What are parents and teachers going to do about ...
Julie Wilson gives an inspiring interview on how our current educational model is failing us, and how we need to begin to ask the deeper question, “What’s worth learning” as the guide for the future. Do we value testing over the content being taught? What kind of humans do we want to raise?
Julie’s non-profit organization, the Institute for the Future of Learning, can be found at: https://www.the-ifl.org/ and more information about the Academic Leadership Group can be found here: https://www.academicleadershipgroup.com.
You can find her new book on Amazon: The Human Side of Changing Education: How to Lead Change With Clarity, Conviction, and Courage. Other books Julie mentioned in this podcast are:
Julie Wilson: We know that as human beings, we learn in very different ways. We know that the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind that we need to thrive in the 21st century are way beyond basic literacy in math and in English. And we also know that teachers are not being developed in a way that honors that, and we value what we measure instead of measuring for value.
John Pottenger: Welcome to the Path To Learning podcast, where three ordinary guys explore the world of education.
Jay Irwin: What’s working, what’s broken …
Scott Bultman: … and what we can do to best advocate for children.
John: I’m John Pottenger.
Scott: I’m Scott Bultman.
Jay: And I’m Jay Irwin, and you’re listening to Path To Learning.
John: Man, I’m excited about this podcast because we’re talking with Julie Wilson, and when we first did this interview — it was a while back — I did not know how impactful her interview was going to be.
Scott: Well, obviously, her credentials were stellar, but she was so warm ad personable, and we got into some really emotional territory, which I didn’t expect at the beginning, but we were so fortunate to be able to speak with her.
Jay: This was from our very first road trip, collecting interviews — at the time we had never heard her speak or anything, so I just remember being completely floored and inspired, and — she was the first one who kind of started to translate what we can actually do today, to improve things, for me. So let’s dive in!
Scott: So, Julie Wilson is president of the Academic Leadership Group at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and she’s the president and founder of The Institute for the Future of Learning, and… let’s get into it with Julie Wilson.
Scott: Welcome Julie; so to get us up to speed, why don’t you tell us what you’ve been working on?
Julie: So, I’m the founder of a non-profit called The Institute for the Future of Learning, and it has an interesting genesis; because my background is not in K-12 education, my background is in adult development and large scale change. So for about 15 years or so, I worked basically with adults through career and professional development programming offering workshops; I headed up Harvard’s Career and Professional Development Program for about five years. And it was very interesting through the course of working with adults particularly in senior-level executive coaching to really, for me it was… it was gradually, and then all of a sudden I came to the realization that so much of what we’re trying to help adults with, in these workshops and leadership development programs is to help them unlearn what they learned through a standardized system of education and a number of courses that I was studying at the time at the Harvard Graduate School of Education were very impactful, and I’ll mention three by way of headline, one was Eleonore Duckworth’s ‘The Having of Wonderful Ideas’ and Professor Duckworth studied with Piaget back in the day, and it was my first experience of really getting a sense of — if you provide students with the opportunity to think their own thinking. It’s just a depth of discourse, and there’s a depth of discovery that you don’t get through the typical standardized curriculum. The second course, which was really impactful, was Robert Keegan’s, Professor Keegan’s adult development course, and in that course, he talks about the five stages of development. First one being childhood; second, adolescence; third, being the socialized mind, fourth, being the self-authoring mind and the fifth being the transformational mind; and according to Keegan’s research and my own experience working with adults for over a decade, the vast majority of us typically don’t get beyond the socialized mind; we might find ourselves in a, in between a socialized mind and a self-authoring mind when we hit that mid-life crises or mid-life opportunity and we find the ladder that we have been climbing is up against the wrong wall, and we start to really reflect and think about the choices that we have made and is this the life that I want, I’ve designed it, and I built it, but have I really thought about what I want that to be? So, that was the second course, and the third course was David Perkins’, ‘Educating for the Unknown,’ and it was that course that really birthed the IFL, that course was based on four through lines: What’s worth learning? How it’s best learned? How can we get it taught that way? And, how do we know it has been learned? And those four questions cut really succinctly to the core of the educational enterprise; curriculum, pedagogy, teacher development, and assessment. And we were about a week into that seminar when the blinding flash of the obvious landed, that the system that we have, and particularly the public system, it does not honor any of what we know with regards to those four questions. We know that as human beings, we learn in very different ways. We know that the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind that we need to thrive in the 21st century are way beyond basic literacy in math and in English. And we also know that teachers are not being developed in a way that honors that, and we value what we measure instead of measuring for value.
John: That was awesome.
Jay: That was brilliant.
Scott: That was great.
