Moving Beyond What Is…

In our last post, “How to Climb the Right Mountain”, I suggested that defining what we wanted our students to know, to be able to do, and to be like was a foundational starting point for taking a look at where we are and where we might want to go. I then shared how our beliefs might support or impede our progress.

I hope you’ve been able to take some time and explore the beliefs that are currently driving your school. The schedule, the time of year, the normal, and sometimes crushing, demands of everyday school operations may not have allowed you to look at this deeply as a staff.   Recognizing these pressures, I urge you to do this, at minimum, as an exercise for yourself and, even better, with a small group of “lifeboat” colleagues.  This post adds “Next Steps” to that process.

This past week I had the opportunity to listen to an interview with two theoretical physicists who had recently been able to document the accuracy of a prediction made by Einstein that large celestial bodies sometimes crash together. The scientists, after years of experimentation, had been able to construct equipment that was able to detect the evidence of such activity. The news reverberated throughout the scientific community.

The interviewer asked one of the scientists how he had managed to maintain his sanity throughout such a long and frequently disappointing process. His answer spoke to me and is applicable to all of us who are engaged in the work of trying to shift the direction of schooling. He shared that he and his colleagues discovered the importance of savoring the little advances, the small victories, so that they wouldn’t allow the enormity of their goal to overwhelm and dishearten them when things went awry.

It reminded me of a book that I too frequently forget in my impatience to ‘re-imagine school and learning’. A while back I mentioned a book about the life of St. Francis entitled, Francis: The Journey and the Dream (Murray Bodo, O.F.M.). In it, the author shares the wisdom that it is the dream that makes the journey possible, but it is the journey that makes the dream a reality. And so the dream of reforming the way we value and enable learning begins with the steps of the journey.

One of the beliefs that I’ve developed on my own journey is that we cannot leave important things to chance. To achieve the reality of anytime, anyplace, any pace learning, we have to bring intentionality into our practice and into our culture.   And so, on to the next step in the “journey”… moving beliefs to consistent actions.

In almost all cases within the realm of my experience, the exercise of identifying the core beliefs that we hold has revealed some areas in which we can readily recognize that our actions are either not consistent with our beliefs or are not having the desired effect. Here are several examples.

  1. We believe that we learn best when we see the relationships between concepts but we continue to organize the school day into discrete content blocks with connections occurring only accidentally.
  2. We believe that students learn at different paces and are subject to varying levels of readiness but move the classes through material in lockstep fashion, based almost exclusively on age.
  3. Based on the mission statements in many of our schools, we appear to have a strong belief that the role of schools is to help form/develop productive and contributing citizens but we typically report only on things like scholarships earned and post-secondary acceptances with direct feedback limited to those students who return report their experiences.

As I write this I’m imagining the responses… You mean we should trash the curriculum based on discrete content courses? You mean we should not group kids by age and do away with grade levels? Come on, that’s just not possible! It’s a sure route to searching EdWeek for my next job.

Unfortunately, in most communities I suspect you’re right. Does that mean that you have to give up your beliefs because you can’t get there immediately? I don’t believe that and the interview with our theoretical physicists reinforces this. They took pleasure and acknowledged the small steps along the way. They didn’t give up because they didn’t hit a home run on the first swing. So what might smaller steps look like?

An alternative to discrete content organization – You may recall a while back I referenced the Apollo School in York, Pennsylvania. This is a high school program within a school that integrated English, social studies and art into one block of time as a starting point or “little bet” to explore a way to intentionally act on and validate their beliefs.

An alternative to age grouping – This involves the practice of flexibly grouping children in Language Arts in grades 1-3 to allow them and their teachers to match learning experiences with their competency and readiness levels. The flexibility comes from allowing the students to fluidly move between groups based on their performance. Can’t be done? Tell that to the Montessori folks.

Take a look at a random sampling of mission statements that I’ve pulled from school/district websites.

Mission statements (Italics mine)

The mission of the XX School District is to create a quality, caring educational environment and to develop academic, vocational and social programs that will enable students to achieve their highest potential in personal growth; and that the family, the community, business and industry will share in the responsibility to prepare students to function as effective citizens in an ever-changing global community.

We, the XX School District, in partnership with our families and community, are dedicated to providing each student with relevant educational experiences that develop well-rounded, productive citizens in our diverse world…

The XX experience, a community partnership, will assure our students challenging learning opportunities that are shaped by the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards in order for them to become contributing members of society.

The mission of the XX School District, a diverse metropolitan “hometown” working together as a unified community, is to provide unlimited opportunities that maximize everyone’s potential to be a life-long learner and a contributing member of society.”

I imagine if you check your own district’s mission statement, it is likely that you will find similar references. We’ll assume for now that the focus on the development of life long learning and productive/effective citizenship are pretty common. Now see if you can find any references to intentional efforts to contact graduates to ascertain the achievement of this aspect of the mission.

I’ve asked this question repeatedly and, with one notable exception, the best I can come up with is something like this… “We tried it once or twice but the return rate was terrible.”

The intentionality lesson resides in the notable exception… having experienced disappointment with the return on their initial attempts to engage graduates in the process, the solution involved having the kids identify their favorite teachers before leaving school and making the survey contact via a personalized postcard from the students’ favorite teachers. The return rate was excellent. This was an excellent example of connecting beliefs to intentional actions.

The conclusion… if you want to bridge the gap between beliefs and actions, you blend beliefs with intentionality. You look at what you say you believe and look for intentional actions that can consistently reflect these or, turning this on its head, you look at what you are doing and deduce from these actions what you appear to believe. The dissonance between what you profess to believe and what your actions and school culture communicate is the starting point for action.

compassIs this a startling or earthshaking conclusion? Hardly. However, the dissonance between our beliefs and how we actualize these is, too often, startling. Our beliefs are our compass. Revisiting them helps us to define the “right thing”. Intentionally, synchronizing our beliefs with our actions is a critical step in avoiding simply trying to do the wrong thing better.

What Can I do?

Start small… begin with a the small group of “lifeboat colleagues” and complete a beliefs analysis:

  • Begin with the Robinson list of the beliefs which have been formative in the development of schools as most of us have experienced them. Here’s a shortened list of just those beliefs that have formed the basis for the ways in which have traditionally approached learning
    • Students learn best when learning is organized into separate subjects
    • Students learn best when learning is separated by ringing bells
    • Students learn best when students work in isolation and within groups organized by age
    • Students learn at the same rate and pace
    • Students learn best when standardization, compliance and conformity are high priorities
  • Do you agree/disagree with his list – i.e., do you feel that school should be organized according to these beliefs?
  • In what ways does your school reflect these beliefs? What actions, policies, procedures support Robinson’s list?
  • Assuming your group rejects one or more of the items on the list, what intentional actions might you take to reflect your belief – i.e., assuming a rejection of Robinson’s last item, what intentional actions might be taken to reflect the re[placement belief?

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