Wicked Problems and Social Messes: School Reopenings–COVID-19 Edition

 

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from USA Today

In designing solutions to wicked problems like how to best educate our children in a time of COVID, we can’t just rely on opinions. We can’t even rely on the facts. They are not inert. They shift in different contexts. But here’s one thing we can rely on. If we don’t approach the design with the users in mind, that is, if we don’t try to understand, at a deep and empathetic level, what our children and teachers will be encountering, we will not design the best solutions. We will only design something that, perhaps, efficiently relieves a host of pains we’ve been suffering but in turn creates pains in other areas. Unless we build empathy for the users of the system we’re trying to re-create, all this is just bluster and posturing.
 
To whit…how many parents and board members have actually walked in the potential shoes their children/teachers will wear? How many have tried to follow the rules of social distancing , cleanliness, mask-wearing for hours and hours with the mind of an 8, 11, 16 year-old? All the while working to learn new information, but in the back of their mind, wondering, after Justin sneezes, or Susan wipes her eyes, or Tom takes his mask off, wondering…did I just get exposed? This district’s superintendent did it and it was an eye-opening experience. A little empathy goes a long way to understanding the successes and limitations of any solution. 
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Cognitive science makes it clear, but our experience makes it self evident–we cannot learn well if our emotional state is one of heightened anxiety and fear. Sure, our teachers would do their best to create communities of learners that are inclusive, safe, and trusting, but even then, the variables of interactions that occur outside the classroom mean that those safe little bubbles of communal learning would still be fraught with worry. And no amount of statistical spinning would allay those fears.
 
We know that since the rise of the two-income family, Public Education’s purpose is not solely to educate and promote learning. At the point that two parents are in the workforce, public ed is also a way to provide daycare. It has supported the rise of the American Economy to the top of the world. Now that we’re doing a cost-benefit analysis of the risks involved with opening up vs. those involved in remaining closed I suppose we have to be rather brazen and ask ourselves: What’s the cost of a human life? Or, how much of my child’s quality of life am I willing to risk?
 
Sure incremental risks enter our lives every day, and we bear them. But most of those risks are known. So much with COVID 19 is uncertain. Just recently we’ve seen studies like this that point to long-term risks to the heart from those suffering with infection: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamacardiology/fullarticle/2768916. And the data changes all the time.  As much as I’d like to “Partner with Uncertainty and Confusion” as Maragret Wheatley suggests, I think I’d rather do it from a distance in this case.  But to be clear…such a partnering must be done by everyone.
 
Yet I know there are those who would just grab the seat next to uncertainty and push it to the side.  Social media is full of these people.  They have a right to be angry, a right to be upset at the decisions their district boards have made.  Their lives may be far more dependent on a return to normal than my own.

Thus, the argument is between those who would be prudent, and those whose livelihoods depend upon finding a way for the village to care for their child(ren). No one is wrong in that argument. As in all multi-faceted, wicked problems, any proposed solution can have a negative impact on another facet of the problem. There are no “right” solutions to this problem for all.  There are only actions that result in better states for some.  Perhaps we should “think about our actions as interventions. We must “shift the goal of action on significant problems from “solution” to “intervention.” Instead of seeking the answer that totally eliminates a problem, one should recognize that actions occur in an ongoing process, and further actions will always be needed.”  

In a related and, perhaps, more relatable description, Russel Ackoff refers to these problems as “Social Messes.”  Yes. In. Deed!
 
In a world that has grown to expect quick answers and easy solutions through technology, this pandemic has caused us to face our own limitations, and it has forced us to slow down. Normal isn’t coming back anytime soon. Either we do what humans have always done to make us the top of the heap–adapt–or we try to claw back towards “normal” against a force we can’t even see.
 
Strategically, if I’m trying to ensure my survival and the survival of my family and the race itself, I’m betting on my ability to adapt.  In the end, I think this is the manner in which many school boards have voted. And that gives me hope.

