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



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. 
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.

If We’re Not Teaching the Self, What’s the Use?

I recently attended a conference at The Perkiomen School in East Greenville, PA on “Disrupting Education.”  Sure, it’s almost a cliché by now, this disruption thing.  However, when we’re disrupting the thing I do for a living, I’m listening.  I’m not one to sit on my laurels, trot out yesteryear’s lessons and hit replay.  If I’m not making my students uncomfortable in what they think they know, if I’m not “disrupting” their weltanschauung, I’m not doing my job correctly.

The conference attracted me not only because of the title.  Their keynote speaker was Ted Dintersmith, and I’ve been eager to see him since viewing Most Likely to Succeed and reading his latest book, What School Could Be.  Schools around the nation and world have looked to MLTS as an example of what’s possible in reimagining education, and countless educational leaders are using What School Could Be to help them identify models for redefining their own districts or schools.

Image result for what school could be

Dintersmith’s vision is not without its critics.  The more Marxist among them point to his history as a venture capitalist, to his links with big money and corporate big-wigs.  And then there are the more generic arguments that simply identify his vision as naive and too far outside the vision of the “Public School.”

After hearing Mr. Dintersmith last week, I don’t believe his critics.  He is as concerned about the state of public education as the best parents I’ve ever heard, and he is quite aware of the pressures and limitations put on schools.  His book is overwhelmingly focused on innovative public schools, and his vision is solidly founded upon his recognition that perhaps the most valuable courses he ever took (he has advanced degrees in physics even though he went into venture capitalism) were those in his BA–English.

But aside from the STEAM focus and the Project Based Learning methodology that Mr. Dintersmith points to over and over in his work, it is quite clear when you hear him speak that what really matters to him is relevant, real work that meets, in a very “Glasserian sense,” the needs of the learner.  (See my notes from his Keynote Q&A below.)

Dintersmith Notes

Furthermore, Dintersmith’s insistence on a learner-centered experience adds more energy to the tidal wave of articles and ideas hitting my news feeds in the past month on the importance of helping students develop a deep sense of identity and purpose in their work.  In fact, I attempted to capture, in a prominent way, this very notion in my notes when, in the upper right I posit the importance of a curriculum of self-knowledge surrounding the questions of “Who am I? What will I do? and Why does it matter?”

For most English teachers, such a focus is nothing new.  My own students have journeyed through a unit addressing the question of “Who am I?” with texts from Aristotle, Hume, Descartes, Edgar Allan Poe,  Jack Bowen, the existentials, Prof. William Cronon, even The Matrix.  While at first confused by the deep and often skeptical look at the nature of their being, students come to understand the way in which their choices and actions help define who they are and why living a life of intention matters.

And even at a systemic level, such a focus on the philosophical is not new to American public education.  Almost since its inception, our system of education has counted among its other goals (the Civic and Economic) a weak devotion to the development of a child’s highest personal talents.  What is new, however, is the preponderance of work currently being done to focus us far more on helping students develop a clearer answer to the question of “Who am I?”  See, for example: Prof. Yuval Harari’s new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st CenturyChristian Talbot’s recent post referencing Harari’s work.  Will Richardson and the Modern Learners: “The Most Important Skill for the Future: Being Human.  And Scott Barry Kaufman’s recent Scientific American Article on Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence

Kaufman’s article is particularly interesting in that he is updating and reconsidering the work of Abraham Maslow.  Not just Maslow’s hierarchy/pyramid (a mischaracterization of Maslow’s work, Kaufman argues) but all his work on self-actualization.  The resulting article ought to be read by every adult concerned with the health, education, and well-being of our children.

The upshot here is not that we are entering a new “me” generation where it’s all about the self.  Rather, what does matter is that in a world that is ever more connected, ever more intrusive into our time and our lives; and in schools where status and ranking continue to rule over learning as the goal of education…in such a state we are recognizing the psychic fallout of such pressures and concerns.

