Adultism vs. Art Appreciation

As I was walking through the Modern Wing of the Art Institute the other day, on the main walls kitty corner to two Mark Rothko paintings were huge white canvasses scattered with whimsical doodles.  As I walked by on my way to Jackson Pollock, a man standing there bellowed,

-Third grade!  Could you do this in third grade? I could do this in third grade. I should get out my third grade drawings and hang them in the art museum!”

The man was red faced and loud; he was angry.  The security guard standing there said,

“Let me see if I can explain something to you.  This art is a tribute to the imagination that children have but we lose in our adulthood.  Do you know how huge children’s imaginations are?  This painting invokes our child imagination; that’s my understanding of the art of it.” 

The man continued to bellow, completely unheeding of what she said,

“Third grade art; you should be ashamed of yourself putting this shit on the walls of the museum.  Absolute shit.”

Walking away, I was flustered.  There was something besides the man’s philistinism that was bothering me, but his belligerence was distracting me from what it was.  As I continued to walk through the museum, I realized that most of all I was offended by the assumption about the inferiority of children that was implicit in his diatribe, an assumption that weakens not only modern art appreciation.  As the security guard insisted, youth does not equal deficiency. 

If this angry man’s perspective is supposed to be better than that of a third grader, it makes me wonder what good an adult’s perspective is.



Day 1 in Sweden: Mustaches

A group of 6 visitors walked in on a group of 20 people with mustaches and uniforms sitting arguing around a large table, and the proceedings continued without pause.  These representatives of Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, England, and the United States were negotiating the peace treaty at the end of World War I.  They were intent, strident, and clever, but even when they were speaking another language, the visitors could tell that Austria-Hungary’s representative was bending the truth when he claimed he was just protecting his land from invasion, and that the German representative’s whining about being left out of the Great European Colonial Carve-Up didn’t hold up in the light of his peers’ scrutiny.

Other than the fact that the mustaches were pasted onto young, fresh faces, there was nothing in the behavior of the participants that differentiated them from the participants of the real Treaty of Versailles negotiations.   The students carrying out this role-play knew their country’s history, motivations, and history, and were well versed in the current affairs, loyalties, and vulnerabilities of each of the other countries at the table.  They juggled complex relationships of past and future as they called each other out on their missteps and defended their countries’ interests. 

As I sat in this history class in a Stockholm high school, I was aware of the privilege of being together with people in moments of concentration – and struck by how well this concentration can be sustained in favorable conditions.  It’s one of the huge benefits of a life in schools, to be in places of concentrated concentration.  I experienced it in other moments at schools in Russia, Finland, and Sweden that I have visited in the last few weeks.  I experience it with students at my own school and other Chicago schools.  There’s a kind of communion that can happen in the classroom that is akin to the energy and synergy experienced in by theatre ensembles, entrepreneurial teams, and other groups that are fueled by collective creativity. 

These are mysterious moments, they don’t exist all the time or for very long.  The role-play we happened to watch for one class period in this one school in Stockholm was the culmination of months of research, writing, and practicing.  All that preparation contributed to the intensity of this moment.  The students were able to sustain their engagement for more than a few moments because they were given space and time. They didn’t have to cut it short for the next standardized test or disciplinary challenge. 

VRG schools (see more on these schools in the next post) are project-based, so like schools in the U.S. that they have taken as models, teachers orient learning around deep collective engagement.  Such alignment requires a shift from numbers and standards to climate and person-to-person relationships.  In schools where teachers have the professional freedom to set the conditions by which students will learn, and step back, students thrive.   

Day 2 in Sweden: Charter Schools

Our group of educators woke up in Sweden to hear that we’d be visiting charter schools while in Stockholm.  Even though many in the group worked with and in charter schools in the U.S., we all share a keen awareness of the challenges charter schools pose to public education.  We wished we could be seeing municipal schools as well as charter (in Sweden, called “free schools, voucher schools, or independent schools).

For me, the charter school visits were an opportunity to ask questions that I have for my own school community, about the relationship between private and public education.

Coming from Francis Parker School, an independent school in the U.S. that is powerfully protected from the vagaries of decisions, politics, and reforms in the public school system, I was interested in seeing how this Swedish independent school community views their relationship to the public school system.  The fact that the funding comes from the state and not from tuition doesn’t change the essential similarity of our school demographics: these are students from well-educated, relatively privileged families, pulled away from the challenges, pressures, and diversity of the public school system.

