Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?

I recently read this:

In the name of being sensible, we end up becoming numb to our own desires. It’s no wonder that when we ask many teenagers what they want to do or be, they honestly answer, “I don’t know.”  

There are too many layers of “should’s,” “ought to’s,” and “you’d better’s” piled on top of and suffocating what they really want.

Jack Canfield, The Success Principles, Chapter 3

Do you know what you want to do or be?

I think Jack Canfield’s right that as kids, we get used to doing what others prescribe (parents, teachers, coaches, even friends), and can lose contact with what we want.

was one of those teenagers!  I was fantastic at executing in school, i.e. doing what was required to get top grades. However, being great at doing what you’re told, is not that useful a skill when you’re trying to figure out what you want to do with your life. I had very little idea as to what I wanted. After high school, I  went to UC Davis Undeclared (can you even do that now??), eventually picked a major I liked, but still had no clear picture. Hey, I figured it out eventually and I LOVE my life, my work and where I’ve ended up, don’t get me wrong…

But there’s such an advantage in knowing where you want to go!  You can accelerate results. You can spot opportunities once you know what you’re looking for.  The odds of getting what you want are massively better IF YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR.

When I graduated with my B.A., the main thing I wanted to do was go live in France, not just visit, and I did for the next 8 years.  Knowing what I wanted to do helped me put myself in the right places to land jobs, place to live…

Having a direction, a future vision and/or goals..helps you figure out a plan…which leads you to taking effective action.

Students today need to know what they want to do even more than I did, thanks to the well-documented uncertainty around future jobs, the cost of higher education and the skills gap.  Might be good to figure out what you want a little bit!

So how do you start figuring out what you want to do or be?

Here are 3 ideas for you.

1. Practice in small ways.

Jack Canfield’s advice is to start with small things:

When you have a choice, even if it’s nothing big, act as if you have a preference.

Do you want string cheese or almonds in your lunch? Where shall we go for dinner? Do you want a green notebook or a yellow one? Which board game do you want to play? What do you want to be for Halloween?

This of it this way:

Act as if you deserve to have everything in your life exactly the way you want it.
Cherie Carter-Scott

For me, this quote isn’t about being arrogant or demanding. It’s about being deserving of good things. 

Thinking about what you want in any situation will build up self-awareness and help you tap into your instincts and preferences for anything.

2. Practice at school.

It seems to me that high school is a GREAT PLACE to practice getting what you want! 

Imagine if you decided to own everything you do in school – every assignment, every class discussion, every test, every project.  What if you saw school as a place to practice influencing what happens (and getting what you want)?  What if you tried to customize everything a little bit?

I’d encourage you to:

  1. Instead of choosing a science project off the suggested list, think about what YOU want to spend your time doing, and turn your interest into a science project.
  2. Ask questions in class to steer the discussion towards aspects that YOU find most interesting.
  3. Ask your teacher if you can research a historical figure that YOU are curious about, even though it’s not on the list.
  4. Study and learn about something you’re truly interested in. There are millions of learning options outside of high school, and independent study is possible! Find a city college class/apprenticeship/home study class/online class, and then talk to your counselor about how to get permission (and credit) to substitute this for something else.

Start acting like you’re in charge. Or stop pretending like you don’t have any power.

3. Follow your curiosity

If you don’t know what you want to do or be, the easiest way to get there is to start following your curiosity.

Start learning more about the:

  1. Stuff you like to watch, listen to, buy, eat, study.
  2. Questions you have about the world,
  3. Questions you have about how things work.
  4. People you admire.
  5. Jobs you hear about that seem amazing…

And once you’ve got an idea about what you might like to do or be…then you you can spend time on what’s worthwhile to YOU and your dreams, and look beyond the craziness of the high school to college experience.

Good luck.

Stop telling me to be Grateful

I’m afraid that being grateful doesn’t cut it for me when I’m in a bad mood, silently seething or persistently dissatisfied.

I wish it did!

Tell me to “focus on what I’m grateful for” when I’m pissed off, and I’ll roll my eyes, and think, ‘yeah, yeah whatever. I’m grateful for the sunshine. my kids. blah blah blah.’

Somehow the word represents a Pollyanna state of mind, a person with no cares, who’s just HAPPY about everything, humbly laying down so the steamroller of life can flatten them out – and saying thank you. Whatev.  The gap between gratitude and a grumpy state of mind is vast.

