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On Vision and Change

Lisa Cooley

My mind halted when I heard it: just a quote from a character in a book, a man describing John Lennon to his young daughter, thirty years after Lennon's death. He was describing what Lennon was saying in his song, "Imagine." It stopped my thoughts dead for a moment.

The quote is, "You can change the world if you're prepared to imagine something better."

Trite, yes; overdone, probably, but it made me think about vision as a precursor to change. Change can be desperately needed, but if you can't imagine a different world, then you can't figure out how to get there. 

In a way it describes why education is so hard to change. In general, people don't have a picture of what a wholly different kind of school could look like. They picture their own school experiences, add to it what they found was missing, subtracted what they didn't like. Even those of us who think and talk and try to make change have a hard time imagining it, and if we looked inside our heads, we'd all have a different vision.

My school might look more like a talent development center. Another might be an expeditionary school. I've heard a few people talk about a shopping mall of choices that the whole community can participate in, with people walking down a great wide street with options all around them. (To me, choice is critical; if we create a school where children are respected, then in a whole world of choices of what to learn and how to learn it, I don't see the need to prescribe a curriculum at all.)

Many people would probably envision a school that looks very much like our schools do now, but one that is more responsive to the needs of families and values every child. Parents can easily imagine and long for a school where every classroom has a teacher who loves their child, sees what's special in him or her, works hard to bring it out. This seems so doable that the frustration mounts when thinking, "This does not exist, and I don't understand why not." We all want to reshape schools so that our children can be happier, but the hard part is picturing a system where all kids, with their conflicting interests, different family situations, learning styles and needs, love learning and pursue their passions with the zeal of childhood.

School districts are great bureaucracies, governed by greater state agencies, utterly dominated by Federal policy, so if a parent truly sat and tried to picture this school, it's easy to imagine giving in very quickly and trying to solve more approachable problems, and deal directly with teachers and principals, doing what they can to make sure their kids' school experiences are the best they can be, with wildly varying success.

So if two people come forward and say, "I know what this school looks like. I know how to run it. I know how to teach in it. Let me describe it to you," one might react with a sigh of relief and say, "Here's $200,000. Do what you can." Even the folks who propose the Rural Aspirations charter in RSU 3 have a vision that might be very different from other educators, parents, kids. Their vision is that of joining education and community. They have that thing called courage; they put in hours of thought and discussion beyond the hours that they put in with their regular jobs, fashioning and weaving and organizing the vision with the hope that they will save some kids from futures that lack any viable choices.

Traditional education has tried to create a one-size-fits-all model; knowing that all children are different, it is a system that cuts as wide a swath as possible down through the middle, hoping to sweep most kids along the path to successful learning. 

But there is so much evidence now that the model, in giving up on the idea of being a good fit for all, is really a good fit for none. I don't believe that this is the fault of those in the classrooms, doing the best they can within the system; the problem is systemic. In part, the problem is the difficulty in visioning a school where we can teach to the needs of every individual child. It just seems impossible.

I have to give a nod here to those who hold the very convincing view that the problem is the national education law No Child Left Behind, high-stakes testing, the narrowing of the curriculum and the tying of the hands of educators everywhere. The traditional system fails because of this narrowing; because of the limitations it sets on learning, because of the boxes into which it tries to fit our kids. I don't believe education can really change for all students until we put an end to the testing culture; but I can't help trying for a vision of education where not only is high-stakes testing a distant memory, but the daily routines of school, the function of teachers, the respect given to the needs of kids are entirely different.

I have found recently another thought that made me stop my thoughts and focus on its meaning. This time I thought of it myself. "There is only one kind of child: the one that is different from all the other children. Let's design our schools around that child."

The closest I have seen to a vision of this system comes from a book called "Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning." The authors have made a heroic attempt to take that thought, above, and rearrange the walls of our schools around it. It's not a philosophy, it is a framework. It's an outline; a blank format in which you can place kids and shape school around them.

The problems of high-stakes testing still exist even within this framework, but as I have repeatedly said, we need to think locally and globally, and act locally and globally. It could be that when we have school districts that respect every child's need to learn, these tests will become like mosquitoes: annoying but not deadly. I know some will argue with me on this; I don't claim it to be an absolute truth. It's just a thought. Let's forget about the tests. Let's do what we know is right.

The principle of visioning change begins when we unbuild walls, tear down assumptions, question the value of our own experiences and perspectives, and build new. It's what all our children deserve.
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Lisa Cooley has been serving on her school board in rural Maine for eight years; her focus has always been to work toward school change. She has two school-age children, ages eleven and fourteen. She is also a Suzuki violin teacher and a glass bead maker/jewelry designer. This article originally appeared on her blog, The Minds of Kids.