John: So— Julie maybe you could talk a little bit about… you know, you’re a leading thinker on how we can positively change education and the system; can you tell us a little bit about the barriers we’re up against?
Julie: Absolutely. So, when it comes to barriers, I’ve spent the last couple of years … mapping the terrain, so getting my arms around, what is the system currently, what is the ‘North Star’ if we want it to be, and how might we bridge from here to there. So if you can imagine in your mind’s eye a Venn diagram with three circles; the first circle compromises pedagogy and assessment, so the learning that matters most and how do we know it has been learned; that’s the core of the educational enterprise. The second circle is organizational structures. So, we’re not going to transform the factory model of education with a factory model of management structures. And the structure as is currently built is very much a hierarchy. And that hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last 100 years. And if we’re saying that we want students to learn creativity, collaboration, how to communicate effectively, how to be adaptable and flexible, how to have agency and autonomy, we need to build a system that honors that. And the current system, for example, requires very little in the way of autonomy of teachers; teachers, for the most part, really enjoy very little autonomy in what they do on any given day. In my mind any system that ignores what is presented on any given day and leans on a standardized curriculum, we’re just not going to get far with that. So how can you ask a teacher to establish a learning environment where students can really dig into their creativity and have that nurtured if the teachers themselves are not being asked to be creative? There’s just a complete disconnect there.* [See Froebel quote #1 below. – T.G.] And there’s a wonderful book that I read most recently, probably the most impactful that I’ve read in the last 10 years, called ‘Reinventing Organizations’ [Frederic Laloux and Ken Wilber. – T.G.] and he does a beautiful job of breaking down the organizational structures that we’ve had over the last 150-200 years and what might be needed moving forward; and interestingly, he notes a school in Berlin called ESBZ [Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum] which is very much built on self-managing teacher teams, and it’s a fundamentally different way to set up the management structure of a school to really honor that kind of pedagogy and assessment. And then the third circle, and this is one which I very rarely hear discussed, and it’s something that I’m going to talk about in my upcoming book, which is adult transformation. The vast majority of us have been raised in the factory model system, and we are going through our own metamorphoses and transformation while the system goes under it itself. And when I think about the teachers, the principals, the superintendents, the parents, the business people in any community… we need to start asking ourselves fundamental questions along the lines of “What’s worth learning?”. And that thing calls up our own uncertainties, our own inability — I have it myself — inability to deal with ambiguity. I want the right answer; I want it in black and white. It helps to explain the level of our political discourse right now. The person who can make things most black and most white, they tend to get the attention because we are craving for answers, we are craving for certainty. And the reality is, we are dealing, and we are working and we are living in what the military calls a [inaubible] world, it’s volatile, it’s uncertain, it’s complex, it’s ambiguous, and interestingly we have never been connected as much as we are right now through the internet, through technology, we have never been more disconnected from ourselves and from each other, and this question of what’s worth learning in my mind speaks to how do we design and build a life of our own choosing, and one that helps build a citizenry, that can help sustain ourselves on this planet — it gets to that level of depth and… surface-level conversations around standardized testing and increasing scores does not get to the heart of the conversation. Which is, “What’s worth learning?” Are we prepared as a generation? And as a global citizenry to really, from first principles, sit down, look at the current system and say, it was built for a fundamentally different era. We have fundamentally different problems, we have fundamentally different opportunities. If we raise yet another generation of children within the standardized system, we will only perpetuate and make worse the current situation that we have and the reality there is those children need to leapfrog us, because we were raised in the factory model system. And any time I try and work with a group, and I’m wrestling with my own thoughts and my own preconceptions of my own meta-models, I’m aware that I’m a product of the system as well, and there is so much that I am missing; there is so much that I am not getting, that you could ask a six-year-old and they would come up with probably much more intelligent and creative answers. So that piece around adult transformation and what it requires of us as adults, to let go of the reins enough to let another model emerge and to nurture that; that’s the biggest challenge, and there is no silver bullet there. But in my mind, that gets to the heart of what we need to change.
Jay: So, once we’re able to see the issues and the opportunity, how do we move from here to there?
John: Yeah, do you have any advice on how to get from the model that we’re in, to something different?
