Thursday, July 26, 2012
Last year I posted here “A Letter to New Teachers,” which I was pleased to learn seems to have been passed around and possibly to have done a bit of good in spots.
It’s rather unlikely that a new teacher, or at least a teacher new to the profession, is going to find this place. Not Your Father’s School readers largely seem to be people already in the trenches, some new-ish, some (I am told) a bit more veteran. There’s far more aggregate wisdom reading this blog than its author can ever hope to amass.
But I’ve been thinking, as I do each year as I go about setting up the new teacher orientation at my school, about new teachers, and about teachers in general—not just our work but our place in the evolving cosmos of Not Our Father’s Schools. My thought for this year—I think I’ll stand by last year’s missive for the new folks—follows. I’d love to get some feedback on this. Please pass this on if it seems appropriate.
Earlier this summer I wrote a triad of posts responding to particular aspects of The Students Are Watching by Ted and Nancy Sizer—a series of meditations on the ways we teachers behave and the lessons our behavior offers to students. It’s a book for the ages, cutting through the breathless chatter about methodologies, change, and politics to the heart of what we do and who we are.
It occurred to me the other day that the book’s subtitle, “Schools and the Moral Contract,” might seem both pretty abstract and pretty intense to many readers—off-putting, in its way. What exactly is the “moral contract,” and why should an old-fashioned concept like “morality” be imposing itself on schools in some kind of absolute way? In an age of relativism, a terrible thing in the eyes of many, how dare these Old School authors from Harvard and Andover and a charter school named after an old dead white guy (progressive genius though he was) suggest that there is a moral contract?
One tendency these days is for schools to go for the easy answer here, and focus on the obvious and inarguable: the basics of sexual, fiscal, and behavioral morality, where it’s easy to make distinctions. We can draw a sharp line that sets off the kinds of bad behavior that earn headlines—abuse, drug sales, embezzlement, violent hazing. Certainly schools can’t countenance these, by staff or by students. We can impose “zero tolerance” policies for some kinds of misbehavior, freeing us from having to muck around too deeply in messy gray areas. We can’t allow bullying. Of course, in many jurisdictions we now have the cover of the law to act as a surrogate for “morality;” bullying in my state is not just immoral, at a certain level it’s criminal. So is smoking pot. It’s so much easier to call something wrong when we can tell teachers and kids they could go to jail for doing it.
There is, I think, an even deeper and more demanding moral contract, although putting it this ways feels a bit awkward and in the analysis it risks marching headlong into messy gray areas. But I’ll say it anyway: it’s not just about schools and the moral contract, it’s also about teachers and the moral contract. And the students are watching here, too.
You can tell me that teaching is just a job, and recount tales of incompetents relegated to the rubber rooms of urban districts. You can tell me about all the public school teachers proclaimed by demagogues to be overpaid freeloaders working only for their long summer breaks. But remember, I’m a hopeless Romantic, and I say, Nuts!
Good teachers—and I think that’s a vast majority, in all sectors—willingly subscribe to a moral contract that involves a rigorous personal discipline and a code of honor that’s practically monastic in its simplicity.
The first clause of this contract involves belief: belief in kids, a faith that must be virtually unshakable, capable expanding and changing as new students offer new challenges and new lessons in the possibilities of the human spirit.
The second section involves doing the daily, gritty, unpredictable, often delightful, frequently unrewarded work of preparing, teaching, giving feedback, advising, mentoring, coaching, consoling, encouraging, and otherwise enacting that belief in kids. Teachers know that slacking is not just an abrogation, it is a failure to keep faith. Naturally, some mutuality is desirable here, and to be expected. In the best of circumstances this becomes an equal exchange of energy—and of deep learning—between students and teachers. (And in the increasingly less teacher-centered classrooms of our time, this is more and more likely to occur.)
The third article involves continuing to do whatever is required, deeply and personally, to stay excited about and invested in the work and to keep our skills sharp and up to date. Sometimes reflective, sometimes scholarly, sometimes creative, sometimes physical, this recharging is essential to good teaching, to building up the kind of energy required to do the work and keep the faith. And it’s not about vacations—it’s a strict regime, 365 days a year.
The fourth part of the teacher’s moral contract involves the teacher’s duty to the school—and the school’s responsibility to the teacher. The teacher does good work, works hard to understand and believe in and support the school’s mission and purpose, and in return the school does what it can to recognize and reward the teacher and to support the teacher in the pursuing professional and personal growth toward a happy life and a satisfying career.
The “code” for the teacher is that kids—their needs, their interests—come first. As in the motto of the venerable Camp Dudley—“The other fellow first”—giving primacy to students is what we do. Our “me time” comes when their needs are met. My current boss likes to remind us that “School is for kids”—another elegantly concise way of stating the code.
