From Power Struggles to Open Discourse About the Future of Education

What is your greatest concern about the future of education? I’ve been asked this by more than a few people over the past year. My answer, it seems, is not provocative enough. My greatest concern is not the funding of higher education, the charter/choice debates, how to achieve access and opportunity, 21st century skills, reimagining the school, testing, the Common Core debates, re-inventing schools, protective core values of the Academy, the role of teachers, the role of technology in education or any specific issue. Some of these are personal passions that drive much of my work and thinking, but there is still something more fundamental. It has to do with how we discuss and consider the future of educationMy greatest concern relates to our capacity (or what sometimes seems like a diminished capacity) to have deep, rigorous, candid, persistent, extended but open-minded public discourse about current and future policies, issues and innovations.

I have as firm of convictions about education as anyone else, but for me, one of the most important places to start when considering the future of education is to get deeply informed about the possibilities. This requires an openness to looking, listening, learning, and candidly sharing our own comments and questions. People will get emotional. After all, we have deep-seated convictions about education. We will slip into ad hominem arguments. The need to make timely decisions will force us to compete for our cause to win out long enough for a policy to pass, a decision to be made, or a bill to pass (or not pass). These are realities. Yet, somehow, amid all such realities, how can we still make progress toward discourse worthy of a our most fundamental democratic values? I don’t know the answers, but I have a few tentative thoughts on the matter. These thoughts may well be as contentious as any specific debate in education, but I offer them for consideration nonetheless. For the sake of this post, I’ll limit my comments to 9 suggested starting points.

1. Recognize that any educational decision will have both affordances and limitations, and invite canid discourse about both.

If I am going to arguing strongly for something, it is important for me to know that it has limitations as well. That is true for virtually every educational practice or policy. There are winners and losers, benefits and limitations, unexpected blessings and curses. Such a perspective is a huge part of Neil Postman’s legacy and contribution to the discussion about education. His examination of affordances and limitations led him to be deeply skeptical about claims of technological progress, but the means of analyzing trends provided equally powerful tools for critiquing some of his own ideas and proposals. This is good. Having the humility to publicly recognize the good, bad, and ugly of our proposals may not be in the recipe of PR perfection or political prowess, but it is a key ingredient for candid public discourse about education.

2. Resist the urge the demonize the “other” side as if the person’s policies and decisions represent a grand conspiracy to take over the world.

Again, many of us have strong opinions and convictions about various aspects of modern education. There are people deeply passionate about tenure for professors and strong teacher unions. There are others who believe strongly in giving educational administration and leaders with more power and influence among professors and educators. Yes, I have a few convictions about these topics, but it is really important for me not to over-generalize and turn the person with the other perspective into a member of some vicious army desiring to undermine the entire system. There are likely people with such sinister goals, but our public conversation would be better off if we saved going there as an absolute last option. I’ve done this, mostly in my mind, sometimes out loud; so this is a challenge for me as much as anyone else.

3. Take our public discourse into the details and nuances.

“MOOCs are going to shut down the University as we know it.” “Higher education is oblivious to the real world beyond the ivory tower.” “The Common Core is an attack on children.” “Charter schools are a detriment to public education.” These may or may not have proverbial truth, but to have a rich discussion, we need to get into the details. Which higher education institutions, because not all institutions are alike? How do the offerings and function of MOOCs coincide or deviate from the that of Universities? What aspects of the Common Core are of greatest concern or worthy of the greatest praise? What about charter schools is a perceived detriment? What needs are they meeting that where otherwise unmet? We need to ask the questions that allow us to get back to the details, understanding that there are not always yes or no, black or white answers. There might just be room for a compromise. Charter schools are wildly different from one state to another, even one school to another, for example. By being quick to generalize, we might all miss out on a wonderful win-win option.

4. Recognize that there are multiple paths to a given conclusion and people arrive and certain words and phrases in different ways.

As a largely interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and a-disciplinary scholar, I run into this all the time. I might be discussing an issue with a person who has a PhD in psychology, sociology, history, or American literature. I use a term or phrase and it immediately conjures up thoughts of a lengthy discourse within their field of study, leading them to label me a certain way. Yes, it is important for me to take the time to learn about the different discourses around a given term or phrase, but words and phrases have multiple working definitions, and people get to their conclusions and vocabularies in different ways. As it stands, if you use the “wrong” word, you might find yourself quickly labeled with any number of groups: socialist, radical capitalist, racist, classist, trans-humanist, Luddite, or pretty much any educational term with anti- or pro- in front of it.

