“Kids are Not Motivated” Might Say More About Your School Than the Kids: Educators with a Growth Mindset

I hear it all the time. People talk about disengaged, disinterested, unmotivated learners. “Kids are different than they used to be,” teachers and others explain. I don’t doubt the presence of generational changes, but I’ve visited enough learning communities to know that there are some communities of young people that are rich with engagement and interest. Students are taking ownership for their learning. They are challenging themselves on a regular basis. They enjoy being there. They are still young people. They experience the struggles common to being a developing young person, but the general feel of the community is largely positive.

When I point this out, there are many who want to dismiss my comments by explaining that these are different kinds of young people than the ones at their school. Some kids are just motivated and engaged, and others are not. People attribute it to upbringing, family dynamics, challenges within the community, economic status of families, the education level of parents, and all sorts of other factors. Again, I don’t deny that these factors can and do influence what happens in a school and in the lives of young people. Of course, all of of life’s experiences are formative to some extent, and it is hard to be be interested in learning when your basic needs in life or unmet. However, once those needs are met, even amid less than ideal circumstances in a young person’s life, there are models of incredibly positive learning communities. For those who take the time to 1) explore what is happening the larger education system, 2) who are open to consider the fact that there are models and exemplars from which they can learn, and 3) who recognize that everything is not just a sum of social factors beyond the control of teachers, students, and administrators; there is much that can be done to improve the state of any learning community.

As such, when we say that “kids are not motivated in my classroom” or that “the kids in my school don’t care about learning”, I’d like to suggest that these statements sometimes say as much or more about our schools than about the young people. There are countless factors within our control, and when we focus upon maximizing those things that are indeed within our control, the learning community will be better. It will not happen overnight. It will be hard work. There will be two steps forward and then one (or sometimes two) steps backward. There will be frustrations. There will be bad days and disappointments. Yet, this sort of growth mindset for schools and educators is just as valuable and beneficial as the growth mindset that we talk about as being necessary for students to thrive.

25 Things to Celebrate About the US Education System

I challenge the status quo in education on this blog, in my other writing, and in my podcast. I champion the idea of looking at policies, systems, and technologies as always having both affordances and limitations, and I can sometimes emphasize the limitations over the affordances. So, I thought I’d take a moment to celebrate what is good and getting better in modern education. Are there limitations to the ideas, innovations, and other things in the following list? Yes, because affordances and limitations are always present, not only affordances and limitations, but strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, good and bad. Nonetheless, here are 25 things that I contend are worthy of at least a momentary celebration.

  1. We have a greater variety of school models, philosophies, and approaches than any other country in the world.
  2. Collectively, we know that great education is always about more than sorting and testing.
  3. We know that stages of human development call for different emphases and environments depending upon the developmental stage of a learner.
  4. We generally reject the conviction that a one-size-fits-all education is the way to go, even if we are still struggling to let that conviction permeate what we do and how we do it.
  5. We have an incredible variety of community-based and extracurricular learning opportunities available to people of all ages, especially in our more populated areas.
  6. We have almost 120,000 libraries (9000+ public libraries, 98,000+ school libraries, and others) in our country, representing an incredible tradition of self-education and celebration of knowledge, reading, and research. By the way, this means that we have far more libraries than we do Starbucks stores.
  7. We have a strong and ever-growing movement in open education resources.
  8. We have an incredibly impressive and ever-growing list of educational innovations who are finding ways to share their word and ideas in the digital world, and they are spreading.
  9. Our Universities, think thanks, independent researchers, and others are producing new and amazing insights and knowledge on a weekly basis. In fact, even in Michael Moore’s critical documentary Where to Invade Next, when he asks an educational leader in the renowned Finland school system where they got some of their best ideas, they pointed to research that emerged right here in the United States. There is a constant flow of new and promising education and relevant psychological research that is released, and people are striving to learn from this research, experiment with it, and use it to create better learning communities.
  10. We argue about education. When you stop caring, you stop arguing, so to me, the arguments have a good side to them. Education is something that we care deeply about.
  11. We strive to create a system of education for all children, regardless of demographic. As one example…
  12. While there is room for improvement in these areas, we invest an incredible about of time and resources to provide education that is accessible and beneficial to people with disabilities.
  13. We support and celebrate the right for families to make choices about where and how to education their children, aligned with International Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, at least 12 states even support this with vouchers or funding that helps extend this choice across socio-economic status.
  14. The micro school and small school movement is growing fast and furious, offering us some wonderful examples of compassionate, caring communities of rich and vibrant learning where each learner is known and valued.
  15. The movement around empowering learning voice and agency as part of equipping them for a full, active, and engaged role in society also continues to gain interest and traction.
  16. Adaptive learning software is getting better, and it will be incredibly powerful in a matter of years.
  17. “It is not about the technology” is now spoken in almost educational technology conference keynote in the country, and explanations of what this means are becoming increasingly nuanced, thoughtful, and substantive.
  18. There is a growing wave of awareness and agreement that schools must strive to become places that celebrate and focus upon the love of learning, and that is challenging some of the inhibitors to greatness that have taken hold of our schools.
  19. There is growing interest among educators in moving beyond grade-focused education and classes. The fact that Mark Barnes’s open Facebook group called “Teachers Throwing Out Grades” has well over 8500 followers is a good sign of this.
  20. In terms of higher education, we have over 4000 different schools, each with different emphases, research, majors, and more.
  21. The amount of education and learning opportunities beyond formal schooling has never been greater.
  22. The number of self-organized or grass-roots learning communities around everything from cooking to world peace has never been greater.
  23. We continue to make progress of recognizing learning and accomplishments that extend beyond formal schooling, allowing us to envision new and powerful reputation systems that can increase access, opportunity, and meaningful connectivity between people and organizations.
  24. The interest in global connections is education is at an all-time high, empowered by new technologies and creative teaching and learning applications of those technologies.
  25. While we have much room for improvement, words like curiosity and creativity are far from four letter words. They are generally celebrated and sought after in our best schools.

