Time to Make it Happen

I did not attend the NAIS Annual Conference this year – first time for many years – so I don’t have any takeaways to report like Grant Lichtman. But I was in Baltimore for an ICG (Independent Curriculum Group) board meeting and I was at the conference center to pick up a set of attractive little enamel badges (see below) before heading out of town just as the tribes were gathering.

I had mixed feelings.

It’s easy to be cynical about all the hype and hoopla of these conferences. I remember the first one I attended – it was in New York and must have been sometime in the mid 1990’s. I found myself taken aback at the glitz of the performance where big speakers on huge screens are introduced by flashing lights and triumphal music.  It was not like the usual sombre and earnest education gatherings with which I was familiar. So I don’t mind missing that nor the posturing, positioning and self-promotion. (All mightily harmless and probably necessary – after all, if not here then where?) So I didn’t miss that nor the scrum for a free sandwich at lunch.

All that aside – I knew I would miss the camaraderie of catching up with people that I may only see at that event – former colleagues and collaborators;  and people I have come to know, like and admire through other professional gatherings and online. And while I can cast a jaundiced eye at the well-paid speakers who recycle their latest book or TEDTalk there is something to be said for hearing people live. And then there is always the unexpected serendipity of encounters with strangers that sometimes make the whole event magical or at least relevant or useful.

It can all be a bit overwhelming. So many people. So much to learn. So many workshops, presentations, things to get to know and people from whom to learn. So many schools, organizations and individuals doing interesting things. There are courageous educators and schools – independent and public – doing extraordinary work everywhere. It all springs from mission. Sometimes an individual school has a mission and sometimes – as in Finland – it is a country,

One of the Friday featured speakers was Ken Robinson who last spoke at the 2008 conference. I wasn’t there to hear him this year but I’m wondering how his words and thinking have moved along in the intervening nine years. From the tweet stream #naisac it sounded like he was still making pithy, well-aimed comments about the state of education and the need for change.

In his post Grant writes about the imperative to get beyond the lamentations and into action. I’m with him there. The time for handwringing in any school that has any agency is long past. No more excuses. It’s past time to get those sleeves rolled and the school moving out of the sidelines and into the slipstream. Time to do do more than talk – Time to Make It Happen.

We’ve all heard the passionate voices about why school must change. What we need now is the how to do it and the what to try first. Schools need examples of what change can look like and the names of people and organizations who can help them get started. And this is where events like the annual conference step in. There’s no shortage of examples of schools taking bold steps forward: Schools that hew authentically to a mission; are relevant to the demands of learners and their world;  and that have stepped away from all the pressures for standardization and mind-numbing tradition. The examples are out there – of schools who have long ago broken a mold of conformity. There are schools that never had a conformist mold to begin with and schools that are taking the bold steps forward toward  becoming places for learning that is deeply engaging, meaningful, exciting, immersive, engrossing, purposeful, authentic, dynamic, innovative, healthy, connected, interrelated and –  I’ll add a one more cliche and adjective just for fun – joyful.

Many of these schools were presenting their work and their journeys at the conference. And also check out the ICG membership list for examples of schools that are doing interesting things that break the old boundaries and carve something new.

After that 2008 conference where Ken Robinson spoke, Peter Gow – who is now the executive director of ICG – wrote a great editorial for EdWeek The New Progressivism is Here. In it he charted the ways the battle over progressive practices and pedagogy has been fought and won. Many of today’s schools take for granted the need to apply progressive thinking – and the research about child development and learning that supports it.

There have been a few changes since then.

The digital revolution gathered speed and the social media tidal wave swept all before it. Facebook is now the home of the middle aged, organizations and brands – a place where schools engage their parents with bragging points and teenagers shun. Blogs were also once a thing and Twitter was the glorious meeting place – the world’s agora – for the passionate exchange of new thinking. It was the place to go to discover the brave new world and all the brave new people doing interesting stuff and connect with them. Design thinking became a thing and the Post-It people made money.  As backlash to the high tech world a high touch emphasis on mindfulness, social emotional learning has taken hold. Similarly the
maker movement has kids cutting up cardboard, knitting, cooking, hammering nails, planting gardens, soldering circuits and using technologies new and old to customize everything and make it blink.

