Where’s Sancho Panza When We Need Him?…maybe he’s us.

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-2-23-02-pmI was reading an article in The Atlantic this morning in which the author described the failure of the Republican party to reject the President’s strategy of using a national emergency as the means to circumvent the Congressional refusal to support his long standing promise of a border wall. The author described this as a “moment of extreme national cowardice.”

I was unsettled by my reaction. Is it possible that in my own field of interest/passion our failure to respond to signs of a system of education that is not adjusting to the changing needs of its students or to the increasing levels of emotional distress experienced by them is, in fact also a moment of national cowardice… cowardice not by our national legislators but cowardice by us, as educators?

 

I don’t mean the kind of self-serving cowardice that we have been witnessing by federal lawmakers. I mean a kind of cowardice which is less public and less intentional. I mean a kind of cowardice which is driven by fear of change, fear of losing what we have, fear of the consequences of acknowledging that we have spent far too long trying to do the wrong thing better, fear that in preserving our comfort with what is, we have avoided doing what should be, fear of acknowledging that the ways in which we have organized our schools and our focus on schooling have stifled, not encouraged learning.

screen-shot-2016-04-09-at-4-07-32-pmMost of us who taught or who teach now have had a minimum of 16 years as students to learn how school works.  While we may/may not have learned everything that was taught, we most certainly learned “schooling”. We learned that “stuff” was organized into discrete content areas, that each of these content areas was taught in fixed blocks of time, that we learned mostly in age-based cohorts, that teachers taught, that tests measured learning, etc. Perhaps most insidiously we learned that compliance was/is more highly valued than questioning.

And so I’m suggesting that we find ourselves confronted with a challenge of courage.  When we recognize that the system we have been a part of, the system that we have largely internalized is not meeting the needs of the very people it was charged with serving, what do we do?  Many of us seek others who have reached similar conclusions.  We seek communities of support.  Far too frequently we have to leave our schools/districts to find such kindred spirits.   We find safe harbors for our thoughts and feel secure in the knowledge that we are not nuts.

But what if being in a safe place is not enough?  What if the impact of our commitment to “schooling” is far more damaging than the parents and community members realize or understand?  Let me offer a possible analogy to this situation. Assuming we have a significant problem with boarder security, it’s safe to say that a comprehensive response to that issue has eluded us.  Not surprisingly, it’s a complex issue.  And so we develop a response which is more understandable… a wall.  Continuing… Let’s assume that we have a problem with what kids are learning/not learning in our schools.  It, too, is a complex situation.  We develop solutions… better standards and large scale assessments. They prove to be our “wall”.

Recently, a member of a virtual community of educators to which I belong, suggested that she would find it hard to believe that I would be anything but gracious in my responses to other members of the community.  I’ll dispel that “myth” with my next few sentences.  We are living at the tail end of a story that is dying. The “story” that told us that if we went to school, did well there, got good grades, went to college and graduated, we would have a good job and a secure future for our families and for our retirement… That story is dead!  Ask any parent of a recent graduate who is drowning in huge debt and depending on the “gig” economy for a job. “Schooling” isn’t working for far too many kids.  We are presiding over and working in a system that is no longer working.

Not all of us are community organizers or political activists.  Not all of us see the world in the same way or, perhaps, with the same sense of urgency.  But what if those of us who do don’t challenge it? If we really believe that a significant part of our calling is to help kids learn who they are and how they can be in the world, is there a place for “moments of cowardice”? What would happen if we added our voices to those of striking teachers… our voices about the need not only to raise teacher recognition and compensation, but also the need to revisit the purpose of education? What would happen if we added our voices to encourage an inclusion of such a discussion in the development of the Green New Deal?

What if watching the dismantling of a system of public education in the name of choice and free enterprise, if watching the largest publishing companies profit from student data and the continued sale of both the large-scale assessments and the test prep materials designed around them, if failing to examine how the policies and practices in our own or local schools is contributing to the dramatic rise in student mental health issues is actually an act of national cowardice?

Just asking.

Time of Fear – A real time drama

thinker-28741_1280Coming soon … Creating space in a time of fear… in the face of powerlessness.

I should never indicate the topic that I’ll address in the next post.  It’s almost a guarantee that something will happen that catches my attention and “demands” that I share my thoughts, reaction, emotional connection.

This time, the world intruded via an event that has captured national attention… the confrontation of native America veteran and a high school student from Kentucky which took place during the past week in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial. What an incredible lesson about life in the time of social media.   After seeing videos of what was labeled as a confrontation, after reading the written statement/response by the student involved, after seeing an interview with the Native American elder, after reading a recent account on CNN (updated at 4:46 am!) which added information about another group involved in the event (the Hebrew Israelites), after being offered links to various YouTube clips and viral videos, and after having had the opportunity to participate in an incredibly thoughtful and sensitive exchange among members of the Modern Learners Community, I haven’t a clue what really happened.