Now, when I’m in a pissy mood, I WANT a way to get back to a resourceful state – that’s the outcome I’m after. But forcing myself to list out what I’m grateful for is too big of a mental shift. Doesn’t work.

Here’s a better word for me: Appreciate.

Appreciation vs Gratefulness

Here’s an example:

“I’m in a bad mood and feeling negative about X. But hey, I’m grateful for my kids, my job, my colleagues, my health…I have no clue what I’m going to do about X; maybe I’ll be let go, maybe I’m no good…”

“Even though I’m in a bad mood and feeling negative about X, I appreciate that I’m not dead, I’m still employed, I’m probably processing what happened last week, this is the best job I’ve ever had, and I can do something about it.”

Somehow I find Appreciation is a feeling I can still access, even when I’m in the middle of a funk. I come up with more genuine thoughts and insights.  My brain grudgingly acknowledges appreciation in a way it refuses to do with gratitude, and my gremlins start to loosen their stranglehold.

I see this as a fast mental question to help me bump out of bad moods.

Even better for me is writing or talking through something with my husband – but sometimes a quick fix is all you have time for.

Image credit: René DeAnda on Unsplash

Chaotic, complete mess mornings

It’s hard to stop the chaos train, once it pulls out of the station.

  1. Bad sleep because coughing hurts and I wake myself up every hour or so, coughing.
  2. Daughter 2 wants to cook sausages at 7:53 am, and we leave for school at 8 am. I say no, too late, have something else. Daughter 1 puts her two cents in as usual…
  3. Daughter 2 gets mad, goes into hissy fit mode – “I won’t eat, then” leaves kitchen seething. Finding a jacket, backpack, socks all go wrong for her, as she’s completely in lizard brain now.
  4. Daughter 1 starting to stress out about being late to school (what do you think will happen if you’re late?).
  5. I get the dog, two daughters, myself in our 1960s Wagoneer, pull out the choke, start it up, wait a minute, 1st gear, let the clutch out slowly…stalls. Try with choke in – stalls. Try again revving engine – stalls…Get it finally to stay on when I rev the engine…stalls when I get into gear. Try various combinations keeps stalling.
  6. Daughter 1 starting to cry! (It’s okay, let it out, cry if you want to, I say)
  7. Daughter 2 seething in backseat.
  8. Daughter 1 wants to call Dad – so I give her my phone, she calls.
  9. Husband can’t tell me what I’m doing wrong! I’ve driven this car countless times! Argh.
  10. I give up on the car, tell the girls they should walk to school.
  11. Daughter 1 pretty much sobbing, now. Both girls get out, start walking to school.
  12. I get the dog back in the house, jog down the street to catch up with them…I want to help them handle things, calm down!  Boy, we need a bit of emotional intelligence training…
  13. I get to our corner, just see them a block ahead already, running, turning the corner…too late to catch them.
  14. I head back into the house and try to recover from the last 20 minutes…

I know it’s all going to be fine! They’ll come home and be back to normal, loving girls. And this is something we can LEARN from, like all fails.

I’ll have a talk with them together and separately, though, to explore what triggered it, what their patterns are, whether being late to school was as bad as they’d feared, what we could do differently next time and how to deal with emotions.


Lecture – a medieval technique that’s out of date

Lecture:  A medieval word which comes from the Latin for “a reading”. Monks would read a precious manuscript aloud so everyone else could copy it down. A transfer of knowledge “at scale” using the best technology at the time.

1375-1425; late Middle English < Medieval Latin lēctūra a reading.

Is listening to lectures an effective way to learn in school?

Not according to several studies – and common sense! Here’s one particular study from a few years ago:

To weigh the evidence, Freeman and a group of colleagues analyzed 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods. The meta-analysis, published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that teaching approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation. “The change in the failure rates is whopping,” Freeman says. And the exam improvement—about 6%—could, for example, “bump [a student’s] grades from a B– to a B.”

“This is a really important article—the impression I get is that it’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data,” says Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard University who has campaigned against stale lecturing techniques for 27 years and was not involved in the work. “It’s good to see such a cohesive picture emerge from their meta-analysis—an abundance of proof that lecturing is outmoded, outdated, and inefficient.”

There are great examples of better pedagogy (teaching methods) out there – here’s one described by Sal Kahn.

“Many college courses in the humanities focus on discussion over lecture. Students read course material ahead of time and have a discussion in class.

Harvard Business School took this to the extreme by pioneering case-based learning more than a hundred years ago, and many business schools have since followed suit. There are no lectures there, not even in subjects like accounting or finance.

