Saturday, November 11, 2017

Little Soldiers widens the discourse on public education

It seems at times that Americans don’t quite know what to make of China. And it occurred to me after reading Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve by Lenora Chu that this is perhaps because China doesn’t quite know what to make of itself as it changes and continues to open up to the world. In Little Soldiers, a cultural inquiry that feels like a memoir, Chu, with wry, self-deprecation, recounts her experiences as the mother of a young American child beginning his formal education in the Chinese public school system and as a journalist trying to understand the context in which this system operates. Chu’s cultural dissonance and the Chinese education system’s traditional resolve emerge early in this heart-felt, reflective story in which Chu never quite seems to reconcile her own educational experiences growing up in Texas with those she wants for her children. She does, however, come to respect the discipline that characterizes the Chinese system and even embraces it as an important component of her son’s early education. This realization seems to unsettle her as much as anything, and drives her to learn more.

Chu’s past and present circumstances position her uniquely to tell the story of the Chinese and American educational systems. Chu takes a humanities based approach, compiling observations, perspectives, experiences, and research to produce a thick, context-based synthesis that reveals both the irreconcilable differences and common features of these two systems.

Chu senses a slight Western shift in the Chinese educational system as the country embraces the tenets of capitalism. And she offers the thought that American schools, particularly early on, could benefit from a slight Eastern shift. Chu ultimately advocates for widening the lens through which we view educational practice. While schools are a reflection of the societies in which they operate, Chu finds these systems are capable of change. Indeed, change may be the desired permanent state for both systems… all systems, even.

Near the end of Little Solders, Chu recounts an education conference she attended in Beijing in which one participant noted that “the speed of change in the way we educate is staggering. We will reach 2030 and none of the things we are talking about will be relevant at all.” I am not sure I recognize this speed of change from within the American system but perhaps if not solving the riddle of public education, Little Soldiers’ contribution is to expand the view of the education landscape for readers, allowing them to calibrate their assessment of what defines success in education and think more precisely about how to achieve it.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Electric October magnifies the mortals of the '47 Fall Classic

Joe DiMaggio was there. Jackie Robinson was there. Yogi Berra was there. Pee Wee Reese was there. And I felt like I was there after reading Kevin Cook’s Electric October, an account of the 1947 World Series as seen through the eyes of six men whose names haven’t traveled to the present quite as prominently as DiMaggio, Robinson, Berra, and Reese. DiMaggio was returning to the Fall Classic for the first time since serving in World War II, and Robinson was the first African-American to play in a World Series. But while Cook situates the ’47 Series in its appropriate social context, DiMaggio’s celebrity and Robinson’s courage are not featured. Rather it’s a story of triumph and tragedy for more marginal players whose baseball lives did not become immortal but who provided the moments that made the ’47 Series thrilling and dramatic.

A big hit, a near miss, and a great catch charge the current in Cook’s story. For Dodger third baseman Cookie Lavagetto, it was the biggest hit of his career… and the last. For every big hit, someone served it up. And for Yankees pitcher Bill Bevens, Lavagetto’s was the only hit he surrendered in his one Series start… and one of the last of his career. Finally, Dodger outfielder Al Gionfriddo recorded an out that was the bang at the end of his short run as a Major Leaguer. Also featured are Snuffy Stirnweiss (probably the Series MVP if it had been awarded then) and managers Bucky Harris and Burt Shotton (the last manager to wear street clothes in the dugout).

The subtext to the Series’ defining moments, eloquently captured by Cook’s narrative, is the tremendous surge in baseball popularity after World War II. Cook revives the excitement produced by a record 389,763 fans in Brooklyn and The Bronx that week as well as the sustained tension of each game that only baseball naturally affects.

There are some engaging anecdotes too, like how the Grapefruit League got its name, why players left their gloves on the field while they hit, and who started what would become the sabermetric revolution in baseball. Well researched and written, Electric October folds the time between today’s game and its forerunner, revealing that what made the game shine in 1947 still energizes baseball 70 years later. Nearly 19,000 players have worn a Major League Baseball uniform in the league’s 142-year history. Most are mortal, and like stars, they arrive on the scene, sparkle for a little while and then fade away. Electric October is a powerful telescope that lets us see some of the game’s mortals as they once were in their brightest moments.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon reminds, if not resolves

The devil, they say, is in the details. In the case of the Osage Nation, he was in the tribe's midst in the 1920's, unleashing a Reign of Terror in which dozens of tribal members were killed for their rights to the mineral money flowing from the tribe's underground reservation in the wild west prairie of Oklahoma. One man, one plan.

