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Learning at its Best

Changing School

There is an enormous gap between what we know and what we do.

Let’s talk about scurvy.

Between 1500-1800, it is estimated that at least two million sailors died of scurvy. In 1753 research was formally published that scurvy could be eradicated with fresh fruit such as limes and lemons, but it wasn’t until 1795 that the Royal Navy introduced fresh oranges and lemons into their sailors’ diets. It took 42 years to close the gap between what we knew about scurvy and what we were doing about it.

Consider this.

In the 1950s, Dr. Alice Stewart discovered that at a rate of 2 to 1 children who died from cancer came from mothers who had x-rays while they were pregnant. In 1956, Dr. Stewart published her findings, but it took 25 years for British and American doctors to stop x-raying pregnant women.

Like scurvy and childhood cancer, education also suffers from a considerable gap between what we know about how children learn and what we do in school. Many of us have experienced this first hand, which is why so many people know that school needs to change in order for it to be a good place for all children.

So how do we change school?

While our ultimate goals for children tend to be at least in the same ballpark (happy, trustworthy, responsible, caring, creative, critical thinker, etc), how we attain these goals can pit adults against one another.

As an educator and a parent, I’ve worked with others to rethink some of their unquestioned assumptions about school. Along this journey, I have learned a great deal about how to (and how not to) work with others to make school a better place for children (read: I’ve made mistakes and turned people off). I’ve often been described as passionate about education which can be a compliment (he gets it) and a criticism (he won’t shut up).

Whether you want to talk about homework, testsandgrades, classroom management, religion, punishment, due dates, recess, literacy, numeracy, curriculum, technology, or lesson plans, here are the steps I try and use as both an educator and parent to engage people who may have a different vision for how to do school:

1. Develop a relationship. At the heart of all learning and progress are relationships. Without a healthy relationship, it doesn’t matter how right or smart you are. People won’t care what you know until they know you care about them.

2. Ask and listen. You’re going to be tempted to start by sharing your own knowledge, expertise or perspective, but you’re better off asking questions and listening first. Consider starting by asking others for their opinion. There are two goals here: 1) whoever you are talking with needs to know that you are listening and that you are not simply waiting for your turn to talk. 2) You need to listen carefully so that you can gain insight into their beliefs and motives. We all tend to have good intentions, so try and find out what their good intentions are.

3. Share a story. After you’ve gained insight and they know you’ve listened to them, it might be your turn to talk. Again, it is best to resist lecturing on your soap box. Instead, take a highly specific example for how your child or student was affected by traditional school. If you do this right, whoever you are talking with should experience this story not as a reward or punishment but as information. No judgement. The goal here is not to win an argument, but to engage in a two-way conversation.

4. Read and share. If you want to influence others, you need to be credible so you will need to be well read and well researched. You will need to familiarize yourself with both the anecdotal evidence and scientific research that supports and counters your position. Once you’ve nurtured a relationship, you can start to ask questions about how and why we do things and implicitly or explicitly share examples for how and why we might do things differently. Share articles, research and books. Engage.

5. Know when to be patient and when to pursue. People don’t resist change — they resist being changed. The whole idea here is to avoid adversarial relationships. Others need to experience you less like a judge-in-waiting and more like a safe and caring ally. The only way to avoid being ignored or labelled a trouble-maker is to do nothing and remain silent, but keep in mind the slippery slope of the status quo is fuelled by silence, so you will need to be selective with when it is worth speaking up.

6. Organize and mobilize. One person with a point or problem may be easily dismissed but two, three, four, five people with a point or problem are much harder to dismiss. Talk and work with others to create a connected network that influences change through collaboration.

I have some bad news.

Even if you do all this really well, you need to know about something called confirmation bias. When people hear information that contradicts their current beliefs, we tend to go out of our way to criticize, distort or dismiss it so we can maintain our existing beliefs – this is confirmation bias.

So can anything be done to break up the echo chamber?


Some call it surprising validators.

Dismissing information that contradicts our existing beliefs may comfort us, so the challenge may be to have information presented by a source that we would be uncomfortable dismissing. In other words, disagreeing with contradictory ideas may be easy, but disagreeing with people we trust might be enough to make us rethink our positions.

Confirmation bias is most destructive where its least acknowledged. People who are wilfully blind lose awareness of what they are doing. Drawing attention to these destructive tendencies can help reduce their hold over us.

Change is fuelled by constructive conflict brought on by cognitive dissonance inspired by engaged conversations but is stifled by needless combativeness which breeds disengagement and defensiveness.

About joebower

I believe students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.


5 thoughts on “Changing School

  1. Joe,

    Beautifully put. I thank you for the checklist and I plead guilty on several counts. I’ve made people hate seeing me because of my ranting about the over diagnosing and medicating of young people. Although I know I have good intentions, I have failed to allow the communications to be heard with open ears and open minds.
    Thanks again, I will take a deep breath, stand back and try to approach people in education from a slightly different perspective.
    Jack Marcellus
    SMART Youth Development

    Posted by jack marcellus | January 11, 2013, 12:01 pm
  2. Hey Joe, This is a great post, and I admire your writing and thinking always. In my own journey around the transformation of education, I have come to believe that there is a wholesale shift in the way learning and teaching is conceived of that is occurring around the world, whether folks involved with conventional schools “confirm” or disconfirm. The terrible sense of discord among us, within our ranks, is about watching an industry, an economic sector, a way of living (primarily for adults) dying, withering before our eyes. It is painful for those involved, it is full of contention, it is happening whether people agree with it or not. I personally feel so convinced of this that I am not about convincing anyone about this anymore–I’m just surprised that more people don’t see it. (Confirmation bias?) We are observing the end of a lifeway, a lifeway built around 18th and 19th century ideas about schooling. I have come to feel peaceful about this, that I don’t need to convince anyone of anything.


    With respect,


    Posted by Kirsten | January 11, 2013, 12:12 pm
  3. Thanks for a wonderful post, Joe.

    I’m a public school teacher trying to make change at whatever level I am able. Your post reminded me about how making change is so closely connected to good teaching (relationships, listening, stories, knowledge, strategic patience, and networking/organizing.) I’m also struck by the similarity with how “good” I can feel when I say something well in a classroom — the monologue approach — and how “good” I feel when I’ve “won” an argument with an adversary. In the end, often these are Pyrrhic victories shared by none but myself.

    Posted by Steve Peterson | January 12, 2013, 11:27 am
  4. A very practical and wise post. Thank you for writing it.

    Posted by bernardmoran | January 12, 2013, 12:20 pm


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