Unknown Known

There are the known knowns; there are things we know we know.  We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.  But there are also unknown unknowns–there are things we do not know we don’t know. –Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush

Donald Rumsfeld made these comments in response to the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  He got a lot of flack and mockery for it (the flip-floppery of the words and their utter ridiculousness on the surface seemed to encapsulate the Bush White House response on everything, even if the core idea was valid) from an American people that were post 9/11 afraid, sitting on the cusp of a new, violent world.  As Iraq proved, there were plenty that we did not know we did not know.


Nate Silver, the founder of the great sports, politics, and economics data site FiveThirtyEight, also wrote a pretty good (a bit long) book The Signal and the Noise.  It’s worth the read as it will make you think about data in new ways, and really question the assessments we do (and the assumptions we can and cannot make).  In the chapter “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You” he looks at intelligence failures, including 9/11 and Iraq, and delves into the idea of the “knowns”.  The breakdown is interesting and important:

Known Knowns: You know the problem and have the answer.  You know you need enough chairs for your class to sit.  Thanks to a class list, you know how many kids will be in your class.

Known Unknown: You know the problem but do not have the answer.  This is the first day of class.  You know the material you have to cover.  Unknown are the skills students bring into the classroom: Can they even read the text you are counting on?  Unknown are the personalities: Do they like to learn or are their “issues”?  These questions x 1,000.  Schools combat this unknown with assessments and data; a good administration will give teachers access to databases or just include basic data in your class list (my first job included DRP scores and IEP designations with the list).  Elementary schools spend a lot of time crafting classroom balance when moving kids grades, and reporting on each child before the new teacher takes over.  High schools have more informal information exchanges, in the teachers’ room over coffee or, later, in a bar over drinks.  Schools recognize this problem and use data to solve it as much as they can (caffeine and alcohol are mere balms).

Unknown Unknown: “A contingency that we have not even considered,” writes Silver.  “We have some kind of mental block against it, or our experience is inadequate to image it; it’s as though it doesn’t even exist.” (421)  There is a reason we pay experienced teachers more.  If you’ve had a student teacher recently, or mentored a new one, you can see they have no idea what lies ahead.  Not only do new teachers not realize it can take fifteen minutes for a student to find a pencil, they have NO idea what the home life of many are and how unimportant Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is at that moment in time.  Who knew?  There is a reason so many teachers quit in the first three years.

* If we could get parents, school board members and others to teach for a month the entire tone around teacher negotiations would change.  There is nothing more frustrating (I would argue a microagression) than a non-teacher suggesting a lesson.  “If you would just….”  Thanks, no.

Unknown Known: As veteran and studied educators, we know the results but not the problems (we do make judgments, though–I used to blame middle school teachers for what my 9th graders couldn’t do, until I became a middle school teacher (I try not to blame the elementary teachers)).  I remember a few yeas ago, I got data showing that nearly 25% of my incoming students were illiterate.  Easily, one-third are below grade level.  That state is known.  The problem is not.

Silver does not talk about this–and I have no doubt I’m getting the binary wrong and this state of mental organization doesn’t even exist–but for me the “unknown known” seems to be the blind spot in education.  Instead of looking at a known problem (kids can’t read) and the unknown solution (Why?  How can we fix it?) we should be looking at how we got here.

The Difference and How It Helps

In our district, we are pushed to look at where the student is and solve the problem.  A student can’t read (known) we teach them how (unknown how, but solve it over 180 days).  That’s the school year in a nutshell.  Next year, repeat.

The problem is that it is reactive.  Ten (more?) years ago our district went full RtI (Response to Intervention).  For at least two school years (a lot time for many initiatives to last) we talked about using data (then, a new idea) to drive instruction (an even newer idea).  If Johnny did not know his alphabet, someone would take him aside and drill it; then he’d be with the class and ready to push on as an equal.  It is a great idea.  It reminds me of herding stray sheep to keep the whole alive.  We even got these great laminated folders that detailed much of the philosophy and protocol (I kept mine–it is so clear–while I’ve dumped my share of other such initiatives and supporting materials).  Unfortunately, RtI got watered down by the differentiation push that followed it.  Plus, because PBL (Performance Based Learning) had not yet happened, those teachers in the upper grades complained that their content was too complexly woven together to do a simple intervention (PBL and targets takes some of that argument away–just teach a focused Evidence group, for example, if that’s their weak spot).

