Explore Nueroscience in Education with Dr. Lori Desautels

Chapter One!! Unwritten… The Story of a Living Sysytem

Michael and I decided to share a fraction of chapter one! Where we leave you… is with the beginning of a new story… a Re-Visioning of education, no matter the political climate because it happens with one relationship, in one room and one building at a time! Of course we would love your thoughts!

With so much respect,

Michael and Lori

“The Story of a Living System”
By Michael McKnight and Lori Desautels

Umbutu-“I am because you are”


We cannot remember a more chaotic and tenuous time in our nation’s educational story. We are closing and opening schools, increasing the amount and intensity of standardized tests, changing education standards, and evaluating individuals within a system that is functioning like a machine. The challenge is: the current system is really not a machine. It is a network of human beings who feel, think, behave, and function within a human system that is alive with innate well-being. This living system of sentient beings are neuro-biologically wired to feel first; to think, to love, to connect, and to experience deep joy as well as deep pain. This system is wired to thrive, even through difficult times.
We are not there! We have lost our way through the primordial landscape of our innate purpose and genius. Deep learning is profoundly relational and connection to one another is a prerequisite for our collective emotional, social, spiritual and cognitive growth and development.
Our current story is rooted in scarcity and deficiency. This mindset leads to a prescriptive standardized process and structure of schooling that strikingly looks and feels the same all over America! Many of our children are not learning in this environment and even more frightening we are witnessing an ever increasing tendency toward violence in our children. Our children are literally killing each other at younger and younger ages.
Programs do not change people. People change people. It is critical to remember that the schools we are working in consist of webs of relationships. The schools we work in are alive! Transformation within any living system cannot be externally mandated or directed. It can only be provoked. If we are to intimately connect to the hearts and minds of one another, change must come from within; from within the landscape of our own beating hearts and the ever changing cascade of thought processes we encounter each day, several times a day.
Learning is the most natural and creative thing that human beings do, yet with-in our current story of schooling this natural process is deeply distorted and often those we wish to teach choose not to learn from us. Our current story of schooling is rooted in fixing and remediating our young.
Deep learning in human beings is profoundly relational. Close connections and attachment to supportive adults is a prerequisite to learning from them.
Michael and I hope to disturb your thinking gently; gently enough to have you consider that your role as an educator is moving in a new direction, inside a story that embraces the teaching and learning process as organically alive, that inhales and exhales, that moves and grows, within an adaptive messy context of a living system.
So please, join Michael and me in dialogue as we question, remember, strategize, and rewrite the story. The story of a living system that knows compassion, that feels the joys and suffering of humankind, but often times, loses its way in an industrial robotic environment where people are unable to thrive.

Michael and I have created a format for reading and digesting the content inside this book. We hope to bring these ideas, teaching principles and strategies to life. Within each chapter, we have included a quote, the content topics interspersed with a dialogue between the two of us. As we wrote this story, we discussed, questioned and shared our thoughts. It is our hope that in the ways this story was created, you too will benefit from this book’s dialogue and actionable “sparks” at the end of each chapter. The teaching sparks are strategies that are aligned to the topics in each section. We entitled these as “sparks” to ignite your enthusiasm, providing you with resources to assist you in your current educational practices. Michael and I know that the research reports that we learn best when we teach others. As we write, we also learn. We are not the experts, but we share your passion and questions for how to enliven and improve this current beautifully complex living system.

Chapter One
The System Story

Imagine yourself walking into any public or private school in our country. It does not matter what level the school might be, an elementary, middle, or high school. Imagine just wandering around the school. Walk down the hallways, visit the cafeteria, go in the gym, visit the library, and move in and out of the classrooms. As you wander around, you may begin to notice that the majority of the places we call schools are very similar. For the most part, they all look and feel the same. Students have teachers that teach various subjects. Students are grouped by their age, subjects are taught separately, class begins and ends during a specific period of time, bells ring, and students move on. Tests are taken, report cards and grades are given, students are sorted and ranked, and children that fall behind are placed in special programs to be remediated.
It really would be difficult to tell what state you are in simply by walking around a school. They are all arranged in a very similar manner. Principals are in charge of the buildings and often times; the assistant principal continues to posit “discipline,” as grade level teachers are sorted by their “content expertise.” Besides some novel technologies such as computers, smart boards, flat screen televisions, Elmo’s, etc.; there is not that much different in our schools today than there was three decades ago. How can this be?
Underneath the “sameness” we perceive in many of our schools, there feels to be a collective world view concerning how human beings learn. This present day view of learning originated during the Industrial Revolution and typically views learning as mechanistic and machine like. Picture an assembly line. The students move along through the system as if they were pieces on this assembly line. As they progress, the teacher inputs specific content, aligned with academic standards that the student is to learn and know in an explicit period of time. Curriculum and Instructional Directors spend time aligning curriculum to grade level expectations. Students are prodded along attempting to acquire the content expectations for their grade level. As students advance, they are tested and graded on those content expectations, traversing from one grade to the next with their peer group. Any student falling behind is recognized, and often times, removed from the assembly line. With removal, they may be fixed or remediated and placed back into the line. Sometimes students are treated as passive recipients of information and knowledge delivered by the teacher becomes sterile and moot as they continue to move along the line. As students progress, they continue to be ranked and sorted against their age group peers. Graduation follows once they have mastered the ability to answer a number of correct questions on one of the many assessment stops along the way.

