What If This Could Be Our Next Last Chance?

student pic blog mental health 2018-08-19 at 3.17.42 PMWow! Did this one lead me down a rabbit hole!  Recently, I’ve been drawn to an offshoot of some of my thinking/writing on leadership.  In looking at the careers of a number of school leaders (an area with which I’m more familiar than, say, state or federal government), I’ve noticed that, as a nation, we seem to have what Andrew Bacevitch called a messianic complex… a belief in the power of a single individual to solve great problems and to do so quickly and decisively.  Bacevitch describes this in his book, The Limits of Power, as a dangerous path, leading to repeated disappointment when the plans/”fixes” of our newly anointed messiah don’t seem to work.

But that doesn’t seem to stop us.  One need look no further than the theater surrounding the selection of the next Democratic candidate for the presidency to see this pattern in action.  We have grown to value quick, decisive action in our leaders more than we do their ability to thoughtfully analyze situations to uncover root causes – i.e., actually have a chance at solving the problem.

Looking for alternatives to this in my field of interest and experience, I began to look more carefully at the various “solutions” offered during the span of my working years to fix education. I realized that, for a considerable length of time, I had been looking past the blindingly obvious.  As often as I had quoted Peter Drucker and Russell Ackoff, I realized that there was a good chance that I had missed the point.   You may recall their assertion from earlier posts…

“There is a difference between trying to do things right and doing the right thing.” 

In more than 50 years as an educator, I realized that either as a leader or follower, I have been involved in a whole series of education improvement efforts… Outcomes Based Education, Comprehensive Achievement Monitoring, gifted and talented programming for underachievers, values clarification, formative assessment, standards based instruction and grading, soft skill development and assessment, oral proficiency based assessment for world languages, etc.  I also realized that almost all of these left no lasting footprints.  They came and went with remarkable frequency.  They were great examples of trying to do things right (assessment, instruction, learning, etc.) with no attention paid to whether or not they were aimed at the right thing – i.e., they lacked clear, understandable and desirable purpose.

Now I’m standing on the precipice of a rapidly enlarging rabbit hole. Do I just make the point about the critical importance of clear and clearly understood purpose (see Simon Sinek , Dan Pink  ) or do I try to see when we lost our way as a means of finding a path back?  The rabbit hole loomed.

I couldn’t stop myself.  So I went back and explored.  I’ll spare you the details (although I can’t resist adding some references in case you can’t help yourself and have to explore a bit more). But here’s the short form.

Prior to the 1890’s the purpose of education was kind of clear… it was for the wealthy the path to maintaining privilege and power. By the late 1800 this was beginning to unravel and, in 1893, The Committee of Ten Sponsored by the NEA (who knew that the NEA even existed in the 1800’s?) developed a plan that greatly expanded education access and included 4 different curricula, greatly liberalizing education in the country.  Ironically it was almost 100 years to the month that President Reagan’s National Committee on Excellence in Education released its report on the status of education in the US, A Nation At Risk. It was scathing and got a lot of attention, not to mention that it provided the rationale for the ed reform strategies that we’ve all come to know and love, LOL. But what received little attention was the subtle acceptance of connection between education and the economy which had taken place during the hundred years since the Committee of Ten’s work.

Jumping back from the rabbit hole, we fast forward.

Here we are with a continuing litany of failed “fixes”.  And what’s still missing?  A clear, understandable and agreed upon sense of purpose.

But what if the problem isn’t that we don’t have “a” purpose but that we have too many.  We have purposes that range from custodial (so parents can work) to those  that are job skill related (soft skills, 21stcentury skills, etc.). We have purposes that teach social-emotional skills. We have purposes that are academic (get into the best schools).  We have purpose after purpose designated as such by those whose interests are best served by selling their particular definition (and often, solultion/s).

How do we know if we’re doing the right thing (vs. doing things right) if we don’t know/agree about what that is?  I don’t think we do.  What if trying to do the wrong things “righter” just gets us further away from identifying and doing the right thing?

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EnterPhoto by Hannah Gullixson on Unsplash

Why should we consider this now?  Maybe because we need to reassess what matters.  Maybe loading as many kids as possible into AP courses is not the right thing. Maybe eliminating play and recess for kids so that there is more time to “better” prepare kindergartners for the rigors of academic first grade is not the right thing. Couldn’t we at least explore why current student engagement in school learning drops from 80+% in third grade to less than 40% by grade 11?

Maybe putting kids and their parents under significant pressure to attend four years colleges, only to discover that they can find no job in their major but have amassed huge student loan debt is not the right thing.  Couldn’t we at least explore why we have increasing studies that document the dramatic rise among our adolescents in stress, anxiety, and depression? In her op ed  entitled “We Have Ruined Childhood” published just last week in the New York Times, Kim Brooks offers the following:

“A 2019 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that between   2009 and 2017, rates of depression rose by more than 60% among those ages 14 to 17, and 47% among those ages 12 to 13.”

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Could we at least consider that we have had a roll in this development? I have no illusions that we will have a conversation about this at the federal level.  If we can’t get Congress to return from “summer break” to deal with issues of gun safety, climate change or health care costs, what’s the likelihood of them rushing back to discuss education?

But what if we created the space in our communities for such conversations?  What if we tied all future strategic plans to the development of a community consensus about the purpose of education and our schools?

OK, so why am I writing this here?  As educators, we blew a chance to help our kids when we were conspicuously silent as our kids were subjected to increasing hours of testing and test preparation… of having their value determined by a test score, of having things like recess, art, music, and electives scrapped, of having important portions of the school budgets cut so that the district could afford the technology required to administer the tests.  Oh sure, we eventually spoke up… when the regulations included the use of standardized test results for teacher evaluation. That’s kind of harsh, isn’t it Rich? Yup! But I’m as guilty as anyone, more guilty than many.  My offices in the Department of Education approved the standards and designed the specs for the NCLB assessments. I didn’t object.  I tried to make them “better”. Talk about the folly of trying to do things right!

