Why are we alive?

Listen first

“Daddy, you know what… I think the first bite of an apple is always the best.”

~Delaney, age 9

I’ve said it before. We need kids to teach us how to see the world anew in all its beauty. If you’re not listening, you’re missing out. This alone could easily have been the impetus to write.

Delaney Reading with Apple

See the icky wear and tear on that book? After once again questioning her (I have asked at least 4-6 times on previous occasions) she says she honestly estimates that she’s read it approximately 18 times. I actually believe this. After a more typical back and forth on the differences between Anomalocaris and Pikaia, and a bit of silence that followed, she added: “Here’s a question I think about a lot…  why are we even alive?

What works

The title of Delaney’s favorite book at this point in her life has clearly been “Evolution” by Hosler, Cannon & Cannon. There are a million reasons why this might be so. Included in these reasons are the facts that both Mom and Dad were upper level biology teachers for much of our lives, and that this book, among thousands of others, are titles that exist within our shelves at home. Beyond this, the answers are murkier. We never did ask her to read it. And yet, since age six, she has gone back time and time again to not only read it, but to talk about it… at the dinner table, on the deck during a 70 degree day in February, ad infinitum. Almost.

One could clearly and logically assume that the above interaction just “makes sense.” And it does. Children who grow up bathed in household discussions that revolve around the inner workings of the natural world might ask these questions. Yet, this leaves out a pretty crucial bit of the story. I would argue that the key element here is that over the past few years when she has had questions about the content of this book, she always finds one or two adults willing and able to carry on the conversation, and to poke and prod for further understanding and unanswered questions. This has led to a tapestry of questioning, understanding, reading, questioning, understanding, reading, etc. over a protracted bit of time.

Penrose triangle

The nerd stuff

Herein lies the key to deep understanding of some of the most profound discoveries of human history: it doesn’t happen in a “chapter,” a “unit,” or even the most carefully designed series of lessons in May just before culminating in state testing at the end of the year. There is a pretty clear reason we live in the most technologically advanced society in the history of the world, and yet we still have an electorate lacking even basic understanding of some of the key underpinnings of biology as we know it today. This is tough stuff. In the cacophony of tweets, Facebook posts of cats, Donald Trump election memes, competing state and national standards, and an externally-dictated, rapid-fire scope and sequence that pushes us to glaze over deep conceptual understanding… we miss it.

As a district administrator in academic services, I face a regular “Administrator Paradox,” as my former Superintendent, Todd White, referred to it. It is sometimes a “dual truth” that causes us to struggle with those things that lead to “performance” on regularly measured assessments of understanding vs. what we know to be a deeper truth on some level. I know the system needs to move along to achieve wins as agreed upon by state and national standards. Yet, I also know from a career of practice, that to achieve true conceptual understanding of the foundations of biology, we need longitudinal conversations with kids as they grapple with complex ideas at their own pace over time. We also need educators who understand this and are willing to adhere to external pressure, all the while staying true to what we know about children. And learning. And the struggles along the way.

We don’t face the same pressures at home. We don’t do benchmark assessments at home. We don’t do final exams. We don’t halt the conversations at agreed-upon artificial deadlines because we have to. As parents, we set up an overall ecosystem where learning can happen organically. We engage our children here and there and when they are ready. We don’t push when it isn’t necessary. We understand that the only true learning is that which is constructed in the minds of the little ones we are blessed to be near.

I struggle with this every day of my existence. As a school administrator, I am charged with fostering a program that delivers agreed-upon public measures of success. As a parent, I am free to act upon a lifetime of learning about learning. And as a thinking human being, I grapple with these dual truths. Not a single day goes by that I don’t try and try again to leverage my experience as a professional learner at home and at school to design the best system for our children. I listen long, and then act accordingly. I try to make the best of a complex understanding between what I can do and what I know should be.

In 2016, I know we need to break free from “third period;” from the Carnegie Unit. I know we need flexible systems that honor the fact that conceptual understanding doesn’t necessarily happen in a chapter or lesson, or even the most craftily-designed long-term unit. I know schools do not operate in a world apart from the learning that happens (or doesn’t) in our homes. Biology isn’t rocket science. It is messier.

Swimming hole - Evolve 2011

It doesn’t get easier

Seventy degrees in February. On the deck. Eating tangerines and apples. A little kid trying to understand how all of the bits and pieces of the opera of life come together. Our Daddy-Daughter conversation tonight ultimately ended with a short back and forth resulting from this question:

“Here is a question I think about a lot…  why are we even alive?”

