Tag Archives: education

Digital Distractions vs. Substances

For the last few weeks the article “Are teenagers replacing drugs with smartphones” from the NYTimes has been lingering in my mind. Written by Matt Richtel and published on 3.13.17, the article explores the theory that substance abuse has declined among teenage students over the last decade because the time they would have used to experiment with drugs has been squeezed out by all the time they are spending on their mobile devices. While the article admits that there have been no conclusive studies done yet to support the theory, it certainly seems plausible — even likely — to me and my colleagues. I brought the article to a recent deans staff meeting for discussion, and our subjective, anecdotal evidence makes us feel like the theory must be true.

The news that substance abuse is down, in some categories roughly 10%, among teens, should of course be greeted with joy. But the idea that substances are being crowded out by a new addiction, mobile devices, makes one wonder if the cure isn’t worse than the disease. I bring a pro-tech bias to my work as an educator, but I also worry that addiction to mobile devices may end up being a more widespread and insidious social ill than nicotine, alcohol, and other substances were in the 20th century. Will deaths caused by distracted driving eventually exceed those caused by drunk driving? (Not if cars are all self-driving in the near future.) Will addiction to social media and mobile gaming lead to a generation of zombies more sleepless and in need of their fix than addicts during the crack epidemic? (Not if parents and boarding school faculty like me equip children with tools and habits to help them unplug at night and during community time.)

I’m focused on asking myself what a dean of students at a boarding school should do if we grant that the thesis is correct. The problem with addressing this mobile-device addiction is that our use of these devices switches back and forth hundreds of times each day among different modes of use. One minute we are using our devices for important work, the next minute we are checking our feeds, the next minute we are responding to a text from a family member, and the next minute we are pulled back into that new game we really love. Teachers can’t possibly know how a student is using their device at any moment, and the temptation to overreact is strong.

Where is all this heading? Speaking only for myself, I think we need greater clarity in our school-wide policies as to what sort of mobile device use is acceptable in which contexts. We must carve out community spaces and times in which no use is permitted at all. Boarding schools need to think about sleep issues as well. (I’m influenced here by Jonathan Crary’s haunting book 24/7.) A small number of teenage boarding students are able to unplug from their devices at night without prompting or assistance from adults, but most cannot. True to the Swiss army knife aspect of smartphones, most teens now use their device as their alarm clock, which means that if you confiscate their phone to help them get undistracted sleep, you’ve increased the likelihood that they’ll be late to class! Wristwatches and old-fashioned alarm clocks are not very popular among today’s teens.

The most worrying factoid from Richtel’s article is that the drop in substance use seen in young people ages 12-18 is not showing up among college students. Those college students are using substances as much as ever. How do we understand this data? Will substance use among college-aged people drop as the current 12-18 year-olds age, or are we seeing something much more troubling? If use has dropped so significantly among middle school and high school kids, but not among college students, that means that we are seeing more college students than ever who left for college having never experimented with or abused substances but who begin to do so after leaving home. This strikes me as a terrifying prospect. Colleges simply do not provide the careful attention to student well-being and safety net that secondary schools do. Therefore, high school teachers must continue to educate their students about the perils of substances even if the data suggests that fewer and fewer of our kids are actually at risk while under our care. We educate not just for the present, but mostly for the future.

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Building a Chatbot for the Deans’ Office

Summer vacation is a time that growth-oriented educators use for reflection, rejuvenation, and professional development. As a new dad with a baby at home, this wasn’t an ideal summer for me to travel to conferences or take courses; instead, I focused on growing my tech skills. The end result is a cool product that I built to satisfy my curiosity in artificial intelligence: a chatbot.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept of a chatbot yet, you soon will be, as they are on the brink of becoming ubiquitous. In brief, a chatbot is a bit of code that masquerades as an interlocutor inside a messaging app, such as Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp, or iOS’s native text-messaging app. You typically use these messaging apps to talk to people you know, but more and more you are going to find yourself talking to businesses though this medium. Or rather, you will be talking to bots that are programmed to do a limited number of tasks while interacting with you in what seems like natural language.

Why is this process going to happen? Because that’s where the eyeballs are. I remember seeing a Wired Magazine article in 2010 declaring the death of the Web, and thinking to myself, “That’s ridiculous; the Web is still young, and I love the Web. Why would I ever stop using the Web?” But the authors (Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff) were prescient. I avoid using a web browser as much as possible these days and interact with the internet through apps instead. I don’t open Firefox and navigate to google.com; instead I tap the Google app on my iPad. But now, not even six years later, the techno futurists are assuring us that we are on the brink of the next era. In this new phase of the internet, we will interact with all of our favorite sites and services without ever leaving our texting app. How do they know this? Well, it’s already happening in Asia. (WeChat and Line are two of the messaging apps that are on the cutting edge of this change.)