I’m not sure that matters. While what actually happened may be of critical importance to those directly involved… the student, his classmates, their parents, the elder, participants of the Indigenous Peoples’ rally, the African American Members of the Hebrew Israelites, the teacher chaperones, the school leaders, etc. … to me this is now a historical event and I find myself trying to focus on the how and why of the event, on what we could be doing as educators to help our young people respond with greater understanding, with greater empathy and without resorting the violence as a solution, whether that violence be physical or verbal.

How and why do such events occur? I return to what has become a recurrent theme in my thinking. It’s an observation that I haven’t heard shared on major news outlets.  It’s an observation about our sense of separation… our separation from one another, our separation from our institutions (and the consequent lack of faith in their effectiveness). It’s an observation about what happens when people feel exploited and forgotten.  In some ways, it touches directly on the theme that I had promised to explore.  It’s an observation about fear and powerlessness and the behaviors which seem to accompany these conditions.

It’s the behaviors that accompany fear and powerlessness that I want to explore.

Let’s move this back to school and our continued resistance to calls for change.  Will Richardson (what’s a blog post from me without at least one reference to Will?) noted recently in his writing that teachers and educational leaders often express a sense of powerlessness in response to his inquiries about why there remains such a gap between educator beliefs about learning and the practices we see in our schools.

When I was traveling and visiting schools throughout the country I heard the same responses. In interviews with teachers I learned more. Many of those interviewed looked outside of the school for explanations and, frequently to assign blame… blaming the state, the district office, kids these days, social media, etc. They often named those they perceived to be “the enemy”…  state bureaucrats, the principal, the superintendent, the board of education, etc.  But beyond these behaviors were others, less obvious… feelings of exploitation, under appreciation, fear.

And so the origins and lessons of the DC event are not so dissimilar to those we are experiencing in our schools.  When people feel separated, frustrated, isolated, exploited, under appreciated they lose hope in traditional institutions.  These are not conditions in which innovation, creativity, and commitment thrive.

How often have you heard conversations in which the sense of separation and the accompanying sense of powerless are used to justify a refusal to see what’s in front of us or to remember that it’s our responsibility as educators to find and create the space so those around us can feel the sense of safety that comes from connectedness rather than separation? How often have we blamed the state’s bureaucrats for mandated testing issues while continuing to use grading practices that stifle student initiative, learning or creativity?  How often have we blamed declining engagement levels on our students or ignored the messages students are sending by woeful attendance patterns? How often have we created cultures in which separation and isolation are more pervasive than collaboration or the development or nurturing of caring, supportive relationships.  What have we done intentionally to create spaces where thoughtful reflection and empathy are the rule?

What would happen if…?

  • What would happen if we identified one issue in our schools that might reduce the sense of separation/isolation among teachers, among students?
  • What would happen if we engaged our school community in the development of a response to address the separation/isolation issue we identify?
  • What would happen if we wrote a personal piece to our staff and school community about our beliefs about learning? About how kids learn best?
  • What would happen if we devoted a sacred amount of time each day to improving our relationships with our staff?

Couldn’t we at least try one of these? 

Wrapping it up…

The Modern Learners Community has been engaged in a deep, thoughtful and sometimes emotional exchange of responses to the following prompt, “I’m curious about how you, the people in our Modern Learners Community, react and respond to the recent Convington Catholic event or others like it?  I’m also curious to know what you might need to build your capacity as it relates to leading your communities through these discussions.”

— Melissa Emler, Team Member – Modern Learners Community

I’d like to end this piece with a response from one of the participants in the Modern Learners Community

…It also made me think about this course, and clarify more what I value the most…and what I believe the world needs desperately right now…and they are all qualities of the heart: people who can compassionately listen, non-violently communicate, play, create, feel empathy, develop emotional intelligence, reflect deeply, love themselves and each other.

Susannah Azzaro, Modern Learners Community

Thank you. Be well.

A Time to Choose

Ace Ladder Aug 14 - 2

FarSide Gallery – Gary Larson

Note:  I want to thank Will Richardson for inspiring this essay. He introduced a recent blog post, “2019 – A Time to Choose” with a challenging question:

“What are you going to do to change the experience your students have in school to reflect more compellingly what you believe is the right thing to be doing for kids and learning?”

Will’s piece is, indeed, challenging and, as usual, is a great read.  But I believe that, at this time in our history, we are called to ask Will’s question on a deeper, broader level – i.e., what are we doing to reflect compellingly what we believe is the right thing? 

Since the beginning of this blog a couple of years ago I’ve written a lot about leadership.  I began believing pretty firmly and comfortably that leadership could be defined as the capacity to build followership. As a result of several soul-grabbing experiences during the past six months I’m going to expand on that notion

If you’ve been following my reflections you know that I believe strongly in what Simon Senek  calls ”Circles of Safety”– places where people feel safe to express thoughts, challenge long-held truths, and take the risks involved in change. Senek suggests that these circles of safety are built on deep and caring relationships. They’re built on trust.

Putting my faith in the possibility that your continued connection to my reflection is based on that notion of trust, I’m going to test it. I’m going to test it on several levels.