Much of the literature that analyzes the pros and cons of the voucher system in Sweden focuses on the question of whether the existence of independent schools raises student outcomes in both independent and municipal schools, through the pressure of competition.*  There is also frequent reference to concerns about measures of outcomes, since Sweden has few standardized tests and the main measures of achievement are the grades that teachers record – which everybody knows contain an element of subjectivity, and which many suspect to be inflated at independent schools.

But coming straight from days of visiting Finnish schools and education policy departments, my perspective on Sweden was filtered through the central tenet of Finnish education – equity.  To what extent was equity in education valued here in Sweden, how much was it part of the conversation about schools and within schools?  Did measurements of student outcomes and school outcomes include demonstration of commitment to equity?

In Finland, the principle of equity unites students, teachers, and education leaders – the way they tell it, all stand on and work from that shared ground. In Sweden, the way I heard people invoking equity had less to do with comprehensive collective commitment and more to do with individual identity and group power.

Assistant Principal of the Viktor Ryberg Gymnasium (VRG) High School, Dan Gustafsson, said that Swedish people are anti-hierarchical – students call teachers by their first names, administrators and teachers see one another as equal colleagues.  Nevertheless, he went on to point out the benefits of the school’s high ranking nationally.  He explained that the school’s strong social standing enables it to draw media attention for its programs and accomplishments. (Here’s an example of a story from the school that has drawn worldwide attention – an innovative grade-wide city planning project that includes the video game Minecraft went viral with headlines like “Minecraft gaming compulsory curriculum in Swedish School.”) These stories attract policy makers’ attention as well, giving school leaders a place at the table shaping education policy – presumably in directions that result in the growth of progressive practices for all schools.

The VRG School was founded by Louise Ankarcrona and Louise Westerberg, with education advocacy as part of its fundamental mission.  Louise Ankarcrona spoke to our group about how school leaders lobby for arts education, always on the chopping block when schools get squeezed.  She said, “we write letters, and beg and cry to everyone we know.” In addition, they feature student work in the media; hold gala arts events; and organize public lectures with prominent speakers and invite politicians to attend.  Clearly, these schools know how to mobilize and utilize publicity.

These administrators reminded me of the importance of the stories American schools are increasingly telling about themselves and one another – the more people within schools are telling their own stories, the less the discourse about “bad schools” and “bad teachers” can dominate, distort, and denigrate.  In addition to the stories of people in schools that Schools Journal publishes, the current video series “A Year at Mission Hill” is a great example of this kind of story; IDEA (Institute for Democratic Education in America) also promotes powerful storytelling about schools.

The VRG schools tell great stories of education that thrives on experimentation, in a system that values and supports experimentation.  Like the independent school I’m part of, these independent schools have the freedom to craft powerful learning experiences because they make sure students, teachers, and the school itself have the space and time they need for engaged learning.   I’m still wondering how independent schools – in Sweden and in the U.S. — will use the strong public voice they have cultivated to ensure that these conditions apply to students in the public system as well.

*School representatives insisted that in Sweden, where the 20 year-old charter school system is well established, there is little debate about the mutual benefits of municipal and independent schools — but the question of for-profit independent schools is a hot-button issue.  For-profit education companies opening schools are rapidly expanding in Sweden, and political coalitions are forming to try to limit or block the use of public funds to profit from education.

Social Responsibility in Russian and American Education OR: who saved the world?



When my Russian friend Vera visited schools in the States last fall, one experience shocked her so much that it dominated her subsequent conversations about education in America.  In a high school history class, she asked students what they knew about World War II.  In their telling, all was lost until the Americans swooped in and won the war.

Vera was appalled.  She had grown up in a culture where the sacrifices made by the defenders of Leningrad against the Nazi invaders were held up and internalized at the very deepest levels: their courage had not only saved the city and the country, but the world.  School and family alike taught students to revere this heritage of collective sacrifice.

She couldn’t believe that American students didn’t know about this.  As she stood wondering, the American history teacher pointed out to his students the difference between the numbers of American deaths – certainly significant enough – and the unfathomable number of Russian deaths in World War II.  The students were astonished at the difference between the story they had thought to be true and what they learned from this re-focus.

I heard Vera’s story with chagrin, and when she talked about it in Russian schools, I worried about the impact it had on people there – would they hate us for our disregard of their part in a war that united our countries? I felt responsible for the ignorance of my fellow Americans.

Vera had no such concerns.  As she and I toured Russian schools, teachers and administrators emphasized the importance of basing ethical, social, and civic education in reverence for the history of the Russian citizens and veterans who defended the country in the Great Patriotic War.  Vera was interested in poking at their belief in the all-importance of this history, so she frequently told her story of the American history class, to stir up a little cognitive dissonance.  

