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In this podcast, we're talking about "the good life." What is it exactly that we want students to have in their future? Is it a great career, a content lifestyle, a family, solidarity, freedom, respect for one another, a mixture of all of the above? And if we can't agree on that question or at least have somewhat unified goals in getting there, how can education exist to serve that question? In addition, do teachers have and deserve "the good life"?
We've spoken to various educators from across the world, and I hope you enjoy listening to their amazing thoughts and ideas.
Guests, in order of appearance:Steven Gumbay, who has taught for over 40 years, starting in Denver, CO, then transitioning to Taiwan, Zambia, Kenya, Hong Kong, Myanmar, and Ethiopia. Steven has served as a science department chair and as a consultant building secondary, primary, and preschool programs.
Dr. Erin Raab and Nicole Hensel of REENVISIONED and The Future Project. Erin holds a Ph.D. in Education from Stanford University, where her scholarship pertained to the question of how we can transform education systems to foster individual flourishing and thriving democracies. Nicole obtained a dual Masters in Public Policy and Education Leadership from Stanford University. You can find their work below.
Richard Loeper-Viti, whose progressive practices have transformed his English international classroom. Starting in a top-ranked charter school in the United States, he ventured to Chengdu, China after his wife, a US Diplomat, received a new position.
Anne Connolly, a CERT inclusion specialist and special education primary instructor, who has taught for over 20 years. Anne currently uses her progressive practices in an elementary classroom in Ontario.
Gamal Sherif, who has taught over 20 years in middle and high school, served as a fellow for the US Department of Education, and is an ambassador for the UN Sustainable Goals Project. Gamal has a focus on sustainable teaching practices.
Chris McNutt: Greetings, and welcome to the first episode of season three of Things Fall Apart, our podcast here at the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt. I'm a high school social studies instructor who believes adamantly in instilling progressive values of education, putting humans at the center rather than ranking, filing, and demeaning In this podcast, we're talking about the good life. What is it exactly that we want students to have in their future? Is it a great career, a pretend lifestyle, a family, solidarity, freedom, respect for one another, or maybe a mixture of all the above? And if we can't agree on that question, or at least have somewhat unified goals in getting there, how can education exist to serve it? In addition, we're also going to ask, do teachers have and deserve the good life? We've spoken to various educators from across the world, and I hope you enjoy listening to their amazing thoughts and ideas. But first, our podcast is kept alive by generous patrons on Patreon, two of which are Bill Ryder and Matt Laughlin. Thank you so much for your support. You can find more information about what the Human Restoration Project is and how we're helping promote progressive education through free resources, thoughts, and more on our website at humanrestorationproject.org and on Twitter at @humrespro. Which brings us to Stephen Gumbay, a veteran teacher of 40 years. Stephen started off in Denver, Colorado at a private school and then designed his own curriculum for 12 years. Stephen then said…
Steven Gumbay:I had a parent say, you should take a group of kids to Kenya. So I was like, wow, you know, I'll do that. And quick story was that it all worked out and I just fell in love with rural Kenya. It really shocked me to see like Maasai kids with no electricity take nine courses and do extremely well, you know, and yet walk across the savanna of the school. And there was sort of a, I don't know, a discord between that and teaching essentially Ricketts at a private school in Colorado. I just felt the need to put my energies into a place that was different. You know, it's something really called to me.
CM: This started a journey that took Stephen across Taiwan, Zambia, Kenya, Hong Kong, Myanmar, and eventually Ethiopia, acting as a science department chair and building secondary, primary, and preschool programs. He essentially took every opportunity thrown at him dealing with for profit organizations, which quickly turned him off governments who removed all older American expats and full direct government takeovers of schools. And now back in Ethiopia, he's consulting a large private school on the first steps of a progressive education journey.
SG: The detailed experiences in each of these places has just been, um, incredibly rich. And I, in many ways it has not been good. And I would say in general ways, the people who run schools, whether they're private or they're international schools that are not for profit, there is a lot of incompetency and mediocrity in the way schools are run in every one of these places. And quite honestly, the only good head of school I've ever worked for was the one back in Colorado in the beginning. And I haven't seen anybody, experienced anybody abroad that was above mediocre. And yet the children have been just fun and good. I mean, kids are kids everywhere. And the learning aspect of it is, you know, being in the classroom and creating things that see kids become excited about learning and turned on to learning. That's been the same everywhere. And that's the real joy of all of that. The business of education has got some immense challenges ahead of it.
CM: And in his latest endeavor, he's found a similar problem that we face in the United States and really everywhere.
SG: I think the biggest challenge is it's completely teacher centered. So the idea of, let me give you this example of the school I'm starting to work with now. I visited there and again, 4,000 kids from kindergarten to high school. That's a big school. The average class size that I saw was 30 to 35. So say I go into a third grade class and they're learning English, well, they're only budgeting in their time frame two sessions a week for English. And what they do is the teacher gets up and he's teaching grammar rules. So here in Ethiopia, that's very standard. The regional teachers are trained in universities in rules of grammar. And it's all rote learning. They don't really understand the English language, but they understand the rules. So they'll have a sentence and they'll tell the kids, maybe they'll do introduction, sort of how we do introductions, what's formal and what's informal. And they'll call two or three kids up to do that. And then they'll move on to the next example. So in a class that I watched for 45 minutes or so, there were probably five kids that had a spoken moment, an interactive moment. And the rest of the kids just sit there at attention and they note things in their book, what's ever written on the board, they write down. That isn't really learning and it goes completely against how kids learn language. The research shows that they can learn 10 to 12 words a day. And none of that is sitting in a chair and copping off of a board. It's all social. My biggest challenge in working with teachers is to realize that they've got this whole thing backwards and they shouldn't be the center of anything and to turn it over to the kids, you know. So when you've had a teacher who's been doing this for many years and has a lot of pride in the way they're doing it, you can't go in and imply, listen, you're doing this all wrong, even though that's exactly what I'm thinking. You know, you have to find an incremental way to introduce new things to them. But the vast majority are just extremely resistant to change. So it's teacher centered, you know, it's like I'm the fountain of information. And again, you've got 30, 40 kids, maybe more. So compliance and order is really important. I want to try and get these teachers, particularly the ones that are motivated at this new school, to just try the idea of setting up group work. Put the kids in their own conversation groups, you know, make 12 groups of kids. It's not Stone Age mentality, but it's a Bronze Age mentality towards education. You can't really fault people because they were educated that way.
CM: If we are to establish the good life for students, we have to have teachers who understand what it is that they're trying to do and how they're going to get there. Teacher training programs may bring up progressive ideas, I'm pretty confident most educators know who Dewey is, but in practice, we're typically taught to be directors of a traditional system, as in how to reach particular standards in an efficient way and how to do well on standardized tests. After all, that's what our future employers will likely want. The question then becomes, how can we train teachers to teach progressive values? How can we train them to be basically rebels in the system that doesn't have a student's best interest at heart? And even more so, how do you convince a traditional teacher that what they're doing is well wrong?
SG: Well, you know, you have to do a little bit of everything, is my view. It came home to me in very, very hard way, difficult ways when I was... It first came to Ethiopia and I was a science department chairman and there were a group of old veteran British teachers. Most of those Brits that I've met teaching abroad feel they've got the answers, they know the gold standard, the rest of the world just needs to get with the program, and then they do the same thing. I had nine faculty and seven of the nine disliked me right away. I go into a class every day and say, I hope this goes well, but at night I go home and say, wow, could I have done that better? The best teachers I've ever worked with are very harsh on themselves. They're very tough critics and they're always looking for a better way to motivate. And if you're a good teacher, it's a very humbling profession because you can feel great one day and just, you know, have a great lesson plan the following day and it just falls. And so you need to be freshly creative and if you're freshly creative and you have energy, the kids pick up on that and they'll come with you. But the old Brits just were so angry with me. So I just asked in the first meeting, I said, I'd like this since we're all new to each other, I'd like to know why we do what we do. Why do you, why do you like working with kids? What do you enjoy about teaching science? And they thought that was the most absurd thing for me to ask them. They were insulted. And so I, you know, here I came from research where being fresh and attacking things and problem solving and working together was just natural. And I thought that would be a way to introduce trying to look at some new things. It just became a battle because they were insulted by that approach. Towards the end I said, how can you use a handout from 1982 in a biology class? And I said, why can't you get excited about what's new out there and show the kids you're learning with them? And that's, I think that's the key point somewhere is that whether it's in the US or in a school somewhere in the world, there are a group of teachers who are doing their job. I often describe it as they're delivering the mail and that's what they think their job is. Then there's a group of teachers who feel they're there to excite the kids to learn because they're excited about learning. They never lost their love for learning. And I think that's a critical difference.
CM: So that seems like we're at a crossroads, right? If someone's close minded and they're not willing to accept changing how their classroom looks, and if they think that they're superior or infallible, they're not going to ever consider that what they're doing is wrong, which I suppose means that the only way to go forward is to fire close minded teachers. It's very rare that I would come across someone who is a traditional teacher who started off as progressive. Most progressive educators started off as traditional. We kind of know both sides. So is it that we just want to ensure maybe that newly hired teachers are those that we want to stick around people that are progressively minded?
SG: I sent them something like what you sent me. And I sent them three or four probing essay questions, including a question about tell me an experience in the classroom that you'll remember forever and value and tell me one out of the classroom. And if people can't answer that, then the fire's not there. And see, my point is that if you're in the position of training new teachers or hiring teachers, you can always teach skills. But if someone says they have skills and the fire's not there, how do you teach the fire? You can't. The heart of teaching can't be taught. That's a real conundrum in all of education because we need millions and millions of teachers and they're not all going to have that kind of heart. It is a huge challenge in getting teachers to come along. And I think anybody that tells you they know how to do that is lying. It's a dance with adults that have set up all sorts of barriers and guidelines for learning and protecting their professional integrity. To be a learner, you have to be vulnerable. You have to say, I don't know. In the adult world, that's very hard to get people to do. Kids are easy. They're willing to learn until we beat it out of them. But adults, that's the tough one. I would love to be able to write a book on how to motivate and get teachers to come along like that. But I think it's a real dance and it has to be programmatic. There has to be higher up support for this. You know, they need to realize it's part of their job demand, that they have professional development and that they have to show it.
CM: Yeah. And then wouldn't that lead to an issue of people leaving? One thing I think a lot about is that progressive educators likely left the profession because of the traditional constraints and mindset of our institutions. Without a support network, we're basically in like the Wild West. Many times, I feel like I can legitimately be fired by giving students actual voice, assuming that it goes against the standards and potentially lowers one of their test scores.
SG:International schools have the problem of turnover. There's turnover of leadership. The school in Lusaka had her set a record that they had the most heads of school. It had two of them came and went in the two years I was there. And that alone just creates chaos. Boards are often not healthy. And on top of that, you get a variety of teachers. And I can sort of lump them into types, but you do get a large variety of teachers. And even those teachers may not stay very long. They do bring a number of different agendas. But I have found that, again, like I said, there's sort of a British model. They're just there to perpetuate what's been done before. It's about control and being rigid. And then they had essentially communists and sons of communists in horrible years here. And so you have a couple of generations raised under another kind of control. We're imprinted very young with ways of learning, what's acceptable, what isn't, what are the best ways, et cetera. And sort of this Western view of being open and analyzing, you know, you're seeing it in the U.S. now. You're seeing a huge minority of people in the U.S. I'm not going to go into politics here, but you see there's a significant part of the country that is not progressive, is not open-minded, is not intellectually curious. But some of the challenges in international schools, when you throw in the cultural context, you know, look at Myanmar. It's a military-controlled government. You see that effects in the way people think and the way they deal with authority. There's a lot of teaching in Asia that's real nice because Asian kids overall are incredibly respectful of authority. And so you'll see teachers who have taught in really tough schools in the U.K. or the U.S. or in South Africa. And they love coming to Asia because you don't have any discipline problems. You may have kids having nervous breakdowns because they got their first B. But, you know, that's your crisis for the year.
CM: To be clear, the implication you're making is that this authoritarianism, the academic rigor, is not necessarily a good thing?
SG: No, not necessarily at all. I would have kids sign up, oh, I'm going to take the SAT again. Well, how many times have you taken? Well, this is my sixth time. I said, you know, what are you doing? Are you crazy? I don't even remember what I got on the SAT now. There's very little joy in learning. And so the school I was at, the American School in Hong Kong, it called itself an American school. But the headmaster was a Scottish guy who was, he used to come to assemblies to make sure the girls didn't have fingernail polish on and that their socks were the right length. He wouldn't come to listen to music or the kids were just amazing what they could do. And he just wanted to check their socks and their fingernails. So that told you how, what kind of a manager he was. And then the principal, he was just worried about everything in order and make sure we keep these parents happy. And he was a very fearful man. And I had a group of ninth graders in like homeroom and they had all these classes. And at the end of the day, they had like a 15 minute homeroom. And we had a meeting where someone said, we've got, what's, what kind of work can we have them do in those 15 minutes? And I, I said nothing. And they looked at me like, no, we have to use this time. And I just kept quiet. I, I refused to do it because these kids, they would be taking two or three APs, they push all this and then they leave school and they go to something at night, you know, cello lesson or something. And at the last 15 minutes of a day in high school, they can't put up their feet and talk to each other or talk to me about an issue. So I just used to shut the door and we had a, we had a fun time as we unwound at the end of the day or I'd show them a Monty Python video to get them to realize, you know, there's more to life than worrying about grades because their parents are quite neurotic. And so to me, I had to be a counterweight. And I think actually any effective teacher realizes after a while, the group of kids they have, you need to be a counterweight for whatever kind of negative influences or, you know, kids are bringing the class. What's missing. And these kids didn't have a lot of healthy, fun connections with adults. We're all human. You know, there are some days you're just like, I can't do it today. And that's okay.
CM: And to tie this back to training teachers to doing what's best for students, to give them human centered approaches that care and love them. How do we actively encourage that rather than it being something that's subversive or something that you're doing in spite of what authority says, how can it be more explicit?
SG: When you're teaching teachers, you can't fall into the same habit that you're criticizing schools for. It shouldn't be teacher centered. I'm not there to tell them how to do something. I want to sit down as I, what I did with the primary school teachers here, we ended up with nine teachers. Now that sounds small, but we started there. We used to have the most fun faculty meetings. I led them and I had somewhat of an agenda, but I, I said, I want to run this like a graduate seminar. We're all equal here. The American national Academy of science, you know, in the U S has these two series how people learn and how people learn too. They're just wonderful, wonderful things. And I said, I want to take a chapter a week or chapter every other couple of weeks. You go read it and we'll come back and we'll discuss it. And I, I wanted to sort of mentor and coach them. I didn't want to teach them. I did show them some videos to excite them, to show them teachers who had a completely reverse their teaching and let the kids decide for instance, in AP biology, which labs they were going to do. And so I got him thinking about that, but I wanted them to realize that we were learning as a group. I didn't have all the answers. You know, the kids that we had here in Ethiopia, we had a very mixed group of kids and they were all trying to learn English and they offered a lot of challenges, but it was real fun cause we could do whatever we wanted. And that's how I approached it. I said, I'm not here to tell you the 10 commandments and this is what we do. Let us figure out how to do this, but I want you to know if what is learning? And so we started with some of that and, and it was great. They really appreciated it cause I found out one Australian lady had had a lot of good education, particularly in English language instruction. I felt more like a, very much like a coach. We always enjoyed our meetings. We laughed, we pushed each other. We demanded a lot, but it was all for the kids and it was all for us to enjoy what we were doing. I think we got to remember that I know when I've been in sessions where someone's given me professional development, I'm almost a cynic going in cause most of them are boring and this is my time. No one's ever actually got me directly involved. There was one exception that was a writing workshop that I went into thinking, Oh, this won't be very good. And it was wonderful. Why? Cause they all put us to work and we were prompted and then let go and we got to know each other. We formed bonds, we listened to each other and you know, they treated us like good learners. I think teaching is something as an art that has to be learned by doing, but that kind of collegiality is very difficult to build. And you can throw in one really toxic person that doesn't like that. And uh, that's the difficult part of management and leadership and in any business dealing with the personality types. But you know, my goal going into it is to always come in as an equal. And I think teachers need to have a stronger sense of that kind of professionalism. And they do in certain core areas and certain groups, you know, you could be in very healthy groups, but if you teach around much at all, you've also been around unhealthy groups, but in particularly in really large schools, that's where it breaks down. You can have a lot more impact, just like a classroom of 15 versus a class of 40. It's just, it's completely different.