I use Medium as a curating site to find writing that interests and engages me. Each piece published in Medium contains a brief description as well as an approximate reading time. So borrowing from both of Mediums approaches, here’s a brief description, “How the age of separation has threatened (and continues to threaten) the future of our kids and our country.”  And now the real test of trust… this essay and related tasks are going to consume at least 30 minutes of your time (and probably at least one or two adult beverages).

First, as context, I’m going to ask you to view a video clip prior to considering continuing with this essay (think blended learning).  I’m going to continue with a departure from my narrow focus on education. I’m going to share some observations that have found a voice as a result of the learning experiences I mentioned above. They’re impacting me deeply. They extend well beyond the field of education but on some levels they cannot be separated from it. I’ll leave it to you to decide the value of my observations and the connections you might see. I encourage you to share your reaction.

The clip is one I’ve referenced previously. It is the commencement address by the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education given by Dr. James Ryan in 2016.  In it, he suggests 5 powerful questions that graduates should incorporate into their lives. Even if you’ve viewed it previously, I urge you to invest another 21 minutes to see what stays with you this time.

Welcome back… I hope.

In his writing, Charles Eisenstein describes what he calls the “Age of Separation”.  He describes it as a time in which we are increasingly separate from one another, a time in which we have become increasingly separate from our institutions, a time when we have become increasingly separate from our own planet.  Can you identify examples of each of these?

In addition to his description of our time, Eisenstein also describes us as living in a time of “interbeing”… a time when we are “being” between stories… a time when the stories with which many of us grew up are no longer valid… a time when the promise of the American Dream seems false and out of reach for an increasing number of people.  Umair Haque describes our time as one of increasing exploitation. In his detailed descriptions of a rich country in which increasing numbers of people are only one pay check away from serious financial trouble (government shut down stories, anyone?), in which people have to go online to beg for money to deal with health issues for which they are uninsured (or insufficiently insured), in which the producers of goods/workers have wages which have been stagnant for decades while wealth continues to grow at staggering levels for the richest among us, Haque substitutes the word “exploitation for Eisenstein’s “separation”.

I make the following connections.  It is not hard to extend the notion of separation to schools and schooling.  A friend once described schools as 30 classrooms connected by a common parking lot.  In my visits to schools throughput the country over the past 15 years, I have seen school after school in which separation dominates… kids separate from teachers, teachers separation from leadership, kids separate from one another. In many of these schools, teachers in adjacent classroom have no idea what is happening next door. Teachers work in isolation with little or no understanding, commitment, acceptance (pick your noun) of a common direction, vision, purpose (with the possible common commitment to have their kids achieve arbitrarily determined cut-scores on state assessments).

Haque, using a different measure (exploitation), has no trouble finding examples.  He suggests that, as a country we have progressed from the wealthy exploiting human resources (during the era of slavery and pre-union factory work) to the exploitation of natural resources (industrial pollution, strip mining, unregulated fisheries) to the final phase, the exploitation of one another.  Using education as an example, I don’t have to look too hard to see examples of student exploitation (sale of personal data, treatment of students and schools as “profit centers”, growth of charter management companies, so-called “portfolio” policies that see “free market” alternatives to public schools as valid approaches to “improvement”).

In accepting and, often, encouraging separation (Google “rugged individualism”) we have minimized the value of commonly held beliefs (my beliefs are just as good as your beliefs regardless of their basis in reality). We have, in an age of separation and exploitation, determined human value by the level of acquisition and, conversely, have limited the value of others based on the same criteria.

Perhaps words like separation or exploitation seem too harsh.  I want to raise the issue that regardless of which words we choose, there is a high likelihood that we, as a country with all of our institutions, have drifted off course – have lost sight of true north.  How far off course we have drifted may require more exploration; however, off course remains off course.  Are we separate from one another?  Does that separation seem to be accelerating?  Do we see examples of exploitation, not only of adults but also of children? If so, what do we do?

And so the reason for the Ryan clip.  What do we do?  We act as leaders.  We ask questions? Here’s a quick review of Dr. Ryan’s 5 questions:

  • Wait …What?– (asking a clarifying question) – understand an issue before advocating for it – at root of all understanding
  • I wonder (why/if)– at the heart of all curiosity
  • Couldn’t we at least?—getting past disagreements – beginning of all progress
  • How can I help?– relationship builder and alternative to “savior complex” – how we help matters as much as that we helped – at the base of all good relationships
  • What truly matters?– gets you to the heart of life

I mentioned at the beginning of this essay that I had modified my definition of leadership.  Part of the reason for that modification was the attempt to answer the questions that I’m raising here.  My revised thinking doesn’t alter the notion of developing followership.  What it does do is add another piece.  It is this… leaders create space where change can occur.  They build,  and build on, trust.  They build on the circles of safety they created.  They create spaces where separation doesn’t thrive.

