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If You’re Not Causing Trouble You’re Not Working On the Right Problems

How do we act as catalysts of change within our present circumstances?”

I’m worried about getting a rep for being too patsy over here at this discussion, so I want to say first that I’m all about acting up and making trouble.   I had a conversation with Herb Kohl recently (someone who is a mentor to me, served on my doctoral committee and is stilly mighty fiery and clear thinking well into his 70s) ).   Herb said,

If you’re not causing trouble you’re not working on the right problems.

So with this in mind, I am a catalyst of change by acting on my deep-seated beliefs about learning and students, and ACTING UP and SPEAKING OUT about these beliefs in my work in schools.

For me, in Aaron’s words from his post this week, this means, “Sitting and having lengthy conversations with your students and with recalcitrant staff members who frequently want no part of what you have to say. It means allowing for yourself to be a target of scrutiny and backchannel discussions. It means putting yourself in the spotlight of the school and bringing those same recalcitrant teachers into it with you. Most importantly, it means not doing it half-assed.”

Not doing it half-assed (I am certainly generously-assed),  can mean getting into a lot of trouble, because many of my deep seated beliefs about students and teaching and learning appear to be in opposition to the modal culture of American schools.

For instance, I truly do believe…

1.  People (students, babies, grandparents, middle-aged commuters) love to learn, and learning–even difficult learning–is natural. It’s just that in school we make it so choiceless, painful, unreal, and boring.  I’m not sure that the majority of teachers I meet believe that learning is pleasurable.  (See the success of Daniel Willingham’s tiresome book, for instance.)  Many teachers certainly don’t’ act this way when they talk about their students and their curricular arrangements–how to “get” (trick) students into learning; complaining about them when they don’t enthusiastically comply with silly, boring assignments; getting angry with them if they don’t act like they love school.  (An act which is mostly, in my view, about making adults feel good about their jobs.)

If you are not a powerful learner yourself, and do not very often experience pleasure in learning, then how can you “teach” someone else to experience its pleasures?  On what do you draw?  Where is your own practice?  A brilliant superintendent I worked with once summarized this very well.  The superintendent was arguing for firing a teacher and she noted about the teacher’s practice, “The teacher isn’t a reader.  If you’re not a reader, you’re not going to be able to teach other people to love reading.”  There you go.  That’s it.

So when teachers complain about students and their learning underperformance, I ask, what practice are you (adult) demonstrating yourself around engaged learning?  Could your students model their academic and intellectual habits on you?

2.  Don’t blame kids for not liking school. If you caged up my body, made me exist every day on a fragmenting, uncontrollable schedule, subjected me to mountains of low-level and meaningless work, and then assessed my “abilities” based on cursory, superficial tests, I wouldn’t like the institution much either.  Yet this is the daily reality of school life for many, many kids in school.

So when teachers complain about kids being so unmotivated (again, see Aaron’s post), I say we’ve got to ask:  does student disengagement, lack of motivation, and underperformance reflect something real about the institution itself, rather than some nefarious plot to undermine adult wishes and desires?

3.   The most important people in the school building are students. Their needs, their concerns, their desires, their lives should be what drives the institution.  It should be student biorhythms that determine school schedules, their intellectual profiles that create its learning climates and activities, their feedback needs that form its assessments.  Yet what I see are educational institutions largely designed around the needs of adults, around taking care of adults, and adult needs for predictability, order, measurability, quantifiability, compliance.

Why?  Are our priorities in the right place when we think about reforming and reframing schools?  What would an organization genuinely designed to foster the learning of students look like, for this particular group of children or young adults?  Is this the question on the table, in this district, in this school?

4.  Many of the ways school seemingly “has to be” are wrongheaded and counterproductive, but when you’re in the institution for too long it’s hard to see this.   Question everything.

So how do you live those ideals, and ask these questions, and still stay in the game of improving mainstream American public school?

To be neither half assed, nor an asshole.   That’s the question I’m in every day.

How are you living your ideals?  How counter-cultural are they?  How far are you willing to go to be effective?

Let’s hear.


About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


32 thoughts on “If You’re Not Causing Trouble You’re Not Working On the Right Problems

  1. Right on! I love the point of students are the most important people in the building. Too many of us forget that at one point or another. But that’s not why I want to comment.

