Why Is There Wrongness?


Pixabay – 2012

Hello. It’s been a while.  It’s interesting that I feel guilty and a need to apologize for not keeping to a schedule I never really set.  I’m thinking that a significant part of life might be a series of agreements that we don’t recall making.

As I found myself struggling to maintain “my schedule”, I decided to take stock of why I’m writing.  I find that I write for two reasons.

Often my writing is driven by a need to pass along some insights that have been shared with me. I use “that have been shared with me” deliberately because they come to me from a variety of sources most of which I can’t remember. I can recall only that they are rarely original and frequently reflect a clarity of insight that I continue to find elusive. It would be wrong to claim ownership. I have learned, however, that the clarity of such insights comes to best in stillness. In such times I sense both clarity and an obligation to share it. This has not been a “still” time.

My second reason for writing is more selfish. I write to bring order to the thoughts that I encounter. Most times it works.  But in the past several weeks I’ve begun 4 pieces. They didn’t actually begin as separate pieces; however, in each case new thoughts intruded, demanded attention, and added not clarity, but further complication. They apparently paid no heed to my pursuit of clarity. They reminded me that I don’t find clarity. Clarity finds me.

All this us by way of saying that I’m going to take a week or two to do some reading and find stillness. Retirement afford me that luxury. During that time, I’ll be revisiting some authors I’ve previously read and adding some that I’ve recently encountered and want to experience more deeply.

Here’s a short annotated list in case you’d like to join me in the explorations.

I’ve referred elsewhere to the writing and thinking of Charles Eisenstein. Eisenstein had me with the following, taken from the “About” page on his website.

Eisenstein writes…

”There is a tide of separation (separation from one another, from our planet, from our institutions) that is generating a convergence of crises – ecological, medical, educational, political, etc. …Why does money seem to be a force for injustice and destruction? …It’s just a system of agreements, a story. … What would a new story, a new system of agreements look like that were aligned with a healing planet?”

Can Eisenstein offer insight into our education crisis? What would a new series of agreements, a new story, look like if we were to remove the story of separation from our thinking?

Russell Ackoff – I’ve referred to Ackoff frequently, referencing his distinction between doing things right and doing the right thing.

He describes better than I could why I want spend more time with his thinking in an essay he wrote in 1999 for The System Thinker, published by Pegasus Communications entitled “A Lifetime of Systems Thinking”.

Most large social systems are pursuing objectives other than the ones they proclaim, and the ones they proclaim are wrong.

Example: The educational system is not dedicated to produce learning by students, but teaching by teachers – and teaching is a major obstruction to learning. Whoa!

In discussing Ackoff’s work and thinking, Will Richardson suggested that I read one of Ackoff’s books… Turning Learning RightSide Up : Putting Education Back on Track. It’s on my list.

Peter Gray, PhD, “The Joy and Sorrow of Rereading Holt’s “How Children Learn”. In Psychology Today, December 26, 2017.

Gray’s article stems from his rereading of Holt’s book on the publication of the 50th anniversary edition of that work. He addresses what he terms the sad reality that so little of Holt’s insights have made their way into contemporary education practice in our schools. He offers what he considers to be Holt’s major insights and contributions and begins with what most consider to be Holt’s most significant observation.

Schools try to teach children skills and knowledge that may benefit them at some unknown time in the future.  But children are interested in now, not the future.  They want to do real things now.  By doing what they want to do they also prepare themselves wonderfully for the future, but that is a side effect.

In taking license with a recent post recent post by Will Richardson in which he describes the commitment and capacity to turn this “now” oriented learning approach into a desire to learn more as “the artistry of teaching”, I combine this with Aldrich’s 3 purposes. For me it seems that the artistry of teaching is the commitment and capacity to turn the student’s “now” orientation into the desire to learn how to know, to learn how to do, and, of ever increasing importance in our current “story”, to learn how to be.

If you have the time and inclination to join me in this exploration of stillness and clarity, I hope you will add your own thoughts and experiences in the comment section. In the meantime…

“Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch” – Garrison Keillor


Another Compass Check

compassWelcome (back) to what is becoming a fairly sporadic blog. I decided a while back that the world has a sufficiency of words and doesn’t need more from me when I don’t have all that much of significance to say. If the stars line up, my assessment of significance will coincide with yours and we’ll all be pleased with the result. By choosing to subscribe, if you haven’t already done so, you’ll get a friendly reminder from the WordPress folks when I’ve posted something new and exciting and I’ll get a healthy dopamine hit when I see that someone has chosen to read my thoughts.

I’ve written recently about what I see as a significant flaw in our growth as a species. It is the combination of impatience and arrogance which has led us to look for quick solutions and avoid deep analysis. Our superficial analysis and misguided solutions yield greater and greater negative consequences as our world increases in complexity. I recently encountered the work of Charles Eisenstein (more about that in a bit). For context, you might want to look at his  About page on his website and check out his thoughts here and here here.

I spend a fair amount of my thinking time trying to connect my professional life experiences with a larger context. The current political climate certainly encourages the posing of big(ger) questions – questions which seem to extend well beyond the realm of public education. It’s in this context that I’d like to share a recent experience.

As many of us have been experiencing, recent weeks have brought a new definition of cold to our region. While the former ski instructor in me would have reveled in the cold and the opportunity for days and night of snow-making, the new, warm weather fisherman in me shivered at the mere thought of having to go out and start the car. As an alternative, I decided to continue my efforts to organize my files and filing cabinets. In the process I found several pages of notes that I didn’t recognize about an author whom I also didn’t recognize.

