PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS…

 Intro… This is the introduction to a series of posts.  These posts have been developed in response to a number of conversations that have occurred during the past year and will deal with where we are and where we are going – i.e., direction and our need to assess where we are going to go both now and in a post-COVID environment. 

As regular followers will have noticed, posts during the pandemic time have focused to some extent on how to manage the challenges of various forms of schooling that have emerged as temporary solutions to a situation beyond our experience.  The major focus continues to be the opportunity presented by this turning upside down of our schooling experiences to rethink learning and the role we can play in this process.

The story shared below describes the experiences of a child in our current iteration of schooling.  The choice of words here (“schooling”) is deliberate.  The vast majority of the experiences being provided to our children right now are still designed to resemble as closely as possible the experiences that our children have had in schools. Initially, this was understandable as, for many, the changes were made literally overnight.  As almost a year has now past, we are still struggling to reopen our school and to return the experiences of kids and educators to some semblance of “normal”.  Making changes during this time has been akin to trying to change a tire on a moving car.

Spoiler alert: Previously posted pieces as well as those in progress have as their foundation the recognition that prior to COVID disruptions our system of schooling was due for an update.  Designed to respond to the needs of the industrial revolution more than a hundred years ago, our educators and our children participate in a system that no longer meets the needs of our times, our children and our society.  This series continues an exploration of ways in which we might encourage and support efforts to move education beyond the misguided reform efforts of the past 30+ years.

PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS…

“This message was typed by a nine-year-old child, over and over again. In capitals and with relentless economy. An unmistakable SOS.”

This is the opening line from an essay, “The Home School Curriculum”,  that appeared this week in Lockdown Sceptics, a British site where the focus seems to be captured by the site name.  Where was the child and what was happening to her? She was at home. In her Geography class. On Microsoft Teams.

Her plea was captured in another article that appeared in the socially conservative British blog, The Conservative Woman.   It it the author outlined what a day at school is now like for a nine-year-old boy called Simon.  I’ve reproduced a large portion of the article in this post.

Recently, we had the opportuity to host 3 of our granddaughters who were in a remote learning week with a loss of home internet service. They were with us for 4 days. They each had what I’ll call “Simon moments”… moments of disconnect, moments of quiet rebellion, moments of confusion and moments of deep involvement.

“The cruel reality of online ‘school’ in a 12th floor flat”

Simon begins his school day by sliding the couple of feet from his bed to his computer – so the Conservative Woman article begins. We are not told that he gets dressed. Nor even that he goes to the bathroom. He turns on the screen, watches a few YouTube videos, then logs on to Microsoft Teams and registers for his first class of the day by typing ‘Hi Miss’ into the chatbox.

Has Simon woken up yet? Has he looked out of his window? Has he spoken? Or has he moved seamlessly between a dream land and a virtual land without traversing any real land at all?

…Simon’s first lesson of the home-school day is Science. His teacher sends through a document, which the class is expected to download. It is a multiple-choice questionnaire, and they have 30 minutes to complete it. If the children need help, which most of them do, they must type a question into the chatbox. The teacher tries to answer as many questions as he can, but there is not much time and there are many technical difficulties. At the end of the 30 minutes, Simon has not received any answers to his chatbox queries and has guessed at four out of the 20 questions. Next week, he may be told whether his guesses were correct. Or not. Either way, it does not matter.

We make a mistake if we focus on what Simon has not learnt during his Science lesson. He has not learnt much about the make-up of plant cells – that is true, and inevitable. But he has learnt something, of far wider relevance. He has learnt that it does not matter. Whatever is being taught does not matter – how could it, plucked from an already abstract National Curriculum, suspended onto a slide that appears, out of nowhere and in no context, on a screen in your bedroom on the 12th floor. But Simon also learns that whether or not he understands what is being taught does not matter, and whether or not he completes the teacher’s task does not matter. None of it matters, which Simon learns quickly and well.

The lesson that things do not matter is not easily taught, especially not to a nine-year-old. Its demoralising effect goes against the native energy of youth. It must be carefully and doggedly instilled if it is to take. Simon’s Science lesson has been effective in instilling it.

Simon’s next class is Geography. There is a long time spent in waiting for everyone to log on. Some never do. Then there is more time spent in waiting for the teacher to solve problems with her technology. Finally, she manages to share a screen image of the Earth with its various layers – crust, mantle, core. The task is to name each layer. Simon waits for others to write their answers first, and copies them. Many of the children ask for help. The teacher mutes herself for everyone so that she can speak individually to one of them. The others wait in silence. Or type PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS, over and over again. By the time the teacher returns, the class is at an end.

Simon’s Geography lesson is the cruellest one of all, the most painful for the children to sit through. In the context of their general remoteness, from the world, from each other, even from themselves, their teacher’s switching off their audio-link gives them the experience of an even greater remoteness. Of the outer reaches of remoteness. Of an isolation within what is an already aching isolation. Simon and the other children are not just left alone in their Geography lesson. They are switched off. Shut out.

Simon’s Geography lesson teaches him little or nothing about the Earth’s layers. Of course it doesn’t – confined to the 12th floor, what can the Earth’s layers really mean to Simon? What it does teach him is his radical aloneness, via a practical experiment in the sudden and total severance of his last thin thread of human contact.

Lunch, for Simon, is a sandwich in front of the screen, watching clips of Premier League highlights.

Then it is time for P.E. Simon is sent a video of someone doing star-jumps. He is expected to copy them in his room. But there is no room in Simon’s room. His efforts to recreate a star are hindered by the nearness of his bed to his desk and of his desk to the door.

Next to Simon’s efforts to make like a star in a bedroom too cramped for his arms and legs to extend, the sublime skills of his favourite Premier League stars shine brighter and more tantalisingly than ever before. Vicarious physicality effortlessly carries the day.

Simon quickly abandons his P.E. class, but not before he has learnt its valuable lesson: the literal and leaden limits of the physical. Simon’s P.E. class teaches him to despise his body, with its physical limits, its non-sublimity. A lump of meat in a meat space. Apt for nothing at all.

The final lesson of Simon’s home-school day is Drama. Simon used to love Drama, the article tells us. He used to enjoy doing acting exercises with his friends. Now, he is sent scenes from the National Theatre, which he does not understand at all. He watches funny videos of his own choosing instead.

