What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive (Rex Miller)
Data tells a different story of what's really going on in the classroom. Business consultant/coach, Rex Miller http://rexmiller.com shares the research from his new book WHOLE: What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive on chronic stress in the classroom and how it is reducing teacher effectiveness and students' ability to learn.
Rex's other books include Humanizing the Education Machine: How to Create Schools That Turn Disengaged Kids Into Inspired Learners and The Healthy Workplace Nudge: How Healthy People, Culture, and Buildings Lead to High Performance available now at Amazon.com.
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Rex Miller: 50% of our kids are going to be left behind in the system and then possibly a lot of them will become a burden to society because they’re not equipped. The constraint or is the level of stress and the fear that trickles all the way down that shuts down learning if we can reverse that. I think we can transform education.
John Pottenger: Welcome to the Path to Learning podcast where three ordinary guys explore the world of education,
Jay Irwin: what’s working, what’s broken,
Scott Bultman: and what we can do to best advocate for children.
John: I’m John Pottenger.
Scott: I’m Scott Bultman.
Jay: And I’m Jay Irwin and you’re listening to Path to Learning.
John: Well, thanks for joining us today we are for the first time doing a live video conference. With Rex Miller, and he’s got so many insights that he’s gathered and written a couple of books. Jay, you’ve got some of that information for us.
Jay: Yeah. Rex is the principal of Mindshift. It’s a future-focused consultancy, and performance firm who has worked with companies that are pretty unbelievable. like Disney, Google, Microsoft to name a few. And he recently wrote a book called “Humanizing the Education Machine.” And it talks about how to create schools that turn disengaged kids into super awesome learners. He kind of fell into education against as well. And now he’s super passionate about making it a better thing. Sound familiar? Kind of like all of us, I think.
Scott: Yeah, and his new book Whole is just come out and I think it’s really gonna shake some people up. And he’s gonna give us a taste of that in today’s podcast and so without further ado, let’s get started with Rex Miller.
Scott: Well, it’s so your book is out. Congratulations. How long have you been working on it?
Rex: So it was a two year project. It wasn’t planned. After “Humanizing the Education Machine” came out. I thought, “Okay, I’m done with education. I’ll do some speaking and things like that.” But it’s not, you know … 95% of my work is corporate work. I attended a leadership academy put on by Next Jump a company out of New York. They’re an e commerce company. They do these pro-bono training for people who can’t afford it like teachers. They conducted a resiliency test and came back and said, We missed the boat on this training. We’ve given you all this high level training, great experience great food, but what you really need is recovery. He said, “based on our resilience test this is the lowest rated group out of the 75 workshops we’ve done.” He said “75% of you are in survival mode, we don’t know how you get out of bed.” He said 25% are in “startled mode.” And, and so that’s “fight or flight,” basically.
Rex: And I’m watching this and seeing shoulders droop, people starting to breathe heavy, then people saying “so I’m not supposed to feel like crap every day?” And he said, “What’s happened is your body has adapted and sub-optimized so that now sub-optimal feels normal. You don’t even have a benchmark anymore of what normal feels like.” It was sad, really sad. And of course, in “Humanize” we use the Gallup numbers that 75% of teachers are disengaged. And I thought, you know what, I’m not seeing disengagement. That may be what the assessment looks like on the outside, but what I’m actually witnessing is battle fatigue, depression, tiredness, burnout, secondary trauma, I’m seeing that.
Rex: And then I started thinking, you know, when I think about it, I haven’t run into any teachers I can think of who didn’t care about their kids. I said, this is probably carrying too much. So during that workshop, I called Bill Latham, who was with Meteor Education and an underwriter of the first book. I said, Bill, this is what I’m seeing. I don’t think it’s disengagement. And he said on the phone, if that’s the case, then about a decade’s worth of work and millions of dollars on helping teachers be engaged. We’ve been trying to solve the wrong problem. So we banded together and said based on the research we did in “Nudge” that gives us some insight into what’s going on. And we call it “the caregivers dilemma.” And so “Whole” on was picking up on the theme that you need a happy, healthy teacher to create an engaged and thriving student. And that may be the real problem in education is that teachers are burnedout, over-extended, battle-fatigued.