The answer to this in my head is an essay. Many essays. I struggle to remember my responses to questions like this in the heat of the classroom. Tonight, however, I left it with a messy bit about how science doesn’t actually seek to answer the why of such things… but rather the how. That other schools of thought are best equipped to address the why. Religion. Spirituality. The interplay between the two, if you believe that exists, etc. My daughter and I had another in a long line of epic chats. As a science teacher, I understand the subtle differences between the scientific search for truth and other fundamental human quests for truth and understanding. Ultimately, I hope that in my lifetime we can find a way to ensure that as a system we understand these complex differences and their inherent challenges… but also that I’m guiding my little girls at home in the way they most deserve.

I know a bit of what works at home. I know a bit of what works at “school.” I wish the differences weren’t so stark. This is a paradox. Dual truths are apparent here. I wish for and commit to working toward a future where these two truths aren’t separated by an artificial wall of our own construction.


*My iPhone photo of Delaney on the deck tonight. Eating an apple. Reading some science. Talking some science. Asking some big, fat “why?” 

*Penrose triangle by Cabrera Photo via Creative Commons on Flickr

*Swimming hole – Evolve 2011 by sand_and_sky via Creative Commons on Flickr




On Avocados and Presidents

Life moves pretty fast

So, it happens that I was just checking out at the grocery store with my youngest daughter, Neve, by my side. While she danced around behind and beside me (literally), the checkout girl, who I could tell was quite green, asked if the bag of produce were avocados, “just to be sure.” My reply:  “Yep… they sure are.” I smiled warmly in an attempt to soften her subtle, but obvious discomfort in having to ask.

A nutritious, swollen botanical ovary makes its seed so irresistible.

A nutritious, swollen botanical ovary makes its seed so irresistible.


Meanwhile, my littlest one pulled her 3-4 year old frame (she’s rather tiny for five) up over the edge of the counter by her hands. With her lips barely perched atop the rim and her feet afloat above floor tiles, she said to the girl: “Avocados are a fruit. They’re not really a vegetable.”

The checker replied: “Oh yeah… how do you know that?”

Neve: “Well… see… they have a seed in them and that makes them a fruit. (significant pause) …Even though some people think they are a vegetable. They’re not really though.”

The checker looked up to me for what appeared to me to be a slightly sheepish content check. I’m not sure what exactly I did in response. Did I wink? No, I probably nodded. I think. Maybe. She then said to Neve: “Wow. How do you know that?”

Neve: “I don’t know… it’s just in my head.”

Checker: “How old are you… five? Wow. You’re really smart! Maybe you could be president some day.”

Neve: “Nahhh… I don’t think girls are presidents.”

My "doorman" …or, "doorwoman."

My “doorman” …or, “doorwoman.”


I had a bit of consulting to do after that last line. If you either, A) know me personally, or B) have read a bit of this blog, you can likely imagine our conversation in the car on the way home.* All of this has me wondering about the roots of empowerment. Do we really consider how early and deeply ideas become rooted in the brains of our little ones? When is “too early to matter?”


Actually, if you happen to be one of those die hards from the old days on the blog, you might remember a related story here: But Math is Hard. If you have not read it, you now have your assignment. And really, toward the end of the comments on that post, a rather beautiful thing was born. The web of links there will take you to a content area reading/writing strategy that I use to this day every chance I get. Now that I think of it, Miss Neve quite possibly learned that bit of history while observing the purely male string of presidents on Presidents Pro.

*These talks are usually the silver lining in the cloud of a 50 minute commute that is soon to come to an end. Why is this a negative thing? For one, I’ll just plain miss those long car conversations. Well, that and hearing her sing about 90% of the 96.5 The Buzz playlist from memory. (and yes, of course I have to switch to the iPhone playlist at times during The Church of Lazlo, she’s five.  😉


-“inside the beast” by Darwin Bell on Flickr via CC
-“door opener” by me. 


Avoiding “Unmitigated Disasters”

Yet another

After stumbling upon the article, “Switch to e-books was ‘an unmitigated disaster,’ says school principal,” in my feed this past week, it occurred to me that there are increasingly predictable patterns surrounding stories of failed “innovation” in digital learning initiatives. Schools have been assigning computers to each child for some time now. And still, we continue to see stories like this in the media.

In short: we can do better.