Simon’s Drama class should be cancelled; you cannot do acting exercises with your friends on Microsoft Teams. But it is not cancelled. Instead, something is substituted for the collaborative inventiveness that Simon has so enjoyed about Drama: a heavy dose of the National Theatre, utterly uninteresting to Simon and his classmates, and inevitably leading them to turn on something more entertaining.

And the lesson of Simon’s home-school Drama class is thereby imparted: imaginative collaboration is exchangeable with personal entertainment; active creativity, replaceable by passive consumption. How long will Simon’s enthusiasm for acting exercises survive this lesson in lazy amusement?

And so ends Simon’s home-school day…

Dr Sinead Murphy is a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University.

Simon is frightened.  When you read his story you can almost feel his fright.  You don’t have to live “across the pond” to be a frightened child today.  Trauma surrounds us. We know that trauma greatly affects the learning of adults and children alike.  We know that our kids are being shuffled in and out of school. They’re hearing about parents of friends, their teachers, maybe their own parents being stricken with COVID. They’re reading or hearing about rising death tolls.  They wonder if they’re “spreaders”… If they might make their mom or dad sick. And we continue to measure their learning and describe it with traditional testing and grading practices.  We have the hubris to use terms like “learning loss”.

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to have spent almost 30 years as a classroom teacher.  In that time I’ve seen countless examples of teachers who made great sacrifices in their work with children.  Too frequently, they were under-resourced, too frequently blamed for student performance scores far more influenced by our continued reluctance to deal with poverty than by the limitations or commitment of their teachers and, more recently, vilified for their concerns for their own health and safety.

Our kids are not problems to be solved!  They are young, vulnerable and learning how to make sense of the world… learning about their place in that world. It is our calling to help our children learn “how to be” in their world.  Now, perhaps more than any time  in our lifetimes, it is critical that we provide those most deeply involved in the process of learning, our teachers and our learners with the voice necessary to ensure that we carefully (as in “full of care”) evaluate the experiences of our children so that we can identify and act on the things that we should start doing immediately,  the things that we should continue doing and the things we must stop doing immediately.  Do you wonder what the kids would put on such a list?

Coming themes:

  • Measure the Wrong Things and you’ll get the Wrong Behaviors – the unintended consequences of grades and assessments
  • What if opportunities were not limited by Zip Code – What does Jeff Bezos have to teach us about learning
  • The Development of the American Idiot – when self-interest trumps social investment
  • Learning Loss – Let’s create a bogus problem and then sell “fixes”

They never ask the right question…

The Little Prince, Antoine De Saint-Exupery

IMG_3580-3As regular readers may recall I’ve recently been able to experience what the internet has long promised to be… a means of bringing people together in ways that inspire deep, caring, and nurturing relationships.  Through an odd combination of networking experiences, the “4 Friends” has become such a mini-community.  One unanticipated outcome of this coming together is the recent opportunity to move our weekly “how to save the world and one another” chats to a live radio format.  Oh, did I forget to mention that 2 of the 4 Friends reside on Canada (one in BC and one in Ottawa)? Or that the remaining two live in NJ and Chicago? 

In preparing for our initial radio broadcast, one of the Friends (Tom/Chicago) suggested that we build our chats around the wisdom around The Little Prince, his favorite book.  And so it begins.  It begins with the title of this piece and the relationship between the quality of questions and the usefulness of answers.  

In thinking about the idea of asking “the right question”, I was reminded of a letter I shared in a recent post.  I posted it on Facebook as well and have lost track of the number of times that it has been shared.  The author is Theresa Thayer Snyder, a former superintendent of schools from New York State.  Her letter is entitled, “What Shall We Do About the Children?”

I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school. My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply. 

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history…

“What Shall We Do About the Children?”… The Little Prince would be proud.

Moving from The Little Prince to the hallowed halls of Harvard and thinking of the importance of questions, I was reminded of the beautiful  commencement address  by Dr. James Ryan in 2016. At that time, he was the Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. I’ve included the short version of this and hope you’ll find the time to look at it.  It’s one of the best written and best delivered commencement addresses I’ve heard (and in more than 40 years of working in schools I’ve heard a bunch).

In his address, Dr. Ryan speaks of the need to learn how to ask good questions and shares his sense of such questions.  As he concludes his talk, Dr. Ryan adds what he called “the bonus question”. It is taken from a poem by Raymond Carver titled “late Fragments”… His question… “Did you get what you wanted out of life…even so…?”

Ryan follows the revelation of this question with the following summary thoughts…

Did you get what what you wanted out of life… even so? 

The “even so” part this to me captures perfectly the recognition of the pain and disappointment that inevitably make up a full life but also the hope that life, even so, offers the possibility of joy and contentment. My claim is that if you regularly ask: wait, what, I wonder, couldn’t we at least, how can I help, and what really matters, when it comes time to ask yourself “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so,” your answer will be “I did.”

… And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel beloved on this earth

…When I read these lines it’s hard for me not to think about students. We spend a lot of time here and elsewhere thinking about we might improve student performance…yet I can’t help but think that schools and, indeed, the world would be better places if student didn’t just simply perform well but also felt beloved, beloved by their teachers and by their classmates.  

I can add little to the eloquence of the words of Theresa Thayer-Snyder or James Ryan.  What I can do is ask us to look at Ryan’s questions and to blend them with Theresa’s tenderness and ask the questions that Ryan suggests.

  • Wait! What …Wait! What do we mean by “What shall we do with the children?
  • I wonder…I wonder what would happen if we didn’t expect to finish the curriculum and prepare kids for state tests?  What would happen if we didn’t even use the curriculum?  What would happen if the experience of the pandemic became the curriculum?
  • Couldn’t we at least …Couldn’t we at least think about the things that we really don’t need to do? Couldn’t we at least abandon grades for this semester? this year?  Couldn’t we find time to talk about what matters?
  • How can I/we help …How can we help those families who are struggling? Those kids who have lost family members? Those kids who want to draw instead of doing math?
  • What really matters …What really matters?  The strength and resilience of our kids? The state test score? The completion of all assignments? That all kids feel wanted and beloved?

