From the Principal's Office: The Worst Consequence of Your Best Ideas
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January 21, 2013 By: Chris Lehmann
[I've talked about this idea a lot, but I wanted to actually put down both the reasons and some of the pathways to do this down in writing. Hope you find it useful. -- Chris]
You have to wonder why desks in rows and textbooks on the desks have survived as long as they have as the dominant instructional model when so few people think that it’s actually a good way to teach and learn.
And then you realize that while it never goes all that right, it rarely goes all that wrong either. Teachers don’t usually get in trouble when administrators walk into their classroom and see kids with books open, doing work, even if the work isn’t worth doing.
And all those other ideas that we love so much – inquiry, project-based learning, technology, real world application of student work – they get so… messy. And something always seems to go wrong. And we have to face that education is a somewhat reactionary field to work in. The death of so many good ideas is when something goes wrong and someone decides that we should never do that again.
And the desks get put back in rows and the textbooks land on the desks again.
But there’s a way around that, and it involves thoughtful planning. It doesn’t involve coming up with the perfect idea, because let’s be clear – there is no perfect idea.
Again – there is no perfect idea.
Everything has a downside. Everything.
At SLA, the best thing about our school is the incredible empowerment of our students. And the worst side of that is those same kids who are so incredibly empowered occasionally become really entitled, and then we have to deal with that.
But we realized that would happen before we started. And every time it does happen, we remind ourselves that it is a natural consequence of what we love, so our reaction has to be tempered so we don’t lose the soul of our school.
And so, whenever you have a new idea, ask yourself and your colleagues:
What is the worst consequence of my best idea? What is the thing that, even if we do this really well, will frustrate me, frustrate kids, frustrate parents?
And then follow-up with these questions: How will we, as a community, mitigate that consequence? What are we willing to live with, if it means we get something incredible out of it as well? What are the risks we are willing to take? How will we front load the negative possibilities of this idea to our stakeholders so they are prepared for it as well?
Don’t just do this alone. Do this as a community, because the author of an idea is often the last person to see the scary side of the idea. Do this not so you can just dismiss fear, but so you can acknowledge it and lessen the factors that cause it.
An easy, concrete example for us was thinking through the policies around being a 1:1 laptop school. We made a decision not to lock down the machines, because we wanted the kids to really feel like they could use the laptops to their fullest potential. That meant that the kids went home with a fully unlocked laptop to unfiltered home networks. We had to talk to students and parents beforehand about issues of internet porn, around good digital citizenship, around being safe and smart with your digital footprint.
And then we had to expect that no matter how much we did that, kids would make mistakes. And because we agreed, as a community, that the benefits of all the kids being able to access the full power of the laptop outweighed the negatives of some of the kids using the laptops inappropriately, the laptops are still open seven years later. And we’re better for it.
And most of the time, there is still the thing you didn’t think of. But the very act of going through the iterative process of trying to solve problems before they show up has made us more willing to acknowledge that our ideas aren’t perfect and that problem-solving will always be necessary. The goal isn’t perfection — it’s pragmatism.
Whether it is a new technology, a new pedagogy, a new program in the school, we have to be thoughtful in the way we evolve as schools. We have to acknowledge the good and bad in the changes we make if we are to do right by the kids in our charge. And we have to own the limits of our ideas, so that we can hold onto those ideas and not regress to a vision of school that, while easily recognized, is loved by no one. Owning our flaws and learning what we can mitigate and what we have to live with is a way to power past fear once and for all.
cross-posted at practicaltheory.org/blog.
Chris Lehmann is the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, a progressive science and technology high school in Philadelphia, PA. that was recognized by Ladies Home Journal as one of the Ten Most Amazing Schools in the US and was recognized as an Apple Distinguished School in 2009 and 2010. Chris won the Lindback Award for Excellence in Principal Leadership in the School District of Philadelphia in April 2012, and has been honored by the White House as a Champion of Change for his work in education reform. In June 2010, Chris was named as one of the “30 Most Influential People in EdTech” by Technology & Learning Magazine. Read more at his blog, http://practicaltheory.org/blog.