The unknown known is not about the student in front of you.  It is about the path that brought them to this moment.  You know the result: one-third of my class struggled with literacy.   I don’t know the problem: For some reason, a large number of students could arrive at middle school without being able to read, but I don’t know why.  We have good teachers in the younger grades.  We have resources.  It is unknown how we got here.

In putting the unknown first (unknown known) we focus on the system, not the individual.  In this instance, I am not looking at my students but those who are coming up.  In theory, if I can know that unknown those coming into my class in future years will not have this issue–they will be able to read, and I can focus on bringing them up even higher.

The Power (and Blind Spots) of Linear Thinking

Semantics?  Perhaps.  But there is a lot to be said about linear thinking.  Our school is dogged by linear thinkers that cannot see the complex interconnectedness that is life (and teaching).  They often hold back discussions and real change because they cannot see how fixing C before B helps get to M–and we all get bogged down.  But linear also clarifies.  In thinking about what lead up to this moment, our solutions look to the future.

The question to ask is simple: How did we get here?  It is one we rarely have time to address because, teaching.  Those one-third in my classroom right now need me.  Those two-thirds need me, too.  Someone, though, needs to be thinking about how we got here.

But we know the unknown unknown (confused or just meta?).  Ten years ago, I sat in a Literacy Committee meeting and heard from the kindergarten about this group.  The next year, the first grade told us about them.  By the time the third grade teacher reported out about “this group” I asked what we were doing about it.  Nothing.  Blank stares.  Crickets.  Then, we threw extra resources at it.  They got better.  To the fourth grade teacher, this was problem: solution.  For me, though, that group was known but I had no idea why.  When they got to me, I knew plenty.

Root out those linear thinkers who bog down every other discussion and put them to work.  One a wall in a conference room put two lists: Cause and Effect.  The latter is what we know (literacy).  Charge them with solving the cause.

No Hats in School: The Data Supports It

Fifteen years ago, when I began at my current school, the rules were clear.  We had a dress code: Shorts and skirts could be no longer than your knuckles when arms hung by your side; tops had to have straps two fingers wide; no underwear could be showing.  And, of course, NO HATS.

Much of this has gone by the wayside.  The short shorts and skirt issues, plus ones around cleavage, were disproportionally enforced on girls with curves (the first graders had crazy short shorts, but their teachers wagged their fingers at my middle schoolers).  There was also some body shaming going on.  Our focus has shifted to clothing disrupting the learning process (profane or offensive, or really shiny) and being unable to participate in activities (dumb shoes).

Except for hats.

We have debated hats on a number of issues–many surrounding learning social norms and cultural currency.  The fact is that if you don’t wear a hat no one cares, but if you do some people will hold it against you.  Not everyone is convinced that it matters, and, as a result, enforcement is lax.  A rule that is not enforced is not worth having.  Still, I fight the battle.

But I am a person of data.  Is there, I wondered, a reason for banning hats that is supported with data?  When I thought about my own dislike of students wearing hats (against the rules) it came down to a gut reaction–students who wore hats (and were constantly flaunting the rule) always seemed to be in trouble in some other way.

Was this true or was it just an impression?

Method: After a year with a grade level, I broke students into several groups: Behavior problems, No behavior problems, and Recent behavior problems.  Then, I tagged those who generally wore hats (against the rules) and those who did not.  Here are the results:

hats pie graph

Behavior Issues; Wears Hat: 20.6%
Behavior Issues: Does Not Wear Hat: 17.5%
Recent Behavior Issues; Recently Began Wearing a Hat: 7.9%
No Behavior Issues; Does Not Wear Hat: 3.2%
No Behavior Issues; Does Not Wear Hat: 50.%

Conclusion: Not all students with behavior issues wear hats, but nearly all kids who wear hats have behavior issues.

Why?  I see the wearing of the hat as the canary in the coal mine.  If a kid cannot come in and follow that basic rule, why would we expect them to follow other rules?  Those with recent behavior issues are the most interesting because their wearing hats coincided with the change.  Perhaps baseball is a poor influence?

Besides wearing hats being anachronistic, the argument I hear is that we have other battles to fight.  My response is that if a student will not adhere to this basic rule, why do we think they will respond to others?  It has been argued that, “if they get their work done, what does it matter?”  By that measure, students who get work done don’t have to follow any rules.  There are students who don’t even need to come to school and they’d be fine!  It is extreme (I’ve been told), but how many rules are arbitrary when measured with production?  Hats are arbitrary (beyond cultural norms), but they are also a useful nod to being part of a larger community.

