Marching Backwards Into the Future…

Intro… This is the most unusual piece I’ve posted since I began this blog.  It actually began as a simple post about the implications of our approaches to restarting schooling in the time of COVID and our apparent inability to find a national consensus around what’s good for society. 

During the time that I was writing and editing, I found myself reading an increasing number articles reporting the growing suspension of in-person and the growing dissatisfaction by parents and teachers with the various iterations of hybrid instruction.  

On of the pieces I encountered that provided an exceptional description of the our current reality and the challenges we face moving to a post-COVID system of education is an article written by Erike Christakis and published recently in The Atlantic entitled “School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID Either” here.  I have found nothing better to explain the need avoid the seduction of a “return to normal”. I urge you to read it.  

And so, armed with the growing disenchantment by educators, families, and policy makers with the various forms of remote instruction, I decided to resurrect and update a piece from late last Spring about alternatives to simply transitioning from the various full and partial remote approaches back to schooling as we knew it pre-COVID.  The current situation seemed to demand a more detailed exploration and description of options that have been conspicuously absent from our conversations about “what’s next”. 

Voila… the need for a more detailed piece… too long for a single post and now offered as a two part essay.   The second piece will offer a proposal  for moving beyond a simple return to the past.  I hope you’ll stay with me for Part 2.  It will be posted within two days of this piece.  Be well.

One of my habits is to begin the day with a scan of the news (a sure fire way to insure that I will not suffer from any undue bouts of optimism).  Giving into the internet age, I use a news aggregator app called Flipboard to organize articles from a variety of sources.  The algorithm used by Flipboard offers me more pieces in areas that I seem to read most frequently… no surprise that my options includes a large number of articles focused on education in the time the pandemic.

What has become clear from the many articles that I’ve read?  Without a doubt both my own memory and the articles that I read reveal that this is the single most challenging time for teachers, schools leaders, and students that any of us have experienced.  The challenges reported on daily basis make our experiences implementing the so-called reforms of the past 30+ years seem like a walk in the park.

Never before have educators students and their families been placed in such stressful and challenging times.  Never before have we been faced with decisions (on an almost daily basis) that have life and death consequences.  Anyone involved in the education of our young people longs for the familiarity and comfort of the “normal”.  

If we are teachers we long for the comfort of lesson plans, fixed curriculum, having all of our kids in the classroom with us.  Instead we are faced with the very real possibility that whatever the instruction design of our school was today, it might be totally different tomorrow, whoever was with us in class today might be scheduled for remote learning tomorrow.

If we are parents, we long for the routine around getting our kids on the school bus, having fixed and predictable schedules for work and home, having schools lives and home lives organized around neat, tidy schedules. Instead we are faced with learning new terms like “Zoom”, recalling what we wished we had learned about math, juggling schedules so that each kid has needed computer time and access.  

If you’re a kid, the time you enjoyed the most, your social interactions with friends, has been taken from you.  You have no idea if you’ll have sports teams or extracurricular activities. You hear how, the remote or hybrid learning options you won’t be prepared for the next level of your classes.  Instead more and more students are learning that their schools are being closed to any form of in-person learning.  They’re told that seeing our friends outside of school is considered a risk.  They have no idea how college applications will be processed or what will happen to their plans after high school. 

Prior to COVID, a growing number of educators were beginning to realize that our system of schooling (largely unchanged in over 100 years) was not meeting the needs of far too many of our young people.  This created an entire industry around the conversion of schools to a business model of operation.  Free-market options (choice, charters, vouchers) were promoted as “the” answer. Concurrent with the proliferation of these “solutions” we learned that we “needed” more rigorous and common standards, accompanied by the the promotion of large scale (and very expensive) assessments and the use of data analytics.  The winners in this age of reform?  Publishers, tech companies and assessments businesses.  Who were conspicuously absent in benefiting from these “reforms”?  Students and teachers!  

At a time when we should be helping our kids and ourselves learn how to learn, learn how to do and, perhaps most importantly, learn how to be, we’ve seen the landscape of education dominated test scores, growing opportunity gaps, siloed instruction, declining access to higher education and drastic increases in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, depression and suicide with only sporadic inclusion of social-emotional learning experiences. 

In the aforementioned essay which, “School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID Either”. Erika Christakis provides an excellent summary of the ways in which pre-COVID schooling was ignoring the advances in neuroscience and has been focusing increasing attention on the need to raise student scores on federally mandated large-scale assessments. 

“Experts across the educational and ideological spectrums agree that a curriculum rich in literature, civics, history, and the arts is essential for strong reading, critical-thinking, and writing skills. But schools have—quite irrationally—abandoned this breadth in favor of stripped-down programs focused on narrow testing metrics. Five years after the shift to high-stakes testing under the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed in 2002, a survey of a national sample of school districts found that nearly two-thirds of school districts had dramatically increased language-arts or math time while almost half had reduced time spent on social studies, science, art, music, physical education, lunch, or recess. “Special” classes, such as music—as well as periods like recess, physical education, and even lunch—provide children with important opportunities for emotional growth and independent learning. For many children, they are what make school bearable.”

