Saturday, March 4, 2017
“Having a soft heart in a cruel world is courage, not weakness.”
Anybody who knows me will tell you I am a big softy. A sad movie, a heart-wrenching story, being unable to offer help or support to someone in need, it’s reach for the tissues time. I used to think this was a sign of weakness and needed to “woman up” as it were but, you know what, I’ve changed my mind. Perhaps my tears are because I feel another’s pain and suffering but that doesn’t mean I’m weak, it just means that I am brave enough to open my heart to another’s pain and suffering. Weakness would be closing the doors of my heart to it and, thank goodness, that’s just not me. Will you be brave too?
Friday, March 3, 2017
By Jill Suttie
A new book explains why leaders can be so dismissive of creative ideas—and how to change this mindset.
A new book explains why leaders can be so dismissive of creative ideas—and how to change this mindset.
Many of us bemoan the fact that creativity seems to be in decline in America. Research by KH Kim finds that the ability to think creatively is down among children and adults, which suggests they may be less able to come up with creative solutions to problems. This trend worries those in the business sector and beyond, who fear it could spell disaster for the future of innovation.
But what if the biggest block to creativity isn’t the inability to come up with new ideas and solutions to problems, but our inability to accept and recognize them?
This idea is at the heart of Jennifer Mueller’s new book, Creative Change: Why We Resist It . . . How We Can Embrace It. Mueller, a former Wharton School management professor, uncovers the way our minds react to uncertainty and how that can get in the way of embracing creativity. Her book aims to give us the tools we need to be more open to creative ideas and to communicate them to others.
Why creativity is uncomfortable
History is full of examples of companies who ignored novel ideas: The Kodak Company declined to develop digital photography technology, for example, while Hewlett Packard rejected Steve Wozniak’s vision of a personal computer. Many organizational leaders pride themselves on knowledge of their businesses—after all, their expertise is what got them there. Yet, according to Mueller, this very expertise can blind them to the potential of something truly new and inventive.
Mueller believes that people miss creative ideas because of what she calls the how/best mindset—one marked by an intolerance of uncertainty and a concern with being right. People who have this mindset will pick apart creative ideas and try to find flaws in them to protect themselves from the discomfort of not knowing whether or not the ideas will work.
“Someone in a how/best mindset will tend not to see a new idea as a good and viable option relative to an existing solution because there is often more uncertainty around whether the new idea will result in the achievement of any specific goal,” she writes.
Interestingly, this kind of rejection often happens at an unconscious level—even when people say they value creativity. In a study recounted in the book, participants wrote about one of two statements: “For every problem there is only one correct solution” or “For every problem there is more than one correct solution.” Then they were tested on their implicit biases around creativity and asked to rate a highly creative idea.
Though all of the participants said they valued creativity, those primed with the “one correct solution” prompt unconsciously associated creativity with negative words like “vomit” and downgraded the creative idea; those primed with the “more than one correct solution” outlook associated creativity with positive words like “cake” and found the idea much more appealing. These results suggest that people can devalue creative ideas unconsciously when they are uncertain or fearful about making a mistake.
How to embrace creativity
Mueller suggests that to become more accepting of creativity one must cultivate a different kind of mindset—something she calls the why/potential mindset. Cultivating curiosity, being open to uncertainty, and being willing to imagine the potential benefits of an idea can help people embrace innovation, she writes.
Mueller’s book is full of entertaining stories of business leaders who have either embraced innovation or been hampered by their inability to do so. She uses these stories, as well as the research in this area, as jumping off points for making a host of recommendations to those who want to increase innovation in themselves and their organizations.
For example, she suggests that leaders check their egos and consider using the wisdom of the crowd to assess creative ideas. While leaders often ask their followers to brainstorm ideas, they don’t often get input from others in evaluating creative ideas, which they should. She also suggests that when looking at creative solutions to problems, leaders should prime themselves to think more like inventors, perhaps by imagining an inventor they admire.
“If you frame your role as an inventor who is leading the creative process and not as a leader who seemingly already knows the answers, you will have a better shot at embracing the creative ideas you want and improving them in the process,” writes Mueller.
