Agile Schools and the Possibility of Different Endings

“Show me a school whose inhabitants constantly examine the school’s culture and work to transform it into one hospitable to sustained human learning, and I’ll show you students who graduate with both the capacity and the heart for lifelong learning.” – Roland Barth.

In his new book, The Power of Us: How We Connect, Act and Innovate Together, David Price reminds us of the things learning organizations should focus on in order to be successful at a time of great uncertainty and challenge in the world. We need, he suggests, to be, “working on the things that define us as humans – creativity, cultural understanding, empathy, diversity.”

We find ourselves living through a global pandemic, on a planet threatened by climate change, in a world fractured by systemic inequality, racism and division. One would imagine that our moral imperatives would be clear and that our learning priorities might reflect these explicitly. The need for educational approaches that respect the diversity of all learners in an uncertain future calls for a willingness to be open to new possibilities.

In her acclaimed short story, The Story of the Widow’s Son, Mary Lavin relates a tale of tragedy with a conventional plot structure and narrative. What sets the story apart is that it has two endings – and while neither provides respite to the protagonist – the unexpected shift in narrative prompts us to consider the proposition that “perhaps all our actions have this double quality about them, this possibility of alternative.”

What Price describes as “opportunity-based learning” is really much more. It is learning itself. He implores us to, “see opportunities for authentic learning experiences, not as a distraction from the curriculum – [but to ensure these] …opportunities become the curriculum.” Price references Senge’s description of real learning as something that “gets to the heart of what it means to be human.” Such an approach does not represent a dilution of the quality of learning and student achievement, but an opportunity to profoundly enhance these.

At a time when the world calls for the need for greater agility, creativity, and an ability to embrace and adapt to unprecedented change, the danger of an adherence to the same old, tired and divisive world order remains. We have a responsibility to ensure that what students are spending their time on has meaning in their lives and for the greater good. What does it mean to be a successful learner with a view to living a meaningful, healthy life? Perkins distinguishes between schooling and learning with a crucial distinction: “The achievement gap asks, ‘Are students achieving X?’ whereas the relevance gap asks, ‘Is X going to matter to the lives learners are likely to live?’”

What are the things we are intent upon measuring for our young people and their futures and what do these things say about our priorities, our agility and creativity? Are we repeating and endorsing the same old narrative or taking the time to consider – with open minds and hearts – what is really important? David Gleason consistently reminds us that we have a moral obligation to reclaim our primary mission and, in doing so, ‘to meet students where they are,’ ‘to educate our students in healthy and balanced ways.’ In order to achieve this necessity we are obligated to look at the bigger picture of the often calamitous, yet sometimes still wonderful world around us and acknowledge the assertion of Cornelius Minor that “the first thing that we can do is believe that things can be different.” 

The question is, do we really believe that things can be different or are we mired in the anachronistic belief that the current system – for all its flaws – must be preserved? Ewan McIntosh has observed the current global pandemic and its impact on schools through a Design Thinking lens and concluded that: “It’s time to rebirth education. We have an opportunity and the benefit of a shock to look at all the things that didn’t really work as we’d hoped and ditch them … [including] singular expectations on ‘successful’ pathways through life.”

What does it all mean for schools? It makes clear that we have a moral imperative to create learning environments and school cultures in which every student will flourish and help develop a more socially just world in the process. It means we have to appropriately and supportively push each individual student to be the very best that they can be academically, socially, emotionally and creatively. We need to end prescriptive and limited definitions of success and focus instead on designing systems to support the potential and interests of each student as an individual. 

We must provide individual pathways to student success and equip each student to reach their full potential. For some, this may still be admission to the best colleges and universities in the world; for others, it will be the pursuit of a personal passion in the arts, be they creative, culinary, dramatic or musical. Some may wish to go on to be great designers of solutions to major global issues, others of clothing. There will be those who want to code and program, and those who want to garden; there will be environmentalists, novelists, poets, songwriters, teachers, baristas and bankers. 

I have seen the joy on the face of a young adult proudly demonstrating that she has learned to tie her shoelaces independently. I’ve had conversations with broken young people who were admitted to the college of their parents’ dreams, only to crash and burn when they got there. It will take great agility and personalised, human systems in order to successfully support the potential, aspirations, and dreams of all learners.

We need our young people to reach their potential and flourish in a more just and equitable world. This is a massive ambition, but one we should feel compelled to embrace. This is the work of schools today. We must, as Barth suggests, examine the school’s culture and work to transform it into one hospitable to sustained and transformative human learning. 

To do so, we will need the wisdom to willingly suspend our disbelief in the possibility of different endings. 


References

Bart, Roland S. Learning by Heart January, 2001. Jossey-Bass.

Price, David. The Power of Us: How We Connect, Act and Innovate Together. August, 2020. Thread.

Perkins, David. Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World. September, 2014, Jossey-Bass.

Gleason, David L. At What Cost?: Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools. Developmental Empathy LLC, 2017.

Minor, Cornelius. We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be. Heinemann, 2018.

McIntosh, Ewan. “This Isn’t Time For a ‘Recovery’. It’s Time For a Renaissance.” October 5, 2020. Medium.

Image Credit: Matthew T Rader on Unsplash