How do we address this? We ask people to tell us more about their position, how they arrived at it, and how they think it does or does not align with how a given group might use the term. We get really curious about other people and their perspective. We realize that there is a story behind the terms and phrases that we and others use, and we explore those stories.

5. Acknowledge that there is more than one way to go about education.

There is no such thing as a perfect educational system. As I mentioned before, they all have affordances and limitations. Similarly, there are usually many possibilities that will work. I realize each of us have strong convictions and preferences for certain systems and policies over others. I even respect the “slippery slope” concern that leads people to take a position on a given bill or policy. Yet, there are endless possibilities, many of which might offer benefits that we’ve never experienced before.

6. Valuing the role of data and research, but also recognizing that much of it needs context, and we want to be cautious when arguing for an absolute and widely applied policy or practice.

“We need this policy because all the research shows that it will lead to the best outcomes.” Well, that might be true if we keep the system “as is”, but most educational research is contextual. We suggest policies and practices for helping students with ADHD find success in “school”, but those policies and practices partly (sometimes largely) depend upon “school” having certain attributes. What if we put them in a Montessori school, self-directed learning academy, scripted directed instruction classroom, a classical school, a hands-on learning school, a school built on game-based learning, or sometime else? Do the same policies and practices stand? My point is that we want to value and learn from both data and research, but finding one or a dozen studies to “support” your policy doesn’t mean that the debate is over. There are still other options and possibilities.

7. Respect the right for a minority opinion or smaller group with a set of beliefs, values and convictions about education.

One of the strengths of democracy in the United States is that we have deeply held national convictions about individual rights and rights of minority perspectives. Yet, our debates in education do not always seem to tap into these values. Wherever we end up with an educational policy or practice, how does it honor and prospect the minority perspective and the rights of individuals?

8. Recognize the role of educational philosophy.

People have fundamentally different educational philosophies that often lead to their position on policy and practice. People sometimes change their philosophies, but this fact means that we are not going to have universal consensus. What we have to decide is whether we want to be a system or nation that honors a diversity of philosophies in education or whether we deem it better to force our philosophy on the rest of the community, state, nation, or world. By how I framed that statement, I suppose you know where I stand on the issue.

9. Be candid and leave time for discourse.

I’m thinking specifically of bills on the state and national level, along with other broader initiatives. It means that we don’t try to push things through unnoticed. It means we have to be willing and seeking to engage the broader public in conversations about where we will go. I know I’m being a bit idealistic with this one, but if even a few more people took this to heart, we would all be better off.

These are some of the perspectives that I think can help us have a more open-minded, rich, candid and substantive discourse about the future of education. What about you? Consider sharing some of your thoughts in the comment area or bring the conversation over to Twitter, LinkedIn or our favorite social outlet.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.

3 thoughts on “From Power Struggles to Open Discourse About the Future of Education

  1. DrEvel1

    While I certainly agree with you that is important to have a systematic and full ranging debate on issues of educational philosophy and policy, it’s important at the same time to recognize that issues of interpretation and implementation are often far more important in terms of shaping educational practice that are the formal policies. No policy is self-implementing. Practice is shaped by an unending sequence of decisions small and large, some of which may not even be recognized as decisions at the time. Each decision is taken within the context of the previous decisions and their consequences. Therefore, similar resolution at the policy level can often lead to enormously different variations of the same general ideas implemented in different places at different times. Everything takes place over time, and tends to be revised and understood in the context of subsequent events. Sometimes, it’s very difficult to remember what the policy decision was, after a long series of implementation decisions have turned it into something quite different.

    It’s also important to realize that while policies are set for particular geographic areas (within the context of the US at least), it’s highly unlikely that there will be anything approaching unanimity in favor of any given policy in any area. Options need to be made available for educational alternatives everywhere, since it’s not generally realistic to expect people to move to areas where their opinions might be in the majority. If the effect of full and free policy debate is to entitle the eventual winners to claim that they have a mandate to implement their policy over everyone, that won’t help much.

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