Opening the Portal of Curiosity

I think the exciting, yet incredibly challenging, task before us as educators is to balance the need for students to acquire some basic level of intellectual capital or requisite body of knowledge,…

Source: Opening the Portal of Curiosity

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Opening the Portal of Curiosity

I think the exciting, yet incredibly challenging, task before us as educators is to balance the need for students to acquire some basic level of intellectual capital or requisite body of knowledge, yet move from a focus on knowledge acquisition to a focus on thinking skills, problem solving, and ability to create.  This quote I came across in my reading this morning hits on my thinking at this point:

“The factory, rather than a moral, learning community, is the inspiration for traditional models of learning.  When the factory was touted as the ideal organization for work and when most youngsters were headed for its assembly lines, making a mass public education system conform to the model of the factory may have seemed like a great achievement.”

(Battling for the Seoul of American Education – John Abbot)

The limitations of such a traditional factory model of education have become manifest and they are crippling.  The traditional model of schooling is incompatible with the idea that learning must be active, and that children learn in different ways and at different rates.

Schools will best prepare students for their future if we find a way to break free of the fact-centered, factory model of education developed in the Industrial age and refined throughout the information age, so that we can create schools suited for the challenges of the conceptual age where there is information abundance.  Our recent school reform initiatives influenced by NCLB have, I believe, focused too narrowly on content and skills, the recall or use of which are easy to quantify on tests, at the expense of unlocking student curiosity and ability and passion to explore, learn, and create.

Paulo Freire argues that the basis of a critical classroom is for teachers to understand the primacy of curiosity. Before teachers can entertain methods or pedagogical approaches for an engaging classroom, “the teacher must be clear and content with the notion that the cornerstone of the whole process is human curiosity.  Curiosity drives us to question, states Freire, “and to know, act, ask again, recognize.” Curiosity, then, motivates us to not only want to know, but to reflect and to act upon that reflection. Curiosity moves us to action.

“There could be no such thing as human existence without the openness of our being to the world . . . ” and what more important disposition or quality can any teacher have, then but “openness to the world” through the portal of curiosity?”

(Freire, Paulo (1998) Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp 79-84.)

At our school this year we created a two and a half hour block of time every Wednesday afternoon called Life-long Learner Time (LLT).  Each week during this time, teachers and students all work on a project, intellectual pursuit, or new skill they have selected on their own just because it interests them.  Some students and teachers are building things, some are learning a new language, some learning to play an instrument, some writing a novel or book of poetry, or screen play.  There are mini presentations along the way for all of us to share our learning journey, and there will be a larger presentation and celebration at the end of the semester where teachers and students will share their experience with the larger school community and our parents.  It is so exciting to see students and teachers across campus all diving into the opportunity to explore their own passions or curiosities each week!  And students are learning fantastic things, and, more importantly, learning how to learn and how to transit the portal of curiosity.  What will we do today in our schools or classrooms to stimulate openness to the world through the portal of curiosity?

The Educator’s call to Greatness – Part 2.

 

When I entered the teaching profession in the late 1980’s in California, U.S. public education was about to enter the accountability movement.   The theory of action for the accountability movement shifted to state and federal authority rather than individual self-interest as a driver for change.  By developing curricular standards and a set of aligned assessments, or so the theory goes, good schools can be recognized and rewarded, while bad schools can be identified for assistance or shut down.  Prior to the school accountability movement, U.S. teachers enjoyed a high degree of curricular and instructional autonomy.  That is to say, teachers made the majority of their curricular decisions based on state guidelines, the content of adopted textbook programs, and a fair degree of personal interest or opinion as to what is important.  While this often provided students with a rich and varied education, it also allowed some teachers the freedom to drift toward a path of mediocrity rather than rise to the pursuit of excellence.