As recently as this past May, it would never have occurred to me to build a chatbot. But about a year ago, I heard about a much-ballyhooed a.i. digital scheduling assistant named Amy, produced by a company called x.ai. I signed up for a beta account, and then waited, and waited, and waited. Then suddenly in May I came off the wait list and started testing out Amy. Amy isn’t a chatbot, but she is an a.i. bot that works through your email and calendar. While complex and powerful a.i. personas such as Siri get most of the attention, the new wave of useful bots are built to do very specific tasks, but do them with excellent results. Amy only does one thing: If you have agreed to set up a meeting with someone, she takes care of the irritating emails back-and-forth as you and the other party(s) try to find the right time and place. She does this amazingly well, and uses such convincing natural language that you would believe that she is a real person.

I got to use Amy for about a week to impress a couple of colleagues at work, but then summer vacation began, and I was left wondering what other bots are out there that I should know about. I began reading every article on the topic that I could get my hands on, and I discovered a young but rapidly expanding world of chatbots. For the last month I’ve been using a chatbot that helps you save money, called Digit. It isn’t exactly a bank account, but it’s very close, and you can see that very soon we will all be interacting with our banks via bots like this. Unlike quite a few bots that I’ve tried out this summer, Digit really works. It isn’t buggy and it does what it says it’s going to do; namely, it sweeps tiny amounts of cash out of your checking account when you aren’t looking, and then holds them in a (rather lame, non-interest-paying) savings account. Digit sends you upbeat text messages to update you on your savings, and you can text message it back to ask it how much money is in your account, or to ask it to transfer cash back to your real bank account

The success of Amy and Digit got me thinking about my job in the Deans’ Office at George School. We are a high-traffic corner of the school’s administration, and we are frequently bogged down in onerous data-collection tasks. What if we had a chatbot that worked on a platform that the students use often, such as Facebook Messenger? Would this more frictionless medium make it easier for us to collect information that we need, such as vacation travel plans? And would we be able to reduce the number of phone calls that we receive asking for information that is available on the school’s web site if people could just ask a bot that lives in their phone? Too bad, I thought, I’ll never get to find out, since I don’t have the coding skills to build a chatbot, and this cutting edge tech must be far beyond my abilities, right?

As a flag-waving member of the Connected Educator community, I do a lot of my professional development through Twitter. And good old Twitter brought me the solution in the form of a tweet from a company called Flowxo. They claim that you can use their platform to build a chatbot without having to write any code. And so my three-week adventure in building a chatbot for our Deans’ Office began in earnest.

After signing up on Flowxo’s website and poking around a little, I tried brainstorming a list of all of the things with which a chatbot might be able to help the Deans’ Office. Examples include:

  • Collecting vacation travel information
  • Providing information on upcoming assembly times/subjects
  • Providing information about sports contests times/locations
  • Answering questions about school rules
  • Answering questions about sign-out procedures
  • Communicating about minor discipline
  • Submitting reports about missing belongings
  • Providing updates about inclement weather delays/closings
  • Allowing students to pull up individualized schedule information

I spent a couple of weeks tinkering during spare moments when my son was asleep. (Time: a rare commodity when you have an eight-month old.) Through a lot of trial and error and ignorant bumbling, I came to the conclusion that Flowxo’s “application” template would help me design successful functionality for collecting vacation travel information and allowing students to submit reports of missing belongings. My attempts to use RSS feeds from the school’s website to move information in the other direction (from the school to the end user, as opposed to from the end user to the school) were unsuccessful. After my chatbot is unveiled, it’s possible that members of the school’s IT team will be able to quickly help me to figure out the things that I couldn’t do on my own. I wanted to stubbornly work on this project by myself, so I didn’t ask anyone for help. (Although my wife, mother-in-law, and an advisee helped me test the bot once I activated it.)

The two “flows” that the chatbot now performs are simple, but they work beautifully. Both gather information from users through relatively elegant natural language, then they fire off automated emails with the data collected. The vacation travel information flow isn’t nearly as detailed as the online form we have on our web-based parent portal, but we struggle to get anything close to 100% of parents to submit the information using that form. If students or parents will adopt the chatbot and enter the information that way, it will be a big win as far as I’m concerned.  Over time, I may be able to improve upon the flow to get it closer to the full online form, but in the meantime, it collects the basic facts that my office needs.

