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Bringing Out the Best in Children

HUMANS IN EDUCATION SERIES:

Rick Ackerly, educator, speaker, author, on bringing out the best in children

· taking action,inspiration,schools

With a master’s in education from Harvard University, Rick has devoted his career to building thriving learning communities and has served as headmaster of four independent schools. He has been a consultant and coach to teachers, school leaders and parents for many years. Rick publishes a new essay each week on his blog www.geniusinchildren.org

14K: Tell me one thing that inspires you to do this work.

RA: I’ll start by saying that my favorite quotation is by Mark Twain: 'I never let my schooling interfere with my education.’ What he alludes to is what inspires me. I know where the problem lies — it’s in the fact that schools are not designed to educate kids; they're designed to sort kids and move them through the system. But, the more schools try to change, the more they stay the same, because they're not focusing on trying to change the right thing.

I understand the tools needed to fix this problem but my challenge has been that I have only been able to act locally — I haven't found the right ways to move from the local to the global changes.

The delivery system for education is not the texts or the tests, the technology or even the teachers, it’s the culture that those teachers create. The problem is that they get trapped into the creating or being a part of sustaining a culture that sorts children in many ways, rather than focusing on how we can inspire and teach them. Teachers need genuine leadership training to escape this mindset. We need to train educators as leaders so that anybody, whether they are a superintendent or a teacher or even a parent, can exercise leadership to make things better.

14K: What are the key changes in education you believe would have the most impact on children?

RA: We keep changing the standards, believing that's going to change things, but it doesn't. As I say on my website and in my writings, making schooling educational requires changing school culture and changing what we measure to things that measure what truly matters in a child's growth and development as a human being. School reform keeps failing not because of standards, or curriculum, or poverty, or parents, or privatization, or technology, or tests, or textbooks, or money, and it certainly doesn’t fail for want of trying. It fails because of culture. One key change is the need to build a school culture where students can practice decision-making and problem-solving and then receive high-quality feedback from their teachers. Students deserve to be, and need to be a part of their own learning each and every day in school.

We need to train educators as leaders so that anybody, whether they are a superintendent or a teacher or even a parent, can exercise leadership to make things better.

Real-life learning is mostly trial and error. What if school maximized the number of “trials” students took to tackle problems, rather than trying to minimizing the number of “errors" they made? For instance, have you ever noticed how four-year-olds are great at changing their minds? They know what they don't know and they are okay with that. They are open to “trials" and learning from them. They do this intuitively. They are open to changing their minds. Schools and teachers have to create an environment where we welcome, and even solicit, feedback that can help all of us change our minds. However well we did or learned, something the first time, we ought to consider how to do, or learn, it better the next time. Great educators know they can be wrong, just like their students, and that everyone can learn from everyone else’s mistakes. The problem is, as adults and as educators, it becomes very risky to say, “I don't know,” or to admit that you’ve changed your mind about what you believe.

School reform keeps failing not because of standards, or curriculum, or poverty, or parents, or privatization, or technology, or tests, or textbooks, or money, and it certainly doesn’t fail for want of trying. It fails because of culture.

Another key change I'd like to see is that we hold teachers accountable for kids going home every day feeling enthusiastic about their time in school. The word enthusiasm comes from the Greek word enthousiasmos which means imbued with the divine. When a kid is enthusiastic we know we're maximizing her education. And even though she hasn't memorized her spelling words yet, or her times tables, if she’s enthusiastic about learning that’s what counts in the long run. This isn't a race. It's about kids' lives and their development as human beings.

14K: What are the biggest challenges you see in making these changes happen?

RA: Well one challenge is changing the nomenclature; we need to redefine how we talk about education. We need to redefine what discipline means. And if we really care about social-emotional learning let’s define some behaviors that we want to see more of. Let's hold everyone in our schools accountable for maximizing these behaviors. Let’s count how many times somebody built upon someone else's contribution. Let’s count how often they listened with a willingness to change their minds and how often they spoke up. Let's count how often they made internally motivated decisions.

For forty years, parents in four different cities evaluated the schools where I was headmaster. When they saw the enthusiasm in the classrooms they said, ‘I want my kid to go here.’ None of them said, ‘Tell me about your test scores.’ No one; ever. I was held accountable for the kids loving to go to school everyday.

14K: So, obviously there is change happening, but it’s in silos — small clusters of public schools, alternative schools, etc. What do you think is preventing meaningful change from really catching fire? Is it bureaucracy? Is it that the movement to redefine the purpose of school can't infiltrate the bureaucratic system that is public school? Can change only happen in small, more nimble environments?

RA: Yes, all of those things are true. I’m thinking out loud here. Maybe trying to change the system is impossible. Maybe we should let the system be and empower individuals within the system to create their own educational opportunities, their own educational cultures.

14K: And that is happening. You can see it. A kid may walk out of one classroom totally energized and beaming and then walk out of another looking like dead wood—disengaged.

RA: Right. There are people in all sorts of school systems, public and private, who are making sure that their kids are getting an education. But one of the big problems is that the revolutionaries are not all in one revolution. Let’s go back to the idea of leadership training. Leadership should not be an elitist term. Leading is what education is about. The Latin root of the word, educare means to lead out —leading each person's character out into the world to contribute creatively, effectively and gracefully to it.

14K: 14000hours is not trying to reinvent the wheel or to say we know at best. We’re trying to say, “Hey—you guys could link arms, and you guys could link arms and collectively we can bring about change." Do you see that as a meaningful role for us to play?

There are people in all sorts of school systems, public and private, who are making sure that their kids are getting an education. But one of the big problems is that the revolutionaries are not all in one revolution.

RA: Yeah, I think that's good. We all need to agree on the ideas that really make a difference. If all of us want to create this revolution we have to define it and make sure everybody can get on board.

Rick Ackerly is a nationally recognized educator and speaker with 45 years of experience working in and for schools. With a master’s in education from Harvard University, Rick has devoted his career to building thriving learning communities. He has served as headmaster of four independent schools and has been a consultant and coach to teachers, school leaders and parents for many years.

Rick speaks to parent and school groups across the country. He also presents at numerous education conferences including the People of Color Conference, the California Association of Independent Schools, the Coalition of Essential Schools, the Symposium on Students with Learning Disabilities, Progressive Education Network, the National Association of Episcopal Schools, and the Pacific Rim Conference. He has been an active participant in the annual “Call to Action” conference sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools’ Office on Diversity and Multicultural Education.

His articles about education and diversity have appeared in The Independent School, Multicultural Education, Education Week, the New York Times. Rick publishes a new essay each week on his blog www.geniusinchildren.org His first book, The Genius in Children: Bringing out the Best in Your Child is available on his website. His is on the advisory board of 14000hours.org.

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