Did you get the memo? Apparently, introspection is out, and outrospection is in.
Actually, as philosopher Roman Krznaric explains in this cool new RSA Animate video, what’s really in is empathy, and what’s really required is a systemic effort to drive social change by stepping outside ourselves. See for yourself — and see what you think.
It was fifteen years ago, but I still remember the first time I saw Blue Man Group. Watching those bald blue aliens discover how to eat a Twinkie, or investigate the queasy vibrations of a giant Jello cake, or climb the walls of the theater to learn more about the people who were sitting there – well, anyone who’s seen the show knows there’s nothing quite like it.
Since that time, Blue Man Group has become an international phenomenon, and an unlikely aesthetic portal through which to vicariously experience the wonders of inquiry, discovery and mischief. And now, those same core ingredients are at the heart of a remarkable new school in New York City – a school I got to visit and see through the eyes of two of its founders, “Blue Man” Matt Goldman and his wife, Renee Rolleri.
“Blue Man Group started in the 1980s as this outrageous idea,” Matt explained, shortly after we entered the school’s kinetic entry hall on a recent Friday morning and placed our shoes amidst a beehive of cardboard storage tubes lining the walls. “Our goal was to inspire creativity in our audiences and ourselves. We wanted to speak ‘up’ to the intelligence of our audience members while reaching ‘in’ to their childlike innocence. We wanted to create a place where people continually learn and grow and treat each other with just a little more consideration than we typically find in the ‘real world.’ And we wanted to have fun doing it.”
By the mid-2000s, their oddball idea now a full-fledged, flowering franchise, Matt, fellow founding Blue Men Phil Stanton and Chris Wink, and their wives formed a parent-run playgroup. Soon thereafter, they realized the same principles that formed the foundation for a successful theatrical performance could also be at the center of a successful school. “Better still,” Renee added, “those principles might even help spur a re-imagining of education for a new era, and a restoration of some of what this recent era of test-driven accountability has cast aside.”
The school’s mission statement spells out the core ingredients such a re-imagining will require: “cultivating creative, joyful and compassionate inquirers who use courageous and innovative thinking to build a harmonious and sustainable world.” And all of these characteristics are visibly on display for anyone who visits the school’s building on Water Street, formerly the Seamen’s Church Institute, near the southern tip of Manhattan. Student artwork is ubiquitous, from paintings to sculptures to support beams that have been turned into trees. Every floor has a common space that the children are responsible for decorating. A construction lab features a treasure chest of wooden blocks of all sizes, and everyone likes to spend time in the “wonder room” – a black-lighted, fully padded playspace with a disco floor – yes, a disco floor. Otherwise-drab hallways are brought to life with pastel colors, feathers, and fabric. And each classroom is anchored by adults who are deeply skilled in progressive teaching practices that date back more than one hundred years.
In that sense, aside from its distinctive decorative flourishes, much of what the Blue School does is not new, and does not claim to be. After all, John Dewey knew a thing or two about how people learn, and as Renee pointed out, “Dewey’s Lab School was both a destination for learning and a base camp for cultivating culture. That’s what we want here as well.”
However, two components of the Blue School’s program are new – groundbreaking, even – and the rest of us would be wise to take notice.
The first is the school’s educational framework, which takes its organizing principles directly from the personality profile of the Blue Man himself. “When we were designing the show,” Matt explained, “we imagined the characters seeing and interacting with the world like children do. The Blue Man continually explores and researches the world around him. So we imagined him doing so via six different lenses:
The Group Member – the lens of collaboration, connection, and global citizenship
The Scientist – the lens of curiosity, critical thinking, experimentation and analysis
The Hero – the lens of perseverance, commitment and leadership
The Trickster – the lens of provocation, innovation, and play
The Artist – the lens of imagination, instinct and creative expression
The Innocent – the lens of emotional awareness and mindfulness
“These six lenses are mindsets or approaches children, teachers, and others in our community can assume to explore work, academic areas, an environment, and materials,” Matt shared while we watched a cluster of four-year-olds make mud in their airy, light-filled classroom. “We want to teach our kids how to surf in all of those different energies. And we want to help them develop critical life skills and practices along the way.”
An educational framework organized around archetypal personalities, each of which is mapped to different core attributes that combine to make up a creative, joyful and compassionate person? I have never seen another school organized in such a way, and the elegance of the design extends to which lenses are likely to be most compatible with which components of the curriculum (which, befitting a progressive school, is negotiated between children and adults, and which therefore largely unfolds in real time based on expressed student interests). This is what makes Renee proudest. “We’re still learning, but so far we’ve been able to create a healthy, warm, safe, nurturing environment where community is paramount and where children’s interactions between classes are just as important as what happens during classes. It’s the kind of educational program I wish I’d had for myself and which we all dreamed we’d have for our children – a place where people feel like there is genuinely no better place to learn and to grow.”