But we, many of us as educational leaders, have the chance to move beyond simply doing things right. We have the chance to ask the questions about what the right thing is for our kids.  Is it to continue to feed the economy with the workers? Or might it be something greater? What would our school look like if we focused on  education as the search for self, or education as the process by which we and our kids seek the road to a good life, a life of empathy, soul, honesty, and wisdom?

What if, right now in our country, we’re looking at the consequences of continued avoidance of these questions?  Couldn’t we at least try?

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“Why Are We So Angry?”

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When I was a grad student many moons ago, I was enrolled in a summer session course.  I was nearing the end of my degree program and many of the course titles and experiences have blended together in my memory.  But this one stood out… not because of the content but because of one exchange that occurred between the professor and a younger (than I) student.  After the prof had shared what he considered to be the salient facts about our upcoming experience, this young man asked the equivalent of “what will we have to do to get an “A”?  The professor looked at him in silence for what seemed like an eternity and then replied, “Son, I’ve seen your future.  It doesn’t work.”

During the past few years that exchange has crept into my thinking with increasing frequency. I find myself echoing the thinking of my grad professor and am becoming increasingly convinced that our “current” is not working and our future doesn’t look all that great either.

“Wait!”…”What?” Stock market’s up. Unemployment’s down. The economy continues to grow. GDP and GNP figures are good. By traditional quantitative measures, we’re doing swell. But what if traditional quantitative measures are the wrong measures? What if qualitative measures are not so great.  What if the things that make Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, etc. unimaginably wealthy are not the things that are improving the quality of life for the majority of us?  Do the quantitative measures matter to those whose life expectancy is dropping to levels unheard of for rich countries? How about rising levels infant mortality, rising medical costs, rising levels of indebtedness, loss of job/retirement security, shrinking middle class, increasing concerns about access to quality educational opportunities, or over 40 consecutive years of involvement in foreign wars, etc.?

What if the story of the American Dream is no longer a reality/possibility for an increasing number of Americans?

I find myself wondering why we aren’t asking these questions.  Why haven’t I been asking them? My answer is not one I’m proud of. The short form is this… these things didn’t touch me or at least they haven’t yet.  I earned good money, have a nice home, have a boat, have a somewhat dependable public retirement pension with paid health benefits and have a family whose members are also doing well.  I donated to some charities, volunteered here and there and learned (perhaps without realizing it) not to look too closely at those around me.

In short I was “fat and happy”.

Then along came the election of 2016.  I have always tended to pick and choose my ideologies… sometimes I identify with libertarian ideas that challenge the need for big government, at other times I think of myself as a fiscal conservative – i.e., don’t spend what you don’t have — and, at still other times(and perhaps most strongly), I tend to identify as a social liberal.  I am most certainly a pacifist, having never struck another person and shying away from most conflicts. But in the aftermath of 2016, I found myself perplexed.  It seemed as if the values that I grew up with and have accepted as guideposts for living were being challenged.  At one point I described the feeling that we were fighting a battle (more use of warfare language…more about that later) for the soul of a nation. Not finding the words I needed to express this out loud I decided to explore my response. I began to read more things outside of my “vocational” area of education.  My reading was pretty undisciplined and eclectic. I read people from very varied walks of life and perspectives. I read Marianne Williamson,  Umair Haque, Jon Kabat-Zinn,  Charles Eisenstein,  Will Richardson, among others.

What did I learn? 

I learned first and foremost that I needed to act.  I need to avoid the “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There” trap. I need to “do something”. (BTW…This is one of those actions.)  I learned that 2016 wasn’t the year of the attack on American values.  The “American values” that were part of the story with which I grew up were, at best, embellished as a part of the “story of America” and, at worst, were mythical.

I revised my beliefs and, hopefully, my approach to responding to this awareness. I’m not certain that you will accept and/or share these beliefs.  I’ll leave that to you.  At this point, I wonder what will happen if we all at least spend some time examining what we believe, what has informed such beliefs and how such beliefs inform/limit our actions. I’ll start with my beliefs… beliefs that come not so much from reading the work of others but by working backwards from actions to discern the rationale for those actions. I find reinforcement for this approach in schools I have visited across he country during the last 15 years or so of my work.  In these experiences,  I’ve learned that the beliefs that guide a school or a school district are not found on the mission statement that are posted on the wall by the entrance. No. The beliefs are found by observing the practices, policies, and actions that guide everyday behavior. I hope you’ll scrutinize my beliefs using that same approach… how we act reveals what we believe.

To help with that reflection, here’s an example of the frequent disconnect between statements and actual beliefs.  Not infrequently one can find some variation of the following as a mission statement in most schools.

We are dedicated to the development of independent, responsible citizens who can contribute positively and creatively to our society.

Observations:

  • In not one school did I find a survey of former graduates to assess their contributions to the society they entered.
  • In virtually every school the policies, practices and procedures screamed compliance, not independence.
  • In the vast majority of these schools if one wanted to find practice in creativity, one better head for the art classroom.  Creativity building experiences were in short supply in most other places.

My beliefs:

But first:  You’ll notice that these beliefs are not very positive. That’s the point.  It’s not that we don’t all share positive beliefs, positive traits.  We are humans that share a basic goodness, a historical trajectory towards self improvement , an innate desire to help those less fortunate, but our actions have become driven by those that I list below. 

We are in the process of writing a new story and that new story, right now, is being shaped by beliefs that we have been reluctant to confront and, often, by a sense of our powerlessness to write a more positive story. This has a predictably bad end. My goal here is not to define an action but to create a space in which you might be able to reflect and choose an action that best fits you. 

