Finding What Matters… time to check for true north

compassI have a lot to say. You wouldn’t know it from the time between posts, but I do.  I even made a list and discussed with a good friend which one I should post first.  But still I postponed it.  I’m not usually a procrastinator. There were just too many ideas that, although related, didn’t seem to share a common focus.  If the jumble of ideas left me confused, it was unlikely that readers would be able to sense any unifying elements.

And then I encountered a timely essay, penned by Jon Kabat-Zinn entitled “The Total Incompatibility of Mindfulness and Busyness”. One of his highlighted quotes spoke directly to me.

When we set things up to make any balance in our lives a virtual impossibility, we are evincing disloyalty to what we value most.

On the same day I received a notice from the Modern Learners Team asking us to react to op ed written by Peter DeWitt that appeared recently in EdWeek. In his piece DeWitt suggested “12 Areas School Leaders Should Focus On in 2019”.  Only 12? Talk about the impossibility of finding balance!

I smiled a bit at my contrasting images.  On the one hand, there was Peter DeWitt juggling 12 balls, each labeled with a different area demanding his attention.  On the other, there was the image of Jon sitting cross-legged in a serene yoga pose engaged in the practice of quiet mindfulness.  In my imagination, I was right there with Peter juggling a list of 12 competing themes for my next blog piece, looking longingly at Jon peacefully reflecting on ways he could simplify his life and reject self-imposed busyness.

And then came Oprah to the rescue.  Yup, Oprah.

Actually Oprah didn’t make a personal appearance, rather she showed up at the request of my wife’s suggestion (!) that I read the transcript of Oprah’s interview with Michelle Obama. The interview was scheduled to help promote the release of the First Lady’s memoir, Becoming.

Oprah had me at the first question, Why Becoming?. Michelle had me with her answer…

A question that adults ask kids – I think it’s the worst question in the world – is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As if growing up is finite. As if you become something and that’s all there is.

I realized that all of the items on my topic list dealt in some way with becoming… becoming who we want to be, becoming what our schools might be, becoming what learning is all about, helping our kids become more than a test score, and helping our kids learn how to be in the world they are experiencing.

If you’re reading this and working in schools, regardless of position you can identify with the image of juggling too many balls.  These balls may be in the form of new or revised standards, new safety/security protocols, new professional evaluation systems, new or increasing focus on “personalized Learning”, new graduation requirements, etc. Hardly a climate suited to peaceful reflection and cross legged yoga positions.  And, by the way, it’s no different for kids.

You might recall my previous reference to a film entitled Eighth Grade.  In that film the young girl who is the focus of the film discusses that each day she is faced with deciding who to be. Who to be with her friends during school? After school? Who to be with her dad while she rides with him in the car? Who to be on social media?  She goes to bed late. Gets up early. Decides what to wear.  Wonders if she’ll see her friends? If they’ll still be her friends? She goes to soccer, participates in drama, has part-time job.  12 balls in the air seems like a piece of cake.

How do we escape the seemingly endless demand to juggle too many “have to’s” or “shoulds”? Years ago, I happened on a book edited by Art Costa, James A. Bellanca, Robin Fogarty. It was entitled, If Minds Matterand posed the question, “If minds really mattered, would school look like it does?”  Would we group kids by age? Would they all have to read by the end of third grade? Would we still focus so much on compliance and efficiency? Would we continue to organize high school content according to the thinking of the Committee of Ten in 1892? (Yes, we still do.) Would we continue to place most of our emphasis on learning that occurs within the walls of a school building?

So, as adults, let’s forget the 12 balls for a bit. Let’s forget the constant introduction of new initiatives, the pressure imposed primarily by the focus on the needs of adults.  Let’s just answer one question?  What matters?  What matters to you? How do we help kids learn/decide what matters?

What would happen if we created space where answering this question was the thing that mattered? For us? For kids?  What would the design of learning look like if it were based solely on the answer to ‘what matters’?  What would your answer to this question be?  What if Aldrich is right and the only thing that matters for our kids is that they learn how to learn, learn how to do, and learn how to be? What if you took 15 minutes or so and just wrote down what matters to you as an educator? What if you then looked at what you (or your school) is doing to make your “what matters” a reality?

The Things They Carried

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I was talking to a friend recently about the process of change in schools and all of the factors that seem lined up to protect the status quo.  In reflecting on the conversation, I was reminded of one of my favorite books from long ago, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. In his book, O’Brien sought to make a point about the terrible costs of war. Using the Vietnamese War as his backdrop, he tells the story about the things that he and his fellow soldiers carried with them. These were not just physical things. Those were small things, easy to carry. Not so easy to carry were the emotional things, things that weren’t so easy to discard.

I begin each piece I write with a hope.  In this case, my hope is that the story I’ll share will open us to the possibility that it’s not the physical things like favored room assignments, favorite lesson plans, predictable schedules that make change in schools so hard. Sure adapting to these is not easy. But often it’s the emotional burdens that challenge us more.  I started to think about the sources of such emotional baggage. Some were obvious but I also recalled something that was equally important, precisely because it represented any number of things that affect our willingness to take risks and accept challenges. It was something that I recalled from my time as superintendent. Since I’ve been preoccupied recently with the concept of stories, I’m going to share one with you to illustrate my observation.

