• 07 August 2011 Ideas are cheap - making them a reality is hard
    I think that innovation, in and of itself, is over-rated. There have always been people who “think outside the box” and come up with new and interesting ideas. The crucial issue is making these ideas into reality. This is where the challenge lies.

    Just look at big companies whose research groups came up with amazing ideas, but the companies were unable to capitalize on them (leaving it to new upstarts to found new empires).

    The same thing with countries. There are some countries with LOTS of brain power, and super-innovative thinkers. Yet these same nations are unable to ever harness the brainpower of its citizens into winning commercial franchises. France, for example, comes to mind. I am constantly amazed at the ideas which that nation’s intellectual’s and engineers come up with, yet they rarely manage to build thriving new businesses on those ideas. Russia is another excellent case in point.

    You need a vibrant economic and investment environment for innovation to truly thrive and get beyond the garage. I think it is no coincidence that the number of new innovative product introductions tank during recessions and depressions, when investment decreases. In fact, it is my contention that people who look for innovation as an economic driver have things backwards. Innovation doesn’t drive the economy, the economy drives innovation (or at least the successful commercialization of new ideas). Funding more scientific research won’t do much to help if the broader economy is on the rails.

    In short, ideas are cheap and plentiful. It is the wherewithal to turn those ideas into reality that really counts.
  • 09 February 2011 EPNW: The philosophy of organic marketing – where marketing and life fit into balance
    In this episode Jim Hodgson explains how blogging has helped him find new meaning in life, and focused his thoughts to allow him to achieve previously unobtainable goals. Jim has went from being vastly overweight to a triathlete and outdoorsman (recently trekking up Kilimanjaro). We also discuss Jim’s concept of “organic marketing”, which seeks to pull people in who are interested rather than blast the universe with useless spam. Sharing details on the internet about yourself, or business, can go a long way to winning over customers. Not only do customers want to know about the product, but they also love to feel a connection with the people or businesses they work with.

    You can check out Jim’s blog about philosophy and achieving goals here:

    Information on organic marketing can be found here:

    NOTE: Check out the complete podcast directory of discussions with entrepreneurs. If you would like to be a guest on Entrepreneurs Northwest, to talk about your business venture, contact Michael Surkan.
  • 06 February 2011 EPNW: How many impossible things do you do before breakfast?
    In this episode Joel Runyon explains how he realized it was only his own fears and excuses that prevented him from achieving his dreams. Instead of using excuses for a lack of money, or time, to avoid pursuing his passions, Joel has begun training for triathlons and pursuing the career in internet marketing he always wanted. Anyone can achieve impossible things if they only try. Unfortunately, most people give up on their impossible dreams before they even start.

    Sure, failure is possible (and virtually inevitable on occasion), but if we don’t even try to achieve our dreams then we will never discover that we can do things that are considered impossible.

    You can check out Joel’s blog of impossible things here:

    NOTE: Check out the complete podcast directory of discussions with entrepreneurs. If you would like to be a guest on Entrepreneurs Northwest, to talk about your business venture, contact Michael Surkan.
  • 28 January 2011 EPNW: Patents make the world go round
    In this episode Jim Haugen explains that patents are the lifeblood of any tech company and that it is always better to think about what might be patentable (or not) before the first piece of code is written. A little expert advice before a startup begins developing their product can save a lot of potential grief in the future. No one wants to be in a situation where they discover they have built a product which infringes on someone else’s intellectual property or that they are unable to protect their own ideas with patents. Jim also elaborates on why patents are not something you undertake with a do-it-yourself kit. A huge percentage of patents are rejected and It takes experience to know how to create filings that sail through the process.

