Sunday, May 21, 2017

Cynics Need Not Apply

       On May 11, 2017, Seth Godin published a short post titled "Possibility." I immediately Tweeted this:
While Godin, as usual, nails an essential concept, he also neglects to mention another enemy of possibility, one which may prove more destructive than anything else. In its least dangerous form, it's a fixation on the negative. Unfettered, it becomes cynicism.
       Sadly, such an outlook dominates a great deal of what's written about education. I'm not talking about outside critics, many of whom have never worked in schools or really understand education. Education, for many of them, is an easy target. I'm more concerned with people recognized as thought leaders in the field, the luminaries who are supposed to be prompting us to design better schools. However, I find they often are great at pointing out problems and asserting issues and voicing extreme skepticism, often with a requisite degree of snark. Yet they nearly as often fail to present concrete solutions.
       Yes, I know such people exist throughout all walks of life. Yet my focus here is on education and why such a world view is particularly vexing there, particularly given the large followings and visible platforms these people have.
        Before I explain the larger problem, I want to clarify that I agree with these people's viewpoints. There is plenty of urgent work to be done throughout education. We can't ignore the problems. At the same time, however, there are many people striving to enact positive changes big and small in all sorts of exciting ways. We need more celebration of those. They can prove inspiring. They make us wonder what's possible.
       Ultimately, that's what learning should be about--an ever-growing sense of and wonder about what is possible. About the world. About each other. About ourselves. Humans are not perfectible, and our warts are part of what make us such fascinating critters. But our millennia of progress has been propelled by optimistic exploration, often in the face of naysayers and doom-criers.
       As young people develop their sense of self, the last thing they need is to be taught by cynical people. I think we already see the effects of this on teens. Many people see them as cynical as part of their natural development. I disagree. I think they are quite idealistic, but they are often disappointed by adult behavior. Somewhat similarly, those teachers experimenting with new pedagogy and curricula can feel defeated when lumped in with general condemnation. The issue is exacerbated in this era of widespread societal fear and loathing that is playing out on social media and all levels of politics.
     Like most things, this boils down to a human issue. What do we want to stand for? How do we want to lead? To follow? I want to believe all of us who truly care about creating the best education can tap into our best selves and the best of humanity. I retain that hope.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Product or Person? Yes.

     My previous post, which began with a reference to Frank Bruni's Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be and then juxtaposed its premise to the Colleges Change Lives consortium, ended this way: "The question is: Do our schools--does our school--lead to a product or a person?" I promised to tackle that question in this subsequent post. I don't know that I'll answer in any definitive fashion, but I hope to pose some important points for consideration.
     Schools are caught in a bit of a trap here. For so long, going well back in the tradition of independent schools being bastions of privilege, part of their cachet has, like certain colleges, been in producing a certain type of graduate. It would not be uncommon to hear someone referred to as "a ___ man" or " a ____ woman," almost to the point of stereotype or caricature. Still, schools took a certain delight in this and it made for rather easy marketing. It also provides a certain comfort, a sort of tangible proof that the mission has indeed been accomplished. Even now, when our campuses our not quite so cloistered, we still associate certain types of people with certain schools. Some of this is due to the self-selecting process of choosing schools and the by-product of cultural immersion, as each school has its own ethos. Therein lies the real answer...and the real challenge.
     Let's consider the topic of diversity (or multiculturalism, or equity and inclusion; for the sake of this example, I'll use diversity). Independent schools are, thank goodness, no longer such exclusive WASP enclaves. Over time many have become, at least by the numbers, more reflective of larger society. (Let's go ahead and acknowledge that extensive elements of privilege remain, however.) Let's consider two hypothetical schools; we'll call them A and B. They have very similar demographics, including a very diverse population. School A is known for producing a certain, very clear type of graduate. School B is as well, but much less clearly defined. My immediate, although perhaps unfair, conclusion would be that School A takes a diverse population and funnels those kids along a clear path towards definite goals. As for School B, I may conclude they allow the diversity to play out in more various ways.
       I realize I'm oversimplifying and ignoring myriad nuances, particularly about a complex topic. But I think the question it raises is fair, even crucial. And it could be applied in many areas in various ways. We have to dig very deep, probing far beyond the verbiage in our mission statements and philosophies. It's a heavy question.
      Just what is an education for?
      If it's a means to an end, then the emphasis becomes product. Even if it's about the development of a person, but with some preset measure of success, the person by default becomes somewhat secondary to the product. Inevitably, because of how institutions function, there is going to be some of this. The question is one of degree.
     If it's about self-discovery, then the emphasis becomes person. More particularly, about a person realizing potential and discovering possibilities. But it's not individualism careening towards egocentricity. It occurs within community norms and values, albeit sometimes pushing against them.
      While I tend to consider the latter ultimately more meaningful, I also appreciate the tension here. The best schools don't necessarily answer in one way or the other. Instead, they grapple with the issue, struggling for a balance that allows for both product and person.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Product or Person?

