Being Present

If you had one guess about where this photo was taken, what it would be?

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Hint: It was not at a school, but couldn’t it be? It is a great example of what a vision and mission could look like in any educational setting. In fact, I plan to share it with my Leadership Team in the near future.

It was captured this weekend in Appleton, Wisconsin. My family was celebrating both of my kids’ birthdays. Activities that interested our four- and six-year-old include pizza and arcade games, an indoor water park, bunk beds in the hotel, and playing with new toys until they passed out.

To be as present as I could be for my family, I made it a point to not check my smart phone very much. In fact, it was used mostly as a GPS device on the way to our destination and back. The only reading device I brought with me was of the paper variety (and a good one at that: 11/22/63 by Stephen King). Email was purposefully ignored. Whatever the message was, it could wait.

The phrase “Filling the Well” seems to be used often by writers and artists. My understanding is it is the process of removing outside distractions from one’s life in order to allow the mind to have new experiences and appreciate the world around us. Whole retreats and other events are hosted for this type of creative renewal.

Teachers and principals are also artists in a sense. We try to connect the known to the new and translate the complex into the concrete for our students. One of the best ways we can fill our wells and teach with consistent success and creativity is to be present as much as we can in our daily lives. For me, this means having a life outside of school and taking part in experiences that make me a more well-rounded person.

Now, I am as guilty as anyone for getting sucked into the Twitter vortex for time unending. I need periodic reminders to put down the device du jour and pay attention to what matters at the moment. Even this weekend, I checked my feed a few times and found some interesting articles and posts. But instead of reading them at that moment, I took advantage of a 21st century tool by saving those articles and posts to Instapaper to read later.

If I hadn’t been present this weekend, I may have missed a lot of important things. Like the bald eagle sitting in the middle of a barren corn field, spotted as we drove to our destination. Or the opportunity to show my kids how to use their new telescope and view the crescent moon tonight. Or even the great mission statement I took a photo of at Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Guest Post: “We’ve Got the Greener Grass”

What’s the answer to America’s educational woes? Two Harvard PhDs suggest that American public schools are the answer to Japan’s economic woes, that American schools are the gold standard when it comes to graduating innovators and risk takers. I edited the dissertations of these two Japanese scholars ten years ago. Both argued that Japan couldn’t extricate itself from ten years of recession, then known as the Lost Decade, because its school system didn’t produce the creative class that America’s schools did. Since then, there’s been another ten consecutive years of recession. These scholars noted that America enters and exits recessions. They attributed the exits to America’s creativity and they credited America’s schools for engendering that creativity.

There was a recent article in the New Yorker where Chinese people wondered why China hasn’t been an innovator for thousands of years. They recognized that China is quite clever in copying Western inventions, but bemoaned the lack of homegrown innovation. I urge you to look at the list of things invented in America at Wikipedia. It’s a staggering list. The Egyptians beat us to paper because they were around four thousand years ago and we weren’t, but the vast majority of the things that constitute modern living were first made in America. If those two Harvard PhDs are right, then America’s push to standardized testing and standardized schools could eventually be our economic undoing.

I’ve had the privilege of interviewing hundreds of people who collectively oversee millions of American workers. One is an M.I.T. PhD graduate who works at I.B.M.

“Whom do you hire?” I asked.

“I’m not real concerned with GPAs,” she replied. “I look for people who can recover from failure since 95% of what we do at I.B.M. is fail.”

I’ve had other corporate executives tell me that they too don’t chase those with high GPAs, for they’ve learned that many of them are grade chasers, avoiding the tough courses and the possibility of failure for the luster of a number. These executives told me that they look for someone who took the tough courses. If a candidate earned something other than an A, but took another hard course, that person is that much more attractive.

Executives also tell me that they need people who can collaborate, that “the systems and challenges are so complex that no one is brilliant enough to work alone anymore.”

So, if we’re to prepare our students for the professional challenges that await them, rather than chase higher test scores, we should continue to nurture creativity and provide opportunities to collaborate and fail. “Fail” might seem harsh, but failure sets up the opportunity to rebound from failure.

Lastly, the PhD at IBM, a woman who oversees 800 employees and has hired scores of them, said that if she had to choose between hiring a software engineer with a full focus on software engineering and a software engineer with an art minor, all other factors being equal, she’d hire the engineer with the art minor. “That engineer is more likely to consider a problem from a different perspective.”

Looking across the Pacific, the grass of higher test scores seems greener to America’s politicians who determine pedagogical policy. However, the view from Asia is one of a lush and creative America, one that extricates itself from recession again and again through the verve of its creative graduates, and one that has leveraged diverse education into world class innovation.

Katie McKy might just be the most booked children’s book author for school visits in the upper Midwest. She visits about 100 schools a year and has taught and entertained more than 300,000 children in the last decade. She also writes for many business magazines and so has had the opportunity to have CEOs, VPs, and COOs go off the record and truly say what they like and don’t like about America’s graduates. Read about Katie at http://www.katiemcky.com.