Bonus: Paul Young is a music teacher who wrote a nice post on hats and music performance etiquette.  Here, he measures a hat-ratio.  Check out “The No Hat Rule” here.

And try your own experiment as I did.  Were the results the same?  I’m curious about classroom and schools that have no hat policy–do the results hold even when hat wearing breaks no rules?

Aggregate Not Facilitate

I remember the interview well: “So, you’re a facilitator, more than a teacher.”

This was in response to my description of the student-centered model I had presented. I have always struggled with letting go of control, having once believed that a good lecturer was the key element to a transformative class. Now, I aspire to be a Nancie Atwell, although I cannot give up my podium completely.

Still, in 2002, putting desks in a circle instead of rows qualified as transformative.

Currently, I am “taking” an archived course on data through EdX and the University of Texas Austin. I put “taking” in quotes because I’m really just rummaging through their archived material, missing out on the most important element–the interaction with others in the course. It’s all explained in their video How DALMOOC Works, which I recommend for helping you see another way a class can be structured. (DALMOOC stands for Data Analytics and Learning MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course)

To boil it down, the primary learning in the class comes from students doing stuff in the world, integrating and talking with the world, and then bringing all of those discussions back to the class. Students talk with experts, go on forums, tweet, blog, chat, talk, explore and create and then get together (online) with the class to share out.

Notice how this is different than most online courses and their required posts and word counts. Yes, that’s there, but this is about the student and the power of sharing.

What is the teacher doing? Facilitating, sure. They set the whole thing up and keep it going. They are the expert and guide.

But then the aggregate. The most interesting thing is that they monitor and share the most interesting, insightful and important learning that happened that day. It goes in an email. Instead of monitoring words and posts for participation, these instructors promote ideas and work that moves the group forward. This is a community.

Now, I know we can leave no child behind. That quiet kid falls between the cracks. Most important, the MOOG is a volunteer course with no fee which starts with thousands and ends with far fewer completions. But prodding is a different philosophy than inspiring. I am wondering how this model of agregation could become a meaningful, transformative next step.

Maker Space, Lending Libraries and 21st Century Learning

Maker space has gone from mainstream nerd to mainstream.  Along with Project Based Learning (the other PBL), educators have embraced the maker space movement as a 21st century education must.  As with any movement, the push often comes before the need is evident.  Some good, earnest work at our school lead to naught as our librarian and tech educator failed to start a fire.  Below is my suggestion for expanding our library’s function and supporting PBL and the maker movement.</

As we are contemplating and experimenting with Project Based Learning we are running into a few issues.  My thoughts turned to the Maker Space.  From another conversation I had with our librarian, it sounds like it is not being utilized.  Based on our classroom needs I wanted to offer a few thoughts that might help teachers in their efforts to do projects and encourage "hands on" and exploitative learning–the ideal of the maker space movement.

Lending Library of Tools: As libraries move to expand beyond books, I have read about ones that lend tools.  It makes sense–I use my post hole digger about once every five years; if the library had it I’d still have access and so would the entire community.  I have a box of 10 saws and a few hammers in my classroom from our long-gone tech program, but no one in the school knows it, thinks about it, and if they did borrow it I’d worry they’d never come back.  Still, I only use them a few times a year–they are an underutilized resource.  Put a bar code on them and now they are public, in the database and tracked.

There are so many tools classroom teachers search for; glue guns, longer tape measures and Phillips screwdrivers, are always in demand.  These are not tools most classrooms would need on a regular basis, but when you need them, you need them.  Put them together and bar code them for inventory control.

Depot of Free Consumables: When a teacher needs cardboard, shoe boxes, yogurt containers and such the all-staff email goes out.  In that one week window a whole classroom project hinges on our ability to consume and remember to bring in a certain number of 2 liter bottles.  While teachers could do a better job of planning, when we respond to student needs we often need to turn on a dime–suddenly, shoebox dioramas make sense.  There are constant (cardboard) and perennial (yogurt cups) needs that could be slowly collected–I toss a single good shoebox out about every month.  A single shelving unit of dedicated tubs for such things would go far.

Store of Emergency Cost Consumables: I am often hit up for duct tape.  I have a lot, because when you need it you need it, plus the borrowing.  There is nothing more frustrating than needing supplies.  A project grinds to a half for want of a glue stick.  Or blue paint.  As a community, we are good about sharing.  And our Art teacher is generous, although her budget is limited and each request costs her interruptions of class and time in general.  Still, a basic stockroom of project based supplies would help support the maker ideal.  This would not be a “borrow”, but a store.  And users would be charged in their supplies account for the replacement.  It would be a lifeline, though.

