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Learning at its Best

Paradoxes of Our Work

The ability to hold two conflicting truths simultaneously isn’t easy.  And that’s exactly what our work in education calls us to do at this moment.

I am just returning from the AERO and Holistic Education conferences, where I saw COOPsters David Loitz, Casey Caronna, Paul Freedman and Jen Groves.  (Oh yeah!) One evening at AERO, a group gathered to talk about what IDEA has been learning over the past year.  This prompted a reflection on my work as an educational activist and teacher over the past 15 years, and the paradoxes I hold in my work, as both a radical school critic, and a persistent hope monger in education.

As most of us here at the COOP already feel, we are at a moment of crisis in public education.  Only a few pieces of evidence:  the outpouring of objection and outcry at the recent SOS March, Arne Duncan’s decision this week to cut personal deals with states failing to make AYP because NCLB policy is a “slow motion train wreck,” a decade into one of the most draconian federal education policies around school accountability our country has ever witnessed, new data shows widespread, and nearly universal, crumbing confidence in local public schools, and a resounding failure to achieve any real gains in equity or performance for students, across a battery of measures.

Disappointment with schools are only a symptom. We are in a crisis of confidence around institutions of government in our country generally, and lack the stories we require to understand our fear and suffering, as described in a wonderful piece on the narrative failures of the Obama’s presidency.  As activists in education, holding on to both the hope and promise of our work, and ferocious and well-informed critique, requires a deep seated understanding of, and tolerance for, paradox–the capacity to hold two complex–and conflicting–truths simultaneously.

Here are some of the complex, conflicting truths I hold simultaneously in my work:


The system of education we have now–an outmoded industrial model based on extremely limited views of human learning and what is valuable to learn–requires radical, sweeping transformation.  The hidden curriculum of schooling instructs in racist, classist, and competitive values, and then naturalizes and normalizes this as our self-willed state.  Transformation, rethinking, wholesale change–school riots— are required.  Language matters, and even talking about “systemic” change, implying that the structures that we have now will be replaced by another system, is inadequate and limiting.

At the same time, in day-to-day practice for teachers working with kids, for principals interacting with staff members, for superintendents reconfiguring accountability systems within their district, for parents homeschooling their own children, small changes make big differences.  Ultimately, human transformation occurs in very slight, nearly imperceptible and somewhat magical shifts between two people trying to understand each other better, to heal each other, and get out of each other’s way.  When a teacher allows a student a bit more choice, when an adult recognizes the innate competence of a child, when a supervisor takes responsibility for his or her own mistakes, transformation happens.  Small changes are at the root of everything.


The institution of school is broken, corrupt, and designed  primarily to serve the interests of adults, not kids.  The greatest barrier to large-scale transformation, in my view, is adult self-interest, not a lack of skills and knowledge about how to educate better.  The system we have now serves adults, provides employment, professional identity and relative security to 2.5 million adults; it offers inadequate and in some cases toxic “service” to children, who have no political voice.  Yet as a whole, the education sector is woefully sloppy and deeply loath to acknowledge the self-interest that is at the heart of many of its activities and structures.

At the same time, our system of schooling is the only remaining democratic institution in our country that most of our children, nearly 45 million, still participate in.  There is profound value in this.  It is an agenda item of the far right to dismantle the public education system, and most of the public sector beyond it, and the people and kids who will be most harmed by this dismantlement, in terms of schools, are those with the least choice, connections and social capital.  In the words of Yvette Jackson,  Chief Executive of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, kids who are “school dependent” require schools that focus on their strengths, and full and free access to them. The current alternatives to public education, for nearly all children, are inadequate, and accessible only to those with means, choice, or luck.  Maybe all three.


Within IDEA, a just-hatching educational transformation group of which I am a part, we believe in supporting the institution of public schooling.  We are engaged in many projects, in Vermont and Mississippi and Portland, that directly engage and showcase public schools that are committed to becoming more responsive to their communities, serving children better, and creating equity within the system.

At the same time, we heartily and vigorously support all viable alternative school models, and see much of the real action of transformation and greater justice happening in places that define themselves as “outside” the public school system.   For example, see Nuestra Escuela, a highly successful “alternative” school model founded on an ethic of human caring, love and respect.  Strategically, we have a BOTH/AND strategy for supporting innovation and change, because we think mainstream public school and alternative models, including charter schools, have much to gain from collaborating and learning from each other.

Around the country, as a movement, we need teams of teachers and activists and parents and bloggers and policy thinkers who are strong enough, and big enough, and bold enough to hold all these paradoxes as they do their work in schools everyday, and with their kids.