This will be a two chapter story.  Don’t leave yet. They’ll be short chapters, filled with drama, suspense and a happy ending. OK, enough suspense, it’s about contract negotiations. Still here?

Why in God’s name would I share a story about contract negotiations?  Because while almost all contract negotiations end in an agreement, they invariably leave us with emotional scars… things that Tim O’Brien calls emotional burdens.  Things we carry with us and that affect our openness to change.  Here we go…

Setting the Stage – Chapter 1

In case it’s been a while since you’ve been involved in the process, here’s a quick synopsis of how most negotiations proceedings work. There are two sides. Each prepares a list of “gets” or “won’t give’s” and the fun starts.  Most states that have legislation permitting collective bargaining stipulate that areas for negotiations are limited to “terms and conditions of employment”. These typically focus on work hours, compensation (in the form of salary and health benefits), and responsibilities. These topics are not surprising as most model contracts for “labor” came directly from the experiences of organized labor unions.  Remaining true to the tradition, boards of education are described as management, setting the stage for repeating the adversarial process which had characterized the relationships in the labor movement.

Enter stage left… the writing and thinking of Dan Pink who has achieved international acclaim for his work on motivation. In case you’ve missed it, here’s a link to the animated version  of Pink’s viral TED Talk.

Pink’s extensive research revealed that there are very different motivational factors at work depending on the type of work you do.  If you’re engaged in assembly line /production work, monetary incentives can improve performance. But in “thinking” kind of work, financial incentives actually reduce both performance and engagement.  Here’s what Pink’s research revealed. What matters most to workers in “thinking” jobs? Three things: clarity of purpose, autonomy (freedom to focus on what works), and the chance to get better at what you do.

While many of the architects of the “school reform” movement might think of teaching as production/assembly line work (explaining their love affair with performance incentives and punishments), most of can make a pretty convincing case for teaching as “thinking work”. So let’s circle back to the contract negotiations process and its impact on embracing change.

Here’s where the story gets personal – Chapter 2

From my very first teaching job, I’ve been involved in contract negotiations.  I have served as an organizer of the first “association” at a private high school for boys, the president and chief negotiator for the teachers’ (and later supervisors’) association and the chief negotiator for the board of education while I was a superintendent. What I’m going to describe comes both from what I experienced and what I’ve observed.

For the record, the process used and promoted by both the state teachers’ organizations and the organization representing boards of education is referred to as “positional” bargaining.  As I described briefly earlier, each side identifies positions of importance and proceeds to attempt to persuade the opposing side of the wisdom and fairness of their position, while simultaneously offering reasons why the positions of the “opponent” are unreasonable, unfair, unwise, etc.

Not infrequently the words used to “win” arguments are strong, often insulting, and grow in intensity as they are reported to those not directly involved in the process. In my own case and prior to my arrival as superintendent, negotiations in the district had resulted in protracted, contentious discussions, teacher pickets and demonstrations, as well as vilification of each side within the community.

This was not the time for a new superintendent to ask people to “go the extra mile” in support of program changes.  A culture that I had witnessed any number of times while negotiating as a teacher now had new meaning for me.  All parties in the process were “carrying things in their pocket”.  Kid performance stagnated, budgets failed.  It was not the time to suggest change.

Neither side liked the picture painted of them by the community.  It had become clear that using the same approach guaranteed a future that “didn’t work”. Some research revealed that there was an alternative to the positional bargaining that had resulted in this culture of separation and alienation.  It was a new concept in collective bargaining known at the time as win/win bargaining, more commonly referred to now as “interest-based” or “integrated” bargaining.   It was a process which relied on the identification of common interests and the ways in which these could be advanced via collaboration rather than argumentation. It worked. (At the end of this piece I’ll list some of the areas that were included in the contract for the first time in the district and, in one instance for the first time in the state.)  It worked because the process was designed from the outset not to focus on winning but on the identification of interests and the transparent efforts to acknowledge and find commonality within them.  This was accomplished by organizing the meetings as collaborative working sessions, by acknowledging the identified interests, by focusing on the commonality found in these interests, by working in teams comprised of folks from each “side” to find solutions which honored these interests, and by having the teams present their “solution” to the entire group for approval or revision.

The big idea…

This process and this story extend far beyond the impact of the periodic need to negotiate. They extend to the recognition and elimination of the policies, practices, and procedures which cause separation, alienation, and emotional burdens both for our colleagues and for our students – i.e., they extend to the creation of processes that aim for, and result in, connectedness rather than separation.  This process and others like it provide a direction for how honest efforts to recognize, identify and respond to the emotional burdens we inadvertently create can reverse the fear of change and increase the engagement in the change process.   In the event that anyone involved in this process is reading this blog, thank you for the courage that allowed us to acknowledge the collective hurt we carried with us and for the trust that enabled us to move beyond it.

