Goldfish in Aquarium

Changing the World

Imagine that you’ve awakened to a brilliant day of learning in the U.S. educational system. Time, money and resources are abundant; you have all you need. The constraining structures of the mechanistic organization and the strictures of the bureaucracy are no impediment. The outsized emphasis on standardized testing has been downsized. All of these components that make up schooling have been transformed and are valued solely for their power to serve learning.

What do you see? Hear? What do you feel?

Even keeping the familiar environment of school and classroom, as you envision learning at its most creative, most engaging, deeply thought-provoking and radically exciting, consistently evoking the best from teachers and from students, what are people doing? How are these teachers and learners interacting with one another? What do they make? What problems do they solve? What do they come to know and understand?

How about the adults in the school? How do the teachers and staff interact with one another? How do they go about the work of continuous improvement of their practice through collaboration and self-reflection? How do they ensure that learning is at the center of their identity as teachers?

And principals? What do they think about, talk about, learn about, focus their time and energy on? What cultures do they create? What systems do they build? What questions do they ask? How do they lead?

As an experienced educator, with 25+ years in a large, urban school district as a teacher, principal and developer of principals—and having worked on elementary, middle and high school campuses, as well as in the central office—I now have the perspective of standing just outside the system, looking in, seeing clearly.

I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s commencement address titled “Like Water.” He tells the story of two young goldfish swimming along. They pass an older goldfish who calls out, asking, “How’s the water?” The two young goldfish swim on a bit, look at each other and say, “What’s water?”

Foster Wallace goes on to say:   “The immediate point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. It’s easy to forget that what surrounds you is only normal because it’s what you know. To others, your surroundings might seem strange.”

The water that comprises the U.S. educational system—the long-present structures and ways of functioning—too often impede the creativity and purposefulness needed for deep learning. To ensure the learning we need for the twenty-first century, we must be intentional and relentless in structuring and enculturating schools as true learning organizations.

The mission of human development—of both adults and young people—must be absolutely on par with the mission of achieving results. Making that transformation happen is my work in the world.