We need individuals who are wise warriors, well-informed, cosmopolitan about the sector, who know where their work is coming from, and why–and are able to talk about the contradictions of their work without being apologetic.  Through embracing the complexities of our work, and its many shadows, we will be stronger and better and more fleet and powerful in responding to those who critique us, or who want to shut us down.

One of my mentors, Parker Palmer, of the Center for Courage and Renewal, writes knowingly of paradox, and the way in which tension between opposites can feel intolerable, tugging us one way and then the other, making us feel that our actions, beliefs and intentions are indefensible, and cancel each other out.  Yet through his long life of publically wrestling with the paradoxes of his own soul and vocation, Palmer observes, “‘truth is found not by splitting the world into either-ors but by embracing it as both-and.” Developing the capacity to sit in this tension between opposites–and I would add–to become productive in it, will be the mark of our maturing movement.

Becoming an educational activist requires that we develop the capacity to tolerate paradox–the capacity to hold two seemingly conflicting truths simultaneously in mind and heart at the same time.  At this moment in our culture we seem especially intolerant of paradox:  some critics insist that teachers are victims, while others suggest that teacher inadequacy is at the heart of our sector’s dysfunction.  Could both be true?  And if so, how would it empower us to hold both these truths, and to delve into the complexities of both? How might this make us stronger?

While the federal department of education and major education funders continue to insist that their limited agendas for “improvement” and “reform” are the one one and only way, and founded on “real” science and “real” evidence, we must take strong positions against such hostage-taking and agenda setting, while at the same time holding on the very real and human contradictions that lie at the heart of our work.  As leaders–and I’m seeing everyone who is concerned about the state of education in this country as leaders and activists–every single one of us–the stories we tell about our work must be both simple and complex. This requires a tolerance for paradox, and an understanding of the complexities of our work in education. This complexity is something we are only starting to build at IDEA, perhaps among our corps of folks here at the Coop, in myself.
Are we as activists strong enough to embrace the both-ands of our work?

Are you?

“Contradiction, paradox, the tension of opposites: These have always been at the heart of my experience, and I think I am not alone. I am tugged one way and then the other. My beliefs and my actions often seem at odds. My strengths are sometimes cancelled by my weaknesses. My self, and the world around me, seems more a study in dissonance than a harmony of the integrated whole.” -Parker Palmer, 1979


About Kirsten Olson

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


15 thoughts on “Paradoxes of Our Work

  1. Inspiring to try and hold it all in mind, Kirsten. I was taken aback by all the ed sector criticism in anticipation of the SOS March. It seemed as if the pundits were saying that since the organizers had no ideas like theirs, the organizers therefore had no ideas. I am routinely challenged by the fallacies and tautologies of our sector.

    The Duncan deals? Living and working in Virginia I don’t need to worry about that morass – right?

    One paradox that stands out for me: I feel like I have too little time to organize or fight for change as I think is needed, but I try to make what I do at work an argument embodying change. I feel at once defeated and triumphant – at once progressing and pyrrhic – at once failing well and failing horribly, nobly, and cravenly.

    What kinds of narratives should we next voice? To whom should we address them? How do you suggest we share out our stories of paradox in a way that draws people with less complicated views into maelstrom of our hope?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 10, 2011, 12:58 pm
  2. Hey Chad, Thank you for responding! I agree and feel as you do: too little time to organize/everything is about organizing. And it seems to me you’re accomplishing a lot, and have much to be proud of.

    What is the next narrative? I think that’s really a central question, and I’m wrestling with it as well. I “decided” on some qualities of the next part of the story, got a contract to write about them, and now they seem like old news. I’m thinking at this moment about “networks of networks” of learning–not schools systemically–and about looking at what organizations that really are committed to a ethos of caring look like.

    Why do you think the teaching sector is unwilling to take responsibility, in my view, for the ways in which the system serves adults and not kids? What’s an angle on that?



    Posted by Kirsten | August 11, 2011, 11:03 am
  3. Powerful ideas, Kirsten. The challenge is how to discuss these paradoxes in public forums so that we don’t open ourselves up to more teacher bashing than already exists? Or, perhaps it shouldn’t bother us at all since those that want to put down teachers and public education will do it no matter what? Recently, we had an after-dinner discussion at my house about the strategies used by the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, to set the record straight regarding the criticisms made by his detractors of his actions/decisions. (I lived in Ecuador for 10 years.) In his weekly radio program, Correa presents facts and deeds that disprove his critics. He does this in a very informative way that the general population can understand. Some criticize him for focusing his energies on this but if he doesn’t then the lies spread like wildfire making it harder to argue against them later. So, maybe we can learn from this as a movement: speak truth to power and not be afraid to air dirty laundry. When the de-formers speak up against us we need to respond, with facts and deeds, each and every single time. Only in this way will we be able to move forward and improve learning and teaching for all of us.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | August 11, 2011, 12:31 pm
  4. Elisa, I am moved by what you say and wrestle very, very directly with the same issue. How to be real about these paradoxes and complexities–and also be fierce warriors who are effective? This, I think, is really a critical question. I am turned off by some of our education leaders on both sides, who peddle certainty-of-voice and the victimization. Yet media culture demands this.

