Learning Out Loud: The System We’ve Inherited and Why Innovation Isn’t Enough
Learning Out Loud | Insights 16 June 2021
We’ve never made the conscious decision that all kids are valuable—that all kids really are worth everything.
(former) Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary & Secondary Education
On June 9th, 2021, Kelly Young, Education Reimagined’s President, hosted the second Learning Out Loud with Education Reimagined conversation, featuring guest, Peter McWalters, former Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary & Secondary Education. View the recording of the conversation below along with the conversation summary and full, lightly edited transcript.
Conversation Summary (with timestamps)
[03:45] Historical overview of the education system we’ve inherited.
[09:00] A vision for community-based ecosystems of learning.
[12:20] Peter McWalters provides an overview of his 50+ years of experience in education and the various reform efforts he’s been a part of.
[17:12] The biggest assumption the conventional education system has always made about young people.
[19:30] Why we can’t simply tweak the current system even with examples of learning environments that have done so with valuable outcomes.
[25:40] What it means to make learning personalized, relevant, and contextualized.
[27:15] Why we need to challenge the current fact that, to be “counted,” all learning must be certified by schools.
[28:57] Why all learning is (and should be) socially embedded.
[29:40] We are on a search for good practice.
[30:50] What it means to have an education system that is competency-based.
[39:45] Conversation with the audience—listen to the questions, wonderings, and insights learner-centered leaders surfaced during Kelly’s and Peter’s presentations.
Learn More From Topics Discussed
- Report of the Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies
- Plessy v. Ferguson
- Brown v. Board of Education
- An Ecosystem Approach to Unleashing Learner-Centered Transformation
- 50 Years Leading Systemic Change: A Conversation with Peter McWalters
- To Reimagine the Future of Education, Innovation Isn’t Enough
- The 5 Elements: A North Star for Learner-Centered Education
Learn More From Resources Shared by Attendees
Full Conversation Transcript
[01:12] Paul: With these Learning Out Loud conversations, we really want to listen to understand, not to respond. We want to keep an open mind, assume that you can learn from everyone in the room—this virtual room. Consider different points of view and experiences. Be respectful and kind; focus on using positive language. And, be conscious to step back or step up, so all who wish can contribute. There’s going to be even more opportunities for contributions in this call as I know Kelly and Peter are really interested in and doing a lot more of what we did last time of bringing more voices on.
So if you want to chime in in the early going, feel free to do so in the chat with questions or insights or wonderings. And then as Kelly and Peter have their conversations, they might call some folks out that they just, some familiar faces they know in the crowd to add some depth to the conversation and then make it a more open discussion for anyone who hasn’t been called on yet.
So with that, Kelly, I will turn it back to you and Shajan, and you can stop the screen share.
[02:13] Kelly: Wonderful. Thank you, Paul. And welcome to the second episode of Learning Out Loud with Education Reimagined. This is a new conversation series that we launched a couple of weeks ago that’s really to share our latest thinking about what we call community-based learning ecosystems.
This is an informal conversation where we bring on guests to put our learning out loud on loud speaker. I have the privilege of being on conversations every week that I wish I could have on loud speaker. And so we decided to create this this. And my name is Kelly Young, I’m the president of Education Reimagined.
And today we’re going to be exploring the history behind the conventional system. And, and we’ve got our tremendous guest, Peter McWalters here to join us who has lived through and been a part of so many different efforts to make learner-centered education available to children throughout his career.
And he’s going to get a chance to introduce himself in a moment. And I’m also gonna share last week that I shared about a community-based ecosystem. And I’m just going to give a very brief review of what that is since not everybody was on the call last week. So I just want to start off on saying something that you all know that we have a standardized system that was designed really with the belief that young people were not unique.
And that our goal was to provide standardized education to young people and see who the high performers were because those were the people we were trying to find to go onto college. And so Shajan can you share a slide? I just want to ground us in this for a moment, and I know this is old hat for so many of you, but just to take us back to the Committee of 10 in July of 1892, these were the 10 folks on the committee.
And their job was to figure out what the curriculum was. And I thought this quote stood out to me to encapsulate that what the current system is designed to do, right? So it was “every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the people may be or to what point his education is to cease.”
And so it’s interesting here is this was actually a version of equity. Now I’m going to say more about that in a second, but it really was to expand what was at the time, a very elite education to many more people. And their view of it was, is they’re trying to, people have fixed potential and there you’re trying to sift and sort to find those and the way that you’re going to find those people is by providing the exact same experience to people.
And those who succeed at it will be the ones who go onto college and those who don’t go on to other things. And you can see that that still is the system that we have today. It’s what led to standardized curriculum, standardized classes and courses that we take. This group picked the classes that we still study today led to standardized exams, right?