I know the first stumbling block for this re-imagining is space.  Then money.  Management, too.  If the idea is worth pursuing, though, we can work those details out.  If we are serious about project based learning and letting the students lead their own learning, our school is going to have to be ready to provide the resources necessary–and we are going to be hard pressed in our individual classrooms to provide for every scenario.

Make Sports Co-ed

Two years ago our administration told us not to use gender in our classroom. It had come up when students were asked to pack-up the room for the day–boys putting away materials, girls stacking chairs. It was one of many daily sorts we do, and students self-designated their gender and responsibility, but one student who was questioning their gender felt stuck. We were asked to look at other data when we make groups, be it classroom chores or placement in classes. It was a solid decision that moves us forward in a number of issues–read my post about “the boy problem” here.

When told that gender was no longer being used for groupings, I asked if this was going to be true for sports, too.

It is a complicated issue, but it gets at the heart of problem with using gender as a designation–it offers no path to a solution, except if the problem is gender discrimination.

For the sake of argument, let’s use the stereotype that “boys are physically bigger and stronger than girls” because this has a basis in data.  We line up everyone who wants to play basketball and find that for 80% of boys that is true.  If a co-ed team was created, 80% of the A-team players would be boys.  What, then, to do about the other 20%?

If we stick to gender, we are going to fill the team with sub-par specimens instead of the best players–period–filling up those roster spots.  From a tactical standpoint, the coach would want that 20% of stronger girls.  A co-ed team.

Let’s add some complexity–skills.  Teams have smaller, quicker players with skills that trump size and strength.  If the roster was filled with the best players–if the coach was able to evaluate without taking gender into consideration–the team would probably be a diverse group, physically.  From a tactical standpoint, a good coach would want the best fifteen players on their squad–size and strength being only one factor.

Note that in that last scenario, other than a concern about discrimination, gender has moved to the side.

What, then, is the issue?  Let us take plain bias in evaluating talent off the table–it is a huge one, but this will allow us to look at other, overlooked issues.

The first is equity.  Our school has four basketball teams–Boys A, Boys B, Girls A, Girls B.  If we went co-ed we could simply have A, B, C and D.  Extending the above, let’s assume Team A has an 80:20 split of boys: girls.  Let us further assume that Team B has a more equitable ratio, if not the former Girls A 80% taking up the majority of the Team B spots.

Does Team A being mostly boys and Team B being mostly girls create inequity?  Typically, our Team A goes to more tournaments, gets the new uniforms, and has a more committed coach.  Team B is more developmental–and I would assume Team C and Team D would be more so.  As the majority of girls are on the lower teams (even on Team B), the majority of girls would get less.  At least with a Boys A and a Girls A schools can easily count dollars spent, games played and the like.

The real issue here is the purpose of the sports program in the first place: The eternal debate–winning vs. participation.  For those hoping to be the best, they need to play the best.  On the court, you want the best players regardless of gender.  Those who are not in the top fifteen need development.

Equity means respecting development.  Players on Team B should be striving to earn a spot on Team A.  Instead of focusing on winning games, though, that program needs to focus on development of the player.  This requires participation and good instruction.  Equity falls away when players are no longer pushed.  Team C and Team D should be the same, even as they are even more elementary in terms of skills and development.

When players are on the team where they are, the system is equitable.

Bias.  Of course, this is only possible when bias in evaluation is taken off the table.  But parents get ugly when it comes to sports.  When teams are by gender, parent after parent still finds a reason their kid is being held back, not on Team A or riding the bench too often.  One coach a town over, after a win, was confronted by a spreadsheet wielding parent, recording time played by each player and a quibble over a two minute variance (the coach scheduled roles and times prior to the game, except the fourth quarter so he’d have flexibility if the game was close).  He moved to absolute equity the next game, lost, but no parents complained (the players were not as happy).  Whoa the burden coach’s kid actually being good, but constantly being told they got their spot because of bias.

Add gender and the result is explosive.

In the data world they call this issue “the signal in the noise.” 9780143125082The signal is the problem–finding the best players and playing them to win–while biases are the noise. We identify gender as an easy way to categorize people. We notice it. Evolutionary, we are built to recognize patterns as a means of survival. But our intuition can cause us to fall to, create and reinforce stereotypes. We create more noise, and lose the signal. Every stereotype has some truth at its core, but it ultimately binds the person it is being done to–we put the person in a box. And, it makes others blind to the real problem and its solution.

