30 March 2008

Cool as a Construct: Transforming High School

One of my central insights to life came in high school. It is, oddly, a lesson whose import I still struggle to convey.

I attended three high schools and was, marginally, a part of a fourth. I attended high schools in Northern California, Southeastern Washington, and here in San Diego. People outside of California probably don’t realize how distinct is each region: the Bay Area is as liberal as Orange County is conservative; Palm Springs is as dry as Eureka is wet; Beverly Hills is as affluent as El Centro is poor. Living in different regions of California is like living in different states. I worked for uncles on farms in Montana; my Montana cousin was a day older than me and we spent time with his friends and classmates from this little farming community.

One thing was common to all these high school communities. Cool was essential to acceptance. If a person was not cool, they had trouble with all the rest. Athletic helped. So did good looking or smart or funny. But lacking an element of cool, all that was for naught. If your classmates thought you were cool, you were set. If they thought you were not cool, well, you may as well go kiss a rock.

By the time I got to San Diego, I had learned something about cool: cool was a construct. It was just made up. What made a person cool in San Diego – the affable easy-going “dude” of the surfers in flip flops – would have made that person alien and distinctly un-cool in Montana, where it was the ability to ride bulls, not waves, that commanded respect. My own sense of liberation probably went too far. I was a terrible student in high school. Atrocious. One semester, I remember my poor father wondering how I could have received 26 absences in one class. (Years later, I was consoled to learn that the amazing singer / songwriter Tom Waits did not just skip some of the same classes I did, but went so far as to drop out of the same high school from which I graduated. I felt somewhat vindicated.)

Knowing that cool is a construct is both liberating and, if one is not careful, alienating. I felt both. But it laid the foundation for a particular kind of worldview. When I was about 15 or 16, my English teacher couldn’t quite figure out a short story I wrote in which the protagonist, Butts Cigar, killed a parallel character from Russia named Buttiski and once he looked down at the corpse, he found a reel of tape that played the same instructions that Butts had received – a moment of existential revelation for Butts and a probably defeatist (or at least ambivalent) ending. The story included mention of parents and teachers as programmed programmers. The idea of programming was still nascent in 1975, but it seemed to me an apt description of the process of socialization.

Years later, I discovered the management philosophy of W. Edwards Deming. Deming stressed the importance of systems – in education or business or government. Deming pointed out that systems are just made up and that once they are, individuals too often focus their attention on performing well in them rather than on changing those systems. This insight seems to me both obvious and profound – as with any useful insight.

As a case in point, let’s go back to high school. (Please, says the reader. Let’s not.) Michael Kauffman used to sit on the board of the Deming User Group with me here in San Diego. I learned quite a bit from him about collaborative creation as an alternative to improvement. Michael continues to work with schools to transform the experience of education rather than improve it.

There might be no better example of the futility of improvement (rather than transformation) than the current mania for standardized testing. Three generations ago, my daughter might have been a teacher, nurse, or mother. A generation ago, her career options might have numbered in the dozens. Today, my daughter plans to be a professor of cognitive science – a field so new that the vast majority of her professors in the cog sci department do not even have degrees in the field. Never have we lived in a time of more options and variation. Never have we lived in a time of greater emphasis on standardized testing. Does no one else see this as foolishness on steroids? We don’t need to improve our ability to score on standardized tests: we need to transform how high schools prepare children for adulthood.

Michael recently posted about the drop out rate in high schools. As it turns out, the states report graduation rates with two sets of books: Mississippi, for instance, calculated their graduation rate as 87 percent in reports submitted to DC and in another exercise reported a rate of 63 percent.

His post shows how things are worse than reported. I think even this misses a bigger point: our education system has stable outcomes, regularly failing about 20% of the students it begins with. Given our emphasis on performance within systems, we have construed this to mean that students are failing. But a system that regularly “fails” such a percentage of students ought to be labeled as a type of failure. More emphasis on meeting the current criteria will not help this or result in transformation. Only starting anew at the state of the individual – each individual – offers hope to make the system work for students.

