Last week I discovered that I am a weaver in league with hundreds of other weavers all over the world. News of world problems often brings my mind to the continuing sorry state of education in America. How are schools part of the problem? How can school culture be part of the solution? What are the design elements of such schools? How can individuals team up to recreate schools to create a better world?
These questions have been my passion since, at the age of 29, I became principal of a school in Kansas City, Missouri. The school was in trouble—such trouble, in fact, that I was the only person they could find to be its principal.
By 1974 in Kansas City, demographic and cultural change had hit the school hard. White flight and other changes had dropped the enrollment to only 210 students, 38% students of color, mostly African American. The neighborhood of the school was what the real estate agents charmingly called “a little salt and pepper,” and everyone believed what one trustee whispered in my ear: “Research has shown that if a third of a school goes black, it goes all the way.”
I didn’t reply, but said to myself, “Not on my watch.”
Three years later it was a vibrant, happy school for boys and girls ages 2 to 14, and soon it was the “hot” school with a full enrollment of 330, sending its students on to the best high schools well prepared to be leaders in their schools and beyond, still with the same racial mix and with high economic diversity.
What did we do right?
Our secret sauce was that the teachers and I were on a mission, a mission to prove that three popular beliefs were wrong: (1) As diversity goes up, test scores go down. (2) Children behave best when they are forced to. (3) Working on your own is the best way to learn academics.
In making this attempt we learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t, and in the process, we learned to be more competent humans. Most of all we did disprove these popular beliefs and in their place established three educationally sound principles.
1) Diversity is not at odds with academic excellence, but indeed enhances it, because a commitment to diversity is essentially a commitment to the uniqueness of each person.
2) Children will behave better if we lead them to be good decision makers rather than if we try to “teach them morality.”
3) You don’t make people more effective and powerful by doing stuff to them, but rather by triggering some internal motive and engaging them as co-decision makers in what humans naturally love: collaborating, creating and contributing.
People have been trying to fix our schools for over a century, but the helping’s not helping, because the culprit is not standards or technology; better curriculum or programs: private, public or charter; even money. The problem is culture, a culture that drives our children to climb the success pyramid. This pyramid is built on a set of myths which are a) wrong and b) result in a misguided and unhealthy pursuit of individual success and happiness. But this is not a static situation.
Although many of our discontents are reinforced, caused and perpetuated by the culture of so many of our schools, and although these cultures are highly resistant to change, still we don’t need to be stuck. Schools can be the engine of change.
Many great educators have shown me that individuals working together can change a school culture, and these changes can ripple out into in the world to cause other changes, and can keep rippling out until all people joyfully attribute their happiness and their togetherness to the schools they went to and the teachers they had. And as that happens America will be more of a nation of weavers weaving good will around the world.
As I think back on the last 45 years, what comes back to me most powerfully is thousands of great moments with dozens of great educators. If you have stories of such educational moments, I would love to hear them.
David Brooks’ concept of weaver, gives us a word for this work that encourages us to keep linking up with other weavers.