Yes, we have room to improve in every one of these areas, but sometimes it is also good to pause and celebrate what is going well. What about you? Consider adding your own “celebrations” by posting a comment.

How Self-Preservation, Monopolizing Tendencies, and Self-Serving Mindsets Distract from the True Mission of Great Schools

There are many promising models of education, some inspired by longstanding practices, and others brought about my new theories,discoveries, and innovations. Nonetheless, across all of these models, schooling becomes less relevant when it allows itself to become increasingly focused upon for self-preservation, monopolization, and self-service.

Self-Preservation

The self-preservation mindset emerges when those in schools become more focused upon protecting themselves and their preferred practices than upon the primary task of cultivating a rich and meaningful learning community, one where learners grow and develop in ways that are deemed valuable by a given community. Schools are at their best when they are focused on the learners and the learning community, not upon protecting the school or those in power. These exist only insofar as they serve the greater mission of the school. This is not a defense of treating people poorly or unfair wages, but it is about recognizing that personal or institutional kingdom-building is far from a noble vision for any school.

This is easier said than done, especially in times when there are attacks and strong criticisms of a school. There is temptation to dig in our heels, hide our flaws, and be guarded with our words and actions. Yet, if we give into this, our culture because one of self-interest instead of service and support for learners.

Similarly, there is nothing wrong with running a financially responsible school, but we must at least be honest about the decisions that we make that are meant to cut costs or maximize excess capital, even when these decisions are not in the best interest of individual students. There are financial realities of running any formal organization, and I don’t mean to disregard those, but sometimes we become so worried and focused upon the finances that we lose sight of why the school exists in the first place.

The moment that a school justifies decisions that benefit itself but harms or disregards real and legitimate needs of learners in some discernible way, we know that we are on a slippery slope.

Monopolization

Perhaps an extension of self-preservation, there is also the temptation to establish and protect educational monopolies in our schools. We hold transcripts, which are supposed to be recorded of student performance, as if they are property of the school. We set up entire systems (legal and otherwise) that limit and control who can issue degrees and academic credentials. We are suspect of those who claim to have learned outside the hallowed walls of formal schools, and rarely stand up for the self-taught learner in society or the highly skilled and competent but largely or entirely un-credentialed. We scoff at partnerships with homeschool families, external partners, or other “outsiders” whom we perceive as a challenge to our control.

There is nothing wrong with defending our convictions about the value of a given school or community, but it is an altogether different matter when we strive to use regulations and power to drive people to us and away from other pathways for learning. When that happens, then we reveal ourselves to not actually be committed to a universal value of individual growth and development. We only recognize and celebrate it if it happens at our hands. We become a medical doctor who fails to rejoice at a patient who finds a cure through a second opinion or maybe even through personal study and self-treatment.

Self-Service

Each of these three are closely connected, but they represent important albeit nuanced differences. By self-service, I mean to draw our attention to the school with a collective mindset, one where school and the people with power become overly focused upon that with serves and benefits the self or the school ecosystem. This can include a wide range of situations, but I offer two examples.

The school prep school – This is often called the college prep school, which is essentially a school that chooses to focus upon preparing people for more school or the next level of school. This can be a school-wide focus or even just the focus of an individual class or teacher. It is any situation where a large amount of time is devoted to equip people with the knowledge, skills, and disposition necessary to succeed in yet another school context. While I celebrate the choice of some schools to make this a focus, it always risks making the community at least once removed from real life and real world relevance. In their worst cases, I’ve come across schools that defend dry or poor teaching by arguing that it is preparing students for those dryness at the next level. Or there are schools that avoid new and promising practices because they are overly concerned about how it deviates from what will happen at the next level. These are real considerations in the modern context, but I simply argue that this emphasis is best kept in check. Schools are always better served focusing their efforts upon that which truly equips people to flourish in life, society, and a myriad of contexts. That will usually be more than adequate to also prepare them for the next level of school, at least if that next level is grounded in reality and the mission of developing people for life.

Preference – From the entire school leadership to individual teachers, there are many instances where we make decisions based upon what we prefer, what is convenient for us, what is the least threatening to us, or what we consciously or unconsciously believe to be to our benefit and advantage. While this might be entirely natural and human, it must be recognized as contrary to the mission and purpose of a good school. It must be checked and challenged. It must not be fed and nourished, or else it will become a monstrous creature that devours the true mission of a good school. It can be starved with a few choice and persistent questions, questions that challenge us to remember our mission, vision, values, and goals. A good starting point is a simple question like this one. How does _______ serve, support and amplify our mission of helping students grow and develop?

Self-preservation, monopolizing tendencies, and self-serving mindsets are almost always at work in schools. Yet, they are never useful in achieving our missions. They detract and distract what matters most. I don’t expect that any community will rid itself of these altogether, but I am hopeful enough to believe that they can be resisted. In fact, by being transparent about these when they emerge, we create opportunities to remind ourselves about that which is most important in any good school or learning community, namely a focus upon learner growth and development.

 

What are the Implications of Having These 16 Different Types of Students in Your School?