Whether they were fill in the bubble or not, but standardized exams. All of that originated in the actual design of the system. And now I want to add the other part about equity. At the same time, we were still a few years from Plessy v. Ferguson actually being decided. So we have completely segregated schools at the time.
So when they say “all,” they don’t mean anybody but White students. And it wasn’t another 60 years beyond this, that Brown v. Board of Education dismantled separate but equal. And we know that we still have a lot of systemic racism embedded in this system that comes from this era. So I just want to say that there are two things that are the historical legacies of this system, that it was designed at a time of separate but equal, and that it was designed in a time of standardization.
And as a precursor to this conversation, I just want to share that, you know, what Education Reimagined has been up to, and I know many of you on the call, if not all of you on the call, have been up to is to really make a radically different vision of learning possible for young people. And we say that that vision of learning is one that sees each child is unique, sees that learning is a natural phenomenon that starts with kids’ interests, curiosities, and passions.
And that the purpose of education is not to get us to a common destination, but rather to have us discover who we are, what our unique gifts are and how to contribute those meaningfully to the world. And largely, what we have spent our time doing is trying to get that fit into the current system. And if you could show the next slide.
So if this is our current education system, we’ve been trying to do the innovation inside of it. Without recognizing that everything around it from assessment, credentialing of learning, the hours of school, who counts as somebody that you can learn from, what institutions you can learn from. All of it is already predetermining that you can’t actually build the rocket.
And so one way of contextualizing what we are talking about here is rather than inventing it inside of, how do we create systems that are sitting alongside of, so that we can begin to free up learning in some ways back to its natural state where young people can be supported to foster their curiosities, deepen their discoveries, discover interests they never knew they had, and actually set goals for their lives and be able to create learning pathways that get them there. So that’s kind of just the preamble to this conversation that what we’re up to here is how do we create a system that actually enables what we call learner-centered education?
So last week I shared a vision of and you can just click all the way to the end showed this vision of what we mean by an ecosystem of learning. So on this slide, you’re going to see a variety of things. So the green circles are home bases, places where young young people go, and this is where they have people who love them, know them, care. You’re creating a community of learners and it is your home base for learning. It’s where you set your learning goals, design your learning pathways, and get the supports, you need, process life events that are going on either personally or in the world. But it’s not necessarily where all of your learning happens, that there are learning hubs. And these home bases are in lots of different places in the community including school buildings, but in YMCAs, in libraries, in lots of places in the community.
And there’s the idea of learning hubs that are hubs for learning. Again, these could be the Y, the Boys and Girls Club, art museums. They can be former schools that have been converted to be STEM laboratories for all ages. And then there are field sites and these are places where young people go for internships and projects.
A field site is any place in the community where people are working productively to contribute something to the world. So nonprofits and corporations and small businesses and government agencies. And the idea of an ecosystem is that these things are no longer limited to a single building. Where you have a home base doesn’t limit what you have access to in terms of learning hubs and field sites.
And as you can see by these red boxes that you have to create a whole different system for making sense assessing and credentialing learning, how to coordinate all of these activities. How do you recognize and cultivate and credential the adults that are working with young people?
How are you providing transportation? What are the ways that you’re illuminating all of the learning opportunities in a community? And questions of governance and shared accountability and resources. So for us, this is about how do you invent a new system of education that is equitable, that puts a learner at the center of their own learning, and provides them and their families with the supports they need to navigate a rich landscape of learning opportunities. And make use of all of the assets in the community, seeing both institutional assets, elders, our grandparents as contributors. So this is the vision that we are exploring in this series, but we’re going to take a moment to take a step back today.
I’m going to invite now, Peter McWalters, who is our guest here, today. Who has immense experience in the system over his career, and I’m gonna let him introduce himself. But I also want to mention before he does that, that he’s the Chair of the Board for Big Picture Learning.
He is a key senior advisor for Education Reimagined and he has been one of the original participants. We have a vision document that guides all of our work and he was an original signatory on that vision document, but Peter, I’d love for you to take a moment to introduce your self.
[12:11] Peter: Okay. Thank you very much, Kelly.
And hello to everybody. I recognize many of you. I don’t know some of you. If you’ve been active in our own network recently, then you probably have heard most of what I’m going to say, before. And if you’re from Rochester, you’ll recognize many of the references and our hopes and our dreams. So if this sounds a little repetitive to some, bear with me. I accepted Kelly’s invitation,
and some of this is meant to be lighthearted, but dead serious. If you saw the picture of the original 10 men, I am now officially an elder white male who is from the system, by the system, and of the system. And I have been in the system as a warrior for, well, I would say 55 years. I started in Rochester in 1970.
I was an Interim Junior High School with Dan, who I know is on this. And we essentially had advisories, and we had the same students for the two or three years they were with us. And we had the right to sign kids out. We were able to, we were literally the center of their program. So that was my first experience of the kind of the awakening to what learning could be.