What makes the Blue School’s framework even more exciting is its commitment to explicitly link everything it does to the latest research about how the brain works, and about how people learn. As Renee explained, “we know there is a broad range of expectations within each age group and that the rate of development varies greatly between children. This is why we believe age doesn’t matter nearly as much as sequence. There are clear developmental progressions that children experience – physically, cognitively, emotionally, and linguistically – and no one experiences any of them at quite the same pace. Why, then, do we continue to educate children in a linear, grade-by-grade process, when the research clearly tells us that this is not how people learn?”
Lindsey Russo, the school’s director of curriculum documentation and research, agrees. “Schools were not applying this new neurological science out there to how we teach children,” she said in a recent article profiling the school in the New York Times. “Our aim is to take those research tools and adapt them to what we do in the school.”
Consequently, children at the Blue School learn directly about the different regions of their brains, and what thoughts and behaviors they control. Adults speak daily about the importance of meta-cognition and helping children develop “supported autonomy.” And school leaders seek advice and feedback from leading scholars like UCLA neuro-psychiatrist Dan Siegel and NeuroLeadership Institute co-founder David Rock.
“Teaching and learning are reciprocal processes that depend upon and affect one another,” Renee said, smiling, as a phalanx of strollers and parents surrounded her. “We just hope our school can be one of the places to help us understand, as a country, how to support those processes in ways that help as many people as possible unleash their wildest, most beautiful selves on the world we all share.”
On a crisp fall morning in the nation’s capital, 3rd grade teacher Rebecca Lebowitz gathered her 29 public school students on their familiar giant multicolored carpet, and reminded them how to make sense of the characters whose worlds they would soon enter during independent reading time.
“What are the four things we want to look for when we meet a new character?” Ms. Lebowitz asked from her chair at the foot of the rug. Several hands shot up before nine-year-old Monica spoke confidently over the steady hum of the classroom’s antiquated radiator. “We want to pay attention to what they do, what they say, how they feel, and what their body language tells us.” “That’s right,” her teacher said cheerily. “When we look for those four things, we have a much better sense of who a person really is.”
As the calendar shifts to the eleventh month of 2011 – a year of near-constant revolution and upheaval, from the Arab Spring to the Wisconsin statehouse to the global effort to Occupy Wall Street – what might the rest of us learn from students like Monica? If, in short, we were as smart as a third-grader, what would we observe about the character of this year’s global protests, and what might we decide to do next?
1. It is not about “democracy” – As much as we glorify and value the principles and practices of our democratic system of government, it’s not democracy per se that is at the root of this unleashed global yearning. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently pointed out, what motivated the protesters in Tahrir Square – and what most animates those who continue to brave the wintry weather in public squares around the world – is a deeper quest for what lies at the root of a genuinely democratic society: justice.
The people protesting around the world are not just looking to be seen; they’re demanding to be heard. And what they’re saying is that from Egypt to the United States, essential social contracts have been broken – contracts that require at least a modicum of fairness and balance. If anything, therefore, these movements are about highlighting an uncomfortable truth: merely having a democracy does not guarantee a just society, and the tendencies of democracy and capitalism, left untended, tend to flow in different directions.
2. It is about unsustainable social orders – Across the Middle East, citizens have been risking their lives for months to protest the injustice of their daily lives. And yet the absence of social justice is a cancer that has already spread well beyond the borders of the Arab world. According to a recent analysis of the 31 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), nearly 11% of all people in OECD countries live in poverty. Worse still, 22% of American children are affected by poverty, yet the United States spends only 0.33% of its GDP on pre-primary education.
When these data are combined with other indicators like income inequality, access to health care, and the percentage of elderly citizens living in poverty, the United States gets a social justice rating that trails all but four of the OECD’s 31 countries. Add to that the now-well-known fact that the top 1% of Americans now control 40% of the total wealth, and you have an unsustainable social system, plain and simple. Clearly, people are angry, and they’re not going to take it anymore.
3. It does require a reboot of public education – History has shown us that to sustain a movement for transformational social change, anger is both necessary and insufficient. To sustain our energy, we are best fueled by an empathetic regard for the needs of others, not just our own. As Gandhi put it, “I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion.”
If what we seek, then, is a more sustainable and just social order, how should we recalibrate our public schools – the institutions most responsible for equipping children with the skills and self-confidence they need to become effective and justice-oriented change agents as adults?
We might start by evaluating each other the same way Ms. Lebowitz’s students evaluate new characters in a book. To fulfill the egalitarian vision of 2011, children must grow up in learning environments that are sensitive not just to what they do and say, but also to how they feel and what their body language tells us about the larger world they inhabit. This, too, is a central insight of those who study systemic change. “We need to learn to attend to both dimensions simultaneously,” says M.I.T management professor Otto Scharmer. “What we say, see, and do (our visible realm), and the inner place from which we operate (the invisible realm, in which our sources of attention reside and from which they operate).”
