Management-Speak Disguises a Short-Sighted Vision of School

In decades of trying to improve schools, things aren’t working out. Maybe, we should apply a lesson of life to our approach to elementary school: Do the present right, and the future will take care of itself.

On the surface much of the lingo of school improvement seems full of confident commitment to excellence and success for all. Language like accountability for measurable outcomes, high standards, data driven decision-making, racing to the top, leaving no children behind, and so on is seductive. Hearing this language in a school system one imagines thousands of children working hard to produce results that will someday make thousands of adults proud of their collective commitment to success. Continue reading

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In Education Failure IS an Option: New Myths for Successful Kids and Better Schools

In Education failure IS an option, and a pretty good one at that.

Fear of failure is not a big issue for most kids going off to first grade. Their life is not yet framed with questions of success and failure. Even after a year in kindergarten where their mission was to make friends, create, do fun things, and learn as much as they can, the concept of failure isn’t really on the brain, much.

Unfortunately, most schools try to change this. Our culture is obsessed with success and failure in the context of a pyramid model of society, Continue reading

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Blessings on the First Day of School

On the first day of school, Peter had had a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast. His teeth were brushed, his lunch and snack were in his backpack, and his favorite shirt was on his back. As his father scurried around the kitchen, he talked to Peter saying things like, “Have you got your lunch? Have you got your backpack?”

Peter was in the lead as they stepped out the door and down the steps to the car. Five feet from the car his father yelled: “Peter! You don’t have any shoes on!”

Looking down at his stocking feet, Peter saw that it was true and said, “Okay. But you don’t have to get mad at me.” Continue reading

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Procrustean Education

Procrustes was a blacksmith who had his house by the side of the sacred way between Athens and Eleusis in ancient Greece. Being a friendly, hospitable guy, though, Procrustes also ran an inn. When tired travelers came down the road, he would sometimes invite them in to spend the night.

The rooms in the Inn were equipped with special beds. When the guests lay down, if they were too long for the bed, a special guillotine-type knife would drop down and lop off whatever was hanging over the foot of the bed. If they were too short for the bed, they would be stretched to fit. Continue reading

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Vulnerability on the First Day of School: Weakness, Worry, Worthiness, and Seven Ways to Ensure Success

On the first day of school Leila’s mother said: “Leila was looking forward to school all summer. Then two nights ago she started getting anxious.”

I know Leila struggles with “giftedness.” Nonetheless, I asked, “What was she anxious about?”

“Will my friends be in my classroom this year?”

All children are completely different, each with their own peculiar set of strengths, weaknesses and things to worry about. However, the number one reason children go to school is to be with other children, and regardless of whether they charge into school on the first day all smiles or cling to their parents’ legs, they are all the same in one major respect: their bottom-line aim is to avoid embarrassment.

And embarrassment is a possibility for each one of them. “Will I say something stupid in opening circle?” “Will I measure up?” “Will anyone like me?” “Am I worthy?”

We humans are social animals. We all want to be worthy and are aware that our weaknesses put us at risk. We are anxious that our vulnerabilities will trip us up. So in most social environments we lead with our strengths, trying to hide our weaknesses. We can expend a great deal of psychic energy trying to hide those weaknesses.

And yet, school is usually designed to make hiding hard. Continue reading

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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?” Continue reading

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Mathematics, Creativity, Play and the Essence of Good Teaching

Last week Madeleine, one of my virtual friends who writes limericks, asked me if I would be celebrating Tau Day, June 28th. After watching this video, I think you will all agree that Tau Day is worth celebrating if only as a reminder that creativity is an essential element of education. Perhaps creativity is the essential element of education, (Would Sir Ken Robinson agree?), and play is at the heart of creativity.

Sure Pi=3.14159…, and it is useful to know how to calculate the circumference of a circle, but kids learn anything better when they experience it in the context of something real to them. You don’t really know it until you can turn it upside down, reverse it, negate it, and see what happens.

This is what is going on when we play with something. It seems frivolous because it doesn’t seem goal directed, but it is goal directed. The goal is brain development. Continue reading

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Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really.

Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really.

Why do Americans want one set of things for our children and then behave as if we want another? Parents and teachers I talk to want their children to be self-confident learners who are good at working with others, and they want school to help with this.

Of course we want our children to read, write and learn the language of mathematics, but we want much more, too. We want them to learn the requirements of our family and our society and to become active participants—leaders, actually—in an increasingly democratic world. We want them to grow up with self-discipline, respect for others, critical thinking, self-confidence, resilience, a love of learning, and the internal motivation to make something of themselves. We want them to be people who take responsibility and make a positive difference to others, their community, and the world, …and the world needs people who think creatively—now more than ever.

When it comes to school, however, we often behave as if all we care about is test scores and what colleges our children attend. In urban systems our expectations drop even lower to things like “Our goal is for all students to be at or above grade level.” We are even blind to the obvious fact that such a goal is impossible and self-defeating.

Why? Fear.

When we are confident and courageous, we act as if authenticity matters. We trust the part of us that knows that success and happiness depend on pursuing your own calling and finding your own niche in society. We realize that great colleges are looking for leaders, people who think creatively and make a difference. We, therefore, act as if we believe in the genius of each individual child and encourage them not to lose sight of their own personal mission as they find their fit in society. We create environments at home and at school that value inquiry and are open to the wisdom of silly questions. Achievement is put in its proper place as a subset of learning. We have a sense of humor.

In an atmosphere of fear, however, our minds are taken over as if by an evil empire dominated by a social pyramid where life is a race to the top. In this model it is quite reasonable to be afraid that some children will be left behind. In fact in this model the vast majority of children will be left behind, and only a few will make it to the top—it’s a pyramid, right?

We seem to believe the many myths of this model–lies like: Continue reading

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How Parents and Teachers Can Get Bad Results with “High Expectations” for Children?

What Does it Mean to have High Expectations for Children?

All the research shows (what our intuition knows) that children rise to our expectations of them. The work of Carol Dweck reinforces this wisdom. Continue reading

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Children Are Whole People

Months ago in some online comment Janet Lansbury wrote:

“Maybe it’s because I was encouraged by a mentor (infant specialist Magda Gerber) to view babies as whole people from the get-go, not my projects, not reflections or extensions of me, their emergent personalities never felt like my responsibility.”

That babies are whole people is actually a revolutionary idea and one that I hope takes hold in the hearts and minds of all those who care about not just babies but children and their education. Unfortunately, acting as if children are incomplete adults is still the dominant way, and ignores the fact that adults are incomplete, too.

Children when they enter kindergarten have already logged upwards of 43,800 hours of practice mastering the world. Continue reading

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