 Addendum – Agreement high pointsWhile the items listed here reflect the context at the time this process occurred, the process and impact on culture remain timeless.

Summary of Interests:  interests identified and defined in the initial phase of the process – completed in large group setting with facilitator assistance.

Board of Education Interests

  • Change from the image of being the “bad guys”
  • Commit to and be recognized for attempts to be good stewards of the community’s tax dollars
  • Improve student academic performance
  • Improve the quality of teaching/instruction
  • Deal more effectively with poor performing teachers

Teachers’ Association Interests

  • Be recognized for their efforts
  • Receive and maintain compensation that is commensurate with similarly structured districts
  • Improve student academic performance
  • Create a more positive public perception of the district
  • Move away from the district’s history of implementing short term “fixes” to problems associated with poor student performance

 Contractual Agreements – Highlights of the main points included in the multi-year agreement forged via the Interest-based process.

 Revised teacher evaluation and support system

Teacher support systems based on need – i.e., more extensive support for new teachers (years 1-3 and beyond if warranted) including more frequent observations, peer observations; targeted support and support plans for teachers identified as in need of support with this designation resulting from self-identification, administrative identification, parental identification; less frequent observations for teachers recognized as “expert” (with mutually developed definition) as a means of gaining time to provide additional support for new teachers.  Teachers identified as needing support were to be assigned a support team consisting of building administrator, an “expert” teacher of the teacher’s choosing, an association representative, and expert teacher of the superintendent’s choosing (optional)…included was the development of a support plan and responses based on progress toward meeting the goals of the plan.  During the life of this agreement teachers assigned to this support response achieved the plan goals with one exception… based on mutual agreement that teacher left the district.

Teacher run professional development academy

Startup fund provided to begin the academy. Teachers selected by peers subject to superintendent’s input (but not approval). Course offered for credit would be eligible for movement on salary guide but not transferrable to other districts. Instructors selected from teaching staff and/or outside resources. Instructor to receive credits on salary guide in lieu of payment.  Outside instructors paid through tuition charges.

Performance based compensation plan beyond the base salary agreement

Performance target area determined jointly by board of education, administrative team and teacher workgroup.  Plan included the development of performance goals, professional support required, and use of locally developed performance assessments.  Award of performance bonus based in grade level growth from initial baseline assessment (Sept) to third administration (May). Initial target areas was math and included targeted professional development designed to improve math instruction and student performance.

Reimagining, not reforming. Are we saddened and embarrassed enough to do something?

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The recent events in our nation have occupied most of my intellectual and emotional energy. Mired in attempts to find sense in the senseless, I simply had nothing that seemed worth sharing.  Added to this, I felt constrained by advice I frequently heard a kid as (and apparently internalized)… “Never talk about religion or politics” if you want maintain relationships.

Watching our national “dialog” spiral downwards, I began to recognize that as really bad advice. I began to realize that it is precisely our inability to discuss such emotion-laden topics from a perspective of understanding rather than one of winning that is causal in our current disconnected and increasingly tribal response to “the other”.  And perhaps more importantly, it is precisely we as educators who have the opportunity to turn this around.  Certainly not by ourselves and certainly not overnight, but we have the opportunity.  I believe we also have the responsibility.

But I was struggling to express this. And then I received a posting of a piece piece on the Modern Learners site entitled “Designing for Learning” that broke the logjam.  It’s a fascinating piece about the implications of design thinking and references an even more fascinating video clip about schooling.  I urge you to read the post and to take time to view the clip.  I’ll buy you a beer if you think it was a waste of your time.

Design Thinking… What Is It?

The concept of Design Thinking has achieved educational jargon status.  Google reports that a search on the term “design thinking” yielded about 1,350,000,000 results.  Here’s a definition from Interaction Design. Interaction-Design 

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods.

What stands out to you in this definition? For me, key terms here are seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and alternative strategies.  Hence, in exploring the notion of ‘designing for learning’, key pieces would be

  • understanding the learner,
  • challenging assumptions about schooling and learning, and
  • exploring alternative strategiesfor where and how learning can occur.

So what would this look like? 

First of all, it would look different. I want to tackle just a couple of differences here.They’re big and scary.

As I have shared here in previous posts and as is reported in numerous studies, the design of our schools and the schooling process is inconsistent with what we know about user learning.  In Will’s post, he notes

If we were really intent on improving learning inside the school walls, we would pay a lot more attention to how learning happens outside the school walls in the natural world and then build our practice based on that. So, at the risk of being repetitive, we know that outside of school kids learn with other kids and adults of all different ages. We know that they don’t learn in 45-minute chunks. We know that learning occurs without any contrived tests.

But what would happen if we didn’t think of schools as the point of delivery for learning?  Why, when we consider looking at how kids (and adults) learn in the world outside of school, would we not feel the need to change schools to reflect this?  Why wouldn’t we re-design schools into places where “real world” learning could be coordinated rather than delivered?  Why wouldn’t we promote the conversion of schools to centers for community learning?… places where learning could be supported, not controlled… places where resources for learning, both human and material, could be housed to supplement those found outside/beyond the walls of the school?