We are a violent nation.  While we abhor the instances of mass shootings, we have relied on violence as a solution to problems from our very first landing on the shores. We continued this with our response to Native American resistance, with our normalization of slavery, Jim Crow, the internment of Japanese/Americans, and with wars fought to increase our holdings and/or expand our country.  We continue embrace a language of violence in our conversations, in our policies and practices, etc.  We wage “war” on drugs, poverty, illiteracy, etc. We refer to money raised by candidates to win elections as “war chests”. We “battle” for slots on the party ticket.  We make films that lionize the “reluctant” killer (see the Taken series, the Bourne movies, etc.) who grimaces in regret as he snaps the neck of a bad guy. We glorify violence and then we wonder why our children respond to emotional anguish with school shootings.  We spend unimaginable amounts on the defense our nation and our interests around the world and laugh at the suggestion of a candidate who proposes the creation of a cabinet level Department of Peace.

We are an arrogant nation. We have believed our own press clippings about American “exceptionalism”.  We are so convinced of our own national superiority that we are unable to even look for answers to issues of health care, retirement security, immigration, etc. in countries that have already resolved or have begun to resolve such issues. Our arrogance also extends to a belief that we can inflict significant damage to our planet, firm in the belief that when it gets bad enough we will pull another rabbit out of the hat and all will be well.

We are impatient.  We have little patience for deep problem analysis, gravitating instead to a reliance and faith in quick decisive action.  Andrew Bacevitch, in his book, Limits of Power, focuses on our tendency to be seduced by a reliance on the promises of messianic leaders… leaders who announce/sell their ability and commitment to resolve issues which have remained stubbornly resistant to previous, similar approaches.

We are a country founded on principles of patriarchy. We continue a culture of male superiority.  Almost without exception, females who rise to levels of corporate or political leadership have had to “out male” their male counterparts.  Strong willed, decisive men are characterized as leaders.  Women with similar traits are labeled as difficult.

We are a nation founded on the principle of white supremacy.  This is an inherited perspective.  In his book, The Imperial Cruise, James Bradley describes Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter’s cruise to the orient and the continuation of the European “mandate” to bring civilization to countries of other races.  While this cruise took place 40 years after the conclusion of the civil war and the emancipation of the slaves in our country, it reveals a deep-seated belief in the superiority of the  white, European race.   There has been much written about this notion of white supremacy in recent months and I have little of consequence to add to the story.  I see our relationship with peoples of other ethnicities and colors to be closely related to the belief I’ve included a few paragraphs from now about the transactional value of human life.

But these might not be the most critical of our national beliefs.  Perhaps most important is the acknowledgement that we have accepted, even as the richest nation on earth, that we live in a world of scarcity.  Life in our country is a zero sum game. In the wealthiest country the world has ever known, we feel we must continue to acquire because of the belief that there’s not enough for all of us.  Those who acquire much are praised and cited as proof of the reality of the American Dream.  But in a time of scarcity what someone else gains, I can’t have – i.e., we can’t give money to poor people; if we do I’ll have less. We believe that if someone gains, I must lose.   There are winners and losers.  Winners worked hard, losers not so much.  Those who didn’t achieve as much or perhaps not even enough to enjoy the middle class version of the American Dream have only themselves to blame.  They didn’t work hard enough.

Closely related to the zero-sum belief is the belief that life has no inherent value beyond its contribution to the economy– i.e., the value of life is measured by what one contributes to the economy. This, in effect, makes all life transactional, a part of the deal. A direct result of this belief is the consequence that the majority of people in our country report feeling unvalued. We need to at least consider that, increasingly as individuals,  we have simply become resources for profit driven quantitative measures of progress. In my own chosen field of work, education, we have come to value education not because of the contribution it makes to living a good life or how it contributes to the betterment of our society, but to the extent that “good” education (again measured in quantitative terms – i.e., large-scale assessments) provides good workers for the economy.  It is no accident that business leaders and business organizations – i.e., Chambers of Commerce – have become key policy setters in past several decades.

As I get close to wrapping this up, I’m going to add one final belief for your consideration.  I want to give credit for this to Charles Eisenstein.  Charles spoke about this at the gathering I attended and has written about it in his essay, The Age of We Need Each Other.

We are living in an Age of Separation.  Let me share more about this.

Over the course of my lifetime I have seen us grow increasingly separate from one another

  • It’s not uncommon for us not to know even basic information about our own neighbors, let alone people of different races or ethnicity.
  • We have become increasingly polarized in our opinions – i.e., the chasm between the position that our national security/identity is threatened by the current large influx of refugees vs. the reconciliation of such positions with the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor – your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”
  • We see increasing examples of our inability/unwillingness to engage in civil discourse with people with whom we disagree… better to circle the wagons of our own tribe.

I’ve seen us become increasingly separate from our institutions.

  • We no longer trust our schools.
  • We no longer trust our elected officials.
  • We even find it increasingly difficult to trust our clergy.

I have also see us become increasingly separate from our own planet.

  • We cannot agree on the threat of global warming or even the accuracy of the science.
  • We have eliminated a huge percentage of the insects on our planet… not acknowledging that if we kill something approaching half of the actual life on the planet, we may be placing our own survival at risk.
  • We continue to treat the planet as a source of unlimited natural resources – i.e., oil, precious metals, fresh water, forests, etc.

You might think this is a pretty dismal conclusion. But I’d suggest it’s not the conclusion. Rather it’s an observation. It’s not cast in stone, unless we opt to continue as observers in our own demise.

The conclusion is that we can forge a path that can be a positive response to these beliefs. It is the path that focuses on empathy rather than anger. It is the path that seeks connection rather than separation. It’s a path that moves the conversation beyond our agreement/disagreement with the actions of a single leader.  It a path that requires us to identify what matters and who we want to be. It’s a path that suggests that we answer questions such as…

  • I wonder why in the richest country on earth, we feel and act on a sense of scarcity?
  • I wonder what would happen if we were to seek answers to critical questions rather than respond with rigid ideologies?
  • Couldn’t we at least try make this a land of sufficiency for all?
  • What would happen if we acknowledged that solving problems is not aided by “win/lose” thinking?