    You can check out more about Jim’s patent firm at:

    NOTE: Check out the complete podcast directory of discussions with entrepreneurs. If you would like to be a guest on Entrepreneurs Northwest, to talk about your business venture, contact Michael Surkan.
  • 24 January 2011 Linked:Seattle members on YouTube - in their own words
    NOTE: Don't forget to register for the February 16th Linked:Seattle meetup. You can find details and register here: http://bit.ly/lsmeetup

    Tables are available for anyone wishing to promote their company with brochures or a small display. If you are interested in learning more about becoming a meetup sponsor please you can find more details at http://bit.ly/lssponsor. Early sponsors will be mentioned in a group announcement.

    Listen to Linked:Seattle members are share their experiences, and tips, of working with the community to help their businesses and careers.

    Corinne Cavanaugh of http://www.freeseattlesocially.com/linked.html is coming to the February 16th meetup.

    Carol Mason Mortarotti of http://carolmortarotti.com - helping businesses with mobile and social media marketing.

    Kelly Clay from www.lockergnome.com interviewed Linked:Seattle meetup attendees on January 20th, 2011.

    Michael Surkan and Susan J. Moore discuss how a little preparation can turn the large Linked:Seattle meetups into successful social networking events. You can find details and register to upcoming meetups here: http://bit.ly/lsmeetup

    NOTE: Click here for a list of all the Linked:Seattle radio show recordings. You can also check out my own "Entrepreneurs Northwest" podcast shows (http://bit.ly/epnwfeed).
  • 10 January 2011 Michael's in the Times again! This time talking about podcasting for jobs.
    Randy Woods has posted an article about my strategies for using podcasts as part of a job search tool in his blog on the The Seattle Times. He does a great job of explaining why podcasting is so useful as well as outlines the easy to follow-tips for making them.


    Don't forget to check out my video on how to use podcasting for jobs and business.


    NOTE: Please contact Michael if you are interested in being a guest on "Tales from the job search trenches" podcasts. Michael would like to discuss your job search strategy, and brainstorm ways to improve it with you.
  • 05 January 2011 The Message Matters: Internet Marketing 101
    Here are a series of short podcasts I recorded that outline how to create EFFECTIVE internet marketing programs through LinkedIn and podcasting.

    In episode 1 I explain what social networking is and how companies can use it for marketing. While companies should definitely use Facebook and Twitter, the real focus should be on podcasting and direct marketing.

    In episode 2 I outline how every internet marketing program begins with on the “soft” side by generating content, which can be blog articles, white papers or (and most especially) podcasts.

    In episode 3 I talk about “hard” internet marketing. This is all about how LinkedIn can be used for highly targeted (and effective) direct mail campaigns.

    NOTE: Check out the complete podcast directory of discussions with entrepreneurs. If you would like to be a guest on Entrepreneurs Northwest, to talk about your business venture, contact Michael Surkan.
  • 04 January 2011 EPNW: Kick start your path to entrepreneurship with a franchise
    In this episode Thomas Wolter explains that starting a franchise can be a simpler and more reliable path to successful to entrepreneurship than starting your own firm from scratch. Franchises come with a proven business model and a turn-key operation (not to mention guidance) to get started. Franchises aren’t just about retail food. Thomas shares his suggestions of some great franchise options which are both inexpensive, and tailored to different expertise and personalities. There is a wide assortment of franchise opportunities, with options right for almost everyone.

    You can check out Thomas' information on franchising options here:

    NOTE: Check out the complete podcast directory of discussions with entrepreneurs. If you would like to be a guest on Entrepreneurs Northwest, to talk about your business venture, contact Michael Surkan.
  • 31 December 2010 EPNW: Podcasting – The Indispensible Tool for Building Relationships
    NOTE: I am offering an on-line 1 hour webinar for that goes into detail on how to use podcasting to find a job or grow your business. The first 10 people to register will be able to get a 33% discount. Just type in the word "earlybird" for the discount code. Just click here to register: http://bit.ly/podcastintro

    Learn how to use podcasting to build relationships to grow your career or business. This is the perfect tool to open doors to the people, and businesses, you want to know. It is all about having conversations with the people you want to know and building friendships. Having an audience of listeners is almost beside the point.

