Revolution From the Ground Up: A Framework for the Education System We Need
Earlier this year in the Curtis School community, we asked teachers what they want their students to become. They used words like compassionate, cooperative, creative, critically thinking, and curious. We asked parents and guardians to identify the words they'd use to define the future "success" of their children—they used words like independent, open-minded, self-motivated, resilient, and engaged. And we asked 8 to 12-year-old students to describe the very best they hoped to become—they used words like balanced, flexible, enthusiastic, honest, cooperative, and determined.
In October we invited similar input from participants at "Teaching and Learning at Home and at School", a conference held on our campus in Los Angeles for passionate educators and parents/guardians—engaged members of both public and private school communities—to reflect on our common commitments to the lives and the learning of school-aged children at school and at home. The 600 participants were stakeholders from 125 schools and districts—yet nobody used words like accountable, competitive, distinguished, or exceptional.
But when we take a close look at most schools' practice—to say nothing of the current national dialogue about education, as represented in the mainstream press—which of these value systems is actually promoted? And what message are we broadcasting to the children in our care?
Our world has changed in ways that make the predominant models of learning in our education system irrelevant. Public schools are prevented from making transformative changes because of their obligations to high-stakes testing and accountability policies. Private schools are theoretically more nimble, but serve a dreadfully narrow spectrum of our population and are beholden to antiquated ideas of "excellence."
Teachers are invested in supporting all the learners in their classrooms, and weary of mandated practices that are often incompatible with learning. Parents welcome their children's more meaningful engagement at school, but worry whether their children's grades and test scores will qualify them for high school, college, graduate school, or employment. And thus our education system—leaving aside the growing promise of some creatively subversive examples to the contrary—has, broadly speaking, changed at a painfully slower pace than our ideas.
None of this, of course, is new.
And all of this, of course, is profoundly "old" (and boring, and damaging) to yet another generation of students who are rarely asked to offer their input in this tiring—and tiresome—conversation. The children know—and we know—what we want our schools to become, but we look forward, vaguely, to a new era in which the "education system" intentionally embraces those goals—not just in its public rhetoric, but in its central practices.
What might be "new" is Sir Ken Robinson's invitation, which he extended at the conference, to redefine the "education system," and the agents responsible and empowered to change it. After all, says Robinson, "the 'education system is not what happens in the anteroom to Arne Duncan's office, or in the debating halls of our state capitals." Instead, "the education system is the school they (students) go to."
That means, says Robinson:
"If you are a school principal, you are the education system for the kids in your school. If you are a teacher, you are the education system for the children in your classroom. And if you change your practice—if you change your way of thinking—you change the world for those students. You change the education system.
And if enough people change, and they're connected in the way they change, that's a movement. And when enough people are moving, that's a revolution. On the whole, revolutions begin from the ground up—and then, if politicians are sensitive, politicians will embrace it and say it was their own idea."
Robinson's call was echoed by eight other leading voices in education and psychology—Carol Dweck, Richard Gerver, Nikhil Goyal, Steven Jones, Ken Kay, Alfie Kohn, Wendy Mogel, and Yong Zhao—who helped us not merely to reframe, but to reject the familiar obstacles to systemic transformation. As Robinson suggested:
"I think what we need...is to think hard about setting down more clearly the core principles that could help to guide this movement forward. There are many practices to share, but the practices will all be different—they'll be vernacular in nature; they'll be customized to local circumstances—but like all movements, they should adhere to certain common principles."
In advance of the conference, Richard Gerver suggested that we invite the voices of stakeholders "to the table." We began by crowdsourcing reflections on a reasonable, simple prompt:
"Reflect on your deepest beliefs about the purpose of education and the value of the experiences schools can provide. Imagine a world in which anything is possible—in which every school could design and support programs, activities, and experiences that honor these hopes and beliefs, and provide for children what you value about all else...What do you want children to learn? What skills do you want schools to help children develop? What goals do you want learning communities to set as their priorities? What do you want every child to experience?"
A team of teachers and leaders spent hours poring over the many passionate responses, identifying patterns among the principles that were most commonly invoked. Then, in a series of conference calls, a subcommittee of the presenters debated and revised a draft. And as a result we provided a draft of this "Covenant to Help Inspire Learning and Development" (PDF) for facilitated reflection and feedback during the afternoon session of the conference.
CHILD asks us to "develop a culture of learning defined by intentional practices that explicitly honor" and embrace 16 principles across three key areas: student engagement, character and community, and deeper learning. For example, regarding student engagement, educators, parents, and guardians should "nurture each child's great curiosity, interest, and potential to achieve high levels of success," honor their "questions and value their opinions," and give them "explicit opportunities for unstructured and uninterrupted play."
Building character and community requires that we "encourage resilience, persistence, and responsibility in the face of ambiguity, challenge, or conflict," and that we "promote ethical decision-making with a balance of critical thought and compassion." In order to facilitate deeper learning, we must "promote learning in meaningful contexts of experience and 'real world' challenges," and make it interdisciplinary "without compartmentalizing 'subjects' and 'departments'." We must also "discontinue practices and policies likely to undermine a child's love of learning."
At the conference we tried to organize our shared beliefs so they can guide continued reflection in our local learning communities. And in the design of the conference itself—much more importantly, perhaps—we tried to provide a model for the kinds of transformative action participants might themselves seed in their schools and homes. As Sir Ken Robinson invited us to believe, this framework for collaborative action "can take us a very long way into creating the kinds of education systems that we need."
Whether CHILD will have an impact on the broader education system, as we have traditionally defined it, is anybody's guess. But it has started, in fits and starts, to have an impact on the "education system" Robinson redefines as our own, private scope of influence.
A school board member plans to share the presentations with district leadership. A principal in Switzerland will use the principles to guide curriculum change in her school. A local educator realized the difference between her principles and her practices at school and at home. She wrote us that Dweck's presentation changed her life.
"I was attending the conference as [an educator], but I began listening as a parent," she said. And she realized that—like many of us—she "was emphasizing grades and test scores, which fosters a fixed mindset." Since she wants her daughter "to seek academic challenges, not be afraid of failure, and to have a growth mindset," she's changed her parenting style.
And, perhaps most powerfully, a 20-year veteran middle school teacher renewed her commitment to her profession. "I'm still passionate about my work," she wrote us, but "I've started to feel beaten down. Lately, I've even been considering whether to continue to invest my energy and heart in this mission." After attending the conference and engaging with the covenant, the teacher says she is, "no longer at a crossroads," and recommits "to continue investing my energy and heart in supporting students to rediscover the joy of learning and to continue my education to become a better teacher and a change agent in this field."
To seed further reflection and action outside of the community of attendees, we've made videos of the sessions available on our site. We also invite you to add your name in solidarity with the CHILD principles and find ways to align your personal "education system" with them. If you have suggestions on how to facilitate further reflection and action, or if you need support providing such facilitation, please contact us through the Center for the Future of Elementary Education at Curtis School site.
Click here to add signing on to CHILD and committing to its principles to your GOOD "to-do" list.