20 Questions To Gauge the Culture of Compassion, Curiosity, and Character Formation in a School

When I talk to people about school models, I get mixed reactions. Some are inspired by the stories that I tell about learning communities that are rich with curiosity and compassion. Others listen, but are skeptical. Still others are quick to dismiss what I share as rare and unrealistic for their particular context. Yet, I’m at a stage in my research that I am confident in my stance. It is entirely possible to create a school of compassion, curiosity, and growing character in pretty much any context in the world. It takes time. It will not be a utopia. It will be a work-in-progress. Nonetheless, progress in this direction is indeed possible, and there are countless inspiring examples of schools that have gone incredibly far in this direction. I’ve seen, studied, and learned about enough examples that I cannot deny this wonderful and very real possibility. Yet, our school communities too often remain content with what they are doing, emotionally tied to the things as they are, uninspired or unconvinced about what is possible, or inhibited by doubts or uncertainly about how to make it happen.

Even amid well over a decade of focused study, I cannot guarantee that a community will be rich with compassion, curiosity, and positive character formation. Or rather, there seem to be many ways to achieve this, and ample challenges on such a grand but noble quest. Yet, in every school that seems to be making progress in this regard, I find people who are asking tough questions about what they what to be, why, and how to get there. There is hope and vision, there is persistence through the challenges, and there is a constant self-assessment that informs what they are doing.

With that in mind, I put together the following questions. These can be used by parents and students seeking out a new school. They can be used by administrators and teachers who are open to some serious school soul-searching. They can also be used for almost anyone who wants to gauge the type of culture that dominates a given school. These questions reflect some of my personal values and priorities, but most of them simply help us reflect upon traits that consistently indicate a school that is embarking on the quest to create a more hopeful, compassionate, and curious community; one where each student is also on a journey of learning, growth, and character formation.

  1. Do administrators, teachers, and students in your school know the difference between having a high grade point average or high test scores and having genuine intellectual curiosity? How do they describe this difference?
  2. If you ask students what it means for a student to be smart, how many answers start with statements about grades and test scores?
  3. How many teachers and administrators in your school believe that the only “realistic” way to get students motivated to learn is through academic carrots and sticks like quizzes, tests, and grades?
  4. How common is it to overhear student lunchtime conversations about great ideas, good books, projects, learning challenges, or significant issues in society…and not just in preparation for an upcoming exam?
  5. How does the trophy case for intellectual and social accomplishments compare to the trophy case for athletic accomplishments at your school?
  6. Compare these two statistics in your school: 1) the percentage of students on an athletic team, 2) the percentage of students who read at least a book a month for personal interest (as an extracurricular).
  7. How much of a priority does your school place upon care and kindness? If you had to prove that level of priority in a court of law, what evidence would you provide?
  8. How much time do students have for life beyond school, homework, and school-sponsored events? What does the school do to honor and support family and life beyond school? Look for specific examples, preferably things that point to policies or persistent practices, not simple anecdotes and one-time efforts.
  9. Look at the “decorations” in 3-5 random rooms in the school and at least 2 hallways. If what you see on the walls is the only indication of the culture and top priorities in the school, what would that tell you about the school?
  10. How much of the school culture revolves around athletics? How does that compare with a celebration of music, the arts, service, and intellectual pursuits? Look for evidence that goes beyond a few anecdotes.
  11. How often do students work on focused projects / challenges (other than traditional research papers) that require them to engage in independent, persistent work for an extended period (6+ weeks for middle school, 8-12+ weeks for high school)?
  12. Ask students to describe how much of their time is focused upon study and preparation for quizzes and tests compared to solving problems, exploring questions, cultivating new skills, or achieving goals. What does this tell you?
  13. Ask 5-10 random students to describe 3-5 people in the school community who inspire, challenge, or encourage them to be better people in one way or another.
  14. Ask a class of students to write down the number of students in the school they know who do not have any friends. How many are there?
  15. Does the school seek and use frequent feedback from students and parents? How? What is the best evidence that this is important to leadership and teachers at the school?
  16. Spent a morning at the school and look for the number of one-on-one interactions between students and teachers compared to one teacher to a whole class interactions. How much coaching, mentoring, and personalized teaching can you observe?
  17. Observe 3-5 random classrooms for 5-10 minutes each. How much of the time is dominated by the teacher talking versus the students discussing, doing, debating, creating, and learning?
  18. Ask 5-10 people at the school to define “academic success.” What does this tell you about the goals, values, and priorities in the school?
  19. Ask the school leaders to list the top two current problems or challenges in the school community. Then ask what they have done and are doing to address these two challenges. How much of a priority are these issues?
  20. If you shared this list with administrators and teachers at your school, how many of them would mock or laugh at the list as unrealistic?