In the case of those 20% of boys who do not get spots on Team A because there are girls who are better, gender now becomes a factor.  A battle to be fought.  This is where cries of political correctness and reverse discrimination become issues, not what is best for the players.

The issue, then, is dealing with this bias.  Notice how, over several paragraphs, we have moved away from the stereotype of boys being more physically able than girls and are now talking about bias and equity.  Dealing with equity is hard.  It requires education and community support.  It requires a commitment, so that it becomes, over time, the norm.  “You are on Team B because you need to develop skills X, Y and Z.”

That we shy from implementing this tells us something about our values as a school and community.  Schools need to set the standard against bias in all forms.  They cannot do this when their institution underscores this in the group representing them to the larger community–wearing uniforms with the logo across their chest and being photographed for the paper.

The way forward.  There are plenty of obstacles to move forward.  Looking at basketball, girls use a different ball.  But people adapt.  Until seventh grade girls playing recreational lacrosse did so with boys, with full contact rules.  When they were segregated, playing by girls’ limited contact rules, most felt it was a step back.  These girls were ready to hit.

One step is to desegregate those sports without such conflicts.  There is no reason I know to have separate cross country races for boys and girls.  Wrestling, golf and typically single-gender sports (football, field hockey) should be gender-free, too.

It should be noted that, through most of schooling, the physical size and natural abilities waxes and wanes.  A small kid one year comes back from summer break having grown half a foot.  The kid with no balance suddenly catches up.  As educators, we should be embracing a growth mindset.  If only K-8 schools embrace a gender-free athletic process it will create a foundation for growth.  There is no reason not to.

Finally, schools should focus on both winning and development, but the second part is key.  Having a Team A, with the understanding that it is competitive, is important in giving an aspirational goal for all.  Those on the team need to accept that, in being on that team, they might sit.  But practices should be developmental.  And Teams B, C and D should be levels of development.  There is room for both those who compete and those who just want to play.  The emphasis is on work and commitment, and from that comes growth and joy.

The Boy Problem: Noise Obfuscation of True Problems

While a bunch of us were chatting, our administrator noted how all of the discipline cases he is dealing with are boys.  He then noted how most of our failing students are also boys, and that most of our top students are girls.  Not alone in this observation, he pondered what is perennially proposed: A different program for boys than girls.

Bad idea.

The problem of using gender to model programs is that it offers no path to a solution, except if the problem is gender discrimination.

In the data world they call this issue “the signal in the noise.”  9780143125082The signal is the problem–behavior and academic achievement–while classifications (gender, race, age) are the noise.  We identify the boy problem because gender is an easy way to categorize people.  We notice it.  Evolutionary, we are built to recognize patterns as a means of survival.  But our intuition can cause us to fall to, create and reinforce stereotypes.  We create more noise, and lose the signal.  Every stereotype has some truth at its core, but it ultimately binds the person it is being done to–we put the person in a box.  And, it makes others blind to the real problem and its solution.

To say that our school does not serve boys is to say that there is only one way to be a boy.  It’s a box we put people in.  For the sake of argument, let’s use the stereotype that “boys need movement.”  And let’s say that 80% of boys need movement.  That leaves us missing 20%.  And if the needs are reversed for girls–only 20% need movement–that leaves that group missing out, too   Everyone is in a box.

Instead, we might build a program around students needing movement, and another program(s) around something else.  Now, those student who need it (half) get movement.  That 20% of non-movement boys are now free to pursue their needs, along with 80% of the girls.  Win-win.

We track gender, race, SES and the like for two reasons.  First, some elements of an identified group we can address–SES kids, by definition, need to be fed. But that use is limited. Second, we identify groups because some have been discriminated against, historically.  That was the reason NCLB required those designations.  When a group comes up short, this provides a place for schools to start the conversation–is the cause discrimination?

After that has been answered in the negative (hopefully) the use of such designations should then move to characteristics of the individual students in question and their needs.  Why are these students getting into trouble?  How large an issue is that, and how can it be addressed?  In looking back at NCLB the one area that using the data made a big difference was with SES students.  Interestingly, the solution was like the 80:20 above–many needed something the school was not providing (but not all), and some non-SES students benefited from those same programs.  Win-win.  It was not because of discrimination, but in starting there schools took a fresh look at a problem and identified the true root cause.  Focusing on gender instead places the needs of some on the larger demographic while excluding others–it is not an efficient solution and can create new problems.