So, there is my stab at a “moral contract” for teachers. It’s nowhere near as long as the contract you signed without reading last time you bought a mobile phone, and I don't believe you need a lawyer to explain the gist of it.
Teaching is a deeply human activity, as we know (and as the Sizers, Parker Palmer and others have pointed out far more elegantly), and this contract is nothing more than a situation-specific version of the broader moral contract, or the Golden Rule, or whatever you wish to call it, that must guide all of our actions.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend using this contract the way we tend to use real contracts, but I hope that in our hearts and minds as teachers we can find ways to express its provisions among ourselves, to share its principles freely and kindly with the less experienced folk among us, and present it as a complement to the principles the Sizers offer us in The Students Are Watching. Whether we’re new teachers or seasoned pros, we carry our personal moral contract in our hearts every day, wherever and whenever we are working with or for our students.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
One of the more entertaining bits of cognitive dissonance I have experienced this summer includes the disparate “ideas of the university”—and of learning platforms in general—that emerge, implicitly and explicitly, from my simultaneous indulgence in Christensen and Eyring’s The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out and Alex Beam’s lighter A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, a 2008 popular history of the Great Books program.
Christensen and Eyring are deadly serious, working through the parallel histories of Harvard and Brigham Young University-Idaho (formerly Ricks College). Their point is that the institutional “DNA” of American higher education can largely be traced to Harvard—and a handful of other established and prestigious universities—and has spread far and wide, reaching a point of financial and social unsustainability (even for Harvard, in some ways) that ought to motivate disruptive innovation based on a rethinking of the methods and purposes of post-secondary education as a whole. Idaho BYU-Idaho has done some of that rethinking, and the authors offer its online courses, its disinclination to scramble up the “ladder” of Carnegie Classifications, and its new approaches to measuring the quality of its work as a model for change. It’s good stuff, and thought-provoking on all kinds of levels.
Beam, on the other hand, takes aim at the hubris, idealism, and occasional plain wackiness of Mortimer Adler, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and the other founders and promulgators of the “Great Books of the Western World” program, which was for some decades a modest cash cow for the Encyclopedia Britannica and the University of Chicago (over which Hutchins presided between 1929 and 1945). The Great Books idea has spawned or sustained a handful of estimable academic ventures (e.g., Columbia University’s Core Curriculum, the St. John’s Colleges, Yale’s Directed Studies program—full disclosure: I’m a veteran) and also inspired a couple of generations of community discussion groups and not a few passionate individuals in all walks of life. (On occasion it has also been a handy weapon in the culture wars, proclaimed by conservatives to be the “canon” that “proves” the superiority of Western, classically rooted culture.)
As I write this the University of California at Berkeley has just joined Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the EdX online learning initiative, while the Coursera universities and the publicity given to a handful of wildly successful MOOCs (massive open online courses) have raised the specter of a whole lot of post-secondary education being “outsourced” from university campuses to an anytime, anywhere model. As one commentator to the Chronicle’s piece on the Berkeley announcement noted, the EdX initiative comes from an “anticipation that online education is at an inflection point—that it’s starting to work; that it’s starting to be seen by employers as legitimate; and that universities that don’t get out ahead of this change will be left behind, in particular with students who won’t pay high tuition but are willing to pay for discrete skills training.” This is the sort disruptive change, ironically given extra street cred by a Harvard connection in the case of EdX, over which Christensen and Eyring enthuse in The Innovative University.
All of this somehow comes together in my mind as a question: Are we entering a new Age of the Autodidact? I find myself slightly surprised to note parallels to the early industrial age, when self-taught men and women with curious and inventive minds, many having accessed information through fledgling scientific societies and their journals as well as public and subscription libraries, gave us everything from the steam engine to the hand eggbeater. If by the time of World War II Harvard and Berkeley’s graduate schools and M.I.T. as a whole had taken over much of the function of the backyard and barnyard tinkerers of a century before and even of early think tanks like Edison’s labs, tinkerers, shade-tree mechanics, and other independent—and uncredentialed—inventors and entrepreneurs didn’t die off as a breed. One could even argue (and Peter Thiel has, even putting his money behind the argument) that famous college drop-outs like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak (who later finished his degree at Berkeley), Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg prove the point.
Today the internet makes the transfer of knowledge essentially seamless, and in no area is this transfer more effective than in the realm of the practical. Want to know how to roast corn on the cob or swap out the memory chip in your computer? Puzzling over the best way to rebuild the steering on your 1949 Ford pickup? Want to build your own Genghis Khan-style bow or plant the most colorful perennial garden? Try the internet—and be ready to decide which directions or models to follow. It’s a maker’s playground that has me wishing I had stayed with more of the hands-on hobbies of my younger days.
