Thursday, September 21, 2017

That's the Point, 2

As a Catholic school principal, I would often approach all-school gatherings from the standpoint of what could potentially go wrong. Whether it was hosting an hour-long, all-school assembly in our social hall or trying to move our Middle School students out of the cafeteria during an emergency drill, I would try to anticipate all of the potential problems that could arise and then come up with strategies to either prevent them from happening or mitigate their effects should they occur.

For example, during all-school gatherings, I knew that any time we asked students to move we would run the risk of delay, injury and/or misbehavior. If I would play music, I knew that PreK would need help in getting settled back down. If I needed students to exit so as to get back to class quickly, I needed to give clear instructions and have a plan for doing so. If our ceiling-mounted projector wouldn't display the presentation, I had a portable one with me and available so that we could continue with our program somewhat uninterruptedly. 

In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg calls these potential pitfalls inflection points. These inflection points are the moments that would derail a presentation or result in a student getting pushed or tripped.

Duhigg recounts a study from Scotland in the 1990s, where researcher discovered that some patients who had undergone hip or knee replacement surgery would start to walk again twice as fast as others. The researcher uncovered that those quicker-to-walk patients wrote out detailed plans that focused heavily on what they would do when they encountered inflection points - moments of extreme pain or frustration that would cause them to want to quit or give up. From something as simple as taking the first step after getting up to mapping out every potential obstacle and its corresponding contingency plan, those patients who intentionally planned for setbacks were more likely to overcome them (p. 142 - 143).

Having a plan for painful inflection points is one of the ingredients that makes companies like Starbucks, the Container Store and Deloitte Consulting such shining business examples of success. Starbucks' LATTE method for dealing with an angry customer (Listen, Acknowledge, Take Action, Thank Them, Explain the Cause) and repetitively role-playing potentially stressful scenarios with employees, helps to ensure that Starbucks stays in, "the people business serving coffee" and not the other way around ("the coffee business serving people") (p . 145).

Excellence happens on purpose and as educators we must purposefully plan for those potential speed bumps, road blocks, detours and accidents - inflection points - that we may encounter and then script out how we will respond should one of these inflection points occur.

As educators, considering situations like angry parents, flopped lessons, unruly students, or a last-minute schedule change and having a specific plan of action for when these and other inflection points occur can help maintain professionalism, maximize instructional time, and enhance student learning. In this way, we are not planning for our lessons, assemblies or any other school activities to go poorly. Instead, we have a plan to get things back on track in the event that something does go wrong.

Having a plan and rehearsing it for automaticity can make it much more likely for it to be executed when inflection points arise. This can happen on the school (what would happen in a real fire that would block a potential exit path?), classroom (how do you respond to someone who is being mean to you or to others), and individual levels (for administrators, teachers and students).

If check-points help us to take stock of where we've been and ensure we continue to head where we intended, inflection points, when strategically anticipated and accounted for, will do little to keep us from reaching our destination.

It's yet another lesson in building self-awareness and how harnessing this ability to meta-cognitively navigate life can lead to great success.

Similarly, anticipating moments of weakness and temptation (exhaustion, stress, extreme emotion, boredom, contextual cues) and then having a plan for those inflection points can likewise keep us moving in a positive spiritual direction. If you're trying to lose weight, going to a fast food spot is a slippery - and not just because of the grease - slope. If you're hoping to remain disciplined in your prayer life using an app on your phone to pray may lead to distraction or a tug to wander to other apps or sites. Anticipating these inflection points and then having a plan to prevent or mitigate them - opting for a side salad instead of fries, turning off notifications while praying - can help ensure that our behaviors align with who we want to be.

St. Josemaria Escriva called the moment when you first wake up in the morning the heroic minute:
The heroic minute. It is the time fixed for getting up. Without hesitation: a supernatural reflection and... up! The heroic minute: here you have a mortification that strengthens your will and does no harm to your body (#206).
Too often we hit snooze, crawl back under the covers and push off the start of our day. This daily inflection point can cause us to miss workouts, arrive late to work, and potentially set off a chain reaction of cutting corners throughout the course of our entire day.

In this way, every inflection point carries with it a heroic moment - the moment where we can either allow the inflection point to make us cower under the covers of the challenge or rise up and conquer it.

Believe that you can do hard things and then get to work doing them.

Be purposeful.

Be prepared.

Be heroic.

Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York, NY: Random House Trade Paperbacks. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Bigger, Better and More Boldly

My daughters Elizabeth (age 6) and Catherine (age 4), constantly create. Whether coloring blackline pictures, drawing freehand, cutting things out, glueing, taping, dancing or singing, they create incessantly.

At times, this creative spirit will inspire them to build - with blocks, Legos, cups, plastic containers, pillows, and just about anything else either my wife or I deem permissible. Prior to the mobility of their brother Gabriel (9 months), these structures would only crumble from a hastily placed object, over-ambitiousness in height or foundational stability, or a careless - albeit accidental - foot or elbow. Gabriel has brought an additional source of destruction.

Regardless of causality, though, their response to a tumbling tower has remained consistent:

“That’s okay, we can build it again bigger and better.”

Their zeal for creating inspires them to boldly dream of something bigger and better, and then get to work bringing this vision into the reality of our home.

The Congregation of Holy Cross embodies the same bold and unwavering zeal for their work within the Catholic Church, at the University of Notre Dame, and across our world. The words of Bl. Basil Moreau, the C.S.C.’s founder, “Zeal is the great desire to make God known, loved and served, and thus bring knowledge of salvation to others” animate the order and their ministry. Bl. Moreau continues:

I am convinced that Providence, which has in the past done everything necessary for the development and perfection of its work, will continue to bestow on us most abundant blessings. To ensure this, we must be animated by the spirit of zeal and generosity which so holy an undertaking requires.