And so here we are…. Caught in longing for the familiar …Longing to return to a system of schooling that was increasingly recognized as in its dying stage. Here we are…marching backwards into the future.   

For almost 15 years I worked with schools and school systems around the country that had been  labeled as “troubled” or “failing”.  The beginning of our support process involved interviews with students, teachers, administrators an, sometimes, parents.  These interviews had, with very few exceptions, one theme in common… the analysis of their struggles were almost always “other directed”… if only the parents were more involved, if only the students would work harder, if only the administrators/teachers/local board of education would do their job…  

The acceptance of the notion that meaningful change would begin with an honest effort to look inwards was rarely the initial explanation for their problems or the direction for needed change.  In that context what you will encounter in part two of this piece is based on a willingness to begin with a look inwards… a look at the things we can actually control.  The proposed course of action is built upon a growing  readiness of the need for something more than simply a return to what was.

A call to action

We have no idea when COVID will end.  We have no idea what life will be like when it does. We are unbelievably stressed.  We long to once again resume our backwards march into an unknown future.  But there can/will be no return to normal.  

So here is our call to action.. our focus for Part 2.  What would happen if we chose not to return to normal? What would happen if we imagined learning differently than what was? Would schools look and act like schools?  Would content still be organized in discrete silos with little connection to other knowledge or to the way things really work? What might be different?  What could be different? What should be different?

Our call to action is a call to ask and answer the questions… 

“What Really Matters?

“What Would Happen If?” 

See you soon 

A COVID Thanksgiving

Given as I am to understatement, I’m finding this to be an unusual Thanksgiving.  We’ve spent more time in the past week or so thinking and talking about just how we might maintain the warmth and love of this time than we have creating the shopping lists for the “Big Meal”.  One of the things that I’ve noticed is that I’m spending far more time than usual actually thinking about the things I should be thankful for.  

Cloistered away in our home (and actually thinking about being thankful that we have a home), I realized how often in my life I let the preparations for the celebration overshadow the meaning of the celebration.  Today, I was working on a post for next week and, at some point (God only knows how long it was before I realized that I “had gone away”), I returned to the present.  Still recovering from my mental detour, I realized I had been thinking of Thanksgiving, but not about the missed family gathering or the annual carving disaster. I realized that I had been thinking of people… people who have blessed my life with their presence.  People that might not know how much I’ve appreciated the gifts they’ve shared with me.

I thought of how many Thanksgiving dinners I’ve shared with others.  I thought of the blessing that we offer before trying to remember in which direction we should start passing the many dishes.  I realized that I couldn’t recall a dinner in which we each took the time to share with those around the table why we are blessed by their presence in our lives.  I know that Thanksgiving is not a holiday we normally associate with resolutions but I resolved not to let another year pass without telling those around me how much their presence means to me… how important they are.  It’ll work this year.  We only have a few people around the table and I love them all!

Patting myself on the back for being such a sensitive, caring soul (even if it took me over 6 decades to wake up), it dawned on me that, more than usual, we are , in this time of COVID, surrounded by examples of people doing things for us that we should be thankful for.  People who are often invisible to us as they deliver the mail, who pick up our trash and recyclables, people whose job makes it difficult to safely social distance, people who risk their lives and the lives of their families by continuing to care for us.

As we approach this special day, I want to offer a special thank you to all those educators who are working at home and in our schools trying to offer our children a safe way to learn in times they have never prepared for.  I spent over 25 years in the classroom. I spent additional time as an administrator.  While I had to make an occasional decision about whether or not to close school due to snow, never was I faced with the need to make potentially life and death decisions on an almost daily basis.   Never was I asked I asked to offer learning experiences to kids I could not see and who couldn’t see me. Never was I asked to forget almost all I had learned about teaching and implement a whole new way of teaching that might change on weekly basis.

 You will be mentioned in our Thanksgiving prayer. Thank you.

Learning, using nature’s design…(schooling tends to bend brains in unnatural ways)

 This little series of blogs shared by Dr. Susan Clayton looks at learning from a different angle – the biology of learning…

The COVID virus is, in a sense, currently in control of this planet. I realize some will disagree with this claim however agree or disagree this pandemic is creating new and different lenses for viewing life on the planet. Education is no exception.

Many parents, children and youth, teachers and administrators are not liking what they once thought was fine in schooling. Newspapers and magazine articles are filled with stories chronicling the struggles of parents, children, school leaders and teachers trying to make distance learning work.  See here,  herehere, and here. Unwilling to deal with either the fear of illness or a continuation of what many experienced in the Spring version of remote learning, a growing number of parents are organizing what have become known as “pandemic pods” or micro schools where their children can interact with smaller numbers of their peers and work under the guidance of the “pod tutors”.

