The Zen of School Change

shifting-conversations-logoRight now, there are eight Tibetan Monks staying at my house. They’re sleeping on floors, couches, and my kids’ beds. (My kids are now on my bedroom floor.) They’re with us for 10-days as they do healings and meditations and school visits. (They made it down to Science Leadership Academy on Friday, in fact.) Only two speak English. And the best part is that the llama geshe (the monk with what amounts to a PhD.) does his personal meditation through cleaning. Our kitchen is spotless!

This is the third time in five years that we’ve hosted monks from the Gaden Shartse Monastery in India as they tour the US to raise funds for their work. It’s been a powerful experience that started in the first minute of the first visit. The group had just driven through a horrible snowstorm from Scranton, Pa to our house, a trip that should take a couple of hours turned into five. As I greeted the first monk out of the van in the blowing snow, I said “Long day, huh?” He smiled and quietly replied, “Every day is the same length.” Um, yeah…perspective.

22237102969_601a3880a0_zAnyway, last night our current visitors did a meditation for about 50 people in my small town in a local yoga studio. It was fascinating, and once again, I was reminded of the power of perspective. The monk leading the meditation said the intent is to “stay between history and mystery,” meaning, of course, to be in the present moment, that both the past and future are out of our control, and that if we linger in either, we sacrifice the moment we’re living in. Easy, right?

So what does this have to do with schools and learning and change? I just wonder how we might make the whole experience of school better for kids if we stayed between “history and mystery” in our own work. If we made teaching our “practice,” so to speak. I mean, what if we could see the present moment in our classrooms as distinct from the traditional histories of schooling that we normally work under, and, also, without regard to the “mysteries” of the future? In so many ways we in education are driven by age-old narratives of what an “education” should look and feel like, and best guesses as to what we think will prepare kids for the future. What if it were driven by what kids need in the moment?

Obviously, that would be difficult, almost impossible to do. But it’s an interesting thought. I think if we could bring what we inherently know about good learning into that moment, it would look much different from what most classroom moments look like. The moment would be about learning, not teaching or educating. It would be filled with joy and passion, not expectations for some form of “success.” It would be about powerful, real world questions and work, not something contrived by curriculum and textbook authors. It would be, I think, better for kids.

Change, real change in schools is for all intents impossible.  Seymour Sarason wrote a whole book on The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform where he points out in a very compelling argument that real reforms that serve kids will never occur until we deal with the power relationships that are so intractable in schools. I love this description of the system of schooling from The Skeptical Visionary:

It is a system so balkanized as to prevent meaningful discussion of, let alone agreement about, educational goals and priorities. It is not a system that can initiate and sustain meaningful reform. Under severe and unusual pressure it may permit tinkering, even the appearance of reform, but as time goes on and the pressures decrease, the leadership changes, the tinkering and reform lost force and purpose, confirming the adage that the more things change the more they remain the same. It is not a self-correcting system; there are no means, procedures, forums through which the system “learns.” It is a system with a seemingly infinite capacity to remain the same in the face of obvious inadequacies, unmet goals, and public dissatisfaction. It is a system in which accountability is so diffused that no one in accountable. It is a system that has outlived all of its reformers, and will outlive the present generation of reformers. I made that prediction 30 years ago, and I have no reason to think otherwise today.

That written 18 years ago, btw. Still resonates.

My monk friends remind me many times a day by their actions that “every day is the same length.” It’s all just made up of moments, one after the other, and in the end, it’s those moments that build our histories. Perhaps the key to reform is to live what we believe about learning in every interaction we have with our kids. If we do that, systemic change that benefits our students and ourselves might just happen on its own.

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