The myth of Pandora’s Box tells us that we can unwittingly unleash terrible and unexpected things into the world through rash action. Might we re-construct this metaphor just a bit for the future of K-12 schools?
“Terrible” and “unexpected” are two very different categories. We should not be afraid of the unexpected. The world changes and we have to prepare ourselves and our students to deal with that change, uncertainty, and ambiguity. “Terrible” is, of course, a different matter. There are bad things in the world and we don’t want them in our lives.
But what if some of those things we immediately see as “terrible” are really just uncomfortable, dissonant, or quirky? Don’t we find opportunities for growth, change, and value-laden innovation in those?
Let’s take some liberty with this myth and think about opportunities for your school to change with the world around us. Imagine a version of Pandora’s Box in which you collectively crack the lid and allow some of those uncertain, uncomfortable options to emerge. Allow the questions to flow out at a manageable rate, and deal with them…and their spin-offs. Problems, opportunities, “terrible”, and unexpected events never come alone; they are part of complex systems that we understand and exploit through a patient, intentional, transparent process of systematic problem solving.
Schools are becoming less afraid of opening The Box. This fall I am dealing with several schools that have opened The Box by asking deep questions about their use of “time”. Asking that question authentically, not just to marginally tweak a daily schedule that is completely at odds with great learning, but to really align “time” to “learning”, is to open a Box of interlinked questions that ultimately lead to a much larger re-imagination of the basic operating system of your school.
Sound scary? Want to keep the lid slammed shut? Sorry; you can’t have it both ways. The real message of the myth of Pandora’s Box is that the Box is either open or shut. I vote for open.
Great post, Grant. One of the things that often gets lost in the myth of Pandora is what led her to open the box in the first place–human curiosity. Yes, it may have unleashed multiple human ills. But where would we be without human curiosity? It’s human curiosity–that sense of possibility–which has allowed us to advance in any way.
Thanks, Mark; you are absolutely right! We need to remember the power of curiosity, even if sometimes we don’t like the immediate impact.
Anytime you ‘open the box’ you are ‘changing’ things – and change can often be very uncomfortable – because you never know which way it’s really going to go. Great reminder for us to ‘expect the unexpected’ as schools reopen for the upcoming year. Good questions are great road markers for us as we continue to move forward!
Thanks, Ian. I think the process of school change runs through this path of getting people to embrace rather than fear the unexpected!
I am struck by the level of generality with which you discuss the topic of educational innovation and risk taking by teachers and administrators. That level of generality and idealism seems to mask the genuine complexities of the task of changing American schools. Unlike comparisons often made between innovation in schools and innovation in business, schools serve a complex variety of purposes. For example, in business, profit is the clear outcome goal, and improvements from innovation can be judged against efficiency measured in dollars. But in schools, no matter how effective a teacher’s or team’s innovation might seem, we still measure learning in terms of seat time (or in higher ed, carnegie units)- the result being even if students acquire more or different skills, they still must fulfill the credits to be accredited. Thus actually getting students done, quicker, more efficiently, is not usually possible. Similarly in business, the core mission of the business is clear and shared by all (e.g., build widgets). But in schools, society has many “core” missions for the institution, including but not limited to, preparing American workers for careers (job prep including college and other scholarly careers– Horace Mann’s leveling the playing field), nurturing and caring for our children’s health, happiness, and (if you will, Rennaisance Man) general enlightenment or self actualization, and of course Thomas Jefferson’s goal at least for public schools– to ensure a healthy democracy by educating reasoned voters who value the nation above their own personal needs. Add in goals like driver’s ed, physical ed, financial literacy, and others, and it is clear this is different from a business with a clear core mission. Innovation along one of these dimensions (e.g., career preparation or high stakes test performance) often moves you away from some of the other goals (e.g., student self actualization). Such complex systems as school have very stable balance points and innovation can perturb the balance for a bit, but often eventually yield to the forces that shaped the balance of the current system. This is not just inertia or resistance to change– this is the active pressure of multiple masters pressing on a single system to achieve simultaneously several disparate and even competing goals.
Thanks, Michael, for such a thoughtful comment. I could not agree more; the complexity of the current school system is remarkable, and has grown enormously over time since the mid-19th century “invention” of the public school system. And I guess this is largely my point. The demands on the system have dramatically changed, while the basic operating system of education has hardly changed at all. And the diversity of desired outcomes has increased; the desired outcomes of all students in all schools is just not one thing.
The need to change the system requires innovation and change in a systematic way, thus the loose alignment to Pandora’s Box. We want and need change to align our student outcomes to a very rapidly evolving and ambiguous future, but to do that we need to deal with the entire system, not just the bits we want to deal with.
Resistance to this change is not a character defect; if I implied that let me correct myself. It is a function of systematic inertia caused in great part by the forces to which you refer. But we still have to deal with the resistance or else change does not happen. And change has to happen or the institution of “school”, IMHO becomes decreasingly relevant, which would be a really bad outcome.