This March on Washington, Where’s the Dream?

At the end of this month there will be a  “Save our Schools March” on Washington. Unlike the 1963 March on Washington, there is no clear, shared vision of what it would look like if the desired changes happened. What would it look like if teachers and parents “took back the schools?”

Last month I published “Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really” in which I suggest that parents and other educators actually do know what we want. We want schools to graduate young people for the world as it is rather than for the industrial age.

The good news is, we know what those graduates should look like. Educators from Tony Wagner at Harvard to Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford have identified the kinds of skills the world will require of our graduates: focusing, making connections, changing perspective, creating, making judgments, finding meaning, working with others, managing conflict, planning, taking on challenges, persevering, etc.

Citizens with these skills, however, will not come from whomever wins the big debates over testing, teachers, unions, accountability, privatization, vouchers, charter schools, and so on.

The great news is that the changes we want have already occurred in some schools for some students. Hundreds of schools across the country, both public and private, rich and poor, are learning communities whose cultures are focused on bringing out the best in each person, building their character and their competence, and growing their authority. They have abandoned the Pyramid Model. For these schools and the people in them the game of school is not the “Get the Right Answers Game” but the “Work with Others to Investigate Interesting Questions Game.” These schools are graduating young people for the future—any future.

I have met many of these young people. They are everything we say we want: confident, creative collaborators who can communicate, they can speak and write, and solve problems on their own and also know when to involve others, and they are not into measuring up but rather into making a difference. They are trying to find their own unique place in a very wide world, and seem quite ready for the dynamic never-ending process of self-reinvention.

Moreover, they aren’t all under 30. Apparently this change has been going on for at least a generation. A parent at one school was going on about how wonderful her daughter’s school was. He said: “I visited 15 different schools. I could tell in five minutes that I wanted this school.”

So, I asked, “Terrific, but what’s so great?”

He said, “All other schools go like this (his hands formed a pyramid); this school goes like this.” (The fingers of his hands spread up and out in all directions like a plant, or tree, or coral reef).

The best news is that although ingrained in our minds like bad habits, these myths vanish in the face of a little conversation between parents and teachers about children in the absence of fear. A little reminding and people can usually refocus on what matters.

  1. Life is a race to the top of some pyramid.

No, it’s not. The place: “I have arrived” is a mirage. Living is growing. For learners there is more and more opportunity as we get older, not less and less. It’s best to focus children on pursuing their calling, developing their character, building a self, making a difference. Put learning first and achievement will follow anon.

2. Academic achievement is the ticket to the top. (test scores/brand name colleges)

No. Academic achievement is a ticket to academic achievement. People hire confident learners who can work with others. Academic Achievement is only one measure of that and not a very good one.

3. It is all about ability, and there are 3 kinds of kids: gifted, normal and those who learn differently.

We know that is not true. We each learn differently, have a unique set of gifts and talents, and none of us is “normal.” Ability is something we can develop depending upon what we commit to do and practice. Encourage a growth mindset in kids. (If you practice you’ll get smarter. That is what the research shows.) Be great not excellent. Don’t compare yourself with others. “Best” distracts us from being great because it allows the notion of comparison to creep in. Don’t label.

4. The race starts in kindergarten with kids at ZERO.

Not at all. By the time they walk into their first kindergarten classroom and are asked to sit in a circle, children have already been researchers, scientists, detectives and problem-solvers for over 43,000 hours. Treat them as if they already know a lot and are passionate about learning more.

5. You can get a head start by starting the race early: preschool, birth, pre-natal.

It’s true that early environment has a powerful effect on brain development, but getting an early start on academics can actually hurt. Don’t start the race early. Raising your child in a complex environment builds a more complex brain, but seeing it as race and comparing your child with others to see how ahead or behind they are, weakens them. Even in a race, looking over your shoulder slows you down.

6. Parents have the power to get their kids to turn out the way they want them to.

Parents have influence. But children come into the world as their own people, and our job is to help them be that person more effectively and gracefully. A child is not some sort of project in which we can control the outcome. A parent’s power is limited. The 3 ways we can have a positive effect is 1) treat them as decision makers 2) clarify and defend boundaries, 3) provide unconditional love. Love ‘em and tell ‘em the truth.

7. Similarly, education is about shaping your child or a bit like getting your child through the eye of the needle.

No. As with parents, when schools try to shape children, they come out misshapen. Education is leading a person’s character out into the world to function effectively, creatively and gracefully within it. Drop “getting ahead” or “being behind.” Help each child learn the skills they need to master real challenges.