The internet is ideal for the delivery of what the Chronicle commentator calls “discrete skills training”; there’s nothing better. With enough time and enough curiosity, an internaut could learn how to do everything. It’s an awesome possibility, and it’s no wonder that universities great and small want to get on the bandwagon—they can, and they should. If necessity is the mother of invention, the dissemination of useful information is the father. Whether internet-gained knowledge is responsible for tastier meals and prettier yards or truly new and different ways of solving critical problems—for true innovation—it’s pretty much, as they say, all good.
Seventy-five years ago the Great Books offered a kind of comparable opportunity, all built around a set of pre-screened and indexed “Great Ideas” that promised the faithful reader access to wisdom and knowledge that would render answers to all of life’s questions, from business dilemmas to personal quandaries. If it seems preposterous now (as Beam’s title, A Great Idea at the Time, certainly suggests), it wasn’t so preposterous either to the program’s founders or to the thousands who ponied up for the books and actually read and discussed at least some of them. Here was a certain kind of autodidact’s dream come true.
The great question, of course, is of coherence. Individual entrepreneurs and self-guided scholars may not require a systematic approach to life to do their work, but one of the tenets of our civilization and certainly of traditional education has been the ideal of a philosophy, code, or creed that somehow undergirds both one’s work and one’s character. That such codes sometimes coexist, sometimes compete, and sometimes conflict doesn’t reduce their social significance.
Schools, in particular independent schools, have always tried to put their values at the center of the student experience—as mission, as values, as the themes of “character education” programs. We’re all about coherence, at least in our aspirations. We try, even in our blended and online efforts, to keep our academic offerings in some ways of a piece with what we say we believe in about the kinds of lives we hope our students will build for themselves.
Universities, even those as large and diffuse as Harvard and Berkeley, in some ways do the same, perhaps more in protection of “brand” in 2012 than in promotion of the ideals of a “life of usefulness and purpose.” It’s going to be interesting to see what becomes of these brands, and of these ideals, as EdX goes forward. It’s going to be equally interesting to watch the ways in which independent schools follow the lead of universities, be they Harvards or BYU-Idahos, in the direction of establishing themselves as purveyors of knowledge beyond the brick-and-mortar model.
A side effect, I suspect, even of the most homogeneous approaches to online schooling, may be that we permit more of our students, like the EdX certificate seekers in India or far-flung students taking courses through BYU-Idaho, to follow their intellectual passions down paths that seem both exciting and eminently practical to them. I like the idea that I can enroll online to learn something about programming or some technical field that interests me, and I like even more the idea that my children and my students can find courses on line that give them access to fields of study their physical schools can’t offer.
Of course I also like the idea that we can all pick our ways the Great Books of the Western World, by ourselves or in groups, and that at the same time we can run a simple search to find alternative canons of work from a thousand cultures.
It’s about learning, and having control over what we learn—and why. Maybe we learn so we can get good jobs, and maybe we learn because a particular topic just tickles us. Maybe we learn because we need moral models, and maybe we learn so that we can read books—or websites—in languages we don’t know. We are all autodidacts, in our way, and we ought to celebrate the big brains, from Gutenberg to Mortimer Adler to the Google team to the masterminds of EdX, who have made and will continue to make this possible.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Last year about this time I posted "A Letter to New Teachers." I'm planning to update that soon, but I didn't want to neglect those of us who have been at it for a while. So here goes:
Dear Experienced Teacher:
We know it’s important to pay attention to and support the men and women joining our faculties for the first time, and we always have lots of good advice for them.
But sometimes we know that the experienced teachers in our midst are overlooked or taken for granted. We casually accept one another's quiet, competent work and maybe even quiet struggles. It's easy for school communities to grow almost too comfortable with colleagues whose daily behaviors are familiar and whose work (we assume) goes smoothly and attracts little notice.
Of course it’s not always that way for any of us, veteran or new, and it’s worth reminding ourselves that there are always things we can do to make our work more effective and our lives more satisfying. We have stayed with this profession, sometimes through thick and thin, because we believe in kids and love things about our work—and because we believe in the old promise and old premise that teachers can make the world a better place.
With summer waning and the coming year gradually transforming from an mental abstraction into a concrete set of tasks, challenges, and opportunities, I have been trying to riffle through the pages of my own career and remind myself of things I can do—that we all can do—to make the year go well. Here’s my short list:
- Be a “furtherer.” The late, great David Mallery used this term to describe teachers and administrators who enthusiastically fall into the role of mentors and cheerleaders for others, inspiring and sometimes pushing other teachers forward because they see the potential not only in their students but in their colleagues. Most of us have a furtherer or two or three to thank for the teaching lives we live.