It’s almost as if the John Dewey-inspired progressive schools of the pre-war years have sprung back into being only this time with bells and whistles. It signals and reflects a yearning for a simpler, more hand-made, home crafted, home-grown, did-it-myself, bespoke, free range, organic, all-natural, artisanal, single-batch zeitgeist.

The great irony of the tech revolution is that it finally gave learners and schools the tools they need to live a progressive mission and pedagogy. Learners and their interests and passions can easily be at the center of the activity. In an age of ubiquitous information the sage on the sage is dethroned and new roles for teachers – guide, facilitator, coach, senior partner, co-constructor etc. – more easily assumed and mandated. Students and teachers can find partners, collaborators, audiences and authentic purposes for their work and connect their learning to the lived world beyond the school walls. Personal learning takes on new meaning when students are encouraged to understand their strengths and discover what they really care about. And forward-focussed schools began to do adopt these time tested progressive methods with a renewed energy and a realization that indeed the world had changed and schools must too.

The more schools leapt at these new opportunities to create authentic and meaningful learning the clearer the obstacles loomed. Just as chemistry was the handmaiden to some of the worst atrocities of the first world war, technology could also be harnessed to the drill-skill-and-kill of the so-called personalized learning of the testing machine. In addition to that reality two big questions loomed: What about college? And how on earth do you grade, measure, assess, evaluate this kind of learning?

 In terms of the grading the answer is simple: You can’t. And that’s why many k-8th grade schools – and a handful of high schools – took the road less travelled and never adopted letters and numbers to measure learning in the first place.

How wise they were because if one thing is true – getting rid of grades once they are ingrained in a school culture is really tough. The mental model in the head, the fear of being unmoored from scores and being seen as having no standards – these have a powerful and enduring grip.

Old notions of progressive as permissive, lowering the bar, playing tennis with the net down –  keep those vampire grades rising from the dead. Even though all reason, research and common sense tell you grades are meaningless, counterproductive to motivation and actively harmful – there they are again. Put a stake of logic through their heart but still they rise. Yes – we know all that, but …

But a slew of new resources and thinkers and unstoppable new realities challenged the traditional system and walls began to crumble. As the new wave of curriculum change swept into schools with work it became clear that the old methods of reporting on progress and measuring student work were not adequate to the task.

How exciting then to see a consortium of schools ready to tackle this!  Take a look at the Mastery Transcript – in the works for a while and launched officially at the Baltimore conference. It goes right the heart of the issue – college admissions. Congratulations to all involved.

It’s a breakthrough that is for sure and promises to make a real dent.  It should also create new career paths in schools for mastery transcript coordinators to manage the streams of data.

I hope it doesn’t wobble under the weight of innovation and begin to revert the norm – something standardized and off the shelf. Clearly the schools in the consortium have work ahead but for now let’s celebrate what truly looks like a breakthrough. At the very least it’s a great half-way house – a waystation on the journey to create schools and learning environments that meet the needs of the learners and reflect the world in which we live.

There are still some people talking about 21st century skills although I’m told  there are schools talking about 22nd  century skills – as if we could possibly even know that. Cynicism aside, a consensus has emerged from many sources about the kind of aptitudes and skills that will be in high demand in the foreseeable future.This chart from the World Economic Forum is a good summary.

Whatever one thinks about globalization and its discontents these are “skills” that most of us can understand, endorse and value. Add a sense of purpose to do good and well in the world and we’re off and running.

In creating curriculum – and indeed in designing the quality of life in schools – those skills provide a useful frame on which to build. Link that with a focus on quality of life – how we treat each other and the environment, the value of community and respect for difference – and we have a really promising and productive set of guidelines for schools. After all – school is not a preparation for life but rather it is life itself.

So – don’t stand about!  these are exciting and exacting times for schools. Time to get cracking on creating the future.

To do nothing is not an option. And as the WW1 trench sign says – even if you are not hit someone else will be. And when you want some help identifying what needs to be done there are plenty of people out there (and right close to home) who can help. Just get people talking. Then doing. Make it happen!


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