Drop your tools and run!
December 16, 2010 6 Comments
Transforming 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. But 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?