There are so many ways to succeed in life. We all know people who performed miserably in school but shame us in their business or romantic success. By no stretch of the imagination does school guard the single door to success.

One way to begin the transformation of schools is for communities to begin the conversation about what makes for a “successful” life. Generating a list of what determines success – determinants as varied as competence in relationships and adherence to exercise and diet plans to the ability to make money and influence people to a sense of meaning and engagement in the everyday – is to quickly point out all that is missing in a dozen plus years of education. Until schools do a better job of addressing the many dimensions of being human, they will continue to do a poor job of addressing the needs of more than 50 to 80% of their students. They “fail” the various kinds of students because they fail to address the various ways of being human. Changing this will require transformation.

After all, school is a social construct. Like cool, it is just made up. We don’t have to accept this. We can make up something new – something that better accords with the reality of what it means to be human in the 21st century.


jen said...

veering off topic ever so grandly one must also note that high school in SD means many a road trip to Mexico. donde escuela es frio, or better known as lacking the spanish word for cool.

cce said...

Just went to an art exhibit here called The Birth of Cool...which is somewhat misnamed as it claims cool as a mid-century construct when in fact the cool factor has existed since time began (I'm guessing).

I couldn't agree with you more about school's failing the majority of students but I wish I had the tools to think about the concrete changes necessary to implement some sort of tailor made school experience.

I went to boarding school where standardized tests are eschewed for more progressive teaching methods. But short of everyone having the boarding school experience, how does this nation pay for individualized education?

I spend time in public school classrooms helping my kids' teachers. In both classrooms there are so many children, a wide spectrum of abilities and knowledge and one teacher in a room of 25. It seems hopeless that each child might get what she or he needs. Everyone just gets enough, no more, no less. It's depressing.

By the way, even in first grade, children are recognizing what it is to be cool, or at least, what it is to be decidedly uncool.

Anonymous said...

It depends on what you want schools to do. If you want them to create well-rounded individuals with a wealth of knowledge in many different areas, they are failing; if you want them to provide job training, they are failing.

But if you want them to teach people to sit still and knuckle under to petty authority, then they are succeeding beyond anybody's wildest dreams: in spite of an entrenched poverty class with easy access to firearms, we haven't had a serious attempt at revolution in over 140 years!

This is one of your best posts. Thanks for writing it.

exskindiver said...

as a mother of two young children studying in very traditional catholic schools, this is very depressing.
happy monday to you too.

PS. do you have any experience bull riding?

nunya said...

Nitrous girl said to me the other day that she couldn't stand one of her teachers & I listened as she explained why. I ended up telling her that it was OK to let the teacher think she had climbed into the neat little cubby hole, and that she could also climb out of it once the class was over. Heh. Teachers and school administrators can't do everything.

HRH said...

Wow. Where to start. I like cce went to boarding school, but obviously different schools because mine was more like a holding cell for several years until college could start. What a colossal waste of time and money unless my parents were just paying money to make sure I didn't end up pregnant.

I thought as a high school student how odd it was that I was wasting those 4 years. I also remember thinking how odd it was that I would recognize that at the time. And you couldn't get me back there kicking and screaming for any amount of money...

So, today. What to do with my kids so they don't end up like me? Your thoughts today explain our choice and many others--alternate education. Ours is a combination of home school and classical education. Putting the emphasis back on the joy of learning what the kid is crazy about and sneaking in the other stuff when they don't notice. When kids are excited about something there is no PROCESS of learing. It just happens. I have no idea how you can accomplish that with an entire classroom full of kids. I think this may help explain why our one size fits all education system is failing. I think standardize testing is stupid, but more of a symptom then a diagnosis. Quanifying a symptom doesn't lead any closer to a correct diagnosis...

LSD said...

This is an interesting post.

