We need a compelling vision to drive education reform and it will not come from debates about tests and standards. I had the privilege of working with a group of people recently who are exploring the possibly for a new and different type of school. Having the chance to facilitate such conversations and be welcomed into these coalitions of the willing continues to be a humbling and incredibly rewarding experience for me, whether I’m helping a group think through the possibilities for a new school, a new startup, a new educational product, or perhaps to reimagine what an organization is already doing.
As such, I always find it helpful to begin by getting to know the people individually as well as the community or communities that they represent. So, I started by sharing an authentic and vulnerable story from my own life, something that tied to what they were considering. Then, others went around the room, responding to a simple question. “What do you bring to this meeting?” What sort of beliefs and values did they bring to the meeting? What goals and desires did they bring? What fears, uncertainties and questions?
I can usually tell how a session like this is going to go by how people respond. If it is a trusting and open community, it is not uncommon for people to start to open up with powerful, sometimes even emotional stories. This is only natural because we are gathered to explore something that is important to people, something that relates to their core beliefs and what they value in life. After all, we all have personal experiences with school or education in some form. Some of those are pleasant and others are quite unpleasant, even traumatic. We have experiences of our children in school, and our joys and fears associated with that. For the teachers and school leaders, we have experiences of what worked, what didn’t, our dreams and passions for education, and the sort of core motivations and reasons that often led people into the profession in the first place.
So, when people started to share about their personal and unpleasant experiences with schools, their joys and moving experiences with schools, their dreams for reaching new populations of students, I knew that we were going to have a great day. Yet, even as I am writing this and reflecting on the experience, there was one short story shared by a person in his introduction that continues to move me. It illustrates the types of narratives and metaphors that can fuel our innovations and reforms in education. Grounding our efforts in something raw, real, and meaningful is far more important than many imagine.
It was an assistant principal who recalled a recent eighth-grade graduation speech. In the speech, the young man told of his experience coming to their existing elementary school. “When I came to this school, I was a broken window,” this young man explained. I don’t know what that meant for him personally, whether it was pain and loss in his life or something else. Yet, it was clearly this young man’s way of describing some sort of brokenness in his life. But then, the young man went on. He explained that he came a broken window, but through the nurturing and experiences in that school, the broken glass in his life had been turned into a stained glass window. His brokenness was turned into something whole and beautiful.
Now that is a compelling narrative upon which to describe the power of possibility of education in the contemporary world. As I write in What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, our modern conversation is too bogged down in debates about careful alignment of standards and standardized tests as the most valuable measures.
I don’t deny the role of these things, but they lack a compelling why for school leaders, parents, teachers, and students. They lack a broken window to stained glass window way of thinking about what we do and why we do it in schools. As such, if we are not careful, we risk creating learning communities with a meaning and purpose deficiency. Yet, we know that meaning and purpose are critical for student motivation and engagement. They are critical for persistence. Why try if it doesn’t matter? Why persist through struggle and difficulty? Why do more than just go through the motions? Education is and must remain, at its essence, about meaning and purpose, and about the transformation that happens with learners and teachers alike when they swim in these meaning and purpose-rich learning communities.
If you agree with me, I invite you to join me in deepening our public conversation about education and education reform. Join me in refusing to let that critical dialogue be dominated by outspoken voices that unintentionally seek to promote efforts and set agendas that dominate the conversation with lifeless policies and provisions. Join me in championing a conversation about what really matters in education.