I found the thoughts summarized on these pages fascinating and later asked my wife if she new the author and anything about the pages I had discovered. She looked at me as if I had only seconds before dropped in from Mars and, recognizing that I was almost beyond hope, she gently suggested that I might like his website. I did just that. Recalling a line from a movie I don’t recall, “He had me at hello”, Eisenstein had me at his About page.

“… I was always consumed by questions like, Where did I come from?” ”Why am I here?” “Where am i going?” so of course, embedded as I was in a culture of science and reason as a source of truth, I tried to “figure out” the answers… My quest had an emotional dimension as well. From an early age I sensed a wrongness in the world. Sitting in a classroom doing worksheets, part of me rebelled. “We are not supposed to be doing this! It isn’t supposed to be this way.” It was half-formed thought, embedded in a cloud of indignation and bewilderment. This perception, abetted by a growing awareness of ecological devastation and social injustice, presented me from whole-heartedly embracing a normal career.”

I suspect I’m not alone in my resonance with Eisenstein’s questions, his concerns, his search.

What I share here is, in large part stolen from my wife or, more accurately, lifted from my wife’s notes about Eisenstein’s book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. This is a new venture for me. In reading Eisenstein’s work, I found a deep longing to gather a group of adults and explore. I see this as an invitation to create an “electronic coffee shop”… a book club discussion group. It’s truly an exploration and an invitation to discuss ideas.

What I’m going to share here is and isn’t about education. Eisenstein isn’t writing about education, but his writing is filled with ideas that beg educational reflection. Here’s Cliff Notes version:

Eisenstein suggests he has found an answer to his question about wrongness in the world. He suggests beginning our own explorations with his most recent book, The More Beautiful World… In it, he introduces the concepts of separation and stories. He suggests that (a) we are all living the same story; (b) It is the story of separation – we are separate individuals in a world that is separate from us; (c) our story creates competition; (d) it tells us that self-interest is the primary characteristic of what it means to be human; and (e) it has a formula that we are told will lead to a happy life.

 Our story tells us that we should (a) go to school; (b) get a job; (c) have a family; and (d) plan for retirement. That story is changing rapidly and, for many, is no longer believable. Other components of the story form a kind of mythology that most of us have bought into. Eisenstein identifies the following examples:

  • The myth of technology enhanced life — Based upon the promise of the 50s and 60s; specifically, the technological utopia that we were told would result in a more leisurely way of life has not come to fruition. Rather, the opposite is true. We are working more and netting less. We are on an unsustainable treadmill.
  • The myth of global leadership — In the 50s and 60s we were told that America was the bringer of peace and democracy to the world. We are now not only hated, but also laughed at by many,
  • The myth of conquest — human mastery of the political and natural environment.

These myths have conditioned us how to see the world.

In his work, Eisenstein posits that this formula, if ever true, has disintegrated. We can see it all around us. Our traditional institutions are a mess – Financial, Education, Health Care, Religious, Political.

These myths have conditioned us how to see the world.

Living Between Stories

“We are exiting an old story that explained to us the way of the world and our place in it. Some may cling to it all the more desperately as it dissolves, looking perhaps to Donald Trump to restore it, but their savior has not the power to bring back the dead. Neither would Clinton have been able to preserve America as we’d known it for too much longer. We as a society are entering a space between stories, in which everything that had seemed so real, true, right, and permanent comes into doubt. For a while, segments of society have remained insulated from this breakdown (whether by fortune, talent, or privilege), living in a bubble as the containing economic and ecological systems deteriorate. But not for much longer. Not even the elites are immune to this doubt. They grasp at straws of past glories and obsolete strategies; they create perfunctory and unconvincing shibboleths (Putin!), wandering aimlessly from “doctrine” to “doctrine” – and they have no idea what to do. Their haplessness and half-heartedness was plain to see in this election, their disbelief in their own propaganda, their cynicism. When even the custodians of the story no longer believe the story, you know its days are numbered. It is a shell with no engine, running on habit and momentum.”

Charles Eisenstein, Essay – The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story

We are living in an age of hate-based politics which points not further than to a superficial diagnosis: It’s not us. It’s them. This is a reiteration of the war mentality – find the bad guy, go to war. (Wars on Drugs, Poverty, immigrants…or…Trump supporters).

We are using superficial ways to diagnose a complex problem and in the process we are missing a deeper matrix of causes. As Trump supporters judge immigrants or the lying media or the left for wanting to “rewrite our nation’s history” by wanting to remove statues honoring confederates, what are we doing that is any different from what they are doing? Are we not judging them just as harshly? In spite of what we might see as our righteous indignation are we too not contributing to the Story of Separation? Do we not feel morally superior to those on the other side? Are we not implicitly implying that if we were in their shoes we would do it better than they? Both sides are operating from a deficit of understanding. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that you can use hate as a weapon but you can’t use hatred to defeat hate.

Eisenstein suggests that, when we rethink the fury, what lies underneath the rage is a longing for reunion. We are suffering the collective wound of separation. Hate is a bodyguard for grief. Profound change comes only through collapse. And the world around us in collapsing. People feel powerless. They don’t feel valued. They feel alone. We can feel a sense of wrongness that we often can’t describe or can describe only in terms of “It’s not supposed to be this way.” Our idea of what’s normal has come unhinged. Can you hear these feelings, these frustrations in your professional life? Is this a connection worth exploring?

We express this low level suffering indirectly: addiction, self-sabotage, procrastination, rage, chronic fatigue, laziness, depression. These are all ways we withhold our full participation in and engagement with life. When our conscious mind can’t find a reason to be okay with the mythology we have been told is true, we express it unconsciously.