If the direction of this essay strikes a responsive chord, how can you create spaces where separation and the effects of isolation are discussed and actions to eliminate them are valued and intentional?  As a start why not discuss this essay with one colleague? Maybe several. Why not take each of Ryan’s questions and develop a personal response?

Coming soon … Creating space in a time of fear… in the face of powerlessness.

We’ve Met the Enemy and He is All of Us (Take 2) – Why All Ed Reform Fails

This is a post about leadership.  Not the mechanics of leadership but the need for leadership… real leadership.  Not the kind of leadership that marshals support for doing the wrong things better. No, the kind of leadership that has the courage to confront the need for doing the right thing.  We are not doing  the right thing with education and we haven’t been for a while now.  We been doing the wrong thing and we’ve been allowing the wrong people to tell what to do.

I’m going to share a picture. My picture is not optimistic.  You can decide whether or not that picture matches your own sense of our future.  My picture is one where our system of public education is under assault and where it is  not responding well to the challenges facing it. My picture is about our continued backwards march into the future.  It’s a picture summed up by Danny DiVito’s character in the film “Other People’s Money “.  DiVito is speaking to his audience of disgruntled employees whose factory, unresponsive to changing markets, is about to be taken over by a larger company. They are proud of what they produce but startled into silence when he tells them, “I’ll bet the last manufacturer of buggy whips made their best damn buggy whip on the day they closed.”

My post is about leadership because we are faced with the buggy whip dilemma. We have remained unresponsive to market needs and conditions.

That’s no surprise. Who knew we were supposed to?  We can’t be blamed for not responding to something we didn’t know we were supposed to respond to.  But we know it now.  And we continue to act as if we don’t.  More important than market needs and conditions, we remain deaf to the messages being sent to us by the consumers of our work… the kids. We remain deaf to the declining engagement levels of our kids in schools… a decline which has less than 50% of our kids reporting that they are disengaged in school by 11thgrade.  We remain deaf to record levels of reported stress, anxiety, depression and teen suicides.  Sure we may read about such statistics and express our concern about the impact of “screen time”, the negative effects of technology, and the almost unbelievable levels of school violence.  But rarely do we look at “our own house” to see what school practices, policies, procedures, etc. might be significant contributors to these trends.

We continue to prepare our students according to a story which is dying, if not already dead.  What story is dead?  It’s the story of the American Dream that deals with education. There are stories of other aspects of the Dream that many would also consider dead but I’ll leave those stories to other chroniclers of our history.

Context for A Dying Story –

Most of us have grown up within a story that shared with us a life plan which included the following admonitions:

  • Go to school
  • Work hard
  • Get good grades
  • Do well on the SAT/ACT’s
  • Get into a good college
  • Graduate
  • Get a good job
  • Be secure for life

If this story is still accurate why is it that the largest job growth segment in our society is now the so-called “gig-economy” – the economy based on the growth of independent contract workers – workers, moving on demand,  from “gig” to “gig”? Workers without pension.  Workers without job security. Workers whose productivity has grown while their wages have remained stagnant. Workers, if college grads, with significant piles of student debt.

A  recent study  completed by LinkedIn  (U.S. Emerging Job Report… Forbes, December 13, 2018) lists “The Top Five In-Demand Skills” (Biggest Skills Gap).  The report listed:

  1. Oral Communications
  2. People Management
  3. Social Media
  4. Development Tools
  5. Business Management

Are we seeing many learning experiences for kids in our public school system intentionally designed to grow these skills?  No, you say… but some of these are college level skills. Well, here’s some additional context about college.

It comes via another story which also appeared today, also in Forbes, which asks the question, “Will Half Of All Colleges Really Close In The Next Decade?”. The author of the quote is Clayton Christiensen, best-known for his work in disruptive innovation.  In an earlier, more measured description of the situation, Christiensen suggested that there are a host of colleges and universities that are struggling financially.  Of these the bottom 25% will disappear or merge with in the next 10-15 years (article written 5 years ago).

And here’s how we’ve responded.  Take a couple of minutes and look at the two clips I’ve included here.  The first parallels the findings reported in a recent Gallup survey which looked at the engagement of levels of students as they moved through school.  The engagement levels dropped from roughly 80% in grade 3 to about 40% in grade 11.  Those of us working in schools or who have children in schools don’t need to see these numbers to know he drop off is significant.  I’ve heard lots of explanations about this phenomenon, “Kids just don’t seem to care.” or ”They’re not interested in learning.” or  “They just want to play on the Smart Phones.”  or “Kids just aren’t as responsible any more.” or  “Our absentee rate is a real problem.”  or “It’s the damned state tests. School’s no fun for them anymore.”

What I haven’t heard much of is “I wonder what we’re doing to promote this loss of engagement.”  or “What adult behaviors discourage curiosity?” or…

Take a look at “The Power of Questions” 

This next clip is entitled “I Just Sued The School System”. It’s a bit (!) more hyperbolic.  It’s produced by Ted Dintersmith, author of What School Could Be. Hyperbole aside, can you find some truths? While I’m not a great fan of Dintersmith’s solutions, it’s hard to argue with what he saw as he visited 200 schools in 50 states, observing instruction, interviewing kids and educators. This clip dramatizes his findings.

