The Roots of Change

At the “commencement” session for our first cohort of Change Schoolers this week, amid some fun awards and the popping of a cheap bottle of champagne, I gave the final reading, a snip of something that I hoped would tie the bow on our work together. Naturally, it was about change. And not surprisingly, it was by Seymour Sarason, one of my biggest influences, from his book Letters to a Serious Education President.

It went:

Unless we start with “what children are and where they are,” unless we start with their questions, what they are curious about, what they want to learn, we perpetuate the tradition of pouring knowledge into them and requiring them to set aside their interests, their curiosities, their wondrous, question-asking worlds. That does not mean that where we start is where we end. Our obligation, and as a society it is our most important one, is to impart our cherished values to our young, to ensure the continuity of these values, truly to conserve the best of our traditions. But it has become self-defeating of our purposes to continue to adhere to classroom practices that do not acknowledge that the pedagogical task is to meld two worlds: the world of our children and our adult world. That melding has not  and will not occur unless we start with and help children give expression to their worlds. Make no mistake about it, if we start where we must and should, our classrooms, the way schools are organized, the tyranny of calendar-powered, calendar-imprisoned curricula, and our criteria for performance and assessment will have to change, and dramatically so…

In educating our youth, what do we owe them? We want them to acquire knowledge and skills, but that is not enough. We want them to be prepared for the world of work, but that is not enough. We want them to graduate from our high schools and colleges, but that is not enough. None of these is enough unless we have, in addition, given students, implanted in them, the desire, the need, willingly to pursue over their lifetimes a deepening of their understanding of the world they live in. Is there anyone that would deny that the God-created human is a question-asking, questing, curiosity-powered organism? Is there anyone that would dispute that what distinguishes us from all other living creatures is that we are always trying, seeking, struggling to meld our pasts, presents, and futures? An educational system that does not capitalize on our uniqueness is a system that is shortchanging our youth…

We have to change schools, but if that is not preceded or accompanied by a change in our thinking, in our preconceptions, in how we regard what and where our children are, in our imaginativeness and boldness–absent these changes and we will again confirm the maxim that the more things change the more they remain the same.

Too often, we think that “stuff” is what is going to precipitate “change.” Most often, “stuff” changes nothing. And that’s because “stuff” isn’t the place to start. Hell, “school” isn’t even the place to start. Tweaking at the edges of our practice or our environments or our outcomes and standards doesn’t do anything if we’re not first looking deeply into our educational hearts and souls to find answers to the most basic questions. Like, “what and where our children are.” Like, “what do you mean by learnng?” Like, what is our reason for schools and classrooms and teachers to exist today?

If you don’t dig deeply into those questions first, you’ll never till the soil for relevant, sustainable, truly transformative “Change” to take root.

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