Shouldn’t We At Least Try?

Note:  Please understand that my thoughts as expressed here are increasingly focused on what is becoming a reality here in the US.  As the data from the COVID-19 grows increasingly alarming, we are faced with an emerging forced choice situation… our lives or our jobs.  Thrust squarely into the forefront is the reality that right smack in the middle of all that is pressure to get our kids back in school.

In discussions of this dilemma, we are hearing with increasing frequency that we cannot resuscitate the economy without re-opening the childcare function of our schools.  If we are able to put risking the lives of kids and educators aside in service to the economy, we are then confronted with the reality that, despite almost heroic efforts by educators (with little or no preparation or experience) to create and manage remote instruction, our experiences with remote instruction did more to highlight problems equitable access than they did to create opportunities for effective learning. The basic premise of this short series of posts is that there will be no return to “normal”.

I have found no clear roadmap for navigating a course though these unprecedented times.  Nor do I pretend that my words provide a definitive answer. I write because I believe that we are faced with a challenge and an opportunity.  I believe that we are living in a time of increasing separation that has been growing for some time.  I believe that our schools and legions of hard working educators have been victimized by several decades of “reform” that has left our kids tested, sorted, and disengaged.  More importantly, there is increasing data that reveals a frightening increase in the incidence of pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, and depression. I believe the areas of focus that I’ve included in this post offer us the opportunity to organize experiences for our children less around what we know, in our hearts matters most for the development of healthy, caring, curious, and connected learners. I believe that we have sacrificed the opportunity for our kids to learn how to learn, to learn how to do and to learn how to be to the false idols of efficiency.  My fondest hope is that something in these words touches your soul and offers the encouragement to create a whole new normal.  Be well.

As I was reflecting on an introduction to this follow-up post to last week’s “Reopening… Doing the Right Thing”, EdWeek came through with a gift… “Scheduling the COVID-19 School Year”. This was the second in a series entitled, “How We Go Back To School”. Here is the EdWeek description of the series… “These times are unprecedented. Through these eight installments, we will explore the steps administrators need to take to ensure the safety of students and faculty.” This (the second) installment begins with the following…

Five days a week, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. That traditional school day—so coveted now for its normalcy and essential contribution to how our families, communities, and economy function—probably won’t make a full comeback this fall.

Some school communities will forge ahead with a return to the typical school calendar, but that carries large risks. If there’s an outbreak of the coronavirus, they’ll have to shut down abruptly. But in many school districts, the sheer numbers of students and staff members will make a traditional day impossible under social distancing protocols that public health officials say are necessary as the pandemic persists. The math just doesn’t work when students must stay six feet apart from one another and their teachers.

That’s why a mash up of online schooling and in-person instruction—what we’re calling hybrid scheduling models—is likely to be prevalent this fall.

There are multiple variations of these schedules, and they provide the most flexibility to schools. They also present some of the most challenging logistics and may be especially taxing for teachers who must prepare lessons and instruction for two modes: virtual and in-person.

The authors then moved on to describe a number of school schedules that might be possible and offer analyses of the pros and cons of each option.  To save you some time, most of the article focuses on the mechanical/physical aspects of getting kids and adults back into buildings (and out of their homes).  Given the problems involved with social distancing, transportation, delivery (in-person or remote) of a fixed curriculum, the focus is understandable.  The ways in which various proposed schedules impact learning (whether positively or negatively) get little attention.

But What If…

What if the editors of EdWeek had begun with a different focus?  What if they began the series with the question, “What is the purpose of school in the context of the changing world?”  What if they looked at the purpose through the lens of the people who have lived through the various iterations of remote learning?  What if they looked at how the much coveted normalcy of the school day actualy did or didn’t support the development of the things that parents and educators have identified as “sacred”?  Remember these from my last post?

Sacred Screen Shot

From Big Question Institute Webinar – Will Richardson, Homa Tavangar

In that initial post I suggested that we would be visiting the ‘How” of reopening school from this perspective.  If you find that you are committed to reopening school as true to the model we have used for the past hundred years, the EdWeek series is a good starting point.  However, if you are seeing the need to reorient and reimagine the ways in which learning takes place for both our kids and ourselves, here goes…

Begin with Unlearning

Most of us who have made our way through a variety of schools and levels of education have developed explanations for the way our world works.  Jean Piaget is credited with offering a starting point for us.  Piaget suggested that, by the time a child enters school, he/she has developed explanation for about 90% of how the world works… and that the majority of these explanations are most frequently WRONG.  When we’ve encountered kids in school who seem to be struggling to learn something new Piaget suggests that they are NOT having trouble learning.  They are having trouble Unlearning – i.e., discarding the explanations that they brought with them.