A Gnostic Gospel: Gradelessness in the Time of Covid

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From Amy J. Ko

(Like many teachers, I’m suffering from so many feelings right now.  July is winding down.  I’ve been taking classes on distance learning, working on new units, and rethinking how to build a culture of caring, community, and creativity on-line, as it seems that’s the way things will be heading for a while.  I’m also, as my friend @MonteSyrie notes of himself (and so many educators) mourning a loss of place and self…of who I was in the classroom.

But there are also ample opportunities to do things better, to become more and constantly evolve.  After all, as I often note, we are all human beings in the becoming.  We are all chasing a better version of ourselves…or we should be.

And that’s where this blog post comes from.  How can we be better in the classroom for ourselves and for our students?  Perhaps an admission that love is at the core of our work is a good place to start.  Not that most of us don’t already know that…but, as with so much about love, we may not always show it.)

Three years ago I began moving my classes to a grade-less system.  It is still a work in progress, but it is one I will not abandon.  Still, I sometimes forget that not everyone is in that same headspace.  When I recently came across a blog that recalled a small school’s pivot to standards-based grading during the spring of 2020, I started to think back on all the reasons why I’d switched to a gradeless system.  And I discovered, in the musings recounted below, one more reason–love.

I have to think that there are many teachers who now, in this time of uncertainty and crisis, are wondering how they’re going to grade fairly.  How they’re going to overcome issues of -plagiarism, fair testing, etc.  I also have to think that many teachers and schools will push back with more punitive systems to force student compliance.    Why?

 Rather than trying to create punitive mechanisms that punish students for seeking ways around the system (which, come on…teenagers?  Rebellion…?  No kidding?), what if we were to make a switch to standards-based grading?  It is not that hard a shift, but the culture behind it utterly alters students’ perceptions of what school is and how much more meaningful and purposeful the learning that happens here can be. 

That Culture shift is huge. As Peter Drucker noted a long time ago: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  And really, our schools, at this crisis point…?  If all we’re looking for is a strategy or methods to bridge the gap between now and a return to “normal,” if we’re not thinking about culture shifts, we’re missing a huge opportunity, and we misunderstand the potential of this moment to shift our culture for the better of our students.  We can add as many apps as we want to our “ClassLink” landing page, we can create as many virtual opportunities for kids to meet with us as time permits, but if at our foundation we’re still about ranking and sorting of humans?  The system is built on sand. 

 Given the uncertainties in so many areas of our lives, to what extent does the compliance-and-extrinsic-reward model that grades represent really serve anyone?  Is anyone not getting the fact that compliance and working for extrinsic rewards doesn’t foster meaningful learning for many students? That it certainly hasn’t done much for critical thinking in our country (though I’d not lay all the blame for that at the feet of education)?  One vivid example of the problem with grades is that they perpetuate the inequities in the system and enslave the mind to working for others’ approval.   

Traditional Grading for a VUCA World…Really?

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 And in that, grades don’t serve the country well.  If we look to the numerous future-of-work documents populating the web, there’s little there to support a continuation of a grading system that harms more than it helps, that reports little but how well one meets deadlines and turns in what’s expected.  In a VUCA World, the skills required to thrive in the future are not skills of compliance and climbing the corporate ladder by performing the right tricks at the right time for the right people.  They are far more about experimentation, iterative improvement, innovation, and working for a common good.  Grades and the competition inherent in that system drive all those things underground, and in doing so, bury many a great learner.  

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I’m not saying we’re not already shifting in this direction.  But if school this year is going to be a huge change for all of us, why would we try to stuff the old experience–the good, the bad, and the ugly–into some new box that we’re trying to make just like the old box?  That old box was broken from the get-go; we have a huge opportunity to pivot and change for the better.  If the school in the article I’ve cited can make the change during the spring remote learning emergency, surely we, as a department or as a team can pilot something that could truly increase students’ voices, and promote deeper and broader ownership of their learning.

