TEDx Talk – 5/23/13: The Need for Positive Change in Education

Here is the transcript of a TEDx talk I recently delivered at TEDxMarinAcademy.  The theme of the event was Positive Change, and the purpose of my talk was to lay out, as clearly as possible the argument in favor of a major overhaul in our system of education.  I will post the video when it becomes available.

THE NEED FOR POSITIVE CHANGE IN EDUCATION

I ask questions.  I always have.  It is what drives me in life.  And I try to ask the big ones.  Like, where did we come from?  What are we supposed to be doing?  And I think these are rather important questions.  Otherwise, how do we know that we are doing it right?

I ask the same questions about education.  Where did it come from?  What are we supposed to be doing – in school?

So, tonight I want to talk about education, and I want to begin with questions.  For starters, why education?  Why systematize learning, something that happens quite naturally, all the time, school or no school?  And why school?  Why locate our system of learning in a building?

If you haven’t asked these questions, how do you know we are doing it right?  Here are some more.

Why classes?  Why do we have classes?  I don’t mean why do we gather together in rooms to learn, although that is a good question, too.  I mean, why do we coalesce a collection of skills and concepts around a single topic and lay out a sequential course of study – like a recipe.  Because it is, isn’t it?  A class is like a recipe for learning.  It’s like baking a cake.  It has a list of ingredients – we call it a syllabus.  It has a sequence of events, a list of things to do in a particular order – we call it an assignment schedule.  And it has a predictable outcome.  Serves 18.  And we assess the cake against a standard set of evaluation criteria – flavor, texture, fluffiness.  Why do we do that?  Why is that our model of learning?  I wonder.

Why tests?  Why the sit-down, short-answer or multiple choice, pencil and paper tests?  Why measure the value of what you know and what you can do by doing something later life does not value and you won’t be asked to do again outside of school.  (The DMV notwithstanding, of course.)  In any case, I do wonder.  And there are plenty of questions to be asked about schooling.

Why group students for learning by age?  This one baffles me.  Is age that significant?  Should students all be learning the same thing at the same age?  Should students all be learning the same thing? – now there’s a question.

What we know is that human beings are wonderfully differentiated, each in possession of a unique set of strengths, weaknesses, interests, and challenges that change over time.  Different things become relevant at different times.  Why, then, group students by age and have them all doing the same thing at the same time?  I wonder.

Here’s another question:

If high school didn’t already exist, if we didn’t know what high school was, what would we create to serve the purpose?  And what is the purpose of high school education?  What is it for?

I believe the purpose of education is to assist individuals in reaching their highest potential in community with others and in service to the common good.  That’s pretty much it, isn’t it?  Education is about your personal potential, it’s about living together, and it’s about the common good.  Great.  So, if that’s what it is for, are we doing it right?  And why are we doing it the way we are doing it?

Well, as it turns out, there are some answers.

Before about 150 years ago there was no common system of what would come to be known as public education in this country.  State-funded, relatively-open schooling for all did not exist before about 1860.  People did not go to school then the way we do now.  At that time, cities were growing and the urban population was expanding, and a group of folks – educators, politicians, business types – got together and created a system that would prepare almost everyone for citizenship in an increasingly industrialized society.  What they came up with was the foundation of American public education and it had a very specific purpose: To meet the needs of the emerging industrial economy and consumer-based society.

Industrialization?  You mean factories?  Yes, I mean factories.  Production facilities for products for large markets.  Consumerism?  You mean buying things?  Yes, I mean buying things.  The acquisition of tangible goods beyond what is required for daily life.  Am I saying that we have been convinced to buy things we don’t need and it is related to schooling?  Yes.  I am.

Think shoes for a minute.  How many pairs of shoes do you own?  Personally, I own many.  The fact is, one pair of shoes can get me to work, up the mountain, out to dinner, dancing, anything I need.  And yet, I have shoes.  Dozens.  I have shoes I never wear.  Don’t you?  Ever wonder about that?  How did we get convinced to buy all these shoes?

I have said that the industrial influence on education was profound.  If you wanted to profit from an emerging industrial economy, you needed two things.  You needed the capacity to produce products and you needed people to want to buy those products.  How do you get that?  You educate for it.  You create a system that conditions people to want more than they have.  Consumers.