I’ve been re-reading books lately. Promoted by some recent events, I started reading through the book that has fascinated and inspired me more than any other on the topic of higher education. It is a book called To Know for Real: Royce S. Pitkin and Goddard College. The book offers intriguing insights about the early years of Goddard College, a school has has long served as a source of inspiration in my work and thinking about education.

In one chapter, Pitken attempts to describe the diversity of students who attended Goddard. As such, he offered 16 of what some today might call student personas. Each person is obviously more than what is described, and it is certainly common for a student to embody multiple personas. Nonetheless, such an exercise is sometimes used today as a way to better understand the nature of a community or target audience. Following are the 16 that Pitken identifies. Do you see these personas present in your communities? Or, if you were going to create a similar list to represent the different dispositions and people in your community, how might your list look different? Yet, even as I pose these questions, consider that the purpose is not to label or sort people. It is to recognize the diversity of people and to consider the implications for the curriculum and community.

The Scholar

This is a “diligent student, likes books, pursues ideas, enjoys learning about hte past nad exploring along the frontiers of knowledge (p. 48).”

The Mixed-Up Kid

aimless, wavers, uncertain about whether this is the right college or if any college is the right path

Searcher

searching for meaning in life, seeking to know self, seeking God, grappling with the “mysteries of the mind and universe

Angry Student

sees the world as messed up, looking for a fight, quickly resorts to name-calling, sometimes self-righteous and arrogant, over-confident

Unhappy Student

feels alienated from the community and/or world, feels like a misfit, difficult to engage in conversation, appears withdrawn and lonely

Abdicator

doesn’t accept responsibility in the community, “withdraws from the realities that make life difficult and seeks refuge from the cold winds of the non-college world”

Rebel

sees problems and prepared for battle against them, sees them in family/school/law/government/”the system”, at work against perceived “injustice, inequity, corruption, stupidity, and power”

Activist

on a mission to make a difference, launch a newspaper, organize, stage a demonstration, start a new program…

Artist

seeking to bring order out of the chaos, express feelings, reveal insight through music, writing, fine art, theater…

Irresponsible Student

Where the abdicator withdraws, this student acts but with little responsibility for actions, acts without concern for its impact on others or the community

Responsible Citizen

joins or is elected to committees, faithful in attendance and responsibilities, and sees jobs to their completion

Rich Kid

never experienced want…the child of affluent society

Poor Kid

knows life “without shoes”

Inexperienced

great vocabulary, perhaps even well-versed in other languages, but the student’s learning is abstract and distinct from the realities of life

Dreamy-Eyed Youth

visionary, years fomr Utopias, builds “castles in the air”, and “looks eagerly for the imminent appearance of the great reformation”

Imitator

conformist, imitates those the student likes, heavily influenced by media in countless ways

Do you see yourself in one or more of these personas? How about the people in your learning community? If we are not careful, we can simply use such an exercise to label and judge others, but I’m confident that this was far from Pitken’s intent. For him, this exercise was a way to highlight the fact that learning communities represent people with incredibly different motives, dispositions, experiences, goals, fears, dreams, perspectives, and proclivities. Recognizing this is an important part of thinking about curriculum and what it take to co-create a learning community that truly serves and supports each and every student.

In Defense of More “Extreme” Higher Education Policy Changes from the US Department of Education

In a March 30, 2018 article written by Jared Cameron Bass, Amy Laitinen, and Clare McCann; they offer a critique of what they clearly see as unnecessary and extreme moves toward deregulation from the current US Department of Education administration. In particular, they focus upon four policy areas of import for higher education: state authorization, the credit hour, accreditation, and the current definition of “regular and substantive interaction” in distance education programs. In each case, the authors point out their concerns about the direction that the US Department of Education is going, calling for a less extreme tweak or refinement of current policy instead of completely removing a policy and/or starting from scratch.

I encourage you to read this initial article for yourself, as the following remarks are, at least in part, an alternative view on key themes from that article. As I read it, I found myself trying to document what seemed to be the stated or underlying assumptions in the article. While I welcome clarification or correction, here are nine themes that seemed to emerge from my reading.

  1. Too extreme of policy changes can open the door for abuses and fraud that none of us want. In fact, this quickly turns into an access and equity issue.
  2. If institutions are finding a way to comply or survive with a current policy in one of these three areas, then the policy can’t be too bad. As such, minor revisions are better than starting from scratch. We should respect the work of those who’ve been addressing issues over the last decade.
  3. The amount of time and money devoted by higher education institutions is not a significant concern.
  4. We should base our policies upon the feedback of the current higher education “winners”, namely those with the resources or privilege to have more of a voice at the table in shaping current policy and practice.
  5. We want to push beyond the status quo, but not in a way that might risk major disruptions, changes, or innovations that challenge our preconceived beliefs about what higher education should or should not be.
  6. IHEs are managing to comply with current state authorization policies and they are protecting against some abuses, so why get rid of it?
  7. The current definition of the credit hour has worked for many CBE programs, so it can’t be too bad.
  8. Accreditors need to be tougher on higher education institutions, and the DOE leverage on accreditation agencies should encourage that.
  9. There is important history to the current “regular and substantive interaction” requirement for distance education, and that should be taken into consideration before completely removing the requirement or starting from scratch.

This is one person’s framing and understanding of the positions in the article, but regardless, I use these nine statements as a launchpad for my reflection on the the need for more significant, even extreme, policy changes.