- Lean into discomfort—especially with challenging kids. Live the meaning of this phrase we have heard in workshops for years. It matters a whole lot when we find ourselves dealing with the kid who annoys us, challenges us, disappoints us, puzzles us, or even frightens us. The harder we work to find out what makes such kids tick, the more we try to discover the virtues masked by childish or adolescent behaviors intended to distance us, and the better our chances of helping these kids grow into the best versions of themselves.
- Be true to your school—and yourself. I hope that you are content with your school, its culture, its values, and its prospects. I hope that its leaders and their vision excite you, and that the mission of your school aligns elegantly with your personal sense of purpose (and I hope that you have a personal sense of purpose). But there are likely to be areas of non-alignment, and perhaps even friction. This is when you have to find the moral and intellectual generosity to figure out how to bridge those gaps in the name of supporting not just “the school” but your colleagues and above all your students. You don’t have to love every practice and policy, but you have to understand them enough to live with them and, where required, to enforce them.
Some institutional disagreement is necessary and healthy, and you should never back away from upholding a position you hold dearly. Be forthright, aboveboard, and work within whatever channels exist. If things reach a point where friction generates more heat than light in your life or your community, either 1) find a way to pursue your position more effectively, 2) consider that you might just be wrong or wrongheaded in the context of the school, or 3) understand that it might be time to consider a change of venue for your work. Falling into bitterness, underground politicking, backbiting, and passive-aggressive noncompliance won’t help your students—you know this—and it surely won’t help you. Be true to your school, and know thyself.
- Embrace change. It’s upon us from every direction, and chances are that some of your administrators will return from break charged up about some new idea; I hope so. There’s no excuse for a teacher in 2012 to be living totally sheltered from the winds of educational change. Rather than wait anxiously for a buffeting breeze, it would make a great deal more sense to take some time to do your own investigation, by reading books, periodicals, blogs, joining Nings and elists, building PLNS, even by starting a Twitter account and following some of the smart inspirational tweeters out there. Pat Bassett’s May blog had some great suggestions for reading—and connecting.
Sure, not every great new idea is going to pan out as a silver bullet for your students' learning, but a working teacher who wants to be considered a true professional has no defensible reason for not knowing what big ideas of our time are or for ignoring them. If you hear yourself saying, “But we tried something like that back in 1995 and it didn’t work out,” think about whether it really was “something like that” and why it “didn’t work out.” You’re older and wiser now; maybe you can make it work this time. Don’t hide out behind your anxiety—look around and see what you might do with new, better tools and new, more informed perspectives. It’s for the kids.
- Lead up and down. The theme of the Summer 2012 Independent School magazine is “leading from the middle,” and the role of established teacher-leaders and “middle managers” and supervisors like class advisors, department leaders, and curriculum coordinators has never been more important. Use your excitement about new ideas to bring them both to those who serve with you or under your guidance but also to those who manage and lead you. Cultivate a strong, confident voice with which you can make your case for doing things differently, or perhaps even maintaining a truly effective practice. Age and experience give us wisdom, we are told, so seek to establish yourself as someone whose ideas and opinions matter.
For some teachers this doesn’t come easy; we got into this business to work with children and not because we necessarily felt confident or comfortable being a persuasive voice among adults. But times have changed, and gone are the old days when we could escape to our classrooms and create our professional worlds exclusively among kids. Teaching is no longer about each of us, ourselves, alone.
We need to be faculties characterized by a rich flow and exchange of ideas and opinions—and by mutual respect. We need to be faculties in which castes and layers, based on seniority, who teaches what, who lives in what dorm, or who has whose ear, are gone, gone, gone. In 1968, when I was a senior in high school and Peter Prescott was working on A World of Our Own, faculty room stratification, posturing, and politics hadn’t much changed since Owen Johnson’s Lawrenceville Stories more than a century ago (and at least those were funny). But it’s decades later, and we have to recognize that each of us has something valuable to learn about our craft and our calling from each of our colleagues, no matter how young and how “inexperienced.”
You experienced pros (another David Mallery-ism)—that is, we experienced pros—have to appreciate ourselves fully for what we have to offer, and we have to make a point of offering it. We're doing good work, and it can be a very good life; happily we share today's "world of our own" every so much more widely and joyfully than we did 45 years ago. We honor our profession, our schools, and our students by our determination to do our best, and we give full meaning to our lives by our resolution to keep making the kinds of difference that we idealized when came into this profession in the first place.
