(Informed consent: This is not a post about school bullying.)
One of the later chapters in Ted and Nancy Sizer’s compelling 1999 The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract is called, and is about, “Shoving.” While, yes, the authors do discuss the term in the sense of student-on-student meanness and horseplay, they also offer another dimension of shoving, which they define as “crossing what are supposed to be boundaries”: the idea of “shoving” into new space across frontiers of received truth and custom, especially where these truths and customs limit understanding or even human possibility. The Sizers cite Galileo, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and even Watson and Crick as having “shoved” across such boundaries, into new spaces and new conceptions of the world.
I just like to keep the longer view in mind, and for this reason I was pleased to read the Sizers’ exposition on the kind of “shoving” that today I would tend to call true “innovation.” They remind us that in the 1990s the phrase was “breaking the mold,” which they call “a stunningly aggressive term,” but “break the mold” schools—many of them charters—abounded in that era and were proud to call themselves that. Something needed to be done, we knew then, and if it required some breakage, with traditional models shoved right off the shelf, that was okay.
I’m on the record as being pretty serious about what we call “innovative.” Too often, it seems to me, the word is used with quiet desperation to pin a hot and even noble label on something that is just a little different from what preceded it, or an idea or practice already in extensive use and therefore perhaps new to a situation—novel to a school, in the context of this blog—but not exactly an innovation for which credit can be claimed. Peter Thiel, perhaps best known in educational circles as the venture capitalist who offered a number of select college students small piles of seed money to take time off from college and create new businesses, has said, “People think solving simple problems is innovative. True innovation occurs when problems are hard and valuable.” I’ve quoted this previously, but it bears repeating, and I am right with him on this one.
I feel as though our love of “innovative” draws on the same desire to put an economically successful face on things that has led us to overuse the notion of problem-solving and to our lionization of “entrepreneurship.” We have become to some degree a society looking for the winning lottery ticket, the shower of cash, that will restart our economy and restore balance in our universe—and let us focus, I hope, on bigger, less instrumental ideas. Innovation, problem-solving, and entrepreneurship as concepts connote quick fixes, silver bullets that will change everything, most often in an economic context.
If it sounds as though I’m blaming the world, and educators in particular, for their fascination with these terms, I’m not. I’m merely trying to point out an interesting trope in our language and speculating that this trope stems from living what appears to be a still-shaky economy whose shakiness is pointed out and played up by every politician and political commentator on the planet—and by our un- or under-employed neighbors and the shuttered storefronts many of us see every day.
I would add here that in the 1990s one didn’t note a long line of independent schools signing up to break any molds; our transitions have been more measured. Nevertheless, we can all take pleasure and pride in the degree to which many schools have spent the last twenty years or so tinkering with some of the fundamental properties of the mold. In the end, the Old School ways evoked and exaggerated in Finding Forrester, say, or School Ties, have been replaced by practices that I think observers can proudly and accurately call innovative and by cultures where the shoving is directed less at students and more, and far more appropriately, at ideas.
There is still a long way for schools to go, and I hope that we can both pick up the pace and take a cue from The Students Are Watching. School change is about nothing less than “crossing what are supposed to be boundaries,” about ooching and elbowing our way toward a better future for our students and our schools.
For me, the transgressive nature of fundamental educational change is all about shoving, even at times breaking the mold. The best kind of innovation flows, after all, from work that is “hard and valuable,” and often this work is downright risky. But our students, ever watching, are worth that risk.