PROCESS POST: Big Shifts, Revolution, and Foxfire

I only have a few minutes to write, and I wanted to record a bit of what I am researching and thinking about…

Big Shifts

Thanks to Twitter, I picked up on a post from @MikeGwaltney (Mike Gwaltney): “A Conversation about Big Shifts.” In the post, Gwaltney recounted NAIS president Pat Bassett’s main points from his March NAIS address and his later talk at TEDxSt. George’s School.

1. Knowing must become Doing.

2. Teacher-Centered must become Student-Centered.

3. Individual must become Team.

4. Consumption must become Construction.

5. Schools must become Networks.

6. Single Sourcing must become Crowd Sourcing.

7.High Stakes Testing must become High Value Demonstration.

8. Disciplinary must become Interdisciplinary.

Maybe because I, too, was present for Bassett’s NAIS keynote and because I had listened to the TEDx talk, Gwaltney’s post really resonated with me – I was primed to hold the post and its message in my mind.


Thanks to The Lovett School’s fine American Studies Institute in June: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised? American Culture: 1970-present,” I have had Jay Bonner (of The Asheville School) in my mind, as I have continuously contemplated his idea that “revolution” is a cyclical re-turning…perhaps a revolution is a return to things of the past.


Thanks to a research project I am working on, I was re-reading Thomas Armstrong’s The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice. Of course, this line really struck a cord with me:

Educators who employ Academic Achievement Discourse often highlight the existence of a so-called achievement gap that has beset our nation’s schools. However, there is a far more profound educational gap that needs bridging. It is the gap between the ‘schoolhouse world’ and the ‘real world.’ All children, but especially those at the elementary school level, have as a central developmental focus the need to find out how the world works. (pp. 89-90)

I went on to read about best practices in “real-world schooling,” and I discovered The Foxfire Project, which is a brand of community-based education.

Another way that children can learn about how the world works is through direct contact with their local community. Perhaps the most well-known example of this approach is the Foxfire Experiment [I did not know about it]. In 1966, Eliot Wigginton and his students at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in northeast Georgia embarked on a mission to interview local elders in the surrounding community….Their project gave birth to a magazine called Foxfire…, and later to a book, a movie, a museum, and a foundation that still operates to further this kind of approach to learning in schools around the country (Wigginton, 1973). (pp. 104-105)

The Braid – Weaving Together Big Shifts, Revolution, and Foxfire

I am fascinated by the juxtaposition of “Big Shifts” and “Revolutions.” As I read and discover more about the Foxfire Project, I realize that the “Big Shifts” are all there. All of them. In 1966, the Foxfire Project possessed all 8 of Bassett’s big shifts.

Could the big shifts in education be returns – revolutions – to methods of the past? Many speak of the cycles of educational methodology. But are we long-term meandering around a more powerful approach to school-based education? What will be the catalyst(s) and stimuli that actually cause the big shifts (returns?) to occur large-scale in schools? When will the revolution be achieved?

Are we trying to push an enormous stone of inertial resistance up a huge slope of fear-of-change? Is that why the revolution never seems to apex and move with momentum down the other side of the slope?

Works Cited

Armstrong, Thomas. The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice. ASCD, Alexandria, VA: 2006.

PROCESS POST: Adaptive Leaders, Orchestrating Conflict, and Developing Experiments…School DNA Evolution

The job of leadership is to orchestrate the conflict that arises in those discussions and develop experiments to find out how to push the frontier forward in an evolutionary way.

These words came from Ron Heifetz in an interview with David Creelman for the Creelman Research Library on thought leaders. The entire article (2009 vol. 2.5) is worth a read for all leaders. For school leaders embracing the changing landscapes of schools and education, I thought the piece was a #MustRead. [Hat tip to Tod Martin for sharing it with me.]

While I might spend hours examining the components of the article and Heifitz’s book that sparked the interview (The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, co-authored by Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky), what struck me most at this time is the idea of ORCHESTRATING CONFLICT and DEVELOPING EXPERIMENTS. And I use the singular intentionally because I think the two parts are an essential pair of one, complex idea.

As educational leaders and school administrators, how are we orchestrating conflict and developing experiments? What a glorious verb “orchestrating” is. I picture a faculty as an orchestra (and I have pondered before if a principal is a conductor or principal violinist). With the current practice of subdividing a faculty into sections – English, math, science, etc. – like we subdivide an orchestra into instrumental sections, I hope we are orchestrating playing from the same sheets of music. I hope we are not merely gathered together in our orchestral round playing disjointedly from different sheets of music titled, “English,” “math,” “science,” etc. For these are just notes and lines from a symphony which is our world, not separate pieces altogether. But now, in this changing environment of education, it is no longer enough for leaders to orchestrate a faculty playing from the same sheets of music. Now, we must orchestrate conflict, too…so that we  might create new music and innovative ways of playing.

