Future Scientists

According to his Harvard faculty profile, Dr. Alex F. Schier is a Leo Erikson Life Science Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology. To twenty middle school students from Rochester, a handful from Milwaukee, accompanying staff, and a few scientists from Mayo Clinic, he was a first impression. Last Sunday and Monday, I had the honor of attending the 7th annual international Zebrafish Disease Models conference on the campus of the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dr. Schier was a keynote speaker and our first look at any content from this conference. His presentation title and abstract read like this:

Presentation Title: The Molecular Control of Embryogenesis: Insights from Zebrafish
Abstract: Cell fate specification and cell rearrangements are the hallmarks of early embryogenesis. Genetic and genomic studies in zebrafish have identified many of the key factors underlying these processes. I will discuss our recent studies on morphogens – signals that pattern developing tissues in a concentration-dependent manner, and on motogens – signals that promote the movement of cells.

After the talk, we filtered into a meeting room set aside especially for the kids where our scientist friends from Mayo Clinic – Dr. Stephen Ekker and Dr. Chris Pierret – led a Q&A session with the kids, probing them for understanding, clarifying vocabulary, and gathering feedback about the experience. It was amazing to hear what kids got out of the talk.

One might also wonder what I was doing there. No, I didn’t crash the event – I was invited. Back in 2009, Mayo Clinic and Lincoln K-8 Choice School in Rochester, MN teamed up to develop the InSciEdOut program (clever name!), which was aimed at engaging kids in learning science through locally developed curriculum, conducting real scientific experiments and research, and providing access to scientists and scientific resources (such as lab equipment). At the time, I was working in the Research, Evaluation, and Assessment Office in Rochester Public Schools and was asked to help evaluate the impact the program was having on student achievement in science. I was fortunate enough to be asked to continue to provide support in this area after I left RPS.

In addition to attending the conference, I was also asked to have my evaluation work included in a collaboratively developed poster presentation (see the picture of our poster below). This wasn’t the only poster presentation, however, that our collective group provided. I was proud that students shared their work doing experiments in their school via the poster presentations, right alongside graduate students and working scientists. Perhaps the best part about the conference was that those same graduate students and scientists treated the students just like other scientists, asking questions and providing feedback. With that familiar mixture of anxiety and pride, it was the kind of experience that cannot be simulated, and I think it impacted – in a positive way – the graduate students and scientists as well.


I took a number of other positive things from the conference. First, I realized that education is not the only field where acronyms abound as there were plenty to be had at the conference. Second, the data visualizations from this field were fascinating. From time-lapsed videos to color gradients to simple time series plots, the presentations included a wide-range of visuals and they truly did help to understand talks where the vocabulary was well above my head. Third, it was simply an honor to be challenged to hear such talks and to then discuss them with students. For example, in the talk by Han Wang, titled, “A circadian model for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Behaviors”, we learned that sleep cycles and the production and release of dopamine is related to ADHD. We talked with the students after about potential follow-up research questions we could ask. They came up with things like, “Do ADHD drugs impact different genders differently?” and “What would the impact of ADHD drugs on zebrafish without ADHD?”

This experience also provided plenty for me to reflect on professionally. Educational researchers also have a national conference (see my previous blog post about my experience at AERA/NCME this year) and the process was very similar in terms of posters and presentations. What is different between the research at ZDM7 and educational research is that it is much harder, in my opinion, to isolate variables and detect such specific effects in educational research. Nevertheless, I was inspired to see research in this format – and the scientific method in use – in a field that was not my own.

In closing, I was inspired by this experience (see below for a picture of the group), in particular the interactions between students and scientists and to hear what students got out of the experience. I appreciated the opportunity to be involved in such an initiative and at a unique conference, outside of my field. It has been an honor to work with the InSciEdOut program and I look forward to doing so in the future.


The Power of Writing Poetry

In a June 2013 TED Talk, Stephen Burt discusses why people need poetry. In this, he discusses how poetry allows us to express our feelings and emotions; it allows us to preserve moments in time in a way that brings us closer to them than a simple story might. He also discusses how poetry is beautiful, certainly because of how it rhymes and patterns, but also because of its ambiguity and mystery.

In addition to its mysterious nature, poetry comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. For example, not all poetry need rhyme nor need it be lengthy. The content of poetry is also wide-ranging. Consider, for example, this TED Talk by poet Billy Collins. In addition to unique content, these poems reinforce the idea put forth by Burt that poetry can be written for a whole host of reasons. In addition, perhaps, to entertainment value, Collins’ poems gave voice to dogs by writing as them in first person.

