Vol 2 . . . No 8 . . . April, 1992
Editor: Jamie McKenzie, Ed.D.
-----Monthly Comments ----
For a year now I have been testing the degree of paradigm paralysis resident in various audiences by asking teams to "make the most" of a jar containing hundreds of jigsaw puzzle pieces from several different puzzles. Even though I warn the groups that their success depends upon challenging their "puzzle paradigms," 8 out of 10 teams spend most of their time separating the pieces into piles so they can begin connecting them in a classic, smokestack landscape puzzle. In the 25 minutes they are given, most groups become gridlocked by their past mind-sets and belief systems, sticking to time-honored puzzling scripts.
A recent exception to this general pattern is worth mentioning in this column. While working with a technology committee in one district, each of seven groups was able to break with traditional paradigms and move rapidly through brainstorming of options to the creation of interesting products.
Why did this committee vary so dramatically from other groups? I can only hypothesize that the members of this committee were habituated to exploring the edge of new technologies, challenging the way things are "spozed to be," and pioneering new programs. Paradigm shifting had become, evidently, second nature to this group.
We need more such everyday heroes to take up the invention of new schools, liberating students from the Minotaur of smokestack education. This issue of From Now On is dedicated to the technology wizards and heroes who have heeded the call to adventure and accepted the challenge.
The challenges facing technology wizards today require heroic action. Like Theseus of Athens, they must wind their way through a modern labyrinth to slay a twentieth century Minotaur. To accomplish this feat, they must ally themselves with other heroes such as staff developers, principals, teachers and assistant superintendents who share their vision. Together they will set off on a journey marked by trials, tests, tribulations and, eventually, if all goes well, triumph.
What is this twentieth century Minotaur? Smokestack education: classroom instruction which emphasizes routine, compliance, memorization, lower level thinking and teacher domination - schools which persist in teaching student to memorize scripts for problem-solving instead of learning how to write or invent their own problem-solving techniques, schools which dispense adult insight but rarely engage students in making their own meanings or creating their own insights from raw data.
The society and the economy of the next decade require brainworkers and independent problem-solvers capable of inventing fresh approaches with which to respond to a rapidly changing world.
Smokestack education leaves America ill equipped to compete in an increasingly high tech, information-based global economy and it impedes the development of a healthy society, the "kinder and gentler" world once promised by President Bush.
Most schools are anachronisms, horse-and-buggy operations soon to be replaced by shining new high tech competitors launched by corporate educational raiders.
If public school leaders do not slay the Minotaur in the immediate future, new schools will pop up across the nation along with public funding of choice and vouchers, and most likely the smokestack schools will fold up and close down just as thousands of outdated Mom and Pop grocery stores did during the 1960s.
We are bound to see the educational equivalent of super-markets, convenience stores, fast food restaurants, drive-ins, take-outs and vending machines. If families are willing to "nuke" dinner in microwave ovens, maybe they will "nuke" learning with a variety of new learning machines promising quick cures and amazing results.
In the Greek myth, Athens was required to sacrifice seven maidens and seven young men each year to appease the Minotaur. We sacrifice far more each year, as the NAEP tests report that fewer than ten per cent of our eleventh graders (still in school) are capable of performing tasks requiring high levels of reasoning power - the very kinds of thinking our society needs in order to thrive.
Across the land, far too many of our students spend each morning wading through a dozen ditto sheets, filling in blanks and practicing scripts. In many of these same schools, new technologies have marched into classrooms only to perform outmoded instructional tasks best suited for the days of Truman and Eisenhower.
To tame the Minotaur, technology wizards and their allies must navigate through a labyrinth of obstacles which keep most schools and school districts frozen in place. They must learn from the heroes of old, modeling their journeys after those who have passed before.
If successful, we will raise a generation of students who can find their own way through the labyrinth of modern society, constructing meanings from the complex data which swirl around us during this Age of Information, a generation of "everyday heroes" intent on using their insights to make this a better world, slaying, converting, enlisting or taming whatever dragons or Minotaurs may impede their progress.
Catford and Ray's The Path of the Everyday Hero is a great source of definitions and examples for those who would like to learn more about this concept.
In simplest terms, an everyday hero is a person who employs creative powers and energies to try to make life better for the larger community.
Joseph Campbell describes a hero as follows:
"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow (man/woman)."
After years of studying schools and the change process, it occurs to me that we have paid too little attention to the very real risks facing those who would lead change efforts, that we have done little to prepare leaders for those risks or equip them with the skills and courage required to stick with the journey.
By and large, the literature and research on educational change has been too rational, too logical and too dispassionate. Not only have administrative training programs done little to encourage those who must undertake heroes' journeys, they have tended to promote a kind of status quo leadership style which has contributed to our present frozen condition.