When someone suggests that in reimagining the way learning can/should occur in schools, they often suggest we should be offering our students more agency – i.e., more opportunities to select what and how they wish to learn – or, maybe,  we should do  away with grades, or make failure a non-option, etc.,etc.    But our experience in schools and with schooling tells us that this can’t work… that kids aren’t capable of using such agency wisely.  They need grades for motivation.  But why is that?  What if it’s not because they aren’t capable but because schooling as they and we have experienced it, has trained them to be just who they are.

Wait! What?  You mean they are capable?  You mean our explanations for their lack of engagement, their lack of independent thought, their lack of motivation and responsibility are wrong?  That’s exactly what I mean and exactly where we must begin if we want learning to be something other than what it was pre-pandemic.

We have to recognize that grouping kids by age, telling them what they MUST learn, telling them they’re good or not so good based on test scores, teaching them that learning occurs in specific blocks of time focused on separate content areas might be great for adult convenience, but it creates the complaints that too many of us have heard in the faculty room and that we approach.

If we don’t begin with a willingness to unlearn, there is no reason to begin.

Spoiler Alert #1 – This is about changing schooling.

Spoiler Alert #2 – If you choose to continue, you’ll be entering a world where you’ll be doing more work than I will… Take another look at the “What Everybody Says” list. We’ll work with this for a bit as a starter.

Spoiler Alert #3 – This is not intended to the “THE” approach.  I believe there is no “THE” approach.  This is “AN” approach for those who resonate both with the notion that is time to change schooling and to seriously ask the “what if” questions.

Why this and why a starter?

Exploring the ways in which we can/should change schools and schooling will demand that we think in terms of and answer some Big Questions.  How we’re going to route the buses to accommodate a split rotation of classes when we open is NOT a “Big Question”. It complicated.  It’s important but it’s not BIG.  Why we should have school? What is the purpose of school? These are BIG questions.

To be able to explore such questions, we’ll need to (1) acknowledge that this may be necessary and (2) provide the emotional space for people to share openly some things that they may never have questioned or, at least, not recently questioned.  The “What Everybody Says” list provides the starting point for some big questions. It’s up to us to ensure that we provide the safe space. The process also provides another key aspect of safety, the honest invitation for professional educators and members of the school community to explore.  Simon Sinek calls this zone, the “Circle of Safety”.  This is not a “top down” exercise.

The process (quick summary)This is not a one month process.  It is not a “quick fix”.  It is a question about who we want to be, who we want to become.  It’s a time for “what if?” questions. It’s a time for “couldn’t we at least try?” questions.  It a time for “how can I help?” questions. It a time for “What matters?” questions.  We begin with “Why?”

To get started, begin with “the list” and then identify your own list of sacred climate issues – i.e., your own version of the “What Everybody Says” list.  Then, with this revised list, make a list of what actions in your school demonstrate that such an item is important. Then review your list of actions, policies, procedures, etc. to see what you could be doing but you’re not.  (Be careful here… very frequently discussions about such lists devolve into “if only the state, if only the district, if only the board, etc. would allow us, permit us, etc.”).  This is not about what “others” could/should be doing.  It’s about what you can do in your district, your school, your classroom (even if it’s a bit subversive) to prove that relationships, that equity, that diversity, that social emotional health matter.  Finally, make a list of practices, policies, procedures, etc. that may actually be counterproductive.

Suggested Steps…

The first stepestablish a framework for discussion.  Look at the “What Everybody Says?” slide… do you agree? Do you think your colleagues agree? This is best done individually to start.

The second step (ideally done in small groups or with small steering working group as a starter) … Validation – i.e., do you agree or disagree with the items on the list? From your perspective, there may be some thing(s) missing.  Feel free to add any that you feel should have made the list.  This will reveal what matters to you.  Product of this work will be a consensus on new list. If consensus is not possible on some items, out them on a “parking lot” list that you may revisit.