CM: Human Restoration Project, the whole point of it is to find like-minded people in progressive ed to ensure that you're not crazy. I know when I first got started with these things, I read a few books and it felt good that authors agreed with me, but it was really hard to find people that actually thought that the traditional system was wrong, that weren't someone acting outside of the education system. There are plenty of teachers out there in many different pockets who believe these things, who maybe aren't allowed to share their thoughts, maybe are kind of hesitant to be more frank about it, but there's a lot of them. And I think that we need something that helps unite us all, and that is meant to be the Human Restoration Project. As you walk into practically any school in the United States, you'll be greeted by a mission statement somewhere in the building, saying something like, to prepare students for life and job prospects, to produce literate, responsible citizens, to succeed in an ever changing community, ready for the future, to be college and career ready. But we don't often stop and really think about what we're aiming toward, and everyone seems to have a different view on what is best for their child, and without a doubt, children have their own ideas on what they want. How often do we listen to them, and do we really know what's best for them? Teachers aiming to meet all of these differing voices are faced with unrelenting pressure to conform to a system that likely isn't reaching any of these objectives, and are struggling to figure out, well, what's next. Taking on the challenge of defining what the good life is is Re-Envision Ed, headed up by Erin Raab and Nicole Hensel. The program was born out of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and is seeking to do a massive re-envisioning process of figuring out what the good life is through a series of interviews of roughly 10,000 people. They partner with schools, individuals, and community organizations to collect and share these stories about what it means to live a good life, and what the role of school is in doing so. Erin holds a PhD in education from Stanford, where her scholarship pertained to the question on how can we transform education systems to foster individual flourishing and thriving democracies, and that Cole obtained a dual masters in public policy and educational leadership, also from Stanford. You can find all of their work in the attached show notes. Currently, Erin serves as the Vice President of Research and Evaluation, and Nicole the Deputy Vice President of Research and Evaluation at The Future Project, which is a non-profit organization that helps ensure that young people can build a better life in the world that they love. So, in summary, Re-Envision Ed wants to figure out what exactly is the good life by, well, asking what that means. With a shared vision, we'll be able to build something to meet it. Erin explains.
Erin Raab: So, the idea about asking about a good life was really like trying to understand better. I had done all of this work from a systems perspective, thinking about, like, well, what is a system for, right? Like, what is the purpose of schooling more broadly? And came out with, across whether it be sociology or economics or teacher training or, you know, whichever body of literature, like whether it be policy, that there were kind of four major ways of thinking about the purpose of school for purposes. You can think about mapping these onto two axes, which are, on the y-axis, it would be intrinsic to instrumental, and on the x, from individual to collective. And I think the individual to collective, the fact that we have individual reasons why we have school and we have collective reasons we have school is fairly intuitive. I think the fact that we have reasons for school that happen through the actual practice, the everyday experience of school, which are the intrinsic ones, and reasons we have school that are instrumental, the ways we use schooling as a system to achieve other kinds of outcomes is a little less intuitive. And intrinsic reasons, so something that happens through school itself, through the experience of school that's individual is like the classic human development. This is like, how do we ensure kids learn literacy? How do they develop empathy? These kinds of things that like an individual develops curiosity over time. If you think about intrinsic and collective, this is like the socialization processes that school serves. So this is like, how do we socialize citizens into a shared set of values? How do we create a we, a sense of who we are at the micro level and at the macro level at a national level, right? Like what does it mean to be American, right? And who belongs and who doesn't? Those all happen through how we do school and how we learn how to be with one another. And so those are the intrinsic purposes. Those are individual possibility and social possibility. On the instrumental side, you have social efficiency, which is like the classic economic kind of perspective on schooling, much of a lot of policy. This is the like, how do we make sure we can grow our GDP? How do we make sure we have enough STEM workers? How do we make sure we have enough teachers, right? Like how do we make sure we fill all the different positions in society and compete as an economy? And then on the individual and instrumental, you have individual efficiency, which is like, how do I make sure my kid ends up at the top of the socioeconomic system oftentimes, or makes it or in a, in a, in a better framing, how do we make sure they make it into the right job for them? Right? How do they use, they navigate this system to get the outcomes that they care about most, but it's not really necessarily through the schooling system itself. It's by like, um, accruing the credits.
CM: So essentially, re-envision ed aims to figure out how people view education in these lens, then find a way to share how people plan on getting there.
?: And what came out of that work of creating this kind of meta framework for putting all these different ways we talk about the purposes of schooling into one conversation. A, I really want to understand because like oftentimes we conflate these. And if you talk about social efficiency and human development in one sentence, um, what you need to do to achieve those is often different. And so you just like end up muddling what it is. I think this is why we have a lot of issues in terms of our conversations about school because we want to achieve all of those purposes, right? But like what it means to do that, um, can be slightly different. And I think that's particularly true if you try and design for the instrumental purposes. I think if you design for the intrinsic, um, you get all four and that's a much longer conversation as to like how, but like if you design for the experience itself, I think that you can, you can create a system that achieves all four purposes where I think right now we largely designed for individual efficiency, which I think is, is highly detrimental. What I was really curious about was like, to what extent there would be a shared vision. And I wanted to ask about a good life because oftentimes when we ask about school, if you go and ask somebody, how are you going to re-envision school, they have all kinds of implicit assumptions. You can think about the theory of change of being like, um, what kind of lives and society do we want to create? What do we think the role of school is in creating that? Um, is my school doing that or is it not? And if not, why not? And I think that almost all of our conversations start on if not, why not? And we rarely understand even if we're aiming for the same kinds of, um, lives and you can't understand people's diagnoses about what's wrong with schools, unless you understand about, um, the kinds of lives they think they want to create and what they think the role of school is in doing that.
CM: And to do this, re-envision ed is cataloging stakeholders, students, parents, community members, teachers, administrators, and more, and asking a series of questions on what the good life is to them. Then you're sharing this common vision out?
?: Two things. One that we think it's about the process and not the answer. You could send a survey to everybody and get some answers and then try and design from that. But we think it's about a process of having conversations about what it is we ultimately want. And the same way that as an individual, it's the reflection itself on your purposes, oftentimes more important than what you come out with as like what the actual purpose is. And then two that I think we often think about school as preparation for the future, but in the same way that Dewey would talk about that as being a false way of looking about it. It's actually about living today, how you want people to become. How we create habits of being for ourselves and with one another is the kind of society we're going to create. And so it's not so much about some future state, but rather about how do we live that now.
CM: And note, you can view all of re-envision ed's work, including videos and transcripts on their website. Nicole adds.
NH: We believe that this kind of conversation cannot draw solely from the opinions of policy elites or researchers, but it truly needs to be a collaborative meaning making process that involve stakeholders across the country, parents, teachers, students, community members. And so that is why we set the ambitious goal of capturing the voices of 10,000 people across the country and asking them to articulate their theory of change or schooling. So what makes a good life? What kind of society do they want to live in? Do they want their children to live in? What is the role of school in creating these lives in these communities? And do we think schools are currently playing that role and why or why not? And then do you think others agree with you? And we hope that these conversations remain things. The first of which is that we hope that the conversation itself is really powerful. I think something that Erin mentioned earlier is that it would be relatively easy for us to send out a Google survey to 10,000 people and say, hey, what do you think the purpose of school is? And we might get some interesting responses. And in fact, I think there is like a poll that does that currently. But what that doesn't allow for is to allow space for reflection to sit down with someone that you love and grapple with tough questions. And we believe truly that the power of the 10,000 interviews is not just in the number 10,000, but it's in the process of meaningful reflection of people you care about.
CM: So after we've gathered this data and we begin to interpret it, Erin likens our classrooms to a garden and in this case, a tomato garden.
