7 Traits of Compassionate Schools

What would happen if we invested as much energy in nurturing compassionate schools as we do in other education reforms? I continue to value schools that focus upon a few school-shaping concepts and build their entire community around those…compared to schools that have a broad, generic mission of educating children. The latter often lacks a strong culture that draws people together and into deep learning and curiosity. As such, I enjoy seeing so many such schools school school-shaping concepts start and gain attention.

As such, we find ourselves in a time when there are indeed schools with distinct niches. We have highly competitive schools. We have college prep schools. We have schools that focus on nurturing creativity. We have schools that value collaboration and teamwork. We have schools interested in producing good citizens. We also have STEM schools, project-based learning schools, self-directed learning schools, performing arts schools, schools that focus on healthcare professions, Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, and classical schools.

These schools all have a clear and distinct cultures. They have a compelling why for what they do. They have the courage to commit to a distinct philosophy or a small set of school-shaping concepts.

Yet, as I’ve been visiting more schools, I’ve also been delighted to see another school-shaping concept at work. It is a concept that certainly has implications for the future of these learners, but it is also about creating a rich and rewarding present community for these young people. In other words, it isn’t just about a future outcome. It is shaped by a belief about how learners should be treated now. I’m referring to schools that make it their mission to be the most compassionate and humane learning communities possible.

When I talk about compassionate schools, I’m referring to learning communities where leadership, teachers, learners and parents come to have a shared vision of a school full of people who are consistently caring toward one another, there is a deep honor for one another (and their distinct gifts and differences), people are warm and welcoming to everyone else, where people are kind and warm-hearted, learning to initiate acts of kinds to others. These acts are not out of compulsion or requirements but because they genuinely care about the other person (and people), and they want to do the hard work required to create such a broadly compassionate community. It is a place where people know how to show and give grace to one another.

“Kids will be kids”, some argue as they justify acts of cruelty, indifference, and bullying that characterize some school hallways, playgrounds, in class group interactions, and informal gatherings before and after school. True, young people are developing and they will work through a myriad of emotions, learn through good and bad decisions, and sometimes learn lessons the hard way.

At the same time, school culture and commitment to compassion makes a huge difference. I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve seen schools where young people have learned how to disagree while still showing honor to the other person(s). I’ve witnessed cultures where people are quick to give grace and show compassion instead of quickly taking advantage of a chance to tear down another person. I’ve enjoyed observing the low anxiety and feeling of being safe by students in these deeply compassionate communities. I’ve seen it happen with learners coming from a variety of family contexts, even some that were abusive and grappling with life and death issues. For these young people, how much more valuable is it to create a place where others have your back, where you can feel free, safe, genuinely wanted, valued and welcome?

Yet, for such a community to develop, it calls for a set of convictions, commitments and consistent actions. Here are seven of them.

  1. Compassion is consistently elevated and celebrated as an outcome that has inherent value, even greater value than test scores and academic performance. This doesn’t mean that people are no longer accountable for their actions, but when they are held accountable, it is done with compassion.
  2. Bullying, harsh actions and words, and mimicry of cruelty in popular culture is not dismissed or tolerated as unavoidable aspects of a modern youth culture. It also isn’t just verbally condemned. There are seen as weeds that must be pulled and prevented, and people work relentlessly to ensure that safety and grace push out such weeds.
  3. As such, there must be a belief that we can have a more compassionate school culture if we invest in it. We have to believe that this can indeed be achieved.
  4. There are habits, rituals, mutually agreed upon rules, and values that are taught or collectively learned and created; and these must align with the value of creating a compassionate school. They must amplify the value of compassion.
  5. If we discover that certain habits, rituals, rules and values are competing with our goal of nurturing a compassionate community; then the community must collectively work through that and make intentional choices about address it.
  6. Ownership and accountability must be core expectations and values of the community as well. In all my observations of schools, I’ve yet to see a deeply compassionate school where people were not accountable for their actions in clearly understood ways, and that this accountability is consistent and predictable. I’ve seen it in both teacher-led and student-centered contexts, but it has to be clear and consistent. Similarly, from the earliest days at the school, learners must know and come to believe that they are responsible for their own words and actions, that they are expected to self-regulate and take ownership for what they do and do not contribute or accomplish in the community.
  7. There are exemplars, models, stories and teachings that reinforce these values.

