Quadrilateral Pegs in the Round Holes of Public Education; Revisited

Author’s note: In hopes of retaining a presence on social media, while writing my new book, I am selecting a few of the most widely-read blog posts from the past. I hope you enjoy this one.

 

Participating in the dialogue between teachers, principals, superintendents, and other players in our public schools has been enlightening and inspiring on the one hand and frustrating and discouraging on the other. It is wonderful to know there are so many amazing men and women who have dedicated themselves to teach our nation’s children. It is heartbreaking, however, to see how many of these remarkable professionals seem unaware that they are being asked to do one of the most important and most challenging jobs in the world in an environment that has not been significantly altered since I began school 67 years ago. Teachers labor in an education process that has not been adapted to meet the needs of 21st Century children.

It has been a struggle to find an analogy that resonates with teachers, principals, and superintendents so they can see what it looks like to observe them at work, from afar. I know that because I have not been trained as a professional teacher, it is easy for them to discount the merit of my education model as the work of just one more outsider telling teachers how to teach.

My perspective is unique, however, and merits the attention of our nation’s public school policy makers, leaders, and classroom teachers. I am speaking as an advocate for public education and for American public-school teachers and school administrators, not as an adversary. I consider public school teachers to be unsung American heroes and I’m asking you to open your hearts and minds to a new idea. If you see merit in what you read, I am asking you to help spread the word to other educators that there is an idea worthy of consideration.

As a student, I have earned two masters’ degrees, one in psychology and the other in public management. Over a nearly fifty-year career, I have worked with kids for 9 years as a juvenile probation officer and in a volunteer capacity for nearly 20 years. I have lead organizations; taught and have written a book about positive leadership; solved problems; created new and innovative solutions; reinvented production and service delivery processes; have written four book and many articles; have done testing for the military; and, while writing books, have spent ten years working as a substitute teacher in the same public school district from which my own children graduated.  Also, I have been a student of “systems thinking” since reading Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, when it was first published in 1990.

The experience of participating in and observing what happens in public school classrooms as a substitute teacher, was an incredible opportunity to walk in the shoes of public school teachers. What I witnessed as an observer of the public schools of my community are dedicated, hard-working professional men and women, giving their hearts and souls to their students in a system and structure that does not meet the needs of a diverse population of students.

If you can imagine what our nation’s system of highways would look like—given the number of automobiles and trucks on the roads, today—if neither President Eisenhower, in 1956, nor any of his successors had envisioned America’s interstate highway system, you will have an idea of how our public school classrooms and the education process at work within those classrooms look to me, observing from afar.

We are asking good people to educate our nation’s incredibly diverse population of students in the education equivalent of Route 66. These kids will become the men and women who must lead our nation through the unprecedented and unimaginable challenges the balance of the 21st Century will present. Think about the diversity of American public-school students. They represent every color of the human rainbow, speak innumerable languages, come from families both fractured and whole, from every corner of the planet, and with a range of backgrounds with respect to relative affluence and academic preparedness that is as cavernous as America is wide.

Public school educators are striving to do their absolute best for students in an environment in which they lack the support of our federal and many of our state governments and are under attack from education reformers with their focus on “school choice.” These education reformers, policy makers, and the politicians who are influenced by them are destroying our public schools and the communities those schools were built to serve.

As I have written on so many occasions, a handful of charter schools serving a few hundred students at a time, even if they were innovative, will never meet the needs of the millions of American children on whom our nation’s future depends. These charter schools are being funded with revenue siphoned from the coffers that were meant to support our public schools and rely on the same obsolete education process used in the public schools they were intended to replace. Many of these charter schools have failed to meet expectations in community after community.