There are plenty of other great questions, but I offer these as a good starting point. Join me in imagining an education ecosystem shaped by this sort of soul-searching. What would be different in education if we valued and asked such questions more often? How would our schools be different? How would the lives of learners be different? Over time, how would our communities be different?

How to Win an Argument Every Time, Why You Should Not, & What it Means for Education

Amid my ongoing research on the use of visuals and infographics to communicate knowledge online, I came across a new infographic called “How to Win an Argument Every Time.” I first saw the infographic on Pinterest, but I eventually tracked it down as part of a larger article on the subject. Yet, in this digital age, bits of our writing and messages, especially when they are in visual form, frequently get pulled out of context, shared, remixed, and re-interpreted. Consider the implications. I’d like to use this article as a platform to write about how to win an argument every time, why you should not, and (as people come to expect on this blog) what it means for education.

Not in the original article, but in another article that reused the infograhic (it is licensed creative commons), the author sets the context as the workplace when there is often a battle for ideas, and how it is important to be able to make your case. Yet, even in the first few paragraphs, the author shares an incredibly important and wise clarification.

Even if you are the boss, there are times when everyone will benefit from you backing down and accepting when you’re wrong. But when you’re right, you need to make sure your point of view is heard.

Within the infographic, it is all about the steps to building rapport and persuasion, advice that is supported in many studies: ask them to share their thought and listen, make eye contact, restate what you hear to show that you are listening and clarify your understanding, subtly mirror body language, build common ground by relating. Then it goes on to share the best strategies for sharing a convincing argument, again drawing from strategies often referenced in the research on persuasion and negotiation tactics.

It is a fine infographic. It draws from some good sources, cites those sources, chunks the content in a few logical categories, uses visuals judiciously and effectively, and even does it under a creative commons license. What is not to like about that? In fact, I do like and appreciate the visual.

Nonetheless, coming across this infographic on Pinterest, separated from its original context, created a good opportunity for me to consider an aspect of life and learning in a digital and connected age, one that finds its way into our schools and classrooms. As such, I offer three considerations:

De-contextualized Debates and Amplifying Tribalistic Tendencies

First, it is wise for us to recognize this dynamic of communication in the digital age. Too often, I see intense debates and disagreements both online and in learning organizations that can be traced back to de-contextualized messages. Consider this social media example.

  1. Someone Tweets a message within a given context.
  2. Others read it without awareness of that context.
  3. As such it is misinterpreted.
  4. False accusations and assumptions ensue.
  5. The message gets shared and further torn from its original context.
  6. Any search for the facts, the truth, or deep understanding is sacrificed at the altar of tribalist tendencies.
  7. The conversation turns into a series of partisan or tribalist bumper sticker statements to deepen personal convictions and do little or nothing to surface truth or valuable insight.

The alternative is for each of us, as we encounter these discourses at various phases of their lifespan, choose to seek understanding and context. That is part of being truly literate in a digital age, and it is not a skill that we master and then tuck away for occasional use. It is something that we must persistently pursue with each new discourse and interaction. It is an important digital habitus.

