A Teacher’s Legacy

I plopped down in an overstuffed chair. Two older ladies carried on about St. Raphael’s Friday fish fry. We all had time to burn before the nurse called our names. I picked up the February 7 issue of Time Magazine. I thumbed through the pages searching for the news makers and obituaries. A bit morbid, I know. A bald man with an ear to ear toothy smile caught my attention. Marvin Minsky, MIT professor and co-founder of the AILab, died January 24, 2016 at the age of 88. Who is this guy? I thought. I read the obituary, an eloquent personal homage from a former student, Ray Kurzweil.

Kurzweil wrote, “When I was fourteen I wrote Marvin Minsky a letter asking to meet with him. He invited me to visit him at MIT and he spent hours with me as if he had nothing else to do.” The year, 1962:  John Kennedy confronts the Cuban Missile Crisis, Algeria gains its independence from France, Rod Laver wins Wimbledon. Melvin Minsky dominates the brave new world of artificial intelligence from the laboratories of AILab at MIT. A pioneer in the fledgling science of computers, “Marvin was one of the very few people in computing whose vision and perspectives liberated the computer from being a glorified adding machine to start to realize its destiny as one of the most powerful amplifiers for human endeavors in history.” Age 35, a busy man in constant demand, Marvin Minsky had every reason to blow off a fourteen year old boy from New York city. But what did he do? Marvin took the time, sat down, and wrote a thoughtful personal letter to a young man he never met. That act of kindness, that afternoon of generosity in the laboratory at MIT changed the lives of a professor and a prodigy forever.

Kurzweil and Minsky continued to correspond over the next three years.  The young Ray Kurzweil oozed brilliance, he always did. In 1965 Kurzweil won first prize at the International Science Fair. He wrote a computer program that recognized patterns in the works of his favorite classical composers. The program synthesized these patterns into unique but similar musical pieces. Ray Kurzweil entered MIT in 1967 to study under Marvin Minsky. Within 18 months he exhausted the entire computer programming catalog. Ray sold the rights to his first software venture for $100,000 plus royalties during his sophomore year. His legend grew exponentially. PBS listed Ray Kurzweil among the 16 most influential men of the past century. The relationship between Marvin and Ray never wavered – it only deepened. Kurzweil said, “He was one of humanity’s greatest thinkers. He was also my only mentor.”

Marvin Minsky, a WWII veteran, entered Harvard after the war. He completed his doctoral studies in mathematics at Princeton University. But Marvin longed for more than the pure science could offer. His boundless curiosity flirted with genetics and physics. Neither satisfied and then it happened. He engaged the question of intelligence. Minsky recalled, “The problem of intelligence seemed hopelessly profound. I can’t remember considering anything else worth doing.” His newfound passion led to a life long pursuit at MIT. Marvin Minsky invited thousands of students to join his journey at the artificial intelligence laboratories of MIT.

Above all else, Marvin Minsky was a passionate teacher. Learning and students never lost their luster. He forever challenged his students, “You don’t really understand something if you understand it one way.” Mastery of content establishes a prequel. Organization, association, and elaboration write the introduction. Defining and resolving a problem constitutes a chapter. Following chapters must construct new questions and novel solutions. Always think big, then think small. Only then dare to write the conclusion of understanding. Minsky’s demands fueled the brightest young minds in the world. They fought to get chairs at his night lectures. Danny Hillis, a former student and transformative figure in his own right, said, “Marvin taught me how to think. He had a style and playful curiosity that was a huge influence on me. He always challenged you to question the status quo. He loved it when you argued with him.”

Minsky lived in the midst of a sea of 140 plus IQs. But this story has little to do with the brilliance of intellectuals. Do we base a love story on the distinction of brown eyes to blue eyes? Of course not. No, this story has everything to do with the conduct and character of education. An adult extends his hand to the extended hand of a child. Engagement bonds a relationship. Its effects last for a lifetime. Teachers, this is your story.

Educating With a Whole Heart

A father propped against a windswept beach sand dune labors to breathe under fogged moonlight. His young son presses hard against him to stay warm. The man is dying. A world obliterated by nuclear holocaust, they have each other, alone on the shore of a lifeless ocean. The father fears for his boy. Prospects of survival vacillate between slim and none. Can goodness yet exist in this ghoulish hell? Will goodness find his little boy? The father whispers, “You have my whole heart. You always did.” Cormac McCarthy calls his apocalyptic novel The Road, a love letter to his son. The scene above instructs our love. Love presses demands upon our thoughts and actions.

The job of a school administrator is not easy when done right. The love of an administrator pains his own heart when lived right. What is right and what is wrong? A wise man sets his compass before the journey. I serve a rural community. Small family businesses pepper our lake pocked wooded county. Commuters sacrifice an hour’s drive to Madison, Wisconsin. The public school system of Montello is the second largest employer in the area. Honorable men and women covet these positions. Their work ensures food on the table and puts flesh to hopes and dreams. By definition we serve two constituencies, adults and children. The perceived needs of these parties conflict more than one might think. How can we best honor adults without compromising our mission to children?

America spends 550 billion dollars per year on public elementary and secondary education. We invest on average $10,658 per pupil each year. And guess what? We need more. Thomas Sowell said, “The first lesson of economics is scarcity:  there is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” When local schools become a target of economic convenience, school leadership must police itself. We must prepare to say no to adult stakeholders when the school mission is compromised. Every public dollar marinates with the sweat of someone’s brow. We cannot view revenues, grants, and windfalls as easy money, or worse, our money. Our fiduciary mandate compels us to choose our staff, our vendors, and our partners wisely without consideration for political expedience. America’s 550 billion dollar investment screams one paramount truth, our children are America’s greatest asset.