    I think it’s important to note that “causing trouble” does not alway have to mean becoming a pain for other people. For some, causing trouble needs to become an internal conflict because they have begun to question their own practice, i.e. “reflective practitioners” of their craft. When they become self motivated to read, learn, etc. instead of merely fulfilling the continuing ed necessary for license renewal, when they allow their own assumptions to be challenged, it becomes trouble. And it leads to change and better practice.

    Posted by Matt Guthrie | April 28, 2010, 10:51 am
    • Matt, You raise such a good point. Causing trouble is really about causing thought and reflection, in the sense we’re talking about here at COOP CAT. Do you have an experience with this? Have you caused trouble for yourself?

      I make a lot of trouble for myself. Tell about yours.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 28, 2010, 2:11 pm
  2. “If you caged up my body, made me exist every day on a fragmenting, uncontrollable schedule, subjected me to mountains of low-level and meaningless work, and then assessed my “abilities” based on cursory, superficial tests, I wouldn’t like the institution much either. Yet this is the daily reality of school life for many, many kids in school.”

    Business would die for the kind of instant and honest feedback teachers receive everyday from their students. A good business would LISTEN to the feedback and then make the necessary adjustments to make their business better.

    However, for the most part, teachers ignore the feedback kids provide and continue to teach the way they were taught, perpetuating the kind of school you so accurately describe.

    Companies, businesses and industries that ignore their client’s feedback don’t tend to do well…

    Posted by Joe Bower | April 28, 2010, 11:21 am
    • Absolutely right Joe, I completely agree. One of the ways teachers avoid the feedback students offer is by disrespecting them: they’re just kids, adults know better, eye rolling, delegitimating. One of the real promises of the age we’re in now though, is that a lot of content that schools used to provide is available on the Net. So schools, and teachers, whether they like it or not, are going to have to rethink their roles: who is authorized to provide knowledge, what is the teacher’s role in relation to the creation of learning? On what does the teacher’s authority actually rest? I think kids are going to need school less and less, which is going to mean that if adults want to keep “customers” in the the building, they are going to have to listen to them and adapt to their needs. I’m so glad your students have you in their building, and your class–where you DO listen to their feedback.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 28, 2010, 2:09 pm
      • I loved a comment from Dean Shareski earlier this week-it was something like, “when you open the computer, the teacher is no longer the smartest person in the room.” How true and how profound for thinking about changing roles.

        Posted by Paula White | April 29, 2010, 6:30 am
  3. School does too good a job of disjointing the world. Joe, I think your critique here and Adam’s assertion that we are all in (larger) systems (than we sometime realize) are healthy prompts for educators to consider. Do we do students a service by becoming content specialists? Do we help them by sticking to a single curriculum at a time? Can we fight the pressure here in the United States to only teach what we are “highly qualified” – by law – to teach?

    Trying to synthesize,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 28, 2010, 12:12 pm
  4. Kirsten,

    I can’t wait to have my wife read this post. She loves me and knows why I do what I do, but she always wonders do I always have to cause so much trouble for myself? Do I always have to cause waves?

    Regarding how far do I go, I have brought myself to the brink of getting fired numerous times because I don’t sit quietly in a room full of insanity or injustice. And once I decide to go after an issue I stick with it. If I don’t get the results I have wanted (and are warranted for sanity’s sake) I go right up the decision-making chain. I write letters, I get put on administrative leave. I keep pushing. (Right, Paula?)

    Regarding point number 2. I don’t blame a single kid for not liking school, because I didn’t like and never forgot it. As I mentioned in my Sacred Wound post, it is one of the formative experiences that informs my current practice. I currently ride the line of, how do I impart the skills and habits students need to be successful, to further their enjoyment of learning and to enrich it, while also allowing them the space to figure it out for themselves and to make their own choices. Working with elementary school children, this is an interesting struggle, because developmentally they need structure, but what that structure is doesn’t have to be the “wrongheaded and counterproductive” ways you mention.

    I welcome other’s thought on this issue in particular.

    Thanks for being a catalyst, Kirsten.


    Posted by Adam Burk | April 28, 2010, 3:21 pm
  5. Wow, thanks Kirsten. This cheered up a pretty crappy day for me. I got chewed out by an administrator, not because he’s concerned my students aren’t learning what’s on the curriculum I’m forced to stick by, not because he doesn’t think I work my butt off. No – he knows I work hard and get results. The problem is I refuse to use the textbook and other materials listed as required in the syllabus. The reason is simple: they don’t help the students learn and heck, bore even me.

