Education, Technology

Tech and Flow

Reflections Inspired by #CELI15 – The Long Island Connected Educator Summit 2015

In his groundbreaking book Drive, Daniel Pink highlights the difference between what science knows and what most of the world does when it comes to business and how organizations work. Specifically, he writes about what motivates us and how the “carrot and stick” systems which drove the economy in the 1900’s now breed compliance as opposed to the creativity and innovation necessary for organizations to thrive in the 21st century. He shares that rewards and consequences are the operating system of the past and how Motivation 3.0 requires equal parts autonomy, mastery and purpose. In short, Pink believes that, “We are designed to be active and engaged. And we know that the richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice – doing something that matters, doing it well and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.” When autonomy, mastery and purpose are in place, Pink contends that conditions have been set to help us attain what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “Flow,” or “those exhilarating moments when we feel in control, full of purpose and in the zone.” To paraphrase, “Flow” is when we become lost in a task – when we are working in a refined, nearly Zen-like state where we push just past our Zones of Proximal Development as we strive to accomplish something significant.

As an educator and the fortunate Lead Learner of an amazing school, I have been searching for “Flow” and where and how it exists for our students since I first learned the term from Dr. Bill Brennan a few months ago. Each day during my walk-throughs or when I scroll through our school’s Twitter feed, I cannot help but smile at traces of this Nirvana that I see when our students are truly “lost in a task.” What does this look like? What conditions need to be in place for us to even approach this yet alone attain it? Are we comfortable enough to step back and allow our students the time and the freedom to revel in these learning experiences? How can we replicate these conditions so “Flow” can occur more frequently?

Like most things in life, the things you are searching for often find you while you are out looking for them.  On a cold Monday in March, a member of our amazing team called my office and said, “You are never going to believe what one of my students did over the weekend! Can I send her down to share her work?” Excitedly, I said yes and while I waited for the student to make her way, her teacher explained that she had shared the web tool Popplet with her class on Friday and that the students were creating Popplets to share their research on a part of the Solar System of their choosing. As I hung up the receiver, an out of breath and clearly beaming girl burst through the door holding a dense pile of papers. Averaging what seemed like 1,000 words a minute, she turned through each page of the presentation she prepared where not one, not two, but every single planet, the Earth’s moon and the sun were carefully researched. After congratulating her and celebrating her hard work, I asked her, “What made you want to work on this over the weekend? Was it something you needed to do? Was there any extra credit?” With big, proud and happy eyes she shook her head and said, “No, I LOVE learning about the Solar System and I love messing around on the computer!”

At that moment, the power of these words hit me as they are Daniel Pink’s ideas about Autonomy manifested in the words of an eleven year old explaining an instance of “Flow” that she achieved and sustained in a learning experience. What resonated about this student’s reflection was the idea of choice – choice in what she researched, choice in the technique or tool she used to share her learning and choice in when and where she decided to continue to learn about a topic she loved. Choice, the cornerstone of Google’s 20% Time, the defining principle of Genius Hour and a tenant of differentiated instruction, resulted in heightened motivation and an outstanding body of work! Way to go Gianna!


While this is important, perhaps what might even be more interesting is the later part of her sentence where she states, “and I love messing around on the computer.” Based on her work samples, Gianna was clearly not “messing around” on the computer. She was researching, vetting sources, close reading a myriad of high level texts, identifying and comparing salient details, searching for images and videos and then organizing her findings using a tool that she would use later to share her new knowledge with her classmates. If we look more deeply into the sincerity of her words, by “messing around,” is she is confirming that she was indeed lost in a self-directed task? Had she found “Flow” and was technology a significant part of that experience?

What strikes me about this is that Gianna, like most of our elementary school students, was “born digital.” She is a “digital native” as defined in Marc Prensky’s seminal article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” As Larry Rosen so eloquently put it in his article “Teaching the iGeneration,” “To them, the smartphone, the Internet, and everything technological are not “tools” at all – they simply are. Just as we don’t think about the existence of air, they don’t question the existence of technology and media. They expect technology to be there, and they expect it to do whatever they want it to do. The WWW doesn’t stand for World Wide Web, it stands for Whatever, Whenever, Wherever.” Upon reflection of these facts, a huge question loomed, “Are digital natives more likely to reach a state of “Flow” in school if the integration of technology is a condition for learning?” If so, this is “The Why” that has the power to change everything!

