Dream Work is Messy: We Teach For What Can Be

“The first thing that we can do is believe that things can be different.” – Cornelius Minor

In the powerful epilogue to his recent book, We Got This, Cornelius Minor reminds us of what teaching must be. “It cannot,” he contends, “be orthodoxy that keeps us tethered to the earth.” We must go beyond the “savagely inequitable status quo” because …

“We do not teach for what is. We teach for what can be.”

The act of reimagining school is a constant challenge that involves considering the needs of learners in an ever-changing context. Some might argue that the need to reimagine schools is overstated, that what we have now works, whether we like it or not. The reality is that there are a set of dichotomies at the heart of any meaningful conversation about education that highlight the complexities involved. At Learning by Design at The International School of Brussels, we committed to exploring a series of questions and their dichotomies that were first raised when we began this dialogue two years ago:

  • How do we help students design the kind of learning and future that they want to have?
  • How do we develop a different concept of the teacher that is fit for the future?
  • How can we find the time and space to innovate our practices?
  • How can we design learning experiences that change the health of the whole community?
  • At what cost do we ignore these questions?

There are no clear lines here. Desultory attempts to address these questions can result in what Ewan McIntosh describes as, “at best, a vague notion that comes as an add-on to traditional strategy approaches and, at worst, an over-simplified process that leads to mediocre, small-scale change.” For McIntosh, school change is often mired in improving the traditional concerns of school while missing the opportunity to explore deeper possibilities. Too often the business of schools is absorbed by the comfort of attention to the familiar. Thereby we neglect to extend our thinking creatively: “Schools are already experts in risk reduction: internet filters, health and safety equipment, school trip risk assessments… Risk reduction is a powerful tool already in education … but few of them create what can be called ‘innovative’ solutions in education. Most are copy-and-paste commodities with a large market ready to buy. However, risk reduction, taken in the positive sense, can be highly innovative. What about innovative ideas that reduce the risk of schools killing the creativity in their students’ lives?”

Carol Ann Tomlinson reminds us that in order “to create real learners, teachers have to reach the hearts, souls, and minds of students. Teaching a list of standards won’t get us there.” Are we really going to develop creative thinkers and provide teachers with the space to innovate their practices and create a futures-oriented context with a traditional school mindset? Katie Martin is absolutely right when she states that: “If we really value creation of new ideas, we have to model and support this type of learning. We can’t say that we want creative thinkers and problem solvers yet stifle those opportunities in school to ensure that we get through the curriculum. When we tell kids to complete an assignment, we get compliance. When we empower kids to explore and learn how to make an impact on the world, we inspire innovators.”

It takes little imagination to appreciate that if teaching and learning should be about what can be, then what has been may not get us there. As David Gleason sees it: “We must challenge ourselves to do things differently. We have a moral obligation to educate our students in ways that are not only consistent with our own commitments ‘to authentic engagement with our students: meeting them where they are;’ but, also, in ways that are synchronised with their development.” At what cost do we ignore this obligation? What are the alternatives to the things we assume cannot be changed?

These are among the questions we pursued recently at Learning by Design. We found ourselves challenged by the narrative of disruption; disturbed, at times, by the narrative of fear and resistance. We recognised a shared commitment to doing our best for students, acknowledged the significant progress we have made, and the exceptional people we are fortunate to share the journey with. Ultimately, however, we were inspired by a call to action: to listen to the voices of our students, to innovate with courage and integrity. To steadfastly believe in what can be and to remember, as Minor insists, that this is our work.

“Our tales of heroes and conquerors have created legends and deified the work. The problem with legends is that they are told in ways that exclude us. Progress is not the work of the gods or the chosen elite. It is our work, and though it is hard, those who have made us believe that it is divine have orchestrated the most effective kind of oppression – one that takes our growth out of our hands and task it to those who “know better” than us.”

Our obligation is to create the time to answer the questions we have formulated at the core of Learning by Design, to extend the conversation, and to look not at what must be, but what can be. In doing so, we must celebrate those who forge ahead, despite the status quo, because – even though change is messy – we got this: “As educators, sometimes we fail to act upon our dreams because we feel that we cannot attain the perfection that we imagine. In truth, we won’t find this perfection right away. Dream work is messy, but when faced with the choice between the sometimes broken reality of what currently exists and the messy reality of progress, it is better to live in the mess.”

Minor, Cornelius. We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be. Heinemann, 2018.
McIntosh, Ewan. How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen. NoTosh Publishing, 2015.
Martin, Katie. Learner-Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, and Unleash Genius. IMPress LP, 2018.
Gleason, David. At What Cost?: Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools. Developmental Empathy LLC, 2017.