Saturday, March 16, 2019

College admission scandal

I read Frank Bruni, opinion columnist at the New York Times, frequently.

Today's column: The Moral Wages of the College Admissions Mania was particularly good. Most  colleges are walking dead in my view.

But many remain and will for a long time.

This quote quote reminded me of an article from Scientific America a long time ago. Something about the object of an education is not hammer - it's carpentry.

He wrote:
Barry Schwartz, who taught psychology at Swarthmore from 1971 to 2016, said in an interview just before he retired that his current students “want to be given a clear and unambiguous path to success.”
“They want a recipe,” he told me. “And that’s the wrong thing to be wanting.
Recipes create cooks. They don’t produce chefs.
I thought that was tragic.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Children are born powerless

In the journey from infant to adult the brain of a child is transformed by experiences. Some are accidental, some intentional. Parents are the original teachers; siblings and environment too. But schools play a critical role. 

The interplay of formal curriculum and the development of a child’s sense of self is the subject of research at Harvard’s Agency by Design Project. Agency is a measure of how ‘in control’ of their lives youth feel. I believe it is related to hope (what will happen in the future) and power (what can I do about it now.)

I’ve thought a lot about what motivates human behavior and concluded that one of the principal motivators is power. The accumulation and exercise of power, whether by children, adults, leaders or countries, is unarguably a factor in personal and social evolution.

Children are born powerless. From birth they set upon a course to accumulate it. How do they do that? I believe evolution has bestowed on some the advantages of strength, intelligence, beauty and health. Their families confer others like sustenance, safety, love and legacy. And the aim of society is to distribute power through education. The degree to which society succeeds or fails at this aim is the subject of great debate.

One measure of power is agency, otherwise known as self-efficacy. Unfortunately, I see lots of kids that lack this fundamental capacity. It exhibits as low self-esteem, incuriousness, low persistence and hopelessness.

Think about the consequences of powerlessness: kids who don’t think they are good enough, that tomorrow won't be better than today, that the world is a scary place and they are vulnerable. Or worse: acting out, dropping out, drugging out.

I think schools that focus on the attainment of a standard (and more easily measurable) set of skills (too often clinging to those that were relevant a hundred years ago) fail to develop the uniquely human skills of curiosity, creativity and a love of learning. We need our education metrics to prioritize ‘robot proof’ talents like these. 

The ‘Carnegie units’ employed in the dispensation of learning is a perpetuation of an industrial model of school responding to the needs of an industrial revolution. It is no longer effective – or equitable – for a future where 65% of today’s students will be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet.

Today, we sort kids by their capacity to acquire knowledge based more on the rate of absorption than the rate of digestion. We measure their attainment by their memory skills more than what they understand. The system rewards ‘quickness’ and moves classes along like herds of cattle driven on a trail headed to market. Learners who can’t keep up or who would rather indulge their curiosity are branded as slow. (The analogy is apt.)

The pace of coverage and selection of subjects are rarely the choice of students. Current brain science shows that it is literally neurologically impossible to learn deeply about something you don’t care about. Ask kids if they care about what they are learning – not just what they learned about it. (Ask teachers if they are exhibiting enthusiasm for the curriculum in today’s test-focused classroom. Enthusiasm may be more important than competence in a subject to get kids to learn deeply.)

Which leads me to kids and power. Schools insist that learning will be rewarded in life after school. Will it? Calvin Coolidge famously said:
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
Kids know this. They are stuck in school, being taught crap they don’t care about, at great effort and expense, for little or no perceived benefit. They are powerless. They see the smart kids earn extrinsic rewards for memorizing while their curiosity is being ignored. They conclude they are not-smart, disengage from the process and simply wait for it to end.

What if the goal of school was to indulge a student’s curiosity? What if the pace of learning was tuned to their interest? What if the rewards were intrinsic? That is what making things does effectively.

Making = Persistence + Problem Solving + Pride = Power
Making = Power

Power, and its proxy: Agency, are not given like school grades are given. They are the result of investment of effort over time, struggle, coping with frustration and failure, concluded finally with the experience of success. It is an intrinsic reward for proving something to oneself. Failure is simply feedback in this process. The desire for power overcomes the fear of failure and other hurdles which need to be overcome.