    So how can we read more about Rafael Correa and his campaign to present his version of reality? And could you see something like this, perhaps a weekly podcast, in education, which tried to do this?

    There is a great discussion about what it means to be a “leader” in our times going on at On Point right now, around the Obama presidency. Check it, on exactly your points:

    The Liberal Critique of Obama:

    When am I invited for dinner at your house?


    Posted by Kirsten | August 11, 2011, 1:11 pm
  5. Kirsten,

    This is a brilliant and important point. I believe that you (and Parker) are right on, as usual! The challenge of holding tensions is complex, difficult and of absolutely paramount importance if we are to be able to walk together with fellow seekers of humane education across the broad education sector going forward.

    I wrote an article for Education Revolution back in winter ’08-09, called “Holding Tensions Seeking Balance: One Educator’s Holistic Pedagogy in Action.” In this short piece, (in which I also cite Parker Palmer) I reflected on some of the either-or kinds of extremes between which I feel I must continually define my personal pedagogy. In much the same way you describe the false dichotomies within educational activism, I find that the common strands and significant overlaps within various pedagogical approaches are often undermined by the limiting use of a series of either-or lenses. “Child-centered” or “teacher-directed”; experiential or theoretical; freedom or structure; emergent curriculum or carefully prepared lessons; educating for personal unfoldment or for social justice, etc etc. These are of course false choices and represent a ridiculously linear and one-dimensional approach to seeing the world. The conclusion of the article goes like this: “In the end, holistic education is about engagement, connections and relationships. It can be more accurately conceived not as a series of fixed placements along linear continua, but as a three-dimensional whole with depth, texture and endless multiplicity and complexity. In this non-linear richness can be found the joy and wonder of the learning adventure.” Perhaps the same could be said for educational activism and social change movements.

    (The full text of the article is here if you’re curious:

    I applaud you (and Parker) for not allowing the limitations within the structure of the contemporary discourse to define or limit your activism. BOTH/AND, indeed!!

    Love ya’


    PS – Thanks for posting the photo. Who are those freaks!??!

    Posted by Paul Freedman | August 11, 2011, 7:38 pm
  6. Kristen:

    The title of your post attracted the attention of this attorney. While not credentialed as a ‘teacher’, my work involves ‘education’ in the form of assisting clients and others to recognize paradoxes stemming from difference(s) between Truth(s) and social truth(s). I provide a short comment followed by a brief explanation.

    Any ‘paradox’ that appears to exist, from my perspective, is dependent upon acceptance of the ‘social truth’ that public education is actually meant to be anything other than the scheme for social control envisioned by Thomas Jefferson. Really. Read his “Query XIV, Laws” in the context of Plato’s “The Republic”, and consider whether youths were to be ‘educated’ or trained to be susceptible to being controlled.

    It seems that education today involves (1) “Newspeak” and (2) the commodification of students based on values ascribed to them as determined by their completing tests involving selection of “the single best answer”, with ‘best’ having been determined by those in authority. Aside from factual matters, such tests largely measure test-taking abilities instead of ‘knowledge’, follow the basic form of IQ tests utilized in U.S. eugenics/dysgenics efforts, tend to be culturally biased, and, because of the manner they are put to use virtually assure stasis along socioeconomic class lines.

    I admire ‘teachers’ who actually care and attempt to effect changes in the structured maze of mirrors they work in. I am afraid, however, that a meaningful education can never be quantitatively measured. If you can ‘save one student’, by all means do so — I fear the structure largely determines the outcome.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | August 12, 2011, 8:33 am
    • Brent, This is AWESOME! We need you here! Tell us more about you and do you want to guest post here?


      Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 13, 2011, 6:38 pm
      • Kristen:

        Here are a few points that suggest who and what I am.

        At 52, I am old enough to know better yet too young to stop rebelling.

        Infant Adoptee – this fact, coupled with my phenotype, significantly bears upon my viewpoints. My being is almost certainly a result of one of the many social, political and economic “experiments” that have been conducted in the U.S.A. Although decidedly not a ‘right-wing’ political environment, I was raised in a household driven by personality traits of Right Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation. That my father was an ordained minister and my mother a schoolteacher should be sufficient explanation given the era. Both my parents had met my birthmother – they described her as was ‘white’, but mother noted “something was wrong with her skin” and, as my father recently framed matters, “It used to be, ‘kill the Indian to save the man’.”

