There is little debate that education needs an overhaul. But where would you begin? That was the question faced by participants of our K12 MindShift summit on the future of learning. We brought together 40 diverse leaders to set aside our assumptions, baggage, and differences and to take on a mission that not only transformed our lives but—we hope—will inspire other leaders who feel stuck in an outdated system of education unresponsive to change. Our stories, insights, and transformational experiences are captured in Humanizing the Education Machine (Miller, Latham, and Cahill 2017). This blog post aims to give readers an overview of our process, as well as some insights for initiating change in your own educational setting.
Setting the Stage
I chose a symbolic city for our first summit: Columbus—not Ohio, but Indiana. My guess is most people are not familiar with Columbus, Indiana. I learned about the town 10 years ago during a research project. I have returned many times since. What attracted me is that Columbus— a small town of 60,000, 45 minutes south of Indianapolis—ranks #6 on the American Institute for Architecture’s list of most important architectural cities.
I traced the origins of this incredible treasure to a failed school construction project in the early 1950s. That failed project spurred a community benefactor, J. Erwin Miller, to pay for a world-class architect to design the next school project. Its success won national recognition and became a catalyst for deeper community cooperation. Miller created an endowment after a few more school projects so the community could continue to hire world-class architects for any future public building. However, he stipulated a process that included broad community participation.
Miller, the president of Cummins, Inc., recognized that good schools will attract young families, build good citizens, and provide a supply of top talent for his growing company. Columbus is still a model for community engagement and economic resilience, and one of the best and most progressive school systems in the country. After 60 years of practicing community participation, it has also developed a framework for renewing its reservoir of trust and cooperation.
Our tour of Columbus, its schools, and their stories set a tone for our diverse group of leaders. The next order of business was where to begin. How do we fix, transform, rethink, reform, and improve our system of learning to prepare kids for a future none of us can predict?
Investigating the Problem
I felt the energy of our group leaning toward a robust venting session around our favorite trigger points. It turned into a game of verbal Whack-a-Mole. You know, problems pop up all around us and we take a whack at them. Common Core—whack. Vouchers—whack. Charter schools—whack. Poverty—whack. Special needs—whack.
To combat this, we all participated in an exercise I designed, the “Broken Record,” to flush our systems in order to create a clean slate to start from. I divided the room into small groups of about five people. Each group listed every topic that had become a broken record in the debate on “what’s wrong with education.” After 10 minutes of highly energized conversation and brainstorming, each group reported their top hot topics. It had a cathartic effect on the room. Once we catalogued the topics, we were able to set them aside and move forward.
We then shared some of Gallup’s research about why creating a context of care was a necessary element for engaged learning. This time we divided into four groups that represented different stakeholders (teachers; parents and alumni; community and businesspeople; and administration and state representatives). We then took the same idea and asked, “If we agree that treating students as individual humans is key, what does that look like for all stakeholders? What does it look like when everyone is honored?” As we went through this process, it became evident that the root of the educational system’s brokenness is its dehumanizing tendencies.
Jamie Casap, education evangelist for Google, shared about a teacher who rearranged the classroom to accommodate small teams, encouraging kids to work together more. The next morning, she arrived in her room to find all of the desks piled on top of each other in the corner. It had a note from the janitorial staff warning that next time she did it there would be no desks. Why? It takes longer to clean a room when the desks are not in neat columns and rows. This is an extreme example, but the underlying reality hovered over every conversation. Every stakeholder in the education machine has precious turf or an agenda to protect. These priorities come at the expense of why we are involved in the first place—preparing kids for a life of learning.
The Learning Manifesto
All of these exercises prepared us for our final “product.” We needed to put a stake in the ground. This was a declaration of separation from a system that no longer served our children or country. It was a statement of collective purpose and resolve. We were still excavating to tap into a sound that had transformational potential and grabbed us at our deepest levels of pain, hope, and promise.
Our next exercise was to divide again into small groups to create versions of a learning manifesto. After stripping away our assumptions and baggage, we were able to see learning in its essential nature and context and recognize the contrast of our current state. We had the insight to declare “self-evident” truths about education and engaged learning that had a fresh and exciting sound.
Here is an abbreviated version of the declaration you’ll find in our book:
The Heart of Learning is intrinsically rewarding and recognizes the unique qualities of the learner and embraces that uniqueness. It is human!