And without claiming any successes, that experience also taught me all the barriers to something like that getting the institutional support to keep it going. I always talk about the inertia in the large system. And when I went from there to central office and became a planner with believe it or not, Lavelle Wilson, and we ended up opening places like Wilson.
And for those of you from Rochester, you’ll recognize this. We opened Wilson and the school of the arts and we got a second sensibility of what you could do with good programming. And if the good programming had integrity to it, that was very student-centered by their interests, then that worked. Again, years later, then I worked with Adam and I don’t know if Adam is on.
I know I saw him signing up. We got to experience all the work of what it takes to work with your colleagues in the sense of whether it’s the parent connections or the teachers union connections. And I credit an awful lot of my experience in the sense of my judgements to my time in Rochester, which was 20 years. I then became the Commissioner of Education in Rhode Island, and I lasted 17 years there.
And I got a view of a state that was still urban. All my experience has been urban. And you can imagine this. Add to that the realization that the Providences in the world of surrounded by the suburbs in the world, and the suburbs are gradated socioeconomically from very well off to closer to Providence.
And that when I asked the demographic people in the state education agency in Rhode Island, they gave me a chart of the reading scores from Central Falls to Barrington, which was exactly as you can imagine, wealth to performance. And then I asked for the incomes of those lined up against that.
And it was the same exact thing. The reading scores matched the incomes to a T. And yet, when you went into the each individual community, you found out that basically 30% of the kids in individual communities were getting pretty well-served. They were, there was a 30% ratio of kids that were, we would call high performing.
There was about a 40% of the kids that were passing, but they were in that kind of no man’s land of going through the motions, but not necessarily getting anywhere. And then there was sometimes isn’t as high as 30 actually in the cities, it was more like 50. My point was that the sorting system was that predictable.
And this is 50 years ago, folks, 30, at least 35 to 40 years. And then from that experience, I happened to be because of the roles I was in, whether it’s a superintendent or a commissioner, I was invited to everything from the Governors meetings in 1989, I was there for the signing of some of the goals, 2000 things.
I was a President of the Chiefs Association when No Child Left Behind came along and I was just leaving the commissionership when Race to the Top came along. And that is a throughline of taking what is a standards exercise. And, and again, empathetically saying, this is about equity. All kids should get this, but as Kelly was pointing out, there’s no evidence that the system was ever organized to keep everybody. At best, you had access finally supported by federal law.
You had the right to be there, but there was no guarantee that you had a right to kind of access it as asking it to fit you. So as long as you played by whatever the expectations and whatever the rules are, whatever, the expectations of standards of behavior, whatever, like then you were sorted out very, very predictably.
And that to me is the system that we have created together. This is not about good teachers or bad teachers. It is not about the good or bad governance or strong mayors or school boards, or whatever. This goes all the way back to the beginning. And this is a little ideological. I think we never, we never made the conscious decision that all kids are valuable, that all kids really are worth everything.
We have started off this thing is basically some kids can and we’ll offer it to everybody, but it’s up to either the family or whatever to kind of get the kids through the system. Now that’s a little overstated just so we can get on with this conversation. So when we finally got to what I call the heavy duty stuff, I was a great supporter, back in Rochester, of the federal government getting into the business because I thought, well, if states were going to do it, they would’ve done it by now. And they would need federal leverage. You would need a civil rights perspective that said, you know separate is not equal. And so I was never an opponent of the federal government getting involved, but once the federal government get involved, A Nation at Risk suggested that we’re now broken.
We know you’ve got to fix that. And as I just pointed out, we were never broken. We were set up to do what exactly what we were doing, and we were doing it better than we’ve ever done it. More of our kids were in the margins of improvement than ever, but it didn’t change the trajectory and it didn’t change the distribution.
So the exercise of being involved in this. I feel like in good faith. And I see the faces. I recognize many of you. We in good faith stepped toward the reform agenda. I was part of the standards movement. I was part of the incentive structure for trying to get decentralized capacity that you saw you could do something differently.
We bought into the idea of, I never bought into, and I’m on record for this. I never bought into on demand, large scale assessments for every kid every year, as a measure of anything. I did buy into the fact that if you have to do on demand, large scale assessments for program evaluation, so you can get handles on what looks like going on.
I never had a problem with that, but I also never had more of a, I never needed more than Nate to do that. Nate was fine for me to know what the barometers are telling me, but the idea that you’re going to take on-demand, large-scale, high stakes testing, and drive that into teacher performance, accountability, and intervention.
I think it was a total disaster. And I’ve said this from the beginning. So having said that, how does one change that system? And I am here to admit hesitantly and we’ll have to talk about this. One image is you can’t get there from here. This isn’t about somehow tightening the screws in the system we’re in and all of a sudden we’re going to get there.
