I recently had the opportunity to listen to this commencement speech by David Foster Wallace again. It is worth a listen. It is a reminder that we all have the opportunity to make magic. This opportunity can come in the smallest moments, with the most unlikely collaborators.
This is what we do as educators if we are lucky enough to remember that this is both our opportunity and job. Making magic is our job...it is good to remember this.
You learn so many things in teacher/administrator school, and I am not saying those skills are bad, but they often feel disconnected and less important than what shows up at your door each day in your new role: Angry parents, stressed out faculty, students with complex problems in need of dual diagnosis, and wicked systemic issues impacting school culture, pedagogy and practice. You might wonder, "Did I miss these classes in the curriculum?" Your schooling was what is called necessary, but not sufficient. If you are like many school leaders, you need further support that includes capacity building, conversations and the ability to make new connections and see pathways forward. You don't need therapy yet, but you may in the future if you don't find some new ways to help you process, reflect and grow. Coaches are not neutral, they work for you. Much like teachers advocating for students, coaches exist to support you, and this can be a very productive use of an hour once or twice a month.
This is the time of year where people start taking new jobs, and transition hits a school like they were not expecting it. It is a reminder to all of you in leadership positions that people who are not happy in their schools look for jobs without telling people, and then they let you know in February, March and April. A certain amount of turnover is inevitable, but today, I thought I would highlight the missed opportunity that seems to have the highest impact with educators. Recognition.
As schools, we do a great job of honoring those teachers that leave each year. We get them a plaque or a clock or a ____________. We thank them for their great work and people clap.
Instead or in addition to, I am suggesting that you call out the teachers that are staying and do two things:
Ok, you can still give a clock...Let's not get crazy here...
Dear College Admissions Offices:
I've been on the road a lot since the start of the new year. In fact, I'm writing right now from Terminal A at Boston Logan on my way home to CA. In my recent travels, I've found myself on quite a few brand new planes. Sparkling white trays, power outlets, touch screen entertainment systems and wifi that actually work, and discotheque lighting. It's all very modern and hip and with the times. But there is one feature that remains from a time long ago - a testament to our past and a relic that has been preserved: the ashtray. I was 17 years old when smoking was banned on airplanes. Rick Astley and Guns and Roses were at the top of the Billboard charts. It was 1988! Over thirty years since we actually had smokers on planes. And yet, there they are. Completely useless. Patiently waiting for the possibility that we will return to the glory days when people smoked everywhere - especially in airplanes.
It's not going to happen.
I've been more hopeful about the changing tide of education lately. More and more I see schools thinking more creatively and intentionally about the student experience - not just how to make it more humane and joyful, but also how to actually make it meaningful. And one of those ways is to really broaden the way students are assessed - both throughout a year or a course and in the final demonstrations of learning. There are still schools out there that cling to the traditional proctored final exam - where students sit neatly in rows in the gym and fill in bubbles or write in blue books or solve 100 math equations. Yes. Those students have crammed for days, endured sleepless nights, bitten their nails down to stubs in order to perform and demonstrate to teachers how much information they have taught this year. How much of this information will be retained after the exam? Hard to say. Even harder to say is whether students will see anything of their test besides the grade. Will they even know what they got right or wrong? Do they actually care?
More and more schools have awoken from a collective amnesia (and I do think we just lost our way for a bit) and remembered that the ultimate goal of school is about setting students up for a lifetime of success - a journey of learning, not just a march through required classes on a singular path to college. And in this awakening, schools are recognizing the total irrelevance of the final exam. It's the airplane ashtray of school.
The case for exams I often hear is "students will take final exams in college, so we need to teach them how to take them them." This argument feels almost laughable in this day and age. Even colleges are moving towards many more competency based assessments, final projects and more engaging and authentic measurements of student learning. Tests aren't hard to learn to take, by the way. Collaborative projects are much harder. And really, how many tests have you taken since you left school? How many times have you had to cram a lot of information intro your head and regurgitate it while sitting alone with no access to people or devices (not including standardized tests for graduate programs)? I can count on exactly zero hands. Meanwhile, I have to work on teams to solve complex problems every day. I have to negotiate with other humans, manage complicated projects with many moving parts and deadlines, data and human emotions. Traditional final exams (and might I even say most tests and quizzes) are simplistic, inauthentic, one dimensional and prepare you to do one thing - take a test.
So why do airplanes still have ashtrays? Apparently there is a small chance that some fool will still decide to light up on a plane and there needs to be a place where a burning cigarette can be properly disposed. That almost makes sense to me. More sense than final exams in an age where the purpose of school will increasingly be to turn out the very best humans who can manage complexity, ambiguity and three dimensional challenges.
by Erin Park Cohn, Senior Partner
There is a lot of hunger for identifying "best practices" in the field of education - a search for the silver bullet answer to the various challenges we face as we navigate the difficult task of designing learning experiences for our students. The hope is that if we just search hard enough, we will find definitive research that will tell us how to structure our schedule, or what the most age-appropriate advisory program looks like, or how to enforce our school's dress code. The search for "best practices" gives me pause, however, for several reasons:
1) The concept gives the false impression that there is a single, monolithic, correct way to do things. The human beings that make up our school communities are diverse, and as Todd Rose so adeptly shows in his book, The End of Average, there is no such thing as an "average" person. It follows that what might be best practice in working with one student or group of students might not be best practice for another group of students at all.