Here is a comment offered by a teacher in response to seeing the clip.

Comment from “I Just Sued the School System!!!”

My 5th grade teacher and I had a debate on the school system and he said “I have my opinion but I’ll be more then happy of you could change my mind”, I then ask to used YouTube for a video and he said yes, so I turned on the smartboard, hooked up the computer, and played this video. By the end of it he was in tears and said ” Well then congratulations Kiley, you’ve changed my mind, maybe one day you’ll change the system yourself”, he was my favorite teacher, still is.

Unspoken in the comment shared above, is the message, “Maybe one day you’ll change the system yourself.” (italics mine).  The implication is clear… Maybe you’ll change the system. I can’t. I can’t try. I won’t. I won’t try.

This is where leadership fits…

This is a critical moment in a series of critical moments.  Some have described the events of the past 18-24 months as a battle for the soul of our nation. While not every one might agree with that assessment, it’s hard not to recognize these times as different than anything most of us have experienced.

But what if there is another battle going on?  And what if that battle touches each of us who has committed to working as educators.  It’s a battle for the soul of our kids. And what if, consistent with our history of identifying problems inaccurately, we have identified the problem as which schools our kids can/should attend (charters, academies, “regular” public schools), which schools we should fund (public, private, charters, on-line) and how should we fund schools (vouchers, educational savings accounts, local taxation)? What if these are good questions if the issue were actuallywhich schools should our kids attend? What if the real question is not whichschool but whyschool? What if the real question to be addressed is what is the purpose of education today in 2019? Is it the same as it was when schools were originally configured and curricula were original organized (1890’s)?

And so leadership…

What if leadership can no longer be focused on “school” leadership? What if leadership is about creating emotionally safe places where we and our teacher colleagues can explore the differences between schooling and learning? What if leadership is exploring for ourselves the extent to which the story of school and schooling is no longer valid? What if leadership is challenging our fellow educators, members of our school communities, members of the boards of education to explore the possibility that the old story of school is dead? What if leadership is helping people unlearn their old story beliefs about schools and schooling – that learning that matters takes place in a school, that school is defined as a building, that that adults impart knowledge to students?

What? But wait!  Am I saying that leadership means that we have to explore with teachers that their role (the role they grew up experiencing as students and the role they have tried to perfect as educators) has to change and may require a very different set of skills? That we have to align the experiences that our kids have with a new purpose… a purpose beyond preparation for testing hurdles and credit accumulation? A purpose that is no longer the mastery of content defined over a century ago?   A purpose that doesn’t designate schools as the only place where meaningful learning can take place?

This is a time for New Year’s Resolutions.  Thinking of my teaching or my district, I always found these relatively meaningless in January.  I made my new year’s resolutions in the summer in preparation for beginning my new year.  But what if we used the time right now to make one resolution about creating a safe space for kids and teachers in our classroom, school, or district to take risks about learning? What is we used the time right now to explore what policies, practices, procedures we have that might contribute to student stress, anxiety, and depression? What if you filled in the blank with the commitment to explore the conflict between what you believe about student learning and the practices in your classroom, school, or district?

Maybe you could complete the following, “Couldn’t I at least….?

 

Finding What Matters… time to check for true north

compassI have a lot to say. You wouldn’t know it from the time between posts, but I do.  I even made a list and discussed with a good friend which one I should post first.  But still I postponed it.  I’m not usually a procrastinator. There were just too many ideas that, although related, didn’t seem to share a common focus.  If the jumble of ideas left me confused, it was unlikely that readers would be able to sense any unifying elements.

And then I encountered a timely essay, penned by Jon Kabat-Zinn entitled “The Total Incompatibility of Mindfulness and Busyness”. One of his highlighted quotes spoke directly to me.

When we set things up to make any balance in our lives a virtual impossibility, we are evincing disloyalty to what we value most.

On the same day I received a notice from the Modern Learners Team asking us to react to op ed written by Peter DeWitt that appeared recently in EdWeek. In his piece DeWitt suggested “12 Areas School Leaders Should Focus On in 2019”.  Only 12? Talk about the impossibility of finding balance!

I smiled a bit at my contrasting images.  On the one hand, there was Peter DeWitt juggling 12 balls, each labeled with a different area demanding his attention.  On the other, there was the image of Jon sitting cross-legged in a serene yoga pose engaged in the practice of quiet mindfulness.  In my imagination, I was right there with Peter juggling a list of 12 competing themes for my next blog piece, looking longingly at Jon peacefully reflecting on ways he could simplify his life and reject self-imposed busyness.

And then came Oprah to the rescue.  Yup, Oprah.

Actually Oprah didn’t make a personal appearance, rather she showed up at the request of my wife’s suggestion (!) that I read the transcript of Oprah’s interview with Michelle Obama. The interview was scheduled to help promote the release of the First Lady’s memoir, Becoming.

