What Really Matters? …What Would Happen If?

What if we used this terrible time to explore and to rethink ideas which have now outlived their usefulnes? What if we harnessed the drive of our own best thinkers to do this?

Note #1: This is a guide, not a detailed step-by-step cookbook.  As we prepared this “how to” part of our series, we quickly realized that it could easily evolve into a book… a book no one had the time (or perhaps even the inclination) to read.  So, for whom is this guide intended?  Based on the readership history of this blog, it is likely that readers will include school/district leaders, formal and informal school leaders, as well as teachers seeking something more than a return to “normal”.  We assume a recognition that (a) the current response to schooling is unsustainable and (b) there is a readiness, or at least openness, to  do more than return to a system that was not serving far too many learners.

Note #2: I can think of no better introduction to a piece about changing the way we educate and prepare ourselves and our students for our time and its unique demands than the commencement address offered by Dr. James Ryan to the 2016 graduates of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.   I urge you to take a few minutes to enjoy Dr. Ryan’s remarks.  As you think about how to approach reimagining the way we support learning for both our adults and our students we hope you’ll be guided by Dr. Ryan’s thoughts.

Note #3: While I am the lead writer – i.e., blame all editing on me — a number of folks have contributed countless hours of reflection, discussion and on-the-ground work in schools to the process described here.  Tom Welch, Dr. Susan Clayton, Cameron Jones make up 3/4 of the 4 Amigos… an on-line collaboration that has brought together educators from Canada (Susan and Cam) and long time consulting colleagues  (Tom and I).  No acknowledgement would be complete, however, without our thanks to the work of Modern Learners, The Big Question Institute, and Will Richardson.

Context

Just as learning rarely occurs at desired levels when learning experiences are organized on a “one size fits all” approach, this is not a “one size fits all” formula for change.  It is an approach that will look a bit different in each place.  It is, however, based on several key ideas. 

We also recognize that not every school/district is ready for the comprehensive “best of all worlds” approach explored here. What we have learned in our work with schools throughout the country is that most “whole school reforms” and/or school transformations fail.  They fail, most frequently  because the leaders have forgotten that not everyone is at the same level of readiness at the same time.  

The reality is that some folks are almost always ready and willing to leap into the unknown.  Others will move, but only after they’ve seen the the first group land safely.  Some will claw the ground to remain where they are and where they are comfortable.  Our intent here is to (1) encourage people to think comprehensively and (2) focus guidance on those who driven to moving beyond the status quo.

Our thinking is based on an acceptance of the opportunity presented by the pandemic.  Clearly, and in spite of the promotion by tech companies of the wonders of personalized, remote learning opportunities, the experience of all participants…teachers, parents and kids… has played to mixed reviews at best. Reports from districts and schools throughout the country have revealed a series of concerns based on shifting conditions including concerns for the heath of children, concerns for child care, concerns for the health of adults, learning losses by kids (especially those with limited access to technology), and concerns of parents ranging from frustration with technology and juggling multiple children and hardware to the impact on their employment and family income. No one has come forward to speak to the benefits of continuing the current approaches.  Finding what’s next represents a daunting challenge for educators, made infinitely more complex by the almost daily crises that must addressed just to remain open.  

Our focus here is on those who are ready and is based on the presence of safe spaces…spaces where ideas can be explored and risks can be taken. The outline for action that follows rests on the foundation of relationships and common beliefs.  Moving to steps beyond these two critical foundations prematurely will both speed up the process  and most likely insure its failure.

Our approach is to acknowledge that the time remaining in the school year is NOT the time to ask for volunteers to add another task, opportunity, or responsibility to a life which, even without significant addition, is not sustainable.

This process is not about providing answers. If the answers were readily available, they would have been adopted by now.   It is about asking questions — asking bigger and better questions.  This is definitely NOT a whole school or whole district change initiative.  This is a process the offers the freedom to explore options which may then be tried by the “explorers” in the school/district.

The questions we use draw heavily on the work of Dr. James Ryan (see above). Our core question is… What if we used this terrible time to explore …to rethink ideas which have now outlived their usefulness?  What if we harnessed the drive of our best thinkers to do this?  Your work will involve an exploration of these and other BIG questions.

Preliminary work –  Not a task for the faint of heart

While it is tempting to believe that the work described in this  guide can begin immediately, the reality is that the conditions for success – i.e., quality of professional  relationships and safe spaces for exploration – are developed over time and are an intentional consequences of the patterns of communication and interaction that have been nurtured within your organization.  They are based on cultures of mutual trust and respect.

Recruit an “Explorers” Team…

Our goal is to recruit a team whose sole purpose will be to design a framework in which learning, not schooling, is the primary focus and to consider what might be possible if we did not make the return to normal our goal for post-pandemic schooling?  The work will involve reconciling the conflicts present in the following charts.  Bothslides come from a TED Talk presented by Will Richardson.  He explores the conditions which educators identify as the those present when powerful learning occurs with the conditions which are absent from their lists, but most fequently present in schooling.   What would happen if your “Explorers Team” began their work exploring the implications of these findings for your school?

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So who are we inviting? What are our expectations?

Just as we can’t assume that all readers of this blog are at a place in which this process is a “good fit”, not all members of an organization will find this guide comfortable or practical.  Rest assured, however, that in every organization we have ever visited, there is a cadre of change-ready folks.  An invitation may be their first exposure to the notion of organizational possibilities. We strongly recommend the use of an open, inclusive invitation process.  

Note: For those in collective bargaining states the following may be useful. (others may skip this section).

