Let’s End the Battle of the Edu-Tribes

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

There’s a revolution underway – and no, I don’t mean in Egypt or Tunisia.

I mean the growing, hopeful, tech-savvy, solution-oriented tribe of educators who attended last weekend’s EduCon 2.3 in Philadelphia, an annual event that bills itself as “both a conversation and a conference, ” and a place where people come together, “both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools.”

Hosted by the Science Leadership Academy – an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on 21st century learning (what a concept!) – EduCon was as much a revival meeting as it was a conference. To spend time there was to bear witness to the development of a different sort of tribe – a confederacy of educators from across the country, united by inquiry, connected by social media, and committed to solving the intractable riddle of public education.

See for yourself – scroll through the #EduCon tweets and you’ll find two things in abundance: a communal language of potential and partnership; and a rapid-fire establishing of new relationships based on possibility and hope.

This is, in short, the essential recipe for bringing about a paradigm shift in any profession or organization – and it is painfully rare in contemporary conversations about public education. As Dave Logan explains in his must-read book Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, “tribes emerge from the language people use to describe themselves, their jobs, and others. . . When a person looks out at the world, he sees it filtered through a screen of his words, and this process is as invisible to him as water is to a fish. . . Instead of people using their words, they are used by their words, and this fact is unrecognized.”

Logan goes on to characterize five tribal “stages” – informal groupings in society, a field, and/or an organization based on an individual’s predominant worldview (as constructed through the language s/he uses and the types of relationships s/he forms). The extreme stages range from a complete sense of hopelessness about the world and its possibilities (“life sucks”), to a transcendent space of endless possibility and collaboration (“life is great”). And, of course, the bulk of us fall somewhere in between.

I share this because when I returned from EduCon I was struck by the clear contrast in tone between tweets from EduCon attendees and tweets from the leading voices of the two main Edu-Tribes – also known as the “reformers” and the “status quo-ers”, although I tend to think of them more as the Old Guard and the New Guard.

As Logan would explain it, the EduCon Tribe is operating at the crossroads of Stages Four and Five. Its members pay almost no attention to organizational or regional boundaries; the only thing that matters is that people contribute meaningfully to the discussion. The language of this tribe is hopeful, solution-oriented, and obsessed with things like collaboration and communication. And its members are all aligned around EduCon’s five guiding principles:

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members;
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen;
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around;
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate;
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked.

The power of these principles is key; a high-functioning tribe always identifies and leverages a core set of values, and uses those values as guideposts to align around a noble cause. Yet contrast that clarity with the Old & New Guards, still engaged in bitter warfare to influence the mainstream media and shape the Obama administration’s federal education policy priorities – albeit at slightly different cultural stages.

To borrow Logan’s terminology, the Old Guard is operating at a Stage Two level – most simply described as a “My Life Sucks” view of the world. Logan describes people in this cultural stage as “passively antagonistic; they cross their arms in judgment yet never really get interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic and resigned. The Stage Two talk is that they’ve seen it all before and watched it fail. The mood that results is a cluster of apathetic victims, united in their belief that someone or something is holding them down and standing in their way.”

Any of us who live and work in education have seen – or been in – this stage throughout our careers. On Twitter, it’s reflected in a lot of negative, oppositional language: words like “skewer,” “dupe,” and “debunk.” And in articles and Op-Eds, it’s reflected in pieces that are primarily about what the other side is doing wrong – and only secondarily about what its own side is doing right.

Meanwhile, the New Guard is primarily made up of people operating at Stage Three – most simply described as the “I’m great, and you’re not” worldview. As Logan explains, “The gravity that holds people at Stage Three is the addictive ‘hit’ from winning, besting others, being the smartest and most successful.” Not surprisingly, the New Guard uses words like “innovation,” “scalable,” and “results.” Its members love the spirit of programs like “Race to the Top.” And because of its overreliance on intellect and the technocratic answer, its characterizations of schools, and of schooling, can come to sound dehumanizing for adults and children alike.

To be sure, these descriptions cannot provide full accounts of any individual or tribe. All of us defy such efforts at easy explanation, and the current debates about public education cannot simply be reduced to whether we’re pro- or anti-union, reform or status quo, or old guard and new guard.  Still, in Logan’s descriptions I see sufficient echoes of the world I inhabit and the conversations I observe, and I’ve become even more aware of the words I use and the types of relationships I form. For me, that means refusing to contribute to the cynicism and hopelessness of Stage Two, and insisting on an expansion of the “coldly cognitive” worldview of Stage Three.