As I conclude this reflection, I’m reminded of an encounter I had some time ago with Tom Sergiovanni.  For those of you approaching my age, you might recall that name.  If you’re approaching my age and have been a part of an administrative preparation program, you’re almost certain to recall it. Sergiovanni wrote the text books on supervision and evaluation that most of us had to buy.  

Several friends and I had organized a professional conference for school leaders. We engaged Dr. Sergiovanni as one of the keynote speakers and took advantage of the opportunity to pick his brain by hosting him for dinner on the night before the conference.  Before we could even begin the obligatory display of gratitude for his presence, he held up his hand and said, “Before we begin I’d like to share something. If I could get all of my earlier books out of libraries throughout the country, I’d burn them. I believe now that everything I’ve written about supervision and evaluation was wrong!”

Wait!What?

“My focus in those works was on the process and mechanics of supervision/evaluation.  It is not about that. It was never about that. It’s about community and relationships.” Dinner was interesting.

In the face of the pandemic and all that we are learning about remote learning, about caring for our learners, about caring for ourselves, etc., what should happen if much of what we’ve been doing for the past 30+ years in the name of school reform and school improvement is wrong? I maintain that it is and so I’ll add three more questions from yesterday’s blog to those of Dr. Ryan and invite you to spend a bit of time with them.

  • What should we stop doing in our schools and in our classrooms,
  • What should we keep doing? and
  • What should we start doing? 

Be well.

Resources: Cover Image: The Little Prince, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

More Students Than Ever got F’s First Term…

We’re staring at an opportunity. Will we take it?

Last week I read a post shared by Diane Ravitch on her blog.  In her post, Ravitch reprinted a letter written in response to growing media coverage of calls for increased testing to assess the reported growing “learning gap” resulting from the reliance on remote learning during the pandemic.  You can read the entire post here .

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school. My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply. 

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history…

Teresa Thayer Snyder, former superintendent  Voorheesville district in upstate New York.

This letter went viral in no time.  It was posted on Facebook, shared and reposted countless times.  Contrast it with a  headline that appeared recently in EdWeek, “Should Schools Be Giving So Many Failing Grades This year?”

This Year?  This year? What about ANY year? 

As Teresa points out about kids trying to cope with the pandemic… “Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death.”

Is this the only year that many kids wonder where their next meal is coming from?  Is this the first/only year they’ve had to care for a younger sibling?  Is this the only year that they’ve had to deal with a missing grandma or losing a beloved pet?  If grades aren’t appropriate in the year of the pandemic, why are they any more appropriate in other years?  

What do we know about the origins of grading in the U.S.?

The first record of grading reaches back to 1785 when the President of Yale University implemented a four level system of labeling the learning of Yale students.  Grades didn’t make their way into the public school system until much later.  When they did, they also relied on a system of ratings that mirrored that of Yale.  I was surprised to learn that the practice of grading and using letters to denote the level of learning became popular as the enrollment of public schools grew dramatically in the 1930’s and 40’s.  The use was primarily one of adult convenience – i.e., the efficiency of recording letter/number grades instead of individual narratives for each child that emphasized the kind of standardization that served the growing need for equally trained workers.

What grading wasn’t and still isn’t…

At no time during the last two centuries has grading been used to measure actual student learning, unless one considers the recall of largely unrelated information to be learning. While we have moved from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy to a tech based economy, the practice and the form of grading have remained largely unchanged and continue to serve adult needs – i.e., facilitation of grouping decisions, standardized transcripts, easier admissions screening, etc.  The irony of this history is that, as we have become increasingly aware of the intensely personal nature of learning, we have continued to use (and frequently lament) the continued use of a system first introduced in 1785 while, at the same time, we are becoming increasingly distrustful of the integrity and usefulness of the system.

Why is grading still used?

moat-img_1356-1Why do we have a continued commitment to a practice that seems to have little to recommend it beyond the maintenance of something that we’ve experienced as students and that we inherited with little apparent option as we entered teaching.  

The answer is simple and the remedy complex.  Change is hard.  There are significant forces which we have developed to protect us from the uncertainty of change.  We gravitate to and seek to maintain the familiar.

Change is hard for us when it conflicts with our beliefs.  But how are our beliefs formed, maintained or even strengthened? 

Recent studies have revealed that our beliefs are formed, maintained and strengthened by bias.  Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis and Richard Rohr explore this in their  podcast  “Why Can’t We See”.  It’s a discussion of the role of bias in the way we both see the world and react to it. It turns out that change is hard for all of us to the extent that such change bangs head on into a belief that we hold… and many of our beliefs are, in fact, a bias or are a result of bias.  Bias, is a non-reflective belief – i.e., non-reflective in the sense that it is a belief held or formed prior to examination. 

Here are a few of the biases that are formative in our beliefs about our response to grading.  This list offers a look at several of the 13 biases that the podcast hosts cite as formative in our  observations and actions. This is NOT about grading per se but about the way we respond to ideas that challenge our beliefs about grading and the role grading plays in our professional lives.  

Confirmation bias: The human brain welcomes information that confirms what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks.

Complexity bias: The human brain prefers a simple lie to a complex truth. 

Community bias: The human brain finds it very hard for you to see something your group doesn’t want you to see. In other words, we put tribe over truth. 

Competency bias: Our brains prefer to think of ourselves as above average. As a result, we are incompetent at knowing how incompetent or competent we really are.

Conspiracy bias: When we feel shame, we are especially vulnerable to stories that cast us as victims of an evil conspiracy by some enemy or other. In other words, our brains like stories in which we’re either the hero or the victim but never the villain. 

Comfort, or complacency, or convenience bias: Our brains welcome data that allows us to relax and be happy, and our brains reject data that requires us to adjust, work, or inconvenience ourselves.

As you reflect on these biases, I’d encourage you to recall your introduction to grading.  For most of us this began sometime around age 5 or so and was directly related to how our parents reacted to the first report of our performance as students.  

“Richie is doing really well.  He’s actually a bit ahead of most of his classmates”… parent swells with pride, Richie gets praise (maybe even a quarter). Richie and his parents begin their love affair with competency bias.  Fast forward to entering the teaching profession.  Richie get a grade book.  He may or may not have gotten much instruction in its use unless you were in my school where I was told…  “Fill up the little boxes with numbers. Parents can’t/won’t argue with averages calculated with lots of numbers.”  By now the other biases are kicking in big time.  For most of us who continued we developed (or we hoped we did) a reputation of competency.  Whatever we were doing, there was only risk involved in doing something different.  Why risk my reputation as a competent teacher by challenging the practices of the community? 