Over the past 20 years or so, the accountability movement has sparked intense national debate.  How can schools best gather data on student learning and be held accountable for delivering results without inevitably focusing too heavily on high stakes testing at the expense of student engagement and the habits of mind so important to success in the 21st century?   While most people recognize the need for some level of accountability,  often absent from the rhetoric of the debate, is the reality that schools are comprised of people, not impersonal products that easily fit into an industrial quality control model.  Both teachers and students bring so many variables that are not easily analyzed on a standardized test.  And, while the accountability movement has certainly brought analysis of teaching quality out into the open resulting in many positive educational gains, I believe it is time for us to reemphasize the human element at the heart of education.  Just as some in education prior to the accountability movement demonstrated complacency or poor quality instruction with impunity under a system of little to no oversight or accountability, we still have teachers who demonstrate the same lack of instructional excellence and complacency.  The difference now, is simply that they can learn to play the game, teach to a test, focus on bubble kids, etc, and fly under the accountability radar.

The task before us now, as it was prior to the accountability movement, is to challenge those who have found themselves bobbing along with the current through the path of least resistance.  Jerry Jeff Walker wrote, “Every wrong direction began as a step in what someone once thought was the right one.  No one is foolish enough to go about the wrong things for the wrong reason.”  I believe those teachers or administrators who have become complacent are simply well-meaning people who unintentionally started down the path to mediocrity for some reason that, at some time, seamed like a good idea.  We compromise out of weariness, or fear, or any number of emotions or as a response to any number of external forces that conspire to rob us of our passion and leave us only with the will to survive.  We all know teachers who begin each year with the singular goal of making it to June.  It’s no way to live, and certainly no way to teach.  Those devoid of passion cannot inspire it in others, and inspiring passion is at the heart of education.

To provide instructional or curricular leadership, I believe it is imperative to empower teachers as leaders in our learning community.  In Learning by Heart, Roland Barth writes, “The lives of teachers who lead are enriched and ennobled in many significant ways.  Rather than remain passive recipients, even victims, of what their institutions deal to them, teachers who lead help shape their schools and, thereby, shape their own destinies.”

Teachers are still the brave souls who hit the stage each day and lay it all on the line to guide students through the learning process. When it all comes down to it, I believe schools are successful when everyone involved grabs hold of a personal responsibility and passion for people.  The challenge is to apply this commitment to people consistently, day to day, month to month, year to year.   As educators, we will achieve some degree of success and suffer some degree of failure in the pursuit of these ideals.   The goal is to never desert those ideals and wrinkle our soul, or the souls of those teachers and students in our care.  There will be considerable motivation to do so from time to time.  When that melancholy impulse to give up or give in does rear its ugly head, I believe it will probably have less to do with the state of education policy or finance or governmental bureaucracy than with the fact that education places us in dangerous daily proximity to people, and people are unpredictable, and messy, and alive.  That is what makes working with kids so terrifying and wonderful all at the same time.  In his book, Dangerous Wonder, Mike Yaconelli writes, “If I were to have a heart attack right at this moment, I hope I would have just enough air in my lungs and just enough strength in me to utter one last sentence as I fell to the floor: “What a ride!” My life has been up and down, careening left then right, full of mistakes and bad decisions, and if I died right now, even though I would love to live longer, I could say from the depths of my soul, “What a ride!”

I hope I can apply this kind of passion for life in all its unpredictable glory to my position as an educational leader, and that somehow this open, honest passion might inspire those around me to do the same.  Passion is contagious, but so is apathy.  I hope I choose to infect those around me with passion whenever possible.

 

 

 

The Educator’s Call to Greatness, Pt. 1

General Douglas MacArthur once wrote,

Youth is not a period of time.  It is a state of mind, a result of the will, a quality of the imagination, a victory of courage over timidity, of the taste for adventure over the love of comfort.  A man doesn’t grow old because he has lived a certain number of years.  A man grows old when he deserts his ideal.  The years may wrinkle his skin, but deserting his ideal wrinkles his soul.”