For those who are on the other end of the equation—individuals pitching creative ideas to others—Mueller suggests ways to decrease uncertainty in nervous leaders. In particular, she promotes the idea of using an “aha” strategy, where you tap into the emotions of decision-makers rather than simply reciting facts and figures. Creating excitement by telling stories or using powerful analogies to get your points across can help people get on board with ideas that would otherwise cause anxiety, she argues.
Organizations can also position themselves to be more open to innovation, varying their approach depending on the problem at hand. The how/best mindset might be better for evaluating ideas to improve existing programs or products, while the why/potential mindset might be better for evaluating truly innovative, out-of-the-box solutions.
Mueller also suggests that the power to decide what direction an organization will take shouldn’t reside with just a few people.
“If I had to nominate one main reason why corporate America is stagnating and failing to embrace creative change, I’d need just one phrase: all checks and no balances,” she says. In other words, without soliciting more input from others, managers and leaders are bound to fall into familiar patterns and end up killing creative ideas.
Mueller’s book is a wakeup call for those who are in positions to evaluate and promote creativity. Rather than simply generating more creative ideas, we should learn to better evaluate the ones in front of us and save a lot of heartache and hassle. If we understand our own blocks to creativity, we are in a better position to change tack and become the innovative people and organizations we want to be.
We may even be able to use these skills to solve intransigent problems at work and in the world, she says.
“The sooner we learn how to spot our unconscious resistance patterns and cope with them, the sooner we will start to make real and meaningful progress—and the sooner we can begin working together to embrace the world we want to live in.”
“Life will knock you down. The real learning starts when you have to get back up.”
Like me, I expect life has knocked you down more than a few times if you’ve been fortunate and a great many times if not. Sometimes, when we feel we’ve had enough, we may be tempted to just stay down there and asking why we should bother to pick ourselves up just to risk being knocked down again? However, here we are up and willing to give it another go. That’s because when we’re “down there” hopefully we’d rather be “up there” again and that’s our good ole survival instinct kicking in. Every time we continue to grit our teeth and do this we’re learning the lesson of being optimistic and hopeful that things will get better, so good for us eh?
Thursday, March 2, 2017
By Meredith Kolodner
New York City's experience with community schools illustrates the possibilities and pitfalls of a new educational model.
New York City's experience with community schools illustrates the possibilities and pitfalls of a new educational model.
The zone for Public School 67 was drawn exclusively around the sprawling Ingersoll public housing complex, but as children trudge into the building, they can see the tips of the gleaming glass luxury towers that are reshaping the skyline around them in downtown Brooklyn.
No children from those luxury condos have enrolled in P.S. 67. It has roughly 225 students; 99 percent are low-income. The school has struggled to stem sliding enrollment and to address poor safety ratings by parents and test scores that were among the worst in the city.
In 2012, city officials became convinced that the school could not improve and began the process of shutting it down.
But community members rallied to keep it open, in part because of its auspicious beginnings—it was the first public school for black students in Brooklyn, opening the same year that slavery ended in New York, 1827—and in part because parents weren’t convinced that a new school would solve old problems.
So in the fall of 2015, P.S. 67 began the year with yet another new principal, this time as part of the city’s “Renewal” program, a last-ditch effort to rescue failing schools. And now the community’s wary acquiescence to yet another effort to “fix” the school has morphed into something more elusive—hope.
Enrollment has stabilized, attendance has improved, and parents say they feel welcome in the building.
“This principal is the best we’ve had in a long time, but it’s more than that,” said John Rondon, who has taught at P.S. 67 for 27 years. “There’s something that’s changed internally. The fear we’re going to be closed down isn’t there as much. Somebody said to us, ‘You’re valuable,’ and the kids feel that.”
Last year, 23 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state reading test, up from 0 percent in 2014. School staff members, in part, credit the improved academics and optimism to the targeted extra resources that come with being a Renewal school, a sort of supercharged version of a “community school.”
Where the model works, it offers hope for other struggling schools in poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods, not just in New York, but nationally.
The stakes have become extremely high. If the Renewal program succeeds, it could become a prototype for improvement elsewhere. Until recently, education reform has prioritized the growth of charter schools, enforcement of strict discipline, and high-stakes testing. As those ideas have produced less progress than anticipated, community school advocates hope their model can take over the mantle of reform.