Savor the last weeks of summer, and have the best year ever—PG
Monday, July 16, 2012
In the last week or so there has been some startling and potentially tragic news on the accreditation front at the university level. No fewer than three institutions, with nearly 100,000 students, have been notified that they are at immediate risk of losing their accreditation. The public City College of San Francisco (33,000 students, with a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education putting that number at 90,000), private Mountain State University in West Virginia (4,800 students), and for-profit Ashford University (57,000 students) all seem not only to have neglected fundamental aspects of their operations and organizations but also failed to act fully on previous notice that their accreditation would be at risk. (I refrain here from commentary on the substance of each school’s situation.)
What this could mean for students is obvious: a great de-valuing of degrees earned and coursework under way, and above all ineligibility for most federally administered financial aid—millions of student-hours of hard work and sacrifice potentially squandered, sacrifices largely made by students whose resources were limited in the first place. The leaders of these institutions should be, at the least, ashamed of themselves. The whole thing makes me want to weep.
But it also makes me want to cheer. As I have written here and elsewhere, accreditation lies at the heart of quality control in the education business, a necessary evil to some but a valued seal of approval to consumers and peers alike in our consumerist and “credentialist” society. Thus, for accreditors to show their teeth, even in only a tiny percentage of cases, is a reminder that there are, at least, minimum standards AND organizations who are looking after students’ long-term interests.
In the short term, of course, the folks at CC San Francisco, Mountain State, and Ashford had better be working to rectify the issues that have led to their current crises, although I hear the word “appeal” more loudly than “fix” in some of the news reports. These schools owe it to their current students to make sure that hard work and sacrifice don’t simply lead to tainted diplomas or transcripts—that is the tragedy.
In The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring make the point that accreditation has acted in the past as a potential brake on innovation, a reactionary force with the power to reel in practices that don’t conform to established models. This argument seems more than fair on the face of it, and from their perspective through the lens of “disruptive innovation,” I suspect that Christensen and Eyring have it about right, at least at the university level. To the extent that accreditation is a way of enforcing “guild” rules as a preemptive hedge against other kinds of (e.g., government) regulation as well as a way of ensuring program quality, a certain conservatism is to be expected.
As I have suggested in the pages of Independent School magazine, a forward-thinking approach to accreditation can also motivate and substantiate a case for change. Having done a bit of work on behalf of the National Association of Independent Schools Commission on Accreditation, the liaison between the independent school community and its many accrediting bodies, I have a sense of how seriously the Commission takes its work to make sure that our schools are living up to their purposes, their potential, and their collective raison d’etre. As standards evolve in the face of new operational practices, new technologies (and disruptive innovations, for that matter) and new understandings about the nature of learning, the Commission is set on creating a process that gently but resolutely prods schools in the direction of, as it were, improving the breed.
Having been on a few—and I wish there had been time for more—accreditation visiting teams and having overseen the production of one full report and parts of others, I also know that the accreditation cycle makes demands on a school that seem at times distracting, even a pain. I have experienced the anxiety of visiting a school with serious issues and having to help the school confront them and look for solutions, and I have experienced the disappointment of a visiting team that, while positive and affirming, seemed to have missed some of the most exciting work a school was doing. The process isn’t perfect, we know.
Schools must take accreditation seriously and not merely view it as a decennial burden of dotting some i’s and crossing some t’s, partly for the satisfaction of some higher authority but mostly for the relief of getting through something annoying and pro forma. Schools that truly want to grow and improve know that they can use the accreditation process as a chance to do some real stock-taking and to understand the ways in which evolving standards can make them better places for teaching and learning.
Smart accreditation self-studies are part of an overall strategic approach to school improvement, perhaps linking planning cycles to important administrative transitions to capital undertakings and major program change. A good study is not just a sheaf of paper suitable for filing but a thorough exploration of the school as it is and how it might be, and a great visiting team—or even a good team prompted by the school—can provide valuable, useful feedback on how things really are relative to beliefs and hopes.
If accreditation standards are in some sense minimums—making the situation at the three colleges seem even sadder—they can also be interpreted in ways that make them stand for the highest ideals and standards of practice. Schools that undertake their work around this responsibility with an eye to making the most of an opportunity rather than getting through it not only justify, even exalt, the ideals behind the process but set an exemplary course for others—not a course that puts institutions and their students at risk.
I hope that we never see independent schools experiencing anything like the troubles that CC San Francisco, Mountain State, and Ashford have gotten themselves into. But these cases, tumbling into the news one after another in a short space of time, are a reminder that shoddy practice sooner or later will out. If interventions and sanctions based on accreditation become a real trend, this will in itself change the ways we think about the process. But it shouldn’t come to that; schools at all levels should see accreditation as a benefit, not a penalty.
Thursday, July 12, 2012
(Informed consent: This is not a post about school bullying.)
