School & District Management Opinion

Reimagining American Education

By Josh Schachter — February 02, 2017 9 min read
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We welcome guest blogger Josh Schachter*, an arts educator, photographer, social ecologist, and cultural organizer. We hope his story opens minds to what can be....

As a high school student, I was simultaneously challenged and bored. Challenged by the workload but bored by the lack of relevance my classes seemed to have in my life and the “real-world” around me. Numbed by bubbles of multiple-choice tests about poems (as if poetry had a singular interpretation), I searched for pathways to incorporate creativity into my classes. In Ms. Mayo’s social studies class, I decided to write a paper about Jesse Owens from his mother’s perspective, only to be downgraded for not writing a traditional biography. Needless to say this did not nurture a sense of personal voice, creativity and risk-taking. The “de-passionation” of my education was particularly heightened in the sciences, as any internal sense of wonder and discovery were smothered by tomes of textbooks and regurgitation.

It was not until my junior year when I applied to apprentice for Jeff Lovich, a herpetologist at the Savannah River Ecology Lab, that I unearthed a deeper purpose for learning. I found myself knee-deep in mud, tagging turtle carapaces in South Carolina, trepidatiously inspecting alligator nests for predation and even playing a small role in discovering a new turtle species. Jeff instilled in me a passion for asking big questions, experimenting with solutions, and perhaps most importantly that I couldn’t fully understand “creatures” without investigating their relationship to the larger ecosystem. Thanks to Jeff and many other mentors, I pursued an undergraduate degree in biology and a Master’s in social ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Since then I have studied the impacts of urbanization on the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly in Silicon Valley, the effects of tourism on ring-tailed lemur behavior in Madagascar and palm tree distribution in the Ecuadorian Amazon. All of these experiences challenged me to observe and reveal behavior, patterns, stories, relationships, and systems in the world—abilities that have proved critical over the past 18 years as a documentary photographer and facilitator of community-based storytelling projects.

Today I find myself revealing and exploring a slightly different kind of system—a learning ecosystem—using nature’s blueprints and lessons as my guide. For the past six years, I have been collaborating with teachers, school administrators, parents, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and academics to re-imagine our communities as learning ecosystems. Ecosystems in which entire communities become classrooms and everyone in the community—parents, millennials, retirees, freelancers, abuelas, corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, academics—offer their unique nutrients and energy in the form of social, cultural, creative and intellectual capital to students and teachers. This endeavor is called CommunityShare. It features an online matching platform and other strategies that facilitate “real-world” learning experiences co-created by teachers, students and local community partners. By engaging community partners in schools, students begin to imagine futures for themselves that perhaps they never knew existed, and community members start seeing themselves as integral pieces within a learning ecosystem and become more informed about the realities of the education system. Our hope is that through these direct, personal connections with student and teachers, the public will become education stewards and advocates for ensuring that all students and educators have access to the resources they need to reach their full potential.

This type of ecosystems work is often messy, slow, uncertain, and humbling. It requires new capabilities and forms of leadership. In an increasingly networked world, leaders need to develop their ability to see nodes, weave networks and build relationships and partnerships. Through partnerships we can reveal, share, create, and even regenerate social, cultural, intellectual, creative, financial, and ecological capital across institutional, hierarchical, socioeconomic, and disciplinary lines. For this particular article, I want to specifically focus on partnerships with the philanthropic community. As distributors and shifters of energy and nutrients, the philanthropic community plays a critical role in nurturing learning ecosystems and ecosystem leadership. However, it is often challenging to find philanthropic institutions who want to deeply engage with the community as co-creators in this ecosystem work due to the “messiness” of a slow, collaborative process and the challenges of measuring systems change. As we know, systems change takes time and it is often challenging to find sustained support as philanthropic institutions’ priorities shift with changes in organizational leadership, government policies and educational trends (from STEM to STEAM from project-based learning to personalized learning). Philanthropic institutions drive expectations of progress, which at times limits the potential for collective systems work, as the current, dominant evaluation paradigm often decontextualizes impact and learning. Though many funders express a desire to support system-changing work, they often continue to support dots/programs that lead to “traditional” measures of success, e.g. higher test scores, but fail to address the underlying causes of educational inequity and related issues. This is not dissimilar from the current relationship between education and business. The report, Partial Credit: How America’s School Superintendents See Business as a Partner,” found that “business is involved in 95% of America’s school districts, but mostly in a fragmented array of efforts that focus on short-term benefits for students rather than long-term improvement of the education system.” As a result, grantees often find themselves “competing” for limited resources and scrambling to integrate the latest buzzwords and evaluation metrics into their proposals to foundations and corporate social responsibility programs, rather than exploring the web of relationships required to imagine and nurture our collective potential. We see exceptions where the philanthropic community embraces its role as an ecosystem weaver and listener by co-designing learning experiences and opportunities with the community in ways that nurture collective “risk-taking” and a mindset of abundance. But they are far and few between. This shift in roles in not just the responsibility of the philanthropic community, but also with grantees, some of whom will need to move beyond engaging funders as ATMs and into co-creators of learning ecosystems.