    You can find more details on how to use podcasting for business and careers here: http://bit.ly/gttkny

    You can check out my own podcast shows to get an idea of how I use this tool for both growing my career and finding business.

    Entrepreneurs Northwest
    Tales from the job search trenches
    Practical Software
    Linked:Seattle Radio

    I even have a show on economics which is strictly as a hobby.

    The Optimistic Bear

    I am eager to make a presentation of the value of podcasting for networking to any group that might be interested. I can speak in person to groups in the greater Puget Sound area and can give webinars to groups further afield. Just e-mail podcasting@surkan.com if you would like to inquire about having me speak.
  • 09 August 2011 This Week on Bear Radio: The bear market caused the US debt downgrade, not the other way around.
    In this week’s episode we discuss why most commentators have it backwards in blaming the market downturn on the S&P US debt downgrade. The S&P downgrade occurred BECAUSE the general economic mood is becoming more bearish instead of the reverse. The markets would have crashed anyway even if there hadn't been a downgrade.

    Stocks had already been losing ground for weeks and there is ample evidence that the global economy has been slowing down. The US debt downgrade is almost irrelevant. The established trend (i.e. long before the downgrade) has been for investors to flee for the perceived safety in bonds of the largest industrial nations (i.e. Germany, US, Japan). Nothing has really changed, the process has just sped up a bit.

    In the end, the US dollar is set for massive appreciation as the global economy goes into another tail-spin. Most of the world's private (and public) debt is denominated in dollars which creates unstoppable deflationary forces in an economic contraction as debtors are forced to sell whatever assets they have in order to raise the cash to repay loans. Ironically, all the debt everyone complains about is going to be the primary force that drives up the value of the dollar (and the subsequent crash in all asset prices).

    We also talk about the idea that as volatility increases we can expect the unexpected with relationships between asset classes behaving in ways that no one would have imagined. The web of relationships between assets has become so convoluted with modern financial instruments and trading strategies that things will behave in surprising ways when markets are under stress.

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.

  • 02 June 2011 This Week on Bear Radio: It’s lonely being a bear
    In this episode we talk about how the ranks of Bears are being continuously depleted. Even Tim Ellis, the creator of SeattleBubble, has now bought a home. Are the Optimistic Bear and friends the only true bears yet living? Of course, the increasing levels of bullishness simply provide MORE reason for the Optimistic Bear to stay bearish. We also discuss the limitations (and outright futility) of technical analyses and even economics for predicting the future of markets. The sizzling economies of Australia, Canada, and China, are also talked about as we ponder when these bubbles are going to burst.

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • 29 May 2011 This Week on Bear Radio: The Bubble Returns
    In this episode we discuss how the rash of tech IPOs and wild valuations are eerily similar to previous tech bubbles. Credit problems have only been swept under the carpet (evidenced by the fact that the US government now backs 90% of all mortgages) yet we see speculation rampant. We also talk about the value and limitations of technical analyses for investing. You don’t have to be right very often to succeed at investing. You just have to participate in the best investment opportunities and stay out of the market during the infrequent (but devastating) crashes.

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • 17 May 2011 This Week on Bear Radio: credit deflation – the unexplained phenomena
    In this week’s episode we discuss how there isn’t a single school of economics that explains the modern phenomena of credit deflation. According to traditional economics theories the prices of goods and services will rise when the volume of money increases. However, we have seen cases in the last 30 years where prices fall even as the money supply grows. Whether you are a Keynesian, neo-classicist, Austrian or Marxist, not one of these theories can account for what has happened in Japan and is starting to occur in America. We also talk about how it feels like we are in a slow moving train wreck. The same dire economics stories dominate the news, such as the European sovereign debt issues, yet they just keep getting worse, month after month. It’s deja-vu all over again.

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • 06 May 2011 This Week on Bear Radio: The diversification myth and why investing today is riskier than e
    In this episode we discuss the crash in the commodity markets and the amazing correlation which is occurring across almost all asset classes. Even BitCoin has been blowing another bubble. This correlation between assets, causing everything to move in lock-step, has made diversification almost impossible and created one of the riskiest investment environments in memory. We also talk about the certainty of improbable events and why it is sometimes good to panic.