When I see most or all of these commitments in a school, it is far more likely to be a compassionate school. Yes, parents want their kids to be challenged, to learn and to grow. While some argue that the harshness of some schools is good preparation for the “real world”, school is the real world, and what we expose young people to in school can help them develop life scripts and visions of what type of families and world they want to help create. Why not create schools that give young people a crisp and compelling view of how they can contribute to more compassionate communities around the world? Even apart from such a grand goal, I contend that compassionate schools are simply better places to send our young people.

Are Some Learning Pathways Superior to Others? Why this Matters for #CBE

Are some learning pathways superior to others? When it comes to competency-based education (CBE), people point to personalized pathways as an affordance of this approach. Many traditional teaching and learning contexts have prescribed pathways toward reaching a given learning objective, one established, guided and controlled by the teacher. Everyone goes on the same pathway together, led by the teacher. CBE leaves greater room for the possibility that different learners will go on different journeys toward demonstrating competence. A learner with significant prior knowledge might be able to take a shorter pathway to competence than someone new to the field. One learner might opt for more practice exercises, more readings, more one-on-one coaching sessions, or a variety of real-world experiences intended to help one make progress toward competence. One learner might need one or two laps around the track, while another might need twenty before reaching competence.

This is, from my perspective, a core affordance of competency-based education. Once we are able to articulate with clarity what it means to be competent, then we are well-positioned to start thinking about multiple learning pathways to that single destination. Yet, this is far from a universally accepted understanding of education for several reasons. One reason is that some pathways are deemed superior to others even in the absence of solid data to support such claims. A second is because critics are often concerned about trying to reduce learning to a discrete list of competencies. That risks of losing the forest by chopping down all the educational trees and placing them in nicely organized piles. Yes, there is a qualitative difference between a forest and a lumber yard. Critics argue that CBE often ignores such distinctions. Another is that CBE seems to unbundle or strip learning from social interaction, community, and a culture of learning that some value as much as they do any demonstrable outcomes of the experience.

Yet, as I look at the types of assessments and requirements established in a growing number of competency-based education programs in the United States, I often see as many limitations on learning pathways as I do in traditional learning contexts. Schools are prescribing the pathways that people must take to demonstrate competence with a level of detail that makes it resemble the traditional methods. They often do it in the name of scalability and efficiency. For example, if you are in a CBE MBA program, you can’t necessarily demonstrate your competence in financial analyses of businesses in multiple ways. You must do so in the form of an established business simulation. The simulation is the assessment, but it also becomes a significant part of the learning process…the pathway. Students might take varying levels of time to prepare for the simulation. They might leverage slightly different readings in preparation. Yet, many end up on the same general learning pathway.

Not all pathways are equal. This comes back to something that I repeat often, that education is not just about measurable results, data and evidence. It is also about deeply held beliefs, values and philosophies of education. Educators don’t choose one learning pathway for others over another because they have carefully analyzed pools of learning data and decided that this pathway is objectively superior to others. Some might do it that way, but that is in the minority. Most do it because they prefer, value or are attached to certain pathways (and some take offense at being forced to defend and articulate their reasons for a given pathways). They often can’t fully articulate why learners should follow the learning pathway that the instructor has established. They just believe that it is important, maybe even fundamental to the task at hand. “Learners need to learn and experience this in community,” we might argue. “You can’t truly grasp this through an online learning experience,” another might explain. “There is something important but intangible about doing this in small groups or a workshop,” yet another will defend. “Without work through these specific seminal works, the learners would be ill-educated on this topic”, the teacher points out.

Even as we witness the great unbundling of education, there are still many educators who reject the unbundling. Some never thought of their lessons in categories like learning objectives, learning pathways, and learning assessments (formative and summative). Some haven’t even thought of what they do in terms of lessons (especially in higher education). It was all just teaching and learning. It was content-driven, experiential, social, an art shaped by an autonomous artists known as a professor or teacher, a blend of these, or perhaps several other perspectives.

