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Are We Relevant? Ask!

I just completed a fascinating opportunity. I was invited to deliver a keynote address, based on my work with The Education Kids Deserve (the title of my book, my website, this blog) to a convention of non-educators. In fact, it was a very unlikely group for a retired public school administrator to be invited to address. It was a convention of fair managers and service and business entities that support fairs.

At first, I was stumped to comprehend what I might offer members of this industry that would hold any meaning to them. My efforts are focused on approaching the teaching and acquisition of 21st century skills to students who are very different in their needs and interests when compared to previous generations. I am focused on taking the bold steps to make our schools, and the experiences of our students, relevant within the context of our radically and rapidly changing society. This audience would not be moved by the challenges we face in the field of education.

My musing and pondering allowed me to see the proverbial "forest through the trees." I realized that I was limiting my own thinking by looking at my efforts strictly through the lens of education, the field of my thirty-five year experience. The issue, one that schools and fairs indeed share, is the relevance challenge. Both industries are faced with the need to intentionally rethink their practices to adequately serve their 21st century constituents. Further, both must have sufficient agility to remain relevant as our society continues its trajectory of change. Both fairs and schools must seek an answer to a shared essential question . . .

Are we relevant? I had my topic.

It's not just schools (or fairs) that face this challenge. Virtually any business or enterprise needs to be asking this same question. Evidence of this claim is the recent demise of two retail giants who elected to operate within their status quo, seemingly oblivious to the shift of the circumstances that allowed their viability to slip. Of course, I'm referring to Sears and Toys R Us. I believe they failed to consider:

- Is what we are doing relevant to our current customer, our patron, our client?

- Is what we are doing relevant to them as citizens of the 21st century?

- Will what we currently do continue to be relevant to our future patrons?

Instead, they opted to adhere to the model that had worked for them in the past. It is a common decision, one that frequently leads to organizational suicide. Schools (and fairs) are not immune to this calamity.

How does an organization go about answering "are we relevant?" The common model has been to determine the appropriate answer to our question by conducting an internal audit, to investigate the current reality by asking the questions of, and among, members of the organization. Yes, we are asking ourselves if we are relevant! The final assessment in that approach is pretty predictable. Parallel to this examination practice is the acceptance of the broad assumptions the organization makes regarding the needs, interests or inclinations of the population they exist to serve. The problem with this approach is that it overlooks the attitudes of our customer, our client, our students - from their point of view. We boldly proceed while overlooking the greatest resource at our disposal, the input of our clients. The link, the proverbial missing link, between providing a relevant experience for our client is having a clear understanding of their changing needs, wants or interests - an understanding that only they can provide when we create for them the opportunity to speak, and we listen.

In other words, if an organization wants to understand the interests of their clientele (why wouldn't it?), they must ask them. That's it. Simply ask.

Setting fairs aside, let's focus on schools. I know from my professional experience that kids will have a lot to say about the education they are experiencing if they are given an opportunity to express themselves. Within our standardized system is an unstated expectation of quiet compliance on the part of students. I believe that to be nonsense. I never regretted asking my students what was important to them, how they saw things, what they might prefer. Their input, always honest and never mean-spirted, proved time and again to be a valuable resource and tool.

Are we relevant? Let's ask the experts. Ask the client. Ask our students. They'll tell their truth. We must be brave enough to hear it, and willing to act on their honesty.

I delivered the speech, on the importance of assuring relevance to a group of fair managers and service members. The initial feedback was positive. I learned a lot. Hopefully, they all left the room with our question in the front of their mind . . .

Are we relevant?


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