If you want to think about how schooling is like a consumer economy, just ask yourself who is selling what to whom and what is the price?

But as a rising industrialist, you also needed people to work the factories – and it is tough work on an assembly line.  Long hours.  In rows and columns.  Doing repetitive tasks.  Mostly alone.  With strict time limits.  Deferring gratification.  And producing products that are subject to evaluation based on standardized measures of quality.

What?  Does that sound familiar?  Actually, I hope not.  Not too familiar.  I was talking about working in a factory, but it describes the current dominant paradigm in education in this country very well.

So, the emerging industrialists needed people to work the factories and people to buy the products.   But they needed something else too.  They needed to control for creativity.  Because it turns out that creativity in a factory setting is a liability.  If we are being honest, we do not want people on an assembly line coloring outside the lines.  An entire line of widgets assembled … creatively.  No.  We want outcomes to be measurable, predictable, and consistent, and we want to be able to track productivity and to control for quality.  So, creativity in an industrial economy becomes a liability.

And the raft of research that tracks the decline of creativity in students through schooling is well known.  Creativity declines in school.  But why is that?  What happens in 12 grades of school that makes creativity so unlikely?  I wonder.

I was speaking to someone recently and she told me a story of her son, a 7th grader at a prominent Marin middle school.  She said one day she was called in for a parent conference.  Apparently something had happened and they needed to talk.  So, she went and as she tells it, the science teacher’s chief complaint about her son was that he was singing in class.  Singing.  Well, you know.  That is understandable.  Singing during a test or a silent reading period or something.  But, it wasn’t that.  They were doing a lab – conducting an experiment, working in pairs or trios and apparently there was quite a bit of activity and chatter in the room already.  But this behavior, she was given to understand was unacceptable.  Singing is not called for on the lab instructions, is it?

I tell this story not to out these teachers but because it illustrates something about the system and what the system values as worthy evidence of quality performance.  The fact is that singing may well have been a sign of engagement.  This boy’s mother was so convinced – he is generally an A student.

Exceptionally curious.  Extremely bright.  Fully engaged.  But no where on the plan does it call for singing.  Singing is not a part of learning.  Is it?  And it is not on the rubric! – so singing becomes, by definition, out of bounds.  My point is, what our system can’t predict, it can’t tolerate.

But you know things have changed around here lately.  The economy is no longer simply industrial.  It is post-industrial.  Unto informational.  We accept the idea that anything that can be automated, will be.  Why will anything that can be automated, be automated?  Because machines are programmable, controllable, predictable.  And people are not.  People are creative.  They don’t do those jobs as well.  And so manufacturing jobs in are in decline.  We have a system of education in this country that trains people to do jobs for which they are not well suited and that are increasingly unavailable.

At the same time, our most innovative companies have recognized the value of human creativity in the work place.  I heard recently that Apple’s motto is, “If you want to be managed, you are not employable.”  If you want to be managed, you are not employable.  It is an interesting idea, isn’t it?  There was a time when part of being employed was being told what to do.  Not so much anymore.

I had an interaction with a student a few years ago that illustrates what I mean.

We were beginning the process of writing an essay – a literary analysis – and I had just finished a lesson on thesis statements and how to craft a powerful thesis out of real questions students really have about the text.  My argument was, in fact still is, that a great thesis depends on great questions, and if you are going to write the essay they need to be your questions.  At the end of class one of my students approached me, quite concerned.  In fact, she was on the verge of frustrated tears.  So we talked and at one point she said to me,  “All of my other teachers have simply told me what to write, and I have written it, and I’m good at that.”  That’s really what she wanted me to know.  “But you’re not telling us what to write.”

And I said, “That’s right. I can help you learn to write well. I can coach you on form and style.  I can give you strategies for diction and syntax and even idea generation.  And I can help you understand the text.  But I can’t ask your questions for you and I can’t tell you what to write.”

The point is, if you want to be told what to write, if you want to be managed, you are going to find it hard to find a job that is creative, innovative, and part of positive change for the future.