Eisenstein believes in a new story: The Story of Interbeing. The Story of Interbeing replaces a conscious of judgment with a consciousness of empathy. He feels that this has already begun. Grandmothers… kindergarten teachers… anyone doing something out of love, in anyway.

One of the fundamental precepts of the new story is this. We are inseparate from the universe and our being partakes in the being of everyone and everything else. This is why we can feel hurt when we hear of another coming to harm. This is why we hurt when we see mass die offs and bleaching of the coral reefs or see a picture of a pelican tangled up in plastic. We can no longer hold up the barriers that protect us from our feelings. We are a mirror of all things. Everything that happens to the world is happening to us.

The world outside of ourselves is not just a bunch of unrelated stuff but a mirror of self with qualities like consciousness and intelligence that are not just in humans but in all things.

We feel isolated and powerless because we have numbed ourselves to knowing that we are all connected. Everything we experience is geared toward showing us that we are not connected. So we think we can protect ourselves by building more prisons or building walls to keep the bad guys away.

We are destroying our health, we are destroying ecosystems, and we are on an unsustainable path.

The Story of Interbeing says that my very existence depends on the existence of all beings. A basic practice – a way to replace the culture of judgment with a culture of empathy is to ask what is it like to be you? To have more than just superficial conversations with our Trump supporting family and friends…to discover what led someone to become racist.

By simply taking the stance that the other is wrong, we just gratify our egos “You are bad…I am good.” “I am right….you are wrong.”

Eisenstein and School Culture

I believe we seek to make sense of the world through the lens of our own experiences. I believe that Charles Eisenstein speaks directly to us as educators. I see the separation that he describes. I see the end of a story that we have grown up experiencing and accepting. I see the sense of frustration, isolation and powerlessness. But I have been fortunate in my life to have experienced moments of connectedness… moments where a commitment to empathy transcended significant differences in social status, in lifestyles, in ways of thinking and created the beginnings of interbeing and community. I cling to these memories and experiences as proof of the possible.

The war on evil has gone on for several thousand years. It has not worked. Maybe it’s time to give peace a chance. Where better to start than helping our colleagues and young people experience leadership through empathy.


The Beginning of a New Year’s Resolution


geese swans IMG_1984

Hanging together in tough times – a backyard reflection

Since my “retirement” from active consulting/coaching, I’ve been grappling with the relationship between leadership (and what this means) and culture. I find myself surrounding this relationship, with details gradually becoming clearer while the big picture continues to be fuzzier than I’d like.

As I was working on a draft of a post in which I continue to explore the dissonance between what learning should look like and what I see most kids and adults experiencing in schools, three threads keep surfacing: (1) We seem to be much better at developing solutions than we are at deeply analyzing and defining problems; (2) Our systems have grown in complexity beyond our capacity to lead and manage them; and (3) We seem driven by an arrogance that does not allow us to recognize and/or acknowledge this limitation.

In reading a number of recent articles* about the impact of Eva Moskowitz (founder and CEO of the Success Academy Charter Schools Network), I was reminded of a book by Andrew Bacevich entitled The Limits of Power, in which he describes a national tendency to resolve complex social, economic, governance, educational, etc. problems by seeking and investing in what he terms Messianic solutions – i.e., the identification and acceptance of “leaders” promising to do great things and bring the answers to complex problems.

I don’t find this a hard trend to recognize and had no trouble naming a handful of such “Messiah’s” in a variety of fields. What I took away from this reflection was that there is a direct connection between our unwillingness/inability to deeply analyze complex situations/problems and Druckers’ thinking about confusing dong things rights with doing the right thing.

NOTE: For 2 recent articles providing a kind of “bookend” look at the Moskowitz story, take a look at a piece by Elizabeth Green that appeared recently in The Atlantic and a recent blog by Jan Resseger who critiques the Atlantic piece and adds a number of excellent references for further exploration.

I know. I know. That’s a long-winded intro to the first piece of the New Year. But hang on. As I’ve shared before, I (and a number of others) see this as a critical time for our system of education. I want to restate several observations I’ve shared over the course of my blogging “career” and then suggest a homework assignment.

We are at a time when we must decide what kind of “schools”, what kind of education, we want for our kids. We have been through more than 40 years of the fixes designed largely by non-educators.


We have unacceptably high levels of student disengagement in school-based learning. We have exceptional rates of teacher attrition accompanied by very low rates of enrollment in teacher preparation programs. And we are on the cusp of the latest educational revolution – personalized learning… an idea not developed by the reformers of the past three federal improvement initiatives, but by the largest corporations in the world developing algorithmically driven “programs” designed to “guide” students in the acquisition of knowledge and skills that only partially reflect the needs of our students and our society.

We need to demonstrate a capacity that should be in the fabric of our education system. We need to demonstrate and model what it means to be a learning organization. We need to begin the process of deep analysis and reject both the Messianic sirens and quick fixes.

In the spirit of “flipped” experiences, I’d like to suggest that you take a few minutes and follow this link to another recent post by Jan Resseger. In it, she references the value of applying the idea of New Year’s Resolutions to the concept of public education.

As a guide for this exercise, I’ll draw on some words Jan offers from John Dewey . For the purposes of this exploration, I’m summarizing four tenets shared by Jan taken from Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed”.

I’m hoping that you will treat his words as belief statements and take the time, first of all to jot down your level of agreement with each and, secondly, for those with which you find resonance, to jot down a few descriptions of what you might do to bring your school/district in line with such beliefs.


