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.
By Carla Silver, Executive Director
I spent a lot of my own school years learning stuff. Content and skills. The quadratic equation. The significance of the Mississippi Compromise. How to factor. How to write a five paragraph essay. How to craft a thesis statement and then support it with evidence. The parts of a cell. Some of this stuff has been very helpful to me in my life. Some stuff I learned relatively well. Some not so much. As an English major I read a lot of books and wrote a lot of papers for teachers. I received grades on those papers that told me how well I understood what I had read, how well I communicated my ideas, and how, in comparison to my peers, sophisticated my thinking was - at least according to that one teacher who read the paper.
Looking back, I don’t know if, in all of those years of school, I ever once had a teacher who asked me about how any of it made me feel. Not like some Robin Williams Dead Poet Society moment about feeling something while reading poetry, but more like, how did it feel to learn something new? How did it feel to be curious? How did it feel to bump up against something really hard, try as hard as you could, and get very limited results? How did it feel to get a C or an A? What does it mean to feel bored?
I went through school feeling a lot about my intellectual experience and my learning - anger, joy, boredom, accomplishment, disappointment frustration, wonder (sometimes) - because I’m human and that is what we do. Emote. Who’s job was it to help me to identify these feelings and make sense of them? Schools talk a lot these days about social-emotional intelligence and I wonder if that includes feelings about what and how we are learning and also how we are succeeding and failing in our school experience. I wonder if I would have learned more and remembered more if I had been emotionally connected to the content and to the work?
By Carla Silver, Executive Director
I'm only 30 pages into Tara Westover's book Educated and I feel like she's already made the most compelling point clear. You can be a contributing member of society, a captivating writer and storyteller, and a fully formed human being with a sense of self, without a formal elementary or high school eduction. There are plenty of examples of highly successful people (and I am using the definition of success to mean productive humans with a sense of purpose) who have been homeschooled or completely unschooled. My L+D Partner, Ryan Burke, recently shared this gem of a video with me from TedX Overlake. Despite the fact that she was married with a career before she really knew about our solar system, didn't mean that the speaker Merilee Wilmore, a naturalist, was uneducated, but rather that she just knew there was so much more to learn.
So what exactly are we talking about when say someone is "educated"? Is that they can write a five paragraph essay? Is it that they have learned at least "level three" of a foreign language? Is it that they have read at least one work by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and Faulkner? Is that that they can spell and define the top 200 SAT vocabulary words?
Nearly two decades into the 21st century, school feels trapped in the 20th century. Despite (or maybe because of) enormous paradigm shifts in the way we can access information and the way we can communicate and collaborate with other people around the world, many schools still cling to what seems to be a very limited view of what being educated means and looks like. Worse yet, we make up really weird ideas about what makes a high school student eligible for a selective college - like they have taken Calculus - as if somehow that is an indicator of great success in college or in life. What about these things that we have been teaching is so precious that we can't seem to let go? What about the way we've been teaching seems so sacred that we can't reinvent the practice?
I'm writing as an educator, a parent, and a student (yes, I still take classes because there are definitely things I am curious about that I don't know much about) and I'm not sure I have real clarity on what makes for an educated person in 2019. I'm not even sure that most schools know what they are supposed to be doing or what success looks like or what is actually important for young people to learn and be able to do once they leave school. And when we try to open up the conversations and start exploring these questions, defenses immediately go up, as if every educator in the room feels accused of somehow not doing their job. I'm wondering what would happen if we (the L+D community) collectively asked these questions all year long and we came to some agreement on what it means to be an educated person? Is that even the right question to ask? Most design thinkers know that the first question is usually just a launching point and the more beautiful questions emerge much later.
Please join us in this conversation this year. It's one a lot of schools and school leaders are having and we'll be writing out loud in the hopes of making some progress on our own thinking and getting closer to some truth about learning, school, education and the like,
The leaders who have attended Leadership+Design experiences over the years play varied roles in schools. You have come from all different types of schools and have come at different stages of your careers. But you all have one thing in common; you seek truth. You want feedback, you want to know your impact, you want to learn. In a busy and polarized world, this truth seeking is often met with fear, resistance and a careful partisanship that creates a barrier to learning. Even the best of us can get lured into echo chambers and be tempted by confirming and affirming colleagues and friends with our best intentions in mind.
But what if you had a way to reflect on your work, your actions and your decision making as a leader that was more exploratory than confirmatory? Where you and a small group of fellow truth-seekers develop a collaborative practice of asking the questions that lead your closer to that truth.
Question such as:
This spring Leadership+Design will be piloting Truth-Seeking Pods for a small group of leaders who would like to test this practice. Beginning the week of February 15, 2018 and ending the last week of April, small groups of 4-5 individuals will meet on a weekly basis for 90 minutes on ZOOM. This is a three month commitment. We have space for only 15 people (3 pods). While L+D will facilitate the pods early in the experience and on an as-needed basis throughout, the eventual goal would be that the pods become self-sufficient by the end of the three months and could potentially continue on their own in the future. The pods will be organized by time zone and will happen each Tuesday at 8:00pm PT, MT, and ET.* Participants commit to attending the meetings for the full three months.
By joining this pilot group, you would be acknowledging that this is a prototype. Leadership+Design will be asking for feedback along the way and also would be recording some of the sessions for our own learning and viewing. Our hope is that these groups will find this to be a valuable experience and we would be able to offer more in the future.
If you have questions about this experience, please contact Carla Silver or Ryan Burke.
Fee: $200.00 for the full three months
You can register for this program by clicking here. Space is very limited. You have received this invitation based on your past participation in a L+D experience.
*We are hoping that by setting the time ahead of time it will help you to know whether you can participate - if this time is a deal breaker for you and you would otherwise participate, please let us know!
I recently got back from L+D's yearly Santa Fe workshop. Santa Fe is a chance for leaders to unwind, reflect, look inward, and possibly chart a new path forward. On the first day, we address ASD (Adult Seriousness Disorder). We do this to lighten the mood as often school leaders show up in Santa Fe feeling a little lost, depleted or even possibly depressed.
Even though ASD is not a real disorder, it is real. At L+D, we practice all sorts of skills and mindsets that aim to combat this very real thing where we forget the joy and playfulness associated with being a leader, but we still tend to catch some flak for it.
Carla Silver, our Chief L+Doer recently sent me this article. Published in MindShift, this article highlights a school in Los Angeles focused on human relationships. It is called Social Justice Humanitas Academy, and it as the last line of the article that got my attention. The founding principal said, "What has made us successful, and I think a lot of people are starting to listen, is the huggy-touchy stuff", he goes on to say, "The stuff that freaks people out. Adults making themselves vulnerable. Building real relationships."
The link between my reflection from Santa Fe and this article is simply that the squishy stuff is often where we find joy, connection and a way forward within the complicated and never-ending job of leading schools. Not only that, but it also works in regards to reaching students. When will we stop calling it the squishy stuff and instead call it what it really is: