Now Is the Time for Creative Disruption

This was originally posted to https://learnercenteredleadership.blogspot.com/ on June 7, 2020.

“Change always involves a dark night when everything falls apart.

Yet if this period of dissolution is used to create new meaning,

then chaos ends and new order emerges.”

Margaret Wheatley

The time is now.

Like many others, I’ve been reading, sharing, and trying to understand where we are now as a society. I’ve been reflecting on my own role and my own identity. In the course of my reflections, the following framework has been helpful for me to better understand where I’ve been and where I need to be.

PassiveActive
RacistEnabling BystanderKKK, White Power, etc. 
Anti-RacistAllyCo-Conspirator 

For myself, I believe that in many respects I have been in the ally quadrant. That hasn’t been enough.  As I’ve reflected, I know that I need to shift to an active, co-conspirator anti-racist role. 

I am a firm believer that leadership is dependent on context which is dependent on our relationships.  If we want to see change in our communities and in our society we need to be oriented to relational trust and the development of social connectedness.  Every interaction and every relationship that we have is important.  

With that in mind, I would take a “Yes and” perspective and state that systems are also important.  We talk about the need to dismantle systematic racism and structures that are designed to promote inequality.  As we look inward and orient to relationships, there is also a need to be reflective about our educational system and the role that it plays in perpetuating and promoting inequalities that create harm for individuals and for society.  

Our systems were designed by people.  The current K-12 system was largely designed by white men, including the “Committee of Ten” who were presidents of elite colleges during the dawn of the industrial age.  This system is based on assumptions that were relevant during that time but should be reevaluated now. Those assumptions include a worldview that was paternalistic, hierarchical, and a mechanistic view of the universe.  The industrial era mindset included an orientation to efficiency, wherein tasks were broken down into component parts and specialization of labor through assembly lines that were supported by advances in technology and machines led to increased outputs.  Our schools were constructed in the same models.  

All of this leads to a system wherein our educational system has prioritized compliance over agency.  We have prioritized standardization and efficiency at the expense of individuality and in exclusion of a multicultural, pluralistic approach.  Experts judge, sort, and rank students through a process of grading and standardized testing that favors those who are already advantaged.  

While this industrial model of schooling was beneficial for many during the industrial age, outcomes such as graduation rates have plateaued for five decades.  There is no dispute.  This system does not meet the needs of all students.  The effects are also disproportionate with less favorable results for black and brown students as well as for those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.  These inequities are so long-standing that we must draw the conclusion that the system itself is rigged, designed to preserve existing inequalities, and therefore a racist system. 

As a result, we must ask ourselves where we stand as it relates to this system.  Are we passively or actively anti-racist?  This may be an unpopular statement but I believe that many of us who are good-hearted educators fall into the passive quadrant when it comes to dismantling the current system.  It was designed by people and it can be re-designed.  We must become co-conspirators, active in our efforts to change the system so that it better serves every student, entirely eradicating opportunity and achievement gaps.  We can no longer prioritize standardization and compliance if it comes at the expense of empowerment and equity.  

So what can be done?  Now is the time.  As I’ve previously shared, paradigm changes include a period of crisis wherein new models emerge and yet there is a period where there is no consensus about which of the new models will become the new norm.  We are absolutely in a period of crisis.  COVID-19 is a crisis.  The economic fallout from COVID-19 is a crisis.  Racism and the horrific evidence of the ongoing threat as we’ve seen from the murder of George Floyd is a crisis.  

So now is the time.  If we are to move from being passive allies to active co-conspirators we must create new models of our educational system.  There has probably never been a better time and there may never be a better time for us to be creative.  Standardized testing is gone.  College admissions procedures are unknown.  We don’t know if we’ll be back in the fall with in-person instruction, hybrid models, or virtual learning.  Budgets are unknown.  There is more instability now than I have seen in my lifetime.  In this time of instability and crisis, we can, and must, also be creative.  

In order to dismantle a racist system, a new system must be created.  Katie Martin and I have been working on new models, ideating, and sharing concepts.  What have you always wanted to try, but have felt like the conditions weren’t right?  Now is the time to advance that idea.  Now is the time to step forward and to try a new model.  We need new systems. In order to disrupt the status quo, we must be creative disruptors.   If we are to shift from being passive to active, we need more educators to be creating alternatives.  In the visual below, these creative alternatives are called anomalies.  Eventually the anomalies will converge into a new winning paradigm, setting a new vision of the world.  A new normal.  

In my book, Learner-Centered Leadership, I share several shifts that may be helpful prompts as we consider what the new models of the future may look like.  

So what will you create?  How can we connect and collaborate on the journey so that we more effectively create new systems that better meet the needs of each and every learner?  How might we implement inclusive processes that help us to expand our collective intelligence and incorporate multiple perspectives into our new designs?  How might we use student voice and student input to keep us centered and grounded in our approach? How might we use the equityXdesign provocations in the process? 

Building and implementing new models is not easy.  The work must be sustained and we must embrace an iterative mindset where we continue to develop and refine our approach.  Transformational, radical work also requires us to stay connected and to share lessons learned along the way.  We need to be working and networking at multiple levels.  This is intra-personal, interpersonal, communal, and systemic.  Now is the time for creative disruption. 

By embracing and celebrating the unique strengths of every learner, it is my hope that we can begin to see all forms of difference, including cultural and racial diversity, as the assets they truly are. Being learner-centered, therefore, is a direct challenge to inequality in all forms. In the same ways that we want schools to be learner-centered, society should be human-centered. At its essence, learner-centered education and human-centered societal mindsets embrace the notion that equity requires us to see and know one another as real people, and then to design improvements as a community.

Learner-Centered Leadership

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