Richard Elmore died peacefully and unexpectedly the night of February 9, 2021. I’ve found myself crying over the past couple weeks remembering Richard’s presence in my life as a mentor, a beloved teacher, and a dear friend. I get teary eyed each time I read over the outpouring of beautiful stories and messages shared in the online memorial site created by his family, and learning more about the powerful presence he had in the lives of so many – family, students, colleagues, and friends. Among the things treasured by those whose lives Richard touched are his sharp intellect, his generous heart, his contagious laughter, his profound respect for and belief in young people, and (especially in his later years) his growing irreverence for the schooling systems that constrain them.
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye once said “People don’t pass away./They die/ and then they stay.” There are many ways in which we can expect Richard to stay with us over decades to come.
Richard’s thinking has and will remain crucial as a reference to those seeking to understand how and under what conditions powerful learning can – and most often doesn’t – happen in schools, in school systems, and beyond. Some of Richard’s key contributions to the field that have stood, and will no doubt continue to stand the test of time include:
Richard’s thinking has and will remain crucial as a reference to those seeking to understand how and under what conditions powerful learning can – and most often doesn’t – happen in schools, in school systems, and beyond.
Positioning the instructional core as the basic unit that our efforts as educators, teachers, school and system leaders should aim to transform fundamentally: “the problems of the system are the problems of the smallest unit”; “if it’s not in the instructional core, it’s not there”; “the real accountability is in the tasks students are asked to do”;
Proposing a “backward-mapping” logic to examine, plan, and carry out education improvement work (starting from what you want to cause and moving gradually from the inside out to adapt the practices, systems and cultures surrounding it as change is underway);
The notion that no amount of external pressure on schools will work in the absence of internal accountability (shared responsibility for improvement within the school) or reciprocal accountability (the responsibility of the system to invest the necessary resources and develop the necessary capacity of educators and leaders to produce the expected results) – “if you push an atomized, incoherent organization with an external accountability system, it will only become more incoherent.”
His more recent exploration of ‘outlier’ groups and organizations that are nurturing and unleashing powerful learning among young people and children (NuVu, Beijing Academy in China, Redes de Tutoría in Mexico).
His dire and sharp critique of the multiple ways in which schooling – the very institution intended to develop our young people’s ability and joy to learn – is getting in the way of powerful learning. (“A major lesson we have learned from attainment-driven models of schooling is that it is possible to disable human beings as learners by convincing them that they do not have the capability to manage their own learning”).
The list goes on, but I don’t intend here to cover the whole range of Richard’s intellectual and public legacy (a more detailed account of his outstanding public service and academic trajectory can be found in this post from the Harvard Graduate School of Education). I will instead share a more personal account of Richard as an example of a Beginner´s Mind, to illustrate how he stands out in the sea of internationally renowned education experts.
Richard knew a lot about schools, school reform, and education policy. And I mean A LOT. For many, students and colleagues alike, his mere presence was intimidating for this very reason. But much more prominent than what he knew was his disposition to learn: his openness to find surprise in the familiar and his willingness – almost eagerness – to put his own thinking to the test. I remember him telling me in one of our shared times in Mexico, with his loud, contagious laughter, how funny it was for him to find that people that organized a series of his talks in South America were shocked to find that he had learned a few new things in the ten previous years. His book I Used to Think… Now I Think is a beautiful collection of essays where prominent education thinkers are asked to describe some of the most important ways that their thinking has changed over the years. About the book, Richard remarked “It strikes me as ironic that in a field nominally devoted to the development of capacities to learn, there is so little evidence of what those who do the work have actually learned in their careers.”
Richard remarked “It strikes me as ironic that in a field nominally devoted to the development of capacities to learn, there is so little evidence of what those who do the work have actually learned in their careers.”
Richard’s openness to finding surprise in the familiar is beautifully demonstrated in his habit of visiting classrooms one day every week. This habit, established after decades of studying education reform and policy, became an almost religious practice that opened Richard’s mind to the everyday realities of classroom practice and gave him an unmatched sensitivity and profound understanding of teaching and learning, and the many ways in which education policies with lofty intentions almost invariably miss the mark of affecting the instructional core in any substantive way.
It was Richard’s Beginner’s Mind that led him to accept my invitation to visit Mexico in 2010 to learn about tutoría (the pedagogical practice at the core of the Learning Community Project, also known as Redes de Tutoría). He endured an early morning flight and a ride of over 100 kilometers of bumpy, dusty roads to get to a remote rural community in the State of Zacatecas. Once there, he accepted the invitation of Maricruz, a 13-year-old girl from Santa Rosa to learn geometry with her support as a tutor. He was struck by her confidence and joy as a learner and a teacher, an experience that moved him (and all of us who had the privilege of being in Santa Rosa that day) to tears. It was Richard Beginner’s Mind that saw and named the Learning Community Project as a social movement, an insight that provoked in me what I can only describe as an intellectual awakening. It crystalized and integrated several ideas that had until then felt scattered and disorganized. This insight, a seemingly small side-comment in the vast extension of Richard’s thinking, is now foundational to my thinking and work on educational change.
I don’t know of another academic that is as openly willing – even eager – to prove himself wrong – as Richard was. You can see this in his writing and his public speaking. His book Restructuring in the Classroom with Penelope Peterson and Sarah McCartney is an account of the disintegration of his faith in school restructuring as a strategy for instructional change. Here, he outlines that new school structures do not produce, as he initially believed, the changes in culture required to enhance the learning experience of children in classrooms. In his commentary paper “‘Getting to Scale’… It Seemed like a Good Idea at the Time” he reflects back on key flaws of his thinking 20 years earlier, articulated in his classic article “Getting to Scale with Good Educational Practice.” In his last interview Richard talked about Instructional Rounds, a practice that he developed with colleagues at Harvard. He said it struck a chord with many school and district leaders, and that it helped them reconnect with their purpose, that it stimulated a lot of action and excitement. But – and here comes the punch line – he came to learn that “there was really not much relationship between satisfaction and impact.”
As the Buddhist tradition suggests, in a Beginner’s Mind lie the keys to a happier life and a healthier connection to others and the world – much needed features of the more conscious lives and the more humane world that we can build.
Richard died in the midst of a profound global crisis, in times where nothing less than the human project is at stake. In the world that we’re leaving behind, many academics have been revered for and built their identities around all they know. Richard’s conscious decision to maintain a Beginner’s Mind even at the pinnacle of his academic stardom shines as a bright light in a dark sea. I hope many of us will find in his example the courage to cultivate a Beginner’s Mind: to engage – as he invited us in his last podcast – in learning to do things we are fully incompetent to do; to be open to the awe of seeing the familiar in a new light; and to welcome with open arms the times when our dearest certainties are proven wrong. As the Buddhist tradition suggests, in a Beginner’s Mind lie the keys to a happier life and a healthier connection to others and the world – much needed features of the more conscious lives and the more humane world that we can build.
In his last years, in addition to taking on painting, Richard brought the attention of his Beginner’s Mind to the future of learning: the latest findings of the neuroscience of learning, the potential role of architectural design to represent and enable diverse models of learning; and the work of outliers in the learning world. His excitement about the future of learning however, grew in a way inversely proportional to his faith in schools and school systems. Richard grew increasingly skeptical about the prospect of schools and school systems becoming effective vehicles to protect and cultivate the extraordinary learning minds of our young people. He grew highly discouraged and impatient with how, to the contrary, compulsory schooling crushes the natural curiosity and joy to learn in children and youth. The last time I saw him in person, during a short visit to Boston, he told me he was working on a book of his latest thinking – one that, he confided to me with a playful smile, would likely upset many people.
Richard left a huge question for us to tackle: Will schools and school systems figure out a way to move away from schooling and cultivate powerful learning instead?
Richard left a huge question for us to tackle: Will schools and school systems figure out a way to move away from schooling and cultivate powerful learning instead? His answer today would be a resounding ‘No’. I hope we’ll be able to prove him wrong on this one. I can picture him, with his Beginner’s Mind, laughing out loud with joy when we do.
