Searching for a Beacon of Light

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

I have been in this business for a long time. I always said I would never be like “them.” Them, of course, were the stewards of the business. The old timers. Those with letters. Those with titles.

It was not that I did not want those titles. I did. Come on. I still do, although limited because I really do not pine for those morning board breakfasts, lazy lunch meetings, or fancy-pants dinners. I am much too lazy for that. It gets in my way of golf, tennis, martinis, and, well, Facebook. Yeah, it’s true. I need work.

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What I did not want was to be was one of those “old guys” who did not think anything would or could change. You know, the geriatrics, of, well, at least “50 years old,” that thought they knew everything and poo-pooed on everything. “No, it could never happen.” “We saw that before.” “Forgettaboutit.” “Never happen.”

Well, the years are screwing with me and part of me feels like that’s what I have become.

I am an over 50 guy. Born of the 60s. I grew up with great music of the 70s and came of age during the wondrous period of the 80s. We were Gordon Gecko. You know my time and my music. Probably know my vibe. I have been around the education industry for 30 years, dare I say. I have been through open classroom (jeez… I still think that was about the worst thing I have ever seen, but whatdoIknow?), Francais Immersion (I did come from Canada), site-based management, and even something called Charter Schools.

In parallel, I have seen and encountered tuitions rises to such extremes that families simply cannot afford them and are putting their retirement accounts at risk to provide for their kids. I know. I am one of them. And I am one of the fortunate ones. I have seen colleges get greedier about what they “need” to fulfill what students’ “needs” and what their parents “require.” It’s dismal. Pathetic.

In the end, I sit as one of “them.” I am grayed. Not just my hair. But my attitude. I admit it. I just think the entire system, of politics, of education, and certainly, of ethics, is… shit.

That is about the most positive way I can think of it. I have an entire spiel about how the American society is going downhill. We, as a society, want everything and do not want to pay it forward; rather, we want to owe it forward to our kids. We are, without doubt, the most selfish society of existence. That, my friends, is tremendously sad. And while I will not digress, Congress has a whole lot to do with it. Both sides of the proverbial aisle.

The real question is where we go from here? We bear children who are completely neutral to their new world outside the womb. They are innocent. They have done no wrong. They are legislated by their parents and by their parents’ situations. And while we do far more good than bad, we are barely credible on average for millions of students, and especially for those who are low-income and disabled. I rarely worry about the affluent. I think carefully and often about what we do for those who are poor as well as the middle class, who are destined to join their brethren in the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Just watch.

As you read, you can clearly see how this dialogue can spiral downwards quickly. But that is not the point. The point of this Swail Letter is to find the light in the tunnel; the indices where no indices can be found; a pathway where barriers seem present.

So, what do we do? Where do we go?

It’s quite simple, in fact. For me and my “period” people, it is important that we continue to vamp on the issues that we know excessively about. We have real knowledge about real things. These always matter. Never depart too much from us gray hairs. We actually know what we are talking about, and we bring history with us. Hell, we grew up with Lincoln, for Christ’s sake.

But the real window for opportunity in the future does not reside in us, but in the crystal voices of society’s youth. Those who know no boundaries and have limited restrictions; those who live in a different world than from which we were generated. I consider myself well versed in technology, but I am not borne of this generation. It is not the same cloth that I resemble.

So it comes down to the sunrise of our youth. Not meaning ours, but those that we have created. The ideas sprung from those who have different frontiers; different interests and goals. Not to make this political, because I’d rather not, but I must admit that I like watching the videos of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. I cannot and will not say anything about his politics, because he is too new and I do not want to digress. But his attitude is what I am referring to. He is about doing things. Making people be “better.” Will he? Who knows. Right now, people like him. But politics comes about policy. People loved his father for similar reasons. His dad, former Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Elliot Trudeau, had this way of “being.” I saw the father in my high school when I was a student and he was fighting to get back his Prime Ministership. I did not think too much of him, but I am pretty sure I was the single person in that Vincent Massey Collegiate audience who was similarly reticent that evening. And yes, they did break the fire code that night.

Through the digression, the way we turn around education is having people—our youth—come up with different ideas of how to do things. The reality is that beyond some technical know-how, we have not really done a whole lot educationally during the past century. We are still didactic and programmed. Not all a bad thing. That is how we need to learn sometimes; oftentimes.

John Dewey taught us over a century ago about the importance of active learning. We learned it. And then forgot it. We regressed over the years because industry and business forced us to. They told us that we needed to learn more about X’s and O’s and less about # and¯(and the first one isn’t a darn hashtag…). Dewey was the father of active learning and we have not lived up to his exaltation. It is a shame, because everything we know about learning steers us toward his legacy. We learn by doing. We learn by having fun and enjoying the process. We learn by not even knowing there is a process.

Instead, we’ve fallowed in accreditation and testing and credentialism and bureaucracy: the four horsemen of modern society. I obviously remain an example of that anachronism, as evidenced by my use of the term credentialism, which apparently is not a real word according to, well, Word. Just sayin’.

I have read and I have heard about millennials and their interest in working with societal issues. I am not so sure those outcomes have actually transpired, but it remains a good narrative. I would like to have that one in my repertoire. But it is the narrative that needs to push the needle toward—not reform—a complete new way of doing things educationally.

I do not buy into everything the Finnish say about their Number One education system, but I have talked with Pasi Salberg and others, and there are some things we need to learn quickly if we have a chance to truly rejuvenate learning in North America.

Mostly—and I repeat—learning needs to be fun. If it is not fun, it is an endurance. If you have ever had the opportunity to run a marathon or half marathon, you know it feels great when you cross that finish line. But let us be truthful: it sucks beyond hell while you are doing it. Learning should not be like that. It should not be 13 years of “suck” to get where you feel like it is good. Even more depressing, when high schoolers actually graduate, they do not feel it is good; they just think they have “done time.” What type of education is that?

I know so many families and parents—and particularly dads—who nail their kids and force them to learn. Believe it or not, it actually works. Not good practice, though. We should not need to do that. Instead, we must create a system where learning happens via “fun” in school. When we have fun, we learn. I’m not saying it is always fun, but learning needs to have an essence of wonder or amusement or fascination or excitement. Perhaps that needs to be the new Four Horsemen. This is where learning lives.

I may be gray, but I am wonderous. I am fascinated. I am particularly amused and I want someone to excite me about what comes next.

Excite me.

 

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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