The New Normal is not Normal/Healthy/Safe for our Children… A parent’s guide to raising healthy, curious learners

 Recent studies reveal that our young people in their pre-adolescent through college years are self-reporting dramatic increases in stress, anxiety and depression.  The incidence of suicides among young people in this age range has never been higher. Some months ago, Susan Clayton and I, separated by an international border and 3 times zones, decided to collaborate on a response to this increasingly alarming trend.  While not the only cause of such emotional stress, we decided to write for parents and focus on what we knew best… schools, schooling and learning.  Midway through our project, Susan’s husband was diagnosed with advanced cancer.  He died this past week. 

This piece is dedicated to Robert and Susan Clayton.  Throughout Robert’s treatment Susan remained steadfast in her love and support for both her husband and her children.  Her commitment and her concern for helping parents understand how they might positively support their children during this critical age remained  unchanged.  This piece reflects our combined thinking. The good thoughts come from Susan.  The mistakes in writing are solely mine.  

This is a long piece.  Readers familiar with my efforts here in this blog space will know that I try very hard not to waste yourt time.  My writings on leadership and my rants on the folly of the decades of misguided education reform pale in comparison with the importance of the challenges to the mental, social and emotional health of our children.  I hope you’ll hang in there. Thank you.

 What’s Lost When We Rush Kids Through Childhood”, Emily Kaplan – Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, September 4, 2019

We Have Ruined Childhood” – “For youngsters these days, an hour of free play is like a drop of water in the desert. Of course they’re miserable.”- Kim Brooks, NY Times Sunday Review, August 17, 2019

“Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright”, Susanna Schrobsdorff, Time, November 2019.

Unfortunately, many parents see such headlines and are not surprised.  Far too many parents are living each day with the concerns reflected in this sampling of headlines.  Too many parents see their children floundering emotionally, socially and academically. They are feeling overwhelmed and are often at a loss about what they can do to help their children regain their emotional, social and academic balance.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  We, both as educators and as parents, cannot continue to sacrifice the mental, social and emotional health of our children for a future that does not require intense test preparation for large scale assessments, an underdeveloped appreciation for the arts and little or no experience with unstructured play . The studies listed above and the research currently being explored are sending us signals that are both loud and clear. We’ve unintentionally allowed schooling to become something that was never intended. While this may have been understandable in the early 1900’s, given our current advances in brain research and learning, there is only one excuse for its continuation… our unwillingness to change what we’re used to, coupled with our acceptance of the notion that purpose of education is not learning , but primarily to serve the economy with qualified workers.

Our goal in writing this is to help us as adults, as parents, as educators respond to this change in the way our kids experience the world.  Our goal is both to sound an alarm and to offer concrete suggestions for actions.  We simply cannot continue to sacrifice the physical, social and emotional health of our children.

We decided in this work to focus on one part of each child’s life: time spent in school. This is not an attack on the educators, the people who care about and for your children. It’s what we know best and school-related issues surface regularly in discussions with young people as a major source of their emotional stress.

Context

The data about the alarming growth of pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, and depression frighten us.  We’ve all experienced school.  But most of us have experienced school in a very different way than the way our kids are now living it. This is an invitation for parents to re-think what has become of schooling and the purpose of schooling in children’s lives… a purpose that does not rob them of their childhood and push them towards depression and anxiety. Although there is general agreement that school is about learning and preparation for life, there is surprisingly little agreement about what learning actually is, how it occurs and the best ways for it to happen.  Based on our own learning experiences we’d like to invite you to treat this work as an interactive process, one which will both inform you and guide you to action-based responses.

You might consider reading the entire piece and then returning to do a little “homework” or you may just dive right in.  Your call.  How you chose to do this may tell you something about the way you feel you learn best.

We’ve considered this approach carefully. First we’ll start with the easy question… “What is learning?”  Wait! What? Everybody knows what learning is.  OK. So write down what you think.  For most of us, this just got a lot harder.  So many possibilities.

Here’s a suggestion. Take a few minutes to consider what you have learned or are currently learning; select 1-2 things. Think about how you came to know or are coming to know these things and if these things are useful, meaningful for your life? Now, answer the “what is learning”  question based on your personal learning. Write your response down and be aware of how your thinking likes coming out of your brain and onto paper – or word processor.  You may discover that, like me, you find the thinking part easier than the writing part.

The second question is equally big… “Is school the only place where learning occurs between the ages of 5 and 18? Well, that answer is kind of obvious, so maybe a better question might be “What’s the purpose of school?”

Try this: think of a time when you learned a skill or about an idea outside of school: (ride a bike, learn about worms while helping a parent garden, swim, make a blade of grass sing between your hands….) – how did you do that without the support of school? What were some of the conditions that helped you learn? Were you rushed into learning the skill or idea; who helped you? What did your mistakes tell you?  How did you feel when you realized you figured out worms, rode the bike a block without wobbling…realized that a 10 cent piece was smaller than a 5 cent piece but worth more…?

Now think of a time when you were in school and you were struggling or felt  overwhelmed – maybe the idea or skill was unfamiliar; maybe too many instructions coming all at once; maybe the teacher moved through the lesson too fast? Did you learn what you thought you were supposed to learn? If not, how did you feel?

What kids say…

I recently interviewed some high school students about what their learning experiences in school looked like. The kids were a cross section of the school’s enrollment…there were two kids enrolled in special needs programming, a couple of honor roll students, a couple of what I’ll affectionately describe as “ne’er-do-wells” – kids who spent a fair amount of time with the principal negotiating reductions in disciplinary reactions to their behaviors. The remaining 6 considered themselves “average”. After explaining that I was there to learn about their school, I asked them to pretend that they were the only people I would speak to in order to get a picture of their school and asked them to tell what it was important that I know.  I also told them that I would be sharing their descriptions with their teachers the following day (without identifying them, of course).

