Timeless Learning

Three nationally known educators that I respect a great deal – Ira Socol, Chad Ratliffand Pam Moran, all from Virginia’s Albemarle County Public Schools – have a new book out called Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-based Thinking Change Schools. It’s dynamite, and here’s what the three of them had to say about it, school today, educating young people, and hurling. Enjoy!

What led the three of you to write this book? What was its impetus?

The three of us have been talking with each other about education for almost a decade. We all “met” in the early days of Twitter, and we’ve been challenging each other ever since. In 2010 we began working together in Albemarle County, and in ways big and small, we teamed with great educators there to transform the learning experience for every child. We’ve written about these transformations separately and together and presented to groups across the nation – and beyond – separately and together. We finally decided that this was a story worth putting together, a story that could both inspire and offer hope to educators everywhere.

Why the focus on progressive education? What drew you to write from that perspective and about that topic?

As Chad says at the start of one chapter, “There are really only two types of schooling, that which is meant to assimilate and oppress and that which is to enlighten and empower.” So there is “progressive education” – which to us means paying close attention to the “timeless” ways humans learn – or there is what we might call “adult-centric formal education.”  Ira adds in that same chapter, “We don’t ask kids to develop ‘grit,’ we choose to surround them with whatever abundance we can muster. We don’t choose adult comfort at the expense of children’s. We choose to do what our kids need.” That’s our viewpoint. We disagree, in profound ways, with both the high-stakes test culture and the “grit narrative.” We believe in children, in childhood, in curiosity, in exploration, in collaboration, in play.

You begin each chapter with dialogue among the three of you, which is often about philosophy. Do you ever disagree with each other? And, if so, what about?

We disagree a lot. Of course we do. Ira and Chad actually debated fiercely with each other on Twitter in 2007 and 2008, as they worked toward an understanding of what was important to them – Ira coming from a postcolonial view, Chad from a more entrepreneurial, changemaker position. Pam and Ira, Pam and Chad, or all three of us – we have argued and challenged each other through all of our time together. We arrive from different school experiences, from very different adult experiences, and we’ve had very different roles to play. So we will argue about what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, about how we work with others, about strategies, but we are brought together in our understandings of the need to do better for kids.

Who is the book’s audience – and why?

Timeless Learning doesn’t read like the typical education book of these days. It’s a complex, somewhat circular narrative because none of us are linear thinkers, and all three of us are storytellers by nature. That said, we think this is a great book for teachers for the hope it offers and the support it presents. We think that it’s very important reading for educational leaders in any role because it presents proven-on-the-ground beliefs and actions. For those studying education – either as pre-service teachers or as graduate students in leadership – Timeless Learning offers a different narrative, a different way of thinking about how to make schools great places for kids to be – great places for every kid. Parents, too, are finding value in the book.  Many parents of young children came through school in the “accountability era” which, in many schools, was a double-down on compliance-based, test prep schooling, and they don’t want their own children to endure that.

You write in the afterword that you purposefully avoided focusing on data. Why, particularly in this day and age?

There are all kinds of data; people need to remember that. Measuring children – or schools – on linear, numerical scales is one way; we just don’t think that’s necessarily the best way. Ira has called the 2002 grad-school-standard text Scientific Research in Education “the most dangerous book published this century,” much to the consternation of some of his graduate school professors. He says the book implied that only one method of research really mattered, and that method reduced human children to numbers. But we see a very different kind of data as essential. It may start where one of our Australian collaborators does, “Where do we count the moments when a kid smiles for the first time?,” as Tomaz Lasic has asked. Chad watches for that “closed down” teen who joins a conversation with her peers. Pam rides school buses, sits on the floor in classrooms, talks to kids cutting classes in high school corridors, looking for everything from mood to relationships. Ira looks at kids’ feet as they sit in classrooms and counts the number of kids moving on their own through hallways to measure boredom and trust. Our book is filled with data, just not what people today think is data.

Thinking about the title: What do you mean by “zero-based thinking”?

Zero-based thinking is, in education, this idea: Imagine if you’d never seen a school, never heard of a school. How might you plan to get our kids from four-year-olds to 18-year olds, or 22-year-olds? What would you do? What would you want to do? That sounds extreme, but it’s the way real change is developed. Pam often talks about the “Bell Labs Moment.” In the very early 1950s an AT&T executive challenged the entire Bell Labs staff, “the entire phone system of the United States has been destroyed; now, how would you build a new system?” In those days of copper wire, rotary dials, and mechanical switching, the engineers developed – over the next 12 months – everything we now have in phones. They developed the basics of push-button dialing, cell phones, messaging, and microwave transmissions, because they were freed from, as Tyack and Cuban say“tinkering towards utopia.”

