Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lessons from "Unbroken"

I just finished reading the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by (Hillenbrand, 2010).  It details the life of Louie Zamperini, child hellion turned Olympic track athlete turned WW II soldier turned POW turned war hero turned social activist.  The book provided me with some powerful lessons on three fronts: historical, psychological, and spiritual. 
From a historical perspective I had previously read the memoirs of Douglas MacArthur (1964) and McCullough’s compelling biography of Harry Truman (1993).  Through those works (and through numerous history classes) I had already developed some understanding of the contexts, circumstances, and perceptions related to the U.S. conflict with Japan during World War II.  In particular, Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus ending the war, has always been a topic of great interest to me as I consider it the classic leader’s dilemma case study.  In those circumstances, leaders are faced with making tough choices from a very short menu of options, all of which are VERY ugly.  Unbroken provided for me yet a couple more lenses through which to view Truman’s decision: that of soldiers-on-the-ground in the battle theater and that of POWs suffering the vilest offenses imaginable at the hands of their Japanese captors.  These new perspectives provided in Unbroken only confirmed in my mind that Truman chose wisely in using the most lethal weapon available to him in hopes of ending the war expeditiously.
 On the psychological front, Unbroken provided an interesting study in paradox.  On the one hand the ability of some human minds to withstand extreme and prolonged duress speaks volumes to me, as it clearly underscores that cognitive evolution has equipped us with an amazing mind with which we can overcome great adversity.  However, only the most disciplined minds seem to harbor the seeds of resilience needed in such dire circumstances. Discipline is a daily practice, not a resource that can be called upon in ad hoc situations.  On the other hand, the book also paints a clear picture of the depths to which the human mind is capable of sinking, when submitted to circumstances void of clear moral direction.  On this end of the spectrum, the undisciplined mind is capable of every bit as much calamity as the disciplined mind is of resilience.   The most powerful passage in the book for me was the following, which speaks to the impact of dignity on the mind’s resilience:  “Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.” (p. 183) 
Finally, on the spiritual front, the lessons of forgiveness have been renewed in my mind through reading Unbroken.  When individuals and nations, through the grace of God, can put aside vengeance and replace it with total forgiveness, despite depredations unimaginable, I am further convinced that more of our “beingness” is attributable to that spirit part of us, as opposed to our body or intellect.  And, I believe that that spiritual component in us springs from well beyond ourselves: it is rooted in the likeness of the God who created us. 
Unbroken was a powerful work, one that I enjoyed thoroughly. 
Thanks for the recommendation, Linda N.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Another Way to Fund Education in Texas: A Modest Proposal

I submit the following modest proposal (at some risk of exposing my ignorance, I'm afraid).  I have made this proposal twice to legislators who represented my district  when I lived in the the greater Austin area, and to a TEA committee hearing three years ago, in the presence of the Commissioner.
Here goes:
The negative connotations we associate with the word "bureaucracy" derive from the fact that bureaucracies tend to become slaves to their processes rather than slaves to their customers.  They tend to move ever toward higher levels of incentivizing adherence to process/protocol and their own institutional sustainability, rather than incentivizing the outcomes desired.
In the case of public schools we have some very noble, worthy, and clearly stated desired outcomes: 
1) graduate ALL children, regardless of their station in life, and
2) have ALL children college-ready, whether they choose to attend college or not.
It seems to me that we would invigorate a rather talented public workforce (i.e., educators) if we were to fund school districts by the desired outcomes (graduates + college readiness) rather than funding the processes (e.g., G/T programming, reading programs, compensatory education, dropout recovery initiatives, compulsary attendance, etc., etc.).  (We already see this dynamic at play in the more successful charter schools).  To be sure, it cost more to graduate a non-English speaker or a student with special needs than it does a student with no apparent cognitive/social/emotional learning barriers.  Rather than funding the process, I suggest incentivizing the outcomes desired. 
Some examples:
  • Graduating average old general education Joe would garner a school X dollars in state funding.
  • Graduating Sue, who is an economically disadvantaged student, garners the school X, plus additional Y dollars.
  • Graduating Sam(antha), who is an economically disadvantaged student, but who has also demonstrated college readiness, garners the school X+Y+Z dollars.