I want more inquiry. I want less demonization of those I disagree with. I want more community. In short, I want my EduCon, and I want it all the time! Who’s with me?

Categories: Democracy, Leadership, Learning, Organizational Change

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  1. Posted February 2, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Sam, this is an incredible post that represents what I hope will grow to be a powerful and optimistic movement in our teaching profession. This is the best description of the landscape of education, that I’ve read yet. I’m so so thankful we have you to write things like this where they will be heard.

    I can’t WAIT to come to DC.

  2. Jessica K. Karaska
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    With you!!

  3. Posted February 21, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Your post completely misses the split within those seeking to change the current education system. The reformers still seem to accept the standardized testing mentality and teaching to the test. Their schools are hardly inquiry based. The radicals, as they could be called, are homeschoolers, 2 million of them, people involved with educational alternatives that are learner centered and sometimes democratically run (as opposed to teaching them how to “prepare for democracy,” whatever that is).

    I’m trying hard to find common ground. Both groups seek to change the status quo. Waiting for Superman was simplistic. The Race to Nowhere represents the other point of view to some extent but is more of a critique than a road map.

    On our website (educationrevolution.org) you can see many creative and successful alternatives. Our conference, next August in Portland, OR, will address many of these issues.

    Jerry Mintz, Director
    Alternative Education Resource Organization

  4. Posted February 21, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, Jerry. I’m well aware of the split you reference. The piece I wrote was about understanding the cultural contexts in which “tribes” take root — specifically, by paying more attention to the types of language we use and the sorts of relationships we seek to form. I will check out your site and do what I can to amplify your efforts. And next month, we’ll be launching a story-driven effort to restore the focused to learner-centered environments; I imagine both of us will benefit from leveraging each other’s resources and existing networks. So stay tuned.

  5. Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Greetings Sam.
    The words we choose not only help define our tribe. They may create a world where even in the same nation educators are speaking a different language and cannot hear the others, let alone engage in deep thinking. This is true in Australia.
    I have noticed in traveling the world for over fifty years that the very brightest people have a rare capacity to listen thoughtfully, suspend that rush to judgement and so entertain other possibilities without letting words or ideology get in the way. In the education struggle there is always a tension between the Old Guard and the New Guard and your article helps define some of the blocs that refuse to be part of a dialogue, let alone entertain reform. Choosing our words with far more care can invite others to cross this divide. The truth can shatter the Matrix we have created. Your dialogue here and the engagement of other educators allows increasing numbers of teachers to believe that they have a voice. This is a valuable part of reform and progress.
    Dr Jeff McMullen
    Sydney Australia

  6. Posted February 21, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    Important that children are taught and learn a lot (not just a little) in school. This is not mentioned or even hinted at in EduCon’s five guiding principles, which merely mention that learning (possibly very little) must be networked.

  7. Kristin Earnst
    Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Wow, Sam, you’ve nailed it. Facebook is ablaze with the conversation among teachers and those who care about teaching and education at the moment. I’ve added your blog entry to the conversation. Thanks so much for your clear thinking and prose. Big time change is coming–and I for one am not afraid of it. (Bought all your books today–can’t wait until they arrive!)

  8. Posted February 22, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Kristin, Thank you so much! Please let me know what you think of the books once you’ve had a chance to check them out. And Jeff, so good to hear your voice again. For those of you here in the States who don’t know Jeff, you should — he is one of the world’s greatest journalists, a steady force for good in his native Australia, and a champion storyteller. You can learn more at http://www.harpercollins.com.au/books/Life-Extremes-Jeff-Mcmullen/?isbn=9780732275099 — and Jeff, I hope to find a way to head back your way sometime soon.