    Ironically, going through exercises in the textbook during class would be a lot easier than what I do now. I would have to do virtually no lesson planning or even thinking, just settling into a comfortable routine of simple, though dictatorial, class management. It’d be easier in every way, except on my conscience. I appreciate the reminder that I’m doing the right thing. I just subscribed to your blog.

    Posted by Choosing To Remain Anonymous Today | April 28, 2010, 6:30 pm
    • Hey Man or Woman Cloaked in Anonymity: Right on with you! I wish our whole crowd could be there cheering you on. Anyone who goes out of their way to make the work of the classroom more interesting, even if it means it’s a lot harder for them, is a friend of mine. We are are holding you up on this hard day, and right in there with you! Your students thank you. WE all thank you.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 28, 2010, 10:17 pm
    • Anonymous, keep following that conscience you are doing the students and the world a favor through your disobedience. You are teaching exactly the right way and if the administrator persists in chewing you out then he persisting in foolishness and will deserve to be exposed for this. Prepare a letter to the editor that describes you are being asked to bore your students rather than help them learn. That you are being asked to dumb down your classroom, one that is excelling in measured results and developing strong habits of mind. Perhaps send the letter to the administrator so s/he not only clearly understands why you do what you do, but also what s/he is asking you to do. Make it clear in the letter that it is meant for public consumption, and then s/he should be able to muster the respect s/he should already have for you. Expose the machine. Be the revolution.

      Posted by Adam Burk | April 29, 2010, 6:37 am
  6. Choosing To Remain Anonymous Today: I’m with you. Somewhere along the line, in some places, public education’s managers stopped asking us teachers if we think we could beat the textbooks and reading programs and scripted instruction.

    If we’re not allowed to try, if we’re not permitted the freedom to pursue learning in place of “results,” to innovate and advocate for kids, then there’s no reason to believe our country will lead the world in solving its problems. There’s no reason to believe that students will surpass the expectations standardized education holds for them.

    Keep doing the right thing.

    Our students are our best hope, and caring adults’ commitment to authentic learning and school-healing is their best hope to discover and realize private and public lives that carry more meaning than “college and career ready” by the grace of Pearson and its ilk.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 28, 2010, 7:29 pm
    • The people who really cheer me up in schools are kids. I frequently arrange to have off program conversations with them–about what they think about school, about the work they are doing, about what they think the work should be like. It’s amazing how perceptive and honest they are. Much more so than the adults, often.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 28, 2010, 10:20 pm
  7. I promise to share more thinking later tonight.

    For now, this post and graph from Unlearning101.

    If “the true innovators go after the fringes,” and public education is squarely focused on eliminating the fringes of practice, while perversely maintaining the fringes of “student achievement,” what fringes should we be going after?

    We have to remember that while “conventional wisdom tells us that it is safe in the middle,” school is not emotionally safe or intellectually engaging for the majority of our children.

    But it can be. There are more students than teachers; more teachers than administrators; more school systems than testing and textbook companies. Let’s build the right conversations in the classrooms and share them “upwards.”

    More soon,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 28, 2010, 8:07 pm
  8. Okay, so first please give me some reading suggestions – books, blogs, whatever. I didn’t particularly enjoy Willingham’s book – the typeface and margins gave me fits before I even tried to engage with the content. If you’re going to break layout conventions, you might as well go all in. Moreover, my last self-selected professional book, Never Work Harder than Your Students, read to me like a series of sentence imitation exercises for a NBCT application. I need some reading assignments. I’ll check the Coöp topic doc, as well.

    Teachers do need to be powerful learners. I think we need to share more of ourselves with students and administrators so that perhaps we can laterally differentiate scheduling and grouping to allow students and teachers who share interests to explore shared curriculum together. It’s imperative that we differentiate based on kids’ biorhythms, intellectual profiles, and feedback needs. Can we do the same for teachers? In pairing kids and teachers? Can we make it easier and more joyful for teachers and students to experience authentic differentiation by scheduling them to their learning passions and strengths? Or is this a cop-out that will reinforce stereotypes about kids who don’t learn a certain way as being unteachable by certain teachers?