We already have school buildings in communities throughout the U.S., staffed with the best teachers our colleges and universities can produce, and filled with kids from every community in America. This is where the problem exists and where its challenges must be met. We cannot produce the results these children and their communities need, so desperately however, until we examine the current education process through the lenses of a “systems-thinking” approach. Systems thinking allows us to challenge our assumptions about what we do and why. Only when we have taken the time to understand the flaws in the underlying logic of the existing education process will we be able to alter the way we teach our nation’s most precious assets and the way we support our teachers as they go about their essential work.

There have been many innovations in public education in recent decades, but they and other incremental changes have been and will continue to be no more effective within the context of an obsolete education process than repaving the highways of the 1950s would be in meeting the transportation needs of the 21st Century.

I have been working to build an education model that I believe will put both teachers and students in a position to be successful. It is a model that was designed from scratch to be molded around the relationship between teachers and students, enabling all to perform at their optimal level. I am seeking superintendents of a public-school districts willing to test my education model in one of their underperforming elementary schools.

You, our superintendents, know what the data illustrates and you know that what you have been asking your teachers to do has not altered the bottom line with respect to student performance in any meaningful way.  Most importantly, you know the number of elementary schools in your district that are languishing no matter what you do.

Yes, I understand the data produced through standardized competency exams is a totally inappropriate way to assess the performance of our teachers and schools but let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. The results of these standardized tests do tell us one thing of inestimable value.  They tell us that the education process does not work for millions of children no matter how hard our teachers work on behalf of their students .

We often cite poverty, discrimination, and segregation as the reasons why so many of our students fail. The reality is that when we ignore the unique requirements of our students and try to push their quadrilateral pegs through the round holes of public education, we leave the most vulnerable at the mercy of discrimination.

I challenge teachers, principals, and superintendents to ask yourselves whether there is anything you have done differently, over the course of your careers, that has resulted in a significant improvement in the performance of your students, in the aggregate. Yes, you can cite examples of individual students whose lives have been altered, but what about your student body as a whole? Your underperforming elementary schools and their teachers and students are waiting for you to do something different; something that will help them be successful. How about now?

It is time to consider a novel approach in which a new education model is crafted around the important work our teachers and students must do. It is a model designed to support them as they strive to meet the unique needs of an incredibly diverse population of American children.

My education model and white paper, can be examined at my website at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ I am asking you to risk a couple of hours of your valuable time to examine the model, not seeking reasons why it will not work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach and learn in such an environment. Are your students and their beleaguered teachers worth the risk of a couple of  hours of your time, given that the value of the upside is incalculable?

At my website you will also find my blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream with this and almost 250 other articles about the challenges facing public education.

Our goal must be to arm our nation’s young people with the skills and knowledge they will need to be impervious in the face of prejudice and discrimination and to ensure that they have meaningful choices. We can only accomplish this goal if we transform public education in America.

Thinking “Outside the Box”

In a recent Tweet, a public school educator commented that we need to be able to teach students to “think outside the box.” Although the term, itself, has become cliché to the ears of many, the skill is a powerful tool to have at one’s disposal. The challenge in teaching our students to “think outside the box” is that we must be able to “think outside the box,” ourselves, to teach it and it is not so easy to do.

Whether “thinking outside the box,” “thinking exponentially,” looking “outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom,” or “paradigm shift,” it is an incredibly difficult skill to master. It requires that we be aware of and continually remind ourselves of the fact that the human brain works to organize what we know and learn in a neat and readily accessible order. Having what we know in a well-organized format is essential to our growth, development, and both our intellectual and emotional well-being. Without the human brain’s ability to sort and store information we need in our daily lives, we would be overwhelmed by an infinite and incessant stream of sensory stimuli.

The tradeoff we make, unconsciously for most of us, is that the more comfortable we become within the context of our brain’s unique filing and organizing system (our paradigms), the more difficult it is to be aware of and to utilize information outside of our primary frame of reference.

Some of you may be familiar with a creative-thinking exercise that uses nine dots, configured in three rows of three:

                                                        .              .               .

                                                        .              .               .

                                                        .             .               .