        Minister/Missionary’s Kid – a long exposure to Protestant thought, particularly that of the Church of the Brethren, and five years (ages 9 – 14) spent in Nigeria, West Africa, part of the time being the last half of the Biafran War (the war is now deemed Nigeria’s ‘Civil War’, but I now see it as an internal genocidal effort evidencing post-colonialism).

        High School Dropout – a personal “sturm und drang” leading to my receipt of a HS diploma from the school I dropped from despite attending ten weeks of night school in a different school district (a revenue-sharing deal must have been cut). This was after I earned over one year of college credits, nearly half through CLEP tests taken before beginning college, and I tend to view the diploma as evidence of the public school system’s absurdity.

        Far too much alcohol led me to become an Ex-Cop, and I am also an Ex-Paramedic – about four years each.

        For just over 20 years I have worked as an attorney, the past 17 in a solo practice. I am a generalist, but avoid criminal and domestic relations work like the plague.

        The economic situation prompted me to look for alternate occupational paths and because a Masters degree seems to be the new BS/BA (which had previously been the new HS Diploma) I spent the past 1 ¼ year completing the on-line work required for an MA in Liberal Studies through Excelsior College of Albany NY. I had thought on-line work would be a “blow-off” – I was very much mistaken. My thesis was entitled: “Improving Scholastic and Subsequent Life Performance Through Parrhesic Instruction in Adolescents’ Civics-Related Curricula”

        I am interested in your blog because you and yours appear to engage in critical analysis of the U.S. education system of which I am a (by)product. I am more than willing to participate with you and to learn.

        Brent A. Snavely

        Posted by Brent Snavely | August 14, 2011, 8:12 am
  7. Paul, These are very freaky people. No doubt. (David Loitz posted it. Nice, huh?)

    Your article in Ed Rev is very fine, and gives a sense of all the ways you are thinking about learning complexly at Salmonberry School; I recommend it for anyone reading here.

    Our issue at IDEA, and elsewhere as activists I think, is being fierce and pointed, which we increasingly need to be as we become more prominent, and also maintaining this sense of complexity. Diane Ravitch, if she ever had it, has lost it.

    It’s clear that if we represent all things we represent nothing, and making a claim for nuanced dialog may be part of the fight.

    Parker Palmer is coming out with a new book in a couple of weeks on healing the heart of democracy. The Courage and Renewal organization will be asked, through this work, to step up into the national fray and participate in our incredibly dualistic political dialog. I am watching closely to see how this all goes. For them, for us.

    So glad your fine mind and heart is here in the mix,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 12, 2011, 9:02 am
    • Yes. I hear you. “Holding tensions” does not mean surrendering a strong point of view, moral compass or guiding beacon. The position that everything is equally okay, be it morally, pedagogically, or strategically, is a common response to the dualistic thinking of the “modern” era, yet it is indicative of the kind of relativism that can carry you inexorably down into the classic post-modern miasma. Nothing really matters; all is a matter of opinion and perspective; etc. To use Palmer’s words, (more or less,) “holding multiple tensions” while maintaining one’s “identity and integrity” is at the heart of “courage work”. But if this were an easy task, it would already have been done, and your ability to work with complexity would not be needed as it so desperately is today, Kirsten.

      It has been a long time since Palmer has released a new book. I look forward to it eagerly.

      Thanks for being such a diligent comment replier, Kirsten – one of the many traits that makes communicating with you such a joy.

      An aside – Seems like I always find myself in agreement with you, which is very comfortable and comforting. I like to bask in your wisdom. But maybe we could keep an eye out for a juicy argument we could have some time. We could practice holding some tensions together!


      Posted by Paul Freedman | August 12, 2011, 9:41 am
      • Brenda, I don’t want to sound repetitive, but it would be great to hear more about what you discovered in your thesis. In what way does paradox move through the creative process? Self advisory?

        Can you explain more to us here? Want to know!


        Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 13, 2011, 6:40 pm
      • I eagerly await our first “complexifying,” as they say in Parker Palmer’s world! And you do say lots of things that I hadn’t thought of in quite the same way, or noticed in the same way. That has great value to me.

        Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 13, 2011, 6:41 pm
  8. Kirsten, Thank you again for your work. “Positive Negatives” is the title of my Thesis from when I studied Art Therapy in 96`. I called to educate in the therapeutic qualities of Art Processes in primary education as a practical tool for self advisory… a place to contain paradox for reflection. It was a small drop that rippled through the lives of every student I partnered with over the next decade. Great Full, Brenda

    Posted by Brenda | August 13, 2011, 12:54 pm


  1. Pingback: Paradoxes of Our Work | Alternative education | - August 18, 2011

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