What did I hear from these consumers of schooling?  One of the special needs students began by sharing that she appreciated how good her teachers were about adjusting instruction to her needs, watching to see if she was “getting it” and offering more time/support if needed.  A young lady excitedly raised her hand and said, “You’re lucky! My teachers spend so much time getting us ready to take the big tests that they apologize for not having more time for our questions.”  Lots of head nodding followed by another young lady who shared how embarrassed she felt when she didn’t know an answer and how she was reluctant to ask questions for fear of seeming stupid. More head nodding and no objections.  After a few seconds of silence a young man raised his hand and asked, “Why do we have to learn stuff that we just going to forget?”

My takeaway from this conversation… kids have only a limited sense of what Martin Luther King called “someoneness”” or sense of belonging.  They feel pressured by adult concerns. Beyond their circle of friends they feel isolated. They feel pressured to do well, while not having access to the conditions (safety, freedom to ask questions, choice in learning) to perform as expected.

On a personal level, do your children have these experiences like this in school? How does it make them feel? What if these feelings have become a part of their daily school experience? What if the feelings that some of us had as students some of time have become a constant in the lives of our children? What if the pressures that have accompanied our need not to be identified as “failing” have had a number of unintended consequences…an increase in pressure to perform on large scale assessments, an increase in the time spent on test preparation, a loss of experiences in the arts, an earlier introduction of “academic” focus at the expense of playtime, recess creating, inventing, solving problems etc.?

 The articles shared, as well as numerous others, make a clear connection between the practices identified above (that are responses to increased academic pressures) and the deterioration of the mental and emotional health of our children?  In spite of this growing awareness, we hang on to what we know, we feel most comfortable with the familiar.

But what if holding on to “the familiar” – i.e., school as we knew it – will just continue to place our kids at increasing risk of stress, anxiety, depression, etc.?  Is our fear of change, of venturing into the unfamiliar, greater than our concern for the well-being of our kids?  What percentage of kids experiencing anxiety and depression is sufficient to act? 60%, 70%, 80%?

Note that the Times article cites a study which revealed that 70% of teenagers characterized anxiety/depression as a “major problem”. Is that enough?

 Doing the wrong thing “righter”

 We do not need to heap the kinds of pressures described here on our kids.  For the broadest view of this issue, I’ll begin with Russell Ackoff.  Prior to his death in 2009, Ackoff was a Professor Emeritus of Management Science at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.  He has offered a starting point for what we might consider in response to the threats impacting the emotional and social health of our children.  Ackoff is well-known for making the following distinction… There is a difference between ‘doing things right’ and ‘doing the right thing.’  Doing things right is about efficiency – i.e., how do we manage lots of kids in a school building safely and efficiently. We do this through the establishment of uniformity. We group kids by age not because they are similar but because it is convenient. We organize instruction by subject, not because the world is neatly organized by subject but because it is convenient (and because someone in 1893 decided we should). Doing the right thing is about effectiveness.

Our current system of education here in the U.S. is replete with stories of attempts to doing things right, school consolidation, common core standards, large-scale “accountability” assessments, etc.  As Ackoff points out, it should surprise no one that these efforts have born little fruit.  In his own words, Ackoff notes that focusing on doing things right just makes the situation “wronger”. After 30+ years of doing school right NAEP schools remain flat, ACT scores are falling, achievement gaps continue and instances of childhood stress, anxiety, and depression have reach nearly epidemic proportions!

But what is the right thing?

Here we’ll turn to Clark Aldrich who has suggested that there are three purposes for education… to help kids learn how to learn, to help kids learn how to do, and to help kids learn how to be.  These three things constitute Ackoff’s definition of doing the right thing.  In the context of our focus here, think ‘helping kids learn how to be.’  Obviously, given the current incidence of student and physician reported stress, anxiety and depression we need a shift in focus away from the ever increasing focus on higher academic achievement to the “how to be”.  In his film Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s title character describes her dilemma as follows… “I feel like I’m rebuilding a parachute while I’m falling. I’m one person when I sit with my friends at lunch in school, another when I’m in the car with my dad, another when I’m at a party with my friends, and even another when I’m on Facebook.”

Note: See Clark Aldrich, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education.

For more background on the issue of stress, anxiety, depression in our kids and how school contributes, you might find Dr. David Gleason’s book, At What Cost: Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools, useful.

For an interesting piece written by parents (Adam Grant, Allison Sweet Grant), you might be interested in Stop Trying to Raise Successful KidsAnd start raising kind ones.

While not specifically about stress and anxiety, the authors note that kids take their cues about what matters by watching what adults seem to value… most frequently identifying achievement as the most desirable accomplishment. They are particularly interested in the development of caring, kindness and empathy in what has been termed our “Age of Separation”.  The connection between their thinking and our focus on how we, as adults whether parent or educator, contribute to the rise of stress in their lives of our kids seems obvious.

But what can I do as a parent to insure that my child’s school is willing to explore the ways in which their policies, practices, and procedures may be unintentionally increasing the levels on stress and anxiety in students?

Leveraging Parental Concerns to Change Schooling – The “How To” section

In a time of increasing complexity, crammed schedules, split families, our own issues of separation, belonging and work pressures, we have been more than willing to turn over the 5-6 hours our kids are in school to the people who are charged by law with acting as their parents for that time.  By law, our schools are required to act “in loco parentis”… in the place of parents.  In trying to do things right, too many schools are doing things/creating environments that as parents, we would never do.  They continue to focus on test scores, orderly buildings, convenient practices, etc. while largely ignoring the impact these practices are having on our children.

Their pressures and schedules are frequently no less crammed and stressful than ours. As parents we need to begin the conversations needed to help us identify the right thing/move away from our preoccupation with doing things right to a focus on doing the right thing.  How do we do that?

Recognize that schools are part of a system and that change in systems grows increasingly more difficult the longer the system is in place.

Peter Senge in his best selling book, The Fifth Discipline, focuses on the process of changing systems. Senge notes that systems can be depicted as circles, the walls of which become thicker as the system ages.  He suggests that the thicker the walls of the system become, the harder it is to make.