You know, Google, I hear, has a 20% rule.  That is, 20% of the time, one day a week, employees can spend pursuing their own, creative projects.  People work alone, in pairs, in groups.  And many of these ideas fizzle out, fail, go nowhere.  But some of them do go somewhere.  And Google trusts this.

Google Earth came out of their 20% rule.  Did you know that?  It was somebody’s independent study project.  Google, like other companies in the business of innovation and creativity, has figured out that good, new ideas come from people seeking answers to their own questions, and being allowed to risk failure without penalty.  So, the 20% rule.

Why not a 20% rule for school?  One day a week kids can learn whatever they want?  I wonder.

Failure, incidentally, is the other thing that the industrial model of schooling gets wrong.  In school, failure is one the worst things that can happen.  Right?  The F.  We give it its own letter and its own lexicon of euphemisms.  In fact, in some cases a failure on an assignment is never redeemable.  It has to be right the first time.  And maybe now you can see why.  In industry, failure can be catastrophic.  If you fail to sew the seam, make the weld, install the circuit, the thing doesn’t work.  And that is a deal breaker if you are trying to sell it.  In the production of products, failure is to be avoided at all costs.

So, if school is preparing you for work in an industrial economy, failure has to be discouraged. Vilified. Punished.  But what if school were not preparing you so much to produce products as to  make positive change in the world?  Failure in any field based on innovation is a pathway to success.  Right?  We know this to be true.  Failed attempts are keys to later success.  The design firm IDEO uses the mantra “Fail early, fail often.”  Pixar uses the same idea – so I hear.  Why?  Because they like things not to work?  No.  Because failure is the goal?  No.  It’s because they know the value of a failure well made.  They know that innovation depends on repeated attempts.  They know that creativity requires feeling the freedom to fail.  They are destigmatizing failure.

If schools are preparing students for a job market that is not about working in a factory, and is about innovation and creativity, then we should be teaching our students to fail early and often and to learn and improve from their mistakes.   And the process of failing well should be encouraged, designed, assessed, evaluated, measured, rewarded.

Crazy ideas?  Not at all.  They work.  But schools don’t do these things because they are stuck in an outdated model that has not seen change since its inception.  It is time we moved on.

So, how do we do it better?  No.  Scratch that.  Let’s ask a different question.  How do we do it differently?  Because I don’t think we need to do what we have been doing better or more or harder or more on time or with stronger study habits or with more sleep.  We need to do something very, very different.

And I have some ideas.  There are three things any school that is thinking about its future has to do today:

The first thing we have to do is shift the paradigm.  The curriculum is no longer ours and we must stop thinking of schools as delivery systems for information.  Every one of us carries the entire internet in our pocket and content is not what we are selling anymore.  The curriculum is free and available to anyone with a connection.  So, educators need to shift their thinking and their self conception from deliverers of content to facilitators of learning.  Step number one: we begin to see ourselves as educational choreographers (or what some have called learning ecologists) and not task-masters in the delivery of content.

The second thing we have to do is personalize education.  We have to stop telling kids what to learn as if we knew what content would be useful five years from now.  We don’t.  We have to start asking different questions:  What do you want to learn?  What will be your process?  And what will success look like for you and how will we measure it?  We have to involve kids much more deeply in determining and defining their own learning pathways.  And we have to help kids identify their interests and develop them into passions so that they can lead lives of fulfillment and joy at the intersection of what they are good at and what they find valuable.  So, step number two is moving from standardized curriculum to personalized learning.

And finally, we have to take the concept of relevance much more seriously.  Students should be working and learning in the real world, on actual problems that actual people face, and they need to see the relevance of their learning in the impact it has on people’s lives.  Students should be presenting their understandings to authentic audiences of evaluators – their teachers as well as people they do not already know.  Because a pencil and paper test does not measure the kind of understanding that is valued by the world we are preparing these kids to change and to heal.  But a performance of learning to an audience they don’t already know does.  Step number three: abolish the pencil and paper test and move to performance assessments and real world projects.