And I say that in the face of the fact that there are places that have done extraordinarily good things tightening the screws or changing the screws or whatever. So I don’t want that to be absolute, but in the current environment that we’re in right now, from where I’m sitting and we’ve all been here now for a couple of years in this thing, the issue of racism and the issue of sheer inequity, socioeconomically, those two, you can’t have a conversation about all kids to standard and performance and whatever, without realizing that they’re there in a box that is normatively socially governed by race, class, and such things as that.
So. Now as educators, we were pretty well positioned to say, well, you can’t deal with that. That’s larger than our agenda, which is true. So if you’re in cities, you in good faith have done the best you can with the resources you have in a structure that had the most bizarre incentive systems. So you end up with teachers who start off in a city and within three to five years, they are either overwhelmed by the lack of support to get done what they were trying to do, or they retire, or they have enough success that they get recruited to the next suburb and next suburb out, and you look at the demographics after awhile and even the teaching ranks start to mirror the same sorting out.
Which is not to say we aren’t, we still don’t have hundreds if not thousands of absolutely day-to-day committed teachers doing everything they can to be learner-centered. And then you take the standards movement. And innocently under the idea of all kids should be able to get some sort of a common, whatever, we call it personalization, taking a standard curriculum and trying to find a way to personalize its approach to an individual student. And we all have chuckled at the incident of a child comes from somewhere, their language is not ours, and they’d been here a couple of years and they’re given the test and the items on the test are things like cities or whatever, or farms, and the kid has never, wouldn’t have an idea of whatever the words are.
And we get glimmers of the mismatch between what do you think you’re assessing? Do you honestly think that’s a content assessment? Is it a language assessment? Is that a problem solving assessment? So my point, I think, is the system as I have witnessed it and have administered it, even as a reformer, has not significantly changed that distribution.
We’re still 30% get it, 40% float, and 30% don’t get it. And again, as always, if you are in one of the marginalized communities, it’s as high as 50%. And that is my bottom line. The production function that we own, that is the American education system. So when you all of a sudden in this last few years really began to understand through student voice.
And again, Kelly introduced me as the chairperson of Big Picture Learning. When I was in Providence, when I was in Rhode Island, I got to be the sponsor of opening, Big Picture with Dennis and Elliott, Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor. And it’s 25 years ago. And it’s still there. And just like my experience with Interim School, whatever success it has had, it has not penetrated the system.
It’s still over there. It’s for those kids. And yet their graduation rate is better than not only my city, but most of the suburbs , their placement in college is as good if not better. And their retention through the second and third year of college is better than almost any of the schools I represent.
If you want five subjects in seven periods, and if you want to sort your kids out against valedictorians to the 10th in the class. If you want to come at it as a zero sum game, and it’s competitive and I’m using, I’m gonna use capitalism as a code word for that. I don’t mean it quite that heavily, but if that’s the game you want to play, then the system that we represent draws everything back to those behaviors, everything is back to those behaviors.
And I would argue that parents in good faith who want the best for their children, get torn in that same direction. They want what they either believe is the best, or are told is the best or what’s the best pathway to wherever you’re trying to get to. And then we all have to laugh, I hope, at the idea that then we find out as we probably knew that there are people out there with enough money to buy their way into an Ivy league school.
So again, meant to be lighthearted. But so having said that, now let me spend a few minutes on where I am now in this movement. And I’m in this conversation both as an advisor to Kelly and the, in the Education Reimagined network. And I’m also here as the chairperson of Big Picture because the idea that we’re going to make absolutely central, absolutely, not negotiably, central, the learner. The learner is the worker. The learner owns the sign-off on the contract, and we are going to organize ourselves and work to get to communities or to support communities that would share the old image of it takes the village and that there’s learning going on every day, everywhere.
And that if you survey, and we just did this a few times recently, if we survey you all right now and broke you out into little groups and asked you for something that happened to you between the ages of 10 and 20 that was not in the school system, that was still a marker for you for something that you got out of that that was a learning that has affected you for the rest of your life.
Again, making it simple. Our version is that we are learning through the science of learning about what it takes to engage a student, to respectfully accept all students in the sense of socioeconomically, gender, race, and even, even more importantly than that, I would say culture, whatever that means.
So when we use the words personal, relevant, and contextual, it’s not trying to take my standard block of content and turn it into something that I can kind of sell to you to learn and remember and give it back to me. Cause that’s what I was the personalizing it to do. It is actually listening long enough and getting to know a family well enough and to convey in high spirit, the absolute unconditional acceptance of that child. That child is the driver.
And everything I’m going to do, my capacity as a teacher. And I’ve still got all the skills. If I’m a social studies teacher or an English teacher or a science teacher or a music teacher, I don’t care what you are. You’re not giving up the discipline. You’re not giving up even the state images of what standards could be, but you’re not trying to convey them as a curriculum.