    We need to stop engaging in the blame conversation, period, and get on with reforming classroom practice. As a professional body and as individuals, we sometimes complain about these meddling kids and their sense of entitlement. Rooby-rooby-roo. Whoa. What about our sense of entitlement? What about all the relational currency we expect to be paid without making any investments in students’ lives? What about how quickly we expect students to return to class and work after we betray their trust with punitive and exclusionary discipline? Is what we and our students are entitled to as humans different than what we think we’re entitled to as teachers? If so, on which side should we err? #rhetorical

    I love this question: What would an organization genuinely designed to foster the learning of students look like, for this particular group of children or young adults? My version, vision, and challenge to myself: with zero extra dollars, how can I assemble the resources and people to make this vision a reality? #nonrhetorial

    YES. School doesn’t “have” to be any certain way. Classrooms don’t have to run a certain way or produce certain results to be invaluable to kids and their communities. We need to scale up student input into schooling and community feedback on what localities need. Let’s school to solve problems. Let’s school to preserve and advance and interrelate identities. Let’s school to discover.

    A question: is it enough to try and solve problems, or not so much? Would we consider a student exemplary if she completed her work to a high quality and took pride in it if she never asked us why she was doing the work?

    I’ll try to act neither half-assed nor hard-assed.

    That being said, please tune in tomorrow anyway for “The Hard Path,” parts 1 & 2 or 1-3.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 28, 2010, 9:22 pm
  9. C, I will definitely tune in for tomorrow.

    Here are some of my favorites off my reading list about schools and how they work. You probably have read many.

    How Children Fail (John HOlt, 1963), More brilliant and readable than Dewey, no one writes better about the adventure and courage required to learn than John Holt.

    Deschooling Society (Ivan Illich, 1971). Brilliant, visionary, self-referential priest who wrote about how schools function like the Catholic church, and the counterproductivity of institutions. “We go to school to learn to be stupid.”

    I Won’t Learn From You (Herb Kohl, 1995). Superb essays about being a “hope monger” about schools, and about how tough learners hang in there because learning has a certain something it’s hard for we humans to give up.

    This Teaching Life (Selma Wassermann, 2004). How a beautiful, very accomplished teacher became that beautiful, accomplished, reflective person in the classroom. (Paula should read this one!) Honest, unsparing recollections about her early life as a teacher, and her lack of consciousness about her own practice.

    Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (Collins and Halverson, 2009). Despite its terrible title, it really does frame up what a new future might look like without being wedded to a single point of view or technological frame.

    Choice Words (Peter Johnston, 2004). Better than almost anything I have read about the effect of teachers words on students, and the fundamental paradigm of control that is embedded in much teacher language.

    I could go on and on. I look forward to reading some books in this group, and getting to know other’s best hits.

    Time for bed. I’m off to school tomorrow, as are the rest of us?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 28, 2010, 10:34 pm
  10. My favorite two books are

    George Dennison’s The lives of children. George Dennison was a student of Paul Goodman and work at the First Street School in New York. He tells the story of a year in the life of a small free school. Pure brilliance.


    An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger. This book changed my life. The thesis is student will do excellence work when given the respect, culture and support needed to do so. He is advocate of Project/Problem based learning…..He works now for Expeditionary Learning Schools now.

    Any John Holt book is worth reading. I would also recommend Ron Millers Self Organizing Revolution.


    Posted by David Loitz | April 29, 2010, 12:34 am
    • Thank you, David – I love having so many good suggestions. The best dilemmas are the ones with too many wonderful options from which to choose.

      Best regards,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 29, 2010, 1:08 am
    • David,

      I was just thinking yesterday that we need a page on Coop Catalyst of must read books. If we each selected 2 books that we thought every teacher, parent, principal, student…should read, we would have quite the powerful list.


      Posted by Adam Burk | April 29, 2010, 6:28 am
      • GREAT idea, Adam!

        And, Chad, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology is on my reading list and one I was looking at for this weekend. Want to grab that one first and let’s do a collab post on it?

        Have we decided on collaboration as the topic for our next book reviews? Can we also brainstorm a list of ones about that, please?

        Posted by Paula White | April 29, 2010, 6:38 am
      • Adam, This is a great idea for a book list, and like Aaron, I think we should update it every six months. This demonstrates our capacity for taking in new information, and our voracious capacity to challenge our own assumptions!

        Thanks so much for thinking of this.

        Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 30, 2010, 7:00 am
    • Hi David, I did my dissertation on George Dennison (really!). I love that book too. I will order Berger’s and thanks for the suggestion.