At least that's the official story.

In is new book, Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann delves deeper into the details, revealing perhaps a larger scope to the terror that consumed the tribe after it began reaping the benefits of its oil-rich land.

Grann tells the story of the federal investigation into the murders of Osage head-right holders and the small degrees of separation among conspirators, opportunists, and politicians that set the stage for the insidious schemes devised to separate the Osage from their land and wealth. If not a microcosm of the larger Native American experience, it's certainly an exposé of the potential for human depravity. It also expatiates the cultural disorientation of Native Americans "straddling not only two centuries but two civilizations."

While most of the elements of compelling drama are present in Grann's narrative - ego, mystery, conflict, escalation, discovery - the sad truth is that resolution has eluded the tribe. Time and tombs have locked away the full truth. However, Grann's research relates remnants of the historical record to an abiding Osage consciousness that the Reign of Terror was not just the concerted scheme of one bad actor, and a few lost souls, but a systemic culture of killing that began earlier and ended later than justice avowed.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann is attentive to his subject, emotionally, but also in the intellectual rigor of his research, his engagement with the culture, and his commitment to fully telling a story that can no longer be fully told.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Smart Baseball gets a win (even though wins are "an inherent failure of logic")

Baseball is often derided as being stodgy, stuck in the past, clinging to how it’s always been done. But Keith Law's new book, Smart Baseball, reveals just how progressive the grand old game has become. Law shows how Major League Baseball teams have embraced the information revolution, changed the nature of work in front offices, and transformed decision-making; all fascinating, informative, and, in Law’s view, indicative of the right way to think about baseball.

But there is more to the story, and Law ignores too much of it to call this story smart. Law makes three broad assertions in Smart Baseball, one of which stands up, one of which doesn’t, and one of which you should run from as fast as you can.

First, Law makes the case that sabermetrics is now the driving force behind player evaluation and game strategy. On the surface, it’s an easy case to make. The saber-driven Red Sox and Cubs have both, with great acclaim, broken generations-old championship droughts. The analytically-minded Cleveland Indians nearly did the same last year, and the extreme moneyball Houston Astros have emerged as one of the best teams in baseball. Even casual fans can tell it’s more than intuition leading teams to deploy dynamic defensive strategies, rethink small baseball, and increasingly buck what Law calls the “Proven Closer” system. But Law effectively, and with humor, takes the reader beneath the surface, insightfully comparing old and new game statistics and illustrating how the evolution of sabermetrics has provided teams increased descriptive and predictive tools. His analysis shows how the information age has created new thinking and new jobs in baseball. Law is well-versed and convincing in this discussion, and, as an experienced saber-minded insider, he has credibility.

On the other hand…

Law’s argument that old game statistics are ruining baseball is less convincing. He tears at the game's traditional statistical fabric with acerbic diligence, snarky in his dismissal of those, especially media, who still talk about the game traditionally. I get this to an extent. Law’s success with Smart Baseball is in revealing statistical flaws that have probably contributed to bad game strategy, player contracts, and even Hall of Fame selections. And Law’s chapter on the Save statistic is a must-read essay that is probably the most convincing part of his ruination thesis.

But, statistically speaking, most traditional measures, if somewhat predictively weaker, still correlate strongly with success in baseball. Hitters with the highest On Base Percentages tend to fare well in Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA). Starting pitchers with the most Wins are usually among leaders in Wins Probability Added (WPA). I’m not missing the point that competitive advantages are earned in the margins. I’m just making the point that old game statistics aren’t destroying baseball.

Also, the game is healthy. Despite the haters’ hopes that baseball is in decline (and Law is clearly not a hater but a lover of baseball), overall participation in baseball was up nearly 8% last year while baseball and softball had nearly 25 million combined participants in 2016, more than any team sport in the country. The last 13 MLB seasons are the most attended seasons in baseball history, and last year’s World Series was the highest rated Fall Classic in 15 years with 40 million viewers for Game 7 alone. It doesn’t seem like baseball is on the road to ruination to me.

Finally, Law’s assertion that his way is the only way to think about baseball makes me shudder. I am skeptical of anyone claiming to be the keeper of a one-stop shop. Life’s not that easy. Complex problems require complex thinking, and anything involving people tends to be complex and not as predictable as one might infer from Law’s work. Getting to the endgame usually requires hacking through a thicket of tangled, interdependent variables where both quantitative and qualitative heuristics are necessary. While sabermetrics makes the decision-making context richer, it’s an additive not a substitute.

