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How I Stopped Hating… and Learned to Love a School System

Twelve years ago, at the beginning of my unique relationship with the Montgomery County, MD Public Schools (described in “Catching Them Doing Something Right”) I started a diary. Later, as I began to note the nature of the insights being recorded I went back and renamed the computer file “Learning Log.”

Now, some 900 pages later, in order to better reflect the product of all those aggregated learnings, I’ve again re-titled it — How I Stopped Hating… and Learned to Love a School System.”

Since, like many others, my needs for autonomy and freedom to make a difference usually seem to generate automatic pushback against the “systems” around me that appear to constrain it (home, schools, work), what could produce such a major transformation in the worldview that frames my way-of-thinking?

Buckminster Fuller had suggested the answer:

“If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them.
Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

My tool was the lens through which I was observing the “system” (described in “Making Sense Through a Systemic Leadership and Management Lens”).

It enabled me to “get into the heads” of those who are the system to “see” what they were seeing and feeling and ask “why?” And then to use the common answers to develop a capability that Copernicus never had to leverage the natural strengths and relationships that appear. (see The One Thing! …a simple proposal.]

This site’s content is largely the product of applying that way-of-thinking to the actual work of an “organization of learners” attempting to become a “learning organization.” And because they were “doing it” – and as outside observers began to note “very effectively” – it added urgency to the site’s purpose that was captured in the concluding paragraphs of The One Thing! …a simple proposal.

“So our task is not only simple, its clear. At a time when schools have neither the capacity, nor the societal support, to “fix” themselves, we have to develop and initiate processes that support capacity development as a practically simultaneous, inside-out, knowledge-development process.

We have to change everyone’s mental model of schooling, but fortunately, we now can use the “simple rules” imposed by what we already know about how the human mind works as it processes information to solve problems that get in the way of making a difference.

•            First individuals must have a compelling reason to change the way they look at, and understand, learning, teaching and schooling.

•            Then driven by the motivating power of understanding why new alternatives may be necessary, they need to have the means and support to work within that new paradigm.

•            Finally, they need processes to derive from that work experience the necessary knowledge and culture to sustain that way of functioning for all students.”

So… now I’ve outed myself.

As an embedded co-learner I’ve developed an appreciation, respect, (and “love”) for those whose thinking is driven by a personal need to make a difference, but find themselves in a “system” based on assumptions that they can somehow do it alone. And who have been able to learn – together – how to continually challenge those assumptions.

But, today as I look at most proposals for “systemic” reform, I realize how strongly most of them are based on unquestioned assumptions that the “system” is the hated enemy. Not until it can be “flattened,” “swept away,” “disempowered” will each child be able to learn, and all teachers be able to teach.

No wonder major foundations — unable to figure out the key to “systemic reform” –eventually downshift to disconnected building- and classroom-based changes that lack the systemic connective tissue to sustain them over time.

I wish I knew how to spread the “love” I’ve experienced. Might it help them understand school systems as the positive factors they can be, and not the negative ones they unquestionably assume they are?

I don’t know if this website can help, but we’ll keep on trying…


Comment from Donna
Time September 21, 2010 at 10:02 am

My career’s been working with colleges and universities, and they are often ‘stuck’ in the same ways. Perhaps it’s commonplace in most large, sprawling bureaucracies?
As you say: Finding—and getting comfortable with—the compelling reason to change is the most critical step. The compelling reason needs to be clear in the minds of individuals. And there also needs to be a shared understanding of the compelling reason amongst the leaders and stakeholders. Without this, we can’t get any momentum started.
Another component, I believe, is the willingness to take a leap of faith. When we embrace change, there are no guarantees about what the outcome will actually be. We can plan, strategize, learn, think—but will the result be what we want? We can’t know! But we must have faith that the result will move us ahead.

Comment from Lew Rhodes
Time October 1, 2010 at 10:05 am

Donna – Your conclusion: “We can’t know! But we must have faith that the result will move us ahead” …is right on. As well as the need for a “willingness to take that leap of faith.”

Nevertheless, decades of failed efforts to improve educational system (K-12 and HE) seem to suggest that “will” without “way” isn’t sufficient. “Faith” loses its power without continual ways to confirm its value.

That’s why the learnings of the educational system whose learning journey this site relates, are so important. For example, in terms of your points above,

• They developed continual ways to ensure that the critical “compelling reason to change” was “clear in the minds of individuals” inside and outside the system.

• Then created the “shared understanding of the compelling reason amongst the leaders and stakeholders” needed to initiate and then sustain “momentum.”

• And, most important, created within the work processes of the district and schools, safe spaces needed to support individual and collaborative “leaps of faith.”

• And, within them, a collaborative problem-solving scaffold to support your point about not “knowing”… by enabling a process of continually “finding out.”

That’s why I grew to “love” the folks in this system, and why I concluded, above:
“I wish I knew how to spread the “love” I’ve experienced (so others) understand school systems as the positive factors they can be, and not the negative ones they unquestionably assume they are.”

• One final take-away learning that had significance for me because of the “lens” I used to understand “why” they were acting as they were.

They didn’t “embrace change.” As some one who has been a “Change Agent” for most of my career I’ve never found “change” to be a useful goal or purpose to organize around. Instead, it’s a consequence of attaining something more “compelling.”

In this system, the “compelling reason to change” was that it offered an opportunity to make a more of a difference for children…individually and collectively.

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