A sermon of courage, fear, and love

This has been my liturgy for several years now.  I preach it not to raise specters of fire, brimstone, and damnation to those who believe in grades, but to bring those who question the orthodoxy and dogma into the fold.  Perhaps I’m the wrong person for this pulpit/that purpose.  I’ve no real congregation at my school…no one comes to this church; my outreach is paltry and, perhaps, intimidating.  After all, my teachers are offering up a gnostic gospel.  We could be burned at the stake.  But as Parker Palmer noted, it takes Courage to Teach.

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It doesn’t take weeks of work to switch.  What it does take is courage, a willingness to be vulnerable, and a love for others we serve that supplants the power we lose by abandoning the “rod” of grades.  And if love isn’t reason enough to change, I think we’re in the wrong business.  

Purpose and the Story We Tell Ourselves: Wayfinding our own Oceans.

the-seaIn 1995, the prolific warbler Neil Young (and members of Pearl Jam) released Mirror Ball.  The album featured one of Young’s iconic declarations of independence, “I’m the Ocean.”  With a chorus declaring the title’s metaphysical conceit and lyrics probing smaller, stranger metaphysical comparisons (“I’m an accident/I was driving way too fast), Young contrasts being a trivial, single thing (“I’m an aeorstar/I’m a Cutlass Supreme”) with being something as expansive, deep and meaning-full as the ocean itself.

Young’s song is, perhaps, a meditation on the 90s as the beginning of the fracturing of meaning and attention that has come to mark our contemporary existence.  But more so, it is an exercise in the utter necessity of always writing our selves into the present in ways that both extend our individuality and acknowledge the reality that we are part of something much larger.

This recognition, that we are all part of an ocean of humanity and that we all have a tidal power to extend ourselves out and back again, this is one of the great mysteries of existence: That our individual self floats and drifts and surges amidst all other selves in the world.  It makes us humble but also allows us to know the great power each of us has to change the world.

However, as Young’s lyrics reveal, developing a sense of ourself in this way is not an easy task.  Such wisdom is hard-won, the process of struggle, of loss as well as success, and of many, many hours spent reflecting, talking to/with ourself…a silent, internal sounding of our own depths.

And for as important as such knowledge is to our own mental health and sense of well-being, there is little in most students’ school careers that helps them meet the self by itself and the self within our larger communities.

For most of my career as a teacher, be it in middle or high school, I’d always known that students hungered to better understand themselves.  After all, what else is education for if not to better understand the self?   For years I addressed this through stories, through philosophy, and through metacognitive exercises, and while all those had some meaningful effect, they never felt focused or cohesive.

Image result for Students polynesian wayfinderAnd then, two years ago, I stumbled upon Project Wayfinder.  The focus of this unique curriculum on understanding the self at the individual and community level has been instrumental in helping me to provide deeper meaning to the purpose projects that drive the way we learn in the elective I teach, NOVA Lab.  But more important, it has provided key experiences to recognize the critical role of community in our classroom.  When students are provided with an open and understanding environment in which the entire community is driving towards a common but unique goal (to better know ourselves), they learn how to develop empathy and communication flourishes.

Oh, I realize I am only seven lessons into this unique curriculum, but I know enough to know when the tenor of a classroom changes.  And even if some of the lessons in the year-long curriculum don’t work for all students, their belief in the importance of the overall goal of the project is, I think, strong enough to keep them focused on the need for others in the community to engage more deeply.

I’ve asked students to write blog posts reflecting on their work with Project Wayfinder so far.  Below I’ve culled a number of quotations from their writing so that their own words might speak to the power of the project itself.


“WayFinder has proved to be more beneficial than simply planning out my career path. I have learned more about my personality and strengths, and thus more about myself. By obtaining this knowledge, I believe it will help me in my future career and relationships.  —Emma C.