Regardless of who you are and what you believe about COVID, amongst all our diversity is a common ground: we all have a brain and the growing understanding we possess about the way the brain works can make all the difference when we consider how to create cultures that grow learning.

Schooling in North America for the first 200 plus years did not have the advantage that we have today – the technology to see inside our brains – how our brains work and in particular for all of us who are part of schooling – how our brains learn. This technology – PET scans, MRI’s, fMRI’s are some of the familiar machines, has been on the scene for 30 years and is in a constant state of refinement. We have known since the mid 1990’s that the brain is not particularly suited to current models of schooling. Schooling pre-COVID and now in COVID is not paying attention to what neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience are uncovering about the brain’s way of learning. Let’s unpack some of the discoveries using 3 questions: what is learning; why learn; and how do people’s brains learn? The answers to these questions cut across all ages, all ethnicities and cultures.

What is learning?

Please take a moment and observe the 2 trees:

  • What are you noticing about each tree?
  • Describe your observations in ‘bite size’ phrases.

Susan graphic 2

Susan graphic 1

A few responses:
  • Lego tree is human made
  • Forest is nature’s work
  • Lego is mechanistic; forest is organic

What is learning, mechanistic or organic; human-made or nature’s work?

How you answer the question becomes the filter for what you read in this post – this is how our brains work. What you believe about learning become(s) the filter for everything and anything you read and hear about learning. I invite you to take a moment and recall from your memory what you believe about learning: how do people learn? And then read on.

A few pieces of neurobiology  – aka: terminology

The human brain has 2 hemispheres; the left and the right. We are not more inclined to one or the other rather, we use both together.

The human brain has 4 lobes: frontal lobe, parietal lobe, occipital lobe, and temporal lobe. There is 1 of each on each side of our brain.

A few of the incredible roles of each lobe:

  • Frontal lobe – move parts of our body at our will; think about the past; plan for the future; make decisions now; focus our attention; solve problems; ability to be aware of our thinking, learning and doing – the frontal lobe is like our command center.
  • Parietal lobe – this is our association center; we manage our spatial awareness and orientation to our environment
  • Occipital lobe – our vision center – there are cells in this lobe for colour, shapes, lines, triangles…
  • Temporal lobe – our hearing center and our language center. You may be familiar with “Wernicke’s area”, critical for our speech and comprehending what others are saying. And familiar with “Broca’s area” where we produce our speech.

Please do not miss the fact that our brain works as a whole. We cannot be labelled as ‘primarily visual learners’ or auditory or kinesthetic – it takes a whole brain to learn.

Consider this example. (I encourage you to not ‘jump ahead’ of each step)

  • I am going to ‘say’ a wordin print… it is a very familiar object.
  • When you hear the word please consider what your brain had to do to know what this object is. The space between the word and the explanation indicates your time to think about what your brain had to do to remember this object.

The word: apple

  • Given that each one of you will have learned to recognize an apple, each brain will begin with the part that was first introduced to ‘apple’.
  • For those of you who tasted an apple as your first experience with an apple, that would likely be the first sense that flew into action in a nano-second.
  • Maybe your first experience was seeing an apple; if so, your visual cortex would have been the first to activate… And by the time you did this little activity those memories have been laid down so deep that when you saw the word ‘apple’ it took about a nano-second to bring ‘apple’ to your conscious level.

Learning what an apple is: what it looks like, tastes like, smells like, feels like, and hears like when you bite into it – requires our 5 senses, 4 lobes and 2 hemispheres. In other words, our whole brain. Imagine if you believed you were a ‘visual’ learner and your schooling experiences built on this ‘strength’ for leaning ‘apple’. What might you have missed out about ‘apples’?

Neurons are our brain cells, the ones that do the work of learning. These number in the billions and their connections amongst each other number in the trillions. All human behavior can be traced to the communication between neurons. Let’s focus on this communication, the making  “connections” that form neural networks – places where we ‘store’ are beliefs, values, things we learned that have ‘stuck’.

Learning and Memory are different

Learning is the act of making (and strengthening) connections between hundreds of thousands of neurons. Said another way: learning is dynamic. By dynamic we mean learning is the on-going process of changing existing neural networks; deleting some, adding new networks and/or adding onto existing networks. Learning is about linking neurons in new ways.

The bottom line: no change in networks, no learning. Eric Kandal is  neuroscientist who won the Noble Peace Prize for discovering how our brains form memory. This is what he tells teachers, parents and children: “The whole function of education is to alter the brain”.

Using the “apple” to illustrate: once the learner has grasped the basics of “apple” – shape, colour, feel, taste and smell, connections to this basic ‘apple network’ can be made. For example learners explore how apples grow – on trees. And then maybe uncover the fact that there are different kinds of apples – colors, shapes, tastes, smells and then uncover and explore the concept of ‘orchards’; what is required to grow quality apples… Each new piece of information about apples, develops and strengthens the ‘apple network’.