I suspect that this is why the debate around competency-based education remains tense at times, limited at others. The CBE conversation seems to be growing more slowly than some expected. It is a massive disconnect for many educators because it hardly resembles their careers and callings as they have understood them. They find it difficult to imagine losing the many qualitative benefits of what they do now and are perhaps offended (or frightened) by the claim that these competency-based education alternatives offer a comparable or equally valuable education to people. Not all pathways are equal and desirable. Even changing the pace of the pathway for different students is not agreed upon among educators. As such, if we are going to have a rich and valuable conversation about the affordances and limitations of CBE, perhaps we are wise to spend more time examining the role of learning pathways.

Our Technology Made Schools: Toward a Philosophy of Educational Technology

Is technology a neutral tool or does it have implications for fundamental questions about curriculum studies & the mission, vision, values and goals of contemporary educational institutions? How does technology shape our schools, curricula, teachers, students and leaders? With the growth of technology integration, blended learning, online learning and a myriad of applications of technology in education; this paper provides a set of definitions and three starting points for deeper reflection about such questions, considering the affordances and limitations of technology in modern education, challenging scholars and practitioners to consider the values amplified and minimized by various technological decisions.

Technology is Values Laden

If you ever attended a presentation on educational technology, there is a good chance that you heard the presenter make the comment, “It is not about the technology.” Such presenters usually continue by claiming that, “technology is just a tool.” This tool-based approach to describing technology makes intuitive sense, but it also risks missing several important facts about the role of technology in life and learning. As a result, following is a definition of technology that has promise to serve us in thinking more deeply about the nature and role of technology in education, as well as give us an important clarification about a philosophy of educational technology.

If technology is just a tool, what is a tool? Here is one common definition: “a device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function: ‘gardening tools’ (Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2015). In other words, specific tools are created for specific uses and not other ones, they have biases toward some applications and away from others. What would it mean for us to claim that a hammer is just a tool, and that it all depends upon how we use it? By this, we might mean that it is not the fault of the hammer if someone happens to use it to hit another person on the head. However, most hammers are created to hit things. In fact, different hammers are created to hit different things. While it is not the intent of a hammer to hit a person on the head, one is more likely to do that with unpleasant results than if the same person were holding a pillow. This is why we are more comfortable letting small children play with pillows than we are with hammers.

This example has other important elements. Some hammers have intended uses beyond hitting things as well. A ball-peen hammer, for example, was not created for the same purpose as a carpenter’s hammer. Or consider the fact that a gavel, a judge’s hammer, is mostly a communication tool. Imagine using a gavel to help build a birdhouse, or a judge opting to use a sledgehammer instead of a gavel. While it might reinforce the judge’s authority, it might also put a hole in the desk.

Is technology neutral? Is it just about how a person uses the technology? Or does the design of the technology itself impact how one uses it? The hammer illustrations seem to reveal that technologies have affordances (benefits) and limitations, a concept articulated more fully in several of Neil Postman’s texts (1985, 1992, 1995). Technology makes certain things possible and more likely. As a result, when something is more possible, we tend to think about that possibility. Sitting in front of a block of concrete that needs removal with a ball-peen hammer in one’s hand will not lead most of us to start chipping the pavement. Sitting in the same place with a sledgehammer is far more likely to lead and inspire one to think about taking a swing. The affordances of a technology lead us to consider possibilities that were otherwise hidden. Similarly, technologies have limitations. The limitations of that ball-peen hammer includes the fact that it is not an especially useful tool for a person needing to break up a concrete block.

Perhaps a different definition will help us think more broadly about technology in life and learning. Technology can be understood as applied systematic knowledge. We discover something, learn about how it works or functions, and then use that knowledge to design a tool or collection of tools to help solve one or more real-world problems. That design is a technology, knowledge applied to meet a need in the world. A carpenter needs to find a way to attach different types of wood. As human knowledge progressed, people invented nails and hammers as technologies to help accomplish such tasks. To say that hammers and nails are just neutral tools would not make sense in this context. The tool was created to solve a specific problem. Hammers like nails more than screws. It is not just about how the wielder of the hammer desires to use it. Regardless of the user’s skill or intent, hammering screws will produce unhelpful results. If an uninformed aspiring carpenter sought to ignore such facts, the results of trying to drive a screw into two pieces of wood would have an evident and qualitatively different end.