In the end, all of us involved in education need to take a good long look at ourselves and what our systems of testing, ranking, ordering, filing, and grading have done to the humanity we (ought to) bring to our work, and the humanity we seek to engender in our children.  Such concerns are not mutually exclusive of deep, focused, academic work.  Indeed, they are the very precursors and foundations that allow for such work to happen in the first place. Univ. of Pennsylvania professor and proponent of positive psychology Dr. Martin Seligman put it best:

Those who regularly read my irregular posts are familiar with my take on the three main goals of American Public Education.  We educate for economic reasons: A secure economy is the foundation of a capitalist democracy, and when the economy goes south, our democracy suffers.  (Yes, I realize it’s a rather sanguine view.)  We educate for civic reasons:  to create a populous capable of continuing this, the world’s longest running experiment in self-rule.  But the third goal, the personal ends of education, is often overlooked.  And it is this goal, especially in a world as uncertain, shifting, and “disruptive” as ours, that commands us to know ourselves better, and in doing so, to better adapt to the systems we create, and how they create us.

Thus, I’ll be exploring the importance of ontology and self-knowledge as fields of study further over the coming months.

Education for the Self and Community

I’ve been thinking more about what it would take to redesign an educational system to honor student agency and center the learning where it belongs…on the learner.

First, we need to have some idea of what knowledge and skills an educated person ought to possess.  I wonder how many administrators/teachers/citizens have a common picture of what that person looks like.  We could refer to the standards, but inferring from those to the real world seems hard for some, and their codification and commodification (from the outset, in terms of big business’s influence of the creation of the Common Core) is a non-starter to many.  Instead, in the face of innovation-speak and market economies, a better picture can be drawn from the tradition of a liberal education.

I was a fortunate learner.  Somehow I developed/possessed the skills necessary to win the game of school.  This allowed me the great fortune to explore the meaning and importance of a liberal education for over 25 years.  One document in that time has meant more to me in terms of getting that “picture” of an educated person than any other: “Only Connect:  The Goals of a Liberal Education” by Professor William Cronon.  I’ve studied that document and revisited it every year I’ve taught.  It is part of me.  As such, I have a  particular and, I think, historically accurate (though culturally and ethnically skewed) view of what an educated person ought to know and be able to do.


William Cronon’s 10 Goals of a Liberal Education

Thus, at least in some part, redesigning schools necessitates designing/redesigning curricula to create modern pathways to the goals of a liberally educated person.  Further, though…schools need to have a common picture of their end and language with which to talk about the learning experiences they can design to help all learners get there.

Education as an Organic System

Still, none of that matters if the school leaders, both administrators and citizens on school boards and in other elected offices, do not view education as more than some assembly line/linear process.

“Liberal” (as in the “liberal education” which public schools purport to provide), as Cronon points out, derives from a proto-Indo–European root, “rodhati”, meaning “one climbs, one grows.”  Clearly, education wasn’t originally viewed as a linear, mechanistic process, but rather as an organic/dynamic system.  Like a vine, it rises to the light, adjusts, stalls, changes, and moves up again.  It is always overcoming obstacles, making course corrections.  It does not follow rubrics or recipes. It seeks the light.

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From Patrick Cook-Deegan Wayfinding Our Purpose” in Purpose Rising: A Global Movement of Transformation and Meaning, Kuntzelman and Diperna, eds.

But linear systems are easier and more efficient for humans to create, and so we wind up with a school system that works in a linear fashion.  Of course, we know this is not the best system for education–one of the most important responsibilities of any community–yet, here we are, blind and deaf in a world filled with educators, parents, business people all pointing clearly for the need to change our system. (While a thorough listing of these change agents would take far too long.  See below for an attempt at such.)

So how do we wake up, open our eyes and ears and risk the upheaval inherent in change?  Primarily, it starts with a culture shift.  Our communities and school leaders need to create cultures where calculated/educated risk-taking is part of the environment, where such traits as courage, persistence, creativity, and risk-taking are what we look for, not only in our students but in the lead learners hired for our schools.  This would entail the questioning and the slaying of many sacred cows such as:  grading systems, standardized testing, strict schedules in the school day, the role of the teacher themself, diplomas, transcripts, and the role of higher education as a driver of secondary curricula, etc.