If this is true, how will this impact what we do in our classrooms? First, we must proceed with the understanding that the technology alone is not the answer. The right questions, the right tasks, and the right pedagogy should drive the decisions about what technology should be embedded in the experiences we offer our students. Second, we might begin searching for examples in our day-to-day experiences where students have achieved “Flow” in our classrooms or our buildings. To help identify these moments, you might consider asking yourself or your teachers a series of reflective questions Mark Barnes suggests in his book Teaching the iStudent. These questions include:


  • How often is paper and pencil part of your classroom routine?
  • What role does the internet play in your classroom?
  • How often do your students use web tools, social media or mobile devices?


Barnes believes these questions help us make an internal audit of our practice and will help us measure if we understand and are meeting the iStudent’s need to be connected. Other things you might consider include working with your District’s Central Administration and IT team to ensure that restrictions on social media no longer stand in the way of teachers and students. Finally, step back, examine your own expectations of your students, and think about how we can bring these powerful opportunities to our students at as early an age as possible. Check out the balance in this Kindergarten classroom and see how technology and social media have amplified the hands on learning experiences we know five and six year old children need.

Just as we have to teach our students to be responsible with technology and social media, let us learn from them to be unafraid! Be fearless! The time to start is now!

Educational Leadership

Where The Danielson Rubric Meets Kraft Swiss

What Our Schools Can Learn from Chef Eric Ripert and One of the Greatest Restaurants in the World

The August 2014 edition of Wine Spectator Magazine features a profile of Chef and Philanthropist Eric Ripert and his seafood temple, Le Bernardin, which many consider to be one of the finest restaurants in the world. If one can get past the drool inducing photographs and vivid, near sensual descriptions of revelatory dishes like the tuna carpaccio with fois gras and examine the text through the lens of leadership, it is clearly evident why Le Bernardin has remained at the summit of culinary experiences in the greatest food city on the planet and why Ripert is viewed by many as one of the most gifted chefs to ever put on an apron. In what might seem like an odd comparison between a world-class restaurant and our schools, there is much that we as school leaders learn from Ripert. What does he, as successful leader, do differently?

Be Present Where It Matters Most

At the outset of each day in the restaurant, Ripert walks through the kitchen with a plastic spoon which he uses to taste everything from stocks, to sauces down to the tiny garnishes that adorn each plate that enters the dining room. He visits the stations of each of the 20 or so chefs taking part in the night’s service and examines their “mise en plas,” or the building blocks of each of the dishes they are responsible for preparing. It is here when he provides feedback to his cooks instead of waiting until each dish is fully prepared and plated. His feedback is given immediately, salt is added, levels of acidity are tweaked and preparations continue. It is not until this ritual is completed that Ripert travels to the office and meets with his personal assistant to address the business aspects of running multiple four star establishments and to deal with other pressures associated with celebrity chefdome. As school leaders, we must learn from this as too often we find our priorities out of balance. We cannot let the business aspects, (i.e. parent phone calls, compliance issues, discipline problems, etc) of running a school building keep us from getting into classrooms. We need to give feedback in the moment instead of waiting until a “formal observation” or after the Superintendent visits, or worse yet when we are delivering the overall rating to a teacher at the end of the school year. Daily, we must ask ourselves, “Are we present where it matters most?”

Develop Relationships

Having Eric Ripert taste something that you, an aspiring chef, have prepared on a daily basis must be beyond intimidating. In fact, it must be nearly as terrifying as a walk through during the nerve-wracking experience that was/is The Quality Review in the NYC Department of Education. Remarkably, it is not. As detailed in the article, the kitchen at Le Bernardin is described as a collaborative, respectful atmosphere where Ripert’s acknowledgements and suggestions are the welcomed norm. For any of us who have commented on a student’s writing or who are in the position that requires reviewing another’s performance, we know that giving feedback is difficult. If our strategy for school improvement centers on meaningful feedback and we understand that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” how we develop a culture where criticism can be seen as truly constructive? The answer is in relationships.

Quickly leafing through the article, it is somewhat surprising that Ripert is not center stage in every photograph – in fact he is not even represented in all of the pictures therein. A highlight is a picture of Ripert standing with his brigade where he has elected to fade into the background as his team is smiling in the foreground.