I know all of the practical, adult centered, logistical reasons why this can’t happen (OMG, what about the child care, custodial function, what would I do with 50 “You Tubers”? What if they didn’t want to learn Algebra?, etc. ). I see such thinking as simply an extension of a system that supports chunking learning into 45 minutes segments for the sake of efficiency and adult convenience.

Just as the Industrial Revolution spawned the creation of schools (and schooling as we have experienced it), is it not possible for the Technological Revolution to redefine that model to reflect not only the availability of learning resources and learning experiences, but also the places in which learning can take place and be recognized?

We have the beginnings of such user-designed places in urban community schools… places where the intellectual, social-emotional, and health needs of the learners can be coordinated and extended. Why not elsewhere?  If we are going to “design for learning” why would we continue to use an industrial model for the spaces and ways in which learning can take place?

And speaking of learning… Learn what?

Will continues his piece with the question about what our kids should learn, “What Do We Want Our Children to Be?”  What would happen if we asked the question “HOW would we like our kids to be?” instead of “WHAT would we like them to be?” I suspect that, from the extended description in the piece, the intent may well have been to mean “how” while using the term “what”; however, I think that precision in language is critical to help us avoid multiple definitions and multiple directions/solutions.

Remember back at the beginning I shared that one of the lessons learned in our previous story was to avoid topics of politics and religion.  This advice was based on experiences where such discussions went poorly.  So avoiding them became to be the favored response.  But there was and is another response… a response that forges connections rather than separation.

It’s empathy.

Empathy is the path beyond separation and is directly related to my reasoning for suggesting a focus on how we want our kids to be, rather than what they should be.  Does anyone else notice that we, uniquely, among rich, industrialized countries, have embraced a language of violence?  We fight “wars” on drugs, “wars” on illiteracy, “wars” on poverty and tragically ironically, “wars” on violence.  We define money raised by politicians for their campaign a “war chest”. We see such words as “American” as proud, strong, powerful and words such as “empathy” as soft, weak, and, in a patriarchal society, an even worse adjective… “feminine”.

It appears that suggesting how they should be as empathetic is seen by many as a rejection of the American story of competition, toughness, and hard work. There is a growing sense that this story should be rejected.  The acceptance of that story has created a culture of needing more, and needing more too frequently comes at the expense of others.  It creates and reinforces a sense of scarcity… a sense that whatever someone else gets is reducing what’s available for me. It results is sum-zero thinking.  I must win.  A natural consequence of winners is the reciprocal, losers. We have become a win-lose culture, not only in the acquisition of material wealth but also in the course discussion.  Prized are the winners, losers not so much.

We cannot continue to avoid the topics which divide us.  We cannot continue to “discuss” such issues while focusing more on winning the “debate” than on understanding what it is like to be the other person and how being that person has led them to conclusions/beliefs that differ from our own.

How does this change?  It changes with us as educators, as school leaders, as teachers, as members of our education community.  It changes with parents.  It changes with a generation of young people we are charged with preparing for what appears to be an increasingly precarious time. It changes by helping our kids encounter the world around them as it really exists, not as it exists inside the walls of a school building, not as it exists in programs that were designed for another time and a very different set of needs, not in programs designed by large publishing houses seeking their share of a lucrative education market place.  It changes with creating the habit of civil, empathetic discourse and discussion.  It continues with the creation and nurturing of a culture that rejects violence as the response to differences in thinking. It changes with the rejection of demonizing and vilifying those whose skin color or beliefs differ from our own.  It begins with a discussion that illuminates how empathy can be intentionally nurtured and developed in young people as a part of learning how to be. It doesn’t change by doing more of the same.

As always, be well.

A Digression

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Far Side Gallery – Gary Larson

Hi all,

I’m sending you a link link to something written by a blogger that I’ve been following for a while now. You might ask “why me?” While this guy is very edgy and will scare any number of people with his references to predatory capitalism and social democracy, he represents “another brick in the wall” of thinking that has occupied me for a while now. I offer this in response to an experience that I suspect is becoming increasingly common for many of us…  Conversations that center around the question… what the f*** is going on?

To save you some work, the author is a fairly well-known speaker (on a top 50 list of international keynoters), has a background in finance and business organization, has written for the Harvard Business Review, and has been offering his thinking on the downward spiral of the US for some time now.  Unless all of this research is based on false internet info, he’s got some street cred.

So what’s this about?

As noted above, with increasing frequency, I find myself involved in conversations in which people describe a growing sense of foreboding and concern about the direction of our society.  Some of these are school related discussions but, most are focused on a bigger picture – the erosion of civility, values, norms, etc., many of which we had taken for granted as a part of American exceptionalism.  I’ve recently had several, seemingly unrelated experiences which have been gradually “coming together”.  Reading Haque’s writings on his site Eudaimonia (see link above) has been one such experience.