Recent events have underscored just how essential it is to acknowledge our global interdependence; after all, it was the financial subterfuge of the few that affected the personal wellbeing of the many. That’s why a healthy democracy is more than just policies and practices – and a healthy school is more than just test scores and teacher policies. That’s why the American activists of tomorrow need more than just the occasional lesson about Gandhi or King; they need consistent opportunities to actively apply their own developing compassion for others in the service of creating a better world. And that’s why students like Monica need to grow up in a society willing to heed the rising voices of the protesters and recommit to our nation’s founding promise: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice.”
That’s the sustaining vision of an equitable society. Now it’s time for a mission capable of fulfilling it.
It’s not even Noon, and nine-year-old Harvey is already back on the floor.
His three tablemates, their efforts at independent reading on hold, watch and wait for Ms. Serber to arrive and restore order. Harvey’s pear-shaped body writhes on the floor, animated by neither malice nor mischief. He chews absent-mindedly on his silver necklace and gazes at the ceiling until she arrives.
“Let’s get up and get back into it,” Ms. Serber implores, her hand gently rubbing his back to coax him up to the table. After a few minutes, Harvey picks his book back up, and Ms. Serber resumes scanning the faces of her other twenty-eight 3rd graders to assess their needs. Mid-morning light cuts across her eighty-year-old classroom from the large windows that line the west wall, casting strips of shadow on the homemade plates to which each child attaches a clothespin to register his or her daily mood: sad, angry, worried, frustrated, frightened, excited, bored, happy. This morning – most mornings – most pins clasp the same plate: sleepy.
Nearby, a reed-thin boy named Elliott keeps working. Pale and quiet, his hair still bearing the shape of last night’s sleep, Elliott is an avid reader; this summer alone, he finished more than twenty books, from The Hobbit to The Trumpet of the Swan. Ms. Serber observes him working quietly, and then transfers her attention to a different table where her presence is more sorely needed.
Elliott’s reading list is among the many things displayed proudly on the back wall of room 121, where each student has identified what he or she hopes to learn about in third grade. Some of the preferences are predictable: Harvey, for example, wants to “lrn abto sharks”; others wish “to learn about weather systems,” or “go to the Baltimore museum and see the dolfin show.” Taken together, the children’s goals reflect just how varied their levels of engagement and readiness are. One student outlines an admirable goal with nearly unintelligible spelling: “I hope to lun to slpel wrs because a m ging to go te colejig.” Another merely outlines something unintelligible. “Matlattrusala is big. You like Matlatirusla.”
At 12:30pm, Serber and her co-teacher, Ms. Creagh – whose shared first name has led them to be known as “The Two Sarahs” – get their first break in five hours. In that time, they’ve taught the students about reading the date and time; reading content for mood and rhythm; differentiating between fiction and non-fiction; writing reflectively and creatively; sounding out phonics; practicing addition and subtraction; and solving mathematical word problems. As their students head for the lunchroom and descend the school’s weathered marble stairs in a winding line of spasmodic energy, their teachers take their first bathroom break, unpack their homemade lunches, and use the quiet time to fine-tune their afternoon lessons.
A few miles away, at a different school, Cassie Hurst is contemplating her own classroom’s eclectic set of needs. A first-year kindergarten teacher in a first-year charter school, Cassie is tall, slender and kinetic. When she speaks, whether it’s to a five-year-old or an adult, she uses her long limbs expressively – and often – to animate her words. Her intelligent eyes jump out from behind her black Jill Stuart glasses.
The school year is barely a month old, yet Cassie already feels energized professionally – and exhausted personally. “I think we’re doing a really good job of reaching different kids and differentiating our instruction,” she explained on a sunny October afternoon. “At the same time, I’m worn out. I hadn’t expected to feel this strained this early in the year. But I’m with my kids every day from 8:30 to 3:30, without any breaks; that’s a long time to be “on” every day. And the needs of my kids are so varied. For example, a lot of our students came to us from the same play-based preschool; they are the sweetest boys, but they didn’t spend a lot of time on academics so they don’t know their letters at all. Then there are other kids who bring with them such complicated family and emotional issues. We assess everyone every four weeks to make sure we’re keeping track of their progress, and we’re grouping kids by ability in different “learning teams” within each classroom – but even within those groups, the highest-achieving kids have such different strengths and weaknesses, and for so many reasons, and the same is true for the lowest-achieving ones. It’s a lot, and it’s a constant challenge, and I work in a team of three. Thinking about trying to do that work on my own gives me chills at night. I just don’t think it would be possible.”
* * *
Is it possible? Can one, two or even three teachers in a classroom of twenty to thirty children not just diagnose the needs of each child, but also meet those needs, consistently and measurably?
In theory, such a goal has always directed America’s efforts to improve its public schools; after all, the first major federal legislation affecting public education was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s equity-oriented “War on Poverty.” But the goal was never explicitly stated – and incentivized – until 2002, when the 107th U.S. Congress rechristened Johnson’s legislation as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, and President George W. Bush heralded the dawn of “a new time in public education in our country. As of this hour,” he said, just before signing the bill at a public high school in Ohio, “America’s schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results.”