 Memory is the ability to reactivate and/or reconstruct the previously made connections in learning. If you cannot recall the difference between the lego tree and the forest tomorrow, you did not form a memory for this information; it did not ‘stick’. If you do remember you will not use the exact same words you used today; the 24 hour break between learning it and recalling it will have made some changes. Memory is impacted by space and time and our moment to moment experiences with our environment.

Said another way: what went into memory will not ‘come out of memory’ exactly the same. I did not ask you to memorize the responses I presented.

Using the “apple” to further illustrate: the teacher presents a task for the learners: “You sell apples to grocery stores. The produce managers want to know all about the size, color, taste, feel and smell of the apples you are selling and what the farmer does to ensure quality. Prepare, in writing, what you will include in your conversation with store managers about eh apples you are selling”.

The task requires learners to reactivate their ‘apple network’, that is, recall the concepts such as orchards, quality, apple basics – and organize the information into a written presentation that reflects their belief in their product.

Every learner will have the ‘basics’ of apple: a fruit, grows on trees, blooms appear in spring, fruit is ready in late summer to early fall… but, every presentation will be different because each learner’s experiences with apples is different.

Memorization then is different from memory: what goes in is exactly the same as what ‘comes out’. Thinking is not required. Consider the times tables, spelling, phone numbers… we need these at our disposal but they are not what will help us solve complex problems. Solving problems requires thinking in new ways, linking neurons in new ways.

Each learner then would likely benefit from memorizing the basics noted above but the impact of the presentation will suffer if this is all the learner can do.

Why learn?

A simple, and flippant answer is “because we can”. On the more serious note, nature’s first goal for our brains is the survival of its owner. Natural curiosity is a key driver of learning for survival and once that is settled, our brains are ready for adventure with the goal of finding out who we are and who we are in this world. Learning is a personal journey played out in the collective of our families, our community, our planet. Curriculum tends to stifle the adventure. Parents, this maybe something you are seeing with your children. Teachers, you know this happens and children, many of you are so ‘done’ with having your journey shuffled off to one side in the name of curriculum, assessments and report cards.

Note: The next blog will explore the role of meaning and emotion in learning. Our brains have so much to do 24/7/365 that they are not interested in what seems irrelevant to their owner’s life.

This deserves a better title than I can give it…

There’s been a lot written about the President’s remarks about American service men and women… none more poignant or eloquent than this reprint of a tweet by Charlotte Clymer.

Be well…

The straight line distance between Washington, D.C. and Dover, Delaware is less than 85 miles. It takes a helicopter about 40-45 minutes to make the trip. I was 19 years-old, and it was my first time riding a helicopter. I barely remember any of it. I was distracted.

I was more nervous than I’ve ever been in my life about what was to come next, and so, as this Black Hawk floated above the earth with my casket team–me being the youngest and most junior–I could only think: “What if I mess this up? What if I fail? How will I live with myself?” 

That’s how it should be in a moment like this. You should be nervous. You should let that sharpen your focus. Because there is no room for error when handling the remains of a service member returning to the U.S. after being killed in combat. You should strive for perfection. 

The helicopter landed, and my anxiety spiked. In retrospect, I recall noticing the silence of the rest of the casket team. These were young men, mostly early 20s, loud and boisterous and chests puffed. Now, they were quiet. It was unnerving. 

When you’re a new enlisted soldier in an infantry unit–the FNG–you’re treated like you know nothing. Because you don’t. Everyone around you is older and vastly more competent and confident. Yet, in this moment, despite having done this before, they were all nervous, too. Scary. 

We were brought into a holding area near the tarmac on Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the remains of service members who have died in a theater of operations arrive on a C-17 transport plane. We rehearsed our steps. And did it again. And then again. No room for error. 

The plane arrived. The ramp was lowered. The transfer vehicle that would complete the next leg of the journey was parked. Our casket team was positioned. We were now each wearing ceremonial white cotton gloves we had held under the bathroom faucet. Damp gloves have a better grip. 

We’re a casket team, but these are not caskets. They’re transfer cases: rectangular aluminum boxes that bear a resemblance to a crate for production equipment. Yet, the dimensions are obvious. Any given civilian would take only a few moments to realize that’s for carrying bodies. 

It’s called a “dignified transfer”, not a “ceremony”, because officials don’t want loved ones to feel obligated to be there while in mourning, but it is as highly choreographed as any ceremony, probably more so. It is done as close to perfection as anything the military does. 

I was positioned in formation with my casket team, and I could see the transfer cases precisely laid out, dress right dress, in the cavernous space of the C-17, each draped with an American flag that had been fastened perfectly. I remember my stomach dropping. 

There is simply no space for other thoughts. Your full brain capacity is focused on not screwing up. The casket team steps off in crisp, exact steps toward the plane, up the ramp (please, oh god, don’t slip), aside the case, lift up ceremonially, face back and down the ramp. 