Julie: So, if the fundamental problem that we have is that we have a factory model system education and we are now in the 21st century, and we’ve got fundamentally different problems and opportunities before us, how might we get from here to there? And I’ve been thinking deeply about that for the past number of years, and a model to which I often refer is Jeffrey Muir’s ‘Crossing the Chasm’ model. And that model was originally designed to help explain why some technology gets adopted, and other technology does not. And if you can imagine in your mind’s eye a bell curve: at the one end you have the innovators, these were the folks right out there on the bleeding edge way ahead of their time; Froebel is a prime example. Montessori, Steiner, Piaget, Dewey, these are the innovators. Following the innovators, you have the early adopters, and if you can imagine going up the bell curve, then we have the early majority followed by the late majority and followed by what Jeffrey Muir would call the laggards; I like to call them the traditionalists because I think that any fluctuating system needs innovators and traditionalists. What I really learned from Jeffrey Muir’s model was that in between the early adopters and the early majority is a chasm, and this is why so many new technology products, why so much change never actually takes hold. And the difference between early adopters and early majority is appetite for risk. So, the early adopters will do it precisely because it’s risky, precisely because this is juicy, and we have no idea if this is going to work, that’s reason enough to do it; that’s the very reason for doing it. In sharp contrast, the early majority want that risk diminished as much as possible, ideally removed. So, I want to see it working, I want to see data, I want to see evidence, and ideally, I see the evidence with someone looking just like me in a situation very much like mine, so I can readily adopt this new thing, new-to-me thing. So when I look at the education system, and I look at what we are valuing right now, we are valuing what we measure and not measuring what we value. And the bridge that I am seeing and that I’m placing a pretty big bet on is assessment. So, there’s great work happening right now particularly around competencies; how do we assess the competencies that matter most, and I finished doing some research and writing a report on assessing the learning that matters most (original title). And, in that report, I spoke with 28 thought leaders to really identify what were the bright points of light out there. What are they assessing, how are they assessing it, what are the gaps, what are the domains that are most challenging to assess, how might we address those gaps, and what are their recommendations for the way forward. And this report is laying the groundwork for an open-source database. My goal is to design and build an open-source database where these assessment practices are made public. So, if I’m a parent of a seven-year-old, I can download a rubric on how this school out in Arizona is assessing creativity and collaboration… that gives me hope, it gives me an example of what this looks like in action, and it helps me have the conversation with my teachers and my fellow parents, “How might we do something like that here?”. And I’ve also started some work with several schools where we gather the communities, and we talk about what’s the learning that matters most, and tonight, interestingly, I’m going to a Montessori School, and the director of that school sent out a survey; a Google doc to his parents asking “What are the skills and knowledge and habits of mind that matter most? When you think of your child as a forty-year-old, what skills and habits of mind would you like that forty-year-old to have?” And there were some really significant themes around collaboration, kindness, empathy, ability to communicate, balance a checkbook, really practical things, and really deep things such as compassion and empathy for others. So if we truly value that and given the fact that we are intelligent human beings, and we managed to put somebody on the moon, I’m pretty sure we can assess that learning. What’s important is not to go after the standardized tests vision of assessment though — it’s not high-stakes, blunt hammer — it’s assessment all of learning, for learning, and as learning. And it’s really bringing the richness of the educational enterprise and what we really need to do to help elevate that is to elevate the role of the teacher. And in direct correlation to the system, going down the standardized route, the teacher role has been de-professionalized and de-professionalized and de-professionalized, and if I can earn more money serving coffee, compared to being a substitute teacher, there is something fundamentally wrong with that equation. And when… I got goosebumps when I started to gather these examples of how teachers were assessing this learning because it speaks to the richness of it, and it speaks to the complexity of it; if I’m a policymaker and I’m looking at this, I’m thinking, I just can’t pass up on policy on this, this is something that is deep and complex — aah! maybe this whole role of a teacher is as much art as it is a science and let’s start to think differently about how we prepare teachers, and how we support them, and the autonomy that we give them, within any school environment.* [See Froebel quote #2 below. – T.G.]
Scott: So is anyone working on how we can release this factory-model-reliance on assessment?