You are bringing what I would call deep learning challenges. You know, as in working with a child, setting a learning pathway, and then—and some of these words are meant to be jargony, but they’re serious—I’m going to help scaffolding that child own the work and that child is going to set out an exercise or a challenge that I have signed off on.
And if we’ve done this well, the parents have signed off on it. And if I’m in a school or one of the hubs, then I have rehearsed this kind of thinking enough that I’m not a free agent. I am in a culture that believes this, and it can work with individual families and students to set kids up to do these kinds of things.
And in that context, we begin to challenge the fact that all learning is certified by school. Every one of you have either had a child or yourself, whether it’s the, the Eagle Scouts or the YMCA leadership piece, the Young Farmers of America piece, the 4H club, the local dance studio, or a theater group, or science museums. All over the place we have watched our children learn in certifiably demonstrable ways.
And at best, they somehow get noted in school, but they don’t get credentialed by schools. So when we end up sending a child off, we have not succeeded in winning the community battle that the community is involved in this performance.
This is a shared responsibility to get every child ready for whatever the next stage is. And some of them are going to work and some of them are going to go into college and some are going to the military, whatever it is, the idea that that has to be unilaterally certified by the school is that turns out to be a limiter as opposed to an expander.
So we want the highest value of student agency. They are the driver here. And I trust me as a middle school teacher, I can generate the image of an angry eighth grader. I’m thinking I’m going to negotiate anything with that young man is a dilemma. But it’s also critically necessary that that’s the way I approach it. And that the school system from pre-K through has the value structure, so that that child still has every right and every access and every trusted belief that what they’re doing is as a valued player for themselves and the community. So agency. Socially embedded. This isn’t the lone ranger.
You create cultures where they are learning the leadership responsibility of being in a group. They are learning that all learning is social in the sense of they’re either getting the activities from other adults, teachers or otherwise, experts in the community or whatever, and sometimes from their peers, and sometimes from their own research, it’s always socially embedded.
And only in that exercise do you end up with what I would call a democratically responsive system. The other one is anywhere, any time, which I think I’ve spoken to, what’s going on all over the place all the time.
And the other one has to do with this idea of personal and contextual. And that’s the bigger battle for some of us. This is a search for good practice. What does it look like when you actually try to honor a pathway challenge around culture or socialization or history or values or democracy or whatever, whatever it is.
How does one do that when you have a backdrop incidentally that I’ve and again, overstated intentionally. We are in a system that was created, if you look at the origins here, it wasn’t created to include everybody yet. And without some of the amendments of the constitution, we wouldn’t be included yet.
And yet we all bring biases and you’ve heard all this before. So to actually pull off what I will call genuine listening and actualization of, I got it. I love you. I respect you. And we’re going from here. And that is a huge dilemma in practice right now.
But the bigger one is the final one, competency. And I’ll finish with this, and then we can have some conversation. Competency. You’ve all heard competency-based, you’ve heard mastery and you’ve heard simply scores on standardized testing. And the idea that you’re going to get something out of a standardized test, that the child has owned as a challenge that they could get to is that’s the 30% may be at the top who played the game long enough under the good faith led by a parent or a teacher that said, we can do this.
Now I want to juxtapose this against a different image. I’m a firm believer in competencies, but a competency is only purposeful when the child knows how they’re doing currently, what they can do. And through exposure to and witness of and counsel, they can see the next level.
They kind of know, how can I do this better? What is the next level of competency? And that target is the competency of consequence to the learner. And our system doesn’t have an information system or even a purview for that. We do not yet train teachers in pre-performance, nor do we bring them together enough to do this in practice, to actually be diagnostic assessment players in the simplest sense of what does that child know; where does that fit into the scope and sequence, not the scope and sequence of the curriculum, but in the developmental sense, if I’m talking about mathematical thinking, critical thinking, inquiry, communications, every one of those has competencies. And that still comes from the players, but how you set up the learning environment, so the child is in control of a conversation, so that when they are trying to get to the next level, they own that. And when they reach that next level, they own it and they stamp it too. This is theirs. And I can only tell you that. And I see Dan Dermis, a school without walls. This is not a new conversation to Dan.
And I can tell you that doing the same thing, at least in the Big Picture schools, we now have coming out of Australia, we have a branch there, something called the International Big Picture Learning Credential and it’s, I think it’s now available.
And I I’ve got to see it, but the point is this. Unless you can redefine outcomes to be something that is understood as practice, this is what I do, and this is how I do it well. And then you make judgements. You have professionals like yourselves and experts. In good examples of that are something like, imagine somebody who’s real major in terms of their interest is writing whatever.
And that their internship is with journalists or newspapers. And the journalists get involved in what you and I would call paneling. So the journalist is helping this child understand what good, better, and best is. And when those judgements are made against what I would call professional backdrops of actual practice, it doesn’t need to be second guessed by an on-demand, large-scale assessment for a tidbit of a kernel of information.