Taylor S. | Flickr
Law writes that baseball “isn’t particle physics (yet!) but has followed a similar path of hypothesis to discovery” in that the information revolution has revealed about baseball at the micro level what “we knew to be true at the macro level.” But in particle physics, scientists have learned that even with complete information, outcomes remain generally unpredictable. Baseball’s Statcast technology certainly provides more, if not all, possible information on the field. But it won’t provide a baseball theory of everything.

In Smart Baseball, Law uses Orioles manager Buck Showalter as a punching bag to train for his bout with the Save statistic and the larger fight against what he perceives as stubborn resistance in baseball. Showalter’s failure to use the sabermetrically most appropriate pitcher available late in the Orioles extra-inning loss to the Blue Jays in the American League Wild Card game last fall was viewed with wide derision (and I agree deserves criticism).

But by making this one managerial mistake a fulcrum for the sabermetric argument, Law ignores the complexity of managing people. He attempts to bypass the thicket. Anyone observing Showalter over a 24-year managerial career should also recognize his dexterity with less measured, yet no less critical aspects of leadership required for success in baseball, or anything for that matter.

Showalter’s leadership style considers emotional intelligence and self-determination; and finesse with how confidence and perseverance also correlate with performance. Psychology is not an exact science and not perfectly predictable. Neither is particle physics. Neither is sabermetrics. Showalter is 25th on the all-time Wins list, still the most important statistic in sports last I checked.

Smart Baseball is enlightening, entertaining, and well worth the time for baseball fans. I laughed. I yelled. I learned. And… if not the one right way to think about baseball, it gave me some additional ways to think about and enjoy my favorite game.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A story to learn

It was a 1980’s political strategist working for George H.W. Bush that coined the phrase... perception is reality. While Lee Atwater gave this concept packaging in helping to elect the 41st President of the United States, politicians throughout history have utilized its premise to seek advantage. In Ron Chernow’s masterful biography, Washington: A Life, the first President’s instinctive application of this political maxim shines forth.

From his military strategy of diversion and improvisation during the Revolutionary War… or his resignations from power only to be drawn back to it by duty and ambition… to his habit of mounting a white steed to project strength and majesty before entering a town on official business… or his publicly regal lifestyle hiding struggles with cash flow and debt, Washington was a master of messaging. He also thought a great deal about posterity. Compelled by love of country, if not an eye toward reverence, he was meticulous in recording his life and managing his papers. And when it came time to exit the stage, he wanted to leave a lasting impression.

In his new book, Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations, John Avlon adds dimension to the impressions left by the first President through his farewell message and makes the case that Washington still has much to offer to America’s political discourse.

A highly accessible, fast-paced narrative, Washington’s Farewell was an excellent chaser to Chernow’s expansive examination of the President’s life. In unpacking Washington’s 6,000 word treatise on American citizenship, Avlon walks the President’s final message backwards from his time in office, then forward through the 19th and 20th centuries, showing how Washington’s experiences formed his perspectives on self-government and how the farewell has lived on long after its author.

Avlon’s readers also discover that the farewell message should not be disaggregated to support narrow propositions, as has often been the case since its publication. Its various components are not built upon mutually exclusive ideas but derive value through interdependence. It should be interpreted holistically to glean the guiding principles upon which the original work was based.

In calling for a reconsideration of Washington’s farewell, Avlon is arguing for a need to “reflect on first principles” rather than a return to political or social norms of the day. The first President’s final words on the American experiment, he suggests, can still serve as a broad model for discourse and direction. But you have to take its full measure to minimize the gap between perception and reality and apply its wisdom to the current challenges facing the republic.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Cardio for the mind

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions but a finding published in Social Science & Medicine may change my thinking on this tradition for 2017. And it won’t be a new gym membership. Yale University researchers found that reading books prolongs life. This is good news. While I like running and exercise, I love to read!

The findings are less about the act of reading and more about type of reading. Book reading as opposed to more general reading facilitated a “survival advantage” the researchers attributed to enhanced cognitive engagement.

