Drop your tools and run!

link to transforming school culture bookTransforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division, by Anthony Muhammad, is a book brought to our attention courtesy of our district superintendent, and I suspect it will be the topic of future posts as life here goes on and its insights illuminate our experiences as educational leaders.  Dr. Muhammad recounts an event from August 5, 1949, in which 14 young smokejumpers were killed by a wild fire in western Montana because they failed to obey these orders: “Drop your tools and run!” This was counter-intuitive to these firefighters, their tools considered to be their key to survival, and they were trained to fight fire, not run from it.  Dr. Muhammad’s excellent book devotes a full chapter to describing the dynamics of educators’ unwillingness to change, to adapt to circumstances that for them feel no less aggressive and life-threatening than those faced by those young smokejumpers.  Hear him describe his book here:

Some years ago (I think it was 2003), the UC Davis Cosmology Group invited Stephen Hawking to present a recent paper, and as luck would have it, one of my 5th grade students that year was the son of one of the cosmology faculty who had extended the invitation to Dr. Hawking, and I was politely invited to join the physicists for lunch with him. Yes, as an amateur astronomer I was thrilled to sit at the master’s feet, and he said a great many things of great complexity and importance during his public lectures.  professor stephen hawkingBut to the lunchtime crowd of mostly his peers, the one thing he said I will never forget was, and I paraphrase here: Forget everything you think you know.  Be like a child and receive the new data as if you were just born.  Easy for you to say, you might think.  Well, nothing is easy for Stephen Hawking to say, and he challenged his colleagues to engage in a personal dogma dump so they might comprehend the meaning of the new astrophysical data emerging at a fantastic rate.  He encouraged them to let go of everything they thought they knew about the universe.

In the world of the physicists, their ideas are changing because the data they’re receiving is overwhelming their precepts.  Their universe isn’t changing, but their insights as informed by their data are.

For educators, our universe, our region of practice, is changing while the fresh data roles in, so what’s an educator to do?  Our students are not the students on which teaching practice was built when schools were designed long ago.  Do we drop our tools and run?  If surviving as a teacher (or principal or superintendent) in this field means we die unless we find fresh solutions, maybe it’s an idea whose time has come.  And as we immerse ourselves in the data the analysis technology is making available to us, is our vision obscured by lenses smeared with what we thought we knew?  Just who are these kids, anyway, and who are we who dare teach them?

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6 Responses to Drop your tools and run!

  1. Kelly Brannock says:

    Bill, what a great start to your new blog! I’m pondering the same questions when it comes to the role (and survivability) of school librarians. Some of us adapt to change easily, but many are more like the young smokejumpers — digging in at their current position, traditional tools and practices at hand, and convinced that the key to survival is holding on tight to the things that they know and love.

    I’m intrigued by the idea of following the counter-intuitive, Hawking’s urgings to forget what we think we know, and really interested in Dr. Muhammad’s ideas about culture change in schools. Thanks for sharing and good luck with your new blog!

  2. Bill Storm says:

    Thank you, Kelly! So much to think about as the profession changes under our very noses. I look forward to your future comments! -B

  3. Joel VerDuin says:

    Bill – I swung on by after reading Doug Johnson’s post. Welcome.

    Interesting topic on change, but my opinion is that the change process is often spoken of in oversimplified terms.

    To make a small change is even difficult, and it is not because we are stubborn people who do not like or recognize change, the issue is more related to the highly interdependent nature of what happens in schools.

    As a silly example, most schools (that I know of) exist on a 9-month(ish) model with lots of time off in the summer. Most educators would probably agree it is a bad practice, and most non-educators could probably agree too. However, it seems to still dominate school schedules in general.

    Why? Because we cannot change things of any substantial nature without dealing with the interdependent nature of schools. The school calendar typically depends on state law, which also depends on political will, which depends on lobbying efforts of political organizations (who like families to have summer vacations to spend money in businesses). It is all too tangled together.

    Now – if some of that can be severed, the decisions and change can be made easier.

    This same concept applies to reform in the school too – let’s change the way we group kids together (because honestly, grade levels are really silly) – but, too many practices depend on grade levels (and heaven forbid a student might make it through the system in 8 years and then what would we do with her?)

    We are not stubborn in education, the whole system is, by its nature, very resilient.

  4. Karen Luke says:

    Great start on your blog……what is also forgotten in the mix are parents and society in general. A lot of parents think they have the answers not understanding what was good for them is not good for today. Our society is different from 10, 20 years ago. Kids are plugged in, and looking for different answers to our questions. If we as teachers can’t change, we will end up like the 8-track tapes or cassette players – items that were great at one time, but now obsolete.

    Society as a whole (and this included the governing bodies) needs to look at how we teach and how people learn. I agree with your previous post, school age students should be grouped differently; people learned in the one room school house with mixed abilities and progressed without regard to age, why can’t we have some of the same principles? Why can’t schools be driving by the students and their need to learn instead of someone in some department of education mandating this test or that test.

    Keep up the great posts. I’m looking forward to reading more!

  5. Bill Storm says:

    Joel,
    Thanks for your comment, Joel. I agree that the system is resilient (particularly our students), but within the system are elements that need encouragement to rise to that occasion, including funding structures and other institutional forces. I think our graduation rates and increasing dropout issues are symptomatic of the inertia we find there, with more and more students parting ways with the process.

  6. Nathan Mielke says:

    Thanks for the book reference Bill. I like your paraphrase – “forget everything you think you know.” Everyone – administrators, technology folks, teachers, taxpayers – all think they have the best ideas. Often times its hard to see past what you think is write and take in the information that is right there in front of us. Many of us know we need to change, but I see way more people every day that are clinging to the way things were. A speaker at the SLATE convention in Wisconsin a few weeks ago put it well – we’re completing for our own kids, we just don’t know who the competition is yet.

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