ER: There are two things that teachers have control over, and it's not the like size, redness or like actual full development of the like tomato, an individual tomato itself, what they have control over is the school and classroom environment they create. And they have control over the experiences they design. And it turns out that human beings, similar to different tomatoes, we'll just keep pushing this metaphor, depend very heavily on the social environment that they're in and that we have social psychological needs that are just as important as our physical needs. So like food and water, we need, and you can think of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, right? But there's been a huge amount of research around like these core social psychological needs. And we have needs for a sense of autonomy, so a sense that like our actions are volitional. We have a need for competence. This is from social self-determination theory, Ryan and DC, it's like 40 to 50 years of research. We have a need to feel competent, and that doesn't mean in the way we often use that in schools, but in the sense of like, I can predict what the result of my behavior is going to be. So you can think about that and if you have a very unpredictable environment, it undermines your sense of competence, right? Like if you can't ever predict day to day what's going to happen, you feel less competent in it. We have a need for a relatedness with other people, right? We are like fundamentally and before anything else, social creatures. And so the need to feel seen and to be related to others is a core need. And then from a different body of literature, we have a need for meaning. Like we're constantly, we are meaning making creatures. We like, and part of that is like purpose, right? So you can think about that, but we make meaning in lots of different ways that ever like you can think about that through religion, through philosophy, lots of different ways of making meaning. But we have these four core needs. And when we design environments, I'm going to go through a couple of design principles. But I think one, there are things you can add. So for like autonomy support, you give kids more choice, you give more direction. You allow them the freedom to think about what it is that they want and how it aligns with their interests, right? There are also things that stand in the way. So I'm going to first go through the things that stand in the way, because oftentimes we think about adding things in, but actually it's just, I think we've largely designed schools to stand in the way of our ability to meet our core needs. And so thinking about that alienation and enemy. So when rules are too tight or too loose, if you have too much of a structure or too little of a structure, it makes people, it undermines people's sense of autonomy and their sense of competence. If you have a high shame, all of Renee Brown's work on shame and how that inhibits our ability to relate with others, to show up as our full selves in our environments. Scarcity has very predictable effects and not just scarcity of like money, but scarcity of time, scarcity of resources and thinking much educators. I mean, maybe I can just ask you like how much it just feels like there is never enough time. How much like we design like classrooms so that like in our 42 minutes and 30 seconds together every day, right, we're going to like get through all of these different things. Like there's just this constant enforced time scarcity as well as just never feeling like there are enough resources and that both inhibits our ability to like be empathetic with one another, actually inhibits your ability to like feel empathy for others. Think about when you're like really rushed to go to a meeting, right, and you pass by somebody and it looks like they're having a bad day, you're way less likely to stop. There's a ton to consider here.
CM:And if you want to learn more about Erin's research, I highly encourage you to check out her work in our show notes and at Reenvision Ed. And in addition to their work at Reenvision Ed, Erin and Nicole both were just hired on at The Future Project.
?: The Future Project aims to make sure that every person can build a life and world that they love, starting with youth. And right now, our main program is one in which we put dream directors in schools. So a dream director is like a new role in a school. It's like part role model, part coach, part mentor, part educator. And they work with a cohort of students to develop a set of mindsets and salesets to allow students to identify what it is they care about and pursue that. And to create projects that benefit their community, right? So to think about what it is they hope to see in their school and how they want to serve other students in their school. And so we're doing a case study, for instance, right now on one of our longest running dream directors. And really it's been a whole school transformation over six and a half years now, right? And really student led and student voice thinking about how to shift school culture in these particular ways. So our major program is one in which dream directors work with students in schools. And I think, oh man, where I know that we're in nearly 50 schools and I'm going to mess up the number of states, because we have like three different sites in Connecticut, but we're in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, DC, Chicago, Detroit, LA, and San Francisco. We've just launched a new program, which is a three day version. So you can think about dream directors as like really intervening in the entire ecosystem, right? Creating like a greenhouse, if you're thinking about that metaphor. But we've just launched a future camp, which is how many, how many sites are they visiting? So they've done three, but I think they're visiting 10 sites and it's like a three day intensive transformative experience for students where they go through a lot of the different exercises. They meet other students from other schools. So I think about 150 students from around the community come together and learn about each other and envision for their community and learn the skills to kind of begin driving change themselves.
CM: So in summary, check out these programs and see if they interest you. Re-envision ed is a free learning experience for your students to share their story and open that dialogue as well as you could take the survey yourself. Nicole explains what that process is like.
NH: I actually think for teachers to go through the interview process, the interview protocol that we have on our website. So even if teachers just look at the questions that we have in the interview protocol and do their own reflection on what they believe their personal theory of change of schooling is both at the individual and collective level, that vision becomes a grounding for the types of environments and experiences that they cultivate in their classrooms, the ways that they relate with students. I think that although my skill as an educator improved over my time in the classroom, that actually I was much closer to my personal vision for schooling in my first year of teaching although everything else was a disaster. I think that I am more proud of the work that I did in that first year because it was more in alignment with my values and my vision for school versus as I became more seasoned in the classroom, I think I adapted what I thought was important to what the system was reflecting back to me was important, what my school district was reflecting back to me as important. And so advice I would give to teachers walking into their classroom is to do that deep internal reflection on their personal theory of change for schooling and then almost pressure testing how their current environment and experiences are doing in cultivating the daily practice of that vision. Erin mentioned before this idea that if we want students to be curious and empathetic and kind, that that's not something you prepare them for in the future, that's something they have to practice daily. And so if we're really clear on the kinds of lives we want for children in the long term and the kind of societies that we want children to be a part of, then ensuring that our classrooms are daily reflections of those values and that vision. I have a lot of regrets of like how my teaching style changed over my time in the classroom because I had lost sight of that. And I wish that I could go back to those years and reprioritize the things that I knew to be true. Even though I was, you know, 22 years old, I think I was much closer than I was at the very end of my time.
CM:And that point that Nicole just made is the resounding theme of the rest of this podcast. There's so much to unpack and discover as we push for progressive educated values, letting children learn, removing rank and file standardization, stopping feel bad education and ensuring teachers are empowered to do so. The question becomes, how do we even do that? And how can we maintain our sanity while we push our developing collective vision?
Richard Loeper-Viti: And so I had an advantage a lot of teachers didn't have is I was working for 10 years and then got 10 years off basically and read nothing but recent wanted to see what could I do to improve how things work?
CM: This is Richard Loeper-Viti, an educator who finished a career at a top ranked charter school in the United States, then ventured overseas with his wife, a U.S. diplomat. While searching for work, he reminisced on the work of Alfie Kohn, which was recommended by one of his elite students' parents. And being a curious individual, he started to incorporate progressive ideas into parenting, as well as a new position at International School in Chengdu, China.
RLV: When I got into the school, it was finally a time after even a year of homeschooling my kids and doing all this research and reading, finally gave me an opportunity to say, alright, here's what I believe. Now, how do I implement it without getting fired? Because to go gradeless, I wanted students to direct their own learning. I wanted all these things that I've discovered work with my own children, with other children I came in touch with, with other people I knew who homeschooled and things like that. How do I help these students get that? And one of the very first new teacher orientation days, our headmaster said, what is one of the things in the next five years education better do to stay relevant? And I said, take up some of the principles of homeschooling and unschooling. And he said, I think you're exactly right. And so I knew I had a head of school now who was open to a lot of different things. And so I thought, alright, here we go.
CM: Richard taught IB English, which is an advanced program typically aimed at accelerated academics to both native and non-native speakers.
RLV: First the class that was on their first year, I said, here guys, here's what the IB gives me. You design the course, let's do it together. Why should I tell you what to study? And they loved it. And so we designed a two year scope and sequence that actually ended up changing because our desires changed. We found out we weren't as interested after one year in the stuff that we thought a year ago that we would be interested in. It was even this thing that wasn't set in stone, it could change as it went along. And because the IB has its own summative exam at the end of two years that gives them a score and kind of undermines a lot of the philosophy of the IB itself, I never had to grade anything. So it was easy to go gradeless and students direct their own learning, pick their own books, things like that, because the ethos of the IB was that way. And I had a headmaster that wanted to do it. And I had these students, and this class, there were 10 students in it, and I think one was from Brazil, one was from Taiwan, and the others were local Chengdu kids who got passports from somewhere else and allowed them to go to an international school. I didn't find any problems. I said they were open to it, they wanted to do it, they liked the idea of doing it. We even studied man's effect on nature, I think was the thing that we studied. And we actually used that as a way to discuss schooling's effect on the nature of an individual. And so they got into it. And even with students in that class had started a company while in the last two years of helping other Chinese kids understand how Westerners teach and what those philosophies are as sort of this after school program for kids in traditional Chinese schools. So they had a profitable company when he graduated and took a gap year to run it, and then he's at UC Berkeley now. So there's a lot of good things that were happening in that class. I didn't run into a problem though with the typical, what we would see as a stereotypical mindset of I need, you just tell me what to know and I will give it back to you until I'm one of top English A and did the same thing. These were for the more advanced English speakers, and they've had more exposure to Western ideas. Two of the students in the class didn't like the approach as much. They wanted to know what do I need to pass this IB exam with a six or seven and how do I, and just do that, don't give me choices, don't tell me, you know, tell me what I need. And so they were more resistant to it. And I found that it took a while to convince them. I had to convince them that, you know, I've taught at freshman composition at a university that was in grad school. I know where you're going. I want to ignore the exam right now and help give you the skills that will help you succeed best where you're going, not just pass the IB. I said, I can give you the skills you need for that exam two to four weeks leading up to the exam. Don't worry about that. We'll focus on that when it's necessary. And so it took a while. I had to build trust with them first.