Why, in the face of the most emotional and disruptive times we have experienced in our lives, do we persist in needing to give students grades?  In her letter, Teresa Thayer Snyder offers…

In our determination to “catch them (the students) up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God (Italics mine).We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone!

When we are in a comfortable place it’s not hard to see how our biases work to keep us there.  There is little to be comfortable about as we struggle with helping our kids, our families, our friends navigate a path through the COVID world.  

Homework!

As we explore what we have learned in this terrible pandemic, we might ask the following questions.  What policies, practices, procedures have proven counterproductive during the pandemic? Are they also problematic in the pre-and post-pandemic time?

For our purposes in this essay, consider the following…

Consider the possibility of eliminating grades in your classes, in your department or in your buildings.  Which of the biases listed above have you awoken? What would you need in order to move beyond limitations imposed by that bias?

Cartoon courtesy of Gary Larson, FarSide Gallery

What Matters

The following piece appeared on Diane Ravitch’s blog this morning.

Teresa Thayer Snyder was superintendent of the Voorheesville district in upstate New York. She wrote this wise and insightful essay on her Facebook page. A friend sent it to me.

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school. My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply.

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history.

I sincerely plead with my colleagues, to surrender the artificial constructs that measure achievement and greet the children where they are, not where we think they “should be.” Greet them with art supplies and writing materials, and music and dance and so many other avenues to help them express what has happened to them in their lives during this horrific year. Greet them with stories and books that will help them make sense of an upside-down world. They missed you. They did not miss the test prep. They did not miss the worksheets. They did not miss the reading groups. They did not miss the homework. They missed you.

Resist the pressure from whatever ‘powers that be’ who are in a hurry to “fix” kids and make up for the “lost” time. The time was not lost, it was invested in surviving an historic period of time in their lives—in our lives. The children do not need to be fixed. They are not broken. They need to be heard. They need be given as many tools as we can provide to nurture resilience and help them adjust to a post pandemic world.

Being a teacher is an essential connection between what is and what can be. Please, let what can be demonstrate that our children have so much to share about the world they live in and in helping them make sense of what, for all of us has been unimaginable. This will help them– and us– achieve a lot more than can be measured by any assessment tool ever devised. Peace to all who work with the children!

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.

Thinking beyond elections

Like many of us, we’ve spent the recent weeks trying to absorb what will happen on the day of, and those following, the election.  Will the election have a clear winner? Will the election results be contested? Will recent appointments to the Surpreme Court play a role? Is it possile that we are living in one of those rare moments that become chapters in tomorrow’s history books?  This morning I saw this quote from Winston Churchill in a post by Dane Ravitch. Isolated as we are from the familiar it’s easy to lose sight of what really matters. Churchill’s quote seems like a pretty stark reminder.

The foundation of all democracy is that the people have the right to vote. To deprive them of that right is to make a mockery of all the high-sounding phrases which are so often used. At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper — no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.

As I reflected on these words, I recalled a podcast we recently listened to.  In it, the participants, in seeking a response to the question, “Why Can’t We See”, explored the concept of bias and how our biases influence how we absorb (accept/reject) information.  In discussing this, one of the participants quoted a Latin phrase… “What is received is received in the manner of the receiver.” – i.e., our experiences shape our willingness/ability to receive new ideas.  

Since I am “tuned” to education and learning, here’s how I heard Churchill…

With apologies to Winston…

The foundation of all education  is that children have the right to learn. To deprive them of that right is to make a mockery of all the high-sounding phrases which are so often used. At the bottom of all the tributes paid to education is the little child, walking into the classroom, needing the tools for learning and making  sense of the world around them — no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.

In the midst of uncertainty surrounding learning in the pandemic world, what matters is not recreating the schools we remember. What matters is the creation of learning opportunities for each and every child, regardless of age, income, zip code…. “no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possible diminish the importance of that point.”

Be well.

A Letter from a Friend

Tom Welch and I became acquainted when we worked together as consultants for the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Bill Daggett, the founder of ICLE, once shared with us an observation about a very famous hockey player, Wayne Gretzky. He said that what made Gretzky so successful was that, more than other players, he knew where the puck was going to be… in Bill’s thinking, “seeing the future” was key in helping us adjust learning to meet the needs of kids not just for that time but, more importantly for the future they would encounter.

Over and over, Tom has proven himself to be the Wayne Gretzky of exploring learning opportunities for kids. Tom recently shared a letter he had sent to his daughter. I asked if I could share it with you. While the purpose of the letter was to help his daughter with decisions about the involvement of her son, Hutch, with RTI (Response to Intervention), Tom offers us all some Gretzky-like thoughts about where the “educational puck” could/should be. Enjoy…

My dear daughter,

So when is the conference? Here’s my take on RTI — admirable concept — IF you think that all kids should be responding to instruction in the same way and at the same pace. I just no longer believe that. In fact, the downside is exactly what seems to be going on with Hutch. The worst thing is to send a message to kids (and parents) that the kid is “behind” and needs to “catch up”.

Here’s the way I have been illustrating that lately — Most schools and teachers operate as if kids are “widgets” or “pieces”. The teacher says in effect “This year our goal is to build every kid into a beautiful Lego bonsai tree. We have decided exactly what every child should look like at the end of the year and we even know what pieces are required to build those beautiful Lego trees that we envision. Not only that, but we know how those pieces should be put together and we have figured out a time schedule so that every kid’s tree can be complete and match our vision at the end of the year!” Hooray for us!

