Coaching Letter #73

Happy Presidents’ Day. I hope you’ve been able to disconnect from work today. This Coaching Letter is about lots of things, but mostly about the idea of “complicating the narrative”.  And how that should impact our decision-making.

I was a first-year principal when the Columbine shootings happened. I have written about this before, and I am confident that I shall again. One immediate consequence was that kids who were labeled as/self-identified as “Goth” were demonized, because there was an association in the media of “being Goth” (whatever that meant) and a propensity towards violence. We had several kids at the school who wore black, and one in particular who stood out because his hair was black and he only wore black, and he wore make-up, which was also black. He had a whole complicated and tragic story, some of which had already played out by the time of this tale, but not all. Anyway, sometime not long after Columbine, and coincidentally, we were remodeling a large classroom in the building to be a multi-purpose room and after-school center. It was largely student-designed and student-run, and supported by parents and a couple of local foundations. One of the most involved students was our “Goth”.

At some point during the planning for a let’s-all-paint-a-mural Saturday, one of the parents came to my office and told me that if the “Goth” was going to be involved, then her family would not. I told her that this was the most idiotic thing I’d ever heard; that not only was I unwilling to ostracize one of my own students because of her unsubstantiated beliefs, it also made no sense to isolate a student if isolation both physical and psychological were supposedly indicators of an inclination to aggression. Surely a student’s identification with school and willingness to volunteer for a school project were very positive signs that we should encourage? OK, that’s not exactly what I said, but the “Goth” showed up to paint and she and her family did not, and I was good with that.

Several years later, David Cullen wrote a book called Columbine about the shootings and the media coverage. He pointed out that reporters were quick to label the killers, and he described the consequences of this over-simplification–particularly the vilification of the “Goth” construct. And in a similar way to Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, he took ownership of his part in the reductive reaction by the media. And he revisits this point again in his new book, Parkland; for example, he counsels journalists to eschew the use of the word “snap” in their accounts of mass shootings, as often the killer has prepared for months in advance, and the idea of the killer “snapping” is therefore a misleading trope.

There has been a lot of other great writing lately about the need to “complicate the narrative”: to pursue the nuance in a situation, to pay more attention to context, to resist easy explanations, to find the deviant that undermines the monolith. I recommend this blog post by Alexander Russo on this topic–I should also point out that Russo sends out an indispensable weekly newsletter on the best journalism in education–you can sign up here.

I think that these examples, and counter-examples, are important because I think we over-simplify the narrative a lot in education. Instead, we should be looking for the complexity. Rather than the assumption that schools should adopt any given initiative or program, our leadership/coaching question should be: under what circumstances would X give us the outcomes that we are searching for? That should lead to an exploration of our assumptions, our mental models, and our tendency to make overly optimistic or ambitious connections between cause and effect.

In practice, this means that instead of making the assumption that data teams/remedial reading programs/cooperative learning/restorative justice/any other program will lead to improved outcomes for students, we should systematically and conscientiously ask the question “under what circumstances would this program lead to improved outcomes for students, which students would they be, and how long would it take?” And then we would seek to disprove our own theory about what would work. Can I just say that, in my experience, this is very rarely done? So if you want help doing it, let me know—we can figure it out together.

The advice that Russo quotes from another journalist seems like a good place to start–not least because, although it’s aimed at journalists, it echoes advice on overcoming decision-making bias from cognitive psychologists and behavioral economists:

  1. Amplify contradictions
  2. Widen the lens
  3. Ask questions that get to people’s motivations
  4. Listen more, and better
  5. Expose people to the other tribe
  6. Counter confirmation bias (carefully)

I think what we do is hard, and making it harder by willfully complicating the narrative is not an attractive proposition. But as JFK said about the space program, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” And as anyone in education knows, educating all students to the same high standard is not rocket science, it is harder.

Good luck! And let me know if I can help you with anything. Yours, Isobel

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