Wednesday, May 23, 2012


It is possible for a community of people concerned with their local system of education to undergo a months-long process of examining that system and its future without ever stripping it down to its bare bones, and truly questioning what we have grown to accept.

What looks like a mountain may not be a mountain, it may be a valley, it may even be the open ocean, but you can’t see it because your mind put a mountain there. Move the mountain, dammit!

You can believe that what’s wrong with education is the top-down nature of the transfer of information, and you can say that the cure is to form a system based on mastery of standards. You can say that this is better because you can make expectations of students clearer, you can involve them in how they learn and at what pace. You can let them decide how to demonstrate mastery. You can open up the possibilities of how to learn things, so that kids can learn what they are told they need to know in a way that is as enjoyable and engaging as possible.

You can do all this without really grappling with the purpose of education; without considering that the purpose needs to be very different from what most adults believe and expect.

What we as adults believe kids need to learn is absolutely superfluous.  Insignificant. Inconsequential. Chaff. Unnecessary. Unproductive. Gratuitous. Painfully unimportant.

We’re probably right, every one of us who was ever asked to list what kids need to learn, what they need to know when they leave school, what they should be able to do.  But why can’t we learn to keep it to ourselves? Because we have an overly exalted view of our own importance to the learning process of children. 

Here’s where I lose people, who jump ahead to a Lord of the Flies vision, Piggy grasping the conch, demanding to speak, chaos all around him. Adults are critical to kids’ learning process, but not in the way we think.

Schools must be places where the first job of adults is to discover who these kids are, and provide support, time and resources to help them become the people they want to be.

You can’t teach children anything if you don’t know who they are. And you can’t find out until you ask. 

Seth Godin from his book, Stop Stealing Dreams

We don’t ask students to decide to participate. We assume the contract of adhesion, and relentlessly put information in front of them, with homework to do and tests to take.
Entirely skipped: commitment. Do you want to learn this? Will you decide to become good at this?
The universal truth is beyond question—the only people who excel are those who have decided to do so. Great doctors or speakers or skiers or writers or musicians are great because somewhere along the way, they made the choice. 

Why have we completely denied the importance of this choice?

What is absolutely necessary in order for our public education system to gain true relevance in the lives of children is to figure out how to organize our schools around them. It is hard to picture. You have to do away with all notions of curriculum and classroom management. You have to start at a point where we, as adults, feel intensely uncomfortable: give over leadership of learning.

If you dictate what kids have to learn, it doesn’t matter if you are letting them choose how to learn it. You have taken away their ability to pursue the learning that means most to them. You have given them the biggest roadblock to their success.

I’m not going to get into the stuff that makes this blog about the minds of kids. If you want to know why discovering the identity of kids and having kids discover their own passions is critically important, there’s lots of verbiage on this blog devoted to it.

A visioning process that begins with the end in mind is self-defeating. It’s like guiding a group of people through the wilderness, pretending they are following clues to an unknown destination, when all the while the leaders knew exactly where they were going.  The purpose of the visioning process in RSU 3 has been to bring us to the inevitable necessity of the proficiency-based system.

Kids, whether they are five or seventeen, need to learn what is dictated from inside them. That’s my message. And if a “visioning” process does not place that as the first priority of discussion and investigation, then it isn’t really questioning the purpose and the function of education.


  1. There is a lot of nuance packed into these words. I assume that this is a personal reflection after participating in a visioning initiative within your district that was as you said, brought to "the inevitable necessity" without significant pushback or debate about what "inevitable" and "necessity" could mean if, as Lisa Nielsen states, we "fix the schools, not the students"

  2. Yes. I've been thinking today about the New Deal. FDR is villified for his "socialist" interventions during the worst of the Great Depression, but is that what they were?

    I think they were a last-ditch effort to save capitalism from collapsing.

    We're in a doldrums concerning education. Kids are stuck between the old mentality of top-down education priorities on one side and test-makers and privatizers on the other.

    Proficiency-based education is designed to "save" public education, but from what?

    For my money, it'll save it from having to become truly relevant to students.

  3. I am confused if you have a problem with visioning or if you have a problem with who is doing the visioning?


  4. I guess I have a problem with the leadership of the visioning process; what was promised, what was delivered, how it was steered, etc.

    I'd write more but I have to go defend the district budget. :)

  5. We're undertaking the same process as your district, and a comment one student at another school made was really eye-opening. They were talking about the "Code of Cooperation" (student-generated class rules), and he said: We just tell them what they want to hear, what they want to be on the list. If we don't, we get in trouble".

    The more I think about, the more I think we need to act like post-WWII Finland and just say "OK, forget everything and let's start at the beginning." Is this best for kids? If yes, let's do it, and let's figure out how, status quo be damned. If no, throw it out.

  6. I'm not sure we all agree on what is best for kids. We'd have to establish that as a bottom line. I have very traditional feelings about what kids need to know, but I think they need to learn it as they themselves feel driven to other words, education has to come from within. Others believe kids are not to be trusted to learn what we think they need to know, so we have to take them on a long march through the Common Core so that we can be absolutely sure.

    But by taking that march we are disempowering them. Short-circuiting their ability to be independent thinkers.

    We can't just say, "The Common Core is here to stay and we just have to make the best of it." We need to analyze what it will mean to kids, and minimize the damage of what we are required by law to do, as much as possible.

    I'm very curious to hear more stories about your process, if you care to share them!