Rex: And then we looked at the psychological and actually the, the vicarious emotional effect on students, when a teacher is in that mental state. And the teacher may not mean to come across, not caring, but what it looks like to a kid is you’re either angry with me or you don’t care. They can’t read what’s going on. That thing creates this cascade of detachment because Lucosalino says, the key link to learning is safety, psychological safety and it’s caring, connected teacher who believes in you and agency.
Rex: So that’s what we explored throughout the book. It led us into new fields of science and led us into SPECT brain scanning, and the effect of chronic stress and the brain effect. We had my whole family brain scan that led into something called neuro cardiology. It lead into measuring stress using sports technology like this whoop, that measures physical load or stress, but it equally measures cognitive and emotional load because it’s affecting your autonomic nervous system the same way physical load does. Your elevated heart rate, cortisol or adrenaline? All of that’s the same mechanics but it’s just coming from a different source. And it doesn’t have a healthy way of processing like physical activity does.
Rex: So we looked at 200 schools, and in every single school except one they said kids are coming to school not ready to learn. And what they really meant by that isn’t that socially and emotionally ready to sit still, to cooperate. So we asked if our schools now becoming the new field hospitals in America, where healing and learning and learning are in healing are two sides of the same coin. If that’s true, but there’s a new school look like. What did the new skills look like? What’s the new learning process will clap? We saw some schools in Canada, K-12 schools in Canada, who I think are one of those windows into the future.
Scott: I want to hear about that. But first, any insight into how we ended up in this situation?
Rex: Well, yeah, 1980s “No Child Left Behind” is part of it. Where we got into this accountability culture, which amped up the fear. Part of it is the educational level of parents coming out. When we grew up, teachers were in their own universe of respect, no one ever questioned the teacher. Now every parent questions the teacher. So you’ve got critics from parents, you’ve got pressure from the administration, you’ve got the tests, and you’re not properly trained. You know, there’s a lot out there for helping kids with social emotional literacy. But the missing piece is that it’s not a cognitive exercise. It’s truly a form of therapy. And unless teachers are receiving the same care, you can’t give what you don’t have. We found once actually giving their teachers the same kind of care that they’re giving the students. So it’s an obsolete model. If you look at the primary model is still Gutenberg. You know, batched learning in a fixed space with a teacher in the front and you memorize and take tests and so forcing teachers to try to make an obsolete system compete in a Google-reality world is just putting a burden on teachers that they just can’t. Nobody can. No, nobody can climb that mountain.
Scott: So what’s the model in Canada got that we don’t?
Rex: Well, so the teachers do get, you know, they’re socially emotionally trained. The classroom uses, Oh, I can’t remember the methodology. But they, they break into small groups. It’s all very social. They have breathing routines in the morning. So it’s high, high social emotional literacy all throughout and connected with more distributed project based learning. You’ve got a teacher and a co facilitator in the class so you’ve got some backup. And so the the outcome is very confident kids at a very early age, to have the agency for what they do. The research from Dr. Heckman, a Nobel economist at the University of Chicago in Raj Chetty is that the social emotional literacy skills come in preschool in our current system. We don’t do those anymore, because by third grade academically, you don’t see much of an advantage between rich early learning experience and academics. But there’s a latency effect where they come back in, in later life and adulthood. And so those kids have less incarceration, stay married longer hold their jobs better, make a 20% higher income. So the whole missing piece is this social emotional, so what happens as soon as they get to kindergarten, that switch flips off and now it’s teach to the test. Okay. Anyway, the book hole goes through the hole. How did we get here and how do we get out scenario.
Jay: I’d love to know why you chose education coming from the background writing about commercial real estate. And obviously the workplace. How did education spark for you?
Rex: Well, I call myself the accidental educator. It was something that I could not not do. I mean, it was so compelling, so emotional, that I had to go on the journey. And Scott it’s a little bit like you, you know, it was a work of passion and belief. I started seeing what my kids experienced that I didn’t see. And that was a heartbreak for me to see what happened to my kids. And that’s where I came up with the the comment that the industrial model that Sir Ken Robinson talks about, the Gutenberg approach, does not handle one off kids. It doesn’t handle kids with learning differences. And so when you look at all those numbers, either socio economic or learning differences, that’s 50% of our kids, and we get the research that 50% of our kids are going to be left behind in this system, and then possibly, a lot of them will become a burden to society because they’re not equipped.