My own poetry does not often give voice to those without one, except perhaps that part of me that is afraid to tell its story to others. Poetry has long been my place of refuge and synthesis. A place to escape when the world is crashing on top of me, a place to celebrate when I felt guilty doing it out loud, a place to say those things I wanted to say but didn’t have the courage to, a place to smack together the knowledge, ideas, curiosities, triumphs, and failures into something that made sense (well, kind of)! Recently, Susan Andersen (who I actually went to high school with) wrote a blog post and it inspired me to write this blog post about my poetry. As she discussed overcoming her depression and, consequently, writers block, it reminded me of the times when writing poetry made the intolerable tolerable for me.

One example of the intolerable in my life was about 10 years ago when I ended up in the hospital for a week with a MRSA staph infection. After that initial bout, the skin infections came and went for over a year and a half and it was an awful time, both physically and emotionally. I wrote this poem when I was enduring that:

Little By Little

Little by little
I grow stronger
Even though the days
Seem a little bit longer
Little by little
I work towards happiness
Despite the battles I face
I never work less
Little by little
I am gaining ground
Picking up speed
With the little hope I’ve found
Little by little
I can see myself winning
My mouth crinkles at the edges
An unstoppable grinning
Little by little
I become whole again
Like the sunshine
After a never-ending rain.

The beauty of this poem for me is that, when I read it now, I recall not just how frustrated and drained I was at the time, but also how determined I was that I wouldn’t let my ailment control my life and that I would beat it. And it took a lot of doctors/dermatologists, but they did figure things out and life – in that way anyway – did eventually go back to normal. The other beautiful thing about this poem is that it could have been applied to so many other aspects of my life since then (many of which I’m not yet ready to share in a blog; check back in 10 years for those!). When I read it now, I can literally put myself into a hundred different moments when I was about to let life get the best of me, but had the resilience to work through it.

I’ve written hundreds of poems as I’ve navigated the best and worst in my life. The adjectives to describe them include “dark”, “funny”, “nostalgic”, “happy”, “grateful”, etc. Many I’ve never shared with anyone or only few people. Shared or not, they have always served me well.

I’ve also read many poems as well. I’ll end this blog with one of my favorites – which has reminded me, from time to time, to appreciate the challenges in life – from Robert Browning Hamilton:

I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When sorrow walked with me.

Thanks for reading!


This winter (2013-14), Disney released the movie Frozen. The movie was a significant hit, becoming the most recent number one animated film of all time. My daughter was hooked the first time she saw the film, seeing it twice in theatres and countless times here at home. The soundtrack played so many times in the car that I pretty much have the whole thing memorized!

The good thing about seeing a movie and hearing the soundtrack over and over is that at some point, you start to actually listen to the words and make meaning of them. In my opinion, Disney did something amazing with Frozen that animated filmmakers have been trying to do – with varying degrees of success – for a long time now; they made it relevant for adults. The movie brings with it a number of lessons for being successful in life.

In particular, I connected what I learned in Frozen to the March 2014 Elizabeth Gilbert TED Talk entitled, Success, failure and the drive to keep creating. In this talk, she discusses the need for all of us to do what we love and how both success and failure can prevent us from doing what we love. At the beginning of the movie Frozen, Elsa – the main character – and her little sister Anna are playing and having fun like little kids do. Suddenly, things take a turn for the worse when Elsa accidentally strikes Anna in the head with her magical power, knocking her out and potentially killing her. If you’ve seen the movie, you may recall that this one accident creates years of separation and agony for those sisters and that family.

For me, this event and Gilbert’s talk really connected. In Frozen, Elsa’s fear of hurting her family prevents her from doing what she loves – playing and spending time with them. She isolates herself. For Elizabeth Gilbert, her initial failure in writing pressures her to quit and then, once she is successful, her success – for fear of subsequent failure – threatens to prevent her from doing what she loves; writing. We are all unique, bringing with us different talents – both innate and developed – and experiences. When we let traumatic events and potential negative outcomes discourage us from doing what we love, we suffer, as do those around us.

While Gilbert’s talk is short (about 7 minutes), Frozen is not (almost two hours), and thus it is filled with other important and related lessons, which I believe can help all of us to stay on track when it comes to doing what we love.

