Most schools try to tell a good story about who they are, what kids accomplish while there, and what sets it apart from other places of learning. Very few schools, however, have a good narrative, and these days, a narrative is more important than a story.
What’s the difference?
One of my favorite thinkers about the “Big Shifts” that we’re in the midst of is John Hagel, who with John Seely Brown has written a number of books and articles that have seeded much of my thinking about this moment in edu. In a post he wrote last year, Hagel makes the case that in order for movements large or small to occur, we need a “powerful and engaging narrative” at the center. But narrative is focused on what’s to come, not what’s already happened.
Stories are self-contained (they have a beginning, middle and resolution) and they’re about the story teller or some other people; they’re not about the listener. In contrast, narratives are open-ended, they are yet to be resolved and their resolution depends on the choices and actions of the listener. As a result, they’re a powerful call to action, emphasizing the ability that we all have to make a difference.
I’ve written (and spoken) a great deal about the importance of articulating and sharing our beliefs about how kids learn most powerfully and deeply, especially as the starting point for conversations around change. And, obviously, what needs to follow is that our practice in classrooms needs to align to those beliefs as well. But just as important, I think, is that we as school communities articulate our aspirations, or as Hagel puts it, our “overarching narrative” around what we see as the new opportunities we seek moving forward. As Hagel is writing about businesses here, I’ve substituted “school” in all the relevant places:
An effective [school] narrative would identify an opportunity that’s beyond the reach of a [school] today, an opportunity not just for the [school], but for many, many others. An opportunity so great that it can’t be achieved in isolation but requires collective action. It would move others to join forces and take action in powerful new ways.
This idea is something that Joe Koss, a teacher at the Uruguayan American School in Montevideo, is also thinking about. In a recent blog post about thinking differently about evaluating schools, which he states are going through a “paradigm crisis,” he seeks a difference between story and narrative.
I have spent quite a bit of time using tried and true school evaluation techniques to look at where my school has been. But very rarely, if ever, have these evaluation measures began with and/or even focused on where the school should go. At the end of my current school´s accreditation process, combined with our curriculum mapping initiative, we will have spent over five years evaluating where we have been. I am not sure when we will begin to discuss where we need to go.
I know the future has always been uncertain, but I also know that because of the speed at which change is occurring, it’s more important than ever to figure out “where we are going.” And I think our focus now has to be grounded in what new potentials and opportunities the modern world of networks and connections allow us to imagine. To echo David Warlick from many years back, what is that new story that we want to tell, not just about education in general, but about our individual schools as well? What is it that we aspire to become? What are the opportunities our learners now have that didn’t exist before that must guide our conversations moving forward?
I wonder how many schools are thinking about articulating their narrative over telling their story. I would guess that schools serious about change are focused on both.
Happy Thanksgiving to all my US friends…