Oprah had me at the first question, Why Becoming?. Michelle had me with her answer…

A question that adults ask kids – I think it’s the worst question in the world – is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As if growing up is finite. As if you become something and that’s all there is.

I realized that all of the items on my topic list dealt in some way with becoming… becoming who we want to be, becoming what our schools might be, becoming what learning is all about, helping our kids become more than a test score, and helping our kids learn how to be in the world they are experiencing.

If you’re reading this and working in schools, regardless of position you can identify with the image of juggling too many balls.  These balls may be in the form of new or revised standards, new safety/security protocols, new professional evaluation systems, new or increasing focus on “personalized Learning”, new graduation requirements, etc. Hardly a climate suited to peaceful reflection and cross legged yoga positions.  And, by the way, it’s no different for kids.

You might recall my previous reference to a film entitled Eighth Grade.  In that film the young girl who is the focus of the film discusses that each day she is faced with deciding who to be. Who to be with her friends during school? After school? Who to be with her dad while she rides with him in the car? Who to be on social media?  She goes to bed late. Gets up early. Decides what to wear.  Wonders if she’ll see her friends? If they’ll still be her friends? She goes to soccer, participates in drama, has part-time job.  12 balls in the air seems like a piece of cake.

How do we escape the seemingly endless demand to juggle too many “have to’s” or “shoulds”? Years ago, I happened on a book edited by Art Costa, James A. Bellanca, Robin Fogarty. It was entitled, If Minds Matterand posed the question, “If minds really mattered, would school look like it does?”  Would we group kids by age? Would they all have to read by the end of third grade? Would we still focus so much on compliance and efficiency? Would we continue to organize high school content according to the thinking of the Committee of Ten in 1892? (Yes, we still do.) Would we continue to place most of our emphasis on learning that occurs within the walls of a school building?

So, as adults, let’s forget the 12 balls for a bit. Let’s forget the constant introduction of new initiatives, the pressure imposed primarily by the focus on the needs of adults.  Let’s just answer one question?  What matters?  What matters to you? How do we help kids learn/decide what matters?

What would happen if we created space where answering this question was the thing that mattered? For us? For kids?  What would the design of learning look like if it were based solely on the answer to ‘what matters’?  What would your answer to this question be?  What if Aldrich is right and the only thing that matters for our kids is that they learn how to learn, learn how to do, and learn how to be? What if you took 15 minutes or so and just wrote down what matters to you as an educator? What if you then looked at what you (or your school) is doing to make your “what matters” a reality?

Reimagining, not reforming. Are we saddened and embarrassed enough to do something?

Pittsburgh Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 11.15.30 AMCNN bomb Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 11.20.47 AM

Kroger shooting Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 11.18.08 AM

The recent events in our nation have occupied most of my intellectual and emotional energy. Mired in attempts to find sense in the senseless, I simply had nothing that seemed worth sharing.  Added to this, I felt constrained by advice I frequently heard a kid as (and apparently internalized)… “Never talk about religion or politics” if you want maintain relationships.

Watching our national “dialog” spiral downwards, I began to recognize that as really bad advice. I began to realize that it is precisely our inability to discuss such emotion-laden topics from a perspective of understanding rather than one of winning that is causal in our current disconnected and increasingly tribal response to “the other”.  And perhaps more importantly, it is precisely we as educators who have the opportunity to turn this around.  Certainly not by ourselves and certainly not overnight, but we have the opportunity.  I believe we also have the responsibility.

But I was struggling to express this. And then I received a posting of a piece piece on the Modern Learners site entitled “Designing for Learning” that broke the logjam.  It’s a fascinating piece about the implications of design thinking and references an even more fascinating video clip about schooling.  I urge you to read the post and to take time to view the clip.  I’ll buy you a beer if you think it was a waste of your time.

Design Thinking… What Is It?

The concept of Design Thinking has achieved educational jargon status.  Google reports that a search on the term “design thinking” yielded about 1,350,000,000 results.  Here’s a definition from Interaction Design. Interaction-Design 

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods.

What stands out to you in this definition? For me, key terms here are seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and alternative strategies.  Hence, in exploring the notion of ‘designing for learning’, key pieces would be

  • understanding the learner,
  • challenging assumptions about schooling and learning, and
  • exploring alternative strategiesfor where and how learning can occur.

So what would this look like? 

First of all, it would look different. I want to tackle just a couple of differences here.They’re big and scary.

As I have shared here in previous posts and as is reported in numerous studies, the design of our schools and the schooling process is inconsistent with what we know about user learning.  In Will’s post, he notes

If we were really intent on improving learning inside the school walls, we would pay a lot more attention to how learning happens outside the school walls in the natural world and then build our practice based on that. So, at the risk of being repetitive, we know that outside of school kids learn with other kids and adults of all different ages. We know that they don’t learn in 45-minute chunks. We know that learning occurs without any contrived tests.