The path to these questions requires an action… an action beyond seeing our future unfold on the nightly news or being shaped by the opinions of cable news pundits.  What that action is isn’t for me to define.  It’s for each of us… as an “each” and as an “us”.

Be well.

The Age of Separation…Who are we as a country? What is our direction? Who can/should we become?

Question #1 – Can empathy be the answer to separation?

Ithinker-28741_1280n my introductory post to this series, I shared that I found myself increasingly preoccupied with questions about who we are, who we are becoming, who do we want to be.  In this post I’m going to begin that exploration.   Today, I’m going to draw heavily on two essays by Charles Eisenstein. Why Charles Eisenstein you might ask (right after “who the hell is he?”)?  His essays will give you a pretty good picture. You can read them  here and here.

After reading his work and more about him, I decided to take advantage of an opportunity to attend a 3-day “More Beautiful World Gathering”.  The program was built around Charles book, The more Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible and was an expanded version of previous, smaller retreats led by Charles.  It was one of Charles’ first attempts to take his thinking and his successful appearance on Oprah’s  Super Soul Sunday to a larger audience (about 200).

One of my primary reasons for going to see Charles was that I was anxious to hear more about what he calls the “Age of Separation”.  I resonated with his thinking. While I have blogging and on-line community “friends” throughout the country and even outside of the US, I know only two of my neighbors even after a year of our move to this home.

This post will focus on what I sense to be a response to our increasing separation.

A few years ago when I was still actively consulting, I began to rely on the metaphor of “the story” to help communicate that we are in a time of significant change… change which has largely invalidated a story that many of us grew up with.  That story reads somewhat as follows…

If you follow a certain path conscientiously you will succeed in life. That path involved going to school, working hard, getting good grades, going to college, graduating, getting a good job, and enjoying a secure future (including retirement).  If you’re my age you heard this story fairly regularly. 

In my consultant work for the past few years I shared that, although we are still sharing this story, for many young people today, the story is a lie or, perhaps more charitably, a fable.  You don’t have to be a Republican or Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, to accept that the “old story” is dead.  All you have to do to understand this on a very visceral level is know the parent of a child who has recently finished college, has accumulated massive debt, and can find no job in their chosen field.  All you have to be is a worker whose wages have been stagnant for several decades or a retiree whose pension no longer exists.  If the old story were still “alive” there would have been no need for the call to “Make America Great Again.

Whether or not we like it, we are now living in a time between stories.  And in that space we are growing increasingly isolated from one another… a growing sense of separation.  We see and hear obvious examples of the dead or dying old story.

While we grew up with a story that anyone could grow up to be a millionaire, and we read of stories about the Gates, Bezos, Musks, etc., we see increasing examples of people losing their homes to pay medical bills, we see decreasing longevity, high infant mortality rates, shrinking membership in the middle class and a growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few. It appears that we may be living the poorest wealthy country in history.

We appear to be in the process of writing a new story and this new story shapes up as an Age of Separation… a time when we have become increasingly separate from one another, separate from our institutions, and even separate from our planet.  I don’t think I have to dwell on that idea as I sense that, while we may not have used such a label, we have experienced a growing sense of such separation. While I have “friends” on Facebook, I don’t know my neighbors.

I imagine that, if we consider it for a bit, we each have stories about our own growing sense of separation, our own growing sense of distrust.  Can I trust big corporations like Facebook or Google with my personal data? What news outlet can I trust to provide me with accurate, factual information?   Do I sense that my elected officials (even those for whom I voted) are acting in my best interests?

What I like most about Eisenstein’s thinking and writing is that he is more than a chronicler of doom.  He offers options. The option he offers for separation is empathy.  Let me share a personal story…

Not long ago we needed some electrical work done on our “new” home.  The previous owner was great about leaving info about service providers and I contacted the person whose name the previous owner had written on the electrical panel.  The electrician arrived, did his work and then as we were settling up the bill, he approached me with a Hilary Clinton crying towel and the question, “Do you like Trump?” My first reaction was, “Oh, oh… back to the yellow pages.”

To avoid a clumsy ending to his visit, I shared that it was a bit early for me to judge his record but I was not comfortable with him as a person and his disdain for my values. Then I remembered Charles and his prescription… empathy… what is it like to be the other person.

So I invited the gentleman in for a cup of coffee and I asked him about his story.  While he certainly didn’t convince me to change my opinion of the president, he did help me understand why Trump seemed like a good choice to him.  We didn’t convert one another but I did manage to avoid a search in the yellow pages.  More importantly, I gained a respect for him and for the power of empathy.

I’ve realized that I am a notoriously slow learner.  I’m not proud of the fact that it’s taken so long for empathy to become a part of my working vocabulary.  My experience/epiphany hardly counts as a research study. Can you see empathy as an antidote for separation?  Can you recall (and share) some of your experiences with empathy (either on the giving or receiving end)?  My millions of followers would love to hear your experiences.

PS This isn’t about chest thumping.  You can share and still be humble.

Rethinking Rethinking

Hello again. It’s been a while.

compassToday begins a new chapter.  I’ve been stuck in a loop.  Confronted on an almost daily basis with behaviors and news reporting that treat ratings and factual information with equal value, I’ve had a hard time focusing just on things related to education.  What time I found, I’ve been spending participating in an online change school community.  It’s been a great experience and most times it has been a welcomed pause from the noise in my head… noise that left me asking big question like who have we become and who do I want to be?  But sometimes the distraction of the education conversation isn’t enough. Thankfully. It shouldn’t be enough.  As with a growing number of folks, I found myself thinking that if we can’t decide what to call the places where we are housing detained, separated families, we’ve been asking the wrong questions.

When I found myself fantasizing about being the lone person who stood in front of the tanks in yesterday’s DC parade, I realized that I needed to do something.  I recalled the commencement address commencement address by Dr. James Ryan for the graduates at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2016. If you haven’t already checked him out from previous mentions in this blog, I urge you to do so. He suggested that while people might expect Harvard graduates to have answers, they would be far more successful if they learned to ask questions… he offered 6 critical questions.