Defining targets differently

The real target

But how? Unfortunately, none of these stories are terribly surprising. Many who read this article will likely slide straight into: “The HP Elite Pad? No wonder this was a disaster. That’s clearly the wrong device.” Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t recommend such a purchase for most classroom situations. My preferences over the past five years can likely be mined from the pages of this blog. But keep in mind: most outright failures of a digital learning initiative aren’t about the laptop/tablet you choose. I’ve noticed that time after time, most of these stories of failure in the media seem to arise from schools that set their sights upon a “digital conversion.” To me, this usually indicates a black hole of vision within the system. Making a massive systemwide purchase all in the name of trading out paper textbooks for digital textbooks is drawing your aim at the wrong target. Carefully consider this point: adopting computing devices as front-line learning tools is not the end game, it is one strategy in building a modern and responsive educational ecosystem.

It is true that a move from a dearth of access to one where every student is saddled with a laptop/iPad/Chromebook/etc. is a significant one. Because of this, it is easy to sit back and bask in the satisfaction of  tackling the access issue. It is certainly a celebration worth having. Computers are everywhere on day one of a 1:1 rollout. Access is the easiest box in the plan to check off. It is true that getting to this level of access requires significant logistical, financial, and political struggles. The real festivities should happen when, and not before, the entire learning environment has changed for the better. The issue at the heart of all this is where you want to be when all of these hurdles are cleared. If you cannot envision the details of the learning ecosystem you are seeking, go back and dig into what this means for a learning institution. The last thing you want to do is try to figure this out after every child and teacher possesses a digital device in support of yesterday’s educational ecosystem. Start at the top.


Get out the telescope

Ask yourself what it is you really want for the children in your charge. Are you still comfortable with the following?

  • Textbooks being the central resource for course content
  • Student tasks submitted for an audience of one: the teacher
  • Every child learning the same thing in time with every other child
  • “Creative” experiences consisting entirely of document creation
  • Online learning that consists of a checklist of independent tasks
  • School as defined by what is taught as opposed to what is learned
  • Measuring seat time and percentage grades as indicators of academic success

If you can say “yes” for many of the above, you might not find the logistical, financial, and political friction required by a move to 1:1 worth the trouble. If you’re still comfortable with many of these elements, you are still content with school as it has been for decades, and so often continues to be. Changing any of these characteristics takes more than a pocketbook and a five-step rollout plan. Developing educators as leaders on top of a shifting paradigm of what learning can be today is a far different task. This requires a plan with a robust framework for professional development and a built-in ability to be responsive to the needs of educators at each stage of the process.

We already know this to be true. Outstanding teachers effectively plan on two levels: 1) designing a long-term framework for learning built directly upon standards, that 2) includes a system of short-term responses to react to individual student needs based upon authentic formative assessment of learning. You read it right, a two-tiered plan involving both proaction and reaction. The best planning at any level involves a complex interplay between the two. The long-range and the short-term. The big picture as well as the detail. Education is serious business, huh?


Plug in the microscope

The same attention to proaction and reaction applies to the planning needed to move any learning organization into new territory. If you are truly no longer comfortable with the seven elements listed above, the next step is to dig into the details of your vision. Ask yourself and your team the following questions:

  • What resources for learning are available today? What would an ideal mix of resources consist of? Who is responsible for vetting said resources?
  • How can we best harness the power of the Internet to cultivate authentic audiences for student work and learning? What does open inquiry look like today?
  • What is the ideal progression of learning for a child? Do we plan for this at the student level? Do we react to this at the student level? How do we facilitate this?
  • What is an authentic learning task? What does creativity look like today? Does your definition extend beyond the realm of documents? How do you feel about digital “poster projects?” Study the TPACK & SAMR frameworks together.
  • Define “blended learning.” What do you think of when you hear the term, “online course?” What should define an “online course?” Where and how does conversation fit into the description? Talk about space and time. Talk about the Carnegie Unit.
  • Is a 1:1 implementation an opportunity to study standards-based grading? If you’re really daring, try considering… why grade?
  • Can you sketch three scenes depicting what your ideal school should look like? What is happening in those scenes? What is not? I’m really not kidding here. Do this. Don’t just discuss it. The value is in the slow process and the conversation.

If you really commit to an open study of these questions and tasks, then you will have a far clearer picture of what you believe today. You will possess the raw mental material for the next step. The next step will be to design the framework for the future. This is the fun part; the good stuff. This is the step I cannot even attempt to deliver generic bullet points for. This is the stage that, based upon your responses, moves in a unique direction for every learning community. How do you know when your educators are on the same page? How will you know your broader community understands what you’re trying to do? Quickly get beyond the jargon. Disclaimer: There is nothing inherently magical or official about the above set of mental metrics. They are merely questions I believe lie at the heart of this work.

It all comes back to your vision for and philosophy of learning. If you continue to see school as a top-down endeavor where knowledge is first owned by the teacher and then somehow magically transmitted into the brains of students, then that will guide (no: govern) your mission of bringing modern technology into classrooms. However, if research and experience have led you to the idea that perhaps real learning happens within the mind of the learner and is influenced by many inputs (one of which is a skilled teacher)… then you’ll likely make significantly different decisions for the future.


