Reopening… Doing the Right Thing

The next few posts on this blog will focus on the options available to educators as the time of possible reopening of our nation’s school gets closer.  On so many levels this is a time unprecedented in our lifetimes.

Our lives, our mobility, our jobs, and our families have been disrupted by COVID-19.  On the heels of this disruption, we have been reminded of the disparities in our society and the ways in which “otherness” continues to challenge and weaken connectedness.  We are seeing a breakdown/failure of major social institutions.  We have watched our health care system become overwhelmed as the virus spread and taxed, almost beyond capacity, our health care facilities and our frontline medical workers.

In the wake of deaths of black citizens (both male and female) caused by police officers, we have watched as our system of law enforcement and public safety became so beleaguered in the face of rioting/rebellion that police stations in several cities were simply abandoned.  As I write this, officials in Seattle are seeking to “take back” a section of that city that had been yielded to protestors. Calls for the “defunding” of police departments continue to increase and  gain momentum.

Writing about education in the face of these challenges to our very existence and our way of life seemed, at first, to focus on the “small stuff”.  And yet as we have experienced the shut down of our schools, the moving of the place of learning from the school house to the family house, the impact of our forced experiment with remote learning  on learning, the loss of social connection by adults and kids alike, I come to the conclusion that this is not small stuff.

So I hope you stay with me as I explore how this “reopening of school moment in time” begs, or more accurately, demands more than just finding the right, safe mix of schooling and social distancing.  Is the system that shut down the one we wish to reopen? This is a big question and this is a time for big questions!

I want to share a bit of a “roadmap” for what I’ll be suggesting.

While I’ve decided to tackle this journey, I won’t be doing it alone.  I’ll be drawing on the work of many others who have already begun this exploration and whose work has touched many.  I encourage you to check out the links to explore in greater depth the thinking and provocations of some very special people.

As I began working on this series of posts, I came across a piece in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson.  He had me at the title. “Why America’s Institutions Are Failing.”

He speaks here of the theme of his article…

“Why have America’s instruments of hard and soft power failed so spectacularly in 2020? In part because they are choking on the dust of a dead century. In too many quarters of American leadership, our risk sensor is fixed to the anxieties and illusions of the 1900s.”

“The failures of our law-enforcement agencies and public-health systems are not one and the same. But our orientation toward militarized overpolicing and our slow-footed response to fast-moving pandemics both stem from an inability to adapt our safekeeping institutions to the realities of the 21st century. Lost in the anxieties and illusions of the past, United States institutions have forgotten the art of change in a changing world.”

…“Lost in the anxieties and illusions of the past, United States institutions have forgotten the art of change in a changing world.”

 Suddenly this wasn’t an article about the failure of our health care system or our concerns about the direction of policing.  It was also unintentionally describing the failure of our system of education to move beyond the content, the structure, organization and priorities as defined by the Committee of Ten Committee of Ten in 1893!  This was about the reality that the discussions and planning that we are seeing are largely focused on how we might best recreate the schools we had prior to the pandemic when the world around us has changed more than the Committee of Ten could have ever imagined.

In a recent webinar webinar entitled “New Leadership Lenses for Reopening Schools” offered  by the newly formed Big Picture Institute, Will Richardson and co-founder Homa Tavangar provided a framework for moving beyond the return to a “new” normal… a chance to reorient ourselves and reimagine what school might be if we acted more consistently with the things we view as sacred in providing learning environments for our children.

It is an opportunity narrative and is not intended to diminish the myriad of logistical questions and issues which must be addressed to provide the safest learning environments for our children and their teachers. The connection to Thompson’s article in The Atlantic is striking. The message is clear.  If we are to reverse the trend of failing institutions caused by our propensity for looking backwards, we must acknowledge that the world has changed far more dramatically than our system for learning has responded.  We have been “marching backwards into the future”.  The context for learning is vastly different as must be the purpose of our learning.  We are now faced with the opportunity to correct that course.  We are in a time that demands the writing and telling of a new story.

I’d encourage you to spend some time with Will and Toma as they share the lenses and speak to the opportunities they have developed to help teachers and school leaders incorporate these into their planning for learner centered education.

I have often shared the thinking of Charles Eisenstein Charles Eisenstein .  Charles gained national attention with the publication of his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. In this work and in other writing Charles offers that we are living in a time which is in between stories…a time when it has become increasingly obvious that the story which prevailed when most of were growing up is no longer valid. That story told us that if went to school, worked hard, did well, we would be able to go to college, get a good paying job and have a secure retirement. For the majority of Americans if that story is not dead it is certainly dying. Charles, Will and Homa suggest it is time for us to write a new story and that story must begin with reimagining our options for education and learning.

While we are understandably nervous, perhaps even frightened, by the change in our roles and in our lives that reorienting how our children learn will involve, there is a greater than ever number of educators and families who are calling for options to simply returning to a newer version of schools designed in and for the 1890’s.