You get the idea, the money flows to schools based on the numbers of graduates they have, and the kinds of students they are graduating.  I realize this proposal is akin to the relieve-us-of-the-mandates movement. In this proposal, I am suggesting that schools be given REAL opportunity to be flexible and innovative.  Yes, they are already mandated to to be both, by statute (federal and state); but, "flexible and innovative" have been largely unachievable because of the statutory constraints that prevent them from being both (e.g., length of school day requirements, prescribed instructional days in the year, burdensome attendance policies, credentialing limitations, uniform start dates, etc.).  The change in process would require a phase-in (just like changing from TAAS to TAKS did).

Does this model introduce an element of competition?  Sure does.  Actually, it's more of an acknowledgment of current realities.  Most of those that work in schools already feel it, and the on-line delivery options (even those now provided at the state level) are only increasing that competition.  Thus, schools are all becoming ever more focused on providing a quality product to their constituency (because if they don't, the "customers" take their business elsewhere).

Some might argue that "diploma factories" would spring up.  I don't think so, because of the duality of Texas'  quality assurance checks: 
1)  The state has a clearly defined curriculum and uniform credit requirements for graduation. 
2)  Receipt of diploma requires passage of Exit-level TAKS and/or EOC exams (high-stakes exams). 
The systems in place would make it very difficult to "fake" either of these standards.

Essentially, this proposal would allow schools to mush, morph, and adapt themselves into any shape/form necessary to produce the graduates desired by statute (being additionally rewarded if the graduates are the hard-to-educate kind).

I freely acknowledge that this proposal addresses only the "adequacy" side of the issue, not the "equity" element.  But, it's a start.

Interesting times afford us the opportunity to consider/deploy unique measures. At the risk of sounding cliche, the opportunity to consider real shifts in paradigm.  Perhaps it's time for an idea like this to gain some traction.

Thanks for listening.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Gift of Attention

I recently read an edited work called The Wisdom of Listening by Mark Brady (2003).  I somehow stumbled across the title as part of my personal research toward becoming a better listener (a process in which I have been engaged for several years).  Brady’s edited compilation included chapters written by academics, psychologists, health professionals, spiritual leaders, and even hospice workers.  It provided a comprehensive and rather eclectic view of the construct of listening.  In synthesizing this work against my previous learning on the topic of listening, I submit to you some interesting and consequential (for me, anyway) conclusions in that regard.
Listening is, perhaps, the most powerful item we possess in our toolbox of communications media.  To learn to listen fully and with complete presence provides for us the opportunity to truly discern not only the message(s) being delivered by others, but also the motivations, interests, and positions that underlie those messages.  If we can learn to listen from the heart, with a genuine sense of empathy, we stand an even better chance of fully understanding the “other.”  In effect, dynamic listening helps us to understand the essence of another person.
A skill that we can hone continually that supports powerful listening is that of being an effective questioner.  It is a rare but highly valued person who can be “lean” of commentary/advice and “fleshy” of significant questions. By significant questions I mean questions that have the real power to make a difference, to drive the thinking of all concerned to deeper levels of intrinsic and extrinsic understanding.  Being able to craft and skillfully deliver powerful questions generates emotional, cognitive, and reflective energy.  Those kinds of questions help tease out options, thus providing all parties with avenues for moving forward against a problem, for mending strained relationships, for taking penetrating looks inward at our own beliefs, assumptions, and motivations. Strong questioning helps shift our focus away from what is to what might be.
Finally, effective skills in both listening and questioning are perhaps best thought of cumulatively as a gift: the gift of our full attention.  They are simply vehicles through which we can focus our attention, without distraction, on the “other.”  If your experiences are similar to mine you can probably recall precious few people in your personal history who have been effective in attending fully to others.  Interestingly, the giving of our full attention to others cost us virtually nothing, and the benefits are immense. 
I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion that becoming a better listener was part of my personal growth plan.  I did not tell you why.  In chance conversation several years ago with a colleague, we were discussing the retirement of a professional friend of ours whom I will call Bill.  Within that exchange my colleague said, “You know, I have never known a better listener than Bill.”  At that moment, it became evident to me that few tributes could be made that would be more valued by me.  Being one who is skillful in giving the gift of attention is, in reality, a reflection of a state of mind and a condition of heart, that is far more important than any advice or counsel I could ever give.
Thanks to Mark Brady for challenging me further in the direction of being an effective giver of attention, fierce listener, and a powerful questioner.