So what is our school’s problem?  We are too indulgent.  In our desire to provide to students what they need to succeed we have failed to hold them accountable.  We take off limits but do not demand responsibility as part of the bargain.  For example, I allowed music last fall because students benefited as it canceled out distracting noise.  Now, it is the distraction.  And music has creeped into other activities and classrooms.  Snacks have become meals.  Fidgets have become toys.  Water and bathroom breaks are a right.  In the end, I should have a product.  Not always.  In opening the barn door first I have now set up my enforcement of academics as conflict, not an inspired goal.  Too often, the work reflects this shift in tone from support to scold.  The exception is the rule.  We indulge.

We have reached the tipping point: As we approach 20% of students being an exception, the exception becomes the rule.  When music left the classroom, using during essay writing only, it became an exception.  As 20% of classrooms had exceptions (hats, music, no lines, snacks) it becomes harder to hold to the rule.

There are two fixes for this.  The first is to hold the rule.  No hats.  No music.  Lines.  The second is to add responsibility and accountability to the privilege.  Currently, we ask nothing in return for privilege.  Why?  Because monitoring it is difficult and it sets up conflict.  But that’s exactly how we creep towards the tipping point–we let those with the least amount of respect for others redefine the rule.  When those 20% change expectations the number of rules pushed grow and the number of students breaking them grows, too.

Those kids are defending by packs of adults, all justifying why they need it and apologizing for transgressions.  It’s not the exception that is the problem, but the transgression and accountability.  We are starting with an assumption that this thing bestowed–music, gum, movement–is a right to be taken away, not a privilege to be earned.  This is the exact opposite of how the adult world works–the most responsible gets the privileges while those lacking control either get few rewards or confinement.  And we excuse them in academics, too, for the same reasons.  We are doing these kids a disservice.

All of this is hard.  You can’t penalize a kid for the lack of structure provided up until the moment they cross a line.  The Responsive and Developmental Design programs offer those systems and protocols, but they require time and commitment from the group.

I would argue that it appears boys are the problem because success involves awareness and impulse control.  Boys seem to have more of a problem with this, but they are not alone.  Because society excuses much of it based on stereotypes (“boys will be boys” and “you can’t expect a boy to sit for an hour”) they hear that and internalize it.  When we lean on punishment, though, we are teaching students not to be caught.  Our data does not account for those who appear to follow rules but who skate the line constantly–take a census of how many are not where most of their peers are, or doing outlier behaviors, and you’ll find “they have permission.”  Plus, we have behaviors that are more personal, and do not affect others.  Even with academics, Tier II is filled with those who flail openly and dramatically.  When we stop looking at the major behavior data, but instead account for minor behaviors and any deviations from the rule, a true picture of our ailments become clear.  The solution is not movement but accountability to norms and earned privilege.

This Wall Street Journal article is a nice summing-up of the balance between challenge and aspiration.

Counterfactual Reasoning, Black Swans, and Common Planning Conundrums

There are many nuts-and-bolts topics discussed (which is probably why you are here) in the name of counterfactual thinking and black swans.  All interesting, but you may by here for only one, so scroll down to what interest you.  In order, the topics are: Introduction, Configuration, Schedule, Placement, Last Thoughts.  Enjoy.

Counterfactual Reasoning and Black Swan Planning

A few weeks ago I wrote about counterfactual reasoning–that it is easier to prove something doesn’t work than it is that is does work.  For example, it is hard to prove that coming to school leads to learning, but we know truants fall behind.  This is important to remember as we plan–we can’t confirm much about the future, but we can plan with that blind spot in mind.

The idea becomes important when looking at the surprises we seem to encounter after we do a lot of planning for the next year (placement, schedule, resource allocation, etc.).  The theory of this is the “black swan“; that unexpected events have a major effect on plans.  Because of this, the theory goes, we should plan with the unexpected in mind.  The other half of the theory is that it is difficult to know what to plan for.  In short, just be ready for something.

Note: Much of this is inspired by  Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.  Much of this essay looks at the unexpected events that cause those disruptions every educator can relate to–nothing Earth shattering, but annoying nevertheless.

As educators, we tend to lock everything down–protocols, lessons, spaces, schedules, class lists–because we like to think we can predict everything.  For example, our school locked students into the three homerooms last June, but we did not take into account several unexpected developments.