1. Too extreme of policy changes can open the door for abuses and fraud that none of us want. In fact, this quickly turns into an access and equity issue.

This is always a good and important caution when it comes to policy reform. As I often write, there are always affordances and limitations to policies. With each policy there are winners and losers. It just seems like the authors of the article are representing a view that the current policies do not have serious enough limitations or they are not flawed enough to warrant more extreme interventions. If we were talking about a home remodel, they seem to be arguing for painting the walls and rearranging the furniture a bit, but not going to the extreme of taking out walls, addressing structural issues, adding new flooring, and getting brand new furniture. Only some of us have been living in that house and we know that there is a termite infestation, the furniture is filthy, there are concerns about how long the roof will last, and it is preventing us from the quality of life that we seek. As such, there is a genuine difference of opinion about the status of the current policies. I am well aware of abuses that the credit hour policy prevents, as well as the “regular and substantive interaction” stipulation for distance education programs. They are protecting against abuse, but at the same time, they are holding us back from countless promising practices and innovations. They are also putting higher education institutions at a disadvantage against those non-regulated providers of emerging education.

2. If institutions are finding a way to comply or survive with a current policy in one of these three areas, then the policy can’t be too bad. As such, minor revisions are better than starting from scratch. We should respect the work of those who’ve been addressing issues over the last decade.

Again, it is good to caution us about mindless changes or not considering the background and context. However, that does not mean that we should disregard the potential benefit of starting from scratch. The history also reveals a great deal of baggage and people harmed by current policies. Even more, there is an opportunity loss that has come from the extreme and narrow parameters of countless currrent policies.

3. The amount of time and money devoted by higher education institutions is not a significant concern.

To be fair, the authors did not explicitly state this. They just didn’t recognize it as a factor either. When you are a smaller higher education institution, it is no small factor when you find yourself having to devote multiple FTEs year round or during certain times of the year just to comply with the countless policies. That takes money away from other more immediate needs. In fact, the current policy landscape has been a boon for companies and consultants who are using the complexities to essentially scare institutions into paying for their help and participation. More accurately, these companies don’t do the scaring. They just offer to help protect people from the fears and threats associated with what some external entity might define as a regulatory infraction.

4. We should base our policies upon the feedback of the current higher education “winners”, namely those with the resources or privilege to have more of a voice at the table in shaping current policy and practice.

I can’t imagine that the authors would agree with this as stated, but I worry that this sentiment is present in their proposed approach.

At one point, the article references a letter that allegedly represented the collective voice and viewpoint of “the distance education community.” I’ve been involved with distance education for well over a decade, and that letter does not represent me. This is a growing frustration for me, in fact. The current “winners” are the ones who get consulted the most and those who have secured the public voice and place of influence. Then they invite a few others that the winners deem worthy of including, or they do so to argue that they are being more inclusive. This is coming from a person who has indeed been privileged to work and interact with thought leaders and leading organizations throughout the United States and the world, and yet I consistently find that my input and that of institutions like the one that I serve have not been a welcome part of past policy decisions. Over the past decade, at least from my vantage point, they have a handful of their favorite thinkers and voices, and they certainly did not represent the larger higher education ecosystem or the breadth of philosophies and ideals represented in that ecosystem.

5. We want to push beyond the status quo, but not in a way that might risk major disruptions, changes, or innovations that challenge our preconceived beliefs about what higher education should or should not be.

Here is my greatest concern with the proposal that we be content simply tweaking the current system. Just spend one day researching the breadth of educational innovations today. Then consider how many potentially beneficial efforts are inhibited by the current policies. Apart from some of the largely narrow innovative practices in CBE, much of distance education has been stagnant for almost 25 years. That is policy induced stagnation. Those in distance education are persistently forced into a narrow set of practices that comply with the given policies, thus abandoning or never fully pursuing practices that have promise. The policies have become dictators of “best practice” that don’t even allow for efforts that might reveal new promising practices. Even worse, the policies are created to prevent certain abuses without adequate or even reasonable consideration for the realities and opportunities of 21st century learning…or 17th-20th century learning for that matter.

6. IHEs are managing to comply with current state authorization policies and they are protecting against some abuses, so why get rid of it?

Yes, we are managing to comply, but it has taken a ton of money and human resources from institutions that are working hard to keep costs down for students while providing a great learning experience. In addition, it took a massive and expensive national consortium effort to help mitigate the incredibly problematic regulations from state to state. When it takes that large of an effort to just figure out a way that institutions can “manage to comply”, that is a sign of poorly defined policy. As it stands, there is a membership fee to be pat of the National Council for State Authorization and Reciprocity Agreements, and then, individual states can charge extra as well. This might seem like small money to massive institutions, but there are plenty of IHEs that are only talking about serving a few (yes, literally 2 or 3) students in a given state. Yet, that state might charge the institution as much as $5000 or $10,000 to do so. My point is simply that institutions are managing, but it is not without opportunity, time, and money lost.

7. The current definition of the credit hour has worked for many CBE programs, so it can’t be too bad.

I happen to serve at an institution that was one of the first 20 welcomed into the Competency-based Education Network. I quickly discovered that an immense amount of the effort was focused upon how to structure things so that we could be in compliance. That is a horrible way to produce the best results, at least when the policy is so mis-informed in the first place. So yes, the CBE programs that have a voice at the table are finding ways to work within the current policies. That is just because all the other voices are not at the table, they have been silenced or ignored (even if at the table), or they represent promising approaches to CBE that never launched because of regulatory challenges. I do not write on behalf of my institution, but I can say that I am keenly aware of institutions that went through two or more years of confused external regulatory exchanges, only to end the conversations with a decision to back off on even trying, or a lack of clarity about what was even expected or required from external agencies. This is fertile soil for mediocrity and a lack of innovation.