As many of us can attest, trying to crash through the walls of a mature system results in a lot of bumps and bruises but very little change.  Senge offers a solution. He suggests that the walls of most systems are not uniformly thick… that in each system there exists a weakness in the wall that may allow the opportunity for leveraging that weakness into change or moving the system in a new direction.  Your concerns, your interest, your involvement are that weakness.  It’s hard for most schools to ignore concerned, well-informed, and well-intentioned parents.

Successful change efforts rely on finding ways to circumvent the natural response – i.e., to defend one’s position and to the reinforce such positions.  Research in this area reveals that the reliance on fact-based speeches rarely changes deeply held beliefs.  Successful change efforts have relied primarily on the creation of emotion-based experiences.  What is more emotional than the reality that our kids are suffering and experiencing stress, anxiety and depression in record numbers?

What Can I do?

Emotion-based responses in school systems are more effective when they make more use of numbers of people than the eloquent words of a single, well-informed parent.

Step 1: Explore the concerns about social/emotional health with friends. Enlist the interest/support of the local parent organization. Consider the benefits of a social media presence/exploration.

Step 2: Build a group of people who are willing to address these concerns with school leaders in a focused conversation or, finding little or no receptivity from the school/district leaders, move this conversation to the level of the board of education at a public meeting by requesting time, in advance, to address the members of the board.

Step 3: Ask questions!  Here are some critical sample questions that you might consider.

  • What are the outcomes, attributes, dispositions we seek to develop in our students?
  • Why do we have grades? – They are a largely meaningless convention, statistically invalid and unreliable.  Why don’t we use narratives instead?
  • What do we use as measures of success/achievement? Do we have a school-wide/district-wide consensus on the meaning of these terms?
  • What is the basis for grades in our school?
  • We know that kids develop at different rates and in different ways. Why do we group kids by age? –
  • What options are available for my child to obtain official recognition for learning done outside of school?
  • How many opportunities for self-directed learning are available in the school day?
  • Look at your school’s/district’s mission statement and ask what are the intentional practices aimed at the accomplishment of these goals? How is success measured?
  • What intentional responses have been developed to combat increasing stress, anxiety and depression in our students? What practices, policies, procedures have we eliminated or modified?

End Thoughts

While it seems clear to us that big changes are needed, not everyone is ready to just jump in. Dr. James Ryan in a commencement address at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (2016) offered a guide for exploring difficult/complex ideas.  He offered guidance for when we are faced with very disturbing information and seeking to engage others in discussion.

He notes that an expected response to what we have offered in this essay might be…”What? Wait!You mean that 70% of kids surveyed characterized anxiety/depression as a “major problem!”  He suggests that productive discussions begin more often with questions than statements.  Here are his suggestions for your consideration and use.

I wonder what we are doing in our families, in our schools, in our society that is causing this dramatic rise among our youth. I wonder if my kids feel like they belong at their school? I wonder what school policies/practices my kids find stressful?

I wonder what we could do differently in our families, in our schools, in our society that could make a difference. I wonder why we still have grades, age grouped classes, separate subjects? I wonder what would happen if, like some schools, we tried to eliminate them?

Couldn’t we at least try? Should we just keep doing what we are doing even though we know it’s making kids anxious?

How can we help one another?

What really matters? If the mental, social, emtotional health of our kids really matter shouldn’t we be able to see intentional policies, practices, and procedures in our schools that mirror that importance?  

Thank you and be well.

A Time to Consider the Common Good…

One of the real joys (and I use that word advisedly) of writing a blog is the opportunity to come into contact with other writers.  The most inspirational of these for me is Jan Resseger. I have cited Jan’s work a number of times in my writing.  Her blog is a window into her soul and her commitment to addressing issues of equity.  Rather than take a chance on losing even a couple of readers by requiring them to click on a link, I asked Jan if I might publish a recent piece in its entirety.  She graciously consented. As always, I’d love to “hear” your reflections on her work.  Here’s the message that Jan includes with each post.

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

Be well.  Enjoy

Embracing Public Schools As the Very Definition of the Common Good

— Jan Resseger

The 2019-2020 school year is now underway, and in an ironic twist, in a business journal, the academic dean of the college of education at the for-profit University of Phoenix has penned a beautiful reflection on the meaning of public education. Dean Pam Roggeman understands the meaning for families and for communities of their public schools.

Roggeman writes: “This early fall, I’d like to honor the millions of parents who…  send their kids to school for the first time. Critics, possibly a bit removed from their neighborhood public schools, at times try to paint public education as a nameless, faceless bureaucratic institution that is riddled with faults. And like many other institutions, our public schools do have flaws. However, those of us rooted in our communities, with or without school-age kids, do not see our schools as faceless institutions. Rather, we associate our schools with our child’s talented teacher, or the principal greeting kids at the door, or the coach waiting for kids to be picked up after practice, or the mom who became this fall’s crossing guard, or the front office staff who commiserate with us as we deliver the forgotten lunch, and… also with the friendly bus-driver who will not move that bus until every child is safely seated. We rely on and embrace our neighborhood public schools as a community enterprise on which we deeply depend.”

Roggeman defines the reason public schools are one of our society’s best opportunities for establishing systemic justice for children: public schools are required by law to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children: “(T)here is one thing that our American public schools do better than any other schools in the country or even in the world: our public schools commit to addressing the needs of every single child. Our public schools are open to ALL children, without prejudice or pause. Our schools attempt to educate EVERYBODY. American students are students who are gifted, students with disabilities, students who need advanced placement, students who have experienced trauma, students who are learning English, students who are hungry, affluent students, students who live in poverty, students who are anxious, and students who are curious.”

Reading Roggeman’s reflection on public education as an essential civic institution caused me to dig out a Resolution for the Common Good, passed by the 25th General Synod of the United Church of Christ more than a decade ago, when I was working in the justice ministries of that mainline Protestant denomination. The resolution was passed unanimously in 2005, in the midst of a decade when an ethos of individualism was accelerating.