Students read a ten-to twenty-page description of a particular company’s or person’s circumstance—called a “case”—on their own time and then participate in a discussion/debate in class (where attendance is mandatory). Professors are there to facilitate the discussion, not to dominate it.

I can tell you from personal experience that despite there being eighty students in the room, you cannot zone out. Your brain is actively processing what your peers are saying while you try to come to your own conclusions so that you can contribute during the entire eighty-minute session.

The time goes by faster than you want it to; students are more engaged than in any traditional classroom I’ve ever been a part of. Most importantly, the ideas that you and your peers collectively generate stick.

To this day, comments and ways of thinking about a problem that my peers shared with me (or that I shared during class) nearly ten years ago come back to me as I try to help manage the growth and opportunities surrounding the Khan Academy.”
Salman Khan, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined

Forget the signal to noise ratio. Signals themselves are a problem now.

Anyone else observing how the problem is no longer finding valuable learning sources among the ‘noise’?

The sheer volume of quality content being produced daily, weekly, monthly means there’s more good info available than you can ever hope to absorb, use, or apply.  It’s overwhelming.

First – I’m not going to talk about ‘fake news.’ If you want to learn how to critically look at news reports, recognize the inevitable biases, and not get sucked into believing everything you read, I suggest you go here.

Here’s where I’m heading:

There are SO MANY areas where the best way to learn the latest strategies and innovations is through online experts rather than formal education. 

I can get more good quality ideas and relevant information through experts on these topics than I could in a formal academic course: sales enablement, account management, customer success, entrepreneurship, ed reform, project-based learning, e-learning, edtech, learning coding, wordpress, email marketing, social media marketing…

But the problem is:

  1. I’m a learning junkie and want to know about things
  2. There are A LOT of quality experts/sources on the subject(s)
  3. Experts and sources are publishing constantly.
  4. Experts are emailing their list constantly.
  5. New discoveries/strategies

Example: I follow some quality  education writers and news sources – KQED’s MindShift,, Will Richardson, Most Likely to Succeed, EdSurge, Buck Institute for Education,, Tony Wagner, Linda Darling-Hammond…These are ALL quality sources. But even scanning everything produced that hits my inbox would take hours per day.

Example: I’ve been working on a career shift this past year – I love Scott Barlow, Liz Ryan, I’ve signed up for 4-5 ‘experts’ free workshops/workbooks/mini-sessions that crossed my path on Linkedin or other sites. I get on their email list and start receiving interesting stuff 4- 5 times a week… each. The time it would take to read, absorb and then apply all the steps they suggest = more than 50 hours a week.

Other areas overrun with people apparently making a living from being an online expert to a niche audience: productivity, goal setting, healthy eating, fitness, meditation, motivation, getting organized, raising your kids, how to become an online expert and make a living at it…

The problem now is NOT finding good, quality content that will help me. My problem is there is TOO MUCH.

Don’t get me wrong – I LOOOOVE that people are creating their own way to contribute. I think that it’s only going to grow. As the amount of knowledge and content in the world grows, it becomes valuable for someone to help people do the hard yards.

If you can save me 50 hours of researching online to find something that works for helping my daughter discover her passion/direction, then that’s valuable. If you can help my sister in law when she needs new strategies for my 7-year-old autistic nephew as he grows up, then that’s valuable.

The explosion of signals means a new approach is necessary. Here’s what I’ve come up with that works for me:

  1. Before you start, decide exactly what your goal is. Solve a problem, gain an understanding, try a new approach…Always keep it in mind so you recognize when to stop.
  2. Realize it’s impossible to actually analyze or even review all the good material or ideas available.
  3. Pick one expert to start with, and bookmark the rest (I use to save pages/articles so I can find them later).
  4. When the advice all starts sounding the same, when all the advice resembles what you’ve read before… STOP. Now go do something with it and take steps to achieve your goal.

I’ve come to the realization that on the topic of education, I’ve come to step 4 – the themes are repeating, and while I’ve not read all the great articles or discovered all the notable experts. It’s time to STOP absorbing. I have enough to work with – now need to go finish off my site, and put my ed news stream into maintenance. I’ll stick with ModernLearners and MindShift and mute the rest!

(It’s often said that 65% of the jobs our children will hold haven’t been invented yet, which rings true if you think about how many new jobs have sprouted up in the past two decades. I’m betting a portion of the new jobs will be self-made jobs, where someone helps others solve a specific problem they’re facing…by curating and distilling down the quality information out there and providing a solution that works. It’s already started in a big way, and the need for it will grow as knowledge grows.)

