By Phil Schlechty
In my last blog post I talked about the fact that to make complex ideas “stick” (a term I have borrowed from Chip and Dan Heath), it is essential to distill the ideas down to their core elements. My goal here is to illustrate what I mean by this assertion by discussing a problem I have confronted for a long time.
Three sets of ideas have driven me since my earliest days as a teacher. First, as a student at The Ohio State University, I came into contact with many professors in the School of Education who helped me to understand that learning is an active process and that students learn best when they are confronted with compelling problems and issues that call upon them to reflect and create solutions. I never got over these ideas, and I am still struggling to understand all that I think I know about them.
Second, as a result of experience and study, I have come to the conclusion that the bureaucratization of schools, the removal of schools from the control of communities, and the embedding of control of schools in governmental agencies is a major impediment to quality education—especially if creativity, problem solving, inquiry, and knowledge work, as well as mastery of traditional subjects, is included in the definition of quality.
Finally, I have concluded that the primary job of the teacher is to create conditions in which students became emotionally and intellectually engaged in the pursuit of solutions to problems and in the exploration of possibilities, and that these conditions should be orchestrated in a way that encourages students to learn what they need to learn to participate fully and meaningfully in the society and culture where they will live out their lives.
Now, that is a lot to unbundle, and in spite of over 40 years of disciplined work and having written nine books, I still feel that I am on the “cutting edge of ignorance” with regard to these issues. In the past couple of years, however, I have come up with some simplifying statements that seem to me to come to the core of what I think I have learned.
First, while I say that I am concerned with transforming schools from bureaucracies to learning organizations (and I am), stripped to its essential core, what I am really up to is transforming schools from teaching platforms to learning platforms.
The terms teaching platform and learning platform seem to be ideas that stick. They invite further discussion and exploration, whereas the terms bureaucracy and learning organization are not especially inviting terms and sometimes shut discussion down. Indeed, unless one has a relatively sophisticated understanding of the literature on complex social organizations, the words bureaucracy and learning organization are apt to be viewed as nothing more or less than buzzwords and jargon. I have found, however, that when I say that what we must be about is transforming schools from teaching platforms to learning platforms, the ideas seem to resonate more and stick longer.
This is a beginning. But if the conversation stops there, all we have is a slogan. If, however, we use the idea of platform as a beachhead from which to launch a larger assault on conventional ways of framing the problems of schooling, we may be on our way to thinking about schools in more productive ways.
Second, in recent months I have taken to suggesting that a part of this transformation is moving schools from being a push environment to being a pull environment. Sometimes I use a picture of a person with a megaphone to illustrate what I mean by a push environment and an image of student doing a computer search to illustrate what I mean by a pull environment. Sometimes I illustrate these points by showing pictures of bored students listening to what must be a poorly constructed lecture and then contrasting the photos with a video of students actively engaged in querying an expert about a subject of interest to them.
I have found the ideas of push and pull to be “sticky ideas” that lead to discussions about notions such as “learning is an active process” and why working on the work, rather than working on the students, is a preferred strategy for improving the performance of students and of schools. The push/pull idea also opens up discussions of why discovery, inquiry, and problem solving are so important and invites teachers and school leaders to consider the ways bureaucracy serves as a barrier to pulling information from the environment and how bureaucracy works best to support pushing information down from the top.
The following are some additional sticky notions I have found especially useful in unbundling my thoughts:
Transformation requires more than change—it requires metamorphosis. Imagine something like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly or a tadpole becoming a frog. Transformation goes across forms; reform stays within the limits of the existing system.
One goal is a goal, two goals is half a goal, and three goals is no goal at all. I often use this sticky phrase to invite people to consider the importance of having a clear conception of the core business of their organization and the superordinate goal toward which this business is oriented. I also use it to invite people to consider the possibility of exploring the linkages among goals and selecting for action that goal which if pursued will lead to progress toward other goals as well.
The cutting edge of ignorance is a phrase I use to suggest that transformation requires one to go beyond the research and the safety of the known and be prepared to explore unknown territory and travel more by assistance from a compass (which keeps direction clear) rather than a road map—which can specify destinations (goals).
Work on the work rather than on the students. This is a dangerous sticky idea and too often becomes a slogan. What I mean to convey is that teachers can either design schoolwork in a way that encourages students to perform or they can induce students (through rewards and punishments) to do whatever work they design for them to do. Many teachers, however, hold on to the view that it is their performance rather than the performance of students that determines what students learn; these teachers are therefore not in a position to hear what is being said about the motive power of the work students are assigned or encouraged to undertake.
Teachers are leaders and those they most often lead are students. This is an old idea and one that has appeal to teachers once they accept the fact that it is the performance of their putative followers that is of most importance in school. The performance of leaders can make a difference in the performance of followers, but it is the performance of followers that determines the effectiveness of the performance of leaders. Teachers are more dependent on students than students are dependent on teachers. Teachers cannot teach without students being present, but students can learn without teachers and increasingly they can learn anytime and in any place. Schools are no longer as essential as they once were and they will be increasingly less essential if they are not transformed into learning platforms. Teaching is increasingly available to those who are motivated to learn, and schools are not the only places where teaching and teachers exist.
Later in the year I will return to these ideas and share some of the stories I tell to help further clarify what I mean by these phrases that I hope will stick with my audience.