The values defined in the introduction to the resolution mesh with Roggeman’s consideration of public schools as the essence of community: “The Twenty-fifth General Synod calls upon all settings of the United Church of Christ to uphold the common good as a foundational ideal in the United States, rejects the notion that government is more unwieldy or inefficient than other democratic institutions, and reaffirms the obligation of citizens to share through taxes the financial responsibility for public services that benefit all citizens, especially those who are vulnerable, to work for more equitable public institutions, and to support regulations that protect society and the environment.”

The introduction of the resolution continues: “A just and good society balances individualism with the needs of the community. In the past quarter century our society has lost this ethical balance. Our nation has moved too far in the direction of promoting individual self interest at the expense of community responsibility. The result has been an abandonment of the common good. While some may suggest that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, there is no evidence that choices based on self interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population. While as a matter of justice and morality we strive always to expand the individual rights guaranteed by our government for those who have lacked rights, we also affirm our commitment to vibrant communities and recognize the importance of government for providing public services on behalf of the community… The church must speak today about the public space where political processes are the way that we organize our common life, allocate our resources, and tackle our shared problems. Politics is about the values we honor, the dollars we allocate, and the process we follow so that we can live together with some measure of justice, order and peace.”

Recognizing “significant on-going efforts to privatize education, health care, and natural resources, and to reduce revenues collected through taxes as a strategy for reducing dependency on government services,” the delegates resolved “that the United Church of Christ in all its settings will work to make our culture reflect the following values:

  • that societies and nations are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens;
  • that government policy and services are central to serving the common good;
  • that the sum total of individual choices in any private marketplace does not necessarily constitute the public good;
  • that paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses;
  • that the tax code should be progressive, with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means; (and)
  • that the integrity of creation and the health and sustainability of ecological systems is the necessary foundation for the well-being of all people and all living things for all time.”

Since that resolution passed in 2005, we have watched an explosion of economic inequality, the defunding and privatization of public institutions including K-12 public education, the defunding of social programs; the growth of privatized and unregulated charter schools, the abuse of power by those who have been amassing the profits, and the abandonment of policies to protect the environment.

A just and good society balances the rights of the individual with the needs of the community. I believe that the majority of Americans embrace these values.  I wonder how we have allowed our society stray so far.

Some Days Our Best Was None Too Good!

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FarSide Gallery – Gary Larson

This is the month of unusual responses. Earlier this month I had posted a piece, “Why Are We So Angry?”. It dealt with beliefs and when reposted by a follower, a commenter suggested that the writer (me) was a jerk. Apparently, the family member (extended) who shared that observation either failed to notice the source of the piece or had been harboring long-festering disenchantment with my arrival in the family.   The second unusual response came earlier today when I had posted a comment on our Modern Learners site about the current topic… grading.  No. Will Richardson didn’t comment on my level of “jerkiness.”  Rather, he became the first reader of my reflections to see them sufficiently valuable to suggest that I post the comment on my blog. (BTW, I just learned that, if you’re one row off when typing, “blog” can become “blob”).  So here goes…

Time for an adult beverage…  I want to add a point for consideration to our discussion of grading.  It’s an economic one.  One that reaches beyond the concerns raised about the high costs of the test and punish reform culture which so captured the hearts of the reformers. I’ll attempt this by sharing several anecdotes. While these may be unique to my experience, I am certain that each of us could recite variations.  I’ll save the punch line to the end.  Enjoy your beverage. Spoiler alert:  If the prospect of wading through the context to get to the end is as exciting as crawling hoe over glass, you can skip to the last sentence where I accuse us all of fiscal malpractice.

When I first began teaching it was in a private boys’ high school.  Fresh out of college with a degree that included nothing about teaching, what I “knew” about teaching I had learned by sitting at a desk in the same type of school where I was now seated on the other side of a larger desk.  I was given the texts I was to use (5 preps) and a green grade book.

Having no idea what to do with the little green book that had lots of little squares in it, I asked an” experienced” colleague (he had started teaching the year before) what I should do with this grading thing.  I asked this in what passed for a faculty room and one of the older, much wiser, teachers responded quickly.  “Fill it with numbers.. The more numbers you have the less likely it will be that a parent challenges your grades.”  This proved to be sage advice as a couple of months later at parent night, I watched a colleague be challenged by a parent who asked in a fairly hostile manner, “How come my kid got a ‘D’?  Brandishing his grade book, my colleague quickly responded, “Look here at his grades.  You can see he wasn’t quite bad enough to get an ‘F’.”

Some years later, working in a rural public high school (by this time I had been to grad school and “learned about teaching”.  Sadly, this experience could have easily taken place in the faculty room of my first school.  Being pretty comfortable with kids, I soon became a sounding board for their complaints about schooling as well as their assessments of their various teachers.  Not surprising to any of today, the majority of the kids were not fans of what they considered the arbitrariness of their grades. Doing a little investigative work, I discovered neither I nor most of my colleagues knew how grades were given in other classes…even those in rooms right next door.

Fast forward a lot of years and I’m now the “traveling s.o.b. with slides” helping schools and districts with their school improvement efforts (tempting to add quotes around ‘helping’ and ‘improvement’).  At a district in Nevada, while working with an assistant superintendent for instruction, I noted that he had multiple screens hooked up to his computer… screens filled with numbers and spreadsheets.  I asked him what he was working on.  He shared with me an “exploration” he was pursuing after having a dinner table chat with his son who was a senior, wondering why his son was so adamant about getting a specific teacher for senior English. 

Since the district had an in-house data system, he was able to look at the grading practices of the various teachers.  All teachers were required to use a point based system for grading.  The areas eligible for assessment were home work, class participation, projects, test grades. Nothing terribly unusual… until he looked at the point distribution in various classes… in this case the sections of the same class (English 4) taught by different teachers… Parallel sections, common outcomes, district syllabus.  Here’s a quick summary of his findings… teacher #1 had a total of 1800 possible points roughly evenly distributed among the 4 areas of evaluation.  Teacher #2, 1100 points for projects, no points for homework, 500 for participation, 200 for tests.  Teacher #3, 1200 points for test grades, 300 for homework, 300 for participation, nothing for projects.