One of the later chapters in Ted and Nancy Sizer’s compelling 1999 The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract is called, and is about, “Shoving.” While, yes, the authors do discuss the term in the sense of student-on-student meanness and horseplay, they also offer another dimension of shoving, which they define as “crossing what are supposed to be boundaries”: the idea of “shoving” into new space across frontiers of received truth and custom, especially where these truths and customs limit understanding or even human possibility. The Sizers cite Galileo, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and even Watson and Crick as having “shoved” across such boundaries, into new spaces and new conceptions of the world.
I just like to keep the longer view in mind, and for this reason I was pleased to read the Sizers’ exposition on the kind of “shoving” that today I would tend to call true “innovation.” They remind us that in the 1990s the phrase was “breaking the mold,” which they call “a stunningly aggressive term,” but “break the mold” schools—many of them charters—abounded in that era and were proud to call themselves that. Something needed to be done, we knew then, and if it required some breakage, with traditional models shoved right off the shelf, that was okay.
I’m on the record as being pretty serious about what we call “innovative.” Too often, it seems to me, the word is used with quiet desperation to pin a hot and even noble label on something that is just a little different from what preceded it, or an idea or practice already in extensive use and therefore perhaps new to a situation—novel to a school, in the context of this blog—but not exactly an innovation for which credit can be claimed. Peter Thiel, perhaps best known in educational circles as the venture capitalist who offered a number of select college students small piles of seed money to take time off from college and create new businesses, has said, “People think solving simple problems is innovative. True innovation occurs when problems are hard and valuable.” I’ve quoted this previously, but it bears repeating, and I am right with him on this one.
I feel as though our love of “innovative” draws on the same desire to put an economically successful face on things that has led us to overuse the notion of problem-solving and to our lionization of “entrepreneurship.” We have become to some degree a society looking for the winning lottery ticket, the shower of cash, that will restart our economy and restore balance in our universe—and let us focus, I hope, on bigger, less instrumental ideas. Innovation, problem-solving, and entrepreneurship as concepts connote quick fixes, silver bullets that will change everything, most often in an economic context.
If it sounds as though I’m blaming the world, and educators in particular, for their fascination with these terms, I’m not. I’m merely trying to point out an interesting trope in our language and speculating that this trope stems from living what appears to be a still-shaky economy whose shakiness is pointed out and played up by every politician and political commentator on the planet—and by our un- or under-employed neighbors and the shuttered storefronts many of us see every day.
I would add here that in the 1990s one didn’t note a long line of independent schools signing up to break any molds; our transitions have been more measured. Nevertheless, we can all take pleasure and pride in the degree to which many schools have spent the last twenty years or so tinkering with some of the fundamental properties of the mold. In the end, the Old School ways evoked and exaggerated in Finding Forrester, say, or School Ties, have been replaced by practices that I think observers can proudly and accurately call innovative and by cultures where the shoving is directed less at students and more, and far more appropriately, at ideas.
There is still a long way for schools to go, and I hope that we can both pick up the pace and take a cue from The Students Are Watching. School change is about nothing less than “crossing what are supposed to be boundaries,” about ooching and elbowing our way toward a better future for our students and our schools.
For me, the transgressive nature of fundamental educational change is all about shoving, even at times breaking the mold. The best kind of innovation flows, after all, from work that is “hard and valuable,” and often this work is downright risky. But our students, ever watching, are worth that risk.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Since the economy started sputtering four years ago I have noted a particularly interesting trend. With businesses shedding jobs, prospects for college graduates looking generally dimmer than a decade ago, and a housing bubble largely inflated by the banking system pretty clearly at the bottom of our troubles, we have created a new class of heroes, heroes who in our wish-dream mythology will set the economy back on track as surely as ever Superman changed the course of mighty rivers.
These heroes are entrepreneurs. We even want our students and our teachers to become entrepreneurs, and we want our schools to foster the entrepreneurial spirit through their curricula and focus on doing what entrepreneurs do: they solve problems.
The cleverest entrepreneurs, of course, solve problems that we didn’t even know we had, and of course along the way they make billions, unless they are “social entrepreneurs,” in which case they simply save the world. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I generally take some convincing before I am convinced that some new product or service is going to make the world a morally or ethically or even materially better place. I am a big Apple fan, but I’m not ready to give into the idea that my lovely, useful MacBook Air is somehow righteous. It’s just a well designed computer.
But I digress. Many schools these days, if you poke around in among revised mission statements and strategic plans, are all about problem-solving, assigning collaborative teams of students to develop solutions to problems, some hypothetical and embedded in the abstractions of traditional curricula and others authentic, “real-world.” Training problem-solvers is what we aim to do.