Now, there’s a balance. We start with observation and mapping the present state; find out where you are. Then – this next step returns to that research model because it’s never about one change but it’s about moving toward the environment you want (use of space, pedagogy, technology, etc.) – begin the changes that move toward that zero-based desired state. That desired state for every child needs to be your north star.

Lastly, just what is “timeless learning”?

Humans…well, everything is born ready to learn. Watch a two-year-old explore her world. Watch a four-year-old play in a puddle. Kids learn at this incredible rate birth to four or five, and then we impose “formal” education and the learning curve collapses – and not just during school hours. We literally teach most kids that learning is boring and painful and that it comes from passive information intake.

Pam and Ira visited a school outside Limerick, Ireland a few years ago – a small primary school, pre-K through grade six, about 40-something kids and two teachers. The verbal skills, the collaboration skills, the vocabulary, and the depth of understanding was astounding. We noticed a few things; one was the multi-age nature of the school (common in Irish primary schools), another was the peer mentoring and support, still another was the consistent complex adult vocabulary the teachers used with the kids, and another was the level of responsibility the kids were entrusted with. But here was the main thing: the school culture was predicated on the County Tipperary obsession with the sport of hurling. Every child had a helmet and “hurley” (the wooden stick the game is played with) under their desk. When they took breaks from the classrooms, almost all the kids engaged in a mass free-for-all version of the game. It was beautiful to see, and it built this great combination of competitiveness and camaraderie that drove things forward. But not every kid played, and that was fine too. Small groups of others just played catch with their sticks or just talked. Just as in the classroom, one highly dyslexic fifth grader videoed other students reading and talking on an old broken-screen iPhone. He gathered information and knowledge differently, and again, that was fine.

The point is that “timeless learning” is learning. It isn’t school. It isn’t really formal education as we know it. It is taking the natural routes of learning and giving those back to children.


Get Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-based Thinking Change Schools online and from independent booksellers. And follow the authors on Twitter: @csratlff, @pammoran, @irasocol, and @timelesslrng.

Posted in Classroom, School, School district, Teachers, Teaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What I learned on my college campus visits

I was talking with someone this weekend, who told me that his three children did not undertake the traditional ritual of visiting college campuses before they applied but rather applied, got an admissions decision, and then decided to visit the campus as part of the final decision-making process. Now, I get that approach, particularly if a student is living overseas or does not have the time or the funds to see a handful of schools before applying.

Over the past several months, I’ve found our pre-application college visits to be incredibly eye-opening – and I think they’ve given our son some sense of these different campuses and what it’d be like to be on that campus for four years. I can’t imagine going into the application process without the information that we gathered during those various visits. These campuses are not “all the same” and therefore not worth visiting, as this gentleman told me the other day; to me they’re very, very different.

Now, yes, they’re not all that different when it comes to athletic facilities (stunning) and dining halls (with their innumerable choices). I was more interested in what I could pick up about the culture of each admissions office and, therefore, the culture of the college.

For example, on one tour, the admissions officer spent an inordinate amount of time on facts and figures as it relates to the admissions process – such as deadlines for applications – facts and figures that we could get online. It felt like a lecture, and I was reminded of our sour kindergarten orientation when we were told what forms to fill out and when. Contrast that visit with another during which the admissions rep gave an elegant description of the three “campuses” that students inhabit – the college itself, the city that surrounds it, and then a national/international context – all without a PowerPoint deck. It told me a great deal about the school, its beliefs, and its hopes for its students – and I can go look up the application deadline if I need it!

I appreciated the care that went into preparing people (such as the person that spoke about the three campuses) and materials for our visits. On one campus, we sat in an auditorium waiting for the info session to start, and running was a promotional video, its upbeat music soundtrack by various groups from the college.

There were wonderful unspoken moments on these tours too: At one college, in the wing where the office of admissions was situated, there was the college president’s office, right at the very front corner, the first office you saw as you walked in, the door to it wide open. That was a very obvious choice by the college to put that office there, and I loved the symbolism of it being front and center. (An added bonus: Stumptown coffee was served!) In contrast on another campus, our (poorly prepared) tour guide pointed to a window high on a tower and said that’s where the president resides. We squinted up at the window through the sunshine – and then hustled on to the next stop on the tour.

