Teaching Students Resourcefulness Skills

November 6, 2012

Being resourceful means being able to get the information and results you need.  It takes practice, but is a skill that is of benefit in many areas of life.

Problem Solving Success results from a combination of:

  • Necessity  (This problem has to be solved.)
  • Knowledge (Underlying Principles have to be understood.)
  • Resourcefulness/Creativity  (Open-mindedness and confidence when a solution is not obvious.)
  • Persistence (Relentless effort)

Steps to be  Resourceful:

  • Evaluate a proposal.
  • Realize that mistakes and choosing wrong directions are inherent in the process.
  • Take action.
  • After each attempt, use the experience to pick up a clue from the result, make a change and try again.  Working Questions may help change the perspective and pick up a new lead.  A new lead is crucial; a common frustrating mistake is to just keep trying the same thing again.
  • Repeat.

Working Questions–Put aside the current approach and consider these questions:

  • What requirements are not met by the current proposal?
  • What is your goal?
  • Where is the effort most needed.  Is that where it is being put?
  • What are other perspectives on the problem?
  • What are other ways of thinking about resources?

Forward: What resources are  required and not currently available?

Backward: What can be done differently with the resources available?

  • Who has information to contribute a different skill or perspective?
  • What is one more idea to try?
  • Has a similar problem been solved by someone else or in a different context?
  • How can search engines be used effectively?

The first choice of search terms is often not the most effective.

Use the results of the initial effort to identify more appropriate key words)

Consider searching “images” .  This can be an efficient way to scan information.

Learn and apply advanced search techniques to focus search results.


Comments to the Bard High School Early College Graduating Class, June 2012

August 31, 2012

Congratulations on this milestone.

I have been asked to say a few words with the emphasis on few.  I’ll start with a Zen story.  There are a couple of points to keep in mind when listening to a Zen story.  First, the story is always about you.  This one appears to be about a bird, but see how it resonates in your own life as you hear it.  Even if you have heard it before, the reaction today may be different, because the time and conditions are changed.  Second, the story does not have a traditional ending; rather it is your individual response to it that gives it power.

A bird found himself in a cage.  He did not know how he got there. The cage life was really all he remembered and, as such, it seemed like a normal life for him.

The cage was decent sized and there was enough room to move around comfortably, although not to fly.  He regularly toured the cage, often finding twigs, straw, cloth as well as food and water.  Well, the bird thought, since he was here, he may as well make himself comfortable.  So, he began making a crude nest.  As time went on, he found other things around to make himself a first class home, with plenty of diversions and sufficient food.  Not too bad, he thought.  It might be nice to try out the wings, but then again he was comfortable.

One day, during his regular inspection tour, he was surprised to see that the cage had a door!  The cage had not been changed, the door had always been there; the bird had simply not noticed it before.  The bird was intrigued and inspected it further.  To his astonishment, the latch of the door was not locked.  With one peck on his part, the latch disengaged and the door swung open. He was free to go if he chose.

There were never any constraints, just the lack of recognition of the actual situation.  It only appeared to be a new condition. The bird perched at the threshold of flying into freedom.  The bird could go through the gate into the unknown.  Perhaps he would experience the true freedom of the flight of the bird, or be eaten by a predator.  Another option was to stay inside and maintain his comfortable style.

Life is always bringing new situations that require us to act; it is the nature of life itself.  But how do you choose.  What abilities or insights have to be developed or grown in order to proceed well with our life?  It is true for all of us and it is especially relevant as you leave the school and push off in new directions.

The first is to have eyes that see the truth.  Not physical eyes, but the ability to experience life just as it is.  Not how we want it to be, not how it should be, not how our parents or others told us how it is.  Life just as it is in the moment.  Some people may call it understanding one’s own nature, but that is a different conversation.

Second, feet that can function, that can move or stand still as the appropriate for the situation.  Storms often arise in life.  Think about the summer storms—they come on suddenly and with disrupting power, wreak havoc, and then just as quickly are gone, sometimes they may be emotional or physical, but they come through us with power and perhaps leave a mess to be cleaned up.  Our storms may be emotional or physical, we cannot run from them, but stand firm, weather them out.  Other situations are different.  They require initiative action, a stepping out, if you will, into a new situation, a new set of experiences.  Our feet must have the capability to do both.