To actualize this, all of us, including the philanthropic community, need to embrace and share the risks and uncertainty of the iterative learning process and “messiness” of system change and innovation. A recent report by KP Advisors, “In Pursuit of Deeper Impact: Mobilizing Capital for Social Equity,” illuminates the critical need for greater risk sharing and deeper engagement with local communities in developing and executing social equity investment strategies. Ultimately the work ahead points to the need to create a new narrative around courage. To have the courage to celebrate our “failures,” ask “big, audacious questions,” embrace a mindset of iterative learning, listen to our imaginations, and develop solutions that begin with our individual and collective potential. We glorify the courage and risk-taking of tech innovators and sports stars; yet largely punish (or at the very least highly discourage) our students, teachers and educational nonprofits for failing, experimenting, risk-taking, pushing boundaries, and embracing iterative learning processes. But even our sports stars fail, just ask Theo Epstein, president of the Chicago Cubs organization. Epstein guided the Boston Red Sox to win their first World Series title in 86 years and the Chicago Cubs in 108 years. In a recent New York Times article, Epstein noted, “And we would ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field. Because baseball is built on failure....even the best hitter fails seven out of 10 times.” Failure is part of learning and growing, and when we stop learning we stop living.

Imagine if we woke up every day seeing and engaging with the world as if it is a series of small learning experiments. Imagine if every child entered a classroom encouraged to ask big, audacious questions and were evaluated not just on their capability to discover “correct” answers but their ability to collaborate, experiment, learn, iterate, and demonstrate resiliency—like many careers in today’s network-based economy. Imagine if educators were seen as artists, respected and rewarded for their ability to facilitate learning experiences that creatively nurture each student’s unique assets so that students develop agency for their own learning and a path toward a larger purpose. Imagine if the philanthropic, business, nonprofit, and education communities were co-designing strategies and learning experiments in partnership with local communities to address some of the world’s most pressing issues. Imagine what would be possible if we deeply listened to and learned from those most impacted and knowledgeable about the challenges we face—our youth, teachers, families, and community groups.

Easier said than done, I agree. We will need to develop even greater abilities to listen to each other beyond the political rhetoric, to empathize and collaborate across institutional, disciplinary, hierarchical, and socioeconomic boundaries. And to build our capacity to imagine beyond what is. You may be thinking ... do we really have time to imagine? Morally I don’t think we can afford not to imagine, as we have created a system with 40-60% of our young people chronically disengaged from school.[1] As pioneer conflict negotiator and peacebuilder John Paul Lederach illuminates, “the moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without dualistic polarity; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown...”[2]

Undoubtedly the scope of “re-imagining” learning and education can be paralyzing. When I feel stuck, I think about all the kids who never “bump” into that inspiring herpetologist in high school, who go through life without the opportunity to discover their passions, purpose and unique contribution to the world. Knowing that the potential of each young person - and each of us - is inextricably linked to the strength of our social fabric gives me the courage to question, experiment, learn... and imagine.

I hope you will join me on this journey.

[1] R. Blum. (2005). School Connectedness: Improving the Lives of Students

[2] J. Paul Lederach. (2005). The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace

*More about Josh:
Josh Schachter is an arts educator, photographer, social ecologist, and cultural organizer based in Tucson, Arizona. Over the past 18 years, he has facilitated community-based media projects with youth, teachers and nonprofit organizations in places ranging from New Delhi to Nigeria. Josh is also the founder and director of CommunityShare, an initiative that is re-imagining the role of local communities in learning and education.

Photo Courtesy of Josh Schachter

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.