In the interview, Heifitz talked of zooming in and zooming out so that “one moves between high levels of abstraction and low levels of concrete action to discover where people start disagreeing.” Then, Heifitz explained that one would “identify the parties who have a stake in that situation and bring the tough questions to the centre of their attention.” Mind you, these are questions that don’t have easily discernible, textbook answers. These are questions for which the leader does not have current capacity to address. Such is the nature of adaptive leadership. “Adaptive context is a situation that demands a response outside your current toolkit or repertoire; it consists of a gap between aspirations and operational capacity that cannot be closed by the expertise and procedures currently in place.” Where will education and schooling be in 2020? 2030? 2050? Because we don’t know what education might look like in 3-5 years, we will need more and more adaptive leadership to orchestrate and navigate this evolution, revolution, or re-evolution. And we will need teams.

So, we must gather a room – an orchestra – that is smarter than any one person in the room. In a room full of people, the room is the smartest one in the room, right? (David Weinberger, Too Big to Know) From the orchestration of conflict, we must design, prototype, and implement experiments in the schoolhouse. We need R&D labs in schools. Of course, many schools have them, but very few are more than loosely organized, if organized at all. We must put forth these experiments so that we can learn by doing and grow developmentally from our experiments and iterative prototypes. In my opinion, a wave of the future for schooling will involve organizing and orchestrating these experiments more deliberately (and communicating clearly about these efforts with various constituencies including parents, alums, other schools, etc.).

As it stands, existing schools are likely to have schools within their school. Depending on the collection of teachers that a student has, one can experience a very different school than another student – even at the same school. So there is something like a startup within a school, if the school has a collection of teachers who are innovating practice and taking risks and implementing experiments. But are these players harmonizing together to create systemic change and coordinated enhancement? Such is a job of an adaptive leader who functions as part of the team as well as an orchestrator of the gap-closing between current capacity and aspirations.

About two weeks ago, sitting by the pool, I was re-reading Creative Thinkering by Michael Michalko. While reading page 63, I scrawled the following sketch on the inside book cover:

As Michalko described  a CEO using an idea drawer to juxtapose DNA and his business organization, I could see how school innovators could change the DNA of a school – slowly, over time…if loosely organized. But I could also see how this process could be sped up, more closely matching the rate of change in the world, if the innovators were orchestrated and systemically connected with purposeful R&D efforts. Then, in the interview with Heifitz, I read:

Leaders need to accept that adaptive contexts are not simply win-win games. A lot of the organization’s DNA can be conserved but some will need to be discarded. It’s a painful process….But because there are ways of engaging people so that they tolerate and accept losses on behalf of thriving in a changing world we can be positive in facing adaptive contexts. You can do it if you are compassionate about the strains of transition you are asking people to go through. Once you recognize this then you are far more likely to be successful in helping your organization find its way toward a greater adaptability to thrive in challenging times.

How are we orchestrating conflict and developing experiments in schools and education? How are systematizing and organizing these efforts into synergistic wholes? How are we taking leadership of the DNA changes that will happen regardless of us if we don’t lead them intentionally?


Creelman, David. “Ron Heifitz: Adaptive Leadership.” Creelman Research. 2009 vol. 2.5

[NOTE: In the past week, several people have asked me, “Bo, what’s a ‘process post?'” To me a process post is a place to think and not worry about getting all the pieces to fit together or all of the conventions right. It’s like a journal. I usually use a process post as I am working out some thinking in my mind. I generally set a time limit – like 30 minutes to an hour – and just write. Then, I publish what I have without feeling pressure to re-read and polish at that time. Whereas many of my posts are just waypoints on my paths of thinking, the process posts feel even rougher and more draft-y than a post not marked with “PROCESS POST.”]

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – Lovett’s 2012 American Studies Institute #ASI2012

Are we Americans currently living through revolutions in art, politics, music, journalism, economics, and education (just to name a few)? What is the nature of a revolution? Are there common characteristics and traits among revolutions? Are we teaching our students about the foundations and aspects of revolutions in American history and around the world?

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” breathed rhythmically as the theme of this year’s American Studies Institute at The Lovett School in Atlanta, GA. As participants gathered on Thursday morning, June 7, Gil Scott-Heron’s poetic stoker was playing on an audio loop (lyrics). Then, after brief opening remarks from conference organizers, a Lovett senior recited the piece in a beautiful and surprisingly personal reading.

