If You Really Want to Change School, You Need to Change the Lens

Over the last dozen years, one of the things I’ve become most interested in is the ways in which schools define their value in the world. In fact, it’s one of the first things I try to suss out whenever I visit a school or a district or a board. What matters here more than anything else? What makes this place “successful?”

It won’t come as a shock to hear that in most places, what matters is results. Specifically, results that are measurable and that easily turn into data that can be compared year over year. To achieve “success” as a school, the numbers have to show it. Higher graduation rates. Better state test scores. More consistent attendance. Gains in SAT, ACT, and AP test scores. Being “data-driven” has a purpose; it’s an efficient way of telling a story. Real estate agents love it, even if it may be the wrong story to be evaluating and telling.

I say that last bit because another thing I’ve become deeply interested in is how little state test scores, attendance, SAT, ACT, and AP scores and all the rest have to do with learning, at least not the learning that ultimately leads any particular student to find her way through the world as the happy, healthy, productive, curious, creative, persistent adult that we all say we want her to become.

Just because a particular student checks all the boxes for an “education” doesn’t mean he’s learned much at all in terms of what was being explicitly taught. Kids learn much if not most of the curricular aspects of school for the short term, to check the box, and then they pretty quickly forget the bulk of it. (We did too.) Whether we admit it or not, the “education” that kids get in school is of their own making, and most of it doesn’t show up anywhere near what’s reported in the parent portal. As much as we talk about giving kids more agency over the curricular stuff, they still ultimately own what they choose to learn. And most of that is probably better recorded in their text messages and Snaps rather than in a grade on a chemistry unit or history project.

Using what’s measurable as the lens that guides your work is easier, yes. But now that the world is honoring skills and dispositions over content knowledge and other things easily measurable, it’s time to change the lens. The primary lenses for our work today must be our deeply help beliefs about learning, our deeply held commitments to our children and their well-being, our clear understanding of the opportunities and challenges of the world as it operates today, and our capacity to create new cultures and practices in our classrooms that serve all of us, adults and kids, as learners first and foremost.

Seriously, why wouldn’t we start there?

 

I mean, doesn’t putting our primary focus squarely on learning in the deepest sense of the word just common sense? Isn’t committing ourselves to develop happy, healthy adults just a common sense aspiration? Isn’t it equally common sense that we can’t fully understand how to best prepare kids for living in the modern world if we ourselves don’t fully understand and live in the modern world? And isn’t it common sense as well that if the world now favors learners over the learned, we all need to be powerful learners in our own right?

To be honest, even as late as two years ago when Bruce and Missy and I started thinking hard about Change School, I didn’t realize how much it was going to be about helping leaders figure out how to do what just makes sense. And that’s because our education lenses are so much more deeply rooted than our learning lenses.

I’m thinking more about this as we get ready to open up registration for our fifth cohort of Change School next week. More than anything else, the experience that we’re crafting is about giving the space, the support, the push, and the connections that we need to do the right thing in schools, instead of trying to do the wrong thing right. (Yes, Russel Ackoff again.) We want to help school leaders figure out how to make common sense drive the work over ease or efficiency. We want you to bring to bear a lens for leading schools that, honestly, most leaders already have but aren’t always living.

If you stop by here with any regularity, you know that Bruce, Missy, Lyn and I think this is such an important moment in our evolution as educators. We believe in our souls that we can no longer look at schooling and education the same way, and we have to deepen our understanding and our commitment to how learning really happens in our kids and in ourselves. And that to do that we need to first change the lens through which we make every decision that we make that impacts kids’ lives.

If you want more about the lens and the work we’re doing in Change School, here’s a four-part video series that we just released.

As always, would love your thoughts and comments.

Five more links to make you think this week:

This Is What Georgia Tech Thinks College Will Look Like in 2040 – Links to the executive summary which, by itself, is pretty compelling.

The Web is Broken; Let’s Fix It – We talk a lot about understanding modern contexts. This podcast has some important ones to think about.

Social Media and Loneliness – An historical, not hysterical, perspective

When Did America Decide Preschool Should Be in a Classroom? – Great question

The Problem With Forced Rankings – Seth Godin reflects on higher ed.

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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