Blog Lego 1Image 10-9-20 at 2.02 PM

Well, as it turns out, the purpose of school IMHO should NOT be to turn out identical carefully constructed identical Lego bonzai trees, all built on a common timeline and with a common set of instructions. For one thing, this actually runs counter to what we know about learning and the way the brain organizes learning and information. Learning doesn’t happen from the outside, in. It happens from the inside, out. In other words, for true learning to occur it must start with the individual learner. For the brain to learn things long term, the new information must connect to things that are already within the learner(remember “Mr. Welch’s” motto — Go from what you know to what you don’t know?) If information is presented from “outside” then it will go into short term memory but won’t “stick” unless it finds path to things already there. Remember how Hutch made real progress with reading at the end of the summer? That’s because he was beginning to connect with internal motivations and experiences (the signs he was reading and wanting to understand from HIS world). There have been a number of studies done about this — one I read about last week was from a very exclusive prep school. AT the beginning of the school year (Sept), kids were given the same final exam in science that they had been given at the end of the previous year. Keep in mind, it was the SAME exam. The average at the end of the year had been an A- (these were smart kids, right?) but when they were give the SAME exam just 8 or 9 weeks later, not a single student even passed it! The bonsai tree had no roots to anything in the kids real lives, and as can be predicted, they had not retained the information. I don’t know if they were, but if the teacher/school were using RTI during the previous year, those kids would have been fine, right? All on track (probably, or if not, thanks to RTI,they were “caught up”) and I’m sure the teacher and school and parents were all quite happy with the performances at the end of the year. Mission accomplished. Too bad it wasn’t the right mission ;-(. The goal of learning is learning, not responding correctly and on time to instruction. I’m sure, Marty, that you remember passing plenty of classes just fine, but the material didn’t “stick”. Think of your math experience — passed AP Stats just fine, but when did you REALLY learn math? When you were learning to fly! That was no “bonzai tree” experience — it was rooted in your personal goals and experience. Unfortunately when kids don’t do well in a class they think it’s something wrong with them (Woe is me, I am bad at [math]”) when the real problem was the whole way someone thought you should learn. Thank goodness you had that experience of learning to fly that summer or you might have not understood the depth of your abilities to learn and apply your learning.

So if not bonzai trees made of Legos that can be mass produced and built according to plan and on a timeline, then what? You can probably guess what I might say —

Old growth forest

This is a much better metaphor for learning and individual learners — when you look at all the different plants, pick out the ones that are “behind” or “ahead” of where they should be. Ridiculous to even try, isn’t it? Each is where it should be. Some get more sunlight for a time and grow faster, another just a few yards away may be growing more slowly. Is that a problem? Is either of them behind or ahead? No, each one is growing as it should. And when are any of the trees “done” growing? Another ridiculous concept. That’s why it’s stupid to say “Oh you finished math — you’re done!” No, there’s always more to learn about math or anything else in a natural environment of learning. What a sad message we send to kids when we give them the false idea that they can consider themselves “done” with learning anything. Part of what keeps me going is I keep learning! I’m always curious about things and anxious to know more. I think that was one of the best gifts my folks gave me. I can see Granny scoffing now if I would have ever told her I was “done” learning history, or if I’d told her I had learned everything I needed to in science or French because I’d finished a course. She was much wiser than that. She knew a great deal about learning — not just from her education but from her experience raising 5 VERY different kids who each learned in very different ways and at very individual paces and with very different sets of interests.

So my advice — listen earnestly to what the teacher has to say and take those parts that seem helpful for you and Hutch. Those things that will nurture him and help you nurture him. But DON’T let her try to tell you that he is “behind” or “ahead” with ANYthing. He is where he is! And you know what? That’s exactly the point from which you will continue to work with him and encourage him. And the whole idea of any kid being behind or ahead is one that I hope you will talk to him about over the years. Whether it’s classmates or Hutch who is “struggling” and labeled as “behind” or “slow”or “excelling”. Please tell him about the Legos and the forest ecosystem and tell him never to judge himself or others based on some random set of instructions for constructing a Lego bonzai tree!

Much love and encouragement to you all!

Love,
Dad

Getting To How…

Ace Ladder Aug 14 - 2In recent posts I’ve focused on the opportunities offered by COVID-19 for making significant changes in education. For the next few posts, we’ll be concentrating on one of the most vexing issues involved in altering deeply entrenched systems. I deliberately used “we” here because for these posts this blog will serve as a forum for several highly regarded colleagues.  While misuse of social media platforms has been getting a lot of negative (and in my view, well-deserved) attention recently, this collaboration with three highly regarded educators (known among one another as The 4 Amigos) continues to demonstrate the possibilities of connection. I’ve included brief bios of each of us at the end of this post.

As a starter I’d like to reiterate a few thoughts about why we must consider options to simply recreating the experiences that our students had prior to the disruption of the pandemic.

Recent Gallup polls suggest that the engagement level of students here in the US, drops from almost 80% in 4th grade to less than 40% by grade 11.  Why would we recreate experiences that were accompanied by such precipitous drops in engagement the longer students attend school?

Recent studies in the NY Times report dramatic increases in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, and depression.  Youth suicides (pre-pandemic) have never been higher. Why would we recreate experiences that contributed to these dramatic decreases in the social emotional health of our children?

The organization and separation of content in use today has remained largely unchanged since it was designed by the Committee of Ten in 1893.  Why would we recreate a series of experiences based on content silos disconnected from one another and increasingly separate from real life?

Perhaps most significantly, why would schooling continue to organize teaching and learning in ways totally at odds with our current knowledge and understanding of learning and the human brain?

Pandemic as Portal

What we know is that schools, as they have reopened,  barely resemble the schools we knew. We are seeing the beginnings of parental responses to these options in a national movement known as “pandemic pods” or microschools. This movement is one response to what we have described as the “pandemic portal”… the opening of a doorway to what could be.

As I’ve shared here previously, to take advantage of this opportunity, we need to move beyond expending energy on the recreation of yesterday’s schools, beyond debating why change, and focus on how to create the structures and cultures we need.  This series will focus on that how.

We will begin with the seat of learning, the brain, and how learning can/must change with our new awareness. We hope that you will join us on this exploration, that you will share your successes and stumbles, that you will create for one another and for our children the circles of support and safety where change is possible.

Be well

Our Team…Biographies:

Dr. Susan Clayton – Susan began her teaching career in 1969 in a high school in Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada. She taught Physical Education with the explicit intent to change how PE was taught to young women in high school. In 1987 Susan went back to school (while working full time) to acquire a Master’s degree in School Counselling. She worked as an elementary school counsellor for 10 years. During this time she was President of the British Columbia School Counsellors’ Association for 3 years.  Susan then went ‘to the Board Office’ as the coordinator for teacher professional development. In 1999 Susan returned to university (while working full time) to acquire a doctorate in Educational Leadership. She was a Faculty Associate for 3 years for Simon Fraser University (Vancouver BC) where she worked with pre-service teachers. She retired from school systems in 2003 and formed her consulting company, working first for Grant Wiggins and for the past 14 years as an independent. Much of Susan’s work has been in brain based learning in Singapore. She continues to serve as an online coach for Harvard’s Visible Thinking course.

