Now: The Open Moment

This is the third part in a three-part public narrative using Marshall Ganz’s Self-Us-Now public narrative framework. The previous two installments, Self (Part 1) and Us (Part 2), focused on my personal case and our collective case. This article is about why the time to act is now.

I don’t claim credit for the idea of open vs. closed.  It’s become clearer and clearer that this is a bigger idea within our present moment, beyond just my writing or blog. Like most ideas lighting up the zeitgeist, there are a ton of folks working simultaneously. As I have discussed in previous posts, it’s clear that the origins of an open system go back to both past political theories and organizational theories.

However, the idea of an open system has been gaining momentum recently in a new way. In The Economist (my favorite magazine, although I admit I’ve become really fond of Lapham’s Quarterly recently), staff writers have been sounding a warning call. They have been naming a potential new political divide as open vs. closed, pointing to the major social fragmentation of the twenty-first century.

“Start by remembering what is at stake....A world of wall-builders would be poorer and more dangerous...Countering the wall-builders will require stronger rhetoric, bolder policies and smarter tactics.” -Economist Staff, 6/30/2016

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Picture from The Economist describing the Open vs Closed political reality.

The Economist article makes a connection to the open vs. closed frame in our U.S. national politics during the 2016 Presidential election cycle. This frame is still present in our contemporary discourse. How many proposals like “The Wall” or international travel restrictions call for barricades instead of openness?

Other leaders and writers have also cataloged the politics of the world increasingly using the open vs. closed frame, instead of the traditional left vs. right frame. We see the ”open” idea pop up in the private sector, as well. We see the idea of open (or responsive) organizations touted by Red Hat Software CEO Jim Whitehurst. In a review of Whitehurst’s book “The Open Organization”, Michael Dell states that our current world is being defined as one of “transparency, authenticity, access.” These are some of the tenets of open orgs, open societies, and open systems. I’ll be reviewing this book in a forthcoming post. For now, I want to draw attention to the fact that political and corporate leaders are talking about openness more and more. There is a societal shift at play that is gaining speed. Now is the time to bring the open system’s true transformative potential to the education system.  

The Contrast Becomes Clearer

I’d like to make the (not so radical) argument that we’ve reached a serious, deep inflection point leading towards openness, from global to local systems. From the World Trade Organization to the local library, the systems that form our society’s foundation were built for another time and place —not the moment of “transparency, authenticity, access” that Dell describes. And while it may feel that the wall builders and closed system cheerleaders are winning; I’d argue there is another truth. That more and more people are thinking in a global construct of openness. That we are implementing more and more open policies that push us toward a freer exchange of ideas and power. But as the world moves toward openess, supporters of the closed system status will push back harder than ever. To break through this resistance, we must push even farther, opening elements across all of our system. And I believe the most important place to do this work in is education, right now.

Anyone who has witnessed the educational transformation of the past decade up close will understand this as well. Closed systems that push families and communities away are more and more brittle, increasingly subject to rollback. The walls between a school system and its communities are built on mounds of sand. Fortress schools are losing enrollment. Fortress districts are losing community support. New school placements that are decided without community input lack credibility. Schools designed or restarted without families at the center lose momentum quickly. Closed systems that don’t share their data with external groups or have public accountability slide into illegitimacy.

While instead, the open education systems that are emerging across the country are built on mountains of rock. These systems are co-created with families and communities.  They ask for more and more involvement in governance and implementation. These Openers translate their documents into dozens of languages to make sure everyone (not just the dominant language groups) have access to essential information about the future of their children. Open Superintendents share data publicly, holding themselves accountable and asking others to help. Open school boards ask tough questions that they don’t know the answer to and work with their community to design solutions.

Opening Without Fear

Our education systems have had moments of openness, of partnership and deeper connection with the communities and families they serve. Sadly, however, too often systems have conspired to close and pull the drawbridge up. Racism, classism, elitism and other -isms often poison the well for true openness. Community schools dry up because of funding. Exciting measures to engage families fall off so we don’t “disrupt the status quo.” Fear of the other is a powerful human instinct, one that we must overcome.

But as the world moves increasingly towards openness, openers must lead this change in education. My leadership coach in graduate school was an incredible gentleman named Bob Goodman, who included this quote in his email signature that routinely inspired me:

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago...the second best time is now.”

The open moment is upon us and the question is, will you lead your education systems (districts, schools, and classrooms) into the open system or will you build more walls?  

Imagine if we did it. Imagine if we built the open system in education.

Imagine if twenty years from now, we could look back at the tree we planted today. I think we’d see a fundamentally different school system and civilization. We’d see more empathy, less bias, and more shared power. Humans of diverse cultures would be working together in shared purpose, hammering out disagreements over shared values and creating spaces for deeper engagement with the broader community. Our public education system, the bedrock of our society, would be built upon a new mountain, one that prepares us for the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.