  • Make mistakes, own them, and don’t cover them up. It may take a day or 20 years, but these cover-ups nearly always come back to haunt us. Mistakes are simply lessons to be learned (see my blog post on The Power of Failure) and are important for personal and professional growth and development.
  • Know how and whom to ask for support. It is simply amazing the willingness of most people to help others. Typically, the only thing stopping us from receiving that help is ourselves, because we don’t ask. Family and close friends are good first choices, but sometimes if we keep our eyes open, help will come from the most unlikely people, so long as we are open to receive it.
  • Change your perspective; turn your weaknesses into strengths. Often, we consider weaknesses to be weaknesses because others tell us they are or they have been a liability for us at one point or another. If we can find a little time to figure out how they might actually be helpful – for example, maybe through empowering others to shine – we can make them assets, not deficits.
  • Never give up, but give up being perfect. In her TED Talk Never, ever give up Diane Nyad discusses her lifelong pursuit of swimming from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage. She was 64 years old when she finally did it and had tried several times previously. It may take a lot to accomplish your dreams, but truly nothing is impossible if you have passion, drive, and support. At the same time, being perfect is impossible and the extra effort it takes to even get close is often not worth the cost (e.g. anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation, etc.). Plus, perfection is not often driven from within, but through a need to satisfy external forces. Just do what you love and try to learn from the things you do.
  • Control your impulses; take the time to think. Gilbert talks about how our true passion is that one thing we do that we love more than ourselves. Yet, it is easy to let unhealthy passions dominate our actions. Whether these actions benefit us physically, economically, socially, or otherwise, nearly always, uncontrolled impulses lead to bad outcomes. It is always important to take the time to think of the short- and long-term ramifications of our actions.

AERA and NCME Annual National Conference – 2014

As I sit here tonight reflecting on the past several days out in Philadelphia, I can’t help but be amazed. Amazed by this city, amazed by my colleagues, and amazed by what I have learned.

Let’s start with the city of Philadelphia. I probably only explored a tiny fraction of what I could have seen (I hate that I didn’t get a chance to see the Rocky statue, but time just didn’t allow for that), but that was enough to give me goose bumps. The most profound moment had to be standing in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington Square (below is a picture of this). The quote on the monument read, “Freedom is a light for which many have died in darkness.” It gave me pause to remember those who have served this great country and the sacrifices they were willing to make to keep us safe and to preserve the freedom we are so lucky to have. Sitting in Congress Hall and seeing where our country’s first representatives and senators met so long ago gave me a lot of perspective as well. First, just how BIG everything has gotten in our world. To see such a small and modest building – no doubt elegant for that time period – reminded me that what we often think is valuable now (e.g. the flashiest, biggest, or most expensive) is only a psychological construction in our minds. Visiting these monuments solidified in me the importance of history – not just of this country – but in our relationships with family, friends, and peers. As it applies to leadership, the monuments and history reminded me of what great leaders can do through making tough choices, developing common goals others can rally around, and understanding and making sacrifices when necessary.


Speaking of leaders, the AERA (the American Educational Research Association) and NCME (the National Council on Measurement in Education) annual national conferences took place in Philadelphia as well. I have no idea just how many attendees came this year, but there were well over 100 sessions for each time slot each day, so I don’t doubt the number was large. As amazing as Philadelphia was, my colleagues at the conference were even more so. This was my first time at AERA/NCME and I was in for a treat. I was able to network with and learn from some of the brightest researchers in the field. Their passion, professionalism, work, and knowledge were impressive. What set this conference apart from many I have been to was the willingness to embrace the peer review process. Lots of questions were asked and presenters were often excited at the prospect of investigating new ideas and questions proposed by attendees. Ultimately, I left with a number of new connections and possible collaborations that I would never have had the opportunity to find without this conference.

Each session I attended was quite well done and my brain was quickly on overload each day. I was able to attend sessions on how to measure student performance in game-based learning, how to evaluate games in learning, useful technology tools for research, evaluating implementation and intervention, modes and impacts of technology use for learning, qualitative research data collection and analysis, IRT measurement methods, grit, 21st century skills, creative thinking, testing and its impact on schools and teachers, and equity/achievement gap measurement and programs research, just to name a few. Even the NCME annual breakfast featured a presentation from the President of NCME, Vim van der Linden. It truly was a marathon of a conference in terms of learning! What I took away from all of my learning is just how much research we do have out there as educators and leaders in K-12 education. I left with a number of good ideas to meet the needs of students and teachers in my own District. And, of course, I tweeted what I was learning often, an example of which can be found below (make sure to check out the picture from Damian Betebenner’s presentation Thursday afternoon).

As I leave Philadelphia tomorrow, I will leave with a lot of pride for the field I am a part of. I was so very humbled by the work ethic, passion, integrity, and diversity of the other attendees at the conference. I was particularly impressed with not just the technical skill people brought with them, but with their empathy and desire to use their skills to help our students and families. I am truly grateful to be a part of AERA and NCME – two great professional organizations – and I am already looking forward to next year!

Design Thinking in Education

Recently, I’ve participated in a number of design thinking events and become much more interested in the design thinking process as a way to improve the way we serve students, families, teachers, and other stakeholders in our schools and districts. You see, more design thinking, in my opinion, would be useful in education because it is concerned with understanding the human experience related to the products and services being designed. Education, of course, is at its core a human institution.