 

The instructions for the exercise tell the participant to place their pencil point on any one of the nine dots and, without lifting your pencil off the page and without retracing or backtracking, connect all nine dots with four straight lines.

If you are not familiar with the exercise, I would encourage you to try it out before reading any further.

Often, a significant majority of people who attempt to solve the puzzle are unsuccessful because of the phenomenon I described above in which our brain, without our conscious awareness, organizes our sensory data into a familiar order. In the case of the nine dots, our brain organizes them in our mind in one of the most common shapes with which we are all familiar, a square. As a result, the majority or people striving to solve the puzzle are constrained because their brain has identified the nine dots as a square box. Inevitably, these individuals fail, repeatedly, to solve the puzzle because the space outside the square box is invisible to them. What they cannot see does not exist, therefore they seek solutions only within the square. Observing the possibilities outside the box requires a conscious effort to seek them out.

As a consultant, working with clients to help them solve organizational or process issues, striving to get even the most highly-trained and educated individuals to expand their paradigms or frames of reference was almost always challenging. This has been true in my attempt to get public school educators to consider the education model I have developed. When I suggest that they give each student however much time they need to learn, many educators reject the idea, automatically, because there is no time. In the reality in which they strive to teach there is no time and so their minds close. It is not until they are able to challenge their assumptions and step back sufficiently far that they can observe the current education model objectively, as an integral whole, that they will be able to envision an alternate reality outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom. An alternate reality in which other possibilities abound.

The unfortunate consequence is that millions of disadvantaged kids fail, repeatedly, fall further behind, and stop trying. They no longer believe they can be successful. Educators see the data in schools serving a high percentage of disadvantaged kids, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black kids and other minorities, but they have become inured to the damage that these children must endure. Educators are constantly introducing innovative approaches, methodologies, curricula and technologies in their schools and classrooms and these work for many students. Rarely do they work in schools with a high percentage of children who are disadvantaged and who have fallen behind.

The only way to reconcile their lack of success and the ongoing failure of their disadvantaged students is to draw one or both of two conclusions. The first is that the problem is societal and systemic and is beyond the ability of public education to fix. The second is that poor kids, black kids, and/or other minority children are incapable of learning. It is sad commentary but the reality is that a disturbing percentage of Americans are content to except the idea that the poor performance of these children is the best that we can expect.

A significant majority of public school policy makers, administrators, and teachers seem unable to contemplate that their might be solutions that can only be found beyond the boundaries of their conventional wisdom (outside the box). That the education process in place in our nation’s schools, both public and private, is nothing more than a logical construct designed to produce certain outcomes seems to be beyond their scope of experience.

The good news is that any process engineered by human beings to produce desirable outcomes can be reinvented to produce better outcomes. The bad news is that discovering and implementing such processes can only happen when decision makers make a conscious effort to challenge all of their assumptions and explore the possibilities that exist “outside the box.”

I do not claim to be any more intelligent or innovative than the leaders of public education, but I have two advantages that they do not have. The first is that my entire career has prepared me to employ the principles of systems thinking that require one to challenge his or her assumptions and to step back sufficiently far that I can observe a process as an integral whole. The second advantage is that my experience, over a period of ten years, of subbing in the classrooms of a public school district was an opportunity to walk in the shoes of public school teachers. This gives me a unique perspective.

As a result, I was able to develop an education model that will enable teachers to give each student the time and attention necessary to meet their unique needs. It is a model that will eliminate the necessity of subjecting our nation’s most vulnerable children to the devastating consequences of repeated failure. The reader is invited to review my education model and an accompanying white paper that provides the logical foundation for the model. All it requires is a willingness, on the part of a reader, to open his or her heart and mind to possibilities that exist beyond their own boundaries of experience.

