Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Balance in Democratic Education - An Interview with Sam Chaltain

Sam Chaltain is the National Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, a DC-based education “action tank” devoted to restoring the public purpose of public education. He is also the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, a national program that helps K-12 principals create more equitable, high-functioning learning environments. Previously, Sam spent five years at the First Amendment Center as the co-director of the First Amendment Schools program. I approached Sam with some concerns and much admiration for the Democratic model of education. By the end of the interview I was convinced that this is one the best education modalities going.

Meghan McCain recently got slammed for not having an encyclopedic knowledge of history, when she admitted to not knowing much about a certain historic event.  While she did inadvisably blame her lack of knowledge on her youth, it begs the question: what *should* a child should know when he graduates from high school?

I am less interested in mandating what a child should know than I am in exploring what s/he should understand and be able to do. As I wrote in a recent Huffington Post op-ed <http://cli.gs/hJUVPp> , if our goal is to prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace, the standards we pursue should be whatever young people need most to be successful in college and the workplace. And in today's world, although young graduates certainly need a foundation of content knowledge, the greater measure of their long-term success will be the extent to which they learn to use their minds well.

Using one's mind well means more than just acquiring large numbers of discrete facts; it means learning how to find, analyze, and use information in adaptive ways. It doesn't mean content doesn't matter either - just that our decisions about which content to teach (and why) should be made at the school level, by the people who know students best - their teachers. Neither does it mean we should throw up our hands and say there are certain things we just can't measure. http://mc2paedia.wikispaces.com/habits

I believe we have a responsibility to ensure that, say, a school in California and a school in Mississippi are reaching for the same golden ring. Common standards would be useful, therefore, but they must be aspirational, not basic. They must be guideposts, not hitching posts. And they must be indicators of wisdom that students will need to be successful in college and the workplace, not shards of knowledge that make it easier to devise uniform tests and mandate standardized modes of instruction.

Is there a set of core skills, like literacy or basic math skills that you feel is important to someone fresh out of school and looking for a job?

I spoke to this a bit in the previous question, but I'll get more specific by using the example of a school in NH where the curriculum is organized around seventeen skills (the school calls them 'habits') of mind and being. Content is one of several ways - professional internships, wilderness treks, and shared governance are others - through which the school helps young people cultivate these core skills, including habits as elusive as "collaboration" and "quality work." http://mc2paedia.wikispaces.com/habits

I'm not suggesting this school's set should become the requirement for all schools - just that it is vital to decide as a school community what core skills you want your graduates to acquire, and to then work backwards from those skills to ensure that your school's curricula and activities are all aligned to help young people develop accordingly. Short of this, as it has been said before, any road will get you there.

I am respectful of everyone learning at his own pace, yet I know of someone in a Democratic school that is 15 years old and cannot yet read.  I am very uncomfortable with that.  I feel like that child has missed out on years of beauty, learning, independence - the very thing that Democratic/Open schools are supposed to nurture.  Can you comment on that?

This is the central riddle I try to answer in my forthcoming book, American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community. The crux of the problem is that many schools are unaware of a fundamental tension that exists in all of us - on one hand, there is the irresistible, universal human impulse for freedom - and for feeling in control of our own destiny and determining the shape of the world around us. And on the other hand, there is an equally pressing human desire for structure, safety and a sense of order to the world.  

These two universal needs – for freedom on one hand, and structure on the other – are particularly relevant to our nation’s school leaders, who must strike the right balance between the two in order to create healthy, high-functioning learning environments. And yet in my years as an educator, I have witnessed scores of schools that choose, consciously or unconsciously, to value one of these needs at the expense of the other. In some schools, like the one you described, students are given too much freedom, and adults end up abdicating their responsibility to serve as authoritative guides for the learning process. In others, schools provide too much structure, and adults end up becoming authoritarian presences who stifle student engagement and self-discovery.

We do not need to choose. It is possible – indeed, essential – to find the right organizational balance between individual freedom and group structure. In fact, research confirms that when school leaders do so, they create optimal conditions for student learning, motivation and engagement.

Now, more than ever, our country needs these sorts of schools. We need schools that provide young people with well-structured spaces in which to discover who they are and what they care deeply about. We need schools where adults prepare students for active citizenship and the 21st century workplace. And we need schools to reinforce democratic practices that extend beyond the school’s walls, helping adults unite behind the shared belief that all children deserve to be seen and heard. But before that vision can become a reality, we must ensure that the central elements of our social covenant are also in place in our schools: a clear sense of structure and shared identity on one hand, and an unwavering commitment to individual freedom on the other. And that's a very specific leadership skill, and one that isn't necessarily a part of most training programs today.

In the work world, if we are lucky, we get to choose which tasks to do, not whether or not to do a task.  For example, Terri Gross, the host of Fresh Air on NPR gets to interview all sorts of interesting people.  She can choose who to interview, but she doesn¹t get to to choose whether or not to interview someone ­ she doesn¹t get to keep her job if she doesn¹t do something.  Some schools give their students a lot of liberty.  How does his much liberty prepare a person for much less of it in the work world?

In schools that don't have the right organizational balance between individual freedom and group structure, kids are sometimes not prepared well for the world beyond those walls. This is why it's so important for those of us committed to democratic practice to become experts in organizational change theory, systems thinking, etc. It isn't enough to just tell kids they have rights. Jim Collins has a good way to put this, even though he was talking about successful businesses. “Disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and take disciplined action – operating with freedom within a framework of responsibilities – this is the cornerstone of a culture that creates greatness.” The same holds true for schools.