Over the course of nearly two days, through hour-long lectures from a variety of speakers, we were exposed to select individual’s perceptions of what we have experienced, and are experiencing, in the way of revolutions in American art, music, politics, economics, journalism, and education. Normally, I am not too keen on “sit-n-get” instruction for an entire conference, and I have grown disenchanted with this pedagogy as a primary means of schooling. I find it ironic that progressive educators talk of revolutionizing education by subjecting conference attendees to quintessential, industrial-age methodology. Nevertheless, Lovett’s #ASI2012 organizers made this lecture format work, at least for me. I was drawn in, turned on, and engaged deeply.

To try to summarize all that I thought and learned would prove impossible and short-selling of the event. My recap would do as much justice to #ASI2012 as a family slide show would do of a week together exploring some European city. Snapshots often fall short of deep, meaningful experiences. However, a few interesting themes did emerge for me, and I want to open the door to exploring these more fully in future thinking and posting:

  1. As explained by Dr. Cobb in the opening lecture, revolutions are rarely instantaneous. Rather revolutions are incremental. Moreover, revolutions rarely, if ever, sweep away all that was there before. I am curious how this theory and view relates to Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point.
  2. People seem to believe that many current-day revolutions involve the democratization of previously elite-controlled activity and removal of gatekeepers. For instance, through technology now, individuals who used to be resigned to the role of “consumer” may now also contribute as “producers” – through music production, like on Garage Band; through journalistic contribution, like on Twitter or long-post blogs; through video creation, like on iMovie and YouTube. I am curious how this ties into thinking such as that exposed on NPR’s TED Radio Hour featuring the Power of Crowds.
  3. Related to #2, there was a theme of curiosity about revolutionary veracity and integrity when just about anyone can remix, touch-up, or enhance a recording, image, or piece or writing. Interestingly, I got the sense that folks did not question Cindy Sherman’s creativity as presented by Jordan Clark, but they did wonder about a musical artist remixing a set of tracks on a piece of music as teetering on the edges of honesty (as presented by Stutz Wimmer).
  4. As Dr. Cobb and Patrick Hastings and Jay Bonner expressed in separate talks in different ways, revolutions are often returns to things of the past. Jay Bonner expressed it with elegant articulation about the meaning of “revolution” as something turning, revolving, and cycling through phases. This built on earlier foundations laid by Hastings as he compared Outkast to Homer and demonstrated the historically appreciated literary forms of poetry in more modern rap, hip hop, and slam poetry. I am curious how all of this cyclical, incremental, return-to-the-past nature of revolution makes revolution different from and similar to evolution.
  5. As Mary Louise Kelly detailed in her case-study approach to revolutions in media and journalism, revolution often involves searching for truth, discovering where facts and opinions merge and diverge, and improving evolving iterations. And, of course, real-life truth seeking and iterative prototyping naturally involves failure and learning from mistakes – something we need to explore much more purposefully in school proper.

I am not yet the writer to do any necessary justice to the closing presentations, but I will try to shine a spotlight on the brilliance of how Lovett closed the #ASI2012. In the penultimate session, participants walked through an art installation by Lovett students who had completed the school’s American Studies program. Through a combination of visual-and-audio mixed media, the Lovett artists invited us into their expressions of American Studies that could not be captured by mere essays or stereotypical reports in English or history.

In the final session, Asheville School highlighted integrated studies as a revolution in education by showcasing the work of nine faculty and administrators, many of whom work in teaching pairs in such courses as American Studies, European Studies, and Ancient Studies. In a brilliant Prezi visualizing the cyclical, turning, RPMs nature of “revolution,” the major-league Asheville School team demonstrated how lines artificially erected between the disciplines need to be re-blurred, permeated, and blown up so that school might model the integrated nature of the real world in which we live. Like Lovett’s art installation, Asheville utilized dance, art, and music to create the threads that could weave together English, history, science, politics, economics, etc.

What genius for Lovett to save its own student installation and Asheville School for the finale – to migrate from hour-long lectures on possible content and current events in American Studies to the already-being-done examples of how these two schools are implementing revolution in the too-often siloed nature of American schooling. For any naysayers, they could see, “Oh, that’s what it could look like, sound like, smell like, and taste like.”

May more of us go and do likewise…may we “revolutionize” schooling by making it more like learning and education, in which content and skills are integrated and mixed in true-to-life human-ness of exploration, truth-seeking, discovery, artistic expression, and problem solving.