It is this spirit of zeal that saw the Congregation grow rapidly from its inception in 1837. It is this spirit of zeal that allowed Bl. Moreau to weather the financial and organizational challenges that this exponential growth caused and respond:

Therefore, even should persecution redouble rather than diminish as is the case now, there would be no reason to fear God’s work. All the malice in the world and hell cannot change the will of the Lord, nullify his sovereign rights, render useless the work of his power, or make foolish the designs of his wisdom (Moreau, 452).

Similarly, upon hearing that the dome had burned to the ground in the spring of 1879, it is this spirit of zeal that emboldened Fr. Sorin, founder of the University of Notre Dame, to proclaim:

If it were ALL gone, I should not give up. The fire was my fault. I came here as a young man and founded a university which I named after the Mother of God. Now she had to burn it to the ground to show me that I dreamed too small a dream. Tomorrow we will begin again and build it bigger, and when it is built, we will put a gold dome on top with a golden statue of the Mother of God so that everyone who comes this way will know to whom we owe whatever great future this place has.

As we begin this new academic year, let us dream dreams that are worthy of our Lord and His Mother, Notre Dame. Let us, despite any challenge we may encounter or any disaster that may level our work, shrug our shoulders and try again.  

Let us, with zeal, begin building (Nehemiah 2:18)!



And more boldly than ever before.

-Garwych, A., & Grove, K. (Eds.). (2008). The Cross, Our Only Hope: Daily Reflections in the Holy Cross Tradition. Consequences of growing up poor. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press.

-Moreau, B. (2014). Basil Moreau Essential Writings: An introduction to the life and thought of the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Garwych, A., & Grove, K. (Eds.). Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press.

Friday, September 1, 2017

That's the Point

Our brains are constantly looking for patterns. Innately, our brains are programmed to solve-problems, make predictions and ultimately categorize and make sense of our world. Our brains will try to group information together to aid in speed and efficiency.

In this way, though, our brains are slackers - they look for ways to turn on autopilot and coast. In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg states, "Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our brains to ramp down more often" (p. 17 - 18).

Duhigg goes on to detail the story of MIT researchers in the 1990s who discovered that as rats became more familiar with a maze over time, their mental activity while navigating that maze decreased, writing, "As each rat learned how to navigate the maze, its mental activity decreased" (p. 15). Stored in the area of the brain called the basal ganglia, these patterns and habits allowed the rats to run faster and faster through the maze, while the rats' brains worked less and less.

Duhigg describes this process as chunking - when the "brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic response" (p. 17). This chunking is vital to the educational process. It's what allows emerging readers to blend fluently during decoding. It's what allows us to memorize math facts, historical events, scientific theories. It's how we perform tasks like writing with a pencil and paper, type on a computer, turn in papers - just about anything. Imagine how difficult every aspect of life would be if you performed any task as if it was the first time you were doing it!

While this chunking allows educators to scaffold skills and for students to move from basic to more complex concepts and activities, it also can lead to the formation of bad habits, careless errors, and an inability to successfully complete a procedure.

It's how your brian may not have noticed that the word brain was misspelled earlier in this sentence.
By Mohammadreza Farhadi Aref [CC BY-SA 4.0 ( or CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
As educators, we must consider that the brains of our students are looking for the moment to check-out. Stimulated at the beginning of class (what will we learn today, where is my homework, what is the bell-ringer activity I need to do) and at the end (finally - I get to move!, what's for homework, where am I going next?), throughout the course of a typical 45 or 50 minute class our students' brains will most likely settle into cruising altitude for about half of it.

Purposefully incorporating check-points that can offer moments of metacognition, stimulation, reflection and even re-direction and clarification can help to keep students' brains appropriately engaged and active. Whether this centers on classroom management procedures or instructional activities, intentionally including check-points can help to keep students' brains engaged, enhance their self-awareness and can help fight against the lethargy and errors that result from auto-pilot-syndrome.

This is not to say that every moment within a classroom needs to be amusement-park-engaging. In fact, it shouldn't be. But, it is to say that we must build students' capacities for work by offering to them frequent check-points that can help them to process, that can help scaffold complex tasks and concepts, and that can re-activate their brains for learning.

As a Catholic, creating habits of prayer and spiritual activity are essential in our walk of faith. However, we can become so set in our habits that we can start to automatize our faith. Mass becomes a Sunday stop on the way to other activities, the Rosary just a recitation of a script. Incorporating check-points can help to advance us on our spiritual journeys. Scheduling and taking a retreat, speaking with a spiritual advisor or trusted mentor, or just taking time to reflect on your faith-life and its overall health can keep you from falling into the habits of wandering aimlessly or remaining stagnant - despite some hearty activity - in your faith.
This is the difference, as described by Fr. Mike Schmitz, between training and working out. When we train we have an end goal (running a marathon, making the football team, dunking a basketball) with smaller, check-point goals (running 10 miles, gaining 20 pounds through diet and exercise, touching the net) that help propel us to the finish line.

When we workout, though, we often just go through the motions and endure to the end of the session to cross it off of a list. There is often no growth or progress. There's no need for a check-point, because there really isn't a destination.

In our classrooms and our lives, keep training.

Keep pushing.

Keep moving forward, but not without stopping to check that you and your students are on the right path.

Because getting to the destination, well, that's the point.

Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York, NY: Random House Trade Paperbacks.