Many of us feel something is not right with the majority of our schools. Having been in the education profession for over 30 years, I have witnessed many innovations designed to transform our schools. We tinker with existing structures, changing schedules, extending the length of the school day, designing new curriculum guides, providing more professional development for our teachers as testing continues to increase. We open magnet schools, charter schools and various Academies for specialized learning and curriculums. We call for smaller class sizes, vouchers, on-line schools, “highly qualified teachers,” while initiating year round school calendars. We have introduced and implemented progress monitoring assessments along with the addition of remedial classes supporting Response to Instruction. Technology continues to evolve inside our schools for assessment, remediation and instruction.
We create teacher and principal evaluation systems that link professional evaluations into “best practices” correlating these metrics with monitoring student growth and teacher effectiveness. We have created basic skills programs, remedial programs, special education programs, after school programs, alternative school programs. We have transitioned from chalk boards to white boards, from overhead projectors to smart boards, from desk tops to lap tops, to bring your own devices; yet none of the changes we have made have come close to transforming our schools. Fundamentally the story has stayed the same.
Historically the current story of the expansion of public education and the design of almost all our schools was based on the need to create modern factory workers. This was the time when standardization became synonymous with “modern.” It was the time of Henry Ford’s assembly line and at the time, a more modern form of work. It was in this context that the current story of education was born, the birthplace of “modern schooling.”
We unconsciously institutionalize this world view in our thinking and our behavior. In essence the world was viewed as a machine. This world view continues to shape our institutions and many of our schools at every developmental level. It is not that difficult to step back and imagine a child placed on the “assembly line” in kindergarten, shuffling along through the system with a final destination of being college and career ready.
The current wave of school reform movements across our country and the globe are simply recreating a 21st century assembly line system. We seem to believe we are moving forward but our gaze continues to be driven by deeply held and often unconscious views of schooling, teaching and learning. These views are looking backwards not forward. Observing closely, there is really nothing new in the current school reform story. The current story is rooted in deficiency, scarcity and remediation. We have focused and perfected our ability to find what is wrong with our young people, but what is going well? What is the outcome of the current story of education? Our current story feels to be shutting down learning which is the most natural thing human beings do. It is also important for us to recognize that quite possibly for many students, this story of schooling never really worked to engage educators or students? The myth that at one time our public schools were a place of great engagement and learning is just that, a myth. Our current high school graduation rate is approximately 75% and that is as high as it has ever been. An estimated one million students will fail to graduate this year, which is a loss of 5,500 students for every day on the academic calendar. 1 When we actually take the time to ask students about their schooling, the answers we receive should give any adult interested in education, major concern. According to a national report: Charting A Path from Engagement to Achievement, a 2009 survey of 42,000 high school students reported that , 66% of students stated they are bored every day in school. The students consistently site that the material is boring and not relevant. The students also indicated, with a whopping 82 percent in agreement, that they would welcome more opportunities to be creative at school. 2
It is time for a new story of education and schooling in our country. So let us imagine another trip through another imaginary school. As you wander around this school try and go underneath all the surface activities of the school. Notice the content that is being taught, the bells that ring, the tests being taken, the pencils being sharpened, the lecture being delivered, and the questions being asked. Notice the lockers being opened, the lesson plans being delivered and just stop and listen. Observe and feel the place you are in. Listen to the buzz and hustling of all the life within this place we call a school. Feel the pulse of the place you have entered. Sense the vibrations and energy within the walls. All schools have a felt sense.
Schools are living systems, and they are alive. Viewing our schools as living systems creates space for seeing our role within them much differently. We do not need to restructure schools or reconstitute them. We do not need to transform or fix them. What we need is a Re-visioning of our schools.

The New Story…

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