Issue 57

September 13, 2018

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.

Dear Fellow Leaders,

In my household, we are two weeks into the new school year. For our two children, Tucker (11) and Olivia (8), this year marks the beginning of middle school and 3rd grade, respectively. Thus far, both of them say they love school, but their reasons are quite different.

Tucker’s expressed love for school this year is the result of one thing: newfound freedom. He gets to ride the city bus to and from school by himself. He has a variety of choices when it comes to clubs, trying out for sports teams, and initiating projects with his classmates. And, he has a laptop that, while terrifying for some adults, has given Tucker a sense of pride in owning his learning.

The school is not structurally different than most traditional middle schools, but its leadership seems to have a learner-centered mindset—enabling young people to design personalized, relevant, and contextualized projects that are made socially embedded through peer collaboration. It’s fascinating to see where their choices go. Tucker did a group project that mimicked how a team of remote workers might collaborate (although that wasn’t their intention)—communicating and completing their work entirely through Google Docs and Snapchat. Tucker has found love thanks to a learner-centered experience. Olivia’s love comes from a different place entirely.

Olivia’s love for school stems from her own interest in becoming a teacher one day—inspiring kids to love one another and be good stewards of the environment. She loves her teachers, and she loves earning their respect and trust in her to be a leader in the classroom. She loves her friends and helping all of her peers on any school work they might be struggling with. She raises her hand for every question, and she loves being selected to clean the tables after lunch.

Olivia is in a traditional school that tends to value traditional notions of being a good student over agency, creativity, or ownership. In the first two weeks, I got a phone call from the principal that most parents would die for. The principal enthusiastically shared what a leader Olivia had been during her Gardening class and how she had inspired her classmates. I couldn’t wait to hear what she had done. Did she independently start a community gardening project? Did she lead a team of students in designing a raised bed garden on school grounds? Did she write an inspiring letter to a local seed distributor?

Not quite. The principal shared that Olivia had been quiet and calm and helped the class settle down to watch a movie. She was an example to her classmates. Not that I want to take anything away from the leadership expressed in assisting the teacher, but it was not what I was expecting. Giving feedback to young people that being quiet is what we want from them is misaligned with the life they experience outside of school where partnership, creativity, problem solving, and collaboration are the norm.

I would have reacted differently if they saw leadership in her active listening skills but choosing “quiet” was more a celebration of compliance. I hope it was her leadership and not her ability to be quiet that Olivia took away from this praise. I want Olivia to be brave, try new things, and be willing to fail—without any lack of enthusiasm for trying again. Leadership will enable that willingness to try, whereas being quiet will do quite the opposite.

It’s funny to me how I can describe two experiences, one positive and one less so, but in the end, both of my children say they love school. I am so glad that both are experiencing joy in their learning. However, it raises questions for me about what lessons my daughter is learning about how to be in the world. In turn, it presses me to push even harder to do everything I can to accelerate the learner-centered movement.

Enjoy this issue of Pioneering,


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