What is School For? More Questions For Us


“If you try to do something and fail, you are vastly better off than if you had tried nothing and succeeded.”
– Lloyd Jones

The old state house in Boston, MA. The balcony is where the Declaration of Independence was read publicly in 1776 and 1976.Often I write about our need to prepare for the future and how our education system must innovate and change in order to stay relevant in our world. Professionally I have served in many educational roles from social studies teacher to school administrator. When teaching social studies to eighth and sixth grade students I endeavored to bring history to life and make social studies the most engaging class it could be. I have learned and I have often reflected on the quote from Shakespeare: “What is past is prologue” and that we should learn from the past to prepare our future.

Arguably more has changed in our society in the past five years than in the previous two hundred and the rate of change, disruption, innovation, creativity, etc. is moving at a tremendous pace. Perhaps the pace is too fast for the education system. Perhaps the pace is too fast for educators and leaders and communities. Perhaps – but I think that in partnership toward the same ends, the community public school system can change, I submit it has changed in many areas, and with foresight and an understanding of the complexities of the past we can and we do prepare our students for their futures.

A friend shared the following story with me about a tale of foresight from New Oxford College in Cambridge. Its message speaks volumes about impact and legacy. The actions of today have impacts and are far-reaching in more ways than we often know. That we lay a foundation of innovation I submit will serve to prepare the future generations and equip them to thrive in whatever society throws at them. Our challenges include seeing as far ahead as we can while we establish learning environments and systems that will sustain our way of life, culture, and education system.

In the 1300s at Cambridge University in England, a chapel was constructed for one of the colleges. The vaulted roof was supported by huge beams fashioned from old-growth oak. Seven hundred years later, the beams had so deteriorated that the roof was in danger of collapsing. The building required extensive renovation, including replacing the beams. But where, in our time, could those repairing the building find giant oak trees of such an age and quality as had been available to the original builders?

The answer lay right outside the chapel door. The original builders of the chapel had known that at some point far in the future, the structure would need new oak beams, and so they had planted acorns in the churchyard. Over the centuries, a grove of oak trees had grown to full maturity.

• The vision of those chapel builders—to ensure the survival of the chapel— extended hundreds of years into the future.
• Their mission—planting the acorns as a means of achieving the vision—was a step-by-step process that required planning and organization.
• Their vision and their mission were built upon their values—a solid foundation that gave direction and meaning to those things they set out to achieve.

**note the story above, while popular, is not 100% factually accurate: “…Somewhere on the land owned by the New College are oaks that are, or will one day, be worthy of use in the great hall, assuming that they are managed in the same way they were before. It is in this management by the Forester in which lies the point. Ultimately, while the story is perhaps apocryphal, the idea of replacing and managing resources for the future, and the lesson in long term thinking is not. In conjunction with the Long Now Foundation. Modified from original video and text by Stewart Brand at the Long Now Blog. -this information was retrieved on the web

We today are the acorn planters for the future! In public schools we can and we must ensure that our impact is everlasting and purposeful. The social experiment called the United States of America is still working and we can reclaim our rightful place in the community of nations by planting the right acorns today! The concept of bold, disruptive change and innovation is strong and our charge in education is to be bold like our founding fathers were in Revolutionary times.

Like they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, our founders wrote:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, and they close this powerful document with “…And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor”.

They risked their lives, sacred honor and good fortune in pursuit of what they believed. The did not know for certain it would work – and they could have been killed – in fact many were killed in support of the Declaration. The point is What is past is prologue – we learn from bold leaders upon whose honor our nation was founded to guide our bold work in support of our futures!

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More on What is School For? Questions for us all as we lead with passion.

November 4, 2015 General Posts, Leadership answers, Education, ESEA, Excellence, future,Horace Mann, John Hattie, Past, present, Public School, questions, Rip Van Winkle, society, USA, what is school for

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
– African Proverb

Instructionally across the nation in our public schools we are creating a sense of urgency, a tipping point so to speak. Many argue and believe that it is time for theIndustrial Age model of education to move aside for the newly forming Information Age of education. As society changes, so too shall the public schools – or will they?

For ten years now educators have been pondering the ‘Rip Van Winkle effect’ as introduced in a December 2006 Time Magazine article. The authors of that article wrote about Rip Van Winkle awakening in the 21st century after a hundred-year snooze. Just about every place Rip went baffled him. But when he finally walks into a schoolroom he feels right at home. When discussing this recently, two of my colleaguesNick Polyak and Alan Siebert and I were struck by the subtle power of the commentary, how schools in the 21st Century were still organized by and modeled on 19th Century standards and structures. If we are to leverage the power of technology to impact and change education, it’s incumbent upon us to Transform – not Reform. It is incumbent upon us to focus on the future, the students’ future, and not on our past. As school superintendents the charge rests upon our shoulders to lead for the future.

As we leaders review and study the latest research on schooling and learning and as we contemplate leadership with our communities, it’s essential that we understand both the urgency and the “why” – the purpose for innovative structural, organizational, and instructional change leadership.

What is school for? This is a question that lately I have been hearing, reading, writing, pondering, and asking others to consider. Is school for:

-preserving our democracy?
-supporting our economy?
-keeping children & young people occupied from 3-21?
-supporting our culture?
-enhancing thinking skills?
-providing young people who are career and college ready?
-increasing knowledge and numeracy and literacy skills?

-all of the above and more?!

If we know what it is for then how can we go from Good to Great. The phrase Good to Great has become a staple in leadership commentary thanks to Jim Collins and his team of researchers and leaders through their publications Built to Last, From Good to Great, Great by Design, and others.

If we are good then it’s a challenge to become great for it’s easier to become good from poor or mediocre, but great, truly great, a set-apart, a cut above the rest – this is where the challenge lies. Organizations who become great are few and far between as Collins, et al and others have reported.

Major educational “heavyweights” like John Hattie and his teams, Robert Marzano and his teams, Michael Fullan and his teams, Kouzes/Posner, and others continue to demonstrate impact/effects of behaviors and techniques on organizational culture and on leadership effectiveness and on learning. If we know all of the answers then why is it proving so challenging – for so many – to move from good to great?

Why is the nation “at risk” (from 1983 reports), why does the federal government have to intervene so that “no child is left behind” (ESEA 2002)? We have so many answers and models at our fingertips yet the prize of excellence, or complete literacy, or complete organizational culture models remains elusive to so many.

Horace Mann said, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”Can public schools truly balance the social machinery – or in modern terms – meet the needs of all people and preserve the middle class? Do the public schools exist that the economic conditions into which we are born can be mitigated through schooling?

What is the purpose of innovation?

What is the purpose of change?

So many questions that keep me and many others up at night yet also in pursuit of answers to these questions provide such great rewards that we leaders continue to lead and continue to enlist others on our mission of excellence in education. With continued vision from Boards of Education and community members, leaders, teachers, parents, students, administrators, and our entire system of public schooling, will continue to get better and better. My charge is to lead. My charge is to challenge the process and inspire others to act. Thank goodness the people with whom I work are also leaders and they are also visionaries and they are also passionate about education.

Our society is complex enough to present many challenges to people as they pass from childhood to adulthood. It is my firm belief that a strong foundation in educational preparation will support a person’s quest for success and prosperity. My philosophical foundation holds that young people are our windows to the future; working with them has given me a unique vantage point to assess their goals, needs and abilities. I have been, and I remain committed to preparing our young citizens, and those who teach and support them, for their futures – and ours.

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