In my experience, “products and services” are often thought of as “programs” in education and when educators think about programs, they typically think about data, accountability, and evaluation. Accountability is associated with worrying about things like scientific rigor and statistics. With accountability, educators also worry about getting positive results, so much so that they often cannot explain well how they got (or didn’t get) them. This fear drives educators to resist data collection (“I already know where kids are”), avoid using data (“I don’t understand this data, so I’m going to go with my gut, even though the two conflict”), or, under extreme pressure, choose to engage in unethical behavior to influence the data (e.g. this USA Today article on the Atlanta cheating scandal).

Our thinking about the role of data in program implementation and evaluation is backwards. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for rigorous research, evaluation, and statistics in education and quality of data also matters, but before any of that matters, people have to be willing to use the services and products designed in the first place. Without this, no amount of statistical certainty or rigor matters. In the TED Talk How Behavioral Science can Lower Your Energy Bill, Alex Laskey talks about how, in his study, logic did not generally motivate people to change their practice (in his case, a desire to be “in the norm” did). As this applies to education, leaders cannot believe that telling stakeholders that a program has been proven to raise achievement will necessarily be enough for them to adopt it. Investing a lot of time and money into implementing broad-based programs with little or no investigation into how stakeholders will react to it is a recipe for failure. This is where design thinking comes in.

A related concept in design thinking (and probably elsewhere) is called “failing fast”. Basically, failing fast means rapid prototyping and user feedback loops at the beginning of a project to avoid big costs in terms of time and money. With quick prototype-feedback loops, leaders can still make a change to implementation for a relatively low cost. Because they’re gathering feedback directly from stakeholders, this also means that the human element is a part of the project from the start, improving the chances that people will actually use said service or product. I think this is really important with any program implementation in education. Most research looks at the “average” in terms of effectiveness, yet we know that no program is going to fit every environment (or kid, for that matter) the same. I think design thinking can help to bridge that gap.

Design thinking really has potential to be a useful tool for individual teachers as well. The term “action research” – a worn-out buzzword/phrase in education – comes to mind here. Fear of data and statistics can be a huge barrier to action-research, immobilizing teachers from trying something new or evaluating the things they do try. The truth is that effective action research is messy. The goal is not to generalize the findings to all schools in the US; it is to improve a service or product in one classroom. It is entirely possible that a little idea in one classroom that works might just be the next big thing in education, but it’s not usually the case that it is designed that way – and that’s probably why it works. Design thinking can help to bridge a gap here as well as it calls out to teachers to actually try something new in a low-stakes manner. It says, “It is OK if you get this wrong, as long as you’re engaging students in the process of evaluating the changes you’re making.”

Data is a critical component of driving action research and design thinking. I think the accountability movement has made data very unpalatable for many of us working in education. Yet, when a person wants to lose weight, they are much more likely to accomplish that task if they’re monitoring the data – weight, food intake, and exercise. In a design-thinking paradigm, they might self-reflect on whether or not they like their plan in terms of experience and make changes as needed. In the book The Power of Habit, Duhigg talks about how close monitoring of habits (e.g. patterns of when we bite our nails, one piece of data) can expose us to behaviors and motivations we would never have noticed otherwise. Teachers survive on patterned routines for the sake of efficiency. While this is a necessity, it is equally necessary to occasionally monitor those routines closely to better understand how they impact all kids. I believe most teachers want to help all kids achieve at high levels. Design thinking can be an effective way to make this process more fun, less scary, and more successful.

Outcome data isn’t enough; a person can lose weight by simply not eating or by taking diet pills, but neither of those solutions are good ones in the long run. As educators, we could improve test scores in a number of different unethical ways (e.g. Atlanta), but none of those are good for kids in the long run either. We have to also monitor how we get kids there and what their experience is to be sure we are getting the outcomes we want in the ways we can live with.

Ultimately, a design thinking approach is not just a human-centered and effective approach to changing our systems to better meet the needs of stakeholders, but also a great way to foster creativity and innovation in our schools. With design thinking, educators model for kids how to think outside of the box, inexpensively try out new ideas, and collect feedback from others in a constructive way. They also reinforce the idea that one never stops learning. Finally, when educators involve students in the design thinking process, they help students learn self-efficacy and promote school pride by empowering students to positively impact the environment in which they learn.

Tips for data use in a design-thinking paradigm in a school or classroom:

  • Involve teachers, students, and parents
  • Make it fun
  • Start small
  • Use a design-thinking model (Gamestorming has a lot of good resources) to help with the ideation-prototyping-feedback process
  • Do something! Make a prototype and don’t stress over how “pretty” it is
  • Try it out on “end-users” (e.g. teachers, students, and parents); collect their feedback and make changes
  • Make sure you’re getting a wide-range of feedback; don’t just ask for feedback from those who will tell you it’s good
  • Make data collection practical. Choose to monitor things that make sense and are easy to collect. Be creative
  • Make sure to collect both implementation (how you’re doing it) and outcome data (what impact it is having)
  • Share your successes and failures widely. Learn from each other

Global Service Jam 2014

This past weekend – March 7-9, 2014 – I had an opportunity to participate in my second “Jam”, the Global Service Jam 2014. A Jam, which I explained in much more detail in my blog post about Ed Jam last fall, is an intense design thinking experience, which involves somewhere around 24 hours of effort across a weekend. This year involved over 100 cities worldwide, where teams created ideas and prototypes using design thinking. You can see many of the projects developed at the Global Service Jam website or by searching #GSJam on Twitter.