School leaders, never forget your mission, Remember the words of the father to his son? “You have my whole heart. You always did.” It’s all about the kids. Period. Some mission statements say it better than others but our kids deserve our whole heart. Every item of every action plan must answer this question, how does this advance the cause of our children? Every fiduciary decision must embrace our children’s best interests. School funding changed markedly under the state’s Walker administration. We feel the keen edge of local obligation to our schools. An upcoming referendum will define our public school investment and how we nurture it.

Dr. Feuerstein, the eminent cognitive psychologist, said of students, “You don’t impose on them because you want them to be like you. You impose on them because you love them.” What parent doesn’t dream about their child’s future? Who among us doesn’t wish a better life for our kids? Of course we do. The classroom affords a vehicle for those dreams and aspirations like none other. Gender, race, creed, and status bow to equity of opportunity, the embrace of full humanity. Yes, we teach about the physical world, the world of ideas, the world of possibilities. Our children master skills to seize the power of choice as adults. That knowledge, that ability to think, that drive to create is vital. Its importance cannot be overemphasized. But love generates committed interconnections in the learning community. Feuerstein put it this way, “I want people to be dependent on the others, to be related to the others, to help the others, and to be helped by others.” Citizens, parents, students, and staff:  we are a community. We are related to each other and we share a common purpose, to love our children with a whole heart.

Thinking Skills Matter

I obsess about the learning dynamic. My journey covers the seven seas of learning theory, testimonials, conventions, seminars, and exhaustive training under recognized gurus. I separate meat from bones in my field. Believe me, there are too many bones. But why do I continue the pursuit? How can I cast off broken promises and false hope? I know the power of a teacher to affect someone’s life. I know the power of an administrator to compound that potential exponentially.

Dr. Adam Falk, president of Williams College, addressed potential incoming freshmen in the spring of 2015. He highlighted a central theme. “We are not here to create vessels of information. We are here to develop your minds. Exercise and reinforce the habits of mind. Think, feel, analyze – let your mind express itself. Strengthen the higher capacities.” Williams College is no joke. These eighteen year-olds are the academic cream of high schools around the world. Dr. Falk implies a reality these kids may not fully comprehend. Your critical thinking skills, highly developed for a high school senior, must be honed and elevated, indeed these skills can and will be elevated during your four years at Williams College. Teachers will encourage, push, and prod to make it happen.

Dr. Nate Kornell, a cognitive psychologist and professor at Williams College, amplifies this reality in his blog piece, Stop Worrying About Starting Grad School.

“The bottom line: your knowledge and skills on the first day are almost irrelevant four years later. What matters more is how much your skills are going to improve. That depends on your talent, attitude, and work ethic.

Graduate school is exactly the same. You aren’t prepared. No one is. You’re a flailing newborn spitting up all over and crying a lot (or at least I was).

What actually matters is whether you’re smart, ready to work hard, ready to get deeply interested and invested in whatever’s coming, and ready to do what you have to do to learn and improve.

You are running a marathon. The real question is how much better are you prepared to get?”

The learning dynamic demands more and more of our critical thinking skills. Those skills develop our inherent talent. Kornell said it best, “How much better are you prepared to get?”

If development of “the higher capacities” is critical at the college and graduate level, how important are they at the K-12 level? A cursory study of demographics and economics screams, “Life will not end well for those who cannot think for themselves and determine their futures.” Of those who don’t graduate from high school, only a smattering of outliers rise to productive careers. For better, for worse, we affect the lives of children. That is a fact and a choice.

We know for a fact, thinking skills taught and reinforced increases student achievement. Further, we know we have capacity to push IQ up as much as five points over the ages of six to ten. Trust me, five points of talent can make a significant difference in choices for an emerging adult. Men, would you rather have a 12 volt cordless drill or an 18 volt? Why the 18 volt? The 18 volt cordless drill has more power and greater endurance. That drill solves a greater range of problems. The mind is no different. Greater capacity, greater efficiency enhances skills which apply themselves to a greater range of problems. In sum, we possess the power to adapt and learn.

The newborn baby flails helplessly, its cry the only tool to express its needs and desires. Mom and Dad mediate a new relationship. We call it bonding but we are our baby’s first teachers. That developing mind will be nurtured by many others. Cognitive development builds biologically and environmentally, an inevitable exponential march toward independence. In the world, we call it life. In the classroom, we call it mediation. The teacher plays a dominant role at the K-12 level, a dominant but lesser role at the collegiate level, and a peer coach role at the graduate level. Greater and greater self-teaching occurs as the student progresses. His/her habits of mind, his/her powers of critical thinking, enable the individual to shape their environment. He/she emerges a fully functioning adult.

My three sons flew from the nest a decade ago. My first grandchild greets us in June. It matters little to me or you what they do for a living. Here is the critical point of their journey, the hard earned fruits of collaborative labors in their lives. Each works at a profession they chose for themselves. Each of them loves and is loved with dignity, and each invests in the welfare of others outside of family. Isn’t this what we are really about? Aren’t we a part of the universal question posited in each individual, “Who am I?” Don’t we have a responsibility to elevate the life of each child we intersect? I obsess about learning, about teaching, about caring for children because it matters more than any one person can ever comprehend.