You know, it is critically important for schools to realize and respond to the fact that students today have access to all of the information they would ever need.  The internet is truly a game changer.  So, the question is no longer, What do you know?  It is, What can you do with what you know – and for whom?  Students can be trusted with their education.  They might need mentoring, guidance, coaching, as do we all, and there might be failures along the way, in fact I hope so, but students no longer need us to give them the answers.

They need to be put in charge of their own education, they need to put in touch with the thing itself, not its facsimile, and they need to be asked to show what they know and what they can do in authentic situations.

This is the agenda education for the 21st century.

Starting Up (Arrastía & Hoffman) – Almost a Review

I admit to having felt the stirrings to repair the traditional school.  In the epigraph of a new book edited by Lisa Arrastía and Marvin Hoffman, Maxine Greene writes,

Most of us realize that, only when we envisage a better social order, do we find the present one in many ways unendurable and stir ourselves to repair.  The sight and description of the new schools at the present time … make it uniquely possible to identify what is wrong with the traditional schools.”

I have asked for as long as I have been in education the main seminal question, “How could we do this better?” and so it was the title, first and foremost, that grabbed my attention when I saw the book,  Starting Up: Critical Lessons From 10 New Schools.

Truth be told, it was also the fact that the book was lying on Dennis Littky’s desk and he had just recommended it – sort of.  My colleagues and I were visiting the Met school in Providence, Rhode Island, and we had managed to finagle an hour of Littky’s time, something I knew going in was unlikely, but we offered doughnuts and an early start and Dennis agreed.  As a school leader and an innovator, Dennis Littky has been around the block a few times, and I have been inspired by his work and ideas for years.  Together with Elliot Washor, Dennis started the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (The Met) and Big Picture Learning, which has nurtured a few dozen Met schools in this county and abroad.  Beyond his accomplishments in education, and they are many, Dennis is plain spoken and he is clear in what he believes about education.  These are qualities I find easy to admire.

So, in a conversation that turned to innovative educational models, I asked him, “What should we be reading?”  Dennis has just a few stacks of well-chosen books in his office, and many of them are duplicates, which suggested to me that he hands them out, keeping them for targeted distribution.  Maybe he would send us home with a gem.  Not so.

“I don’t know,” he said.  “How about this?  This looks good.”

He picked up a copy of Arrastía & Hoffman’s book that was on the table, eyeballed it briefly, and then flipped it toward me.

“I haven’t read it.  Someone just sent it to me.  Maybe there is something in there.”

And indeed there is.  It turns out that Littky and Washor have a chapter in the book, and it is one of the better.

Starting Up is interesting the way a war story is interesting.  I found myself engaging in other people’s experiences and feeling grateful they weren’t mine.  Not all of the chapters tell tales of failure or defeat, but they all convey the adversity and challenge of trying to start something new in an old system.  And they are all cautionary.  The authors, for the most part, tell their stories and try in earnest to provide helpful insight, presumably for those coming after – as if the same pitfalls and traps sprung by these explorers will still be waiting.  And this is the false assumption the book makes.

Tales of headache, bureaucracy, abandonment, and betrayal are just that.  They are universal experiences that never happen the same way twice.  Where the book fails is where it reads like a treasure map, labeling paths to take, places to go, and traps to avoid.  It does communicate the depth of pain and possibility in the endeavor to educate kids, and they are amazing stories, no doubt, but in the end, they are just 10 stories that, like all first person accounts, didn’t happen quite the way they are told.  The lessons are particular to the tellers, not universally communicable.

In preparation for the arrival of our first born child, my wife and I took a series of birthing classes.  Of particular interest to us was an evening toward the end in which several new parents were to visit our class to tell their stories.  My wife and I, both somewhat over-achieving, looked forward to this as a way to prepare for the eventualities that might befall us and thereby have the best birthing experience possible.  We took notes.

And then one new father said something that was true on a different level.  He said, in listening to all of the stories of childbirth, the only thing we could be sure of was that our experience would be different.  I wouldn’t happen the way we had heard it.  We stopped taking notes.

