In her works on Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership, Susan Scott recounts her young daughter’s excited reaction to an “epiphany” moment by telling her mom that she just had an “apostrophe”. Here’s one of mine.
A few weeks ago I promised myself that I would spend some time thinking about and exploring some key questions concerning the status and direction of education and learning in our country. It’s not that I pretend to have a great handle on where we are as a nation; however, in my travels to schools around the country, I noted that each school is engaged in some kind of journey that involves defining where they are and how to get somewhere.
In my morning reading regime, I came across a post by Jimmy Casas, entitled, ”Wherever You’re Going, You’re Almost There”. The author was describing a conversation that he had with a new assistant principal who asked him, “When did you know that you had finally gotten there?” The author shared that he had responded, “I’m not exactly sure. I guess that would depend on where I am headed and I haven’t quite figured that out.”
He went on to make the point “…that no matter how many years we serve in the role of school leader, we will never ever ‘get there’.”
But I had stopped processing at “I haven’t quite figured that out yet?” It was my “ah ha”, my “apostrophe”… we don’t really know where “there” is. Not for lack of folks trying to tell us. Way back in 1997 Kieran Egan summarized what he saw as the three major imperatives of our education system:
Note: This is a book length pdf file. If inclined to check it out, the first 5-8 pages should get you the idea. More required an adult beverage to two for me.
- We should socialize and acculturate our children – i.e., shape the young to the current norms and conventions of adult society;
- We should teach them the knowledge that will ensure that their thinking conforms to what is real and true about the world.
- We should encourage the development of each student’s individual potential.
- And most recently, the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (with some philanthropic assistance) told us we should make kids “college and career ready”.
A quick review of these various “goals” for education in America reveals (a) that there is inherent difficulty in simultaneously achieving goals which, as Egan points out, are inherently incompatible and (b) that our schools and their mission statements faithfully reflect the acceptance of these imperatives regardless of these incompatibilities.
So what does this mean? For me it means that, given the wide variety of potential “destinations” it’s hard to be wrong… or right – wherever you are going, you can be almost there. And that’s where we are – almost there or not. Almost college and career ready, or not. Almost socialized to the norms and conventions of the country, or not. Almost reaching our individual potentials, or not. Almost certain that our students knowledge of the world is real or true, or not.
I realize that what was most outstanding about the exceptional schools that I visited was that they – the students, the parents, the school/district leaders, and the teachers were all clear about where they were going. And because they knew that, they were also able to assess where they were on that journey – and look at initiatives and strategies in the context of that destination.
I recall reading an observation by Steven Covey that we have gotten much better at the management of our clocks and calendars while spending far too little time on checking our compasses. I’ve seen Covey’s observation in action. The healthiest and most highly functioning places I’ve seen pay very special attention to identifying their compass heading, to assessing their progress and making course corrections.
- How intentional is your school, district, classroom about having a clear compass heading?
- Who set/sets the course for the school?
- How do you check to see if you’re on course?
- Have any “apostrophes” you’d like to share?