Reforming education with community schools
The country has approximately 5,000 community schools, according to the National Center for Community Schools. The model is based on the idea that diagnosing the social and emotional needs of children and their families and then alleviating barriers such as hunger, mental health issues, and poor eyesight will make academic success more attainable. Research has shown that the model can be successful, although, as in New York, progress in some places has been uneven.
“Academic failure doesn’t happen in a vacuum….Students don’t fail by themselves, it’s a whole culture of failure that happens,” said the New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, explaining why she mandated that all Renewals had to become community schools. “I wouldn’t have imagined doing this without community schools as a model.”
In New York City, Renewal schools got extra funding—about $547 million over three years for 94 schools—to provide more services, such as an extra hour of instruction for all students and additional mental health services. And each school has been paired with a community group “partner” to help serve various needs.
But some supporters of the community school model worry that the Renewal schools’ rushed and uneven progress in New York may tarnish the whole concept.
“I’m very frustrated…and I’m very fearful of what will happen with this program,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers and a backer of community schools. “The funding by the city is there; it’s now more about the management system.”
Indeed, out of the original 94 Renewal schools named in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has already closed three and merged five others into non-Renewal schools, arguing that families have “better options” in those communities. Schools were chosen for the Renewal program because they were in the bottom 5 percent of lowest-performing schools in the state, among other unwanted distinctions. On average, in the selected schools, less than 8 percent of children were reading at grade level in 2015; 88 percent of students were black or Latino; and students were also poorer, more likely to have learning disabilities, and less likely to be fluent in English than students at other city schools.
Even by Renewal school standards, the children at P.S. 67 have a very high level of need. According to principal Kyesha Jackson, close to one in five children there are homeless. The school’s neighborhood has the highest rate of gun violence in Brooklyn. Children are dropped off and picked up inside the school’s cafeteria or auditorium, rather than the schoolyard, at parents’ request. Almost 30 percent have some kind of disability.
Jackson was made principal only five days before the start of school in 2015, having never met her community partner, Tal Bar-Zemer, a community school director from the nonprofit group Partnership with Children. By a stroke of rare good luck, their shotgun relationship worked.
Children have noticed the change in the school.
“There’s less fighting, better security, and we have more stuff,” said Mariah Mayweather, who is in fifth grade. “It makes you want to come to school more.”
Jackson was new to the community school model, but having spent 16 years teaching in another high-needs Brooklyn school, she found it made sense to her.
“I know we would not have had as much progress without the community school model,” said Jackson. “There were so many issues that just with an [assistant principal] and a guidance counselor, we would not have been able to handle it.”
Jackson said that Bar-Zemer, who focuses on attendance issues and parent involvement, has played an important role in the school’s progress. Her presence and the division of labor mean that Jackson can concentrate on the academic and instructional issues. She visits every classroom every day, which allows her to get to know the kids and give the teachers immediate feedback.
“We try to help decrease the stresses and remove the barriers to learning,” said Bar-Zemer. “In high-needs schools, teachers are the first line of defense; you’ll see them bringing in coats and food, trying to find legal help for families. We take the onus off of them so they can teach.”
As to the infusion of funding and services, Bar-Zemer said, “Equity isn’t equality. Some kids and schools need more stuff, because they have less stuff.”
Partnership with Children also provides a full-time social worker and two part-time interns. They help connect families that have legal, housing, or medical issues to resources, and they run courses in each classroom on topics like how to deal with strong emotions. They also see 14 children weekly in individual counseling and 24 in groups where they use art or other activities to work through difficult issues and trauma.
The counseling “is as important as the academic piece. We have been able to develop a culture where they learn that there are people here to support them,” said Jackson. “They can reach out through words and art rather than belittling others and lashing out. And they are expected to do so.”
Bar-Zemer said a “student sorter” program given to all the Renewal schools has also been very useful. She can filter student attendance by commute time, past attendance, counseling status, and class. One pattern they found was that attendance is higher across the board on the days the school has its art program.