But let’s start more simply….

Get a B.S. Detector

If we are to truly shift our systems of public education,  we need the same thing that Hemingway said all great writers need:  a great B.S. detector.  It’s so easy to want to jump on the new, the ed-tech, the subversive, the test-prep, the “innovative” because it seems so…shiny and data is so “objective.”  And yet,  so much of it is B.S.

At the most basic level, our understanding of human beings hasn’t grown all that much. The observations of the Progressives about the classroom environment, the efficacy of discovery learning, and (still) the work of Dewey are ever reified in the studies of more modern social scientists.  While our potential is infinite, our learning interventions need not be so.  Human beings require meaningful relationships, connection with their natural environment, and a sense of joy and purpose in what they do if they are to grow and learn.  (We do not learn through coercion unless the learning goal is how to despise learning.  I recommend William Glasser’s The Quality School and The Quality Schoolteacher for more on that point.) If we can use these needs to guide our schools past the dictates of efficiency and cost savings (a daunting task) we’ll have a more humane society, perhaps.

Human-Centered Education

Finally, we cannot overlook the fact that, at its heart, American Public Education will always be driven by three goals:  Economic, Civic, and Personal.  (Erin Raab names four…and I’d not disagree with her, though the Eudaemonic goal–Aristotle’s “Flourishing”– I’d fold into the “personal” (again, see Cronon’s “Only Connect”).)  While we’d like to think there is no hierarchy in these goals, the economic goal generally dominates and pushes the other goals behind it.  Its ends are to ensure the continuation of the free market capitalism that is the foundation for our own form of democracy and which makes our pursuit of happiness (the personal ends) possible.  While I’d rather think it otherwise, I have to believe that without a functioning economy, our government and our own pursuit of self-actualization break down.  Empirically, look to our devolution as a political society and our hunkering down with those most like ourselves post-2008 market crash as evidence. So we must always consider that the culture our schools create is geared towards feeding a hungry, (sometimes beneficient) monster…though monster nonetheless.

But that monster need not be as frightening and consumptive as I paint it.  An education that puts the human at the center, that recognizes as its end the elevation of all learners so that they may reach their own highest potential could ameliorate many of the more base effects of the economic ends.  Of course, that can only happen within a functioning democracy and that end, the civic end, of public education, cannot be overlooked.  We must understand and be driven by the sense that Jefferson noted when he wrote that “A people who seek to remain ignorant and free, expect what never was and never will be.”

Future Searching

It is no secret that education is a Wicked Problem. We will always be at it…tweaking, pushing, pulling, and at times disrupting.  We’ll never solve it. The best we can do is hope to manage it better and seek balance among our goals.  But none of that should ever, must never, distract us from what I believe is William Cronon’s most important point in “Only Connect“:

“In the act of making us free, it [a liberal education] also binds us to the communities that gave us our freedom in the first place; it makes us responsible to those communities in ways that limit our freedom. In the end, it turns out that liberty is not about thinking or saying or doing whatever we want. It is about exercising our freedom in such a way as to make a difference in the world and make a difference for more than just ourselves…Liberal education nurtures human freedom in the service of human community” (pp 5-6).

And so, the picture we need of this learner is not intended to create a template for some standardized form of “liberally educated widget maker.”  Rather the picture will serve to show us that these learners, these children so full of freedom and potential, reveal to us our own best selves, and their education represents our own highest potential.

We, as communities across the world, therefore have a responsibility to our future that is different than what our public system currently seeks.  We are not here to replicate the present.  To, in a sense, create children in our own image.  We are here to create spaces for learning that are filled with inspiration and that are driven by aspirations.

Which is why a district and community that seeks to create plans or visions for its continued existence ought to engage in concerted future searching at least once every 15 years.  School systems that never engage in such deep and comprehensive planning will never see beyond themselves, will never find the capabilities to move beyond themselves and embody the very aspirations we want four our students.