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a humble reform

The vast majority of education reform seems enamored in false binary options. You’re either success-driven or you believe in low standards. You’re either traditional or you’re twenty-first century. You either believe in intrinsic motivation or you are a briber of students.

We have no common metaphors. We have no shared values. Instead, it seems that each side isolates into echo chambers and shouts just to hear the “right answer” shouted back from the tribe that agrees. When it gets really noisy, we grab megaphones. When this doesn’t work, it turns into a Phil Spector inspired Wall of Sound, where it is just as noisy and artificial, but now it’s smooth. We resort to sloganeering and talking points.

What we lack is humility. Set down the megaphone. Walk out of the echo chamber. Share a pint with someone who thinks you’re crazy for authentic learning or traditional learning or unschooling or home schooling or schooling on the large vacuum tubes of the interweb. Ask more questions and listen a little closer and see what emerges.

I have a friend Kevin who first thought that my ideas on education were insane. However, in coaching track together, we became good friends. Religiously, politically and philosophically we were polar opposites. Yet, we asked questions and listened and both of us had a new appreciation for a different approach. He taught me that procedures were necessary. I taught him that learning was a relational experience. We hashed out our education reform over a pint.

When we take the humble approach, what emerges are some common values. Both sides, even in the midst of screaming matches, care about students. It’s just that both sides get a little scared or sometimes a little proud. I know, because I’ve been there. Just ask my teammates at school who listened to a passionate explanation of why my way of organizing the curriculum leads to greater success.

When we engage in meaningful dialog, we are able to see the complexity of the issues and often times arrive at a sense of paradox. So, it turns out that bad teachers are a part of the problem, but that good teachers need unions to protect their rights. It turns out that twenty-first century learning is important, but that folks like Aristotle and Plato have something important to add to education reform as well. It turns out that the traditional mindset of learning-as-hard-work is important, but so is the more constructivist idea that learning is inherently interesting, meaningful and perhaps even fun.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


10 thoughts on “a humble reform

  1. I wish there was more cooperation and discussion between both sides of this education reform debate. It seems like we spend so much effort trying to convert people to our side of the effort without finding out why they are so committed to their site.

    There must be some pretty important reasons for people to be so attached to the accountability model of reform. I’d like sometime to sit down with someone who thinks testing students all the time is effective and find out why. Sometimes it’s hard to step into someone else’s shoes because you can’t find the shoes because they are so different from what you understand to be true.

    Posted by dwees | November 22, 2010, 8:57 am
    • I once knew someone who believed constant testing was necessary for two reasons:

      1. We need instant feedback and it was the most effecient way to provide that to students.
      2. Data needs to be used on a daily basis to drive instruction.

      Neither ideas seem inherently wrong, just skewed. We talked about the desire to expand the definition of data (authentic feedback for example) and whether a quick verbal check or analyzing student work might actually be more effecient. He was floored. And the thing was, he wasn’t a dumb guy, just misguided by a philosophy that he had learned in his educational training.

      Posted by johntspencer | November 22, 2010, 9:02 am
      • I agree with your assessment that some people believe (rightly) that data can be used to assist in student learning and that (wrongly) the only useful data comes from a test.

        Your idea of a simple conversation and how this can sway someone’s point of view is a really good one, especially since it is one that all of us can take back to our schools today and easily implement.

        Posted by dwees | November 22, 2010, 10:28 am
  2. I stumbled upon your blog after seeing it linked from a person I follow on Twitter. I love this post – have been saying many of the same things, but not nearly as articulate. Thank you for posting this, definitely appreciated.

    Posted by jeremylenzi | November 22, 2010, 9:01 am
  3. John,

    Thanks for the article. I believe you’re spot on, both in that we often take sides in a two sided war, and, as your first sentence says, that the war is based on *false* binary options.

    Your post reminds me of a saying I fall back on every so often when someone questions why I’m sticking up for a view I don’t personally believe: It’s my premise, deeper than judgement, that somehow even the most outrageous behavior of Socialists or Republicans or even Achievement-oriented educators makes some kind of reasonable, human sense. And I try to work that sense out, even for the most unthinkable points of view (words and ideas stolen in large part from John C Gardner, modified for this context).

    I think that’s what dialogue helps to do – gets me to understand the reasons to do something and the reasons that other, real, human beings like to do it. When we develop that richness of understanding, then we can explore the assumptions on which those reasons are based, determine if they are valid, and how much we personally support them in the context of all the other assumptions out there. Then, it becomes less a question of “You are wrong and your stuff is based on bad data,” and more of a discussion over what we feel is most in line with our shared vision, what should be prioritized, and how do we balance competing ideas.

    A question I’ve been thinking about recently is, how do we build schools and policies that encourage those dialogues amongst the teachers?

    Posted by Kevin | November 22, 2010, 10:22 am
  4. Ethan Zuckerman’s global voices… are we listening to each other?
    we can learn much from different perspectives and stories.
    believing that – though we’re different – we all want good… saves tons of time and energy.

    i absolutely love this part John:
    What we lack is humility. Set down the megaphone. Walk out of the echo chamber. Share a pint with someone who thinks you’re crazy…

    i wish i could write like you…

    Posted by monika hardy | November 22, 2010, 3:17 pm
  5. thanks John I love this post. It seems to get at the heart and break through all of the noise.

    Posted by Casey Caronna | November 24, 2010, 2:12 am


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