Software Trials – learning enough to buy…but not too much.

How do you get a prospect to experience enough during their trial to be confident it will solve their problem, but not get bogged down in details?  If you’re the salesperson responsible for building trust and progressing the sale with prospects once they’re trialing, here’s a simple way to look at it.

Start with Value

What is valuable to THEM? What problem do they need to solve? What’s not working or needs improvement?

You probably know the top value propositions of your solution, your ideal customer profiles, and hopefully the top buyer personas. It’s your job to take all of that and provide personalized interactions that provide value every time.

The prospect will be educated on your solution before they ever meet with you. You are there to provide personal attention: establish trust, give them confidence in the company’s ability to execute and connect the dots between the solution and the problem that they need solved. Make their trial experience as personal as possible by aligning everything to their goals and pain points.

Get to First Value FAST

Is your software rather complicated? I worked for one company whose software didn’t really get customers excited until they’d migrated or uploaded some of their own content into the trial – generic examples were great in theory but not in practice. We didn’t want to spend too long setting up the solution or taking them through a dozen technical content migration steps, before they were able to see the software working for a real scenario, solving their problem. So even though we could have taught them how to do it, we always set up their content ahead of time, and gave them an overview of how we did it instead. This kept the trial completely focused on their desired outcome. This helped a lot.

When you’re doing a software walkthrough – give them context and a basic understanding of how the software works, sure, but DO NOT walk them through everything – focus on what they are trying to accomplish. If you’re in love with the product you’re selling and know it inside and out, it can be hard to hold yourself back, I know  (oh, look at this fantastic new feature we just released that lets you do X…).

Teach them just enough to accomplish their goals. Best to leave “mastery” for later, once they’ve bought – leave that to your onboarding team! Another reason not to encourage them to master your software during the trial is:

Another reason not to encourage them to master your software during the trial is:

Time and Effort are LIMITED

Buyers will have a certain amount of time AND EFFORT that they expect to devote to their trial evaluations, whether they know it or not. Every time your prospect reads an email or watches a tutorial or learns an Admin task that they don’t care about, it is using up precious time and energy.

I vividly an insurance call center prospect of mine who was a lovely person, so enthusiastic in the beginning, keen to test. Unfortunately, on Day 1 of the 30-person trial pilot (which took 6 weeks to arrange), we ran into an I.T./Active Directory issue that put it on hold. They stood down the pilot group, had to start over so their IT team could look at the A.D. info we used and vet that it was OK.  Enthusiasm dried up  – testing was harder than they thought and they got exhausted. We rescheduled for 2 months out after the busy season, but her will was gone – we’d used time and she’d used up some of her internal credibility on us. We did not succeed in getting the trial going again.

Years ago, I ran into this on the buyer side – I’d run across something on email marketing integration with, and reached out to find out more. The sales rep didn’t answer my request for basic info, but booked a call with me instead. I thought he’d answer my questions, but instead, he proceeded to ask me a heap of context/qualification questions for 30 minutes. I had to book a SECOND session with his technical specialist for the demo! You’d think it would have been wonderful – after all, they had more info on our organization’s situation than anyone else, but no…1.5 hours for a tech-savvy sales exec to get a basic understanding of the product’s capabilities was way too much time. If it was this hard to get the info I wanted out of them, imagine what a trial or pilot would take!

The more efficient and targeted-on-their-pain-point you are, the more effort and time you keep in reserve for the rest of the process. 

If you do this right, there will be times where the prospect surprises YOU! Once when working with an I.S. team for a Fortune 500 company, I’d understood their pain points, walked them through testing the single product we had that would solve it, and provided all the rich technical documentation they wanted to review.

They seemed happy at the time but then stopped communicating. After a few ‘value’ emails, I called to find out what was left to test, worried that something had happened I wasn’t across. They were sold! They’d included our solution in their budget and were working through internal approval processes. It met their needs perfectly, we were easy to work with, and the product was easy to use. They’d seen probably 40% of what most of our customers did.

PS: if they do not have a specific pain point or desired outcome in mind, or you don’t know what it is…might as why you’re working on it…


Student group work is TRICKY.

Well, you can’t go from zero to 100 with people, can you?

I really wanted to get the coding club working on real projects, have them create a portfolio deliverable/accomplishment they could be proud of. Something beyond achieving level 72 in Code Combat, which was getting a bit repetitive…maybe building a computer game together? Yeah!