Tenet #1 – All learning comes from within the learner and, therefore, school must be child- or student-centered. Dewey offers: “I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe they represent dawning capacities… I believe that only through the continual and sympathetic observations of childhood’s interests can the adult enter into the child’s life.”

Comment: In previous posts, I’ve explored how we tend to fit student-centeredness inside of a need for efficiency and adult comfort. Recently we’ve added a new version of this “centeredness” discussion. But it seems that our current preoccupation with the term “personalization” creates a child – or student-centered culture in name only. In Dewey’s words, “Education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative.”

Tenet #2 – “I believe that much present education fails because it neglects the fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives of school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are learned, or where certain habits are formed. The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future… With the advent of democracy modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him control of himself.”

Comment: This is a challenging concept as we have grown increasingly less community- and more individually-centered in our culture.

Tenet #3 – “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situation in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs… I believe that under existing conditions far too much of the stimulus and control proceeds from the teacher, because of the neglect of the idea of the school as a form of social life… The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.”

Comment: This seems to indicate that we must become more intentional about the ways in which we support a child’s metacognitive look at her/his decisions and actions.

Tenet #4 – “I believe that education is the regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness. This process begins unconsciously at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeding in getting together… The most formal intellectual and technological education in the world cannot safely depart form this process.”

What Next?

Imagine for a bit what school/education/learning might look like if we had elected to follow Dewey’s beliefs. But we didn’t, you say. Right we didn’t. But we are now at a place where we are faced with the possibility that our current system will not survive without significant change. I don’t mean change defined as more charter schools and greater choice. While I’m certain that the Eva Moskowitz’s of the world would love to see this as the solution, it would be a continuation of our tendency to rely on simple solutions to complex problems. These schools are not schools of the future. They are schools created to resemble schools of the past as they are remembered by those who thrived in them. It is an approach which has been described (accurately, I think) as “marching backwards into the future.”

Your turn. Can you find a resolution or two in here? Happy New Year!

Want a New Year’s Resolution?

It’s a busy time. How’s that for understatement?  I had intended to write a quick “Thank You” for all of the support you’ve shared as I continue to use this forum to explore my thinking on what education and learning mean at this time in our history.

I’ve been surprised and humbled by the responses and comments you’ve shared over the past year. My deepest thanks and wishes for a holiday time filled with love, peace, relaxation, and re-creation.

A small gift and a thought

As an intro to a post that I wanted to share with you in this season of reflection and resolution, here’s little lesson in kids being kids.

Since you obviously couldn’t resist the temptation to respond to the notification that Rethinking Learning hadn’t yet shut down for the break, I want to share a smile and then a challenge.  The smile comes from a little clip I saw this morning about the various ways in which the joys of the season manifest themselves. The challenge comes from a post  I read yesterday morning from William Parker. I think you’ll enjoy it and I’d highly recommend his site and his podcasts.

First the smile… maybe even a guffaw.


Parker’s piece is about creativity and he begins it with a quote from Maya Angelou.

“…We are all creative, but by the time we are three or four years old someone has knocked the creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who start tell stories. Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, they want to be like everyone else.”

Parker begins his post with a story about one of his students, Jesse, and his irrepressible creativity. It’s a fun read and I’m sure that many of us have had experiences in school with our own Jesse. I was struck by how fortunate Jesse was to have an adult in his school life who nurtured that creativity. In Parker’s second anecdote he relates an experience he had with his son on a long road trip. After miles of prolonged boredom, Parker offers his son the opportunity to create a podcast about their trip. I won’t spoil it with a bad summary.

One of the interesting things about aging is I’ve noticed that, at some point, I began to spend more time looking backwards and less time thinking about the future. I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences as parent, grandparent, teacher, and school leader.

Just a year after our marriage, my wife and I were surprised by the arrival of twin girls. Let me be clear. We weren’t surprised that we had a baby. We were very surprised that we had two of them! I was starting my first teaching job and we realized quickly that we would need more money. Thus began a number of years of juggling one teaching job and usually one, sometimes two, part-time jobs. Bottom line… In many ways I missed my kids’ pre-school years. As our kids grew, married and relocated, we also didn’t have regular contact with our grandchildren.

Fast forward to a new marriage and a new family. Five new grandkids, all under 10. All live nearby and I’m learning something new each time I see them… something new about them and something new about myself. I’m seeing what Maya Angelou described… They are creative. They tell stories. They draw. They dance in their cribs. They are blessed. They have parents who listen to and encourage their stories. They have parents who fill their spaces with experiences and tools for exploration, for drawing and for cutting and pasting. They have parents who allow them to dance in their cribs when bedtime has come too soon.

I largely missed the wonder, the curiosity, the creativity in my own kids that I’m blessed to see now. For the most part, I taught older kids. While the boundaries I created for my students were frequently broader and more flexible than many of my peers, I still reined them in, sought to help them prepare for the “adult” world. I saw the specialness of wonder and creativity in some kids and marveled at it, while never quite looking at my own role in nurturing that in all students.

Parker ends his pieces with a “Let’s Wrap This Up” section. Here’s a paragraph from this morning’s post:

“What’s the takeaway for school leaders? We have an amazing opportunity to encourage creativity and innovation among our teachers and students. But that initiative first begins with those of us who are leading them. Schools cannot be places that “knock the creativity” out of others. If we’re going to encourage cultures of innovation and risk-taking, we must be willing to try first.”