Quadrilateral Pegs through the Round Holes of Public Education

Participating in the dialogue between teachers, principals, superintendents, and other players in our public schools has been enlightening and inspiring on the one hand and frustrating and discouraging on the other. It is wonderful to know there are so many amazing men and women who have dedicated themselves to teach our nation’s children. It is heartbreaking, however, to see how so many seem to be unaware that they are being asked to do one of the most important and most challenging jobs in the world in an environment that has not been significantly altered in at least a half century and clearly has not been adapted to meet the needs of 21st Century children.

It has been a struggle to find an analogy that resonates with teachers, principals, and superintendents so they can see what it looks like to observe them at work, from afar. I know that many consider me an outsider because I have not been trained as a professional teacher, making it easy for them to make light of my education model. My perspective is unique, however, and merits the attention of our nation’s public school policy makers, leaders, and classroom teachers. I am speaking as an advocate for public education and for American public-school teachers and school administrators, not as an adversary. I consider public school teachers to be unsung American heroes and I’m asking you to open your minds to a new idea.

As a student, I have earned two masters’ degrees, one in psychology and the other in public management. On my own I have been a student of leadership for over forty-five years and have written a book to share what I’ve learned about the power of positive leadership. Also, I have been a student “systems thinking” since reading Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, when it was first published in 1990.

I have had an opportunity to both participate in and observe what happens in public school classrooms from the perspective of a substitute teacher over a period of ten years. I have worked with some of my communities most challenging children as a juvenile probation officer for the first nine years of my career. I have spent 30 years of my career in organizational leadership and consulting where I designed from scratch or reinvented service delivery and other processes to produce acceptable outcomes for the customers of my organizations or for my clients’ organizations. I have both taught and counseled CEOs, managers, and supervisors how to be effective positive leaders of their organizations and its people. I have been both the designer and instructor of multiple employee training programs.

What I have witnessed as an observer of the public schools of my community are dedicated, hard-working professional men and women, giving their hearts and souls to their students in a system and structure that has not been significantly altered since I started school in the fall of 1951.

If you can imagine, even for a moment, what our nation’s system of highways would look like—given the number of automobiles and trucks on the roads, today—if neither President Eisenhower, in 1956, nor any of his successors had envisioned America’s interstate highway system, you will have an idea of how our public school classrooms and the education process at work within those classrooms look to me, observing from afar.

We are asking good people to educate our nation’s incredibly diverse population of students on the education equivalent of Route 66. These kids are the future men and women who must be prepared to lead our nation through the unprecedented and unimaginable challenges the balance of the 21st Century will present. Think about the diversity of American public-school students. They represent every color of the human rainbow, speak innumerable languages, come from families both fractured and whole from every corner of the planet, and with a range of backgrounds with respect to relative affluence and academic preparedness that is as cavernous as America is wide.

Public school educators are striving to do their absolute best for students in an environment in which they are without the support of our federal and many of our state governments and are under attack from education reformers with their focus on “school choice.” These reformers and the politicians who are influenced by them are destroying our public schools and the communities those schools were built to serve. As I have written on so many occasions, a handful of charter schools serving a few hundred students at a time, even if they were innovative, will never meet the needs of the millions of American children on whom our nation’s future depends. These charter schools that are being funded with revenue siphoned from the coffers that were meant to support our public schools and rely on the same obsolete education process used in the public schools they were intended to replace.

We already have school buildings in communities throughout the U.S., staffed with the best teachers our colleges and universities can produce, and filled with kids. This is where the problem exists and where its challenges must be met. We just need to change the way we teach these kids and the way we support both teachers and students as they go about their essential work.

There have been many innovations in public education in recent decades, but they and other incremental changes will be no more effective within the context of an obsolete education process than repaving the highways of the 1950s would be in meeting today’s transportation needs. It is the education process or system that is obsolete.

Over the past few years, I have worked to build an education model that I believe will put both teachers and students in a position to be successful. It is a model that was designed from scratch to be molded around the relationship between teachers and students, enabling all to perform at their optimal level.