 All the students said they were keen to do this. Imagine, building a decent game, not just a sprite/block level game…And I was keen (imagine the collaboration, teamwork, ideation skills they’ll get to develop).

But hold on a minute..

Here’s the short version of what happened:

  1.  C. found a good game creation platform (RPG Maker),
  2. We got the game maker software to all the students…
  3. They organized into 2 teams
  4. We went over step 1 = create a game story
  5. Agreed on weekly milestones
  6. Got them into their groups and said GO!
  7. Left them to talk, discuss, brainstorm.

Ehhh…fail. They talked a bit, ended up two club meetings later with everyone wanting to work on their own. No parent showcase… I know all the teachers are rolling their eyes at our approach! Here’s my takeaways as to where we went wrong:

  • I assumed they were comfortable brainstorming in a group.  Went from 0 to 100 too fast.

I’m a grown up used to group work, no problem pulling a group together, grabbing a whiteboard, asking questions, focusing. I could do it all day. I think that I expected these 13 year olds to be comfortable doing something I wouldn’t have been at their age.

They were comfortable with EACH OTHER, being in the club and interacting a lot, but that didn’t mean they knew how to communicate, compromise, draw out ideas, or agree on anything.

There’s an #Agile Game I’d use – a simple 30 minute simulation activity that can introduce students to group work. If you run it correctly you can help students understand a) what role they like to take, b) how to collaborate and communicate, c) how to handle issues.

  • Too wide a topic

‘Create a game story that’s interesting to your audience’ may have been too wide a topic. Maybe Space Adventure? 3 character quest? Silly spoof of a popular cartoon? Could have given them a few more seeds…

  • Not enough structure or coaching

I think our biggest mistake was not enough structure – in hindsight I would have put aside 45 mins for the next 2 club meetings to get them into groups, provide some tools – questions to answer, visual maps to complete, coach them on these and encourage them on progress so far! 

We lost momentum and the projects are pretty much on hold, apart from two students who’ve gone ahead each ON THEIR OWN, building their story and now characters, etc.

Project-based Learning can be about ANYTHING.

I love the Genius Hour and 20% time approaches to PBL, where students start with their own interests. Why not? You could do something around gardening, baking, drawing, writing, building, sports, video games, Pokemon Go…I have a daughter who’s getting a lot of “success reference points” right now from baking – I’m thinking of a ‘create your own recipe’ group challenge.

What are so-called Future Skills?

What are the critical future skills that will give students the best chance of being successful and carving out the future they want, in light of the changing world of work and the new ways technology is replacing human labor?

There are many studies about the skills needed, and while they use different terms, you’ll see the same skills highlighted again and again. Here’s my favorite, proposed by Tony Wagner (author and formerly at Harvard’s Innovation lab, now Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute). You’ll find others below!

The Global Achievement Gap – 7 Survival Skills


“The idea that a company’s senior leaders have all the answers and can solve problems by themselves has gone completely by the wayside…The person who’s close to the work has to have strong analytic skills. You have to be rigorous: test your assumptions, don’t take things at face value, don’t go in with preconceived ideas that you’re trying to prove.”—Ellen Kumata, consultant to Fortune 200 companies


“The biggest problem we have in the company as a whole is finding people capable of exerting leadership across the board…Our mantra is that you lead by influence, rather than authority.”—Mark Chandler, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Cisco


“I’ve been here four years, and we’ve done fundamental reorganization every year because of changes in the business…I can guarantee the job I hire someone to do will change or may not exist in the future, so this is why adaptability and learning skills are more important than technical skills.”—Clay Parker, President of Chemical Management Division of BOC Edwards


“For our production and crafts staff, the hourly workers, we need self-directed people…who can find creative solutions to some very tough, challenging problems.”—Mark Maddox, Human Resources Manager at Unilever Foods North America


“The biggest skill people are missing is the ability to communicate: both written and oral presentations. It’s a huge problem for us.” —Annmarie Neal, Vice President for Talent Management at Cisco Systems


“There is so much information available that it is almost too much, and if people aren’t prepared to process the information effectively, it almost freezes them in their steps.” —Mike Summers, Vice President for Global Talent Management at Dell


“Our old idea is that work is defined by employers and that employees have to do whatever the employer wants…but actually, you would like him to come up with an interpretation that you like—he’s adding something personal—a creative element.”
—Michael Jung, Senior Consultant at McKinsey and Company

Other Sources to Explore:

The Second Machine Age, book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