Junior high and high school is the proving ground of the youthful soul.  It is a time of transition, of testing, of sifting, and experimenting with what it is to be.  It is a time when young people can spend all day trying to be grown up and cool, but still come home and just want to be a kid.  It is a time when the young enjoy perceiving the old as “out of our minds,” while still quietly looking to us for the answers to the million questions lying deep inside.  As educators come alongside students for this adolescent rollercoaster ride we shouldn’t be overly concerned that our kids don’t seem to listen to a word we say.  We should be more concerned that they watch everything we do.  The best thing adults can do to help kids through this time is to lead by example.

Each day educators have the chance to help students move closer to discovering their passions and ideals, so that when they have moved on from our care they will be men and women of courage, integrity, and intellect whose souls resist wrinkling.

The calling of an educational leader is to keep people rather than programs at the center of every decision in schools.  It is about helping students and staff unlock their potential.  It is about equipping and inspiring students and staff to strive for personal excellence and academic rigor without losing their passion or humanity.

When I began my administrative credential program, I was asked to write a professional goals statement.  At that time I wrote:

I became an educator because I felt it would afford me the opportunity to invest my life in something meaningful, rather than spend it in a career where the end goal was to simply receive a paycheck.  Education provided me the opportunity to touch lives and make a positive difference.  While I enjoy the curricular areas I have had the opportunity to explore with my students, my deepest commitment has always been to them as people, beyond the academic content.  While it is true that literacy, depth of knowledge, and the ability to think critically are the tools students need to achieve their dreams and be successful, contributing members of society, teaching these things has also given me the opportunity to be involved in their lives.  It is from this passion and commitment to young people, that I draw my excitement for education.  It is this concern for kids which has consistently driven me to get involved on my campus and seek ways to impact more than just my own classroom. 

To be a leader in education is more than a job.  It is, as the Army says, “An adventure.”  The challenge of educational leadership is to step out of our comfort zone and aspire to something greater than ourselves.  This is why we choose to teach, after all.  We choose to teach because we believe we can make a difference in the lives of the young people we interact with each day.  If not, then perhaps we’ve chosen the wrong profession.   In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell writes,

“The call to adventure … signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.  This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented… but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight.” 

Education, though often viewed differently by our culture at large, is a noble endeavor.  It is a place of “Strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight.”  To make it less is tragedy, imagination killing, and soul numbing.

At one time, each of us in education made a conscious decision to step away from the drum beat of our contemporaries and do something that would make a difference.  The question I pose to those who have entered into this fantastic journey is, “Will we dig deep, summon our courage, and strive for the heroic?  Or will we fall into complacency and drift with the current wherever it flows?”  As teachers or school administrators, we must not settle for less than greatness.  I challenge us to step out into unknown territory and embrace the exhilaration of daring to dream great dreams and take great risks, so that our students would follow our example and do likewise.  I challenge us to make a difference in the lives of the students we serve.  This is the high calling of education.

The Power of Relationship

 

People are by nature relational. This is easily observable in our day to day lives, but also well established by countless bodies of research. I think we can also see this when we examine people’s fears.

If you go online and search for top fears, you will find lots of lists compiled by various researchers. Fear is something we all understand, so it makes sense that lots of people have studied it. Here’s one list I found; and most of the survey results were similar.

# 10. Fear of the dentist

# 9.  Fear of dogs

# 8.  Fear of flying

# 7.  Fear of failure

# 6.  Fear of the dark

# 5.  Fear of heights

# 4.  Fear of death

# 3.  Fear of public speaking

# 2.  Fear of Spiders / insects

# 1.  Fear of snakes

The interesting thing though is this, when researchers took away the option to choose things, objects, animals, etc; the list changed significantly:

# 10.  Fear of losing freedom

# 9.  Fear of the unknown

# 8.  Fear of pain

# 7.  Fear of disappointment

# 6.  Fear of misery

# 5.  Fear of loneliness

# 4.  Fear of ridicule

# 3.  Fear of rejection

# 2.  Fear of death

# 1.  Fear of failure

Isn’t it interesting that 4 of the top 5 answers on this second list (loneliness, ridicule, rejection, failure) are relational fears.  You know what I think? I think this speaks to the fact that our deepest fear is actually the fear that we might not matter; the fear that our lives lack purpose and meaning; the fear that we are unlovely or unloved, or that we will not be accepted by our peers. Perhaps that’s why we fear speaking in public more than death, because death accepts everybody, but our peers might reject us. The fear of rejection, the fear that we might not matter – It’s seen in the fact that our greatest fears revolve around being accepted by others.