Too often the reflex response of adults is, for the best of intentions, to help the child fit into an adult world, a world where, unfortunately, creativity is the exception. Parker asks the critical question of us as school leaders: How often are we willing to model the kind of creativity and risk-taking we want to see in our {staff,] or our students? (Addition mine)

Be well. Do good work. Keep in Touch

It’s Time for a Culture of Learning

Note: In part one of this exploration I shared that we would use this  post to look at concrete steps that we might take. The steps that I will share come from observations that I have made as a result of more than 10 years spent visiting schools around the country. These, by no means, represent the only steps that we as educators might take. They are offered as one possible approach and are based on observations of both successes and failures in the schools I’ve visited.

It’s not lost on me that I’m beginning work on a piece about the attack on our public schools on December 7th. As Sir Ken Robinson quipped in one of his TED talks,” Who says Americans don’t get irony?”

Quick summary of Part 1.

Our public our system of public education is under attack. There are many forces involved in this attack. In previous blogs I’ve explored a number of these forces. For this piece I want to focus on our role as educators in this development.

This is, by no means, intended to minimize intentionally orchestrated strategies by politicians, educational “reformers”, or agendas driven by profit or ideology. These groups, sometimes independently but often in collaboration, are the major force driving this attack.

It’s critical to recognize, however, that we have inadvertently helped to create the conditions that have fed their agenda and left too many people questioning the value of a public system of education. We have created and helped to maintain a culture that is more focused on teaching than learning. Our focus has been and continues to be on the process of teaching. Our structures have been built around this focus. Out of economic necessity and, not infrequently, adult convenience we have built daily schedules, school hours, yearly calendars, grading policies, etc. We have focused administrative efforts on teacher observations, on the act of teaching, on the professional development of teachers, on the delivery of ever more tightly defined curricula, etc.

Although we certainly do not own sole responsibility for this development, it is important to recognize the ways in which we have contributed to the situation and to be willing to identify and address conditions which are under our control.

Let’s just face it.  We are, and have been for some time, trapped in an improvement loop that places the greatest emphasis on teaching and relegates the process of learning to something that is measured increasingly by large-scale assessment.  We have grown to resent the bull’s eye” that has been increasingly placed on our backs while, at the same time, we have continued to accept the lessons we learned, both as students in school and in our professional training, that reinforce the focus on a culture of teaching.

On to the actions…

NOTE: For a more detailed and comprehensive plan of action, I’d strongly recommend the work being done by Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon, Missy Emler, Lyn Hilt and their team at Modern Learners. You should check out their site their site.

 I think it’s safe to assume that as a reader of this blog you have been thinking of ways to improve the opportunities for learning for our young people and our adults. For most of us, however, the focus has continued to be on what is best described as the culture of teaching. This is about changing (unlearning) that culture. It’s about a few concrete steps that can be taken to begin the process… a process which is not unlike the birthing of elephants – painful and loud!

Overarching Principle

Just as the culture of schooling and teaching is school-wide, the responses must involve the entire school community. Such whole school efforts are extremely difficult and likely to begin on a much smaller scale. Significant culture change in responses to the reality of the culture of teaching, however, must at some point involve larger school community.

As we have explored in previous posts, any significant change must take place in a culture of safety and trust. I’ll be blunt: No conversations, no relationships, no trust, no change. Asking people to unlearn and reassess beliefs that have guided their work for years is doomed if we haven’t created a culture/environment in which they feel valued, cared for, respected and safe.

Getting Started

Here are “laying the groundwork” steps which will enhance the likelihood of whole community buy-in:

  • Start small with exploratory conversations –  i.e., What do you think we must believe in when you look at our practices and policies?
  • Invite others to explore with you – i.e., I’d like to explore ways in which we can avoid abandoning our commitment to the development of our students and adults as we continue to work towards increasing student academic success? Want to join me?

Using this is a starting point what follows is an exploration of the actions you might take to widen the circle of safety and support – to create followership and commitment to action.

It is ironic that we would be having a discussion about the creation of a culture of learning about schools. By their very nature, schools should be learning organizations. But the reality is quite different. Too often the structure of our schools facilitates isolation and independence rather than institutional or organizational learning and collaboration.

This takes us to our first step in the action plan… the creation of a school-wide conversation that begins with our understanding of why we exist. This is a question which seems to have an obvious answer. That is, until we look at the results of a very simple exercise.

Action #1

To have meaningful, productive conversations about critical issues, it is vital that we have a shared vocabulary. Without this commonality, it is possible (even likely) that participants will be nodding their heads to their own definition which may be wildly different from the meaning held by the speaker. Action #1 is a test of this commonality and comes from Dan Pink, whose work on researching engagement and motivation is generally recognized as leading the way. If you like to see Pink’s podcast (90 seconds) here’s the link link.

Distribute index cards to all participants.

  1. Ask the participants to answer in one sentence the following question “What is the purpose of our school?”
  2. Gather the response cards.
  3. Read them aloud.
  4. Share observations about the responses.

Questions for reflection:

Based on our responses are we clear about doing the right thing or are we trying to focus on doing things right? Is there clarity and consensus about what you are doing? Is it the right thing or simply a series of attempts to do things better?

Too often our responses reveal that we have developed a whole series of policies, practices, norms, and behaviors as an attempt to do things right – i.e., improve what we are doing – even when what we are doing may not be the right thing or when there is no real common understanding about our purpose, leaving staff members to work independently at achieving purposes which may differ substantially – i.e., Ever had a dress code policy which is enforced inconsistently based on the buy-in of individual staff members?