For the Twin Cities Jam (@twincitiesjam on Twitter), we were lucky enough to be able to use the Zipnosis offices in downtown Minneapolis, which gave us access to people from all walks of life. We also happened to be there on one of the first “warm” weekends in Minnesota, after a miserable winter, which had people out and about. One of the most important aspects of this design thinking model is to gather “user” feedback and we definitely had access to lots of potential users.

My team ended up focusing originally on the question, “How might we personalize living space?” We paired off and walked the streets of Minneapolis to gather ideas from people. My Jam partner Laura and I set off for the Hennepin County Library. When we got there, we spoke with a library employee, a homeless man, and a homeless woman. We also spoke with a police officer and employee at Whole Foods Market across the street. The interesting thing we found was that, although we asked people about space, they often told us about relationships, experiences, and values instead. It was an amazingly powerful experience to have people willing to talk to us (only one person turned us down) and share their personal world. I will say I am definitely changed forever having that experience.

As we returned to our Jam space for lunch, we began to review our notes and talk about what problem we would like to solve. We resonated with the story from the young homeless woman and her struggles. After hours of frustration, illumination, and conversation, we began to see a pattern around the cyclical nature of homelessness, mental health, and addiction. And thus, our idea was born.

Recently, I had read a book, The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, that talked about how our habits and routines can be interrupted by being replaced. Treatment and 12-step programs have been around for a long time and the book referenced Alcoholics Anonymous as a replacement habit for alcoholics. Also recently, I had viewed the documentary, The Anonymous People, which discussed, among many things, the lack of long-term care and recovery programs for alcoholics and addicts. In early February, we were reminded that addiction is a disease by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. There is certainly no shortage of controversy around the topic of addiction and recovery, as discussed in this New York Post article. Nevertheless, we journeyed on with the hopes of creating a prototype that could enhance the long-term success of a recovering alcoholic/addict.

In terms of design, we talked about how predictive analyitics, also discussed in The Power of Habit and illustrated in this NY Times article, could be used to provide interruptions and suggestions to recovering alcoholics and addicts via technology (we used a watch, but this could really be anything). By creating a database of issues, addictions, history, and support structures – such as sponsors and plans/goals – during a treatment phase and with a knowledgeable counselor, such a device/system could be programmed to provide interruptions/reminders and suggestions for replacement activities during potential critical moments. These critical moments could be triggered, for example, by changes in patterns around physical (e.g. rapid heart rate), location (e.g. negative spaces), and time (e.g. lack of attendance at support groups) data. This system could also evolve over time, eliciting feedback from the user about successes and failures, matching situations to interruptions and options that lead to successful outcomes. We believed this predictive component could anticipate situations before they take place, providing an early intervention that is personalized, and avoiding repeating the cycle of addition and the negative outcomes that come with it.

Of course, much like existing treatment and support methods around addiction, this system would have to be “opt-in” by users. We talked at length about avoiding a model that, for example, would call people for the user. Instead, the device would take an empowering psychological approach to successful habit replacement via early intervention, interruption, and choice, all connected to existing support structures, such as a counselor, support community, and family. Certainly, much like existing support structures for addicts and alcoholics, this system likely would not yield a 100% success rate. If it could enhance existing systems and even increase success rates even a few percent more, however, it would be a worthy endeavor. Check out our final “prototype” on the Global Service Jam site.

So, to sum up my experience… it was powerful and I would highly recommend a Jam to anyone in any industry. Given where we started (how to personalize living space), it was amazing to see what my group came up with in terms of a prototype (in fact, such a shift from the original idea to the final prototype is not all that uncommon in design thinking). Other groups also came up with great prototypes, including a website for people to find ethically created clothing and ways to gather community feedback from those community members who might not regularly access online feedback mechanisms. It was also an amazing networking experience and an opportunity to work with people from other industries. Speaking of which, a big shout out to Mayo Clinic and their Center for Innovation who made a generous donation to help make the weekend possible. In addition to Zipnosis, who I already mentioned let us use their offices for the weekend, I’d like to also thank Ecostatic, whose amazing Slicky Notes helped us to organize our ideas (featured in many of the pictures on Twitter).

Force and Motion

Tonight, I had the honor of seeing Malcolm Gladwell at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, MN, being interviewed by Kerri Miller of Minnesota Public Radio (below is the picture of Malcolm and I as he signed my copy of his book).