Tom Welch – Tom has been a high school English and French teacher and was named Kentucky Teacher of the Year.  HE worked at the Kentucky Department of Education as their sweeping Education Reform Act was initiated.  With that background he was asked to become the first principal of a new public high school in his home district.  Among the unique things he implemented there were a model where the 3 administrators taught a class every day, and he also developed a program so that every graduating senior received her/his US Passport at commencement.  Following his school career, Tom returned to the Kentucky Dept of Ed as “Director of Seeding Innovation” where he continued to oversee and encourage a number of forward-looking programs.  His subsequent consulting career has taken him all over the country and in the midst of a busy “retirement” he continues to work as a “connectivist” for the Univ of KY’s NextGen Learning Initiative.

Cameron Jones – Cam Jones collaborates in the development of learning experiences with children from kindergarten to high school, and adults; with industry partners from music to aerospace, the skilled trades to apiarists, urban farmers to food banks, filmmakers to politicians. Cam’s leadership is thoughtful and responsive, oriented towards understanding needs in the development of creative possibilities. Cam’s thinking begins with listening to people and reading voraciously: and then wondering about how the world should be and taking the first steps in that direction, encouraging others to join me from wherever they are.  Cam is the Leader of Experiential Learning in Ottawa, Canada.

Rich TenEyck – Rich began his teaching career in 1964 at St. Joseph’s High School. He was named a Fulbright international exchange teacher and taught for a year in a German middle school. Returning from Germany, Rich continued his teaching career while exploring and leading innovative responses to student learnng needs.  Rich has served in various administrative positions, retiring as a district superintendent where he successfully introduced and spearheaded the use of interest based bargaining in the district’s labor negotiations.  Rich failed retirement and accepted an invitation to serve as an Assistant Commissioner in the NJ Department of Education, overseeing the Department’s offices for Standards and Assessment, Innovative Programs, and Career/Tecnical Education.   Failing retirement once again, Rich joined the International Center for Leadership in Education and the Successful Practices Network where he served as national and international consultant, focusing on leadership, culture, and learner engagement. Enjoying his family and the exoloration of coastal waters, Rich obviously continues to fail retirement.

Image – Gary Larson – Far Side Gallery

What If the Future Doesn’t Work Any Better Than the Present?

If you’re an educator parent or politician, it’s been hard to avoid the discussions opinions etc. about how schools should open this year.  This uncertainty is far from over as school and district leaders continue to struggle with what to do… full remote instruction, hybrid mixing in-person with remote, full in-person, home schooling, unschooling, pandemic pods, etc. 

middle of nowhere_1129

Recently, I read a post by Diane Ravitch  in which she summarized the writing of Carol Burris who is the executive director of the Network for Public Education.  Burris spoke forcefully in support of reopening the schools in New York City with full in-person instruction  and cited several studies that reported the ineffectiveness of remote learning. The studies cited by Burris  reported the loss of learning in terms of school days lost – i.e. in one study (CREDO, 2015) students participating in remote learning lost the equivalent of receiving 180 days of instruction in math and 72 days of instruction in reading. In a 2019 study of Pennsylvania online schools, students in such schools lost the equivalent of 106 days of reading instruction and 118 days in math. Our love of metrics and analytics has apparently carried over to such fascinating calculations.

While the conversion of remote learning to days of lost instruction is a fascinating exercise, it begs bigger questions… Is this what the education of our children has become after nearly 3 decades of school reform.  Why are we locked into a system of schooling that was designed over 120 years ago?

David Brooks, in his book The Social Animal, argues that…

“modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties… Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops.  Yet far and away the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses.  We have built a system of education based on the primacy of the rational mind while ignoring the importance of our emotional/social development.”

The present offers us lessons for the future. While a graduate student, I was in a class in which one of my fellow students asked a particularly inane question of the professor. The professor stood silently for a few moments and then said, “Son,  I’ve seen your future. It doesn’t work”.  Our present isn’t working so well right now.  Few would suggest that the future will work better. 

Russell Ackoff,  professor Emeritus of Management Science at the Wharton School, is perhaps best known for this quote: “There is an important difference between doing things right and doing the right thing. Doing things right is about efficiency. Doing the right thing is about effectiveness.” We have spent the years since the publication of “A Nation At Risk”  trying to do school and schooling right.  We have done so as if we know little more about brain development, emotional connections,  relationship building than we did when the report was first published in 1983.  By virtually all measures, we continue to validate Ackoff’s assertion. While our conversations have been about effectiveness, our actions have been about efficiency… too often at the expense of effectiveness. 

Pre COVID-19 reform efforts (No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Every Student Succeeds Act)  determined the way we experience school.  But after 30 years of such reform efforts, our test scores remain flat, the opportunity gap has widened, and reported incidents of pre-adolescent and adolescent mental health issues have spiked dramatically.  That’s not a present that’s working. COVID related modifications to schooling have stressed the majority of parents, teachers and students beyond anything we have seen in our lifetimes. Many are wondering if school will ever be the same. And that is the opening for the first Big Question. Should it?

As we plan for what the future of post COVID-19 education for our children should look like, we have the opportunity to ask, “what is the right thing?” What is needed is a thorough examination of the purpose, focus and structure of our schools! The COVID-19 experience is telling us to examine the very notion of schools and schooling. We’re part way there. This year we were given a free pass on testing.  We have kids learning at home. We have kids in virtual classrooms. We have kids in mixed age learning pods organized by parents. We have kids attending school 2 to 3 days per week or maybe not at all. 

Big Question #1 – What should be the purpose of school?

The American dream is dead. The story that we grew up with… you work hard, do well in school, go to college, graduate, get a good job, have a secure retirement… is dead.  What if the current system of schooling continues to prepare students for higher education which is beyond the financial reach of an increasing number of students?  What if the current system of schooling continues to prepare our students for jobs  that no longer exist?  Do we need our current system of schooling to prepare our children for the “gig economy”? 

