Berkana Blog

Walking Out Isn’t About Abandoning Institutions. It’s About Abandoning Beliefs.

by Deborah Frieze on June 15, 2011

In my May 21st blog, I bemoaned the decision to shut down more than a dozen schools in the Boston public school system—most of which serve low-income neighborhoods. I wondered what “walking out” of this system might look like, and went as far as suggesting “…that might mean pulling our children out of the school system and turning to one another to create neighborhood learning spaces which replace schooling with discovery.”

And then last week, I found myself in a fascinating conversation with the board of a progressive Massachusetts-based foundation whose commitment is to restore the quality and equitability of the U.S. public school system—not walk out of it. They believe that our educational institutions can and should prepare all children—regardless of race, gender, class or native language—to fully participate in our democratic society. Was I suggesting that our schools were doomed to failure? That there was no hope for the future of public education in the United States? That our only options were to stay inside fighting a losing battle or to abandon public schools and invent something entirely new?

I found myself caught in a thought trap that I’ve noticed comes up again and again in these conversations about walking out and walking on. We do not have to abandon our institutions in order to walk on. Rather, it’s the belief systems that underpin these institutions that we are called upon today to walk out of.

If we accept the notion that our behaviors reveal what we truly value, then one can only assume that in the U.S., we value testing over learning, white children over black children, rich communities over poor communities and immigrants who came to the U.S. several generations ago over new immigrants. Even if no one set out to create these inequalities (though some folks at this foundation might suggest otherwise), they’re undeniable. They emerged through choices that we have made about how we divide up our neighborhoods, taxes and budgets; through our allegiance to standardization, measurement and replication as strategies for change; through our loss of confidence in teachers, administrators and other publicly employed professionals; through our anxiety about the American school system falling behind other countries; and so on. Unfortunately, our public education system is plagued with beliefs that limit our ingenuity and inhibit our capacity to work together to solve problems.

So what are the beliefs and values we might experiment with walking on to if we wish to restore our public schools? There are infinite answers to this question. Some people are experimenting with self-directed learning programs (including two programs I wrote about in Walk Out Walk On). Others are creating communities of practice where teachers, administrators, professionals and youth can learn together and invent new solutions. Still others are experimenting with new models of equitable school funding. And so on.

These people are all Walk Outs who are walking on within our dominant institutions. They are doing this the same way any Walk Out would — by bravely choosing to leave behind a world of unsolvable problems, limiting beliefs and destructive individualism. They are walking on to the beliefs and practices that enable them to give birth to systems that serve our communities—in this case, our public schools.

Comments (1)

  1. Augusto Cuginotti on October 10, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    Hello Debbie,

    Really nice piece. I’m in a school in the UK now and it has been a great experience to see the educational institution from inside, talk to my new colleagues, be inspected by the government, etc.

    The feeling I get here is a bit different. The core beliefs are the institutions – if the belief dies, there is no need for the institution anymore. It is kind of a snake skin without a snake. A system is what we create to serve our core beliefs.

    If the fundamental belief in schools die, the school system dies with it. And I hope this time will come, slowly as it should be. It will come because we will use other fundamental beliefs to create alternative and multiple systems, systems that will allow what we see today to fade away, or at least to be one of many ways.

    So what I’m saying is that the school system should not be rebuilt, “progressively” changed to another or anything like that. Many people will need to walk out of them. There is no progressive, there is no restoration, there is no need for a new snake skin. What we need is a plurality of systems. Or perhaps a system that hosts that plurality rather than define its progressiveness and beliefs.

    What is the answer then? I believe there is no answer out there, no system (of beliefs or institutions) that can replace this one. It seems, on the other hand, that there are paths where multiple answers are emerging, paths shaped by the different spaces and institutions that are making learning and education more diverse than what it was in the past. I bet (haven’t read yet) your book share some of those and I’m sure there are more.

    How can we change a one-system or one-belief-fits-all into a constant creation of diverse learning spaces? How can these spaces be at service at this moment?

    All the best,

    Augusto