  9. Posted February 22, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    NIce job. I’m with you.

  10. Sonia Woodbury
    Posted February 27, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Sam, as others are pointing out, this blog is one of your most insightful and inspiring – thank you. Making a difference usually does come down to the words we choose when talking about what difference we want. Here’s one I’ve been thinking about which addresses Jerome’s point above. For our school, we are now trying to focus on being “learning-centered” versus “learner-centered”. We have found that we can be inquiry-driven and still not get all students to enough real learning. We can be learner -centered and still not help every student reach their learning potential. Our small shift of word choice from learner to learning has made a huge difference in moving us forward, I think because it is outcome oriented. Our primary focus on learning and how we will help each student achieve that learning has helped us develop our inquiry-driven, collaborative, technology enhanced, community-based field work enhanced, and thoughtful approaches to creating learning opportunities for our students. I’m with you on taking a more forward thinking and collective approach to a better future for education for our kids.

  11. Posted February 27, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Attending NAIS in DC last week I felt that perhaps 4500 educational leaders from the US and Canada were all on board not only with making whatever changes need to be made, but also partnering up with others to make those changes–all children need education for the 21st Century.
    I am particularly sensitive to Sam’s call to choose our words carefully and like Jeff and Sonia’s thoughts that keep us focused on words that make a difference. “Learning centered” focuses students properly, outward to world to be understood and challenges to master rather than self-centered, am I gifted or do I “learn differently.”

  12. Kristin Earnst
    Posted March 6, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Well, Mr. Sam Chaltain, you didn’t let me get much sleep last night! I thought I’d just read a few entries in your book Faces of Learning before nodding off. I read the whole book! Then I began American Schools. Fell asleep at about midnight, up at 4:30 and back to reading. AMEN AMEN AMEN! The saddest response kept coming to me as I read American Schools–isn’t amazing that so many teachers manage to create some sort of democratic learning community for their students while they themselves are stripped of any democratic participation in the schools where they teach?? I just informed one of my schools that I will not be returning next year because I just can’t stand the administrative stance toward teachers anymore–it will be a huge loss for me and for my students, but after nine years of trying to help effect change, I cried “uncle.” Your book gives me hope. And thankfully, my administration at the other school where I work has a much more supportive and participatory relationship with its teachers. Back to my reading!

  13. Posted March 7, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Hey Kristin — wow, what a great way to start the week! I’m so glad you’re liking them. If you’re willing, would you post a short review on the Amazon pages for the books? They really help drive attention to new books — and it can literally be no more than a sentence or two. And meanwhile, our tendency to ignore the democratic needs of adults in our well-intentioned push to empower kids is a huge problem, but there are a lot of great examples out there with schools that get it right. Have you heard of Science Leadership Academy in Philly? Check them OUT. And keep writing!

  14. Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    I came across this today via Joanne Jacob’s blog. Thank you so much or articulating something I haven’t been able to on my blog! I have never heard of EduCon before, but am really interested in exploring more. I am definitely one of the “New Reformers” who is now feeling that I’ve been on the wrong track. It started last month during an education panel during New York Social Media Week. Great to see this stuff discussed so openly.

  15. Posted March 11, 2011 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    Sam, I know that you and I both agree with that famous physicist whose name I can’t remember or find who said: “In times of crisis the nomenclature must be changed.” Same concept as Einstein’s “You can’t get out of a problem with the same thinking that got you into it.” (or some such). I actually think you and I and others should spend more time following up on your “Words, words, words.” For instance, authority, character, challenge, genius, discipline need to be used closer to their original meaning. Excellence should be dropped in favor of greatness (comparisons are counter-productive)…. please continue the list you started. In fact we need to redefine: “education.” I talk with people on the plane and in cafes, and their definitions alone make it clear why the vast majority of schools can’t seem to be places of learning.

  16. Posted March 11, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Tracy, thanks for the shout out and for being a fellow traveler. Yes, the EduCon tribe is a slowly gathering force; it needs you, and I’ll be sure to check out your blog. And Rick, agreed — and my first word of focus is the core of the whole shebang itself — “learning,” and giving people chance to paint a shared picture of what it actually looks like in action. That’s what’s happening at http://www.facesoflearning.net — please help me spread the word and urge people to share their stories.

  17. Posted March 11, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Sam, I agree that that book is a great focus.

  18. Posted March 11, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Thanks Rick — although to be clear, the book itself only has 50 stories, and the website is where we hope to gather thousands of voices. It’s also, later this month, the place where people can find out more about their own strengths and weaknesses as learners, and already it’s also a place where folks can share what they know about useful places to visit and learn from, books to read, strategies to try, etc. But it needs people like you to breathe further life into it and make it your own!

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