Chatbot

Dean Eric’s Chatbot in action

In case you are I thinking about making a chatbot for your school, I should warn you that there are a lot of hurdles on which one can trip. Flowxo has a great site and provides a wonderful service, but it took a long time for me to understand their system. (You need to hit the “refresh” button on your browser after everything you do, and it took me days to figure that out.) The Flowxo directions also make it sound pretty easy to submit your bot to Facebook so that they’ll let it run in Messenger, but that step nearly tripped me up completely. You need to submit a privacy document full of legal language, plus a screencast of your chatbot in action. I didn’t know how to do either of those things. Some rapid googling helped me get those tasks done, and ultimately Facebook approved my app within a day. After that, I still found that the bot wasn’t operating correctly, and I nearly destroyed all of my work in a panic as I tried to fix it.

The chatbot is now running on the Facebook Messenger app if you want to check it out, but it is useless if you aren’t a George School student or parent. There’s nothing to be ashamed of there. Just as Amy from x.ai does one thing and does it very well, my bot does two things, and does them (fairly) well. It’s the right tool for the specific task; nothing more. I’d like to expand the chatbot to other messaging apps other than FB Messenger, but Flowxo doesn’t yet offer those integrations. (It works with Slack, which is awesome, but we don’t use Slack at GS.) If I could run the bot on the native iOS and Android messaging apps, that would cover something close to 100% of our student body.

As I wrap up this post, there are still a couple of weeks until the start of school. I don’t know if the chatbot will be adopted with love or mocked and misused for the amusement of teenagers. However, I feel satisfied that I tried something I didn’t think I could pull off, and it is now up and running. I’m not aware of any other secondary schools that have a chatbot yet, so for once I’m truly out there on the cutting edge. It may never happen again. (There are an awful lot of schools out there, so I’m guessing some other enterprising faculty members have got some bots online.)

Final note: In the chatbot community, people care about the distinction between bots that are truly a.i. and those that are not. Dean Eric’s Chatbot is not a.i.; it is basically a glorified voicemail automated phone tree type of setup, albeit operating via a much hipper medium. While I was working on building the bot using Flowxo, I saw a tweet from IBM saying that you could build a bot in ten minutes using Watson and Bluemix. For one glorious day, I abandoned Flowxo and worked on a truly a.i. bot on IBM’s platform, but I found their interface to be buggy, and I had to give up. So my chatbot isn’t powered by IBM’s amazing Watson technology, and I’m at peace with that.

The one thing I can do

I’m sure you don’t need me to point this out, but we’re having a tragically terrible summer. More innocent black Americans have been killed by the police, the police in turn have been targeted and murdered, the Leave camp won the Brexit referendum, a terrorist murdered 84 people in Nice, France, the Rio Olympics are likely to be a zika-virus/Russian-doping/inept-government disaster, and there was just a failed coup attempt in Turkey. The upcoming election in the US is a source of dreadful angst. The stock market is at an all-time high, but with bond yields at record lows, this is not a source of comfort or optimism. Essentially, all the news is bad news, and it’s hard not to take it to heart.

Sure, the summer months are always filled with unrest, and since I’m on vacation and have more time to pay attention to the news, world events weigh more heavily on me. Normally the Olympics would be a delightful diversion since the Columbia fencing team always sends some great representatives to the games (this year there is the amazing Nzingha Prescod to cheer on), but I can’t help feeling like the games in Rio may be the economic and human-rights disaster that finally seals the coffin for the whole modern Olympic movement.

When things get this bad, I ask myself, “What should I be doing to help heal the world?” Should I be marching in protests? (Yes, I’ve got the time.) Volunteering at a shelter or soup kitchen? (Yes, although the logistics are tough with an infant in the family.) Running for political office? (I have little faith that I could make a difference in our current system.) But then I remember: I’m already doing the one, best thing I can to help make a better future. I work at a school.

The world of the present is seemingly unredeemable, or, if it can be fixed, it will take powers well beyond my small influence. But the world of the future is very much in my hands (and yours!), and working as a teacher is the strongest commitment I can make to construct a less discordant tomorrow. It’s times like these that I take pride and feel relief that I work at an institution devoted to the Quaker ideals of peace and equality. The world needs a lot more of both, and education is how we will get there.

Although I’m about to retreat to a cabin in the woods in Vermont for the next month, I’ll still be managing George School’s rising sophomores’ summer reading and blogging project. Some prescient colleagues selected The Other Wes Moore as the required text for the rising sophs, plus our school is doing a community-wide “one book” reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Thus, even though I and our students are on vacation, we are still at work pollinating our minds with narratives that broaden our understanding of injustice and discrimination in the US. After a year off from the classroom, I’ll be teaching one section of sophomore English next year (AP Language and Composition), so I need to reflect and plan carefully how I can address these two powerful books in the opening week of the school year.

