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 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.

Feb 28

School Should Be More Than This

One of the things that drives me crazy about the way we talk about school in this country is how much so many people are willing to settle for “Do no harm” when it comes to their child’s school. Even teachers struggle with this problem with their own children. When I speak to groups of teachers, I often ask the teacher-parents in the room this question – “How many of you have – at that moment of separation from your child in the morning – have thought about their school, ‘Please don’t screw them up too much today?'”

It’s scary how many teachers raise their hands.

School doesn’t have to be whiz-bang fun every day. Learning is hard work, and often times meaningful learning experiences are really hard when one is in the middle of the struggle. So this post isn’t about calling for school to be all sunshine and roses all the time – I’d worry about that too.

But what I worry about is how much school is about anything but meaningful learning experiences. How many teachers in America would reward the student who found a way to demonstrate a novel way to he learning they had done rather than just follow the directions? How many schools actively encourage students to seek out learning experiences beyond worksheets and checklists and tests as a matter of common practice? How many schools justify bad pedagogical practice by saying, “I’m just preparing you for [middle school / high school / college / the world of work?]” How many schools move to an authoritarian response to students as a matter of course, often criminalizing non-criminal behavior?

And yes, schools are under siege right now. Budget cuts, unfunded mandates, the ever-shifting sands of new standards, new tests, new policies are all making it harder, not easier, to co-create profound learning experiences for and with our kids. And when that is combined with the tired pedagogy that already exists in too many places, the result is a toxic combination that does much to quell any joy of learning for kids.

We have to do to better. We can do better. Schools can be vigorously active places where students and teachers push each other to be better today than we were yesterday. Schools can be places our students want to be. Schools can be places where kids learn that they are capable of more than they thought possible.

We really should accept nothing less.