Bubble Magic, Girona, April 2017 — Photograph by Ben Weinberg

Today, the boundary between identity and diversity is a source of intense tension. Long and deeply held assumptions, symbols, and images are being challenged and in some cases dismantled and taken down.

The backlash is strong and there is an inevitable desire to turn back the clock, to invoke myth in the hopes that repetition will make it fact, and to evoke allegiance and loyalty to some lost cause, the mirage of a unity that neither questions nor demands.

It is an awkward time, this slow awakening. A time when so much might still go horribly wrong. A time of irony as we find modern knowledge and technology used to buttress the most base and brutal instincts. A time of fear and anxiety when progress may be turned against itself.

Education has contributed to perpetuating myth and belief as much as it has contributed to truth and enlightenment.

Social media feeds reveal our fractured and divided territory in much the way a relief map shows the boundaries of tectonic plates. Areas of volcanic disruption, upheaval, and subsidence exist on the earth’s crust and in our hearts. Schools today are at the front line of these societal seismic shifts.

And, in many ways, we have reached a moment of truth.

Education will either serve to harden the divides or develop the dynamic balance between common purpose, direction and differentiation to allow the energy, creativity, and the best to emerge out of diverse communities.

In her documentary film, Schooling:The White Man’s Last Burden, Carol Black shows examples both now and historically of how education has been deliberately used as tool to stamp out individual and cultural differences.

From the Native American Reservation schools, to British Imperial schools in India, to schools today in many countries, education is about conformity, uniformity, compliance, and obedience. The pictures and words spoken by officials are appalling. They had a stern and harsh objective, to stamp out the old ways, to obliterate culture and identity and in its place, in the vacuum, create an allegiance to their principles. Loss of culture and language haunts people across and for generations.

And, the truth is, it is happening again and happening now.

Attitudes and hearts are being hardened,
minds are being set,
perspective and direction are being limited and blinkered.

There is another way.

We can make our diversity our source of strength. In schools, we can teach to diversity instead of toward the myth of the average. There is no average learner. There is no average child. Tools, furniture, and learning designed to fit the “average” end up fitting no one. Each of us is unique and our learning needs to be as adjustable as our seats. Differentiation is the habit and practice of tailoring the learning to the learner.

And today, differentiation not regimentation is the answer. It is a necessity in our diverse yet fundamentally interconnected world. A world that is facing the direst of existential threats.

Diversity is nature’s way of ensuring survival.
Group think,
and uniformity are the surest way to extinction.

How we will know differentiation is effective? We should begin to see schools more focused on learning rather than grades. We should see toxic assessment practices and focus on summative assessment recede and an ethos of assessment for learning arise.

We should see fewer teacher centered classrooms and curriculums and more examples of student voice and student choice.

We should see integrating frameworks like service learning become the way do things everywhere.

We should hear amazing stories of learning rather than standardized scores and percentile rankings. We should see students at work in the world not working on worksheets and cute ideas from Pinterist.

None of this is easily measured by data big or small.

But we will observe kids turned on to school and learning.

We will not see reluctance in going to school or staying in school.

We will see an increase in caring for one another and for our communities.

We will see more students leading the way.

We will see tools used not as toys and distractions but as ways to collaborate and accomplish.

We will see the trend toward self destruction through alcohol, drugs, obesity… reverse.

We will see our education departments and officials acting less like politicians and more like adults who care and dare and dream. We will see less finger-pointing and passing the blame, and more rolling up sleeves and working together. perhaps like the adults in Iceland who established curfews, connected parents and children, connected parents and schools (not to complain but to work together!) created real opportunities for teens. Put their money where it made a difference. Based it all on science and learning and turned their culture around.

It is possible and there is time.

Yesterday, at the Climate Summit in Poland. Fifteen year-old Greta Thunberg told the delegates that if the system won’t allow the necessary changes to happen then maybe it is time for a new system.

The choice is ours.

Writer, walker, poet, educator. Commercial fisherman, builder, donut maker, organic grower. Boston, U. City, Maine, South Africa, Madrid.

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