8. Accreditors need to be tougher on higher education institutions, and the DOE leverage on accreditation agencies should encourage that.

Turning accreditors into police will only create more winners and losers in the higher education space. There is already mass inequity. I’ve spoken to people at elite institutions where some faculty do not even create syllabi with learning objectives for their courses, and they go through accreditation with flying colors. These are sometimes the very institutions from which influencers on education policies graduate or teach/research. Some of the leading voices in education policy, higher education scholars, are the first to demand almost complete autonomy in how and what they teach, and yet they publish about the need to be tougher on those “other” institutions. It is a deeply flawed system.

One colleague explained it this way. At some Universities, we put on ties and suits for accreditors. In other institutions, the accreditors put on suits and ties to visit (yes, a bit of a male-centric way of describing it, but you get the idea). Regional accreditation is a peer review process that, at its best, provides a venue for higher education institutions to give useful insights and feedback on how to grow and improve. Only it can quickly turn into a policing toward the status quo and the dominant or preferred practices of the day. There are better ways to do this that allow more leeway for true innovation (even of the disruptive sort) while also keeping egregious abuses in check. Only we are wise to consider that an “abuse” to one person could be an incredible innovation to another. The current standards used to offer feedback by various regional accreditors are often too narrow, honoring a rather narrow set of beliefs and philosophies of education. Yet, only certain institutions feel especially bound by these agencies.

Yet, the greater problem is that the DOE justification for getting involved with regional accreditors is because they need to protect their financial investments. It has everything to do with money and very little to do with the best interest of the students. It has led to a spiraling debate and drive toward increasingly narrow definitions of what is defined as a good higher education experience. This entire relationship between the DOE and accreditors (and accreditors to individual IHEs) could benefit from a complete overhaul.

9. There is important history to the current “regular and substantive interaction” requirement for distance education, and that should be taken into consideration before completely removing the requirement or starting from scratch.

Yes, there is an important history, and that history is part of what calls us to consider completely new policies. The current wording doesn’t even reflect the reality of many face-to-face programs today. Consider a PhD student doing largely independent research for years, maybe only meeting with her advisor for 15-20 minutes a week. That is outside the philosophical boundaries of the current policy. The UK doctorate or degree by research is excluded in the US on the basis of this current policy. Student internships could be arguably outside of this policy. There are countless other teaching and learning approaches that we would have to stretch to fit into the expectations of this and other policies. I contend that this justifies a more fundamental rewriting of policy, not just a tweak to the current system.

As a reminder, this is largely a response and reflection to the New America article called The Department of Deregulation. As much as I critique it here, I am grateful that it was written and published. There are important cautions about considering affordances and limitations, looking at history and context, and not being too quick to start deregulating. These are all good and important points. We must move with wisdom and careful consideration, but we must move, and that is my argument. I am not satisfied with the “just paint the walls a new color” approach to higher education policy remodels. The problems of current policies are too significant for that.

Into the Basement of the Higher Education Innovation Haunted Mansion at HAIL Storm 2018

“Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” I can’t say that I consistently live this teaching, but I value it. It is part of why I share candid, idiosyncratic, under-developed, rough draft ideas and projects online. Scan a random sample of my 1000+ online articles and you will find ample inconsistencies, false starts, over-zealous goals that fizzled before having something substantive to show for them, along with a few wins and accomplishments. Look carefully and you will find an article where I share what I called my un-resume, a long list of failures and underwhelming moments in life. Why would I share such things with the public? Be assured that there is even more that I don’t share, but as I gain the courage and weigh the risks, I strive to offer such a public record because it is something that I’ve long sought from others.

Growing up, I saw people who intrigued me, did what I wanted to do, reached a milestone that I hoped to reach one day, and/or who inspired me in some way. I saw their titles, feats, polished accomplishments, published works, and I read stories of their achievements. Only, I wanted to see how they got there. I longed to know the stories behind the stories, the struggles, fears, failures, and crossroads moments. I wanted to know about their flaws and limitations and how they managed them, how they pushed through the down times, whether they struggled with moments of doubt or depression and how they didn’t let such things consume them. I wanted to know about the hard times that also turned into important lessons. Then, amid all of that, I wanted to hear those stories of achievement once again.

Recently, I had a very brief visit to Disney World. A group of us went through the Haunted Mansion. In room after room, we saw translucent figures floating about. Many get that experience of the Haunted Mansion, but not what I saw next. Afterward, our guide took us on a second tour, this time a side door that took us into the basement of that same mansion. Walking in partial darkness between the carefully marked glowing lines on the floor, we were given a glimpse behind the scenes. I saw boxes stacked in corners, unimpressive plywood constructions, and other sights that resembled more of what you might expect in a storage unit or old barn. As we continued, we found ourselves beneath the public exhibit in one of the rooms, a behind the scenes view of the ghosts and ghouls. Only now we saw mirrors, lights, props, and human-like figures.

When I went on the first tour, I was impressed and amused. Walking out of that second tour, I was more inspired and informed. I could envision working with a team to creating our own haunted mansion. That is the same sort of thing that I longed for over the years as I looked at mentors, role models, and others from whom I hoped to learn. I can be impressed and engaged by the polish and public side of accomplishments, but that real and raw behind the scenes view is something that points me to more of a roadmap. While we sometimes face missions and challenges in life that do not seem to have much of a roadmap, getting the raw view of other’s journey can be used to build both competence and confidence.