Without experience or much knowledge of the world about us, we don't know what we don't know.  How do you expose children to new ideas, other cultures, the history of the world, the wonders of the universe and still preserve their freedom to choose what they want to learn?

The learning process is the process of personal transformation. It's the chrysalis, the experience of developing the knowledge and skills to use one's unique voice, effectively and with integrity, in co-creating our common public world.

So the way you expose children to new ideas, cultures, and wonders is by aligning every aspect of your school to the shared goal of providing a healthy, high-functioning, supportive, relationship-driven culture of learning - one in which adults provide professional guidance and simple structures that help young people discover their passions and their inner voices. Once that is in place, the rest will take care of itself.

How does a Democratic school capitalize on the collective knowledge of our culture, for example our elders, our experts in a given field, our authors?
In short by creating a legitimate democratic learning community.

Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander adult education schools that helped train activists like Rosa Parks, put it this way: “I think it’s important to understand that the quality of the process you use to get to a place determines the ends, so when you want to build a democratic society, you have to act democratically in every way. . . . When you believe in a democratic society, you must provide a setting for education that is democratic.”

Once such a culture is established, it's inevitable that the spirit of appreciative inquiry that is at the heart of democracy will ensure a steady stream of new ideas, opinions, experts, etc. This is because when we allow all voices to be heard, and when we engender a respectful exchange of ideas, we invite the creative power of “civil” friction. “One of the most reliable indicators of a team that is continually learning is the visible conflict of ideas,” Peter Senge explains. “In great teams conflict becomes productive. There may, and often will, be conflict around the vision. In fact, the essence of the ‘visioning’ process lies in the gradual emergence of a shared vision from different personal visions. . . . Conflict becomes, in effect, part of the ongoing dialogue.”

Identifying your own strengths, weaknesses, and interests comes from continually coming into contact with people, ideas and subjects, especially those previously unfamiliar to us.  How does a Democratic School provide this environment for self-knowledge?

C. Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT and an expert in organizational learning, offers a useful metaphor for the deeper level of understanding and awareness you describe. Scharmer, who grew up on a farm in Germany remembers his father teaching him to see the fields they tilled with a wider lens. “Each field, he explained to me, has two aspects: the visible, what we see above the surface, and the invisible, or what is below the surface. The quality of the yield – the visible result – is a function of the quality of the soil, of those elements of the field that are mostly invisible to the eye.”

Scharmer believes we should see “social fields”  the same way. “Social fields are the grounding condition, the living soil from which grows that which only later becomes visible to the eye. And just as every good farmer focuses attention on sustaining and enhancing the quality of the soil, every good organizational leader focuses attention on sustaining and enhancing the quality of the social field – the ‘farm’ in which every responsible leader works day in and day out.”

Understood this way, the most “visible” aspects of a school culture are the things parents, educators and students do, say, and see. Trophy cases. School bathrooms. Test scores. Cafeteria food. Uniforms. Policies. All are important indicators of a school’s quality and commitment to young people. And because these cultural indicators are visible, they end up receiving the bulk of our attention.

By contrast, the “invisible” parts of a school culture are far more elusive – and essential – to the cultivation of a healthy learning environment. Scharmer describes these features as the inner conditions from which parents, educators and students operate with each other. Our hopes and fears. Our emotions. The quality of our relationships with each other. The issues we have informally agreed never to discuss.

These factors are the deepest determinants of a school’s success (or failure) at creating a high-functioning school. And yet precisely because they are invisible (and so much harder to work on), they tend not to factor into most school improvement plans.

The central challenge in any organizational culture, therefore, is to help people become more adept at different ways of seeing – and of being seen. “We need to learn to attend to both dimensions simultaneously,” says Scharmer. “What we say, see, and do (our visible realm), and the inner place from which we operate (the invisible realm, in which our sources of attention reside and from which they operate).”

Attending to both dimensions – and balancing individual and group needs – is an essential goal for any organization. When a school finds the right balance in its organizational culture, it encourages all people to discover the power and uniqueness of their own voices. It helps young people chart a navigable path on their ongoing journeys of personal development. It helps members of the school community foster more meaningful, trusting relationships with each other. And it turns the old maxim about young people on its head, by creating a learning environment based on the belief that all children deserve to be seen and heard.

Sometimes growth comes from doing things we don't like to do, or through continual practice or effort.  How does a Democratic School nurture important qualities like resilience, mastery, persistence and the like?

The short answer is it doesn't - unless the school is intentionally set up as a place that welcomes "civil friction," and an environment that prepares people to feel comfortable with the discomfort of competing ideas.

This idea is not new - it's the core idea behind the First Amendment. And at the heart of that spirit is a framework for civil friction that my former colleagues at the First Amendment Center call the “Three R’s”:

•    Rights: The First Amendment’s guarantee to protect freedom of conscience is a precious, fundamental and inalienable right for all. Every effort should be made in public schools to protect the consciences of all people.
•    Responsibilities: Central to the notion of the common good is the recognition that the First Amendment’s five freedoms (religion, speech, press, assembly, petition) are universal rights joined to a universal duty to respect the rights of others. Rights are best guarded and responsibilities best exercised when each person and group guards for all others those rights they wish guarded for themselves.
•    Respect: Conflict and debate are vital to democracy. Yet if controversies about freedom in schools are to reflect the highest wisdom of the First Amendment and advance the best interest of the nation, how we debate, and not only what we debate, is critical.

These are the ground rules of our democracy. Properly understood and applied, they are equally useful for our public schools.

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