There are important exceptions to this. It is possible to “hack” a problem with a hammer, a term with new connotations in some aspects of popular culture (Urban Dictionary, 2015). A hacker can be seen as a person who uses technologies and resources in unexpected and often creative ways, using a tool to solve a problem for which it was not intended. One might, for example, use three hammers to entertain someone by showing how a skilled person can juggle them. One might be locked in a room and use an available hammer to break out of the room.

While it is possible to ignore the intended purpose of a given technology, things do not always work out. We might fail in these efforts, or we might succeed only to find one or more unintended consequences.  One can use a sledgehammer to solve a finish carpentry problem, but it might leave a few more dents and scratches than if one used the tool designed for the job.

Implications for Education

What does this extended example have to do with education and schooling in a technological age? Following are three potential applications. First, our definition of technology is too narrow, not leading us to consider the full impact of our technological decisions in schools. Second, if technologies have intended uses, we are wise to get informed about those uses, learning about the affordances and limitations of the technologies in our schools and lives. Third, current educational technologies are not as simple as the hammer example. Their intended uses are not as transparent. However, thoughtful reflection can help us to make wise decisions.

Broadening Our Definition

If we accepted the proposal of a broader definition for technology, that it is applied systematic knowledge, we soon discover ourselves surrounded by technologies, even in what we otherwise thought as the most low-tech school or classroom. While many think of technology in terms of computers, this broader definition invites us to think about thousands of educational technologies in our schools: bell schedules, pens, school desks, the configuration of classrooms, school architecture, grading systems, lesson plan templates, textbooks, curricula, even school policies and classroom management models. Inventors of such things gathered existing knowledge on the subject, organized it, and designed something to address a specific problem. Of course, technology also includes things like the Internet and the devices we use to connect to it, interactive whiteboards, cell phones, and web-based software and tools.

This broader definition of technology shows that educational technology and schools are inseparable. There are few examples of schools today that do not make heavy use of educational technology. Even the way that we separate subjects is a technology. Consider the fact that many study social studies as a distinct subject from science, math separate from language arts, and art separate from physical education. These are inventions and conventions, not discoveries.  They are taxonomies and organizational systems to help us categorize knowledge. This leaves us with a significant challenge and opportunity to better understand how all these technologies influence the mission, vision, values, and goals of a given learning community.

Exploring Intended Uses, Affordances and Limitations

With this broad definition of educational technology, we have the challenge and opportunity for reflection and study about the intended uses, affordances and limitations of them. Interestingly, there are no books (books, by the way, are an educational technology) that address the broad spectrum of school technologies in this way. We are often left to do our own homework (homework, by the way, is also an educational technology). Such an exercise is not something that is easily addressed by reading a quick resource on the subject. Instead, we find ourselves needing to research, to find lesser-known and referenced resources. Consider, for example, the fact that the contemporary letter grade system is, in the big picture, a young technology. Scan resources on the history of letter grades, and we find claims that they were first used in the United States in the early to middle 19th century (Cureton, 1971). Prior to that, much American education did not use the letter grade system. Taking the example of the educational technology known as the letter grade system, we then have the challenge of figuring out the intended use of the letter grade system, reflecting on the affordances of such a system, as well as the limitations of it. Only when we engage in such work do we begin to discover how this technology helps and hinders our deepest beliefs and values associated with schools in a specific time and location.

Neil Postman, a prolific author and social critic from the twentieth century, suggested that one ask the question, “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution” (Postman, 2007)? Consider that question with the grading system.  What problem was the grading system created to solve? Does that problem still exist today? Is it the best solution available to us? Are there potentially alternative solutions that better align with our distinct mission, vision, values and goals in education?

