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.