New Rules for School

Yesterday’s post raised the question of learning to learn in public: if the practices are just as public (and subject to criticism) as the games, how can we make the mistakes we need to make in practice in order to be better when it really matters?

If you’re human like the rest of us, that means you’re learning all the time: making mistakes, adjusting, and trying to do better next time. Beyond the tired but useful bromides about being gentle on people and hard on ideas, how can we start making schools and workplaces truly safe for learning?

Here are a few ideas. Consider them ground rules for today’s dojo, where everything is public — which makes effective learning more important than ever:

  • Decide what matters and what doesn’t. Does this work need to be graded? If so, by whom, and what does that grade mean?
  • Be relentlessly clear about the purpose of your enterprise. Is the purpose of school to compete for GPA, or to produce people with the courage and wisdom to raise their hands, risk an idea, and lead their peers?
  • Be equally alert to the implicit assumptions of the culture you’re building or tolerating: if it’s not OK to be wrong around here, what would make it OK for a manager in (or product of) this organization to admit error and say it’s time to move on?
  • Think very carefully about whether and when to reward effort versus output.
  • If you’re in a position of power — whether you’re a teacher by title or you just think a peer is wrong — be prepared to act courageously and compassionately, if you need to act at all.
  • When you do correct someone, be prepared to make every reasonable effort to publicly defend their effort, if not their conclusion.
  • If you’re offended, get curious, not defensive.
  • If you don’t think we’re talking about anything of substance, give us something substantial to talk about.

For a lot of organizations — including many organizations dedicated to teaching and learning — this isn’t the usual way. But that begs the question: what is the usual way designed to achieve, and are we satisfied with the results we’re getting?

The context has changed. It’s time to change the culture, and change the rules.