I am drawn to the difference in the narratives represented here – not as a matter of historical accuracy, but as a question of social responsibility. The Russian students and American students in Vera’s story each believe their country saved the world, and the act that they see as saving the world illuminates what they see social responsibility to mean.

The Russian heroes of the Great Patriotic War, the soldiers and the citizens who withstood the 872 day Nazi blockade of Leningrad at the cost of their lives, were defending their land.  We can see a corresponding emphasis in Russians’ views on history and civic duty that is protective, focused on safeguarding the past and caring for the present.  

 In the American students’ narrative, the U.S. flies in from beyond, and saves the day. The civic mythology that corresponds to the American heroism of WWII is one of quick and dramatic rescue.  The Americans are the liberators, and our story of social responsibility is one of liberation: freedom from the oppression of the past and release into a bright new future.  

I think this narrative of social responsibility is one that limits and confuses — rather than clarifying and expanding — people’s relationship with the world beyond themselves.  I was impatient with the fixation on the past that I got from Russian views of civic education, but I also am disturbed by the disregard for context that I see in some American views of civic education.  My hope, and I think Vera’s too, is that through cross-cultural dialogue on social responsibility, both Russians and Americans can gain self-awareness that is liberating, sustaining, and renewing.


Humility and Geography


“We have to be humble to see where we have to improve.”  These were the opening words of the presentation of a leader in the best education system in the world.  “All systems deteriorate if you don’t keep working on them.”

Linna Eeva-Kaisa, a Senior Advisor in the Finnish National Board of Education, began her review of Finnish education with a map.  The border with Russia is the longest border between countries in Europe.  The history of this border helps to define Finland: “The border meant and means that we have to try to understand what Russia is about.” Several other education leaders I heard have started their presentations on Finnish education with a map.  The map focuses attention immediately on the challenges the country faces: it speaks of a history of war and occupation and turmoil and a future of ongoing change.

Then, Linna went on to talk about different immigrant and native communities within Finland and their languages.  People learn best in their native language, so Finland does their utmost to ensure that everyone has the right to education in their language.  The development of programs on languages of minorities is at the heart of the FIRST objective of the Finnish education system: equity of quality education for all people.

In a country with a large immigrant population, 40 or 50 languages, this is an area Finland struggles to address.

Throughout her presentation, Linna emphasized challenges, areas of development, and attitudes.  She didn’t talk about her country’s successes or what they do to produce such high performing students.  As I have been visiting schools, I can see why.  The schools aren’t extraordinary in comparison to American schools.  They are light-filled, happy, sane places, but students and faculty are regular folks.

The practices aren’t so different, but the underlying values are.  Given this changing world, different students in different contexts, the universal commitment to equity in education means that the education system –from the ministry to the teachers to the students — must always be learning.  I would like to see U.S. educational practices root themselves in the humility that enables reflective, questioning, learning.  This would not require more money or new methods.  It would take a significant change in attitude.  Perhaps it would help if we start with a map: what would it look like if we aligned education with broad and deep consideration of our own complex history and cultural geography?

“’Bad teacher?’ We don’t know this word.”

I am on an education tour in Russia, Finland, and Sweden and will write a few posts along the way.  Today was my first day in Finland.

I spent the morning with Linna Eeva-Kaisa, a Senior Advisor in the Finnish National Board of Education.   As she was talking about teacher professional development, I asked if they hear the terms “bad teacher” vs. “good teacher” in Finland.  She got a horrified look on her face.  “We don’t know this term,” she said.  “That would be humiliating for teachers!  We don’t evaluate teachers, we respect teachers.  Of course we have teachers who haven’t yet gained command of their subject matter or method and we support them.” 

Eeva-Kaisa emphasized that trust is at the center of education in Finland.  “Trust is embedded in the system.  It’s a chain of trust that filters down at every level.”  She said that a group of Israeli educators visiting Finland asked her “how do you teach trust?”  You don’t teach it, she explained, you share in it – in Finnish schools everyone can trust that they will be respected. 

A few elements of this trust that struck me (and that contrast with much of what happens in schools in the U.S.):

*Continuity – they call it evolution: no dramatic changes, but careful, consensus-based improvement.  Eeva-Kaisa asked, “when you have change, who benefits? Who benefits? It’s only those who have the power, not people in general.”  And nothing in the education system changes with changes in government.

*Assessments are teacher-developed for their own classes and the assessment data is used in classroom instruction.  ”We abolished inspections: people don’t work well when they feel someone’s always looking over their shoulder.”

*People in Finland want to be teachers because it is an independent job; you have autonomy and respect.

To hear a government minister speaking in truly educational terms about education is stirring.  A key part of these educational terms is the notion of humility.  More on that in the next post.