Under Bush’s new path, schools receiving federal funding were now required to annually test every child in certain grades in both reading and math. The students’ scores would be broken down and reported by subgroups – both as a way to highlight the progress of historically under-served groups of children, and to ensure that no single group’s performance could be concealed amidst a single, all-encompassing number. “The story of children being just shuffled through the system is one of the saddest stories of America,” said Bush. “The first step to making sure that a child is not shuffled through is to test that child as to whether or not he or she can read and write, or add and subtract . . . We need to know whether or not children have got the basic education . . . And now it’s up to you, the local citizens of our great land, the compassionate, decent citizens of America, to stand up and demand high standards, and to demand that no child – not one single child in America – is left behind.”
A decade after its passage, President Barack Obama and members of the 112th Congress were aggressively pursuing a re-write of NCLB before the end of the year – and opinions remained split about whether it had been more helpful or hurtful to American schools. On one side, critics decry that the bill’s narrow focus on reading and math scores has had the unintended effects of squeezing other subjects out of the curriculum, and stifling the creative capacity of teachers to engage their kids in different ways. On the other side, advocates celebrate the ways NCLB has forced America to publicly confront just how poorly some students have been served in the past. No Child Left Behind shone a data-drenched light on the actual academic differences between kids, they argue, and sunshine is a powerful disinfectant with the potential to highlight the most necessary reforms.
Across the same general time frame, an equally seismic policy shift had occurred: the virtual disappearance of “tracking” – or the process of assigning students to classes based on categorizations of their perceived academic potential. In its place, today’s teachers are increasingly expected to “differentiate” their lessons – and not merely to each class, but to each child, every day, all year.
By the start of the 2011-2012 school year, this constellation of forces – the dawn of high-stakes testing, the death of tracking, and the desirability of differentiated instruction – had resulted in a perfect storm of reform that had dramatically recast the daily experiences and expectations of teachers like Cassie and the Two Sarahs. And once again, education experts remained split over whether the forces at play were ultimately for the better.
“We are shortchanging America’s brightest students,” argues education scholar Frederick Hess, “and we’re doing it reflexively and furtively. A big part of the problem is our desire to duck hard choices when it comes to kids and schooling. Differentiated instruction — the notion that any teacher can simultaneously instruct children of wildly different levels of ability in a single classroom — is appealing precisely because it seemingly allows us to avoid having to decide where to focus finite time, energy and resources. Truth is, few teachers have the extraordinary skill and stamina to constantly fine-tune instruction to the needs of 20- or 30-odd students, six hours a day, 180 days a year. What happens instead is that teachers tend to focus on the middle of the pack. Or, more typically of late, on the least proficient students.
“Focusing on the neediest students, even at the expense of their peers, is not unreasonable,” Hess explains. “After all, we can’t do everything. But self-interest and a proper respect for all children demand that we wrestle with such decisions and pay more than lip service to the needs of advanced students.”
Carol Ann Tomlinson, a nationally-known expert on issues of differentiation, defines the core issue differently: “Is the primary goal a separate room for students with particular needs, or should our primary goal be high-quality learning experiences wherever a student is taught? The range of students in schools indicates the need for a range of services. Since most students have always received most of their instruction in general education classrooms, it’s quite important that differentiation in that setting be robust. There are some very bright students whose academic needs are quite well addressed in some “regular” classrooms, some who require extended instruction in a specific subject, some whose need for challenge suggests specialized instruction in all content areas — perhaps even outside the student’s school. Effective differentiation would serve the student in each of those situations.”
* * *
Of course, there are theoretical conversations about school reform that take place at 30,000 feet. And then there’s the daily reality teachers must experience and negotiate on the ground.
One afternoon after school, over the din of the few remaining students’ voices still bouncing off the room’s ten-foot-high brick walls, the Two Sarahs pause to reflect on the question, and their work.
Sarah Serber speaks first. Her face is expressive and illustrative – the sort of visage her students rely on to gauge how she feels at any given time. Small and compact, Serber has the gait of a gymnast, more powerful than delicate: one imagines her approaching a pommel horse like the young Mary Lou Retton – focused, confident, fearless. “I don’t think it would be possible for me not to teach in this way,” she says. “Before, in my first and second years of teaching, I did a lot more whole-group lessons, and although they took less time to plan, they ended up taking much more total time because of all the follow-up work I had to do with different kids. So I’ve adjusted my own sense of where my time is best invested. And now we know that those late nights of breaking down not just the different activities, but also the different goals for the different students within each activity, is the only way we can realistically do our job.”
Sarah Creagh agrees. Tall and blonde and in her fifth year of teaching, Creagh has a quieter, softer air about her. She also shares her co-teacher’s passion about both her decision to teach in a public school, and her conviction that it’s possible, even in a class as big as theirs, to identify and meet every child’s needs. “I feel a social justice calling in this work – or, maybe that’s too corny, but I feel very personally a need to contribute to our larger commitment to equity and equality.”