In reflecting on this new reality, Clark Aldrich in his book, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways To Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education, suggests that the purpose of education revolves around three types of learning: learning how to learn, learning how to do, and learning how to be. What would such learning look like? Would it continue to require the construction and use of expensive, largely single use buildings? In age of growing internet connectivity, would learning opportunities be limited by zip code or even state boundaries?  Could demonstrations of learning extend beyond the walls of the school and recognition beyond the award of seat time credit?

Big Question #2… What do we know about learning?

Everyone is born to learn. Personal and collective survival depends on learning.  Four of my grandchildren are under 10 years old. They are learning sponges. From the earliest days, they were curious, exploratory, and constantly making connections. They each were, and continue to be, different. In school they have been grouped not by interest, not by readiness, but, as Sir Ken Robinson noted, they have been grouped by their date of manufacture. They returned to school this year on a hybrid schedule. Caring and dedicated teachers have been doing their best to engage students who, depending on the day, may be in school or at home. Last week, our first grader, working at home that day, spent six hours on her tablet. While it was clear that the teacher was trying to do hybrid learning right, it was clearly not the right thing.

Big Question #3… Is getting back to normal the best we can do?

The “normal that is on pause right now is a culture of separateness.  We live in an age of separation… We are separated from one another. We are separated from our institutions. We are separated from our planet. In school we have organized learning into separate silos… 45 minutes for math, 45 minutes for social studies, 45 minutes for English, etc. The length may vary. The separation does not. 

What if the way to a future that works involved an exploration of connections and relationships rather than the acquisition of knowledge in discrete and separate content domains? What would happen if we educated for wisdom rather than for information? What if we focused not only on learning about our world but also on learning how to make our world better? What would experiences for learning look like if they didn’t always take place in a school building? 

Last year many of us had front row seats as we witnessed the dedication of teachers throughout the country who, with less than one day’s notice, did their best to bring learning to the students in their classes. This year we are watching much of what we’ve known as school be turned upside down in in a matter of months. Once again, we are seeing our teachers try to help our children navigate a constantly changing landscape.  What better time to say “thank you” and what better time to craft a future for our kids and communities that works?


Image – Gary Larson – FarSide Gallery

 

Where Do the Children Play?

Because I’m big on trying to identify and focus on what matters, I have broken with “tradition” and ask that you take a few minutes to listen to a musical reflection on that very question… “What matters?”  I ask that in response to the way we are currently ignoring the needs of kids in the adult “battles” over the funding of schools in the face of increasing COVID-19 related costs.  As state budgets are under increasing pressures for COVID-19 related expenses, the federal government continues to fail us and continues to place parents and educators in the position of making choices between jobs and the lives of our children.  If we can’t make our kids more important than the economy, we are lost. 

Preparing this blog post mirrored the uncertainty that parents and educators are living with each day as the traditional “return to school” dates approach.  In many ways it has been similar to my brief career as a watercolor artist… how many colors should I use? Which ones capture the hue and tone I see in my head?  Which subjects are even worth trying to capture?  Will I like what I’ve done when it’s done?  Will others find something that they like in it?

I wanted to capture two big ideas:  One is the conflict between living in an age of separation and the myth of togetherness.  The other is the scariness of trying to find opportunity in a time living in a time of fear.

Let’s begin with a bit of context.

We’re NOT in this together… the reality of separation

On a daily basis we are likely to hear some politician, policy wonk, or pundit utter, in the face of the COVID-19 impact,  “We are all in this together.”  We are not.  We are all “in this” but hardly together. Do the tenants who will now face eviction because of lack of government action feel a part of the “together”? Do the unemployed workers whose unemployment subsidy has run out feel a part of the “together”? Do the parents of children whose schools, in spite of growing data about the spread of the virus among school children and educators, are reopening with in-person instruction feel the love of “togetherness”? Do parents who are trying to juggle their jobs and their livelihoods while politicians argue the importance of getting kids back to school so the economy can recover feel a sense of “together”? Do small busines owners, struggling to keep their life’s work solvent feel a sense of “togetherness”?

Togetherness is a fantasy! While people across the country continue to get sick and die, our government on an almost daily basis offers new meaning to the word “dysfunction”.  As the houses of congress continue to squander opportunities to restore confidence in government, they, by design or default, leave the development of solutions to the “very stable genius” in the White House as we slip further and further away from togetherness.

For far too many the story of the American Dream has died or is in the process of dying.  It’s being replaced by a new story.  In it, success does not involve going to school, doing well, getting accepted in a college, graduating, getting a decent job and having a secure future.  This story involves high student debt, participation in the gig economy, unaffordable health care, economic uncertainty and, now, threats of Covid-19 related illness and even death.  It’s a story based on separation rather than togetherness. For many, this new story is frightening.

Portal 2 Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 3.10.18 PM

The portal… fear and opportunity

In many cultures the concept of crisis is connected to the concept of opportunity.  While we are right in the middle of trying to determine where and how we should educate our children, we are also faced with a unique opportunity… an opportunity that we haven’t seen since the late 1890’s… what do we want education (more importantly) learning to look like?

The pandemic has opened a door (portal) to that opportunity.  It is an opportunity driven by fear but not one which need be feared.  It is also one with understandably predictable responses.  The portal that we see is a door between two options.  One option is the attempt to recover the system that has been shattered by the massive closure of schools and the reliance on remote instruction.  For a number of folks who find themselves, in a time of uncertainty and fear, seeking a return to “normalcy”, this is a return to the known, the predictable, and the safe.

On the other side of the portal is the unknown.  It’s a space where people can create what could be… what could be if we abandoned things like grades, age-based cohorts, rigid standards, large scale assessments and embraced all that we have learned about learning, engagement, student choice, empathy, equity, etc.

For some, the move through the portal to the possible is an easy choice.  What becomes clear pretty quickly to those who are either tentatively exploring, or those who have run through to the new reality, is that it is necessary to “travel light” – i.e., not everything we’ve become used to can be carried through the portal to the new reality.  Realizing this drives some back to the old, the familiar, the comfortable. Grades, tests, content-based curriculum, age-based grouping are all they’ve ever known.  Others, either reluctantly (or sometimes happily), abandon much of the old for the chance to experience and build the new. Much like kids in our classrooms, rarely are all equally ready at the same time.  And just as we shouldn’t negatively label kids in our classrooms because they are not yet as ready as some of their peers, we need to avoid negative labeling of colleagues whose primary need at this  time may be the safety of the familiar.

