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Climates of Possibility

In 2013, Sir Ken Robinson gave a TED lecture titled “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley.” Education and Death Valley in the same sentence. We would never aspire to describe public education as a dry, uninhabitable or hostile environment, though some kids might assign these descriptors to their experience. But, Robinson saw the parallel and spoke of the unrelenting challenges of surviving in Death Valley: a place of awesome and unforgiving harshness where nothing grows. At the same time he revealed it as being a place of promise and almost mysterious wonder.

Once in a great while, we’re talking years between occurrences in this place of unrelenting heat and drought, it rains. Usually it comes down in torrents and is quickly absorbed by the dry, cracked earth. In a matter of months following this rare gift of moisture, the floor of Death Valley becomes transformed as fallow seeds come to life and bring forth an abundant carpet of wildflowers for a few limited days.

As Sir Robinson observes, this phenomenon reveals that Death Valley is not dead. It is merely dormant. When the conditions are right, miracles can occur. When the conditions are correct even the impossible comes into reach. In appropriate settings, with the necessary supports in place, potential can be realized. He calls these “climates of possibility.”

These climates of possibility do not occur by accident and they are not the byproduct of wishful thinking. The creation of climates of possibility demands the deliberate consideration and reversal of three dominant characteristics of our current systems of public education that Robinson identifies.

First, we must recognize that our education systems operate on the expectation of conformity. Our “one size fits all” culture suggests that if we offer all kids the same opportunities and treat each of them the same way, we can expect parallel outcomes. The problem with this philosophical and instructional approach is that no two kids are the same. They are diverse: diverse in their interests, diverse in their experiences, diverse in their backgrounds and diverse in their educational requirements. In creating climates of possibility, conformity must be replaced with diversity as a common value and expectation.

The second characteristic Robinson advocates in the creation of these climates of possibility is the recognition that children bring curiosity to their educational experience; the kind of wide-eyed wonder that allows them to be willing and open in the exploration of the world around them or the instructional topics before them. But, what do we offer them instead? How do we structure our systems, our pedagogical approaches and our assessment practices? We impose the expectation of compliance. Much like conformity, we anticipate that kids will be compliant: do as they’re told, when they’re told with no questions asked. Yet, our system of compliance stifles kids and their growth, denying them the opportunity to be who they are and to construct learning that holds meaning to them personally.

Finally, Sir Robinson insists that standardization be overtaken by the recognition, allowance and application of creativity. He acknowledges that there is a place for some standardization within our practices, but that it should not serve as the “be all, end all” that it has been elevated to. Both effective teaching and meaningful learning are enterprises that rely on the application of creativity in order to thrive.

Does anyone recognize some common themes here? Does any of this sound familiar? If you’ve been following my post-retirement efforts of recent years, it should sound very familiar. A re-reading of my 150+ weekly blogs will reveal a determined similarity of beliefs between Sir Robinson and myself. The subtitle of my book The Education Kids Deserve reads “Attaining Relevance and 21st Century Skills through Curiosity, Creativity, Inquiry, Integration and Innovation.” Diversity, curiosity and creativity stand as cornerstones to my philosophy and my efforts, both of which are products of my experience as a public school educator: fourteen years in the classroom and twenty-one years as a site administrator.

I recognize “climates of possibility.” I have toiled to create them, work that continues to this day.

I suggested the metaphor of taking a group of kids up a mountain during a conversation on this topic with a building principal this past week. There are any number of ways to accomplish this, approaches that could be placed along a continuum. One method would be to tether the children to a lead line and take them up the slope. This would certainly guarantee that everyone had the same experience and arrived at the desired outcome at the same time. Some might suggest that this is a perfect illustration (if not a bit extreme) of conformity, compliance and standardization. Another approach, at the opposite end of the spectrum, would be one where the teacher scales the mountain and then calls back to the kids: “Okay, now join me up here.” The lack of any assurance of safety should be enough to discount this idea, though it is, technically, feasible.

There are countless opportunities between these two extremes to successfully, and safely, climb the mountain; opportunities that lend themselves to creating a climate of possibility. Will we pause along the way to explore the creek bed or examine the abandoned nest of a bird that has fallen onto the path? If someone spots an animal foot print, will we seize the opportunity to investigate it and speculate on its origin? Or will we simply continue on to reach our destination?

Will the children be expected to record their thoughts and experiences in a discovery journal? Will we rest part way through our hike around a campfire and discuss what we’re seeing, thinking and feeling? There are so many opportunities for discovery imbedded in this journey if we recognize them and apply them. A trip up a mountain can, and should, be much more than the view from the top.

The point of the mountain climb metaphor is that creating a climate of possibility, one that affords the opportunity of authentic learning, doesn’t require extra work on the part of the teacher. Let me state that again. This does not involve more work. Rather, it requires that we work differently by making some philosophical shifts in thinking and in practice. The comparisons below illustrate what Climates of Possibility might look like as compared to traditional practices. My hope is that it will serve as a useful trail guide for that excursion up the mountain.

Climate Characteristics

Status-quo Climate Climate of Possibility

- Expectation of conformity - Recognition of diversity

- Desire for universal compliance - Valuing and nurturing curiosity

- Standardization of practices - Utilization of creativity

- Passive learning - Active learning

- Teacher dominated classrooms - Student-centered classrooms

- Role of teacher as “instructor” - Role of teacher as “facilitator”

- Risk avoidance - Assumption of risk

- Fear of failure - Failure as a tool of learning

- One way/teacher to student communication - Conversation and discourse

- Instruction is time bound - Time is flexible to support instruction

- Common instructional goals and time tables - Personalized/individualized instruction

- Lecture, “teacher talk” - Inquiry, “student talk”

- Standards first, interests second - Interests first, standards second

- Isolated, discreet areas of study - Integrated areas of study

- Learning is assumed - Learning is evident

I’ll close this article, as I have before and will again, quoting Sir Ken Robinson. He concluded his 2013 TED talk with this:

“You take an area, a school, a district, you change the conditions, give people a different sense of possibility, a different set of expectations, a broader range of opportunities, you cherish and value the relationships between teachers and learners, you offer people the discretion to be creative and to innovate in what they do, and schools that were once bereft spring to life.”


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