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • 21 March 2011 This Week on Bear radio: It’s an inflationary world out there
    In this episode Moses Kim explains that the rising prices in commodities and precious metals show that the US will be living in an inflationary environment for a long time to come. The massive US government debt and lack of economic competitiveness further ensure that the American dollar is only going to see lower valuations in the years ahead. Deflationists (like the Optimistic Bear) are mis-reading comparisons with the 1930s and Japan’s 20 year odyssey with falling prices. Precious metals, stocks, commodities, and emerging markets are the places to invest.

    That said, Moses warns that Gold could be in store for a sharp, yet brief, correction.

    You can find more of Moses’ ideas at:

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • 14 March 2011 This Week on Bear radio: No one beats the Optimistic Bear in bearishness! No one!
    In this episode we discuss how recent market volatility could have a bearish portent and how markets that keep rising for long periods without a significant correction are fragile. We examine how the rising price of oil could be viewed as either bullish or bearish for the future of crude prices. When it comes to understanding bubbles, the venerable Greenspan may actually have a good point: there is no good way to tell if there is a bubble until it’s over.

    With so many bearish prognosticators turning bullish (even Mish has tempered his views) the Optimistic Bear declares his willingness to stand alone (or nearly so)! While not buying into the apocalyptic view, he remains firmly in the perma-bear camp, believing that major deflation is yet in store.

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • The next shoe to fall: Reverse Mortgages
    Slowly but surely we are starting to see cracks in the reverse mortgage market. Like all the new mortgage finance innovations of the bubble years, having a lender give a lump sum payment to an elderly homeowner for the privilege of collecting upon the death of the borrower sounded like a good idea. Unfortunately, we are now starting to see that many of the underlying assumptions of reverse mortgages were flawed.

    In particular, it is now evident that home prices have fallen so much that many reverse mortgage holders are under-water, finding that the current market price of their home is worth less than what they borrowed. As the New York Times points out, this impacts any surviving spouses who had hoped to wind up with a little inheritance with the passing of their loved one.


    Of bigger implications, however, is the fact that lenders are already starting to see situations where they are taking losses on reverse mortgages. The generous equity cushions lenders had thought they were leaving themselves have proven to be not so safe after all. When homes drop 40% or 60% in value even large equity cushions of 25% or 30% aren't sufficient to prevent losses.

    Could losses from under-water reverse mortgages start to impact bank balance sheets?

    I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who find their homes are being foreclosed upon when their spouse passes away. After all, these people managed to benefit from having the bank over-pay for the value of the home. At least the lender can't force anyone to make up the difference from the market sale price and the balance owed.

    If the treatment of other distressed properties is anything to go by I wouldn't be surprised to see many lenders delay in the foreclosure, and sale, of reverse mortgaged properties as well. Banks have shown a great aversion to having to take write-downs on mortgages by selling for low market values and I doubt attitude will change with reverse mortgages.
  • 23 February 2011 This Week on Bear radio: The conservation of risk and the illusory safety of hedging
    In this episode we talk about how financial hedging can actually lead to bigger risks by encouraging imprudent behavior and endowing a false sense of security. The whole AIG debacle proved you can’t always rely on insurance (which is what hedging is, after all). Try as one might, it is simply not possible to eliminate or even minimize risk. You can only succeed in changing where the risk lies. Instead of the risk of an actual crop failure the risk now is that the insurer will make good on a claim. We also debate whether the people movement revolutions sweeping through the Arab world are bullish or bearish for the global economy. It can definitely be said that there is no historic correlation between commodity prices and geo-political unrest. For just one example, oil prices have both risen and fallen (aside from short term spikes on major news) substantially during major periods of upheaval and wars in the middle east.