What we all really want is to matter to somebody.   Whenever we feel rejected it strikes at our deepest fear, the fear that we aren’t good enough, that we don’t matter. When you want to play ball, and no one wants you on their team, when you give that audition your best, and you aren’t selected to perform, when you apply to that college and your application is rejected, When you work your hardest and your boss doesn’t seem to think it’s good enough, when you ask out that special girl or guy and they say no, when you study all night and still don’t pass the test, when no matter how hard you try – your parent is never satisfied. The deep heart of our fear screams at us in the silence of our souls: “What if I am not lovely? What if no one truly cares about me? Do I even matter to anyone at all?

This is why relationship is such a powerful, inseparable part of education. If we are to make a difference in the lives of our students, we cannot ignore the power of building positive, supportive relationships with them. Most educators I have known get this on some level. But I have also met a fair number of educators who are so in love with their content area, or enamoured with the technology tools now available, or focused on instructional methodology, etc. that they don’t make time to build relationships with the very students they are seeking to serve through all of these things. Indeed, a few I have met are arguably experts in their field of study, technologically on the cutting edge, and demonstrate deep understanding of best practices in instruction, but are failing miserably as educators because they can’t connect on the most basic level of relationship with their students or colleagues.

I have often listened to teachers complain that they don’t have time to deal with the students’ baggage from home if they are going to cover the standards of their courses. I would argue that the issue is these teachers are focusing on their coverage rather than the students’ growth or learning. It would be like having a student come to reading class wearing eyeglasses that are all covered in mud and saying, “I have all this reading the student needs to get done, I don’t have time to stop and help him clean his glasses.” You could assign all the reading you want, but the student won’t be able to get much from it until his glasses are clean enough to read.

Teaching is an inherently human endeavor. It necessitates attention to things like curriculum, instructional practice, assessment, materials and supplies, etc., but at the core, our focus must always be on the human element. Over my 24 years as an educator, the bulk of teachers, support staff, and administrators I have met or worked alongside understand this and keep it in the central position as much as possible. It is a challenge, however, in an age of increasing attention to quantifiable assessment data, exponential increase in pace of change, and an overwhelming access to information and educational tools to lose focus on this human element and spend the majority of our time as educators on all these things rather than keeping students at the center of all we do. After all, our highest calling as educators is not to build schools, it is to build well adjusted, intelligent, and academically and socially competent human beings. Let’s not forget the power of building relationships in order to achieve these goals.

Responding to Pace of Change

When I was a kid, my teachers had a pretty good idea what knowledge and skills I needed to master in order to prepare for my future.  The world was changing and new innovations were being developed, but the pace of change was somewhat predictable and steady.  The average person assumed innovations would make tasks easier or more efficient, but life would continue much as it had in the past.  My fellow students and I learned our arithmetic and worked on improving our skill at reading and writing.  We dutifully learned about photosynthesis, and memorized important events in history.  The majority of us moved along through school with the goal of someday selecting a job from a list of well-known career options.

Today, the pace of change has accelerated to a point where innovation is significantly altering the world around us on a regular basis.  The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 65% of school children today will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be created.  Unlike my teachers, the teachers of today have the job of preparing students for a rapidly changing, and uncertain future, one where the list of career choices is yet to be written.

Tony Wagner of Harvard University interviewed hundreds of CEOs in business, non-profits and educational institutions to find out what they identified as the most important survival skills required for the 21st century. From their answers, Wagner compiled a list of seven skills that people will need to survive and thrive in the 21st century:

Skill #1: Critical thinking and problem solving

Skill #2: Collaboration across networks and leading by influence preparation

Skill #3: Agility and adaptability preparation 

Skill #4: Initiative and entrepreneurship preparation

Skill #5: Effective oral and written communication preparation

Skill #6: Accessing and analyzing information preparation

Skill #7: Curiosity and imagination preparation

 

The point is, schools today must focus not just on whether students have learned material, but where it will take students later. There is no one magic solution that will prepare students today for tomorrow’s workforce, but giving students a well-rounded education that emphasizes creative and critical thinking skills along with the ability to work well with others and adapt to new circumstances will provide our students the foundational skills to succeed.  It’s not really enough to know things these days; you have to be able to do things with what you know.