CM: So then when I think about Chinese academics and assume that their idea of preparing for the future is rigorous traditional academics, is that not the case?
RLV: Right. And they did. The student who I told you ended up starting this company, he came from a mother who was in the military, but it was very interesting because they did open them up to art and other things. And he was a very diverse, he was a math physics guy, no doubt. It was interesting that these parents all had some kind of influence in that realm. For one of the girls in the class who was interested in economics and actually had started a business on her own, she painted dolls faces. I didn't even know there was a market for this, but people would send her expensive dolls because I thought, oh, I'll get her to do it for my daughter's for her birthday. I'll buy a doll and see if I couldn't afford the doll, what she charges to paint faces on them. And she was into economics. Well, of course, because she started, but her dad actually during one conference with her econ teacher said, what do you think about a girl studying economics? So her interest in this was maybe even a rebellion against this force in life. But otherwise there are a lot of students in that class who had parents that were very open to these ideas as well. And that's what I have to be grateful for as well. Not only a headmaster, it seemed like a convergence of a lot of forces at one time, but I had parents who never questioned, and I couldn't believe this, that I never gave a grade during the semester. And this is especially important in eighth grade English where there was an ABC grade. Never questioned the fact that not one assignment ever had a grade on it, but at the end of a semester, their kids had grades. They never questioned that because I had a whole room of kids working on different things. I had six of 12 kids in this class working on their own novels and by the end of the year, the six of them had 50,000 plus words at least of their own novel. I had other students who were in that class said, I want to work on this genre of writing. So I taught them how to look at a piece of writing that people have published in this genre and pick out little things to play with, little formal elements to play with and do that on your own. You can do that. And so they would submit writing and I'd give them comments and give it back and then they would work on a new piece and then rewrite this other piece. And so I let them establish, what is it that kind of grade you think you deserve for this? And then I talked to them after, we each have a conference, you know, 10 minutes with each kid and they would tell me what they think they earned and I had no reason to distrust them. It's amazing how few A's you still have when kids are grading themselves and kids I'm like, I'm not giving you a B, I'm going to give you an A, I'm sorry, I refuse to listen to you on this one because they're so, they've been beaten down so long. And a lot of the feedback was, you know, thanks for making me realize I could write, that I can learn to write, that I have something valuable, but the parents never questioned any of that. I think it was just, they trusted me. Their kids always came back with Mr. Lopavitti is doing this thing with me and I really enjoy it and I feel like I'm learning.
CM: So what I find interesting about your story is that it seems like progressive education practices just fall into place and work. We spend so much time trying to figure out how to engage kids with gimmicky lesson plans or make them comply with grades or outlandish like drill and kill practices. Only funding our education systems better to lower the number of students per class would be really beneficial. But even in spite of that, do you find that your stress and wellbeing as a teacher improved because you adopted progressive ed?
RLV: It became loads easier because I quit planning. I quit writing lessons. I had years of that and I got lucky. Every job I had in education after grad school, I had to design my own curriculum from scratch. I started at a school that was adding grades as they went along. So I was in on writing ninth grade curriculum, in on writing 11th grade curriculum. I taught at St. Albans in Washington DC, which is all boys school, all boys school and national cathedral school. They allowed me free reign to write the curriculum when I taught seventh grade and people have always allowed me to write curriculum and design lessons and all that. So I never worried about not being able to come up with something on the spot. I had this years of experience and so that was awesome because I could deal with each thing as it occurred and as was necessary. I didn't have to plan for a whole room of individuals, some who might not need anything that I have to say that day and might need a lot more previous to that to even get to where I was that day. And so it was wonderfully freeing and instead of worrying about lessons, I would go down and play basketball with kids during the break to get to know them better. I would hang out at lunch. I didn't worry about writing, you know, grading or anything at lunch because I had students come to my room and they would eat in my room and we, I joined them for lunch and I would get to know them. I mean, yeah, in some ways it's easier, but it's much more difficult because you have to be scared to death at some point that what if I'm wrong? What if, what if I'm not directing them the way they should be directed? What if, what if they don't get something vital? But I've always found that if you've developed that relationship and you, you really concern yourself with individuals that you're going to find out that if you do see somebody who needs something, like if a kid, kids want to go to school in college, well I do need to have them write a literary and now or understand how to develop a literary analysis. And as much as I hate, I think the analysis paper in English class has done more to destroy a love of reading than maybe anything else. My eighth graders, I did tell them, look, here's a skill you might want. Now I can give it to you, but I want you to select the book. I want you to, I'm not going to grade you on it, but I want you to see how we read. And so I let them select a novel and as a class we went through it together, talked about it. I showed them how I develop an idea for what a book might mean or, or, or something like that. And it worked. It worked out fine. But I've always found that kids will take recommendations if they trust you.
CM: Yeah. And it seems like building trust, developing positive relationships, it typically leads us to creating slightly revolutionary students, perhaps in a Paulo Freire-esque way. We're empowering students to understand and to an extent play the system, which if you're going to be giving students voice and choice, it kind of makes sense that you're using them under the blanket of traditional, you have to do this mentalities. You're kind of telling them about the system that they're playing.
RLV: I have used that, we're rebels against the whole system thing to motivate. I mean, that one class, the English B class that everybody bought in pretty quickly. I decided to give them sort of that final lecture thing. I said, look, we're talking all year. This final class period is yours. You each get what, 10 minutes, you give the whole class one final lecture. What is it you've gotten now for, as you're about to graduate high school? What is it you want us to know? I didn't know it was going to do this, but it ended up turning into a big crying fest about we've learned more than, this is the class that we've learned stuff in. This is the way that, and I've never done that as a way of seeking praise or something like that. It was a way of giving them another chance to voice us. What is it you really want everyone to know now that you're graduating about your experience? I even found out that one of the girls in the class who wanted to go study in Korea and go to Korean university, and interestingly enough, I spent a year and a half teaching in Korea too, and we talk about Korea and she was teaching herself the Korean language. I was the only person who told her that she should go and that I loved it, and everybody else was telling me, why would you want to go there, blah, blah, blah. And she on that day broke down. I had never even known over the last two years, my support of her dreams there meant so much. At the very end of that class, I said, look, I've never asked you guys for a favor, but on this last test in English, your English B exam, I'm going to ask for one favor, and that is prove me right. That's the only favor I want. If you do well on this exam, you're going to prove me right, and you're going to prove yourselves right. You're going to prove to everyone that there's a better way, a more humane way, and that the numbers showed that that grade on that exam for them was almost a full point higher than all their other exams. During the summer, I found out all the numbers, and I've since had lunch with some or things like that or been in communication with most of them, and I said, well, thank you because you did it. I think part of that mentality of we're fighting a system that hasn't been just to us, I think moved them in some ways. I know people can think it's hokey, I guess, but if we read Henry V, that's basically how he united all of Britain is he found, hey, let's attack France. Let's find a common enemy for all of us, and let's all gather around that common enemy.
CM: How then do we instill progressive vibes in the schools and convince other educators that these aren't hokey ideas? I know that some people see it as like the hippie kumbaya thing. We're all sitting around in a circle talking about how we feel, and that really isn't the point of recognizing individuals as people, although it certainly could be a major element, but how can we convince people that progressive education is honestly a lot more rigorous and challenging than traditional ed because we're letting students have so much of that control they're pushing themselves?