During movement, everyone else is saluting: the plane personnel, the OIC (officer-in-charge), any senior NCOS and generals, and occasionally, the president. The family is sometimes there. No ceremonial music or talking. All silent, save for the steps of the casket team. 

You don’t see the family during this. You’re too focused. There are other distractions. Maybe they forgot, but no one told me there’d be 40-60 lbs. of ice in the transfer case to prevent decomposition over the 10-hour plane ride. You can sometimes feel it sloshing around a bit. 

Some of the transfer cases feel slightly heavier, some slightly lighter. The weight is distributed among six bearers, so it’s not a big difference. But then you carry a case that’s significantly lighter, and you realize those are the only remains they were able to recover. 

It probably takes all of 30-40 seconds to carry the transfer case from the plane to the mortuary vehicle, but it felt like the longest walk ever each time. The case is carefully placed in the back of the mortuary vehicle, and the casket team moves away in formation. 

I don’t know how to describe the feeling after you’re done and on your way back to D.C., but it’s a mixture of intense relief that you didn’t screw up and profound sobriety over what you’ve just done and witnessed. I wouldn’t call it a good feeling. Maybe a numbed pain. 

From the outside, the most egalitarian place in America is a military transfer case. They all look exactly the same: an aluminum box covered with the American flag. We didn’t know their names, rank, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation–none of it. All the same. 

Whatever cruel and unfathomable politics had brought all of us to that moment–from the killed service member in the box to those of us carrying it to the occasional elected official who attends to pay respects–there were no politics to be found during a dignified transfer. 

The fallen service members I helped receive and carry during this part of the journey to their final resting place were not “losers” or “suckers”. They were selfless and heroic, and I had the honor of being among the first to hold them when they returned home. 

There are service members around the world involved in caring for our war fatalities. The mortuary specialists, the casket teams, the family liaisons–so many people who work to ensure that this final act is done with the greatest amount of dignity and honor, seeking perfection. 

I suppose the one thing we all took for granted is that dignity would always be affirmed by all our civilian leaders to those service members who gave everything. I never would have predicted any official, let alone a sitting president, would insult fallen service members. 

I cannot adequately describe my anger at Donald Trump for being so willing to send service members halfway around the world to die on his own behalf and then call them “losers” for doing so. This coward is unfit for his office and the power it holds. He needs to go. /thread 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kids say…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Doing the wrong thing “righter”

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

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

But what is the right thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Can I do?

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

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

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

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

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

End Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

How can we help one another?

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

Thank you and be well.

William Mathis: What Standardized Tests Measure and What They Can’t Tell Us

I’ve referred frequently to Jan’s work. I decided to post the entire piece that she posted this morning for those of you who might be looking for backup support as you work to bring about change and relief from the test/punish reform process.

janresseger

Since 2002, when the federal No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, American public schools, and later their teachers, have been evaluated by the standardized test scores of their students.  States have been required to punish the schools with the lowest scores—firing their principals or some of their teachers, closing the schools, or turning them over to charter schools.  But the idea that we can judge schools and judge teachers by metrics—by the aggregate test scores of their students—evolved long before the passage of No Child Left Behind—even prior to the publication in 1983 of the A Nation At Risk report that is said to have begun the wave of standards-based school reform. Perhaps it has been part of growing enchantment with our society’s advancing capacity to collect and analyze data.

Today it is becoming widely acknowledged, however, that the strategy of test-and-punish didn’t improve public schools, didn’t…

View original post 830 more words

Death of the Old Story

We are living on the tail end of an old story… a story that extolled the virtues of data, metrics, analytics as tools for assessing the value of our work, our schools, and, distressingly, our students.

Such stories become stories as they are repeated and gradually accepted as truth.

Old stories die hard because of how deeply ingrained they have become through repetition and our tendency toward confirmation bias – i.e., our tendency to assign greater validity to information that confirms our beliefs.

Inaccurate tales become stories because they are unchallenged and some may even have resonance with our experiences.  They grow in acceptance due to laziness and/or ineffective challenges.

The “old story”, the story of our people, extols the virtue of hard work, doing well in school, getting into a good college, obtaining a college degree, getting a good job with the accompanying secure future. That story included the myth that such opportunity was equally open to all Americans, as well as a healthy portion of blame aimed at those whose experiences contradicted the validity of that story.

Now, not only the poor and people of color are challenged to find the validity of that story. Far more of us are confronted on a regular basis with a challenge to it.  Many have watched their children work hard, do well in school, be successful in good colleges and find no jobs.  They have watched the security of pensions disappear. They have watched the promise of progress and development rape the land and threaten our continued existence.  Many have recognized the death throes of the old story.

The story of accountability has been told and retold so frequently that it has become a part of the fabric of the old story.  A chapter in that story must be devoted to human arrogance. This arrogance is filled with irony… an irony that names the flagship legislation No Child Left Behind, while designed to leave millions of poor children behind and labeled, along with their schools, as failing.