I realized that we’re looking once again for a presidential “messiah” to provide us with solutions that we like… solutions that far too frequently have no sound problem analysis behind them. Solutions that offers fixes without ever exploring why we are where we are… why we are arguing over the names we should use for facilities housing separated children.

So for a while I’ll be trying to bring some questions to a larger audience.  To do this, I’ve decided to double post my efforts, both in this blog and on my Facebook page.   Here’s the first post…

My best friend in high school once suggested that my mom, who was known to be talkative, apparently had a goal to talk to everyone in the world…twice. And she might be on her second time around!  Some of my more charitable friends have suggested that my inability to shut up is genetic.  This is by way of introducing a new venture for me… A new use of my Facebook page and blog.

We are recognizing that things aren’t going well.  Some people voted for the current president for that very reason. Others don’t much care for him for the very same reason.   But what if the differences in opinion about Donald Trump and his administration are a distraction?  What if we’ve become seduced by the lure of the quick solution to the degree that we’ve lost our ability to even ask “why”?  What if the issues that seem to be dividing us cannot be resolved by the selection of the next presidential messiah?

This introduction is by way of warning and hopefully will serve as a heads up for what you are likely to encounter should you choose to follow me.  My intent is not to impose my thinking or perspective on anyone.  It’s for this reason that I’ve moved some of my writing here.  One of the things I that I heard frequently as a child was that it was not polite to discuss religion or politics at social gatherings.  As I’ve aged I’ve come to believe that what was intended as good advice has actually contributed to our apparent inability to discuss emotional topics in a thoughtful, kind and empathetic manner.

In this forum you are free to interact with my thinking, my questions, my reflections and those who may choose to offer their own questions, responses, and reflections, you are also free to “unfollow” me if my thinking is too unsettling or offensive. It is not my intent to be offensive and I would ask that anyone choosing to add to the conversation do so in a polite and respectful way.

There ‘s a sweet kind of irony that I’m writing this introductory post on the day after Independence Day.

If you have friends who might like to participate in the exploration of questions regarding the direction of our nation and our culture, please share.

Be well.

This Change Stuff Makes Sense But What Do I Do on Monday?

… A Couple of Steps Closer to How…

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Welcome back.  I’m writing this under the assumption that you’ve read Part One.  While I hadn’t intended to create a multi-part post, I realized that Cam, in his sharing, had done so for me.  I’d encourage you to read Cam’s essay.  It’s an eloquent sharing of what our search is all about. In his analysis of the ways in which he is applying Dr. Ryan’s 5 Questions Ryan’s 5 Questions to his thinking and explorations, Cam led into another question which I’m paraphrasing here…

 

What would learning look like if we acted on both our knowledge and our beliefs about it?

While not exactly Mueller-like in the level of detail he offers about how schools and learning might look, Cam shares some very concrete examples of things that he has done to close the gap between what we know and what we are currently doing in most schools.

Cam begins his reflection with some observations about the dissonance between how both kids and adults seem to learn best and what happens in schools as they are traditionally organized and configured.

And so the “guitar story”

…my 6-year-old starts guitar lessons today. He is very excited: he told me so at 5:00 am.  When my partner and I began looking for teachers we had lots of criteria.  My number one criteria is that there be no “curriculum” – how many amazing musicians never got beyond formal, conservatory based lessons and fail to see themselves as musicians later in life. I would argue far more than see themselves as musicians.  This kind of approach to learning music does little to foster lifelong learning; it’s an exercise in resiliency: if you last you get to the good stuff; if not, you stop playing.  My only measure of success for my son learning guitar will be if he still loves it on the other end.  Like Springsteen writes about his first guitar experience in ​Born to Run​, if my son quits because it’s hard, and loves it all the same, that’s success for now.  One day, who knows?

A key difference that came to mind this morning is relevant here: Contrast this to my experience of dropping him off at the bus today: you’d be hard pressed to find a more somber looking group of kids at 8 o’clock in the morning than those being transported to school.  It was a bright, sunny, relatively warm Wednesday morning and every kid in every window looked…well, not excited to be there, or, I extrapolate, not excited about where they’re headed.

“I wonder why…we’d start with schools.”

I wonder why learning organizations of any kind would turn to schools for examples of best practice before looking to the myriad examples of lifelong learning in the community.  There is a wealth of evidence of learning in what education terms ​extracurricular​, and I’m inclined to think that deeper, more life altering individual development happens here.

If one was to consult the vast opportunities for non-credentialed, adult learning that people turn to cultivate passions outside of their working day one begins to see a disconnect in learning practice from what one sees in schools.  In fact, if one looks to all the learning that children and youth do outside of school one would find similar examples.

Why, as a parent, would I scrutinize the quality of learning for my son’s guitar lessons, while blindly sending him off on the sad-bus for school?

…Maybe the better way, the more organic way, for me anyway, is to say it this way: “Would I want my children to learn this way…?” If the answer is no, then I hope there is a very quick, “Wait, what?”,followed by an “I wonder why…?” to follow.  Why are we profering learning in our schools, in our Alt. program, that we would not support for our own children?  Especially when we see a more effective alternative in their extracurriculars.

 “Couldn’t we at least…” work towards a learning organization.  A place that acknowledges the challenges our students arrive with. Couldn’t we at least strive to be something better? We are hardly scraping the surface of what we can do.  Couldn’t we at least try? “Learn like no one is watching.”  Couldn’t we strive to learn this way….Couldn’t we at least stop being afraid that our existence is contingent on being rigid.  Our existence is contingent on being awesome for students asking for all kinds of different awesome questions.  We can strive for that, can’t we?  [Ron Edmunds said it this way: “…we can, wherever and whenever we choose, successfully teach all of the children whose schooling is of interest to us.  We already know more than we need to do that.  Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact we haven’t so far.”