Merlyn’s speech about the power of learning as the best cure for boredom (and all the other ills of the world) from The Once and Future King has been over-popularized lately, but I feel a special closeness to it since I taught the book for seven years. Also, I read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk this year, and T.H. White looms in the background throughout the book. Every time we return to a work of art, or a text, we bring a slightly different set of life experiences and find ourselves noticing nuances that escaped us on previous viewings. The piece of Merlyn’s speech that jumps out at me today is, “you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics,” which always struck me as too strongly worded in the past. The world I grew up in, despite the Cold War that was going on, seemed lacking in evil lunatics. The world of 2016 seems to have an overabundance of them. Time to take Merlyn’s advice and focus on learning (and, in my case, teaching). Luckily, it’s the one thing I can do.

Alfie Kohn on “Growth Mindset”

As I sat down to participate in #sunchat on Twitter this morning, I discovered the Connected Educator world was abuzz with reactions to Alfie Kohn’s new article for Salon, The education fad that’s hurting our kids: What you need to know about “Growth Mindset” theory — and the harmful lessons it imparts.

Kohn went after the “grit” fad last year, and now he is taking on an even more entrenched, but still recent, educational fad: Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset,” which is official doctrine in many schools (including mine). I love Kohn’s iconoclastic willingness to tackle the school orthodoxy, but I’m a little surprised that he took on the mindset devotees. I would think that he would see this as support for his intrinsic motivation focus, but he distinguishes between the two in his piece in Salon.

The common thread that unites Kohn’s take-downs of both grit and the growth mindset is his concern that the focus on these non-cognitive skills is distracting attention away from the real enemy: soul-crushingly dull classroom instruction that forces kids to sit still and march through tedious, mindless exercises and drills. He worries that teachers who are lecturing at their students each and every class, and then assigning hours of useless homework (busywork?), are using the grit and growth-mindset trends as excuses to avoid having to confront their contribution to their students’ lack of interest or engagement. It isn’t their fault that they are doing nothing to find more interesting ways to hold their students’ attention; it is the students’ fault for not having grit or for having a fixed mindset.

On a different note, Twitter is also alive this morning with tributes to Julian Bond, who just passed away at age 75. An alumnus of George School, Bond was a frequent presence on campus in the last few years, and it was a privilege to have met him. The number of GS alums who have taken to social media this morning to pay their respects is moving. We have many alums who do us proud, but none like Julian Bond.

Reflecting on the Adaptability Project

Thursday was the fourteenth and final day of George School’s Adaptability Project summer seminar. The eleven faculty members of the group spent nearly three weeks of what would have been our summer vacations sequestered in the MDA Library. Our task was to develop solutions to the challenges that face schools like ours, and to do so with deftness. Two proposals were selected by the “shark tank” judges, and now we’ll spend the 2015-16 school year trying to get them approved by our faculty using Quaker process. The questions I’d like to reflect on are: Was this process successful? Was it time well spent? Does this innovation lab concept make sense for other schools? Was it personally and professionally rewarding for me?

I can’t truly judge whether or not our efforts were a success until the faculty weighs the two proposals. Even then, it could be years before they are fully implemented to the extent that they can be properly evaluated. I wish that I was more confident that they will “bend the cost curve” as we were tasked to do. My greater concern is that both proposals strike me as “me too” initiatives. We are proposing to make changes that imitate what other schools are doing, and while that might be good for us, it isn’t particularly distinctive or innovative. We’ll need to find ways to make these changes such that they are uniquely George School in flavor and character. That might yet happen during the implementation phase; I have faith.

As I’ve been pondering in my posts over the last week, I suspect that this “me too” quality results from the episodic nature of innovation at GS. Because we haven’t looked at these issues (i.e. technology in the classroom and course distribution requirements) in a number of years, at least not with this degree of concentrated heat, there was a backlog of pent-up potential change that needed to be addressed. I suspect that if we duplicated this Adaptability Project process again and again for the next three-to-five years, we would just keep working through this backlog. In other words, truly innovative ideas wouldn’t surface until we moved through all of the low-hanging fruit or obvious areas for improvement. (I don’t mean to minimize the serious work required to structure proposals for change thoughtfully, nor to minimize the challenge of reaching consensus on approving these proposals.)