8. Academics are skills you wouldn’t naturally like.

Wrong. Schools tend to push kids to master certain skills on a fixed (and arbitrary) timetable, and bore or intimidate them along the way. This process often makes kids decide they are stupid in certain subjects (if it doesn’t make them hate school altogether). Also, holding to the timetable makes kids move on to the next thing before they have mastered the last thing, which increases their frustration and makes them think they don’t like the subject.

However, when taught in ways that are engaging, fun and meaningful by teachers who put the learning of each individual child first, academic skills are just as likable as those of other disciplines like: design, athletics, building, collaboration, music, conflict resolution, theatre, spiritual growth. The key elements in likability are: human connection, internal motivation, practice and mastery. Kids naturally love challenge and mastery. Teachers, parents and schools need to be patient, and give them the time to learn and master. Under these conditions they learn more, faster.

9. You have to sacrifice your imagination, your inquisitiveness and your self to get through the eye of the needle to the next level of academic achievement.

On the contrary, imagination, inquisitiveness, integrity, grit, enthusiasm, inspiration, practice, perseverance, courage, etc. are the key disciplines of development of character and also the key elements of academic success. Fulfillment of self and mastering academic standards go hand in hand.

10. High on the pyramid has something to do with happiness.

This myth not only sets people up for failure, but also for unhappiness. Research on happiness shows that there is no correlation between position on the pyramid and happiness. Connection to Others, Work that you Love, Loving to Learn. This is success. One more thing: Loving a challenge. The ability to learn from disappointment, failure, loss, mistakes, conflict, newness, etc. all make for a good life. Pain is a necessary ingredient of all lives regardless of how “high” you are on the mythical pyramid.

These myths will die as more and more schools embrace the new era. My agony is that meanwhile our society is breaking in two. Millions of people are getting an education, but tens of millions are not, and many of those without parental or community support are being cast onto the discard pile of our rapidly changing world.

I dream that one day the conversation between parents and teachers will liberate us from the myths of an archaic culture, and refocus the culture of our schools—all our schools—to be congruent with the emerging global culture.

Impossible dream? Well, isn’t that what a March on Washington is for?

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15 thoughts on “This March on Washington, Where’s the Dream?

  1. Wow! Your writing has really turned a corner here. This feels a lot more of a movement now. Up till a few months ago there was always an apologia-like subtext. All self-consciousness seems to have fallen away. Fix your analysis of #9, though. I don’t think your flat disagreement with it holds water given everything else you are saying. #9 makes intuitive sense, so if it really is wrong and if it matters to your argument you gotta really break it down for us.

  2. Here’s another myth, related to #3:

    – Among learners, we have winners, average children, and losers. We need the winners to be highly educated and become leaders, average learners can get by with a rote education and become cogs in the economy, and the losers, who lack intelligence or motivation, are expendable and will grow up to flip burgers or go to prison.

    This falsehood is used to perpetuate education for the economy of the 19th century. The 21st century demands a nation of inspired, creative overachievers, people who are taught to think critically, solve problems, and create things. A country that consigns its kids to rote learning or brands disadvantaged kids as expendable is doomed to remain a 20th century economy, its feet rooted in 19th century education.

  3. Peter,
    Sokikom raised this same point in the first comment to my June 15th post about the “nine lies.” He wrote: “How can we balance the need for self discovery with the need for standardized education?”
    My response was essentially: Thank you. This gives us myth number 10: Self-discovery and standardized education are at odds.

    I was wrong, actually. Self-discovery and standards are naturally at odds, or at least it is natural for us to experience the tension between the dictates of will and the requirements of the environment. Life is learning to live in this tension between self and standards. The point of labeling the tradeoff a myth is to point us toward taking on the central challenge of life, namely to harmonize self with society. After all, the standards of English, for instance, are essential for good self-expression.

    In the pyramid model it is generally understood that one has to put aside ones personal needs and wants and commit to the laws of the pyramid in order to make it to the top. Most people sacrifice self to compete and a smaller percentage is “characters” who “march to their own drummer.”

    But neither path works well. Those who blow off standards in the interest of self-expression, in contempt of standards, get their comeuppance eventually, because, actually, we all live in the world, and those who try to operate out of the laws of nature or the laws of society, find themselves in trouble. By the same token, those who make gods of social laws and sacrifice themselves are in a worse hell.
    P.S. …and thanks for the compliment. I am glad you like this post, because I worked hard on it.

  4. Mark,
    I love your myth #3b (though I would quibble with your put down of burger-flippers. Some of my best friends…. Not all creative activity is lucrative and some of us–like Einstein need a day job.)