Pasi Sahlberg: It is about ten years since the first edition of Finnish Lessons was published. At that time the world was very different, OECD’s PISA had rearranged the global image of education, and international transfer of educational ideas was blossoming. There was relatively little literature about education in Finland at the same time when the demand for deeper and more evidence-based stories was huge. When the book was published in 2011 only a few believed it would live beyond its first edition. Everyone, including me, was surprised to learn that Finnish Lessons soon became a best-seller that was translated to nearly 30 languages.
We decided to update the story about Finland’s schools when more data became available, especially from OECD’s PISA 2012 that showed Finland’s earlier high performance had started to decline. The Economic downturn caused by the 2008 banking crisis had forced Finland to cut spending on education and Finnish schools were experimenting with new pedagogical innovations. The second edition was published in 2015, and I thought that this updated edition would be good enough forever.
Unfortunately, Finnish education continued to struggle in both what students learned in school and how the school system was able to serve children with widening range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. PISA 2015 and 2018 raised more questions in international forums and also in local debates about the real state of Finnish education. My publisher and I had a conversation about having yet another edition of Finnish Lessons that would take a more detailed stock of the state of education in Finland. It was a good decision – in the middle of the writing process the global coronavirus crisis hit the world and offered an additional question to be answered: How did Finnish schools cope with remote learning and disruption that caused so much confusion and troubles elsewhere?
What did you learn in working on 3.0 that you didn’t know before?
When the going gets tough, you need well-prepared educators whom you can trust in finding the best way forward.
Researching the unknown and writing about it is always a learning experience. Since Finnish Lessons 2.0 was published I have resided in the U.S., Finland and Australia and that gave me a unique opportunity to take a closer look at Finnish education from outside and inside. Conversations with educators and colleagues in these three locations over the years have been particularly helpful in understanding the power and the challenges of Finnish schools. For example, I learned to appreciate the flexibility and creativity that are embedded in the Finnish way of education. This became particularly evident in early 2020 when all education systems unexpectedly went into remote learning mode when most school buildings were closed for several weeks due to the global coronavirus pandemic. I have always spoken to foreign visitors about these system characteristics in Finland but it was that tiny ugly virus that made that concretely visible. When the going gets tough, you need well-prepared educators whom you can trust in finding the best way forward. This is exactly what flexible management, lack of rigid external standards, and collaborative problem solving were able to do in Finland where students and teachers were able to navigate through the hard times with less damage than most others. I have included these stories in my new book.
What’s happened in Finland since you wrote the book?
This I explain in detail in this third edition. Many things have changed. On one hand, there are some interesting new developments, such as the new curricula for all levels of school education that aims at making teaching and learning more engaging and interesting for both teachers and students. On the other hand, Finland has lost some of its most important educational assets it had earlier compared to other countries: Equity and quality of its educational outcomes. There are significantly more low-performing students, family background explain more of students success in school than before, and all young people spend much more time staring at digital screens that is time away from reading, playing and sleeping.
What’s next — what are you working on now?
I have a busy year ahead here in Sydney, Australia. I am leading a couple of large research projects at the university and working with half a dozen doctoral students. Besides that, there are two new book projects in the pipeline. I try to work a bit less and spend more time with my boys and family.
What’s your hope for the future and what do you hope the book will contribute to it?
The main thread of Finnish Lessons is collectivism, collegiality, and collaboration at various levels of society.
My hope is in young people and their passion to change the course we live right now. Look at the issues like climate change, fight against racism and gender equality, for example. These global movements are strongly led by young people. This is really positive regarding what the future looks like. I hope that Finnish Lessons will continue to speak for better agency for teachers thereby stronger voice for students regarding their education and life. The main thread of Finnish Lessons is collectivism, collegiality, and collaboration at various levels of society. I hope that Finnish Lessons helps more people to understand that education is fundamentally a common good a bedrock of democracy that has been challenged recently in number of countries around the world.
This week, IEN shares the latest edition of the Doctoral Corner Q & A from the AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group. This week’s Q & A features Anna Nelson, LCSW. Nelson is a College Assistant Professor with New Mexico State University (NMSU) School of Social Work and a Ph.D. Candidate in Educational Leadership and Administration at NMSU. From 2010- 2016, she served as Executive Director of the New Mexico Forum for Youth in Community, a statewide network intermediary that promoted racial, health, academic and economic justice for all youth statewide. The fully formatted interview can be found on the LtC website.
LtC: What inspired you to study educational change?
Anna Nelson: As a Critical Race Scholar and doctoral student in Educational Leadership, a licensed social worker since 2003, and a social work educator for more than a decade, my trajectory in educational change stems from my own lived experiences with education and my professional experiences as an educator and social worker. Consistently thematic in these experiences is an ever-present dichotomy. Where the potential exists for education to bolster resilience, inspire liberation and offer opportunity, the stark reality is that education is oppressive for many Black, Indigenous and Students of Color (BISOC). As a cisgender, mixed Woman of Color, I experienced school as a safe space where my mind, body and spirit were nourished. In serving BISOC, however, I regularly witness educational marginalization, punitive disciplinary actions and disparate pedagogical practices waged against them. This, coupled with the understanding of my educational privilege, edifies my mission to promote deep, socially just and liberatory educational transformation.
LtC: What and/or who inspires you in the field? Why?
AN: Seminal authors who inspired me are many, including Anzaldúa (1987; 1990), Crenshaw (1989), Constance-Huggins (2012), Delgado and Stefancic (2012), Freire (1970; 1974; 2005), hooks (1994), Ladson-Billings (1998), and Solórzano and Delgado Bernal (2001). These authors deepen my critical analysis and perspectives on education transformation and provide language to contextualize BISOC’s educational experiences. However, one distinguishes herself for me as both inspirational and transformative, and she is Tara Yosso (2005).
In 2005, Yosso authored Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion on Community Cultural Wealth. This article made my heart sing because, in a revolutionary way, it challenges cultural deficit narratives in education while simultaneously uplifting vast funds of knowledge, cultural capital and community cultural wealth BISOC possess. I see my students in Yosso’s (2005) words. I see hope in resistant capital, or the ability to speak truth to power and maintain one’s values and beliefs in the face of oppression (Yosso, 2005). I routinely witness aspirational capital, or the ability to maintain ones hopes and dreams even during adversity (Yosso, 2005), permeating the lived experiences of BISOC. BISOC’s brilliant expression of navigational capital, or the ability to successfully maneuver through systems and institutions that weren’t designed for or by Communities of Color (Yosso, 2005), is profound. Finally, BISOCs’ manifestations of familial capital, or the cultural funds of knowledge grown from language, collective history, memory and intuition shared across generations (Yosso, 2005) serve as a powerful foundation to combat cultural deficit narratives in education. I see these sources of cultural capital because Yosso (2005) gave me words to name them and taught me how to identify and honor them in BISOC.
LtC: What do you believe to be the biggest challenge for educational change and what would be a first step to address this challenge?
AN: While education is widely accepted as a human right (United Nations, 1948), the sociopolitical era in which we exist underscores deep civil unrest and profound differences in educational attainment, divided by perceived street race (López, et al., 2018), gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and myriad points of identity (Crenshaw, 1989). Indeed, as Jones (2000; 2002) puts it, this reflects a lifetime of lived experiences apart from one another. To me, this is the grand challenge for education in 2021 and beyond, the need to urgently adopt antiracist, culturally humble (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998) and sustainable (Paris & Alim, 2017) curricular, pedagogical, and educational leadership practices that promote liberatory social justice and true equity in education.
Angela Davis (1983) calls us to action by stating, “It is not enough to be nonracist, we must be antiracist.” It is not sufficient to strive to be nonracist in our own actions and beliefs. As educators and educational leaders, we are compelled to radically acknowledge the disparities in academic outcomes and opportunities for BISOC and commit to taking action against policies, practices and paradigms that give rise to these disparities. This action begins within us through the consistent practice of cultural humility (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998).
“It is not sufficient to strive to be nonracist in our own actions and beliefs.”