I believe that making something is almost always engaging and meaningful. It rarely happens on the timeline or under the conditions set by someone else. Along the way a teacher can facilitate learning, but the learning is a byproduct of making something not the objective. Adults may learn for some abstract benefit, but kids just focus on the thing they are making and learn despite the fun they are having. All learning should be fun.

We need to reintroduce making into the curriculum for all children. (Children were almost always exposed to making outside school when the economy was more closely tied to manufacturing and farming.) Making can mean a physical product or creating a system as it oftentimes does in project based learning. Students should be able to connect what they are learning in the classroom to relevance outside the classroom.

Making something yields authentic/intrinsic/personal rewards that give kids power over their lives. Kids need more of that, and for the sake of our society, we need more powerful kids.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

My Last Rotary Invocation of the Year

Today at our Indianapolis Rotary Club weekly luncheon we had an election wrap-up. Republican and Democrat political consultants presented their opinions about what happened and why.

My invocation brought attention to the divisive climate of the election and challenged future candidates to observe the Rotary 4 Way Test.

United We Stand 
In the recent election, Americans demonstrated, in undeniable terms, just how polarized we have become as a society. We seem to be getting the best elections money can buy – at least from the perspective of advertisers.
Benjamin Franklin said: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”  He was worried about the threat of retaliation from the British for the acts of Independence of the Colonies. I am worried about the driver who sees a Trump or Bernie sticker and sees red on the highway.  I’m worried about my neighbor not helping me blow my leaves or shovel my snow because I put a Punam Gill sign in my yard.
Where will this end?
Ben Sasse, Republican Senator of Nebraska, wrote a book called ‘Them’ which attempts to explain how we got here and how to heal. He was attacked by members of his own party! The press have been called Enemies of the People! Where we get our news and what we believe depends more on party affiliation now than the facts. Opinions have been weaponized.
And for that matter – how do you explain fact and fake to a fifth grader?
I was talking with a friend about this over the Thanksgiving holiday – at least most of us can still share dinner. (But it’s probably a good idea to avoid talking about anything in the news.)  He blames it on Facebook. I blame it on cable news. Maybe it’s Citizens United or the Russians? What seems obvious to me is that we have retreated from the public square. Today you can gorge yourself on a 24/7 diet of news curated to flame the fears of your prior beliefs and biases – fine tuned to your zip code.
And like with food, lacking variety in consumption leads to malnourishment.
That’s what makes what we are doing here today so important. Rotary is an abundant source of community in America. Something as simple as turning off the outside to share lunch with people we respect, as we share our views and try to understand those of others. Where we agree that Service above Self is a motto we can all agree on regardless of our politics.
These ladies will give us their expert opinion on what happened in the past election. But we need to tell the politicians enough is enough! We want them talk about each other like we do here are Rotary – govern their campaigns by the Four Way Test and, maybe this is asking too much – talk to us about their vision for Indiana and America, not just about the character flaws of their opponent.
Is that too much to ask?

Sunday, September 23, 2018

We need more entrepreneurs

I've been reading: The Coming Jobs War by Gallup CEO Jim Clifton. It describes a dystopian future where America can't match the job creation success which brought power and prosperity to our nation.

The answer according to Clifton is 'make more entrepreneurs!' Only entrepreneurs employ people and small businesses are where they make more of them than anywhere else.

So I looked a little deeper into Clifton's solution and found out about Gallup's Builder Initiative and their Builder Profile, an assessment which can identify those youth or adults that have what it takes to be a builder - an entrepreneur. I suggested to economic development leaders that we should give this assessment to every high school senior! What a difference it would make if we could find/develop and support more entrepreneurs in Indiana who can create businesses and hire Hoosiers!

Here is a series of videos describing the 10 Builder Traits. And here are the talents.

  • Confidence: People with Confidence accurately know themselves and understand others.
  • Delegator: Delegators recognize that they cannot do everything and are willing to contemplate a shift in style and control.
  • Determination: People with Determination persevere through difficult and seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
  • Disruptor: Disruptors exhibit creativity in taking an existing idea or product and turning it into something better.
  • Independence: People with Independence do whatever needs to be done to build a successful venture.
  • Knowledge: People with Knowledge constantly search for information that is relevant to growing their business.
  • Profitability: People with Profitability make decisions based on observed or anticipated effect on profit.
  • Relationship: People with Relationship possess high social awareness and an ability to build relationships that are beneficial to their organization's survival and growth.
  • Risk: People with Risk instinctively know how to manage high-risk situations and make decisions easily in complex scenarios.
  • Selling: People with Selling are the best spokesperson for their business.
We need to do more to harvest the talent we have to win the coming jobs war for America!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018


My first start-up out of college was as a franchisee for Success Motivation Institute, founded by Paul Myers. To this day I believe that attitude is more important than aptitude.

