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To What Do We Owe Our Fidelity?

Today was one of those magical work days — not so much because it was chaotic and crowded (it was), but because it was jam packed with interesting people and conversations. It began with University of Gloucestershire professor Philip Woods (an expert on democratic leadership and school governance); it ended with the fabulous Traci Fenton of WorldBLU, an organization that is identifying, and helping to create, democratic business cultures around the globe; and it featured a remarkable mid-afternoon tea with Sir Ken Robinson — yes, that Sir Ken Robinson — who is writing a new book and imagining lots of new and powerful ways to connect people to their passions.

Through all these conversations and exchanges, I’ve been reflecting on a question I’d never thought of quite so explicitly before. It surfaced during my morning conversation with Professor Woods: “In the work that we do, to what do we owe our greatest fidelity?”

I think this question gets at the heart with the issue I have with both extremes of the current education reform landscape.

On one side is the old guard, for who I think the answer to the question would be either “the children” or “democratic learning.” I think both of these are the wrong answers, but for different reasons. Regarding the idea of our fidelity being owed to “the children” — well, of course, but what good does the answer do you except allow you to feel self-righteous, because the answer doesn’t tell you anything about where to start or how to go about the work itself. And I don’t think our primary fidelity is owed to “democratic learning” either — because although it’s hugely important, it’s also often (mis)interpreted primarily as a set of structures, and strategy should always precede structure if you want a finely tuned organization.

Conversely, I think the new guard would say they owe fidelity to the concepts of “achievement” and/or “accountability.” These, too, are the wrong words, and for more easily identifiable reasons. Achievement has come to basically mean basic-skills standardized reading and math scores. How could we owe our greatest loyalty to those, unless our sole purpose is to collect some personal bonus at the end of the year (hey, wait a minute). And the idea of accountability is a little too punitive and unimaginative as a superordinate goal. We can do better.

What was reaffirmed to me this morning, and throughout the day, is how I believe we must answer the question — we owe our greatest fidelity to learning, and to helping people create the optimal environments in which it can occur.

Being clear on what we’re most loyal to ensures that, strategically, operationally, organizationally, we will ask the question that gets to the heart of what matters most: Will ______ help our students learn how to use their minds well? If yes, do it. If not, don’t. Best of all, a fidelity to learning doesn’t preclude other priorities. Our focus will still be on the children. Our community will still create multiple opportunities for democratic decision-making (it’s a great way to help people learn, after all). Our efforts will still be on measuring how well or poorly we’re helping students achieve (in the fullest sense of that word). And our intentions will still be to hold ourselves and each other accountable to what we aim to do together. But it’s only by setting our narrowest focus on the true bulls’ eye — on learning, and on the core conditions required to support and nurture it — that we can create the greatest likelihood of success.


Draft Intro for Book of Learning Stories

For anyone interested in learning a bit more about what the book will look like . . .


This is a book of different people’s stories.

Some are about teachers who changed their students’ lives. Some describe the moment when a person first discovered how to ask the right questions, or found what they were most passionate about.  Others are about making art, or going on a challenging hike, or studying everything from Morse code to Macbeth to Kung Fu. But all of the stories in this collection are about one central thing – learning, and what it feels like to discover one’s purpose, passion, and capacity for greatness.

The 50 stories gathered here, along with hundreds of others, were submitted as part of the Rethink Learning Now campaign, a national grassroots effort to change the tenor of our national conversation about schooling by shifting it from a culture of testing, in which we overvalue basic-skills reading and math scores and undervalue just about everything else, to a culture of learning, in which we restore our collective focus on the core conditions of a powerful learning environment, and work backwards from there to decide how best to evaluate and improve our schools, our educators, and the progress of our nation’s schoolchildren.

In sharing their stories, our authors – who range from students to social workers to the Secretary of Education himself – were responding to one of two simple prompts:

  1. What was your most powerful personal experience in a learning community – regardless of whether that experience took place inside or outside of school?
  2. Who was your most effective teacher, and what was it about that person that made him or her so effective?

The purpose in asking these questions was twofold: First, to give people an opportunity to reflect on what they already know to be true about powerful learning and teaching – rather than tell them what some “expert” thinks it is; and second, to use the insights of these stories to help people see more clearly what a powerful learning environment actually looks like – and what it requires.

Based on those insights, the stories in this book are divided into five sections – challenging, engaging, supportive, relevant and experiential. As you read them, imagine how the insights they provide might be used to strengthen the learning cultures of the schools in your neighborhood. And rather than viewing each story as a “best practice” that should be replicated and scaled up, think instead of how these authors’ collective wisdom clarifies a “best question” we should ask whenever we want to improve our schools: “How can we best support educators in their work to create schools that are more challenging, engaging, supportive, relevant and experiential?”

Now, more than ever, our country needs these sorts of schools. Unlike any other pillar of our society, public education is the only institution that reaches 90% of every new generation, is governed by public authority, and was founded with the explicit mission of preparing young people to be thoughtful and active participants in a democratic society. And as these stories illuminate, the business of improving our schools doesn’t need to be a tiresome, desperate, and futile task; it can be a collaborative, risky, and deeply fulfilling journey that results in us better understanding ourselves – and each other.

So please, enjoy the stories that follow. Consider which of the recommendations we provide might be worth putting into action in your community. And take the time to share your own story, and read the stories of hundreds of other fellow citizens, at rethinklearningnow.com.


Book of Learning Stories — Deadline Nears

I’m spending every minute this week finalizing the manuscript that will stitch together 50 people’s stories about powerful teaching and learning (Jossey-Bass, Spring 2011 release).

Already, there are powerful voices and insights in the mix — from everyday citizens to U.S. Senators to the Secretary of Education himself. And although we already have several hundred stories to work with — and far more than 50 that are worthy of being in the book — you still have one week to share your own experience and have it be considered for publication. Just visit rethinklearningnow.com/stories/submit and tell us about your experience, and what it is that made it so worthwhile.



Washington Post Review of American Schools

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post published a nice review of American Schools today. Check it out at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/civics-education/how-to-build-real-american-sch.html.


Good Review of American Schools

The prolific Ken Bernstein, aka “Teacher Ken,” just reviewed my book for Teacher Magazine. See what he has to say here.


USA Today Covers Launch of Rethink Learning Now

Greg Toppo of the USA Today covered today’s launch of the Rethink Learning Now campaign. See what he had to say.


Our Children Deserve Democratic Schools

A few years ago, a reporter in Columbia, South Carolina asked local elementary school children why America celebrates the Fourth of July.

Most of the answers were predictably personal. To eat hot dogs, said one boy. To watch fireworks, a girl answered. Another child thought we all celebrated the Fourth of July because it was his brother’s birthday.

One student, a fifth grader from Nursery Road Elementary School named Vante Lee, gave a different answer. “We celebrate the 4th of July,” he said, “because we celebrate our freedom and the chance to make our own decisions.”

Click here to keep reading.


We’re Pursuing the Wrong Set of Standards

With $100 billion to spend in the next two years, the Obama administration means business when it talks about reshaping the public education system. Why, then, is it ignoring some of the business community’s best insights when it comes to core questions of how to spark systems change?

There’s a disconnect between what the administration is promising – a set of voluntary national content standards – and what we the people will receive – a standardization of the public school system.

Click here to keep reading.

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