So imagine getting to a competency system where the kid is still in charge and not that they get to do it alone. This isn’t about me celebrating myself. It’s me understanding where I am, where I’m trying to get, and what it takes to get there as judged by practitioners who, when they say I can do it, I can do it.
So again, there’s five of them. There’s the agency, there’s socially embedded, anytime, anywhere, there’s personal, relevant and contextual, and there’s competency. And our only point is those are the principles. Those are the indicators. Those are the, what’s the word, Kelly. What’s the, the what elements, the elements.
And when we have gone around now to about 10 schools, nationally, at least, and brought that screen to a visit, it has allowed us to work with staff who were doing outstandingly good work. And have conversations that illuminate good practice and put us in a position to learn better practice. And then that builds the network we’re trying to build so that when we say this is something that can be done, not over the system, but parallel to the system until we have enough evidence that the system is demanding it, that is the adventure we’re in right now.
And I want to end the front end of this saying, in one sense, everything I said could just be a theory of action. I am witness to the fact that I will stand my ground on my assessment of the system as it exists. And I am part, like many of you, of the experimentation that has to happen to get the proof points and then the network and the evidence only a child can show themselves— student voice, exhibitions.
That would position this conversation to kind of embed itself and to do that without it backing in to selectivity, white isolation, suburbanization, power, hierarchy, and all of that means that we bought into bringing ourselves to this as learners, as experimenters, as listeners, as stumblers and not afraid of critical friends as in this is a conversation that has to go on all the time, because there’s no place that’s got it done.
No place has got it done. It will only happen when we’re all in this in good faith on the equity agenda and the individual student agenda against competencies as understood by the student embedded in a community conversation about what our expectations are. So there, now we can either have questions or you can have comments cause I have no pretense to being quote “the expert.”
I’m laying out a dilemma between the system as I have experienced it. And the images of the search for a future, that would be more honest and inclusive of the student as the player, in terms of being part of a community. And again, I could go on forever on this one, think about what’s going on nationally right now. We can’t even agree on masks.
So the idea of a community that is inclusive and listens and works to consensus, or at least agreement of supporting children. That’s, that’s where we are now, at least in this network. So yeah, Kelly, I’ll give it back to you for a minute.
[37:32] Kelly: Yeah. Well, one, I thank you Peter, and what you just laid out is the dilemma, right?
And the challenge in front of us, which is we’ve inherited this system and despite best efforts, all we’ve gotten in the current system is pockets of bright spots, right? And the realization that with that system that is the furthest you can get is pockets. And so how are we creating the space and building structures and supports for young people and the community to actually realize this new vision?
And so I think that’s part of the, you know, where I would love some rich conversation about this is how do you do that? How do you create a parallel system? I want yeah, I, I to leave it as broad and as general as that, and I’ve seen some comments in the chat and given that we are focused on equity and learner-centered. Those two things combined, like where do you start and, and I, I, Peter, I’d love to hear if anybody else has some thoughts before you share yours. Especially given COVID, we’ve been completely disrupted. 15% of families are actually homeschooling right now.
Things have really been cracked open. 18% of African-American families are homeschooling. Then the second largest cohort is of Latino families. So that’s just saying something and to me illuminates something about the dissatisfaction with the current system and maybe points us to some opportunity, but I just want to see if there’s anybody who has… Julene, I’m looking at you.
If there’s anything you. Oh, and I see hands raised.
Paul: Nicole, you had, you had your hand up first if you’d like to chime in.
[39:32] Nicole: Okay. Thank you.
I feel like I, that the way Kelly phrased her question was exactly where I was headed. I feel like we do have an opportunity now. I think there were a lot of eyes opened because of what the pandemic, the situation. It put a lot of places in. And so these opportunities for running that parallel you know, learning alongside what everyone is kind of used to.
So I guess my question was if you envision that each community has its own competencies that they kind of envision globally? If that’s a way somehow that if there were some that are global enough in scope, that that parallel learner-centered education could happen alongside our current system without creating too many waves that people would disagree and not understand?
[40:42] Peter: I can give a first cut at that because I’m not, again, this is tough stuff, but we’ve got to have these conversations.
One image I have is that the states are still going to play a role, whether there’s a state frame of reference or not in terms of standards and expectations. And at least through the Big Picture group we’re in 40 states. And every one of them have found a way to accommodate the standards as published by the state, but turn it into something that can still be organized around, because unless you take the standards as a tidbit of knowledge, but if you take the standards as a conceptual frame, in a discipline, there’s a thousand ways into that.
So again, I don’t want anybody to think we’re doing away with the disciplines or the expertise of instruction or good instruction at least. But it does mean if you can host community conversations. And I mean, both with parents as critical players and students, but also community leaders or at least other community agencies that are involved with youth development.