Where Do We Begin?  An Inro to Big Questions…

We Begin with Big Questions.  Thompson, in his The Atlantic article speaks to the issue of being trapped in rearview mirror planning.  I would add to that that we have also become seduced by the lure of the quick, decisive “fix”.  Leaders are valued for their decisiveness.  They are rarely asked about their problem solving or analytical skills.  We need look no further than our recent responses to societal dilemmas… the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on illiteracy, the war on terrorism.  How well have these worked for us?   One doesn’t need 20/20 hindsight to see that in each case almost no attention was paid to root causes.  Deeper analysis would have gotten in the way of the valued quick, decisive action.  You might note that we continue to have problems with drugs, poverty, terrorism, etc.

When we look at the lens of our current world, we see challenges related to a world threatened by our response to the pandemic, a world struggling with the proliferation of what seem to be endless wars,.  One needn’t look too far in the future to recognize the possibility severe economic  recession/depression.  Even more likely in pour future are problems caused by the accelerating changes in our environment.  The world our children are or will be entering is not one well served by a system of education (whether public or private) designed and little changed since 1893!

Since the recommendations made by the Committee of Ten, which roughly divided education into preparation for college or preparation for work, we have witnessed the transition from an agricultural to an industrialized to an information-based, technology rich society.  And as Russell Ackoff pointed out we have focused our attention on trying to do education in this context right  – i.e., we have focused on uniformity (children grouped by age), scalability (a move away from locally contextual learning needs to national standards and assessments), efficiency computer-based “personalized” instruction, and metrics based increasingly complex and frequent large-scale assessments.  Ackoff asserts that this is far different than trying to do the right thing.

We are being confronted with/offered the opportunity to revisit this focus on doing the wrong things right.

Let me share two starting points.

What do we hold “sacred” about schooling?  What are those things that we seem to agree upon as most important.  In surveying teachers and families in the wake of the remote learning response to the COVID pandemic,  Richardson and Havagar share the following list:

Sacred Screen Shot

If these are, in fact, as widely accepted as we believe, how can we not reorient our reopened schools to own the intentional creation of policies, practices, and procedures that incorporate them in the learning experiences of our children?

The list of all-stars whose thinking and explorations have driven my own explorations and who thoughts have given moral purpose as well as the courage to offer something do different from my usual writing would be incomplete without reference to Jan Resseger.  Nothing captures who Jan is, more than the introduction to her blog…

“That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.” —Senator Paul Wellstone — March 31, 2000

I want to be clear.  Just as Jan wrote about our moral obligation to insure that all children, regardless of social class, skin color, place of birth, must have the right to a free , sound public education, I believe that we are morally obligated to insure that our system of learning offers each and every child not the opportunity to return to school that comes as close to “school as normal” as possible,  but to a reoriented and reimagined system which guarantees that each and every child is offered the opportunity to enjoy what we as professionals and parents have identified as sacred/most important.

OK, I Got It But How Do We Start?

As I wrote in the introduction to this piece, this is the first in what now appears to be a two-three part series.  Focusing on the “how” is a useless venture if there is no acceptance of the why reorientation and reimagination is needed.  I’ll close this part of the thinking with a critical acknowledgement… considering, responding to and implementing the myriad of procedures necessary for reopening schools in ways that incorporate the best medical practices and minimize the health risks to all involved, whether they be children, teachers, schools staff, and parents is a herculean task.  To illustrate the magnitude of the process, here is a  link to a piece written by a school superintendent in my home state of New Jersey.  When I first saw the title, I assumed that it was written by someone with Borowitz aspirations.  A few lines in, I was transported back to my time as a superintendent and immediately gave thanks that I was no longer occupying that chair.

Charles Eisenstein writes that we are living in what he termed an “Age of Separation” – a time when we are separated from one another, from our institutions, and even from our planet.  The way out of this separation, offered by Charles, is the cultivation of empathy… the willingness to see the world through the eyes of the other.  As we move on to the “how” of reimagining how our children and their educators experience learning I’ll be asking you to explore both in your own heart and with others who work with you exactly what it is about the education of our children that is sacred to you.  I’ll be asking whether or not the way you choose to reopen school reflects what our hearts know is/want to make possible.  We don’t have to recreate 1890 with better technology.

Right now, before, before and during “remote learning” we have a system in which our kids grow to be increasingly disengaged as they grow in it.  We have system which on some levels contributes to the dramatic increases of pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, depression and youth suicide.  We have system which sorts kids and too often narrows their opportunities based on test scores using instruments that feed our desire for accountability rather than individual growth.

As Dr. Ryan suggests. The proper response to this reality is WAIT! WHAT? Followed by WHAT IF WE DID (fill in the blank), COULDN’T WE AT LEAST TRY (fill in the blank), HOW CAN WE HELP ONE ANOTHER? And finally, WHAT REALLY MATTERS?

Part Two of this short series will focus on how we can address each of Ryan’s questions. I hope you’ll be back.

On to how…

One thought on “Reopening… Doing the Right Thing

  1. Thanks for continuing with this blog, Rich.

    I’m going to borrow the quote “marching backwards into the future” because I know it will help get my point across while we work on our reopening plan this summer.

    Hope all is well. Keith

    On Sun, Jun 28, 2020 at 10:24 AM Rethinking Learning… wrote:

    > richardteneyck posted: “The next few posts on this blog will focus on the > options available to educators as the time of possible reopening of our > nation’s school gets closer. On so many levels this is a time > unprecedented in our lifetimes. Our lives, our mobility, our jobs, an” >


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