Action #2

I am not a fan of school or schooling. As it is conceived and as it operates it has and continues to have greater emphasis on the development and preservation of a culture of teaching rather than a culture of learning. It is the creation and preservation of that culture of teaching that has gotten us in trouble. It has caused us to confuse school/schooling with learning.

“Schools are places where kids come to watch adults work hard”

Quote widely attributed to Bill Daggett, ICLE

What are the things that you think about when you think of school? Are the things we think of contingent on our role? Do we see school/schooling differently if we are educators working in schools, students experiencing school. parents of school-age children, or adults recalling their school experiences?

  • Make a list of your responses to the question.
  • See if you can get a list from the other groups listed above.
  • What are the things that you noted you see as positive/negative?
  • What are the things that you noted from non-educators that were positive/negative?

Action #3

Examine the culture of your school/district. Is it, like the majority of schools, more culture of teaching than a culture of learning?

Note: It’s easy to be defensive about this one. Teachers are by nature helpers/givers, seeing much of what they do as “kid-centered”. It might be useful to make a list of what practices, norms, policies, etc. are dealing with teaching activities – i.e., who talks more, who’s at the center of any given lesson, what’s the purpose (and effect) of the grading system, where does “learning that counts” occur? What do we actually mean by “culture of learning?

How are the norms, behaviors (“the way we do things”), policies and practices seen by teachers, students, parents, community members? What are the beliefs that you hold about learning? Are they consistent or at odds with research? You might want to use the following slide by Will Richardson as a guide for this.


  • Make a list of the norms and behaviors, policies and practices that are teaching centered and what are those that are learning centered?
  • What are the norms, behaviors, policies, practices which are aimed at efficiency?
  • Using Richardson’s list, comment on the contradictions he highlights between what we know about learning and what we do in your school/district.

Closing thoughts

I’ve watched this work.  When I worked with the International Center for Leadership In Education much of our work focused on the concepts of Rigor, Relevance and Relationships and the ways in which these concepts could be made a part of a school’s culture.  As the  work progress we recognized an evolution in our thinking.  The core concepts should have read:

  • Rigor
  • Relevance

A second aspect of this change mirrored a quote from Bill Gates that I’ll paraphrase here, “It’s too easy to overemphasize what can be done in a year, but never underestimate what can be done in a decade.” We began by thinking that change was a 3-5 year process.  By the time I left ICLE that had changed to at least 5-7 years.  I personally think Gates was closer to the truth.  We can’t underestimate the difficulty of changing decades of culture or the time changes of such magnitude take.  Nor can we underestimate the sense of pride and accomplishment that accompanies the recognition that we have replaced trying so hard to do things right with doing the right thing.  Moving to a culture of learning is the right thing.

Be well. Do good work. Keep in Touch – Garrison Keillor

Enemies Accumulate… often more than friends… and they’re louder too.


Spoiler Alert: I recall an incident in grad school in which one of the students (who regularly sought ways to minimize his own work load in the class) got on the last nerve of the prof. He looked the student in the eye and quietly said, ”I’ve seen your future. It doesn’t work.”

This is about seeing a future for our system of public education and the signs that it is not working for too many kids. The current infatuation with school choice in all of its iterations is less a result of the huge influx in philanthropic money than it is confluence of that money with the responsive chord it strikes with many adults whose school memories are not positive.

This post has grown in length and complexity. You might want to take a moment to fetch a glass or two of your favorite adult beverage before settling in. I apologize… not for the length, but for not making it better. I think it was Benjamin Franklin who, in response to criticism about something he had written, quipped, “If I had had more time, I could have made it shorter.” Contrary to Franklin’s experience, I have taken more time and it’s still not better.


Walt Kelly Poster – First Earth Day – 1970

It’s hard to keep current with the field of teaching and learning without being confronted by the latest utterances about the wisdom or folly of the school choice movement. I realized while writing my last post about the problems caused by building meaningful decisions about the future of our children on the quicksand-foundation of grades and grading policies that there is a connection between that topic and others which affect how parents look at schools and school choice.

In that post, I shared how our use of inconsistent systems for evaluating and reporting student progress colors the school experiences for far too many students, creates a quicksand- like foundation for often substantial financial awards, and subtly erodes confidence in our schools. This post continues the theme of the growing cost of further inaction.

For those of us who work or have worked with students in schools, it should come as no great surprise that some kids didn’t like school. For those of you who know me, you will also not be surprised that I connect this lack of excitement about school to the quality of the relationships that kids experienced there… sometimes these poor relationships were with other kids and, too frequently, they involved their teachers.

Kids grow up (at least they age) and as they do they bring their memories and conclusions with them. If they didn’t much care for school as students, they are not very likely to like them more as adults. In my opinion we’ve paid too little attention to this dynamic.

For the majority of time that I’ve spent working in and around schools (over 50 years now) this dynamic didn’t matter too much. Kids passed through schools. Teachers taught them. Some liked it. Some didn’t. It didn’t much change the way things worked. Kids still came to school. Teachers still taught them. Some attended private schools. Some were home schooled. But the vast majority of the nation’s students attended a school that was a part of the public school system. In too many instances, schools were places that kids came to watch adults work hard.

The seeds of educational “reform”…

As the dynamic of school and student opinions about it continued, the number of students who didn’t like school increased faster than the death rate of that same group – i.e., the group of adults who did not recall their school experiences with any degree of fondness accumulated new members. For years these members remained a fairly non-threatening group. They were happy enough just to leave their unhappy school days behind them and get on with life. Then the ground shifted.