I wasn't a very good salesman and I wasn't successful in that business, but I've always been a student of motivation. My grandfather, Herb Schafer (whom I called Pob,) inspired me - despite his suffering from agoraphobia.

Here is a wonderfully motivational speech from the 2014 commencement of the graduating class of the University of Texas by Navy Seal Admiral William H. McRaven. I recommend that you watch it every day . . . 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Failure is essential for learning

School gives the wrong idea about the role of failure in learning. It's easy to understand why. An end of unit or course assessment results in a grade. That grade is a measure of 'success' and for most kids result in a number less than 100%. Indeed, sometimes the deck is stacked to skew the scores to produce a curve where students' performance is forced into buckets to validate the teacher's assumption that a distribution of talent exists. (Sal Kahn had a great video on TED: Let's teach for mastery - not test scores.)

My favorite video about the importance failure to learning was recorded by Jeri Ellsworth: Secret to Learning Electronics - Fail and Fail Often. It's not just about learning electronics, it's about learning.

I try to convince kids that failure is just feedback. Education experts from Dewey to Harvard conclude the same thing.

But if you ask a student (or about anyone) if they feel good about failing the answer would certainly be no.

We need to change the messaging about how learning happens - especially in school.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Another Rotary Invocation - 6/19/18

Frank Egan had a schedule conflict and asked me to present the Rotary invocation a few days before the meeting on 6/19/18.

I really didn't have as much time as I usually do to prepare. The Mayor of Indianapolis: Joe Hogsett, was going to give his annual 'State of the City' address so I knew the audience would be above average.

On the morning it was due I sat staring at a blank screen and wondered what to say. Then I remembered the 'Moment of Reflection' I gave on Primary Day on 2016 and the emphasis I placed on 'shared hope.' Not much has changed in that regard - it may be worse with our current president's new tax policy driving a bigger wedge between the prosperity of rich and poor Americans.

Here is what I said:

Shared Hope for Indianapolis

About two years ago I gave the invocation on Primary Day. Elections should be hope-filled events I asserted.

The Gallup Organization polls more than just political fortunes. Every year they survey over 700,000 American students to measure their level of hope. You won’t be surprised that the results of their 2017 poll aren’t good.

As with the past three years, Gallup reported that fewer than half of students are hopeful about their future. How do hopeless children embrace the challenges of a new economy? They don’t.
Hopeful students are nearly three times as likely to say they get good grades. That means the rest are stuck with average or poor grades – and worse low self esteem. What impact will that have on our employment pipeline for jobs that increasingly demand lifelong learning? Not good.

Two years ago I spoke from this podium:

More than losing our status in the world, more than ‘losing,’ more than the other party winning the White House, we should fear the loss of shared hope.  Shared hope is the binding that once tied our country together, forged a powerful nation and was the source of our prosperity.

What gives kids hope? What turns a student into a stakeholder?


Everyone is this room has assets that tens of thousands of youth in our community lack: the skills to add value to a company, a cause or a community. It is a bargain that society makes with the next generation: bring us your skills and we will reward you with a seat at the table, a piece of the action, the right to expect to make a decent living for yourself and your family.

Mayor Hogsett is helping bend the curve of low expectations for thousands of these ‘Opportunity’ youth in Indianapolis. As Rotarians, our Service Above Self motto demands that we help him.

If you run a company plug into Project Indy and share job experiences. If you have skills, share them with Job Ready Indy, the new badging program developed by EmployIndy and the Indy Chamber. Or you can support Indy Achieves which aims to help kids into and through college or start a career with a high value credential.

In 2016 I asked you to be an actor not an audience member. Hope is a source of strength that is multiplied when shared.

Help fulfill one tenant of the Rotary International mission: the alleviation of poverty, by sharing your hope in the future of Indianapolis and the prosperity of its citizens.