Our old story is replete with experiences in which we found ourselves trying to “fix” a problem with a new, better idea. We have many memories of failed initiatives, new ideas, new programs… each touted as being “the answer”.  Sometimes we were on the “receiving” end of such solutions. At other times we may have been the force behind the fix.  What most of us recall is the durability of the problem and the frustration of the never-ending treadmill of solutions.  Rarely, if ever, did we explore the accuracy of the problem description/definition.  In the old story we just kept trying to do things right(er)… rarely able/willing to question if we were seeking to do the right thing.

More and more people in all walks of life, in many different professions, are growing in awareness that the old story is a fable.  Accountability, as we have seen it, doesn’t improve learning.  It damages personal connection, empathy, and relationships.  It adds to separation. It hinders connectedness. Equitable access to learning doesn’t exist for all, perhaps not even for many.

We are living in a time of “interbeing”… a time between stories… sometimes torn between the convenience and comfort of our old story and the fear of the unknown that accompanies the writing of new stories.  Writing a new story need not be a continuation of our time of the separation that was/is inherent in the old story.  Our new story can be a story of connection not separation, of sustainability not accountability, of empathy not blame, relationship building not alienation.  Our new story can be a story not so much about making a specific change happen but of creating the space where change can happen… for our students, for our colleagues, for our friends, for our families.

My thanks to Charles Eisenstein for the gift of his thinking and his language of stories.  His generosity allows for the free use of his works and his gifts.  My thanks also to Russell Ackoff whose writings highlighting the differences between “Doing things Right” and “Doing the Right Thing” continue to add clarity to my reflections and Jan Resseger whose tireless work in pursuit of equitable access to learning for all children is nothing short of inspirational.

Be well

If We Know This Stuff Why Aren’t We Changing More?

 

Note: My thanks to Will Richardson and the team at change leaders.community for the inspiration for this post. If you’re interested in exploring and collaborating with like-minded educators about the why and how of school change, I strongly recommend checking out the change leaders community. Their work has added considerable richness to the reflections during my self-imposed retreat and leads me to a further exploration of a couple of themes that have occupied my thinking and writing, leadership, and change. 

“Dylan Bueno is buried. Did pressure from school contribute to his apparent suicide?”

This the headline from a blog post on March 14th by Bob Braun, a retired education editor/writer for a major NJ newspaper. Mr. Braun continued:

Dylan Bueno–at 14, not quite a child and still not yet a young man–was buried Wednesday by his family. Five days earlier, he apparently committed suicide not long after he learned he would not be able to participate in his eighth-grade graduation from Newark’s Ann Street School

Just hours before I read this story, I had finished listening to a podcast/interview which featured a conversation between Will Richardson and David Gleason. Gleason is a psychologist whose book,  At What Cost on the growing problem of student stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide is generating significant questions about the role of school in this alarming trend.

It was no accident that I found my way to this podcast. A few days ago, I revisited a piece written by (here’s that name again) Will Richardson, entitled “Our Moral Imperative”. In this  article Will shared his experience meeting David Gleason and encountering his notion of “immunity to change”. More about that in a bit.  As I read and listened I heard two distinct threads. They represent what Gleason refers to as the “current bind”… the dissonance between our public and open commitments and what our behaviors reveal about less public commitments.

The first thread involves the evolution of our culture. From a cultural perspective the school children of this generation are living at a time when their parents have lost considerable faith in the likelihood that their children will have a better life than they did. Furthermore, they have accepted (and contributed to) a conventional wisdom that defines what path is most likely to present their children with the best chances for “beating the odds” – study hard, do well in school, get above average SAT, ACT scores, submit great college applications, get into the best possible college, be the first in our family to attend college, etc.

In his book, Gleason describes the bind that we find ourselves grappling with

Behold the bind. For years and years, we have been encouraging parents to send their young adolescent children to rigorous and high-achieving secondary schools. Once they’re admitted, we instill our students with hope, and we promise them challenging academics, close student-teacher relationships, and a nurturing and supportive environment—and we mean it. Further, with their admission, we extend a seemingly equitable opportunity for a diploma, itself an implied “passport to a better life.” This is the parents’ and students’ aspiration, and it’s the aspiration for which we, as overseers of these schools, have pledged our support and have dedicated our careers. However, when our young students actually enroll, against our best intentions but driven by our own fears, we overschedule, overwork, and sometimes overwhelm them. We set them up for frustration and failure when we expect them to think and act like adults long before they have actually developed those capacities. We reward high achievement over effort, and most of all, we overfocus on the college process almost from the moment they arrive (38-39).

Schools are seen as the primary means by which the fears of parents (transmitted very effectively to their kids) can be addressed. We, as educators, in responding to these expectations and to the pressures imposed by state and federal requirements have been complicit in the creation of a culture of high expectations, imposed at increasingly earlier grades, with the promise of dire consequences for both students and educators when expectations are not/cannot be met.