The Russians launched the first satellite and the world order was threatened. Not folks to shy away from using blame to deflect any responsibility for their own role, politicians looked for scapegoats. Where do kids learn (or, in this case, not learn) the science necessary to win the space race? Why schools, of course. Those places that many of the politicians didn’t much like as students.

Additional seeds of concern were sown with the release of a document originally intended to call into question the continued viability of the federal Department of Education. The report, A Nation At Risk, painted a dismal picture of American students’ academic performance. The report resulted in barrels of ink being used to feed the articles seeking blame and forecasting imminent doom. Far less ink was expended on articles which challenged the accuracy of the report’s data and conclusions.

Fast forward to the most important stuff for us… Four important developments for consideration

  1. The increasing attention to the performance of U.S. students on national and intentional tests revealed the size of the potential market that education presented to businesses.
  2. The realization by libertarian political groups that education (although receiving little financial support from federal sources) represented a relatively defenseless target for the advancement of a their smaller government agenda.

Note: This blog was trolled at one point by a writer who, in comments extolling the failure of schools and the advantages of parental choice, used the term “government schools” in place of public school throughout his/her comments.

  1. The Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, enabled those with deep pockets and a political agenda to capture the attention of those whose school memories of experiences were unpleasant. Groups such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), or those that could envision the financial rewards of a “market-driven” system of education, added dissatisfaction with school to their opportunities to promote a budding charter/choice movement.

Note: While traveling the country working with schools, I noted that in all four of the states in which I was working in 2014-15, each had introduced legislation for a revision in teacher evaluation. Although denying any connection to ALEC, the governor in my own state introduced legislation that was remarkably similar to that in the four states in which I was working. Coincidence? Not likely.

  1. Proving that politicians do, indeed, have a sense of irony, they passed a comprehensive, narrowly focused education bill, No Child Left Behind, which left millions of children behind.

Note: Coming under attack for the folly of this disastrous piece of legislation, politicians attempted to salvage the public’s perception of their collective sense of humor and irony, if not intelligence, by crafting the Every Student Succeeds Act.

So what’s this all got to do with me?

This is a question which in various forms has been heard in schools and faculty rooms throughout the entire course of the reform movement. The cultures we have created and/or allowed to continue in our schools have a huge component of individual teacher independence. While recent federal legislation and required state responses have greatly limited the content that should/must be covered in our classrooms, how the teachers conduct their classrooms varies greatly and remains largely at the discretion of the individual teacher. The focus of the vast majority of American educators has been to do the best they can for the kids that are in their classrooms, frequently tuning out all of the noise around reform and getting involved only when the changes threaten either their comfort or the well-being of their students. We are traditionally late to respond. While the years of large scale assessment were regularly thought by educators to be harmful to students, especially in the younger grades, it was the introduction of test data into the teacher evaluation process that caused the kind of large scale reaction that powered the opt-out movement.

Without realizing it, however, this penchant for continuing to “do school” as we have come to know it, to find comfort in it, and to “stay above the fray” feeds the growing base of choice advocates. Parents whose school experiences were less than satisfactory (at best) or downright unhappy (at worst) find themselves with the opportunity to give their kids a different (and, in their minds, more positive) experience. Add to that the sanctity of individual choice and you have a pretty neat argument for the extension of that “right” to the “right” of individual families to choose the school that might be right for their children.

The Result…

Public schools in our country are in a fight for sustainability. The system as we know is under assault. We do not have the luxury of sitting and watching from our classrooms.

  1. We have well funded efforts to privatize and monetize our system of education.
  2. We have a significant number of adults whose experiences as students with the public school system were less than satisfactory and whose loyalty to that system is colored by such experiences.
  3. As discussions about what constitutes the “common good” are characterized by polarization and lack of consensus, the commitment to a system of that is based on an acceptance of a “common” good is waning.
  4. Concurrent with these factors, is the reality that school as we experienced it is not a sustainable financial model. It is a model based on a predictable increase in annual costs funded primarily via local, state or federal funds at a time when an increasing number of American citizens are accepting the idea that all taxes are bad.

A call to action…

We cannot do school as usual. We are beginning to see a significant increase in initiatives that are seeking ways to offer greater numbers of students promises of more engaging and relevant learning experiences and to reinvent the ways in which we approach the learning process, both for students and for adults. These are a beginning but are scattered, and do not represent the experiences that the majority of U.S. students are having in our schools.

I may have shared an observation relating to choices. As a superintendent I was sometimes asked by younger colleagues, “What can I do to prepare myself so that I can be considered for a promotional job opportunity?” I responded that, confronted with the choice between candidates/options, there were really only two questions that an interviewer had to answer…

QUESTION #1 – “Why should I hire this person? or

QUESTION #2 – “How can I not hire this person?”

When I found myself asking the second question, I knew I had made my choice.

Thus, these two seemingly simple questions have profound implications for our choices and the implications of these two questions are no less profound when the options involved the choices involved in selecting schools for our children. The deliberations facing parents can be summarized by them: Why should I choose this school for my children? How can I not choose the school for my children?

During my time as an ‘SOB from out of town with slides’ (the informal definition of a consultant), I visited a lot of schools and met a lot of educators. In the vast majority of cases, the assembled talent in the meetings and presentations represented more talent than could be found almost anywhere else in the community. But we’ve wasted it. We’ve locked it up in 40’ x 40’ rooms and largely kept it isolated from any real decisions about learning, especially those which might occur beyond the walls of the individual classroom.

Because that’s how we experienced school as students, we accepted this and the culture it helped to create as “normal” just as we accepted that some kids thrive, some kids, do OK and some just “aren’t made for school”.