“It allows us to look at problems and also celebrate successes,” said Jackson.
Why some Renewal schools flounder
But not all the Renewal schools have made the same progress as P.S. 67.
By the program’s own measurements, a number of schools have not succeeded. More than one-third of the schools haven’t met even half of their own goals for attendance, academic progress, and other improvements. Among its 31 high schools, graduation rates increased in 21 and decreased in eight over 2015 (two stayed the same).
Community school advocates blame the failures on the rollout and management, not the program itself. To begin with, not all the principals in the schools dubbed Renewal were convinced of the community school model. Some new principals had no idea what a community school was. And not all of the superintendents who did the hiring fully understood what was required in a community school.
In addition, because the 86 current Renewal schools are spread among 27 different superintendents, the average superintendent has just two or three Renewal schools among the roughly 50 he or she oversees.
And the rollout has been undeniably messy. For example, it wasn’t until this past August, more than a year after the program began, that the city held its first meeting between principals and community school directors to discuss the most effective ways to build a community school.
That lack of coordination has played out at the school level, too. At one school in the Bronx, for example, the community partner and the principal didn’t meet until the first day of school last year. The crush of the first weeks of school and the tensions that ensued meant that community staffers were not in place to lead the extra hour of learning time until November. And no mental health services were available in the school until January.
At the citywide level, the Education Department’s separate silos for the superintendents and the Office of Renewal Schools have also had an impact. Some principals say they have received missives from superintendents that conflicted—or weren’t coordinated—with directives from the Office of Renewal Schools.
Early last fall, for example, each Renewal school received word that they should hold a “state of the school” event in late September and invite parents, community members, and elected officials. But each school was also told, by a different office, that they must hold a family night in September as a way to build family and community involvement. School leaders, completely overwhelmed, protested, and eventually the two events were combined.
Fariña acknowledges that there have unanticipated problems. “With any new programs, there are going to be bumps in the road,” she said.
“From the very beginning we focused on writing and literacy in particular,” said Fariña, who was a teacher for 22 years. “If I had to change one thing right now, I would say I wish we had done the same thing with math.”
“One of the changes we made is clearer lines of hierarchy,” she added, “because superintendents really own these schools now, which they didn’t in the beginning. I think the schools not making as much of a success are the ones where part of the structure fell apart.”
In addition to the coordination issues, educators and some community groups say there has not been enough systematic attention paid to improving instruction. Parent and community groups such as the Coalition for Educational Justice fought to get expert teachers into the schools, but the agreement came too late to recruit enough teachers for all the schools in the program’s first year.
This year, however, there are 241 model teachers in the schools, which several principals say has helped enormously—especially since teacher turnover is high in challenging schools.
School experts had expected higher turnover in the Renewal schools as teachers who were a poor fit cycled out. But at some schools, it wasn’t the long-term teachers who left. At a dozen of the Renewal schools, at least half of the teachers newly hired in 2015-16 didn’t come back this past fall.
City officials say that getting the right leadership in place has been the most important step to getting the schools on the road to improvement. Indeed, close to half of the original principals have been replaced.
Officials are also working to give more guidance about the use of the extra hour of learning time. “We’ve learned that working with individual communities to implement it works better” than simply providing the extra hour without much guidance, said Aimee Horowitz, executive superintendent of the Office of Renewal Schools.
But advocates’ biggest fears center on whether the progress that has been made will be recognized so that the program can continue.
“The timeline for academic turnaround and attendance improvement is very short,” said Robin Veenstra-VanderWeele, the chief strategy officer at Partnership with Children. “In the court of public opinion, a few points increase in attendance and reading scores is going to look incremental, and since it is hard to create other standardized measurements, we’re not measuring anything else.”
P.S. 154 in the South Bronx is another Renewal school that struggled for years, was almost closed, and is now improving. Alison Coviello taught there for 12 years before becoming principal in 2012. That year, on the annual schools survey, only 13 percent of teachers said that order and discipline were maintained.
Coviello’s first move was to try to change the school’s culture by instituting some new morning procedures. They began using a single entry point and walking children to their classrooms, so they at least knew who was in the building.