The second thread that I found in my explorations of the Richardson/Gleason resource is a part of Gleason’s work identifying why we find change so hard. Gleason’s explanation for our reluctance to change makes a comparison between the body’s systems for rejecting threats to our health (our immune systems) and the idea that we also possess an emotional defense mechanism which he terms our “immunity to change”. The system helps us reject change that might threaten our sense of self or our personal comfort. You can read about his study and the details of his interview protocol here

The thread that Gleason highlights in describing the current bind we are facing is not surprising… it is fear. As educators, while we recognize that our focus on trying to insure a successful future for our students has resulted in unhealthy pressures and is contributing to the historically high anxiety levels of students, we have done little to address this.

In October of last year, the NY Times reported on this problem as follows:

In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.

“Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety”, NY Times, October 11, 2017

Here is Richardson’s description of what Gleason has learned:

“…we say without hesitation that we want authentic engagement with our students, that we want to promote a healthy school culture, and we want to produce happy learners (and much more).

But when you ask teachers and leaders what they are doing (or not doing) that actually gets in the way of achieving those goals, they readily respond that they over schedule kids, they focus too much on college admissions, that they emphasize grades too much, and that they assign too much homework (and much more). Nor surprisingly these admissions make us feel uncomfortable.”

In their conversation Gleason (in the podcast) and Richardson (in the article) point out it is the next step in the protocol that gets interesting. Participants are asked to identify what fears they would have if they did the opposite of their negative practices. Here are a few of the fears that Gleason got when conducting the protocol around the issues of excessive focus on college, over-emphasis on grades, homework assignments, etc. I’ve paraphrased a few of his findings from his interviews.

If the teachers didn’t continue with the current practices…

  • They would be perceived as intellectually ‘soft.’
  • Their students wouldn’t get in to good colleges, and they would eventually lose our jobs.
  • We might find out that ‘maybe we’ve been wrong all along.’
  • If they actually tried to implement developmentally appropriate practices, they fear that they might try and fail … They do what they’re comfortable doing.
  • If they did commit to a more developmentally healthy culture… they’d have to face making adjustments in their program, which could have an impact on their jobs.

As the convergence of events and ideas continued, it struck me that my exposure to these resources during my time of “retreat” was no accident. Rounding out this I’d like to offer the following for consideration.

What Gleason has described is a real and complex bind… a combination of forces have conspired to create a condition which has significantly increased the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression in our young people. Our current solution to this situation is to get better at identifying young people who are exhibiting signs of such distress and to provide support resources to heal or “fix” them. Once again, relying on the wisdom of Russell Ackoff, this is a classic example of trying to do the wrong thing better. We know what the right thing to do is… it is to fix the system that is causing the stress, the anxiety, the depression and placing the lives of too many children at risk. It is to stop over-scheduling our kids. It is to stop the overemphasis on grades and college admission. It is to stop the madness of hours of time devoted to test –prep and high stakes assessments. It is time to stop transferring our fears about the future of kids to our kids.   It is our fear that allows the bind to continue. The cost of this fear is too high. Just ask Dylan Bueno’s mom.

Be well

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Results…

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!

Recovering From the “M” Word

Hello again. A writer that I follow describes his newsletter as appearing with “fanatical irregularity”. It appears that I’ve joined his scheduling pattern. I’ve never asked why he publishes so randomly but I can easily explain how this has happened for me. Have you ever moved?

moving 1 IMG_0374Two weeks ago we finished a whirlwind process that saw us complete the purchase of a new home and the sale of our previous home of more than a decade. It was an exciting time.

Things moved along very smoothly with only small doses of stress. But then it was time for the “M” word… moving. Now, 10 days after “the move” our conversations almost all include sentences like, “Do you remember packing xxx”; “What box what it in?”; “Where is that box?”; “How did we get so much stuff?”; and, “Why the hell did we bring it?”

So I hope you’ll forgive me if I ease my way back into some kind of writing routine by relying on a couple of pieces that I read this past week between collapsing into whatever chair was at hand and falling into a sleep filled with dreams of packing boxes.

Will Parker writes a blog entitled, Principal Matters. He has been a teacher, the Oklahoma Assistant Principal of the Year in 2012 and is currently the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Association for Secondary and Middle Level Principals. He’s ‘been there, done that’. As we have been exploring the issues surrounding the concept and reality of school leadership, I wanted to share his recent blog.

Will entitled the piece “Managing Demands, Dealing with Difficult People and Promoting Positive Morale.” It struck me as valuable because it dealt with practical matters in day-to-day leadership and culture creation. Note: Will’s blogs are also available in podcast version.

This is a “how to” piece and Will has organized each section with a short contextual intro followed by his suggestions for dealing with each. I’ve reprinted his sections and, as usual when I reference someone else’s work, I urge you to read the entire piece entire piece and to become acquainted with his work.

Note: After each of Will’s sections I’ve added some of my own thoughts/comments.  These are not intended to critique Will’s observations. Rather they’re intended to tie his work to concepts and thinking previously explored here in Rethinking Learning.

