Stop Asking How

I’m reading another one of those books that’s profoundly changing my thinking about change in schools.

And yes, as always, it’s like 20 years old.

It may seem weird that I keep going back in time to find the most powerful ideas for this moment. I mean, not a week (day?) goes by any more without yet another book about how to change classroom practice or how to change your school culture or how to increase student engagement or how to hack this or that.

And believe me, I understand the appeal of the How?

But the How? answers are really within all of us providing we have a powerful answer to the “What really matters?” question in the first place. That’s Peter Block’s basic thesis in The Answer to How is Yes. And the more I read it, the more I agree.

This culture, and we as members of it, have yielded too easily to what is doable and practical and popular. In the process we have sacrificed the pursuit of what is in our hearts. We find ourselves giving in to our doubts, and settling for what we know how to do, or can soon learn how to do, instead of pursuing what most matters to us and living with the adventure and anxiety that this requires (1).

If that wasn’t written specifically about schools, it should have been. How many schools articulate widely what’s really “in their hearts” when it comes to the potentials of kids and how learning really happens? How many schools are chasing banners or awards or distinctions from outside rather than claiming their worth from within? How many are willing to forego the popular and choose, instead, the effective, despite the doubts and the inconsistencies that come with that?

In my experience, not many.

As much as we want to get better in schools, we don’t really want to get different. We don’t want to grapple with the big, hairy, existential questions that this moment demands. We don’t readily want to admit that there is a huge gap between what we know and believe about how people learn and what we actually do in classrooms and school buildings. Instead, we’d rather pursue the easier tweaks that the How? question often leads us to.

Over the years, in my conversations around change with educators at all levels, far and away more questions they ask start with “How do we…?”  than anything else. Just a couple of weeks ago in a day long workshop outside of Chicago with about 50 school leaders, 40+ of them responded with a “how?” question when I prompted them to write “‘The one burning question about education and schools that most keeps you up at night.” I had four What? questions, two When?, and one “Are we…?”

Not one Why?

According to Block, that’s a problem.

How? is most urgent whenever we look for a change, whenever we pursue a dream, a vision, or determine that the future needs to be different from the past. By invoking a How? question, we define the debate about the changes we have in mind and thereby create a set of boundaries on how we approach the task. This, in turn, influences how we approach the future and determines the kind of institutions we create and inhabit (15).

When we ask How?, Block suggests, we immediately constrain ourselves in the task. We immediately become slaves to practice and deflect from our deeper values. And our deeper values, those teased out when we ask “What matters?”, are the ones that lead us to powerful answers to the How?, answers that we already carry within us.

And it’s important that the How? answers are our own and not someone else’s. Again, it’s easier to look to someone else to see what has “worked,” but in reality, “just because something works, doesn’t mean that it matters.” If the practices of others don’t serve our unique “What matters?” question, very little will change.

Change at the scale that I think we require in education is exceedingly arduous, to put it mildly. But why should that either surprise us or dissuade us from our pursuit of what matters? As Block suggests, ultimately it comes down not to the questions that offer an answer that is outside ourselves, but to the questions we seek within ourselves that have many potential answers, that offer many potential paths other than those already taken. For instance, “What commitment am I willing to make?”

The question of commitment declares that the essential investment needed is personal commitment, not money, not the agreement of others, not the alignment of converging forces supportive of a favorable outcome. For anything that matters, the timing is never quite right, the resources are always a little short, and the people who affect the outcome are always ambivalent. These conditions offer proof that when we say yes, it was our own doing and it was important to us.

Too few of the change conversations currently happening in education are running through the “What matters?” lens. And that’s because most of those conversations emanate from the How? question. In doing that, we create change that is ultimatley irrelevant and unsustainable.

Would love to know what you think.

Five more to read this week:

Is Technology Addictive? – Audrey Wattters peels back the layers and offers up some typically astute conclusions.

The Future of Work and Learning – From Desire 2 Learn, another in a raft of reports attempting to discern what our kids will be up against.

Once a Fearsome Murderer Invaded a Zen Master’s Home – Just a great post by Sean Michael Morris on what student agency really means.

Why One Harvard Professor Calls American Schools’ Focus on Testing a “Charade.” – With a new book out about standardized assessments, author Daniel Koretz answers some pushback questions.

EdTech and Equity: An Interview with Justin Reich – Another must read this week if you want to understand why it’s not about the technology.


2 thoughts on “Stop Asking How”

  1. Terence Staines

    Hmmm… The ‘problem’ with modern education is that it ignores the classics, and centres on vocational or ‘life-centred’ training. The education system that had been in place since the eighteenth century wasn’t broken, it worked perfectly well for countless generations of children and centred around three core subjects: reading, writing and arithmetic (note: not mathematics, basic arithmetic, i.e. the four basic functions of numbers). On top of those three core subjects there were a nod towards the humanities (art, history, literature and religious studies), but the fundamental principal of the three core subjects was a simple and efficient means of providing a basic education for ALL pupils, at whatever level they were capable of achieving. As soon as we tried to teach ‘slower’ children algebra and forced the ‘brighter’ kids to read Dick and Jane books, the system collapsed – ‘one size’ certainly does NOT fit all, and we are harvested the crop we planted in the seventies – there are people in this country that can’t read a newspaper, or add their spare-change up, or write legibly. THAT’s what needs to be fixed, first. That. That what.

    1. Lyn Hilt

      You are correct that one size does not fit all, but we will do our children a disservice if we ignore the rapid pace at which our world is changing and think we can approach education the same way we did in the days when it appeared to be “not broken.” We forget in those times of traditional schooling that there were, indeed, many children left behind – children that didn’t fit the mold, children whose brilliance went unacknowledged and unappreciated by a system that valued compliance over creativity. We live in a time that now affords us the opportunity to work alongside children and help them not only learn fundamental skills and content that will serve them well throughout the course of their lifetimes, but also inspire and ignite within them a true love of learning, so they can lead the way in making this world a better place for all of us. That is our hope, and we look forward to working with educators around the world to make that happen!

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