Starting Up reminded me of a child birthing class.  The subtitle, Critical Lessons from 10 New Schools, promises to prepare you for what might go wrong, but if you are starting a new school, like giving birth to child, the only thing you can be sure of is that your experience will be different.  It won’t happen the way you hear it.  And in talking to a host of innovators, initiators, and founders in the last year, I have not yet heard one say, “My experience was typical.  I heard it would happen this way.”

The only exception to the narcissism that plagues Starting Up is the chapter written by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor.  Written as a modified Q & A, it is even different in format from the others.  It reads like the transcription of Littky and Elliot simply talking, reminiscing about old times, the early days, what they were thinking way back when.  Their chapter avoids lessons learned and insights gained and opts instead to create an ambient tone of realism, hope, and encouragement, which is most of what is truly helpful in talking about starting a school.

So, with books stacked in his office and on his desk, some of them clearly for give away, why did Dennis refrain from recommending any of them to us?  Because in any pioneering effort, like starting a school, exploring Mars, or giving birth to a child, the experience of others is not what matters.  We make the path by walking.  And Washor says as much on page 62:

This leads to one of the other points, which is about starting before everything is completely and totally planned out.  We both feel it is a big mistake for a lot of people when they do so much planning that nothing ever gets off the drawing board.  They actually think they know what the playbook is going to look like before they have done the school.  Doing all of this work was a difficult decision because we didn’t even know if it was going to pass the state legislature, but we decided to go for it because the only way to figure it out was to do it. The commissioner said years later, “The most important thing you did was to start.”

And that is the most important line in the whole book.

  • Arrastia, Lisa, and Marvin Hoffman. Starting Up: Critical Lessons from 10 New Schools. New York: Teachers College, 2012. Print.

Is Math Relevant?

Math is coming under attack recently at education conferences, in the literature, and in conversations about school reform.  Fully half of the subject-specific workshops at a recent California Association of Independent Schools conference were about math.  Relevance, engagement, projects – all of the presentations in one way or another sought to justify the teaching of math at the high school level.  In question is whether high school students really need all the math they get in the typical high school curriculum.  Is trigonometry useful for the average high school student?  Maybe.  What about calculus?  That one is a little harder, testing even dyed-in-the-wool math teachers, most of whom concede eventually that calculus in high school is more about the challenge than its usefulness to life.

How much math is enough math and what is its value beyond a facility with numbers and quantities?  If you had the resources to offer either a calculus class or a statistics class but not both, how would you choose?  And just under the surface is a deeper question, is a subject’s connection to the real world, what we are calling real-world application, the highest value in school curriculum?

It seems it is.  Or is becoming so.  There are strong calls lately for a new three R’s – Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships.  There are high school programs emerging all over that incorporate job skills, internships, and real-world learning.  Linked Learning, which has its origins in what used to be known as Vocational Training (i.e.: shop class), is a wonderful and long overdue evolution of Career Technical Education.  Linked Learning is a comprehensive, pathways-based approach to learning in the world that creates a meaningful and mutually educative partnership between school and career by involving students in internships and working with schools to create programming that supports their experiences.  One of their mottos is, “Life comes to school.”

So relevance is playing a larger role in high school education.  And that makes math teachers nervous.

For many educators, many of whom are now in positions to affect high school curricula, math in high school was an interminable series of puzzles that neither had nor claimed to have relevance in the world outside of math class.  At best it was amusing.  At worst, dehumanizing.   But regardless of whether one liked it or not, it was unapologetically divested from the world outside.

“Solve for x,” we were told.

“X what?  What is x?” we all thought and some of us asked.

“No, no,” we were told.  “X isn’t something.  It isn’t anything.  Its a quantity of whatever.”

And I need to solve for it?  Even though it isn’t anything, doesn’t intend to be anything, has no basis in life or reality?  We aren’t talking about apples or oranges, not slices of pie or distances between stars.  We are not talking about anything identifiable or recognizable.  It is a pure abstraction.  Do I have that right?

For many that is a hard truth.  Add to that the fact that for most students the advanced topics in math will never be used and you can see the argument for math’s irrelevance in high school.