It was an amazing experience that I was able to share with my friends/co-workers. The topic was his new book David and Goliath (a great TED talk about the book can be found here). One of the topics discussed in his book is the interaction of environment and challenge and how that interaction impacts long term outcomes for people. One relationship he specifically discusses is dyslexia and entrepreneurship. He has found through interviews and research that a number of entrepreneurs have dyslexia and he postulates that this success is the result of how these individuals had to innovate and adapt due to their dyslexia.

As it pertains to the environmental factors, this got me thinking about physics, which is another one of my interests. Newton’s third law of motion specifies that, “When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body.” As I was riding home with some of the people I attended with, I came to the conclusion that the bigger the challenge we face, the bigger the outcome for us, good or bad. Gladwell, in his story, talks about how, although dyslexia might be overrepresented in entrepreneurs, not all people with dyslexia have that positive outcome. In fact, many also end up in prison. This is what I’m talking about. An extreme challenge ending in extreme outcomes. Now, that’s not to say those are the only outcomes people with dyslexia have; obviously, that’s not the case. But, it is an interesting idea to ponder.

So, what does this mean for us as individuals and our environment? Although many say it’s the small stuff that matters, the bigger challenges we face in life may be the ones that help shape the paths in our lives the most and our environment is a huge factor in which direction that path will take. In addition to Gladwell, I’m also reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown (here is a great TED Blog on her book). I wrote a lot about Brown in my other blog post on mindfulness. I think the topic has merit in this discussion too and I believe our environment – upbringing, the people around us, how we treat each other, etc. – is directly related to it. In Daring Greatly, Brown talks an awful lot about how shame and resistance to vulnerability shape our lives. I think people who face the biggest challenges, but who also have a sense of “worthiness” (as Brown calls it) are probably some of our most successful people. The topic of failure (of which I also have written about) is also important here. If we are unwilling to take risks because we are afraid of failing (related to shame and worthiness AND our environment), we are less likely to be willing to face challenges and, with the ones we do face, we are unlikely to successfully navigate them (e.g. less likely to deal with them, acknowledge them, or ask for support in getting through them).

What I really like about both Gladwell and Brown is that they tell stories first and then back them up with their research. The numbers serve to add credibility to their stories, but the main drivers to get people to see the world differently and change their behavior are the stories. We see statistics all the time; particularly in education. But logic does not always motivate people. In February of 2013, Alex Laskey gave a TED Talk on how behavioral science can inform how to motivate people to decrease energy use. What I took from this talk is that changing behavior for most people does not happen through logic (saving money) or even morality (saving the environment). Instead, what changes behavior for people is what their neighbors do, particularly when this leaves an individual “outside the norm”. That is, in their experiment, the only tactic that led to people decreasing their energy usage was telling them that their neighbors used less. We tend to react in the way that puts us in harmony with our environment.

So, how can we positively influence our environment so that challenge results in positive outcomes? If we want to change our world, we have to do it through telling stories and influencing culture. Taking it back to Newton, the force that will motivate people to change is the stories we tell about others and how they connect to those stories. How they connect is largely influenced by the environment in which they live, so understanding their culture and which stories are the right ones to tell is critical. At the end of the day, the human race is exactly that: human. The numbers can tell us the topics we need to discuss, but they will not motivate people to change.


A friend once told me, “Depression is worrying about the past, anxiety is worrying about the future, but mindfulness is living in the moment.” It made me think about all of the stress in our lives – relationships, work, money, etc. – and the impact those have on our lives. In my last blog post, I talked about how embracing failure is what makes us the most successful. I also talked about how people resist failure, either because they are exhausted (pseudo-fixed mindset) or believe they cannot be any better than they are now (fixed mindset). These ideas suggest that resisting failure is a manifestation of depression and anxiety. So, how can we overcome our worries of the past and future so we can grow? The answer, I believe, is not just what we can do as individuals to help ourselves, but what we can do collectively to help each other.

A 2010 TED Talk from Brene Brown discussed the power of vulnerability in how we live our lives. Brene talks about how we are hardwired for struggle when we are born, but some people are taught to focus on perfection as they get older. This pursuit of perfection creates unhealthy ways of living. I connect it back to the fixed mindset. When we believe we cannot be any better than we are now or do not feel we have the will to take a chance, we feel shame, we feel unproductive, and we spiral into depression and anxiety (or perhaps manifestations of these, like anger). So, what differentiates people who can take those chances to fail? According to Brene Brown, it starts with vulnerability. Just like we are born to deal with struggle, we are born with a need for connection. Vulnerability is about a willingness to show our true selves to others, without a guarantee on what we will get back from them (ridicule, support, etc.). True and meaningful connection is not possible without vulnerability. As I see it, this means asking for feedback or help, in particular when we think we are not performing well or don’t have the answers we need.