The largest was we had asked students their World Language preference (French or Spanish).  Our students move through the school by classroom–Art, PE, Music and World Language.  During the summer we realized we could not honor most preferences because placement was based on a different criteria.  We punted.  But we also did not expect several students from one classroom to move away or that so many new families would move into our district.  We placed with insufficient information.  Then student preferences for WL created more turmoil, as parents demanded their kid get this or that language (they, of course, waiting for three weeks into September before doing so).  It also took a few weeks to figure out the WL/Tier II needs of new and leaving students.  Who knew?

As the old Yiddish proverb goes, “Man plans and God laughs.”

One of the mistakes people make is in trying to anticipate the black swan.  If we only anticipate more contingencies we think we can control it all.  No.  We certainly can straighten out many issues.  And we still have to make plans–schedules, room assignments, placement, etc.  How, though, can we plan while respecting the unknown?

Here are some examples of common issues facing schools.


A few weeks ago I shared a configuration idea for our middle school.  For forever they have been multi-age, but they are contemplating going straight-grade “just for next year” because class sizes are getting too large and students are falling through the cracks.  There are several challenges facing the team, but the main one will be the influx or exodus of students.  I argue maintaining multi-age classrooms is the best safeguard against student numbers changing.

They are adding a fifth teacher to a four person team.  The Core is responsible for Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Science.  Currently, two teachers are licensed to teach STEM and two Humanities.  To alleviate class sizes they plan to hire a Science teacher.  In theory, this lowers the class average from 28 students to 23.  Of course, because the new teacher can only teach Science it does nothing to help the Humanities classes .  In theory, one of the STEM teachers will shift some of her load towards Math, but Math being taught straight-grade and other elements conspire against such neat divisions.

Using the our middle school’s straight-grade plan as an example, three teachers for the 7th and two for the 8th creates an automatic imbalance.  Of course, these can be mitigated (supports, aides, schedule).  But, should five students leave the 7th, or five join the 8th (or both), there is suddenly a difficult situation with no easy fix.  We can’t know if that scenario will play out, or be worse.  The plan, though, is crafted with little wiggle room should any black swan appear.

Using counterfactual thinking, instead create a multi-age made up of two teams.  Each team has a Science and Humanities teacher.  A single Math teacher instructs all students–a big load, but she is relieved of other duties and the two teams can focus on social-emotional middle school programming.

Imagine, now, five students leave the seventh–the release would be divided between two teams, offering a slight relief of two or three on each team.  In the case of the five joining the 8th, a much more devastating event, that burden would be shared and only result in two or three each.  In fact, if both scenarios play out, much of the effect is a wash.  Multi-age benefits can mitigate the other effects of population bubbles.  For example, each year teachers move (with their classrooms) and they need to relearn new curriculum and start new team protocols, etc.  Multi-age allows multi-dimensional flex.

But the question to ask is why that plan will not work?  I have shown the problems of straight grade (there are more, unwritten here), but that does not mean multi-age is better.  The black swan, counterfactual advice is to take each option and poke at it–with some of the more outlandish variables–until it reveals its flaws.  Then, put down other ideas, too, and poke them.  One area to look at is which “losses” are most tolerable and which would be devastating.  The plan with the most resiliency is probably your best bet.


The difficulties of crafting a schedule are long and well known (we even know that we don’t know enough).  This is especially true in schools with many grades and diverse needs (we are a pre-K through 8).

I actually learned a lot recently on why crafting a schedule is so hard through an article on chaos theory (an article for later).  In short, such endeavors are dynamic and resetting course causes exponential problems down the path.   What we do know is that schedule craft works up to 80% of the elements are placed, but then conflicts trouble the last 20% of needs (that’s the dynamic nature of the process).  To fix it we begin to make compromises (which creates more conflict, exponentially).  Each year, someone (or many) is (are) unhappy.

Then, each year, we have a black swan surprise.  Last year, it was WL and everything that followed it.  Other grades had other emergencies.  Each fix seemed to bring more problems.  We live with it–we have no choice–but that 20% consumed a lot of resources and continues to create ripples (e.g., it is unclear if student preference for WL will be honored in 7th grade now that they have a year of one language under their belt.).

My solution is blocking out time instead of scheduling in time.  For example, one grade level figures four uninterrupted hours of seven school hours are needed for Core–90 minutes of Literacy, 60 minutes for Math, 60 for Science/Social Science and 30 for TA.  We demonstrate what’s important to an organization by the resources we put towards it (time, money) and four hours uninterrupted seems a reasonable commitment.  That leaves three hours for lunch, recess, Unified Arts (UA), band, mentor, counseling and any other non-Core activity.

