do this remotely through one of the many Web 2.0 platforms. This will save teachers’  time, school districts’ money, and a whole lot of frustration.

PD for teachers is notorious for being just like an elementary classroom. Find your 3 o’clock partner! Discuss with your neighbor! Who’d like to volunteer! Eyes on me! It’s time to incorporate PD in the field of education that mirrors how other professionals learn together. Here are five ways we can start:

  1. No more childish ways of making people interact.

  2. The presenter must… present. Participants should be given helpful information from an expert in his or her field –information that can’t just be easily googled. Enlightenment on a particular subject should mainly come from the presenter, not a fellow attendee. (Again, if most knowledge comes from the audience, then a Google Hangout or Twitter chat with posed questions are more efficient ways to share information.) I shudder to think how many presenters have participants collaborate because it soaks up time. We’ve got to go until 3:30, so we better do something to waste time… 

  3. Teachers can decide to stop attending conferences that are known for being childish or not presenting helpful information.

  4. Teachers can start PD sessions at their own school sites. This is beneficial because they know how to serve their fellow teachers and can organize workshops that best fit their needs. Also, if teachers want to collaborate, they can do so from the comfort of their own rooms (via Google Hangout or Skype, of course).

  5. Presenters should not use PowerPoint as an outline. Too many words on a slide makes the information overwhelming. I really enjoy using Haiku Deck because I’m forced to limit my words. It’s important to remember that the slideshow is not the presentation; the presentation is what’s delivered.

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Educators are working with a lot of complexity, and PD needs to help them overcome the obstacles they’re facing. Treating educators like elementary students (“Find your 9 o’clock partner!”) and making them collaborate instead of hear insightful information from a specialist are both inefficient practices and must cease being used.

You can’t know it all

And that’s OK.

Best to move on and do what you do best–whatever that is. You don’t have to specialize, per se; you just need to bring value to your community in an individual way.

There must be reliance on others if you have a large vision and desire to accomplish something–there’s no way around it. In the field of education, teachers should find their niches and bring value by teaching colleagues. Finding a niche is an important discovery. It doesn’t mean the teacher is only good at one thing. Rather, it means the teacher is prepared to show others how to successfully use at least one tool or skill in the classroom.

If an organization builds up people to have hearts of teachers and share a niche, wonderful growth will occur.

Mistakes

Of course, mistakes should be avoided, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try something just because the chance of messing up is present.

When the inevitable mistake does occur, it’s important to view it two ways:

  1. What can I learn from this mistake?

  2. What can be created out of this mistake?

Mistakes that can be turned into accomplishments are powerful.

Students don’t care about making mistakes when they’re young. They push buttons and pull levers just to find out what will happen. Unfortunately, in certain instances along their schooling career, this curiosity and boldness goes away and is replaced with fear of making mistakes. All successful people will tell you that an environment that hinders creativity in order to lessen mistakes is a dying environment.

We must teach our children to not shy away from difficult problems–they must embrace the possibility of mistakes. And when the probable mistake does arise, they need to view it as an opportunity to create something beautiful.

Ubuntu

I read a column recently that was given to me by a teacher in my school district. It’s written by Kimberley Gilles, the 2014 NEA Teaching Excellence Award winner, and it’s one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. (You can find the column here on page 26.)

A little background

My school district just deployed 6,000 laptops to 4th, 7th, and 8th grade students. The laptops aren’t Google Chromebooks, and they don’t run Windows. Instead, they are imaged with ubermix 2.0, which is a free Linux-based operating system that was created for educators. Ubermix is based on Ubuntu, the world’s most popular Linux distribution. Using a free operating system brought the price of each laptop down tremendously, which made a 1:1 deployment feasible. The specifics of how we deployed the laptops are interesting, but what I find really fascinating is what Ubuntu means.

Ubuntu

In Gilles’s column she explains that a teacher can avoid burnout by practicing a way to approach life: Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu word that means “human kindness” or “human-ness.” She quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which helps illuminate this definition:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good… You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality–Ubuntu–you are known for your generosity.”

Ubuntu is a way of life–a world view or philosophy. A Wikipedia search will reveal various translations of the word, such as “human nature, humanness, humanity; virtue, goodness, kindness.” In some instances, Ubuntu is interpreted as a way of conceptualizing how people can rise and converge, creating a sense of humanity that’s not present when people act as self-interested individuals.

Archbishop Tutu elaborates upon this concept:

We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

What we do affects our community. Every day is an opportunity to build people up or tear them down. This works on an individual and societal level. The organizations of which we’re a part can be strengthened or weakened upon our behavior. Cultivating Ubuntu encourages people to invest in the greater good.

Education

Whenever a student or teacher turns on a 1:1 device in my school district, the word “Ubuntu” glows on the splash screen. This means, hundreds–if not thousands–of students see this word that means “human kindness” every day. Fortunately, what the students are a part of is more than just a name for a free operating system; they’re participating in a belief that given the right tools, all young people can create and learn at high levels. They can be assured that society wants to spend money in a way that allows them to literally be finger strokes away from all the knowledge the world has to offer on the internet. Blogs, Google Hangouts, Skype, and many other resources help students communicate and collaborate. In this way, our children will grow up in a world that values community, working together, and helping others.

These benefits are far reaching. Not only do students benefit from Ubuntu (the operating system and philosophy), but teachers do as well. Educators are forced to band together and learn from one another in this current climate of change. They also have to rely on students; I can’t tell you how many times students taught me about technology as I piloted 1:1 devices in my classroom last year. With all the new devices and software readily available, it’s impossible to know everything. As soon as one concept is mastered, a new one pops up, ready to be given notice. The j-curve is getting steeper, and the acceleration of technology is unprecedented.

We need each other more than ever. Society cannot fragment into stark individualism–there are too many people who need help. In fact, we all need help. Ubuntu is what can hold a group together and find common ground.

It can also help school districts overcome uncertainty and be bound in the worthy goal of teaching every single student.