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • 21 February 2011 Defying European Creditors Iceland says yes to deflation
    The Icelandic President's decision to veto yet another attempt to nationalize debts of defunct private banks not only shows that there are at least SOME politicians in this world who listen to their constituents but that a whole nation is voting to stop the inflationary insanity of debt creation in favour of deflation.

    Instead of kicking the can further down the road, nationalizing the obligations to British and Dutch depositors of private banks which lent foolishly, Iceland is clearly saying that it is better to just take the hard medicine now and write off the debt.

    In big and small ways the world is slowly waking up to the reality that the massive speculative debts built up over the last 30 years will simply have to be purged.
  • 16 February 2011 This Week on Bear radio: Commodity prices tell the story-inflation is everywhere
    In this episode Brad Rundbaken explains how commodity prices are the canary in the coal-mine pointing to the rising inflationary pressures resulting from all the stimulus and bail-outs. Changing cycles in weather patterns are also exacerbating pricing pressures on food stuffs. Conveniently, policy makers don’t include the prices of commodities in their inflation calculations, making it easy to deny that problems exist. That said, Brad urges caution in the market right now since things seem to have reached an overbought state. We close our discussion by pondering whether the internet age really has made a difference in modern mass revolutions (such as those occurring in Tunisia and Egypt) or whether popular uprisings today are just repeating the same pattern as those done long before the age of Twitter.

    You can read more of Brad’s ideas here:

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • 03 February 2011 This Week on Bear radio: Why health care reform is driving up your medical bills
    In this episode Patrick Killelea explains how the US health care reform legislation actually provides incentive for insurance providers to charge even more. Restrictions on the amount of profit that can be made make it attractive to pay more for care and treatment to ensure a higher over-all bill. This might explain why Blue Shield has increased Patrick’s insurance premiums by 73% this year alone. It’s things like this that drive a guy to the streets in protest, which is exactly what Patrick did this week.

    You can check out Patrick’s latest adventures in fighting the health insurance companies as well as his excellent financial news information at:

    If you are interested in deflation, check out the Deflation Study Group on LinkedIn (open to all LinkedIn members):

    You can also listen to my in-depth Deflation 101 podcast.

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • 26 January 2011 This Week on Bear radio: Cycles and Pre-destination
    In this episode we discuss the idea that societies, and economies, are governed by both short and very long cycles of social mood and sentiment. If this theory of cycles (like those proposed by Kondratiev) are correct, then there is very little policy makers can do one way or the other to change economic outcomes. The grandiose visions laid out by the US President’s state of the union address are irrelevant to the economic and psychological prosperity of the nation. The ideas offered by the President’s political opponents are likewise irrelevant for improving the economy. These generational cycles also imply that the cause of the recession and “financial crisis” is deeper than a lack of regulations or risky investment behavior. It was the general bullish attitude of society which inevitably led to lax regulation and excessive risk taking. The next time there is broad bullish sentiment throughout society (80 or 90 years hence) then regulation will inevitably become lax and risk taking will again reach excesses.

    We talk about how NO political leaders are championing the idea of state or municipal bankruptcies as a method to cure long-term budget problems. There are NO political leaders suggesting that the major financial institutions like CityGroup should just go bust and that bond-holders and depositors should lose their money. Instead, policy makers whine about deficits, stimulus, education and social safety nets.

    Lastly, we explore the fact the Bitcoin is now reaching a new high, in alignment with other markets, with bearish implications.

    Listen to internet radio with Optimistic Bear on Blog Talk Radio

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • 19 January 2011 This Week on Bear radio: A moment of Minsky
    In this episode Steve Keen shares his knowledge of economics to not only debunk the reverence paid to economists by policy makers but to explain that the titans of the economic theory are misunderstood. Keynes wasn’t the advocate for stimulus spending as many assume and Karl Marx actually had a lot of great insights that are conveniently swept under the carpet. Steve goes on to provide a tutorial on the life and ideas of his hero Hyman Minsky, explaining how this was one of the few who understood the sheer unpredictability that underlies all economics. We also discuss the how there is nothing special about the Australian, Canadian, or Chinese economies other than the fact that they have been able to breathe new life into their economies by blowing bigger bubbles. The end result is inevitable: global deflation.