That was only the beginning. Coviello also instituted morning meetings and designated that a staff member be on call at all times if a classroom teacher felt they couldn’t handle a disruption. Things didn’t change overnight, but four years later children no longer run through the halls, adults no longer scream at students, and children are engaged in classrooms. Last year 27 percent of children passed the state English exam, up from 5 percent in 2013.
“We wouldn’t be able to go into the academic work without these other things in place,” Coviello said.
The school now has a full-time asthma manager, through the Renewal program, who has helped improve family health and school attendance. She not only treats patients, she goes into homes to assess risk factors. Like some other Renewal schools, P.S. 154 found that asthma was a big reason for absences, as children were kept home when they were sick or when their parents were too ill to take them to school.
And then there are housing issues. The heat and hot water went out during the coldest weekend in January at the Mitchel Houses, where the majority of the children live. Attendance plummeted that Monday as children who were unable to bathe, get clean clothes, or sleep properly stayed home.
P.S. 154’s community partner, the YMCA, provides nine staff members, who work as teaching assistants in every kindergarten, first- and second-grade classroom.
Like Jackson, Coviello said the school couldn’t have improved as much as it has without the community school services. And like other teachers and principals at several Renewal schools, Coviello and her team say that it was the belief that they could improve that made the key difference.
“It was the first time at this school that anyone came with the lens of ‘What’s going well and how can we support it?’ instead of looking for what’s wrong,” said Coviello. “The paradigm of support instead of shutting down—it’s huge. I can’t even put into words what it did for us and our morale.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Race and Equity.
“Be generous with your blessings. A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal.”
Probably most, if not all, of us have been on the receiving end of a kindness from another person when we’ve most needed it. I know I have, many times. Not all of us can help those in financial need with a gift of cash, or those without a home a place to lay their head, etc. However, the one thing can we are all more than capable of giving is a kind word, a loving gesture, or our support. Often, this is just what is needed to reassure and comfort, the mere fact that someone cares enough to reach out to them.
Wednesday, March 1, 2017
By Kristophe Green, Dacher Keltner
Research is discovering all the different ways that nature benefits our well-being, health, and relationships.
Research is discovering all the different ways that nature benefits our well-being, health, and relationships.
Humans have long intuited that being in nature is good for the mind and body. From indigenous adolescents completing rites of passage in the wild, to modern East Asian cultures taking “forest baths,” many have looked to nature as a place for healing and personal growth.
Why nature? No one knows for sure; but one hypothesis derived from evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson’s “biophilia” theory suggests that there are evolutionary reasons people seek out nature experiences. We may have preferences to be in beautiful, natural spaces because they are resource-rich environments—ones that provide optimal food, shelter, and comfort. These evolutionary needs may explain why children are drawn to natural environments and why we prefer nature to be part of our architecture.
Now, a large body of research is documenting the positive impacts of nature on human flourishing—our social, psychological, and emotional life. Over 100 studies have shown that being in nature, living near nature, or even viewing nature in paintings and videos can have positive impacts on our brains, bodies, feelings, thought processes, and social interactions. In particular, viewing nature seems to be inherently rewarding, producing a cascade of position emotions and calming our nervous systems. These in turn help us to cultivate greater openness, creativity, connection, generosity, and resilience.
In other words, science suggests we may seek out nature not only for our physical survival, but because it’s good for our social and personal well-being.
How nature helps us feel good and do good
The naturalist John Muir once wrote about the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California: “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” Clearly, he found nature’s awe-inspiring imagery a positive, emotive experience.
But what does the science say? Several studies have looked at how viewing awe-inspiring nature imagery in photos and videos impacts emotions and behavior. For example, in one study participants either viewed a few minutes of the inspiring documentary Planet Earth, a neutral video from a news program, or funny footage from Walk on the Wild Side. Watching a few minutes of Planet Earth led people to feel 46 percent more awe and 31 percent more gratitude than those in the other groups. This study and others like it tell us that even brief nature videos are a powerful way to feel awe, wonder, gratitude, and reverence—all positive emotions known to lead to increased well-being and physical health.
Positive emotions have beneficial effects upon social processes, too—like increasing trust, cooperation, and closeness with others. Since viewing nature appears to trigger positive emotions, it follows that nature likely has favorable effects on our social well-being.
This has been robustly confirmed in research on the benefits of living near green spaces. Most notably, the work of Frances Kuo and her colleagues finds that in poorer neighborhoods of Chicago people who live near green spaces—lawns, parks, trees—show reductions in ADHD symptoms and greater calm, as well as a stronger sense of connection to neighbors, more civility, and less violence in their neighborhoods. A later analysis confirmed that green spaces tend to have less crime.
Viewing nature in images and videos seems to shift our sense of self, diminishing the boundaries between self and others, which has implications for social interactions. In one study, participants who spent a minute looking up into a beautiful stand of eucalyptus trees reported feeling less entitled and self-important. Even simply viewing Planet Earth for five minutes led participants to report a greater sense that their concerns were insignificant and that they themselves were part of something larger compared with groups who had watched neutral or funny clips.
Several studies have also found that viewing nature in images or videos leads to greater “prosocial” tendencies—generosity, cooperation, and kindness. One illustrative study found that people who simply viewed 10 slides of really beautiful nature (as opposed to less beautiful nature) gave more money to a stranger in an economic game widely used to measure trust.
All of these findings raise the intriguing possibility that, by increasing positive emotions, experiencing nature even in brief doses leads to more kind and altruistic behavior.
How nature helps our health
Besides boosting happiness, positive emotion, and kindness, exposure to nature may also have physical and mental health benefits.
The benefits of nature on health and well-being have been well-documented in different European and Asian cultures. While Kuo’s evidence suggests a particular benefit for those from nature-deprived communities in the United States, the health and wellness benefits of immersion in nature seem to generalize across all different class and ethnic backgrounds.
Why is nature so healing? One possibility is that having access to nature—either by living near it or viewing it—reduces stress. In a study by Catharine Ward Thompson and her colleagues, the people who lived near larger areas of green space reported less stress and showed greater declines in cortisol levels over the course of the day.
In another study, participants who viewed a one-minute video of awesome nature rather than a video that made them feel happy reported feeling as though they had enough time “to get things done” and did not feel that “their lives were slipping away.” And studies have found that people who report feeling a good deal of awe and wonder and an awareness of the natural beauty around them actually show lower levels of a biomarker (IL-6) that could lead to a decreased likelihood of cardiovascular disease, depression, and autoimmune disease.
Though the research is less well-documented in this area than in some others, the results to date are promising. One early study by Roger Ulrich found that patients recovered faster from cardiovascular surgery when they had a view of nature out of a window, for example.
A more recent review of studies looking at different kinds of nature immersion—natural landscapes during a walk, views from a window, pictures and videos, and flora and fauna around residential or work environments—showed that nature experiences led to reduced stress, easier recovery from illness, better physical well-being in elderly people, and behavioral changes that improve mood and general well-being.
Why we need nature
All of these findings converge on one conclusion: Being close to nature or viewing nature improves our well-being. The question still remains…how?
There is no question that being in nature—or even viewing nature pictures—reduces the physiological symptoms of stress in our bodies. What this means is that we are less likely to be anxious and fearful in nature, and thereby we can be more open to other people and to creative patterns of thought.
Also, nature often induces awe, wonder, and reverence, all emotions known to have a variety of benefits, promoting everything from well-being and altruism to humility to health.
There is also some evidence that exposure to nature impacts the brain. Viewing natural beauty (in the form of landscape paintings and video, at least) activates specific reward circuits in the brain associated with dopamine release that give us a sense of purpose, joy, and energy to pursue our goals.
But, regrettably, people seem to be spending less time outdoors and less time immersed in nature than before. It is also clear that, in the past 30 years, people’s levels of stress and sense of “busyness” have risen dramatically. These converging forces have led environmental writer Richard Louv to coin the term “nature deficit disorder”—a form of suffering that comes from a sense of disconnection from nature and its powers.
Perhaps we should take note and try a course corrective. The 19th century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote about nature, “There I feel that nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair.” The science speaks to Emerson’s intuition. It’s time to realize nature is more than just a material resource. It’s also a pathway to human health and happiness.