Today we are excited to feature Amelia Peterson on the blog, with reflections from the NOII Symposium and other international learning 'convenings' she attended this month. Amelia is currently a PhD candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her comments are brilliant and helpful - read on!
Four convenings and a principle
(with apologies to Richard Curtis)
Last week, I was fortunate to attend the Annual NOII Symposium as part of a little consort of British visitors there representing the Whole Education network in the UK. I was travelling with the group in my role as a doctoral student, where I’m in the wonderful early stage of being allowed to follow my nose to seek out interesting things to try and learn from (hence ending up in BC).
As a student, the start of May means the end of the Spring semester and a pile of Finals papers. This year, however, it coincided with four events that took me to four different cities to learn directly from and with practitioners in schools, district and state departments, and school partner organizations. My reflections on the Symposium are now enmeshed in these other experiences, and thinking across them I am struck by what progress there has been in designing adult learning: none of these was a typical conference (and proudly so: alongside the Symposium, the events were a ‘gathering’, a ‘design convening’ and a ‘learning festival’). Each placed an emphasis on creating space for informal interaction, for practitioners to present, and for authentic conversation about education work. More strikingly, three of the four included students among the participants – although given the quality of their contributions, we could have had more.
At the Oppi Learning Festival, I was lucky to be on a panel with students from City-As-School and a Big Picture Learning school in New York. Nothing can convey the spirit of the personalized learning these schools aim to provide better than seeing these three very different students tell very different stories about how their teachers had helped them reconnect with learning. Hearing these students reminded me of another I had met at the Symposium, who was worried his dyslexia would hold him back from higher education; this same student had founded a start-up, aimed at helping students find passions and develop a future pathway (I won’t mention his name to protect his privacy – and because I want to keep this investment opportunity to myself…) Traditional schooling still struggles to allow the level of personalization these students need and thrive on; inquiry, however, can open up the space for it.
I’ve been grappling with this possibility since wrapping up my finals and returning to England this week. The motto of Big Picture schools is ‘one child at a time’. In England, it is more everyone at the same time. As in the U.S., our system is full of structures to ensure that ‘no child is left behind’: principals and teachers are under extreme pressure to demonstrate that everyone is progressing at the required pace, or faster, regardless of what else is going on in their life – or whether the destination is somewhere they want to reach. It is when I am able to talk with students that I feel most sharply the limitations of the deterministic edge of value-added measures and of mandated progress towards standardized goals: as the U.S. student and author Nikhil Goyal has written, ‘One Size Does Not Fit All’.
Yet the last few weeks have also been a stark reminder as to why such systems emerged. One of the events I attended took place in Durban, South Africa, where one legacy of apartheid is lingering inequality in school provision. Likewise in the U.S., where I live for most of the year, we are reminded on a daily basis why ‘different but equal’ is treated as a hollow promise, and the possibility of promoting diversity and equality simultaneously is looked upon with some skepticism. As long as we do not confront racial biases – and engage in the serious work of coming to understand and really appreciate the cultures that make up our countries – different will not really be equal. This is as true of beliefs about intelligence as it is about race: in B.C. I did not hear the fixed-sense language of ‘ability’ as I do in England, and I can only hope that in the future we will look back at that as an outdated form of prejudice.
While these biases stand, it is understandable that some systems can only interpret equality as standardization, and pursue it at all costs.
This brings me to my (design) principle. It was with interest that I read a speech this week by Scotland’s Secretary of State for Education, Angela Constance. She spoke of teachers who ‘[see] the children they teach not just as pupils or learners, but as individuals with foibles, weaknesses and challenges but importantly too, strengths, opportunities and enthusiasm – all the qualities that make each of them who they are.’
From that perspective, everything becomes so simple. If all system leaders believed that teachers saw students in this way, they would design systems where practice is driven by the needs and enthusiasms of each child, and where standards exist just as useful tools – way-markers to take into account on the way to some larger goal.
Many, many educators already hold this perspective and its accompanying beliefs. The accountability structures in England and the U.S., however, assume otherwise; that the system must enforce adults to care for every child, in the only way that systems know how. Jal Mehta, my teacher, has written about the importance of replacing ‘bad man’ education policies that assume non-compliance, with 'good (wo)man’ theories that assume people want to do good work and to get better at their work. In B.C., I saw what a system based on good person theories can look like. Not one that blithely assumes we will all be good all the time, but knows that with the right structures of support and mutual accountability we can try to get better. Spirals of Inquiry seems to be shaped by that spirit of optimism, and, as a process, by starting with the experience of students and planning adult actions from there. Scotland’s government, in various ways, and sometimes haltingly, is promoting the same philosophy. England and the U.S. have many strengths in Education, but we also have a lot to learn from our northern neighbours.
So what can we do about it? This, for me, is the role of convenings that bring together participants from different parts of a system and different countries: they provide opportunity for people to talk with others who see the world from a different perspective; to question some of their own assumptions; and maybe, over time, shift their beliefs. For this to happen, convenings need to continue to bring new people into the fold, and to bring in the voices of a generation who are – sometimes – not as weighed down by some of the assumptions we are still shaking ourselves out of.
But now I am just preaching to the converted.
I look forward to seeing the networks continue to grow, and thank you again for letting me learn from you.