Getting to the punch line. Assuming most of us have attended more than our share of graduation ceremonies, we’ve heard a number of dramatic readings of the accumulated scholarship money earned by the graduating seniors.  Unless she/he has done the unthinkable and bitten the hand that feeds them, the valedictorian is honored with the title, the opportunity to share a talk (usually pre-approved) and has enjoyed more scholarship money for having earned the distinction of having secured the top spot in the class.

So here it comes… What if none of the calculations used to determine class rank, scholarship eligibility, community awards, etc. even approach statistical validity or reliability?  What if the class rank depends more on the ability to game the system than on the learning demonstrated by those honored? What if annually we proudly announce the award of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars with the caveat that, in addition to being a sham, the system of grading is actually preventing learning.

We need to say loud and clear that the process of awarding/assigning grades is inequitable. It is not only keeping our kids from learning, it is also budgetary malpractice!

What If This Could Be Our Next Last Chance?

student pic blog mental health 2018-08-19 at 3.17.42 PMWow! Did this one lead me down a rabbit hole!  Recently, I’ve been drawn to an offshoot of some of my thinking/writing on leadership.  In looking at the careers of a number of school leaders (an area with which I’m more familiar than, say, state or federal government), I’ve noticed that, as a nation, we seem to have what Andrew Bacevitch called a messianic complex… a belief in the power of a single individual to solve great problems and to do so quickly and decisively.  Bacevitch describes this in his book, The Limits of Power, as a dangerous path, leading to repeated disappointment when the plans/”fixes” of our newly anointed messiah don’t seem to work.

But that doesn’t seem to stop us.  One need look no further than the theater surrounding the selection of the next Democratic candidate for the presidency to see this pattern in action.  We have grown to value quick, decisive action in our leaders more than we do their ability to thoughtfully analyze situations to uncover root causes – i.e., actually have a chance at solving the problem.

Looking for alternatives to this in my field of interest and experience, I began to look more carefully at the various “solutions” offered during the span of my working years to fix education. I realized that, for a considerable length of time, I had been looking past the blindingly obvious.  As often as I had quoted Peter Drucker and Russell Ackoff, I realized that there was a good chance that I had missed the point.   You may recall their assertion from earlier posts…

“There is a difference between trying to do things right and doing the right thing.” 

In more than 50 years as an educator, I realized that either as a leader or follower, I have been involved in a whole series of education improvement efforts… Outcomes Based Education, Comprehensive Achievement Monitoring, gifted and talented programming for underachievers, values clarification, formative assessment, standards based instruction and grading, soft skill development and assessment, oral proficiency based assessment for world languages, etc.  I also realized that almost all of these left no lasting footprints.  They came and went with remarkable frequency.  They were great examples of trying to do things right (assessment, instruction, learning, etc.) with no attention paid to whether or not they were aimed at the right thing – i.e., they lacked clear, understandable and desirable purpose.

Now I’m standing on the precipice of a rapidly enlarging rabbit hole. Do I just make the point about the critical importance of clear and clearly understood purpose (see Simon Sinek , Dan Pink  ) or do I try to see when we lost our way as a means of finding a path back?  The rabbit hole loomed.

I couldn’t stop myself.  So I went back and explored.  I’ll spare you the details (although I can’t resist adding some references in case you can’t help yourself and have to explore a bit more). But here’s the short form.

Prior to the 1890’s the purpose of education was kind of clear… it was for the wealthy the path to maintaining privilege and power. By the late 1800 this was beginning to unravel and, in 1893, The Committee of Ten Sponsored by the NEA (who knew that the NEA even existed in the 1800’s?) developed a plan that greatly expanded education access and included 4 different curricula, greatly liberalizing education in the country.  Ironically it was almost 100 years to the month that President Reagan’s National Committee on Excellence in Education released its report on the status of education in the US, A Nation At Risk. It was scathing and got a lot of attention, not to mention that it provided the rationale for the ed reform strategies that we’ve all come to know and love, LOL. But what received little attention was the subtle acceptance of connection between education and the economy which had taken place during the hundred years since the Committee of Ten’s work.

Jumping back from the rabbit hole, we fast forward.

Here we are with a continuing litany of failed “fixes”.  And what’s still missing?  A clear, understandable and agreed upon sense of purpose.

But what if the problem isn’t that we don’t have “a” purpose but that we have too many.  We have purposes that range from custodial (so parents can work) to those  that are job skill related (soft skills, 21stcentury skills, etc.). We have purposes that teach social-emotional skills. We have purposes that are academic (get into the best schools).  We have purpose after purpose designated as such by those whose interests are best served by selling their particular definition (and often, solultion/s).

How do we know if we’re doing the right thing (vs. doing things right) if we don’t know/agree about what that is?  I don’t think we do.  What if trying to do the wrong things “righter” just gets us further away from identifying and doing the right thing?

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EnterPhoto by Hannah Gullixson on Unsplash

Why should we consider this now?  Maybe because we need to reassess what matters.  Maybe loading as many kids as possible into AP courses is not the right thing. Maybe eliminating play and recess for kids so that there is more time to “better” prepare kindergartners for the rigors of academic first grade is not the right thing. Couldn’t we at least explore why current student engagement in school learning drops from 80+% in third grade to less than 40% by grade 11?

Maybe putting kids and their parents under significant pressure to attend four years colleges, only to discover that they can find no job in their major but have amassed huge student loan debt is not the right thing.  Couldn’t we at least explore why we have increasing studies that document the dramatic rise among our adolescents in stress, anxiety, and depression? In her op ed  entitled “We Have Ruined Childhood” published just last week in the New York Times, Kim Brooks offers the following:

“A 2019 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that between   2009 and 2017, rates of depression rose by more than 60% among those ages 14 to 17, and 47% among those ages 12 to 13.”

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Childadvocates.net

Could we at least consider that we have had a roll in this development? I have no illusions that we will have a conversation about this at the federal level.  If we can’t get Congress to return from “summer break” to deal with issues of gun safety, climate change or health care costs, what’s the likelihood of them rushing back to discuss education?