Creagh’s own conversion occurred one summer, when, after graduating from college with a major in psychology and women’s studies, she followed her parents to DC and haphazardly got a job with a reading research company. Up to that point, Creagh had never seriously considered teaching. “But then I found myself working intensively with children who simply could not read, and watching them make phenomenal progress. It was amazing to see that power – and it occurred to me that the real place this needed to be happening was not in some summer program, but in their full-time, yearlong classroom, day in and day out.”
After their last remaining students exit the school’s red front doors to head home down different leafy streets, past houses and housing projects, the Sarahs spend the last minutes of their work day examining the latest iteration of the DCPS report card to assess which standards they will address before the first quarter comes to a close.
The form reflects the efforts of city administrators to provide greater clarity about what all students are expected to learn. Most of the standards are in the two tested subjects – reading and math – but other categories exist for science, social studies, music, art, health, and work habits. To review their efforts, Creagh and Serber check the standards they have addressed thus far, from “comparing and recognizing that plants and animals have predictable life cycles” to “speaking in complete sentences when appropriate to task and situation.”
Another section of the report card addresses “personal and social development” – fitting, since on most days it’s this sort of attention most 3rd graders most acutely need. Of the section’s five benchmarks, four place a value on children following the rules; the other is about self-regulating emotions and behavior. It’s ironic, since even a casual visitor to room 121 would quickly see that in order for Serber and Creagh to create the sort of environment that can support the desired intellectual growth of their students, they must first construct a complex web of interpersonal trust, expectations, and empathy.
What would happen if such skills were weighted equally, and identified more specifically? Would teachers’ daily efforts at differentiating their instruction become more or less difficult?
The next morning, Harvey enters the classroom, hangs up his jacket, and sits down at his table to eat the breakfast provided by his city to its schoolchildren – an egg burrito, banana, and milk. He finishes, lumbers up to a visitor stationed near the back wall of the room, and points to his personal goals for the year, which feature a colorful drawing of the sharks he hopes to study. “That’s my name there!” he reports excitedly. Moments later, Ms. Creagh asks the class to help clean up the trash from breakfast. Harvey returns to his seat, and resumes gazing out the large windows in front of him.
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?
This weekend, an article in my local paper crystallized three things we need to stop doing if we want to transform American public education for the long haul – and three things we should start doing instead.
1. STOP having a national debate about labor law; START having a national conversation about how people learn.
The article I’m referring to was written in response to the July 15, 2011 announcement that 206 teachers in the D.C. public school system had been fired for poor performance, “a rarity in a big city school system and an extension of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s aggressive drive to upgrade classroom instruction in the nation’s capital.”
Indeed. For the past four years, ever since Ms. Rhee first took the helm of the D.C. public school system (DCPS), the tenor of our national conversation (and my local one) has been squarely fixed on teachers, on teacher evaluations, and on the role teachers unions have played in our ongoing efforts to guarantee each child an equal opportunity to a high-quality public education.
On one level, this makes sense: teachers are clearly the most significant in-school factor to a healthy learning environment for kids; teacher evaluations are clearly in need of an extreme makeover; and teacher unions have clearly been occasional obstacles to some of the larger efforts to remake our public schools. In that regard, any and all efforts to “upgrade classroom instruction” are exactly what the doctor ordered.
And yet, the reality is that the past four years have been more of a national debate about labor law – and less of a national investigation about how people learn. And the problem is not that labor law doesn’t need fixing; it does. But when things like “last in, first out” (LIFO) firing policies, collective bargaining rights, and teacher pensions crowd out our capacity to identify what highly effective teaching and learning really looks like – and requires – what we get are cover stories about personnel dismissals and litmus tests on national personalities, not evaluation tools that are designed to help the vast majority of teachers get better. Which leads to the second thing . . .
2. STOP spending so much time talking about the best and worst teachers; START focusing on everyone else.
Although mass firings of the sort DCPS reported last week are rare, the number of personnel affected was still quite small – just 5% of the total workforce. In fact, very few teachers were rated as either great or horrible; the vast majority – nearly 70% — were simply rated “effective.”
This underscores a rather obvious point: the only way to transform the teaching profession is by crafting policies that help the vast majority of educators improve the quality of their practice over time – not by lionizing the master teachers or demonizing the ones that should find a new line of work.
Is that what’s happening in DC? I believe our new schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, when she says that IMPACT, the city’s new teacher evaluation system, is designed to build capacity, not just weed out the unwanted. Perhaps over time IMPACT will even become a useful national model for a different sort of evaluation tool that can provide feedback, reinforce high standards, and help ensure a high-quality teacher in every classroom. However, based on a recent in-depth review of IMPACT, we’re not there yet – and we’re still way too focused in our public rhetoric on the best and the worst teachers. It would be nice to see the rhetoric and the reality get more in line with each other. And it would be nice to imagine that some worthy educators won’t recklessly lose their jobs along the way.