    You can read about Steve’s book “Debunking Economics” here:

    You can read Steve’s blog posts on economics here:

    Listen to internet radio with Optimistic Bear on Blog Talk Radio

    If you are interested in deflation, check out the Deflation Study Group on LinkedIn (open to all LinkedIn members):

    You can also listen to my in-depth Deflation 101 podcast.

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • 12 January 2011 This Week on Bear radio: Iceland as the model for economic recovery
    In this episode we discuss how Iceland’s decision to simply allow its banks to go bust may have been the wiser choice. Iceland’s economy is now growing again and the economy is re-setting itself. By contrast, nations like Ireland and Greece are taking on even MORE debt (in the form of bail-outs) to prop up their economies yet there is no end in sight to their economic demise. Sometimes it is better to just let the dead wood die and get started with a clean slate. We also discuss how currencies would function in a truly free market and what role, if any, central banks should have in such an environment.

    Listen to internet radio with Optimistic Bear on Blog Talk Radio

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • When facing insolvency banks will always choose to delay and pray
    Not that any more proof were needed, but here is ANOTHER article which points out how US banks are still playing tricks with their financial statements by delaying foreclosures and delaying the need to write down losses.

    The commentator in this article (the estimable Messr Mish Shedlock) rightly points out that "Delays cost banks money and they know it". However, it is ALWAYS preferable to defer a loss until later if the alternative is to go bust today. The fact that a loss delayed may be greater later down the road than if it were addressed today is beside the point. When your only choice is to delay and pray or go bust immediately, the choice is clear.

    If I were the executive at a bank that was facing insolvency if I took the write downs from all delinquent loans, I would ABSOLUTELY decide to delay forcelosure as long as possible, even if I knew the ultimate cost of delay was "higher". At least I can keep collecting a paycheque and bonuses until the bank finally collapses. And who knows, perhaps a miracle will happen and housing will recover making everything peachy again.


    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • This Week on Bear radio: Being rich is a state of mind
    In this episode Robert Gignac offers advice on financial planning. Be careful to choose financial advisors who don’t have an vested interest in selling particular products. It is also important to find advice from people who really explain the various products and options without assuming that consumers understand the different between annuities, dividends or tax-free retirement funds. Robert explores how your goals and state of mind are the key to real happiness. Just having a lot of cash doesn’t inevitably make one happier. We also discuss the differences in health care systems and investment options for Canada and the US, sharing our own experiences with each system.

    You can check out more of Robert’s ideas (and his book) here:

    Listen to internet radio with Optimistic Bear on Blog Talk Radio

    This show is sponsored by:

    NOTE: Remember to tune into the Optimistic Bear weekly financial round-up every Tuesday at 9:00pm, Pacific Time. You can also listen to previous shows.
  • 10 June 2012 Creating a School of Excellence: Admissions vs. Demissions
    An effective student selection process is central to creating a great private school environment, but not sufficient. When the atmosphere or social dynamics of the student body deteriorate, it is easy to point fingers at admissions, blaming them for accepting unqualified students. While admissions can make mistakes, or even take unsuccessful gambles on marginal applicants, it is imperative to have a clear process for identifying students who don’t belong and counseling them out.

    Many schools count exclusively on the admissions filtering to manage the student body, excepting extreme cases like felonies on campus. When, inevitably, a few students prove themselves a nefarious influence on the student body, they must be exit, both to eliminate their influence on others and to set a clear example that such behavior is not tolerated. A school must maintain clear academic and behavioral standards and apply them consistently.

    Parents who send their children to private schools are not only paying for quality academics, but for a filtered environment where their children will be surrounded by quality students. The less effective the filtering, the less value there is in paying a premium over quality public alternatives.