The Education Machine prefers achievement to character. It treats people as numbers and averages. It operates based on efficiency and removes common sense. It can deliver good service but cannot care. It dehumanizes!
The Fall Out leaves many well-schooled but poorly educated. 50% of our children are being left behind. Zip code determines your destiny. Kids know the difference between care and detachment. If students and teachers are both disengaged, then what’s the point of maintaining business as usual?
The New World of Learning requires new skills that include critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration. Teams, projects and life relevance define the future context for learning. Character and virtue will be woven into the context of learning, not taught as isolated subjects.
The “What Works” Revolution (Miller, Latham and Cahill 2017) tells us that the solutions we need reside inside the community and its stakeholders. Creating social capital is the least expensive and most powerful lever for transformation.
Applying This Process in Your School Setting
We do not presume that our starting point is the starting point. Every community’s journey has its own unique context and trigger for action. The process I’ve outlined shares common elements for bringing people together to tackle a large or complex challenge. This was simply our starting point. You can take this back to your circle and perhaps begin a conversation that will lead to a call to action and a quest for change. You can begin by asking, “What truths about engaged learning do I feel are self-evident? What are the broken record topics that seem to circle back over and over again without being solved?”
Substantial change for your school or community begins when a group of concerned teachers, parents and leaders identifies its acorn. What do I mean by that? Jack Hess, executive director for the Institute for Coalition Building in Columbus, introduced us to a tool they use for identifying a starting point for issues that include a variety of stakeholders, each with competing interests. Small groups were handed a poster-sized worksheet dominated by a large oak tree image, with the image of an acorn in the center. Jack instructed us to identify what we thought the acorn for inspired learning might be. The acorn represented the single essential item—the thing without which there could be no oak tree. We then identified the elements necessary for the tree to grow, like the water, sun, and soil for learning. Finally, we listed the items that could enhance growth. Our discussion centered on acorn words like curiosity, wonder, care, and hope.
For your school or community, that acorn may be trust; it may be a common sense of urgency; or it might be the name of a child the education machine damaged, compelling you to prevent that from happening again. Whatever the acorn might be for your complex challenge, you’ll need to find a core of people who have a stake in the future and a common concern over the present.
The Process is Messy
This post provides a simple roadmap for beginning to address complex and big challenges in your setting. It is not efficient. You’ll feel tempted to bring people together with a well-planned agenda and defined time slots. You’ll even plan for what you think or hope the outcomes might be. Those you bring together will also expect a well-planned agenda with predictable topics and safe breakout sessions. This allows everyone to look their best and provide eloquent answers without breaking a sweat. It just won’t have any life, and it will sound like a broken record.
Early in our work we stopped offering agendas. People were tracking our progress based on the items listed on the agenda. If we went “off topic” or deviated from our schedule, the energy in the room dropped. Participants felt something must be wrong if it’s 10 a.m. and we’re still on the 9 a.m. topic.
If you hope to effect change, the process is messy and unpredictable, and at times it looks like nothing important is going on. You have to have a tolerance for uncertainty and a focus on connecting people in ways that allow them to say what is really important on their minds and hearts. You’ll have to have patience for initial posturing and the time it takes for people to feel safe with one another. During all of this, you’ll need to keep bringing the group back to what is really important, to what brought people together. The conversation can so easily slide into a Whack-a-Mole of problems… and miss the point altogether.
Supporting Your School’s Path to Change
To help you in your own journey in your school, we invite you to visit www.hope.school, where you can comment and receive your free comic download. There you will learn more about our three-year journey with more than 100 leaders searching for answers to what the future of learning will look like. The site includes several videos that highlight the different chapters. Finally, MeTEOR education has created a companion workbook: Humanizing the Education Machine: Thinking Guide.
Change takes tolerance for the messy process, skills for managing and sustaining it, and a significant investment of energy over a long period of time. It’s my hope that this post encourages you to press onward in this worthy calling.
Miller, M. R., B. Latham, and B. Cahill. 2017. Humanizing the Education Machine: How to Create Schools that Turn Disengaged Kids into Inspired Learners. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
About the Author
Rex Miller is the lead author for Humanizing the Education Machine. His company, MindShift, has tackled numerous large and complex problems, including the waste and adversarial culture of the construction industry and the chronic problem of workplace disengagement. His two books from these projects have both won international awards for innovation and excellence. Rex lives in Texas with his wife, three kids, and four dogs. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. To follow his ongoing work, visit www.rexmiller.com.