“People are status-seeking monkeys,” purports Eugen Wei, former product leader at Amazon, Hulu, and Oculus. This status-seeking links with an understanding that identity is a fundamental aspect of our very human nature. An evolution of identity all around that begets a moment of preponderance for those in the world of education.
How well do schools know themselves?”
Sensibly, we expect to find shoes sold in a shoe store, not bananas. Many models, brands, and sizes of shoes and yet all still in the shape of a shoe. However, schools often seem to brand themselves as flea markets. Everything to all people. The ethics of this approach might be questionable, and one might also be left to wonder if programs become diluted as a result of being out of focus. Further, some wondering might be whether there is any intersection between a school’s strengths, attributes, values, mission, and vision? And their website, what might it suggest and is it truly aligned?
As a school are we athletics focused? Sustainability driven? Place-based? International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB) Programme or Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum focused? Interdisciplinary project-based?
We Can Have It All
As of late, I’ve given a bit of thought to “yes/and,” as opposed to “either/or.” Though there is something certainly to be said for a school having a clear identity, they need not pigeonhole themselves into one single initiative or monocular focus. Especially if interests are not competing. Sustainability can funnel down and through everything in a school. Athletics too can be tied to sustainability and individual health. While interdisciplinary projects can be place-based. Advanced Placement or the International Baccalaureate can be an opt-in for students. None of this is a stretch. In fact, it attests to flexibility and opportunity. A multiple pathway approach.
The Omnipotence of Culture
Identity includes culture and this culture is a bit like breathing. It just happens. For better or worse. I like to think, for the better. However, because of this, it behooves us to intentionally design cultures. So learning is optimal. And so, as schools we are ethical, ultimately doing that which we claim. Conscious and deliberate creation as opposed to letting culture just happen. Schools mustn’t play the reactive “game” of Whac-A-Mole, where the “gophers” (dealing with parent and teacher concerns, managing budgets and resources, hiring personnel as a result of high attrition, etc.) take precedence over engaging in work that improves teaching and student learning. The development of culture requires vision and the wisdom to leverage knowledge and experience. A consideration but also a plan for where a school wants to be in 5, 10 years, or even the turn of the 22nd century!
I would argue schools are wise to intentionally design learning for multiple pathways. Equally, I caution that we do not kid ourselves. With several foci, not everything is likely to be done well by all students. This realistic notion is one of balance but also acceptance of perfection in process. Contrary to this, however, is the importance of a school’s due diligence to create cultures of excellence. Defining what excellence looks and sounds like should be at the foundation. Following this, students must have explicit opportunities to see this “bar,” and then be encouraged to push the bar, setting new and higher standards of excellence.
Not Sacrificing Excellence for Authenticity
Though there may be many pathways, the destination of a high school student is graduation and preparation for the world beyond. A Senior level thesis or capstone course can serve as a sort of rite of passage, an important stage in a young person’s life. An invitation to engage in a year-long process, to create something meaningful. To demonstrate competency, reflect throughout a process, and then showcase what is known but also what is able to be done.
This is powerful.
Authenticity could appear at odds with excellence. Failure is an authentic and simply sometimes can be a difficult reality. However, a student should not fail in putting the “crowning jewel” upon their high school career. To ensure this does not happen, sincere consideration must be given to competencies. Competencies are defined as the knowledge, behaviors, attitudes, and skills which lead to a student being able to do something successfully. Schools will serve learners well when these competencies are clearly articulated horizontally and vertically throughout the curriculum. Such conversations are the kindling of culture and are hopefully guided by two questions:
~What competencies get assessed?
~How and when might these competencies be demonstrated best?
Inherent in these conversations is one single driver, PURPOSE. School is to prepare students for a future we do know not yet.
So when “school’s out,” teachers let more than “status-seeking monkeys” out!