The next stepInterrogation – i.e., what if we began our “what should learning look like” process with an interrogation of our beliefs about schooling, learning and purpose? In the validation step we looked at the list of the “sacred” and asked ourselves if we would agree with any or all?  In the Interrogation Step, what we are looking at is not just how important we believe these things are in the big universe but how important they are in the culture of our school and what are the actions that validate our rating.

Example: How important is the development and nurturing of relationships in our students?  Give it a rating from 1-10. Do this for each of the items listed.  If you’re like most of the respondents, you would have mostly 8-10’s.  Now the fun part – Take one that you’ve ranked highly.  Write down the intentional things that your school does to promote/support that item.  Then write down a list of things that your school does either intentionally or unintentionally that hinder the development of that item.  Work your way through the list.

Next stepSummary – i.e., What conclusions can you draw from your interrogation?  Have you identified topics that you feel are very important but where there may be few, if any, actions which demonstrate that importance? Suppose you rated the development and nurturing of relationships very highly but noted teachers know very little about the outside interests of their students?

Big Question… What would your school, your classroom look like if your actions matched your intent?

Key take-aways from this process —

  • What’s important to you as an educator, to your school community? – i.e., What Matters?

o Is how you spend your time, energy, resources consistent with What Matters?

o Is this importance visible?

o What could you be doing more of/doing better?

  • How does remote instruction help/hinder these important areas of focus?

o What have we learned about helping remote instructional experiences and blended schedules advance these important areas of focus?

  • Are there institutional (policies, practices, procedures) blocks to these “sacred” items

We are faced with choices, perhaps even the chances of a lifetime.  When I was in grad school, I recall an exchange between a fellow grad student and our instructor who happened to be the dean of the graduate school of education.  In response to a particularly insulting question from the young student, the dean paused and then offered the following, “Son, I’ve seen your future. It doesn’t work.

Our system of schooling that has been largely unchanged since it was designed in 1893. It doesn’t work for many in 2020.  It hasn’t worked for some time.   It leaves far too many children disengaged.  It contributes to increasing levels of stress, anxiety and depression.  It too frequently reduces student learning to test scores on instruments whose value and accuracy is increasingly under attack.  Most importantly, it has not responded to the change in our world.  It seeks to improve by looking backwards at what many of us working in education remember fondly.  We continue to define our purpose as passing increasing amounts of information from one container (the minds of teachers) to another container… the brains of the students.  Our purpose must be greater than that.  Learning is now taking place in a context far removed from the needs of the industrial age and not yet in concert with today’s context.

Young people throughout the world are telling us that schooling as we have experienced it is not how they learn.  They are learning beyond the walls of the school and within them as well.  As we prepare for the return to school, what would happen if we acknowledged that we have been given an opportunity… an opportunity to question why we would continue to group our students by age, treating those whose progress is slower as failures often ineligible for the very experiences that excite them, to question why we teach a rigid curriculum of content disconnected from real world relevance, to question why we bring all students to school in the morning and send them home in the afternoon.

Here’s the message.  We fear the status quo.  Change threatens that status quo and our emotions tell us to resist, to not abandon the familiar.  The truth is that in many aspects of our lives, the status quo has been shattered for us… shattered by the COVID pandemic. For months now, school has not been the same for us, for our students, for our parents. We can see already that our schools will not return to the status quo when we reopen them.

To paraphrase my grad school professor, “We’ve seen the future.  It will be different!”  We have the opportunity to define “different”.  We’ve seen firsthand what happens when we allow politicians to make decisions about medical/health issues.  We’ve also seen firsthand what happens when we give legislators the power to define learning.  The “how to” steps I’ve shared here are not the only steps that educators can take to define and design for what matters.  They may not be the best steps.  They are the first steps.

What Next?

I am a member of a small team of educators who are committed to the need to support change in schooling and learning.  We are fans of the concept of “little bets” – an approach based on our experience that not everyone is ready at the same time and for the same degree of change.  We are not a business.  If you have moved beyond “why change” to “how do I/we” change, we are looking to support you.  Working with kids and schools both nationally and internationally has enriched our hearts for many years.  We are part of the gift economy and accept no payment for our support.  For more information, please contact me at


Be well

One thought on “Shouldn’t We At Least Try?

  1. Once again you have driven the nail to the core of the problem . I worry about my granddaughter, who will soon be 3, my great- nephews and niece…what will education be for them? What will the WORLD be for them? Thank you, Rich, for putting these deep, thought provoking articles out here for us to ponder.


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