Also, as some of you know, I recently attended a “gathering” of folks to interact with Charles Eisenstein.  Charles achieved a certain amount of notoriety after appearing on the Oprah Sunday morning show, following the viral response to his essay, “The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story” which he wrote on the eve of the presidential election in 2016 and for his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. Charles speaks about the ending of a story here in the US and the problems associated with living in what he terms, “The Age of Separation”… an age in which we are separate from other people, separate from our institutions, and separate from our planet.  This separation has been described by others as a descent into fragmentation, tribalism and polarization. In a soul-touching series of conversations, exchanges, and reflections, Charles shared during the gathering his thinking about living as “interbeings” – people living between stories. He suggested that the path to the  new story described in his book, lies with the cultivation of empathy… a topic in itself.

 Why Haque and Eisenstein? They seem like strange bedfellows.

Haque and Eisentein represent a growing body of thought that maintains that the direction of the US is not sustainable… that even superficial reviews of world history point to a repetition of paths that have led previous world powers to authoritarianism, to fascism, to ruin. I’ve shared the linked piece here because I saw in it a pattern that affirms what Haque is seeking to illuminate and which seems to demand a more active response. Here’s a quick look at the pattern he describes…

Listen. I get it. We’re all frustrated. Maybe we even feel powerless and weary. The system has failed us… Now, frustration makes us foolish. We lose our reason, our intellect. Our grasp on history slips and our respect for knowledge and wisdom erodes. Virtue becomes just that much harder to hold onto. We seek comforting lies to mollify us instead of difficult truths which enlighten us.

The pattern he describes and expands upon has both historical and individual applications.  He describes a process that is characterized by descent into frustration, finding/identifying scapegoats, demonizing those identified as “causes” for our frustration, acceptance of increasingly violent solutions to protect what we have and to gather more of what we perceive as “rightfully” ours.

Here’s what I saw as I read this essay.  I saw the patterns of our responses to the Irish, to the Italians, to blacks and I saw/see what appears to be predictable responses by these identified “others” to such treatment which tend to reinforce the beliefs and actions of the oppressors.  More importantly, I saw the need to share the exposure to people who both identify with this description of our direction/place and who might offer thoughts about possible responses.

Thoughts?

Be well.

The Space Between Stories

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Gary Larson – Far Side Gallery 1984

Hi all,

Note: This began as a note to the folks at Modern Learners explaining my lack of presence on our video calls during the past several weeks. It grew! It became a reflection of some big picture issues that I’ve connected to some fascinating experiences I’ve been able to enjoy during the past two month. I’ve included the first paragraph in this piece because I’ll still be sharing it with them.

I wanted to check in and affirm that I haven’t dropped out of the group. Over the course of the past several months, I’ve had the good fortune to be engaged in a number of thought provoking events, not the least of which has been my interactions with the Modern Learners Community. In addition to ongoing reflections connected with the readings, conversations and exchanges that you have made available, the universe appears to have offered me a number of additional challenging and thought provoking experiences.

The first of these was a weekend “gathering” of approximately 200 people who came together to spend time with Charles Eisenstein whose writings and reflection struck a very responsive chord in me. His descriptions of the death of an old story and of our current time as an “Age of Separation” have become a kind of introduction to a body of thinking that has been poking at the edges of my mind for some time.

Charles speaks of the interconnectedness of things and our need for the recognition of this reality. His description of our age as a time of separation from individuals, separation from our institutions, and separation from our planet gave voice to concerns that simmered within me without a name or framework. It has also awakened me to see the increasing number of articles which, although sometimes using different vocabulary, seek to call attention to society of increasing fragmentation, tribalism, and isolation.

Charles speaks of the need to consider a different approach to the change process… an approach which moves away from the exhortation to adopt specific changes to the work of creating spaces where change can occur… not specifically the changes that I would “suggest” but those which come from the hearts of those freed by the opportunity. This spoke powerfully to me as I could easily recall a list as long as my arm of change initiatives which someone thought would be good, which were more or less mandated, and which faded quickly when replaced by the next “good” initiative.

But Charles wasn’t done with me. He offered a path to interconnectedness. He offered the path of empathy. The path of asking, in the face of opposition, “What must it be like to be that other person?” What has their life been like/what is their life like that has brought them to resist what I find so right?

He is best known for his book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible and for his appearance on Oprah after his publication in 2016 of an essay entitled “The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story”. His most recent work, Climate, A New Story, is now available.

Not too long (less than a month) after my experience with Charles, I ventured once again to the Hudson Valley for another program… this one a retreat facilitated by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his son, Will. This was a 5-day program in Mindfulness entitled, “The Way to Awareness”.  Kabat-Zinn  is widely recognized as a world leader in the development of mindfulness practices. This was a gift from my wife (which I suspected might have been a thinly veiled suggestion about my somewhat intense focus on fixing the nation’s schools). This program, too, had attracted about 200 or so participants who all seemed to have much clearer senses of purpose for attending than I.

