Where’s the Apostrophe When You Need It?

One of my favorite authors is Susan Scott. She’s written about the importance and process of having productive difficult conversations. Her works include Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership. I’ve used them in my coaching work and they provide an excellent approach to doing something that too many of us have had to approach with little or no formal training.




In one of her talks she recounts a conversation she had with her young, school age daughter who returned home from school and announced that she had had an apostrophe in school that day. Scott was confused and asked her, “An apostrophe?” Her daughter continued, “Yes, Mom, an apostrophe. You know…a new idea.” Aha, thought Scott, “an epiphany”.

As many of you know, I have focused a lot of my recent learning on the differences between having students (and adults) learn how to do school as opposed to how to focus on doing learning. I’d like to call your attention to a piece I read recently that might add additional depth/insight to this.

A recent post by Bruce Dixon in Modern Learners brought Scott’s story back into focus for me. Dixon begins his piece by calling attention to the issue of bells in school. He quickly moves to a much larger question. The issue of bells

…leads to broader issues around the structure of the school day, the structure of learning groups, and how the physical learning environment best serves those outcomes.

All of which begs the question, why do we do what we currently do in our schools? Are we doing the right things by our students, or just doing the wrong things right, because that’s the way we’ve always done it?

The answer isn’t bells or no bells, 40, 50 or 100 minute lessons, or mixed aged or segregated classes. The answer is found in our beliefs about how our students learn, and under what conditions they will learn most powerfully and deeply.

Dixon continues and refers to work by  Seymour Papert (“Why School Reform Is Impossible”)  in which he suggests (and this is the ‘apostrophe’ that has yet to reach critical mass):

“The structure of School is so deeply rooted that one reacts to deviations from it as one would to a grammatically deviant utterance: Both feel wrong on a level deeper than one’s ability to formulate reasons.”

Dixon extends Papert’s conclusions by adding …

“So the biggest and fattest myth is that the learning needs of our young modern learners today are well served by the traditional model of schooling.“

And here lies the apostrophe/epiphany. It is the realization that schooling does not equal learning and, in too many instances, it doesn’t even lead to learning… other than the learning about how to ”do” school. Schooling as designed and refined in its current form emerged in the late 19th century is not sufficient for the needs of our current time. But not only is it not sufficient, there is growing evidence to support the conclusion that it is impeding the response to such needs.

Aided and abetted by the questionable motives of some “school reformers”, we are witnessing an unprecedented decline in confidence in our public schools (and by extension our teachers). We are seeing the “selling” of charter schools, expanded choice options, and a rise in the home and unschooling movements.

Even the recent high profile competition organized and led by the widow of Steve Jobs, the XQ Superschool Initiative, which offered awards of $10 million to successful designers, focused on the re-creation of school.

Apparently, wealth and good intentions do not equate to apostrophes and epiphanies.

In a recent presentation for approximately 150 teachers and administrators , I asked the participants how many had learned something within the past month by going to YouTube.  I saw a sea of hands. I then asked how many had done this either during school hours or from within the school building. Three hands!

The apostrophe. This is no longer 1890. It is no longer 1990. Schooling is not learning. Schools as models and, perhaps, centers of learning will and should continue. Schooling with its focus on efficiency, convenience, compliance and standardization should not and cannot.

Dixon concludes

“Perhaps the truly biggest myth about school change is about its possibility. So little has been changed by so few, that many still find it hard to believe it’s even possible. Maybe we should start by busting some of the myths that endorse our existing model of school and create some truths that better reflect the realities of learning in our modern world.”

Where would you start? What Myths would you start to explore?

And so, the next post reveals itself…why is change so hard? Exploring Dixon’s assertion ”the biggest myth about school change s the possibility of change”… why is that? What are the implications?



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