      I've recommended Frank Bruni's book Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania to many people, and I've twice referred to it in previous posts ( a tiny bit here and more extensively here), I agree completely with his basic premise: that on'es college experience and life thereafter is not about a school's name brand, but about how one embraces the available opportunities. Bruni cites myriad anecdotes and extensive, varied data to support his contention. I've also read other similar studies.
       Of course, much of this depends on what and how one decides to measure whatever qualities one is emphasizing. Usually, it comes down to things such as job placement, money earned versus the costs, graduate degrees, et cetera. They are all valid, especially as one considers the excessives costs of higher education. When one looks beyond economics, there are the schools which tout "softer" payoffs, such as the institutions which belong to the Colleges that Change Lives consortium.
       I trust you see the contradiction. Or, perhaps more accurately, the dilemma. Does college determine who you become or not? Maybe not at most places, but yes at certain schools. Maybe at all places if you make it happen? Is it about the college or about free will or some mix of the two?
       My current reflecting on this issue was prompted by a conversation with my wife this past weekend. She had posted something on Facebook, and she was touched by how many of her independent high school classmates had responded kindly, including some with whom she had not had much contact through the years. (Also, some of her best friends are from high school.) She believes quite strongly that the culture of her school greatly influenced how these people responded and more generally shaped them.
       On some level, this is obvious. After all, given the amount of time and young people spend immersed in their schools, how can they not be shaped to some degree? This holds particularly true in the more formative years. To some degree, college may be a bit late. After all, a student chooses a college based largely on how they already have become. But in those younger years? That's where independent schools can have dramatic impact on who students become.
      In saying that, I'm not making a blanket condemnation of public and parochial schools. Many of them do strong work, and students who want--similar to Bruni's point--can gain good enough, sometimes exceptional, educations there. But in many ways it's a standardized education, epitomized by bubble-test mania, especially the exit exam. I don't think that serves anyone as well as education could, especially in the current and future world.
       And here's where independent schools--with the freedom to teach what and how they believe best within very intentional cultures--can perform magic. To repeat, the reality is that school at any level is going to affect who someone becomes. It's inevitable. After all, we spend extensive time there, and those relationships usually extend into non-school hours. So I think we have to answer a very clear but vexing question. Most will answer quickly, and it sounds like a relatively easy thing. But then we get into yogi's reminder about theory and practice.
      The question is: Do our schools--does our school--lead to a product or a person?*

*Right now I'll just let readers think about this. My next post will elaborate. Feels a bit like I'm in the classroom again.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Death of My Blog?