2) The concept can deter continued learning. For many in search of "best practices," the hope is that once said practices are found, we can simply employ them and stop wondering about or experimenting with our practice. It also externalizes the search: "best practices" are out there somewhere, having been discovered by an expert smarter than I am. If I adopt that frame of mind, I might miss important local data and observations that can help me continually refine my practice to meet the needs of the specific students I teach.
If looking into "best practices" means wondering, "How have others tackled this thorny problem in front of me, and what can I borrow or learn from them in my continual efforts to improve and grow?" then I'm all for it. Research is not useless, and much inspiration can be gained from others who have gone before us. But whether or not their practice can be declared "best" is questionable, I believe.
by Erin Park Cohn, Senior Partner
In her book, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Amy Edmondson describes a hypothetical scenario where a patient in the hospital is in need of an CT scan. The procedure requires a team of distinct specialists to complete a series of time-sensitive tasks, including threading a nasogastric tube into the abdomen, conducting an x-ray, reading the x-ray to ensure the tube’s proper placement, administering a contrast liquid through the tube, and then conducting the CT scan itself. Each of these steps must occur within certain time windows, by hospital professionals working in different departments. Edmondson relates what happens to a patient whose CT scan is scheduled for a Friday; the impending weekend causes the discrete steps of the CT scan not to be completed with the right timing, causing the patient to have to go through the whole uncomfortable procedure a second time and ultimately experiencing significant wear and tear on the patient’s body and patience for a full 48 hours. The scenario presents a familiar picture of what happens when a team is constructed of individuals who work in different silos within an institution. Each silo holds its own goals, timeframes, and priorities as paramount, resulting in an inability to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate. The patient suffers as a result. For truly humane care, the individuals involved in the CT procedure need to understand themselves as a team and engage in active teaming (as a verb) in order to ensure the best care for the patient.
The example made me wonder, with all of the talk these days about breaking down the disciplinary siloes within education, whether we might be guilty of the very same negligence - even harm - toward the people we serve as the hypothetical hospital team above. When educators talk about breaking down disciplinary boundaries, what exactly do we mean? Are we talking about team-teaching US History and American Lit and calling it American Studies? Is it as simple as infusing some current events in our Statistics classes?
What if an education entailed the kind of teaming that is necessary for the CT patient? What if each student’s learning was guided by a group of professionals who all came to them with something different to offer to their growth, but who actively and collaboratively ensured they were tracking and fulfilling the needs of the individual student? What would that school model look like? And what discomfort, needless repetition, and anguish currently exists for students that we might avoid if we could actually make it happen?
by Carla Silver, Executive Director
When I am asked to clarify what I mean by a "contemporary" learning experience, I try to keep it simple. Students should have learning experiences that have three primary attributes:
1) Engaging - Learning experiences involve them as learners, not passive recipients. They are involved in deep ways, not simply answering questions and problems that are posed to them by teachers, but posing their own questions, identifying problems they want to solve and then actively participating in their own learning.
2) Relevant - Students see how their learning is connected to their daily lives whether it is the content they are learning, the skills, they are developing or the interpersonal and intra-personal habits and mindsets they are practicing. Educators, more than ever before can spend less time teaching content and more time helping students connect the dots to what and how what they are learning is relevant. And if a case can't be made for relevance, real relevance, then maybe it's time to ditch it. Students of al ages deserve to know how what they are learning makes them better thinkers and better humans. The dramatic decline in our civil discourse is, I believe, is exacerbated by schools shying away from having hard but essential conversations about daily, controversial topics. Yet this kind of learning is not just relevant, it is essential.
3) Meaningful - Many young people today are lost. They have grown up in a world of 24-7 information and perennial digital connection. They have underdeveloped imaginations and are unskilled at delaying gratification (Amazon can get anything they want delivered to them in a day). Learning experiences today need to help our students discover their purpose in the word and feel connected to the people and problems around them. Being problem identifiers and solvers gives young people meaning and purpose. It turns them on to being active citizens and contributors to the world in which they live. It connects them in deeply human ways to others as they work face to face on authentic challenges.
This is simple but it isn't easy. It requires us to give up a lot of what we have done in schools for the past 50 years. But I believe our students are worth it.
By Carla Silver, Executive Director
What does the government shutdown about a border wall have to do with school and education?
Nothing. And everything. Both.
The two things feel seemingly disconnected on the surface. But today as I went through TSA, I couldn’t help but think that tomorrow, none of the people running the machines would be getting paychecks. Many of them have families and children who go to school. The stress of having an unpaid worker in your home is bound to be palpable. And yet, those kids, as well as all the children of government employees impacted by the shutdown are going to school today. That stress is going show up somewhere.
