The obligation to desert mediocrity: Waiting for Robin Hood

If nothing else, Education Nation and Waiting for Superman have spurred some renewed dialogue and passion about the issues of education.  As an educator, I haven’t been thrilled with the public dialogue.  It is all about what is wrong in education but doesn’t look at what is actually wrong with education.  What we get from the media are the surface level problems: bad teachers, not enough money, not enough standards, not enough accountability.  While these problems do exist in education, they are not THE problem with education.

There is currently a force of great mediocrity in this country…it’s called education.  Eduction has become mediocre because it is easy.  Maintaining the status quo and focusing on the surface level is easy to do.  It makes us feel like we are taking action because we are busy.  But, there is a marked difference in busyness and action.  Right now education is stuck in a cycle of busyness.  The surface level problems are talked to death, some decisions are made that are going to “change everything”; some new standards are implemented, more tests are issued, teachers are held more accountable.  And yet, we are in the exact same boat discussing the exact same problems as Dewey, Piaget, and Papert.  Why is that?  Mediocrity.  As a society, we refuse to look into the deeper problems in education; we refuse to ask the hard questions.  Those that don’t have easy answers; those that require something of us.  It is a lot easier to point the finger and say that the problem is bad teachers than to look at our family structure and ask if there is a problem with the way that we are raising kids.  It is a lot easier to put standards and tests in place and force kids to memorize facts so that we can pat ourselves on the back and make ourselves feel good when they have reached the level we have deemed appropriate.  If real change is what we are after in education, we are going to have to break free of mediocre.  We have an obligation to break free of mediocre. Politicians aren’t going to do it.  The media isn’t going to do it.  They are in the business of maintaining mediocrity.  If we want to desert mediocrity and do better for kids, we who see what real change is required of education must journey that road.

The media may have society talking about education and thinking about the problems of education, but they are leading people to believe that education has simple problems and simple solutions.  They aren’t really requiring anything of viewers.  They aren’t in the business of improving education.  They are in the business of viewers.  Fear and shock value sells.  Tears sell.  They don’t really aim to change education, they aim to change their ratings.  So then, it is up to us.  It is still up to us.  We have to be the change we want to see.  This is happening every single day in schools around the world.  Teachers are doing what they know is best for kids.  Not because someone told them they have to, but because they know it to be the right action for kids.  This isn’t a new phenomenon.  As I have stated before, I had some truly revolutionary, incredible teachers growing up.  They didn’t settle for mediocrity.  They didn’t settle for what they were told.  There are those who are challenging the neat mediocre borders of education every day.  They don’t teach to a test and focus on standards.  They are heretics, in the business of kids.

We don’t need Superman to save education.  We need Robin Hood.

We need educators who are willing to do what is right for kids regardless of the system they find themselves in.  We need educators who will spread those transformational stories.  Who will keep doing the right thing, not because they are told to, but because it is right.  The beautiful thing, the incredible thing, is that  we already have these Robin Hood heretic teachers who do the right thing for kids every day.  We need those stories to spread.  We need to begin offering those stories to the world.  We need to help the public see and understand that there are difficult challenges facing kids and education. They are multifaceted and involved.  But, we also have educators working on solutions. We also have incredible people challenging the status quo.  Those are the stories that need to be shared.

I often make the mistake of becoming overly optimistic about the state of education.  I fool myself into believing that the education problem is nearly extinct.  I believe this happens because I am constantly surrounded by the Robin Hoods of education.  I am immersed in the world where teachers engage in professional development willingly, who discuss the hard problems weekly, who share the fantastic ways that they are transforming education.  I forget that not everyone lives in this world.  I forget that most people don’t.  Can we bring them into this world?  We can invite parents, fellow educators, policy makers, etc. into this world.  The problem?  They aren’t interested in it.  It feels too much like work, they have their own passions and worries to concern them.  I was reading Seth Godin’s blog this morning and catching up on his posts.  I came across one that is clearly directed at how to market a product better but had me thinking about how to market education better.  Seth says:

People may need to lose weight but what they demand is potato chips.  If you want to help people lose weight, you need to sell them something they demand, like belonging or convenience, not lecture them about what they need.

Education Nation, Oprah, and Waiting for Superman are not delivering anything that education needs.  They are selling what education demands (mediocrity).  We need to take a real look at what it is education needs (more Robin Hoods) and figure out how to sell society something they are demanding.  Right now we are lecturing.  No one is listening but us.

So my fellow Robin Hood, here is what I am suggesting, let’s figure out together what it is that society demands of education, and then let’s sell them what they need based on those demands.  Maybe it is as simple as sending every single blog post about what incredible things you are doing in your classroom to your local newspaper and news station.  Maybe it is as simple as changing the way you communicate with parents, maybe your students should do the communicating.  What ideas do you have? What changes can we make today to desert this cycle of mediocrity?

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13 comments

  1. Ahh,mediocrity… it seems to be the name of the game these days. We accept mediocrity everywhere – fast food, HMOs, reality television!

    Your points are all well stated. However, I think that people will continue to wait for Superman because it is easier than becoming Robin Hood. As long as the people in power, i.e. politicians, actors, sports stars, continue to send their children to private schools and tutors, there is not a need to actually DO anything beyond wait. Let’s be honest – if the members of Congress were all forced to send their children to public schools in D.C., reform would happen tonight! But they don’t, and so the kryptonite continues to gain power.