3. STOP viewing poverty and education as an either/or; START viewing them as a both/and.
Anyone who lives and works in education knows that an ongoing argument has been occurring between some who feel you can’t fix education until you fix poverty, and others who feel you can’t fix poverty until you fix education.
The reality is that both sides – and neither side – are right. Poverty and education are inextricably linked, and the ecosystem each child inhabits – from his home and community to his health and his school – has a massive, complicated impact on that child’s capacity to learn and grow. Therefore, any new policies that fail to account for that complexity aren’t just poorly designed; they’re patently unfair.
This point was reinforced in the article about the DC firings and the IMPACT evaluation system. As Washington Post reporter Bill Turque wrote, “a breakdown by ward confirms, as it did last year, that the overwhelming majority of highly effective teachers work in schools with lower rates of poverty and other social problems.”
This news shouldn’t surprise anyone – how could it be otherwise? – and yet too many of us are still suggesting the path forward must be lit by signs saying either “It’s The Poverty, Stupid,” or “No Excuses Means No Excuses.”
We can do better. We have the capacity for greater nuance in our understanding of something as complex as teaching and learning. And as we spend the summer months preparing for a new school year, we would be wise to be more mindful of what we must stop, start and keep doing in the months and years ahead.
Last week, I was asked by CNN to comment on the news that most states will soon phase out cursive writing in order to give students more time to hone their digital skills. Initially, I wondered why the issue was receiving national coverage – there are bigger fish to fry, after all – so I posed a Facebook query to that effect. A torrent of comments followed, and I received several long emails from viewers who saw the segment and felt compelled to share their thoughts. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion, and a strong one at that. Why were so many people so upset about this seemingly small development on the gigantic landscape of K-12 education reform?
This morning, as I watched my two-year old son make distinctive colorful swirls on his drawing paper, I realized what was going on: not only were we inching toward a new understanding about what each child must learn; we were also moving away from a deeply held belief about what makes each of us unique – the distinctive imprint of our handwritten signature.
The first issue is the one I tried to address last week – the powerful influence that memes have on our collective capacity to imagine new ways of addressing old problems or institutions. Ideas or memories that are shared among people in a given culture, memes are powerful obstacles to change – and they are ubiquitous in the American public school system. As Geoffrey and Renate Caine make clear in Natural Learning for a Connected World: “Traditional education is driven by a powerful meme that keeps replicating itself. One simply has to imagine several people gathering to talk about education to recognize how powerfully the meme is embedded. Individuals will visualize desks and books and a teacher in the front of the classroom. Grades, tests, discipline, and hard work will bind together the beliefs that everyone automatically subscribes to. These beliefs linger as foundational ideas that are rarely, if ever, questioned.”
Because we have such a strong shared sense of what schooling is (and isn’t), even small-scale changes to the way we think about elementary school — such as, say, phasing out cursive — will be likely to spark large-scale resistance. And yet rarely, if ever, do you hear a discussion of memes make its way into the national debate about school reform. It’s the equivalent of trying to help a garden grow by removing all the visible weeds – and ignoring all the invisible root structures.
In other words, arguments for or against the educational benefits of cursive only represent one part of the picture. Far more influential are the social and emotional memories we bring to the idea of elementary school itself, or the level of individuality we ascribe to our own handwriting, or the extent to which we fear the prospect of replacing something so familiar with something so unknown.
What do you think? How important, in the end, is handwriting to our own sense of individuality and self-expression? As we shift to a world where script is slowly giving way to e-signatures, and where the artfully crafted letter is crowded out by the cursorily crafted email, are we losing something irreplaceable? Or is the significance we attach to handwriting merely a reflection of our humanness that will, in time, easily migrate with us to new forms of communication and technology?
It’s graduation season again – yet nobody seems to be celebrating.
On college campuses, graduates are entering an economy in which the stable career paths of yesteryear are disappearing – and the specialized job opportunities of tomorrow have yet to appear. And in communities across the country, parents and young people are left wondering what exactly those past four years of high school were in service of – and how much, if any, truly transformational learning occurred.
Something’s gotta give. The Industrial-Age model of schooling, which benefited 20th-century generations by serving as a legitimate ticket to the middle class, has clearly run its course. In its place, we need a model for a new age – the Democratic Age. And we need strategies for ensuring that young people learn how to be successful in the 21st-century world of work, life, and our democratic society.
We can get there, but to do so we need to start asking – and answering – the three most essential questions in education reform:
1. How do people learn best?
Over the past several years, a slew of research from a range of fields has helped illuminate a much deeper understanding of what powerful learning actually looks like – and requires. We know the ideal learning environment is challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive, and experiential. And we know that learners of all ages are more motivated when they can apply what they are learning to do something that has an impact on others – especially their local community.
The bad news is that too many schools are still crafting environments in which learning – if you can even call it that – depends less on these attributes than on obedience, memorization, conformity, and a set of requirements first deemed important a century ago.
