How Many Sacred Cows Does It Take to Sustain A Movement?

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

How do we transform the quality of teaching and learning in America?

Like a lot of people, I’ve been wrestling with that riddle for the bulk of my career. And this month, three separate events are making me wonder in a new way about how to bring about such a shift – and sustain such a movement.

The first two were meetings that represented parallel, powerful constituencies and ideas – an Imagination Summit hosted by the Lincoln Center Institute in New York City; and an Empathy in Action working group, hosted by Ashoka in Washington, DC. At each gathering, I heard stories and insights from some of the world’s most influential thinkers – from Sir Ken Robinson to Deepak Chopra to Kiran Bir Sethi. I heard compelling cases for helping our education system become more effective at ensuring that all children become empathetic, and develop the ability to think imaginatively, act creatively, and behave innovatively. And I left feeling impressed by the energy and the motivation that was driving each group to push its work forward.

In a few days, I’ll also be attending the Save Our Schools (SOS) March, a grassroots-led movement of teachers and parents from across the country that disagree with the Obama administration’s current reform path – and plan to peaceably assemble in DC to indicate their displeasure. Since I’ll also be covering the march for CNN, I’ve been reflecting on the goals of those private meetings, the goals of this public march, and the essential questions that must be answered for any movement to be successful: Who or what is the movement’s opponent? What is its core idea, and how can that idea be expressed as simply and compellingly as possible? And how can a complex network of individuals, organizations and alliances come together to forge a common agenda?

Our own history tells us just how possible, and difficult, it is to turn ideas and energy into transformational change. That’s because reforming a system requires not just the capacity to know your enemy and forge a compelling narrative, but also a systemic approach to the problem – an articulation of the whole. Too often, what happens instead is we lose sight of the whole out of our preference for a specific piece of the puzzle – I call it the sacred cow syndrome. Instead of a unified movement, we get a cacophony of parallel efforts. And instead of paradigm shifts, we get Groundhog Day.

If you’re a principal, you know this all too well. In addition to everything else you do, you have to regularly sort through the literature from a range of school-improvement approaches and programs that, to your eyes, seem to have similar objectives and research bases: is it a service-learning focus you want to adopt, or a character education program? Is civic education where you will choose to hang your hat, or will you double down on social and emotional learning?

To be certain, each of these field’s approaches to learning is distinct, and each field has its own unique advantages. Each would also clearly benefit from a larger movement that brings about a shift from our Industrial Age model of schooling to one that is suited for the Democratic Age. And yet for years the different leaders of these different fields have sought, genuinely, to unite their efforts – only to fall back, eventually, on their respective sacred cows.

Which returns us to the present. What will the future hold for these nascent Imagination and Empathy networks, and for this weekend’s DC protest? Since all three tribes talk of movement building, will one be able to craft a big-enough umbrella to unite the aspirations of the many? Will we develop the capacity to understand the whole? And is it possible to sustain a movement of sacred cows that, by definition, no one is willing to eat?

Categories: Leadership, Learning, Organizational Change

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  1. Beth Carow
    Posted July 27, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I don’t believe the march is about any sacred cows. How do I know this? I was a principal for ten years (last year was my last) and I did have sacred cows…all of the above. However after engaging in a discussion with Diane Ravitch, SOS veterans, and newbies like me, I came to understand that this march and the “movement” is about fighting for the Amrican public school system. That means educators and communities would be the “deciders.”. I can completely understand that once that is established (people like Bill Gates are out of the picture) we will wrestle with sacred cows but I’m not sure thts is a bad thing. Educating young children (my specialty) is multifaceted; it’s about and should include character education, science, reading, technology, democratic principles, etc. And there will be time for all those separate issues once political, cultural and social issues are not being either handled or ignored by those who have all attended American schools but have not chosen it as a lifelong passion.

  2. Posted July 27, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, Beth. Will you be at the march? If so, I’ll look forward to meeting in person. I believe we’ve been orbiting each other for some time now . . .

  3. John Wheatley
    Posted July 27, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Do we still call them sacred cows when people are not aware they exist. Like our school calendar based on an agrarian society, or a time table with common lunch hour, or a school day from 8 to 3 or imposing complexity on a problem or situation (sometimes jusy to confuse people asking ‘why not?). The struggle with change is to expose all the subliminal criteria we use to make decisions and start asking why we base our deisions on things that have little reason to exist?. Loosing site of goals is easy when we find every excuse to not change . Unknowingly we create the perfect storm that keeps us on the same island.

  4. Posted July 28, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    hi Sam

    May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

  5. Posted July 29, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the recommendations, Edwin. I’m curious if you feel the best route to ensuring that all children master the skills of empathy is via a more targeted effort, or by identifying a large-enough frame to ensure a wave of new priorities, including, but not limited to, empathy. And John, you’re exactly right in that the chief obstacles to change are always the invisible ones — i.e., the inner conditions from which we all operate, and the shared cultural symbols and memories (i.e., memes) that dictate, literally, how we “see” schools and schooling. It seems to me, therefore, that whether you’re crafting a strategy for the whole or a part, it’s imperative to tend to both the logical/visible components of reform (i.e., what people do, say and see) and the emotional/invisible components. Either is insufficient by itself, no?

  6. Kelly Heigl
    Posted August 10, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I think we need to get a little more grounded. Theory is great, but we need change, and soon! Let the discussion move us toward action, and leave the fluff behind. We have a “pie in the sky” situation and debating it could go on for decades. The time is now. Our ship is sinking. I was at the SOS March. It was great. Loved it. Now what? There is no time like the present to motivate people toward a greater common goal….and then work toward some collective insight into how to achieve that goal. It will start small and need a lot of cultivation to develop into something sustainable. The question is, what’s the goal?