Rex: And then we divided schools, we started looking at a different taxonomy to categorize schools based on the learning experience people had. So we called the 50%, the left behind schools, and we broke those into two categories. One were the custodial schools were there, they’re just kind of housed and graduated forward, but not prepared to go to college or anything else. And then we had the survival schools, those those were the warzone schools. Then that was about 50%. About 45%. We looked at and based on the outcomes, you know what these kids were prepared for? We call these the well-schooled but poorly educated schools. And we broke those into categories. One, were the kind of the enhanced, you know, where you have the Baccalaureate, International Baccalaureate or the AP, and you had extracurricular activities paid for. And then you had kind of the standard where the standards aren’t high the past the standardized testing, there was a third category that we put in the bridge between the well schooled and poorly educated and what we called the future ready schools. So we looked at 45, between 40% and 45%. in that category.
Rex: Some of the new CTS, the career technology centers, those are incredible places. And if I had a second choice, I would have opted for that for my kids, they would have thrived in that kind of hands on project based technology oriented experience. And then some of the Distributed Learning models in that bridge. And then about 5% of schools are combining the social emotional literacy, the future ready skills, and then the academic rigor. And so that was our assessment in the book humanizing the education machine.
Scott: So can the 5% can it be applied? What what’s standing in the way of using it with the rest of society?
Rex: Well it can be. What’s standing in the way are the the adherence to testing? I mean, testing is the big obstacle. And then re skilling teachers it’s it’s more of a mindset change than it is a skill change. And there’s an emotional hurdle. So you really have to go through five stages of grief with teachers to get them into kind of that new hero’s journey, the new adventure. So when we went to schools like Canyon View in Phoenix … a high school, incredible high school. When you hear the teachers going through that, it is truly a five stages of grief process. But you had a very open, accepting and gracious principal. And then you had a superintendent willing to provide political cover. As parents started questioning how is this kid going to help? how’s this going to help my kid get into college type of thing.
Jay: So this is a school going through a transition?
Rex: They they’re through. It’s an incredible high school, completely open and very flexible. The teachers have full agency to swap classrooms because they’re all it’s easy to do it. They’ve created a community, a strong community. Every kid has to have an extracurricular activity in there. Everybody has kinda an adult buddy and a student and a student buddy. So there’s no kid in the good way left behind. So they know the emotional state of their kids.
Rex: Another incredible school is Lee Elementary, in Colleyville, Texas. This is an elementary school that has about 750 kids, but it’s broken into five of what they call “houses.” And each house is about 120 to 150 kids, but it’s K-5 in the house. And so the same teachers, the same students all throughout, so you have this continuity, you have this tribal thing. You have all this non-verbal ability to know things about the kid if they’re in a good place or a bad place that you can’t pick up if you just see him for an hour or so, you know, once a day or something like that. It’s thriving. It’s a model school. And we we highlight both of those schools in the new book hole. We saw others like that as well.
Jay: Where are those both public schools?
Rex: Yes, they’re both public schools. And DaVinci is a charter public school in Los Angeles right next to the airport. Another incredible school, different model altogether. They’ve broken their schools into kind of academies. So you’ve got the music academy. So think of Los Angeles, you got aerospace technology, you got film. So and each floor is a different academy. And then they have common connection down in the cafeteria and in the assembly area. And it’s a project based learning area, they’ve got a strong STEM academy, and it goes all the way up to you can get your associate’s degree there get internships with local companies. I don’t know if they have, but they were working to get a full bachelor’s degree. So it goes from K all the way up to 14. And it’s working to K through 16. Kids come from at zip costs to to get there.
Scott: Well, obviously you came from a sort of a corporate view of all this. So that’s sort of the other side. I want to see what where are we at now in industry, trying to fill jobs with our old model, the Gutenberg industrial model, and how quickly Are we going to be able to get some of these new things working for us?