The researchers analyzed the reading habits of 3,635 people aged 50 and older and observed a 20 percent reduction in mortality for those who read books compared to those who did not. They believe the effect was created by the cognitive engagement that comes with the “slow, immersive” process of book reading. Cognitive engagement involves a commitment to exert the effort necessary to comprehend complex ideas. That process leads to a stronger mind, a not-so-trivial component of health and well-being. It also perhaps leads to enhanced emotional intelligence which may contribute to survival.

Importantly, the findings were true despite the participants' level of education, gender, health status, and baseline cognition. Also, the amount of time reading wasn’t a determining factor. Participants spent nearly twice the time reading periodicals as books. The researchers found that “any level of book reading gave a significantly stronger survival advantage than reading periodicals.”

So if you’re thinking about resolutions for the New Year, consider immersing yourself in a good book. You might even think of it as cardio for the mind!

Below are the top cognitively engaging books I read in 2016:

Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation | by Dennis McAuliffe, Jr. 
Good books can make you think and re-think. McAuliffe succeeds at this with a sad, yet honest personal story that shows how legacy matters; that choices made long ago have long-term implications. Bloodland tells the story of the Osage Nation and the “Reign of Terror” perpetrated against tribal members in the 1920s. McAuliffe investigates the death of his Osage grandmother, learning and sharing more about himself in the process than I suspect he imagined when he started. It was the personal connection to my own life (the Osages in my family) and a gripping, suspenseful narrative that made this book so engaging. The book also provided some valuable historical and present day context for our visit to the Osage Nation in Oklahoma this fall.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon | by David Grann
So I knew the Amazon was an exotic place. What I didn't know when I started reading The Lost City of Z was that David Grann would manage to bring the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of the Amazon into my living room. The Lost City of Z is the story of Percy Fawcett, one of the World’s great explorers whose dangerous and difficult work brought light to the great shadows of the Amazon. Fawcett’s engagement was his theory of an ancient and advanced civilization lost to the ages somewhere in this great South American jungle. Grann’s deep research and descriptive style combined to make this an accessible, thrilling read. Upcoming in 2017, I am looking forward to Grann’s coverage of the Osage Reign of Terror in his soon to be published Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis | by J.D. Vance
Reading can cause reflection and enhance awareness. Hillbilly Elegy does both for its readers. Vance shines the light on his own life and the issues of poverty, opportunity, and responsibility in Appalachian America. Vance relives a difficult childhood and engages the reader by generating more questions than answers, nudging others to examine the uncomfortable issues affecting a large percentage of Americans and consider solutions to some difficult problems.

The Greatest: My Own Story | by Richard Durham, Muhammad Ali
The news of Muhammad Ali’s passing motivated me to learn a little bit more about one of the most celebrated and controversial athletes of all time. I am not old enough to recall Ali’s work in the ring. My earliest memory of him is a 1980s commercial for bug spray. But for me, as a child of the '70s and '80s, Ali joined Babe Ruth, Jack Nicholas, and Wilt Chamberlain as sort of mythic figures in my immature sports mind. Reading Ali's 1975 memoir was interesting because it was the voice, 40 years later, of a myth from my childhood and a man for whose accomplishments and controversies I now had context. Co-authored by Richard Durham, The Greatest was a well-written, first-person narrative of Ali's life (or least what he wanted us to know), in and out of the ring, from his late childhood in Kentucky through his defeat of George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title in 1974. It definitely did what good biographies do; it humanized Ali. And while the myths around athletes enjoyed by my young-self have long been shattered by maturity, The Greatest was not just a window into Ali’s life but into a time in my own when athletes weren't really real.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE | by Phil Knight
My favorites list this year is filled with memoirs, and I think it’s the feeling of spending time with the author that makes this genre so engaging. Phil Knight was fun to hang out with in Shoe Dog. Knight takes the reader back to the early days of the company that eventually became NIKE. While the book is not so much about Knight’s personal life (there are references to family involvement but none that are very revealing), his personal feelings about his professional life shed light on the cultural development of NIKE and the persistence it takes to create something world renown. Knight’s experience is textbook engagement. He built is work around his heart and, ultimately, shared it with the world.

Natchez Burning | by Greg Iles
Natchez Burning is my favorite fiction read of the year. The first volume of a trilogy that addresses the racial history of the American south, Natchez Burning’s 800-page marathon seems more like a 400-page sprint. Iles strikes a balance between pace and character development that allows the reader time to generate emotional responses to the characters but keeps the yarn spinning. Books two and three of this trilogy are on my "To Read" list, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m writing about one or both of them at this time next year.

