Teaching Opinion

Visionary Shifts in Thinking and Behavior: For Educators, Students and Movement Advocates

By Greg Jobin-Leeds — May 17, 2012 4 min read
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About this series: This post is the 4th in a series on how activists shape history, particularly the “Art of Movement Building.” Guest Blogger Saulo Colon and I, each week, will discuss our continued lessons learned from studying successful movements over the last 100 years. We call these lessons “hypotheses” because we know they represent only some of the lessons and we want you to test them out against your experience and knowledge. We would love to have you as part of this conversation.

The examples we use in this series come from many different aspects of a larger human rights movement -- it should be applicable to most who are working to change the structures of our society, not just students and educators. The unfairness in education is a microcosm of the unfairness of our economic system. The quest for increased opportunities to public education is part of the same quest for increased opportunities throughout our society (whether it be access to health care, housing, food, clean air, etc.). Thus we seek the opinions of all critics, movement activists, organizers and leaders.

In today’s blogpost, I’ll further expand on our first hypothesis:

Hypothesis 1: Movement success starts with visionary shifts in thinking and behavior.

All successful social movements are driven by bold visions that expose the roots of the problem and are sufficiently ahead of their time that they are unfathomable to the mainstream of society. Over time, these visions that seemed unthinkably bold become mainstream. Successful movements model the future that they envision, and act on this “future” before their time has come. This modeling prefigures and embodies the desired society.

Transformative educators and activists see and embrace new possibilities for our collective future. They take old ideas and breathe fresh life into them. Pioneers, like Harriet Tubman, freeing the slaves in the 1800’s, modeled living the future before that future had arrived. She and her colleagues held the belief that African Americans were equal to European “white” Americans. While today, that belief is mainstream, at that time it was a radical belief. (“Radical” means relating to the most important features of something, it means far reaching and favoring major changes but most importantly it means “root” or going to the root of a problem.) Otto Scharmer calls this ability to sense the future and usher it in, “presencing.” Tubman and her peers along the freedom trail did more than just believe that Blacks were equal, they role modeled it by freeing slaves and offering them safe harbor. Breaking the law and risking their lives, they attracted attention to the potential of their beliefs. Simultaneously, transformative actions like Tubman’s debunked the myth propagated by slave owners) that slaves are “happy” in a “benevolent” slave system. Transformative movements debunk false visions and beliefs. Transformative movements usher in the future by creating alternatives to the way we live and allow us to see new possibilities for our collective futures. At their best, Transformative Movements unify our society around humane values.

In another example, Fannie Lou Hamer and the movement that helped create the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party modeled and piloted a future voting system in the 1960s. While Blacks could not register legally, they created their own system of voting and in that system garnered more votes than the white segregationists did in their system. They did not wait for top-down change, but brought the future into existence on their own. Fannie Lou Hammer and her associates in the Freedom Party piloted the future by bottom-up self-governing and self-organizing. My colleague Jorge Diaz says, “The working class has to create their own institutions before we can hope that we and our ideas can take power. There must be structures created and run by working class people to support the interests of the working class.” Transformative solutions come from grassroots visionary levels of thought rather than those that created the problem. To take root they need to be piloted in some way.

Byrant Muldrew’s most recent blog on authentic student assessment puts fresh life into a vision of evaluating students out of the mainstream test mania. Some applaud this and some have discussed the obstacles to such a vision. All transformative visions come with obstacles that need to be surmounted. By living the future, Bryant and the Algebra Project breathe possibility into that future.

Radicals are in many ways social artists. They restate the hidden truths of society through working with people and social movements . . . they teach people to see with a fresh vision . . . laying bare the full absurdities of treasured hypocrisies.” -Judith Niles, Nine Women: Portraits from the American Radical Tradition

Each week Saulo Colon and I will add another hypothesis. Bryant Muldrew will lead a discussion on what future classrooms and schools might look like and on the National Student Bill of rights. We appreciate you observations and you contributing your ideas on how movements succeeded.

Questions for Movement Activists, Students, and Educators Today:

How do you think we can change the trajectory of public education to make it more accessible, excellent and fair? What are the avenues of change? What are your hypotheses? Click the comment button below with your ideas. How can we engage in Transformational Change by beginning to see education issues from the the perspective of the future we would like to see and then look backwards? Can we pilot our models of the future, our own version of a freedom party or desegregated lunch counters? Can we succeed if we don’t? How can we help the most negatively impacted, those students in poor schools, see the future, taste it and be part of it. How can we provide models of future schools and preschools and colleges to provide hope in the yet-to-come, then organize and advocate for those models. What are other ways we can usher in public education’s transformative future? Let us know. We promise to let you know our answers, our hypotheses and more questions to ponder in the coming weeks.

Please let me know if you, your students or colleagues want to guest blog on this topic of the art of transformative movements or our larger theme of leadership in education and movement building.

Past Blogs in this series:

The opinions expressed in Democracy and Education 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.