What do math teachers say?  I recently sat with a great group of inspired and inspiring colleagues, most of them math teachers, in a workshop that touched on these topics.  What is mathematics?  What is mathematical thinking?  What is the argument for math in high school?  The workshop put us into the shoes of students and walked us through a lesson designed to help us identify and recognize mathematical thinking in ourselves and our students.  The math challenge – or puzzle – was to figure out how many squares can be made with twelve straight lines.  And from there we went on to wonder and explore what we could understand about lines and squares.  Was there a relationship between the number of lines and the number of squares?  Could we generate an equation?

It was an engaging lesson, no question.  We enjoyed the challenge and it felt fun to do the math, work creatively in a small group of interested folks, and feel like we were figuring something out.  And when the question came up, “So, beyond the fun, what is the application for this in the world outside of math class?” things got a little dicey.

“Why isn’t fun enough of a justification?” was one response.

“Not everything in math has a real-world application,” came another.

“They are learning how to think.”

There was some genuine defensiveness in the room.  Also a great deal of compassion.  And I did feel some pity for the poor, recovering, misunderstanding English teacher for whom the deeper relevance of finding squares with lines remained elusive.  But we had been encouraged at this conference to “go hard on the content, easy on the people” so I persisted in spite of my better judgement and strong internal messaging that to back away slowly.

In the end, the workshop ended and I had the familiar feeling of being pitied for my ignorance.  As I began to scratch some feedback for the presenter on the back of a handout, I felt one of my table mates lean in.  I stopped writing and scanned my peripheral vision.  What was about to happen?  My eyes wandered up and met hers.  She was grinning at me.

What ensued was a wonderful and very helpful 45-minute conversation that went from real world utility of math to conferences to education to what we believe most about students and learning – and finally to three of the biggest concepts out there: truth, beauty, and goodness – three things that need no further justification.

The study of math, she proposed, has a grander relevance than simply utility.  We do math, she said, like we play piano.  Because it is beautiful.  Not because it is useful.  A simple, elegant solution to a problem is beautiful.  A relationship between numbers that proves true in all cases is beautiful.  Math, she said, is much more like art than tooth brushing.

And truly, for the first time, I got it.  Beauty, truth, and goodness – these are things I get and I look for them in all worthy endeavors.

So, what I understand now is that math does have a real-world relevance – it is beauty (and truth, maybe not goodness).  Beauty is relevant, in and of itself.  Like art.  And that, I think, is that much stronger argument in favor of math than the somethings-just-don’t-connect line.  Math teachers should stop saying that fun is enough of a justification for math.  It isn’t.  There is no other subject in high school or education at any level that is comfortable relying solely on fun as its reason for being.  Fun is wonderful – anyone who knows me knows that I go for fun at the expense of productivity too often.  But it is not enough to justify a high school curriculum.  And math teachers should stop saying that not all math needs a real world application.  It does.  To spend time doing it, it has to have relevance.  No question.

The challenge then is to recast math as relevant in grander and more subtle ways.  It is relevant not because you use it all the time.  Most people don’t.  Math is relevant because it is elegant truth.  Math is beautiful.

Competing Narratives: Interest-based learning vs. precise content

Here are two ends of a spectrum.  The first comes from the website of a California charter school group moving toward opening a new school.

By outlining the precise content that every child should learn in language arts and literature, history and geography, mathematics, science, music, and the visual arts, the Core Knowledge curriculum represents a first-of-its kind effort to identify the foundational knowledge every child needs to reach these goals–and to teach it, grade-by-grade, year-by-year, in a coherent, age-appropriate sequence. (1)

The second is from an older source, John Dewey and his seminal work, Experience and Education.

There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education with is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active co-operation of the pupil in his studying. (2)

So, there it is.  That is the debate many of us are having in high school education today.  I am reminded that it is an old debate – Dewey wrote the book in 1938.

The worthy question at the core of the debate is – Who decides what is worth learning?  Many teachers put themselves in the driver’s seat on this one – “I know what students need to learn,” they say, but never in quite those words.  Even so, the message is the same.

Whether it is a mission statement that claims to outline the precise content that every child should learn or a scope and sequence discussion at the department level that begins with the question, “What do we want our students to know and be able to do?”, students are not typically a part of the process – and I think Dewey would object.  Student input, he would say, is critical for real education – today we would say engaged education because engagement has become the gold standard.