There were few moments of outright honesty and transparency during these visits, as colleges and universities pay a lot of attention to the story that’s told the moment that potential applicants land on campus (even if that story falls flat, as it did with our facts and figures lecture). Perhaps my favorite moment from one of our first tours was the care and attention that we got from a member of the college’s music department, outside the control of the admissions office. He’d just finished teaching, it was a hot and humid Southern afternoon, and he was sweating through his blue blazer, mopping at his brow. But that did not stop him as he excitedly walked us around the music building, up and down stairs, even interrupting a student’s lesson to intro us to the professor giving it. This music department tour guide was a wonderful mess – and it told me a lot about that department and how things might work at the larger college and the city surrounding it. Luckily, there were more unscripted moments like this during other campus tours.

The college application process can be stress-filled for high school students and their families, but the college visit part of that process is not at all, in my opinion. Each visit is like an archaeological dig, unearthing information about the college or university with each utterance from a student guide, with each dorm room selected to see, with each slide from the PP deck used for the info session. For me, these visits were a great kick off for the rest of process; they told me a lot about what turned out to be very, very different places.

I got the first pic from here. I got the second one here.

Posted in Post-secondary | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

More on AP classes

(I shared my AP course post from Jul 11 with my friend and former colleague Robyn Harper; here’s what she had to say about AP.)

Public schools (both high school and college) often have to compete with private school in a number of ways. Public school graduates often feel inferior to private school graduates, regardless of the actual performance of the private school or its students. In some places, public schools have to compete with private schools for both students and funding.

Of course, private schools must operate in a way that attracts new students to their doors, but I think it’s important to understand that because the general public tends to have a biased view of private schools as “better” or more “forward thinking,” the decisions that they make around curriculum truly do influence the public opinion and expectations for what “the best education” looks like.

While AP courses leave a lot to be desired, for a lot of students, including myself, the worst AP course available to me [in my high school] offered rigor far beyond what was offered in the standard classes. Not to mention there are still so many students that don’t have access to even those.

AP courses offer public schools at least an objective measure of equitable access to rigor that can serve as a starting point to address the deeper issues that you do in your blog. However, if private schools are changing the “trend” and AP courses are no longer seen as a mark of rigorous coursework, how do we expect public students (especially from underserved schools) to compete?

If the AP courses I took in high school were dismissed as not being good enough by college admissions officers, I don’t know if I would have gotten the acceptances I did. I’m not saying that I even passed the AP tests – just the fact that I took the courses and did well in them were evidence that I performed well in the most rigorous coursework available to me.

So while private schools may be better to hold themselves accountable to ensure rigor without AP courses, I still believe [these classes] set the tone for public schools that still need objective measures of rigor for both accountability and equity.

Perhaps it would be important then for private schools who do choose to move away from AP to also take up the responsibility of developing and testing a measure of rigor to share with everyone else.

Posted in Classroom, School, School district, Teaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Getting rid of AP classes

Last month, I read this opinion piece in the WaPo, in which eight DC area private school heads state that “we will better equip our students for further study and for life beyond the classroom by eliminating AP courses from our curriculums entirely by 2022.” I agree with them – that in this day and age, an Advanced Placement class, with its emphasis on breadth of knowledge and not depth, is out of line with a 21st century education. But I was also discomforted by what I read. These highly prestigious and sought after DC independent schools can do whatever they want when it comes to curriculum, and while it might impact the kind of courses offered, the curricular approach of any of these schools, it will not impact their admissions numbers or bottom line. People will still form a line around the block to apply to and, each applicant hopes, get into them. In short, this is an easy decision for them to make.

But it’s not an easy decision for less prestigious private schools or, for that matter, public schools, particularly those that serve historically underserved young people. A rigorous curriculum should be the hallmark of any school – should be a requirement for any school – and since the early 1950s, when AP was first introduced, a school’s slate of AP classes have epitomized that. More often than not, they were the hardest classes in any school, taught by the best teachers, with students in them who were preparing for college and college-level work. And as this one-pager from the Alliance for Excellent Education states, “National and international research finds that a challenging academic curriculum is one of the most powerful levers to boost student learning and narrow achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.”

So, yes, there are complaints about Advanced Placement, as many have written before me: That the courses are not like college courses; that students no longer get college credit for taking them and making a score of a 4 or 5; that more and more students, prepared or not, are being pushed into them, resulting in poor scores on the AP test and a poor course experience for all; and that minority students do not enroll in these classes like their white peers. But while I applaud these private school leaders for taking a stand and for moving their schools beyond Advanced Placement, this kind of action needs to be more carefully considered for other school settings. At schools such as Sidwell and Maret and Holton-Arms, there is significant rigor in classes that are not AP; that may not be true in a more typical school setting, with AP still setting that bar.

