Wednesday, September 16, 2009

You've Gotta Be Sincere, But There's More

Had an interesting response from a reader (and former student) to the previous post in reference to the writing I've been doing on school sustainability. She is about to start a job at a nature center that works with a number of independent schools, and she is excited about some of their initiatives in the context of the broader rubric of school sustainability--as long, she says, as "it turns out to be sincere and holistic and not just a gimmick."

She hits the nail on the head, I think, at least from the perception side. Educators everywhere can be accused of grabbing onto any number of great-sounding ideas--the gimmick du jour, it sometimes seems--and of then failing to continue the work that would turn the idea into a sustainable and sustaining part of the practice and learning culture of their institution. Thus do good ideas shrivel into "gimmicks."

I like to believe that the issue is almost never one of sincerity or a failure of holistic thinking. Rather, educational ideas that are bruited about in schools and then fail to take root are almost always victims of a kind of institutional ADD, an almost extreme distractibility that stems from schools' failure to discipline themselves to stand firm in their missions and values as well as from the seductive allure of so many new currents in educational thought--what my boss quotes a consultant as calling "the tyranny of good ideas."

In recent years good ideas, many of which are part and parcel of New Progressive core practice, have swept through schools like Southern California wildfires, causing much consternation and giving birth to a host of committees and strategic goals around technology, globalization, environmental practice, curriculum, service learning, character education--you name it. All of these are good ideas, deeply rooted in sound educational thought and a profound belief in the capacities of children and the promise of schools. How could a thoughtful educator or a forward-thinking school turn its back on any of them?

If it sounds as though I am about to advocate doing just that, hold on. Earlier I made reference to mission and core values, and if a school is going to go "whole hog" in any direction, mission and values dictate what that direction must be. Rather than become an environmental school, or a laptop school, or a global school, or a character-education school, an institution must be the kind of school it is at its core, in its heart, and in its heritage. All the good ideas in the world, pasted on or plunked into the program just because they're good ideas, won't make a wobbly school sustainable or a weak school strong.

My commentator's word "holistic," I think, holds the key to doing it right. Find the parts of the good ideas that resonate with the core and that can be thoughtfully and intentionally integrated into practice, and make them work. Oftentimes they will supplant or replace existing work, and sometimes they will supplement it in a way that enriches current practice. The work may be hard for the school and its teachers and challenging to its students, but if (and only if) it is OF A PIECE with what the school already does and stands for, it will embed itself sincerely and holistically in the fabric and life of the school. It won't be just another abandoned gimmick receding in the rear-view mirror as the school careens into an uncertain future but rather a part of the engine that drives the school forward on a course about which there is shared understanding and excitement.

1 comment:

billinthemiddle said...

It's wonderful to see you back! Your points about tying education reform to a school's mission and the dangers of glomming onto an idea without ensuring it's really right for *your* school resonated with me. I believe middle school practices, as enunciated by the National Middle School Association, are deeply progressive, and we have actively adopted them as guiding principles in our middle school. In our team meetings, we are very much focused on "what's best for the kid" in a holistic fashion, combined of course with "what's best for the group." Yet far too many institutions (I believe) are middle schools in name only, perpetuating practices more typical of what we used to call (and in some places still do) a junior high - a "little high school." Quite beyond the disservice such schools do to themselves in not focusing on what serves their core principles and values, they do a disservice to the NMSA model which, research shows, works best when applied holistically. When you call your school progressive, but it's not, and your practices are ineffective, people react as though progressivism itself is at fault. I believe this is at the root of your term, "New Progressivism." So, besides educating students, parents, and the public about what we do, I would argue we also need to contrast it with other practices out there in order to reclaim our territory. I am forever telling people, "This is what we do at my school, this is how it relates to the NMSA model, here's why some schools that call themselves 'middle schools' aren't really." It's a slog, but a worthy slog, and one that, if done right, can help our schools stand proud and true to who we are.

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