How do we get engagement?  Involve students in their own learning.  Ask them what they want to learn.  Then structure the content of your course around their interests.

Here is 17 year old Nikhil Goyal, a senior at Soyosset High School in New York on the topic.  Whether you agree with choice in schooling or not, listen to him.  He is a student in the system and he is telling you what he wants to learn.  Does it sound that unreasonable?  Is he asking to squander his time?  He is asking to be an active participant in his education – and most students will ask the same.

If you care about engagement, if you believe in its worth in the learning process, it is hard to disagree with the notion that student voice is a powerful tool in leveraging buy in.  In other words, students should help determine what is worth learning if engagement is part of your equation.

But let’s be clear, if you are a teacher and you don’t care about engagement, then you don’t need student input.  Just decide what you are going to teach based on whatever metric is meaningful to you, and be sure you have a strong discipline system in place and a solid understanding of how coercion works – because you are going to need it to persuade students to do what they have not chosen to do.

It is true that students will comply to pursue goals that aren’t theirs if they are pushed hard enough, but it is a fraught tactic.  Why not ask them what they want to learn and then entice them deeper into learning with the fun and fulfillment of following their interests?

1.     http://www.northbayedu.org/academics.html
2.     Dewey, John. “the meaning of purpose.”Experience and education. 60th anniversary ed. West Lafayette, IN: Kappa Delta Pi, 1998. 77. Print.

Another Vote For a New Schooling

This article from an interesting site called Mind/Shift came to me through the network.  Nothing particularly new here if you are already in the choir, but Tina Barseghian offers a clear-eyed look at some of Madeline Levine’s ideas and a promising path to a better model for schooling. You might guess that I don’t think it goes far enough. We have to rethink the purpose of education in current times in order to know how to revise it. If the purpose has changed, then simply making the system better at doing what it always meant to do won’t do. It is also true that our best schools are already doing these things – not all to the same degree or with the same success – but the point is made: the pace of change in schools in the main is glacial.

The photo is by Elizabeth Albert.  The article by Tina Barseghian.


Student Internships & Real World Experience

A student came to me the other day.  She was in tears.  Something had just happened in Spanish class that really threw her.

“I have to drop Spanish,” she said.  “I can’t go back there.”

“Tell me what’s going on.”  I pushed a box of tissues within reach.

We talked at length.  We talked through what had happened that afternoon in class and how we would handle it.  And then our conversation turned to larger concerns and she told of me of her ongoing frustration.  She wasn’t learning what she wanted to learn and it hurt because she loves the language, but she felt that her time was being wasted in this advanced class that focused on literature and the technical aspects of the language.

“I don’t want to read science fiction in Spanish,” she explained.  “I want to speak it.  I want to speak Spanish to Spanish speaking people.  I want to be able to go to a Spanish speaking country and live there and meet the people.”

It was easy to feel her frustration with a curriculum that simply wasn’t meeting her needs, wasn’t igniting her passion for Spanish.  And yet, that’s what this level of Spanish was all about.  It wasn’t a problem with the class; it was just a bad match for her interests – and she was serious about her interests.

We talked through possibilities.  Could she stick it out?  Would it be different in a different class?  Could she take a different kind of Spanish class at a community college?

How about volunteering with a local social service non-profit in place of her Spanish class?  Her eyes lit up.

In the following few days we talked to many different people.  Her parents were excited, supportive, and nervous because what we were contemplating represented an atypical path through school.  College Counseling was not against it – the important thing was to be able to talk about it on a college application and to tell a compelling story about the decision to drop Spanish.  The Academic Office was doubtful because it was more or less unprecidented and our program is not set up to allow lots of students to do the same.  The Service Learning Coordinator was thrilled.

“Oh yeah,” she said.  “Four things come immediately to mind.”

My student, with the help of her parents, generated a list of interests.  How would she like to spend her time learning, and what did she want to get out of this experience?  Then, she and the Service Learning Coordinator came up with a list of eight possibilities.  Eight local organizations who were looking for volunteers.  Eight opportunities to use her Spanish to help people.  I was amazed, and we are still waiting to hear what comes of the contacts, but to think that a week ago she was in tears of frustration because of not learning what she felt was relevant and today she is looking forward to the possibility of volunteering with a Spanish speaking non profit is eye-opening.

