Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why not us?

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. - Harriet Tubman

I worry sometimes that we're too focused on what is achievable. We spend an awful lot of time focused on what kids can and can't do, and not enough time focused on what kids dream to do. We spend an awful lot of time setting goals for kids, and not enough time listening to kids' goals. And we spend an awful lot of time setting educational standards, and not enough time trying to change the world.

I'll be honest. Education is starting to bore me. We talk way too much about the minutia of a child's progress  toward predetermined goals. And we almost never talk meaningfully about children. We don't talk about who they are as people. What they dream. What matters to them. What inspires and excites their passions. 

Worse, we don't talk to them, we talk about them. And when we do talk with them, it's not about who they can become. It's about the progress they are making. We're not encouraging our students to dream. We're asking them to self-assess.

To be clear, both dreaming and self-monitoring are skills that I want to encourage, but I am concerned that we have created a culture in which the former is quaint and the latter is all-consuming. I'm also not saying that all educators fail in this regard, but I am saying that as a profession, the shoe fits.

Some look at things that are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not? - George Bernard Shaw

During the coverage of the Super Bowl this year, much was made about the advice that Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson's father gave to him as a child. His father regularly asked the question, "Why not you?" This is great advice. There is no reason in the world that someone who is passionate and committed to a goal shouldn't believe that their dreams are possible. Not guaranteed, but certainly possible, even if the odds are against them.

Do we suggest this to our students? It seems to me that we should. Everyday our students should be hearing from us, "Why not you?" We should be in the business of helping kids define for themselves the dreams they want to achieve and the ways in which they want to change the world. And we should be in the business of helping them get there by supporting their progress and building up their confidence. How many opportunities are lost when we focus on our own goals at the expense of our learners' goals?

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.- Henry David Thoreau

Admittedly, this can be a bit scary. Not every child comes prepared to share their dreams. Not every child's dream fits our conceptions of what is prudent, realistic, or even possible. For many children, confidence is a struggle in itself. At what point are we setting children up for disappointment and failure? At what point are the risks we might encourage children to take greater than the rewards if they succeed? At what point is being student-centered irresponsible? Such questions can cause us be skeptical of a "follow your dreams" mantra.

But here is the question we need to ask: What have we lost when we fail to help a child go confidently in the direction of their dreams?

I recently read a great post by my friend Holly Harl in which she explored this dynamic from a parent and educator's perspective. She rightly pointed out that each child is different, and has her own way of being in the world. By extension, then, each child needs something different from us. But she also points out that our impulse to protect may cause us to steal confidence and a willingness to take risks away from our learners. 

I fear that our focus on education as a process of meeting benchmarks within a standardized curriculum does just that. It minimizes risk-taking, destroys confidence, and limits aspirations, not just for students but among educators as well. Simply put, there is not enough room for dreaming in education today.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. - William Butler Yeats

I want my kids to go to school and hear everyday that they can change the world. Not only can they change the world on their own terms and in their own way, but to do anything less than strive for that is to fall short of their potential. I want my kids to go to school in an environment where they are purposefully taught to have aspirations and to work toward them. I don't want my kids to ever doubt that if they work hard enough toward their goals they can achieve their dreams. 

I also want to work in a profession that can get beyond the conversations about what limits and challenges we face, that can quit measuring its own success based on narrow benchmarks defined by a few, and that can believe in its own power to define its goals, achieve its dreams, and change the world. I want to work in a profession that takes itself seriously and works with determination and grit while still being able to imagine with confidence and take risks with courage.

As it stands, I feel we've all been beaten down by a system that limits future aspirations by focusing on current data. I feel we are out of balance and suffering as a result. We've quit looking toward the stars because we are mired in the muck. As a result, the profession that ought to be most associated with inspiration and aspiration has become married to adequate yearly progress and minimum competency.

It's kind of fun to do the impossible. - Walt Disney

If we want to change this state of affairs, we have to make a decision. We have to re-focus on our dreams to change the world. We have to believe in our power to achieve them, and we have to go confidently in their direction, even when the path is difficult. We need to reclaim the joy of our work and the promise of our purpose.

And most importantly, we need to help our learners do the same. Why not them? Why not us? 


  1. When I began my career I was always attempting the "Why Not You" activities with my students...I still try to ask "why not" and not "why" each and every day and not let "the man" break my spirit. Thank you Tim for helping me to have the courage to stay the course.

  2. Very inspiring, Tim. Thanks for your thoughtful insight!

  3. AWESOME!! I could not agree more! Thank you!

  4. Thanks everyone for your comments! I hope that this post sounds hopeful and not angry. I do believe that we can change the world, and I am committed to trying :)