Rex: Well, that’s a great question. So 90% of provosts when Gallup asked them, “are the students you’re graduating, work ready? Can they go out in the workplace?” Ten percent of CEOs say that the kids they’re getting our work ready. Huge disconnect there. And I think that partly explains why there’s such a quick turnover in the millennials. You know, they talk about the two to three year turnover. Well, if you’re not ready to dive in, and you don’t find your place, and if the workplace doesn’t realize that they now have to be the, you know, the educator, of this next generation, with the social emotional skills that they didn’t get, and the job skills, when you’ve got that mismatch To me, it makes sense that you’re going to turn a lot in Millennials are going to just get frustrated because it’s harder work to do something that you’re not prepared to do.
Scott: So do you think the boomers that are running the corporations and the universities understand that early childhood isn’t providing those same executive functions?
Rex: They don’t, because they don’t have the window into what producing this. And they, their only reference point is their experience in school, which was my reference point when we did Humanizing the Educational Machine. I mean, I thought shoot, we’re gonna send our kids to public school. We want them to be part of the community. It was good for me and then doing the research. I said, Oh, my gosh, you know, and I could not advocate for my kids. You know, one of my children has Asperger’s. They would not accept that diagnosis. All through middle school. I had to fly my daughter to Baltimore, to get somebody they felt was credible to authorize that. We lost so much time in that two year process. They wanted us to medicate her with Adderall, all that stuff.
Rex: So if I could not advocate for my kids with my background, my knowledge, what chance does you know? Normal parent who’s absorbed with just paying the bills or making ends meet. They don’t know what they don’t know, because schools are not very transparent. You can’t see what’s happening. All you can see is the behavior coming home. Yeah. And so the boomer leaders don’t have a clue as to why these kids …and when I’m with them, it’s, you know, it’s always “those damn millennials.” There’s a meme about millennials, and I think it’s totally false. And millennials, I mean, I work with several. The ones I work with their entrepreneurial, they’re hungry for mentoring. And most of the millennials I work with, I mentor. So my model is, let’s do something together and through creating something together, we’ll cross-pollinate, which is, if you think about it, that’s the essence of project-based learning.
John: I wanted to backtrack Little bit. I was curious about the the five stages of the teacher going through that process. Yeah. Can you talk a little bit more about what that looks like? If I mean, if you’re a school that’s on the brink of this What?
Rex: Yeah, well in in a lot of my clients are going through that right now with this recession, you know. The first step teacher or in business is, you know, “this will pass this is just another flavor of the month” or “this principle will rotate out in a couple years. I don’t have to take it that seriously.” You know, it’s, that’s the denial phase. Phase Two is the anger. You know, when it starts disrupting your rhythm routine, you’ve got an extra report to do. It feels like you’ve got a job on top of a job and and so you react and you’re either a passive resistor or an active resistor. And depending on how strong your union is, or you know, how fearful the union illustrator is over the board. And that’s, that’s phase two, the anger phase.
Rex: The third phase is buffering or bargaining. I will go through the training, but I will do it my way, you know, which means I will go back and train a lot of what I used to do, but I’ll use a few of the tools and pieces and things like that. I’ll take the furniture, but we’re still going to sit in rows and, and, you know, I’m going to buffer and delay and buy time with this strategy, hoping that the reality doesn’t hit. And then the abyss, you know, that’s the despair. That’s the depression. That’s the panic. That’s the resentment. You know, this is personal. It’s about me. I feel completely lost, I feel incompetent, have lost the rhythm. The routine.
Rex: And a lot of people in this recession are feeling that now working from home, they’ve lost the rhythm. They’ve lost the routine. They’ve lost their social connections. So they’re going through an emotional form of mild depression in going through that. And then at some point, you reconcile and say, Is this the worst? If this is the worst, I can deal with this and then you get a renewed wind in your sails. It’s kind of like in the movie Forrest Gump, with Lieutenant Dan on top, you know, with the storm comes. Yeah, he’s angry, bitter. Even that anger mode most of the movie, and then he goes right after God on top of it and says, Is this the best you can do? And then at the bottom, when it when it settles, he’s in a different mental state. And he’s not angry. he’s thankful and he sees the new the new future.
