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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Socrates Hacked It

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

In her book, Dignity, Donna Hicks, Associate at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, uses evolutionary and behavioral psychology and her own experiences in international conflict resolution to examine the elemental importance of human dignity. Dr. Hicks' work has been powerful in helping me evaluate the unsettled feeling I have about innovation and "disruption" in education.

To be clear, I firmly believe that schools should be deeply invested in identifying new strategies to help prepare children not just for a rapidly evolving work place but also for a society in desperate need of empathetic, active citizens. In a symposium I attended recently on the future of the work force in St. Louis, Samantha Evans, Community Development Advisor for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, presented troubling statistics. The St. Louis Fed predicts that in the next 10 years, almost 60% of current jobs in the region will be automated to some degree, most of them service economy roles. HR executives from World Wide Technology and Master Card followed Evans to describe the hundreds of tech jobs at their corporations that go begging each year because of a fewness of qualified candidates. And Sean Joe, a professor at Washington University's Brown School, related the efforts of Homegrown St. Louis, a network of non-profit, university and corporate partners dedicated to changing the future for young black men in the city, many of whom are not participating in the work force at all. In 1980, the average income for black men age 18 - 29 living in St. Louis was over $30,000 and St. Louis ranked 36th in the region for homicides per capita. Today, the same group has an average income of $11,000, and St. Louis ranks #1 or #2 in per capita homicides depending on the overnight police reports St. Louisans confront each morning. All of which is to say that business as usual in our schools and other social support institutions is not a viable choice, is in fact a death sentence to many of our most vulnerable citizens.

Unfortunately, the immediacy and impact of these needs have generated frenetic and directionless energy in our schools and opened the door to corporate profiteering and fraud. Some of this confusion is attributable to the fact that we're playing out of our league. Schools, one of mankind's most earnest and conservative institutions (and for good reasons--more on that later), are being ardently courted by a digital technology industry that is fueled by risk, where companies that have automated a single, basic human task (Uber) or frivolous pastime (Zynga) and have yet to turn a profit, raise billions in initial public offerings. Schools, conversely, fight for budget crumbs based on margin-of-error test score improvements. But more of the confusion is attributable to the sophistry that floods thinking in a crisis. For instance, schools delude themselves (and by extension, parents) into believing that students who use the products of this industry will gain an advantage in becoming future employees and startup wunderkind. Too often, however, the products they've bought are built to insure that students become not future employees but future customers. In less ominous scenarios, schools embrace the promise of "personalized learning" platforms only to discover that they are more nuanced but just as desultory versions of their Skinner box counterparts from other decades (correspondence courses, SRA reading cards), effective at improving performance at the trained task, but ineffective at improving performance in closely or distantly related tasks.

Experiences that help students accomplish closely and distantly related tasks--this begins to get at how good educators describe true learning. Drawing connections between different realms of knowledge, building habits of mind, awareness of the privileges and obligations of citizenship, receptiveness to beauty and ones capacity to create it--now we're really getting there. And many educational innovations are helping us do it better. Place-based learning, authentic differentiation, STEM labs and maker spaces that put students at the center of design, synchronous communication platforms that bring children into shared learning experiences with collaborators from around the world, mastery based learning---these innovations are truly thrilling but hardly disruptive because their effectiveness relies on what we've always known about learning, that it is an innately social activity, most effective and richest when it transpires in a social context characterized by respect and unwavering attention to human dignity. This is the essential conservative nature of education as true to Socrates as it is to us today.

And that's how I settled my innovation/disruption dyspepsia--with Dr. Hicks' list of the ten essential elements of dignity--and I invite you to give it a try. As a school leader, as various constituencies come to you with bold new opportunities, invite them to join you in evaluating them with these questions:

  • Acceptance of identity

  • Do students have the freedom to express their authentic selves without fear of being judged?

  • Recognition

  • Are students validated for their efforts, talents, thoughtfulness?

  • Acknowledgment

  • Does the strategy promote an environment where students and teachers give each other their full attention?

  • Inclusion

  • Does the strategy promote a sense of community?

  • Safety

  • Are students at ease physically and emotionally?

  • Fairness

  • Does the strategy have an agreed upon set of rules that promote justice?

  • Independence

  • Does the strategy empower people to act on their own behalf?

  • Understanding

  • Are students encouraged to believe that what others think matters?

  • Benefit of the doubt

  • Are students asked to treat others as trustworthy?

  • Accountability

  • Are students asked to be responsible for their learning and for their place in the community?

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