Instead of asking for feedback, all too often, we choose to hide our shortcomings and hope no one will notice. In the book, Spiritual Capital: Wealth We Can Live By by Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall, the Scale of Motivations is discussed. This scale, which can be found here, suggests that what motivates us can be good or bad. My belief is that what puts people on either side of the scale has everything to do with Brown’s discussion around vulnerability. When we are open to feedback, feel connected, and are willing to embrace struggle, we will be motivated by things like curiosity, creativity, and power-within (for a fascinating discussion of turning struggle into opportunity, see the TED Talk Embrace the Shake). When are close ourselves to feedback, isolate ourselves, and avoid conflict, we will be motivated by things like fear and shame.

Getting back to my original point about how we all have a role in whether or not people are willing to embrace failure, let me suggest that the key word here is connected. Brown, in her talk, said, “Shame is a fear of disconnection.” Again, we cannot be connected to others without being willing to share our shortcomings; to be seen for who we really are. We cannot share our shortcomings if we cannot overcome our shame about them. She also says that those who are willing to be vulnerable have a sense of worthiness; a sense of love and belonging. In the book Spiritual Capital, the authors suggest that someone higher up on the Scale of Motivations can move someone lower on the scale up. So, we all have a responsibility to show each other that we are worthy of connection. Individuals cannot do it alone; we need to help each other. This, of course, means it is really important what we assume about, say to, and act towards those we come into contact with each and every day.

As the title of this blog would suggest, this is connected to mindfulness. In the book Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that mindfulness is “being in the moment.” When we are too hyper-focused on what has or what will happen to us, we miss everything taking place right in front of us. We fail to see the beautiful and inspiring aspects of day to day life. He also suggests that, even in the worst of situations, these things exist. When it comes to how we interact, I believe that when we are too focused on what has or will happen to us, we miss the chance to see the beauty in others around us. We act out with anger and blame or disconnect completely. This has a profound impact on those around us, whether we choose to see it or not.

So, the main point here? We all have a responsibility in setting up others for success. We have to pay attention to our environment and the people in it. If we can, we have a responsibility to pick up those around us when they need support. We also need to work on asking for support and feedback when we need it. Einstein defined insanity as doing things the same way and expecting different results. Change in our environment and others begins with change in ourselves. Take time to listen and be “in the moment.” Take a risk and open up to those around you. These are the building blocks of an environment that embraces failure and promotes the success and well-being of everyone in it.

The Power of Failure

I believe I have lived my life by the famous quote, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” No doubt I have seen some success in my life, but that has been the result of a lot of trial and error. Thomas Watson (President of IBM in the early 1900s) captured this idea well when he said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” Statistically, this makes sense; by random chance alone, if you try a bunch of stuff, you’re likely to be successful at something. If you don’t try, your chances are exactly 0. Yet, that is exactly what often happens; people fear failure and therefore avoid even trying.

Carol Dweck covered the idea of fear of failure well in her 2007 book Mindset. The idea is that if we believe our ability is fixed, trying to do something beyond those abilities is futile. Protect your image and knowledge; what you have now is all you’ll ever have. Life is a poker game and we’re all bluffing. Don’t ever let anyone else know what you’re holding or they’ll use it against you.

Despite understanding the power of failure well, I still occasionally shy away from failure and focus on – heck, celebrate – what I have accomplished instead. Why? Mostly, I don’t want to look like a failure in front of my colleagues, family, and friends.

I have a three year old, beautiful daughter named Kennedy. As she learns new things at such a rapid pace, we celebrate every little milestone. Almost everything she has learned has been the result of failure, yet we celebrate her effort, even if she isn’t successful right away. A recent TED talk by Deb Roy provides a very neat data visualization of the birth of a word (“water”) by his young son through lots of trial and error. Little kids fail all the time and, for the most part, don’t sweat it; except for the occasional bumps and bruises, from which they quickly rebound. They aren’t worried about how they look in front of their parents. Why do they do it? Innate curiosity – they are born with it.

So, given we are born to fail first and generally taught to celebrate the experience, why do we sometimes lose sight of the positive power of failure?

I think there is a pseudo-fixed mindset associated with exhaustion (this is the one I occasionally suffer from). Failure can occasionally take a lot of effort. It can be personally exhausting (my instinct tells me this is probably more true for introverts; for an interesting take on the effects of introversion and extroversion on success in leadership, check this article out by Daniel Pink in the Washington Post). I recently started following @fred_beecher on Twitter. He posted a link the other day to another blog that inspired me to write this blog post. The title of the blog? “My employees reviewed me, and I kind of suck.” Elegant and to the point. All jokes aside, the post captures a very important idea. Learning from failure requires an openness to acknowledge that it exists. That means we have to admit that, as individuals, we aren’t that special. For those in leadership, it means humbling yourself and not abusing your power and influence over others. It also means that often everyone knows when you fail. That can be mentally draining too.