Being a product of a 1970's bay-area public school system, which was frantic in it's effort to shed traditional methods, I find myself suspicious of radical change as opposed to evolutionary change. My only daughter is enrolled in a Carden school which has an enrollment of about 200 students in classes pre-k through eighth grade. The Carden schools stress character development and employ a somewhat traditional method of instruction. The biggest difference I can see is that much is expected of her, while I was allowed to pass from grade to grade unpressed.

A couple of things come to mind. First, I note that part of the benefit of a non-public school is merely that, since it costs money, virtually all of the students are there because someone cares enough about their education to pay the bill and that these same someones are most likely encouraging good study habits at home, etc. Second, in this region the public schools operate on a much higher budget than the private schools and some have facilities that are downright ostentatious, so I am pretty sure that more money does not solve the issues. It seems to me that advocates for thoughtless change have had their way with the California school system and this is where we are.

For the record, I always thought you were cool.

LSD said...

When something lives, it transforms. When it dies it conforms.

Transformation is cool.

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Constructing “cool” can be a full time job, during which one may miss living life.

If I remember correctly, the first time I questioned schools sinking everything into standardized testing was way back in the late ‘80s on a radio talk show in a small community in southern Indiana. I had not begun the show with those questions, but the more I heard the “experts” speak, the more questions came to my mind. In the 20 years since then I have sometimes wondered if the experts have ever questioned their expertise—and if not, why not.

Excellent post, Ron. Thanks.

Dave said...

All of the comments above and a lot more that I won't bore you with. One of your best among many great posts.

I will try to briefly talk to CCE's comment about how to teach twenty-five different kids.

My original degree was in education. I taught a year of sixth grade. 33 kids with all that comes with that age of kid and a full range of "abilities."

I don't know how I happened upon it at the age of twenty-one; but, I purposefully did not look at my kids records. To my mind they were all smart. That of course was not true. Some kids needed more of my time than others. But, they also needed more of their peers time.

Without explicitely dividing the class, I did. Some of the "smart" kids wanted things. To get them, they had to work with other kids that needed attention that I couldn't give all of them. I worked out pairs.

One of my smartest didn't need me. He sat next to the bookshelf and had four encylcopedia volumes on the floor next to him at any given time. He had to work with one of my slowest kids who "couldn't read," except he could if you gave him something he was interested in. When the "slow" kid did well, the smart kid got to ignore the history lesson that he had learned a couple of years before and read what he want to read.

The two kids were the classic physical opposites. The slow kid was quite good at athletics. I made him work with the skinny, physically unsure smart kid. When the latter did well, the first kid got to read what he wanted - a comic book or a motorcycle manual.

Both kids improved by a grade and a half in the stupid Iowa tests.

Well, that wasn't so brief was it?

Teachers can teach individually.

Lifehiker said...

Great post, Ron. It jives exactly with what I've learned in life...everyone is different and should be treated differently if you expect to succeed with them. This concept also applies to the workplace and your kids.

Ron Davison said...

my motto exactly - donde esta el frio? where is the cool indeed?

you went to boarding school and I went to a boring school. I knew we had things in common.

good reminder that at least we've less bloodshed than we might have.

Incredibly enough, I do have such experience. Sadly, I didn't look the least cool when I did it.

I have, more than once, told my kids that bad teachers prepare them for bad bosses.

I agree with everything you write except the notion that diagnosis doesn't get you any closer to solution. Creative solutions often fester in the reality of a situation for years before emerging.

I was going to make an intelligent reply to your post (just based on Maddy, I'd say her school must be great), but you completely threw me off with the last comment. This is me basking.

"Constructing “cool” can be a full time job, during which one may miss living life." Wow. I just like that. I have nothing to add. Thanks.

I love it - the buddy system. It would be fascinating to talk to them both now to hear them describe that year in Mr. Dave's class.

the planet is, indeed, big enough for customization for 6 billion.