We’ve had lots of conversations about why, when people know in their hearts that school could be something better, do we continue to “do school” as we’ve known and experienced it?   When we talk about why there is such a gap between what we know and what we do, we inevitably come to face to face with our fears.  We are inundated with “what if” questions… almost all of them are about the consequences of failure.  The list of these fears is as long as the number of people on our staff… each has their own version, their own fear(s).

These fears drive us to ask “how” questions: How will I manage giving kids choices? How will I grade them? What if they choose to do something that we don’t usually cover?  What if they screw up the state test? Etc., etc. etc.

Here’s how Cam took steps. He describes this in his response to Ryan’s “How Can I Help?” question.  He offers two experiences as something he shared with colleagues to help them see what learning might look like.

But did I ever tell you about the time (last week!) a student presented to a room full of people she invited – her family, her friends, her teachers?  The presentation was inspired by Change School; when John Clements dropped into a Coaching Session and told us about ​Back to the Future​.  I paired this concept with an idea Patrick shared with me months ago, and suggested this to a student–a brilliant young woman who writes like no one’s business–I said: “Imagine you 5 years from now.  The aspirational you.  Present about her. Then have her come back to you now and show you how to get there.”  Something like that anyway.  Her presentation was the most beautiful piece of performance art I’ve witnessed as a teacher. Stunning.  Brilliant. Poignant. That’s how I help.  I try alongside my students, as learners together. And bear witness to the trying.  And make the learning and trying visible. [italics mine]

Cam’s second experience is a bit more “beyond the walls” and responds to the question, “Couldn’t we at least…?”

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This is Jacob.  One day in February he and 24 students from the Alternate Program joined me at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) – a partnership a year in the making – for a Pre-Apprenticeship training opportunity. The experience was open to anyone. Experience was unnecessary. Jacob had no experience.  He was frustrated at the outset: the instruction did not make sense to him (it was the minimum viable instruction), and he was sitting at a plywood circuit, with a circuit diagram and did not know where to start.  I checked-in: he voiced his frustration.  I suggested he ask a question and gave him some space.  Jacob worked for 4.5 hours; struggling, seeing others around him complete the circuit and move on, seeing success, not necessarily in himself.   At the end of the day, this hardened learner who revealed nothing of his emotional rollercoaster all day, stepped up to the circuit testing lab.  Everyone in the room was packing up, cleaning up, waiting at the door for taxis.  Jacob was hauling his completed circuit to the testing lab.  The instructor, George, noticed him and met him at the lab. He checked the circuit, explained what he was looking for.  Jacob revealed nothing of what was going on in his head.  George moved out of the way to give Jacob space to flip the switch.  What does learning look like? This is what learning looks like. That smirk you see, magnify it by 100 times; when that light literally and metaphorically turned on.  Jacob could not contain himself. This is what learning looks like.

“What truly matters?”What matters is that we are all inherently learners.

Somehow the machine of learning, the industrial approach to learning begins to whittle at our organic need to thrive in wonder.  I suspect the moment that we began, as a species, questioning the purpose of learning and hooking other aspirations to the purpose is the moment learning got more complicated than it needed to.  The moment that aptitude was measured, skills were evaluated, retention was challenged, comparisons were leveled, people were segmented, was the moment that we stepped away from ​learning​towards education. This is a new idea for my thinking, but it matters.

My son is sitting beside me playing with a Rubik’s Cube.  He is nothing short of enraptured by the puzzle.  He turns it, and considers.  He sits it down and twists and contorts himself and his perspective trying to see the inner logic of the toy.  This all began because he walked in on his Mom watching a video about a Rubik’s Cube savant.  He knew his sister had one. We found it.  He’s been consumed with the puzzle ever since.  He’s literally waiting for some insight without reservation.  This morning he asked if he could watch an expert video to get some ideas. He only asked once; he got sidetracked by his own discovery.

What truly matters is we didn’t invent learning.  It is not a discovery.  It is ​the​ discovery.  That we are a being that can ask questions, and look for answers, and, if we’re lucky, never really find the answers we seek. Instead, we discover more questions. [Italics, bold mine] ​

Try this on for size… 

Imagine your school, your classroom if you decided to address how you might reduce the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression for your students. Explore this with Ryan’s Five Question approach and think about sharing that with us.  Here you go…

There’s growing evidence that schools are contributing to rising levels of student stress, anxiety, and depression. Wait! What?… 

I wonder why… we grade kids in school?

I wonder if… it would be better not to grade kids (or teachers)?

Couldn’t we at least try… to reduce the use of grades as measures of learning?

How could I help… my school, my students, my colleagues adjust to such a change?

What really matters to me? In my school? In my classroom?

Be well.

Title: What’s Change Really Like… A Tale from Our Canadian Neighbors

As usual, I’ll begin this piece with a bit of context…

As many of you know I’ve been spending time working on my learning… mainly learning about learning.  As a part of this process I’ve become more of an active participant in the Modern Learners Community.  One fascinating aspect of this engagement has been the opportunity to participate in the Modern Learners’ Change School professional learning experience.

Change School is a virtual, cohort-based learning experience in which participants engage with the Modern Learners team and one another in an exploration of, and support for, the process of reimagining school in their districts.

One of the unanticipated benefits of the experience, and one I can’t stress strongly enough, has been the opportunity to meet, listen to, and learn from some wonderfully talented and committed educators from around the globe (participants In Cohort 7 are working throughout the US, Canada, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand).  This cohort (the 7thand latest) was attended primarily by new participants but also by a number of participants from earlier cohorts who returned to deepen their earlier experience, complete explorations which had been left incomplete due to the pressures of their jobs, and continue their access to the team’s support of their change school efforts, etc.