I’m assuming all of you know places in your communities where if you brought that group together and you said, what do we want for our children? Whatever it is, it’s not going to be so over there that we couldn’t begin to organize around that. Now the hard work of getting to the detail of that is serious stuff, because assuming this isn’t the way current things are done, teachers need support. Because you’re not going to go there without the teachers. Teachers ask for this in one sense. But if you show up with an answer, they’re going, wait a minute. So this is a dynamic between people who need to have this conversation and we need to support the search for that collaboration.
Paul: Sidney Morris, you’re up next.
[42:33] Sidney: Hi, I’m Sidney Morris from Massachusetts, and I’ve been trying for 35 years to transform education into self-directed contexts. I’ve started schools, independent and charter schools, worked in public schools.
But my current feeling is that if I can work on my local community to create a wealth of resources from which learners can choose to learn, it can be used by both the schools. I live on an island, which makes the community easily defined, which is kind of wonderful.
It’s got 18,000 people and a 100,000 people in the summer, but the idea is that we use the technology to get the people connected with each other in physical terms. So it’s not just all online stuff. That’s already there for everybody else to figure out, you know, there’s lots of resources there, but connecting people to the face-to-face experiences on the face to nature experiences, all this kind of stuff.
I think is most important. So I built this website with a database and I’m collecting resources that anybody can use. And I pitched it to my charter school director and he loves the idea of his teachers being able to use it. So I think there’s a sort of crossover there between the two worlds. I’ve always had one foot in each world trying to figure out, which is a more important world to work on.
But they’re both important, obviously, because the kids are still there. We gotta be there with them while we’re transforming it into something else. So I figure I’ll offer it to both worlds and see what happens.
Peter: Yeah. That’s well said, well said. Others…
[44:23] Jennifer: Jennifer from Norridge, Illinois. We are a small high school district. Kelly, you brought up about, you know, in this pandemic, what have we found success with, right? And how do we use that to move forward? And we are a competency-based district and we use competencies as our graduation requirements, right?
Creating that parallel system in a state where they do have competency pilot programs, but it’s not where the state has really migrated towards. But what we found is the success of, as you talked about that student agency, some of our most struggling learners through the pandemic, when we brought them in and created a system where we said, what is it you want to learn? We will match up the competencies to go with that, their stories of success, and self-pride, and self-confidence are just amazingly insightful, right?
Like to think that they would indicate that they were not even going to graduate. You know, they weren’t going to come back to school. And to have a student who struggled for three years in chemistry and said he just wants to learn about cars.
Well, he can demonstrate stoichiometry of an engine, which I don’t think any AP chem student can actually demonstrate, and explain and understand. And so with your comments, Peter, about giving students that freedom and opportunity, but having to change how teachers operate, that cross section is often the challenge, right?
Because educators haven’t been trained to operate in that type of environment. And so how do we help universities change their path of how they help their educators be prepared for the system that we want it to be, not the system it currently is? Because as we all know, this group here is, you know, we’re all pretty much on the same page.
Like if we want students to really be prepared for their future, we have to change how we train our staff to be ready for that. And so I don’t know if you’ve had any experiences on what to do that we can help others as they move through this program of training our future leaders.
[46:49] Peter: There’s no easy answer to that, but I want to make sure that I do convey one thing.
And that is that just the resources to even have this conversation is not equitable between well off suburbs and cities. So when I think about the image you just created about the time it would take to spend with individual learners to construct… which I’m supportive of.
And I think about a city caseload, where it’s still 28 to 35 at five periods a day, 150 kids. That’s not going to get you there. That’s not a teacher problem. That’s a structural problem. And we’ve all heard the images around, like where we’re competing with, whether it’s Japan or Finland would teach us to spend a lot less time in front of individual students and a lot more time actually developing the systems of support for the kids, both collegially and in terms of those experts out in the community, being able to bring them in.
So one of the images I want to leave on the table. You can’t ask teachers as they are currently being organized to kind of just all of a sudden do that and do this at the same time. We have to find ways to be supportive of these conversations.
And I’ll tell you, I’ve listened to both the national presidents of the two national unions and both of them get this. They’re as aware as we are of where this has to go. And I would support the notion that the teachers are operating in good faith in the box that they’re in. And most of the ones that are the most under the most pressure are in places where they do not have the capacity and they do not have the resources to reposition that conversation.
So with that in mind, yes, this is really the thing I wanted to say a minute ago. When I say community, think about this for a minute. And I was in a small group just a couple of hours ago. This was pointed out. Like, honestly, if you’re talking about Chicago, is that the community? Think about trying to get there in something that big and that conflicted.
So obviously we need to think through who are we trying to get to? Now I can reduce that to something like a Providence. Providence is a town compared to a Chicago and I’ve got to believe you all have the same thing. In my Providence, I have community leaders, whether it’s an afterschool programming, youth developers, there’s all kinds of things going on there that are rescuing kids in their personal worlds right now.
