Guidance from Elon Musk on Cultivating School Climate for Equitable Learning
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Building a positive school climate is neither a simple nor a linear process. Assemblies, pep rallies, multi-cultural nights, and “school-wide behavioral reward celebrations” may appear to add up to a strong and positive climate, but they are really more like sugar pills—instantaneously satisfying and desirable but quickly dissipating and ultimately detrimental to a healthy school climate. Superficial changes like adopting a new school acronym, a personalized learning platform, or even a new social-emotional learning curriculum all overlook the interconnectedness of the problem of building a robust positive school climate.
Instead, I advocate for taking a more strategic and humanistic approach to designing and nurturing a positive school climate, striving for a Brave Community (de Novais, 2017) with extremely high expectations and resilient empathy to support increasing connectedness, collaboration, and competence.
I’m arguing that the foundation of a positive school climate requires conceptual clarity and alignment among critical stakeholders around a shared vision of educational success and the learning models that must be in place to achieve that success. From the newest student-teacher to the highest-level administrator, as well as the lunchroom and afterschool staff — all must be engaged, committed, and aligned in their approach. To quote Elon Musk, “Every person in your company is a vector. Your progress is determined by the sum of all vectors.” I interpret this, like Dharmesh Shah, Founder/CTO of HubSpot, as “Aligning Vectors”—and it is my guiding philosophy for growing climate and pedagogy.
Furthermore, the persistent desire for “positive success stories” in education is as destructive as the misguided need for “statistically significant” results within professional scientific communities. The detrimental consequence is that most of the story of science is not told; similarly, most of the lessons about what works in education are likewise not learned. I’m not talking about a “a growth mindset” that places blame on an individual for not having the correct mindset to learn from their failures and move on to reach their goals (see Love, February 12, 2019, for an explanation of how the very notion of teaching a growth mindset is inherently racist). Rather, that we must publicly interrogate the conditions and learning models are required for equitable collaboration within schools — including what works and what doesn’t work as well as why; that is my goal for this article.
In the remainder of this article, I explain some lessons learned over the last year or so while The TeamBuilders Group has worked with leaders and educators at two amazing schools in Southwestern Pennsylvania, the Duquesne City School District (DCSD) and Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship (PHCSE). This commentary is grounded within the vision for Equitable Collaboration that has emerged from insights of TeamBuilders coaches combined with findings from the Collaboration Nation Study (www.collaborationnation.io) that I direct with Dr. Trina Kershaw from the University Of Massachusetts.
The Interconnected Nature of School Climate
Duquesne City is a small former mill town approximately 10 miles outside Pittsburgh. Median family income is roughly half that of the national and statewide median incomes. One hundred percent of DCS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and the district has been under receivership since 2013.
Things have begun to turn around in less than a year under the new leadership of Ms. Sue Moyer, Superintendent, and Dr. Stanley Whiteman, Director of Curriculum. As a result of several changes made, we see a more engaged faculty, more smiles in the hallways, a 5% bump in Science Achievement test scores, and more recently we heard:
DCSD adopted a three-part approach to spur educator engagement and transform student learning:
- Introduce a student-centered version of project-based learning (PBL);
- Incorporate ongoing public dialogue to build climate; and
- Engage educators in collaborative inquiry to more deeply notice learners and fuel adult competency development.
These three parts are interconnected and must be introduced in an organic way to help ease the transition for educators (Ryan, 2014). The first two parts were introduced throughout the 2018–2019 school year and the third part is being introduced for the 2020–2021 academic year.
In the summer of 2018, a diverse working group of 14 educators, coaches, and administrators from DCSD travelled to PBLOhio with The TeamBuilders Group to learn about PBL from the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). The trip was made possible through with generous support from the Grable Foundation. All educators in the district were then placed on a project team with a leader from the working group. This PBL initiative continues to be the context for the school climate and adult competency-building work. Examples of recent and ongoing projects include organizing a speech and debate club, working with sixth-graders to plan an academic carnival for younger students, designing an outdoor learning space, and holding a fundraiser to provide well water to a school in Africa, among many other projects. On Twitter, you can see an example of Duquesne Elementary School students working on one of the projects, a school store.