    1. Laura, I agree with you…the Superman ideal is easier than becoming Robin Hood. But Robin Hood already exists, it is a matter of not waiting on politicians, actors, sports starts, etc. to send their kids to public school. That is the point of Robin Hood, Robin Hood doesn’t wait until the conditions are ideal, he does what needs to be done because it is the right thing to do. Robin Hood reform won’t happen overnight, it will take a little longer because it isn’t easy. It isn’t done in the limelight. My question is, how can we shed some light on what Robin Hood is already doing?

  2. Great post Kelly! Might I make a humble suggestion? I think this line is wrong and is part of the problem: “let’s figure out together what it is that society demands of education”. Different parts of society demand different things. In fact it’s hard to come up with a common requirement for education. There are lots of requirements right now aren’t there? What I would say is “find out what each child wants from education and make it possible for them to get that”. Give the parents, students and teachers control of the education system and then things will start to change.

    1. @crudbasher, I would agree with your assessment that different parts of society demand different things…but shouldn’t we be working toward answering all those demands with what kids really need? I don’t know that the rephrase “find out what each child wants from education and make it possible to get that.” I’m not sure that kids have enough life experience to clearly articulate what they want from education. They could offer suggestions of what they wished it looked like, but the bottom line is that even though our focus is children, they aren’t who we really have to “sell” on the idea. They aren’t the ones who are able to make the shifts in education happen. We have to find out what society demands because they are the ones we have to sell education to. Remember that just because we are speaking to their demands, doesn’t mean that we are catering to their demands. We are still providing children with what they need. That is our ultimate goal. Students and teachers have a pretty good understanding of what schools need. Some parents do as well (I don’t think this is the majority, they are content with the mediocrity because it is what they are familiar with).

      1. I agree with what you are saying. I don’t think I was clear. What I was suggesting is the system doesn’t seem to take into account the differences between children. We seem to expect to be able to take unique starting material and create a uniform end product. Student centered learning will take that into account.

      2. Yes, this is very true…the current system doesn’t take into account the differences in children. Have you ever read the blueberry story? I may have to use it in a post here…

  3. This is a great post! What is starting to make sense is that we, the Robin Hoods, are living in a different world. At my school there are two Robins, a few Little Johns and a Friar Tuck or two. When any of us talk with our colleagues or even with admin about changing instruction, changing curriculum, changing anything we are met with denial, ridicule, or anger. It is all because they do not live in our world. they are not keeping up with the changes in education, technology and our students’ lives.
    I am reaching out in as many ways as i can think of. I teach many teacher workshops, individual trainings, i blog, i share great blog posts like this one, and i suggest ideas. Thank you for putting together these ideas and sharing. I will be passing this one along.

    1. @Roger, thank you for your comment! I hadn’t thought about the Little Johns and Friar Tuck’s who support the Robin Hoods, they are important too! Keep reaching out, when enough of us do that and are loud enough about it, education will begin to shift in major ways. Thank you for passing the post on!

  4. Hey Kelly, great post!
    Well, No one better than me can say we live immersed in mediocrity. The allusion you made couldn’t have been more appropriate. One of the worst things a teacher can be is negligent. Aphatetic to the changes and unable to adapt. This is so sad! I work with a group of a dozen of highly quality and very experienced teacher but just a few do something apart from their duties. Coming to work, teach a lesson and leave homework for your students does not change a thing! However I reckon is much too difficult to put into practice what Seth said. Some people want education to undergo a reform but do to little.
    Your ideas are great. Connect with students, empower them with their own learning, getting parents to pay more attention to thei kids progress and have them inquire more about teaching practices and objectives. This way, in the long-run, we can start aiming a greater educational reform.
    I’m happy I’m not alone in this fight!
    BTW, could you send me Seth’s url?
    Big Kisses!

    1. @Bruno, thanks for your comment 🙂 I meant to put Seth’s link in the body of the post, thank you for pointing out that I didn’t! I’ll add it now and also give it to you here: http://sethsblog.com.
      I don’t think it is too difficult to put Seth’s ideas into practice, it just takes educators who are willing to do it. Even if it just starts as a few.
      You are not alone in this fight, we just need to build a better army of educators ready to make the change!

  5. Have you ever seen the P90x commercials? What I have loved about them is that they show you how to change your body using an extensive and intensive workout and diet plan. It is not the “3 days a week for 20 minute” simple plan that really leads to no change. There is no lie in the commercials; the program will work if you push hard and do the things necessary for change.

    This is how I am thinking of education reform and progress. It will take a lot of work to improve, but this is the most important work in society. Education is the fundamental institution of our world so we should work hard to improve it for not only our children, but for the future of our world.

    Fantastic and inspirational post Kelly!

    1. George, I have seen those commercials, I have a friend who lost 200lbs with hard work, determination, and perseverance. She has kept it off for 7 years and had 2 babies in the mean time! It is a great metaphor, it isn’t going to be an easy 3 step solution. It is going to take hard work, dedication, and passionate people to make it happen. P90x isn’t for anyone, it is for those who have made the decision that they are going to change their lives. Education is going to take a lot of work, it is going to take dedication even when we don’t feel like it. It is going to take passion and a willingness to keep at it even when the changes aren’t obvious.

  6. I think that education is mediocre because we are scared that if it isn’t, there may be a lot of students who find it all too hard. I think we need to ask for excellence but also to provide avenues for those students who, for whatever reason, find thisntoo much.

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