“[Wayfinder] Mondays are one of the best parts of our inNOVAtion Lab class, as they give me a time that I would not have otherwise had to think about my own desires and goals in life.  Especially as I’m now applying to college, recognizing my own strengths and goals in life gives me such a good base upon which to base my essays and interviews.” –Andrew D

“The idea of living beyond the simplicity of school work and the all-too-familiar monotony of the workweek has been planted in our minds.  The only way to really have direction in one’s life is to define what makes us tick–our purpose(s) and how we want to leave our mark.  Wayfinder has done this for me.” –Ethan F.

Project Wayfinder has slowly shifted my attention to parts of myself that before I wouldn’t share with people I didn’t know very well or even people I am very close with. It’s reinvigorated my passion in things that had been overtaken by other aspects of my life and brought them to the surface as bold as ever.” —Jane H.

“Project Wayfinder been a unique experience unrivaled by any other in my high school career. In school, we’re always working for a grade, molding ourselves to the machine in order to get to college and beyond. [In Wayfinder], we’ve had the ability to not only shape our minds and opinions but adapt our personalities and go on a path of self-discovery. Most teenagers don’t even consider who they want to be as a character in their story, but Wayfinder asks us to stare our future in the face and affords us the time to mold ourselves to our own personal goals. It’s been really inspiring to not only go through these activities but see how others have been impacted and adapted from the knowledge they gained during Wayfinder activities.”  –Glen R.

“Project Wayfinder offers us learning not covered in any other aspect of the school system. At times this can be challenging but overall it is a very beneficial process. This allows me to take time and reflect on what I have done, what I want to do, and why these things matter to me. I personally do not do these things on a frequent basis, but this course brings a healthy cleanse of my pent up mental strain. Focusing on my goals and feelings is a foreign concept to me but has proven important. The course could not have come at a better time due to how now is the time where so many, literally, life-changing events are coming up. Whether this be college or academic prospects.
–Ethan S.

“Project Wayfinder is less about the specific answers it provides than the process. Instead of blindly doing things because I’ve always done them that way, I now regularly consider what brings me joy, what kind of person I am, and more. The power of Wayfinder, at least the early portion of the curriculum, is not to define one’s lifelong purpose, but to encourage the careful consideration that will one day result in one.” –Matt T.

Students everywhere will tell you that the idea of curriculum is killing any sense of purpose they have, and Wayfinder knows this. So instead of trying to give you a book as a surefire method to find your purpose, they use the best tool available to anyone, other people. All the book does is give them better questions to ask. For example, instead of asking you for a definite answer to what you’d like to do, another person is prompted to ask you to tell a story about a time you’ve enjoyed doing something. Humans aren’t meant to spit out correct answers and know ourselves perfectly, we find ourselves through the stories we tell and the people we tell them to.” –Miles C.

“While Project Wayfinder is still a young product, I thoroughly enjoy it and think that it should be applied wherever it can. Not just innovation classes – other classes, other schools, workspaces; there is never a wrong time or place to find your North Star.” Valencia C.

“Project Wayfinder helps us succeed in the world rather than merely in the classroom. It shows us that no matter how different we are and how separated we are that we have a purpose and that our purpose is consequential to the world.” –Nicholette D.

“Project Wayfinder is a way to ask questions to yourself and find out who you are. Completing the exercises with integrity and wholeheartedness is vital to really discovering oneself and peeling back the layers to become more open and vulnerable. I thoroughly enjoy Project Wayfinder every week and figuring out more about who I am, little nuances about my personality, and how I can find my purpose.”–Aleesha P.

Being only seventeen years old, most of my life has been dominated by my time in school. Because of this, when I think of my identity, I think “student,” but Wayfinder purposely tries to leave school out of the activities. I’m interested to see what the next lessons will bring, and how I will think of my identity outside of being a student.”
–Brandon S.

