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How Many Sacred Cows Does It Take to Sustain A Movement?

How do we transform the quality of teaching and learning in America?

Like a lot of people, I’ve been wrestling with that riddle for the bulk of my career. And this month, three separate events are making me wonder in a new way about how to bring about such a shift – and sustain such a movement.

The first two were meetings that represented parallel, powerful constituencies and ideas – an Imagination Summit hosted by the Lincoln Center Institute in New York City; and an Empathy in Action working group, hosted by Ashoka in Washington, DC. At each gathering, I heard stories and insights from some of the world’s most influential thinkers – from Sir Ken Robinson to Deepak Chopra to Kiran Bir Sethi. I heard compelling cases for helping our education system become more effective at ensuring that all children become empathetic, and develop the ability to think imaginatively, act creatively, and behave innovatively. And I left feeling impressed by the energy and the motivation that was driving each group to push its work forward.

In a few days, I’ll also be attending the Save Our Schools (SOS) March, a grassroots-led movement of teachers and parents from across the country that disagree with the Obama administration’s current reform path – and plan to peaceably assemble in DC to indicate their displeasure. Since I’ll also be covering the march for CNN, I’ve been reflecting on the goals of those private meetings, the goals of this public march, and the essential questions that must be answered for any movement to be successful: Who or what is the movement’s opponent? What is its core idea, and how can that idea be expressed as simply and compellingly as possible? And how can a complex network of individuals, organizations and alliances come together to forge a common agenda?

Our own history tells us just how possible, and difficult, it is to turn ideas and energy into transformational change. That’s because reforming a system requires not just the capacity to know your enemy and forge a compelling narrative, but also a systemic approach to the problem – an articulation of the whole. Too often, what happens instead is we lose sight of the whole out of our preference for a specific piece of the puzzle – I call it the sacred cow syndrome. Instead of a unified movement, we get a cacophony of parallel efforts. And instead of paradigm shifts, we get Groundhog Day.

If you’re a principal, you know this all too well. In addition to everything else you do, you have to regularly sort through the literature from a range of school-improvement approaches and programs that, to your eyes, seem to have similar objectives and research bases: is it a service-learning focus you want to adopt, or a character education program? Is civic education where you will choose to hang your hat, or will you double down on social and emotional learning?

To be certain, each of these field’s approaches to learning is distinct, and each field has its own unique advantages. Each would also clearly benefit from a larger movement that brings about a shift from our Industrial Age model of schooling to one that is suited for the Democratic Age. And yet for years the different leaders of these different fields have sought, genuinely, to unite their efforts – only to fall back, eventually, on their respective sacred cows.

Which returns us to the present. What will the future hold for these nascent Imagination and Empathy networks, and for this weekend’s DC protest? Since all three tribes talk of movement building, will one be able to craft a big-enough umbrella to unite the aspirations of the many? Will we develop the capacity to understand the whole? And is it possible to sustain a movement of sacred cows that, by definition, no one is willing to eat?

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What If Learning — Not Fighting — Were the Focus?

As accusations fly back and forth over the reported DC cheating scandal – the latest in a series of battles between America’s two dominant Edu-Tribes – I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we stopped spending so much time focusing on what is broken or who is to blame, and started focusing instead on how people learn, and how we can create better learning environments for everyone.

This week, as part of an effort to spur such a conversation, a coalition of individuals and organizations is doing just that — envisioning a movement of adults and young people in search of better places to work and learn, and highlighting powerful learning experiences to make a larger statement about how and when transformational learning occurs.

I am proud to be a part of the campaign, which is called Faces of Learning, and which aspires to help people understand we are all effective learners, with differing strengths and challenges. Kim Carter, executive director of the Q.E.D. Foundation, a non-profit organization that is a member of the coalition, explains: “We want to elevate four essential questions that are, alarmingly, almost completely absent from the current national conversation about school improvement: How do people learn? How do I learn? What does the ideal learning environment look like? And how can we create more of them?”

To help provide the answers people need, Faces of Learning is asking people to share personal stories of their most powerful learning experiences; attend and/or organize public events at which people think together about how to improve the local conditions in which people learn; and use a new interactive tool called the Learner Sketch, which invites users to explore their own strengths and challenges among the various mental processes that influence learning. Rather than just categorize the user as a certain “type” of learner, the Learner Sketch feedback actually suggests strategies users can try to help them become even more effective learners. Users can also explore what research is teaching us about how we learn, and find resources that help improve the overall learning conditions for children (and adults).

Ideally, of course, a campaign like this would be unnecessary. And yet, when one looks back at the last 15 months – a period in which school reform has been at the forefront of American life, from “Race to the Top” to Waiting for Superman to the endless coverage of Michelle Rhee or the union fight in Wisconsin – what becomes clear is that we haven’t been having a national debate about learning; we’ve been having a national debate about labor law. And while that issue is important, it is a dangerous stand-in for the true business of public education – helping young people learn how to use their minds well.

What if our efforts were squarely focused on the true goal of a high-quality education, instead of the hidden goal of a well-funded few?

What if each of us could identify our own strengths and weaknesses as a learner?

What if each of us had the chance to discover – and contribute – our full worth and potential to the world?

What if all of us came to both expect and demand high-quality learning environments throughout our lives?

It’s a great and worthy vision. And before any of those things can happen, we all need to work together to see more clearly what powerful learning actually looks like — and requires.

Join our efforts – and share your voice – at www.facesoflearning.net.

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How to Start a Movement

Find out all you need to know (well, maybe not all, but . . .) from this 3 minute video, courtesy of a TED talk by Derek Sivers.

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