So, like Watson said, should we just throw ourselves at the world? Maybe, but a recent article in Wired would suggest otherwise. Although the article is about start-ups, the discussion in the article reminds me that sometimes the risk of failing can be significant (for example, when lots of money or the livelihoods of others are on the line). In some moments, we have to shine. But, then again, failure is what sets us up for those moments. As Malcolm Gladwell discussed in his book Outliers, experts typically have 10,000 or more hours of practice.

Still with me? Bringing this all together, I think, as leaders, we can do a lot to harness the power of failure to make our workplaces more successful:

  • Encourage experimentation. You and your team can learn a lot by letting people work on challenging problems or things they are interested in without fear of failure (check out this recent article on Google’s 20% time). Remember, we are born curious and taught to be cautious with that curiosity.
  • Use celebration to relieve exhaustion. It is tough to change pure fixed mindset people, but the “pseudo-fixed mindset” brand who avoid failure because it is exhausting can be brought back to life through celebration. In particular, celebrate failure. Acknowledge effort, give feedback, and provide support.
  • Make it clear when the stakes are high. I cannot imagine anything more destructive and deflating than putting someone in a position where the outcome is critical and they either don’t know it or aren’t prepared. This is a surefire way to kill trust. Make sure people have the practice, skills, and knowledge to be successful in these situations.
  • Build your workplace on feedback. Like curiosity, children also respond positively to feedback. People want to learn. When feedback is fair, specific, and combined with support, you show people you are trustworthy. In another recent TED Talk, Onora O’Neill talks about how trust is not built, but given when people sense others are trustworthy.

Lots of books have been written on this topic. John Maxwell’s Failing Forward comes to mind.

Other thoughts? Leave a comment.

Ed Jam – Twin Cities

This past weekend, I attended Ed Jam – Twin Cities in south Minneapolis, MN. What an AMAZING experience! It made me think a lot about how we gather feedback from our “users” – teachers, students, and parents – when we implement new systems and services.

Ed Jams – and Global Service Jams – use design thinking (a helpful site showing design thinking examples in education can be found here), collaboration, and intense focus (around 24 hours of it over 2.5 days) to solve a problem. Ed Jam – Twin Cities was focused on closing the achievement gap.

For me, the most helpful part of the Jam was being able to work with non-educators (from industries like IT and health) and even kids (including students from District 833, where I work) on the problem. In my experience, we sometimes avoid ideas because they have been tried before or seem to simple. Gaining perspectives from experts in design thinking from outside of education made me clarify my ideas and helped us think outside the box. As well, working directly with students from our District was extremely insightful and helped me realize that we make a lot of assumptions about the experiences of our students without confirming them with those students.

Of course, having such an intense focus for an extended and continuous period of time was also helpful, but so were the little things to keep us going. The Ed Jam organizers did a good job of injecting small and short presentations by experts in the field of design thinking to keep us on track and productive. They also had lots of little things to play with (play-doh, for example) and snacks to keep us energized. The Jam was affordable ($40) and free for high school students.

At the end of the workshop, we also had a chance to present our “prototypes” to a panel of judges from the field of education. It was time-bound (6 minutes), which forced us to be precise and to focus on the value propositions of our ideas. We also were asked important clarifying questions and provided with feedback, as well as awards (ours was the most “forward thinking”… awesome!).

My biggest take-aways?

  • Don’t talk, do. We all too often throw away ideas because we want to argue about their supposed merits, without ever trying them. Instead, we should prototype them (i.e. try them out) and gather feedback.
  • Gather feedback from your “end-users” (teachers or students) when evaluating the impact of your new system or service. And don’t just gather quantitative data (i.e. test scores); qualitative feedback provides such rich data on how or why something does or does not work.
  • Make sure you gather feedback from all or the most important end users. In the case of Ed Jam, the voices we probably needed to hear from the most – a representative group of students from the many achievement gaps we know exist – weren’t readily available and so we probably missed an opportunity.
  • Get feedback from experts too. Really, just gather a lot of feedback. The more perspectives and questions, the better.
  • Find time to FOCUS. We often make really important decisions “on the fly.” We are all busy, but to solve complex and difficult problems, we need to take the time to focus intensely on the solutions. This also connects people to the work, increasing the chances they will stick with it when times get tough.
  • Focus on the problem, not people. We’re all in this together! Sometimes personalities can get in the way of solutions. Again, don’t talk… do! When we evaluate solutions based on feedback rather than who they came from or whether we think they are good ideas, we create more opportunities to really solve problems.

I truly hope that we get to see another Ed Jam in the Twin Cities. It was an amazing experience and one I would definitely attend again!