The experience was as intense as it was enjoyable (and, yes, I’d recommend joining the Modern Learners Community and a Change School cohort if at all possible).  Through weekly online “cohort meetings” supplemented by weekly scheduled group or individual coaching sessions, and the participants’ responses to team offered “provocations”, I came to know a number exceptional educators and began what I can honestly term deep, engaging connections.

In today’s post and the one that will follow, I’d like to share with you pieces of an exchange which occurred between me and a Cohort 7 educator, Cam Jones. Cam was recently assigned to an administrative role in one of his district’s alternate high schools in Canada.  But why would I suggest that you visit a bit here with Cam?  Because Cam, more and better than anyone with whom I’ve spoken in recent months, has managed to capture in his “conversation” with both me and himself the logistical and internal challenges involved in changing school.

In the first of this two-parter I’ll share Cam’s response to a question I had shared with him about applying the 5 Key Questions referred to by Dr. James Ryan in his 2016 commencement address to the graduates of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Note: In the introduction to his address, Ryan captured what I would consider to be the essence of good leadership and a seriously underutilized skill… the asking of good questions.  Ryan shared with the graduates that, as graduates of Harvard, people would expect them to have answers.  He suggested, however, that their success would depend less on giving answers and more on the quality of the questions they asked.  He offered 5 and a bonus question.

Here, once again, are Ryan’s Five Questions

  1. Wait …What?– (asking a clarifying question) – understand an issue before advocating for it – at root of all understanding
  2. I wonder (why/if)– at the heart of all curiosity
  3. Couldn’t we at least?—getting past disagreements – beginning of all progress
  4. How can I help?– relationship builder and alternative to “savior complex” – how we help matters as much as that we helped – at the base of all good relationships
  5. What truly matters?– gets you to the heart of life

Bonus question:  Did you get what you wanted out of life?

Cam’s writing speaks for itself.   With Cam’s permission, I’m sharing here pieces of what he wrote.  I trust you’ll find his words and his self-reflection as eloquent and moving as I have.

I begin with Cam’s response to Ryan’s questions in the context of his work at his and other alternate high schools in the district (there are six).

“How else I wonder can we do things?”

“I’ve wondered why we do things the way we do, often.  It comes down to this: in working with students marginalized by the system in a variety of ways, our program relies on a tool for learning that I don’t see the benefit of.  Further, the method of delivery is counterintuitive: we work with the most visibly disengaged students using the least engaging way of learning I can imagine–independent, read and write. So, why…why do we do that?  I think the answer falls to pressing concerns. Many, if not all, of our students are non-attenders before they arrive at our site… Our students are well behind on credits relative to their age because of disruptions to their education. They often return to our setting with deficits/gaps in their learning, executive function, and social/emotional well-being. The Alternate Program provides an alternative to the system: we exist to serve the student where they are now, first.

And this is the rub: I think the pressing concern for our programs is student well-being; it is our operational and aspirational focus. I think our “wonder why” is that we’ve never wondered why. Maybe we haven’t had to. Maybe we haven’t wanted to. And over time we’ve become comfortable with our rationale for our approach, or our not needing to provide a rationale.  Instead of talking about learning, we talk about the trauma our students arrive with, and manage daily, and glaze over the learning part of our responsibility with credit accumulation. If they’re earning, they’re learning. “

Couldn’t we at least…

“Couldn’t we at least…” come back to learning.  I think we are. I think the contemporary vision for the Alternate Program is coming back to learning.  In part out of necessity. Our student demographic doesn’t fit our narrative as it might have years ago.  In the past our structures were hard and fast, at least as the narrative recalls them. These structures are eroding and allowing different structures to surface.  Moreover, supports that were not part of the Alts are now front and centre. We’re coming back to learning.”

How can I help?

“How can I help?”  I’m learning how to help.  I’m asking questions. At times I’m letting my impatience, my frustration be known.  At other times, I’m letting my passion get ahead of me, and letting my disappointment with how we do things be visible.  In the meantime, I’ve found other ways, better ways in my mind, of doing things. I am modeling an approach where my expertise is learning, and the curriculum is a background to the collaborative work I do with students.  I’m turning my attention to awareness of my blind spots: students who engage in collaboration are thriving in my classroom; students that aren’t engaged: well, I’m working on that too.  It’s a little tougher.

In the meantime, I’m designing what I am calling alternate experiences beyond the walls of the school, with community partners, and using these examples as means to open the discussion about what learning can look like.  And I’m constantly checking myself against the idea of being a learner with the students, alongside the students, and fighting the instinct to “educate” in the ways I was “educated”.

What truly matters?

“Because, after all, “What truly matters?” in my work in the Alts (Alternate Schools) and elsewhere is that I’m striving towards a way of doing things that aligns with my beliefs, about learning, about life, about a vision for school, and how we support the students who have rejected the system and said “I’m not jumping through your hoops.”

“And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?” 

“And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?”  It’s funny: I ended up an English teacher, again, begrudgingly.  This was not the path I thought I’d take to the Alts. I just knew I wanted to get to the Alts.  The timing was imperfect, the context not ideal.  And yet in returning to the classroom I’ve had this amazing opportunity to be a better teacher.  I’m not sure ashamed is the right word, but I certainly wasn’t proud of my teaching experience, in hindsight.

This year I’ve moved closer to a version of myself as teacher that I’m proud of.  It’s a work in progress, but I’m energized by it.  And as someone who wants to challenge how we do things, and be part of the answer and change going forward, I can’t think of a better place to start from.”

Being the change on the ground, rather than seeing the change from on high are two very different perspectives. The ground game has more work and more risk; but when it works there’s nothing more beautiful to watch.”

When you think about changing what happens to/for kids in school, what do you wonder? How would you answer “What matters?” Does what happens in your school/district include intentional actions to support your response to the “what matters” question?

When School Purpose Meets Algebra II Who Wins?

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by edshelf: Reviews & recommendations of tools for education

So the headline is misleading. I’m really not going to write about Algebra II.