Education that isn’t Second Hand News

The first record I bought on my own was “Rumors,” by Fleetwood Mac.  I can still remember the excitement as I placed it on the turntable and cranked up the volume and the words and music of “Second Hand News” sprang to life from my stereo speakers.  I was starting my collection of records much like teens from generations before me had done.  First marketed in 1889, the “record” was the standard medium for music distribution for nearly a century.

 

Then innovation in digital recording changed everything.  Billy Joel’s “52nd Street” was released in 1982 as the first commercial CD, and hundreds of billions of CDs have been sold since then.  In just the relatively few years since then, Joel has stopped recording pop music and the music enthusiast has moved on to even newer mediums such as the Mp3 player and digital streaming.  The music industry had to adapt and change in order to survive.   The bulky, analog records that were such a passionate part of my childhood became “Second hand news.”

 

As we consider such changes and realize that the rate of innovation and significant change happening worldwide is increasing exponentially, educators must look beyond the standard medium for distribution of learning that has been the standard for the past century as well.

 

According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, no more than 10% of the individuals in a typical organization or commercial enterprise today possess the ability to look beyond existing rules and goals to create new directions. Therefore, twenty-first-century managers seeking high-performing employees will value:

  • Intelligence more than mere experience.
  • Commitment and loyalty to organization and task ownership.
  • Work ethic, including a desire to lead.
  • Personal integrity—particularly when facing difficult ethical dilemmas.
  • Teamwork and likability—smart, hard-working people who like to work with other smart, hard-working people.

 

The changes education must begin putting in place and continue to develop are targeted at preparing our students for success in this rapidly changing world.  The goal is for our students to build the ability to look beyond what currently exists and apply their learning in creative ways.  Courses like STEAM combine science and technology with design to foster these skills.  Problem-based mathematics requires students to think critically and apply mathematical reasoning rather than just solve algorithms.  Humanities courses ask students to think conceptually and connect content across disciplines to make meaning.

 

Change is inevitable, but our commitment to students is to keep them on the forefront, challenging the status quo, and nurturing them to become leaders in an uncertain future.  Who knows, perhaps a student in your care will dream up the next great innovation that changes our world.

Education that transforms individuals and society

Educators recognize that formal schooling focuses on academic skills and content, but also has as its goal equipping people to be successful, contributing members of society. While teaching has as a primary focus a certain amount of academic pursuit, I think teaching and learning must find the balance between meeting the personal learning needs of the students and meeting the learning and socialization needs of society.

Some might argue that there was a time when the burden of moral teaching and upbringing was mainly placed on the family and the church, and public schools were free to focus on the academic and intellectual growth of the student, but I don’t believe this has ever been entirely true. Not so long ago the majority of students in public education were taught to read using the Bible, and democratic ideals and morality have always been infused in the public school curriculum. I believe the reason for this is fairly self-evident. As Thomas Jefferson wrote,”Convinced that the people are the only safe depositories of their own liberty, and that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree, I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree (Thomas Jefferson to Littleton Waller Tazewell).” Teaching and learning, therefore, have the elements of academic pursuit and personal actualization, and the overarching purpose of preserving personal liberty, national sovereignty, and societal wellbeing. It is the role of the teacher to somehow balance these varied pursuits in order to serve the students entrusted to his or her care.

