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?

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.

Why Does More Disruptive Education Reform Come from Outside of the System?

A common critique of the education reform movement (as some refer to it), is that many of the people involved with education reform are not inside the system. What most people mean by this is that it is not the teachers and principals who are doing much of the reforming. Instead, we see community members, policymakers, philanthropists, directors of foundation portfolios, people in the corporate world, and others who sometimes drive the conversation, fund the initiatives, and set the agenda. First, I want to note that I am not convinced that this is an accurate picture. I’ve interviewed countless new and alternative school founders who were educators. In addition, I’ve met many parents and students who helped drive significant reforms and new models, and I would hardly consider parents and students outside of the system (if we do, then that points to a larger and even more serious problem).

Nonetheless, the concern about people outside of the system tends to be related to one or more of the following.

  1. People outside of the system do not really know the intricacies and complexities of the system. As such, their ideas risk being ill-informed or maybe even harmful in the big picture.
  2. People outside of the system sometimes have ulterior motives, even financial ones.
  3. People outside of the system lack the professional position or expertise of trained educational professionals.

There are other reasons, but these are three of the most common.

There are also some good reasons why some of the more innovative reforms come from outside of the system.

  1. People inside the system somethings get so used to it that they have trouble seeing the problem, limitations, or promising alternatives.
  2. People inside the system often have competing interests and, even while some might strive to be altruistic when it comes to matters of school structure and design, self-preservation is often a factor.
  3. People trained in the ways of the current system do not necessarily have expertise in creating alternatives.
  4. They are limited by the policies and procedures within, making it hard to try something new unless they were to leave the system, only they then become labeled as people outside of the system.

Did you notice anything interesting about the first list and the second list? Many of the items are same, but from a different angle. The truth is that good education reform can come from inside or outside of the system. There are benefits and limitations to all reforms, regardless of the origin. There are competing interests with each approach. Yet, when it comes to more disruptive innovations in education, this simple reflection indicates why more seems to happen on the outside. As one who has spent his formative years inside the system, followed by his adult years working in that system, it is apparent to me that we need those external innovators.

At the same time, the most significant lever for change is actually within the system, and that is the student. Students today find themselves in a peculiar position. They are within the schools but often have limited voice or influence. Yet, as K-12 and higher education institutions continue to lose more of their monopoly as the exclusive source of formal learning, that voice will be heard and that influence will grow.

How About a School Debunking Boot Camp for Parents, Educators, and Students?

In my last article, I posed a simple thought experiment. What if were to create a schooling detox program for parents, educators, and students? What if this exposed these people to the breadth of rich learning possibilities and models that are void of most to all the modern trappings of schooling? Might that spark greater interest in more significant and sustainable education reforms? That resonates with me, and I’ve experienced people’s philosophies and views of education change after experiencing something that they deem better and different. At the same time, most of our education reforms are what I described in the last article as trimming the weeks and not pulling them up from the roots. As such, I will use this short article to consider something other than the schooling detox concept. Instead, what might be the benefits of a school debunking boot camp?

What do I mean by that? I’m not entirely sure, but it is starting to take shape in my mind. I envision this as a rich and engaging set of learning experiences that allow parents, educators, and students to critically analyze and critique the history, challenges, affordances, and limitations of the dominant models and practices of schooling today. Unlike the detox which exposes people to the alternatives, this idea instead seeks to surface the flaws in the current system, helping us to directly encounter the negative and limiting effects of status quo policies and practices in education. This approach doesn’t necessarily show us alternatives as much as it makes sure that we face the sometimes harsh facts about the consequences of what we have built.

  • How have our policies and practices elevated compliance over curiosity and a love of learning?
  • How has preservation of the system become a greater priority than pursuing the best education of each learner?
  • How has our approach to assessment and evaluation boxed us into something less authentic and meaningful experiences, drawing our attention away from what really matters?
  • How have we created a model where compliance is valued more than agency, and where complacency is preferred to self-sufficiency?
  • How have we institutionalized and deepened inequality and opportunity divides through our school designs?
  • How does our system unintentionally muzzle the deepest held beliefs and values of families?
  • Why is categorization, grading, and ranking such a dominant priority in the system and what are this limitations of such a system?
  • How do some formal schooling practices actually diminish self-education and informal learning, and why is that problematic?
  • How do some of our policies prioritize mediocre education of the masses to a pursuit of education that honors the rights and distinctives of every single learner?

There are so many other similar questions to explore, and a school debunking boot camp would be a wonderful place to explore such themes. Of course, the people most likely to attend would be those who already have concerns with the dominant system, but maybe there is a way around that. Maybe, in the spirit of being open-minded and willing to learn from diverse viewpoints, such a boot camp could help us face more the the harsh realities and inequities of what we have built into the modern education system.

As John Kotter and many other scholars on change management point out, there needs to be a compelling motivation for change before we actually see it begin to occur. That is likely why many wonderful alternative schools today come from disappointed parents or students, disenfranchised educators, and others who experience something that makes it hard to ignore the problems in the system. Is it possible that a school debunking boot camp could help conjure some of that motivation?