Julie: There’s incredible work happening, and what I see is there’s a momentum building. And literally in the past three weeks I have had, or the last forty-eight hours, I had three inquiries about committees gathering in different schools across the country, talking about how do we assess this kind of learning. It’s starting to bubble up, and I think the more we can… really welcome it, and talk about in plain English, not ‘academicese’ that alienates the vast majority of the population— it can be challenging, but really… to look at what’s happening and to see that we’re at a choice point and we’re deciding every day to do it or not do it, we are deciding to not do it by default. And I have met enough people who are doing good work and enough people who have deep pockets who believe in this as well, and understand that this is a longer-term enterprise. So, I didn’t go to kindergarten, but I was raised on a farm, and I’m realizing now that I’m forty-one, how that was such an incredible part of my education. And when my dad went out to walk the fields, he didn’t pull up a crop and look at its roots and think, well how was this doing, is it growing the way in which I think it should, and then shove it back in the ground. You learn to read the leaves, you learn to read what’s happening out in the fields, you learn to read the life cycle — you learn to read. And I think we need to shift the lens of assessment from what’s happening every quarter to “We are nurturing human beings here,” and it might take a few years but can we agree enough on the process so that as a collective, communities will give schools the time and space and the partnership to assess this learning in a very different kind of way. If we start to see, you know, “You got a 93 in kindness, and I got a 92 in kindness,” I think we’re screwed at that point. It speaks to the more qualitative nature, not quantitative, and I’m saying that it has to be this pendulum swinging the opposite direction; I think it can be both. And I think we need to look at multiple measures, so it’s not just this one grade, you’re an A student, and you’re a B student, and you’re a D student, but here is the portfolio, here are the multiple measures, here’s how we do this in partnership with parents and with the student as well; some of the more innovative practices that I see, the student can readily describe what it is they are working on, where they are, the feedback that they’re getting, not only from teachers but from their peers, from their parents, from folks out in the community, and it’s this richness.
Scott: So obviously, you’re preaching to the choir here, but for those people out there that are… open to some of these ideas and change — how do we convince them? I just feel like — so many people have dedicated their careers and their lives to making change, and they must be frustrated by the lack of progress that we’ve seen.
Julie: Absolutely. Absolutely, and I can see how the folks who have been doing this for forty, fifty years would be frustrated. What I see though is that at this point in time, we are standing on the shoulders of those giants. I can understand how they might be frustrated… but their work was not in vain. Their work was very necessary, and… they might not see this reward in their lifetime. But, I think if we have humility at the magnitude of the task before us, and faith… that it can be done, then I think the work continues. And I’m back to the bell curve; we have Froebel, Montessori, Steiner, Piaget, and the innovators, the early adopters, we have high-tech and new-tech network, workshop skills, institute of play, I see the IFL’s role as being that bridge from here to what’s next; and I’m forty-one— if Mother Nature’s good to me, I have at least thirty if not forty years’ work and… yes, I am an optimist, I’m also an endless pragmatist, which is why I am always trying to speak in invitational language. I think there is so much more can be gained by being invitational as opposed to ‘carrying a big stick’ and saying the many ways how much things are wrong. I think we have enough data around what’s wrong, we have enough evidence — the state that the world is in — what’s wrong. I think what we’re lacking is more application on what’s happening that’s working really well. And how children’s lives are being transformed, through deeper learning, through whole child pedagogy. And if we can seek those out, wherever we go and shine a really bright light on it and connect it, and if we can start to assess that and bring some good data, some qualitative data, and market it; I don’t think business is a bad thing — my dad’s a farmer, my brothers have built their own businesses — I believe in enterprise, I believe in an individual’s ability to design and build a life of their own choosing. I think more and more, we’re going to see project work and fewer and fewer jobs; jobs are a relatively recent invention. So, I think we have much more in common than we have different and I think if we continue to focus on what’s working and we continue to shine a really bright light on that, and we start to connect people to this work, I think — in the next, it won’t happen in the next five years, but the next ten, fifteen years? I think things will turn. And it will turn in community.
Jay: Thank you, that is so well-said. So before our time runs out, we need to know — I’m sure all our listeners are wanting to know — what is it that we can do, today?
Julie: I think … every single person on this planet can do something. And I think if every single person on this planet could identify what they love to do, and then ask their local school how they might help. I know that sounds Pollyanna-like, but I do think that every single person on this planet has a set of strengths and talents that never be replicated, ever. And if just one percent of those people said, “You know, I have a heart in education, I’m not sure how I can help, and I don’t have an educational background and maybe schooled sucked for me.” I would say even more so, if school sucked for you, we really need you. Because you have a lens that we typically don’t have. The vast majority of people in the education system, people like myself, they did school well; therefore, I think we need more of the people for whom — they were not served by that traditional model. The more they can rally around this work and bring their different and innovative thinking to it, I think that will really help to turn things.
John: Thanks for joining us today as we were talking with Julie, that was just such an impactful interview that we were able to conduct many years ago and so thankful that we were able to share it today.
Scott: Thank you to Julie Wilson of the Institute for the Future of Learning. You can find her at www.the-ifl.org, she’s written some wonderful books, and we thank her for spending some time with us today.
Jay: Don’t forget to check the show’s notes for the books that Julie mentioned in the podcast.
John: If you want to continue to support us, we’ve got a couple of ways that you can do that; one of the ways that you can join us is on https://www.patreon.com/PathToLearning.
Jay: Thanks, everybody.