Third is the heart of intuitive courage.  The strength to be able to choose to do what is appropriate, once the situation has been recognized.  This is not easy.  Internally, it is often a struggle between the intellect and heart.  On occasion, it requires a decision directly in conflict with the mind or emotions.

Eyes that see the truth, feet that can function, a heart of intuitive courage.  Where do these come from?  The good news is that we already have them. It is our responsibility to develop them, allow them to grow and to express themselves in our own life.  The other news is that no one but ourselves can do this.  There are no teachers or books that can make this happen.  It takes work and effort.  Each individual has their own path for this growth, but there are some guides.

One is to be open to the experiences of the world and what they can show us.  This is especially true in observing nature, which is naturally manifesting these attributes.

Step back from making quick and rash judgments and labels about situations and experiences.   There is something to be learned from penetrating into the nature of experience.  Not learned in an intellectual way, but rather into the core of our being.

Then, there are people who can teach us about the eyes, feet, and heart.  They may not call themselves teachers.  In fact, be wary of those who represent themselves as teachers.  If someone says they have the truth for you, a good response is to head in the opposite direction.  Teacher arise as needed.  Paraphrasing Joshu, the great Zen teacher said:  “If I meet a man of 80 and I can teach him, I will do so;  If I meet a child of 3 who can teach me,  I will learn. “ Take teachers and teaching where you find them.”

The continuing theme from these examples is to be aware and make the effort.  The potential is unlimited so the activity is on-going throughout life.  But the path is your own, and you have to find it for yourself.

And a fair question is what is the effect on your life.  As the spirit opens, actions and responses become more spontaneous, appropriate, and even creative.  This is a natural expression, there is nothing forced or even conscious to do.  Second, some people will respond to you differently, again without any conscious effort.  They will sense some difference and seek out your advice and opinions.  There may be more calmness and life can unfold and manifest in a natural way.

Just as the bird in the original story, you are on the threshold of a new situation. It seems major, but there will be many other and you will have to meet each new one head one.  Let your guide be eyes that see the truth, feet that can function, and a heart of intuitive courage.

It has been a privilege to have taught you and  I wish you all the best going forward.

Working Smart—Strategies for Difficult Exams

January 17, 2008

Most students give away a half a letter grade by not showing all that they know on tests, particularly those requiring problem solving skills.  It’s worth a few minutes to improve the strategy to do well.  Here are some suggestions.

Just pick one or two that is appropriate for you to keep in mind.

Take a deep breath before beginning in order to calm your mind. Racing forward in the first few minutes can lead to careless errors that are difficult to identify and correct.

Preview the test before you answer anything. This gets you thinking about the material. Make sure to note the point value of each question. Quickly estimate how much time you should allow for each section according to the point value. This preview should only take a minute or two.

Read the directions Never assume that you know what the directions say.

Underline with a pencil what you are asked to do. This will force you to focus on the answer.

Keep track of the time and progress during the test.

Answer the easy questions first. This will give you the confidence and momentum to get through the rest of the test. You are sure these answers are correct.

Go back to the difficult questions. While looking over the test and doing the easy questions, your subconscious mind will have been working on the answers to the harder ones. For problems with multiple parts (i.e. a, b,c,d), and use the earlier sections for hints to solve the later parts.

Answer all questions.  

Avoid careless errorsThink before you start writing.  When the writing starts on the wrong track, it is very difficult and time consuming to rethink the problem and start over.

Review the test carefully, especially the easy questions.

Use all of the time allotted for the test.

Show all your work (especially when partial credit is awarded) and write as legibly as possible.

Strategies for working on quantitative problems are outlined in Effective Quantitative Problem Solving Methods

Finding and Hiring a Tutor—Interviewing for Value

December 1, 2006

Private tutoring is an expensive proposition for families. It’s important to select an individual who really brings value to the students. Their experience is fully dependent upon the person hired.

There is plenty of general advice about tutoring on the web. Sooner or later though, there is an interview and a decision to hire a particular person must be made. It’s important to have some ideas of value in tutoring before the selection process.

The points below can provide specific background to improve the chances of hiring an effective tutor.

1. Value Tutoring–Example.

A young woman was doing poorly in an introductory Physics course. She was clearly bright and motivated. She was having difficulty applying the mathematical equations of motion the travel path of a thrown baseball. It was clear, after a short discussion, that she had really understood the use of the mathematical equations, usually the most difficult step.