For quite some time now, it seams to me, education has focused on raising academic standards. This is good. But let us not lose sight of the students in our pursuit of academia. Academic standards and learning goals, certainly, must remain at the heart of all we do, but must not rigidly dominate the school at the expense of the very students we are here to serve. Jean Piaget expressed that teachers needed to understand the steps in the development of the child’s mind. The very basis of learning, he believed, was discovery: “To understand is to discover, or reconstruct by rediscovery, and such conditions must be complied with if in the future individuals are to be formed who are capable of production and creativity and not simply repetition (To Understand Is to Invent, 1973).”  In “Experience & Education (Macmillan, 1938/1997)” John Dewey maintained that good education had to have both a societal purpose and a purpose for the individual student. He contrasted two extremes in education; structured, didactic, traditional education with unstructured, student-directed liberal education. He argued that education tends to err on one side or the other of this paradigm war rather than striking a balance that is rooted in an understanding of human experience. The value of human experience, Dewey asserts, is to be judged by the effect that experience has on the student’s present, their future, and the extent to which the student is able to contribute to society. I believe Dewey’s understanding of the interconnectedness of personal experience and educational practice is critical to powerful teaching and learning.

Dewey (1933) saw the human mind as a meaning-making organ, relentlessly driven to make sense of its world. Realizing that making meaning of our world is a complex process that requires both intellectual and social-emotional growth is important if we are to effectively educate our students. We must constantly strive to find the balance between individual needs and the broad academic and social goals of education.   In the end, this is the transformative power of education – to guide students in developing the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their goals and, in so doing, make a positive impact on the world around them.

Simplicity – excerpt from Donald Miller’s “Through Painted Deserts.”

Donald Miller’s book, “Through Painted Deserts,” is a great read. As I read through it again this summer I was captivated by the thought of how simple life should be, and is perhaps designed to be, and yet how incapable I seem to be of grabbing hold of that simplicity.  A slower, simpler way of life that calls to us, instead slips like so much sand through the fingers of our busy lives.  Here’s at least to reminders of the truth:

“I know for a fact that as a grain of sand compares to the size of the earth itself, I compare to the cosmos.  I am that insignificant.  And yet the chemicals in my brain that make me feel beauty when I look up at the stars, when I watch a sunset, indicate that I must be here for a reason.  I think I would sum it up this way:  Life is not a story about me, but it is being told to me, and I can be glad of that.  I think that is the why of life and, in fact, the why of this ancient faith I am caught up in: to enjoy God.  The stars were created to dazzle us, like a love letter; light itself is just a metaphor, something that exists outside of time, made up of what seems like nothing, infinite in its power, something that can be experienced but not understood, like God.  . . .  Months ago I would have told you life was about doing, about jumping through religious hoops, about impressing other people, and my actions would have told you this is done by buying possessions or keeping a good image or going to church.  I don’t believe that anymore.  I think we are supposed to stand in deserts and marvel at how the sun rises.  I think we are supposed to sleep in meadows and watch stars dart across space and time.  I think we are supposed to love our friends and introduce people to the story, to the peaceful, calming why of life.  I think life is spirituality.  . . .  I hope I never lose this perspective.  . . . I promise myself if I ever get frustrated with life again, and if I ever get into river-deep debt, I will sell it all and move into the woods, find some people who aren’t like me and learn to love them, and do something even harder, let them love me, receive the love of somebody who doesn’t share my faith system, who doesn’t agree with me about everything, and I will sleep beneath the stars and whisper thank you to the Creator of the universe, as a way of reacquainting myself to an old friend, a friend who says you don’t have to be smart or good-looking, or religious or anything; you just have to cling to Him, love Him, need Him, listen to His story.
Donald Miller

The Mango Man

The wrinkled old hand of the mango man

Trembles as he reaches for pesos.

Pesos you have given.

Pennies on the dollar you’d pay in America.

 

Pennies on the dollar you’d pay

Against a grey sky

Blacktop parking lot backdrop

In a supermarket for a mango in America.

 

The trembling old hand of the mango man

Slips pesos in a polyester pocket.

Pesos you have given

Pennies on your dollar in America.

 

Pennies on the dollar in the Yucatan

Buy suntans and white sand beaches

Against flowered shirts and Bermuda shorts

Or rice and beans for the mango man

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