Rex: So my job, if I’m an administrator, my job would be to help my teachers get through those five stages as quickly as possible. And really look at the abyss that they think is the abyss. These these teachers are heroes. They’re going through the universal story we all go through, which is the hero’s journey. Their world was disrupted, not by their choice. And they can either ignore the call of embracing whatever we’re going into, or they can fight it, you know, like Job fought it. But at some point in time, either by choice or by force, they will have to give into the forces of reality. And either come out a vanquished hero, you know, a wounded, bitter hero, or they’ll come out a stronger version of themselves.
Rex: So in leadership, we are the wizards, the guides, we’re not the heroes. But we have to help that hero navigate forces, we can see those forces. I mean, I’ve been through five of these. So my job every day my job is responding to some clients crisis. That’s what we do. So to some degree, it’s not giving them the answers. It’s helping them come to terms and find their own agency through this, which again, is a lot like project based learning, right? You give you give a group question that’s outside their scope and norm, they have to wrestle and struggle with it. Teachers there is the wizard or the guide. And when they come through, and they succeed, and they create this wonderful artifact or project. It’s not the project. That was the point it was their growth through the process and their confidence. We’re in the same boat. So if administrators look at this as a project based learning problem, you know, What school going to be look like when we’re on the other side and deal with it like that framework? I think a lot of schools will come out of this much stronger.
Scott: Well, I just wanted to follow up on some of that with the project. I really appreciate your coming out to the tribal conference in October, I just wanted to get a sense of how that fits with because you were working, finishing up your book and all the other work you’ve done. I just was curious to get your reactions to that.
Rex: Well, so I’m still in my learning curve on how to adapt Froebel into my workshops. And I think I sent you some video footage of one of the workshops we did. We used it as a storytelling tool, which was very powerful. There’s not a lot of bridges if unless you’re an architect using it, or, but using it in a business workshop or interpersonal skills workshop. I’m still working on figuring out how do I fully adapt. It was a wonderful exercise we did when we were synthesizing some learning and emotional learning at that, at the Whole Summit we had at the University of North Texas. And so I’m still still there, so any guidance or any business people you have using it in kind of a learning mode? I’ve bought several sets for people. I know they have kids with learning differences. It’s been a godsend for them. So I still believe in it.
Scott: Well, it’s just what amazes me is that’s where we started in education. That was when all young children started with and then you know, people like Frank Lloyd Wright, as they got older, they continue to use it in their, in their architectural practices. So it leads into business pretty, it’s a pretty straightforward process, but to kind of start at the business level, without having had played with those blocks or used it. You know, it’s a challenge at this
Rex: Yeah, I use them myself. I use them for when I’m working on a puzzle or a problem or thinking, I’ll spend some time just playing with different shapes to imagine, how would I translate this problem into a shape? In fact, there was a workshop, who is the architect from Miami, Ohio,
Scott: John Reynolds,
Rex: John Reynolds took us through that kind of an exercise, listening to music and translating it into shapes. That’s been useful for me. I use it and I gave it to my son who’s a musician. I gave him the whole set. And he uses it as well, to just think differently to shift to a different modality of thinking around the same kind of problem.
Scott: It’s interesting how the designers immediately understand what that stuff is for, but the educators where it came from, don’t seem to know what to do with it. So do you think That designers are going to be the ones that help us with education, or do you think education can solve its own problems at this stage?
Rex: Well, I think if it’s wrapped into design thinking is is a kind of an adult version of project patient learning. And so, prototype prototyping and making prototypes. I think, I think the missing element is having some frameworks or some easy ways for people to see how to prototype a problem, or prototype, you know, use this as a prototyping tool and a storytelling tool in project based learning. I think that’s a natural environment for it. So the Buck Institute may be a great place to talk about bringing that in that, you know, that’s just one way that I think could be a door.
Scott: Yeah, absolutely.
Jay: What about the future? You’re a futurist. What do we need for the future? Where are we falling short? What are the consequences?
