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Learning at its Best

5 Questions for Education Reformers

If someone says they want to change education, I’m open to it.  I see that the system is in need of change and I will include my school within this.  However, first, I need to know the following:

1. When was the last time you were wrong?  When was the last time you changed your mind?

If you can’t answer this question within a minute, I can’t listen to you.  Don’t bother talking to me.  I can’t trust someone whose chief attribute is hubris.

2. Where are your biggest places of ignorance?

If your answer is too vague and contrived, I can’t listen to you.  Don’t bother talking to me.  I can’t trust someone guided by faux expertise at the expense of paradox, nuance and mystery.

3.  Would you be willing to let your children attend the school you are trying to reform after it has been humanized, transformed, changed?  If you don’t have children, would you trust your nieces, nephews or neighbors to attend the place you are trying to reform?  Are you willing for the conversation to be two-sided and horizontal?

If your answer is “no,” I can’t listen to you.  Don’t bother talking to me.  I can’t trust someone who won’t treat my students in the same way as his or her own family or friends.  I need to know that the types of reforms that you think are necessary for “inner-city” children are also necessary for your own children.

4. When was the last time you used a drinking fountain, a public library or a public park?

If it’s been over a month, I’ll assume it was the weather.  If it’s been over a year, I can’t listen to you.  Don’t bother talking to me.  I can’t trust someone to run a public institution who does not participate in the most rudimentary public institutions.

5. When was the last time you had a personal conversation with the custodian?  When was the last time you asked a bus driver or a cafeteria worker about how to reform the schools?

If your answer is “never,” I won’t listen to you.  Don’t bother talking to me.  I can’t trust someone who doesn’t believe in democracy and collective wisdom.


About John Spencer

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


15 thoughts on “5 Questions for Education Reformers

  1. I understand the thrust of what you are trying to say, but your framing would exclude many who are our allies, starting with me – I don’t have any children. It would exclude those whose children are past the age of attending public schools, but are committed to them.

    Posted by teacherken | February 26, 2011, 10:27 am
  2. Thank you for clarifying that. I’ll change that.

    If you have a niece, a nephew, etc. – would you trust them with the schooling system you propose?

    Posted by johntspencer | February 26, 2011, 10:29 am
  3. Thanks, John, I like this.

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | February 26, 2011, 10:57 am
  4. I totally agree. As a teacher, I feel like I am asked to reflect (which I do all the time), to question my teaching (which I do on a minute by minute basis), and to constantly change to meet student needs (which makes sense!), but the people asking me to do those things are constantly defending why we MUST do what they say all the time (hence conformity across the school for lesson planning, delivery, materials, classroom management, etc). Also, they complain about not wanting to have to micro-manage, but every initiative and PD is consumed with micro-management. The most recent example of this was my administration having no clue about an event being held at our school, which they were included in all e-mail correspondence for. When the afternoon came, I was essentially blamed for their ignorance, because they “get a hundred e-mails a day”. Well, that’s what you get paid the big bucks for! I’m expected to give up weekend, evening, early morning, lunch, and planning to accomplish all of the things that they expect, but how dare we expect the same from them!

    Posted by dancecookie | February 26, 2011, 1:47 pm
    • DanceCookie — I thought I was the only one experiencing that…reading your post makes me sad to know that I’m not 😦 I question every day…why am I (and the rest of the teacher in my building) doing SO much more work than the admin…and getting paid LESS THAN HALF?! And they have similar responses to the one you posted. 😦

      Posted by questioningmydegree | February 28, 2011, 7:56 am
  5. Great. Fabulous. Needed.

    So John, what are your areas of ignorance? Do some modeling for us…


    Posted by Kirsten | February 27, 2011, 6:33 pm
    • I’ll list a few right now:

      1. The fundamentals of science. Seriously thinking through science on a daily basis without saying, “I don’t care why a jet flies.”
      2. Overuse of metaphor without recognizing how the metaphors are failing.
      3. Overly analytical.
      4. Impatient. I am impatient with slow learners, with perceived laziness, with what I think is defiance.
      5. Anger. See above. Same root causes. It just looks uglier later.
      6. I make promises that I can’t keep, because I overplan. “Yeah, we’ll do a documentary and maybe we can get it to play at the theater across the street” was one from last year.
      7. I can get really withdrawn and introverted.
      8. Sometimes I try to be provocative and it just turns snarky.
      9. I forget that people are different. I see little children and assume they are like I was as a child or like my own children are when, in fact, they have their own world, their own stories, and their own experiences.
      10. Grammar. My grammar sucks (see the poor use of commas above) and it has been embarrassing when I’ve gone to publish books.

      Posted by johntspencer | February 28, 2011, 12:11 am
  6. John, have you tagged any big name reformers or reformer tweeps or union champs with this post or your list of questions? I’d be interested in hearing from a few of those parties.

    Do reformers warrant a more saviour-like treatment than students and other stake-holders? How would you serve the people who shouldn’t talk to you?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 1, 2011, 9:47 pm
  7. I guess I’m one of the people you don’t want to talk to, but I’m going to try anyway. In my little family we’re our own flavor of unschoolers, so my children won’t be at school. But I don’t feel content leaving it at that. I think kids everywhere, within and without school, deserve greater freedom, respect, and opportunity, and I’d like to help any way I can. In fact I’m hoping to write my first post soon about this subject—how can I, an unschooling parent, a nonteacher, help transform schools? And how will my voice be received at the Cooperative Catalyst, since I’m not a teacher and my own children don’t participate in the system?

    Posted by mindyfitch | October 3, 2011, 1:55 am
    • I wouldn’t make that assumption, Mindy. This isn’t aimed at unschoolers. This is about corporate education reformers who want to tell me how to run my school more like a company. It’s the unilateral hypocrisy of “we know what’s best for you” without engaging in a dialogue with me.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 3, 2011, 7:42 am
    • Mindy, I’m with you. I would unschool if I could. I don’t trust that my nephew will not be damaged by attending the public schools as they are – he has been damaged by it. (He is humiliated on a regular basis.) And other kids? I worry about the damage done by too much testing, academics pushed too early, and too much consumerism.

      Although I pay for my son to go to a small private school, I feel that adds to my obligation to help public schools be what they can be. And I know John wants to talk with me. It’s the elitism of the reformers he’s trying to address with this, but #3 would knock me out.

      John, I see what you’re getting at and applaud it, so I didn’t comment earlier. I wonder if there’s a way to rephrase #3.

      Posted by Sue VanHattum | October 3, 2011, 10:48 am
  8. Absolutely. (Though now I’d change that last ‘willing’ to ‘eager’. I don’t want some ‘expert’ who’s ‘willing’ to listen to others.) ;^)

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | October 3, 2011, 11:03 am

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