As many parents and educators struggle with what to do about schooling, one thing has become crystal clear. Parents are frightened. Educators are frightened. We are united in the worst of ways.  We’re united by fear.  Like no other event in recent history, the Pandemic has created, especially among parents, a fear-based unity. Want the proof?  Parents throughout the country, frustrated with the constantly changing directions about re-opening emerging in their home school districts, are organizing on a grass roots basis to provide education and childcare options for their children.  These options are known as Pandemic Pods or Micro Schools.  While they vary considerably in structure, size, and focus, they can be described as small gatherings of students organized (and sometimes recruited) by parents for in-person or virtual learning.  Instruction in Pod groups is guided, usually by parents, retired teachers, unemployed substitute teachers, college students, etc.  Instructional focus of Pod groups varies and ranges from traditional home school structures with fixed curricula used by the home district or tailored to the interests of the founding members to more progressive groups (not infrequently in multi-age groups) structured around themes such as forest schools, Montessori-like learning, etc.

Here is a description offered by the National Pandemic Pods Facebook page: “Pandemic Pods – Main”.

Join us to connect with other families, teachers, and caregivers as you navigate your family’s childcare and educational needs during the pandemic. Please join this group in order to find and join a Pandemic Pods local chapter, and to benefit from shared information and resources here in the main group.

While we’re working to help parents meet their urgent needs, Pandemic Pods also advocates for stronger public support for American families during school closures and the pandemic. We believe that public resources, options, and guidance are needed for this country to weather this crisis and leave fewer children behind.

There are currently 37,855 members of this national group and there are now 32 states with one or more local/regional chapters. Information about local chapters as well as a link to state chapters can be found on the main page.

While the structures, organization, participants may vary widely, one thing does not vary…  The willingness to create the kind of safe, and engaging learning environments that have seemed elusive in the early months of remote instruction and in the run-up to the scheduled reopening of schools taking place in the next two months.

Will the pod concept represent the long-term solutions to what and where learning can/should occur?  It’s much too soon to know.  Reviewing the flood of articles dealing with reopening, however, it seems clear that we have, for the first time since the middle of the last century, begun to clearly define what matters to American families when they think about the education of their children.  Safety, Child Care, Learning… and in that order.  Let me be clear.  The experience does not suggest that learning is not important to families.  What it says is that without a safe environment (which includes childcare for the many families with two working parents), learning will not occur.

And right now our confidence in the presence of these factors is at an all-time low… low enough that people are looking for solutions beyond the return to in-person instruction, solutions beyond the kinds of remote instructional that characterized the end of the last school year.

And here is the oddest part of the pandemic.  The pandemic, which has resulted in a rapidly expanding look at where and how safe learning can occur and the explosion of the Pandemic Pods, might be offering opportunities to move beyond seeking to recapture the normalcy of a system of schooling that has been mired in the continuation of a system of standards and assessments which define our children by test scores, beyond a system where zip code determines the availability of learning experiences, beyond a system which labels students at the earliest ages as “behind” because they aren’t yet ready to test at sufficiently high (and arbitrary) levels necessary for the school to maintain an artificial standing among real estate brokers.

What If…

As some of you know, I‘m working with a small group of educators to explore ways in which to support safe, learner/learning centered options. We are acutely aware of the need to move the conversation beyond “why” to focus on the practical issues of “how”.  As we work to expand the “how” parts of our thinking and for the conclusion to this piece, I’m sharing a post that appeared on the blog Chicago Unheard entitled “What If We Radically Reimagined the New School Year”. [LINK]  It’s a great and thought-provoking read.  I’ve found no better description about steps what might be possible on the other side of “the portal”.  It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece and I hope you’ll read it.  Here are a few of the author’s ideas for our reflection.

…What If We Designed a School Year for Recovery?

…“What if?” I thought. What if Chicago Public Schools (CPS) did something radical with this school year? What if this fastest-improving urban district courageously liberated itself from narrow and rigid quantitative measures of intelligence that have colonized the education space for generations, and instead blazed a trail for reimagining what qualifies as valuable knowledge?

What if we put our money, time and energy into what we say matters most? What if this school year celebrated imagination? In We Got ThisCornelius Minor reminds us that “education should function to change outcomes for whole communities.” What if we designed a school year that sought to radically shift how communities imagine, problem solve, heal, and connect?

What if this messy school year prioritized hard truths and accountability? What if social emotional instruction wasn’t optional or reduced to one cute poster? What if we focused on district wide capacity-building for, and facilitation of, restorative justice practices?

…What If We Really Listened?

What if we made space to acknowledge the fear, anxiety, frustration and confusion students, staff, and families are feeling? What if we listened? What if we made space to acknowledge the anger and demands of students? What if our priority was healing? Individual and collective. What if we respected and honored the work of healers and invested in healing justice?

What if our rising 8th-graders and seniors prepared for high school and post-secondary experiences by centering their humanity and the humanity of others? What if healthy, holistic, interconnected citizenship was a learning objective? What if we tracked executive functioning skills and habits of mind? What if for “homework” families had healing conversations?

…What If We Made Life the Curriculum?

What if we recognized that life—our day-to-day circumstances and our response to them—is curricula? It’s the curricula students need, especially now as our country reckons with its identity. What if we remembered that reading, writing, social studies, mathematics, and science are built into our understanding of and response to events every day?

… Let’s Stop Policing Our Imaginations

Lately, I am acutely aware of how intentionally I have to work in order to renew my own lost imagination. How much have we snuffed out the what-if imaginations of our students with policies that police their bodies and minds, inequitably and unimaginatively distribute funding to schools, and tolerate out-of-date, counter-revolutionary curricula?

The removal of police from schools, after all, does not eliminate all forms of policing. What if we didn’t police the imaginations of students?

What if enough is enough? No one is coming to the rescue. We can rescue ourselves. We must. As the fifth core assumption/belief of restorative justice states: Everything we need to make positive change is already here. We just have to let our students, families, neighbors, and friends tell us what they need. And we show up. And we learn together.