    I also love your succinct analysis of the challenge before us. “21st Century Schools” is about a lot more than replacing the white boards with smart boards. (We got rid of the blackboards in the 20th C, right?)

  5. @Mark, and one more quibble. I don’t think we need “overachievers,” and I think you don’t mean that. I think you mean energized workers. The way to get sustainable hard workers is for the motivation for the work to be internal–an aspect of self-expression. That way endeavors are work-play, and the result is a high level of enthusiasm and a high level of care, which (in collaboration with others) produces good work. Collaboration is so important so that the results don’t show the flaws of their creator.

  6. Well put.

    By “overachievers” I mean people who are so inspired that they reach their potential and even exceed it. This happens when people love what they’re doing, share their enthusiasm, and work collaboratively to do great things.

    The best schools inspire every child. And, as I’ve learned from you, kids tend to come to school pre-inspired. 21st century schools need to ensure that every kid’s internal spark is fanned, not extinguished.

  7. Yes. Pre-inspired. That’s good. I’m going to use that liberally. 43,000 hours of practice at pre-inspiration.

  8. I like the word “grit” and how you use it – along with perseverance – no matter how wonderful the school environment it, or what the intellectual capacity of the learner is, we all have to have the grit to persevere – you talk about practicing these in your book… How do encourage children to persevere?

  9. Lyn, The motivation to persevere has to be internal. At first they naturally tackle challenges and persevere. The more they have the experience of getting the rewards of perseverence, they more they will do it.
    One thing a parent or another adult can do it be by their side. Be with them as they do it. That kind of emotional support can be very helpful for a child. Sometimes it may take a friend.

  10. A number of observations via experience:
    1 – Mark, people so inspired they reach their potential and exceed it?
    I don’t think it’s possible to exceed your potential….that is the myth of overachieving. That’s simply not possible in my world.
    2 – Mediocrity is the enemy of excellence and those who have fought to protect the status quo in our schools should be banished to some distant island. Expect greater things and hold people accountable.
    3 – The beginning of the paradigm shift was when we began to focus more on learning than on teaching. That’s because we would be well advised to take our cues from the what is happening to the students and what is not happening for them.
    4- There is a revolution in education but it’s quiet and underground. It needs to be louder and more visible. People are doing very creative, innovative and productive things but they are disconnected.
    5 – There are numerous examples from the TED talks, from Future Lab, AEESC, and hundreds of others – We have been much too concerned with product over process and we need a better balance because the products are flawed if not completely broken. And that’s true in too many places.

  11. Rick,

    I am a third year, secondary mathematics teacher in inner-city Columbus, OH. My love and passion for the social field of education has me working towards my Policy & Leadership degree at OSU as well. I like to refer to myself as, “all eyes and ears”, while I begin my professional career. Economically, socially, and politically my own experiences and academic studies continue to leave me in a state of flux.

    I am not arrogant and naive enough to imagine I would ever design THE silver bullet to public education. The anxieties of producing my own academic writings on public education policy and direction are so cyclical that I find internal debate and doubt at every turn.

    The one resounding concept I find diffused throughout my own ideas is mindset. My own relatively little real-world experience leaves me hesitant to begin carrying the flag of any educational reform movement. Finding pages such as yours helps to begin molding the frustrations of a young teacher into confidence in my beliefs and visions for education. This article articulates my understanding as a novice in the field through your 40 years of experience. Thank you.

  12. Gary,
    thank you for all these points. I am especially interested in how we can link up all the changes to change the dominant mindset about what education is–i.e. to change the culture of our schools.

  13. Paul,
    You are on the way. Yes, translate your frustrations into what ought to be (not the opposite), and identify the difference you can make and make it, and keep making it. You GO.

  14. This has to be my favorite post from you. This is a statement of values. The irony is that if we followed these values, I’m sure test scores would go up. It is like watching my father-in-law kick my butt on Jeopardy. He was a farmer who retired from Ford. I have 4 degrees. Neither of us crammed for Jeopardy, yet he nails it. He is a sponge for knowledge b/c he reads in a wide variety of disciplines (I am specialized) and he is curious. I hope this will not be the last time you write on these topics.

  15. Martin, thank you. I love: I have degrees; he is curious. That nails it. It is true that what I wrote is a statement of values, but it’s more a statement of what works. I value what works and am frustrated by the relentless pursuit of what doesn’t work, and hasn’t worked for decades. We were a “nation at risk” in 1983, and we have persisted in failing strategies since. I have been trying to figure out why.

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