Chapter 12 pinpoints three areas where humans have an advantage over technology (for now, they caution):

  • Ideation
  • Large-frame pattern recognition –
    (Software only recognizes patterns within the programmed frame of reference, but humans can find inspiration in one domain and apply it to a completely different situation.)
  • Complex forms of communication

Most Likely To Succeed, book and film by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith

  1. Creativity/Ideation
  2. Critical Thinking/Problem Solving
  3. Complex Communications (written, verbal)
  4. Collaboration/Teamwork

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning

  1. 4C’s  – Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication, Collaboration
  2. Life/Career Skills
  3. Information, Media, Technology Skills
  4. Key Subjects – 3 Rs and 21st Century Themes

Creative Schools, book by Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica

  1. Curiosity – the ability to ask questions and explore how the world works
  2. Creativity – the ability to generate new ideas and apply them
  3. Criticism – the ability to analyse info and ideas, and form reasoned arguments and judgments (aka critical thinking)
  4. Communication – the ability to express thoughts and feelings clearly and confidently in a range of media and forms
  5. Collaboration – the ability to work constructively with others

McKinsey Global Study on Education to Employment,
Exhibit 15

  1. Work Ethic
  2. Teamwork
  3. Oral Communications
  4. Hands-on Training in Discipline
  5. Problem Solving
  6. Written Communications
  7. Creativity
  8. Computer Literacy
  9. Theoretical Training in Discipline
  10. Basic Math
  11. Leadership

What IS “Critical Thinking” anyway?

One of the important skills for the future, which all kids need to develop (according to a growing number of researchers and forecasters), is ‘critical thinking/problem solving.’

But what is critical thinking, and how do you learn it?

Critical Thinking is…

Critical Thinking Background Concept

crit·i·cal think·ing  noun

  1. the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.
    “Professors often find it difficult to encourage critical thinking amongst their students.”

But what does that mean? And what does this look like, when we’re living in a world with SO MUCH available information, areas of specialization, that it’s impossible for anyone to take the time to analyze and evaluate every topic or decision point that comes their way.

Next, I searched on Tony Wagner (author of Creating Innovators, Closing the Global Achievement Gap, and most recently Most Likely to Succeed, books I’ve read that stress this future skill).  Here’s a summary from Tony Wagner’s site on critical thinking and why it’s important:

“The idea that a company’s senior leaders have all the answers and can solve problems by themselves has gone completely by the wayside…The person who’s close to the work has to have strong analytic skills. You have to be rigorous: test your assumptions, don’t take things at face value, don’t go in with preconceived ideas that you’re trying to prove.”
—Ellen Kumata, consultant to Fortune 200 companies

And in an older article of his, I found this:

To compete in the new global economy, companies need their workers to think about how to continuously improve their products, processes, or services. Over and over, executives told me that the heart of critical thinking and problem solving is the ability to ask the right questions. As one senior executive from Dell said, “Yesterday’s answers won’t solve today’s problems.”

Last fall I went through this Udemy Course: Develop your Critical Thinking Skills – Easily! which I really enjoyed (once I found the speed controls anyway; the instructor speaks very slowly). It goes through how to evaluate a claim or argument as well as the evidence supporting it.  The authors say, and rightly so, that thinking critically is being able to think more logically and rationally and being able to present your point across in a clear and convincing way.”

So when talking about critical thinking, that’s what we mean – testing our ideas, thoguhts, beliefs, models, reasoning, etc. for soundness, validity, based on evidence.

How do you learn it?

Well, I suppose you could take the above Udemy class that I did!  That helped me recognize logical fallacies, bad evidence, encouraged me to look for my own biases…but well, it wasn’t applied learning, really – I can’t say I’ve picked up a habit of looking at real life or work issues more critically as a result.

So here are some other more tangible activities as well:

Notice and Wonder

This past weekend I heard a talk by Anna Sharfeld, 6th grade teacher at Hollister Elementary, on critical thinking and math. She has a lovely, simple technique to get her students starting to ask questions and explore a problem/scenario more deeply: Notice and Wonder.

screen-shot-2016-03-15-at-6-40-46-pmFirst, she asks her class what they NOTICE about an image/problem/scenario. Everything gets written on the board like the image at the right.

Then, she has them WONDER: ask questions. What do they wonder about the image?  Have a look at her blog posts on this particular lesson! Quite amazing. (I think I would have loved math if this is how it had been done when I was a kid.)

She described taking the numbers and question OUT of a word problem, for example, and then doing NOTICE and WONDER – the kids explore what info they would need, what the question they’re solving for might be, etc.