And they become advocates in the system. Now there’s the fact that it’s not a recognized ecosystem is the tragedy because I have the experience of having outsiders end up being an advocate for a child in good faith in a school building and the building realizing, oh, that’s going to work.
So this idea of learning going on anytime, anywhere is already out there in some cases, not well enough and not deep enough and not available enough, but the idea that there to me, we’ve got to find the places with those kernels already there and to find a way to support that conversation, inform that conversation, be big critical listeners and supportive and not think for a minute, we’re bringing a design answer. We’re bringing an opportunity to step towards something. And from that moment on, we are inventing and creating.
So you gotta be ready to do some stumbling and do some adjusting, but you don’t need to be told after six months we tried that and it failed, which to me is what the history of intervention has been.
It’s a three-day training program. And then we tried that and it didn’t work. And the truth is we never actually try it because we don’t get depth into the practice. And this is about changing practice as well as it is changing, you know, what’s the mindset.
[50:38] Kelly: And so I just want to say we have five minutes left and I would love to hear from the people who have their hands up.
And Jennifer, what you asked also about the teacher practice is we hope to have that as a future conversation.
Paul: All right, Maureen, you’re up.
[50:58] Maureen: I like a lot, everything that you shared, except when you were talking about we can’t do it within the system. I kind of want to push back on that because it seems to me that most of the pockets of innovation are done by people who said, well, we’re not going to do this within the system, we’re just going to go outside the system.
And if anything is really going to change then it has to happen within the system. The system is what it is now, and whoever created it, obviously we all are part of creating what it is, but it’s working for what it was made to work for.
Right. So I guess my argument is I think that whatever change happens, if it’s going to be systemic, has to happen within that system, the system that we have. And every time we go outside the system, it’s unintentionally exclusionary for all the reasons that…
[52:09] Peter: I don’t disagree with the analysis, but be careful how we use the word, the system and inside and outside. An awful lot of the best programming that I’ve seen is inside the system, but it’s just, it’s got the approval from the system to change the rules a little bit. In other words, some of the magnet schools that I’ve associated with, didn’t go outside the system. They worked with unions. They worked with staffing. It’s all done inside the system with all the barriers the system can put there.
So one of the posits that we’re trying to get is think about the throughline from federal capacity of policy through states, and states are obviously the center of this in the sense of blocks, through a district and trying to find those opportunities within those structures to generate the space within the system, to do this in good faith.
So you don’t have to go outside the system. You can do it now because there are people going outside the system to do it. Some of us would argue you don’t always have to go outside the system, but you have to be able to create space then in the system to compete with anybody who thinks they can do it better.
And there’s no reason why we can’t do that and assure it being non exclusionary. Cause the non exclusionary thing is a habit of mind in our system. We want to do it differently, but when we look back five years later, it has found a way to sort them out again. They’ve sorted out the ones that can do it as opposed to the ones we thought we were going to serve. So that’s our internal dilemma.
[53:48] Julene: Yeah, thanks for the time. Julene Oxton from Minnesota. Peter was saying that he’s part of Big Picture and it’s been around 25 years and it hasn’t penetrated the system. And then Maureen, you were just talking about, you know, should it be inside or outside? I’ve experienced both.
And I think what’s different about this model that’s being proposed around an ecosystem is that it is very community involved and it’s very democratic. And so I actually have a little more hope that because it’s community connected. And I just think that there would be enough push and enough interest. And it wouldn’t be this school idea. It would actually be a community of education.
So I think it’s very, very different. And so that’s one reason I’m thinking that it does have to be outside the system, but you’re actually creating a brand new system, which is very community connected. And so there might be hope that it would penetrate and shift the traditional old system.
I guess that’s just, I’m just thinking that and I just, I want to do something about that. Yeah.
[55:10] Peter: I want to confirm that in the sense that this is about community schools. That’s basically in whether they’re going on outside or inside the system. We’ve got to find a way to bring the strength of the community buying into this.
And that’s this idea that everybody is involved in the raising of our children, and it’s all focused on each child being respected as an individual player.
[55:34] Kelly: So that’s a lovely note to stop on. And I think, you know, this question about what’s in the system and what’s outside the system. What I think we are all committed to is that we know when we say within the system, we mean within the rules, the current rules. We don’t mean that we don’t want public funding to go to the invention of a new system.
It gets a little tricky, but I think Julene, you said it very well, that this is about an opportunity to create a new public education system that is equitable and gives people equitable opportunity into all of the rich learning experiences that can exist in the community and virtually.
So Peter, thank you for joining us and to all of you, it’s a pleasure to be on with you. And I know there was so much more wisdom in this group than we had a chance to hear. And so we hope that you continue to join these conversations. And we continue to explore together something that there is no clear roadmap for or blueprint for how to transform education in this country.
Peter: Thank you all.
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