Rex: Well, schools, the new normal is going to be physical distancing. By the way, I want us to start using the word physical distancing, that social distancing. So wherever you’re promoting that. We want to be socially connected, but physically separate. And I think, redesigning what social connection means and looks like, in an environment so we don’t just have, like a visual podcast. You know, that’s what we’re doing now is a visual podcast, right? We want to do is understand what this medium truly does. and optimize that with a whole different experience like Harvard’s HBS learning experience, or Rutgers something like that. So that’s intriguing to me. And how do you create this network Operation Center, which Harvard has, or you’ve got this wall of monitors people Around the world, and you’re orchestrating this very interactive environment, that’s a completely different skill set. But you have producers in the background, you know, flipping the switches, turning it on and off, you can, you can educate multiple numbers more with that kind of network operation center environment with distributed in and create this very engaging experience. We just need to learn how to do that. I think twitch TV will give us a window into the future, where you have these gaming events which have, for example, their playoffs to have more audience participation than the NFL Superbowl. There are virtual concerts where you get into a virtual line and you experience it as virtual. There’s very real virtual concert going on. These gaming engines that are attached education, as part of the experience is a future trend. And then I think we’re going to be repurposing schools that become community centers, where learning is a multi generational thing. Where it’s a resource center.
Rex: I wrote a chapter in Humanizing the Education Machine called the “Pandorafication of learning.” So Pandora is this music app that set up on this music genome. Anf the genome is that it has certain characteristics, genre, male, female, vocal, instrumental rock, all these things, to have algorithms. And as you experience it, you simply do thumbs up or thumbs down, and it learns your it creates a stream of music tailored to you. Think of that from a learning mode, you learn better one on one online and it’s just thumbs up thumbs down or you have had these these upfront testing, assessment testing to see what, what mode you learn best, what environment, what subjects, and then it gives you a stream of experiences and begins to tune in tune in. And there’s a couple of schools, I think all that school and there’s one out in San Francisco that have created a similar kind of algorithm learning kinds of experience. And then you have this, the community becomes your classroom. And in the book, I imagined a school transportation system called “scoober.” You know, the school Uber, and you dial up and your three of your friends that are doing a project together are taken to the local Starbucks and then you go to the local library, then you go to the municipality to learn about government, and you’re doing that together, and then you go back home and then you report in. I think those flexible, more holistic learning models where the community is your classroom and schools repurpose, to be community hubs, not just ghettos, where we send, you know, ghettos of learning, where we send them in these walled areas where nobody really knows what’s going on until we see a test, or kid comes home with a behavior issue.
John: We’re kind of coming to the end of our time. And I have, I’ve learned a ton, this has been fantastic. So if people want to learn more about you or get in touch with you, and also maybe you can just kind of throw in a little more about about your book and what projects you’re working on. That’d be great. How can people get in touch with you,
Rex: [email protected] is the email but the website is Rexmiller.com. We also have one just for education. hoped that school and the two books are there. I’m active on LinkedIn. And I know that’s not a huge education site. I know Facebook is better, but you can join my followers and LinkedIn. But I do post every day. Great content on current issues, leadership, learning, business. Again, in the introduction here we kind of ramped up as to how we got into Whole, but we’re dealing with chapters on chronic stress, and what that’s doing to learning on resiliency. We talked about the teacher athlete where we bring in sports analytics to talk about building resiliency. We look at emotional and social contagion, Dr. Nicholas Christakis’s work in the implications for education, and it’s an easy read and we’d love feedback on that as well. The new work we’re going to is looking at making stress, chronic stress the exception rather than the rule in schools. I think that’s really the constraint, the constraint or is the level of stress and the fear that trickles all the way down that shuts down learning if we can reverse that. I think we can transform education.
John: Thanks, everyone for jumping in with us today with Rex, I hope that you were encouraged as well as challenged with some of the things he said. And if you want to follow some of the links to the books and his websites, we’ll have all those in the show notes. But if you want to support what we’re doing, we would greatly appreciate a review on iTunes that would really help us out. Or you can jump on our website pathtolearning.us. And we have links to various places on Facebook and Patreon where you can also jump on the conversation with us there. I’m pretty sure
Jay: Rex has a flux capacitor because he knows a lot about the future.
Scott: Yeah, and he’s done all the it’s done all the research. Absolutely. Anyway, Thanks for everybody checking us out today and we’ll see on the next podcast. Thanks, everybody.
Jay: Thanks everyone.