Rendezvous With Yesterday

We live in a different world today that the world we lived in 12 months ago. As much as we like to reminisce about how the grass was greener then, the skies were bluer, and the smiles were brighter, out world will never again be what it was.

The pandemic has claimed over 500,000 lives in the U.S. in the last year. It has touched every aspect and segment of our society. Most of us acknowledged the existence of the coronavirus, the implications and consequences of contreacting it or transmitting it to others. Many of us changed our attitudes and behaviors, sacrificed short-term activities for long-term security. Most of us have accepted that how we live our lives today is not how we lived our lives in March, 2020, and we are adapting to the realities of the post-pandemic world.

Yet some of us still deny it, and are on the path toward a rendezvous with yesterday.

In our schools today, 21st century kids are being taught by 20th century adults using 19th century curricula and schedules on an 18th century calendar.

A bit of hyperbole, but not much. The course/curriculum sequence of the Committee of Ten is still the prevalent model, Frederick Taylor’s bell schedule still powers a time-driven system, Andrew Carnegie’s units continue to ensure that time is the constant, learning, and the application of it, is the variable in our schools.

Consider this schedule: age 8am you arrive at work. You are immediately busy with a quick problem needing to be solved. You get after it, but you have only about 3 minutes to complete it. Your focus is broken as you receive instruction for the next half hour or so, then it is off to another task. There may be a bit of discussion with a small group of people that you get to work with, but you are typically on task, dedicated, and usually working on your own.

After about an hour, you pack up your materials and move to a different work space where the process repeats itself, only around a different set of topics.

By the end of the day, you will change rooms, change focus, change tasks, change environments, and change peers around 6 times a day.

After work, you have several tasks that must be completed overnight. I won’t mention weekends…

The supervisors who oversee your various hourly commitments don’t really communicate with each other. Each treats their tasks as the number one priority in your life, not merely for that hour, but for that day. Overlapping is ignored.

This work schedule is “high school,” and in many places, middle school. For both students and teachers.

If you think this is not realistic in your school, ask your students how many times they have multiple tests on the same day. Then ask them what they did on the night before they have the multiple tests. How many of them are involved in school and/or family activities that make if difficult to adequately prepare for one exam the next day, let along several.

What other employer would regularly or realistically impose multiple deadlines on several major, discreet and unrelated projects on the same day?

Talk among yourselves. And make a point of starting to see your school through the eyes of your students. And let’s start listening to their voices.

“As society rapidly changes, individuals will have to be able to function comfortably in a world that is always in flux. Knowledge will continue to increase at a dizzying rate. This means that content-based curriculum, with a set body of information to be imparted to students, is entirely inappropriate as a means of preparing children for their adult roles.” John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.

Is this an indictment of the current system of American education and those who work in it> Absolutely not! Indeed, the current system of American education is doing exactly what it was designed for. It is effectively educating the masses.

For a world that no longer exists.

We are married to a system that has not been properly re-evaluated for 21st century capabilities and capacities.

High school is still broken into silos of subjects called departments – English, math, science, social studies, arts, career-tech – but without viable links to how these departments fit into the students world after graduation. The result is a mess; individual departments attempting to simultaneously provide a broad overview of every major field and a narrow foundation for future specialized study at the post-secondary level. And we attempt to do this all at once, a little bit of everything, every day, for four years.

Skills become subjects.

Yet the skills each student is building are not unique to any one subject. Writing is not just a part of the English department scope and sequence. It is necessary in all classes. The same is true of reading and math. But in my experiences, they are seldom integrated across all content areas. There are few, if any, discussions across a building faculty about acceptable conventions, so what is acceptable work in one class, or department, is not acceptable in another.

Teachers tend to hold tightly onto what has worked for them in the past. So the traditions continue…

Having violated the Biblical injunction against casting the first stone, let me propose a solution.

Let’s use our transition into the post-pandemic world to move our schools from a focus on education (teaching) to a focus on learning.

It is interesting that most school leaders don’t put learning first. Instead, they start with state mandates, or standardized test scores, or parent mandates, and then try to figure out how to fit the processes of learning into reaching those outcomes.

Let’s build our new Holy Strategic Plans and annual School Improvement Plans on a foundation of our beliefs about how students learn most powerfully and deeply.

And then worked to figure out how to fit the tests, mandates, and expectations into the process of reaching those learning goals?

Been there, done that, still have some t-shirts from those schools.

As a few of my coaches used to teach, take care of the fundamentals of playing the game and the score will take care of itself. They taught us to shoot at the rim, not at the scoreboard.

Of course, this requires that we be clear about what we mean when we say learning. That we have some coherent, community-wide understanding of what it is, how it happens, and how to measure and evaluate it. That our system is built on a solid foundation of developing and nourishing engaged and literate learners who can navigate their lives, and the world, in innovative and impactful ways. We must redefine “success” of our graduates. At every level, primary to middle, middle to secondary, secondary to post-secondary.

Successful innovation starts by identifying a problem to be solved. Raising test scores, increasing the number or percentage of graduates, meeting state mandates do not stimulate innovation. Providing more “technology” by itself will not solve a problem, only create more.

Schools are first and foremost about people. The only way I know to change an organization is by changing the attitudes, beliefs and actions of the people who make up the organization.

One of the lessons I learned from the Total Quality movement, back when that was the BIG THING, (which has now evolved in to Data Driven Decision Making, so I guess it had legs), is that you can change the people, or you need to change the people. In other words, change the attitudes, beliefs and actions of the people, or get different people.

As we look at what schools, and learning should be, let’s accept that we need new ways of thinking, new actions, new beliefs and attitudes, new ways of doing old things, and indeed, new things to do.

Let’s find and nurture the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. As Apple once taught us.

Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

There is no history lesson more crucial than this: Yesterday’s methods can only yield yesterday’s results.

That’s why we must focus on new growth and new opportunities. From the certainty of all that has been, we must launch into the not yet discovered, the not yet achieved, the not yet mastered.

What the future holds is a shining new destiny for those with the courage to embrace change, seize the opportunities of the here and now, and welcome the dawning of a new day.

During my tenure, I have been fortunate to work in a couple of forward-thinking, innovative districts and schools. I was able to meet, learn from, and work with other believers in our cause. I must thank Ian Jukes, Will Richardson, Guy Kawasaki, copywriters at an ad agency contracted by Apple when it was still a computer company, Willard Daggett, and the late John Taylor Gatto for inspiring me to do the right things instead of doing things right. Their thoughts and words have been influences in my career, and are embedded in this post.

May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe we can make a difference in this world, so we can do what other claim cannot be done.

And so it goes…