When asked to reflect on our/my purpose for attending I reflected on the impact of a little book given to me by my good friend, Tom Welch. The book written by Clark Aldrich is entitled, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About School and Rediscover Education. In it Aldrich posits that there are really only three types of learning that are critical for our children: learning to learn, learning to do, and learning to be. In visiting, assessing and supporting schools throughout the country for more than 10 years I saw that the third “learning” (learning to be) was largely absent or, at best, only unintentionally developed. I realized that part of my rationale for attending was to see whether or not mindfulness had a place as a way of helping our kids learn how “to be”. As I reflected on this during the next meditation session, I realized that I, too, was struggling with how to be…how to be in a world in which elected leaders seem determined to reject all of the values that I had grown up taking for granted.

Perhaps the most lasting impact of the retreat, though, was the realization that here, just like at “the gathering” with Charles Eisenstein, was a group of people searching for a response to the end of a story. Whether it was Charles offering a vision of a world of interconnectedness… interconnectedness with people and the living world around us… or Kabat-Zinn offering a practice of increased awareness of our actions and their impact, there was a powerful sense of “not aloneness”. It is this “not aloneness” that may be the greatest gift of the Modern Learners Community and others whose work seeks to dismantle separateness and offer connectedness as a better way.

Finally, and from deep in left field, I discovered via Medium, Umair Haque. Haque is listed among the world’s foremost keynote speakers, has written extensively for the Harvard Business Review and has authored a number of books. His primary field of focus has been economics, society, and human development. His essays, both current and archived, are published through Eudaimonia and Co.  His book, Betterness, Economics for Humans, suggests that much like education, we are struggling to unlearn a paradigm that no longer serves us.

And here is the intersection. In describing the business paradigm, Haque unintentionally offers a description of the education paradigm that continues to govern (and limit) the possible. He writes:

“So little have the components of this paradigm changed over the decades, that most of us see them not just external fixtures of the landscape, but as the landscape.”

Assume for a moment that Eisenstein’s concepts of ending stories, an age of separation, interconnectedness, empathy, and the creation of space for change are right-headed. That Kabat-Zinn’s connection of mindfulness practices and the power of collective consciousness leads to increasing awareness of our thoughts and motivations. And that Haque’s thinking about moving beyond outdated (and counterproductive) paradigms is right on. How does the intersection of these thoughts from the world beyond the walls of the school impact what we do for kids?

The old story of education is dead. The old formula of work hard, do well in school, get good grades, score high on the SAT’s/ACT’s, get into a good college, graduate and get a good paying job ensuring a secure future may work for the sons and daughters of the wealthy, but for the majority of working class Americans, it’s dead! We are in a time between stories. We are in a time of writing new stories.

Your Turn…

While it may be beyond our pay grade to write new stories for the economy, for health care, for tax reform, etc., it is we as educators, whether we are school leaders or classroom teachers or district administrators, to create the emotional spaces in our buildings, classrooms, and districts where new stories of learning can be written. Taking a page from Jon Kabat-Zinn, how aware are you of your thoughts about creating safe spaces for change, for new stories? Of your own role in creating such spaces?

Be well.

Five Reasons Why NJ Will Once Again Fail to Resolve the Testing Issue

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Gary Larson  – Far Side Gallery 4

NOTE:  I recently responded to articles in our local press.  The articles dealt with the seemingly endless debate here in NJ about the use of PARCC as both a graduation hurdle and a tool for teacher evaluation.  As I developed my response, it became increasingly clear that the issue was much larger than ‘to PARCC’ or ‘not to PARCC’. So, while this piece focuses on testing, the reasons that I’ve shared here suggest why, at least in part, we fail to effectively address the entire process of school reform.

Recent articles in New Jersey Spotlight and an editorial in NJ.com (“On PARCC, Murphy is failing the neediest kids”) continue the discussions concerning the New Jersey administration of the PARCC high stakes assessment for New Jersey children. Once again we are offered the opportunity to reflect on why such discussions inevitably fail to resolve anything of significance.  Make no mistake, however, these, too, will fail to resolve the issues involved in our continued attempts to do the wrong thing better.  Here are five reasons why this will happen.

  1. We don’t know what we believe. Or who to believe.

We live in a time of changing “stories”… a time when many of the stories with which we were raised no longer seem to apply.  In education one of these stories goes something like this… Go to school.  Study hard. Get good grades. Go to college.  Get a good job.  Have a secure future.  Ask a parent of a young college graduate with a $100,000 or more in debt and no job in their field of study if that story is working for them. For an increasing number it is not.  But the story persists.

We are between beliefs in our understanding of school and learning.  We’ve had decades of reform following Sputnik and A Nation At Risk.  The story was that better, more rigorous standards and equally challenging assessments would “solve the problem” of “underachievement”.  But what do we do when our belief in such strategies is shaken by disappointing results, relatively flat academic performance, significant increases in costs, and continued gaps in achievement? Do we revisit our beliefs to see if we’re headed in the right direction? No. We hang on to old beliefs and we get trapped in what Peter Drucker and Russell Ackoff call the confusion of trying to do the wrong things right versus doing the right thing.

The path to the right thing begins with learning and

  1. We refuse to learn.

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.” – Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy

We remain committed to hurling beliefs at one another as if they increase in validity the louder we shout them. There are 50 states that have a mandate to evaluate their students.  There are now 2 that remain committed to the use of PARCC.  Why is that so? How do we discern this?  Not by continuing to provide forums for folks who have refined their talking points more than their listening skills.