However, the young woman did not have a clear picture in her mind of a thrown ball traveling through the air. She had not used her own experience to understand the physical situation.Without this information, she could not use the mathematics properly. The instruction emphasized making diagrams of the physical situation to gain this understanding.Once made, it seemed simple and she was able to solve these problems quite readily.After a few sessions, the young woman was on her own doing well. Further, the technique of making the effort to understand the physical situation can be generalized to other subjects

2. Value Goals.

Consider these two objectives in view of the tutor’s approach to teaching.

(i) The goal of one-on-one teaching is to identify the obstacles and provide the tools to allow the student to work at his full potential independently as efficiently as possible.

(ii) Tutoring should be viewed by the student, parent and tutor as a focused short term activity.

3. Skill Levels.

Individuals have different skills. Here is one way to classify them by value.

(i) Minimum Requirements

Objective credentials in the field (formal education, test scores, training for special learning situations, experience

(ii) Value Requirements

Demonstrated perceptive abilities to precisely identify the obstacles to learning. The real value is to diagnose the problem.

The ability to teach specific methods to overcome these obstacles

(iii) High Value Requirements

The problem solving techniques are presented so that the student can gain confidence and expand their use to other subjects

4. Interview by listening for the tutors attitude.

During the interview with the prospective tutor, first confirm that the objective credentials are present. Then look for value:

Does the individual’s instruction method lead to the value goals listed above?

How has the tutor demonstrated the ability to diagnose obstacles?

It is more effective to listen to their conversation to find out if these types of value activities emerge in their own words. An effective way is to just to listen to the way they discuss their work. However, if these questions are asked directly, there will always be a positive answer.

5. Check the references against the high skills criteria.

References are only provided if they are generally positive.

Look beyond the overall results. Specifically ask about the references about the experience with the tutor in diagnosing specific issues. Ask about the length of the teaching and how the stopping point was determined.


In summary, tutoring selection decisions are often made quickly and without a criteria for evaluation of the tutor. Then the instruction activity begins, expenses mount, and performance is what it is. However, with just a little more attention at the beginning, the chances of have a good tutoring experience can be increased.

Getting Off Academic Probation—Looking Further for Success

October 28, 2006

So, the semester is over and a mediocre performance has led to academic probation.

There is plenty of advice and support from the academic counseling centers and the web. The focus is to understand the reasons for the dismal performance, make the adjustments, and do the work. There is often an implicit assumption that success can be achieved within the school programs.

That may not be the case. The individual may be in the wrong situation and headed in the wrong direction. Academic probation is a wake-up call to consider this option along with the academic fixes.

It may be time to move on to a new program, a new institution, or an entirely new path. It’s a big world and it’s shortsighted to limit possibilities to those that are currently known. Such searches may not be easy. One way is to look into for fields that have natural energy for you. The ultimate direction is eventually find areas that there is a natural ability and interest to do well.

A woman, a first semester junior, in an engineering college was not doing particularly well. She claimed interest in engineering, but felt that she was in the field based on advice of others.

During the meeting, she had a brace on her wrist. The woman reported that she took a “spill” while doing competitive figure skating. She became quite animated with her recount of her love of the sport, although she was by no means a champion.

How could a mild interest in engineering ever compete with this type of energy? Perhaps nothing could, but she was encouraged to look into other areas that had at least some of the resonant energy for her that she had experienced in her skating. After some searching, the energy for her was found in psychology. She left the engineering school on her own. The woman became an excellent psychologist rather than a mediocre engineer.

Some of the signs that it’s time to consider a change:

  • The program to get off probation looks like drudgery and not worth the effort.
  • It is a priority to avoid course work.
  • The school is a stage to do lifestyle experiments at other’s expense.
  • The academic program is someone else’s idea of a path to a successful life.

Look for ways to explore for energy:

Beginning at the current school, actively explore for what resonates in you. There are two important considerations:

(i) The process is based on energy and is not an intellectual search based on ideas;

(ii) It is an active process seeking out new fields, not drifting.

For example: Find some people at the school who really enjoy the experience, perhaps faculty or students, and explore it. See if anything in their experience resonates with you. If it does, it’s a clue. If not, just continue the experiment in other areas.

The earlier that the real reason behind mediocre performance is identified, the more options there to make changes and get yourself in a direction to succeed.

There are many great stories about people who radically changed directions after an academic set back and achieved great success. There are only a few about those who settled for mediocrity.