I am seeking a superintendent of a public-school district willing to test my education model in one of its underperforming elementary schools. You know the numbers and, therefore, that what you have been doing has not altered the bottom line with respect to student performance in any meaningful way. Why not consider a novel approach?

My education model and white paper, can be examined at my website at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ along with over 200 articles on public education on my blog. I am asking you to risk a couple of hours of your valuable time. Are your students worth at least that much given that the value of the upside is incalculable?

We often blame poverty, discrimination, and segregation as the reasons why these children fail. The reality is that when we ignore the unique requirements of our students and try to push their quadrilateral pegs through the round holes of public education we are the ones who discriminate. What we are doing has not worked for the last sixty-five years and it will not work for the next sixty-five years. When we let them fail we render them defenseless against discrimination.

Our goal must be to arm these young people with the skills and knowledge they need to be impervious in the face of prejudice and discrimination and to ensure that they have meaningful choices. We can only accomplish this goal if we transform public education in America.

“Just Let Me Teach” Is What Teachers Hope and Pray They Will Be Allowed to Do!

“Just Let Me Teach” is not only the title of a great radio program, hosted by Justin Oakley on IndianaTalks radio, it is the perfect tagline for a movement to save public education in America.

Implicit in the definition of the word “teach” is that someone “learns.” If learning does not occur then we have not really taught.

The fundamental purpose at the outset of public education in America was two-fold. On the one hand, the purpose was to help kids learn the basic knowledge and skills that they would need to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship. On the other, our objective was to give kids choices in life by helping them develop their unique talents and abilities to the optimum level while also arming them with the strong self-esteem they will need to deal with life’s challenges and control most of the outcomes in their lives.

The mechanism for fulfilling our purpose in education was to place children under the tutelage of trained teachers and, from the outset, the most effective teachers were the ones who were able to form close, personal, nurturing relationships with their students. The idea was to create an environment in which we place teachers in a position to teach and children in a position to learn.

As we have said in a previous article, the relationship between teacher and student is where real and sustainable learning takes place. Relationship trumps everything.

After over a half-century or more of misguided reforms and a profusion of secondary agendas we find ourselves with a structure that prevents teachers from doing what society and their students so desperately need them to do and what teachers, themselves, so fervently want to do.

• When did it become our purpose to prepare kids for standardized competency exams?

• When did it become our purpose to see how students measure up against the performance of their classmates rather than focus on their own progress?

• When did we decide it was a good idea to push kids ahead to new material when they still struggle to comprehend?

• Whatever possessed us to set some kids up for failure and humiliation while we celebrate the accomplishments of their high-performing classmates?

How do these activities serve our fundamental purpose to let teachers teach and students learn?

Why is it so difficult for teachers and administrators to shout “whoa!” and acknowledge that what we are doing does not work for a growing population of American kids and we are not just talking about poor and minority children, although they are clearly over-represented in this population? The evidence is there for all to see!

The world has always been full of distractions but the powerful allure of “social media” and the ready availability of a full menu of multi-sourced media have had a supercharging effect on peer pressure. The result is that it is exponentially more difficult for parents and teachers to capture and sustain the attention of our nation’s children.

If, today, we were given the opportunity to reconstruct the educational process to achieve our fundamental purpose is there anyone out there who believes we would we choose to do any of the nonsensical activities that dominate the time and energy of modern-day teachers, a few of which we have identified above?

Instead, teachers would ask for more time to teach; more time for kids to keep trying until things begin to make sense and they begin to gain confidence that they can do it; more support from parents willing to share responsibility for the education of their children; and, less time devoted to unproductive busy work and recordkeeping, all of which the business community has learned to automate.

We know teachers everywhere look in the mirror, every morning, and offer up a wish or a prayer in which they say each day, “just let me teach.” If we work together, beginning today, we will create a reality in which teachers leave for school each morning with full confidence that teaching is exactly what they will be both allowed and expected to do.

Should not our Schools Be Set Up On the Basis of How Children Learn?