We might have seen some funkier, oddball proposals if we hadn’t been pressured to work in teams quite so quickly. We initially had eleven faculty members with eleven different proposals, and I would have liked to have seen more of them stand alone. After all of the synthesis that happened, the four proposals that actually reached the shark tank had their sharp edges rubbed off, like the stylization that affected the ancient Cycladic sculptures after a millennium of repetition. For instance, I was initially interested in exploring the idea of joining an online consortium as part of a rather jagged menu of “unbundling” strategies. The consortium idea is now part of the larger “technology renaissance” proposal, but the logic behind it has shifted, and my ability to make a strong financial case is lessened as a result. Admittedly, the tech proposal in which it is just one cog has a logic to it that works beautifully with the other team’s proposal, so one could argue that some magic occurred in the process that will lead to everything working out beautifully.

There is no doubt in my mind that these three weeks were rewarding ones for me, professionally and personally. We have an all-star group of mid-career teachers at GS, and spending time with them working through challenging issues concerning the future of the institution that we all love is bracing stuff. My colleagues push me intellectually, and their passion often exceeds my own. I was determined to be an agent provocateur throughout the process, and I may have been too confrontational at times, both through my blog posts and my comments in meetings. Well, I have my own notions of what it means to be an innovative organization, and I want to see us evince those qualities across everything that we do, not just in a cloistered setting. For me, that means promoting transparency, challenging sacred cows, busting silos, and embracing new tools. We heard about schools that are doing some of these things when Heather Hoerle presented to us; maybe we all need to visit an altschool. Regardless, I’m grateful that my colleagues have patience for me when I am speaking like a prophet of innovation.

Next time, if there is a next time, we need to study innovative schools (and innovative businesses from other sectors) more actively and deeply. We did this a little bit when we Skyped with the senior administrative team from Kiski. They have a good system for nimble decision-making, but they are a smaller school and don’t have the expectations that come with Quaker process. If our HOS has one very provocative idea embedded in the Adaptability Project, it is this: With some rethinking and rejiggering of its structures, Quaker process at George School could help us adapt with deftness, not hinder us. It stands to reason that this could be true. The problem that many large organizations face is that they have layers upon layers of bureaucracy. We don’t. Our organization is very flat, and other schools actually envy this quality. So how did that become a perceived weight that pulls us to do things slowly? Much more reflection is needed on this topic.

Adaptability Project, Day 12

This morning the Adaptability Project group explored the strengths and weaknesses of George School’s Quaker decision-making process in order to come to a better understanding of how we might find approval for our two proposals . . . quickly. (Our goal is to get both proposals approved this coming school year.) Two guests, Drew Smith and Chris Kerr, were invited to join us to share their expertise in Quaker process.

We spent the first half an hour of the morning silently responding to three prompts that were projected on the screen. Here’s what I wrote in my Moleskine; these thoughts don’t represent anyone’s opinions but my own.

Q: What are your understandings of the assumptions underlying the Quaker decision-making process?

  • It’s consensus based
  • It includes the constituencies who will be affected by the decision
  • The clerk seeks to discern “the sense of the meeting”
  • Participants are open to continuing revelation
  • You are encouraged to speak your truth (. . . once)
  • Listening is important

Q: What are the pros and cons of the Quaker decision-making process?

  • Pros:
    • maximizes buy-in
    • people feel heard
    • enfranchisement
    • institutional memory is heard
    • conflict is aired face-to-face
    • group’s wisdom often has the advantage (“to proceed as way opens”)
  • Cons:
    • need to find times when everyone can get together
    • folks with bad attitudes are seldom put in their place
    • conservative gravitational force
    • introverts are too often silent
    • tearful appeals are too powerful

Q: What concerns do you have about our next steps?

  • While our group has been practicing agility, the rest of the faculty has not.
  • Paradigm shifts are hard to swallow. Bite-sized doses might be easier to get approved.
  • [Here I summarize what I wrote in yesterday’s blog post.] My blog post explores Rita Gunther McGrath’s “New Playbook” elements. We are “precise but slow,” and we are going to ask the faculty to make a decision that is “fast and roughly right.” They will want details and more details in the meeting for business, but we need them to say yes or no to the broad strokes.

After lunch we met to strategize, and it was a fascinating and far-ranging conversation which I will not duplicate here. My personal contribution was to try to push the group to imagine “outside the box” tactics for achieving approval for our proposals. We talked about “choice architecture” which was a new piece of jargon for me. Although our larger group conversation didn’t yield a clear outcome, my smaller group made some solid strides after we spun off on our own. I’m sorry that I am not going into greater detail, but there is nothing to be gained by giving up the element of surprise!