I’m curious to know how many schools - especially middle and high schools - are actually talking about the government shutdown and the border situation with their students. I think that if they aren’t, they should be ashamed of themselves - for so many reasons. The situation at the border is a relevant, contemporary political and social issue that is complex and worth learning about. It’s definitely more important to be talking about today than why Atticus Finch is courageous or the details of the rise of Jacksonian Democracy or the quadratic equation. All of which are worth talking about at some point. But today, or at least some time this week, somebody needs to engage my children in a conversation about the border and the shutdown.
Are our schools brave enough to have these conversations when they are so deeply political and partisan lines are drawn by many of the families in our schools? But amidst all of the bluster and drama, there are really interesting facts - truths - about what is happening at the border, and the government shutdown itself is a civics lesson unfolding before our eyes. If we don’t have the courage to have these conversations in school with our students and to model civil discourse, how will we ever break out of the cycle we are in right now? Of course, bravery and politics are not the only obstacles to talking about this important moment. I wonder how many teachers are saying to themselves today, “I would talk about the border situation and the shutdown, but it’s not really relevant to my class, and I have so much material to get through today.”
If we aren’t talking about the situation at the border with our students, what is the purpose of school and education anyhow?
by Erin Park Cohn, Senior Partner
I love Carla’s challenge for all of us to think about what it means to be “educated” in 2019. I am as highly educated, in a traditional sense of that word, as they come: I played the game of school well as a child and graduated near the top of my class at a large public high school, then attended a well-regarded small New England liberal arts college, followed by the completion of a PhD in history at an Ivy League university. I have yet to read Tara Westover’s book (although it’s on my list) and yet I’m certain that my many years of formal education (all of which brought me great joy) give me no greater claim to being a well-informed, functional, “educated” adult than anyone else. This question of what education is for - what it should be for in our changing world - is necessarily at the center of the work we do at Leadership+Design. Schools need to lift their heads up and ask themselves this question, approaching it with a sincere willingness to let go of assumptions and traditions.
The question is often pitched as a “content vs. skills” question, but I think that is a false dichotomy and it obscures the larger issue of the true purpose of education. It is true that technology has rendered rote information more accessible than ever before, and the teaching of content for content’s sake is no longer a good use of precious learning time. I remember the day my daughter brought home a spelling list of all of the states in the union. As she struggled to recall the extra c in Connecticut, I asked her where Connecticut even was and she had no idea. This sort of learning, divorced from real-world applications, devoid of meaning, has very little use. But I’m not certain it ever did. Rote learning, content for content’s sake, memorization of facts and dates - these have always been lackluster educational strategies.
As a historian, though, I balk at the idea that because all content is findable on the internet it means content doesn’t matter at all. I believe that a key part of education should be coming to know some things, and know them well. For example, I’m grateful to be able to hold the historical context of the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party from the 1840s and 50s, as well as the larger history of anti-immigrant sentiment in America, in the back of my mind on this day after the President went on television to make a case for building a wall on our southern border. This knowledge helps me question motives and see patterns and systems that span centuries in present-day current events. The problem, in my mind, arises when we become so rigid about what we expect students to know that we lose sight of what really matters: what can they do with whatever knowledge they do gain? Can they take whatever they’ve learned and formulate good questions? Can they see the world unfolding around them, make connections, and generate creative solutions to big problems?
Being able to do those things (skills!) requires them to know some stuff, but they don’t necessarily all need to even know all of the same stuff. If I with my interest and knowledge about the history of anti-immigrant sentiment and you, with all of your understanding of budgeting and finance, and another engineer friend who holds deep knowledge on the logistics of wall-building all came together in a summit, we could learn a lot from each other and create our own response to the current administration’s efforts. Together, we might be able to identify what we understand and what we don’t, what questions we still need to ask, what voices are not being heard.
The biggest problem with how we define being educated, then, might be that we expect ALL students to pass Algebra 2, or to score at a certain level on math and reading tests, or to be conversant in the “canon.” We create Portraits of a Graduate of our schools with uniform contours, as though we are aiming to produce a single, similarly formed student with all the same skills, strengths, and content knowledge. What if to be truly educated was instead to be T-shaped in one’s own unique way: deeply knowledgeable about 1-2 things that really matter to a person - whether that’s math, or dance, or public speaking, or in the case of my stepson, metal forging and weapons, or in my case, history - and endowed with the skills to apply that knowledge across domains, ask good questions, and communicate creative ideas and collaborate with a variety of other minds? Such a focus might allow us to stop understanding skills-vs.-content as an either/or question. If we do it right, it could be a great big “Yes, and…”
Carla writes that “Two decades into the 21st century, school still seems trapped in the 20th century,” and I think she’s right. I also think school was “trapped” in the 20th century itself, in many ways. The best experiences of my 20th-century education were the ones that nurtured the creative and the critic in me, that helped me identify what made me tick, what I wanted to know more about, and how it all connected to ideas and current events and social systems that mattered. A lot of my educational experiences did not fit that description. The relentless, exponential march toward automation, AI, and other technologies have only heightened the need for education to provide those kinds of experiences for our kids, in order to make sure they’re meaningfully, powerfully educated.