Saturday, January 23, 2016

How Children Succeed: Rethinking What's Important (Book Review)

When listening to news coverage of education reform, and talking with parents and teachers, one hears a variety of views about what “The Best” approach to education is. While I’ve spent a lot of team learning about teams (of adults), and I have some opinions about what seemed to work best for me when I went to school, I realized that I didn’t really know much about research into education. To that end, I started reading How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, and in the process started to reconsider many of my preconceptions about what’s best for kids, and along the way I learned a few things that I can use to help the people I work with succeed.

A lot of the discussion around elementary (and earlier) education is around what children learn and when. How Children Succeed reminded me that learning isn’t all about academics, and that not all learning happens in school.

Some of the concepts and principles that the books discusses, like Flow, Grit, and the ideas of Seligman in Learned Optimism, are ones that I’ve come across while reading about how adults work, so I felt that many of the concepts, if not the details, are excellent ones to have in mind while working with my teams.

Paul Tough starts out the book with a description of a pre-kindergarten class using the Tools of the Mind curriculum. This approach, which my son’s kindergarten class followed, is about teaching executive function, a set of skills that helps someone interact with other and learn. As the book progresses, Tough describes the other traits that are more related to “character” than “academics.” The argument is that these “non-cognitive” or “character skills” – things like grit, resilience, and resourcefulness, are often a better predictor of eventually success than mastery of academic disciplines. The data Tough presents are compelling, and the related anecdotes are quite motivating, and the challenges to putting these lessons into practice are somewhat daunting,

There are challenges to teaching children these kinds of skills. Using the word “character” can lead to political issues. If you get past those questions. Evaluating character and non-cognitive skills is hard, and teaching these skills is more work than simply correcting an incorrect fact or algorithm. A more concrete issue is how to get past a culture where academic testing is the norm. A recent NPR story on changes to the SAT mentioned that some states are considering using college entrance exams as an assessment mechanism at the same moment as colleges are making them optional.

Character traits are not all there is to success. Academics are important too. The character skills that the book describes are not enough to master a discipline; mastery takes practice too. The character skills do enable you to learn academic (and other) skills though. Academics and character are both important but it may make sense to change our priorities from focusing primarily on academics.

If I think back over the concepts I’ve learned in school, the most useful were the ones that gave me the tools to learn new things. To be successful in my day to day work I need to be able to work to learn new things all the time. It was nice to be reminded of this in the context of my child’s education.

While there are essential skills that children need to succeed (reading, writing, and math at some level), I wonder if I should focus less on whether or not my child is mastering specific subject, than whether he is getting an exposure to a range of topics so that he can find something that he is passionate about. Perhaps he can then use that passion as a way to practice overcoming roadblocks and frustration when things don’t come easily. Those persistence skills are then applicable to the tasks that are simply “necessary” even when they are not compelling.

How Children Succeed is easy to read, with many pointers to places to learn more about specific concepts, and it’s broken into sections that are easy to read during small bits of idle time, such as during a subway commute. This is a great book for parents to read, in particular if you are inclined to get into discussions about education policy with your peers. I won’t assert that this book will make you a expert, but it should lead to some interesting dialogs (internal and external) which will help you reconsider any idea you had that what worked for you in school was that right thing for your children. And in as much as adults and children are different in the details, I think that anyone who leads or works with teams can gain some insights that will help you become a better leader. If you are a parent who has such as role, all the better!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Turn the Ship Around: Agile Lessons from a Submarine Captain

I was not expecting a book about working on a Navy submarine to provide insights I could use to help a team be more agile. Having heard recommendations for Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by David Marquet from both a colleague at work and people in the agile community who I respect, I decided to give the book a look anyway. I’m glad that I did.

I thought that this was be a quick, enjoyable read with many lessons I could quickly employ at work. The chapters are all short and focused, and the author repeats the key themes often enough that they stick. Each chapter is centered around a story, so it’s easy to see that the lessons in the book are based on experience and not just theory. My focus is on working with agile teams, so I found that the lessons applied to that context. Even if you are not doing "Agile, this book highlights the value of an agile, adpative, self-organizing approach can have in any organization, regardless of the overall process.

The book is easy to read, with one key point per chapter, and with chapters being short enough that one could almost always find time to read a complete chapter (and thus gather a coherent lesson). This wasn’t a perfect book. Certain aspects about the writing style I found a bit jarring. While some repetition of key points is helpful, there is a bit too much of it at times. And I found the author’s use of ALL CAPS as a mechanism for emphasis to be a bit jarring. Over these stylistics decisions don’t take away from the value of the book; they just made the reading experience less than ideal. But it’s not hard to get past that, and the engaging stories that the book uses to set the stage for its lessons keep you reading.

The ideas in the book should be familiar to anyone who has spent time studying agile teams. That the author talks about how bottom up, distributed decision making (an aspect of what the author calls a leader-leader approach) can lead to a more effective operation than the traditional (to the Navy) , top-down leader-follower approach that many military and other organizations follow. Processes and checklists have as place to simplify decision making, but only in the context of rational though about your goals. Command and Control has a place, in particular in a military organization, but a more limited one than you might think. Even in critical situations a leader-leader model, where people are applying their training to do what works, rather than working by the book, or blindly following authority, can solve the problem better.

What I particularly found compelling was that this book is full of stories of how a more botton-up, empowering model of leadership can be a better way to work. That this can be true even on a submarine – an environment that is both literally and figuratively high-pressure – , should be an excellent counter to those who argue that we can’t do (agile, self-organizing teams, etc) in my organization. An agile approach is not the best solution for all problems, but agile techiques are more widely applicable than many think.

This work does not exist in a vacuum. The author frequently cites Stephen Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and the writer of the forward to the book, and also provides some pointers to other resources. Whether you are a manager, scrum master, or just someone involved on a team (agile or not) that doesn’t seem to be working well, reading this book will be a quick and enjoyable path towards finding help in identifying things that might be getting in the way to effectiveness, and also give you a sense of optimism that things can get better with the right approach.