While this is not evaluating evidence for an argument, it is questioning assumptions and getting them into the habit of asking questions and exploring a topic from all angles!

Socratic Questioning – High Tech High

There are some good stories illustrating critical thinking in schoolwork in Most Likely To Succeed – both the book and the film! (But I have the book on Audible and it’s a nightmare trying to find anything.) Here’s another example from online resources at High Tech High, the school used as an example in MLTS: Socratic questioning.

In Socratic questioning, the teacher asks a series of questions that force the student to defend a claim. This essential step ensures that the [project] involves critical thinking. It is inspired by the dialectical method in Plato’s dialogues. The teacher opens with a question, the student responds, and the teacher asks another question based on that response. This back and forth continues until the student realizes that his reasoning is flawed, or not.

This process resembles the tying and unraveling of a knot. Prodded by the teacher’s questioning, the student will sometimes get stuck, unable to defend her reasoning. The teacher then helps the student unravel the knot by asking another series of questions, or by assigning a follow-up writing assignment that modifies the argument or rethinks the claim entirely.

In the following example, a student defends his claim that egalitarianism is the most just social philosophy. The teacher asks a question about an area of interest for the student—sports—in order to make connections with ideas studied in class.

Teacher: Do you believe the salaries of professional athletes are morally justified?

Student: Albert Pujols just signed that big contract with the Angels and he takes up 1/10 of the MLB paycheck. I don’t think you need 300 million dollars, or whatever it is. They don’t need as much as they get. I’d be fine playing for a million. 

Teacher: Okay, so, what’s an idea that can be used to make an argument that they shouldn’t be paid that much? 

Student: They don’t deserve it. They were born lucky. It’s all luck. 

Teacher: Really? Doesn’t Pujols take batting practice? Doesn’t he work hard?

Student: I’m sure he does, but how should I put it … I think it’s more like he doesn’t do as much work as others do. My neighbor has three jobs and he doesn’t make nearly as much. It’s not fair. 

Teacher: Can you think of a situation in which it would be fair for Pujols to make that much money? 

Student: If it benefits the disadvantaged.

Teacher: John Rawls called that the difference principle. Is that what’s happening now?  

Student: Not really, but people like to watch him. You can say they benefit from that.

Teacher: You started by saying athletes don’t deserve to make that much money, but then you said that they can make a lot of money if they follow the difference principle. Now, how can we apply that to your case study regarding water in Haiti? How can egalitarianism help Haiti?

Student: In Haiti, people don’t have homes or jobs after the earthquake. Egalitarianism can help make sure everyone has jobs.

Teacher: You might have to invest money for education and create incentives for companies to do business there. That would cost money. Where would it come from? 

Student: I’m not sure. Maybe we could give money to them. From taxes or charity.

Teacher:  Why should I have to pay taxes for the Haitian people? Forcing me to pay taxes for something I don’t care about is a violation of my right to benefit from my own labor. What’s your response to that?

Student: I don’t know. 

Teacher: Think about it. We will continue talking about this in the debrief.

At least two things are accomplished through this line of questioning. First, the student has to defend a claim using reasoning and evidence, which is the most fundamental aspect of critical thinking. The teacher’s questioning provides counter-claims with which the student does not agree and to which the student must respond. Second, the student applies general concepts to specific cases, and must be prepared to defend the efficacy of those concepts in support of his claim.

In the above example, the student was asked to apply the difference principle to a case we did not study in class, but which he studied on his own—the water crisis in Haiti. And there’s the rub. It’s one thing to defend an argument that has already been made, but since the goal is to learn how to think and not regurgitate previous arguments, the student is asked to apply concepts and argument skills to other examples. In this case, the student was asked to follow up in writing, but if more time were available the teacher could continue his line of questioning until the knot, previously tied, becomes unraveled.

And thank you, Buck Institute for Education, for this collection of further resources which I’ll start digging into: 

Does your kid do anything that matters?

While reading a book on parenting and homeschooling by Teri Moore a while back, this passage hit me hard:

secular homeschooler
This is the book I’m talking about 🙂

In America, our children are the most important part of our lives, and we tell them so, but we don’t actually let them be important(emphasis added).

WHAAAAT? of course not!  But reading on, it makes more and more sense:

Just like I did, American kids go to school all day, which teaches them facts but not skills and keeps them from participating in real life where they might apply learning (which helps turn facts into knowledge)…Instead of ‘doing’, American kids are ‘studying how to do’ and not doing.