How can we grow in McLuhan’s “insight and understanding”?  Maybe those charged with making decisions about the ways in which testing can/should inform and improve student learning might begin to learn more about testing and focus less on winning the testing debate.

For a place to begin this process, Daniel Koretz, a testing proponent and Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at Harvard University offers a highly readable and informative work, The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better..

  1. But we’re more committed to solving proxy problems than to thorough problem analysis.

We, as a society, have grown to expect and demand quick solutions.  We have no patience for the time it takes to analyze a situation thoroughly to find deep/root causes.  We place great value in leaders who propose quick, aggressive solutions.  When such solutions inevitably fail, we focus on the assignment of blame, refusing to revisit the wisdom of the original solution or the accuracy of the original problem definition.

The current iteration of the testing debate will fail because we continue to have no idea or willingness to confront what all previous large scale assessments have revealed to us in large font… such assessments reflect the socio-economic status of the test taker far more accurately than the quality of instruction or the innate ability of the test–takers.  But poverty and racial divides are too big and too inconvenient to deal with.  Better to throw multi-million dollar testing solutions at the wall with little or no understanding of the folly of expecting all kids to reach identified levels of proficiency simply because they have lived the same number of years as their peers.

  1. Because sensible argument cannot compete with good theater.

“There are some stupid mistakes that only very smart people make, and one of them is the notion that a sensible argument seriously presented can compete with a really good piece of theater” — Laurie Penny in Longreads, Sept 2018

A quick review of the research on confirmation bias will reveal what we all know to be true.  We exist primarily in the echo chambers of our beliefs and these beliefs are less susceptible to alteration than we might like to admit. Regardless of our feelings about the direction of the current administration in Washington, it should be clear to most of us at this point that our (to us at least) logical arguments in support or opposition go largely unheard by those who hold the opposite positions.  Over time the talking points get more sophisticated and often better reasoned, all with limited impact.  Theater may not be in the form of high-energy protests or rallies.  Theater may be the convening of yet another group of “experts” or interest group representatives whose qualifications may reflect shared ignorance as much as shared knowledge.

  1. And we don’t want to

Perhaps the most important reason for the predictable failure of attempts to resolve the issue of large-scale assessment, its promises, its shortcomings, and its impact on learning is that the various participants see this as a win/lose contest.  Winning is critical… critical for the support base, critical for the political gain/damage, critical for testing companies, etc.  Interestingly enough, it is also critical for a group that may never have been represented in any such discussions… the students affected by these decisions.

The bottom Line

It is tragically ironic that, in the pursuit of measuring learning, we persist in demonstrating an unwillingness to make our own learning/understanding about testing the cornerstone of our deliberations.   Hurling beliefs at one another makes marketable theater and further demonstrates the doing wrong things right/doing the right thing distinction.

In an essay written in 2016 and posted on the Ackoff Center Weblog, Will Richardson offers a quote from an interview with Russell Ackoff …

“Peter Drucker said ‘There’s a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.’ Doing the right thing is wisdom, and effectiveness. Doing things right is efficiency. The curious thing is the righter you do the wrong thing the wronger you become…Almost every major social problem that confronts us today is a consequence of trying to do the wrong things righter.”

For those involved on either side of the “discussion”, positions have been repeated so frequently that they have become deep-seated beliefs, taking on moral implications.  Conversations continue to focus on adversarial positioning, a type of bargaining strategy that is based on the consequence of winning or losing.  As long as egos continue to be more important than thoughtful problem analysis and mutual acceptance of common interests, there is a predictable (and regrettable) end to this story. It will be a “doubling down” on trying to do the wrong thing better.

What Is the Tipping Point?

red and gray seesaw in the playground

Photo by Mike Anderson on Pexels.com

This piece started out as a continuation of an exchange between members of the Modern Learners Community in response to a video clip, “What Is School For?” It’s gone viral and is really worth the look.

As the piece evolved I decided that it went beyond the topic of the thread and decided it might be better to share it here.

Spoiler alert: This is not my usual thoughtful and somewhat measured reflection.  This one is rooted in emotion.  Emotion that stems from our inability to move beyond what we have all learned in and about school.  I was tempted to substitute “unwillingness” for “inability”. But in my career as a teacher, administrator, state department mucky-muck, and consultant, I’ve met too many folks who care deeply about kids to be that casual about the use of language.  But be warned right now. Before the end of this piece I will seriously challenge that caring.

Here’s the exchange that inspired my decision to write this.  It begins mid-thread with my response to a question/comment about change in schools and the video clip linked above. It continues with a response by Bruce Dixon, one of the founders of Modern Learners and a life-long educator who lives in Australia.

Rich…Am I correct in thinking that large scale change in existing schools has occurred largely as a result of the need to implement state mandated (or heavily subsidized) direction/regulations? Pessimist that I am, I see no large scale adoption of Modern Learner principles without significant external pressure.

Bruce…Your last question raises many others Rich. I fear your observation is correct, so maybe the problem isn’t that the majority of educators don’t know that change is needed, but rather do not know, or will not face up to the fact that tweaking is not the answer?

