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.