Bill Lyon: An Homage, of Sorts.

cole-hamels-cubsI learned today of the passing of one of the great sportswriters of any time.  The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bill Lyon deserved far more accolades than he ever received.  In my estimation, he represented the tail end of the great sportswriters of the early to mid-twentieth century.

Though slowed in his later years by Alzheimer’s, Lyon’s work, even about his battle with “Al”, was a pure pleasure to read, and something I used many times in my English classroom.

Below is my homage to his skill, written in 2009 during the second year of the Phillies magical run at two pennants.

I will miss your talent, Bill.  They don’t make ’em like you anymore.

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Bill Lyon (center) in the Inquirer newsroom, circa 1990  (from inquirer.com)

(*I wrote the following as an e-mail to my middle school colleagues.)

“You might remember last year when I sent around an e-mail regarding poetry in everyday language.  It would have been around this time (actually, it was 10/27/08), and I referenced a line from retired Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon.  Bill had described Cole Hamels’ delivery to the plate as “a lawn chair unfolding, a gangling tangle of loose limbs that flummox hitters.”

Cole’s chair is a bit rusty this year, but Cliff Lee?  Well that’s another story, and Bill’s written another entry for your “poetry in everyday language” folder.

“Tenderly he rakes the dirt with his cleats, windmills both arms three vigorous times, turns to face second base, and fires a phantom pitch there.

“Then, ritual complete, he turns around and sets about turning the Los Angeles Dodgers around.  Also, inside out.  And every which way but loose.

[Here’s the simile…you knew it was coming.]

“Cliff Lee pitches like a man late for a date.

“Get the ball.  Throw the ball. Swing and miss. Next.

“Rawboned and lanky, the hired lefthanded gun of the Phillies, on this gelid October evening is seeking to get his team halfway to the World Series, and they oblige by presenting him with four runs of Thunder Ball in their very first at-bats.”

Gelid?????  Come on!  When was the last time you saw that word in the sports section!  I wouldn’t be surprised if Lyon wasn’t chomping on cigars, filling out the box scores, and telegraphing in his story, like they did back in the day:  Grantland Rice, Red Barber, Bill Lyon—that’s his family tree.

And while I risk turning this simple, beautiful observation into a homily, I’ll say that what we can learn from baseball, Phillies baseball particularly, is that sometimes, all that effort, all that struggle, all the waiting, the slow pace of the game that so irks today’s “hit ‘em hard, play it fast” crowd… what we can learn is it all pays off in the end.  Just so with Mr. Lyon.  Slow down, take the time, enjoy the story.  There’s more to the game than the stats and the final score you get “tweeted” to your hip in bulleted points.  Attention to the craft, to the crafting of words … it’s the same as working a 3-2 count from an 0-2 start.  And once you’re there, Bill Lyon hits a homerun most every time.

What (Should) We Talk About When We Talk About Education(?): Freedom, Growth, and the Right Question.

I’ve been reading this morning an incredible overview of bell hooks’ book, Teaching to Transgress. (Huge thank you to Chris McNutt at The Human Restoration Project (HRP)).  hooks should be required reading for all educators, for she persuasively reveals why structures that empower all students are crucial to the continued pursuit of education as a human endeavor in freedom and liberation, and, even more important, to our democracy itself.

Screen Shot 2019-11-10 at 8.08.07 AMThe Human Restoration Project’s review of Teaching to Transgress summarizes part of hooks’ challenge to her readers as a call to change the system of education itself:  “To change education means to rebel against prevailing notions of what education means — to dismiss grading as an inauthentic means of communicating standing, to challenge content relevance and usage, to reinvigorate pedagogy that puts learning in the hands of students beyond faux choice, to create communities of compassion and tolerance by enlightening the prevailing oppressive narrative. ”

I have no problem with the understanding that content itself is important.  One cannot think creatively and critically if one has no knowledge to turn over, probe, question.  However, when students remain mere vessels to be filled and there are no structures to A) actuate the knowledge they attain  in uncertain, ambiguous scenarios, and B) question the nature and origin of that knowledge to begin with, we are in danger of falling into the type of passive and compliant schools we seek to escape with our rhetoric of student-centered/learner-centered-ness.  Mere lip service to these goals only perpetuates “the oppressive narrative.”

