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BLOG: Seeing the world with 20/20 vision [The Parent Diaries]

Part 2 of a 3-part series from the Blog of Hope Katz Gibbs
The Parent Diaries: How to help your child succeed in school — without going insane
April 16, 2008

During a recent conversation with author Dan Pink, educator Peter Noonan (the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction in the Fairfax County Public Schools, pictured here), talked about the future of public education.

In part 1 of their conversation (posted April 9), they talked about Pink’s new manga graphic novel, “The Adventures of Johnny Bunko.” In this excerpt, they talk about what life — and school — might be like when their own children graduate from high school in the year 2020 …

Peter Noonan: You spoke at our leadership conference in August 2007, and probably remember the event was called 20/20 Vision. I am the father of a 4-year-old son (and an eight year old daughter), but the idea of the conference was that kids my boy’s age will be graduating from high school in the year 2020. My question to you is what do you think the world is going to look like in 12 years?

Dan Pink: Well, my honest answer is that I don’t have a clue. But I can tell you some of the things I’m seeing now, and how they might play out.

What we consider public education is increasingly less cabined away from other aspects of society. That is, we had this notion of education being something that happens at a certain moment in your life, then you finish it and are put into the real world. On some level, it never really worked that way. But today the school isn’t the only spot where leaning takes place. Kids are learning by playing video games, so is that education, right? And learning doesn’t end after you stop going to school. It becomes part of your every aspect of your life. Learning is not an activity that is reserved for a finite part of time in a discreet place.

I think the real question we need to be asking kids isn’t “what do you want to be when you grow up,” but rather, “what’s your passion?” It would be great if educators can find out what turns a kid on.

Peter Noonan: Did you know what you wanted to be when you were 12? I didn’t. And I can see the value in helping them test the waters, which is what we are constantly trying to do. But from your perspective, how do you see it playing out?

Dan Pink: Quite honestly, if you ask me what your passion is I’m like wait a second, hold on. I gotta get this one right. Today I’m interested in Manga. Tomorrow it may be something else.

But how about this scenario: Say a kid comes to school and the teacher says, “what are you interested in” and he says martial arts. So the teacher helps him build a curriculum completely around martial arts. Now that’s the kind of thing that’s going to make some parents completely roll their eyes and say “what the hell kind of education is this?”

Well, what happens is the kid works a couple of days in the studio, the martial arts studio, he’s learning math, they teach math in parts. He learns math in terms of force and angles and all that sort of stuff because there’s plenty of math and physics in martial arts. He knows more about Japanese history than any non-academic because he’s really into martial arts and wants to know how it got started. And then he starts writing brochures for the martial arts studio. He wants to make sure he gets it right, so he works hard to use language effectively.

Now, if you had this kid—or me even—read four paragraphs about bees and write a summary paragraph about it, I’m going to be bored out of my mind. But if you teach me all kinds of things around a topic I’m interested in, then that’s different.

So that idea of context I think is important. I see it in my own life; I’ll learn something from this conversation. Now is this education? I don’t know. Yeah. Kind of. Sort of. So I think it’s that idea that is in many ways missing.

Now, the challenging part of that idea is that education is like breathing. Education is an on going process than falls into question perhaps whether we need these institutions called schools to be places to deposit people for a certain amount of time

Peter Noonan: My colleagues and I have actually spent a lot of time talking about just that. Our goal is to be able to articulate what the purpose is beyond the years someone spends in school. In fact, I was recently interviewed for an article that ran in The Washington Post, and the reporter wanted to know what is the purpose of dropping a kid off from eight o’clock in the morning and having him stay there until three thirty in the afternoon? Into the future, she wanted to know, are there other opportunities and solutions for kids in terms of how—and when and where—we educate them.

So short of changing the way we operate our school days, we might incorporate other changes into our strategy, like creating opportunities for kids to be able to find something that they have an interest in—or using something like manga where they write a 10-page story about what it’s like to be an immigrant.

Dan Pink: Yes. Get them to learn English by writing a manga story about how their family came over here and what was great, and what was scary, and what do they wish they could change. Then distribute it to the whole school because everyone will be interested in knowing that story. It would be powerful, and I think most kids in that situation step up.

Peter Noonan: Absolutely. And they learn narrative skills, writing skills, and they learn that what they have experienced and think is important. It ceases to be a factory model of education. One of our goals is not to simply be “stamping out” kids.

Certainly, it seems like so many industries today are focused on customization. We’re sitting here talking at a Starbucks, and there are seemingly a zillion ways to have your cup of coffee prepared. To be more in-sync with the times, educators do realize we need to make changes.

But one of the big reasons we aren’t quite to change is, frankly, we’re afraid we’re going to screw up. So then do we become paralyze and think it’s not worth messing a generation up because it has worked okay since the beginning of time—and it’ll probably work okay for the next 50 years.

But at what point do you say enough is enough? And after that, how do you decide what to keep, what to throw out, and what to bring in that is different?

Dan Pink: I think your analysis is brilliant. I mean, I think it’s the fear of messing up that is holding education back. And as you say, there will come a point when the endless bountiful service of mediocrity becomes more dangerous than the risk of slipping up.

Peter Noonan: Right, right. And it seems like we’re there.

Dan Pink: I realize this isn’t easy because this is complicated stuff. I’m always amazed about how many social problems—ones no one else wants to deal with—are dumped on schools. So they’re assigned to do nutrition. They are assigned to do sex ed. To me, these are parental responsibilities, but schools are forced to take them on, as if the schools’ job of teaching every kid who passes through the door wasn’t hard enough.

The other thing I have noticed is that professionals in the education system probably have less autonomy than any other professional in any other segment in American society. That’s part of your challenge right there. Teachers have to listen to principals, and principals take orders from superintendents. And human nature is such that when autonomy starts to be crimped people go and do something else. Then if you look at the system from the kids’ perspective, they have almost no autonomy.

Peter Noonan: So how do you create autonomy in a large school division?

Dan Pink: I think that it’s extremely difficult to do on a large level. So ultimately the problem is that all the rules and regulations, like No Child Left Behind and standardized tests, are a function of external accountability factors that have nothing to do, in my mind, with education at all.

Peter Noonan: Right. And if you ask a parent what do you care more about, the school or your kid? What are they going to say? And so, even the unit of analysis is very beauracratic and not at all customized. Because we are a government entity, schools are forced to meet the standards and adhere to NCLB, so we are not thinking as much about what is the experience of this or that particular kid. We are not thinking about it the way a parent does. These kids, these individuals, are just aggregations of data.

But we are educators first, and truly we want to fix the system. Our catch phrase now is to say we’ll do it “child by child.” Ultimately, that’s how I think we’ll be able to improve the system.

Dan Pink: I think that’s a good aspiration.

Peter Noonan: I do too.


More Blog: The Parent Diaries Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
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• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.