 In states and/or districts in which employee unions or recognized culture influencers exist, we recommend that the very first step in the invitation process is a preliminary opportunity for such folks to be involved as early in the process as possible.  

One of the most useful tools I have encountered in the development of productive conversations and practices is the process known as “interest-based” or “integrative” bargaining.  For those facing predictable opposition  we would strongly recommend the exploration of these approaches.  You can explore an introduction to the concepts  here.  

https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/interest-based_bargaining

Timing –

The first step in the process is to provide the space for people to focus without distraction. Translated into action, this means that the work of imagining the successor to the COVID experience cannot be an additional task added to the overburdened lives of those already overwhelmed by the demands of the COVID response.  Meaningful exploration of what learning and education can be/should be must take place not only in a safe space but with the time and commitment such a task requires. 

Given the limitations of staff availability and the work conditions imposed by the pandemic, we are suggesting a process that take places once the school current school year has concluded. 

The invitation – a critical step, a relationship enhancing process 

Invitation – talking points
  • I/we need your help.  
  • It’s clear that we will not be able to continue our current responses for educating our students in the post-COVID time and trying to recapture what school was prior to COVID ignores too many pieces that weren’t working.  
  • We are being handed a once-in-a-lifetime offer.  It’s an offer that shouldn’t wasted.  
  • We’re creating a team to explore the future of learning in our school/district. 
  • We’re setting aside 2 weeks for you and this small team of colleagues to focus nothing but that work.
  • This is an invitation to dream, to explore, to imagine – i.e.,  design the learning for the future.
  • We hope you’ll be interested in helping us explore and begin a move from our COVID responses to something entirely different… to something that places the learner at the center of everything we do, to something that expands learning to both inside the school and beyond.

What is the starting point?

Our starting point is the exposure of the “exploring” team to a scope of possible futures.  We begin with questions – BIG questions that quickly establish that the possibilities are virtually limitless.  

What if we didn’t make the return to normal our goal for post-pandemic schooling?  

What do we know about how we learn? How kids learn? Do the experiences we offer our students reflect this? What could we try?

Goal – to expose the explorers team to a scope of possible futures… to begin with questions.  It is not our intent that all of the following questions will have to be addressed.  Nor is it our intent that the group will recommend whole school change.  The purpose is to help the team focus on (1) what a post-COVID learning culture might enable (2) what learning for both adults and students could look like, and (3) encourage a few brave souls to explore these ideas themselves and with their students.

The questions that follow provide the opportunity for rich discussion as well as the exploration of possible futures.  In reviewing them we noted that, while important, they seem somewhat disconnected.  What connections do you see when you look at them?  How might you use them to begin or enhance team conversations about next steps?

One of my approaches is to use them as prompts for Dr. Ryan’s 5 questions (Wait- What?; I wonder (why/if); Couldn’t we at least?; How Can I help?: What Matters?).  They are an especially powerful tool to avoid the charm of leaping to quick fix xolutions. 

  • What if we crafted spaces and approaches to incorporate what we now know about the ways in which the brain works? Do we know how the brain works… what new neuroscience has revealed about learning?  
    • Wait…what? You mean that we might change our approach if we better understand the ways in which the brain and learning are connected?
    • I wonder why we continue to build/use a classroom structure with age-based cohorts.
    • Couldn’t we try to use some other organzing structure that’s better suited to how kids learn?
    • I wonder how we could help teachers better understand the brain-learning connection?
    • Is learning what matters or is it the preservation of structure that ae familiar?
  • What if we crafted a “new” normal for our teachers and for our learners?
  • What does it mean to be educated in a world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell fact from fiction? 
  • Is education the successful acquisition of facts?
  • What place should the acquisition of dispositions have in the experiences of learners?  Dispositions such as courage, compassion, curiosity, kindness, generosity?
  • Does being/becoming educated include an understanding of the context in which we find ourselves? — i.e., what is our current understanding of history?… how does understanding the context for our existence help us make better choices?
  • Is science best learned not as concrete, fixed, factual knowledge but as what we currently understand about the world around us?
  • What constitutes literacy? – Is it a functional skill… the ability to understand and express?
  • What if we did not make the return to normal our goal for post-pandemic schooling?  
  • What if we used this terrible time to explore, to rethink ideas which have now outlived their usefulness?  
  • What if we crafted spaces to incorporate what we now know about the ways the brain works? 
  • How do we honor the all-consuming challenge of trying to create safe meaningful opportunities for learning that address the needs of all involved in the process of educating our children… education leaders, teachers, parents, learners and all those involved  supporting this work?

Conclusion – 

The complexity of re-imagining schooling cannot be exaggerated.  Those of us working in education have been trained both by professional teacher preparation programs and our experiences as students and teachers.  We understand how schools work.  We take comfort in the familiarity and pride in our ability to be acknowledged for doing school so well.  Successful – i.e., durable – systems develop wonderful mechanisms of self-defense.  While often a strength, in times of rapid change, the durability of the system is often a liability.   

There is a growing body of evidence that reveals that the durability of our system has become a liability.  Even prior to the COVID, there was a growing sense that schooling as we knew and know it was no longer serving the needs of our young people.  Our experiences at the end of the last school year and at the beginning of this new one have highlighted the flaws in our system.  

This is not about achievement scores, COVID slides, or teacher accountability.  This is about hanging on to outdated ideas about how and where learning takes place, about how we (both children and adults) learn, about the very purpose of education or seizing the opportunity of this moment to better help our kids learn how to learn, learn how to do, and learn how to be.  Our national response to COVID has been mixed at best.  Let’s not allow the same conclusion to be drawn about the education of our children.

Thank you.  Be well.

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