I’m all for this. I love the collaborative approach, and I love turning kids’ brains and creative spirit loose in pursuit of solutions to the problems that beset our world. I’m even okay if somebody makes a buck or a euro along the way.
But there’s something about the language that has changed. We only seem to talk about problem-solvers, no matter how vast or thorny the problem. It is as if our language has become grandiose in proportion to the actual complexity and actual stakes of the problems we face. Global warming? Our kids’ll get it solved! Conflict in the Middle East? Solution on its way! As optimistic as I want to be, as much as I believe in kids, somehow it seems a tiny bit arrogant and disingenuous to claim that our students are going to be able to solve problems at every level—even before they’re out of high school, yet!
In 1999 Ted and Nancy Sizer addressed the issue of vast, thorny, deep, and complex problems in the first substantive chapter of The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract. Rather than make the claim that schools can just decide to whip up a new generation of problem-solvers, the Sizers call forth a wonderfully old-fashioned term to describe the process by which students (and teachers) learn to tackle problems: grappling.
In truth our students (like ourselves) may not solve every problem. What we want to students to develop, in fact, is the habit of mind and heart of grappling, of wrestling with complexities not until they achieve a decisive pin (hopefully as entrepreneurs) but rather until they become intellectually and personally comfortable with facing the complexity, ambiguity, and sheer intractableness of some of life’s challenges.
Rather than proclaim that we’re training students to solve every problem, maybe it’s time for a little truth in advertising: let’s start proclaiming that our students will be prepared to grapple with problems of all sorts, prepared to do the critical analysis, the research, and the creative thinking required to frame big problems and to begin to understand how they might be fruitfully approached. We can also provide learning experiences and environments that ensure that our students will be unafraid to do the work this requires.
In a recent article in Rotman Magazine* Anita McGahan writes about the need for business schools to create “problem-solvers for the world.” I think this is a worthy goal (although I think that graduate schools of arts and sciences, law schools, divinity schools, medical schools, high schools, vocational schools, and middle and elementary schools should be included), but the essential step along the way is to train kids in the art and science of grappling. Problem-solving is an activity, but grappling is the essential mindset (if you will) that underlies problem-solving, characterized by optimism and the desire to move beyond current limitations.
So before we exalt problem-solving as the ultimate educational goal, let us take a good hard look at the ways we, er, teach grappling. For the Sizers, it’s a combination of modeling, honest discourse, tough intellectual toil, and above all helping students become comfortable with living with ambiguity and complexity. We teach students to grapple when we ourselves eschew glibness or banality and acknowledge that many of the things that we must think about, do, and even teach and learn are hard, inchoate, messy. There is not always a way out of messiness, or at least a way that is apparent to children and their teachers, but avoiding messiness or denying its existence is no solution at all.
We know that not all complex or ambiguous—some experts like to use the term “wicked”—problems are going to be easily solved. But they can be approached, analyzed, grappled with, perhaps until their complexities are resolved and their messiness brought under elegant control some day. The next generation of “problem-solvers for the world” will have been students trained to wade into this process with confidence and not just narrowly taught some algorithm to come up with tidy solutions.
We’re in love with business-speak these days, and we’re especially in love with business-speak that carries an attitude and a message of “can’t fail”—our IPO, whatever it is, will solve the problem, dominate the market, make us rich. But we’re educators first and foremost, and so let’s step back and focus on (I’ll say it again) mindsets and dispositions, on the fundamental and necessary attitudes we must help students to develop before they can become full-on global problem solvers, let alone entrepreneurs with a hope of success.
Talking about problem-solving, and problem-solvers, is fine; so is the aim of developing an entrepreneurial spirit. But the Sizers remind us to take this work back to first principles, to the grappling at the heart of all problem-solving.
*One of the many virtues of Rotman Magazine, produced by the very forward-thinking minds at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, is that issues are thematic. For Spring of 2012, for example, the theme is nothing less that “Wicked Problems,” with articles focused on strategies for approaching the gnarliest dilemmas. The Fall 2010 theme was “It’s Complicated.” Together these issues provide a first-rate primer in how organizations and individuals approach difficult problems—a great readable boot-camp for grappling.
Sunday, July 8, 2012
If there is a consistent subtext to much of my thinking here, it is that amid all the fervor of change and development taking place in independent schools, we as educators must never lose sight to the human, personal scale on which our every action is taken and felt.
Thus it is that I have been elated over the past couple of days, when I have been re-reading Ted and Nancy Sizer’s classic—an understatement, from my perspective—The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract. These are educators who are sensitive to each nuance of humanity as it finds expression in our classrooms, faculty rooms, and hallways.