One of the principles of Positive Leadership is to challenge people to re-think their underlying assumptions about why we do what we do. Education in America provides a perfect example of a system that demands a complete re-examination.
Think about the way children learn to walk or ride a bike. Children learn these things very much the same way as they learn almost everything else. We provide lots of encouragement and many of opportunities to practice whatever it is they are striving to learn. We understand that some children learn more quickly than others and when we are teaching them to walk or ride a bike we do not push them to learn any more quickly than they are able. We know that the only thing that matters is the fact that they do learn. When children make a mistake while learning to walk or ride a bike, they fall down. When that happens, we pick them up, give them give them a hug or a kiss, dust them off, and we encourage them to try again.
What we do not do is tally the number of times they fall nor do we diminish the degree to which we celebrate their ultimate success based on the number of mistakes they made along the way. We also do not push them ahead before they are ready. If we are helping two children learn how to walk, simultaneously for example, and one child catches on quickly, we do not stop working with the child who is struggling. Neither do we begin teaching both children, ready or not, how to run. Riding the bike is the same way. When the first child to learn takes off on her own, we do not push the second child to take off in pursuit and we certainly do not start teaching them both to develop more advanced skills. Rather, we give each the attention they need appropriate to their progress.
We continue to work with the child who struggles and we do so patiently, providing lots of support and encouragement. Once both children are walking or riding proficiently, we do not remind the latter child that their counterpart learned more quickly and we do not celebrate the quicker child’s success more lavishly. The reality is that, once both have learned, one walks or rides every bit as good as the other. It no longer matters, in the least, that one took longer to learn than the other.
Now, think about the way we teach children in the overwhelming majority of our schools. We present a lesson to the entire class and we encourage them to practice, both at school and at home. We call it homework, not practice. The next day, we gather up all the homework and we grade it and spend some time going over the most common mistakes that students make in an effort to help them learn from their mistakes.
Then we do three things that are pretty incomprehensible when you think about it. The first is that we do not devote extra time the students who made the most mistakes.
Secondly, we record either the grades each child earned on their practice and factor those scores into their final grade at the end of the grading period, semester, or school year; or, we give them credit for completion of the homework and this also is factored in to the grade the child is given at the end of the grading period.
The third unfathomable thing we do is to move the entire class on to the next lesson in our textbooks or syllabus, ready or not.
The fact that one or more of our students is poorly prepared for the next lesson might trouble us, but the expectation of the entire American educational system is that we have to move everyone along to make sure we cover all of the material identified by the educational standards that drive our curricula and our competency testing process. We also label the students who learned more quickly and successfully as “A” or “B” students or “honor” students and, we label the slower kids as “C”, “D”, or even “F” students. We may or may not feel some sense of concern that these labels may follow our students well into the future but that’s the way it is done and so we shove our reticence aside and plunge ahead.
If we look closely and carefully, we will probably be able to tell that the kids we have labeled as “A” or “B” students seem to be having more fun and demonstrate more enthusiasm for learning than the “C, D, or F” students. In fact, it does not take long before it is pretty obvious that the latter group of children is having no fun at all and are demonstrating a diminished enthusiasm for learning. Oh, well, as the saying goes, “it is what it is!”
We observe this even though each and every one of us understands that it is as much fun to learn successfully and as it is demoralizing to fail repeatedly. How often do we refuse to play a game at which we habitually lose?
If we were to examine this practice from a positive leadership perspective, what an educator, school principal, school superintendent, or educational policy maker would do would be to step back and begin to question what we are doing and why. These positive leaders would begin to challenge some of their assumptions about why we do what we do, the way we do it.
The truth is that every time we push a child on to a next lesson before they are ready we are setting him or her up for failure. It is this practice, as much as anything else we do, that leads to an unhealthy focus on failure throughout our entire systems of education.
If you are reading this post, you are challenged to begin asking some serious questions of our professional educators and policy makers.