Nov 29

Tourism of Our Ideas

 

img_4311So I’ve been lucky enough to spend a few days in Oslo, Norway, and when I’m not at the SETT conference, I’ve been able to spend some time seeing Oslo. I was talking to one of the conference attendees, and I’ve told him my plans for what I’m going to see, and his answer was, “Well, you’re seeing all the major things to see in Oslo!” But, of course, I’m not. And it’d be ridiculous to assume that I am anything but a tourist here – getting the superficial notion of Oslo with, perhaps, because I’m making the real attempt to watch and listen, a fleeting glimpse of what is really here for the people who know it and live it. That’s just what it means to be a tourist. If I really fell in love with Oslo and wanted to find a way to know it in a real way, I’d find a way to immerse myself. I’d look for a visiting professorship and move here for a year. I’d find a way to live this place in a much more real way, beyond the city square.

img_4223 I was thinking about this idea as I stood on the Oslo Opera House and looked out over the city — and I was struck by the thought that, in education, we too often encourage tourism of the mind. With three hour workshops for teachers to implement complex pedagogical shifts or conference sessions that start, “Everything you need to know about…” or – on a perhaps more dangerous level – fast-track programs toward teacher or principal certifications, we encourage tourism of these ideas, not deep understanding, and then we wonder why implementation so often lags or why – to make the metaphor complete – implementation seems so superficial, so… touristy.

For us to truly innovate and find ways to break down the very real, very entrenched notion of school that exists for too many students, we have to be more than tourists of our ideas. We have to engage in deep study. We have to immerse ourselves.

This isn’t to say, by the way, that the three hour workshop or the conference doesn’t have its use – it does. But it should be a starting point, not an end point. It should be a deepening or a framing of any idea, not the end all and be all. The pedagogies we will need will require us to be scholar-activist teachers. We have to be educators who understand the difference between being the tourist of an idea and the master of it. American education has been plagued by tourist reform — the idea the we can read an article rather than a book, the new program we can learn all about in a three hour workshop, rather than fully and intentionally plan for change. And over and over again, we are shocked when the ideas don’t fully take hold.

It is borderline criminal that we waste that kind of time.

Because whether it is inquiry-driven teaching, restorative practices, project-based learning or any other idea that we may want to leverage to transform our schools and our classrooms, we have to take the time to truly immerse ourselves in that idea if we expect to see the changes be sustained, real and powerful. Otherwise we will be tripped up by the first time it gets hard or goes wrong or just surprises us. We have to be more thoughtful in our embrace of new ideas so that we have a better understanding of what is lost and what is gained. We have to be more deliberate about the structures we set up when we evolve our schools so that innovations are sustainable. We have to be willing to take the time to invest deeply, so that we have a strong sense of the changes that students and teachers will have to make as they take on new ideas as well.

In short – we must be thoughtful, intentional and deeply knowledgable as we seek to transform our schools. We have to be residents of our ideas, not tourists. For me, it is the only path to change.

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Mar 27

Design for the Best Outcome

Years ago, when I was a teacher in New York City, there was a memo that came from Central Office that stated a new policy that made it against policy for teachers and administrators to hug students. I remember my boss’ reaction to it – no one was going to stop her from hugging her students. But you can imagine what happened to create that memo. There was probably a spate of incidents involving teachers being grossly inappropriate with students, and as such, the Central Office sought to solve that problem with a policy that drew a harsh, bright line. The problem is that the policy also outlawed a behavior that thousands of caring educators engaged in every day that made the work of schools a more human and humane and caring endeavor.

 

This kind of policy move is hardly unique to New York City. It exists in schools and districts all over the country. It is at the root of textbook companies who market products to schools that require almost no imagination or thought on the part of teachers. It is at the root of the filtering software and technology policies in many districts that ensure that the internet that kids experience in school has little to no relevance to the way people interact with technology out of school. And it is generally responsible for restrictive cultures in schools where a bland and uncaring education rules the day over any notion of innovative or passionate learning might take place.

And as an administrator, I can speak to the seductiveness of such thinking. It’s easy to think that with the right policy… the right rule… we can keep our schools safe and productive and neat. But that’s not what learning needs to be. When I was in graduate school, studying for my principal certification, I was lucky enough to study under Tom Sobol who – more succinctly than I am doing now – explained the problem with this line of thinking perfectly:

You can regulate the worst abuses out of a system, but you can never regulate goodness or excellence, because goodness and excellence lie within the hearts and minds of the people within the system.

And that’s it. That idea should be at the heart of our design principles when we think about schools and their systems.

This is at the heart of the idea of designing human systems. There’s no question that we need systems and structures in schools, but we need systems and structures that are aspirational, dynamic and deeply, deeply human. A well-structured human system is one that enables good people of honest intent to learn how to do great work with students more quickly, more powerfully than if the system did not exist.

This doesn’t negate that there are regulations that govern our behavior in schools. Those do exist for a reason – to, as Prof. Sobol said – to prevent the worst abuses. That is why union contracts mandate how many minutes teachers can teach in a row, and that’s why the procurement manuals of most districts are thicker than many textbooks. We have to keep people -kids and adults – safe, and we have to make sure that schools do not have financial abuse. Those are real and serious things.

But we need the other kinds of systems as well – the ones that help us be better together. And it’s something school administrators should think about every time they sit down with leadership teams to create policy:

“Am I doing this because I’m afraid of the worst thing, or am I doing this because I want to make it more possible to create amazing things?”

And we should look to be aspirational in our policies, procedures and systems as often as we can — after all, when the systems and structures that we create are aspirational, then our classrooms and the messages we send to the children inside of them will be aspirational as well.

Mar 22

Schools Are Fragile

There are no shortage of ideas about how to improve schools. Zac and I wrote a book filled with them. And every year, principals and teachers come together to try to figure out how to make their schools better places – writing school improvement plans, creating sub-committees, spending time trying to make things better. It is the language of our national discussion around education – how do we fix our schools?

But there’s another thing we need to look at – throughout the last twenty or thirty years, whether it is the Gates small schools initiative, the charter movement, or any number of initiatives like the Boston Pilot schools or the New York City iZone – we’ve started thousands of schools in this country… and most of them started with incredible promise and idealism and energy, and not enough of them stayed that way.

There are many reasons for that – budget cuts, superintendency changes, leadership change, mission drift and more – and what that shows is how real regression to the mean is in education. It is the thing that we have to think about as we look to make schools better places — how will we sustain the changes we make? How will we sustain innovative ideas — or even just the best old-fashioned ideas.

A long time ago, when I was starting SLA, someone told me that leaders either had start-up energy or sustaining energy, but most people didn’t have both. I didn’t want to be a short-time founder. I wanted to be at SLA for a long, long time – and I still do. But to do that, we had to think about fragility. How were we going to nurture SLA after we’d built it? How would we keep working to make it the best version of itself while also being careful not to work people too hard, take on ideas and concepts that would pull us away from our core mission, and of course, navigate the changing winds around us. I didn’t realize that we were also going to have to get through one of the worst crises in educational history, too, but there we were.

And SLA is celebrating its ten year anniversary this year. If the ten years of our little school has taught me anything is that we have to think as deeply about sustainability as we do about start-up. We have to recognize that doing something different, something that pushes against the dominant narrative, requires eternal vigilance. There’s never the moment you can relax and think, “Whew… we’ve arrived.” Every year brings a new 9th grade class. Every year brings new challenges. And every year, you have to work to maintain what you’ve built – while always trying to figure out how to make it better too.

Because schools are fragile – no matter how strong we build them, we have to always remember that they will take just as much energy to keep them strong.