The Butterfly Effect in Schools
The butterfly effect refers to a Ray Bradbury story about time travel where one change in the environment in the past can have tremendous consequences in the future. In the case of the story, the killing of a butterfly in prehistoric times produced a cascade of changes that led to very negative consequences many years later. The idea of going back in time and making one slight change can also be used to help imagine how things in the present and future could a lot different. I have often played this scenario in my mind about schools. If we could go back in time and change one thing about schools that would lead to a very different set of positive outcomes, what would it be?
It can be a fun game to play but also a useful one, because re-imagining schools is a difficult task for most educators who were educated in traditional ways and continue these traditional ways now that they are the educators. This is large part of the problems with school improvement: most ideas are add-ons or make changes on the margins but few touch some of the basic ideas that govern how schools operate.
I have one suggestion for a basic change that could move to the very core of how we educate our students and lead to profound changes in what people think, say and do in schools. Here it is:
When any student has a problem in school, the educators involved with that student, take the necessary time to see and deeply understand the problem through the eyes of the student and not their own eyes.
This shift would be so fundamental that schools would be very different places than are right now.
Here is how this shift would create these substantive changes in schools:
- Problems would be accepted as opportunities for growth rather than as aberrations or things that needed to be fixed so that the status quo could be maintained.
- Students would not be the people that had to change in order to maintain the smooth and efficient operation of schools. They would change based on the way the adults in the school saw them and treated them.
- This shift would mean that educators would assume that students wanted to learn and do well. Their problems would be indications of what was holding them back from doing what they were wired to do-learn.
- The “control to educate” mindset would be dropped with the assumption that if a person’s basic needs were met they would naturally learn.
- Students with problems wouldn’t have to assume a negative role or be stigmatized because they are different from the majority of students who don’t have problems.
- Students would feel more connected to educators who empathized with them rather than judged them.
- Educators who could see schools the way students saw school would become better and more responsive educators.
- Rather than searching for answers, plans, programs, curricula that would change schools for the better, the needs of the student themselves would point directly and accurately on what needed to be done.
Schools that fail to view problems through the eyes of the students who have them essentially are like the factory foremen who view a problem employee as someone who has messed up and needs to be put back into place so that the factory can continue to operate as it has operated in the past.
Schools however are not factories and learning is not a tangible product that can be tightly managed in a standardized way. Schools should be places that serve the learning process and the people who are learning. When you serve the people who are learning, you have to learn about that process and what it means to be a human being who is learning.
Educators are not trainers whose is trying to make people, who don’t want to learn, learn what they should learn. The word educate is from the Latin that means to lead out of-that is helping what is already there inside of the person come out and manifest itself. Educators are leaders of learning, of bringing the best out of people; they should not be foremen or trainers making people become standardized versions of themselves. When educators can stop and look at the world through the eyes of the people they are supposed to serve they will find what is needed to schools true places of learning.
I am convinced that as more and more educators stop and see problems of school through the eyes of the students that schools will be transformed in a human way and will evolve to become better environments for learning.