Part 1: Managing Demands

As you walk through a school, you will find teachers, students, and staff rely on you for more than just supervision or observation. People are looking for problem-solvers. In my first year as an administrator, I carried a notepad with me and tried to write down notes on every conversation I was having for follow-up.

I soon discovered I was spending more time do follow-up than I was helping others find their own solutions. In some ways, I was fishing for them rather than teaching them to fish. With that in mind, here are four takeaways to keep in mind when managing questions or demands:

  1. Give up your “Savior” complex.(It takes a team to lead a school.)
  2. Share follow-up.(If it’s important, have them write it down.)
  3. Teach others to find solutions.(Learn to “shift the monkey” as Todd Whitaker teaches.)
  4. Set timers for time consuming tasks.(Your value does not equal an empty inbox. Sometimes mundane tasks like emails or reports can go faster as timed tasks.)

You cannot lead alone. And the sooner you realize you need a team, the better. It is easy for leaders to fall into the trap of believing their job is to save the day. That kind of mentality will lead to burnout. Instead, shift your mindset so that you approach the complex problems of your school with the idea that it will take everyone on your team to find solutions, create strong environments, and reach new goals.

Comment:  It is assumed that, in order to be a good leader, one must be a good problem solver.  There is no question that problem solving is an essential part of the leadership role; however, too frequently this expectation leads to two unanticipated and undesirable consequences: (1) we become better at ‘problem solving’ than at problem analysis (leading to solutions that seem, not surprisingly, do not solve the problem) and (2) we reinforce a hierarchical structure in which only the “one at the top” solves the problems – i.e., we create dependence among our colleagues rather than building the kind of ownership that follows engagement in broader problem analysis and solving.

Part 2: Dealing with Difficult People

It’s easy to remember hard conversations—especially ones where people lose it emotionally. No one ever learns to perfectly manage difficult conversation(s). But there are some ways you can shift your mindset so you learn to better manage them. Here are six tips to keep in mind:

  1. Make sure you’re not the difficult one.
  2. Seek to understand before being understood
  3. Be firm but friendly.
  4. Change your posture and use humor when appropriate.
  5. Agree to disagree
  6. Consider bringing parties to the table.

Keep in mind that others want to be heard and understood. Sometimes the goal is not finding complete agreement as it is being a sounding board and helping find solutions together. Simple things go a long way in deescalating emotional conversations: like keeping your hands open when you talk, taking notes to show you are listening well, and repeating back what you hear someone saying. At the end of the day, you want to know you’ve given others the courtesy you would want if the tables were turned.

Comment: My experience in working with school leaders has taught me that there is little or no intentionality in leadership preparation programs in the area of productive conflict resolution or the development of confidence in what Susan Scott refers to as “Fierce Conversations”. I would add the intentional development of this skill to Will’s suggestions.

Note: See Susan Scotts two books entitled, Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership

Part 3: Showing Appreciation and Maintaining Morale

It is easy to lose sight of the culture and morale of your team members when you’re focused on managing demands or difficult moments. I talk to a lot of principals who ask what they can do to keep their team members encouraged. Here are eight suggestions on ways to embed appreciation into your routines:

  1. “Kudos” emails(These are quick summaries of great things you see happening when you do a walkthrough of your building.)
  2. Video shares(Use your smart-phone to capture great learning moments and share via email, social media or link in a newsletter.)
  3. Hand-written notes or cards (All of us enjoy the thoughtfulness of a handwritten thought or word. I once had a 25-year veteran teacher who told me she had never received a hand-written note of encouragement from an admin till I gave her one.)
  4. Monthly awards(Use your faculty or team meetings to highlight great team players once a month and publish it out to others.)
  5. Newsletter/website publicity(Have a frequent, consistent summary of communication for parents and community members; use it as a way to brag on your teachers, students, and staff.)
  6. Face-to-face(Take advantage of observation follow-ups to look a teacher in the eyes and tell them something specific you appreciate about what they do with students.)
  7. Food, food, and more food(Maybe it’s because I love to eat, but I always feel encouraged and loved when someone adds food to a meeting.)
  8. Social media shares(Never before have we had access to so many free, accesibile ways to share and brag about our teachers and schools. Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LindedIn, or Voxer: find ways to celebrate and encourage others.)

Comment:  Think of each of the suggestions that Will has include above as ways in which relationships (whether they be with students, colleagues, parents and/or community members) are strengthened.  I connect this to the conversations, relationships, trust, followership model previous shared in some of my earlier posts.

Will ends his piece with the following thought:

As school leaders, we are directly involved in the kind of environment where learning can happen. How we manage demands, deal with difficulties, and encourage positive moments will lend to the outcomes others have in our learning environments. Don’t think you will ever do this with perfection. By sharing tasks with teammates, learning to navigate tough conversations, and highlighting successes of others, you will find yourself cultivating the soil for positive outcomes for your teachers and students.

As always, your comments and thoughts help each of us grow,  Be well.