"Do not rock the boat!" the educational establishment seems to be telling us.
Despite the warnings and the dangers, the educational hero heeds the call to adventure and steps forward on the path to a new and better educational future. She or he breaks through the paradigms, mind-sets and myths which have long blocked progress and asks how schooling might change for the better.
The importance of knowing the six stages of the hero's journey
Ignorance could be the hero's greatest enemy, allowing fear and panic to undermine will and commitment at some crucial stage of the journey. By studying the heroes of old, we can learn what to expect and be better prepared for the trials when they appear.
We need to know, for example, that the hero is almost always tested on something which is a real weakness. Lancelot's failure to reach the Holy Grail came not from failure to face down foes in the form of other knights or dragons. Armed combat was a strength. It was his inability to maintain vows of chastity which blocked him from the Grail. His biggest challenge, it turned out was temptation, and his biggest enemy was his self.
The problem of hubris (excessive pride or arrogance) has been known to plague school leaders upon occasion, but the knowledge of such heroic perils can help the school leader to avoid repeating those mistakes.
According to Catford and Ray, there is a prelude to most journeys, a time during which all seems right with the world and the status quo seems acceptable (page 38).
We can remember times in our own lives where there was good balance and little need for heroic action or dramatic challenges to the "way it's spozed to be."
But good teachers actually experience little of this steady-state in their careers because they are almost always dissatisfied with the results of their efforts. They are always searching for more effective ways to reach their classes.
There is something basic to the act of learning which conspires to keep good teachers from experiencing much of this innocence stage. If they are actually engaged in helping others to explore the edges of their understanding, it means that teachers spend much time with "negative space," the darkness we associate with the unknown and little understood.
Because our students promise us a daily diet of surprise and emotion, our attempts to establish reliable routines and practices are doomed from the outset. While that does not stop some teachers from trying, the best teachers recognize that learning should be an adventure for all, teachers and students alike. They recognize that learning is, almost by definition, a hero's journey and that innocence cannot long survive if learning is taking place.
While the good teacher may find the call to education the beginning of the hero's journey, when might a technology wizard encounter the call to adventure?
Whenever the "way it's spozed to be" is up for question and reconsideration, whenever brand new opportunities loom, whenever something seems wrong about what has been happening, whenever some other wizard or hero calls for a "pow-wow," that might be the call.
If you are wondering whether you are experiencing the call, check your gut and ask if you feel risk gathering there. Check to see if your stress and anxiety levels have risen suddenly. Ask if there is some big decision or line in the sand which needs crossing.
1. Are you feeling "out ahead" of the pack?
2. Are you isolated?
3. Do you feel that you see things differently suddenly?
4. Are you uneasy about repeating patterns you have long taken for granted?
5. Are you beginning to have more questions than answers?
6. Do the questions stay with you, demanding attention?
7. Is your dream life (while driving, running, showering, daydreaming or night dreaming) more turbulent?
If you answered many of these questions with a "yes," chances are that you are experiencing the call.
Once the journey has begun, the hero is usually sorely tested and discouraged early on. This is in part because the hero is usually unclear regarding the true nature of the journey. To achieve transformation and transcendence, the hero nearly always experiences disappointment, frustration and near failure, as if the old skills and weapons must prove insufficient to meet the new challenges.
In nearly all of the hero stories there is a moment of despair when the hero is about to give up and lose heart. At these times, the hero often surrenders to some higher spiritual power, gives up control, stops fighting so hard and suddenly acquires new powers and vision resulting from this surrender and new openness.
Arrogance often blocks understanding and learning. The very things we are sure we know are often the perceptions which block us from new truths.
In The Art of the Long View, Schwartz teaches scenario building as a way to prepare for an uncertain future. Basic to the art of scenario building is re-perceiving the world, laying aside assumptions and mind-sets (arrogance?)which block our ability to see possibilities.
It was this kind of scenario-building which allowed Shell Oil to anticipate the break-up of the USSR back in 1983 prior to Gorbachev's rise to power. When briefed on this scenario, the CIA (arrogantly?) scoffed at the idea and refused to give it serious consideration.
In a similar fashion, school leaders are sometimes slow to let go of mind-sets which block future possibilities. We tend to think of learning as something which improves with more time spent between students and teachers in classrooms, for example. We are reluctant to consider the possibility that "less is actually more" as thinkers like Ted Sizer have suggested.
The technology wizard/hero may begin the journey with baggage and tools that needs rethinking and possible disposal. Certain time-honored skill-sets like strategic planning may be left behind in favor of scenario-building and Future Perfect planning (Davis, 1987), for example.
One thing we can learn from other heroes is that at the outset of the journey we cannot be sure what it is we will need to discard and what it is that will lift us beyond the limitations of our past views.