More than a decade ago this book moved our faculty in the direction of articulating a set of core values for our school, values that remain fresh and alive even if we seldom look at the boards on which they are written—that’s as it should be, I think. It’s also one of the books that inspired me to take up the pen on matters educational.
Since my last full re-reading of The Students Are Watching the Crash-like event of 2008 has occurred, with schools reeling in its wake. So too has the revolution in technology that has brought us social media and classrooms where “bring your own device” is increasingly the norm. We’ve often so often pressed by the wobbly economy or so excited by new technologies and new ways to harness them that the idea of schools as loci of a “moral contract” seems sometimes pushed to the margins.
I am here to say, however, that The Students Are Watching is still as profound, provocative, and inspiring a book as it was when I first discovered it—and went to an event at the then-new Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School to hear the authors and have my copy signed, something I had never done before—back in 1999. As I read it again I want to tweet the whole book, sentence by sentence, from start to finish; every phrase carries its own epigrammatic wisdom and power.
In the next couple of posts here I want to drill down into some of the language that the Sizers bring to bear on eternal questions in schools and to reflect on the ways on which their rich, human language might both inform and clarify some of the ways we think about the challenges and opportunities facing schools today. I’ve kvetched here often enough about the over-use of (and low standards applied to) “innovative,” and our use of “problem-solving” has begun to strike me as sometimes glib and reductionist. The Students Are Watching offers another way, a more complex and human way, of talking about these concepts.
Stand by, then, please, for Parts II and III of this series of posts.
Thursday, July 5, 2012
Having just passed one of the more enjoyable Fourth of Julys in recent memory, with 360-degree fireworks—and I am a sucker for fireworks—and some fine reunions with summer neighbors, I got to thinking what it is that makes this holiday so special for me.
Sure, there are recollections of cousins and cookouts, and those are wonderful. But I’m a child of the late 60s (that is, I was 18 in the Year of the Assassin, 1968), and generally speaking displays of unadulterated patriotism trigger a reflex of at least mild skepticism; they tend to make me want to listen to more Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
But not the Fourth. For me the Fourth is a day about things that get me viscerally.
The first is the sheer nerve of the Continental Congress and those who assembled enough proto-state apparatus not only to start a war against the most powerful empire on earth but also to cook up a document listing their both their grievances and their claims whose principles and language still ring down the ages. Those guys (and guys they were) were nothing if not gutsy, and I admit to getting misty at the closing, when they “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honour.” They really meant it.
There’s something amazingly human and special about people working together, people sticking up for one another and committing themselves to action on behalf of a cause; watching fire trucks speed to the scene of a fire gives me goosebumps, the same goosebumps I used to get as a coach in those moments when my team came together in that special way that transcended what was possible. The same goosebumps I get at the late scene (spoiler alert) in Finding Forrester when Forrester stands up for Jamal and the doubters and skeptics are vanquished. The same goosebumps I get in the last minutes of opening faculty meetings when the vibe is just right and the year ahead looks so exciting.
Clearly I’m not just a sucker for fireworks. I’m a sucker for the collective will and collective effort, for group feeling (I’ve referenced Ibn Khaldun and the concept of asabiya here before). It’s not just because it’s nice not to work alone; it’s because it’s wonderful to imagine a world of common effort and common purpose. Maybe in 2012 it’s all the more wonderful because our political life, at least, is so fractured. Maybe it’s also because working as an independent school teacher in the 21st century I am experiencing that group feeling more and more with each passing year; times have changed since I entered this profession.
Another thing I like about the Fourth of July is that it is the foundation, in a roundabout way, of the liberties that independent schools have been given to develop as we will, to respond to the needs of our students not in lockstep but free from “abuses and usurpations”—and I wonder, as I read those words in the Declaration, how many public school teachers might feel inclined to draw up a Declaration-esque bill of particulars against the politicians and ideologues who have spent the past couple of decades building constraints around public education.
The last thing I love about the Fourth and the Declaration of Independence, as I read it, is that the day and the document proclaim a hopeful vision of what life can and should be, a vision based on the idea that people given the opportunity to enjoy “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are likely to create something good, something positive.
While the signers of the Declaration weren’t all raving devotees of Rousseau, there is a Rousseau-ishness about their impulses that is echoed in the impulse governing most happy and effective schools: the belief that kids, given the freedom to create their environment and make decisions about their own lives and their own world, will generally do the right things and try to do them well. The founders had an ideal, an ideal less concrete and specific than lofty and optimistic, and I think that in independent schools we can find such idealism embedded not just in our missions but in the yearly goals of our teachers and above all in the yearnings of our students, both daily and deep.
I’ve been called a cockeyed optimist and a Romantic, and I guess I am. I want to believe in a better future and a better world, and somehow the Fourth of July, pageantry and all, brings that out in me.