Widely adopted by social workers and public health practitioners, cultural humility is an emerging practice in education. It requires of us a deep commitment to life-long learning and critical self-reflectivity, recognizing and challenging power imbalances between ourselves, students and communities, and holding systems and institutions accountable. We begin a sustainable practice of cultural humility when we regularly ask ourselves, “What were my perceptions of and how did I interact with students, colleagues and community members who have identities different from my own? How did I contribute to, or detract from, social justice and equity today?” and, “What can I do differently to promote social justice and equity in my work tomorrow?” We practice cultural humility when we critically analyze our curricula, pedagogy, and organizational policies for access, representation and equity. We are culturally humble allies when we interrupt and confront implicit biases and microaggressions. We humbly stand in allyship when we leverage privilege by creating pathways for power and action for our students. These actions create a foundation for culturally sustainable practices, or those that honor cultural capital, resilience and resistance among our students and promote liberatory social justice and equity as integral to education.
“We practice cultural humility when we critically analyze our curricula, pedagogy, and organizational policies for access, representation and equity.”
LtC: What are some new areas of inquiry and/or directions you think the field should be headed?
AN: Despite “unprecedented levels of cultural, linguistic, ethnic, racial and gender school diversity” (Santamaria & Santamaria, 2016, p. 1), cultural deficit narratives in academe and disparities in access and outcomes for BISOC persist in the United States. Combined with cumulative traumatic impact of racism and other oppression, these structures produce a trifecta of social injustice for BISOC in higher education. One crucial direction the field of education must consider with urgency is adopting antiracist policies and practices that uplift the cultural capital and resilience of BISOC, while systematically dismantling those that lead to academic inequities for BISOC.
With the dual purposes of igniting critical discourse within educational change and providing a framework for analyzing higher education contexts, institutional policies and practices that may either perpetuate injustice or uplift the immense cultural wealth possessed by BISOC, Critical Trauma Theory (CTT) (Nelson, 2019; 2020a; 2020b; 2020c; Nelson, Kew & Castro, 2020) is one solution to persistent educational disparities for BISOC. CTT is a microtheoretical perspective within Critical Race Theory that attends to the impact of cultural, cumulative and collective oppression-based trauma experienced by many BISOC, often in education contexts, while simultaneously uplifting vast funds of knowledge, resilience and cultural capital they possess (Nelson, 2019; 2020a; 2020b; 2020c; Nelson, et al., 2020).
Attending to the intersectional identities each of us possess, CTT offers the first unified definition of oppression-based trauma as:
Oppression-based trauma is exposure to and lived experiences of personally-mediated, institutional and structural forms of oppression (Jones, 2000) through symbolic, emotional, verbal, physical, sexual, economic and environmental manifestations, across one’s lifespan. Oppression-based trauma exposure includes but is not limited to linguicism, racism, colorism, nationalism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, islamophobia, colonization, political, historical and intergenerational trauma, and acts of oppression because of one’s documentation, immigration-, refugee-, or former incarceration status.
Advised by this definition are CTT’s five key tenets. First, CTT calls educators and educational leaders to radically acknowledge that oppression-centered structural and institutional barriers to education access exist for BISOC and other decentered identities (Crenshaw, 1989; Delgado & Stefancic, 2017; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Solórzano & Yosso, 2001; Yosso, 2005). Second, this acknowledgement must also hold to account that exposure to oppression and subsequent risk for trauma is ever-present (Goodwin, 2014; Jordan, et al., 2014; Kucharska, 2018; & Nadal, 2018), where nascent literature links trauma with restricted academic outcomes (Arnekrans, et al., 2018; Bernat, et al., 1998; Cantrell, 2016; Jolley, 2017; Jordan et al., 2014; & Walker, 2016). Third, CTT contends that oppression-based trauma is cumulative, cultural and collective, thereby requiring its own critical micro-theoretical perspective that delineates it from individual trauma to address oppression-based trauma in educational contexts. Fourth, centrality of experiential knowledge evidences the existing presence of students’ posttraumatic growth, healing, resilience and resistance in the face of oppression (Yosso, 2005). Fifth and finally, because of the prevalence of oppression-based trauma and its detrimental impact on academic success for college students, CTT is a vital socially-just micro-theoretical addition to CRT that educators and educational leaders must consider applying to their work.
CTT is promising in its practical application, offering educational leaders and educators tools and skills necessary for transforming their educational settings into antiracist/oppressive, culturally safe environments for BISOC to thrive. Recently I had the honor of presenting a CTT-guided series for one community college in New Mexico committed to implementing CTT campus-wide. This series culminated in my presentation of the Applied Critical Trauma Theory (ACTT)-Guided Assessment Tool which measures self- reports of personal, professional and institutional adoption of CTT-guided strategies, including a campus equity walk (Nelson, 2021). Further CTT application will be discussed in an April, 2021, paper presentation entitled Riotous Research: A Critical Trauma Theory to uplift the language of those unheard- Black, Indigenous and Social Work Students of Color.
I am humbled by this opportunity to participate in AERA’s Educational Change Special Interest Group Doctoral Corner and hopeful CTT will be one resource among many that inspires collective transformation in education systems nationally.
Anzaldúa, G.E. (1987, 1999). Borderlands/La Frontera: The new Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books.
Anzaldúa, G.E. (1990). Haciendo caras, una entrada. In G. Anzaldúa (ed.), Making face, making soul/Haciendo caras: Creative and critical perspectives by feminists or color. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.
Arnekrans, A.K., Calmes, S.A., Laux, J.M., Roseman, C.P., Piazza, N.J., Reynolds, J.L., Harmening, D., & Scott, H.L. (2018). College students’ experiences of childhood developmental traumatic stress: Resilience, first-year academic performance, and substance use. Journal of College Counseling, 21(1), 2-14. https://doi.org/10.1002/jocc.12083
Bernat, J.A., Ronfeldt, H.M., Calhoun, K.S., & Arias, I. (1998). Prevalence of traumatic events and peritraumatic predictors of posttraumatic stress symptoms in a nonclinical sample of college students. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 11(4), 645-664. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9870219/
Cantrell, A.M. (2016). Understanding posttraumatic stress and academic achievement: Exploring attentional control, self-efficacy and coping among college students. Masters Theses and Specialist Projects. Paper 1618. http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/theses/1618
Jordan, C.E., Combs, J.L., & Smith, G.T. (2014). An exploration of sexual victimization and academic performance among college women. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 15(3), 191-200. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1524838014520637.
Kucharska, J. (2018). Cumulative trauma, gender discrimination and mental health in women: Mediating role of self-esteem. Journal of Mental Health, 27(5), 416-423. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29260963/
Ladson-Billings, G. (1998) Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7-24.
López, N., Vargas, E.D., Juarez, M., Cacari-Stone, L., & Bettez, S. (2018). What’s your “street race”? Leveraging multidimensional measures of race and intersectionality for examining physical and mental health status among Latinxs. Sociology, Race and Ethnicity, 4(1), 49-66. doi: 10.1177/2332649217708798
Nadal, K. L. (2018). Concise guides on trauma care series. Microaggressions and traumatic stress: Theory, research, and clinical treatment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0000073-000
Nelson, A. (2019, December). An introduction to Critical Trauma Theory and its relationship to substance use disorders in Latinx Communities [Webinar]. National Latino Behavioral Health Association.
Nelson, A. (2020a, January). Practical tools to implement critical allyship and Radical self-care in our service delivery to Latinx communities [Webinar]. National Latino Behavioral Health Association.
Nelson, A. (2020b, September 15). Applying theory to the work: Bridging panel concepts to practice through decolonization and antiracism [Panel Presentation]. National Hispanic and Latino Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network, National Latino Behavioral Health Association, and U.S. Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, The Intersection of Acculturation, Assimilation and Substance Use Disorders in the Latinx Community: A Virtual Learning Community.
Nelson, A. N., Kew, K. L. & Castro, E. (2020, Apr 17 – 21). Applied Critical Trauma Theory to Enhance Resilience and Success for College Students with Oppression-Based Trauma [Roundtable Session]. AERA Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA. http://tinyurl.com/v4ce9gw (Conference Canceled)
Nelson, A.N. (2021a, January 29). Critical Trauma Theory Series: Applied Critical Trauma Theory (ACTT)-Guided Assessment Tool [Webinar]. San Juan Community College.
Nelson, A.N. (2021b). Riotous research: A Critical Trauma Theory to uplift the language of those unheard- Black, Indigenous and Social Work Students of Color [Paper Session]. Social Work, White Supremacy, and Racial Justice: Reckoning with our History, Interrogating the Present, and Reimagining Our Future. Compendium pending publication.
Paris, D., & Alim, H.S. (Eds.). (2017). Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world. Teachers College Press. ISBN: 978-0-8077-5833-5
Solórzano, D.G., & Delgado Bernal, D. (2001). Examining transformational resistance through a Critical Race and LatCrit theory and framework: Chicana and Chicano students in an urban context. Urban Education, 36, 308-342. http://uex.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/36/3/308
Along with the devastation of the coronavirus outbreak and widespread school closures come hopes for reimagining schools as they reopen. These hopes for the future, however, rest on making the concrete improvements in schools that we know we can make today.
Despite the enormity of the challenges and the massive race and income-based inequities in society and schools that the coronavirus exposed – again – the pandemic has also made visible the fact that many communities already have the capacity to address at least some of these challenges. In New York City, in the first month of the school closure, the Department of Education worked with businesses like Apple and Microsoft to provide almost 500,000 computers and iPads to students who needed them. Across the US and around the world, even with limited digital infrastructure, communities are opening up hotspots for public use, equipping buses with Wi-Fi (and sometimes solar power), and pursuing other innovative ways of getting students online. Given the existing possibilities, one commissioner for the US Federal Communications Commission testified that the connectivity gap could be closed “virtually overnight.” If it can be done, then it should be done. No need to wait any longer.
Getting students connected to the Internet is no panacea for educational challenges, however, particularly in many parts of the developing world, where almost half of all students don’t have a computer at home and over 40 percent lack access to the internet. We also know that even with Internet access and online opportunities, significant improvements in students’ learning depend on developing more powerful instructional practices and providing better support for educators. Nonetheless, the responses to the coronavirus show that we have the capacity to address some inequitable learning opportunities, and we can take these steps right now by responding to high-leverage problems.
High-leverage problems concentrate on issues widely recognized as central to the development of more equitable educational opportunities and outcomes.
They present opportunities for visible improvements in relatively short periods of time.
They establish a foundation for long-term, sustained, systemic efforts that improve teaching and learning.
Addressing high-leverage problems depends on developing a keen sense of what matters to people and what matters in an organization. It requires careful analysis of multiple problems and continuous reflection on the process of addressing them. It relies on a powerful repertoire of strategies that meet the specific demands of different situations and on developing new practices and resources when necessary. All together, these steps can lead to the “quick wins” that help propel organizational and social changes in many sectors.
#Learningloss & Learning to Read
Take the critical concern for the “learning loss” likely to be created by the massive disruptions to schooling that so many children around the world are experiencing. That term – now almost a one-word hashtag – actually obscures a host of challenges that have to be unpacked to be addressed productively. First, different children experience learning loss to different degrees; they may experience it in some academic areas and not others; learning loss may also be affected by experiences of trauma and the stresses and socio-emotional challenges that come with the pandemic; it may result from inaccessibility to online learning and school support services including free meals and counseling; and it may stem a loss of relationships with peers and teachers, disengagement with school, and prolonged absences from learning in person or online. Such a litany of problems can make any first step seem inadequate and pointless. Nonetheless, breaking down a high leverage problem like learning to read yields a coordinated series of strategies that many communities already have the capacity to pursue:
Make books by authors from a variety of backgrounds freely accessible.
Find children with vision problems and provide them with glasses.
Develop and understanding of why some children are chronically absent from school/online learning and support regular attendance.
Identify children who are struggling to learn to read and provide targeted interventions.
The logic is simple: when children have access to books, when they can see, when they’re in school, and when they receive targeted support if they’re struggling, they’re much more likely to learn to read.
The logic is simple: when children have access to books, when they can see, when they’re in school, and when they receive targeted support if they’re struggling, they’re much more likely to learn to read.
Even in countries like the United States, children in high-poverty areas have a much harder time getting books than their peers in middle-income areas, but a number of programs (including one sponsored by the country singer Dolly Parton) have taken advantage of book vending machines, doctor’s offices, and other mechanisms to address this issue. Organizations like EmbraceRace and the Jane Addams Peace Association post lists of books by authors from different racial and cultural backgrounds so that there’s no excuse not to provide all children with access to materials that reflect their heritage.
Of course, making books and print materials available in a variety of languages, by authors from a range of backgrounds, is just one step. Children still need to be able to read those books once they get those books into their hands. Nonetheless, 25 percent of school-aged children in the United States have undiagnosed eye problems that inhibit their ability to read, and one in three children haven’t had their vision tested in the past two years (if at all); but relatively low-cost programs to test students’ vision and get glasses to those who need them do exist. In the developing world, it may be complicated to create a supply chain that makes print materials readily available and ensures every child who needs glasses gets a pair, but it can be done.
We know that chronic absences from school have a devastating effect on children’s learning and have a disproportionate impact on students in communities of color, but that knowledge has also led to the development of a number of successful strategies for helping many children to get to and stay in school. Despite the re-emergence of the “reading wars” over the best approach to teach reading, there are a number of well-established strategies and supports that many teachers and schools are already using that target the specific needs of at least some of the students who experience difficulties in learning to read when they are in school.
Improve Schools and Transform Education
These first steps may not reach every student right away, and any initial success has to be followed by developing educational activities that foster more advanced skills and a broader set of developmental needs – an even more challenging proposition. Ultimately, addressing these challenges will depend on truly reimagining schooling, and, reconceptualizing notions like “learning loss” that ignore the mile-wide and inch-deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for students to catch up once they’re left behind.
We need to reimagine schooling, reconceptualizing notions like “learning loss” that ignore the mile-wide and inch-deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for students to catch up once they’re left behind
In short, the pandemic itself will not change schools: Nothing will change in schools unless we change it. Yet the strategies to provide glasses, to address chronic absences, and to provide targeted support in reading can lead to real improvements in schools – even in the midst of a pandemic – if we choose to dedicate the time, resources and commitment to put them into practice on a wide basis. We can take these critical steps to make the schools we have more efficient, more equitable and more effective today and to lay the groundwork for transforming education as a whole in the future.
Last week, IEN focused on stories describing how educators were responding to the insurrection at the US Capitol. This week, with the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, we’ve collected headlines and links for a number of stories that center on what many expect to be a dramatic shift in US education policy. Some of the stories look back, assessing the tenure of Betsy Devos; many look ahead to examine what Miguel Cardona and the new administration might do; and a few look at the roles that Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray and others have played and may play in education policy moving forward.
Annually, in January, IEN scans the headlines from our regular sources for reviews of the previous year and predictions for the future (see Rounding up the issues of 2019 and the 2010’s – Part 1 & Part 2 and New year, new predictions?). But, after an incredibly unpredictable 2020, many of the stories we encountered focused on trying to make sense of what happened last year. Below, we’ve rounded up the reviews of 2020 we’ve come across so far. Next week, we will share a collection of articles looking at what policy changes the Biden administration and the nominee for Secretary of Education might bring to schools in the US in 2021.
This week, IEN features the November Lead the Change (LTC) interview with Dr. Cecilia Azorín (@CeciliaAzorin), Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Murcia, Spain. Dr. Azorín is one of the leaders of an Erasmus+ KA2 Project comparing all age schools in Wales, Spain, and Iceland. She received the Michael Fullan Emerging Scholar Award in Professional Capital and Community (2019).
Lead the Change: The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions. For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities.
Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call??
Cecilia Azorín: Accepting educational responsibility implies conceiving education as something that can help individuals overcome inequalities, a mechanism capable of transforming lives and positively impacting people’s progress. This statement leads one to think about the social mobility that can be produced as a result of education. Harris and Jones (2020b) have recently stated that “social and educational mobility are important because they reflect the equality of opportunity in society” (p. 18). Put simply, Hargreaves (2020) defines social mobility as the chance to achieve greater success through education compared to one’s parents.
When your background is humble, for example, when your father is a farmer and your mother a homemaker, becoming the first PhD of your family, and eventually, a university professor, is no easy task. I have experienced social mobility firsthand, and it has not been a bed of roses. And yet, I can say that my own social mobility was the consequence of education and the experiences I received. Creating effective educational experiences for all children is the first step to dismantle oppressive systems. This is linked to an approach that essentially recognizes the power that education has in terms of social justice.
When I think about dismantling oppressive systems in education, a song springs to mind – “Another Brick in the Wall” released by the British group Pink Floyd in 1979. I invariably use this song as a university welcome for my students, future teachers, with whom I work on concepts such as, what is, and what is not, an effective pedagogical approach, how to capitalize on their passion for teaching, how to engage in divergent thinking and what it means to educate in an environment that responds effectively to student diversity. Another Brick in the Wall is a protest against the strict norms and rules of traditional conceptualizations of teaching and learning – a system more concerned with maintaining discipline and restricting creativity than with motivating and transmitting knowledge.
On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Declaration of Children’s Rights, the United Nations declared 1979 the International Year of the Child, thus recalling our collective commitment to protect children. From that moment on, authoritarian approaches to education began to be questioned. Undoubtedly, the message this song projected not only in British society, but in the rest of the world, allowed people to dream that the change in education was possible. In reality, the argument was clear and called for a new teaching, an improvement of the school based on less control and more freedom.
In 1980, one year after its release, this song was adopted as a protest anthem among black students in South Africa who were suffering from apartheid, a system of racial segregation that divided schools and communities in a discriminatory manner and unjustly perpetuated inequalities.
Today, there are new layers of exclusion that leave childhood and youth unprotected. According to the Global Monitoring Report (UNESCO, 2020, 4): All over the world, discrimination is based on gender, remoteness, wealth, disability, ethnicity, language, migration, displacement, incarceration, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion and other beliefs and attitudes; the Covid-19 pandemic has added new layers of exclusion.
Unfortunately, the continued exclusion of many merely confirms that oppressive systems are embedded in the very fabric of our societies, and are traditionally characterized by discriminating forms of oppression that directly attack the most vulnerable groups. For example, in Spain (my home country) and in many other places around the world, discrimination, stigmatization continue as does the fight to make schools more inclusive. Thus, a system of parallel schooling is currently maintained, with students attending so-called “ordinary” schools and others being relegated to “special education” schools.
Inclusion is a major driving force for educational reform and a central goal of the international agenda. In a recent article, we analyzed how we can help schools to review progress on their journey to becoming more inclusive and show that fostering reflection amongst teachers about the contexts, resources and processes that underpin their work can make a difference (Azorín & Ainscow, 2020). But, how does one ensure that no one’s dream is denied and keep young people on the track to a brighter and equitable future without equal education opportunities for all children? The school cannot and must not leave anyone behind; on the contrary, it must set itself up as a guarantor of the right to a truly inclusive, equitable and quality education, without exceptions. This is probably one of the main challenges and responsibilities facing educational change scholars in these complex times.
“The school cannot and must not leave anyone behind; on the contrary, it must set itself up as a guarantor of the right to a truly inclusive, equitable and quality education, without exceptions.”
LtC: Given your focus on school networks as a strategy to enhance educators’ knowledge and practice, what would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?
CA: Nowadays, scholars are turning their attention to collaborative networking and all it entails. The inference is that educational networking as a policy mechanism is here to stay, and that networks represent a school improvement strategy with high expectations placed upon them (Azorín & Muijs, 2017). Networking is becoming ever necessary to tackle problems and establish the adjustments demanded by contemporary education. Some interconnected lessons derived from the penetration of networks in education are explained below (Azorín, 2017):
An opportunity for crossing boundaries. Networks enable the creation of a whole new scenario in which connectivity is prioritized over isolation; collectiveness over individualism; and collaboration over competitiveness.
A strategy for building bridges. When collaboration extends beyond schools and professionals, resources are effectively mobilized and there is an exchange of knowledge and experiences that make it possible to “learn from others”.
A driving force behind educational change. Networks are formed by interactive and horizontal structures that act as levers for change, leaving behind the hierarchies of the past to allow progress to gain momentum.
This way of understanding education embraces winds of change that go beyond school gates in the quest for greater collaboration. A few years ago, a couple of research stays in the United Kingdom afforded me the opportunity to see emerging networks and partnership alliances in action (Azorín & Muijs, 2018). In an attempt to promote reflection on why professional learning networks are social, political, and cultural, as well as educational (Azorín, 2019), my research in the British context offers other views of networks that focuses not only on education but also on social welfare issues and aims to target networking from a broader perspective. This results in opening up schools to the community, a topic which is not yet covered widely in educational research.
“Networking is becoming ever necessary to tackle problems and establish the adjustments demanded by contemporary education”
To position school networks at the forefront of research, in 2018 I co-edited a special issue based on new forms of participation and social transformation through networking in education (Azorín & Arnaiz, 2018) in the Spanish journal Profesorado. Revista de currículum y formación del profesorado (see Volume 22, Number 2). This edition put the focus on the expected role of collaborative networks in education, the new forms of participation and social transformation that appear under these modes of organization, and the need to disseminate ideas that contribute to the creation of knowledge within this fruitful line of current and future research.
Recently I edited another issue on leading networks in the School Leadership & Management journal (see Volume 40, Number 2-3), which boasts an excellent line-up of international authors. This edition explores leadership actions that support effective networking and promotes reflection about whether networks can impact positively on students or are merely used as an organizational structure that benefits teachers in terms of professional learning and support (Azorín, 2020b). Together the diverse set of articles in this compendium conclude that empirical evidence in this direction remains thin and requires further attention.
The central lesson of school networks as a strategy to enhance educator’s knowledge and practice is probably that networking affords a powerful way of organizing and operating; they offer viable solutions for the future of the network society and represent a reality that is advancing towards other forms of social participation and transformation. Networks are, in essence, the constellations illuminating the next routes of educational change.
LtC: In your recent work, you argue that distributed leadership offers new opportunities to understand professional collaboration generally and in the context of professional networks specifically. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice in response to this argument?
CA: While COVID-19 continues, millions of people are caught in a traumatic experience. The pandemic is causing a chronic state of uncertainty and highlighting the weaknesses of education systems to adapt to change.
At the education level, leading schools during a pandemic is a challenge of vast dimensions. Once the initial shock is over, educational leaders need to recover the helm of their schools that this unexpected virus has taken from them. In this respect, networking is becoming a good ally in the fight against COVID-19.
Prior to this period of crisis, educational research and practice had already focused on the prevalence of an important current of thought that advocates distributed leadership as a key condition for effective networking and coherent professional collaboration (Azorín, Harris & Jones, 2020; Harris & Jones, 2017). COVID-19 has accelerated networking to an unprecedented level and distributed leadership is now being used as a mechanism of coherent response to the current situation.
In education, there is a call for collaboration and leaders are being required to network. According to Harris and Jones (2020a), “most leaders will be running on empty given the myriad of challenges that COVID-19 has created for them, so distributed leadership is a necessity to survive” (p. 246).
We have argued that the adoption of a lens of distributed leadership practice within networks will afford a better understanding of how networks operate (Azorín, Harris, & Jones, 2020). In our work, from the point of view of distributed leadership and networking we provide a three-fold classification that aims to make sense of the complexities involved in changing education policies and practices:
Network leadership: based on leadership through organizational connections across organizations, where the type of network dictates membership, there are no implicit barriers to entry and knowledge transfer is central to effective networking.
Lateral leadership: characterized by collective agency, interdependent decision making, collaborative action, formal and informal leadership patterns, collective ownership, fluid, interchangeable membership and releasing potential.
Distributed leadership: related to leadership by expertise within, between and across organizations, inter-changeable membership according to needs, a focus on leadership practice more than leadership position, and extending or ‘stretching’ leadership capacity as a key purpose.
In terms of policy and practice, Harris (2012) argues that “despite decades of research on school improvement, school effectiveness and system reform, some policymakers are still selecting and implementing policies that have little, if any, independent empirical evidence supporting them” (p.5). Distributed leadership perspective would shift the knowledge base on networks “away from largely normative descriptions, self-report and over assertion to more sophisticated research designs and analytical processes that would generate more rigorous and reliable evidence” (Azorín, Harris, & Jones, 2020, p. 121). If we look at the educational research, there is empirical evidence that supports the following set of propositions about the types of leadership practices that are most prevalent and effective within networks (Azorín, Harris & Jones, in press):
Middle leadership supports effective networking.
Distributed leadership within networks enhances innovation.
Teacher leadership is an essential component of effective networking.
Collaborative practices need to be learned and practiced.
Formal leadership drives distributed leadership.
Distributed leadership patterns matter in networking activity.
Effective networks are communities of practice.
Distributed leadership provides support in networked organizations.
Leadership in networks is not fixed but interchangeable.
Effective network leaders build and sustain professional capacity.
These findings clearly demonstrate that distributed leadership is a successful approach that can support, stimulate, and enhance networking. Within this change of outlook, a good recommendation is to take note of what evidence tells us and bring in policies that include what is functioning in practice to promote reforms that go in the right direction. It is important to facilitate links that allow distributed leadership to flourish in networks at the systemic level. To make this happen, educational leaders’ actions have to go beyond school limits and move towards a process of democratization and openness.
“Distributed leadership is a successful approach that can support, stimulate, and enhance networking.”
LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?
CA: One of my priorities as an educational change scholar is opening up schools to their communities and elevate these communities’ importance in decision-making and policy. In education, as in many other aspects of life, it is important to recognize that context matters (Harris and Jones, 2018). Schools have to reflect on the context in which they are immersed, be prepared to work in collaboration networks with neighboring allies, and to take firm steps to open up to the world (Azorín, 2019).
Schools are no longer expected to merely provide an educational function or service, but to safeguard the well-being of their students and, despite the pandemic, ensure continuity of learning. They are asked to take a step forward, to foster rapprochement with their local community, neighborhood, various educational and social agents, volunteer networks, and associations (Azorín & Muijs, 2018). In the 21st century, it does not make sense to live disconnected from what is happening around us. It is vital to open up and remove the barriers that still make it difficult for millions of people to benefit from the improvement provided by the different connections they have in educational and social spheres.
Similarly, the construction of a “school without walls” could be supported, both physically and pedagogically; a renewed institution capable of transcending its own rules and questioning its own practices and relations with its surroundings. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, reimagining schooling in that sense is a reminder that the call for collaboration and networking should not be delayed any longer.
Below are 7 important factors that educational change scholars could bear in mind to support the transformation of education when they engaged in and with different school settings:
Communicate to share and exchange information.
Connect to learn from others.
Collaborate together for a common purpose.
Create new knowledge.
Co-lead for distributed leadership to flourish.
Circulate ideas that allow the dissemination of innovations.
Catalyze the change of cultures, policies and practices.
Educational change scholars act as links that bring the value of ideas and are able to initiate social movements that enable the transformation of educational systems for the improvement of their countries. This is often done through the use of evidence-supported knowledge and advice about practices that work. Their work is to connect theory, policy, and practice, clarifying the meaning of what they do so that others can replicate it.
“Educational change scholars’ work is to connect theory, policy, and practice, clarifying the meaning of what they do so that others can replicate it.”
In short, I have published numerous results of research projects and experiences of educational innovation carried out in schools with which I had the opportunity to collaborate very closely. Often, when I share the trends in scientific literature and the proposals of some schools with others, the professionals working in them say they were unaware this knowledge was available. I have learned from these experiences how relevant it is that ideas travel from one school to another. When we know that something has worked in one school it is easier for another to want to put something similar into practice, while adapting it to its own reality. The educational change scholar has the capacity to make this possible. In summary, the interconnection between the different educational and social agents involved in the school, as well as the dissemination of their practices, is part of the formula for educational change.
LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?
CA: Unquestionably, 2020 has been a turning point, a before and after in people’s lives. The pandemic has marked the end of the educational journey of the previous decades. Hargreaves and Fullan (2020) recently stated that “educational reform in the postpandemic age must be transformational and not seek to return to normal” (p. 327). Beyond the COVID-19 supernova (Azorín (2020a) “we need to come out of this crisis as a stronger society, with a fairer and more supportive educational system that really can change lives. Otherwise, we will have missed out on an opportunity” (p. 388). In the coming years, educational change is going to take huge strides in terms of networking, leadership and innovation.
First, the monitoring of collaborative networks that have sprung up in education and society, especially in these uncertain times, needs to be researched. Since the beginning of the pandemic “the chains of favors have multiplied with initiatives of support and help towards the most vulnerable” (Azorín, 2020a, p. 383). If networks are at the front-line of the crisis, where formal and informal groups connected by social ties have emerged in force.
Second, Harris and Jones (2020a) state that “a new chapter is being written about school leadership in disruptive times that will possibly overtake and overshadow all that was written before on the topic” (p. 246). At the school level, there is no single person able to respond to all the demands and challenges deriving from COVID-19. In contrast, many actors are playing crucial roles at this moment and distributed leadership is positioning itself as a viable strategy for the present and future of education (Azorín, Harris, &Jones, in press).
Third, within this uncertain atmosphere, it is worth asking if COVID-19 can act as a channel for innovation and change in education. I agree with Fullan and Quinn (2020), who conclude, “Our sense is that there are many people (students, teachers, parents and others) who see a dire need for improvement in learning systems and are willing to work toward that end. With the right combination of action positive system change could occur at a more rapid rate than at any time in the past century” (p. 22).
In any case, surely the above ideas can serve as beacons to illuminate the change in education that is so needed and will mark the new coordinates on which we will continue to teach, write and research.
Azorín, C. (2017). Redes de colaboración entre escuelas inglesas para la mejora de la inclusión socioeducativa. Profesorado. Revista de currículum y formación del profesorado, Número Extraordinario, 29-48.
Azorín, C. (2019). The emergence of professional learning networks in Spain. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 4(1), 36-51.
Azorín, C. (2020a). Beyond COVID-19 supernova. Is another education coming? Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 5(3-4), 381-390.
Azorín, C. (2020b). Leading networks. School Leadership & Management, 40(2-3), 105-110.
Azorín, C. and Ainscow, M. (2020). Guiding schools on their journey towards inclusion. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 24(1), 58-76.
Azorín, C. and Arnaiz, P. (2018). Redes de colaboración en educación. Nuevas formas de participación y transformación social. Profesorado. Revista de currículum y formación del profesorado, 22(2), 1-6.
Azorín, C. and Muijs, D. (2017). Networks and collaboration in Spanish education policy. Educational Research, 59(3), 273-296.
Azorín, C. and Muijs, D. (2018). Redes de colaboración en educación. Evidencias recogidas en escuelas de Southampton. Profesorado. Revista de currículum y formación del profesorado, 22(2), 7-27.
Azorín, C., Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2020). Taking a distributed perspective on leading professional learning networks. School Leadership & Management, 40(2-3), 111-127.
Azorín, C., Harris, A. and Jones, M. (in press). Future Leadership. Distributed Leadership and Networking: Exploring the Evidence Base. In D. Netolicky (Ed.), Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership. Routledge.
Hargreaves, A. (2020). Moving: A Memoir of Education and Social Mobility. Bloomington, United States: Solution Tree Press.
Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2020). Professional capital after the pandemic: revisiting and revising classic understandings of teachers’ work. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 5(3-4), 327-336.
Harris, A. (2012). Lead the change series Q&A with Alma Harris. AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group, 20, 6.
Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2017). Professional learning communities: A strategy for school and system improvement? Wales Journal Education, 19(1), 331-333.
Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2018). Why context matters: A comparative perspective on education reform and policy implementation. Educational Research for Policy and Practice, 17, 195-207.
Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2020a). COVID 19 -school leadership in disruptive times. School Leadership & Management, 40(4), 243-247.
Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2020b). System Recall. Leading for Equity and Excellence in Education. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.
UNESCO (2020). Global Education Monitoring Report 2020. Inclusion and education: all means all. Paris: UNESCO.
ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung Kim, Graduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.
This week’s post comes from Jenee Henry Wood who leads learning at Transcend. The post was published originally as part of their “Roads to Reinventing” blog series focusing on the central question “What now feels possible for education that didn’t before this massive disruption?”
Mary Bowman describes her homeland with grace: “We, the Lakota, live in Ȟe Sápa, The Black Hills. This is an ancient and very spiritual place for us….beautiful pine trees, rugged mountains, and prairie land. We hold very important ceremonies on this land.” She goes on to describe the beauty of the Badlands and the indignity of Mt. Rushmore, “that abomination” that sits at the spiritual home of her people.
There are about 100K remaining Lakota in the United States. COVID has hit Indigenous communities with ferocity. Indigenous families understandably worried that their children wouldn’t be safe returning to school in the fall. So they did something we associate with the most privileged communities – they started a learning pod.
After posting a message on Facebook, Mary – a Lakota teacher – and a small group of parents, grandparents, and teachers received 140 messages from Indigenous families wishing to unenroll from their public district and re-enroll in the district on the neighboring reservation. During spring remote learning, high numbers of district students were disengaged – they just weren’t logging on. The district had no plans to reimagine the model for the fall. But the Oglala district would allow for pod-based remote learning embedded in the Lakota language and cultural curriculum.
It strikes me that these Lakota families were motivated by two realities: first, the lack of deliberate national or state action to make schools safe; and second, the importance of cultural – not just physical – safety for Lakota youth as a prerequisite for learning. Marie High Bear, now a pod teacher and mother to a young son, recalls, “My son didn’t feel as though he belonged [in his district school]…he was teased by the other kids for his long hair. I’ve had to explain to him that his baby hair is sacred to us.” For these reasons, Mary, Marie, and others in the community got together to design a learning model that would keep children physically safe and rectify centuries of inequity. “I’ve been an educator for 16 years working with indigenous kids in the public school,” Mary reflects. “I’d always say, ‘Work hard and you can change your life.’ I never got the buy-in, they just didn’t believe it. Plus, they would walk with their hands behind their backs all day, single-file. That’s just not how we treat our children.” Mary knew that this homeschooling pod could signal a longer-range shift for Native families by serving as a template for a more permanent Indigenous alternative education.
this homeschooling pod could signal a longer-range shift for Native families by serving as a template for a more permanent Indigenous alternative education.
The Lakota Oyate Homeschool Co-op is grounded in the cultural knowledge and ways of being of the Lakota people. This shows up in everything from systems and procedures to core academics. The school day begins by smudging the school house, a ritual of burning sage and cedar, a practice that aims to “cleanse our minds, and make positive thoughts so that we can walk in a good way for our people, each other, and the Creator.” The pod has six children, ranging from 2nd-5th grades. They are taught together in this multi-aged group, which is supported by a whole community of family members. Marie serves as the “proctor” and Lakota Language and Culture teacher, working one-on-one when needed and leading the group during non-virtual learning portions of the day, such as nature exploration and hosting elders. Core academics like math and science are pursued in hands-on, practice-based ways. Students also spend time in nature during science learning, and math is grounded in culturally-relevant practical examples – a future lesson will be on how to erect tipis for maximum occupancy and egress. After the morning sage and cedar burning, the group then moves to a talking circle where the child with the feather or rock holds the floor. This is designed to be a reflective space for setting intentions grounded in Lakota values of respect, generosity, bravery, and courage. The children might reflect on the question, “What is a way that I can be generous today and share with others?”
As Marie describes the pod’s typical day, she keeps referring to the ways in which their learning community centers Lakota knowledge instead of relegating it to the boundaries of the day, as it had been in the traditional system. In March 2018, after decades of Native pressure, South Dakota adopted the Oceti Sakowin, a set of essential understandings and standards aimed at addressing cultural diversity and raising consciousness to empower Native American students. Marie shares that the implementation of these standards was relegated to “specials,” once a week language classes, guest speakers, or other random experiences. This knowledge wasn’t embedded within the core DNA of school (e.g. daily rituals, curriculum) in ways that were relevant to Native and non-Native learners alike. This learning pod presents the opportunity to do what decades of advocacy couldn’t – center traditional knowledge on Lakota terms. As Mary Bowman says of the assimilative nature of American education so far, “The boarding schools tried to make us forget, but we aim to remember.”
This learning pod presents the opportunity to do what decades of advocacy couldn’t – center traditional knowledge on Lakota terms.
I was also delighted by the presence of nature – dwelling in and learning from it – within this pod. Young people spend time outside studying plants and flora. They learn about the healing powers of natural remedies and the fundamental balance of all living things. They learn about geology and Lakota Star Knowledge, an ancestral tradition used for sacred events such as solstices and to observe the seasons in their sacred order. They eat lunch in a circle outdoors. They tell stories about the buffalo during story time, as Marie encourages them to illustrate what they hear. There is a wholeness to this learning environment that engages young people cognitively, sensorily, spiritually, and physically. In the age of COVID, with millions of children staring at screens, this is a rarity. For the Lakota, this vital aspect of their cultural and spiritual lives is left at the door in mainstream schooling.
I was introduced to The Lakota Oyate Homeschool Co-op because they are recent recipients of an Enduring Ideas Award, a fund of Teach for America’s Reinvention Lab that I Co-Chair with Sunanna Chand. This co-op is such an intriguing example of reinventing because it adds a much-needed dimension to our discussion on learning pods, equity, and the path for public education in a post-COVID world. While it is too early to render a verdict on pods, the most popular narrative frames them as tools of privilege – yet another way for more affluent (and mostly White) families to hoard resources and opportunities for their kids. In some cases, that narrative is fair and true; in others, it’s incomplete. In this instance, the learning pod is almost an historical corrective.
In this Lakota community, the road to “reinventing” is about reconnecting to knowledge and ways of being that have been long marginalized and undervalued by the traditional system. Mary Bowman, who is also a fellow with NACA Inspired Schools Network, which works to build Indigenous community schools, believes this pod is the way of the future. While her dream of establishing a Lakota community school predates COVID, she sees this as an unprecedented opportunity to prove what is possible in creating equitable, culturally affirming learning environments. I see this community making tremendous leaps towards Affirmation of Self & Others, Connection & Community, Relevance, and Whole-Child Focus through their deep commitment to culturally-responsive pedagogy. These leaps – while important in their own right – also enable better academic learning. Both Marie and Mary describe how a learning environment that fosters deep connection, sense of self, and pride creates the conditions for better academic progress and far fewer behavioral challenges. For Co-op students, a deep sense of belonging is the foundation for academic engagement and true learning. This community’s learnings could very well influence the public school district and create the demand for more Lakota-run community schools, grounded in Indigenous knowledge and facilitated by Indigenous teachers.
When I stepped away from our conversation, the school day that Marie High Bear described somehow felt familiar to me, even though I’d never been to this classroom-in-the-living-room. I realize that many of the innovations communities are seeking – particularly the “whole child ones” – try to capture the sense of wholeness, mindfulness, and respect for other ways of knowing and being that are at the center of Lakota life. As we move forward in reinventing learning, we must continue to ask ourselves: what counts as valid evidence and knowledge, and from whom does it count?
WHAT THE LAKOTA OYATE HOMESCHOOL CO-OP IS TEACHING US ABOUT ROADS TO REINVENTING:
The science of learning and development confirms that having a sense of belonging and eliminating identity threats is a prerequisite for learning; the Co-op brings this lesson to life by creating a safe environment, grounded in Lakota language, and culture where learners can thrive.
Innovation isn’t always about inventing something new: this powerful example of applying Indigenous knowledge in new contexts suggests a road grounded in reconnection and remembering.
Learning pods can support the traditional model of school and districts to evolve.
Many “modern” school design innovations highlight practices that have long been part of Indigenous cultures; we must be mindful of which kinds and sources of evidence and knowledge are deemed valid.
HundrED has been curating these collections of 100 innovations every year since 2016 as part of their effort to support the spread of “pedagogically sound, ambitious innovations” in multiple contexts. To create the collection, 150 academics, educators, innovators, funders and HundrED staff reviewed nominated programs based on each program’s impact and scalability.
In their report on the 2021 Global Collection, Christopher Petrie, head of global research and Katija Aladin a researcher at HundrED described the latest collection as including many innovations in “areas where there is often a lack of—or a gap—in traditional school education; for example, empathy, social skills etc.” Notably:
63% of the innovations focus on holistic skills like empathy, mindfulness, etc.
55% target the development of 21st century skills
47% develop traditional academic skills
41% Require digital devices to augment learning
35% Use pedagogical approaches that involve playful learning
20% develop vocational skills
Many of the innovations were created within the last five years, but five were created before 1999. Among the 2021 collection are organizations from many different parts of the world including:
Genius Lab is a for-profit organization founded in 2013. It has designed more than 600 STEAM and maker education courses in use in over 800 kindergartens, primary and secondary schools with branches in 30 cities around China. It’s “Genius Hour” provides a 21-day online camp consisting of course modules focusing on science, engineering, and design.
Educate Girls has identified 5% of villages that hold 40% of India’s out-of-school girl population. They work in partnership with the government and community volunteers to empower these girls to go back to school. Since its establishment in 2007, Educate Girls has enrolled 750,000+ girls in school.
NaTakallam builds on the expertise of refugees in several different contexts to connect them with opportunities to provide language instruction and translation services to users worldwide. Currently, NaTakallam’s conversation partners offer language sessions in multiple Arabic dialects, French, Persian and Spanish.
The Metis Collective offers a fellowship program for local innovators with ideas for reimagining teaching and learning. The fellowship provides access to a design thinking approach to innovation, a learning community, and coaching. The program has supported 63 Fellows who have created learning experiences for over 1.3 million learners across Kenya.
Agora replaces the courses, tests, schedules and homework of conventional secondary schools with challenges, collaboration and coaching in order to give 12-18 year-old students control over their own education. As one article described it, Agora is a school with no classes, no classrooms, and no curriculum. Founded in 2014 in Roermond, there are now 12 Agora’s in the Netherlands and beyond.
Fundación Paraguaya’s Self-Sustaining Agricultural School Model combines classroom learning in agricultural methods and business practices with hands-on training in the schools’ enterprises. Those enterprises include organic vegetable gardening, dairy processing, beekeeping, tending to goats and chickens, and managing a tree nursery, a rural hotel, and roadside stores. Fundación Paraguaya is now responsible for four self-sustaining schools in Paraguay.
In a recent article in Forbes, Tom Vander Ark outlined 15 “invention opportunities” that can support the development of equitable high-quality learning opportunities in the future. Among the fifteen, are challenges to create an “accountability 2.0” and develop the mechanisms that can bring people together to share diverse perspectives and support community agreement on the aims and purposes of education. These mechanisms are essential for fostering the common understanding and collective responsibility that fuel the social movements we need to dismantle systemic racism, create equitable educational opportunities, and transform education.
Re-defining accountability itself serves as a first step in developing these new mechanisms. For too long, accountability in the US has been synonymous with answerability: Answerability reflects the beliefs that individuals and groups should be accountable for meeting clearly specified and agreed-upon procedures and/or goals. Yet the focus on answerability ignores responsibility another crucial aspect of accountability. Responsibility reflects the belief that individuals and groups should be held accountable for living up to and upholding norms of conduct and higher purposes that are often ambiguous and difficult to define in advance.
Individuals and groups should be held accountable for living up to and upholding norms of conduct and higher purposes that are often ambiguous and difficult to define in advance.
Although carefully specifying outcomes that need to be achieved and establishing consequences for failing to meet those targets can increase efficiency, it also ignores many other valued outcomes, and it can undermine the discretion and expert judgment that may be needed to make many decisions. When taken to extremes, this approach spawns a compliance mindset and leads to efforts to game the system that make it look like the goals have been achieved when they haven’t.
At the same time, simply leaving individuals and groups alone is not the same thing as supporting the development of individual or collective responsibility. Developing responsibility also involves developing the capacity—the investments, materials, abilities, commitments, and relationships—needed to carry out responsibilities effectively. In short, accountability comes from the capacity to support a balance between answerability and responsibility.
Finland’s PISA scores have slipped a bit in recent years, its education system still excels in many respects and continues to stand out as one of the most equitable high-performing systems. Even though many analyses highlight the autonomy of teachers as central to that performance, those analyses often fail to mention several other key aspects of Finland’s education system that support the development of the relationships, trust, and common understanding in education so central to developing collective responsibility and achieving equitable outcomes:
A well-established social-welfare state that supports all members of society by connecting education, health, social services, and other sectors
A national curriculum framework and a strong, coherent infrastructure of facilities, materials, assessment and preparation programs to support teaching and learning
A curriculum renewal process in which stakeholders from all parts of society participate in reflecting on and revising the curriculum framework
The use of a variety of high-quality informal and formal assessments that inform efforts to improve practices and performance throughout the education system
The Finnish approach to assessment plays a particularly important role in supporting the development of common understanding and common aims. That approach includes diagnostic and classroom-based assessments that elementary teachers can use early in children’s school careers to identify those who may need some additional help with academics and to ensure that all students stay on track. In secondary schools, well-known exit exams anchor and focus the system. The National Board of Education in Finland also regularly gives tests to samples of students and schools, providing an overview of national and regional performance in key subjects, such as Finnish and mathematics. Although the National Board doesn’t use that information for ranking (and can’t, because not all students and schools are assessed), it shares school-level information with the schools that participate and municipal-level data with the municipalities involved. In addition, the National Board makes these sample assessments widely available for free, so that any teacher, school, or municipality that wants to administer these tests can do so. As a consequence, even without national testing, Finnish schools and municipalities have government-paid tools that link directly to the core curriculum that they can use to benchmark their performance against regional and national samples.
Under these conditions, students don’t have to pass tests that require them to demonstrate proficiency by third grade; they hardly ever “fail” or have to be held back; and most students reach at least a basic level of educational achievement. At the same time, this approach both supports considerable autonomy for educators and schools and builds the common connections that steer the system toward broad education goals without having to rely heavily on rewards or punishments.
This approach contrasts sharply with those in contexts like the US that focus almost exclusively on answerability by using tests to hold teachers, school leaders, and schools “accountable” for reaching specified benchmarks and other outcomes. Rather than using assessments to look back to see whether educators did what they were supposed to do, educators and system leaders in Finland use assessments to look forward and to see if people, classes, and schools are headed in the right direction. Such an approach doesn’t require data on every single aspect of student, teacher, or school performance, but it depends on making sure no one gets too far off course. It means using assessment to look for outliers and listening for signs of trouble, not to check on each individual, or make sure everything is done a certain way or in a certain timeline. In the process, Finland supports the development of the collective responsibility central to guiding education into an unpredictable future.
Rather than using assessments to look back to see what educators did we need to use assessments to look forward and to see if people, classes, and schools are headed in the right direction.
New technologies, artificial intelligence, and many other kinds of innovations can help to improve education. But those technical achievements will not accomplish much without the personal commitments and broader social movements that can transform our communities. If we are truly going to develop collective responsibility in education, then we have to develop collective responsibility for education. We have to hold ourselves, our elected officials, and our communities accountable for making the changes in our society that will end segregation and discrimination, create equitable educational opportunities, and provide the support that everyone needs to thrive.