If the s emester is still in progress, check the post:  Academic Survival–The First College Semester



Always looking for a teacher. Sometimes asking for a boss.

September 6, 2006

At the beginning of a new school year, the good teachers of our past often come to mind. There is nothing like being in contact with a master teacher. The mark of master teachers is that they can profoundly affect an aspect of our life that changes the way we experience and live it.

During the formal education years, teachers continually pass in front of us. Sometimes we choose them, but, as often as not, they appear in courses or classes that are required. A few influential ones emerge. In some cases, they made the content come alive in a vibrant way. At other times, the content is long forgotten, but their energy, personal attention, or insights remain alive for years.

Imagine the value of having teachers like that throughout a lifetime.

Master teachers do not disappear when school is complete and the career begins. The difference is that it takes an active interest in identifying the areas of personal interest, finding such people, and getting into a position to be influenced. Over a period of years, personal and professional capabilities can grow in unexpected ways from working with a series of well-chosen teachers.

These influential people generally are not advertising themselves. Often, they are just going about their business in their own unique way and are open and available to those who have an interest in what they do. Their competence is not defined by such descriptions as job title, faculty member, mentor, role model, minister, social worker etc. Professionals with such titles provide information and guidance in respective fields, but are not de facto teachers. You don’t have to ask about a master teacher, you know it when you see it. It is an individual perception, depending upon time and conditions. However, recognition is only the first step. The decision and action to seek them out and learn from them, either formally or informally, is the next.

The special case of a teacher at work

Early in one’s career, it is essential that an individual demonstrate skills and the ability to get things done. If a person recognizes the need to develop these to a higher level, the most efficient way is to learn from other’s experience, such as a direct supervisor or a close co-worker.

The ideal situation is to select a great teacher and be paid for being instructed by that person. Who could ask for more? Realistically, the opportunity does not happen often. On occasion, however, the stars line up. There is a possibility to work with a person who has the ability, perspective, and interest to stretch those who work around them in a way that increases their abilities. It is an opportunity to seize.

Ask–When a young employee has a career development discussion, the subjects are invariably project assignments, opportunities, promotions, increased responsibility, and salary. These topics are appropriate, but do not exhaust the possibilities. If there is an opportunity to work with someone who can function as a teacher, make that request directly. Since these requests are relatively unusual, they are often accommodated, even when it is not the “logical” choice.

It may be a great investment and is a small risk to make for an encounter with a teacher.

Getting Ideas into the Discussion

September 3, 2006

It seems that many discussions, either at business meetings or in the classroom, are dominated by a few people. Their thoughts and ideas are not any better, but the others have a difficult time getting in. As a result, the discussion lacks the full range of available information. The quiet ones are very aware of the fact that they have relevant points, often different than those on the table, but the conversation goes round and round without them. As time passes, the threshold for entry appears to become higher. Contributions become more difficult to make. Often, people find themselves holding on to an idea until the moment is appropriate. Then the topic shifts, the point is obsolete, and the process begins again. The longer the discussion goes, the more unpleasant and frustrating it becomes.

It would be helpful if either there was a facilitator to engage everyone or that the participants would make space for each other, but usually these aids are not available. People have to make their own space and then use it. However, there are three tips from a college teacher that people can use to lower the entry barrier for themselves:

Get in early.

Get in cheap.

Do a little advance preparation.

Get in early.

Make a comment early in the discussion. That gets the ball rolling. The laws of physics are very clear about this: It is far easier to keep a ball in rolling than it is to get it started. Similarly, it is easier to comment a second or third time than the first. The early part of the discussion is often perfunctory, so it is a good time to make the first entry. Take advantage of the lower barrier.

Get in cheap.

The quiet ones often have a higher quality standard for their contributions than the others. That type of standard becomes restrictive. It is more important to get in and be a participant than to lay back and hope to contribute the winning approach or a unique point in a single contribution. That home run scenario is the stuff of daydreams and rarely happens at a meeting. A better strategy is to first get in at any level and then allow the quality of the ideas to surface.

Do a little advance preparation.

Have a few questions or points ready from the assigned reading or other background. Write them down and take them into the meeting. These points can be a grounding reference to make a contribution to get the ball rolling. This approach is particularly helpful for those who arrive at these discussions and find their minds go blank and they literally “have nothing to say”.

Ideas can only be used if they are on the table and evaluated.
These approaches can help all be full participants.