Rich…Bruce, I’m thinking of a variation of your observation.   I think your response touches on something very important.

And so on to the blog…

Educators have had an extensive and highly effective indoctrination/apprenticeship program – at least 16 years of schooling before entering the profession and then x years of reinforcing experience within the system.  This has been an exceptionally effective way to have people internalize the norms and practices of any system.  So what if, based on their experiences, the majority of educators can no more envision the need for substantive change in the system they know than our great grandparents could see the need for anything more than slightly faster horses? At that time, they certainly couldn’t envision that what was needed was a metal box with four wheels and an internal combustion engine.

Is this example so different from teachers and school leaders who don’t can’t (my deliberate substitution of a different word) recognize the need for change or can’t accept that tweaking (making small improvements) isn’t the answer?

How did Henry Ford overcome the resistance to the drastic difference between the status quo and a horseless carriage? Moving closer to contemporary times…how did Sony convince so many of us that we needed a Walkman? How did Apple make it hard to conceive of leaving home without our cell phone?

Relating this to making change happen, I‘m thinking it’s about need creation.  An increasing number of the things we “want” are the direct result of very sophisticated process of need creation. Needs and wants are created and sustained via emotional connections. Advertisers understand this all too well. For example, I’m fearful about my deteriorating memory and Prevagen can remove this fear.  Even knowing the manipulation of my fears, it’s tempting to head out to my local pharmacy.  (At least it was until I just read that the FTC has labeled the advertising a hoax.)

I don’t want to beat this to death.  If the need creation concept resonates, I’m sure we could fill a few pages with additional examples. The key question for me is: How can our experience with need creation through advertising inform us in the development of a movement away from our test and punish culture to one which is focused on kids’ needs and their development as healthy, thoughtful and caring creators of a story that moves us beyond our current time of separation and fragmentation?

I believe that “the reform movement” was a response to need creation.  The need was created through an intentional appeal to fear (see introduction to A Nation At Risk) and the connection between student performance and national security (See also federal response to Sputnik and the emphasis on threats to the nation… NDEA and the focus on math, science, and foreign languages).  NCLB, Race to the Top, ESSA, etc. are simply continuations of the fear-based problem definition/problem solution begun after Sputnik.

Much of the attention on moving away from “schooling” is based on a focus on learning. But if teachers labor in a system which measures, values, and evaluates based on content based goals and expectations, why would we be surprised and/or disappointed with their lack of engagement in yet one more change, program, fix, etc., especially one which asks them to reject most, if not all, of what they have experienced and internalized about what happens in schools?

What if the way to build change momentum lies in a need creation that defines the benefit not in terms of what is/isn’t good for kids, but rather in terms of the impact on a nation’s security and economy? But what about the needs of kids? Yeah, what about them?

As a nation we have consistently demonstrated that we care for kids more in the abstract than in the concrete.  How can I state that?  Here’s how.  We have already demonstrated that, rhetoric to the contrary, we really don’t care that much about kids.  We have cities filled with black and brown kids in poverty. We have kids killed in our streets. We have kids killed in schools. We place children in concentration camps when they or their parents are caught trying to seek refuge in our country. We have a dramatic increase in kids in schools presenting symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.If we can continue to allow/tolerate such violence being visited on our children, what’s to give us confidence that changing school because it’s good for kids is a likely future?

We in schools didn’t put those kids in poverty. We in schools didn’t kill any kids in school shootings. We in schools didn’t put any kids in concentration camps separated from their parents. But what else didn’t we do?

We in schools didn’t go on strike to force action on school violence.  We in schools didn’t initiate civil actions to protest kids living lives in poverty in the richest country in the world.  We in schools didn’t refuse to make Algebra or Calculus gatekeepers for high school graduation.  We in schools did not force conversations about why our kids are suffering from record incidences of stress, anxiety and depression.

As I write this and rewrite it multiple times, I realize that what we haven’t done as educators reaches far beyond whether we should focus on teaching or learning. It involves revisiting our commitment to our children. It involves supporting the actions of caring teachers, administrators, policy makers and students to do the right thing.  It involves the creation of physical and emotional spaces where each and every adult and child can feel safe, loved, and empowered to discover and be the person they are meant to be.

I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to work with many caring adults and wonderful young people.  And yet… and yet I realize that I missed so many opportunities to demonstrate that kids matter… so many times I thought of my own or other adult conveniences.  A tipping point for me took place on the boardwalk in Ocean City, NJ at a post-Parkland rally/demonstration where with a small group of friends we gathered along with a few hundred others to support efforts of students to speak about the ravages of the violence they had experienced. As one of the students spoke passionately and eloquently, I was moved to tears.  My wife asked if I was OK.  I nodded and said I had spent much of my life wanting kids to be able to have the confidence and courage to do just what the young lady was doing.  What she said mattered.  She mattered.  In this time of camps and tent cities for separated children, I believe we have to model the confidence, caring and courage to support and inspire our children to rise above such insanity.

Be well.