Design the process

This morning’s stream of thought reminds me of a post I logged four years or so ago. I can actually say I still stand behind those “four pillars” after considerable experience since that time. Like I said back then, “It’s not that dark in there anymore. Trust that there are others who have proceeded down this path before you, and they have learned many important lessons.” Get the right people into the room from the start. If you fear, “we don’t know what we don’t know,” get some outside experience into the room. Represent all levels of your organization. Think big, and think little. Ask the big questions first. Then work through the details before even mentioning “the device.” Many will want to jump there. Stay strong. Design protocols that help protect the conversation. Develop a true vision. Let it guide you. Under our best progressive lens “unmitigated disasters” rarely happen.


*”Defining targets differently” by Fritz Ahlefeldt-Laurvig on Flickr via CC
*”Untitled” by Brongaeh on Flickr via CC
*”Objectives” by Oliver Braubach on Flickr via CC
*”Business project drawn…” by Sergey Nivens purchased from Shutterstock.

On the Digital World and Culture

When we look ahead to the sorts of things that could be happening (especially where every learner is saddled with an Internet-capable device) in our classrooms and beyond…

Online in 60 Seconds

I just caught this image in a Facebook post by Will Richardson and it made me return here to record and share a few thoughts.


I think the infographic above begs this question:

“If this is already happening- if this is a truly a baseline average of what is currently happening online in a rather generic way, how do we harness the power of participatory culture for learning?”


It begs questions relating to relevance. It also begs for discussion about meeting kids where they are. It also makes me reflect on the theme of a rather powerful meeting this morning regarding “culture.” Is the culture we seek to create in school… from scratch and of our own doing? Or are these questions also an element of the debate? How can we also credit the culture being created today, and not only bring students into the fold of our vision, but also join them in new places to co-create a culture of learning for the future?

From where I sit, it is no longer a question of if we should. It hasn’t been. A few are already embracing these channels for good, and have been for some time. In my reality of classrooms soaked in the ubiquity of personal computing, I could easily be misled into thinking this is already the norm in many places. I’ve seen some pretty wise examples of this firsthand with teachers I work with. Yet, the reality is:  the sort of smart, purposeful embrace of new media for learning I’m talking about is still existing only in pockets.

And yet, I think that if we aren’t yet at least asking these tough questions, we’re behind. Television captured attention in its day. Digital gaming was perhaps the next cultural crack to vie for the attention of youth. Today it is the web. Each of these entities was potentially more all-consuming than the previous…  or potentially liberating. Yes, much of what is in this graphic is still little more than noise. That says little of the potential here. I believe it to be your mindset that largely frames the issue.

Delaney With Hermit Crab


Do I think life and learning does or should exist solely in a virtual world? No. Not even close. Trolling back through the hundreds of posts here will show this to be true. I have been a life sciences teacher for 21 years. I have been a parent for the past six. I want all children to learn by touching, smelling and interacting with the real world. I want them to learn deeply and rather slowly at times.

I also want to credit the modern world that currently engulfs us. I want smart teachers leading the way. I want balance in these things. I have long been of the opinion that playing “defense” and plugging away on a path that doesn’t credit modern communication channels is just, well…  nearly malpractice. Truly embracing these changes might be down the path for you and your organization, but that doesn’t mean you cannot engage in these tough questions as you strive to build a nimble and complete learning environment for the young people you serve.

Thank you………..  drive through.



*Will Richardson, who has pushed my thinking for well over half a decade.
*Dr. White’s Leadership Team address today that heavily featured the topic of school culture.
*My wife, Erin (pictured above) for being that kind of Mom to our girls.



There is no WHY in science?

Once again, blame him

This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve pointed toward Michael Doyle’s blog. But if you’re a new reader, and you have yet to visit his place, you can at least thank me for that much today. In reality, the rest of this post is essentially a response to Doyle’s post, “Just because…” from this morning. There, go read it. Go read it and come right back please. Save his site and spend those three hours trolling through all of the goodness he has there for later. Doing so right now will almost certainly throw you off task. What are you waiting for? GO.

The response:

Remember, this train of thought response to Doyle’s post won’t likely make a great deal of sense on its own. You are hereby warned:

“I really like how Gary Stager refers to the way science is often taught as being more or less… Science Appreciation. He’s right.