I want to share thoughts about two seemingly unrelated ideas.  As I reflected on them I realized that they were much more closely connected than I had originally thought.  I hope that when you read this you will also see both the connection and the importance of that connection.

The two thoughts focus on the concept of school purpose and the value of voice… in this case, student voice.  My explorations stem from a conversation and two readings and I’ve included the links to the readings in the event that you’d like to explore them further.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to share a lunch with a dear friend.  Having lost touch for years as we each allowed family, distance and career responsibilities to create a separation, we schedule our lunches with a deliberateness intended to insure our connectedness.  Like many such occurrences, I didn’t recognize the hole our separation created until we “rediscovered” one another.

Our lunch conversations include family updates, shared experiences in very different professions and, almost always, philosophical discussions about the state of our world. Yesterday’s lunch was no exception.  We rated the various politicians who have announced their intentions to run for the presidency in 2020 and found ourselves discussing core values and how we learned ours.

Then this morning I read two pieces that confronted me with the reality that yesterday’s conversation about core values was hardly philosophical. Looking at the lunch conversation and these two readings through the lens of my career in education, I found myself confronted by a very loud voice asking…

“What the hell are we doing? How much longer can we continue to avoid deeply exploring and seriously answering the question, what is the purpose of education and, more specifically, what is the role of school in that purpose?”

Before you give up on me here for wasting your time with another philosophical bird walk, I’d like to highlight a few findings from a report that Jan Resseger explored more deeply in her post morning. I urge you to take a few minutes to read Jan’s post. In it she describes a study completed by researchers at UCLA, “School and Society in the Age of Trump”.

In the study, researchers surveyed 500 public high school principals about current social issues and problems that are increasing pressures for students, teachers, and school administrators. The identified issues (along with the percentages reporting significant impact) were:

  • Political division and hostility (89%);
  • Disputes over truth, facts, and the reliability of sources (83%);
  • Opioid misuse and addiction (62%);
  • The threat of immigration enforcement (68%);
  • The threats of gun violence on school campuses (92%).

Here’s a little more about these figures.  Eighty-nine percentof principals report that incivility and contentiousness in the broader political environment has considerably affected their school community and eighty-three percentof schools see these tensions intensified and accelerated by the flow of untrustworthy or disputed information and the increasing use of social media that is fueling and furthering division among students and between schools and the communities.

unschooling rules photoAs I‘ve shared previously, Clark Aldrich (Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways To Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education) suggests that there are three critical learnings for kids and, therefore, critical purposes for schools: help kids learn how to learn, help kids learn how to do, and help them learn how to be.  Bo Burnham in his highly acclaimed film, Eighth Grade, addresses how hard it is in normal times for a kid to figure out how to be.  His character describes her search for “how/who to be” when she’s in the car with her dad, when she sits at lunch with her friends, when she is at a pool party, etc.

Helping kids learn how to be/who to be is hard and I’ll offer that we haven’t been doing a very good job of it since the onset of the “school reform movement”.  We’ve heard a lot of “I wish I had time for that, but…” So what happens when we are confronted with the possibility that 89% of our schools are negatively affected by the incivility and contentiousness seen daily on TV! Is this how they’re learning how to be?

At a time in our history which has been described as an “age of separation” can we continue to rationalize the rigidity of the master schedule and the need for constantly improving test scores as excuses for not “finding time” to deal with the need for kids to learn civility and empathy, for not finding time to be intentional about helping our kids learn how to be in this environment?  Hang on to that for a bit, OK.

The second piece that I encountered this morning appeared in Medium and was written by Michael Klein, a special education preschool teacher at Kilawea Elementary School on Kaua’i.  The piece is entitled “Student Voice: Don’t Just Listen to Students; Give Them Power.”  In it, Klein described several initiatives in Hawaiian

Schools aimed at both increasing student voice and, additionally, student power.  He makes a powerful case for the importance of fostering student voice/power. He asks a series of questions.  Here are a few…

Would we consider students being on our school and district’s teacher hiring committees?

Would we allow students to evaluate teachers, principals, and even our superintendents?

Would we consider having students at principal meetings to make decisions alongside principals?

Would we consider having them being part of the process of designing new schools?

Would we consider students being present when making decisions about curriculum or texts for our school?

So, would I be wrong if I assumed that the default response to many of these questions is “no”?  Certainly, it would be “no” in the majority of schools I worked in and visited.  And why was it “no”? In almost all cases it would involve some of form of  “They’re not ready to do those kinds of things. They’re not adults. They’re just kids.”

But wait.

Didn’t we just say that these “kids” are being affected by incivility and contentiousness? By the disputes over truth, facts, and the reliability of sources? By opioid misuse and addiction? By the threat of immigration enforcement? By the threats of gun violence on school campuses?

And now the connection…

And so I come back to the question of core values and how we share them.

What if we can’t afford to have student voice and power remain “no” in a society which almost always has phrases like “good, productive citizens” in its school mission statements and then regularly enacts policies focused on compliance? What if it’s not just that we should give students voice and power but we have to for our own survival?

Helping kids learn how to be/who to be is hard. Giving kids the opportunity to explore who they wish to be … isn’t that a core value worth our commitment? And we can do it in places where they are surrounded by more caring adults than almost any other place in their lives.

Giving kids the opportunity to participate in and learn from conversations with adults about “adult” issues – i.e., giving kids a voice and the power to impact school decisions about such issues – isn’t that a first step in helping them learn how to use their voices thoughtfully and responsibly?

What would school look like if we made Aldrich’s “3 Learnings” the core purpose of an education?  What would school and learning look like if we designed learning experiences and created space for learning that focus not on the “mastery” of discrete content of a specific course (yup, here’s where I sneak in the reference to Algebra II) but on learning how to learn whatever I need/want to learn?

Is this a conversation that’s taking place in your schools or the schools your kids attend?  If yes, could you take a moment or two and share how?  If not, why not? Could you start it?