Early on many Tuesday mornings during common planning, classroom teachers and the working group meet for “TeamBuilders Tuesdays.” At the beginning of most sessions, facilitate public dialogue using a modified version of Peter Senge’s “learning circles” (2006) with groups of approximately seven unfamiliar educators engage. This time (7 to 45 minutes depending on needs) is loosely structured, with teachers bringing in “provocations” to present to the group: a piece of student work, for example, with questions being posed, such as “What does this tell you about this student?” or “How do you really see your students as they show up to your classroom?” The purpose is to spur reflection, first through general conversation and then through silent writing and sharing. By setting aside 45 minutes a week for professional growth and dialogue, the administration communicates that it values educators as people and as professionals. The working group meets on Friday monnigs independently of TeamBuilders Coaches, and they begin using Learning Circles on their own because they valued the experience.
Evidence of positive climate changes that have resulted from dialogue also comes from a teacher who was observed to be reluctant to speak her mind. During learning circles, she attempted several times to introduce design thinking strategies she learned through a different professional development experience called School Retool, only to be cut off and left feeling discouraged. But, after multiple attempts, this teacher was able to communicate her ideas and they were adopted by the group. I think this persistence is a result of the agency that can develop after engaging in risky public dialogue over time. As noted by Jonathan Cohen, president emeritus, National School Climate Center, “improving school climate is a multi-year process that is far from linear and, in fact, often involves inevitable challenges and even failure. What is so important is for school leaders to be clear about their goals, measurement approach, and change management strategy — with a continuous focus on learning!” (personal communication, March 1, 2019).
The third part of the approach at DCSD, listed above, involves facilitating faculty collaborative inquiry. This remains a work in progress. After faculty worked independently for months on their projects, TeamBuilders began facilitating sessions by introducing the notion of educator noticing and questioning. TeamBuilders coaches observed less faculty engagement and more confusion. After making inquiries, we learned that learning circles had not been used in two months.
In general, when efforts to build public dialogue drop-off, we notice that other progress also begins to halt. Rather than greet these setbacks with discouragement, we’ve found it useful to view these kinds of events as further evidence that the quest to nurture a positive school climate is not a linear one, but rather a living, breathing process that can always spark new life. As a brave community, it is critical to practice resilient empathy as a school moves from whole-group administration-directed professional learning structures to small-group faculty-owned professional learning. With this deepening of practice the TeamBuilders Group is beginning to scaffold faculty inquiry as well.
There Is No One-Size-Fits-All Approach
PHCSE, like DCSD, is located about 10 miles from the City of Pittsburgh. When TeamBuilders first began working with PHCSE, the climate was already positive thanks to their empathetic, optimistic, and thoughtful leader, Mrs. Tamara Allen-Thomas.
As the engagement began to deepen about a year ago with PHCSE, the TeamBuilders Group has periodically facilitated public dialogue among faculty to strengthen climate. In between these quarterly sessions, we have worked to help align the learning models within the school. For example, PHCSE is currently using the TeamBuilders Design + Inquiry Strategy to connect the learning models operating within the arts, the positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) and anti-bullying programs, and classroom pedagogy. With its emphasis on experimentation, iteration, feedback, and—not least of all—the freedom to try and fail, the TBG Design + Inquiry Strategy provides an ideal model for learning across many disciplines and settings.
While the TeamBuilders Design + Inquiry Strategy is explicitly taught in the integrated arts classroom to all students, individual classroom teachers are all adopting a grade-level-neutral TeamBuilders Mini-Project to their individual classrooms. Within the TeamBuilders Mini-Project, students are asked to conduct a needs assessment of their classroom climate and then groups of students are asked to generate a skit (K-2) or multimedia presentation (grades 3-8) showing how one of the classroom norms can help create more equity within the classroom climate.
PHCSE has allowed educators to develop shared understandings and to create stronger connections between traditionally isolated parts of the school. “Staged” dialogues between arts educators and classroom teachers in the hallways about their own professional collaboration helps shape the perception of connectedness while aligning their instructional approach. By making these similarities and overlaps more explicit, and showing them in action, students are encouraged to apply these familiar concepts across subject areas, practicing familiar strategies in new contexts.
This is a perfect example of bringing educational approaches into alignment, and exemplifies the notion of aligning vectors. It’s critical, however, to note some of the challenging aspects of this work. Chief among these is a tension between the extrinsic behaviorism of many grading, badging, discipline, and positive behavior support and intervention models, and the holistic, capacity-building strategies I am advocating.
