Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Not Either/Or; but Yes, And...

Many people have offered many valid reasons innovation can occur slowly in schools. Risk aversion, ossified structures, lack of vision, fear, silos, intellectual arrogance, myopia, standardization, the textbook industry, poltiics, parental concerns, silver bullet belief in the latest fad--I'm sure you could add some other items. As I reflect on that list, I notice that many of them share a common problem, one which smacks of oversimplification. Too often in education we engage in either/or thinking.

To illustrate, let's consider a recent, perhaps ongoing, battle about early childhood language instruction. In this corner, we have the defending champion, Phonics Instruction. In the oppositie corner, the challenger, Whole Language. In schools all over the country, people picked one side or the other and bet the house. Phonics people continued with the "tried and true," and Whole Language folks threw out the traditional. Was one side right about the better approach? Perhaps. Then one would have to be wrong, and both had very valid points. Yet in many cases one side viewed the other only with disdain, rather than with an open mind that would enable integrating the two in a way that woudl work. They thus missed an opportunity to reach more children through effective differentiation.

Let's take a curernt example but switch focus a bit to consider two issues: cultural literacy and a more modern approach. I'll stick with language arts. Most people--even those who are not the most vocal defendants of a cultural literacy approach--likely would argue that students should have some familiarity with Shakespeare. Let's use Romeo and Juliet since that seems a popular choice for inclusion in many curricula. We know the traditional way of studying Shakespeare: read it while struggling with the language, analyze the themes, take some quizzes, memorize and recite passages, take a test, write an essay. Now imagine this approach. The students, upon hearing of the trend in modernizing the Bard's works, suggest doing that also. So as a class they decide to rewrite the play. They figure out a plan and go at it. They keep all the key elements; for example, the balcony scene remains an interlocking sonnet. But now it's set on a porch outside the school library. Once done writing, they rehearse and then perform and record their version of the play, making it availaible for a much larger audience. After, they have to write reflections that show their understanding of the play and how this project aided in that. They've gained the cultural literacy. After all, which approach do you think will better lead to kids learning and even appreciating Shakespeare? They also had to work on the basic literacies of reading and writing. Plus they had to be creative and to collaborate, and their final product was a contribution to their community--some of the essentials of a modern education.

That Shakespeare project--one of the real highlights of my teaching career--epitomizes how we can take a "yes, and..." approach to education. The best part? The students initiated it. All I had to do was go along. This happened in the late 1980s, and I argue that our doing more and more work like this is more imperative now than ever. But too often the response is "yes, but..."--that killer phrase which is the hallmark of either/or thinking and even closed-mindedness. Even beyond the curricular and pedagogical implications, I worry about this in terms of role-modeling for students. F.S. Fitzgerald wrote, "The sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still maintain the ability to function." Kid suffer when we can't--or won't--do this to improve education.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Further Thought on #EdJourney

     A few days ago I posted "First Thoughts on #EdJourney." It wasn't really a review of Grant Lichtman's new book--just some of the larger ideas it prompted and some of what I guess could be called cautionary notes about how people might miss some of the more important ideas. That could occur mainly because it's easy to become focused strictly on the many wonderful examples from different schools. Almost as soon as I posted, a new idea about the book occurred to me. Not just about the book, but about the entire project that has led to the book.
     Grant set out in search of innovation in schools. He found plenty of it, sometimes in little pockets, sometimes in sweeping models. We now have this wonderful book as a product. But we also need to think about the process. Both literally and analogously, we have a wonderful model for the type of learning that should be going on in our schools.
     Consider, in no particular order:

  • The entire idea begins with a giant question about education and is a deep, wide exploration. Questions beget more questions, with ongoing reflection and generative thinking. "How might we..?" and "What if..?" never cease to peel away more layers. 
  • Rather than merely muse inwardly, Grant looks outward, connecting with the much larger world in a search for understanding.
  • In doing so, he forges multiple connections with people all over and brings in varied perspectives. He refers to myriad sources. In a sense, while Grant is the sole author, one gains a sense of collaboration.
  • That happens because Grant let us share the experience and comment on it through social media. Reading his blog, for instance, was like reading his drafts as they developed. We see his thought processes.
  • Speaking of his blog, Grant utilized the best technology tools at his disposal, from his Prius and iPhone to his blog and Twitter. Of course, he also went through dozens of the old stand-by: legal pads and post-its.
  • The book is a creative endeavor. The whole thing is a creative endeavor.
  • The work is highly relevant, and the contribution to the field is meaningful.
  • The quest leads not just to accumulation of knowledge, but to some new wisdom.
     When you consider the entirety of the project, Grant is both student and teacher. He writes about the schools he visits,
"I increasingly hear teachers and their students talking about the adults becoming 'lead learners' and 'co-learners' along side their students...teachers develop a view of themselves as participating in a constantly evolving journey of exploration with their students, as opposed to teachers' traditional role of providing knowledge to their students" (104-5).
He has given us many models--including himself.
     So here's a thought. A challenge if you will. Obviously we can't send students off to drive around the country on their own. But how might we design learning experiences just as full of purposeful discovery?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