Therefore, getting rid of your AP courses? OK, cool. How then will rigor be an everyday part of other classes at your school or in your school district? (In fact, how is it now, even with your AP classes?) How will you ensure that all students will be able to access these classes – and that there is the preparatory classes in elementary and middle school, to prepare all students for rigorous high school classes? And how will you communicate to post-secondary institutions what you’re doing, so that they know about this change and what classes will now set the highest bar for students?

I got the above image here.


Posted in Classroom, School, School district, Teachers, Teaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment

#Neuromyths – or There is No Right Brain/Left Brain

I overheard someone the other day talking to a companion about my “right brain” and was struck by how much detail this person went into – detail that is, scientifically speaking, completely untrue. The left brain/right brain dichotomy that we ascribe to learners and learning typically translates into people think you’re left-brained if rational and objective or right-brained if intuitive and creative. Well, no, the brain does not work that way. It’s a neuromyth, which is a common misconception about the brain and brain research that we often ascribe to people and learning.

I touched on this issue in a post back in June. What are some other common neuromyths?

  • A common sign of dyslexia is seeing letters backwards.
  • Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.
  • We only use 10% of our brain.
  • The eating of sugar has a detrimental impact on attention.
  • Playing brain-training games can help improve your memory, concentration, or intelligence.
  • Brain development is finished by the time children reach puberty.
  • Learning happens when new cells are added to the brain.
  • Listening to classical music increases a child’s reasoning ability – also called the Mozart Effect.

You can find more. Just Google “neuromyth.”

Now, why bother worrying about this stuff? Well, there are teachers that hold on to these myths, even though they fly in the face of the research. This 2012 study conducted in the UK and Netherlands showed that 80% of teachers believed in the left brain/right brain and learning styles myths. Think of the impact that those beliefs have on teaching, on how a classroom is constructed to be the most effective for students. Think too about how teachers might categorize students. That person that I overheard talking about his “right brain”? Did he have a teacher that put him in that bucket many years ago and he’s been there ever since, no matter that those buckets are not based in fact and research?

Let me try and end this quick post more positively: Teachers that are well versed in the science of learning, that understand their students neuro-developmentally – it is they that will be more effective than those that do not. But understanding is just one important step. Crafting a classroom and pedagogy that align with this understanding is a next step – and a much more critical one – and arming students with knowledge about their own neuro-development is an important part of this work. There is a lot of talk these days about student agency, and to me the ultimate student agency is knowing how the brain, the organ of learning, works best.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.


Posted in Classroom, Parents, School, School district, Teachers | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

She lived an extraordinary life

My mother-in-law died last week, and I miss her very much. Hard to imagine this world without her. Read my wife’s tribute below, and you will miss her too.


Truda Cleeves Jewett died peacefully at home on October 18, 2017. She lived an extraordinary life.

She answered to Truda, T., or Mom. Occasionally to T-Bone. She spent her childhood in Marblehead, MA, Keeseville, NY and Fort Myers, FL. She was the oldest of six siblings, whose bonds were forged through love and solidarity mixed with considerable mischief.

In Marblehead, T. shared a love for sailing and racing with Link Jewett. Their meeting — on a boat, of course — was inevitable. They married in 1954. In Link, T. had found a partner whose sense of curiosity about the world and love for travel aligned with her own. At the same time, he was her lighthouse, giving her the bearings to explore ever farther afield yet always find her way back to safe harbor. T. and Link spent the early years of their marriage in Cambridge, MA and Washington, DC. In DC, T took up golf and within months became women’s champion at Congressional Country Club, a title she held for three years running. They moved in 1963 to Darien, CT, where they raised their two daughters, Lisa and Lolly, and have remained since. Between them they logged countless hours and nautical miles on successive powerboats, Sam Cat and Sam Cat II.

From an early age T. had a mind of her own, along with the daring and adventurousness to put it to good use. She traveled to dozens upon dozens of countries around the earth — throughout Europe, Eurasia, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, including Cuba, Burma, Tibet, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Zimbabwe, Russia and Georgia. Among these ventures was an epic trek in the early 1970s to the Mount Everest base camp, where she tested her endurance and forged some of her closest lifelong friends. She especially adored Mexico and India, whose bright colors, tastes and sounds complemented her own spirit.  She also traveled throughout the U.S., seeing much of it from the decks of boats large and small, cruising on oceans, lakes, rivers and inland waterways.