  7. Posted August 10, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Hey Kelly,

    My best effort to answer the larger goal was my recent TEDx talk ( See if it makes sense and if you agree or disagree — and either way, tell me why.

    As far as immediate steps, I say we start by making sure that in the schools where we work, everyone has spent time reflecting on the core conditions of a transformational learning environment, and making sure that the school is aligned to support those conditions. This is the spirit behind the Faces of Learning work (, it’s the spirit behind appreciative inquiry, and it MAY be the spirit behind the nascent coalition that emerged out of SOS. What I wonder is how willing a majority of us are to actually change our practices and get rid of sacred cows, and how ready we are to really shift from a deficits-model of change to one that builds out from the positive core. If more and more local communities started doing this, and being cagey about how they shared their stories widely, I think you’d start to see more momentum nationwide. But what do YOU think?

  8. Susan Naysnerski
    Posted August 10, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    I am a retired principal…..retired because change and reform was just too darn slow. I think our education system is very broken. I think it needs to be entirely re-invented. Until we are able to get away from whole class lessons and all students doing the same work, there will be no reform. Until we are able to identify those teachers who want to differentiate for kids and thereby get the most growth for each student, there will be no reform. Look at other countries around the world….we are dramatically behind. Perhaps that is because we are still teaching for an agrarian audience…all at once…all at the same time. We need to adapt all our teaching practices to the 21st century.

  9. Posted August 10, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I hear you Susan. On a positive note I want to share the link for an organization that is, I think, at the forefront of thinking through just how we need to re0invent it all — check out and look at their transformational change model. Better yet, check out, which is the school the QED folks founded and ran — it is by far the best school I’ve seen.

  10. Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Sam (and others), it troubles me that through all the blogs, news articles, political speeches, etc. I have encountered that I hear ONLY about the broken educational system, the inadequate teachers, the standardized tests, etc. that have ruined our schools. It is my strong feeling that in a general sense we can accurately assign politics its fair share of responsibility in the demise of public education. Why not? Politics has ruined everything else it touches/influences. Further, a society that thrusts aside a strong moral code in favor of “if it feels good, do it” and worse must accept some responsibility. Finally, and least mentioned of all (Is this a sacred cow?), the home and family. From 40+ years as an educator I have learned that students enrolled in my classes today, though in many ways similar, are quite different from the students I taught four decades ago. Since we all know that “parents are the first teachers,” did you ever wonder why public education critics never seem to mention what is being taught or not being taught at home? One must allow that parents have the right to train their children as they choose. However, all of us must then acknowledge that first teaching doesn’t lead to later success, who is surprised?

  11. Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink


    Lots of wisdom here. It’s clear that politics, as currently constructed and imagined, is not serving us well. Just look at the economic crisis, and our complete inability to fashion a political solution. And yes, education is at the nexus of all the things that matter — individual growth, community health (or malaise), civic capacity, etc. — so it’s illusory (but tempting) to think we can fully create an optimal system of schools without addressing the myriad other forces that influence the extent to which kids are truly “ready to learn” when they enter those doors. The way I personally stay focused amidst that morass of melancholy is by focusing on the things I can control, which are, roughly: the extent to which I remain committed to finding solutions and shunning fidelity to sacred cows, the commitment I maintain to highlighting essential questions and focusing people on the positive core (i.e., what we already know to be true about powerful teaching and learning), and the capacity to increase my own personal network of like-minded soldiers willing to fight the good fight and not get lost in the “look what they’ve done to us!” sinkhole that has, for too long, left too many of us too passive to actually take control of our own profession. I wrote two pieces a while back that capture what I mean, one called “What Gandhi Would Think of The Lottery”, and the other called “Education Inception.” Check them out, let me know what you think, and please — PLEASE — help keep me focused on the right goals and levers. We need each other!

  12. Joel Karabo Elliott
    Posted August 17, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Russ is right on … cos politicking is based on interests. Interests lead to what Sam hates: not seeing the bigger picture. Therefore, i propose that a nation as large and with so many interests will probably never achieve a top-down, policy-based, government-led transformation of our ed system out of the Industrial enslavement. Oh, and the industrial model just suits the elites far too much, and also keeps well-oiled the global systems and people who control even the US government itself. Perhaps the energies of the conscious few should rather be focused primarily on creating new schools and ways of doing school.

  13. Kelly Heigl
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    I work in a large urban district that dictates the teachers’ every move; literally down to how many minutes we teach this and that…adhering to strict schedules….attending meaningless “trainings” on this and that…wasting our time and energy. It’s exhausting keeping up with the Ivory Tower’s flavor-of-the-day. How do we evolve under these dictated circumstances. My school is one little, tiny microcosm of this district. There is no room or tolerance for deviation from any of the dictated curricula, schedules, pacing charts, testing, etc…. I feel so stifled. It’s like trying to teach with a straight jacket on. It is such a turnoff that I’m preparing to leave the profession. And that is a shame. Truly. My dream was to start a charter school with an “edge”…..a specialty school. I have fantasies about every student having a laptop, and a science lab, and having all kinds of resource teachers to ensure student progress in reading and math. A school where everything would be SO interesting and kinesthetic that behavior problems would be nonexistent. No desks, no cookie-cutter ideology….just “cutting edge” learning. All students completely engaged all the time. Silly me!!

  14. Posted August 25, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Why silly you? I say start that school — precisely for all the reasons you laid out. Be the change!

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