The good news is that we already have schools across the country lighting a different path. At High Tech High in San Diego, for example, all learning opportunities are hands-on, supportive, and personalized. As school founder Larry Rosenstock explains, “Students pursue personal interests through projects. Students with special needs receive all the individual attention they need. And facilities are tailored to individual and small-group learning, including project rooms for hands-on activities and exhibition spaces for individual work.”
Best of all, the High Tech High model isn’t so precious or rare that our only hope is to remake every other school in its image. Instead, the rest of us can create our own success stories by doing what Larry Rosenstock did – heeding what we now know about how people learn, and operationalizing those insights into an actual school.
It’s environmental standards for learning we need – not a standardization of content or teaching practices.
2. What are the essential skills of a free people?
Whether we intend them to or not, every school is structured to value a different type of citizen. In China, for example – the site of my first teaching experience – the needs of the community are valued more than the needs of any individual. As a result, in the school in which I taught, free expression was discouraged, conformity was encouraged – and China got the citizens it sought.
In the America of the Industrial Age, one could argue we experienced similar alignment. After all, the early 20th century was characterized by exponential growth in its general and school populations, and a stable set of jobs for young people to fill. Today, however, the forces of globalization and democratization have elevated a different set of challenges and opportunities – and, by design, a different set of skills. Yet schools have not caught up to the shift, which is why so many of our graduates are emerging unprepared for the challenges and opportunities of the modern world.
What would happen if every school in America scrapped its current set of graduation requirements, and started over by identifying what it believes to be the essential skills of a free people – in work and in life?
One school in New Hampshire, the Monadnock Community Connections School (or MC2 for short), is already doing this. At MC2, students must demonstrate mastery in seventeen habits of mind and work in order to fulfill the school’s mission statement – “empowering each individual with the knowledge and skills to use his or her unique voice, effectively and with integrity, in co-creating our common public world.” These habits – which apply to every imaginable learning experience, from internships to classes to personal learning that occurs outside school – all have concrete indicators that are delineated in levels ranging from Novice to Expert. And not surprisingly, the habits reflect the skills most essential for the challenges of the Democratic Age – from self-direction and creativity to critical thinking and collaboration. As school founder Kim Carter explains it, “In preparing a student for their chosen post-secondary path, be it college or work, it’s critical to know what skills and knowledge will help to shape the decisions that impact their life.”
Makes sense, right? So what are the rest of us waiting for?
3. What does it mean to be free?
In the end, our ability to answer the first two questions is in the ultimate service of the third. And yet the reality is that too many of us still understand what it means to be free in terms of the style of jeans we choose to wear, not the quality of ideas we choose to express.
The Founders certainly understood it differently, and so must we if wish to recalibrate our schools for the modern era. In such a world, what it means to be free would mean having the space to discover one’s full worth – and developing the capacity to unleash one’s full potential. Our schools and colleges would be places where we proactively created healthy, high-functioning learning environments. And our graduates would know, embody, and be able to apply the essential skills of a free people.
The answers we seek for creating such a system of schools are all around us. We just need to start asking the right questions.
This month, schools across the country are hard at work preparing auditoriums, printing programs, checking commencement speeches, and readying for the arrival of one of our society’s most cherished rites of passage – the high school graduation ceremony.
Perhaps by this time next year, we can do our students an even greater service and scrap the high school diploma altogether.
OK, maybe not next year, but soon. After all, almost every component of today’s traditional diploma reflects yesterday’s traditional thinking – if by yesterday we mean the 19th century.
It was 1893, to be precise. That’s when the first blue-ribbon commission was assembled to study the nation’s schools, which, at that point, were still largely decentralized. Among its findings, the ten-person committee recommended that “every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil.” Not long thereafter, the College Entrance Examination Board was established in order to create a common assessment and set uniform standards for each academic subject. Couple those developments with the rise of the Industrial Era, the exponential growth of immigration, and the need to move an unprecedented number of students through the system, and you have the seeds that slowly gave form to the public schools we have today.
Although these developments were clearly pivotal in fueling American growth in the 20th century, it’s equally clear that same system is ill-suited for the particular challenges and opportunities of the 21st. Which brings us back to the high school diploma – a document that still depends, in most places, on the same set of required courses, the same set amount of “seat time,” and the same set of curricular content that students have been studying since the end of the second World War. No wonder that more than half our students have been classified as chronically disengaged – and that figure doesn’t even include absentees and dropouts!
We can do better. But first we need to shake free from the comforting familiarity of the pomp and circumstance of high school as we have come to know it.
The good news is that several schools across the country are already taking this courageous step. One such place is the Monadnock Community Connections School, or MC² for short (mc2school.org). A public school of choice in New Hampshire, MC² was founded to fulfill a distinctly 21st century mission: “Empowering each individual with the knowledge and skills to use his or her unique voice, effectively and with integrity, in co-creating our common public world.” As school founder Kim Carter explains, “Learning at MC² is personalized – so it can be tailored to each student’s learning needs; experiential – because students learn best by doing; negotiated – so that students can participate in decisions about what they will learn; and community-based – because learning takes place through a variety of community interactions.”