I met with her late in the week for an update.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“I am nervous.  I don’t want this to be a bad decision.”

I tried to help her see that in this case she was in control, that whether this turned out to be a good decision or a bad one depended on her, her initiative, her drive, her approach, her follow though; it was up to her.  And I would be there to help.

The moment has stuck with me.  I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps for the first time, this student was faced with an unpredictable outcome.  It might work and it might not.  But the moment seemed real.  Neither she nor I knew what would happen, but we knew what it depended on.  That, too, is the live encounter.

The next morning, as my student was filling out a form, I overheard her talking to a friend.

“I heard you might be picking up an internship,” her friend said.  “That sounds so cool.  I’m so jealous.”

And then I started to think.

Finding One’s Way – A Teacher’s Intuition and the New Schooling

Some truths are born in the bones.   I mean you can’t get away from them.  You stray at times, temporarily convinced by specious reasoning that your intuition is unreliable – just a feeling and not a way of knowing – but the truth, your truth, the particular way in which all of your sensibilities come together to make sense of the world is always there.  And you know it when you feel it.  It comes back to you – or you stumble back upon it after being away – with a familiarity that feels like returning.

Much of my career in education has been spent contemplating the value of intuition.  In my practice I have weaved in and out of alignment with it, on and off the path, losing it and then finding it again when the time was right and forces – courage, invitation, autonomy, support – coalesced to make an opening wide enough for me to slip through.  A colleague of mine calls it finding the seam.  William Stafford writes there is a thread you follow.  Same idea, different words.

In teaching, there are forces and circumstances that make it difficult at times to follow your intuition and honor the truth that is carried in the bones.  And I understand them; I am not advocating anarchy in education or absolute autonomy.  It is true that as institutions schools have identity, direction, purpose, and values, and it is right that they pursue those.  To function well and with integrity, schools need to be able to hire and retain teachers who believe in and value the credo.  When there isn’t a mutually beneficial alignment of values between the individual and the institution, the individual should be let go.

What I am advocating is the habit of mind that assumes that people do not make negative decisions – that the fundamental endeavor of all people is to improve their condition, and that people perform at their best when the truth they carry in their bones is honored by the work they do and the life they live.

This idea has deep implications for professional development in schools and the for the way a school regards its teachers.  I have never met a teacher who came to work in the morning having decided to be “bad”, “ineffective”, or “not a team player”.  In fact, all teachers come to work in the morning hoping to honor the truth they carry.

That is not to say that all teachers are great or that no teacher should ever be fired, let go, or counseled out of the profession.  Quite the opposite.  If schools truly and deeply engage with the work of connecting teachers with the truth they carry and if they take a vested interest in helping teachers find their way in the institution’s transparent credo, then we would see far less conflict (Chicago teacher’s strike?), far greater alignment (Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap?), and far greater frequency of what we tend to call “great teachers.”

Because greatness, however we define it, is facilitated and nurtured when a one finds oneself at the confluence of purpose, ability, and belief.  It is about fit and alignment, self-knowledge and credo.  Sir Ken Robinson, in his clarifying book, The Element, says that your element is the place where the things you love to do and the things you are good at come together (Robinson 8).  It’s “the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion” (Robinson 21).

The only thing I would add to that is a sense of purpose, which I define as pursuit of a cause greater than the self.  And, of course, there are some teachers for whom the teaching profession is not a strong fit, but that is the case with any profession.  The point is, it is about fit.

Imagine the change in education if schools took it as a mission to connect teachers with their truth, to be transparent about their credo, and to explore  the alignment between the two.  Think of the implications for professional development, faculty-administration rapport, trust, collaboration, teamwork, innovation, and student learning.

I am a believer in 21st Century Skills for students, but I am a proponent of a new model of education for all, because we won’t change education simply by teaching different skills.  Everything has to be reworked – Teachers, Students, Curriculum, Learning, Purpose, Program, Outcome.  Let’s get to it.