According to Leigh Patel, inaugural Associate Dean for Equity and Justice in the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, “Behaviorism focuses on tasks, not on learning, and in fact, an overemphasis on behavior and tasks, interferes with learning as dynamic, relational phenomenon” (personal communication, March 9, 2019). Without an open, public dialogue about the assumptions behind these behaviorist models, it will be difficult for many stakeholders even to notice this tension, much less resolve it. Talking about and resolving the above-mentioned tension is a challenging but necessary step toward aligning the vectors of learning models towards a clear and shared vision of student success. Once this is done, pressure will no longer fall on teachers to squeeze the square pegs of a student-centered and collaborative learning into the round prison of behaviorism.
Change is difficult for people and their organizations. Just as it can be a difficult transition for classrooms from teacher-directed to student-centered instructional practices, it can also be difficult for districts to transition from administrator-directed to educator-centered professional learning structures. But, the complexity of building a positive school climate should not discourage educators and school administrators from trying. There are many ways to start, but it is critical to work toward the goal of aligning all vectors.
In my experience, a lack of clarity and consensus in the vision of Educational Success can lead different administrators and informal leaders in the school to express opposing visions of success. With the weight of so many different initiatives coming into schools, year after year, it is critical that success criteria are discussed and agreed upon in public. Through dialog, differences in vision can be unearthed, discussed, and understood, if not resolved. The same process has to happen with regard to the models of learning within a school to understand which of them do or do not work together. By fostering relationships and understanding through structured public dialogue and collaborative inquiry, the fragmentation of viewpoints can be cleared, connections can be made to sustain a positive school climate.
- Cohen, J. (2019, March 1). Personal interview.
- de Novais, J. (2017). Brave Community: Teaching and Learning Race in College in the 21st Century. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
- LippmanPhd. (2019, March 9). We are working on a case study for the work of The TeamBuilders Group at Duquesne City Schools and we will be using this to keep track of relevant shares on twitter. Retrieved 3-10-19 from https://twitter.com/i/moments/1104270846548459520
- Love, B. (2019, February 12). ‘Grit Is in Our DNA’: Why Teaching Grit Is Inherently Anti-Black. Education Week, Vol. 38, Issue 21. Retrieved 3-10-19 from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/02/13/grit-is-in-our-dna-why-teaching.html
- Mindset. Retrieved from https://mindsetonline.com/
- Patel, L. (2019, March 9). Personal interview.
- PBL Ohio. Retrieved on 3-10-19 from www.pblohio.com.
- Ryan, M.J. (2014). How to Survive Change…You Didn’t Ask For: Bounce Back, Find Calm in Chaos, and Reinvent Yourself. Newburyport, MA: Conari Press.
- Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Broadway Business.
- Shah, D. (2017, October 16). What Elon Musk Taught Me About Growing a Business. Think Growth. Retrieved from https://thinkgrowth.org/what-elon-musk-taught-me-about-growing-a-business-c2c173f5bff3
- StanWhiteman. (2019, March 4). According to the #GRADEfrom @pearson, students in grades 4-6 @DukeCitySDhave grown over TWO years from the beginning of the school year to the middle of the school year! Congratulations are in order!@DukesSupINT @jenjenprincipal @CelesteRudge @DukeELAcoach. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/StanWhiteman/status/1102625334527184896
About the Author
Jordan Lippman is an educational designer, researcher, and entrepreneur who is currently serving as Study Director at Collaboration Nation, Inc. (www.CollaborationNation.io), and Founder at The TeamBuilders Group, a professional development and consulting company that helps schools, organizations, and states cultivate brave communities through collaborative inquiry and purposeful competency development. Dr. Lippman earned a PhD in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago under the guidance of Dr. Jim Pellegrino and Dr. Susan Goldman. He then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh’s prestigious Learning Research and Development Center. His award-winning research on learning has been published in books and journals such as Instructional Science. Previously, Jordan has co-founded two successfully acquired EdTech companies, Pictoos Playground, LLC and Project Playground, LLC, and served on the advisory board of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21). Currently, Jordan is on the advisory board of the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference (TRETC) and the steering committee of the Remake Learning Network’s Innovative Professional Learning Working Group.
Published April 12, 2019