Another image that speaks to Ripert’s leadership is a photo of Justo, a prep chef who is responsible for butchering every piece of fish that enters the kitchen and preparing it for service. In Ripert’s cookbook, Avec Eric the chef describes him as a vital member of the organization and refers to him as a true craftsman. As Anthony Bourdain writes about Ripert in the Forward, “His eagerness to share the credit – specifically to point out who does what, and how, acknowledging every part of a large, ever grinding, complicated but (always) smoothly running machine – is unprecedented.” As school leaders, how often and how do we show that we value the members of our organization? If we did this more, how would the feedback that we give be perceived?

Be Transparent… Be Collaborative… Be Reflective

Even in this seeming eutopia, the article notes times when chefs in Ripert’s kitchen disagree with one another and even with Ripert’s assessments of a dish. While most chefs, and principals for that matter, might end a difference of opinion like this with a “It’s my way or the highway” response, Ripert and his team instituted a system that would help them collectively calibrate their palates so they can evaluate a dish together. Ripert shares how pieces of Kraft Swiss are made available to every chef in the kitchen for this purpose. Ripert notes that Kraft was chosen for its straightforwardness and it’s consistency as “it always tastes the same.” After each chef takes a bite of this cheese, a common taste emerges and the team reexamines the dish in question before revisions are made.

In it’s intended form, The Danielson Rubric was meant to be the Kraft Swiss for educators and used so a common understanding of what good teaching is could be established. How unfortunate it is that this exquisite document has been demonized by the APPR process? How refreshing would it be if we could alter this reality so it could be used to ensure we were all on the same page before we began conversations about next steps? For real reflection and honest dialogue to occur, the relationships described above must be well in place. Once these are established, we must begin asking questions like “How are standards of excellence established in our organization?” “Are all stakeholders aware of the expectations and does a uniform understanding of what these expectations look like in the classroom exist?”

Foster Innovation and Celebrate Failure

To remain at the forefront of the ever evolving landscape that is the New York restaurant world, you must continue to innovate and challenge yourself, your chefs and maybe even your customers to move out of their comfort zones. Ripert understands this as new dishes emerge on his menus constantly and join classics that celebrate pristine ingredients and the flawless techniques that have brought Ripert his fame. To his credit, Ripert invites his team of chefs to play critical parts in the creative process and there is even a room in the restaurant dedicated solely for research and development. Hundreds if not thousands of cookbooks are available to chefs and the freedom to experiment with new ingredients and flavor profiles from a variety of cultural influences is encouraged. In the article, Ripert notes that as dishes are conceptualized, they are carefully scrutinized and typically go through twenty or thirty iterations before they make to the restaurant menu.


As school leaders, there is much we can learn from this. How and how often do we encourage our teachers to take risks? Is there a safe, nearly sacred room in our buildings where staff can come together to discuss ideas and reflect on their trials and partial successes? Do we view failure as a something negative instead of what it truly is, a first attempt in learning? In his work titled, School Principals and Virtual Learning: A Catalyst to Personal and Organizational Learning, Dr. Bill Brennan, Lead Innovator of Farmingdale Public Schools on Long Island, NY, writes, “One of the most well-known antecedents to innovation is failure.” He notes the pivotal role of principals as we, “hold the ability to establish a culture of risk-taking.” As leaders, we must work diligently to cultivate and maintain a culture where people feel safe to “put themselves out there” as they strive to create and further develop what Hargraves and Fullan call “next practices” in their book Professional Capital. Elements of Ripert’s work where he has created a hub for innovation within the restaurant would be highly touted by Dr. Brennan as he believes that “every school in this country should design an “idea lab” where key people come to share and test ideas in a grassroots leadership manner.” While space is a luxury in many of our buildings, we need to create this venue in order to keep our organizations moving forward.

In summation, how do we take elements of Ripert’s leadership and bring them to our schools? First and foremost, we must be present where it matters most and continue to develop relationships within our buildings that breed trust and inspire collaboration. As feelings of mutual respect permeate the organization and an understanding that “this is a safe place” emerges, individuals will be more likely to take risks which will inevitably lead to innovation. With thoughtful feedback, honest reflection and frequent celebrations of the products and techniques that result from the collective creative process, perceived failures will become breakthroughs. When we add these “next practices” to the “best practices” which comprise the menu that is the learner’s experience in our classrooms, there will be no limit to the number of stars our schools will earn.