I’d say much of my “teasing out the nature of science” occurred during the six years I was crawling around knee deep in the hanging prairies of the Loess Hills landform in NW Missouri and SW Iowa. There is something very crucial to being able to “get inside” a scientific endeavor, and really bruise your knuckles on the nuts and bolts of it. It is perhaps the only way to learn the layers of complexity in this way of “knowing” the world.

A look across a Loess Hills ridge in the extreme southern part of the range in Missouri. These hills become less forested as you move north into Iowa.

When I needed to classify and assign a latin name to everything green on a mid-grass prairie undergoing secondary succession, when I had to come to terms with the subtle mathematical ways of describing how the distribution of each species relates to the total ecosystem, when I had to figure out how I was going to then convert all of this data to warm, acceptable, humanspeak, when that humanspeak was going to happen in public and be picked apart by far wiser and more experienced peers, then… I suppose I had to come to some sort of soaked-into-the-cells understanding of the affordances and limitations of science in being able to describe what was happening on my prairie.

This takes gobs of time, and there is most certainly no app for that. As science teachers, even the best among us attempt to package up little experiences that allow for every element of the above. But there’s just something about time in this case. Perhaps it’s the weeks of thinking and reflection in between any of the “doing” that makes it a deeper experience.

I can realistically tell you this, the only students who have left me with a deep understanding of science, were students in a course we called Science Investigations. This course was from one to three years in duration and really sought to bring a true authenticity to the student experience. From the development of an authentic, self-designed (with coaching, of course) study, to the defense of said study to university professors… these kids did it all. I only had 10 to 18 students any given year, and there is truly no way I could have coached any more than that at any given time. My recollection of those days are memories of some of the best work I’ve ever done.

I say all of that because each year I also had another hundred or so students in Zoology, Botany, Ecology, Dual-Credit Biology, etc., who ultimately left us knowing quite a lot about the natural world. That might sound really great to the uninitiated, but I’m certain you see the distinction. Sure, many of those students were inspired enough to go off and become far more accomplished scientists than I ever was. But they didn’t really learn to be scientists from me. Perhaps they were ripe for this sort of learning when they arrived at the clock tower, but it was there they actually put the pieces together.

I don’t know… we require students to work deeply through the writing process from beginning to end don’t we? Don’t we expect them to be able to write independently and effectively when they leave us? (don’t get me wrong, I’m a writing-across-the-curriculum guy) But show me where we expect a similar efficacy in the processes and performance of science. We don’t. We just expect them to “*know a bunch of stuff.” Sure, we examine elements of the process, but only in chunks. Learning to write only in chunks leaves you quite short of that as well. In my opinion, it is worth getting upset about because changing this systemwide approach really wouldn’t require magic. It would just require a rearrangement of national and state priorities. Good luck, eh?

My classroom on the first night of class, August of 2003. Notice the sign in the upper-right. I might reconsider if I could go back now.

Back to the “sign wars” in your department… and your giant “WHY?” sign in the classroom. This might be one of those great minds think alike moments. Maybe curious minds is a better word. I had those four poster-board-sized characters on my wall from about 1993, on. Although, you’ll see that I, instead, used an overhead projector. Hey, I’m a font nerd. In practice, I tended to point in that direction as a “why do you say that?” in order to encourage students to provide reasoning for their claims. It was also a huge nod to the realm of wonder.

If I still had that classroom, I really think I might go in this weekend to change it from WHY? to HOW? I think your colleague is right on that one. How likely is the better word here. Although, there is also beauty in tapping into the why at the edges of what we study… even in biology class. You don’t have to be a card-carrying reverend, or the like, to at least point in another direction.

Sure, science is known by many for a set of processes it often includes. And yet, it is also truly a way of knowing. It certainly has limitations as that, but hey, so does religion, etc. Knowing a little about those limitations, and perhaps even hammering out a SCIENCE/SPIRITUALITY venn diagram on week one of class might be good.

You’re making me think too much (or at least report on such thinking) for a Saturday morning. Way to go.”


How do you tell the difference between commenting on someone’s blog and actually attempting to hijack it? I’m not completely sure, but I bet it looks something like this:

I blogged here pretty regularly in ’08 and ’09 when I was in the classroom more. As my role has changed over the past few years, somehow that frequency died back a bit. I suppose it is easier to comment elsewhere than attempt to relocate your own “voice.” The above screen capture was the result of trying to respond to Doyle’s blog with about 2X the character count of his original post. I’m glad I was checked on this one. Sheeesh. What a blog hog.

In the end, this little reflection took me back to the roots of how I learned to be a biologist… why perhaps I was able to foster the same in a percentage of students each year… and why curriculum and philosophy matters so much when trying to help students develop a true understanding of the world in which they live.