How is a block resilient?  Let’s look at how our current system is not.  Predicting a seven hour day is hard; there are many variables.  It is also easy to be fooled by small numbers–three kids pulled out here, four there.  Currently, music lessons, mentor, speech and physical therapy, and other student needs are pulled from Core.  There are many reasons for this–part time employees and mentors have locked-in schedules, no one wants to deny a child their one Art class a week, and a few kids here or there are seen as non-disruptive.  But in my class of 20, one absence and three music lessons are 20% of the class.  Plus, recovery now becomes a negotiation not with two other Core teachers, but with three times that–pull from Art? PE? (And, because of the dynamics of the interwoven schedule, also lose 20% of their students and need recovery for them).  Again, here is the problem I am poking a hole in with our current schedule and how it was created.

By dividing the day into two blocks (4 hour, 3 hour) that do not overlap, students and teachers only have to negotiate within those blocks, with only those adults.  It is more likely I can flex with my Core teammate’s schedule because a) we have an aligned schedule, b) fewer pulls (classes) means fewer and smaller disruptions, c) fewer agents means less communication needed.  On Core, we can debate the virtues of Math vs. Science and time required to do it right, but with blocks we do not have to debate the death by a thousand cuts we currently face.  Four hours uninterrupted shows we value Literacy, Math, Science and Hive.  Three hours should be enough for others to negotiate what is best for students, among actors who have more in common (UA).  Or, to demonstrate that we want more for our students than the resources we have (or are willing) to give.  Again, this may be flawed.  Poke it.

Student Placement

Has there not been an issue with placement?  Do kids every come as advertised, stay friends (or enemies) with the kids from the previous year, or continue to need the same services?  Too often, we’ve even had to change the teacher assigned to the class (illness, pregnancy, number shifts).  For all the benefits we argue placement provides, those are the holes I poke in our locking kids in as we do.

Three years ago, the middle school wisely created two teams with a blank slate for placement.  First, Special Ed (SE) placed students on the two teams with a variety of rationales–service providers, friend/tormentor locations and the like.  This was open to debate/poking by the group, but we deferred to the experts.  Second, a small number of kids who do not receive services were separated or paired because of behavior or emotional needs.  Some kids need friendly peers, while others are a bit too friendly during class time.  All told, about 20% of placement was locked in like this.  That is an example of necessary planning with what is  known (at that time).  What’s important to note is what they did not do–lock in the remaining 80%.

Then, the sending teachers made two “balanced” teams.  More poking.  But the most important part was that no one was locked in until mid-September.  Each week the middle school would observe interactions, listen to students and families, and shift kids around.  Then, they locked in all kids, creating permanent teams and focused on creating identities for those teams and bonds within.

They waited because kids change–they move, they mature and their allegiances shift.  Because services did not have much flexibility (the nature of Spec Ed and part-timers), and some kids need reassurances (i.e., not being placed with a bully or knowing an adult face before the first day of school), those 20% never shifted.  But, as things shook out, a flexibility was built in for the other 80% so that movement was possible.  By the third week, the two teams were as solid as one is going to get.  It was a successful year.

Compare that flexibility with what happened when we locked in the grade last year that suffered at the hands of WL.  For what was gained (a faint sense of knowing their homeroom) much was lost.  While we should be aware of the anxiety we create with some unknowns, it can be fleeting compared to the year-long stress of a bad fit created by the black swan.  Again, the above might not survive a good poke, but our current spring lock-in is troublesome in the long term.

A Note About Counterfactual Poking

It is easy to spot flaws.  The question is a) if that flaw is true in any viable model, b) if that flaw has a major effect.

For example, one argument I have heard against postponing placement until a few weeks into the year is anxiety and parental concern.  Yet, when we locked in the placement of kids, one or two parents would inevitably call with concerns (or be more forceful about it).  Sometimes, that brought a dam break of other requests as parents micromanaged.  In short, parents and kids worry regardless.  The former is easily dealt with because the concerning elements are often soothed with more information, and solutions can be shared (including locking in needs).  The latter upends a carefully planned order, with results (according to chaos theory) that can prove exponential.

So, caution is necessary when weighing options.  People need to be objective that all plans have downsides–sometimes the same downsides–but some recover better.


The idea is that the we don’t know what we don’t know, but we still have to plan.  We want to poke holes in things early, and be honest about defects, before we choose the model that is best for students.