But what if we created the space in our communities for such conversations?  What if we tied all future strategic plans to the development of a community consensus about the purpose of education and our schools?

OK, so why am I writing this here?  As educators, we blew a chance to help our kids when we were conspicuously silent as our kids were subjected to increasing hours of testing and test preparation… of having their value determined by a test score, of having things like recess, art, music, and electives scrapped, of having important portions of the school budgets cut so that the district could afford the technology required to administer the tests.  Oh sure, we eventually spoke up… when the regulations included the use of standardized test results for teacher evaluation. That’s kind of harsh, isn’t it Rich? Yup! But I’m as guilty as anyone, more guilty than many.  My offices in the Department of Education approved the standards and designed the specs for the NCLB assessments. I didn’t object.  I tried to make them “better”. Talk about the folly of trying to do things right!

But we, many of us as educational leaders, have the chance to move beyond simply doing things right. We have the chance to ask the questions about what the right thing is for our kids.  Is it to continue to feed the economy with the workers? Or might it be something greater? What would our school look like if we focused on  education as the search for self, or education as the process by which we and our kids seek the road to a good life, a life of empathy, soul, honesty, and wisdom?

What if, right now in our country, we’re looking at the consequences of continued avoidance of these questions?  Couldn’t we at least try?

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This Change Stuff Makes Sense But What Do I Do on Monday?

… A Couple of Steps Closer to How…

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Welcome back.  I’m writing this under the assumption that you’ve read Part One.  While I hadn’t intended to create a multi-part post, I realized that Cam, in his sharing, had done so for me.  I’d encourage you to read Cam’s essay.  It’s an eloquent sharing of what our search is all about. In his analysis of the ways in which he is applying Dr. Ryan’s 5 Questions Ryan’s 5 Questions to his thinking and explorations, Cam led into another question which I’m paraphrasing here…

 

What would learning look like if we acted on both our knowledge and our beliefs about it?

While not exactly Mueller-like in the level of detail he offers about how schools and learning might look, Cam shares some very concrete examples of things that he has done to close the gap between what we know and what we are currently doing in most schools.

Cam begins his reflection with some observations about the dissonance between how both kids and adults seem to learn best and what happens in schools as they are traditionally organized and configured.

And so the “guitar story”

…my 6-year-old starts guitar lessons today. He is very excited: he told me so at 5:00 am.  When my partner and I began looking for teachers we had lots of criteria.  My number one criteria is that there be no “curriculum” – how many amazing musicians never got beyond formal, conservatory based lessons and fail to see themselves as musicians later in life. I would argue far more than see themselves as musicians.  This kind of approach to learning music does little to foster lifelong learning; it’s an exercise in resiliency: if you last you get to the good stuff; if not, you stop playing.  My only measure of success for my son learning guitar will be if he still loves it on the other end.  Like Springsteen writes about his first guitar experience in ​Born to Run​, if my son quits because it’s hard, and loves it all the same, that’s success for now.  One day, who knows?

A key difference that came to mind this morning is relevant here: Contrast this to my experience of dropping him off at the bus today: you’d be hard pressed to find a more somber looking group of kids at 8 o’clock in the morning than those being transported to school.  It was a bright, sunny, relatively warm Wednesday morning and every kid in every window looked…well, not excited to be there, or, I extrapolate, not excited about where they’re headed.

“I wonder why…we’d start with schools.”

I wonder why learning organizations of any kind would turn to schools for examples of best practice before looking to the myriad examples of lifelong learning in the community.  There is a wealth of evidence of learning in what education terms ​extracurricular​, and I’m inclined to think that deeper, more life altering individual development happens here.

If one was to consult the vast opportunities for non-credentialed, adult learning that people turn to cultivate passions outside of their working day one begins to see a disconnect in learning practice from what one sees in schools.  In fact, if one looks to all the learning that children and youth do outside of school one would find similar examples.

Why, as a parent, would I scrutinize the quality of learning for my son’s guitar lessons, while blindly sending him off on the sad-bus for school?

…Maybe the better way, the more organic way, for me anyway, is to say it this way: “Would I want my children to learn this way…?” If the answer is no, then I hope there is a very quick, “Wait, what?”,followed by an “I wonder why…?” to follow.  Why are we profering learning in our schools, in our Alt. program, that we would not support for our own children?  Especially when we see a more effective alternative in their extracurriculars.

 “Couldn’t we at least…” work towards a learning organization.  A place that acknowledges the challenges our students arrive with. Couldn’t we at least strive to be something better? We are hardly scraping the surface of what we can do.  Couldn’t we at least try? “Learn like no one is watching.”  Couldn’t we strive to learn this way….Couldn’t we at least stop being afraid that our existence is contingent on being rigid.  Our existence is contingent on being awesome for students asking for all kinds of different awesome questions.  We can strive for that, can’t we?  [Ron Edmunds said it this way: “…we can, wherever and whenever we choose, successfully teach all of the children whose schooling is of interest to us.  We already know more than we need to do that.  Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact we haven’t so far.”

We’ve had lots of conversations about why, when people know in their hearts that school could be something better, do we continue to “do school” as we’ve known and experienced it?   When we talk about why there is such a gap between what we know and what we do, we inevitably come to face to face with our fears.  We are inundated with “what if” questions… almost all of them are about the consequences of failure.  The list of these fears is as long as the number of people on our staff… each has their own version, their own fear(s).

These fears drive us to ask “how” questions: How will I manage giving kids choices? How will I grade them? What if they choose to do something that we don’t usually cover?  What if they screw up the state test? Etc., etc. etc.

Here’s how Cam took steps. He describes this in his response to Ryan’s “How Can I Help?” question.  He offers two experiences as something he shared with colleagues to help them see what learning might look like.