First Thoughts on #EdJourney

     Like many other independent school folks, I've eagerly awaited Grant Lichtman's new book #EdJourney  * based on his massive driving trip in search of educational innovation. In fact, at one point I wrote a blog post in which I expressed my hopes for such a book:

          "that when he finishes the journey, he can summarize the lessons learned in a way that enables to see what these schools have in common. How did they become transformative? Each entry has some of that, but I think we all would benefit from a synopsis from the person who has made the actual journey, because it strikes me that we’re talking about changing the DNA of many schools and educators. Then I hope we would see even more real innovation and not just school as we know it." (full post)

Grant and I have had several interactions since then, and we're asking many of the same questions. Now the book is here, I downloaded it as soon as possible, and it certainly does not disappoint. The temptation is to write a review, and while there will be bits in here that come across that way, I intend the post to be more a reflection of general thoughts in a certain context. That larger context has to do with change and innovation in schools. While some of my points may seem like conclusions, they really are musings that lead to even more and, I hope, better questions. It's also what's boiling in my brain juice after the first read of a book to which I'm sure I will return.
     In a very practical sense, the book is important for many reasons. Grant shares dozens of the examples that he experienced on his trip, and he categorizes them in ways that help clarify the key points. One can find ideas and examples of current best practices, and it's easy to recognize your own school within the frameworks established. I found myself wishing my school did certain things. I also found myself beaming about some of the things we already do.
     However, as important as those examples are, the book truly matters for more philosophical reasons. After all, one can find many examples of innovation via multiple media. Part of the book's power lies in how they are pulled together in such a comprehensive way. That creates a real sense of possibility and hope. The book is also very generous in how it portrays people and programs and schools. It oozes optimism while posing clear challenges. That spirit is too often missing from schools. In that way Grant helps with one of the knottiest issues in changing schools: "reframing the mindset" of many educators (43).
     For many that means not only reframing the mindset but broadening the perspective, maybe even realigning it. Some will read the book and latch on to particular examples. That can be good, but it also can be the sort of silver-bullet thinking which has marked education for so long. Instead, much of the book encourages really big-picture, question-asking reflection and ideation. For instance, consider this passage on strategic thinking rather than the standard strategic plan: "Strategy becomes a continuous process of thinking, and organizational habit and capability that promotes ongoing innovation practices among all of the valued and valuable members of the school community" (40). He also proposes zero-based strategic thinking, a wonderful and healthy process.
     Therein lies another cautionary note for those who may simply grab examples and see them as the real thesis. The book forces bigger thoughts than many educators often consider during their hectic days. From the historical context to the ecosystem metaphor, Grant widens the lens. In zero-based strategic thinking, yes, everything one does is open to question. But your core is not. Early in the book Grant includes real wisdom from Alan Smiley, head of St. Anne's Episcopal in Denver, about the need to balance rapid innovation while maintaining a center of focus for students and adults that does not change. And that's why, while I agree that "each year should be different" (97), in some ways each year should be the same when it comes to certain philosophies and values. Sometimes one has to take "different things that already exist and piecing them together and making them work in a profoundly different way that makes teaching and learning better" (108). But sometimes it's a matter of steady growth and improvement. As much as I worry about schools where nothing changes, I also worry about schools and teachers that seem to grasp onto every new trend, who are always reinventing. I admire the courage and energy and spirit, but I also wonder who they ultimately are and what they stand for. I'm sure they know but, looking from the outside, I wonder. If I could pick one passage in the book to shout from every mountaintop, It would be this:

          "Schools need to rebalance their portfolios to allow more experimentation and more risk that will generate long-term growth. If well-designed, this rebalancing yields an equilibrium between what the school has always done that made it successful in the first place and what they need to attempt to stay competitive in the long run" (456).

It's very similar to one of my favorite lines from Jim Collins' Good to Great: "Preserve the core and stimulate progress." A delicate balance, indeed.
     That core centers around relationships and everything they produce:

          "Nearly everything a school does today can be effectively outsourced except the powerful relationships that grow between students and teachers and between peer students, and the culture and traditions that make a school such a powerful part of young people's lives" (444).

I would add the relationships between school employees and families, and employees and each other. That's part of independent schools' beauty, but it's also one of the major roadblocks. Because we like to think of ourselves as communities and/or families, it becomes quite complicated and painful when we talk of making sure we have the right people on the bus. Especially when those are the people who've helped the school succeed and become what it is, some of which is based on the very things they are now being told have to change. There are plenty of nice, neat intellectual frameworks for this process which are wonderful in theory; but we're talking about really gut-wrenching, very personal things for people. Grant likes to say, in comparing it to events such a D-Day, that change isn't hard, it's uncomfortable. On some level I agree. But on another level the intense human elements of education do make things difficult. Of course, I find that an appealing part of the work.
     Perhaps those people struggling with change and innovation will find inspiration and encouragement--perhaps even permission--through reading Grant's book. They may see what can happen. What should happen. For those of us already on this journey with Grant, the book affirms we're heading in the right direction. It's why I can't wait for him to visit St. John's in January and help us ask even more questions about what we should be doing for students.

*Available Sept. 8 on Amazon. Available on iBooks now!