                A bit over two years ago, I published the post “Death of the Blog?” In it I mused on the state of blogging, particularly what I felt was its gradual demise. One main point compared blogging to tweeting, the conclusion being that I believe there is both the room and the need for both as they operate in ways that serve our divergent modes of thought.  In it I also linked to a slightly earlier post, in which I lamented the death of an individual blog, whether because the author never really developed a groove, simply ran out of fresh ideas, or gave up. No matter the cause, a dying/dead blog reeks of unfulfilled promise.
                Now, I wonder, is my own blog is approaching its inevitable demise after seven years and 282 posts? Recently I noticed I had not posted since early March, and that was prompted by the annual National Association of independent Schools conference.  Before then, over the past I was posting less frequently, despite promises to resume regular writing. If I look longer term, the rate has steadily slowed since I started at a healthy post-a-week clip. Sometimes I’ve had to force myself to post, really out of self-imposed guilt. On some level I know I’m only maintaining it at all out of some sense of obligation. Exactly to whom, I’m not sure.
                When we are fully honest, blogging is a rather egocentric activity. Any form of publication is based on the foundational belief that one has something important to share. We all do, but actually putting it out there ups the ante. And while one hopes the work serves an audience, human nature dictates that we pray we’re even getting an audience. Lack of readers may be a primary reason—the feeling you are a tree falling in an endless forest. Many also may expect all sorts of reader feedback. In some ways, many of us have bought into the idea that the internet allows anyone to have a loud voice. That appeal slams into the wall of reality. I say that as someone whose views—while not staggering at an average of around 350 a day—are beyond anything I ever expected. I’m proud and honored…but I also no longer get that little dopamine rush from positive data.
The ego also demands that we are initially entertaining ourselves. Comic strip artist Stefan Pastis recently said he figures a joke works if he makes himself laugh. For whatever reason, lately blogging has not brought me the usual satisfaction. Friends have counseled not to worry about repeating myself or thinking every post has to be profound.  I understand that thinking, and I don’t worry about becoming self-derivative in a reader’s eyes (mainly because I doubt they would notice except in some sweeping, thematic fashion).  I need the process to be a bit more primal, perhaps even narcissistic. It has to feed me. Perhaps not surprisingly, my pieces I like most are process posts, when I’m figuring something out as I write and begin unsure of how I will end.
Ironically, given that last point, developments in our larger culture over the past few years have me feeling even more of a need to struggle to figure things out. I think many feel the same sort of discombobulation. Of course, I’m talking about national and geo-politics. Those are obvious. But I sense people feel angst and uncertainty in other parts of their lives. In education, while so many preach about what we need to do to prepare kids for their futures—and we speak with a certain assumed authority—it’s all speculation given the rate and breadth of change.  As an educational leader, in some ways I feel more certain about what needs to happen; and in others, even more confused. To extend the irony, in such situations, people often react in one of two ways. They may resort to quick bits of bombast, rushes to judgment, such as a spontaneous Tweet or snarky comment on social media. Or, on the other hand, like me, they may be leery of treading into certain areas for fear of detonating a landmine. It could reach a sense of futility.
Those last points may actually be the most crucial reasons to keep a blog going (or find other fora). We need deeply thoughtful discourse more than ever, and the root of that lies in ongoing reflection. Ideally, then, a blog serves the needs of both its author and its audience. As I decide whether to pull the plug, to maintain basic life support, or to resume regular care, I’ll have to think hard about that balance. Right now the focus is probably too much on me. Whatever I decide, I hope I’ve contributed something along the way.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

No Time to Waste: Post-#NAISAC 2017 Reflection

       I enjoyed the 20017 National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference...but I didn't love it. I went into it with perhaps unrealistic high hopes. There certainly were some great moments within the experience. I met people in person with whom I previously had a close but only virtual relationship, in a couple of cases even leading to an embrace. I bumped into some folks I hoped to. I caught up with some folks I don't see often enough while enjoying good meals.A couple of keynotes, especially Brene Brown's, enthralled me. I hit paydirt about half the time on the workshop roulette wheel. In general, the typical large conference experience.
       One thing that was different--and should encourage all of us--is that more people, whether through conversation, blog posts, or tweets, seem to feel that some real innovation is starting to occur. Apparently more places have moved from realization to theory to ideation to implementation. And evidently they've done so in some very intriguing ways. I'm very excited by that sense.
       At the same time, though, I wonder. That's why a careful reader may have noticed the words seem, apparently, and evidently in the previous paragraphs. It's not that I'm cynical or skeptical. In fact, I'm quite hopeful. But my caution arises from my sense during the entire conference that I was, in the words of the great philosopher Yogi, experiencing "deja vu all over again."
       One of the biggest waves of that feeling came during Sir Ken Robinson's keynote. I love his work. I have since 2006, when his famous TED talk went viral. Therein lies the point. That was 11 years ago, and some of us were preaching this message even further back than that. I hope we've all caught on by now...indeed, well before now. Another such wave inundated me with all the buzz about the Mastery Transcript Consortium. Admittedly, I know little about it and haven't done much further research. But a colleague who has asked me, "Isn't that what we saw when we visited that coalition school back around 2000?"
       Of course, better late than never. But is a new transcript a "game changer" or "silver bullet"? Maybe. We've thought that about other things. We'll likely think it about new things in the future. That suggests how we know things need to change.
       They will if we take ownership of our role as the real game changers. Whether a transcript or some new app, inquiry-based curricula or project-based pedagogy, none of it really matters unless we engage in really deep reflection and then bold action. Ultimately, we are responsible for what happens in our schools. We design and play the games.
       We know all this. We've known all this. So perhaps my deja vu is really rooted in an impatience that grows as I age. I see and hear of progress--at my school, at other schools--and I see amazing people doing truly inspiring work. It makes me want more and more and more. But I also know how much traditional and bad practice occurs. Sometimes we overlook it because it receives a fresh coat of paint or window dressing that suggests innovation.
       Yes, meaningful change requires doggedness and patience, Yet we also have to build on all this momentum, and our students don't have time to waste. As Grant Lichtman wrote after the conference, the introduction to his new book challenges, "Let's roll!" Josie Holford urged, "Make it happen!" Not wanting to be stuck in deja vu all over again, I add, "If not now, when?"