RLV: I've read some introductions, some books, where they go over the history of progressive ed, and these are books that are meant to discount progressive education. And I never found one of those books that alluded to the eight-year study.
CM: If you're not familiar, the eight-year study was conducted throughout the 1930s into the early 1940s, and it looked at students at progressively focused schools, ones that had cross-disciplinary classes, more arts and music programs, blended learning, and in general, a more fluid learning environment. It looked at everything from very traditional rank-and-file schools to really interesting experimental schools. And usually, what these results showed was that students outperformed their traditional counterparts in pretty much every realm, so academically, like your standardized testing, but also when it comes to social and emotional well-being, artistically, all sorts of different kinds of things. It's a pretty extensive study. And we can't miss the fact that these students were highly privileged. It's something that can potentially alter the findings because the schools that could do that were mostly more well-off kids. That doesn't mean, though, that we couldn't ensure that for all of our schools.
RLV: And then the Cold War came about, and of course, everybody reverted back to more, we have to get the rigor and the science of math, blah, blah, blah. And we kind of disbanded the idea, but the information that's out there is always going to be skewed. And so, yeah, the more information that can get out there, the more, and I don't know how many people I've talked to in education who don't know about the eight-year study. And I've yet to hear somebody say, it was a terrible study for this reason or that it failed. All I've heard is it did show this one thing. People say explicit learning is shown to work. I have evidence of it. Okay, under what condition and what did it work for? Show me the evidence that it works without using a score increase on either a grade or a standardized test. Well, that's not there. So what is it working for? The stereotypes that are out there, and people love to make fun, oh, lack of rigor, oh, we're going to run around and sing Kumbaya, like you said, more people showing that that's not the case. And when kids set their goals and they have a mind to do so, they'll work their tails off for it. Never seen the opposite to be true. I've seen kids do amazing things and I've seen a lot of athletes, I mean, look at the athletes who choose to play a certain sport, they'll kill themselves to be good at that sport and any other hobby or game or activity. Kids who want to be great guitarists, man, they go to the store and they just start banging away on that guitar over and over. I'm glad no one told Dave Grohl to go back to school and start doing that homework and get really good. I'm glad his mom let him tour to Europe with a band at 17 so he could continue playing because I kind of like some of the music Dave Grohl has put out and I benefit greatly from his mom's open-mindedness to the path he should have taken. And not everybody's going to be that, but we don't know where everybody's going to head. I find that I've read most of the stuff the other camp has read, they haven't necessarily read the stuff I've read. And I don't mean to get on my high horse or sound braggy right now, but if that's true, why don't we all read all the same stuff and see what happens?
Anne Connolly: I always believe strongly that every child and every human has gifts and strengths that really place them in a valuable role in society. We all have our different strengths and weaknesses and a place where we're needed within society.
CM: Anne Connolly is a special ed and inclusion specialist in Ontario who has been teaching for 20 years embracing a progressive mentality.
AC: And I guess my own experience really kind of deepened when as a mom, I was faced with the disappointing reality that this progressive, inclusive, positive approach was not encouraged or embraced by all teachers or classrooms or schools. When my first child, my daughter, who was a very naturally, very bright, funny, curious, articulate child started school, I was shocked and saddened that she didn't like school at all. Her kindergarten experience was not particularly welcoming or engaging. The school that she attended, the primary school she attended here in Ontario was a very highly rated school. It performed very well on our standardized EQAO tests, but it quite literally completely failed my daughter and other kids as well in terms of engagement, social skills, inclusion, and her mental health and her overall wellbeing were quite honestly damaged at that school. She was bullied, she was not supported, she was made to feel stupid, she was humiliated and ultimately not supported by the adults in the buildings from all the way from the teachers to the principal and me as a teacher, I kind of knew how to try to get in there to get that support for her, but we were not successful and we witnessed firsthand how detrimental such an unsupportive negative school environment could be, how detrimental it can be on a child and she had everything else going for her. This is a child who came from a great family, a great home life, socioeconomic status, she was at an advantage, at a privilege from the beginning and it just destroyed her. At the time, it really broke our heart, but as I've healed my heart, I've become stronger in my own commitment to positive progressive education and like I said, it was always there, but it just made me realize that, wow, it really isn't everywhere and it needs to be, like it's so critical for, and I love how you guys call it the human restoration project, like there's no other way to say it. When you were talking about positive progressive practices, can you go into more detail about what those are?
AC: Going from strengths, giving the kids choice, giving the kids voice, letting them have a say in the classroom environment, letting them, not everyone does well sitting at a desk. So again, flexible seating, like these are just some of the things, technology these days, assistive technology is fantastic for so many kids. I mean, it's a universal design for learning in the sense of, it's not just good for kids who have learning disabilities, it's great for all kids and these are the kinds of things that we have to just, I guess, I think maybe teachers sometimes are afraid to take risks and to, I guess, think outside the box and so it's very, it seems easier to just check off the curriculum and follow that very safe plan, but I don't know, I find it actually easier, easier to go with the kids, let them, and then they, when we give them that kind of autonomy or that kind of power, I just, I don't love the word power, but that kind of independence, they thrive, they will take it and they will run with it and the things you see are just beyond your expectations. When we know how we want to try, how to try and bring out the best in them, but we have to trust them that maybe they know and they know their limits and they know their strengths and their weaknesses and of course, as educators, we want to push them beyond their limits and we want them to reach their potential, but I honestly think when you've got a kid in the zone and engaged and interested, they push their own limits. It's not external, it's totally intrinsic motivation at its truest form.
CM: It seems like those notions are heavily reflected in what the best classrooms are doing throughout the country. Ironically, most of the time the teacher seems to get in the way and really just needs to take that risk, as you said, and letting kids control much of what happens in a practical authentic way. We could drastically change classrooms tomorrow if we just asked, what do you want to do? How does all this translate then into inclusion and special education?
AC: I'm a SERC teacher, S-E-R-C. I have a special education resource classroom, which I love because I still have my own group of kids. I can create that classroom, that great classroom community, classroom vibe, really get to know my students, but I only have them for 50% of the day, so they are included. They are absolutely integrated into the other classes. They come to me for 50% of the day for language and math only. I find that a lot of that project-based learning and a lot of those other really great pedagogical models, those work so well in science and social studies and history and geography. In language and math, I do have to do it. It's a little bit different in there. I teach primary, so I teach the younger ones, so we're starting from the beginning. But I guess in terms of, for example, time, we were starting to look at time on an analogue clock, which nobody really uses anymore, but as we were talking, as I was showing it, the kids were watching videos about it, we were talking about it, they made their own clocks. Just paper plate clocks, nothing fancy, but we kind of realized that the whole purpose of time and the idea that it's cyclical and that it goes around, and it was through exploring kind of that model, working with the round paper plates, making the little hands go around, like all that physical movement, creating it themselves, making their own colors, noticing that there's big numbers that count the hours, there's the little numbers that count the minutes. And I have a little boy, he's in grade two, he's language impaired, and he's been struggling a lot, but once he realized the connection between the hours and the minutes, he was able to tell time to the quarter of an hour, to 15 minutes. And that's not even part of his grade two curriculum, never mind the fact that he's on an IEP, and it's beyond what he should be doing. So I guess when I think about it now, it does work its way into my class, but I definitely, as a classroom teacher, a regular classroom teacher, kind of, I guess, maybe more progressive type of teaching and the two choice and voice, that definitely came more integrated with science and social studies. But I guess now that I'm thinking about it, I do do it in math almost naturally, without even thinking about it, you know what I mean? It's almost not, I didn't think it was that type, but it really is.
CM: Right, right. And in the same vein, progressive education isn't necessarily that we have to do experiential learning, or we have to do a certain type of education. It's that, as you said, we're providing students with the outlet and voice to take control of that education, and then offering those experiences as a potential outcome. It's not all or nothing. You can have direct instruction, as long as the students are consentful towards actually accepting that direct. And I talk to kids all the time that want that experience, and that's perfectly fine. It's not about an all or nothing thing. We have circumstances like, for example, at a special education facility at a primary school, where we want to assist young people in reading basic math. You know, it makes sense sometimes. And I found, too, that for older kids, high schoolers, our more advanced topics are actually brought to life by students doing more experiential learning and doing something that's a little more experimental, probably because it's very much a propose your own way of learning type thing. So students on IEP or 504, it's naturally differentiating.
