One of the most fundamental errors we make as problem solvers is to define a problem in an overly narrow way, in essence limiting our success from the very beginning.
Perhaps this is what we are doing with education.
When I reflect on my own efforts to add value in the field, they have focused largely on introducing innovation within systems that are inherently insensitive and unresponsive. My approach has been one of strategy and mediation, delicately avoiding areas of extreme dysfunction while creating pockets of shared interest and capacity.
The ultimate limitation of this approach was recently revealed as I found myself pondering how to best introduce 1:1 technology within the Buffalo Schools. Although the opportunity of interest- providing low-cost tablets manufactured by a brilliant new company, Bak USA- is undeniably advantageous and well aligned with our hopes and goals for city students, figuring out how to navigate the layers of complexity quickly became an exercise in frustration.
And then it dawned on me. Maybe it wasn’t about the schools. Maybe we had been defining the problem incorrectly.
Ultimately, our goal is to open possibilities. By putting tablets in the hands of all students, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, we can afford them access to a world of knowledge and opportunity- the same access that is fueling our most exciting paradigms and innovations.
But trying to force these notions of open access and opportunity into the constraints of a system that perpetuates the very opposite? Suddenly, the folly of my thinking became apparent. We find ourselves trapped by the very definitions of education that spawned the system that now traps us.
Those who follow my work can anticipate where I’m heading. By redefining the problem as one of cultivating talent in its most varied and abundant forms, and connecting talent with opportunities for growth and impact (see my TEDx talk), we can free ourselves from viewing the schools as our primary solution or vehicle for empowerment. In fact by doing so, it moves the responsibility for stewardship and cultivation to the highest levels of community leadership.
We already know that inequality of opportunity, and measures of success, can be mapped largely to the learning that takes place outside of school, reading and conversations at home, summer enrichment, interaction with mentors and role models, and all the opportunities to navigate and study the systems that regulate growth and advancement. Accordingly, this same out of school time becomes an obvious vehicle for enrichment and empowerment. The beauty of technology lies in its ability to bring a world of opportunity and learning to those who are traditionally left out or behind, and reach them wherever they are and wish to go.
Rather than seeing technology as a luxury or a threat to short-sighted self-interests, we need to challenge ourselves and one another to think beyond the constraints that continue to limit our collective growth. By redefining our notions of education and harnessing the power of technology, we can finally realize the benefits of talent in its most diverse and abundant forms.
Recently I uncovered the full extent of my obsession with moral complexity. After opening a box of mementos that included artifacts from my entire life, I found myself racing past the photos and yearbooks and diving breathlessly into a stack of Ethics papers from my first year of college. As if discovering the Holy Grail, I poured over my final exam, an analysis of case studies conducted through the lenses of various theoretical approaches.
The cases were extreme examples of moral transgression. They included gross abuses of power, failure to intervene in heinous crimes, all clear-cut scenarios that could be neatly unpacked and dissected for the purposes of assessment. I recalled that it was soon after this exam that I left the major of Philosophy. It had felt too detached and esoteric, barely relevant to the dangerous challenges that threatened our society and even then captured my attention. After leaving Philosophy I had done a brief stint in English which I greatly enjoyed until realizing that I only liked to read and write about people, and especially those toiling with deep and complex moral crises. I had been relieved to finally find a home in Psychology, and eventually the world of Cognition, where I could explore the underlying structures and processes involved in decision making.
How ironic that as I reread my final Ethics paper, almost twenty-five years since I wrote it, I couldn’t help resonating with the relevance of the analyses and the obstacles they revealed. Without even realizing it, I found myself reading the paper yet again, this time inserting the case study of public education for analysis and moral critique. The most recent Buffalo News article about the dysfunction of the School Board and its likeness to a reality TV show echoed in my mind- name calling, accusations of self-interest and political pandering, all swirling around high-stakes decisions about closing and transforming city schools.
My paper had walked through some common approaches to moral analysis, the thinking behind decision making which can undermine the reasoning that serves as the foundation for a strong and healthy society. Moral relativism, egoism, dogmatism, and polarization- all flavors of self-centeredness that trap individuals in the emotions associated with protecting and aggrandizing their own views. In my paper I had made the point that although feelings are often good indicators for what’s right and wrong, ethical reasoning involves much more than venting one’s feelings.
And yet somehow it seems that we have plunged ourselves in a moral swam, indulging in a never-ending stew of self-validation and attack. Clearly, the issues facing our public schools- and other key social systems- are much more complex and multi-faceted than mere issues of ethics or morality. They involve structural and systems-level failures that call for strategic and bold solutions, perhaps better tethered to the world of Cognition than Philosophy. And yet, ironically the very same critique holds true. Emotionalism and self-centeredness always get in the way of good decision making, especially when our decisions have critical implications for the world in which we live.
As I sat listening to a Buffalo teacher talk about the realities facing her students, I felt a growing pit in my stomach that has seemed to have taken up permanent residence.
She was talking about the refugee children who make up a large percentage of her school’s population. She explained that over 40% of the students don’t speak English, and that another quarter have tested out of language services despite debilitating limitations in vocabulary, due to their parents not speaking English at home.
She talked about the circumstances from which the children come- war, famine, genocide; from the Congo, Nepal, villages and countries that most of us can only imagine. She remarked of the children’s strength and determination, a sort of self-selection that accompanies those who make it, enduring unspeakable hardship all for hope of opportunity. And she spoke of their talents and dreams, each as unique as their individual stories.
Yet in a school system focused solely on state standards, these kids are liabilities. Their extracurricular activities are stripped, no more outdoor time, no arts and culture, just more and more curriculum. Not surprisingly, most do poorly on the tests. And once the school is invariably labeled as failing, resources are taken away, and punitive measures put into place; anger and judgment rather than the support and celebration they deserve.
As I listened to my friend speak my heart grew heavy, but not because I was unaware of the situation. Just a few years ago I led the University’s partnership with the Buffalo Schools, working to leverage resources and opportunities for the most challenged. At that time, we and other local institutions were clamoring to be at the table, responding to a call by the new superintendent, Dr. James Williams.
But what began as collegial collaboration quickly gave way to suspicion on both sides. And with a foot in each world- paid by both the Board of Education and the State University- and a background in mediation, I certainly understood the mutual trepidation.
From the vantage point of the schools, many partners appeared predatory. The Superintendent would point out that nonprofits sustain themselves on grants and contracts with the schools, that poverty itself feeds the very organizations that position themselves as its savior. At an address to the largest teacher education program in the area, he remarked, “I know you all have excellent programs, but my children can’t read…” suggesting a certain degree of culpability on the part of higher education. He went on to describe a drowning child who is reaching for help, but the weight of so many hands trying to lift them up inadvertently sinking them deeper.
But from the outside perspective it has become virtually impossible to find a viable place at the table, especially one that is befitting our own needs for civility and good judgment. The circus-like atmosphere that has come to define public education, and the associated suspicion that surrounds all engaged parties, shuns meaningful collaboration and support.
While I no longer work directly with the Buffalo Schools, I now serve on the board of a local organization that places and supports refugee families. Ironically, even from this new vantage point, I still struggle to find a touch point.
Yes, the School District is the primary system for educating our children. But, they are OUR children, and we are ultimately responsible for their care. The weight of that responsibility is increasingly speaking to me, calling me to action, and I yearn to respond. But how?