"You are 'the education system'…"

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An adapted version of this post appears in GOOD as
Stop Exploring ‘Innovative Education Models’: We Need Action Now


You Are ‘the Education System’:”


C.H.I.L.D. and “the Hyper-Local Stage”


Chris Thinnes


So the question before us is how do we affect change?
– Chris Lehmann, ‘Organize

The time has come for us to retake the language of school reform.
– Chris Lehmann, ‘Disrupt Disruption

I have been drawn in recent weeks to a slew of impassioned posts from several strong voices in our field, each managing more than the last to suggest to me that we — all of us invested, personally and professionally, in the lives and the futures of our children and our schools — are headed towards a defining moment in the history of our schools. Some of these posts — in simple, indisputable, and resolute statements — have announced a shift from explorations of more effective models of teaching and learning to our ethical imperatives to implement them.

Jonathan Martin, for example, in an authoritative survey of research on project-based learning, confirms that “instead of talking about whether PBL will work, we should focus on what is needed to make it work for our schools and students.” Similarly, Bo Adams invites us to turn our attention from discussions about the importance of student voice and self-direction, and to more intentional efforts to honor them:

For student learners to develop deep degrees of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, cross-cultural competency, computational capacity, etc., don’t we need to facilitate them having more control over their learning? Less sitting and getting. More choosing and doing. Don’t we know at least that much about motivation, relevancy, cognitive commitment, heartfelt conviction, grit, and perseverance?

With reference to these and several other key movements in our public and private schools, Grant Lichtman confirms that the conditions for meaningful and systemic educational change have never been more ideal. In inviting us to “Join the Flamethrowers,” he roots this moment in its historical context, appealing to principles that have been awaiting our reinvested energies, and current dynamics, for nearly a century:

Will we succeed?  Will education for every student look dramatically different ten years from now?  Will we break the shackles of the industrial age model of school that we KNOW is not the best we have to offer? I don’t know. I do know that we have found the path. We have found that those brushfires light the way back to what John Dewey, the Progressives, and the keepers of the Progressive Era flame knew all along.

Bo Adams frames our roles, and our relationship to this moment, by describing the simple and essential decision we’ll have to make: “Schooling and education are experiencing a grand revolution… Schools can be leaders or left behind in this revolution. It’s a choice.”

The most vocal leaders of this kind of change in our schools’ principles and practices are often mistaken for the very interests that have tried to co-opt their energies. The rampant (and arguably propagandistic) misrepresentation of public schools (in general) and profit-driven corporate reform efforts (in particular) has inflamed a national conversation that baits educators, trumpets the ‘failings’ of our school system, and misleads the public to understand that our national ‘education system’ needs to be ‘saved’ by the same kinds of policy and punditry that savaged our schools in the first place. As Chris Lehmann writes with typical grace, acuity, and insight:

For folks who are arguing for a more humane, more inquiry-driven, more citizenship-minded, more modern education, it seems daunting. The forces that seem to be working against this kind of education are many. We are out-spent by those who would argue that workforce-driven, test-measured education is what we really need in this country. Worse, the very language of our best ideas often seem co-opted by those who, in the end, seem to be creating a very different kind of schooling than what our best ideas are really about.

Lehmann poses what, in our current climate — a warm front of passionate energies for meaningful change to develop more effective and engaging schools, on the one hand, and a cold front of repressive and subversive energies stifling and subverting educators, creativity, and leadership — could be the single most important question of all: “So the question before us is how do we affect change?” He invites us to consider a solution rooted in local circumstances, and designed by local stakeholders:

What we need now is a new kind of organization – one that unites teachers and student and parents and admins who all believe that school can be more powerful than it is now. Maybe this isn’t a national organization at first. Maybe this is district by district, school by school. Maybe the time has come for fewer “Education Nation” moments, and more town halls…

Perhaps the answer is to win the argument on a different stage – the hyper-local stage…

What if – in cities and towns all over the country – we saw parents and educators (who are often the same people, it should be noted) and students and community members come together to discuss their best vision of what they hope school to be? What if, rather than the rhetoric of “fixing broken schools” that we hear so often from the edu-corporate reform movement, we had a grass-roots movement articulating our best ideas for what we hope a modern education could be? And what if we actually all worked together to make those dreams real – parents, students, teachers and admins all working toward a common vision and a common plan?

Planning months before an event that took place this past November, similar hopes bubbled up in conversation with Richard Gerver about how we might best facilitate a shared conversation between public and private school stakeholders — educators and parents/guardians — to develop a set of common principles on which meaningful school change could be based. With the participation of the event’s other facilitators and presenters — Carol Dweck, Nikhil Goyal, Steven Jones, Ken Kay, Alfie Kohn, Wendy Mogel, Ken Robinson, and Yong Zhao — we invited teachers and parents to weigh in on their highest hopes for their students and children; helped to identify patterns of shared belief; and facilitated reflection and feedback on a ‘covenant’ of common principles that might, as Sir Ken Robinson put it, serve as “a framework for collaborative action that could take us a very long way into creating the kinds of education systems that we need.” Our hope was that the ‘crowd-sourced’ input, inclusive process, and collaborative design of the “Covenant to Help Inspire Learning & Development (C.H.I.L.D.)” might provide, if nothing else, a model for how such grassroots change in our learning communities might be pursued.

Below I’ve excerpted significant portions of the original material from the CFEE site, in the event that these resources might be helpful to fostering further discussion of systemic change on Lehmann’s grassroots model, or specific action in your learning community on a model of your own design. Feel free to borrow freely, to adapt, or to abandon any less helpful elements as you choose. You’ll find an overview of the background of this covenant, a link to a discrete .pdf copy, videos of panelists’ reflections on the document and its implications, and presentation slides that can be adapted to facilitate conversation in your neck of the woods.

You’ll also find a video with some of Sir Ken Robinson’s commentary — words among those that have been the most inspiring to me in recent years. As Chris Lehmann notes, “the time has come for us to retake the language of school reform.” Ken Robinson demonstrates just why, and how, we can do it:

‘The Education System’ is not what happens in the anteroom to Arne Duncan’s office, or in the debating halls of our state capitals. ‘The education system’ is the school they go to. If you are a school principal, you are ‘the education system’ for the kids in your school. If you are a teacher, you are ‘the education system’ for the children in your classroom. And if you change your practice — if you change your way of thinking — you change the world for those students. You change ‘the education system.’

And if enough people change, and they’re connected in the way they change, that’s a movement. And when enough people are moving, that’s a revolution.


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Covenant to Help Inspire Learning and Development



Instead of standing on the shore and proving
to ourselves that the ocean cannot carry us,
let us venture on its waters just to see.
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

NOTE: The following document is based on crowdsourced input, elaborate analysis, and collaborative review and revision by nine leading voices in education and child development: You are encouraged to use this document to facilitate continued reflection and action in your learning community, at school or at home. To provide suggestions for how to promote those conversations, or for help facilitating further dialogue and action, please contact us [see contact form in the sidebar]. 



In the context of a gathering on November 10, 2012*, nine leading voices on education and child development — Carol Dweck, Richard Gerver, Nikhil Goyal, Ken Kay, Alfie Kohn, Steven Jones, Wendy Mogel, Ken Robinson, and Yong Zhao — engaged more than 600 educators and parents from 125 private and public schools in reflection on our deepest commitments to the lives and the learning of school-aged children at school and at home. What follows is a statement of common principles — shaped by participants’ input and these leaders’ collaborative reflection and design — that may help schools and families to determine how best to support our highest aspirations for the welfare of the children in our care.

As Sir Ken Robinson noted in his contribution to the dialogue, “there are many practices to share, but the practices will all be different. They’ll be vernacular in nature. They’ll be customized and crafted to local circumstances.” Nevertheless, our collective efforts, in collaboration within and between our schools and our homes, “should adhere to certain common principles.”

In that spirit, we invite schools and families to examine what practices might authentically support these principles, and what practices might predictably defy them. This covenant, affirming our common commitments, might therefore serve as “a framework for collaborative action that could take us a very long way into creating the kinds of education systems that we need.”

As educators and parents/guardians, we believe that we should develop a culture of learning defined by intentional practices that explicitly honor the following principles.


Student Engagement

1. Nurture each child’s great curiosity, interest, and potential to achieve high levels of success
2. Allow learning to develop at a pace determined by the child’s needs and interest
3. Honor the voice of students and promote self-awareness and expression
4. Honor children’s questions and value their opinions
5. Develop independent thought and self-efficacy in a community of engaged learners
6. Provide explicit opportunities for unstructured and uninterrupted play


Character & Community

7. Foster interdependence and collective responsibility as members of a learning community
8. Encourage resilience, persistence, and responsibility in the face of ambiguity, challenge, or conflict
9. Promote ethical decision-making with a balance of critical thought and compassion
10. Develop children’s cultural competencies to include, respect, and support each other


Deeper Learning

11. Promote learning in meaningful contexts of experience and ‘real world’ challenges
12. Develop children’s abilities to solve problems creatively and collaboratively
13. Support critical thought about information and media to which children have access
14. Promote interdisciplinary learning without compartmentalizing ‘subjects’ and ‘departments’
15. Connect children’s learning to opportunities to make a better world
16. Discontinue practices and policies likely to undermine a child’s love of learning







During the afternoon session of “Teaching and Learning at Home and at School,” panelists Carol Dweck, Richard Gerver, Nikhil Goyal, Steven Jones, Wendy Mogel, and Yong Zhao introduced, joined, and responded to small group discussion of “The Covenant to Help Inspire Learning and Development (C.H.I.L.D.)” among educators and parents representing 125 schools and districts. The following videos document this session in two parts.

Further information and related resources (including copies of original facilitation slides) are provided below the embedded videos. 

1. More Power Than We Think:
An Invitation to Collaboration, Reflection, & Action

Drawing inspiration from Sir Ken Robinson’s presentation, Richard Gerver reminds educators and parents that we have more control than we think — urging us to empower ourselves and, thus, to empower our students and children. Sharing highlights of his experience of transformative leadership at Grange Primary School, Gerver frames the following small-group reflections on the “Covenant to Help Inspire Learning and Development (C.H.I.L.D.)” as “a celebration of your power, your professionalism, and your passion” to transform our educational system.  



2. What the Revolution Can Look Like:
Panelists Respond to Group Discussions

“I heard people saying ‘Thank God for this day,'” says Carol Dweck at the start of the panelists’ reflections on small group conversations with educators and parents. Dweck, Gerver, Goyal, Jones, Mogel, and Zhao respond to challenges in our collective efforts to transform our schools, provide strategies for seeding further reflection and action in our learning communities, and share their thoughts on how to “reconfigure ‘success'” in our educational system.  







You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • Grant Lichtman

    I think there is 80% agreement on what “it” looks like; I think there has been for some time. The problem is that schools are not rich in innovation or change DNA, so the majority of people may be able to parrot the words and intent, but they don’t actually know what “it” looks like in the classroom, and once knowing, they don’t know to make it happen. I completely agree with Sir Ken: we need to massively increase connectivity opportunities amongst actual teaching professionals, not amongst consultants and authors. I have some ideas how to do this and am sure others do as well…count me in!