As you might expect, MC²’s goals and mission force it to look quite different from the typical high school. Instead of annually promoting kids from one grade to the next, students at MC² cannot progress until they have demonstrated mastery in a set of core competencies. Students spend as much time learning out of the school building as they do in it. Every student must write a 100-page autobiography in which they reflect on the people and events that have shaped the person they have become. And no one receives a diploma until they have successfully made a public presentation of their own personal growth and preparedness for adult life. (You can view a few of those presentations here).
In schools like this, the old adage is turned on its head: children are to be seen and heard. In schools like this, academic learning is balanced by an equal emphasis on emotional and vocational growth. And in schools like this, teachers and administrators have stopped relying on Industrial-Age benchmarks, and started identifying which Democratic-Age habits of mind and being will be most essential to their students’ future success as global citizens.
To create places like this for every child, we don’t need to sacrifice our desire for greater rigor, equity or accountability – but we do need to scrap many of our most time-tested symbols of schools, and of schooling. Redefining the requirements of a high school diploma is a great place to start.
I’m a proud graduate of the University of Wisconsin (and two graduate schools). I loved college. And it’s undeniable that the United States boasts some of the best universities in the world.
I’m also someone who flunked out my freshman year with a 0.6 GPA. In fact, I’d say it wasn’t until I flunked out that I had a chance of being successful. I simply wasn’t ready for what college was designed to give me (aside from the unsupervised social time).
Although my freshman-year GPA was surprisingly low, my freshman-year experience is unsurprisingly common. Too many young people simply aren’t ready for college, for a variety of reasons – meaning they either coast through four or five years and waste a ton of money along the way, or, if they’re lucky, they crash and burn so badly that they discover, for the first time, what it is they actually want to do with their lives – as opposed to what the adults in their lives have told them they should do.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently since reading Matthew Crawford’s bestselling book, Shop Class as Soulcraft.Crawford, as you may know, got his doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago – and then left a cushy job at a DC think tank to open a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia.
In this regard, Crawford is uniquely suited to comment on three inextricably linked aspects of modern society – our public education system, our modern economy, and our shared values. And, as Crawford puts it, the news ain’t good.
In some respects, the story starts in the 1990s, when shop class started to become a thing of the past, and educators started exclusively preparing students to be “knowledge workers” – and stopped valuing the ancient notion that our hands are what make us the most intelligent of animals. Yet the clearest starting point stretches back much farther, to the early 20th century, the rise of Industrialism, and the concerted effort to separate thinking from doing – and, in the process, to begin the degradation of “work” as we have come to know it.
Any historian is already familiar, for example, with Frederick Winslow Taylor and his 1911 book, Principles of Scientific Management. It was Taylor who wrote: “All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning department.” It was Taylor who suggested that the modern workplace “will not have been realized until almost all of the machines in the shop are run by men who are of smaller caliber and attainments, and who are therefore cheaper than those required under the old system.” And it was Taylor whose ideas led people like Ellwood Cubberly, a former head of Stanford University’s Department of Education, to recommend in 1920 “giv[ing] up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are created equal. . . . Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.”
What has this legacy begotten? According to Crawford, it has given us a society where the production of credentials (e.g., knowing how to graduate) matters more than the cultivation of anything real (e.g., knowing how to think). It has led us to devalue the specific skills of the craftsman, and overvalue the general knowledge of the office worker. And it has engendered the gradual WALL-E-fication of our culture, in which the larger goal becomes the creation of passive consumers whose assembly-line work environments – be they the actual assembly line or the assembly-esque world of modern office work – can only be cured by the illusory freedom we exercise when we choose different products to purchase.
The bigger concern, and the one that relates to my own skepticism about whether everyone should go to college, has to do with the changing nature of the workforce. As Princeton economist Alan Blinder has written: “The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not. And this unconventional divide does not correspond well to traditional distinctions between jobs that require high levels of education and jobs that do not.”
In other words, it’s easier to imagine outsourcing your need for legal advice than your need for an electrician. But the point is not that no one should go to law school and everyone should become an electrician – just that the goal of our schools, our economy, and our society should be to help people find work that engages their human capacities as fully as possible. And that’s not happening. And that’s a really big problem – and one that will never be solved if our knee-jerk reaction is to urge every young person to go to college.
“The best sort of democratic education,” says Crawford, “is neither snobbish nor egalitarian. Rather, it accords a place of honor in our common life to whatever is best [for each individual].” Amen, I say. So let’s stop pretending that college by itself is a cure-all for every person. Let’s start recalibrating our schools in ways that will help children discover their worth – and acquire the skills they’ll need to unleash their full potential on the world. And let’s keep searching for ways to help people understand, in the deepest, fullest sense, what it means to be free.