    The same principle applies to faculty. In spite of the fact that many private schools issue annual contracts to their faculty with no extended commitment, they hesitate to ask mediocre faculty not to return. Further, as pay is often based exclusively on a combination of seniority and education levels, there is little built-in incentive for faculty to maintain their vigor after they have established themselves. As long as they perform above the minimum requirements, they can focus their extra energies on their families and personal interests. This creates an environment of mediocrity.

    The pass/fail assessment of faculty is in stark contrast with the graduated grading system used habitually for students. Honors ceremonies unite the entire student body to celebrate the students who make the dean’s list and who achieve great grades, but teachers are usually only celebrated for seniority or external accolades. That sends the signal that teachers are better off conserving their energy in order to last longer and thus move higher up the salary ladder.

    The majority of students and faculty respond positively to effective incentives, raising the standards of the entire school. In a school such incentives, performance would improve such that few students and faculty would need to leave, and they would be motivated to constantly give their full efforts.

    Identifying clear values and expectations and creating consistently enforced incentives to propagate those values among both faculty and students creates an environment of excellence. Quality admissions and hiring solve only part of the problem. Quality on-going incentives within the community keep it vigorous and healthy.
  • 12 February 2012 Taught v. Learned
    Teachers often commiserate with one another over how little of their lessons are actually retained by the students. The standard defense is that the material was taught, but that students are too fickle to remember or at least admit to have remembered it. Teaching cycles often look something like this: assign reading, complete worksheet, discuss in class, distribute study guide, review, test, repeat. Perhaps most perplexing of all is the fact that students often perform well on assessments and then promptly seem to forget what they learned.

    The problem lies partially in our natural tendency to forget some of what we learn, but perhaps more importantly in the difference between teaching and learning. Most lessons are not meaningful to the students, leading them to focus on isolating what they need to memorize to maximize their grade and then moving on. In short, the teachers teach what they think is important for students to know and the students, finding the material largely irrelevant, develop short-term cramming skills to perform well on the predictable assessments and then promptly forget the material.

    As written tests are the most common way of verifying what students learned, teachers can point to strong test results and claim that they successfully taught the material, exonerating themselves from any subsequent student “forgetfulness.” From the student’s perspective, it becomes increasingly tempting to adopt an attitude of cynicism toward the boring, meaningless process. Inasmuch as students find their classes irrelevant, school becomes a mind-numbing process of going through the motions in order to get a grade. Copying worksheet answers, cheating on tests or gaming the system appear increasingly legitimate if the process is pointless to start with.

    Modern teaching techniques, often involving group work, differentiated instruction and technology, attempt to address this divide between teaching and learning by making education more interactive, and thus more engaging. Given that students are bombarded with stimuli from various electronic sources and socializing all day long, the theory is that schools have to compete for their attention by using similar techniques. Unfortunately, such theories reduce students to animals whose attention can only be secured by flashy graphics on screens and social interaction. Intellectual engagement largely ignored, and the academic engagement resulting from these "21st Century Methods" continues to fare poorly against "19th Century Methods."

    Ultimately, successful student engagement involves respecting the students as individuals and as thinkers. It requires the teacher to create an environment where students discover how the world works experientially, and appreciate the relevance of what they are studying. The definition of a master teacher is whether he can create such a learning environment. It can be done with or without modern technology; the more technology is used, the more additional skill the teacher requires to ensure that the technology contributes to rather than distracts from the focus of the learning.

    Evidence of this basic principle is not hard to find. Master teachers like Rafe Esquith manage to effectively and consistently engage large, public school 5th grade classes, despite minimal resources and considerable bureaucratic obstacles. Meanwhile, many private "21st Century" classrooms and schools, boasting small class sizes, minimal bureaucracy, teaching assistants, diversified teaching styles and the latest technology achieve considerably less student engagement and meaningful learning.