I’m writing this as I sit in the Hollywood/Burbank Airport, leaving from a professional development experience that I would equate with a tour of the Haunted Mansion basement. HAIL (Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners) Storm was a small gathering of 35 people who are passionate about higher education innovation with a purpose. Only we didn’t gather for a typical conference experience. Instead, unlike any professional development experience in my higher education career, this was a time to hear the stories behind the story, to speak candidly about successes, challenges, developing ideas, and yes, even some of our failures. As such, I head home inspired and informed, a little more confident to pursue new possibilities, a bit more emboldened to persist through failures and challenges, and committed to lean even further into mission-minded educational innovation.

20 Questions To Gauge the Culture of Compassion, Curiosity, and Character Formation in a School

When I talk to people about school models, I get mixed reactions. Some are inspired by the stories that I tell about learning communities that are rich with curiosity and compassion. Others listen, but are skeptical. Still others are quick to dismiss what I share as rare and unrealistic for their particular context. Yet, I’m at a stage in my research that I am confident in my stance. It is entirely possible to create a school of compassion, curiosity, and growing character in pretty much any context in the world. It takes time. It will not be a utopia. It will be a work-in-progress. Nonetheless, progress in this direction is indeed possible, and there are countless inspiring examples of schools that have gone incredibly far in this direction. I’ve seen, studied, and learned about enough examples that I cannot deny this wonderful and very real possibility. Yet, our school communities too often remain content with what they are doing, emotionally tied to the things as they are, uninspired or unconvinced about what is possible, or inhibited by doubts or uncertainly about how to make it happen.

Even amid well over a decade of focused study, I cannot guarantee that a community will be rich with compassion, curiosity, and positive character formation. Or rather, there seem to be many ways to achieve this, and ample challenges on such a grand but noble quest. Yet, in every school that seems to be making progress in this regard, I find people who are asking tough questions about what they what to be, why, and how to get there. There is hope and vision, there is persistence through the challenges, and there is a constant self-assessment that informs what they are doing.

With that in mind, I put together the following questions. These can be used by parents and students seeking out a new school. They can be used by administrators and teachers who are open to some serious school soul-searching. They can also be used for almost anyone who wants to gauge the type of culture that dominates a given school. These questions reflect some of my personal values and priorities, but most of them simply help us reflect upon traits that consistently indicate a school that is embarking on the quest to create a more hopeful, compassionate, and curious community; one where each student is also on a journey of learning, growth, and character formation.

  1. Do administrators, teachers, and students in your school know the difference between having a high grade point average or high test scores and having genuine intellectual curiosity? How do they describe this difference?
  2. If you ask students what it means for a student to be smart, how many answers start with statements about grades and test scores?
  3. How many teachers and administrators in your school believe that the only “realistic” way to get students motivated to learn is through academic carrots and sticks like quizzes, tests, and grades?
  4. How common is it to overhear student lunchtime conversations about great ideas, good books, projects, learning challenges, or significant issues in society…and not just in preparation for an upcoming exam?
  5. How does the trophy case for intellectual and social accomplishments compare to the trophy case for athletic accomplishments at your school?
  6. Compare these two statistics in your school: 1) the percentage of students on an athletic team, 2) the percentage of students who read at least a book a month for personal interest (as an extracurricular).
  7. How much of a priority does your school place upon care and kindness? If you had to prove that level of priority in a court of law, what evidence would you provide?
  8. How much time do students have for life beyond school, homework, and school-sponsored events? What does the school do to honor and support family and life beyond school? Look for specific examples, preferably things that point to policies or persistent practices, not simple anecdotes and one-time efforts.
  9. Look at the “decorations” in 3-5 random rooms in the school and at least 2 hallways. If what you see on the walls is the only indication of the culture and top priorities in the school, what would that tell you about the school?
  10. How much of the school culture revolves around athletics? How does that compare with a celebration of music, the arts, service, and intellectual pursuits? Look for evidence that goes beyond a few anecdotes.
  11. How often do students work on focused projects / challenges (other than traditional research papers) that require them to engage in independent, persistent work for an extended period (6+ weeks for middle school, 8-12+ weeks for high school)?
  12. Ask students to describe how much of their time is focused upon study and preparation for quizzes and tests compared to solving problems, exploring questions, cultivating new skills, or achieving goals. What does this tell you?
  13. Ask 5-10 random students to describe 3-5 people in the school community who inspire, challenge, or encourage them to be better people in one way or another.
  14. Ask a class of students to write down the number of students in the school they know who do not have any friends. How many are there?
  15. Does the school seek and use frequent feedback from students and parents? How? What is the best evidence that this is important to leadership and teachers at the school?
  16. Spent a morning at the school and look for the number of one-on-one interactions between students and teachers compared to one teacher to a whole class interactions. How much coaching, mentoring, and personalized teaching can you observe?
  17. Observe 3-5 random classrooms for 5-10 minutes each. How much of the time is dominated by the teacher talking versus the students discussing, doing, debating, creating, and learning?
  18. Ask 5-10 people at the school to define “academic success.” What does this tell you about the goals, values, and priorities in the school?
  19. Ask the school leaders to list the top two current problems or challenges in the school community. Then ask what they have done and are doing to address these two challenges. How much of a priority are these issues?
  20. If you shared this list with administrators and teachers at your school, how many of them would mock or laugh at the list as unrealistic?

