Born to Create: Letting the brain do what the brain is meant to do

In an article in Psychology Today (October 2016 issue), Todd Kashdan brings us this pearl of wisdom:

“Our brains are designed to create, not to hold onto content. It is essential to extract information and file it away into easily retrievable documents.

He recommends keeping electronic diaries and sprinkling notebooks around your spaces (school, home). I love this idea and it puts retained knowledge where it belongs: within reach but not necessarily at the ready. This frees us up to let the brain do what our brain really wants to do.

Let the brain focus on creating new knowledge, not storing old knowledge.

I say this as a person that prides himself on knowing a lot of stuff. But I also recognize that my fondness for knowing things is a form of vanity. I take pride when someone looks at me, a Spanish teacher and running coach, and says, “Why on earth do you know that?”

And to be fair, I believe knowing things makes you an all-around interesting person. But we should be clear with our students and with ourselves that the purpose of education is not to retain knowledge in perpetuity or even for the long term.

The purpose of retaining information is to hold on to it long enough to make connections with other information in the hopes of creating new information from it and in deriving value from both of those learning processes. How does this information apply in this novel circumstance over here? Or perhaps it’s worthwhile to simply ask What does collection of information mean for me?

Either accidentally or deliberately, we communicate to children that the purpose of memorization is permanent storage and immediate retrieval. I do hope that we rethink this. It’s still A-OK to quiz students to confirm short-term retention, but we’d be doing them a great service in saying, “All right, folks. As soon as you can find some worthwhile reason for learning this information, I encourage you to let it go and move on to novel information with greater utility.”

“And I hope you look forward to that wonderful feeling you get when, in the middle of a conversation in some far-off future, your eyebrows pop off your forehead and you shout, ‘Oh yeah! I remember learning that somewhere!'”

“Are we there yet?” : Dealing with Organizational Change

I remember countless times sitting in the back of my parents’ mid-70’s Audi Fox enduring the many discomforts of long-distance travel.

  • hot leather seats with no A/C – Dad’s solution to everything was “open the window.”
  • sitting on “the hump” – I was the youngest of three, so I took the cards I was dealt
  • The only person with knowledge about our destination had his hands on the steering wheel. And odds are, he was fuming.

The first two are probably vestiges of a by-gone era, but the third item on this list is something most of us feeling when our employer is embroiled in long-term change.

Your organization may not be fuming, but their attention is somewhere other than, “How can I communicate this change initiative to this guy?” More likely, they are considering the appeal to all constituencies, knowing that they won’t please everybody, they are calculating the likelihood of success or what partial success might look like (and how to spin partial success as overwhelming success), and how this change might affect the culture of the organization as a whole.

They are not considering your personal opinion.

“But wait, I’m a trusted thought leader in my…”

Stop, they are not considering your personal opinion.

“Yeah, but I’m a veteran of this organization with 43 years of…”

Eh-eh-eh. Stop. They are not considering your personal opinion.

“Ok, hot shot. I’ve got my whole department under my thumb. So if they don’t listen to me I’m gonna…”

No, no, no. Sorry. They are not considering your personal opinion.

Nor should they.

For the life of me, I cannot remember who offered up this idea, but it came from a conversation about organizational change, and I’m going to botch the quote, but here goes:

An organization is a not a collection of individuals. It is a third thing, a combination of the self, of individuals, which creates a third entity out of the emergence of the same. It is one plus one equaling three. And that’s why organizations are so complex.

The opposite of fear isn’t bravery. It’s understanding.

In 2015 celebrated travel writer and Public Broadcasting staple Rick Steves keynoted the Annual Conference of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) in San Diego. It turns out the man that I thought was simply a folksy, avuncular travel writer is actually a cuttingly deep thinker in matters of cultural literacy and global citizenship.

After breaking a few bones in my hand applauding his speech, I ran down to the conference bookstore and picked up a copy of his recently updated book Travel as a Political Act. In it, Steves lays out the case for the broadening of American perspective through global travel. He comes close to declaring an imperative.


Chief among his points is the fact that the collective fear we have around “the other,” which in today’s view takes on a very specific geographic/ethnic/religious context, keeps us at a distance from understanding important elements of history, economics, social justice, etc. This is the context that led him in his keynote to utter this rich idea:

The opposite of fear isn’t bravery; it’s understanding.

Staying within the context of teaching and learning, how can we apply this idea to our work, whether it be building relationships with colleagues, breaking ground on a new initiative, or executing the “last mile” of a strategic venture.

How would our perspective change if we considered resistance the product of a lack of understanding rather than cowardice or closed-mindedness?

How would this change our next interaction with a resistant faculty member?

A bias toward ownership: building agency in PLCs

PLCs work best when facilitators and members have a sense of ownership.


A PLC facilitator recently came to me with a request to open up the weekly schedule to more PLT time. While I’m happy to weigh in, my ideal response would be “What do you think?” Teachers are highly capable of independent thought, but we’re not terribly comfortable with it. School is a hierarchical place. Pecking order and dependence is carved into our curriculum, our schedule, our buildings, and our relationships. In the independent school domain we enjoy a great deal of freedom in our teaching practice, coaching responsibilities, and extracurricular sponsorship. But when it comes to our work outside of our classroom or our work with kids, we look to “the higher-ups”–sometimes for guidance, other times for permission.

I want our PLC facilitators to feel that they can make decisions and take action independently. If ever they make a decision that I disagree with, I have two options: live with it or help them roll back that decision.

Bottom line: The gains that teams make in feeling a sense of agency and ownership far outweigh the risks–what might be retained or avoided by cultivating an ethos of deference and hierarchy.

Leading long-term change: Can the…ehem…USPS give us guidance?

When you think “United States Postal Service,” effective change management probably doesn’t come to mind.

It goes without saying that living through long-term change is difficult. With a field of vision several years in the distance, how do you keep your people interested, motivated, and believing that a) the change will come and b) that it will mean something?  The progress that you can see through the day-to-day lens of “doing work” often seems insignificant.  This leads believers to lose heart (or focus) and allows resistors to affirm their suspicions that the proposed change lacks meaning.  How then can we shepherd change in a way that gives hope to the hopeful and evidence to the skeptical?

I recently read a travel blog post that described a desert mystery that might “point the way.”

What big arrows can you lay down to point the way to the ultimate destination?  And what meaning can you make of those big concrete arrows?  We often see benchmarks as points along the way toward a place of meaning, as if the arrows pointing the way are themselves less meaningful.  Let’s never forget that the benchmarks we create as waypoints toward change can have enormous impact for your team or community as a source of inspiration, growth, and reflection.

Don’t simply fly over the arrows…go in for a landing and build something there.  Celebrate them and learn from them.