At least one major plotline in that oppressive narrative is that learning is actually an

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Source: NYU

exercise in achievement.  That exercise manifests as the incessant striving to jump another hurdle or check off another box.  The oppression here perverts human life itself, turning us into creatures ever driven to get to the next checkbox.  “I’ll have time to live when I pass calculus” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I get my masters” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I get that raise in salary” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I retire.” 

Many schools are beginning to shift their narratives to more learner-centered methods.  My own district’s shifts to #pvempowers and #pvsddoschooldifferent are a start in moving away from the oppressive narratives.   But they and all such efforts are mere digital rhetoric if we do not act within the spaces those terms create to truly honor the curiosity and voice of all learners.

For me, such action begins with questions:  two of them emblazon the wall in my classroom (see image below).  The first is a question that empowers students to inquiry:  “Why are things the way they are?”  I believe it should be the primary question in all classrooms.  It is certainly the primary question in the mind of a K—2 aged child.

The second question, “How can we make them better?,”  speaks to something we need to recognize more, and to which bell hooks is directly speaking:  agency.  All humans have agency, but schools, in the name of efficiency and normative measures, serve as obstacles to students exercise of that agency.  And as all learning initiates in questions, the greatest obstacle the system presents is the lack of student questioning.

Why are things the way they are...As a debate coach of 27 years, student questioning was central to my practice with the team and in my classroom.  But for most of those years, my classroom students’ questions were based upon free-form generation, tapping into their natural curiosity.  Then, about a decade ago, I discovered the Right Question Institute and their Question Formulation Technique.  The Right Question Institute tags itself as a “Catalyst for Microdemocracy” and it founds that democratic action in questions.

Little I’ve done in over 25 years in the classroom has the impact of the QFT.  It is built with simplicity and rigor and it delivers on both areas.  However, one should not believe this is as easy as, “Just let them ask questions.”   Its simplicity is deceptive, and any teacher employing the QFT needs to prepare and establish consistency for the technique to work.

But the results of proper implementation are immediate.  The students are engaged, deeply, in the work.  I’ve seen them lose themselves in developing questions, restating questions, and prioritizing questions, and the thing is, all these questions are coming from them.  Yes, the teacher must have a purpose for these questions, and that constraint helps guide the later parts of the generation process, but it does nothing to change the fact that the students are allowed to “linger at the point of wonder” and touch base with their curiosity in a way that honors every student’s ideas and direction.

While I’ve spoken mostly of the benefits of the QFT to students, make no mistake, the most crucial change the process brings about is within us, the “educators.”  In American public education, we are engaged in the creation of a liberally educated populous.  The word, “liberal,” however has acquired such a political charge that many turn away before understanding the history of the word itself.  Professor William Cronon does such justice to this adjective that I defer here to his brilliant words from the essay, “Only Connect,” which gives this blog its name.

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The worn but valid metaphor, then, is that educators are gardeners, nurturers of freedom and growth, for whom a liberal education is not a tool of some leftist conspiracy driven by trigger words like “social justice” and “white privilege” but rather is the very basis for all the benefits of this, the world’s longest experiment in self-rule.  Thus, education is about liberation, about freedom, about empowering people to take charge of their lives rather than live them as dictated by others.  In other words, it is about questioning our educational systems, our roles in them, our part in forming them, and about narrating our own way out of the oppressive narratives of those self-same systems.

What the Right Question Institute and their Question Formulation Technique get so right is the power of questions within democratic structures.  They are not merely methods through which to learn information.  Questions are the main tool of growth, liberation, and freedom.  They probe for information to better inform the polity.  They expose corruption, unmask deception, and hold power accountable.

Could anything be more important in our wickedly complex world?