AC: It really is universal design for learning, like UDL in my special education training, you know, that's something obviously we learned about differentiated instruction and universal design for learning, like you can't go wrong, you're gonna, you're gonna allow the academically inclined students to succeed and do well. And you're opening a door of, you know, possibilities and entry points and just different ways for those, those kind of different learners to think outside of the box and to succeed outside of the box.
CM: Based off your experiences of being a mother and elementary educator, what recommendations do you offer teachers who want to engage a class which is inclusive?
AC: Getting to know them, like establishing a relationship, getting to know their talents, their passions, their fears, what they're really good at. As soon as you know what makes them tick, then you use that and you weave it any way you can into whatever curriculum you're trying to teach or whatever subject you're trying to teach. So one of my little fellows, I know he's very artistic and he's really good at art. So when it came to making his clock, he got to decorate it and, you know, add color, whereas the other ones, some of the other ones who wouldn't be as artistic, they didn't, they didn't go in that direction. So it gives them kind of a sense of ownership and pride and a reason to be intrinsically motivated to really want to do this work. Because a lot of times with some of these kids, it's, I mean, some of the, some of the stuff we have to teach them is so, to them, it's so random, it's so unimportant. And we just, we got to find a way to hook them and to get them interested and to show them why it's relevant or why it's valuable or, and, and, you know, oftentimes we do that by just finding something they like. You know, I had this little, little boy who loved Batman, so wherever I could fit Batman in, Batman was there. Just again, just to keep them engaged, allowing the kids, giving them tools, a variety of tools, variety of strategies to kind of support them. So for example, again, so in math, we've spent a lot of time kind of exploring different tools, for example, hundreds charts and number lines, which are really, really great for almost any type of math. Once you've kind of introduced it to them, given the kids a bunch of different experiences, exploring them in different ways, creating them, dissecting them, kind of deconstructing them, constructing them, working with them in different ways, then the students are able to kind of say, you know what, I prefer, I like working with this, this is going to help me. And then giving them choice again, giving them choice, letting them see what works for them, what makes sense to them. We want to expose them and share different options of tools and strategies that will help them, but ultimately they need to make the choice of what's going to work for them, and giving them that responsibility and that independence, even for a grade two student, even for a little one.
CM: I love the point you bring up surrounding elementary students. I don't think we believe in them enough. We certainly say we do, but people assume that things like expositions of learning, celebrations when students present at the end of the year is too much for younger kids, but kids know what they're doing. They might need a little nudge towards something sometimes, but it isn't a uniform learning process for every seven-year-old. We can do a lot of different things. In the same line of thought, what are your concerns then for inclusive practice in particular?
AC: People, sometimes teachers, educators, parents, administrators, we kind of think that just by putting a bunch of kids in a class together, that's inclusion, and it couldn't be further from the truth because putting a bunch of different kids with different strengths, different weaknesses, different issues, I guess, in a room, different personalities, they need coaching and modeling, and they need constant, I don't want to say supervision, but instruction or coaching. Maybe coaching is a better word, and how to relate to one another because inclusion is not a physical thing. Inclusion is not putting them in a room together, and there we have it. It's a relationship. It's a deep connection to feel included, and I think that is one of the biggest, scariest things is that teachers don't understand that putting them in the room together is one thing, but we have to teach them, coach them. We have to model how to respect one another. Even if we don't like each other, we still have to find a way to get along. I know, for example, in September, a lot of classes, classrooms, teachers, they're establishing classroom rules or classroom expectations. Things can't just be talked about in September and written on a chart and stuck on the wall. It has to be lived and experienced, and the kids have to breathe it. You have to talk about it all the time and integrate it and show it explicitly and deliberately. The way you just said that to her, that wasn't very respectful. Is there another way you could phrase it? Or you're having a difficulty with that student. How can you solve that problem and coaching them through those things? I think the biggest mistake we make is that we don't know how to teach inclusion. We don't know how to really make it happen. And that's scary because as soon as the teachers aren't looking, that's when the bullying happens. That's when the kids will say or do something. And especially, I'm just thinking, I know my daughter's experience and lots of other kids that I teach, kids with LDs, dyslexia, who have terrible spelling. I mean, all day long, those kids are writing, expected to write. All day long, they're making spelling errors. And all day long, the other kids are just giving them a look or making a comment, or that's not how you spell this, or that's not how you spell that. And it cuts them to the core. And if you really are able to teach the whole idea of respect and appreciation and the fact that we all have different talents, we all have strengths, we all have weaknesses. You might be a great speller in the class. You may struggle with spelling, but guess what? He's going to be able to help you with art or with math or music or something like that. That's what they need. And I don't mean to, I guess, get down on teachers because, yeah, the way the system is structured, it's really hard for teachers to do all that they need and want to do. So it's not individual teachers, individual schools, although in some cases it is. But overall, the system is just not designed to allow us to do our jobs to the best with, I guess, the right priorities in mind. And yeah, it's standardized testing and all this kind of strict, rigid curriculum. It doesn't help. Yeah. And then on the other side of that is these kids who are struggling for so many different reasons. I mean, it doesn't really matter if it's an over-diagnosis or an under-diagnosis. The bottom line is these kids are struggling. They're struggling with whether it's the type of classroom environment they're in or whether it's something within their own past, their own mental health, their own trauma. There's a lot of stress and anxiety in the world all around and it rubs off on kids. That's a whole other area of exploration that I'm kind of delving into, into the self-reg world, self-regulation and kind of healing that part of kids and adults. But yeah, parents and as a parent of a kid who had an LD, ADHD, who struggled a lot, it's really hard for parents too because there's so much shame and there's so much blame and there's so much that we feel responsible for. And sometimes we have to just acknowledge that there's a lot out of our control. We feel like we need to be in control of everything and we're not. But again, I think it all comes back to the idea that we all kind of have our strengths and our weaknesses and we all just need to focus on the priorities and everything will fall into place, I think.
CM: Hey, thanks again for listening into Things Fall Apart here at The Human Restoration Project. If you enjoy what you're listening to so far, be sure to check us out on our Patreon, which you can access at humanrestorationproject.org. If you support us on Patreon, we'll give you all of our blog postings from all of our contributors and an electronic magazine every couple months. That way it's a little bit easier to keep up on and read and learn a lot about what we're talking about and a lot of things that are backed by solid foundational research. Thank you. One thing that I wonder through all this is, are we pushing for something that some people really don't like? They consider progressive ed counter to the goals of education or the good life. And that adds a lot of stress. Not only are teachers underpaid, undervalued, and often misrepresented, they now have the added burden of feeling like they're doing something wrong, as in it feels like bad teaching to make some of these transitions, as we're going against really what we might have learned in college or maybe we saw in a quote unquote good classroom growing up. Someone working really hard to change that narrative and help teachers cope is Gamal Sherif, who has taught across middle and high schools for the last 20 years, serving as a fellow with the U.S. Department of Education and is now an ambassador for the UN Sustainable Goals Project. He thinks it's time to develop the hashtag sustainable teacher.
Gamal Sherif: We really want to take care of our kids. We want our kids to be engaged. A lot of us, I assume, have enjoyed school or were good at school in the past. So there's this achievement orientation that is part of what we bring to the classroom. Not a bad thing. However, part of that really or has the potential to impinge upon our energy for our kids and for ourselves. So the first thing about the sustainable teacher is, one, self-care. And I think that's something that teachers need to be more explicit about. Sometimes I wonder if we are a little bit shy about saying that we have our own needs or saying no to colleagues or administrators. That's where I would start the conversation with the sustainable teacher is learning to take care of the self so that you have more for your students and colleagues.
CM:: Right, right. This overwhelming stress reminds me of bell hooks, who talks about in Teaching to Transgress that concept of educators trying progressive teaching practices. And she explains that, you know, students weren't sitting straight up anymore and they weren't responding in that trained fashion we've taught them to do. And maybe they were a little bit more rebellious, which makes sense because it's the first time maybe that they ever had more freedom. And then the teacher quickly doubles down on traditional practice because they became nervous because they felt like they were losing that control of the quote unquote good classroom.