The Infographic Principles Have Even More Noble Uses

Many of the “strategies” or tactics” in the infographic are quite valuable in communication, but they are not just tools for winning an argument. They are also tools for seeking genuine understanding, building positive relationships, and seeking both wisdom and truth. It is fine to talk about how to win an argument. Rhetoric has been a valued part of education for a very long time, and it plays an important role in life and society. Yet, there is what I like to call wild rhetoric and domesticated rhetoric. Wild rhetoric is drunk with self-interest and wild passions more than anything else. My apologies for mixing metaphors, but domesticated rhetoric is sober, tame, and taught to serve a greater and more noble purpose.

The Most Important Goal is Not Winning the Argument

Third, and this relates to the content of the infographic, it is not good to win arguments every time. As much as I value the article and the infographic, and as much as I took a little time to track down the context for the infographic, the title focuses our attention on trying to win the argument every time. I disagree, and not just in situations where we recognize that we are wrong. Sometimes we are completely convinced that we are right, but we are not. To win would take us and others further away from the objective truth or the wisest course of action. I contend that the pursuit of such an approach, while we will never do it fully or perfectly, is an important part of civil discourse, the cultivation of wisdom, much needed leadership, and actual progress. If truth matters and we value wisdom in the modern world, then skill in rhetoric must always be paired with humility and a love for that which is wise, true, beautiful, and good.

Implications for Education

Regardless of what is happening in social media and larger discourses in society, schools have an important role to play. In my book, What Really Matters: 10 Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, the final item in the list of ten, and the last chapter in the book is entitled, “Truth, Beauty and Goodness.” That is because I continue to argue that, regardless of the method, model, or context in education; these three remain solid transcendentals upon which to build our curricula and learning communities. Learning organizations are places where we can celebrate, nurture, explore, and grow in our understanding of truth, beauty, and goodness. In doing so, we move beyond self-interest, while paradoxically discovering greater meaning and purpose in our lives and in the world.

Schools are places where we can, do, and should argue; even intensely. Yet, our goal is not to win as much as it is to learn, to understand, to grow, and to discover that which transcends the argument itself. In a time when some want to reduce the role of schools to job preparation using reductionist measures of success, and driving people in that direction by creating a culture of compliance, we can point to something bigger, better, more worthy of our time, money, and effort. Yes, we will prepare people for work, but even then, it must be work that grows out of truth, beauty, and goodness. It must be work shaped by wisdom and skill. For that, we must be about more than winning arguments.

Do you disagree or see fault in my thinking? I would love to hear from you. After all, even this article is not simply about making a case or winning an argument. It is just as much about seeking understanding.

Schools That Claim to Be Ideal for All Are Closer to Ideal for Nobody

I’m in the middle of a major writing project with an impending deadline for the publisher. I’m researching and profiling variety of school models for this work. As a started a section of a chapter about “lessons learned” from one of the schools, I had an important epiphany. Only I’ve probably come to this conclusion many times in the past, so I’m not sure if epiphany is the right word. Perhaps I should call it a re-realization. It is about the uniqueness of each child and the values-laden nature of schools and school culture.

My re-realization says something important about my philosophy of education, and explains much about what I write and why I write it. It is this:

The school that claims to be the ideal school for every child is on a certain path to becoming the ideal school for no child.

Becoming the best option for every child is not achievable, not unless we restrict the options through laws, regulations, and cloaked social strategies to control people’s choices (like resisting programs that make private school options affordable for families). The only way to make the local school the “best” school is to make it the only school and then proudly proclaim that it is the best school for every child in town. Of course it is the best option because it is only being compared to itself! Yet, when I uncover the arguments behind some people’s positions on modern education, it certainly seems to boil down to such a position.

If we want to make greater progress in education today, it is time for us to be honest about some basics and my re-realization is one of those basics. No school is ideal for every student. If you can agree with this, then the next question is simply this. What are the implications of this fact for the type of education ecosystem that we should promote, design, or re-design in contemporary America?

If, on the other hand, you disagree with my claim. You argue that a single school can indeed be ideal for every student, or least the majority of students, then that is a different matter.