      Ron Miller is a good friend, and we have an article over at AERO about our two points of view on where the movement (if there is one) stands at this moment. It would be great to have your comments there!

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 29, 2010, 7:11 am
      • Kirsten,

        I would love to read your dissertation… I really love George Dennison. He is an inspiration.

        I loved your post with Ron Miller. It was also inspiring. I wrote to Ron after reading it. Can’t wait to get us all in a room at the AERO Conference. Many we can get some others from here to join us……

        My email is if you want to send me your Dissertation….


        Posted by David Loitz | April 29, 2010, 12:22 pm
  11. Paula and All, Maybe we should to a book talk here on Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology? I think it’s been under-analyzed generally, and I’d like to spend some more time with it?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 29, 2010, 7:13 am
  12. Kirsten,

    Great post!

    Two things:

    1) Being an asshole is a sliding continuum. Sometimes we need assholes in school just to light a fire. So long as those particular people aren’t assholes all the time it can be a very handy change mechanism. The key is knowing when and where as well as how without alienating anyone.

    Last year, there was a blog on ASCD that talked about the entrance of former business professionals into the workforce and whether it was a positive for education or not. Needless to say, it started to make its way around my building and some teachers began squawking about how those individuals weren’t qualified, they didn’t know how to teach, you know the traditional platitudes. In the end I couldn’t resist so I had to make a statement to a couple of them that were yelling and screaming:

    “Do you think that people are more concerned over the welfare of the kids not learning or the fact that these transplanted business professionals might bring some practically and real-life skills into classrooms?”

    See, I agree with a lot of those teachers assertions that transplants would need classes to teach them certain pedagogy and methodology within the classroom, but one thing I have learned about a lot of teachers is that they yap away first and think later. They weren’t thinking about the potential to improve education. They were thinking about the security of their jobs. My goal is always to change that.

    2) I love Herb Kohl already. I’m definitely a trouble-maker like you. In fact, I pride myself in it, and I especially like making bold, provocative statements that get people thinking deeper about what they know as “truth”.

    So here’s one:

    One of the biggest problems with “schools today” is that we have too many teachers that have no idea what it takes to be successful outside of the confines of the classroom.

    My favorite quote of all time is from Justice Antonin Scalia:

    “I attack ideas; not people. The problem is that a lot of good people have a lot of bad ideas, and if you can’t separate the two then you are in the wrong line of work.”

    (He actually said that on 60 minutes one night. Lol)

    Something tells me that you and I would be best friends. 😉


    Posted by Aaron Eyler | April 29, 2010, 11:53 am
  13. Aaron, One of the great things about this discussion is that we ALL can become great friends. Here. Now. Happening.

    On the not being half assed or an asshole, after a long, really tiring day at a school that I shall not name, I attended an Achievement Gap Initiative event at Harvard. The event was the last in a series on comprehensive high schools that have skillfully addressed differences in achievement among racial groups, not just in terms of MCAS (the MA state exam), but have ALSO created a powerfully different climate for learning for both students and teachers. (The school was formerly almost entirely white; in the last 5 years its population has changed dramatically but the same teaching force was in place. How do you move an adult culture to “treating our students as our own sons and daughters,” as the principal said, and to stop grieving for “the students we don’t have?”)

    I’ve been doing this work for a long time (looking at the culture of schools so that successfully transform their cultures around these issues), so the thing I want to talk about here is what the transforming school folks named as the common ADULT fears of change within their schools. Also, the discourse around change at this high school was very planful, very strategic, not magical at all. Which suggests that we know how to do these things, we just have to choose to do it.

    Here is what teachers fear when they are asked to make changes in their practice, according to AGI folks and the people at Randolph HIgh School in MA:

    1. Wasting time and energy. There’s so little of it already. We don’t have time to do new things!
    2. Loss of autonomy. Following a plan of professional development that asks me to engage with kids and my practice in new ways will stifle my “creativity.” (In fact, most teachers experience the opposite.)
    3. Changes in the way I do my work will make me feel incompetent.
    4. I will become socially isolated if I support things that my other colleagues have not yet. I don’t want to be an early adopter and take heat.
    5. New ways of working could bring unpleasant surprises, and I like the regularity and consistency of my work.
    6. I fear working harder.

    What do your colleagues fear most? How can our group address these fears?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 30, 2010, 7:19 am

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