But what would happen if we didn’t think of schools as the point of delivery for learning?  Why, when we consider looking at how kids (and adults) learn in the world outside of school, would we not feel the need to change schools to reflect this?  Why wouldn’t we re-design schools into places where “real world” learning could be coordinated rather than delivered?  Why wouldn’t we promote the conversion of schools to centers for community learning?… places where learning could be supported, not controlled… places where resources for learning, both human and material, could be housed to supplement those found outside/beyond the walls of the school?

I know all of the practical, adult centered, logistical reasons why this can’t happen (OMG, what about the child care, custodial function, what would I do with 50 “You Tubers”? What if they didn’t want to learn Algebra?, etc. ). I see such thinking as simply an extension of a system that supports chunking learning into 45 minutes segments for the sake of efficiency and adult convenience.

Just as the Industrial Revolution spawned the creation of schools (and schooling as we have experienced it), is it not possible for the Technological Revolution to redefine that model to reflect not only the availability of learning resources and learning experiences, but also the places in which learning can take place and be recognized?

We have the beginnings of such user-designed places in urban community schools… places where the intellectual, social-emotional, and health needs of the learners can be coordinated and extended. Why not elsewhere?  If we are going to “design for learning” why would we continue to use an industrial model for the spaces and ways in which learning can take place?

And speaking of learning… Learn what?

Will continues his piece with the question about what our kids should learn, “What Do We Want Our Children to Be?”  What would happen if we asked the question “HOW would we like our kids to be?” instead of “WHAT would we like them to be?” I suspect that, from the extended description in the piece, the intent may well have been to mean “how” while using the term “what”; however, I think that precision in language is critical to help us avoid multiple definitions and multiple directions/solutions.

Remember back at the beginning I shared that one of the lessons learned in our previous story was to avoid topics of politics and religion.  This advice was based on experiences where such discussions went poorly.  So avoiding them became to be the favored response.  But there was and is another response… a response that forges connections rather than separation.

It’s empathy.

Empathy is the path beyond separation and is directly related to my reasoning for suggesting a focus on how we want our kids to be, rather than what they should be.  Does anyone else notice that we, uniquely, among rich, industrialized countries, have embraced a language of violence?  We fight “wars” on drugs, “wars” on illiteracy, “wars” on poverty and tragically ironically, “wars” on violence.  We define money raised by politicians for their campaign a “war chest”. We see such words as “American” as proud, strong, powerful and words such as “empathy” as soft, weak, and, in a patriarchal society, an even worse adjective… “feminine”.

It appears that suggesting how they should be as empathetic is seen by many as a rejection of the American story of competition, toughness, and hard work. There is a growing sense that this story should be rejected.  The acceptance of that story has created a culture of needing more, and needing more too frequently comes at the expense of others.  It creates and reinforces a sense of scarcity… a sense that whatever someone else gets is reducing what’s available for me. It results is sum-zero thinking.  I must win.  A natural consequence of winners is the reciprocal, losers. We have become a win-lose culture, not only in the acquisition of material wealth but also in the course discussion.  Prized are the winners, losers not so much.

We cannot continue to avoid the topics which divide us.  We cannot continue to “discuss” such issues while focusing more on winning the “debate” than on understanding what it is like to be the other person and how being that person has led them to conclusions/beliefs that differ from our own.

How does this change?  It changes with us as educators, as school leaders, as teachers, as members of our education community.  It changes with parents.  It changes with a generation of young people we are charged with preparing for what appears to be an increasingly precarious time. It changes by helping our kids encounter the world around them as it really exists, not as it exists inside the walls of a school building, not as it exists in programs that were designed for another time and a very different set of needs, not in programs designed by large publishing houses seeking their share of a lucrative education market place.  It changes with creating the habit of civil, empathetic discourse and discussion.  It continues with the creation and nurturing of a culture that rejects violence as the response to differences in thinking. It changes with the rejection of demonizing and vilifying those whose skin color or beliefs differ from our own.  It begins with a discussion that illuminates how empathy can be intentionally nurtured and developed in young people as a part of learning how to be. It doesn’t change by doing more of the same.

As always, be well.

The Space Between Stories

Ace Ladder Aug 14 - 2

Gary Larson – Far Side Gallery 1984

Hi all,

Note: This began as a note to the folks at Modern Learners explaining my lack of presence on our video calls during the past several weeks. It grew! It became a reflection of some big picture issues that I’ve connected to some fascinating experiences I’ve been able to enjoy during the past two month. I’ve included the first paragraph in this piece because I’ll still be sharing it with them.

I wanted to check in and affirm that I haven’t dropped out of the group. Over the course of the past several months, I’ve had the good fortune to be engaged in a number of thought provoking events, not the least of which has been my interactions with the Modern Learners Community. In addition to ongoing reflections connected with the readings, conversations and exchanges that you have made available, the universe appears to have offered me a number of additional challenging and thought provoking experiences.