There are plenty of other great questions, but I offer these as a good starting point. Join me in imagining an education ecosystem shaped by this sort of soul-searching. What would be different in education if we valued and asked such questions more often? How would our schools be different? How would the lives of learners be different? Over time, how would our communities be different?

How to Win an Argument Every Time, Why You Should Not, & What it Means for Education

Amid my ongoing research on the use of visuals and infographics to communicate knowledge online, I came across a new infographic called “How to Win an Argument Every Time.” I first saw the infographic on Pinterest, but I eventually tracked it down as part of a larger article on the subject. Yet, in this digital age, bits of our writing and messages, especially when they are in visual form, frequently get pulled out of context, shared, remixed, and re-interpreted. Consider the implications. I’d like to use this article as a platform to write about how to win an argument every time, why you should not, and (as people come to expect on this blog) what it means for education.

Not in the original article, but in another article that reused the infograhic (it is licensed creative commons), the author sets the context as the workplace when there is often a battle for ideas, and how it is important to be able to make your case. Yet, even in the first few paragraphs, the author shares an incredibly important and wise clarification.

Even if you are the boss, there are times when everyone will benefit from you backing down and accepting when you’re wrong. But when you’re right, you need to make sure your point of view is heard.

Within the infographic, it is all about the steps to building rapport and persuasion, advice that is supported in many studies: ask them to share their thought and listen, make eye contact, restate what you hear to show that you are listening and clarify your understanding, subtly mirror body language, build common ground by relating. Then it goes on to share the best strategies for sharing a convincing argument, again drawing from strategies often referenced in the research on persuasion and negotiation tactics.

It is a fine infographic. It draws from some good sources, cites those sources, chunks the content in a few logical categories, uses visuals judiciously and effectively, and even does it under a creative commons license. What is not to like about that? In fact, I do like and appreciate the visual.

Nonetheless, coming across this infographic on Pinterest, separated from its original context, created a good opportunity for me to consider an aspect of life and learning in a digital and connected age, one that finds its way into our schools and classrooms. As such, I offer three considerations:

De-contextualized Debates and Amplifying Tribalistic Tendencies

First, it is wise for us to recognize this dynamic of communication in the digital age. Too often, I see intense debates and disagreements both online and in learning organizations that can be traced back to de-contextualized messages. Consider this social media example.

  1. Someone Tweets a message within a given context.
  2. Others read it without awareness of that context.
  3. As such it is misinterpreted.
  4. False accusations and assumptions ensue.
  5. The message gets shared and further torn from its original context.
  6. Any search for the facts, the truth, or deep understanding is sacrificed at the altar of tribalist tendencies.
  7. The conversation turns into a series of partisan or tribalist bumper sticker statements to deepen personal convictions and do little or nothing to surface truth or valuable insight.

The alternative is for each of us, as we encounter these discourses at various phases of their lifespan, choose to seek understanding and context. That is part of being truly literate in a digital age, and it is not a skill that we master and then tuck away for occasional use. It is something that we must persistently pursue with each new discourse and interaction. It is an important digital habitus.

The Infographic Principles Have Even More Noble Uses

Many of the “strategies” or tactics” in the infographic are quite valuable in communication, but they are not just tools for winning an argument. They are also tools for seeking genuine understanding, building positive relationships, and seeking both wisdom and truth. It is fine to talk about how to win an argument. Rhetoric has been a valued part of education for a very long time, and it plays an important role in life and society. Yet, there is what I like to call wild rhetoric and domesticated rhetoric. Wild rhetoric is drunk with self-interest and wild passions more than anything else. My apologies for mixing metaphors, but domesticated rhetoric is sober, tame, and taught to serve a greater and more noble purpose.

The Most Important Goal is Not Winning the Argument

Third, and this relates to the content of the infographic, it is not good to win arguments every time. As much as I value the article and the infographic, and as much as I took a little time to track down the context for the infographic, the title focuses our attention on trying to win the argument every time. I disagree, and not just in situations where we recognize that we are wrong. Sometimes we are completely convinced that we are right, but we are not. To win would take us and others further away from the objective truth or the wisest course of action. I contend that the pursuit of such an approach, while we will never do it fully or perfectly, is an important part of civil discourse, the cultivation of wisdom, much needed leadership, and actual progress. If truth matters and we value wisdom in the modern world, then skill in rhetoric must always be paired with humility and a love for that which is wise, true, beautiful, and good.

Implications for Education

Regardless of what is happening in social media and larger discourses in society, schools have an important role to play. In my book, What Really Matters: 10 Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, the final item in the list of ten, and the last chapter in the book is entitled, “Truth, Beauty and Goodness.” That is because I continue to argue that, regardless of the method, model, or context in education; these three remain solid transcendentals upon which to build our curricula and learning communities. Learning organizations are places where we can celebrate, nurture, explore, and grow in our understanding of truth, beauty, and goodness. In doing so, we move beyond self-interest, while paradoxically discovering greater meaning and purpose in our lives and in the world.

Schools are places where we can, do, and should argue; even intensely. Yet, our goal is not to win as much as it is to learn, to understand, to grow, and to discover that which transcends the argument itself. In a time when some want to reduce the role of schools to job preparation using reductionist measures of success, and driving people in that direction by creating a culture of compliance, we can point to something bigger, better, more worthy of our time, money, and effort. Yes, we will prepare people for work, but even then, it must be work that grows out of truth, beauty, and goodness. It must be work shaped by wisdom and skill. For that, we must be about more than winning arguments.