But did I ever tell you about the time (last week!) a student presented to a room full of people she invited – her family, her friends, her teachers?  The presentation was inspired by Change School; when John Clements dropped into a Coaching Session and told us about ​Back to the Future​.  I paired this concept with an idea Patrick shared with me months ago, and suggested this to a student–a brilliant young woman who writes like no one’s business–I said: “Imagine you 5 years from now.  The aspirational you.  Present about her. Then have her come back to you now and show you how to get there.”  Something like that anyway.  Her presentation was the most beautiful piece of performance art I’ve witnessed as a teacher. Stunning.  Brilliant. Poignant. That’s how I help.  I try alongside my students, as learners together. And bear witness to the trying.  And make the learning and trying visible. [italics mine]

Cam’s second experience is a bit more “beyond the walls” and responds to the question, “Couldn’t we at least…?”

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This is Jacob.  One day in February he and 24 students from the Alternate Program joined me at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) – a partnership a year in the making – for a Pre-Apprenticeship training opportunity. The experience was open to anyone. Experience was unnecessary. Jacob had no experience.  He was frustrated at the outset: the instruction did not make sense to him (it was the minimum viable instruction), and he was sitting at a plywood circuit, with a circuit diagram and did not know where to start.  I checked-in: he voiced his frustration.  I suggested he ask a question and gave him some space.  Jacob worked for 4.5 hours; struggling, seeing others around him complete the circuit and move on, seeing success, not necessarily in himself.   At the end of the day, this hardened learner who revealed nothing of his emotional rollercoaster all day, stepped up to the circuit testing lab.  Everyone in the room was packing up, cleaning up, waiting at the door for taxis.  Jacob was hauling his completed circuit to the testing lab.  The instructor, George, noticed him and met him at the lab. He checked the circuit, explained what he was looking for.  Jacob revealed nothing of what was going on in his head.  George moved out of the way to give Jacob space to flip the switch.  What does learning look like? This is what learning looks like. That smirk you see, magnify it by 100 times; when that light literally and metaphorically turned on.  Jacob could not contain himself. This is what learning looks like.

“What truly matters?”What matters is that we are all inherently learners.

Somehow the machine of learning, the industrial approach to learning begins to whittle at our organic need to thrive in wonder.  I suspect the moment that we began, as a species, questioning the purpose of learning and hooking other aspirations to the purpose is the moment learning got more complicated than it needed to.  The moment that aptitude was measured, skills were evaluated, retention was challenged, comparisons were leveled, people were segmented, was the moment that we stepped away from ​learning​towards education. This is a new idea for my thinking, but it matters.

My son is sitting beside me playing with a Rubik’s Cube.  He is nothing short of enraptured by the puzzle.  He turns it, and considers.  He sits it down and twists and contorts himself and his perspective trying to see the inner logic of the toy.  This all began because he walked in on his Mom watching a video about a Rubik’s Cube savant.  He knew his sister had one. We found it.  He’s been consumed with the puzzle ever since.  He’s literally waiting for some insight without reservation.  This morning he asked if he could watch an expert video to get some ideas. He only asked once; he got sidetracked by his own discovery.

What truly matters is we didn’t invent learning.  It is not a discovery.  It is ​the​ discovery.  That we are a being that can ask questions, and look for answers, and, if we’re lucky, never really find the answers we seek. Instead, we discover more questions. [Italics, bold mine] ​

Try this on for size… 

Imagine your school, your classroom if you decided to address how you might reduce the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression for your students. Explore this with Ryan’s Five Question approach and think about sharing that with us.  Here you go…

There’s growing evidence that schools are contributing to rising levels of student stress, anxiety, and depression. Wait! What?… 

I wonder why… we grade kids in school?

I wonder if… it would be better not to grade kids (or teachers)?

Couldn’t we at least try… to reduce the use of grades as measures of learning?

How could I help… my school, my students, my colleagues adjust to such a change?

What really matters to me? In my school? In my classroom?

Be well.

When School Purpose Meets Algebra II Who Wins?

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by edshelf: Reviews & recommendations of tools for education

So the headline is misleading. I’m really not going to write about Algebra II.

I want to share thoughts about two seemingly unrelated ideas.  As I reflected on them I realized that they were much more closely connected than I had originally thought.  I hope that when you read this you will also see both the connection and the importance of that connection.

The two thoughts focus on the concept of school purpose and the value of voice… in this case, student voice.  My explorations stem from a conversation and two readings and I’ve included the links to the readings in the event that you’d like to explore them further.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to share a lunch with a dear friend.  Having lost touch for years as we each allowed family, distance and career responsibilities to create a separation, we schedule our lunches with a deliberateness intended to insure our connectedness.  Like many such occurrences, I didn’t recognize the hole our separation created until we “rediscovered” one another.

Our lunch conversations include family updates, shared experiences in very different professions and, almost always, philosophical discussions about the state of our world. Yesterday’s lunch was no exception.  We rated the various politicians who have announced their intentions to run for the presidency in 2020 and found ourselves discussing core values and how we learned ours.

Then this morning I read two pieces that confronted me with the reality that yesterday’s conversation about core values was hardly philosophical. Looking at the lunch conversation and these two readings through the lens of my career in education, I found myself confronted by a very loud voice asking…

“What the hell are we doing? How much longer can we continue to avoid deeply exploring and seriously answering the question, what is the purpose of education and, more specifically, what is the role of school in that purpose?”

Before you give up on me here for wasting your time with another philosophical bird walk, I’d like to highlight a few findings from a report that Jan Resseger explored more deeply in her post morning. I urge you to take a few minutes to read Jan’s post. In it she describes a study completed by researchers at UCLA, “School and Society in the Age of Trump”.

In the study, researchers surveyed 500 public high school principals about current social issues and problems that are increasing pressures for students, teachers, and school administrators. The identified issues (along with the percentages reporting significant impact) were:

  • Political division and hostility (89%);
  • Disputes over truth, facts, and the reliability of sources (83%);
  • Opioid misuse and addiction (62%);
  • The threat of immigration enforcement (68%);
  • The threats of gun violence on school campuses (92%).

Here’s a little more about these figures.  Eighty-nine percentof principals report that incivility and contentiousness in the broader political environment has considerably affected their school community and eighty-three percentof schools see these tensions intensified and accelerated by the flow of untrustworthy or disputed information and the increasing use of social media that is fueling and furthering division among students and between schools and the communities.

unschooling rules photoAs I‘ve shared previously, Clark Aldrich (Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways To Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education) suggests that there are three critical learnings for kids and, therefore, critical purposes for schools: help kids learn how to learn, help kids learn how to do, and help them learn how to be.  Bo Burnham in his highly acclaimed film, Eighth Grade, addresses how hard it is in normal times for a kid to figure out how to be.  His character describes her search for “how/who to be” when she’s in the car with her dad, when she sits at lunch with her friends, when she is at a pool party, etc.

Helping kids learn how to be/who to be is hard and I’ll offer that we haven’t been doing a very good job of it since the onset of the “school reform movement”.  We’ve heard a lot of “I wish I had time for that, but…” So what happens when we are confronted with the possibility that 89% of our schools are negatively affected by the incivility and contentiousness seen daily on TV! Is this how they’re learning how to be?

At a time in our history which has been described as an “age of separation” can we continue to rationalize the rigidity of the master schedule and the need for constantly improving test scores as excuses for not “finding time” to deal with the need for kids to learn civility and empathy, for not finding time to be intentional about helping our kids learn how to be in this environment?  Hang on to that for a bit, OK.

The second piece that I encountered this morning appeared in Medium and was written by Michael Klein, a special education preschool teacher at Kilawea Elementary School on Kaua’i.  The piece is entitled “Student Voice: Don’t Just Listen to Students; Give Them Power.”  In it, Klein described several initiatives in Hawaiian

Schools aimed at both increasing student voice and, additionally, student power.  He makes a powerful case for the importance of fostering student voice/power. He asks a series of questions.  Here are a few…

Would we consider students being on our school and district’s teacher hiring committees?

Would we allow students to evaluate teachers, principals, and even our superintendents?

Would we consider having students at principal meetings to make decisions alongside principals?

Would we consider having them being part of the process of designing new schools?

Would we consider students being present when making decisions about curriculum or texts for our school?

So, would I be wrong if I assumed that the default response to many of these questions is “no”?  Certainly, it would be “no” in the majority of schools I worked in and visited.  And why was it “no”? In almost all cases it would involve some of form of  “They’re not ready to do those kinds of things. They’re not adults. They’re just kids.”

But wait.

Didn’t we just say that these “kids” are being affected by incivility and contentiousness? By the disputes over truth, facts, and the reliability of sources? By opioid misuse and addiction? By the threat of immigration enforcement? By the threats of gun violence on school campuses?

And now the connection…

And so I come back to the question of core values and how we share them.

What if we can’t afford to have student voice and power remain “no” in a society which almost always has phrases like “good, productive citizens” in its school mission statements and then regularly enacts policies focused on compliance? What if it’s not just that we should give students voice and power but we have to for our own survival?

Helping kids learn how to be/who to be is hard. Giving kids the opportunity to explore who they wish to be … isn’t that a core value worth our commitment? And we can do it in places where they are surrounded by more caring adults than almost any other place in their lives.

Giving kids the opportunity to participate in and learn from conversations with adults about “adult” issues – i.e., giving kids a voice and the power to impact school decisions about such issues – isn’t that a first step in helping them learn how to use their voices thoughtfully and responsibly?

What would school look like if we made Aldrich’s “3 Learnings” the core purpose of an education?  What would school and learning look like if we designed learning experiences and created space for learning that focus not on the “mastery” of discrete content of a specific course (yup, here’s where I sneak in the reference to Algebra II) but on learning how to learn whatever I need/want to learn?

Is this a conversation that’s taking place in your schools or the schools your kids attend?  If yes, could you take a moment or two and share how?  If not, why not? Could you start it?

School and the Tomato – A Reflection

Warning:  This is a very short piece with a homework assignment.

When I first began this whole blog thing what seems like an awfully long time ago, I tried out a couple of titles. I wrestled with names like “Re-Imagining Education”, “Re-Imagining Learning” and a couple of others I can’t remember now.  I settled on the present title because I wanted make a clear distinction between learning and schooling.

My thinking behind this decision was based on my strong belief that we have become trapped in a cycle of trying to do the wrong thing better – i.e., we’ve become focused almost totally on the process of schooling and to a more subtle distinction… the process of teaching.  Beyond the folly of attempting to measure it with a series of high-stakes, large-scale assessments, we have paid only lip service to the concept of learning.  (For a more detailed analysis of the misuse of large-scale assessments, see The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better by Dan Koretz).

Repeating my previous and frequent paraphrasing of Russell Ackoff, while we have been struggling to improve the effectiveness of schools, we have done so, almost exclusively, by focusing on their efficiency.  What we have not done is look deeply at their purpose.  What we have not done is look deeply atwhat learning meansat this time in our development. I wanted to explore these ideas further, primarily for those like-minded readers who, while seeing a need to refocus our efforts, have been unable to find just the right words or approach to generate support for such discussions.

This morning as I was revisiting a number of articles related to this that I had archived previously as possible blog topics, I was about to open one entitled “29 Ways American Schools Fail Students” when I noted on the same cover page of the Medium email another article, School and the Tomato – Education Is No Longer a Monopoly”.

I ask you, how could you not open that?

The author, Bernie Bleske, offers a interesting description of what is happening/should happen now that our school no longer have the same monopoly on education that they had prior to the current technology revolution.   Most of my “work” now is centered around the problems attendant to continuing school and schooling as we have experienced it and as we now know it.  I’m interested in how you read his descriptions and conclusions.  So I’m calling in a favor (as if I have any to call in).

Medium has shared that Bleske’s article is a 10 minutes read.   I’d like to read it and add another 10 minutes to that by asking that you respond to the following questions in the comment section (or using my email address if that’s more convenient for you).

  • Do you agree/disagree with Bleske’s description of schooling? 
  • What in his writing struck you as important in reaching your conclusion?
  • What pieces of Bleske’s description do you feel that parents would accept/challenge?
  • Any other thoughts?