Complexity with Technology & Education

This concept of affordances and limitations is distinct from asking about what is good or bad. This study of the affordances and limitations recognizes that there are always benefits and limits to any technology.  No single technology is free from downsides. As such, it becomes important to spend time in reflection, study, and collaboration with colleagues that helps us become more informed about these matters. For example, using devices connected to the Internet as part of formal schooling can be justified in many ways. We return to Neil Postman’s question, “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” I will add a second question to that, “What are the possibilities made available by this technology?” Asking these and similar questions to educators, learners and other stakeholders is likely to produce different answers. We might hear responses like:

  • Using such tools and technology is an important public relations and marketing strategy so that people see us as providing a comparable education to the public schools.
  • It gives us access to an unprecedented amount of free resources.
  • It helps us equip students for the nature of life in a connected world.
  • It allows us to create more customized and personalized learning experiences for students, which further helps us embrace our call to meet the unique needs of each learner and not teach all learners as if they were the same.
  • It engages students who grew up in the digital world.
  • It allows us to connect with people and resources around the world, discovering more diverse perspectives and ideas in the world.

One need not agree with each of these reasons, but these are the types of affordances that people might point to when thinking about the adoption of a given technology or set of educational technologies. Getting informed about such affordances allows for my thoughtful decisions. Similarly, it is beneficial to recognize the limitations and the biases associated with them. Sticking with the example of devices connected to the Internet, people might share one or more of the following limitations:

  • It is expensive and takes away from investments in other aspects of education.
  • It exposes young people to inappropriate content and resources.
  • It can turn the classroom into something that focuses on “bells and whistles” and less on the important skills and content.
  • It leads to classroom management problems.
  • It contributes to young people who are more connected to devices than they are to people in front of them.
  • It promotes a digital divide between students with rich technology resources at home and those who do not have Internet access in their homes.

Again, the items in these incomplete lists are debatable. Nonetheless, they help us become more informed and intentional about our choices.

It is less advisable to rush ahead with educational technologies, while labeling those with questions and concerns as Luddites or self-serving. Read about the history of writing, and we find grave concerns from people like Socrates, who believed that writing would dull the memory. Of course, it was writing that allows us to even know that Socrates supposedly made such a claim. Yet, Socrates was correct. The art of memory is less prevalent and emphasized by people today (Foer, 2011). That is an accurate limitation of embracing such a technology. Nonetheless, most Americans are likely to find that the affordances of writing as a technology outweigh the limitations. In other words, we move forward in the reflective and thoughtful use of technologies, but do not move forward blindly or uninformed. We listen and learn from different perspectives, carefully considering affordances and limitations.

Even with such careful study, there can be unexpected consequences to educational technology decisions. As noted before, there are always benefits and limitations. Over time these unexpected consequences become apparent to us. Consider the massive media about the failed 2013 Ipad initiative in the Los Angeles public schools. This is a well-resourced team of decision-makers, and yet several challenges emerged that led them to cancel the program and collect all of the iPads they had recently distributed to each student (Gilbertson, 2014).

Given the inevitability of unexpected consequences, how do we prepare for this? This brings us back to the mission, vision, values and goals of the school. With any new innovation or educational technology adoption, it becomes important to start with a plan to collect data about how things are going, what is working well, what is not working well. In other words, the challenge of examining the affordances and limitations is not simply something that we do in advance of adopting a new technology. It is important to continue to explore this, even as we adopt and use a given technology. Consider the following questions and how a school or teacher might go about collecting data on these questions in an ongoing way. In conclusion, following are some potential questions for ongoing reflections about the many educational technologies that already shape the nature of life and learning in most American schools.

  • What is working and what is not?
  • If there are problems, it is inherent to the technology, or is to more related to how we are using it?
  • Are we noticing any unexpected consequences?
  • How is this helping to increase student learning?
  • What inequities are minimized or amplified?
  • How is it helping us to pursue the mission, vision, values and goals?
  • How is this technology changing the way that teachers teach and students learn? What are the benefits and drawbacks to these changes?
  • What is this technology amplifying and what it is minimizing?
  • Are the benefits worth the cost of this investment?
  • What adjustments could be made to make this work better?
  • Are there any students who are not benefitting or are being harmed from this new technology adoption?
Cureton, L.W. (May, 1971). The history of grading practices. Series Special from the National Council on Measurement in Education. 2(4). 1-8.
Foer, J. (2011). Moonwalking with Einstein: The art and science of remembering everything. New York: Penguin Press.
Gilbertson, A. (2014). The LA School Ipad Scandal: What Your Need to Know. NPR Radio. Retrieved at http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/08/27/343549939/the-l-a-school-ipad-scandal-what-you-need-to-know.
Hacker. (2015). In Urban Dictionary, Retreived at http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=hacker.
Tool. (2015). In Oxford Dictionary Online. Retrieved at http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/tool.
Plato, & Jowett, B. (1990). Phaedrus. Champaign, Ill: Project Gutenberg.
Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Viking.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Knopf.
Postman, N. (1995). The end of education: Redefining the value of school. New York: Knopf.
Postman, N. (2007, July 17). Technology and Society. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uglSCuG31P4