Most likely we will need to surrender ourselves with open minds to the learning process, trusting the process to show us the way. Often we find more answers as we enter the next stage, achieving major new insights with the help and synergism of allies.
In many myths it is at the moment of surrender that the allies suddenly appear and provide the hero with new wisdom, new perception, new tools and new magic. It is almost as if one must become dis-illusioned (relieved of one's illusions) before one can be open to new insights.
What is the relevance of this phase to technology wizards? Who are the allies one can count upon to provide the magic and the new perception?
The answer may well be that you will find your allies where you least expect . It may be a parent with unusual experience in the creation of music with new technologies, or it may be a local business person or religious leader. It may be a classroom teacher whose eyes are burning with the same quest as you.
There is nothing wrong with searching out sages and professional consultants, but the hero is often apt to find truth in unusual quarters. It is more important to be open to new sources than it is to conduct some kind of fervent search. The danger of the fervent search is the likelihood that we will inadvertently seek those who confirm our wrong mind-sets.
There was a good reason for the medieval court jester or fool who could be counted upon to make a mockery of current thinking and challenge the idiocy of the prevailing mind-set.
Should a technology wizard set off in search of fools, then? One need not bother. There are plenty to go around.
Breakthrough occurs when the hero applies new wisdom and perception to develop a novel approach. Insight fuels invention. There is a creative leap. What passed for understanding in the past drops away as new ideas emerge with the brilliance of a butterfly taking flight from the cocoon in which it has slept.
For the technology wizard this might be the moment when a design team emerges from months of struggle and debate with a vision of a new technology lab which the entire team knows will catapult students into a whole new realm of learning and team invention.
Months later the facility opens, students file in and the design team stands back smiling, recognizing what they already knew. The new space is different from any they have seen in a school, but it is humming. The pieces of their dream have come together with the magical harmony of a symphony.
The celebration stage is when the hero shares the new insight with the world, thereby making it better in some way. Great ideas become realities. Dreams become programs.
It is not enough for the hero to grow and learn by her or himself. The community must benefit. The hero must share. It is the sharing which allows for transcendence.
Catford and Ray draw a close parallel between the stages of the hero's journey and the six stages of the creative process (preparation, frustration, incubation, strategizing, illumination and verification (pages 24-27).
In order to be successful during these six stages, they maintain that a creative hero needs the following four "magic" tools:
1) Having faith in your creativity
Because the journey will almost necessarily plunge you into darkness at various times, faith becomes essential. During those long time periods answers and solutions prove evasive, the technology wizard must believe that perseverance will pay off, that clarity will come, that some kind of answer will arise out of the confusion and darkness. A lack of faith will translate into a lack of courage and a tendency to play it safe, keeping close to home and sticking with what is familiar and reassuring.
2) Suspending negative judgment
Because negative judgments virtually shut down creative production, the technology wizard drives away doubt and criticism, especially during the exploration and idea generation stages. The goal is to open one's mind to possibilities never before considered. If you find a judge perched upon your shoulder critiquing every new thought, banish the boring gremlin and invite your clown to takes its place. This is a time for playful consideration of intriguing futures.
3) Practicing precise observation
A visit to unfamiliar territory places a premium on careful observation. One cannot rely upon previous experience and knowledge for guidance. The creative hero slows down activity, emphasizes reflection and seeks understanding.
4) Asking penetrating questions
Precise observation relies upon penetrating questions, for good questions are the tools we use to develop insight when encountering new and strange environments or experiences. Questions bring us out of the darkness and into the light. They probe negative space and help us to make meaning.
Relevance for Students
These same four tools would serve students as well as teachers as we begin the move away from smokestack education, but the task of making student creativity, observation and questioning basic to learning will require a massive paradigm shift. Current research on student questions indicates that the present ratio is 38 teacher questions for every 1 student question (Hyman). We have a very long way to go before we make student inquiry the prevailing practice. Witness the April issue of Ed Leadership which asks what comes beyond effective teaching.
We have come full circle back to the need to emphasize the kinds of thinking Toffler stresses in Powershift. If we wish this generation of students to leave school as everday heroes capable of tackling complicated and surprising problems imaginatively and resourcefully, we have a great deal of work to do.
Paradigm shifters, according to Barker and most observers of the change process, often experience punishment, pain, doubt and banishment. Instead of being greeted with open arms as heroes, they are often shunned, ignored, pilloried or ostracized as heretics. The costs of challenging "the way it's spozed to be" are so high at times, that conventional wisdom and self preservation might argue for silence.
If we expect significant change to take place in schools, we must devote more energy to understanding how to support the questioners, the paradigm shifters and the inventors who are willing to propose new scenarios and possibilities. Until we do a better of removing barriers and penalties for this kind of thinking, we are likely to see incremental changes or first order change - mere tinkering which does not go to the heart of the challenge.
Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.
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