Do you disagree or see fault in my thinking? I would love to hear from you. After all, even this article is not simply about making a case or winning an argument. It is just as much about seeking understanding.

Schools That Claim to Be Ideal for All Are Closer to Ideal for Nobody

I’m in the middle of a major writing project with an impending deadline for the publisher. I’m researching and profiling variety of school models for this work. As a started a section of a chapter about “lessons learned” from one of the schools, I had an important epiphany. Only I’ve probably come to this conclusion many times in the past, so I’m not sure if epiphany is the right word. Perhaps I should call it a re-realization. It is about the uniqueness of each child and the values-laden nature of schools and school culture.

My re-realization says something important about my philosophy of education, and explains much about what I write and why I write it. It is this:

The school that claims to be the ideal school for every child is on a certain path to becoming the ideal school for no child.

Becoming the best option for every child is not achievable, not unless we restrict the options through laws, regulations, and cloaked social strategies to control people’s choices (like resisting programs that make private school options affordable for families). The only way to make the local school the “best” school is to make it the only school and then proudly proclaim that it is the best school for every child in town. Of course it is the best option because it is only being compared to itself! Yet, when I uncover the arguments behind some people’s positions on modern education, it certainly seems to boil down to such a position.

If we want to make greater progress in education today, it is time for us to be honest about some basics and my re-realization is one of those basics. No school is ideal for every student. If you can agree with this, then the next question is simply this. What are the implications of this fact for the type of education ecosystem that we should promote, design, or re-design in contemporary America?

If, on the other hand, you disagree with my claim. You argue that a single school can indeed be ideal for every student, or least the majority of students, then that is a different matter.

In fact, there are two very different positions in what I just wrote. If you try to hedge your position by saying that a school can at least be good for the majority of students, therefore we should invest and support that choice above others, then what does that say about your view of and value for the minority? Are you contending that doing what is right for the majority is adequate, even if there is a minority that suffers because of it? We are talking about human life and potential here. Do we really want to be so wasteful with something so precious?

If you are more firm on your position and say that a single school can truly be ideal for every student, then I must reply with a demand that you prove such an extreme claim. Do you really believe this or are you just holding to the position because it best supports some larger set of beliefs and values that you hold dear? There are some alternatives to supporting this position. One is to claim that one school can, in fact, become or function like many, creating different pathways for different students. In fact, I have often championed such an approach. Only, I contend that this gets us to a school that is good for many students, but not all, and I contend that we should not settle for the pursuit of anything less than a better, more hopeful, more humane educational ecosystem that offers very good options for all learners (and that the learners and their closest ones) have ample say in defining what constitutes “very good.”

Now I should get back to writing and meeting that impending manuscript deadline with the publisher.

You Matter: A Community Garden Vision of Education

You matter. You matter in education. Notice that I did not state that teachers matter, students matter, parents matter, school leaders matter, or policymakers matter. I stated that you matter, regardless of your role. Only, it is imperative that all of us recognize the important fact that each person has a role in education. As with government and healthcare, education is too important to be left to a select group of people who make all the decisions. This is not some neutral endeavor. As I’ve written many times before, education is deeply values-laden; it transmits, muzzles, and amplifies core beliefs and values. As such, if you think that your beliefs and values are important, then your voice matters in education. If you choose not to speak, then that is a decision to let the beliefs and values of others dominate your education, the education of your family members, and the education of others in your community and beyond.

We are nearing an important crossroads in education. There is the persistent battle of ideas between whether education is primarily and art or a science. The advocates of making it exclusively or primarily a science are, whether they realize it or not, advocating for us to place education decisions into the hands of a new, scientific priesthood. To question these priests is to question science, and that is not to be tolerated. On the other hand, to give into the advocates who would make it entirely or primarily an art, may unknowingly be driving us away from incredibly powerful educational breakthroughs that can produce incredible results.

Education is neither art nor science. It is a field that encompasses both, not to mention ideas and practices that do not necessarily fit neatly into the category of art or science. The word “field” might be a useful metaphor. We talk about fields of study. What do we mean by this? The word “field” derives from the Old English “feld”, or cultivated land (in contrast to woodlands). There is a thoughtful, even systematic cultivation of select crops in a field, compared to the randomness of the woodlands. What you plant, how you grow it, and how you cultivate it depends upon the context. There are affordances and limitations to those decisions, informed by sometimes competing and conflicting values. This is why I’ve long argued for the value of a diverse education ecosystem. Or, if it helps, picture a massive community-based garden, with different people and individuals planting and cultivating alongside one another. Some opt for a beautiful selection of flowers. Others go for a wide array of vegetables. Some choose raised beds while others stick with old-school rows. There will we some shared rules for those who play and plant in this field, but there is room for variety.

I love driving by these community-based gardens, seeing the creativity and values of different groups expressed in what they grow. People help one another. Others stay pretty much to themselves. Individually, they have their chance at growing something meaningful to them. Collectively, they are contributing to a wonderfully diverse ecosystem.

That is my dream for modern education, and this vision benefits from each person, you included, seeing your role in one or more of those gardens.

Some will argue that it is more efficient to plow over these diverse gardens. For the sake of efficiency, let a centralized and authorized group of farmers (government, corporate, etc.) take over the entire field, replacing these distinct plots with a single plan for everyone. Others argue for ignoring any need for the managers of each plot to play within any shared set of rules. Both extremes steal something from what is truly special about a community garden. Yet, for this vision and value in education, it depends upon you being a champion for it, resisting the voice of the extremes, and recognizing the importance that you and everyone else can bring to it.