Friday, July 19, 2013

I've got to write this guy a letter

Gardner, this one is for you.

This post is centered around a few scenes from my favorite episode of the West Wing.

[Opening scene. The President of the United States and his Press Secretary having a conversation]

President: Galileo five!

Press Secretary: Yes, sir.

President: Just the name...

Press Secretary: Galileo five!

President: You can feel the adventure.

Press Secretary: Yes, indeed.

President: NASA's great at naming things.

Press Secretary: They are.

President: Mercury, Apollo, Atlantis, the Sea of Tranquility, the Ocean of Storms...

Press Secretary: Good names!

President: First time I heard 'Galileo V,' the way the imagination immediately... Say the name.

Press Secretary: I said the name.

President: Say it again. Your imagination, like a child, will explode with unrestrained possibilities for adventure.

Press Secretary: [with gusto] Galileo V!

Professional vs. Personal
"A good idea will keep you awake during the morning, but a great idea will keep you awake during the night."

Until the last year or so I've never had much of a problem keeping my work life and my personal life separate. Sure, I was friends with people from work, and as a graduate student much of my personal life has been on hold waiting for the day I finish my degree and "life can start." I've enjoyed my job researching jet engines and made a lot of professional contacts along the way. Every once in a while I've had the chance to work on an idea that was extra exciting for me (a big challenge, something new and creative, etc..) but for the most part its been a job that I work, enjoy, and look forward to leaving behind to go home for the night or weekend.

Then I started teaching.

Something snapped. Seeing someone who truly wanted to learn and being able to help them along is something I'd never really trained for (or wanted to do). But the feeling I get when they're struggling and finally "get it?" The magic of watching someone conceive an entirely new idea? Experiencing raw creativity and curiosity? The opportunity to show someone what they are really capable of? There is no greater high in the world! My "imagination, like a child, [explodes] with unrestrained possibilities for adventure!"

Maybe I've found what Sir Ken calls "My Element."
"... the Element - the place where the things you love to do and the things that you are good at come together. [People who have found their Element] are special [because] they have found what they love to do and they are actually doing it."
-Ken Robinson
"The Element" (emphasis added)

I lose sleep over teaching. Not because I'm stressed about it, but because it drives so deep that I can't put it down. I can't wait to explore a new idea or a better way to inspire/encourage learners.

I quickly found that I'm not the only one.

And what a great community of "In-Element Educators" I've had the privilege to be a part of! They are questioning how we do things in education, challenging the short comings of our methods, and striving to improve, inspire, ignite. My discussions with them are the high-points of my "work" day. And when you make professional contact with someone who speaks into your deep passions, it can't help but get personal. We're not just talking about my 9-5 job anymore. And it can be risky. Many are strongly opposed to change and like "business as usual". At one point early on, so was I.

Ok. Back to the West Wing. A little plot synopsis (spoiler alert)

So the President is excited about a new Mars lander called Galileo V that is supposed to land on the Red Planet today. He's scheduled a special live "classroom" event in which he will be speaking with a NASA panel to K12 students, answering their questions sent in by email (which, in the time the episode aired, was an amazing concept. Children being able send a message instantly to the President, and have him respond instantly on TV!). One problem: during the landing process NASA loses communication with Galileo V and it looks like the highly disappointed President will have to cancel the event to avoid media embarrassment. 

At the same time, the President must attend a concert performed by the Reykjavik Orchestra for some political reasons, and he's dreading it.

Aid: After intermission, they'll be performing the world premier of a piece...

President: Played on teapots and gefilte fish.

Aid: ... by a new Icelandic composer. They told me he got so nervous when he heard you were coming that he was rewriting the piece until 6 o'clock.

President: If he wants more time, I'd be happy to take a rain check.

Aid: I thought you liked classical music.

President: This is not classical music. It's not classical music if the guy finished writing it this afternoon.

[Later, after the concert. The Press Secretary approaches the President]

President: Did you hear the end of the concert?

Press Secretary: I didn't hear much of the concert at all. How was it?

President: Well, first of all, let's not kid ourselves. The Reykjavik Symphony can play. These guys have some serious game. In this particular case, their talents were tragically misapplied to an atonal nightmare of pretention, but after the intermission... [looks up at the night sky]

Press Secretary: After intermission?

President: They played a piece by a new composer. First, I wasn't hearing it. I had 19 different things on my mind, but then I did, and, it was magnificent. It was genius. He built these themes, and at the beginning, it was just an intellectual exercise, which is fun enough, I guess, but then in the fourth movement, he just let it go. I really didn't think I could be surprised by music anymore. I thought about all the times this guy must've heard that his music was no good... I've got to write this guy a letter.


Look at the progression of the President's thinking. First, because he is busy with his own concerns and has his own idea of what is best, he mocks the new composer's music. Next, whether he wants to or not, he attends the concert. He's distracted and doesn't really listen, but the skill of the players captures his attention. He comes to appreciate the "intellectual exercise" presented by the composer. Then he marvels at the final execution of the idea, inspired by a new idea in an area that he thought was out of fresh ideas. He stops to consider the adversity the composer must have faced, the discouragement from his critics.

Change is hard. Change threatens those who are established and comfortable. More often than not in education, I see changes happening from the bottom up. Lone teachers trying something new that works. Taking it to their superiors and making a case. Sometimes it sticks, other times they're told that "their music is no good." The result: changes happen far too slowly for any current students to benefit. 

Unfortunately, our system cannot be improved through incremental changes. What we need is a radical rethinking. A peaceful revolution. An educational renaissance.

Universities are funny places.

They're constantly evolving. Few places in the world have such a huge turnaround rate. To borrow some words of wisdom from my advisor: 
"The job of the university is to get rid of its best talent."
We try to recruit promising talent (in the form of incoming freshmen). Then we try to develop that talent over 4-ish years through classes, research experience, clubs, and senior capstone projects. Finally, when they've started to gain some serious muscle and honed their talents, we send them off to take on the world. Until recently I thought that this idea applied only to students, that institutions like tenure insulated the faculty from so much motion. Not quite true. The university is a crucible. As we are refined our positions shift, sometimes internally, sometimes we move on. As our "best talent" moves on, it makes way for rising stars to take their shot. And I think that's how it should be. We are all in this place to grow and pursue the best version of ourselves. Students. Faculty. Staff. Administration. The growth process requires motion.

The time is now!

We have a limited amount of time with the people we come in contact with here. Lectures are 50 minutes, office hours are finite, semesters end, and we probably won't see most of our students ever again. We may only get this one moment to make a difference. This instant is precious, cherish it, maximize it. We cannot afford to take it slow, make small changes, incrementally improve at a rate that maybe our grandchildren will benefit. We can't afford to resolve to be better tomorrow. That wastes today. Be better right now, it could be one of a very few moments in time that you get to spend with that student. Let us take our (fun) intellectual exercises and really let them go, so that we may marvel at the execution of a game-changing idea. Let's surprise ourselves. A friend of mine recently said:

"If you can measure the size of your impact, you haven't made much of a difference."

The closing scene:

Press Secretary: Mr. President, about that televised classroom tomorrow...

President: I'm gonna wait up for a while. See if we hear anything. It's out there somewhere... it's so close.

Press Secretary: I think you should do the classroom either way.

President: Yeah?

Press Secretary: We have, at our disposal, a captive audience of schoolchildren. Some of them don't go to the blackboard and raise their hand 'cause they think they're gonna be wrong. I think you should say to these kids, "you think you get it wrong sometimes? You should come down here and see how the big boys do it." I think you should tell them you haven't given up hope, and that it may turn up, but in the meantime, you want NASA to put its best people in the room, and you want them to start building Galileo VI. Some of them will laugh, and most of them won't care, but for some, they might honestly see that it's about going to the blackboard and raising your hand. And that's the broader theme.

My friend, I'll miss you. Raise your hand. Your music is surprising and beautiful. Meanwhile, here, we will put our best people in the room and start working on Galileo VI.