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Education Inception

(This article also appeared on the Huffington Post.)

I just watched Christopher Nolan’s remarkable new movie Inception, a futuristic film about a group of people who, through a variety of means, plant a thought so deeply in the mind of one man that it grows naturally and becomes seen as his own. In the opening scene of the movie, protagonist Peter Cobb rhetorically asks the audience: “What’s the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? No. An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea’s taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, or ignore it – but it stays there.”

Cobb’s movie-based challenge is not unlike the reality-based one being faced by today’s advocates for public education reform – how to seed an idea so simple and powerful that it can mobilize public opinion, inspire policymakers, and improve the overall learning conditions for children. And yet after reading Michelle Rhee’s two newest efforts to launch her own form of “inception” – an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal and her organization’s inaugural policy agenda – I see further evidence of both her well-intentioned vision for massive educational reform, and her fundamental misunderstanding about the power of ideas.

Repeatedly, Ms. Rhee has shown she believes that the best way to mobilize people is through conflict, oppositional language and negative emotion. In the Journal, she speaks encouragingly about the fact that “public support is building for a frontal attack on the educational status quo.” And in the introductory paragraph of her policy agenda, she seems encouraged by the fact that her actions will “trigger controversy.” This sort of language extends the tenor of her brief tenure as DC Schools Chancellor, when Rhee made enough inflammatory statements to become the single most polarizing education figure in country. Love me or hate me, she seemed to be telling us – but pick one you must.

In some respects, Ms. Rhee’s approach to idea-generation, much like her approach to management, is deeply rooted in 20th-century paradigms of mobilization and leadership. Our culture has nurtured numerous shared archetypes of strong, authoritarian leaders – people who can make the tough decisions, go it alone, and refuse to give an inch. To compromise or collaborate is to be soft and exceedingly conciliatory, not to mention a weak-kneed guarantee that nothing will get done. Get with the program or get out. You’re either with us or against us. Don’t tread on me.

Of course, like all archetypes, these characterizations contain partial truths. To be all about compromise and not at all about principle is a poor model for leadership, and we do need leaders who have the fortitude to make tough decisions, hold people accountable, and speak simply and clearly. Similarly, we all should share Ms. Rhee’s sense of outrage. And in the end, several of her policies make good sense. But in terms of the overall effort at inception – at seeding the foundational idea – one thing seems equally clear: a national movement that is based primarily on negative emotion will not deliver us the long-term changes we need in public education.

Christopher Nolan certainly feels this way – it’s the core message of his movie. “How do you translate a strategy into an emotion?” Cobb wonders. A colleague suggests that an idea fueled by negative emotion will work best – something that would grow and fester in the mind of an individual, building both anger and discontent until it could be turned into action. But Cobb disagrees. “Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We yearn for people to be reconciled, for catharsis. We need positive emotional logic.”

I agree, and I wish Michelle Rhee would, too. She has a national platform, a vital issue in need of being addressed, millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of followers. Now she just needs the right idea.

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Building Democratic Learning Communities

On July 28, I participated in a live web discussion about democratic learning communities with Classroom 2.0’s Steve Hargadon.

It was an interesting and sometimes chaotic discussion. While Steve was asking me questions, participants from all over the globe were also typing questions and comments in a dialogue box. So please excuse my occasional flightiness when Steve asked me a question — it’s because I was trying to have about ten conversations at once!

Click here to listen to the audio of the conversation, and please post any additional comments or ideas. Thanks!

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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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Mr. President: Just Go With the Flow

A day after Landon Donovan’s dramatic game-winner in the World Cup, I find myself thinking about the unpredictable beauty of soccer — and the work I do in public education — in a different way.

Click here to keep reading.

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Democracy in the Workplace

I’m in Las Vegas this week, attending Worldblu’s 2010 conference, at which Worldblu CEO Traci Fenton will honor the world’s most democratic workplaces. It’s an eclectic group of people and industries, and although there will be a few other educators at the event, it’s primarily an opportunity to learn what some forward-thinking folks in the private sector have learned about how the use of democratic principles can help create an optimal learning environment. In particular, I’m looking forward to hearing more from Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos and the recent focus of an extended profile in the New Yorker.

I’m also preparing to test-drive my belief that the core challenge in any organization — whether it’s an elementary school or an online shoe retailer — is to strike the right balance between providing a few clearly-defined, goal-oriented shared structures, and reserving enough space for individuals to feel free to express themselves, ad lib, try new ideas, and find ways to improve the overall flow of the organization. I’ll be blogging about it all week, so please stay tuned and share with me any questions you think would be particularly worth considering.

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Name the Book Competition — We May Have a Winner!

First off, thanks are in order to everyone who has weighed in — either here or on Facebook — to offer such useful feedback on our ongoing search for a title to the forthcoming book of 50 learning stories. Yesterday, I had a long meeting with the publisher’s marketing folks, and when I explained to them the concept for the cover — a mosaic of images of either each author’s profile photo, or a montage of photos that remind them of the learning story they shared, or perhaps a combo of the two — I think we may have found our title:

Faces of Learning: 50 Inspiring Stories

Yes/No?

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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.

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Arne Duncan’s Learning Story

Check out the first in our ongoing series with the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, who will post a different person’s learning story every week between now and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act.

Have a story of your own to share? Visit rethinklearningnow.com and tell us who helped you use your mind well.

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Name the Book Competition — Round 2

On Thursday, I formally submit the manuscript for the book of learning stories (estimated release date – February 2011) and it still doesn’t have a working title. However, many of you have written to share your feedback, and I think it’s time for an updated list of finalists.

Remember — whoever submits the winning entry gets a $50 gift certificate to the bookstore of their choice.

  1. Learning to Matter: 50 Powerful Stories of How Learning Experiences Shape Who We Become (from Pennsylvania’s Charlotte Hummel)
  2. Minds on Fire: 50 Powerful Stories of Learning & Teaching — in School & in Life (from Virginia’s Bruce Price)
  3. The Book of Life: 50 Stories About the Life-Changing Power of Learning To Use One’s Mind Well (from Australia’s Troy Jones)
  4. Your nomination — just post a comment in this thread and share your idea.

OK, people — what should it be?

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Washington Post to Feature a Story a Week for 2010 (and beyond?)

Great news! Beginning tomorrow morning, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss will feature a new learning story each week between now and the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act (whenever that is).

Fittingly, the series will begin with the learning story of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. But there’s still time to share your own story and have it featured — go to rethinklearningnow.com and tell us about your most effective teacher, and/or your most powerful learning experience!

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