In the 1970s, T. channeled her talents through a camera, winning multiple awards for her distinctive black and white images and, with her business, Jewett Photography, capturing portraits of many families in Darien and the surrounding communities.

T. considered herself a loyal Bostonian, but New York was unquestionably the city that most captured her imagination and matched her own energy. She plugged into the city through a small and much-loved studio apartment on the east side of Manhattan; through the arts, including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the ballet, and the museums, not to mention Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway; and through work — primarily raising millions of dollars in funds to support New York’s youth. She served as executive director of the Coro Foundation, director of development at the Children’s Aid Society, and as a consultant to the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. In the midst of this, she earned a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

She proudly served as a trustee on the boards of the New Canaan Winter Club; the Darien Library; Kimball Union Academy; Outward Bound; the National Theater of the Deaf; the Vietnam Children’s Fund in Hanoi, Vietnam; the Edwin Gould Foundation; the American Farm School in Thessaloniki, Greece; the Morgan Stanley Smith Barney Global Impact Funding Trust; Wireless Generation; the Harvard Alumni Association; the Harvard Club of New York; and National Public Radio’s Story Corps.

Even more impressive than her professional accomplishments was her gift with people. She knew intuitively how to make whoever she was with feel special. She could carry on an engaging conversation with anyone, whether a world-famous composer, an elementary-school nephew, the President of the United States, or the checkout cashier at her favorite grocery store. Indeed, she took countless young people under her wing, getting them started in new areas of interest, academic pursuits and careers.

Her secret superpower was persuasion. At one time or another, she has convinced everyone who knew her well to do things they didn’t believe they had in them. Sometimes she convinced them to do things they suspected did not constitute good judgment. But if only for the stories they lived to tell, rarely did anyone regret following her lead.

If a legacy of stories is the mark of a life well lived, then T. built up a full library. A 1960s-era red Volkswagen camper bus was the focal point for several of these accounts, even though T. complained affectionately that “you couldn’t get that bus to go faster than 45 if you threw it out of an airplane.” The camper served as a refuge when, during a roadtrip with a gaggle of kids, nieces and nephews, the extended family got kicked out of a fleabag hotel for jumping on the beds. (For the record, the kids got some good air.) There were also several rollicking cocktail parties for which guests received formal invitations to fancy Park Avenue addresses. When the guests arrived, the white-gloved doorman — who was in on the scheme — would usher them into the VW bus that would be parked on the street out front and spilling over with revelers.

There was the visit to the island castle of  Mont St. Michel in Brittany, France, when T. and Lolly, absorbed in an exhibit in the early evening, got locked in a museum. They made a Hollywood-worthy escape that involved climbing through a medieval window and scaling treacherous rocky ledges. Or the trip in a rental car through the Yucatan when, amidst snorkeling sunburns and fresh conch ceviche, T. decided it was high time for Lisa, then 12 and barely tall enough to see over the dashboard, to learn to drive a car. On the highway. With her panicked younger sister in the backseat. Or even four years ago, when T. took her then preteen grandson, Charlie Oakes,  on a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2. Just the two of them. They had a glorious time. Back stateside, though, the one and only communication that Charlie’s anxious parents received during the entire crossing was a pre-departure photo from their stateroom of Charlie giddily quaffing champagne.

T. designed legendary scavenger hunts that had friends and family scouring much of Fairfield County for clues and bragging rights. She and her sister Lynn perfected pitch-perfect loon calls to round out family reunions on Squam Lake in New Hampshire. At Christmas time, there were conga lines around the house to the song Feliz Navidad. Wherever she went, there were gales of laughter. She brought great joy and inspiration to everyone she touched.

T. is survived by her husband, Charles Lincoln (Link) Jewett, her daughters, Lisa Jewett and Laura (Lolly) Jewett, her sons-in-law Joseph Remski and Abner Oakes, her grandson Charles Jewett Oakes, her sister Susan Ard, and her brothers David Cleeves and Michael Barba. Her sisters Lynn Simard, Gretchen Raskin and Helen Fuller pre-deceased her.

The family extends particular appreciation to Loly Jones, Wendy Hlongwane, Joyce Ayensu, Marlene Spahr, and Purity Manyara, who provided invaluable care and friendship to T. in her final months.

Donations in T.’s memory may be made to NYC Outward Bound Schools, the American Farm School, National Public Radio’s Story Corps, Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, the Children’s Aid Society, or another of the organizations that she so loved.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment