When Bruce Dixon and I started Modern Learners six years ago, we had two aspirations. First, to help people, teachers, parents, and policy makers, better understand the ways in which the modern world provided different lenses through which to see education and learning, and to help them use those lenses to make better decisions for kids. And second, to create a business around it that would allow both of us to get off the road, spend less time on planes, and provide a model for other similar communities down the road.
While I think we did a pretty good job with the first part, the second part has been a tougher path. As we knew it would be. And in all honesty, over the past year or so I’ve grown more frustrated and impatient with the whole conversation around educational change. While more people seem willing to engage in these ideas and take steps to make change happen, the reality is that only very few are willing to truly interrogate the “grammars of school” to an extent that moves them to a real reimagination of the work. And even then it’s a huge struggle to shift the narrative.
The forces against change are powerful and deeply rooted in the way we think about schools and education. The tech companies, testing companies, tutoring companies, universities, PACs…all of them have billions of dollars invested in making sure that any change we make in schools is cosmetic. And honestly, most authors and speakers and consultants aren’t going there either. I get it. It’s hard. My favorite Alfie Kohn quote these days is “I’m still wrestling with how to discuss the damaging effects of traditional educational practices without making it sound as if I’m blaming people who rely on them.” But that is the work right now, I think. To bring the damage to light. You can’t do that by dangling the next adjective for learning as the cure for what ails education. Nor can you do it by just trying to make things “better” via pushing practices that create more “voice and choice” or “personalization.” Those are more efforts in box checking than gut checking.
That’s why most of the “success” stories I’ve seen have come about outside of the traditional public and private systems. Really visionary leaders building new schools for the type of modern learning that’s possible right now. Small independent or international schools that eschew the status quo. Some boutique, one-off schools that are built for small student populations in more progressive areas of the world. They are out there, and their numbers are growing, no doubt.
But in the public and traditional independent sectors where most kids go to get “an education,” these changes aren’t scaling. Reforms don’t cut to the core of the “unpleasant truths” that I always talk and write about, those things we do in education that simply defy common sense when it comes to holding our kids’ best interests at heart. Those things we do which are increasingly irrelevant for the world we live in today. Everyone nods in agreement when I point them out. Few actually have the commitment to find a path to change them. And sincerely, I’m not throwing anyone under the bus when it comes to those who actually make an effort. Like I’ve often said to the people who have chosen to explore this space with me, this is the hardest work they will ever do. It’s excruciating.
With all that said, I find myself in a period of transition. Not that I’m going to quit trying to make the case for real change to happen in schools. But I am going to think about other ways to do that. I want to keep working. I want to get off planes because until they become more healthy for the planet, we should all get off planes. (Zoom anyone?) I want to do more writing, maybe run some masterminds for leaders and another Change School and Big Questions Institute or two, maybe do more work on and with parents (who may be the real drivers of change), maybe more with coaching basketball, maybe something else. Whatever that may end up being, the news is that both Bruce and I have transitioned out of Modern Learners. It’s time. I’m proud of the work I did there. I think the 10 Principles for Schools of Modern Learning and the audit got people to think really hard about their work. And I’m thankful and have nothing but admiration for all of those educators who over the years in spaces like Change School and our community have been willing to push themselves into the necessary discomfort that comes with this work and take steps toward real change. Working with them, coaching them, in fact, has been the best work that I’ve done in my professional career. It’s been a privilege.
So, on to…whatever. Sincere thanks to all of you who have supported us over the years. I hope you continue to support Missy as she carries on the work at Modern Learners. And I look forward to continuing to create new conversations around education and schools in whatever ways make sense. In this world of huge transition and uncertainty, I can think of no more important work.