In fact, there are two very different positions in what I just wrote. If you try to hedge your position by saying that a school can at least be good for the majority of students, therefore we should invest and support that choice above others, then what does that say about your view of and value for the minority? Are you contending that doing what is right for the majority is adequate, even if there is a minority that suffers because of it? We are talking about human life and potential here. Do we really want to be so wasteful with something so precious?

If you are more firm on your position and say that a single school can truly be ideal for every student, then I must reply with a demand that you prove such an extreme claim. Do you really believe this or are you just holding to the position because it best supports some larger set of beliefs and values that you hold dear? There are some alternatives to supporting this position. One is to claim that one school can, in fact, become or function like many, creating different pathways for different students. In fact, I have often championed such an approach. Only, I contend that this gets us to a school that is good for many students, but not all, and I contend that we should not settle for the pursuit of anything less than a better, more hopeful, more humane educational ecosystem that offers very good options for all learners (and that the learners and their closest ones) have ample say in defining what constitutes “very good.”

Now I should get back to writing and meeting that impending manuscript deadline with the publisher.

You Matter: A Community Garden Vision of Education

You matter. You matter in education. Notice that I did not state that teachers matter, students matter, parents matter, school leaders matter, or policymakers matter. I stated that you matter, regardless of your role. Only, it is imperative that all of us recognize the important fact that each person has a role in education. As with government and healthcare, education is too important to be left to a select group of people who make all the decisions. This is not some neutral endeavor. As I’ve written many times before, education is deeply values-laden; it transmits, muzzles, and amplifies core beliefs and values. As such, if you think that your beliefs and values are important, then your voice matters in education. If you choose not to speak, then that is a decision to let the beliefs and values of others dominate your education, the education of your family members, and the education of others in your community and beyond.

We are nearing an important crossroads in education. There is the persistent battle of ideas between whether education is primarily and art or a science. The advocates of making it exclusively or primarily a science are, whether they realize it or not, advocating for us to place education decisions into the hands of a new, scientific priesthood. To question these priests is to question science, and that is not to be tolerated. On the other hand, to give into the advocates who would make it entirely or primarily an art, may unknowingly be driving us away from incredibly powerful educational breakthroughs that can produce incredible results.

Education is neither art nor science. It is a field that encompasses both, not to mention ideas and practices that do not necessarily fit neatly into the category of art or science. The word “field” might be a useful metaphor. We talk about fields of study. What do we mean by this? The word “field” derives from the Old English “feld”, or cultivated land (in contrast to woodlands). There is a thoughtful, even systematic cultivation of select crops in a field, compared to the randomness of the woodlands. What you plant, how you grow it, and how you cultivate it depends upon the context. There are affordances and limitations to those decisions, informed by sometimes competing and conflicting values. This is why I’ve long argued for the value of a diverse education ecosystem. Or, if it helps, picture a massive community-based garden, with different people and individuals planting and cultivating alongside one another. Some opt for a beautiful selection of flowers. Others go for a wide array of vegetables. Some choose raised beds while others stick with old-school rows. There will we some shared rules for those who play and plant in this field, but there is room for variety.

I love driving by these community-based gardens, seeing the creativity and values of different groups expressed in what they grow. People help one another. Others stay pretty much to themselves. Individually, they have their chance at growing something meaningful to them. Collectively, they are contributing to a wonderfully diverse ecosystem.

That is my dream for modern education, and this vision benefits from each person, you included, seeing your role in one or more of those gardens.

Some will argue that it is more efficient to plow over these diverse gardens. For the sake of efficiency, let a centralized and authorized group of farmers (government, corporate, etc.) take over the entire field, replacing these distinct plots with a single plan for everyone. Others argue for ignoring any need for the managers of each plot to play within any shared set of rules. Both extremes steal something from what is truly special about a community garden. Yet, for this vision and value in education, it depends upon you being a champion for it, resisting the voice of the extremes, and recognizing the importance that you and everyone else can bring to it.