Teri spent time in the Peace Corps in Africa, and contrasts American kids with what she saw there:

African kids are doing. Young people in the Third World do not seem to go through the adolescent psychological misery and angst that American children do. As soon as they are able, children in developing countries are given true responsibility. No one has to tell them they are important; they know they are, because of the consequences of failure.

Frankly, I could quote the entire chapter Teri wrote, to convince you, but let me summarize what she writes: African kids are given meaningful tasks to do, like herding or protecting the cattle, collecting water, repairing items, helping run the household, and if they don’t do their job or fail at it, there are real consequences, which affect themselves and others.

Go get some water

They have to think and decide how HOW to do their assigned work, and the actions they choose to take have an impact.


But what’s the problem if American kids don’t have important stuff to do?

Teri says a) they are not as motivated to learn, b) they don’t remember what they’ve learned since it never translates to the real world, c) they don’t build the life skills needed in the real world, and d) they are trained to defer to authority and don’t develop their own judgement or ethics.

For so many years, my high opinion of myself had been based on my high grades and what teachers thought of me instead of what I thought of myself based on my ability and ethics. In struggling for those big A plusses, I learned to cleave to someone else’s idea of what was important and let my own judgement atrophy through lack of use. Then I went out into the world only to find myself incompetent.

So I asked myself – is there something my kids do at home that lets them act independently and affects our family or community?  Does what they do matter or have a significant impact? 

You know what? The answer is mostly no. Teri’s right, I think. They are responsible for cleaning their rooms, for their own laundry, picking up their messes, for setting/clearing the table and helping with dinner, and occasionally walking the dog. And at school, their job is to learn…But the consequences that fall on them if they do these badly, or fail to do them are minimal.

And most of our family, school, and extra-curricular activities are set up FOR them, not by them – whether it’s volleyball, coding club, day trips, camps. Everyone’s doing stuff for their benefit, and they are the recipients of it, rather than instigators. (Sidenote: I think this also leads to the growing sense of entitlement. Why would’t you feel entitled if the world pretty much revolved around you your first 16 years?) 

But I’ve seen what it looks like when my kids feel like they are doing something important that has impact.

Two years ago, my 12 year old son participated in the YMCA PILOTS program, which is a teen leadership program for junior high-age kids – they get together with youth leaders and decide upon community projects, which they then execute. And I was struck by the SIGNIFICANCE he got from being in this group, and taking action! I think it’s one of the first times he felt like he was doing something important.

girl scouts gelsonsAnd for my younger girls – Girl Scouts is the closest we’ve come to impact, I’d say. They sell cookies to earn money for activities – and their actions matter.  They choose and present food, activites and facts about a country to present for Thinking Day, they help train younger girls for cookie sales…and their actions matter.

Right now we’re working on our Bronze Award as a troop and organizing a Pet Supply Drive for the Humane Society in town. As troop leaders, our job is to HAVE THE GIRLS DO THE WORK, and hold back.  I love, love, love Girl Scouts for highlighting this for me, and teaching ME to be ready to give them more and more responsibility the older they get. I can’t wait until the day comes and they feel the impact of creating something, making something happen that wouldn’t have existed without their action.

The other situation that comes to mind right off the bat is one that Chalene Johnson talked about on her podcast.   She and her husband told each of their kids when they were old enough to understand, we’re not going to buy you a car when you get your driver’s license, but we’ll help you figure out how to earn the money yourself and we’ll match what you earn.

So their children had to figure out what jobs to do, products to sell, businesses to start, to EARN THEIR OWN MONEY, as preteens. (That to me, sounds like you’ll know what you do is important and has consequences.)

Imagine if you had years of experience making an income of some sort before you even started high school?

Nowadays, teens don’t work half as much as they used to when I was a kid (make sure you say this in a crotchety, wavery voice in your head, so you sound OLD) – there are fewer jobs available and more time required to jump all the hoops required to ‘get into the best university possible’ which is still seen as the golden ticket (despite the massive evidence to the contrary that’s accumulating). But don’t get me started on higher education and the high school treadmill pressure cooker!  I’ll save that for another post, and leave you now so I can mull over what other actions I can take to make my kids actions and choices matter.

Anyone with good ideas, closer to actual household activities? Maybe I’ll let my kids plan our summer activities? Make a meal plan/budget and go shopping for the week’s food..take on deciding and researching what kind of car we want to buy (our Odyssey is close to the 250K mark, God bless it)…