We can no longer depend on the occasional visionary leader to drive the kinds of changes that will insure that all students have experiences that result in kids and their parents see Question #2 as the only question.

It is time for all of us who work in schools to be relentless in the pursuit of the culture which yields “How can I not send my child to that school?” as the only question. This means that we can no longer accept  the fact that not all members of our staff own the responsibility for developing the kinds of relationships that build affiliation, own the responsibility for facilitating learning experiences that truly engage children in the learning process, own the responsibility not only for what happens with the students we guide in our classrooms but also for what happens with the students who are in the classroom with the adult who has checked out.

I see this as a moral issue, but that’s just me. Regardless of your feelings about that aspect of the situation, we cannot continue to think that a system is OK and will get positive answers to Question #2 when, according the Gallup research, it sees a drop in student engagement from 80% (in 4th grade) to less that 50% by 11th grade.

Next Time on Rethinking Learning …Where Do We Begin?

This is doable. It is well within our capacity as educators. It begins with a first step. Do we want people in our schools and in our communities, our area to ask only Question #2? In the next post, I’ll offer approaches that I have seen firsthand. But first, a flipped blog moment.… For those of you who want to continue this exploration, I’d like you do the following between now and next week:

  1. Get a copy of your school/district mission statement and at least one from another school and/or district?
  2. For yours, make a quick list of the key points in the statement – see example below.
  3. For yours, make a quick list of policies and practices that reflect – i.e., intentional actions that make real/support – the key points of the statement
  4. For yours, make a short list of policies and practices that seem at odds with the statements.

Example – sample mission statement

XXX School recognizes that each child is an individual; that all children are creative; that all children need to succeed. Therefore, Community School respects the individual needs of children; fosters a caring and creative environment; and emphasizes the social, emotional, physical, intellectual development of each child.

Key points:

  • Children are individuals
  • Children are creative
  • Children need to succeed
  • School culture and personnel respect individual needs
  • School culture and personnel foster caring and creative environment
  • School emphasizes social, emotional, physical, intellectual development of each child

What would positive, intentional practices look like for each bullet?

What practices might be at odds with any/all of the key points?

Schools as Sanctuaries

Note: In her book, Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott recounts a conversation with her young daughter who excitedly exclaimed that she had experienced an ‘apostrophe’ in school that day.

I find Thanksgiving to be a reflective time. It wasn’t always so. For too long the day was defined by turkey and football. Then not too long ago I had what Susan Scott’s daughter called an ‘apostrophe’. I didn’t get knocked off my horse like St. Paul or anything like that. My apostrophe came when I was struck by a flash of the blindingly obvious… any successes I’ve had in my career were due largely to the hard work and commitment of those around me. They inspired me, but for too long I was too self-absorbed to say “thank you”. I’m still working on my “thank you’s” and Thanksgiving now serves a dish far better than turkey and football… a time to be quiet (not easy for me) and reflect on the gifts I’ve been given.


MIlada-Vigerova- 36934

In the midst of this year’s reflection I received such a “gift” in the form of a reflection shared by a local NJ superintendent that spoke to me with a grace and eloquence that has been missing in most of what I’ve been reading lately. I asked if she would mind if I shared it with you here. I hope her words will speak to you and touch your soul.


Much has been written recently about the debate over “Sanctuary Cities”.  This back and forth has politicized the word “sanctuary” in a way that changes the context of its true meaning.  I would like to take some time this month to return to the pure and essential meaning of sanctuary and the important way that it connects with our schools.

The term sanctuary is described as “a sacred or holy place; a place that provides shelter or protection”.  By its very definition, it aligns with the founding principles of public education.  As Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann and John Dewey envisioned, public schools were designed to provide all students equal access and universal educational opportunities as a way of developing an active and engaged citizenry in our democracy.  In public education we welcome and educate every student who enters our doors.  We value the diversity and the unique contributions that each student brings to the classroom. In order to nurture, encourage and respond to the needs of each student, it is imperative that we design safe and inclusive spaces for learning.  We must create sanctuary.

Within this sacred space, teachers and students strive to create a respectful, caring community of learners. Teachers build trust with their students by modeling kindness, vulnerability, and risk taking.  Students, in turn, are encouraged to wonder, to try new things, and be willing to make mistakes.  Challenges are undertaken.  Accomplishments are celebrated. When schools and classrooms are considered sanctuaries our students feel safe enough to fully express themselves and begin to see their interconnectedness to each other and to the world.

As adults, we share the same desire for safety and acceptance.  We, too, search for and create places apart from the world.  Within the busyness of life and the hectic pace of a 24/7 world, we yearn for our own sanctuary, a place of refuge, in which we can pause, breathe, and rediscover clarity.  Some of us find solace in a walk through the woods where we can stand in the cold fresh air and reflect under the tall pines. Others take comfort in escaping to a quiet room with a cup of hot tea and a good book.  Many seek communion in more traditional ways, relying on the guidance and wisdom provided within a church, temple or mosque. Wherever we find our sanctuary, each one of us needs a place that allows us to feel a sense of peace, practice forgiveness, learn to be more compassionate, and become well acquainted with the freedom derived from cultivating a mindset of acceptance.

Educating our children is sacred work.  My hope is that every classroom in every school becomes a true sanctuary for our students to learn, play, grow and thrive.  We want all of our children to come to school and feel a sense of belonging, to love the challenge of learning, and when they leave us, to enter the world and the rest of their lives as confident, compassionate citizens.  Collectively, we will do everything possible to create safe spaces for our students to succeed.  For ours is a vocation of love.

Kathie Foster, Superintendent