We Choose the Stories We Tell

Starting in August, we’re kicking off a new theme in our Modern Learners Community on “Story.” Through our podcasts, book studies, special events and more, we’re going to dive into the many https://modernlearners.communityways that stories define our work in terms of the paths we choose to follow, the ways we measure success, the way we define our roles, and much more.

I’m of the mind that we’re in a moment where many stories that we tell in education either explicitly or tacitly are beginning to break. The idea that you need to go somewhere to get an education, or that teachers are the ultimate experts of curricular knowledge, or that grades and scores define your intelligence…all of those narratives are shifting in response to a modern world that is increasingly privileging learning over knowing.

In Between Stories

Arguably, like most other institutions today, we are in-between stories. While the traditional K-16 story of education is now coming under some serious question, we’re not quite sure what the new story is that will replace it. And, birthing that new story will be difficult labor; we in education are deeply beholden to the old. We’ve learned how to “win” and be “successful” by the old rules.

In that vein, I’m particularly drawn to Charles Eisenstein’s writing around the critical work of unlearning our stories in the context of finding workable solutions to the serious problems we face. He writes:

“Our perceptions shape our stories, our solutions, and our world. When our narratives and assumptions are unquestioned, we end up weaving threads of the problem into the changes we want to make. To exit the well-worn ruts of the usual solution-templates, we must somehow see and question assumptions that we may not even be aware of. 

In other words, we need to “clear the field” on a personal level and a social-political level. We need to “unlearn” the things we assume we know.”

I find so much of that profound…and relevant to our change work in schools. We don’t question our narratives and assumptions much. In fact, it appears we perpetuate many of them without even thinking,  as if out of habit.

Everything is Story

Truth is, every single thing we do in schools tells a story. I’ll never forget the “Back to School” email that I got from my kids’ high school principal a few years ago, one that did little more than remind when start times and homeroom assignments could be found, and ended with this classic line: “We are looking forward to starting the school year off on the right foot, so be sure to review the dress code policy.”

That tells a powerful story.

Or my visit to a Texas school district last year where the superintendent offered directions by saying, “Just come down that road and you’ll see the scoreboard on our football field about a mile off.”

Or the numerous times I’ve driven up to schools where the first thing I’ve seen are huge banners trumpeting AP scores or state rankings or lists of colleges.

We choose the stories we tell. The question is do we choose them out of habit or do we choose them because they align to our deepest commitments to our students and the beliefs we have about learning?

Eisenstein reminds us that “we build identities from the stories that surround us.” In each of those examples above, what identities are we building? And are those really what we want to be identified with?

Changing the Story

Let me say it again: We choose the stories we tell. And that’s why I was totally inspired during a coaching call few weeks ago when one of our Change School alums John Clements was talking about how he has deliberately stopped telling stories of traditional achievement in his community in an effort to change the narrative around what school should be and what success looks like. Take a few seconds to watch this snip:

What kind of an identity is John building in his community?

The prerequisite, of course, is sensing that we are now “in between stories” in education and being willing to be on the front lines of writing a new one. It’s an inspired, if potentially uncomfortable place to be. And it’s especially uncomfortable if you’re not sure of the story you want to tell, if it’s not one that’s made consistent by a clear mission and vision that is relevant to this moment, and if it’s not rooted in a clear sense of what you believe in terms of how learning happens most effectively. Those are uncomfortable conversations in their own right.

And maybe most uncomfortable is just owning the story you currently tell. Do a “story audit” so to speak. Step back and “clear the field” by really seeing what story your buildings, your hallways, your classrooms, your emails, your rules, and your cultures are really telling. See if you can be really honest about that. And then figure out what the gaps are (if any) between the stories you’re telling and the stories you want to tell. As Peter Senge says, “Leadership actually grows from the capacity to hold creative tension, the energy generated when people articulate a vision and tell the truth (to the best of their ability) about current reality.”

So, I hope you join us for our consideration of “Story” this month in MLC. A calendar of events is below. (Click to enlarge.)

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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