    There are some tangible steps which teachers can take to ensure that learning is happening. First, never waste the students' time and intelligence. Start classes on time, dispense with busywork assignments like crossword puzzles and mindless worksheets. Beware of excessive use of workbooks and mindless assignments like coloring maps.

    Second, encourage integration of new concepts into existing knowledge. Start with what students know and create scenarios where students have to discover concepts by actively solving real problems rather than by passively listening to lectures or viewing media. A textbook example of this is Jane Elliott's Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise. It is difficult to imagine a more effective way to teach the concept of racism.

    Third, find innovative assessment methods that allow students to apply their ingenuity and understanding to new problems, without creating the free-rider incentives endemic to most group projects. Factual regurgitation should never be the center of assessment. Instead, have them apply what they learned in meaningful ways, like these simulated WWII letters to investigate the plight of the Japanese both in Japan and in the USA. Beyond assessing understanding, assessments can also help students to develop presentation skills appropriate to their chosen medium. Perhaps the most misunderstood medium is PowerPoint, which few teachers know how to effectively use themselves.

    Finally, listen to the students by checking in regularly, both through formal surveys and informal discussion. Students are usually honest, sometimes to a fault, about how things are going. By including their feedback in the directions of the class, they are respected and validated as individuals. In a balanced class, they inevitably teach the teacher as much as they learn from him.
  • 15 January 2012 Solving Education Locally
    I am a Middle School History teacher of 9 years and still love my profession. When I started teaching, I had a dream of creating the ideal curriculum and then simply propagating it around the world to overhaul education. My first few years teaching were in a private school which tried to do exactly this. Although the educational level was much higher than public schools, I became imminently aware that the core of quality education is not having the best curriculum, but having the best teachers. Curriculum is decidedly easier to replicate than great teachers.

    I still do not understand how any teacher or parent (and I am both) who understands that the most important factor in education is the teacher in the classroom would ever seek centralized solutions, as such solutions can never ensure that each classroom has a great teacher in it who is empowered to make the best decisions for his classroom. Political solutions, by definition, are centralized solutions to a localized problem. It does not matter whether the centralized solutions come from government or teachers unions, they cannot ensure quality in each local classroom.

    The only viable solution, in my opinion, places the control of the classroom firmly in the teacher's hands. It is the New Zealand solution of some years back: localize the funding and the decisions in each school in the hands of the parents/teachers. In other words, the principal and teachers of each school should be solely answerable to the parents of their students, with no tenure.

    This could be achieved through the complete privatization of education, but that would be unpopular. It can also be achieved by school choice whereby each school receives a certain amount per student who attends and then parents can vote with their feet if they are unhappy. Unfortunately, this option is unpopular with teachers, who often don't trust parents to make sound educational choices. From my experience, parents VERY consistently request for their child to be in the classes of the most competent teachers. The other common problem with vouchers and school choice is that the governments start attaching curricular and testing requirements to the funding, invalidating the purpose of local decision-making.

    Politicians will never favor the privatization or localization of education because that would remove it from their influence. They want to find central solutions to all of our problems, whereby they are the heroes who save us and are subsequently rewarded by re-election. Their "solutions" generally involve centralizing decisions even more, which is always detrimental to education.

    I have travelled all over the world observing great teachers, both public and private. In spite of the problems with our current system, I have observed public, inner city, American school teachers like Rafe Esquith, who manage to minimize the negative impacts of standardized testing and poor curricula on their activities in the classroom. His 5th grade students' scores on standardized tests are high because his students are learning what they ought to in his own self-designed curriculum, not because he focuses centrally on testing.

    Finally, I find that the "Finland Phenomenon" is possible in each classroom without fixing the entire educational system. Yes, there are horrible schools where teachers may be restricted from the freedom of achieving this in their classroom, but quality teachers should not stay in such schools. I have decided to create a "Finland Phenomenon" in my classroom and am impressed by how much control I have to independently make a difference and motivate students by creating the right environment.

    Let us lobby for localization of educational decision-making while doing our best to create our ideal learning environment in our own classroom.