GS: Well, yeah, in my worst days, I revert to get it done kind of mode, which is not good for me or for my students. So it is I think you're right about this double consciousness part of the teacher experience, because on one hand we're put on a pedestal and on the other hand, we're sort of like disrespected and told, we are told do what you have to do what you're told. So it really does not, you know, and all those voices are coming at us telling us different things about who we are, our value in the classroom. And parents have their own stories about teachers. Kids have their own stories. And I get I guess coming back to the sustainable teacher, we have our own stories that we tell ourselves as well. So the quality of our self-talk has to be something that we look at to make sure that we are not deluding ourselves and that we are having messages about what we think is valuable.
CM: As we progressed in our conversation, Gamal and I spoke about what progressive ed actually is. I think most people listening in have a general consensus, but in the same way that we don't necessarily all agree on what a good life is, there's differences in what someone means by progressive ed. Those voices, in addition to all the others from the other side or the traditional side, if you will, can be overwhelming.
GS: Well, you know, it's weird because there's so many different voices about that. There are people who are advocates of social justice who think that we need high-stakes standardized tests to hold teachers accountable to make sure that there is racial and economic equity. And I just don't get that argument because it seems to me that what we want to do within education in general and within progressive education in particular is to foster individual liberty, a child's love of learning. If they're not loving learning, then we have work to do as educators, as stewards of their learning. But then again, over in Ecotopia, there's this recent Twitter back and forth about teachers having these cooperative meetings with students and saying, based on your needs, let's design a plan of study. And so many people that I have respected in the progressive education circles are saying that it's just rubbish, that it's a terrible framework. And there was something about the way it was written that kind of got on my nerves too. There's this cognitive dissonance about what we experience in our schools. I think there are a couple of good books that have helped me reframe and focus on developing my own narrative, but also not being independent from whatever else was going on around me. It's important to acknowledge that there are stressed out administrators who are worrying about the standardized test scores and colleagues who have those classes who are being affected in some kind of way.
CM: Yeah, it makes sense that we need to instill a love of learning before anything else. That intrinsic motivation is sort of the entire point. I think there's a lot of room for productive debate within the education community, but the harder question for me has always been, how do we even start this conversation with someone who's not even willing to consider it?
GS: Yeah, that's a good question. I think one strategy is to have teachers take more stewardship of professional development. And I think that means in part identifying institutional goals. There's something that a principal or superintendent understands about a system that is just hers because of her perspective, her viewpoint. So what are the values or what are the go-to goals for an institution? We need to marry those with what we think teachers need and what we know about what students need. So professional development in professional learning communities as one model is a way to have teachers experience grade-less learning as they identify opportunities or problems, as they work together over time, months or weeks, and then coming together to present and share what they've learned. For the value of learning, for the value of the collaboration, and for the value of enriching the school learning environment, no grades needed. But when they experience their own stewardship of their own learning, they are in a position to transfer that experience to their classmates. But unless it's part of the school-wide culture, it's a really challenging position to be in.
CM: I think a lot of it, too, is just a misunderstanding of what progressive education is. We were talking earlier about the characterization of progressive ed being completely hands-off, and that's not really true. It could be depending on the learners. We could definitely have multiple different options, but we're still mentors and coaches. You know, I don't scream at kids, I don't take away their cell phones, nothing like that, but I certainly encourage kids to focus and prompt them to meet the goals that they're setting for themselves.
GS: I also tell my kids, if you have your cell phone out, you should be using it for research or to learn something during this activity. So either A, you're by yourself doing your own research, pursuing your own questions, or B, you're with a small team planning and reviewing your research, or you're doing some other kind of learning. But I mean, I don't even mind, you know, those quick study breaks when the kids are just playing on their little games like jewels or gems or whatever it is. Those little five-minute breaks or three-minute breaks are okay. I prefer maybe we do some more mindfulness. But yeah, and people see that as lack of discipline, but it's not lack of caring. And actually there is a form of discipline in there because it's the helping children arrive in a place where they can take care of themselves and take care of their classmates. If they have that self-discipline to not be off task or, which is a loaded word, or just to be wasting time, that is something that a lot of them are uncomfortable with. And I think that we, I can get more assertive about creating those spaces for students to make choices. I also think that we should look at the long term because I do have high school kids over months or over four years. I think I've seen kids grow in that direction and when they increasingly become more comfortable. One question I have though is when you exist in a school that has a lot of teachers who are tired or fed up or burnt out or defaulting to command and control.
CM: Plus having the backing of a progressively minded leader, like a principal, that's huge. Someone has to hold everything together or else you have to band together and basically rebel against your superior.
GS: Yeah, I think it's really good to have administrators who understand what you're seeing and setting up opportunities to succeed across the school for that kind of thinking. The counter to progressive education for me has been this structured, data-driven, concrete, procedural, teacher-proof way of doing school. Whereas the possibilities with progressive education are endless. And I think that might be a little bit worrisome to administrators or colleagues, teachers, because if you have this different value of framework, what's the pathway to get kids to want to learn? If you have 30 kids in your classroom, God forbid, if you have 20 kids in your classroom, there's probably 20 ways to get kids to want to learn. And that can be kind of challenging for people or worrisome.
CM: Right. So as progressive teachers that are facing all these different voices, including their own cognitive dissonance of what's best for kids, something that we're always thinking and worrying about, how do we then avoid burnout?
GS: Well, I, you know, and going to work every day in that setting, again with that cognitive dissonance, knowing what needs to happen and seeing that there's not capacity is a tough burden to carry. So one of the things that I've done to avoid burnout is take lots of naps, get to bed on time. I read a really good book by Barbara Larrabee called Cultivating Teacher Renewal, which is a terrific guide about the habit of positive thinking without hiding your head in the sand. But I also have discovered the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for transforming curriculum, instruction, assessment and policy. These are sustainable development is much more of a social and economic thing for me in education. I'm like, what else are we working on? So all like no matter what happens in society, no matter what kids are experiencing, when they walk into a school, it should be a beautiful place with clean water. It should also have opportunities for kids to understand how to conserve energy and model that and practice that because looking at the planet, I think we have a little window here. There has to be a commitment to like playgrounds and open space where kids can just be. And I'm not just talking for little kids, I'm talking big kids, you know, they need to have access to nature. So every school should have a green band, a little wildlife habitat, convert the parking lot, please, into a green space that kids can understand and be part of nature. I think it's good for their brains. And I think that advisory is a very concrete thing within the school that needs to be a, that can be a mechanism, a strategy, a scheduling opportunity to have the critical conversations where it's one to 15 or one to 20 a couple times a week, not just for 10 minutes to get your trans pass for the bus, but to actually have longer classes with a like low bar grading, like one or two assignments a quarter. I'm getting to the nitty gritty here, but I just, it's like, it's like the value of advisory is a way to help foster social, emotional learning. I think there needs to be a real commitment to that. And when kids, when kids experience it and teachers experience it, it transforms the school.
CM: In conclusion, whose role is it then to decide what kids learn and what will lead them on a path to the good life? I think based on the arguments laid out here, that we should just listen, learn, and do whatever the individual decides. That might seem kind of lackadaisical or not very conclusive, but we don't really spend enough time listening and learning from students, nor do we really give them that much of a voice. We need children not only involved in planning our classrooms, they should be involved in meetings and school planning. They should be constantly sharing what matters to them. I feel like I don't let students share enough in my class about what they want to do. We might start off with it, we might do halfway points, but it has to be a constant process. And what they think, it might matter in the future, it might not, but the main thing is that it matters to them right now. We're meeting students where they're at. And there's certainly a place for teachers to implement their own expert opinions on what a good life is. There has to be some kind of voice of a teacher, but it's not a top-down policy or standardized movement. It's going to matter to the local community, it's going to matter to an extent their personality and their background, and that's all absolutely fine. There's an art to teaching. We are experts, we have our own purpose, but we have to kind of push for trust with our students in order to make those decisions. I can pump in, you know, 20, 30, maybe even 40 percent of what I think is important to students if they trust me and they know that I'm doing what I believe is best for them, while still making sure that, again, we're giving up the majority of our time to serving their needs. There's practically no way to figure out what the future is going to hold, but the best we can do is give them the reins. I hope you enjoyed listening in today. You can find a bunch of helpful links and background information in our show notes. Also, be sure to check us out on our website at humanrestorationproject.org. And if you like our content, consider supporting us on Patreon. Let's continue to restore humanity to education. Thank you.