The first of these was a weekend “gathering” of approximately 200 people who came together to spend time with Charles Eisenstein whose writings and reflection struck a very responsive chord in me. His descriptions of the death of an old story and of our current time as an “Age of Separation” have become a kind of introduction to a body of thinking that has been poking at the edges of my mind for some time.

Charles speaks of the interconnectedness of things and our need for the recognition of this reality. His description of our age as a time of separation from individuals, separation from our institutions, and separation from our planet gave voice to concerns that simmered within me without a name or framework. It has also awakened me to see the increasing number of articles which, although sometimes using different vocabulary, seek to call attention to society of increasing fragmentation, tribalism, and isolation.

Charles speaks of the need to consider a different approach to the change process… an approach which moves away from the exhortation to adopt specific changes to the work of creating spaces where change can occur… not specifically the changes that I would “suggest” but those which come from the hearts of those freed by the opportunity. This spoke powerfully to me as I could easily recall a list as long as my arm of change initiatives which someone thought would be good, which were more or less mandated, and which faded quickly when replaced by the next “good” initiative.

But Charles wasn’t done with me. He offered a path to interconnectedness. He offered the path of empathy. The path of asking, in the face of opposition, “What must it be like to be that other person?” What has their life been like/what is their life like that has brought them to resist what I find so right?

He is best known for his book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible and for his appearance on Oprah after his publication in 2016 of an essay entitled “The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story”. His most recent work, Climate, A New Story, is now available.

Not too long (less than a month) after my experience with Charles, I ventured once again to the Hudson Valley for another program… this one a retreat facilitated by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his son, Will. This was a 5-day program in Mindfulness entitled, “The Way to Awareness”.  Kabat-Zinn  is widely recognized as a world leader in the development of mindfulness practices. This was a gift from my wife (which I suspected might have been a thinly veiled suggestion about my somewhat intense focus on fixing the nation’s schools). This program, too, had attracted about 200 or so participants who all seemed to have much clearer senses of purpose for attending than I.

When asked to reflect on our/my purpose for attending I reflected on the impact of a little book given to me by my good friend, Tom Welch. The book written by Clark Aldrich is entitled, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About School and Rediscover Education. In it Aldrich posits that there are really only three types of learning that are critical for our children: learning to learn, learning to do, and learning to be. In visiting, assessing and supporting schools throughout the country for more than 10 years I saw that the third “learning” (learning to be) was largely absent or, at best, only unintentionally developed. I realized that part of my rationale for attending was to see whether or not mindfulness had a place as a way of helping our kids learn how “to be”. As I reflected on this during the next meditation session, I realized that I, too, was struggling with how to be…how to be in a world in which elected leaders seem determined to reject all of the values that I had grown up taking for granted.

Perhaps the most lasting impact of the retreat, though, was the realization that here, just like at “the gathering” with Charles Eisenstein, was a group of people searching for a response to the end of a story. Whether it was Charles offering a vision of a world of interconnectedness… interconnectedness with people and the living world around us… or Kabat-Zinn offering a practice of increased awareness of our actions and their impact, there was a powerful sense of “not aloneness”. It is this “not aloneness” that may be the greatest gift of the Modern Learners Community and others whose work seeks to dismantle separateness and offer connectedness as a better way.

Finally, and from deep in left field, I discovered via Medium, Umair Haque. Haque is listed among the world’s foremost keynote speakers, has written extensively for the Harvard Business Review and has authored a number of books. His primary field of focus has been economics, society, and human development. His essays, both current and archived, are published through Eudaimonia and Co.  His book, Betterness, Economics for Humans, suggests that much like education, we are struggling to unlearn a paradigm that no longer serves us.

And here is the intersection. In describing the business paradigm, Haque unintentionally offers a description of the education paradigm that continues to govern (and limit) the possible. He writes:

“So little have the components of this paradigm changed over the decades, that most of us see them not just external fixtures of the landscape, but as the landscape.”

Assume for a moment that Eisenstein’s concepts of ending stories, an age of separation, interconnectedness, empathy, and the creation of space for change are right-headed. That Kabat-Zinn’s connection of mindfulness practices and the power of collective consciousness leads to increasing awareness of our thoughts and motivations. And that Haque’s thinking about moving beyond outdated (and counterproductive) paradigms is right on. How does the intersection of these thoughts from the world beyond the walls of the school impact what we do for kids?

The old story of education is dead. The old formula of work hard, do well in school, get good grades, score high on the SAT’s/ACT’s, get into a good college, graduate and get a good paying job ensuring a secure future may work for the sons and daughters of the wealthy, but for the majority of working class Americans, it’s dead! We are in a time between stories. We are in a time of writing new stories.

Your Turn…

While it may be beyond our pay grade to write new stories for the economy, for health care, for tax reform, etc., it is we as educators, whether we are school leaders or classroom teachers or district administrators, to create the emotional spaces in our buildings, classrooms, and districts where new stories of learning can be written. Taking a page from Jon Kabat-Zinn, how aware are you of your thoughts about creating safe spaces for change, for new stories? Of your own role in creating such spaces?

Be well.