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In 2013, Sir Ken Robinson advised school leaders to move away from a “command and control” stance, focusing instead on climate control. If that advice is taken, and leaders loosen their preoccupation with being in charge, something magical can occur. Schools can become “climates of possibility.” Climates of possibility are hopeful places with an underlying belief that anything can be achieved. They are settings where innovation is celebrated, and inquiry is encouraged. They are characterized by high degrees of trust, respect, and tolerance. They are places that expect that every participant will experience success in their own way and in their own time. Who wouldn’t want to work and learn in a place like that?

There are three obstacles to attaining a climate of possibility, three prominent features found in traditional schools. The first is conformity. Conformity is the very essence of the current standardized system of “one size fits all” and harkens back to linear industrial principles where the expectation is that everything will turn out the same within a predicted timeframe. Raw materials go in, some whirring of machinery occurs, and viola . . . you end up with a collection of identical products. Or plug in a group of five year old children, expose them to a common, predesigned set of experiences over a period of thirteen years, and the expectation of a well-educated citizenry will be met. I don’t think so.

The second obstacle to creating climates of possibility is compliance. Compliance is actually an extension of conformity. Compliance requires that we go along with the notions that conformity creates. A bell rings, we all move. Raise your hand to ask a question. Follow the rules. Do as I tell you. Again, very much tied to industrial expectations, compliance requires strict adherence to specific rules and standards. Please don’t misinterpret what I am suggesting here. Of course, communities need to have norms of behavior. To openly flaunt them would be disastrous. But what we see in education is a system of compliance in what is taught and how it’s taught, the byproduct of the standards movement.

Which brings me to the third obstacle, standardization. I’ve written on this topic extensively, so I won’t retell my perspective on standardized teaching, curriculum, and assessment, which includes the overuse of standardized tests. It is standardization that breeds systems of conformity and compliance. Industrial systems, designed for predictable efficiency, not human systems. Kids aren’t widgets. They’re kids. They come in all shapes and sizes. They have unique characteristics, qualities, aptitudes, and interests. In other words, they can’t be standardized. If they can’t be standardized, why do we try to teach them in a system that is? Excellent question.

The good news is that we have the tools at our disposal to create climates of possibility if we are willing to change three things. calls these “shifts.”

First, schools and school systems must embrace diversity over conformity. This simply means celebrating the unique characteristics and potential of each individual. Ken Robinson wrote in his 2015 book Creative Schools, “A narrow view of conformity inevitably creates enormous numbers of nonconformists who may be rejected by the system or earmarked for remedial treatment. Those who meet the system specifications are likely to do well; those who don’t are not.”

The second shift is to replace compliance with curiosity. Allow kids to ask lots of questions and for them to provide provocative answers. Let them explore what intrigues them. Don’t just tell students what they need to know. Ask them what they would like to learn. Encourage them to use their imaginations. Foster their creativity.

Finally, the third shift. Dump standardization in favor of creativity. Kids are already creative. Let them demonstrate it. Creativity needs to be fostered well beyond how we may normally think of it: the arts or making pretty things. The world current students will inherit is teaming with overwhelming problems. To address them today’s students, tomorrow’s leaders, must be adept at creative thought and creative actions.

Allow yourself to imagine for a moment. If you had your choice between two systems to work or learn in, which would you select? One that is based on standardized expectations of conformity and compliance? Or one built on a foundation of diversity, curiosity and creativity?

I know which one I would choose.

Again, I defer to the wisdom of the late Sir Ken Robinson. “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.”

That’s a climate of possibility.


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