Bavishi, A., Slade, M., & Levy, B. (2016). A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity. Social Science & Medicine, (164), 44-48.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

It is what it is... or is it?

I love the Olympics. Pageantry. Drama. Suspense. Triumph. The spectacle of the whole thing. It's a time to learn about and celebrate the world's diversity. But the Olympics always reminds me more of our similarities than our differences. Sportsmanship. Pride. Joy. Disappointment. Love. Grace. Our common humanity.

Paul Tough and Anders Ericsson write about our common humanity in their recently published books Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why and Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Both writers eloquently interpret the findings of current research. While Tough's work leans toward nurture and Ericsson's toward nature, their ideas intersect in an interesting and not-so-surprising place.


Engagement is a multidimensional construct that includes behavioral, cognitive, and emotional attributes associated with being deeply involved in an activity. Both writers base the success of their assertions on its presence.

In How Children Succeed, Tough writes about the importance of a child's environment on the development of non-cognitive capacities, the "emotional and psychological habits and abilities and mindsets" that enable children to negotiate life effectively. These capacities include things like empathy, perseverance, self-control, and focus. In school, they are reflected in a child's ability to understand and follow directions, maintain focus, communicate effectively with others, persevere, and learn from failure. Tough asserts that non-cognitive capacities are distinct from cognitive skills in that their development is not the result of direct instruction and practice but more the byproduct of a child's environment. Furthermore, stress, the kind associated with poverty or growing up in adverse emotional conditions, inhibits the development of non-cognitive capacities. Tough points to evidence that traditional pedagogies in school perpetuate the consequences of stress because they rely on incentives that don't facilitate the kind of motivation it takes to become deeply involved in academic work.

In Peak, Ericsson writes about cognitive adaptability and the idea that we have been "overestimating the value of innate talent and underestimating the value of such things as opportunity, motivation, and effort." Scientists have realized that the brain is much more adaptable than previously thought. Geniuses, once thought to be born rather than made, are not exceptions to some rule that binds most of us to so-called normalcy. Even the most exceptional among us are not genetic outliers but ordinary humans who, through what Ericsson calls deliberate practice, have worked for whatever it is that separates them from others. Deliberate practice involves the building of mental representations, the encoding of information specific to the domain of learning that allows one to store ever-increasing amounts of information in long-term memory and advance conceptual understanding. It's hard, iterative work. But it's also qualitatively distinct from forms of practice that emphasize volume and repetition. It typically requires facilitation by experts who can assist learners in identifying and focusing on the details of performance. For Ericsson, meaning and purpose, an essential element of behavioral and cognitive engagement, are the ingredients that motivate people to maintain the intense focus and attention to detail that is required to become an expert in something.

Both writers insist learners must be active, not passive. And deep learning is not generally solitary work, but connected to others. Tough advocates interactive pedagogy in schools, discussion, and collaboration among students; project-based learning that takes students through "extensive and repeated revisions based on critiques from teachers and peers." Ericsson writes that one does not "build mental representations by thinking about something; you build them by trying to do something, failing, revising, and trying again, over and over." Passion and perseverance for long-term goals is also necessary. The work of Angela Duckworth regarding the concept of grit makes and appearance in both books. Grit is also, in part, a function of environment. In her work, Duckworth cites the work of Benjamin Bloom regarding the development of world class pianists, neurologists, swimmers, chess players, mathematicians, and sculptors. Bloom observed that in every studied field, high achievers had a strong interest in the particular field in which they excelled. In other words, it was meaningful to them. Intrinsic motivation develops when people, in the pursuit of something, are able to feel competent, connected to others, and in control of their own behaviors and goals. When people experience these three things, they become self-determined and are able to be intrinsically motivated to pursue the things that interest them, that have meaning to them, to persevere in the face of difficulty… to show grit... to become engaged.

Tough's non-cognitive capacities strongly influence the cognitive work of developing expertise that Ericsson writes about. Conversely, Ericsson's revelations about cognitive adaptability should inform discussions about supporting students growing up in less than ideal circumstances with early intervention and focused support. Both How Children Succeed and Peak are profoundly optimistic books. I think they are fundamentally about hope and potential, aspects of our common humanity restricted neither by circumstance nor genetics. Olympians are a great example of this. To become Olympic, they had to hope, care, connect, focus, practice, and persevere. They had to fulfill potential and even expand it. They had to engage.

  • Ericsson, A. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
  • Tough, P. (2016). Helping children succeed: What works and why, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.