On Academic Hoop Jumpers & the Fate of Education

Sometimes it seems like the education system is designed to reward academic hoop jumping. Academic hoop jumpers care as much about grades and accolades as they do about learning. They are sometimes more interested in titles and awards than tangible accomplishments and demonstrable progress. It is about compliance and doing what you are told more than imagination, creativity and learning to think for yourself. Test scores are evidence of their worth and a way of setting them apart from others.

The more successful they are at academic hoop jumping, the more passionate they become about fighting for the value of hoop making and rewarding the next generation of academic hoop jumpers. Sometimes they like to make the hoops smaller and higher, perhaps not consciously, but essentially assuring the prestige and value of their own past hoop jumping accomplishments. As parents, they strive and pray for their kids to become Olympic-grade academic hoop jumpers. They boast of their successful jumping as evidence that they are indeed exceptional. They love competition as long as it sets them and their loved ones apart from the rest. Rules are opportunities to set themselves apart from others.

Too often, these academic hoop jumpers will work like crazy for a letter grade, striving to learn or do whatever they have to do get that “A” in a class. Once the class is finished, they rarely or never crack a book on that subject again. The content or ideas were not as important as the skilled hoop jumping that they just demonstrated. Or, they only crack the books when they read some critique like this, wanting to win yet another competition and put critics like me in their place. The greatest disappointment for me is that trying to have a deep, lasting and substantive conversation about ideas and important issues are often minimized, that is unless there is some new promotion, rank or accolade to reward their “work.”

When they find themselves in “the real world”, they are quick to work hard at building a hoop jumping culture beyond schools, quite often appealing to “fairness” as the motive for such efforts. Or, they gravitate toward those roles and organizations that already align well with the hoop jumping approach. It is to be expected that we can find plenty of hoop jumpers in education roles, although some reject it because it lacks the prestige and big rewards of other career choices.

The enterprise of academic hoop jumping is the demise of a great K-12 or higher education system. It turns school into a game instead of a learning community. It forces school into a role of producing winners and losers, and producing (or restricting) at least a percentage of losers becomes parts of its role in society.

If you are an academic hoop jumper, by now many of you have likely stopped reading. If you are a hooper jumper and you are still reading, you are probably feeling a bit defensive, finding some solid critiques of me…probably not even my ideas. It is likely more about me, thinking that I must be one of those bitter losers in the system who never refined his own skill in academic hoop jumping. You would be right and wrong. I’ve certainly done my share of academic hoop jumping. In fact, this critique is focused on me as much or more than anyone else. I am an academic hoop jumper sometimes. Worse yet, I am sometimes even a hoop maker.

Life has hoops. We are not going to create a world without them. However, whenever possible, we can do something about it.

  • We can fight for hoops with deep meaning and relevance.
  • We can work hard to make sure that the attention is not placed on the hoops, but that our schools and classrooms are instead focused upon a greater and more noble goal that just happens to include jumping through some hoops along the way.
  • We can create spaces for learning apart from hoop jumping.
  • We can recognize and reward those who choose hoop-less routes to noble pursuits.
  • We can resist the temptation to equate worth and value with hoop jumping prowess.
  • We can stand apart as champions for making the passion and pursuit of learning and growth the main focus in education.
  • We can reject the drive to replace authentic assessment and evidence of learning with abstractions like grades, test scores and ranks.
  • We can find more interest in considering what we and others have learned compared to what we have earned.

Hoops will remain, but by doing these things we can tame the hoops in our schools.